In praise of Stephen Doughty MP

it has become fashionable to criticise members of parliament, and politicians generally.

”They’re all the same.” How often do we hear that? Yet so many polls show that we hold a higher opinion of our own MP than of politicians generally.

Years ago, many MPs visited their constituency once or twice a year. They regarded councillors as the people to sort out problems experienced by constituents. But now MPs (and members of the Senedd in Wales and of the Scottish parliament) take very seriously their responsibility to help constituents with all manner of problems.

My family has reason to be very grateful for this trend. Years ago, former Welsh first minister Alun Michael helped my parents secure their right to attendance allowances, as we had failed to do so through the normal byzantine process, despite Mum’s near-blindness and Dad’s immobility.

A decade or more later, Alun’s successor as MP for Cardiff South and Penarth, Stephen Doughty, has been magnificent during an even greater crisis.

I wrote a week ago that Dad, Bob Skinner, was embarking on a long-awaited cruise. Sadly, unknown to me, by the time I wrote that post Dad was in the medical bay of P&O Cruises ship MV Ventura. He had fallen getting out of the lift and fractured his hip.

He was looked after magnificently by the P&O Cruises team (note: there is no connection between P&O Cruises and the venal P&O Ferries who sacked its crews a few months ago).

Dad was taken to hospital in the first port it came to, Vigo in northern Spain. He has been looked after wonderfully by Vithas Hospital in Vigo, and I flew out to be with him and support him.

But we had a problem. His travel insurers were not communicating and the hospital was, understandably, concerned whether they would be paid. I then found, to my horror, that Dad had bought travel cover from a company not authorised to sell insurance in the UK. At that point, I thought we were totally alone.

I tweeted Stephen Doughty, Dad’s MP, last night and he phoned me this morning, and promised to help. Within an hour or so, on a Saturday morning, he’d phoned the insurers and the Foreign & Commonwealth Office. Soon after I had a call from the hospital to say they had just received a guarantee that they would be paid by the insurers. (We’d been about to send £10,000 to the hospital to pay Dad’s bills.) I have rarely been so relieved in my life. Stephen’s intervention was crucial. Just now, the insurers have been in touch about repatriation arrangements. Having been in the depths of despair this morning, I am now feeling confident that we will get Dad home.

Stephen didn’t have to do this. He could have spent a leisurely Saturday morning after a no doubt busy week as an MP and shadow Europe minister. But Stephen cared. He acted. All our family are so grateful.

This isn’t a party political point. MPs of all political colours take their responsibility to constituents very seriously. Friends have spoken of the wonderful support provided by the Lib Dem MP for Chesham and Amersham, Sarah Green. Tragically Jo Cox and David Amess gave their lives in fulfilling that duty. I have met Stephen Timms and Nigel Jones, who were both attacked at their MPs surgeries; sadly Andy Pennington was murdered defending Nigel. I am profoundly grateful for their selfless commitment. So is my father, Bob Skinner.

I’ll end on a family tale. I told Stephen that my mother took Dad’s job as reporter on the Penarth Times in 1944 when Bob joined the army aged 18. The following year, 1945, Mum was very unimpressed when James Callaghan made disparaging comments about the paper during the election campaign that elected him and swept Labour to power. Forty years later, I accompanied Dad to a meeting with by then former prime minister Callaghan (whom I greatly admired) to secure work permits for Hong Kong musicians performing at the Cardiff Festival of Music.

I had just graduated and Sunny Jim asked me what I wanted to do for a living. ”I’d like to go into PR or journalism,” I replied. Ignoring me, he turned to Dad and commented ”They all want to do that now, don’t they!” He wrote a note to then Tory employment minister Alan Clark, got it couriered over and soon after we returned to Cardiff with the crucial work permits, allowing the concert to go ahead at St David’s Hall. An early lesson in the influence of an MP – especially one of very few people to have been chancellor, home secretary, foreign secretary and PM.

Admiring my Dad’s enduring zest for life

It was wonderful to get a call from my father Bob Skinner this afternoon, reporting that he was in his cabin on P&O Cruises’ Ventura, about to set sail for Spain and Portugal.

Dad will be 96 in November and this is his first holiday in three years. It comes just six months after he moved out of his care home and into his own flat in Penarth, Wales.

Dad and I were talking about his father this week. It was prompted by my return to his childhood stomping ground of Wandsworth, London. As I walked over Wandsworth Bridge to my first work summer party since 2019, I realised I was very close to where my grandfather Frank had worked as a crane driver in the 1930s. Frank operated a steam-powered crane that ran along rails on the banks of the Thames at Sparrow Wharf. One awful day his crane toppled over and my grandfather was trapped as boiling water dripped onto him. Fortunately he was freed.

Dad told me that his father featured in the national press after Italy invaded Abyssinia in 1935. Frank featured in photos of two barges named Italy and Abyssinia. He was on Abyssinia and was throwing stones at the boat named Italy. It would be fun to track down the images in the newspaper archives for 1935.

Me and my father Bob, March 2022

Sadly Frank died in 1942 in his early fifties, but happily Dad has inherited his mother’s long-living genes (Nan was almost 103 when she died in 1994). Long may he enjoy his zest for life.

Highland 500 Day 7: Lairg to Inverness

This post recounts the seventh and final day of my Highland 500 cycle tour with Peak Tours in May and June 2022. Read day 6 Durness to Lairg

Ferry across Cromarty Firth to Black Isle

Our final day. The end of a 470 mile odyssey across the Scottish Highlands. And the sun was shining.

We continued to retrace in reverse part of my Land’s End to John O’Groats route in 2002 and 2019. It was an easy downhill to the Falls of Shin, along an eerily quiet road. Yet when I paused at the falls I was amazed to see a crowd of people. Then I spotted the tourist coach… I didn’t linger long, not expecting to repeat my 2019 success in videoing salmon leaping up the falls. I was sad to see the lovely cafe and visitor centre was boarded up, a victim of the pandemic.

I followed Rose to Bonar Bridge, seen above. She set a cracking pace, and my average speed to lunch was far higher than on any other day on the trip. Not far beyond Ardgay, where we had lunch on LEJOG19, I said goodbye to the LEJOG route, glancing up towards the Struie hill viewpoint where I’d taken photos in 2002 and 2019.

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Highland 500 Day 6: Durness to Lairg

This post recounts the sixth day of my Highland 500 cycle tour with Peak Tours in May and June 2022. Read day 5 Ullapool to Durness

Group photo at The Crask Inn

Today, we said farewell to the sea and the route of the North Coast 500.

Tràigh Allt Chàilgeag beach

The first few miles followed the far north coast, with a few inevitable short, sharp hills. I was entranced by the sight above: wild campers above a beach not far from Durness. Scotland allows wild camping and I can imagine the delight of drifting to sleep to the sound of the waves at this beautiful spot.

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Highland 500 Day 5: Ullapool to Durness

This post recounts the fifth day of my Highland 500 cycle tour with Peak Tours in May and June 2022. Read day 4 Ullapool to Summer Isles

Kylesku bridge

This was the hardest day of the tour. Harder than the Bealach na Bà day. And all because of that cyclist’s curse: a headwind.

Yet it started well. The 1,000 feet of climbing over the first nine miles from Ullapool that sapped my morale yesterday proved easier when repeated today. And I was looking forward to seeing Assynt and cycling over the stunning Kylesku bridge.

Loch Assynt with Ardvreck castle (and picnic!) behind

We had a lovely stop by the shore of Loch Assynt with Ardvreck castle in the distance. The sun was shining, it was warm and we had a stunningly scenic day ahead.

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Highland 500 Day 4: Ullapool to Summer Isles

This post recounts the fourth day of my Highland 500 cycle tour with Peak Tours in May and June 2022. Read day 3 Gairloch to Ullapool

Images of heaven: Loch Cùl Dromannan

I was cursing my decision not to take a rest day in Ullapool. After nine miles and 1,000 feet of climbing I envied the wisdom of those taking a lazy, late breakfast, enjoying a good book or taking a boat trip. Then I glanced and saw the mountains, blue sky and brilliant clouds reflected in the still waters of Loch Cùl Dromannan. I gasped in wonder, and slowed the bike to a stop to drink in the vista and take the photo above.

It got better. I was soon following Peak Tours guide Simon down a heavenly lane, a tarmac thread along the lochs leading to the coast. After the slog up from Ullapool, we were now coasting along this gently undulating route. Before long we came to the morning’s brew stop overlooking the islands on Loch Lurgainn. I smiled as two recumbent trikes came past as I turned in for my morning coffee. It would be fun to lean back on the comfortable seat of a trike and drink in the view.

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Highland 500 Day 3: Gairloch to Ullapool

This post recounts the third day of my Highland 500 cycle tour with Peak Tours in May and June 2022. Read day 2, Lochcarron to Gairloch via Bealach na Bà

Heading for Ullapool

I had a lie-in today, thanks to cycling an extra 17 miles to Gairloch last night. But while those staying in Kinlochewe had an easy warm up along Loch Maree (the route I took last night), I was straight into the hills today with a stiff climb out of Gairloch setting the tone for the morning.

Gairloch beach

It was worth it: at the top of the hill was this wonderful view of a beach with the mountains including Beinn Eighe behind. I didn’t feel guilty about stopping so soon to to savour a view like this. Why tour the highlands if you’re not inclined to pause and reflect on the extraordinary landscapes and seascapes?

Loch Maree

Later, I stopped to admire this view of Loch Maree, the lake that I cycled along for miles last night. Here I was passing the head of the loch.

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Highland 500 Day 2: Lochcarron to Gairloch via Bealach na Bà

This post recounts the second day of my Highland 500 cycle tour with Peak Tours in May and June 2022. Read day 1, Inverness to Lochcarron

Bealach na Bà. Not quite at the top!

This was the big one. If any day’s cycling merited nervous anticipation, it was this. Talk at breakfast was a little stilted as we all knew what was to come: Bealach na Bà (the pass of the cattle), the greatest climb in Britain. And many more hilly miles on top.

This is it…

We set off from Lochcarron and were climbing almost immediately away from the loch. This was merely a warm up. I enjoyed the swoop down to Loch Kishorn, followed by an easy stretch along the river Kishorn. A quick left turn and there it was: the famous sticker-strew sign marking the start of Bealach na Bà. Another sign warned learner drivers not to attempt this iconic route, which opened 200 years ago in 1822.

The road over Bealach na Bà climbs 2,053 feet (626 metres) in around six miles (9 kilometres), but the initial section is not difficult: barely 2% for the first mile. But don’t be fooled – it gets far harder. Simon Warren, author of 100 Greatest Cycling Climbs, rated the Bealach at 11 out of 10 for difficulty. It is the closest Britain has to an alpine, hairpinned ascent.

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Highland 500 Day 1: Inverness to Lochcarron

This post recounts the first day of my Highland 500 cycle tour with Peak Tours in May and June 2022.

The adventure begins. Greig St bridge, Inverness

Why do I always feel a few butterflies at the start of a cycling adventure? It seemed unmerited ahead of today’s fairly easy first day of Peak Tours’ Highland 500 tour. Best of all, the first 13 miles from Inverness followed the same route as my 2019 Land’s End to John O’Groats ride, which I remembered as a really easy section.

As soon as we got going, the butterflies fluttered away. It was a grey morning, with showers, and the normal western cycle route over the Kessock Bridge over the firth was closed, requiring a diversion past Inverness Caledonian Thistle’s ground. We briefly joined the main carriageway to the bridge but quickly backtracked to the eastern cycle path. Once over the bridge, we had to wait for a gap in the traffic to cross the A9. Fortunately it wasn’t busy on this Sunday morning.

I was soon enjoying the familiar path along the Beauly Firth towards the intriguingly named Muir of Ord. An easy day was made rather harder by a brisk headwind, which became more noticeable as the day unfolded. As I always say, hills come to an end but headwinds don’t! We formed a modest peloton to take it in turns to ‘draft’ the other riders. I took my turn just before the morning ‘brew stop’ at Rogie Falls, where Peak Tours provided very welcome drinks and snacks to keep morale and energy high. I decided to up the pace a little, which was a mistake as the break was a mile later than expected and that extra mile was uphill! I was glad of the breather.

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Thank you, Dervla Murphy

I’m in Inverness, on the eve of my latest cycling adventure. I’ll be pedalling 500 miles in seven days around the spectacular Highlands.

How poignant that my trip begins just days after the death of Dervla Murphy, who inspired me to explore the world on two wheels. Back in 1996 I picked up a copy of Full Tilt, her account of her ride from Dunkirk to Delhi, which began in the arctic winter of 1963 – the year I was born. I was enthralled by Dervla’s description of her journey, especially her travels through Afghanistan, a country she clearly loved. How heartbreaking to reflect on its ordeal in the past 40 years.

I met Dervla at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature in, I think, 1996. She signed my copy of one of her books, and I told her what an inspiration she was to me. While I loved Full Tilt, her autobiography Wheels Within Wheels was arguably even better. She explained that she was only able to make her long dreamed about ride to India after her mother died. I was captivated by her family story, including her parents’ background in the Irish republican movement.

Not long after reading Full Tilt, I set off from my childhood home in Cardiff for Ireland, Dervla’s homeland. I was to cycle solo from Dublin over the Wicklow mountains, bound for Rosslare and the ferry back to Wales. The weather, in August 1996, was glorious and I declared Ireland a perfect cycle touring country. I have never made it to Lismore, Dervla’s hometown, but one day I might just pay a visit to the place that one of the greatest cycling travellers called home.

Dervla Murphy in India, 1960s. Photo: Guardian

Another of her books, A Place Apart, gives a stark account of Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles. Dervla found it hard to credit the attitudes and actions of her fellow inhabitants of the island of Ireland. Especially the hardened loyalist community and the followers of Ian Paisley. (It was impossible to imagine in 1976 that Paisley would one day join IRA man Martin McGuinness in government in Northern Ireland.) Dervla’s bafflement was shared with many people on both sides of the Irish Sea.

It’s hard to realise today how unusual Dervla was in the 1960s as a female solo traveller writing about her experiences. She practised firing a pistol in County Waterford in preparation for future ordeals, and used it to shoot wolves in Bulgaria, Later it helped fend off a threatening Kurd. She later said the whole trip cost just £64, 7s and 10d in old money. 1963 truly was a different world.

Rest in peace, Dervla. You are an inspiration.