a cyclotour by Angelo Bandini (sept. 98)
Since this has been my first trip abroad with the bike and my first visit to England, it may contain useful tips mainly for beginners. While I was home convincing myself about the trip I bought a 1/400000 Michelin map of the North and Midlands. It didn't even cover London or Edinburgh but showed many interesting points and a nice network of backroads to cross them. Got in touch with CTC. From them I got a couple of travel sheets and a booklet on friendly accomodations, bike repairs and more. Then, being a member of the Warm Shower List, I contacted the members who live along the way getting a positive answer by two of them. I didn't consider Youth Hostels till I received this suggestion in answer to my add on uk.rec.cycling. I downloaded whereabouts and phone numbers of hostels strategically placed and I had a first rough draft of my itinerary.
I spent a week in Edingburgh, had some initial disagreement with my host at the B&b about my bike location but reached a compromise. Shipping the bike in a soft case was an advantage since I could stuff almost all of my travel gear inside but it meant having it bumped like any piece of luggage. I had only a couple of rides while in Edinburgh. I perceveid the inner fragility of my reel and didn't wanna take chances. I choose a day of pouring rain to make my left hand ride debut. Had a nice tour of the city testing my poncho and, at Edinburgh Bikes, I found a replacement mount for my Cateye damaged during the expedition. I visited the Scottish youth hostels offices and got a membership (£ 6 if you give a Scottish address). I bought a 1/250000 road atlas and photocopied the pages I needed. I put the bulky atlas, the bike case and other expendable items in a box, walked into a Post office and send it over, poste-restante, to Heathrow.
My equipment is hardly an example of proper attire. Expecially the cheap and abused bags. I got a small one in the front and two hanging laterally from the rear rack. Considering the unpredictable climate I windup carrying lots of clothing so I needed another big bag to put on top of the rear rack. I borrowed my brother's Honda gas tank bag. It was the only one who could sport a waterproof cover. Total luggage weight was about 15 kilos, of course I had no sleeping or cooking gear. My beloved mount is an early 80' racing Vicini with Columbus SL steel frame and Dura Ace. Gearing is limited to 52/39 up front and a six speed rear cassette ranging from 13 to 23. Blindly overestimating my level of fitness I didn't even bother adding a 25 cog. At the time I thought that England was mostly flat...
1st STAGE: Edinburgh-Bellingham km 190
After a shamefully rich breakfast I left town on the A7. The traffic was scarce on the saturday morning but after a while I began to spot several no-bikes signs. I start asking informations but could not find an alternative route. So I stayed on the A7 until I turned right on the B7007. The approach to the Moorfoot hills couldn't be more pleasant: the easy climbing, the hills violet of heather and sheep staring at me curiously. My only concern was a noise when using the small chainring. I passed Gordon Arms, winded throu the Ettrick Forest and Eskdale and arrived in Langholm where I found a bike store and a very kind mechanic who did his best to detect the problem, but left it unsolved. He gave me a good idea of the road ahead of me. More ups than downs for another 70 km and I had already more than 6 hours riding on my back. I was discovering that my Road Atlas was absolutely useless to forecast mileage when it came to backroads. And the fact that it didn't show altimetrics it didn't mean there weren't any. So I figured I needed a good lunch. Well stuffed I headed for the Borders. I was soon confronted by a climbing of unsuspected harshness and lenght. I lowered my speed till the thin line between standing and falling down, untill I reached an open, stunning highland with hares racing all over. After a few miles I started the descent. The road was extremely narrow with passing places to make room for upcoming vehicles. I was in a bit of a hurry and winding down at perhaps 60 km/h when I met my first cattle grid. I saw the sign and I was still figuring out how it would look like when here I was bones-rattling over the grid. Some things you learn it only the hard way. The downhill ended at Newcastelton and I headed North throu Liddersdale. Here I finally took care of the noise. Just had to tight up the bolts of the chainring. Hadn't even look for my own tools. The owner of the house where I stopped by gently fetched me his hex set. I called the Hostel and found out the dinner was not available but there was no problem in arriving late. Relieved I climbed to the Pass, left Scotland and entered Northumberland. Night was approaching and I had to speed up across the forest of Kielder Lake. I reached Bellingham at 20.15, had dinner and a couple of bitters and, very satisfied, I climbed the 2 remaining miles to the hostel in pitch dark.
2nd STAGE: Bellingham-Grinton km 136
At the Bellingham hostel they don't serve breakfast either. So I moved up pretty early. The morning was wet, my legs stiffened and sore and my senses in badly need of a cup of coffee as I started descending the hill. At the first turn, unaware of all this, a car was coming. It took me a few seconds to realize that I was the one on the wrong lane. I was able to slow down a lot but could not avoid the frontal contact. Only the bike touched the ground but it was miraculously undamaged. The driver was simphatetic and helped put me back on saddle. It was Sunday morning and eating places were still closed. At Haydon Bridge all I found were just a couple of candy bars. With visions of food I started climbing towards Cumbria Border. The wind was blowing right in my face while a young pal passed me by on his brand new De Rosa, I tried to keep up with him, but soon had to quit. I exchanged greetings with a descending, scattered group of maybe thirty Dutch cyclists in orange uniform. After the border the road descended to Alston. Here I finally had a sumptous brunch. I was filling my water bottle at the fountain when my back wheel bike slipped on the steep cobblestone. A friendly hand helped me regain control. He was another lonely tourer going my opposite direction. He was prodigal of fresh informations about the road ahead. During brunch, the weather changed again. Now rain it's in the air and 80 km of Pennines separates me from my next hostel. I started towards Teesdalepass. The climb it's made severe by the wind and rain. I stopped by the only building in sight and wore my best rain apparel. In particular the neoprene boots that have been essential for the entire trip. I've been very lucky regard to rain but I've always found wet roads and I just can't imagine riding the all day on wet and cold feet. I reached the Pass, entered Durham County and descended the Teesdale till Barnard Castle. Here I had to walk on a scenic, pedestrian bridge to make a shortcut. Another walk waited for me further ahead. The last mile to the border of Yorkshire Dale National Park with a 14% gradient proved too much for my spare energies. The third walk of the day got me to the charming hostel of Grinton Lodge set, as usual, on top of a fierce climb. This hostel gets a five stars rating on my personal guide. Dinner was about to be served and I could use a washer machine and a drying room for my clothes. Many of the people hosted were hikers that walk from one hostel to the other. Everybody was very friendly and some didn't mind scoring other two miles to get a couple of beer at the pub down the hill, but I had to decline.
3nd STAGE: Grinton-Crowden km 117
Tireness apparently left as I took leave from Grinton lodge the next morning. Defeating all the forecasts the sun was shining and I was travelling through the colorful moors of North Yorkshire. Behind a turn in the little village of Horseshoe I had to brake abruptly for the passage of cattle. As I was leaving the hamlet I stopped to take a picture. When you travel alone you got to rely heavily on auto-release so I put my camera as well as I could on top of a pole and sprinted back. Right at that moment a car, one of the few I saw that morning, came out of the village. Now for me making a U turn on time for the picture became impossible. But things got even worse since the car wheelied on the stuff left from the cattles and I found myself from the waist down covered by fresh, pure Yorkshire cattle shit. As I went ahead the road became more impervious. Someone told me that here Romans built roads that would rise quickly to the summits to survey enemies moves. What on the Atlas looked like a typical, almost flat, valley road wasn't flat at all. Just before Kettlewell, where I had lunch, I had the first 'downhill' walk of my cycling life. The sign read 25% and there was this 'tornante', the weight of my rear baggage plummeted and I felt all the precarious verticality of my situation. I was barely able to get off the bike and held it around the tornante, using my cleats as brakes. The up-and-down continued after Kettlewell. Just passed Skipton I had to walk again. This looked like a long one so I took off my shoes (never again I'll tour with cycling shoes). At the side of the road dry stone walls gave way to bushes and I ate lots of blackberries as I slowly reached the summit. Few miles ahead I came to a lonely crossroad. The signs were uncertain and I knew that a course error it would spell disaster at this point. I hadn't seen much people around on that day and less and less now but finally a delivery van appears at the horizon. Steve, a cyclist himself, offers to take me on board. I don't let him say twice. The lift saves me about 15 miles but I'm left in Brighouse at a much less lonely junction. Rush hour traffic on the six-lanes to infamous Huddersfield. Here I'm back to urban life. Nobody seems able to show me a way out that messy loop. So I missed my intersection and soon blew part of Steve's help. Light was fading as I got to Holmfirth. I called the hostel begging to save me some dinner. I conquered the last, fierce, wind stricken pass pedaling at about 5 km/h. At the summit wore some heavy stuff and, in the dark, headed down to Crowden.
4th STAGE: Crowden-Stretton km 114
Probably thanks to the good cooking and the warm hospitality of this fine inn, the next morning I woke up in better shape than I expected. It was raining so I took my time at breakfast with the other guests, mostly walkers who travelled the Peak District. I wore rain jacket and boots and, as I left, the rain came down to a gentle dripping. The first climb was just a warm up. I descended to Glossop and started the more demanding Snake Pass. It's a long hill but a 7% grade after my latest experiences didn't bother me. A bit more of an hassle was the usual wind from SE. This, as I've been told and experienced, it's England prevailing wind and it's common sense among tourers to make my journey the opposite direction to take advantage of it. From Snake Pass I went along a winding downhill and the woods of Ladybower Reservoir. At the dam I left A57 and headed South to Heathersage: I remained on narrow and intricate backroads and, more than one time, I seemed to have lost my way. Now buildings were less rare and more often I crossed small hamlets but I always had an hard time searching for secure directions. Right after Ashford I had my first flat tube. It was the back wheel, so I had to dismount my baggage to take care of it. A little later I was very lucky to find myself in Bakewell at lunchtime. A visit to this charming village that, right in his own name, reclamizes his best quality, could change the mind of the numberless mockers of english cuisine. The store windows were a parade of succulent food and I couldn't help staring lustfully at them. At the end I walked into a butcher's store that looked like a boutique. The man at the counter was skillful almost to art level. I opted for a couple of roast pork sandwiches with apple sauce. After eating the first one I had to restrain myself to save the other one for later. Left Bakewell on the A6 then made a right and rode B5056 to Ashbourne. Now I was in Derbyshire and the hills softened leaving long flat stretches of classical English countryside. Nice cottages, ponds populated by ducks and swans, I exchanged greetings with young girls riding horses and walking Miss Marple's look-a-like. I heard someone derisively call this 'cozyness by candy box' but to me it looked inviting. Daniel came to greet me and together we rode the last miles to his house in Stretton. Here I wondered at his versatile bike collection that included a recumbant tandem that he rides with his wife Debbie, unfortunately out of town for work. We had a pleasant time, exaggerated with toasts and hit the hay definitely drunk. I woke up in the middle of the night aching all over. I set up my mind to implore Daniel to leave me in bed the next day. He's a doctor at the city hospital, if I couldn't stay at home maybe he could give me a bed there.
5th STAGE: Stretton-Charlbury km 145
To my, and Daniel, great relief, the next morning I woke up in good condition and was able to make an early start. Daniel commutes by bike to the hospital so he rode with me out of Stretton and told me how to avoid Burton. As I left the loop at Stapenhill, rain and wind started hitting strong. Another worthy feature of the nice backroads here, is to be flanked with tall edges that take a lot of the wind and rain away. At Ansley, where I stopped for lunch, was pouring down badly. In the pub I changed clothes but, when I left, the weather was looking better. I found my way between Birmingham and Coventry and started crossing Shakespeare County. Elizabethian houses with roof made of reeds dotted the greenery: I couldn't help thinking how little we Italians do in order to build with the same respect to landscape. At Wellersbourne I took out the last of my photocopies, the one with London on the bottom. My road kept winding up and down small hills, in luxuriant vegetation, no cars around, only thing that slowed my pace was a new insersection every 5 miles or so. I made a couple of wrong turn but made it to Charlbury by 18.30.
6th STAGE: Chalbury-Windsor km 108
The hostel in Charlbury is not on the level of Grinton or Crowden but I had a good breakfast. Talking moneywise an hostel that offers dinner and breakfast charges little less than 15£ and about 7-8£ only for sleep. In the B&b in Edinburgh I shared a double at 20£ a piece. For fuel I spent an average of maybe other 10£ a day including fruits, candy bars and drinks. That morning again, after having departed in pouring rain, I was mercifully spared by bad weather. I rode some quiet backroads: B4027 till Wheatley, thus avoiding Oxford, and then B480 to Watlington. I climbed the easy Chiltern Hills and met the Thames at Mill End. Here for the Atlas I had no choice but make a long detour on A4155. I didn't like the idea, so I stopped at the junction until a farmer boy in his truck, in the most obscure english I ever heard, pointed out an alternative route. I crossed the River on a long catwalk, landed on the other side and found a couple of miles of unpaved road.I was amazed to see that even approaching London, my route still had that old-fashioned taste and I was still riding in the woods, over a carpet of leaves. I was expecting to find some sort of a bike-lane to get into London but, as a road patrol told me, only way was A40, there bikes were 'tolerated'. I had in mind to sleep at Windsor Hostel but now London was like a giant magnete and it was kind of early when I got at Windsor, so I made a call to Andrea. He told me it was ok to anticipate one day but I had to make it snap. As I hung up I realized that, from the nice brick-building I was in, trains were leaving, taking you at Waterloo Station in 45 min. No extra for bike. I decided that another short lift would not take anything out of my accomplishment.
Just for saying that Andrea who runs a bike delivery business and me had wonderful time riding all over town delivering flowers and natural food. My bike was left unused in the basement since I had blown my last 2 tubulars on arrival day and I was very lucky to discover only now that tubulars are really hard to find in England...