A 70th Birthday Treat

Tow women pushing loaded touring bicycles up a mountain trailContributor: Christine Chappell

I’ve always wanted to do a long cycle ride.

Not just a day, but weeks or even months. Eventually I decided the time was now. I negotiated time off from grandparent duties, voluntary work, families, friends, the garden, the husband. And in my 70th year I took off for a month.

I was late to cycling. Dad had to nag me to learn on my sister’s hand-me-down, up and down the North Devon lanes. It took another three decades (and three daughters) before I could cherish my dream and have a bike of my very own. Bright red, racing tyres, drop handlebars- weee. I was 16 years old in the saddle, 40 on foot. Free and as light-feathered as the seagulls off Hartland Point.

I soon started touring – a tentative three days exploring the iron age hill forts of Dorset Hills were in my blood, but not my legs. The bike was abandoned at base camp allowing me to leap to the top and thrill to the wide-open views across rolling green pastures and distant blue hills.

Move on another three decades (and five grandchildren) and I’m ready with a ten-year old jalopy to venture forth on a really long tour, halfway around England.

The plan included stopping off with family and friends, Warmshowers hosts, B&Bs, and the occasional hotel. Paper maps were posted ahead, train routes identified and booked to avoid routes already pedaled and ensuring a return before my 71st birthday. It was never going to be an endurance ride- more a leisurely ride around tea shops, castles or whatever caught my eye. A birthday treat to myself.

People on the roadside waving to two women riding touring bicyclesI left home on Tuesday, April 10th with the usual trepidation at the start of a solo cycle tour. Family greeted me at Brockenhurst in the New Forest and waved me on my way, accompanied by my youngest daughter for a short ride into Bournemouth.

I took a train and skipped the south coast, jumping two previous cycle tours (along the south coast to Exeter and the Devon Coast to Coast) and alighted at Barnstaple, North Devon. My sister joined me for a short hop out to Hartland, a mere 15 miles. It was clear my calf muscles were not up to maximum performance when I had to stop at the bottom of the first hill for a banana and rest.

But the real ride lay ahead: 753 miles in total, from Bideford, North Devon, up to Liverpool, across to York and down to Lincoln for the train home.

Two women sitting at a restaurant table laughingI had managed to persuade one dear friend, Gill to join me for a few days, on the basis it was going to be flat. But somehow with juggling dates and routes, she experienced the highest climb of my entire trip. Amazingly we’re still friends. We met on the Tarka Trail and set off hopefully towards Exmoor. A young family expressed total disbelief as we told them of our bold plans for the day – no doubt Gill’s white hair and my wrinkles spelled ‘dear old biddies’ in their eyes. The climb got steeper, the blue hills beckoned, and bars of chocolate cheered our spirits as we walked up several of the ascents. An old pub, The Poltimore Arms provided us with not only afternoon tea but tall stories from the landlord. Laughing heartily, we managed the last climb onto a misty and bleak moorland, with whoops of delight. Gill had to leave me near Weston-Super-Mare. I sniffed back my tears, bounded across the flats, got lost at Bream Down and proceeded to my next lovely hosts at Yatton.

The next day, with no head for heights I very nervously crossed the Avonmouth Bridge. My solution was to keep my eyes fixed on the ground and count the drainage holes. Not the most exciting view but it stopped the knees knocking enough to turn the pedals. I spent five days gently exploring the Severn Valley. It’s a perfect area for slow cyclists who love to linger in doorways of ancient buildings, sketch the landscape or indulge in old world charm (try the Boat Inn at Ashleworth or the New Inn in Gloucester). The highlight was chancing upon Dr Jenner’s Museum. I spent a half day absorbing the story of the smallpox vaccination.

A complete contrast lay in wait – navigating my way into Birmingham New Street Station to meet my sister. I chose the Grand Union Canal towpath, but at times it narrowed to a muddy trench just inches from the water. All anxieties were all forgotten as the two of us headed out of the city for the Shropshire Union Canal to reach Liverpool. That was too ambitious – more thin slimy ruts, so we pulled out the dear Sustran routes and enjoyed quiet country lanes up to Chester, round the Wirral and over the Mersey, by ferry of course. Here we stopped for two nights to enjoy some Terracotta Warriors and Gormley’s ‘men’ at Crosby Beach.

And now we are three. My husband joined us for what I thought would be a breeze- the Trans Pennine Trail. This off-road link should lead us easily across the peaks of Britain and up to York. First day out and we’re lost in heavy rain, roaring lorries, and noisy roadworks at the base of the Runcorn-Widnes Bridge. Do we go over it, under it, round it?! We suddenly notice another cyclist navigate a well – hidden temporary cycle path and dash after him. But that’s just the beginning. Mud, more mud and muddy puddles, constant barriers across the path and then the Woodhead Tunnel. Oh my! Imagine a rocky cliff face- that’s the cycle path. We dismount, unload and giggle our way up and over, using two pairs of hands to each bike. My husband had a tricky hip and the constant barriers were a real pain for him. But there were days of glorious sunshine, wonderful hosts, and plenty of cake. Plus a posh B&B at Fishlake to wipe all traces of care away.

We all three landed in York to another daughter’s home for rest and recuperation. Not to be. The odometer survived a good 400 wash and spin cycle but I was not so lucky and acquired an unusual cycle-tour injury: a broken metatarsal, while making a cup of coffee in my daughter’s kitchen. Sigh! A well-worn but sturdy lace-up trainer held all parts together for the last five days. Daughter number two persevered for two days and nipped back on the train for work. Just my husband and I bowled over the Lincolnshire Fens. Two old dears, hardly able to walk but teenagers again in the saddle.

A last sad day before we board the London North East to Kings Cross, follow Transport for London’s easy paced route and glide over Waterloo Bridge for the last lap from Waterloo Station to my hometown of Alton, Hampshire.

Needless to say, this was all long before Covid hit us. The sense of adventure, achievement and freedom have never left me. I’d do it again tomorrow.

Highlights– enjoying the freedom to be out in our glorious countryside, the fantastic warmth of Warmshower hosts and the constant delight of convivial strangers.

Low points– overcoming my fear of heights to cross two huge bridges (Avonmouth and the Humber), worries of being mugged in Birmingham replaced by fears of falling in the unearthly silent Grand Union Canal on an empty Sunday morning and crawling upstairs to my bed dragging a complaining foot thinking ‘will I have to abort my ride’.

Technical details:

Warmshowers: a global hospitality scheme for cyclists.

Routes followed: mainly Sustran’s National Cycle Network.

Distances: range 8 to 50 miles per day, depending on sightseeing trips and days off.

Luggage: never as light as planned, especially when the dear British weather rose from 10 C to 24 almost overnight, necessitating a quick launch into charity shops to re-stock.

Bike: ten-year-old ladies Raleigh, 21 gears. Aluminium frame.