As BBC weather introduced a new extreme heat symbol to their weather maps, one randonneur set off to ride 900km from Land’s End to Tyneside
A clear blue sky hung over the peninsular as I coasted the few short miles down to Land’s End. Kevin was waiting looking sharp and keen. His weightless titanium bike catching the morning sun.
With a quick photograph standing before the visitor complex, we were off down the A30 just after 9am. It was already warming up and the headwind was welcome.
Many months before I had put my name down for Andy Corless’ 1400km audax LEJOG. Sadly, as the intervening months ran parallel to a pandemic the twists and turns of regulations and restrictions knocked the event on the head and I opted to have my entry rolled over the 2022. Meanwhile I’d booked accommodation at St Just and a train ticket to Penzance. I’d also contacted Kevin who lived but a few miles from LE, and he’d agreed to ride with me for part of the way. Also, meanwhile I’d ridden in the Ayrshire hills the previous month and been ravaged by midge. No way was I crossing the Scottish border to repeat the experience. I reviewed the route and decided that a shorter ride to Newcastle in North East England looked like a nice alternative.
At Maruzen another pic before Michael’s Mount where we met the retired club chairman of the Bank of England Cycling Club, who had just moved up to Newcastle. He seemed surprised I planned to cycle there in a little under 3 days.
Leaving the coast, a series of hills followed. At the foot of each one I dropped into my granny ring while Kevin would ride alongside barely turning the pedals. We headed higher and into the Cornish Alps, an area with permanently white-capped hills from the ongoing clay mining. It was good to take a breather and a swig from the bidon as the sun beat down on us.
At Truro we had our first stop at a garage off the busy A390. It’s almost impossible to avoid busy roads in parts of Cornwall; although I took advantage of cycle paths when I saw them, they were often better than useless. However, we only followed the main road until after Tresillan after following the charming Tresillan River.
A few more hills and we reached the A30 services at Penhale, crowded with hot motorists seeking succour from the day’s heat. After a quick trip to Gregg’s we parted ways – Kevin back home to the peninsular, while I carried on further north.
I’d selected my 3-year old Flying Gate rigged out as it had been for PBP in 2019 for this adventure. This included adding a generous front rack and bar bag. While unwealdy when stopped (or going steeply uphill) it coasted nicely on the flat and flew downhill. Nonetheless, it was probably twice as heavy as Kevin’s setup. But more importantly, it gave off that cool East Coast rando look that I was seeking.
The hills of Cornwall seemed relentless. Sharp and relatively short punches that hit your legs again and again. Kevin had mentioned that the Cornish Hills had been the graveyard of many audax aspirations, and I was anxious to ensure that I didn’t fall victim to the shark’s teeth of Kernow. This was easier said than done in the stifling heat. Regular stops at garages along the route were called for in order to catch my breath, lower the heart rate and cool down.
Bodmin was bypassed, Minions clambered over with its ruinous mines stark against the backdrop of Bodmin Moor; Crediton and Tiverton reached with a good 200kms behind me. Refuelling for the night at another garage I set off for the final and flatter section to Taunton Dean, reaching the services motel at a quarter to two in the morning – about 2 hours after my planned time, but with 2 hours in hand for a badly needed shower and some zzzs’s. This was the shortest leg – just shy of 260kms and 3.7km of climbing at 17.4 km/h.
Two hours later and I was up and ready to resume my journey. At Taunton I went off-road and followed a canal towpath as the sun rose through the mists of Avalon. It led me out to the Somerset Levels where I re-joined the roads and cut a path to Cheddar where a stopped for a bite to eat. A cyclist stopped, heading in the opposite direction – a LEJOGer who had taken a week or so to get this far south. He seemed surprised when I mentioned that I had left Land’s End less than 24 hours earlier.
Cheddar Gorge is always good for warming up the legs. Workers were clearing away some heavy rocks from the roadside – presumably following a landslide – and I had to walk for a short section. Over the top (which was further than I remembered) I could see Chew Valley Lake, my next landmark. Some busy roads and a few lanes and I reached the outskirts of Bristol. I’d not come into the city from this direction before and it took me a while before I reached the city centre via some canal-side. Just before the cycle trail to Bath I spotted the Bakehouse Cafe. It was red-hot again and I needed rehydrating and refuelling. A huge chicken focaccia fuelled me for the next leg which swung around eastern and northern Bristol before crossing the Severn Bridge (via a familiar route) and then a lengthy slog up the Wye Valley to Monmouth passing Tintern Abbey.
The next section was tough. Lots of heavy climbs all the way to Callow Hill, perched high above Hereford. I opted to avoid the A49, which was quite a good decision as a VW Golf shimmied off the road onto the grass verge beside me and then juddered to a halt. I believe the driver had been trying to undertake an artic when he had run out of road. Some very gritty lanes and then I was into the heaving and heavily-potholed streets of Hereford. I found a co-op at the far side of town and flopped down to some cold drinks and a bite to eat. The heat was oppressive. Angry motorists swarmed around the potholed roads eager to be elsewhere (and who could blame them).
Up a steep hill out of town, squeezing through closed road barriers and then along some busy and rolling roads through Leominster and Ludlow and towards the Shropshire Hills – home to my Flying Gate bicycle (hewn from 635 tubing in a barn near Bishop’s Castle). The air was cooling and the sun setting as I found myself on a familiar road that led me past the Wilderhope Manor youth hostel – a hill where I had to get off and walk. This was a low point and my eyes were playing tricks. I grabbed a handful of chocolate-coated coffee-beans to help keep the mind clear and the eyes from playing tricks.
At Shrewsbury I spotted a Sainsbury’s and pulled up outside. It had been an intensely hot day and the drinks aisle was all but depleted (a result not just of the hot weather, but also the spreading pingdemic). There was no water so I ended up filling one bidon with milk. After cooling down and refuelling I set off into the night through the centre of Shrewsbury and on the road to Northwich via Wem. The landscape had significantly levelled-out now and I made reasonable time. Despite the late hour it was still busy with plenty of trucks and cars on the roads. To my right the skyline blazed in the rough direction of Crewe. Eventually signs for Middlewich came into sight. I finally made it to the Travelodge just before three-thirty am (just over 2 hours before the broom waggon arrived). A quick shower and into the sack. The longest stage at 345kms with 2.8km of climbing at 17.6 km/h.
The alarm went off and I poured all of the sachets of coffee into the cup and set out into the early morning Cheshire light. Ahead of me lay nothing less than the entire rest of the journey. Some pretty flat and busy lanes led me rapidly to Tatton Park which had just opened its heavy and oversized gates to the gathering dogwalkers. Some horticultural show was in progress at the far end of the park where I shot out like an escaped deer. Well-heeled villages drew me towards affluent Hale where I screeched to a halt outside a café and ordered eggs benedict and smoked salmon, washed down with freshly squeezed orange juice and a flat white – my first proper sit-down meal since Bristol. Already it was hot and glitzy sportscars and classy but scantily clad fashionistas were hitting the streets.
Refreshed I managed to almost completely bypass the streets of Manchester via judicious use of the Bridgewater Canal towpath and Roe Green Loopline cycepath which spat me out onto the busy A6 – my home for the best part of the rest of my western leg of the journey. This charming thoroughfare took me through Chorley, Preston (the wrecking balls cannot come soon enough), Garstang and Lancaster. Near Garstang I spotted an ice cream parlour just alongside the A6 and leapt from my hot saddle to inhale some cool cream and cold drinks. It was just the tonic for just after Carnforth it became a little lumpy and I sensed that I wasn’t far from the Lake District. Some less busy roads brought me into Kendal where I spotted a conveniently-located garage and washed down some of the road grit and refilled by bidons. I knew what was ahead of me and it filled me slightly with both dread and awe.
Shap Fell is literally the high-point of the journey. I’d only cycled over it once before on the Deloitte LEJOG Ride Across Britain in 2014, but its sheer presence had stayed with me ever since and I was looking forward to scaling it once again. Just after leaving Kendal comes the warning sign, and the road starts to ramp up and begin snaking between the lower slopes. It was a perfect evening to a perfect day. Barely a wisp of cloud in the sky. Still hot for climbing. I stopped every 15-20 mins to cool down, gather my breath and admire the view. There was much to admire, with the Cumbrian Lakeland fells to my left and the Pennines to my right. Ahead of me the road snaked away through the fells. Several cars, normally driven at speed, swept past. One lone cyclist passed me and then, just before the summit lay-by did a u-turn and swept back in the direction of Kendal. Not a word uttered. I crested the hill and let gravity do the rest. Shap village basking in the late evening sun, then it was a quick loop around Penrith and an evening refuelling at the last petrol station.
A short final burst up the A6 and I turned off, right and to the east plunging down into the Eden valley just as dusk turned to night. A clamber up to Castle Carrock where I was overtaken by a night-harvesting mega-combine lit up like a space-ship. I swallowed a handful of chocolate-coated coffee beans to keep the phantoms away from the roadside. A fine descent into the Brampton and then up past Lannercost Priory and a clamber up onto the ridge and the line of Hadrian’s Wall. The views across the Irthing were fine. Twinkiling hamlets. The odd vehicle. The last train from Carlisle to Newcastle. It was so quiet and calm and pitch-black. I joined the Military Road which is notorious for its rolling nature as it sweeps over the moors like a fairground ride. After Greenhead I had to dismount and walk up the steep hill that I’d swept down only a few weeks earlier on Andy Berne’s C2C2C 300k audax. My feet were sore and I shuffled rather than walked up the hill. I was getting near the end now, but it was still a long way when I thought of the remaining hills. I had a deadline of 05:17 to reach my end point and I knew that it was going to be close. With the hills and the heat the broom-waggon rider was never too far from my back. A few trucks went sailing past me. Each had a full complement of spotlights as they swept past they lit up the bleak moorland around me.
Once Brewed, another hostel I’d stayed in an age ago, and I was starting to head south towards the Tyne Valley, snaking my way past Vindolanda fort. Some more walking and then the ground fell away – a long, straight single-track road that fell down the valley through Newbrough and Fourstones and then across the A69 to Hexham. I was now in a reverie. Some other legs turning the pedals as I passed through the last few towns before reaching Blaydon and my bed waiting in the Travelodge. I checked my watch. It was 04:49 – just 28 minutes before my cut-off time. Once again, I had completed the ride just ahead of the ghost rider. I closed the door, switched on the shower, and washed away the grit. Another long hot day had seen me cover 317km and 2.8km in just over 19 hours at 16.6 km/h. Fortunately I’d paid the extra tenner to be able to rest until 2pm before I had to check-out.
The full stats are: 919.21km travelled, 9437 m climbed, 53:14 moving time, 67:49 elapsed time