Rewards per mile

Everybody talks about narrow boats travelling at four miles per hour because in theory that is the maximum speed allowed on most canals. In practice the majority of boats average nearer two and a half or three miles an hour. We aren’t going to set any new records as I have just brought the logs up to date and it turns out that after nineteen days we have covered eighty miles at a stately four miles per day. It might not be very many miles but I can assure you that at this pace every one of them has something rewarding to offer.

We are travelling with new friends and boaters Debs and Colin, our neighbours from the marina. After three months of getting to know them under strict socially distanced circumstances it’s great to be able to accompany them on their first big trip on Woody, their brand new narrow boat and home.

Over these last couple of weeks I have been constantly reminded of how important it was for us to have more experienced company on our first journey as we negotiated all the new challenges of locks, tunnels, swing bridges and other obstacles. Finding safe and suitable mooring spots, dealing with re-fuelling and watering or even the best knots to use in different circumstances were all a complete mystery to us so it was a real pleasure to pay back the support we had from Bob and Marie two years ago.

After the rigours of the Rufford locks we caught our breath at Parbold which is rural, peaceful and the perfect place to enjoy an afternoon of tow path socialising. Chewing the fat with other boaters and passing walkers is a big part of the boating experience and I never tire of it. It’s always useful and interesting to pick up snippets of local information and in exchange we are happy to respond to conversations that always seem to start with; “Can I ask you a really stupid question?” Leaving the next morning ornate landscaped gardens give way to lush green farmland interspersed with dark, earthy woodland where the overhanging branches provide excellent practice as we steer between them. These are the kind of places where kingfishers skim above the water like an electric blue bullet and herons fishing from the bank will twitch nervously as we approach. The herons seem to weigh up the danger before losing their nerve and rising lethargically only to land a few boat lengths down the water’s edge before repeating the process.

Heron in fright/flight
Picture by Gill Pearson

I always think that this is what boating is all about in places like these but then the outskirts of Wigan come into view and bring with them a new perspective. Now we are reminded of why the canals were built in the first place as we pass by disused warehouses with the remnants of infrastructure for loading and unloading bales of cotton or tons of recently dug coal.

A shy Golden Girl taking on water in Wigan

The Wigan Pier area is being renovated again and soon smart apartments will overlook the sanitised scene where once all was grime, graft, dust and dirt. The deep and wide Poolstock locks lower us off the Leeds and Liverpool canal and down into a huge area of subsided land that is gradually falling back into the shafts and mines and the old coal seams below.

Entering the Poolstock locks

Great expanses of open water have formed in the sunken hollows turning what would have been a forest of tall chimneys and skeletal pit head gear into a tranquil haven for wildlife and a playground for sailing, fishing and bird watching. It’s lovely to see nature returning but I am also happy to see on the horizon the huge winding wheel on top of its spindly rusting supports that marks the site of the Lancashire Mining Museum at Astley Green. The legacy of back breaking graft and devastating loss from collapses and explosions are juxtaposed against the warmth of strong community and camaraderie of the miners at this fascinating place. Well worth a visit if only to see one of the worlds biggest steam engines which has been brought back to life by a dedicated army of volunteers.

For the next twenty miles and more we are accompanied by an eclectic mixture of ducklings swimming amongst beer cans, stunning graffiti on otherwise dull concrete flyovers and run down factories interspersed by painstakingly maintained waterside gardens. This is the outskirts of Manchester and Salford and whilst it is fascinating we aren’t tempted to moor here so we head out through Sale and into rural Cheshire and settings more likely to appear in the imagination of the aspiring boater.

Canalside in Lymm: Yours for £750,000

We are now on the Bridgewater canal with no locks but a new challenge in the form of the Preston Brook tunnel to add a spice of variety. The tunnel is long with a couple of kinks to keep you on your toes but Colin negotiates it easily enough and we pop out into the daylight and onto the Trent and Mersey canal. Counting branches, it’s our fifth canal and with a tunnel, re-fuelling, services and shopping stops Debs and Colin are ticking off all the experience boxes.

Woody on Croxton aqueduct
Picture by Gill Pearson

These canals are wide, designed for twelve or fourteen foot barges rather than our skinny seven foot wide narrow boats and Colin and Debs have a shock in store that I remember very well. With no warning, as we approach Middlewhich, we come across Croxton Aqueduct perched above the river Dane and at just eight feet wide it looks impossibly narrow after all the wide locks and bridges. It’s a taster for what is to come and the last place that we might see a wide beam boat for many weeks. Safely through it’s time for another shopping trip in Middlewich and then the first narrow locks of this journey.

By the time we reached Nantwich, one of our favourite places on the network it feels as if we have well and truly let go of Woody’s reins and our fellow boaters are now more than capable of going solo. Gill and I are heading south now whilst they hang back to meet up with friends and family and then head north to Chester. We plan to get together again later in the summer and no doubt we will both have lots of stories to tell as we head off into Wales and the Llangollen canal.

We are taking a couple of days to relax in a quiet spot called Coole Pilate. It’s a lovely place to chill while we brace ourselves for the twenty five locks that will take us up beyond Market Drayton and to an appointment with a boat cover maker for some badly needed maintenance for our tired and shabby pram cover on the back of the boat.

Chilling at Coole Pilate

Four miles a day: So much to see and so much time to see it in.

On the ‘Shroppie’

After the trauma of contemplating nuclear devastation and the drug infused, drunken debauchery of Audlem music festival we finally cast off our bow line on Tuesday morning and continued our progress south. The most pressing thing on our mind was water, which we were running short of and something less pleasant that we had an over abundance of after five days in the same spot. The weather Gods thought it would be highly amusing to try and drown us as we pulled into the service point where other boaters were already filling up and emptying out. Standing by the boat holding a rope in torrential rain whilst queuing for water holds a certain irony I suppose but it’s not amusing.

Heading south to, errr, the toilet

What we really needed after several days of over indulgence and late nights was a nice gentle plod along an uncomplicated stretch of peaceful water but Audlum isn’t like that. From our mooring we had two locks to negotiate to the water point followed by a third one before the toilet facilities and then twelve more in quick succession. Five bright and breezy hours later we closed the last lock gate with a weary sigh and pulled into a beautiful spot surrounded by trees and heralded by glorious bird song. The peace and solitude were in stark contrast to all the frantic activity and noise of the festival but it was just the antidote we needed and much more typical of what we expect when travelling this stretch of water.

It was a short easy hop to Market Drayton the next day and a two night stop to catch up on shopping and a few chores and to rendezvous with friends that we met when we were travelling last summer. It just so happened that Alan and Jacky were heading north and expected to be in Market Drayton the next day so the six of us arranged to meet up and have a catch up over dinner in the Red Lion. Good food and beer shared with great company is an evening well spent in my book and another cherished memory to deposit in the bank. Like all members of a similar tribe we love swapping stories and the more outrageous the better. Canal life is a rich seam to be tapped and the evening passed with an endless stream of laughter as the bonds of friendship were gently tightened before warm goodbyes in anticipation of future encounters.

Random strange sight

The Shropshire Union canal in this part of the county comprises sets of locks separated by long stretches of peaceful flat water passing through a succession of cuttings and embankments. The cuttings are sometimes deep and dark, almost jungle like with a cacophony of bird song and rich earthy smells. The tree tops often meet over the water forming a leafy emerald tunnel and where it was necessary to cut through tough unforgiving rock the channel narrows to little more than one boat’s width. Some of these narrow channels are straight whilst others meander left and right providing a little exciting anticipation at the prospect of meeting a boat coming the other way. Then suddenly the land and foliage fall away to each side as the cutting transforms to high embankment and darkness is replaced with brilliant light and expansive views in all directions. This landscape was typical of the next day’s travel as we left Market Drayton with Bob and Marie in our wake and entered the first narrows. Once clear of the challenging set of five Tyrley locks we were back in open countryside and The Longmynd and Stretton hills were clearly visible in the distance to the west. Gill and I remembered that there were good moorings not far ahead and as luck would have it we managed to grab the two best spots with panoramic views and good solid rings to tie up to.

Fingers crossed

Ten minutes later we have claimed our patch on the tow path and with chairs set out and mugs of tea in hand we can relax and admire the scenery whilst reflecting on the day’s sights and sounds. Later it’s Bob and Marie’s turn to meet up with their boating friends Paul and Jackie and whilst there is no pub involved this time it makes little difference and soon their friends are our friends and so it continues. Despite our widely differing backgrounds and experience there is common ground in abundance and a whole morning is lost to yet more stories and belly aching laughter amongst the inevitable discussion of the less glamorous, more basic side of narrow boat living. You know what I mean.

It feels as if we are gradually being absorbed into a lovely welcoming community of water travellers that come together and drift apart but always with an assumption that paths will cross again and friendships will be rekindled.

Never ending contrasts

The media these days is full of pictures of discarded plastic floating round on our oceans but the seas don’t have exclusivity in this problem. There were times today when it was depressing to see just how many empty bottles, beer crates, buckets and traffic cones end up in the canals and as they drift on the wind they always seem to end up buried in what would be beautiful reed beds. Plastic appears to make up about ninety percent of the debris in the water but that figure may be wrong because bicycles, bedsteads and shopping trolleys don’t float do they? It’s sad to see the canals abused in this way but the feeling never lasts long as nature has a way of absorbing the punches and coming back fighting to delight us with its resilience. The sight of a female mallard shepherding her brood of twelve new born ducklings puts things back into perspective and reminds us that things are not all bad. The youngsters dart about on the water like small jet propelled bundles of fluff, peeping frantically when our boat momentarily separates them from mum. The coot chicks by contrast seem more like grumpy teenagers as they mooch about in the reeds dressed in a covering of hairy black down and sporting punk like red hair styles. I’m sure their parents think they are beautiful.

Little bundles of trouble
Mum thinks you’re beautiful

Today we enjoyed another kind of stark contrast passing as we did through industry and countryside as we made our way around the outskirts of Wigan.

Shipmates Bob and Marie

Our boating friends Bob and Marie had joined us for dinner at the pub last night and over an excellent meal they had agreed to accompany us and help with the locks on our route. It was good to have a few helping hands on board as we anticipated that we might have problems with low water levels at the point where the Leigh branch of the canal leaves the Leeds and Liverpool in Wigan. Over the past few days we had been hearing stories of boats becoming stuck on the bottom of the canal and even one poor chap who was marooned overnight. Whilst Bob and Gill went on ahead to prepare locks for us I was entertained by Marie, a Wigan lass through and through as she explained the enormous changes she had witnessed over the years. The area around Wigan pier itself (not a pier but a point where coal was tipped into barges on the canal) had gone from a hub of industrial activity based around coal and weaving to a brief spell as a heritage museum and themed pub to what is now a tired and sad looking collection of uncared for waterside buildings in a state of disrepair. The decay and neglect however is once again counter balanced by the appearance of smart new office buildings and apartments overlooking stretches of the canal. All part of the ever changing history via the industrial revolution and beyond.

The Orwell pub, sadly closed and boarded up
Pit brow lass at Wigan Pier

After a late breakfast taken as we filled up with water we negotiated the last two locks on the Leeds and Liverpool and took the right hand turn onto the Leigh branch. On either side of the canal exposed rocks and debris clearly showed how low the water was, at least eighteen inches below normal levels. I had been advised to stick firmly in the centre of the canal to avoid grounding and all went well until we came to the approach of the final lock. Staying strictly in the middle channel was suddenly not an option as a boat was coming the other way and as I gingerly inched over to the right I was dismayed to see two more narrow boats entering the lock in front of us. Gill then put the lid on any idea of a simple passage through by announcing over the radio that a fourth boat was waiting to come up the lock. We crept cautiously over to the right hand bank expecting to ground at any moment but to our relief we were able to stay afloat on the mooring whilst the others manoeuvred though the lock.

Once through this tricky section the tensions eased as the water levels deepened and we had a delightful trip through the Wigan flashes. These expansive water features on either side of the canal are the result of mining subsidence and have become a haven for a huge variety of wildlife whilst providing a playground for water sports enthusiasts at the same time. The banks of the canal have had to be raised as the surrounding land has sunk creating the sensation of travelling above the surrounding countryside with expansive views in all directions. It’s yet another example of how travelling on a narrow boat is a never ending series of contrasts, all experienced at a pace that really allows you the time to absorb them for all their different merits. Our next destination is Astley Mining Museum and a chance to uncover more of the rich industrial heritage of this region. More on that in the next post.

Nature winning the day once more

Funny old life

It’s a funny old life, living on a narrow boat. We set sail yesterday on our six month summer adventure and here we are, twenty four hours later, three miles from the marina, settled for a few days in Burscough. It feels like five minutes since the gun went off for the start of a marathon and we are sat by the side of the road having a picnic having run two hundred yards. We have even been shopping in Tesco this morning, the same Tesco we have been shopping in all winter. Yesterday, shortly after we moored up, one of our boating neighbours came by with his dog and another boat from the marina is moored just a few yards down the canal from us. It’s all a bit surreal.

We are mainly sitting tight because Gill has to pick up new glasses tomorrow and there are strong winds forecast all day so it wouldn’t be much fun travelling anyway. And talking of strong winds …..

Wind’s up!

We have an unwritten rule, passed on to us by experienced boating friends that if the forecast wind speed is over fifteen miles per hour it isn’t worth going out on the boat. That’s because handling a narrow boat in those conditions is really tricky. It may weigh sixteen tons but the wind will toss it across the canal like a puck on an ice rink and close manoeuvres such as pulling into lock landings or leaving locks is really just a game of chance. With this in mind I stood on the end of our jetty yesterday morning waiting for friends to arrive and watched my new wind direction indicator flipping around like a ballet dancer on acid. The forecast said fifteen miles an hour gusting to twenty five and I was thinking, stay at home. Unfortunately said friends had been promised a ride and there was additional pressure to leave in the form of more help at the other end of the Rufford locks from boaters Alan and Jacky who we met whilst travelling last year. All I could think about was the last two weeks of painstaking rubbing down, priming, undercoating, glossing and blacking and the narrow marina exit with it’s rough concrete edging and rusty iron work protruding. I could have cried.

In the end I managed to get out with only minor contact between hull and stone, in fact the wind practically blew us out onto the canal which turned out to be a haven of calm as the first few hundred yards is well sheltered from the east winds. We passed through lock No. 7 and a swing bridge without a hitch, survived the male mute swan that shepherded us past his partner sitting pretty on her rather magnificent nest and there was just enough straight calm water to let Jackie have her first experience of steering the boat.

Phillip helping. Or is he Morris Dancing?
Pan flat West Lancs

From then on it was a constant battle with a strong east wind from our left blowing across the pan flat West Lancashire fields. They were actually harvesting turf on one side of the canal, a fitting crop for an agricultural area that has the profile and wind resistance of a bowling green. I doubt Gill and I would have carried on on our own, so difficult was it to pull the boat in against the wind as we stopped at each lock, but with more than enough willing hands we were soon through all seven obstacles and mooring up for a well deserved late lunch with lashings of tea and yummy cakes. (It’s beginning to sound like Famous Five go Boating).

It’s really hard to reconcile the amount of effort required to travel through seven locks and two swing bridges whilst covering a little over three miles. It feels as if we should be in another time zone, speaking a different language and maybe even seeking out our passports for a border crossing. Instead, we are round the corner from our local Tesco. As I said, surreal.

Making watery friends

I think we may have found the most wonderful winding, watery bunch of friends you could ever wish for. Before we had even left the marina on the first day we were being offered help from other boaters and the theme has continued every day of our trip so far.

Take Brian and Jane of The Bank Hall Dry Dock for example. We had Golden Girl taken out of the water at their facility so that the surveyor could have a good look at her bottom and by pure coincidence we were moored next to their big Dutch Barge, Cloudy Bay on our first night. Before we went to bed Brian had offered to take me into Burnley to buy coal the next day and the pair of them insisted on meeting us at our first set of locks to give us a hand and show us how it’s done. We were bowled over by such kindness and generosity but what we didn’t realise at the time was that this was just typical of how folks with the common interest of boats and canals seem to treat each other.

I’m sure we will meet Mr. or Mrs. Grumpy sooner or later but if our first week on the water is anything to go by I doubt it will be any time soon. So far we have been given endless invaluable advice, been invited to a Macmillan Coffee morning at the Lower Park Marina and been rescued by a lovely couple called Chris and Steph who found us stuck on the wrong side of the canal on a particularly windy day. I would never have believed that fifteen tons of steel could be blown around like a balloon once it is floating on water but I assure you it can and although the wind has no problem tossing the boat about I didn’t have the same success with my barge pole. But that’s another story.

The fabulous Chris and Steph

We are particularly grateful to existing friends Neil and Hilary who have been holding our hands throughout both our boat buying and boat sailing journeys. Neil has a wealth of boating experience and he is also a bit of a wizard when it comes to tying things up in knots. You can see his craft of rope tying and fender making at his Facebook page here. Neil also kindly offered to turn the boat around in the centre of Skipton where it’s very busy and there isn’t a lot of space. He presumably didn’t want to be associated with anybody responsible for mass sinkings and sensibly took the tiller from me for the process. He left me feeling in awe of his boat handling skills and acutely aware of my total lack of them.

Skipton: Not the easiest place to spin a boat around.

It took us nearly a week to get from Burnley to Skipton on the boat but when we got there it was like a social whirl. In three days we had met up with Neil and Hilary on their boat, had a visit from Vicky and Woolly who live in the town and by the magic of a common contact who lives in Canada but is presently in Laos we were put in touch with boaters Ben and Liz who have been travelling the country on their narrow boat Blue Otter. Thanks for the introduction Rhian and thanks to Ben and Liz for a great night in the Narrow Boat Inn. Where else?

Having a great night with Liz and Ben in the Narrow Boat Inn.

We already have a wealth of memories and stories to tell but to date my favourite revolves around a pub meal at The Castle in Skipton. First of all it took visits to four pubs in order to find one serving food on a Sunday and then having placed our order and settled down with a drink we were hesitantly informed by the young and obviously inexperienced waiter that they didn’t have any chips. It had been busy apparently and they had run out. A complex re-selection involving the lunch time sandwich menu and we resolved ourselves to wait again. The waiter came back after twenty minutes and said that they didn’t have any sausages! More choices were made and eventually we got mostly what we had ordered and to be fair it was very nice. After a bit of discussion it was agreed that they wouldn’t charge us for our second round of drinks in recognition of what had been a shambles of a dining experience. When the bill came we were delighted to find that they had completely miscalculated it in our favour in addition to the missing drinks round. Presumably they had lost their calculator or run out of batteries for it or something. I wouldn’t go as far as to say don’t go to The Castle if you are in Skipton but maybe don’t go on a Sunday evening after a busy weekend.

All part of the rich tapestry that life on the canals is turning out to be I suppose and long may it continue.

P.S. Since writing this I have to mention Caroline that we met in Gargrave. I asked her if we could borrow her hose adaptor because we didn’t have one and in typical fashion she just gave it to us, insisting that she had a spare. A week later, passing her on her mooring above Barrowford locks she offered to help us through the locks. Boaters will know what a difference this makes. Yet another lovely gesture that adds to this experience.

Eva’s 100 miles for Mommy

Some things are very difficult to understand. I’m OK with basic chemistry, atoms and electrons but I start to lose it when it comes to black holes, quarks and as for Higgs boson, well I don’t like to think about it because it makes my head hurt. But all of these things pale in their complexity when compared to trying to understand happiness.

I’ve been pondering the whole subject of happy over the last couple of days prompted by an incredible event that I was lucky enough to be a small part of. It was an event that spurned huge amounts of happiness but also a fair amount of sadness too and it put them together in a blender and produced something that was very difficult to pin down and explain but I’m going to try anyway.

A whole lot of happiness

A whole lot of happiness

The event that I am referring to was a multi-day sponsored bike ride around the Fylde which in itself is nothing remarkable until you consider that the leader of the ride was just seven years old and the distance covered over the five days was a shade over one hundred miles! As is so often in these cases the background to this amazing achievement is a tragic one which is where all the sadness I referred to came from. Eva, our ride leader, lost her Mommy to cancer last year and she told her Dad that she wanted to do something really special in memory of her. Her Dad Gareth and his daughter are both keen cyclists so a bike ride of some kind was probably inevitable but nobody expected Eva to opt for such an ambitious challenge. After five days of riding the journey ended in a celebration at the local cricket club but it was a celebration tinged with pain and sadness for many. Eva seemed to take the whole thing in her stride and while many of the adult riders bemoaned their aching muscles and tender backsides at the end of the final day Eva celebrated with a game of football with her chums.

Pround Dad

Proud Dad

I met Gareth, Eva’s Dad, through our shared interests of cycling and writing and as I said goodbye to him yesterday he mentioned that he would like his next blog to be a happier one than some of those in the past and that is what got me really thinking about how we get happy and stay happy. Gareth lost his wife in the most awful circumstances to an extremely aggressive form of cancer and he appears to be doing a truly amazing job of bringing up his two small daughters, Eva and Isla, in what must, at times, feel like a whole sea of despair. You have to wonder what chance happiness has of surviving in such a situation but survive it surely does.

For me, happiness is something that comes in moments rather than continuously or permanently because it is something that requires a whole host of elements to be present at the same time. Contentment, security, friends, love, humour, comfort and many more components all have to be present to make us feel truly happy and when you take any one of them away the danger is that the happy bubble bursts. Take one away and replace it with grief and happiness is always going to struggle. Well that is what I thought until my experience over the last two days watching Eva’s ever smiling face as she pedalled furiously up the steepest of hills and never once complained. There was so much fun and laughter and pure joy during those rides it was as if somebody was building the most magnificent cathedral on what had been a derelict bomb site.

Happiness really is such a slippery thing to get to grips with. I sometimes think that it is something that we can share. Being with happy people is infectious like laughter or smiling so that presumes that only really happy people can share it out. Maybe we have to share it out to enjoy it. It’s all very well having a whole birthday cake to yourself but at some point it will make you sick if you don’t share it with others. So here is the real dilemma for me; Gareth and his lovely little girls have every reason to be a bit low on the happiness stakes and yet they seem to have been able to share enormous quantities of it and make dozens, if not hundreds of people very happy. Of course their terrible loss forces us look at ourselves and realise how fortunate we are to have the friends and loved ones that we do but it also gives us hope. It shows us that even the most desperate, desolate bomb site can one day become the foundation for a new and beautiful garden of flowers.

The inspirational Eva

The inspirational Eva

There has been a deluge of heart felt messages on social media today congratulating Gareth and Eva for what they have achieved. Most of them refer to the huge amount of money that has been raised, and the incredible achievement of a seven year old riding a hundred miles in five days. I will second all of those thoughts but I also want to add a great big thank you to Gareth and Eva for the sheer volume of happiness that they have managed to create in the world. That happiness will spread outwards just like ripples in a pond and those ripples will eventually bounce back to them. That’s when I hope Gareth will be able to write his happy blog and I for one will look forward to reading it.

You can read more about Eva’s ride on Facebook by clicking this link. Or, just go here to donate.

Scarred for life

I don’t have many really clear memories from my early childhood, at least not that I am able to draw from the depths of my mind’s well at will. No doubt a skilled hypnotherapist or psychiatrist might be able to tap into them but that might not be such a good idea anyway. Something I do recall though, with painful clarity is a fancy dress event that I went to when I was about seven. I might have been six or even eight, but I don’t think the precise age has any bearing on the depth of mental scarring that resulted from the experience.

Scars are funny things. Physical ones can be devastating, causing lifelong mental anguish and destroying confidence but equally they can be the source of pride and bravado spawning many an embellished account of how they were acquired in a moment of youthful daring. Mental ones on the other hand are almost invariably damaging and in most cases we strive to limit that damage by burying the memory deep to protect ourselves from it. No matter how much I try to supress this one though, it comes back to haunt me from time to time and I sometimes wonder if it shaped me in some way in later life.

The fancy dress party wasn’t at a friend’s house it was in some kind of public institution with a hall and a stage but I can’t recall why it was held there or what the occasion was. In fact I don’t actually remember that much about it at all really. There must have been girls as well as boys there but I have no recollection at all about what the girls were wearing. They were probably all fairies or princesses I would guess. As far as I am aware radical feminism hadn’t entered our seven year old world at that time so I very much doubt there were any fire women or female builders. What I do remember about the whole affair is the costumes of the other boys. Most of them were good friends from school; I can even name a couple of them and I am confident of one or two more that would have been there even if I can’t actually picture them in the hall.

There was certainly a cowboy, Keith Elliot I think. I might be wrong about that because I think Keith was a cowboy most weekends, swaggering around the avenue in his Stetson and spinning his six guns like a miniature John Wayne. There was definitely a cowboy though so it was probably Keith. The obligatory footballer (George Bannister) was in a Stoke City top and black shorts and the Red Indian (Native North American Indians hadn’t been invented at the time), had an impressive feather head dress. Somebody’s Mum or Dad had spent a lot of time wrapping tinfoil around cardboard packages to recreate a convincing space man’s suit and there were at least a couple of rugged looking soldiers and a policeman. What you will notice about this list is a certain commonality about the various outfits, namely, they all represented what we boys wanted to be when we grew up or they fulfilled our concept of what was a hero. I know I was obsessed by football at that time and the idea of flying off to some distant planet, probably saving the world in the process, loomed large in my imagination.

Why couldn't I have been a knight?

Why couldn’t I have been a knight?

By now you are probably keen to know what daring hero I represented that day and I wish I could tell you that I was an astronaut or a knight in shining armour but alas no. I can only assume that my own fancy dress outfit wasn’t so much chosen as clutched at. My Mum was a working one and as such probably didn’t have the time to start constructing some elaborate Hollywood style costume so when Mrs. Thorpe from across the road offered to lend us a ready-made one she was probably hugely relieved and grateful. I suppose at such a tender age I trusted my Mum’s judgment implicitly and having donned my outfit I probably trundled off the party full of beans, excited to show off to my friends. It was only once there, with time to consider the relative macho qualities of all the boys various disguises and contrasting them with my own particular regalia that it began to dawn on me what a terrible predicament I was in.

A strawberry! Really? Yes, I kid you not I was a strawberry. How could anybody think it was a good idea to send me along dressed as a strawberry? The voluminous bright red body of the fruit was topped off with a green ruff and a silly little green hat with a stalk on the top. I looked completely ridiculous and felt so too. The hot prickly tears of humiliation that I desperately tried to suppress that day are welling up once more in my eyes even as I type.

I try not to blame my Mum but whenever anybody mentions ‘five a day’ and I think guiltily about the limited amount and variety of fresh fruit in my diet, I can’t help but wonder if my aversion to the stuff, and particularly strawberries, started back then at that fancy dress party. Scarred for life I am.

A Cycle Touring Festival. Really?

Pendle Hill

Pendle Hill on route to the festival

A Cycle Touring Festival? Really? It does sound a bit unlikely doesn’t it? In actual fact though it proved to be a huge success and very enjoyable indeed.

I’m not really surprised. Whenever we meet other tourers when we are away it inevitably leads to great conversations and many wonderful evenings in pubs or hostels swapping stories and sharing tips about gear and locations. The idea of bringing over two hundred cycle tourists together in the same location for a weekend could only ever result in much, much more of the same. Add to that some great food, a stunning location on the banks of The River Ribble in Lancashire, tales of amazing journeys by bicycle from all around the world and a couple or three beers and you have a heady recipe for a memorable weekend.

Two hundred cycle tourers on a hill and not a bike in sight.

Two hundred cycle tourers on a hill and not a bike in sight.

Although most of the speakers and slide shows revolved around amazing journeys, often around the whole world, there was no sense of feeling second class if your longest tour was a week or two in the Dales. I loved the fact that when you started talking to somebody you really didn’t know if you were going to end up discussing bikes on Virgin Trains or running out of water in the high Andes mountains. I particularly enjoyed the various snippets of conversation that I overheard as I wandered about. Things like; “then we ran out of money in South East Asia” or “we are touring novices, we’ve only done one trip. From Chorley to Istanbul”.

It’s tempting to make reference to the high points of the weekend but to be honest that implies that there were contrasting low points but there weren’t. Apart from when it was hammering on the tent in the middle of the night I wasn’t even aware that it rained for most of the first twenty four hours. Such was the quality of the entertainment and conversation all day long.

We have come home with a real feeling that we are part of a genuine community. We have made new friends, caught up with old ones and enjoyed some great laughs, mostly related to the ridiculous predicaments that cycle touring tends to generate. As a measure of how outstandingly friendly and generous people were Gill and I expressed an interest in trying out a tandem for touring and before we knew it we had not one, but three offers of a loan of one from tandem owners. The trust and generosity were truly moving.

Dinner with friends old and new.

Dinner with friends old and new.

The same message came over in talk after talk and in countless conversations; the world is full of kind and generous people, all you have to do is ask.

Pendle again but on the way home.

Pendle again but on the way home.

There is only one way to measure whether such an event was a success and that is to pose the question would we go again. The answer is a resounding yes from us, as it was from everybody I asked during the weekend. Well done to Laura and Tim and all the folk who helped to make it such a great weekend.

No reflection on the extremely well organised festival.

No reflection on the extremely well organised festival.

Post trip blues

When we were travelling several people gave us advice on dealing with the post trip blues. Apparently it’s quite common to get depressed when all the constant change and stimulation comes to an abrupt end. Several bloggers have written eloquently about this problem, Emily Chappell in particular really lays it bare in this post. So I was on my guard when we settled back down, braced for signs of any downward spiral of emotions. I was just beginning to juggle with the contrasting emptiness of life after travel and the realisation of the enormity of what we had achieved when my Mum died. Suddenly our whole post trip experience stopped in its tracks to be replaced by the turmoil of grief, loss, guilt and dealing with funeral arrangements.

The biggest obstacle to going on our ride in the first place was always leaving my Mum. Although she was very well looked after in a lovely care home, Gill and I were still her closest relatives geographically and her main regular visitors. I really struggled with the idea of not seeing her for up to six months even though other relatives promised to step in. Then there was her dementia. Her extreme short term memory loss meant that she might not even realise that we weren’t visiting. On the other hand, it also meant that I couldn’t share our plans with her and seek her approval. Something that saddened me a great deal as I feel sure she would have approved. It was a huge relief to visit her on our return and find that nothing had really changed and she was her usual smiling self. Sadly, that didn’t last and her health deteriorated rapidly just a few days after we got back. We had been home just 23 days when she died.


Always a smile

Always a smile

I always thought of our adventure as something huge and life changing. Maybe that is still the case but for now, at least, it doesn’t feel that way. Set against the loss of somebody that has been a key part of my life for the last 57 years, a bike ride, even a very long bike ride, just doesn’t seem terribly important. We met some great people during the five months we were away and almost certainly gained new friends for life. If it were possible to measure those gains in some way they would be substantial. Compare them though, against the combined weight of the loss felt by all the family and friends of my Mum and they don’t look quite so impressive. We gain friendship and love slowly. They are  acquired over years, even over a life time but they can be taken away in an instant.

Maybe, over time, the signifcance of my Mum’s death will fade and perhaps that of our trip will grow. As time adds depth to the friendships we made and the memories we created, perhaps the scale of what we did will come back to me. Or perhaps it won’t. At the moment I can’t help but feel a little bit cheated. Robbed of the sensation of achievement. But perhaps there is some compensation in what I have learned. Perhaps what really shapes us isn’t what we do or where we go. It’s who we love and how we love them and, of course, how we are loved. And as is so often the case, you only know it when you lose it. I would like to think that the friends we made over the last six months will, over time, help to fill the enormous hole that has been left in our lives. I hope I am right, because otherwise, it really was just a very long bike ride.

How do you feel?

Day 155 dawned bright but distinctly cooler reminding us once again how incredibly lucky we have been to enjoy such a glorious summer this year. Autumn keeps peeping around the door but it’s not coming in just yet.

Gill and I spent the morning touring Southport’s municipal art gallery before meeting up with four cycling friends who were joining me for the final ride home. Three of them had escorted us for the first twenty miles of our journey all those weeks ago so there was a nice feeling of symmetry to be riding back to Freckleton with them.

The escorts

The escorts

We had announced a time for our return but with my four outriders on their super lightweight carbon bikes we were soon way ahead of ourselves and had to take another tea break to delay our arrival. I was more than happy to spin out the final few moments of the trip, torn as I was between seeing old friends and accepting that the adventure was finally over. We made the final rendezvous arrangements with Gill to make sure that she and Vera would be able to accompany me on the last few miles and set off on familiar roads.

It was wonderful to make the last turn into the village and see a small crowd of friendly faces waiting for us outside the pub. I do believe we even got a cheer and a small round of applause. The hand shakes and hugs that followed were warm and heartfelt on both sides, a real genuine show of affection and an affirmation that we were well and truly home again.

A warm welcome

A warm welcome

The beer and wine were flowing along with many congratulations as more friends arrived and the inevitable endless questions began. I was more than happy to sate people s curiosity but there was one, often repeated question that had me floundering for an answer; “how does it feel?” I simply didn’t know. I was probably more capable of explaining the origins of the universe than trying to convey what it felt like to complete a four and a half thousand mile bike ride to be honest. I think I mostly said that it hadn’t sunk in yet and that I would need some time to settle down and reflect on the whole thing. In the mean time there was more beer to be drunk, more hands to shake and jokes about my scruffy beard to endure. I loved it all.



Waking up the next morning I asked myself the same question that I had faced repeatedly the previous day; “how does it feel?” Nothing. Just a big empty space where I had expected to find happiness, relief, sadness maybe even fear but there was nothing. I had read, and been told, that returning home from a life changing trip like ours could be difficult and that adjusting back to normal life could take time so I dismissed the lack of emotions and just got on with some routine stuff. I needed to write up the final couple of days in my diary and there were photos to sort and people to contact. It wasn’t difficult to fill the time and I decided any analysis of my feelings could wait. There were a couple of moments during the day, looking at the map of Great Britain and recalling details for my diary when I thought I felt something stir inside but it wasn’t much. It was later in the evening that I began to get some clearer indication of what was going on in my head. We went to the pub to catch up with more friends and spent the evening talking about the trip, the blog and the future now that we were back. It was a lovely evening but I began to notice that every now and again I would feel a huge welling of emotion creeping up on me. More than once I had to take an extra gulp of my pint to swallow back the rising lump in my throat as we talked about the sheer scale of what we had done and how hard it would be to live an ordinary life after such an extraordinary experience. Finally the fog began to lift and the apparent absence of emotion began to make sense.

I started to think about the times when our emotions come to the surface and overflow outside of our control. The overwhelming grief when we lose somebody really close and we can’t hold back the tears or the complete inability to stop smiling in the first flush of a new love affair. Sometimes we just can’t hide our feelings but most of the time we maintain a mask, revealing just a faint hint of how we really feel. Like a ghostly face behind a veil of smoke we make sure we can’t be easily read. Now I began to understand that I was feeling nothing because I had packaged up my emotions to protect myself. I had packed them up so well that they were buried too deep even for me to feel them. They were definitely there though, bubbling away like a well of magma rising up and threatening to blow the lid off the volcano. I suspect the suppression is a kind of mechanism we must use to prevent ourselves from being completely overwhelmed by the enormity of a situation.

It makes me smile because I recalled how Gill and I never ceased to be amused and amazed by the way we exploded into a camping space shortly after arriving at the end of the day. Once the tent was up we would begin to unpack cooking kit, clothing, bedding and other camping paraphernalia until it occupied a space that seemed impossibly big. How on earth would it all fit back on the bikes. Indeed, we weren’t alone in our bemusement. A lady from the adjacent caravan on one site engaged us in conversation and confessed to being fascinated by how we carried everything. I told her the show would start at about seven thirty the next morning if she wanted to see it and guess what, she got up early to watch us pack up. I’m reminded of this as I think about the sheer volume of feeling and emotion that I must have packaged up and stored away to make it possible to deal with the end of our tour. I can’t really imagine what is in there waiting to be discovered.

It’s like confronting the most enormous pile of Christmas presents and being told they are all for you. Every possible shape and size of package teasing you as you squeeze and prod them trying to guess what might be in them. You know that they won’t all be what you wanted but you still can’t wait to open them. I see our memories, feelings and emotions like that pile of presents. It makes me feel excited knowing that I will be unwrapping them for a long time. I am also aware that, like our touring kit, carrying such a large amount of packages around with you would be impossible if they weren’t compressed and packaged into a smaller space. That’s what I think I am doing right now. I’m crushing, squashing and squeezing all those things into a smaller and smaller space. I’m compressing them down and down into an ever decreasing volume. I’m condensing them until eventually, like magic, they turn into diamonds. They are becoming a small pouch of brilliantly shiny diamonds that I will be able take out and scatter across my mind at will and when the time is right. Gill and I have made those diamonds over the five long months that we have been away. We have honed and cut them from the million experiences that we have enjoyed. They contain the mountain vistas and rugged coastlines that made us stand and gasp in awe. They reflect the faces  of the many, many people who helped us along the way and in some cases became true friends. They twinkle like the stars on a moonless night. They sparkle like the dew on the tent in the early morning sunlight and they glint like the eye of the eagle that soared above as we rode along a Scottish mountain track.

They are precious, priceless and timeless. We may share them with you over a glass or two of something but we can’t give them to you. They are ours forever and ever to treasure and revisit for the rest of our lives. A little bag of gems made from a whole heap of memories.

So I do know the answer to the question; “how do you feel?” I feel rich.