Author Topic: The Hospitality Tour  (Read 1716 times)


The Hospitality Tour
« on: 12 February, 2024, 02:00:21 am »
Memory lane

Sorry it's just a link. I'll probably flesh out this post at a less ungodly hour, which to be honest could be any hour of the day or night, depending on my schedule. Am currently sat at the kitchen counter contemplating a bit of writing I've been putting off, wishing I could go for a ride RIGHT NOW (around this time last night I was on the road) but knowing it'll go better for me tomorrow afternoon. Stumbled upon that link and thought: why not put it out there again.


The Hospitality Tour
« Reply #1 on: 25 February, 2024, 01:04:11 am »
Part II

There are no rules for an End-to-End. It's a free-form exercise, by definition starting at Land's End (or John O'Groats) and finishing at John O'Groats (or Land's End): what comes in between is up to you. The timeframe is similarly elastic. I've read that one laid-back cyclist, obviously taking lots of gap years, spent three decades connecting the dots. Most people try to keep it under a month. I'm aiming for three weeks, staying with Cycling Plus readers recruited from the forum where possible. My route so far has taken me from the traditional Cornwall start to Oxford then back towards the Severn in the first, and most minor, of the zigzags I have planned.

According to the Blue Guide, 'Worcester' is pronounced somewhere between 'Wooster' and 'Worster'. It's not far from the Malvern Hills, which I avoided to keep my knees happy yesterday on the ride up through Gloucestershire, another minor challenge to the tongue.

My host in Woo-or-ster has been Alan Lord, an E2E veteran along with his wife Pauline, and author of the motivational Everyone Lives By Selling Something. This grey morning he makes sure I'm pointed the right direction out of town – an A-road, to quickly improve my latitude.

Rain isn't so bad but it's de rigueur to bitch about it. Before discovering taped seams as well as the vital difference between water resistant and water proof, I spent untold hours soaked to the skin, feeling like a brand-new species of aquatic mammal with velcro-lipped blowholes. The great imponderable about waterproofs is knowing exactly when to put them on: do those first few drops warrant the heavy artillery? When do you go nuclear with over-trousers? There's nothing worse than spending ten minutes wriggling into everything then having the sky wimp out on you.

(Another solution to rainwear will be offered by Steven Gough not long after my ride north. The ex-marine will attempt to hike the length of Britain without benefit of clothing. He'll be arrested numerous times for 'walking in circumstances likely to produce a road safety hazard'.)

Birmingham looks like a veiny Jackson Pollock painting on my A-Z map. I skim wetly along the edge then up Cannock way in the hope of meeting Lynne Taylor, the women's E2E record-holder at 52 hours, 45 minutes, 11 seconds. She works in her father's bike shop. He answers my call and informs me she's elsewhere; he'll field any queries. Truth is I didn't have any, other than 'What's the first question people ask you?'. I just hoped some of her speed might rub off on me.

My goal is Stone, where I'll find Gordon Taylor. He lives in the bosom of Staffordshire with wife Kath and assorted teenage children, one of whom has sensibly relocated to a caravan at the foot of the garden. There's an arthritic goose wandering around to complete the domestic arrangements.

Good Bad
The next morning Gordy and I spin along at a pleasing velocity the 90 miles to Preston. A confirmed loner until this trip, I'm amazed how easy pedalling becomes when there are two of you. It has nothing to do with slipstreaming.

He takes the train back home while I soldier on to Blackpool, 'famous for fresh air and fun' - the Blue Guide again. I buy a red tinsel wig and send it to my wife. She will never truly appreciate it.

My only realistic preparation for the infamous seaside resort comes from reading Peter Jennings' darkly comic Up North. I'm fully expecting a nasty assault on all the senses in this 'town which will drive any sane person mad'. Having long ago learned to parse my entertainments into Bad Bad, Good Bad, Good, etc., I surprise myself with a rating of Good Bad. If I'd had an opportunity to see the Illuminations, who knows?

My high threshold for tackiness might have something to do with the fact that I arrived here under my own steam. Almost any place can look good (at least Good Bad) when you've paid for it with your sweat.

I keep these musings to myself on meeting John Thackray. 'SeaBear' lives down the road in Poulton-le-Flyde, which is too close to Blackpool for comfort. It's John's birthday and I'm a dubious present. His wife and children are terribly kind about having an odd American installed in the book-lined loft. I want for nothing during my stay, from my beloved Rice Dream to an always-welcome opportunity to watch The Simpsons.

After my usual early start, launched by warm goodbyes from the entire family standing on the doorstep, I enjoy a leisurely ride north to Kendal. My only stop along the way is Leighton Hall in Carnforth, Lancashire. 'This is a home, not a museum,' the tour guide brightly informs us. It is just like home. I also charge admission, and have 'Do not sit here' placards on my chairs.

The nondescript guesthouse I choose in Kendal is notable only for the incredulous look on the proprietor's face when I insist on bringing my bicycle up to my cell for safekeeping. For perverse entertainment I've bought a copy of the Sun, and do the Fun Sun IQ Test: 'Are you a Mensa or a Densa?' My score is not recorded.

I don't know how many miles I've clocked. On awakening I feel I've passed the mental halfway point and am probably not far off the physical one, as the crow flies. As I'm slowly pedalling up the 1-in-whatever hill out of Kendal in the pre-dawn hour I'm so happy I start to cry, overwhelmed by the quiet, the beauty, and the simple fact of being alive and riding my bike on a morning such as this. I pull myself together for God's sake and fall into a lopsided rhythm thanks to the topographic challenges of the North Yorkshire Dales.

If ever you arrive at the Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle a half hour before closing time, don't bother trying to convince them to let you slide in without paying full whack... Across the street I check into Spring Lodge for the evening. Sarah-Jane Ormston is an official Friend of the Hospitality Tour, as the room comes gratis. It's enormous and there's a bathtub in the middle of it. A neat trick, this. Show me the bathroom first so my bedroom appears to be the size of a ballroom.

Angel of the North
On the road into Newcastle I meet the Angel of the North and am struck completely dumb. At 200 tonnes, this steel is real. My silver bicycle could be her aluminium ankle charm.

I'm not fluent in either of the two local languages - Geordie or football - and have the apprehensions of any stranger in a strange land. I search for a place to quietly centre myself and find the Baltic, a contemporary art gallery close to the cycle-friendly Millennium Bridge. As it happens the Angel's creator Antony Gormley is currently in residence constructing a platoon of full-body plaster casts reminiscent of a terracotta Chinese army.

'Flying Monkey' David Wood meets me outside his university office and gives me a rolling tour on the way to his flat. Gateshead-Newcastle really really wants to be European City of Culture for 2008. The banners hang everywhere. (Unfortunately they'll lose out to Liverpool.)

David's a good cook, proving it handily that evening. He insists I take the bed, consigning himself to the sitting-room floor. For the second time today I'm overwhelmed.

The border gig
My mother named me after Scotland. She'd never been, but no matter. I've loved it since my first visit a decade ago. Flying Monkey rides with me almost as far as Newcastle airport and I taxi onto the A696, the runway which will take me there once again.

When I'm cycling I usually listen to music, but on this trip I've left my minidisc player at home. Often I'll get a song in my head and construct new, better verses, or belt out cover versions a la Dylan or Roy Orbison or whoever my artiste du jour happens to be. Today Supertramp's 'The Logical Song', anthem of teenage angst no. 999, has unexpectedly burbled up: When I was young, it seemed that life was so wonderful / a miracle / oh it was beautiful, magical.

By the time I reach the Scottish border at Carter Bar, after passing The First and Last Café in England as well as The First and Last Pile of Old Tyres (not marked, but it was), I'm hoarse, so I give my vocal cords a rest and listen to the eerily-named David Woods squeeze a Gore-Tex bladder in signature Scottish welcome.

David dusts off his bagpipes every Easter and appears daily through the summer, driving down from nearby Jedburgh. He's been an unofficial busking ambassador for a quarter century now. He also plays the sax, and used to back American artists like Brenda Lee and my sometime influence Roy Orbison when they toured Britain. He spent years touring until 'the groove became a rut'.

It's a long way up Carter Bar, and an equally long way back down. Freewheeling into Scotland: that, to me, is cycling heaven.

The next day is the worst of the trip. I've spent the night at Clint Lodge near Melrose listening to the wind howl. Now I get the opportunity to ride into it. Which I proceed to do for the next 10 hours. It's so strong I can barely stay on my bike, let alone establish a respectable forward momentum. I don't know why I'm bothering except that there's nothing else to do but take rest breaks in the occasional phone booth to re-establish my sanity and wonder how the sheep, puffed up like cotton-wool balls in a typical bit of typecasting, keep from going airborne. Today's theme song is easy: Dylan's 'Idiot Wind'.

Everybody has their nightmare days on the road. Steve Mockford, my host in Gloucester, had this experience on the Chester to Slaidborn leg of his E2E: 'Went through snow, rain, hail and sleet. Had to battle into the wind for the entire 85 miles... Went through awful traffic, Bolton, Blackburn; lost, nobody helpful or friendly. Arrived in Yorkshire Dales in dark - frosty, all my clothes sodden and freezing; hungry and exhausted. No signposts, no habitation, no traffic. Thought I was going to die in a ditch and be found in the morning.'

He survived, and so do I. By the time I make it to my next stop in Glasgow the weather has calmed considerably but left me stunned and distrustful of the natural world.

Wellington's horse's hat
Karen Brown's friends thought she was crazy to let a complete stranger stay with her. That didn't stop them from making me dinner. Not for the first time I consider how the Hospitality Tour was a pretty good idea.

She gives me a guitar lesson but my calluses are in the wrong places. Or perhaps it doesn't take because I'm still shaken by my physics tutorial out on the road. Later she shows me downtown Glasgow, taking care to point out that the statue of Wellington's horse always has a traffic cone on its head.

Karen's planning on doing the End-to-End this summer with a CTC group. Having never attempted such a long ride, she asks if it gets any easier as the days pass. I'm wondering the same thing.

Far too early in the morning - insomnia is my lot these days - she escorts me through industrial Glasgow and into the 'burbs. I wish her luck on her own trip.

At the singularly uninspiring Kincardine Bridge I cross the Firth of Forth and make my way into the lovely green Kingdom of Fife. I'm childishly grateful the wind is at my back, and pass the time by pretending the brake cable running under the top tube is a guitar string, perhaps E. Dundee is ahead, waiting patiently on a 400-million-year-old extinct volcano.

Granite and oil
Once again I find myself with a set of keys to an empty house. Barbara Johnston, midway through her workday at the university, met me downtown to hand them over. It's very odd having the run of someone's home, almost like being in a museum. Fortunately this institution has a well-stocked cookie-jar.

On a shelf I discover a set of curious engraved buttons which turn out to be time-trial medals. In 1996 my host cycled 25 miles in 1 hour 6 minutes 33 seconds. A year later she achieved 50 miles in 2:22:37. I'm seriously impressed; Barbara's my mother's age. When she gets back from work and goes into storytelling mode she recalls one of her last TTs, passing one man after another until she was finally informed that 'Women shouldna push gears like that'. Health problems have since knocked her off her bike, though she still serves as a commissaire.

It's an easy run up the Angus Coastal Tourist Route in the morning, the North Sea my mostly faithful companion. By noon I've struck Aberdeen, all granite and oil. Uniformly grey, it's difficult to believe that Scotland's third largest city regularly won Britain in Bloom competitions until it was politely asked to remove itself from consideration.

ABBA tribute band Bjorn Again are in town, as is John Scott, who's raced in from the country to collect me. If I had a choice who to stay with I'd definitely opt for John and Hilary, despite a passing fondness for Mama Mia. In addition to his many fine qualities he's got an amazing DVD collection, not to mention an all-powerful remote which appears to control every appliance in the household. After scores of hours in the saddle and weeks outside my regular routine, combined with the stress of meeting new people every day despite my subpar social skills, it's little things like sitting in front of the TV watching The Sopranos that bring inner peace.

The Lecht
John leads me into the Grampians the next morning. He may as well be Flying Scotsman Graeme Obree for all my success at holding his wheel. I do claim a temporary victory on the Lecht, a steep hill in the already high highlands crowned with ski-lifts, when I honk past him at my patented glacial pace.

John professes admiration but I know the score: he'd be in Grantown-on-Spey by now, even accounting for my mountain victory if not for his polite restraint the other 60-odd miles.

Grantown is a perfect base for offroading. The setting is almost beautiful enough to convince a confirmed tarmac lover like me into the dirt. James & Ann Milne, proprietors of Kinross House, loan their guests free mountain bikes. If I hadn't just been kicked in the gut by the Lecht I'd take them up on it.

The Milnes fill me with pasta then leave me to my own devices, which largely involve sleeping. I've built up quite a deficit. Nineteen days into my journey, I haven't managed more than four or five hours a night - meagre reward for all that pedalling.

Paint it black
I have an aversion to Inverness. (Details on application.) It probably isn't fair to hold a whole city responsible for the petty unpleasant things which have happened to me there over the years. I remain awheel until I'm safely in the Black Isle, so named because (take your pick) it enjoyes a mild climate and there's rarely a frost, leaving the fields 'black' all winter / the Gaelic word for black, dubh, is a corruption of St. Duthus, local worthy in the Middle Ages / I go miles offroute to see the dolphins which are supposed to play off Chanonry Point, but they don't show, leaving me in a black mood. As I make my way back to the A9 I keep seeing burnt-out cars in the fields, surely a more abundant crop than is strictly necessary in a rural economy.

Although I won't be crossing the finish line in John O'Groats till tomorrow, today has a home-stretch feel to it. In Brora my rear tyre loses the plot courtesy of a previously aimless nail and gives me the opportunity to repair my first puncture of the trip. This is almost immediately followed by my second, a needlessly dramatic blow-out caused by a less than expertly applied patch.

A few miles up the road I score a hat-trick. I'm desperately annoyed at this point, and fresh out of those CO2 cylinders that weight-conscious or lazy cyclists carry. This is where I discover the cheerful uselessness of the miniature pump I've packed for emergencies. It simply can't deal with high-pressure tyres. Or I can't deal with it. Whichever, I cycle the remaining miles to Helmsdale up out of the saddle, convinced in a doubtless crackpot way that this will alleviate the burden on the much-wounded inner tube.

The janitor in the Helmsdale public toilets is singing 'I will survive' along with the radio.

E2Eers are more or less required to refuel at Le Mirage, a shrine to Barbara Cartland and associated kitsch. Oddly enough I fail to notice until later that it's right across the street from Bunillidh Restaurant (and B&B), my host for the night. But I don't escape The Pink One: there's a picture of her in the dining room, along with a mess o' movie memorabilia. I give Russell Crowe the cold shoulder and dine alone.

Nothing much

I manage to shove a few more molecules of air into the tyre the next morning and set off for the grand finale. It's windy and wet. I'm convinced I'm going to suffer another flat and am afraid even to look sharply at the tyre. The A9 goes vertical up the Ord of Caithness, but I'm so used to hills by now I laugh at it. Give me an honestly steep gradient any day of the week; none of these sly 1 in 15s that go on for miles.

Outside of Berriedale I pass the Kingspark Llama Farm. What can be said about Kingspark? If you want to see llamas in Scotland by the North Sea, there they are.

In Dunbeath a Wick Laundry van cuts me up as we're both barrelling down a hill and throws the true fear of God and white vans into me. I nurture a profoundly unforgiving attitude all the way to Wick, which Robert Louis Stevenson called 'the meanest of man's towns, situated on the baldest of God's bays'. It's quite possible he was being unfair, but today I'll give him the benefit of the doubt.

There's very little between me and my goal, now. Just a gently rising and falling road and uninterrupted views of nothing much. As it happens, I'm a big fan of nothing much. I like moors and elbow room and sky going on forever.

A fluorescent dot on the road turns out to be Mike Butler, starting the long trek to Land's End. Mike doesn't recognize me when I pass because he's registered blind - 'it's like looking through a kaleidoscope'. He's aiming to complete the pilgrimage in 40 days, and hopes not to miss any signs. Last time he attempted this he took a wrong turning and walked 20 miles the wrong way. I hop back on my bike, grateful for wheels.

John O'Groats, what there is of it, finally makes an appearance. There's nobody waiting for me here. I haven't even booked a room.

My journey across Britain ends without fanfare.

I'm happy, of course, but to paraphrase Prince Charles it depends on your definition of 'happy'. Mostly I'm tired, and glad I don't have to cycle any more for the moment. According to a brochure from the tourist office, the E2E was once completed by somebody riding a motorized toilet. I wonder how he felt when he finished.

I call my wife. After that there isn't anything to do but peer at the Orkney Islands across 8 miles of cold water, watch the tourists take pictures of themselves, and turn the bike around.

Another flat tyre is waiting for me the morning after. Inspired by Mike Butler, and in the mood for a different form of transport, I decide to walk the 20 miles to the train station in Thurso. Can't say it was my best idea.

Cycling Plus, April 2004

Photos from the tour