John O’Groats to Land’s End (week 2)
(The Long Way Round or should that be The Long Way Down?)
After checking the weather forecast – surprise, surprise, we altered the route and headed north! The south was still flooded and, unusually, all of the good weather was sitting in Scotland. So far we think we will go to John O’Groats, down the west coast of Scotland to the Belfast ferry, down through Ireland’s West to Rosslare, catching the ferry to Fishguard and then onwards to Land’s End. In effect we have reversed the route to take into account the appalling weather. I swear I can hear a voice in the heavens saying, “Noah, get your hammer and nails, I have a job for you!” The thing is that previously it only rained for 40 days and 40 nights and – to our recollection – it have been more-or-less raining now for about 10 weeks? We seem to have developed webbed hands and feet!
Within half an hour of leaving Cathy’s (for the second time) we were stuck in a traffic jam northbound on the M6! It seems there was a hole in the road somewhere and we supposed it was better to be stuck (again) rather than finding the hole ourselves! While we were supping the first of the over-priced motorway coffees and muffins which seem to be part of our staple diet lately, we waited for the motorway to clear.
Ardgartan Campsite (two nights) just north of Loch Lomond was our first stop after what seemed hours of further traffic jams.
The site gave us a warm welcome and gave Cathy a personal key to the disabled facilities. This situation is quite unlike the behaviour of many people we have watched on the service stations who would use the facilities in preference to the non-disabled. Even parents can be heard telling their kids to ‘nip into the disabled’. One woman came out of the disabled toilet on one such stop with her two children aged about 4 and 5 years old. Being kind to her we thought perhaps she had a hidden disability (although we doubted it). She is probably the same sort of person who parks in the disabled spaces in the local supermarket to save her legs from that long walk across the car park!
The site at Ardgartan was fine although we had a seriously long walk to find a pub for food. The sight staff had told us it was about 10 minutes down the road, although they had, obviously, never walked it. The ten minutes stretched to 40 minutes before we eventually found the place and they had stopped serving 10 minutes earlier. Damn. Even me putting on my ‘little boy lost look’ and Cathy making her cane VERY visible didn’t work. No food. We walked a little further to a small hotel and, no room at the inn. Things were not working out at all and time was marching on! Looks like the local fish and chip shop was our only choice now. In we walks to fish and chip shop and the conversation went like this.
“Evening, what can I get for you?” (staff)
“Two fish and chips please and a bottle of water” (me)
“That’ll be £10.50 please”. (staff)
“How much? (me)
“Jesus, inflation must be bad in Scotland” as I handed over the money.
And so it was that we sat and ate our ‘a la carte’ fish and chips (nearly) before walking back (another 40 minutes) to the camp site where we passed out in seconds (I hasten to add – due to tiredness not alcohol!)
We woke up the next morning and had planned to head for the island of Arran but by the time we set off – late as usual – time was short. At this point Cathy was blaming me and I was blaming Cathy but the truth of it is that, really, neither of us wanted to get out of our sleeping bags (it was just too nice!) By the time we got to the first ferry at the bottom of Bute (Tarbet to Portavadie) and paid the princely sum of £6.76 for the 20 minute crossing (Cathy went free, bike half-price and I had to pay – God bless the blue badge in the windshield of the bike) time was becoming more urgent. Arriving at the second ferry to Arran at 3pm and looking at the last ferry back we would have only had about an hour on the island.
So instead of catching the ferry, we took pictures of it and headed all the way back along the A83 until stopping for the inevitable pit-stop for food. The pub owner knocked us up sandwiches and coffee and then lamented the smoking ban in pubs which had seriously damaged his business.
“Even when there is a big football match on people don’t come in any more as they might miss a goal if they nip out for a fag” was his description of the changes wrought by the draconian ban (as Bernard calls it). Suitably refreshed – and leaving the landlord reading his paper and lamenting in an empty bar – we hit a steady speed all along the A83, swooping through corners and past cars as if they were standing still. Up hills and through green forested slopes still fresh from the occasional cloud burst which wet the road.
All in all we had covered 160 miles on this day although it was supposed to be ‘a little potter about’. We bashed our way down and up tens of miles of single track lanes, standing the bike on its nose when meeting cars coming the other way as they filled the whole available space. On the whole, on the gorgeous up and down coastal roads and the whole ride across Bute saw us only meeting one other bike.
This was surprising really as a Cafe we had stopped in earlier in the morning (we called it the greasy spoon but it was actually called the ‘Pit Stop’) was full of shiny new road bikes with owners who creaked when they walked in their immaculate leathers.
My bike looked unkept and uncared for and we were not wearing leathers (more on our gear later) but suits we were testing for the eventual trip. I suppose they probably stuck to the fabulous ‘A’ roads in terms of the 82 or 83 whereas we struck out on the A8000 and A8001 and such like. These are single track and, invariably, poorly surfaced with patches of loose gravel to catch you unaware in the middle of corners! Thus we had the roads to ourselves as everybody else blasted up and down the better surfaces on other routes while we headed for the hills.
It is still true that wherever we go, as soon as Cathy climbs off the bike she becomes a source of conversation, fascination or curiosity. I can see it happening time after time. It doesn’t change and is a constant.
Tomorrow we are off to Newcastle (196 miles) to meet up with Road Ahead TV for some filming they want to complete for sending to Channel 4.
Road to Newcastle (196 miles)
After being woken up by a demented seagul at 5am and then again at 6.30 (I assume it was the same one or it was one of their relatives) I gave up and crawled out of my sleeping bag several hours before we wanted to.
The previous night we had endured one of the families from hell complete with their dog called ‘Basher’ or some such name who seemed designed to bark at anything and everything; birds, people, cars, wind, crisp packets and anything that, more or less, moved – or seemed inclined to move!
And so it was we were on the road early – even after having breakfast – and we were going to be several hours early for our meeting with Dave and several other people from Road Ahead. We stopped, largely to fill time, at a tourist section of Hadrian’s wall (Birdoswald) where the remnants of the 4.5 metre high walls of the Fort which was one of the posts linked by the road which spanned what was called the Military Way.
The centre itself is part of English Heritage and one baseball hat and a couple of key rings were purchased – as we all do when we visit such centres! The centre was a garrison for Roman Soldiers and it had an indoor training hall (which was unusual for its time) – although knowing the weather it should not have been surprising really! We took several pictures and I actually start to appear in more of them as my father is always complaining that there are never any of me; just bikes and scenery usually – although Cathy improves the pictures I usually take by no end.
I read all the boards for Cathy about the history and the blue badge did its trick again with Cathy getting in for Free and poor old me having to pay – she takes great delight when this happens and always has a little (evil) chuckle as I am handing over my money.
Eventually we got back onto the bike and headed for the home of David and Christine of Road Ahead where we arrived at 5.20pm.
The welcome we received was so positive and it always seems so strange to us when we arrive somewhere to be met by people you have only ever exchanged emails with. In reality you are complete strangers and yet they take you into their home and offer you everything to make you comfortable. Such as it was with David and Christine Newton.
The dining room had obviously had some serious effort put into it by the buffet laid out on the table – enough for a party instead of the few people who were to appear later on to discuss the trip and filming.
As Dave and I talked Cathy (the water baby), as always, dived into the shower. She certainly avails herself of this at every opportunity and she often squeaks when she walks due to the amount of showering she does!
Soon we were joined by Dave Lucas (a guide dog user) along with Bruce and we all started to discuss the ups and downs of the journey next year and the proposed filming next day. As with any other ‘bikers’ myself and Bruce swopped story after story of our escapades over the years and the magic fixes of Gaffer tape and cable ties – without which, many bikes would be have remained broken down. After a few beers, and much laughing, we retired and were asleep in seconds.
The next day David spent about an hour interviewing us about the trip including all sorts of questions on the practicalities (petrol, spares, etc.) before we packed the bike to set off for filming.
The route was to take us to the Angel of the North with his wife Christine driving while we passed him and then he passed us in a constant game of tick. It looked very strange to see his camera coming out of the sun roof of the car and the side windows.
Many other motorists looked bemused and puzzled as they went past us while the camera was perched on the roof off his car facing backwards. Soon we reached the Angel of the North and further filming was completed before hugs were exchanged all around as we said our farewells.
It was a great feeling to meet a couple of people who were so interested in the journey that they would put so much time and effort into meeting us and then shooting footage to send to Channel 4.
We will wait to see what develops from this and will let you know if anything significant occurs.
Soon we were back on the bike and after a very quick ride across the A69 we were in Bellingham and a site there run by the Camping and Caravan Club where Cathy managed to get herself locked in the disabled loo after the lock broke.
The staff went and found their trusty screwdrivers and pliers and soon she was freed from her enforced captivity to head for somewhere to eat. The meal was in a very ‘up market’ Hotel and (no names to protect the guilty) the Tuna Steak she ordered appeared with what appeared to be a small piece of plastic in it (for free).
We sent it back to the Chef (with our compliments) and enquired as to the nature of the offending item. Quick as a flash the waitress came back to tell us that the chef said it was part of the ‘fin’ of the Tuna STEAK. Needless to say you could hear our laughter as we reordered soup for Cathy. I did promise her that if a fin appeared in the soup I would let her know but we must have killed the only dorsal in the restaurant. Needless to say, no, I didn’t pay for the ‘killer’ tuna.
The tea room in Bellingham (inside Tourist Information) called the Fountain Cottage Tea Rooms managed to prepare the largest breakfast barm cake in the known world. Talk about a club sandwich but make it the size where three hands are needed to hold it. It was the most enormous thing I had ever seen and when Cathy eventually managed to pick it up (with great effort and straining muscles) the bottom half of her face disappeared behind it. From my own point of view I must have looked like a Hamster storing food for the winter. I swear I could feel my cheeks stretching with the effort. I dread to think what havoc it was going to do with my digestive system as it strolled along but it really did blow a complete year’s worth of cholesterol all in one go! But it was worth it. Well worth a visit if you are in the area. You definitely will not starve to death.
Due to Cathy muttering about a slow leak in her air pillow – as if a rolled up motorbike jacket was not enough for her – a new one was sourced from a general hardware store across the road. It was one of those small town stores that sells everything from fishing tackle to bleach and back. Lo and behold, a self-inflating pillow! Now purely to keep her company so that she did not feel too ‘soft’, I agreed to buy one as well. No, I’m not getting soft in my old age. I bought it purely so that Cathy wouldn’t feel that she couldn’t rough it. Really.
From Bellingham to Alnwick
We don’t know if you are aware of this fact but sections of Harry Potter early films were set at Alnwick Castle and Cathy has always wanted to go and visit this historic town. So the bike was set in the direction and off we went.
The road twisted and turned as we blasted through Northumberland. Soon we were on the fantastic 6341 which was awesome as we blatted and burbled across ever twisting roads which rose and fell like a roller coaster ride. On one stretch I admit to getting airborne as both wheels left the ground on the crest of a brow – fasten your seatbelts as we landed safely!
The exhaust throbbed and croaked as we accelerated around bends and a gentle popping noise could be heard as the engine braked us into corners by the closing of the throttle. The landscape drifted past in a changing hue of colours shifting from moorland browns to vivid greens within miles as we crested hump after hump in the road.
The shifting and swaying of the bike developed into a rhythm which was strangely hypnotic. Occasionally it is possible to transcend the terms ‘bike’ and ‘riders’. Rarely, it becomes a matter of synergy where all things merge into an ‘experience’. Such was my own feeling today on the 6341. The ride felt fluid and balanced in a beautiful way as we drifted around corners talking about the countryside and our thoughts, feelings and emotions around the journey.
All too soon it was lost as we arrived in Alnwich.
The ride had gone past in a flurry. A blur of experience that seemed minutes and yet had been much longer. It was something like watching a really good movie which is over before you know it. You have been so engrossed in the activity and the ‘story’ that time loses all meaning and it passes without your knowledge.
Alnwich itself is a small market town north of Newcastle by about 30 miles. As always we wandered around to get our bearings as the rain started to fall. Outdoor shops and book shops were browsed before a Radar Key for the Disabled toilets was purchased – even though we have three of them between us but, as usual, we had forgotten to bring them! Now we have four.
The rain continued to fall as we put on our waterproofs and a group of teenagers watched – in fascination – as the blind biker woman got ready for the road. They tried not to stare but watched sideways, all the time nudging each other. In their stares was a whole raft of preconceptions and meanings which only they knew as we pulled away to find our base for the night.
The same thing happens on camp sites when we pull up and Cathy climbs off the bike and her distinctive ‘click, click, click, click’ sound can be heard as the jointed cane pops into place.
When we arrived at Dunstan Hill site and I was walking back with one of the staff who showed me the pitch he started by saying;
” I didn’t realise”
“Realise what” I answered.
“When she got off the bike”.
“Realise what?” I answered knowing where he was going.
“I wondered why she had a walking stick on the bike and then I realised”
“Aha” I answered non – commitally.
“Can she see anything?”
“Nope, nanna, zip, nothing” I answered.
“Wow” he replied, shaking his head in a confused way as he thought about it.
“But she goes on the bike?” he continued.
“Yep” I answered.
“Must be scary” he went on.
“Be scarier if she could see!” I responded.
Thus people look and try to work out using their own frames of reference – and fail as they inevitably will. Sometimes, well often, people on the camp sites gave little waves in acknowledgement and a form of greeting which I pass onto the Cathy as we walk by.
Sitting in the Greys Inn after our steak and ale pie and Cathy has had her regulation glass of wine – and I have forced two pints down me as I write this section – the day has been perfect. Truly perfect. Despite the rain.
We decided to stay in Alnwick (pronounced Anick) today as Cathy wanted to look around the town and castle. The day started with a cafe owner managing to cremate the bacon on the bacon and egg barmcake. Never in the history of breakfast barms has such damage been done to a slice of bacon!
Alnwick castle has been the setting for various high profile films, the most recent being Harry Potter. Prior to this, Robin Hood Prince of Thieves and even Black Adder was filmed on location there.
The Blue Badge worked its wonders again as the £18 admission became £8. Love that blue badge!
We went on a tour of the castle named Battle Axes and Broomsticks although, due to the number of children on the tour it was more Broomsticks than Battle Axes.
The young guide was dressed in a medieval cassock complete with cloak over one arm with the family coat of arms of the Duke of Northumberland. The tour guide was young and his claim to fame was working as an extra on the film in the flying scene in the castle forecourt.
The children answered all the questions concerning our bespectacled hero and his exploits. With great enthusiasm did the hands go up in the air while the parents looked on bemused but proud that ‘their’ little Mary or John knew the answer – much like all parents; they beamed with pride. Inevitably they would rush to the front in their excitement as we moved from location to location around the castle, often tripping over the long cane much to Cathy’s amusement and occasional irritation.
The parents seemed oblivious to the little additional space or consideration Cathy and I required to get from one place to another. They made no effort to control their excited children who often pushed past us. We managed however and, generally, Cathy was levered to the front so that she could hear the tour guide clearly.
It is interesting to note that had Biscuit been with us (Cathy’s Guide Dog who is on her own holiday in Chester) this would not have occurred. Space seems to magically appear where a guide dog is concerned. Actually, if Biscuit had been with us, the guide’s job would have been much more difficult as she would have given the children her ‘moony eyes’ which declare ‘come stroke me’. They would have obliged no doubt! As it was I gently pushed and Cathy ankle tapped and we muddled through.
After the tour had finished we went in search of further stimulation and the staff in the castle very kindly let Cathy have a ‘hands on’ of the many amazing artefacts – including a cabinet worth 15 million pounds, amazing Italian fireplaces, ram’s horn walking sticks and silk wall coverings. Other ‘mere’ mortals were assiduously instructed and reminded ‘please do not touch’ both verbally by the attendants and also by the written reminders every three inches – or so it seemed.
Cathy’s favourite item was a marble statue of a dog playing with a kitten on top of a knocked over bowl of fruit. The workmanship was exquisite. The same – for me – was true of the marble fireplace which – it seems – was destined for an exhibition before one of the Dukes bought it – beautiful folds in the figure’s clothes which seemed so life-like.
One of the guides was so helpful as he guided Cathy to this figure or that figure, this feature or that leaf on the fireplace – then taking her to his favourite section – the walking sticks. He then spent at least 20 minutes lovingly passing walking sticks to Cathy to examine the intricate carvings on the crooks made from Ram’s Horn. Everything from exotic birds to snakes to blacksmiths were fashioned from ram’s horn.
Such kindness and patience was shown to Cathy while, at the same time, glaring at others who got within breathing distance of the objects – never mind touching them!
Generally I have not found Cathy to be a tactile explorer in situations like this but she was really engaged in the experiences – more than I have ever seen her in a range of situations across nearly three years. So I stood back and let the staff guide her to clocks and table legs while I watched and wondered at the kindness of people and also at her ability to extract meaning from such objects.
We wandered all over the castle and were ‘accosted’ (in the nicest sense) by one of the guides who proceeded to spend 20 minutes telling us the history of Meissen Pottery, and an Alchemist who claimed to be able to change base metal into gold; only to be imprisoned by a King whose eyes lit up at the prospect of the wealth involved. Purely by accident he discovered the ‘secret’ of China Pottery which the Chinese kept closely guarded as they were making a nice little earner from export and jealously guarding the manufacturing of the plates and cups.
Walking along the Castle walls, we explored the history through the numerous information boards and hands on experiences of some of the weapons of warfare. Cathy was staggered at the weight of the chain mail suits worn under the armour. It was a gentle, relaxed day full of information, experiences and lots of pictures of anything remotely concerning Harry Potter.
Due to the amount of intestine gluing food we have consumed lately we bought salad and fruit for dinner on our way back from the castle but then ruined the good intentions by a bottle of Chardonnay and two cans of Stella. Thus the bike purred its way back to the camp site were all the goods were dispatched before the lights dimmed and our heads descended onto the air pillows and the land of dreams beckoned.
Next morning saw us standing in the queue of the Post Office carefully parcel taping a box together to send items we had bought the previous day to a friend of ours who took great pleasure in ribbing us about sending parcels home. Our thanks to Linda for her postal address as a drop off point!
Alnwick to Pichlochy (170 miles)
We covered 170 miles from Alnwick to Pichlochy on extremely fast roads with fatality statistics everywhere on the journey.
Speed cameras mushroomed along the side of the road but, as always, people slowed down for the camera and then floored their accelerators as soon as they passed!
Before we knew it we had arrived just North of Pichlochy and the first camp site was a case of ‘no room at the inn’.
The second camp site we just made ahead of several other people to claim the last pitch on the whole site. Yippi!
Our supper consisted of a very nice meal at the ‘Loft Restaurant’ which, as its name suggests, is a converted loft complete with big, overstuffed arm chairs – just what your delicate nether regions require after a day on the bike.
Crawling into our sleeping bags and head descending onto our air pillows (not that I needed it!) soon week two was over.
Tomorrow we set off up the east coast of Scotland to the windswept and rainy North (as if it can get worse). Little did we know, things were to get considerably worse in terms of the weather.
More of this in week three report!
Select here for week one report, here for week two, here for week three and here for week four