Getting out more: in retrospect

So the Crosscountry train in which I’m sitting is flying along the tracks, carrying me home. There’s time to gather random thoughts together. Every long distance trip teaches its own lessons, so what were mine?

The first is that I was underestimating my level of fitness: the easy first day was probably wise, but, distance-wise, days 2 and 3 were a bit too short. I was arriving shortly after 2pm, so unless serious hills are involved, I should be aiming at 55 miles plus per day from day 2.

The second is that I need to revise my prediction of road conditions along the following lines: if a B-road is straight, and there isn’t something bigger in parallel, then traffic will be fast, if not heavy.

Thirdly, in retrospect, I think it should have avoided the Rochdale Canal route out of Manchester, gone around the eastern hillside edges of the city instead, then joined the canal at Littleborough. Sustrans really should think about declassifying the Manchester city stretches of the route, which are substandard – although there are some wonderful mill buildings between Manchester and Rochdale, especially at Failsworth. Still, I’m fit enough to make more use of small hill roads than I did, and as a result I probably missed more countryside in days 4 and 5 than I needed.

Fourthly, I’m really glad I forked out for those Schwalbe tyres – there were no punctures, and hardly any mechanical problems at all (just the aforementioned spoke-tightening and an adjustment of the front deraillier limiting screws to stop the chain rubbing at bottom gear).

Fifthly, my 27-year-old tourer remains as good as I can imagine for this kind of trip. The renewed power-train with its wide gearing ratios proved absolutely adequate for the variety of terrain and the load carrying. I’m very lucky to have it. If I were doing a longer, international tour with camping gear, I’d need something different, but what I have suits my choices just fine.

Lastly, I certainly need to get out like this more often. I last toured in 2010, which is too long ago. At my age, I need more, not less of this kind of physical challenge. I also love this kind of solitude: notwithstanding the blogging and social media in the evenings, I’ve been on my own with only my thoughts and tunes going round in my head for most of the past six days. It’s a good way of being me to myself, and I actually quite like my own company – which is reassuring…

… But enough for now.

Getting out more: Final Day

I hadn’t advance-planned today’s route because I wanted to know how yesterday’s had gone before determining gradients vs busyness of roads. I decided to avoid taking the most direct route, which would have run right through Bradford and Leeds via some horribly busy roads. The only alternative was over some high ground.

Leaving at 8.30am I dropped back down for a short run of the Rochdale canal until I reached Hebden Bridge. Here I had a proper breakfast and coffee. Last night’s hostel, Mankinholes, is fairly basic by today’s standards, so I had to self-cater. Again, this has weight implications, so I kept it simple with a Chicken Korma ready meal and some apple pies. Tea was made with communal tea bags and no milk.

Given its isolated location, I was expecting the hostel to have very basic internet too (eg. Wifi translated to morse code, transmitted down to the next valley, then the text transcribed by a quill pen onto scrap paper, tied around the neck of a ferret, sent down a long pipe, ferret captured, translated back to TCP/IP then routed onto the main internet). In fact it had no internet, but the village was right next to a TV tower which had 3G repeaters on it, so my phone internet worked brilliantly.

Hebden Bridge is a tad ‘boheeemian’, due to the numbers of hippies who settled here in the 1960s and 1970s. The locals are pretty up-market these days too. The only hippies I saw were living in houseboats on the canal a mile upstream. After coffee in the town, I couldn’t put it off anymore. It was time to climb the Pennines. The A6033 out of the town climbs steadily onto Oxenhope Moor. It’s a quiet road and most drivers were being extra careful because of the mist. The temperature had significantly dropped overnight and the weather had a winter feel to it. I arrived in Oxenhope, then Haworth, pleasantly relieved that the climb was quite bearable. The run on to Keighley was also quite straightforward.

Ever since I’d joined the Rochdale canal I had been passing a good number of old mill buildings. These are a major part of the architectural heritage of the North. The ones in Manchester, in particular, have a penchant for emulating elements of Italian architecture. The power houses of these mills, where the main steam engines were located, are particularly ornate. Yet sadly, many of the amazing buildings are semi-derelict, having been run for various purposes since they were abandoned by the textiles industry. This is as much true for Yorkshire mills as Lancashire mills. At Keighley, I saw my last large mill buildings of the journey.

Another feature of this area is the number of old Methodist churches. During the Commonwealth, following the Civil War, the Church of England was effectively abolished for the best part of twelve years, when diversity of religion was tolerated and even encouraged. With the return of Charles II and the re-establishment of the Church of England, established religion had very limited hold on some of the isolated Pennines communities. As a result, a century later, John Wesley found the Northern Pennines particularly fertile ground for his evangelical preaching. The result is that, for West Yorkshire and North East Lancashire, Methodism was the majority religion until its very steep decline that has occurred since the 1960s. I passed more closed and converted Wesleyan chapels than open ones on my bike.

Another feature I kept noticing was the number of open or closed co-operative stores. This part of the country is the heart of the co-operative movement. Despite the recent problems with the co-op bank, the movement and its principles bear further study. Sharing capital for the greater good is strongly linked to the social conscience of the 19th century Methodist evangelicals.

The route from Keighley to Otley over Bingley Moor looked easier on the map, but in actual fact it was much tougher going. The gradients were acute at times, which may explain why this area is chosen for the Yorkshire stretch of the Tour de France this coming summer. As I struggled with the gradient, the wind and mist were joined by a steady drizzle.

Once I reached Otley, I knew that I had cleared the Pennines and looked forward to an easier route across the Vale of York. With this in mind, and also to compensate for the drizzle turning into steady rain, I did one of my calculations at the Half Moon in Pool in Warfedale that I could allow a pint with lunch. Eventually, with the weather no better, this turned into two pints, in what turned out to be a very enjoyable lunch break.

In fact, there were still quite a few undulations between Pool and Weatherby, which was quite hard going. After Weatherby, what looked like a quiet B1224 runs a fairly level and straight route to York. In fact, this road proved to be the “Weatherby to York race track”, but mercifully there were few lorries.

York is the end of my journey. I pulled in front of the Minster at 4.45pm which gave me time to pray a thank you prayer for my safety and for all the strangers I met on the journey, as I knelt before the sacrament in the quiet Zouche Chapel. Tomorrow I board a fast train back to Bristol.

Distance 57.73 miles.
Total trip distance 268 miles.

Soundtrack: Kate Bush, Wuthering Heights

Getting out more: Day 4

Today started with the mist slowly being burnt off the hills of the White Peak by a surprisingly powerful sun for 8.30am. Starting back on the track bed of the Tissington Trail was a nice way of easing myself into the journey, as I wanted to conserve my strength and the railway gradients are wonderful. I get a bit pensive a few miles up the track at Parsley Hay as it was here that my maternal grandfather, a steam locomotive driver, was killed by slipping from the footplate. It was all before I was born, but it’s a serious place, nevertheless. The trail peters out a bit further on, as the
Dowlow Quarry still has track laid through to Buxton and so the rail bed becomes railway.

To conserve time, I decided to go onto the A515 which I could see was fairly quiet, rather than remaining on NCN68. For cycle touring, I have a complex relationship with the Sustrans Ntional Cycle Network. It’s a wonderful asset, making Britain a more cycle-friendly place, but on a tour it has its pros and cons. The pros are obvious: the routes are either car-free completely, or very quiet small roads. The cons are more diverse — first, the NCN route from A to B isn’t normally the most direct one; after all, this isn’t what they’re trying to do. But in some cases it favours traffic free to the point where it goes all over the houses (witness Route 4’s stretch from Compton Greenfield to the Severn Bridge). This is also the case for gradient in hilly areas, where the NCN may take the route over high ground, rather than round it. Again, this can be bad news with a heavily loaded bike. Lastly, NCN make no guarantees about the quality of the surface, and in many cases this can be akin to a mountain bike track and bad news for a road bike. I once remember being ‘committed’ to traversing a stretch of NCN in Carmarthenshire which went over about four miles of sharp rubble. (More on this issue later).

The A515 was fine at that time and I was in Buxton for coffee at 10am. I had then deliberately planned the route to take me down (well, up and down) memory lane, to ‘do’ Long Hill which runs from Buxton to Whaley Bridge, which has a wonderful 5 mile descent with wonderful views of the Goyt Valley. Of course, first of all you have to do the pull up to the summit, but Buxton’s altitude is significantly higher than Whaley, so I was really “cashing-in” yesterday’s rather tiring haul from The Trent to the southern Peak District. The run was exhilarating and is the kind of reason why I love cycle touring. Just before leaving the moorland, I heard the cry of a Lapwing in the distance. The snag with Long Hill is after that the most direct route I needed to take was the A6. I’ve cycled along that stretch many times, so I sacrificed tranquillity for a level route and a reasonably direct one. By 12.30pm, I was cycling the streets of South Manchester, where I once lived.

I was able to briefly meet up with my daughter (another cyclist) outside her university building, then lunch at the wonderful Eighth Day Cooperative – one of the best veggie cafés in Britain.

My route now led north and the traffic-volume verses topography dilemma raised itself again. The Pennines are scored by narrow valleys, down which run – typically – a trunk road with lorries, a railway line and a canal. In some parts there are no quiet lanes traversing the range in a north-south direction, and my route lay north-east of Manchester. The solution to the traffic problem is to take NCN66, which runs along the towpath of the Rochdale Canal between Manchester and Halifax. While it’s legal to cycle on any canal towpath in the UK, I would normally avoid doing this because the towpath surface usually requires a mountain bike because of litter, bumps and big cobbles at locks. But I reasoned that if the Rochdale’s towpath was the NCN66, there would be some enhancement to the surface. After all, normal towpaths don’t usually have NCN designation.

Well, if there was any enhancement, it was on a tight budget! It’s really a track, with all the usual detritus of canal towpaths. Just as well I had fitted those Schwalbe Marathon Pluses – no punctures, but I hate putting my 700c road wheels through that kind of punishment. And my route along the canal was about 20 miles, from Manchester City Centre, through Rochdale to the edge of Todmorden, just inside West Yorkshire. Poor wheels.

Canals are their own testimony to local history and social culture. The stretch from the centre of Manchester passed through a desolate inner-city ring, where everything was either derelict or demolished, but with little sign of reconstruction. The canal at this stretch seems to act as the North East Manchester fly tipping centre. It also seems poorly dredged too. I only saw three boats in that stretch. Then there come the more countrified bits, where local residents exploit their gardens which back onto the canal with home-made decking terraces enabling a waterside leisure experience. There were lots of geese, which hissed at me as I passed. Narrow clearance under bridges meant that I had to take care balancing, especially over cobbles, to avoid going over the canal side. The quality of the track surface was at its worst in North Manchester, at one point being just an unsurfaced footpath through meadow. From Rochdale onwards, it was more consistent and better. By 5pm I was at the canal’s summit north of Littleborough. By 5.30pm, I left the towpath and ascended a steep hill to the little, isolated village where my youth hostel lay.

In this part of Yorkshire, they go in for worrying place names, like Heckmondwike, Mytholmroyd and, in my case, Mankinholes. You’ll be glad to know that, since I arrived, I haven’t seen any blokes around wearing ill-advised underwear.

Getting out more: Day 3

Today is a bit of a “nothing to report” day, partly, I suspect because I did today’s run with John last July – so there were few surprises. The route ran from South Leicestershire (just north of the A5 for you motorists out there) through Ashby de la Zouch (great name, plus castle) through Repton in South Derbyshire. Repton advertises itself as the ancient capital of Mercia, but its main claim to fame is its large, rather top-notch public school, which now dominates the northern part of this small town. One of its headmasters, Geoffrey Fisher, went on to become Archbishop of Canterbury (1945-1961). It also gives its name to Hubert Parry’s hymn tune, which is commonly used to accompany the words of ‘Dear Lord and Father of Mankind’, the later verses of a poem by the Quaker, John Greenleaf Whittier. The story of how this came about was the subject of a delightful BBC Radio 4 documentary broadcast last year. The hymn tune was given the name of the school, because the idea of putting the two together was that of George Gilbert Stocks, who was director of music at the school in the 1920s. Parry had died of the Spanish ‘Flu in 1918. Repton and Jerusalem remain Parry’s most famous works.

At some point, when you’re cycling north through England, you have to reckon with the River Trent. I crossed it just north of Repton. There followed a gradual climb up from the Trent valley into the southern peaks, which I found surprisingly tiring. I also had my first mechanical snag, which entailed stopping to tighten a few loose spokes on my old front wheel. It now doesn’t make any irritating clunking noises and I also fancy it’s a bit more efficient – maybe just me. A brief stop in Ashbourne, then I was off on the final leg of the journey, via the Tissington Trail (the old Buxton to Ashbourne LNWR railway line) then a brief detour to Hartington youth hostel where I am staying the night. Miles travelled today: 54. Total so far: 146. Tomorrow is going to be a big ride…

The Route

The Soundtrack

Getting out more: Day 2

Finding a cycle route north from the northern tip of the Cotswolds to the southern part of Leicestershire is rather tricky, as there is a band between Coventry and Birmingham which is very built-up. What roads there are tend to be trunk roads, which all cyclists should avoid like the plague if they value their lives. The most obvious routes north for cyclists tend to avoid the East and West Midlands entirely, and either go up through Shropshire (which I normally do) or go east of Rugby and Leicester. However, my route demands that I go right through the middle. I started by going east of Stratford to pick up the Fosse at Wellesbourne.

The Fosse at this point takes the form of the B4455. Most motorists regard B roads as “small” roads, but from the cyclist’s point of view, they’re a mixed bag. This one turned out to be dicey, because although traffic isn’t heavy, most that there is is enjoying the Romans’ propensity to make straight roads, so tends to be going fairly fast for a rather narrow road. Although the Fosse is straight, it has to negotiate any hill in its path, so visibility over humps is as bad as if there were bends in it. But many motorists seem to disregard this, oblivious to the possibility that, having cleared a small summit, they could suddenly find themselves bearing down on a cyclist on a laden bike with a 50MPH speed difference between the two road users. On more than one occasion I was passed at about 40MPH by a vehicle weighing several tons, with a clearance of less than a foot. Car, lorry and van drivers regard this as a successful clearance, but what they’re not aware of is that the non-fatality of the encounter was due, in part, to evasive action by the cyclist, who has had to instinctively adjust his or her balance to avoid being sucked into the passing vehicle’s slipstream, which in the case of a long vehicle is considerable. This sort of experience is bad for one’s psychology, which explains the permanently aggressive nature of some cyclists towards anyone behind the wheel of a motorised vehicle. Basically, too many encounters like this have just messed up their brains. For this reason, I was glad to get off the Fosse and make my way by lanes through the delightfully-named Offchurch, north of Leamington’s suburbs, through the rather drab Kenilworth (terrible town architecture, but with an amazing castle) to my special set of rare country lanes which would take me between Birmingham and Coventry without a street lamp in sight.

Unfortunately for the residents of the tiny villages on this charming network of lanes, being in the one part of the Midlands which has escaped urbanisation means that they are now part of a precious band which makes up the only route left, not only for solitary cyclists, but also HS2 – the planned fast train route from London to the North-West. As I passed through villages such as Burton Green, I kept seeing protest signs by each driveway. The reason is that the railway’s route is set to carve the charming little village in two. Although its environmental impact will not be as severe as a trunk road or motorway, the community will never have the same sense of unity or tranquillity again, which is very sad.

The landscape gets more undulating the further north you cycle, so by the time I reached the border with Leicestershire, I had become used to a more strenuous mode of cycling, with gentle hill-climbs and the rewards of descents following. I arrived earlier than planned (2.30pm) at the home of my hosts, John and Marion Plant. They are due to return from holiday tonight, so it was arranged that the key would be located for me in the dog-kennel. Now John is particularly adept at taking the mick out out of your intrepid author, so I was wondering whether I would find, instead of the key, a note saying “Welcome to your home for the night. ps. we aren’t back for a fortnight.” However, John was good to his word and the availability of wifi for the first time in the journey means I will hazard posting a few photos.

Again, an easy ride today. Tomorrow is also fairly light, but the the hard stuff bites on Thursday, together with some northern hills.

Theme tune

Map of the ride

Getting out more: Day 1

First, some basic thoughts about my approach to such bike rides. Some of these remarks are more for the benefit of non-cycletourers, but they also touch on matters of debate amongst cyclists. On a long distance bike ride, weight is everything. This includes the weight of the rider, plus that of the bike and, lastly, the weight of the luggage and accessories. It’s only the last factor which can be adjusted easily. But, unless one has a “support vehicle” driving the same route – which I don’t count as cycle touring – even with just the bare minimum of additional clothing, washing stuff etc. one is forced to carry the equivalent weight of a small suitcase in the panniers. This is because you also need more tools than needed for a day-ride plus a decent bike lock plus one or two spares (I take inner tubes and spokes). The end result is that you are going to be carrying this lot for several hundred miles, and that includes up every hill you climb.

The extra weight means you have to make some decisions about speed and effort, especially when going up hills. My thought on this is that if I was worried about speed, I wouldn’t be going on a tour in the first place: I’d be on a lightweight sleek bike, doing circular trips around Bristol. So I keep the speed down, keep the gearing low and avoid muscle and joint strain at all costs. This is about distance, not time. Nevertheless, having booked accommodation ahead in advance, I have to keep the speed up enough to reach my destination by a reasonable time, so pacing through the day is an important factor. After about 5 hours’ cycling, muscles inevitably begin to tire and lose their power, so if the latter part of a day’s journey is hilly, that has to be borne in mind in how the day’s cycling is paced. There have been times when I have got off the bike and been barely able to stand up because my muscles are exhausted. I try to avoid that where possible.

Sleep, after a full day’s cycling comes easily. Food is important. When I was a youngster, I’d carry glucose tablets with me. I would never do that now, as they simply cause a spike in insulin which makes energy transfer very short term – useful if you’re racing, but not if you’re touring. I used to end up wondering why I kept bouncing from one attack of sugar starvation to the next. Ugh. Slow burning carbohydrates are the best. Bananas are a good thing to have, as they metabolise reasonably quickly, but have a good bit of starch in them for fuelling the long haul. Fluid intake is important too. With a constant breeze and a warm body, you are unaware of how high your rate of perspiration is on this kind of cycling. So I drink before I get thirsty, not when I am, otherwise a late afternoon headache will be my reward.

As for today’s route, it was a 46 mile run from Gloucester to Stratford upon Avon. I had considered cycling from the doorstep, but this would have added 20 miles to it, and I wanted a gentle start. The route craftily dodged any climbs onto the Cotswold escarpment, so having left Gloucester station at around 10am, I was at my lunch break in Broadway by 12.15pm with about 30 miles on the clock – over half-way. The hostelry in question was the Broadway Hotel in the high street, which served a truly excellent haddock, peas and chips.

Anyone who has done any serious cycling knows that beer has a strange effect on the legs, one’s principal source of propulsion. After moderate imbibation, the legs feel absolutely fine until any significant call for power is made on them; at which point, they prove very stubborn and ineffective. So if there is any after-lunch hill-climbing to be done or a significant need for pace on the afternoon stretch, beer drinking at lunchtime on a bike trip is out of the question. In my case, I had no hills ahead of me and only about 14 miles of pedalling still needing to be done, so a calculated risk was taken to have what proved to be an excellent pint of Wickwar Coopers with my lunch.

The landscape of the run was classic Heart of England stuff, with Cotswold stone and thatch predominating as far as Broadway, then a move to whitewashed timber-framed building (hey nonnie, nonnie, no…) The oilseed rape fields have come into bloom, and over lunch I encountered an enterprising wasp who I think probably managed to over-winter courtesy of some thatch and regular food served by the pub. Birdsong involved a lot of buzzards, blackbirds and chiff-chaffs. I nearly ran over an Easter bunny who darted in front of my front wheel but then amazingly managed to brake abruptly, reverse course and dart back into the hedge – all in about half a second.

I arrived at Stratford at 2.20pm, which was heaving with bank holiday day-trippers. The hostel is about 3 miles on the other side. Architecturally, it reminds me of a theological college – a large, white-painted Victorian house, with an annex which is now a rather nice bar/restaurant. So evening meal is provided for. Unfortunately, I was greeted by a sign saying the wifi was down, and the 3G signal turns out to be almost nonexistent. So when I’ll get a chance to post this, at the moment I’m not sure. But what I do know is that I’m going to get in a late afternoon doze…

Theme Tune

The Route

Google (cycle) Maps

Google have recently announced that they are adding cycle directions for European countries. Sure enough, a trip to their website from either the browser or (for those who have it) the Android Google Maps app, gives an option to highlight local cycle lanes and roads suitable for cycling. Looking at my local area, it appears that the information is rather dated. For example, they don’t show the Concorde Way from the St Werburgh’s City Farm to the old Ashley Road station, which has been open for about three years. However, older tracks are most definitely there. I doubt if this will be available for the iPhone/iPad for some time to come, because of Apple’s rumoured stupid decision to abandon Google Maps in future releases of iOS. Well done to Google, though. A step in the right direction. (Thanks to the CTC weekly news sheet Cycleclips for this one.)

There are sliding cars and potential disasters

As with most of the UK at the moment, we in Bristol have been snowed-in, then iced-in. Driving in the un-treated backstreets of the city is, erm, interesting. Cycling even more so. I’ve done both today.  However, any minor near misses I had are as nothing compared to this little incident in the Totterdown area of the city. Let’s hope the ropes continue to hold…

Church + Bicycles: the ultimate fusion

posterRespect to Nadia Bolz-Weber and the House for All Sinners and Saints: they’re running the “1st Annual Blessing of the Bicycles” in Denver on Sunday 17th May.  Details are here.

Cycling San Francisco

Caroline and I hired bikes. It is, unfortunately, the only way to get on a bike when you’re thousands of miles from home and your own machine. And biking a city is the best way of understanding its geography and, therefore, a key element to its personality. But hire bikes are pretty much the same the world over: over-used, on the way to an early death, under-maintained and poorly-spec-ed in the first place. You have to take this as a given and realise that you’re going to be only a small part as fast and efficient as you would be on one of your own bikes.

We crossed the Golden Gate Bridge with the intention of cycling the Marin headlands, but the fog (which pours through the GG at this time of the year) got us, so we turned around and headed back to the SF side. The bridge authorities, for reasons best known to themselves, only open the second cycle/pedestrian track at certain times. When this is shut, as it was for us, too many pedestrians (who keep walking three abreast and suddenly stopping to take photos) are squeezed in with too many cyclists. So it’s a slow route. The full span of the bridge (2737m) felt to me to be somewhat less than the Severn Bridge (1600m) which is weird. I can only think that it was because of the amount of people on it and the fact that the two headlands that it joins hem it in more than the flatlands either side of the Severn – and the fact that the Severn Bridge is followed immediately by the Wye Bridge (408m) making the total length on bridge to be only 737m less. Size and scale are hard to be objective about without a measuring tape, but I feel the Severn is more majestic somehow. However, that is not to belittle the amazing engineering feat the the Golden Gate bridge represents, built 30 years before its British cousin. To me it looks a heavier construction than the Severn, needing double vertical cables to hold its weight.

Once we got to the other side of the Golden Gate, we saw the fog which had enveloped the Marin Headlands and turned straight around. Once we’d crossed the bridge again, we headed out over the Presidio to the beaches on that side, thence to Golden Gate park. We took the streets back home. San Francisco is much nicer to cycle around than Bristol. The Amercican road grid system gives cyclists the option of picking lesser roads, that don’t have the right of way at junctions, and so consequently have less traffic. We had to negotiate one big SF hill – and then it was downhill all the way back to the bike hire place. All in all, I think San Francisco is a great city for cycling.

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