It was just as we hit the top the hill that I heard Daf groan out, “I’ve got a puncture”. Ah, heck. Perfect timing…
My friend Dafydd and I had been talking about doing the End to End ride for a year or so – if you’re a cyclist in the UK, it’s almost a rite of passage – and had finally decided that September was the right time to do it. The weather would hopefully be doing good things (not too windy, not too hot, not too cold, not too wet), and the roads wouldn’t be too crowded as the summer holidays would already have finished.
The two of us would be travelling the 1,000 or so miles from the southern-most point of England to the northern-most point of Scotland – travelling in the direction of the prevailing winds. We’d decided to take three weeks, riding an average of 50 miles a day – lots of folk do it faster, but we wanted to have time to stop and look around, to really enjoy our surroundings. You’re only likely to do a trip like this once, why rush it? We’d be staying at a mix of youth hostels and campsites, carrying all our kit with us – clothes, tents, sleeping mats & bags, and general bike clobber.
We spent a healthy amount of time deciding on our route, based partly on the Cycle Touring Club route, partly on the route in Lonely Planet’s Cycling Britain book, but with various deviations to places near those routes that we really wanted to see, and to places where we really wanted to stay.
Our second day, only 52 miles from Newquay to Launceston, really shouldn’t have been too arduous.
But, like a pair of rank amateurs, we’d totally misjudged how much food and water we should be taking on. Bonkers, quite literally. I’d been feeling really sketchy the night before, and hadn’t really felt much better that morning, half-heartedly trying to force down porridge, bananas and pastries, despite no discernible appetite. Another stretch of toothy Cornish coastline in unseasonably hot weather didn’t do much to pick my energy levels of the floor, and meant that we were crawling along, so that after various detours and distractions, the sun was dipping towards the horizon as we neared our destination.
First we had to dive into the stunning and stunningly steep little valley at Larrick, our brakes squealing in protest as we fought against gravity on the way down, and our backs squealing in protest as we pushed our heavily laden bikes back up, desperately hoping we were going the right way.
It was at the top of that slope that Daf had his puncture (incredibly, our only one of the whole trip).
We pulled into a heavily furrowed field just as the sun gave up and disappeared completely. Daf got to work on the tyre (with miraculous good humour) while I called the campsite to warn them of our late arrival, and to find out if there was anywhere nearby where we could get some food. The lady at the campsite said there was a pub, The Springer Spaniel, on the way, but they probably would have stopped serving food already. We figured we’d give it a shot anyway. We didn’t really have any other option, and surely a bag of crisps would be better than nothing?
While Daf locked up the bikes, I walked in, and wearing my best puppy-dog eyes and what I really hoped was an endearing grin, asked the barlady if there was any chance of something to eat. She checked with the kitchen. An anxious minute or two, while a smattering of drinkers and diners stared at me. She came back with a sturdy frown. “I’m afraid the kitchen’s already shut.”
A long pause.
Then the frown cracked, and was replaced with a warm grin. “But I reckon we could do a ploughman’s for you. How’s that sound?”
That sounded like heaven.
And it truly was one of the most delicious meals I’ve ever eaten – some cheese, some biscuits, a few grapes, a bit of bread, and a pint of ale. Nothing fancy. But there and then it was perfect.
And that really was what the trip was all about. Rediscovering the simple pleasures of life: freewheeling for twenty minutes down a hill into the Wye Valley; having a single track road all to ourselves in the heart of Scotland; pulling into a café in the middle of a rainstorm on a mountain pass; riding under a rainbow across Stirling Bridge; gently chatting to new friends at the end of a day; and repeatedly basking in the vast beauty of our wonderful little island.