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Norman – final thoughts

It was with some trepidation I undertook the challenge with my sons and daughter-in laws on 13 August. It was the first time I had ever been on a cycling holiday. I had been fearing young men who would cycle at 25 mph, but we were all middle aged and middle class (except me aged 89).  We were received and entertained at our hotel at St. Just in Penwith,  The following morning we took off and rode 6 miles to Lands End where the ritual photos at the sign post were taken.  Off then on our 1,000 mile bike ride.  We came soon to some cheeky hills which required a major effort and got to our hotel in Truro.  The next day was one of our two wet days, and in the afternoon we were soaked by a storm, which lasted till we got in.  The only other heavy rain was on our penultimate day, cycling through the moorland of Sutherland. We had been told that Cornwall was the worst part of the ride, and we soon left it for England.  The going seemed easy and I did not have to overexert myself, and could climb hills with my electric bike faster than most of my fellow cyclists.  On the level, and downhill they would usually overtake me..  What I found very difficult was regulating my speed to someone else’s, whether climbing or on the level.  This made conversation while cycling rather difficult.  Andrew had been afraid that I could not cope, and would have to ride in the van that escorted us, carried our baggage and lunch etc.  However, I seemed less tired than my children.  The minor roads that we used were fairly traffic free and I enjoyed the scenery and the views, particularly in the more mountainous regions, such as the Lake District and the Highlands.  The only heavily trafficked routes were through Bristol and Edinburgh, where we rode across the Royal Mile at the height of the Edinburgh Festival.

The end came rather unexpectedly.  The route that afternoon was level, with a good view of Orkney from the road, and we celebrated with collective and individual photographs.

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Norman – the final week

We left Peebles on Saturday morning, cycling on the main Edinburgh road, until we turned off on a quiet B Road, with a rather cheeky climb.  We then rode between the Pentland and Moorfoot Hills towards Edinburgh, where we stopped in an underpass under the Edinburgh ring road for our morning break.  On then into Edinburgh, across the Meadows and over George IV Bridge, and the Royal Mile, which was hotching with people as it was the Edinburgh Festival in full swing.  Across Prince’s Street and on to Chambers Square, where we could not find the snicket we had to go through as it was concealed by a bus.  Along by the West End and we were confused by the tram tracks.  Eventually we cycled along a dead railway and came to our lunch place between the Road bridges and the railway bridge across the Firth of Forth.  We rode over the old bridge on the cycle track, through Inverkeithing to Kinross.

Sunday we rode 40 miles and only 600 metres climbs on to Perth.  We rode through the Burgh and visited the Palace of Scone., which belongs to the Mansfield family (who built Kenwood)  It is too ostentatious in its decor with some very odd collections, such as French papier maché vases.   On up the gentle valley of the Tay to Blairgowrie, with the hills on either side getting higher and on to Bridge of Cally, a small highland settlement where we spent the night.

Monday, our sixteenth day of cycling was our toughest day and took us 59 miles and 5000 feet of climb of climb.  This was through the Cairngormss up a river valley, with a good tail wind, until we started to climb up the Pass of Glenshee (the highest in the Highlands).  The wind pushed us up the slope and I found it not too difficult to manage the climb, and we stopped for tea at the col, where the Devil’s Elbow used to be, before it was straightened.  A great descent down to Braemar and past Balmoral.  No Queen visible.  We had lunch and then rode down to Crathie and over a small pass down and up a hill with some extremely cheeky bits.  One was so steep Team Franklin pushed me up on my bike until the gradient lessened.  The next two steep bits I walked and used the throttle on my bike to help pull me up.  This was probably the worst moment for me, as I feared I would not complete the ride, and have to go in the van.  After reaching the summit, we descended to the little village of Tomintoul, where we stayed in a B and B and had a marvellous breakfast (unlike those who stayed in the local hotel).  Tomintoul has a few shops and a pleasant green in the middle of the village.

Tuesday, Day 17  We set out over a couple of passes (one very cheeky, but I managed) to Grantown-on-Spey, but we did not stop at any distilleries.  We stopped at Ducie Bridge to admire the bridge and the ravine the river had cut.  On to Cawdor Castle, where Tom stopped to look and said it was very boring and he did not go in.  Outside I was surprised to see a notice “Links Fahren” which I would have expected at Dover or Hull.  One can imagine busloads of earnest Germans studying Macbeth.  We caught glimpses of the land north of the Moray Firth from there.  Down to the big railway viaduct that carries the main line from Inverness (single track)  Very spectacular and with a considerable gradient to get the trains up over the pass.  We stopped for tea to look at Clava Cairns, a Bronze Age 2000 years BC group of burial cairns with no roof but carefully graded stones, one with cup marks,  On to Inverness a surprisingly large city where we stayed in a hotel on the river,

Wednesday, we set out from Inverness through industrial suburbs to cross the bridge over the Moray Firth, in wonderful weather where, like at Queensferry there is a special track cantilevered out from the suspension bridge.   Good views south, inland, and then when we had left the bridge we dropped down a very steep bank to the road along the shore.  Good views along the Beauly Firthand on to Muir of Ord and along a mainish road to Dingwall. where we left the main road to climb along a quiet road with views across the Cromarty Firth to the very green Black Isle.  We then turned inland and across the grain of the country to Bonar Bridge on the Kyle of Sunderland and just in that county, where we stopped for lunch.  The first bridge was built in 1812 as a result of a ferry sinking with 100 casualties.  After lunch, we rode along the Kyle and turned off our route to look at the falls of Shin.  There is a viewing point above the falls where we could watch salmon trying (and usually failing) to leap up the falls.  On then to Lairg having inspected and crossed a rickety pedestrian suspension bridge which is a short cut to Lairg station.  And then to Lairg where we spent the night.  The railway to the north detours inland to Lairg because there was no bridge below it across the Kyle of Sunderland and Dornoch Firth.  It is also the most northerly inland town in Britain.

Thursday, we set out along Loch Shin and turned North and across the “flow country” a desolate high level moorland full of pools streams and bogs and surrounded by mountains.  We stopped at an isolated pub for our morning break, the Crask Inn, where we had a warm welcome.  The pub was left to the church, which looks after it, and it is the only centre for miles around.  Down the strath for about 7 miles to a hamlet called Altnaharra where we road along Loch Naver.  At this point it began to rain, and I put on over-trousers, but this did not prevent us from getting soaked for the second time on the ride.  (The first was on our second day near Launceston.)  We stopped for lunch at a cemetery and the rain ceased.  We also stopped to inspect butterwort and sundew, both insect eating plants.  The plants had chosen a good spot with plenty of midges, which soon repelled us.  On the road were a lot of information points about the Highland Clearances, and the brutal Patrick Sellar who was the factor for the Duke of Sutherland.  We continued our descent along the Naver River to Bettyhill (called after the Duchess).  Up a sharp hill to our hotel where we spent the night.  There was an extraordinary end-of-term feeling that night as we were only one stage from John O’Groats.

Friday our last day , we descended from our hotel down a steep hill and up one opposite.  There were a couple more hills still in Sunderland.  We had a morning break at Melvish, and then went into Caithness.  It is astonishing how different the two counties are.  Caithness is populated with isolated farms, growing cereal, and grass, with cattle and sheep in plenty, while Sutherland is empty, probably thanks to the clearances.  We reached Thurso for lunch.  It was school coming-out-time and the road was crowded with school and college students, and buses to take them home.  On again a fairly level road but Tom and Sam diverted to Dunnett Head the most northrtly part of the Mainland.  There were good views of Orkney, in bright sunshine; first Hoy then Flotta and South Ronaldsay, which Tom and I had visited in June.  Finally we arrived at John O’Groats and gathered the whole party for a ceremonial descent to the signpost, where we were duly photographed, and consumed whisky and jagermeister.  Tom, Sam and I then rode to Duncansby Head, the most Northeasterly point on Britain, but were driven off by clouds of midges.  After a convivial dinner, we were taken by coach to Inverness  to catch trains back home.

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Day 12 – Norman

Wednesday we left Kirkby Lonsdale and climbed up with good views of both the Pennines and Lakeland to Orton, a small village in Westmoreland.  We had the morning break there before climbing from Lonsdale. The climb was long but easy, unlike the first which had some very cheeky ascents, where I had to dismount and walk.  My bike is very heavy, so pushing it up hill is difficult.  However the bike has a twist grip on the handlebar which will generate full power up to 6 mph.  This I use to pull me up the hill, and usually have to stop after 15 meters to get my breath back.

After the long fast descent from the pass the track was quite flat through Maulds Meaburn and Kings Meaburn (where there was a plaque explaining that the King had had executed the feudal baron who was one of the 4 knights who killed Beckett in 1170 and then rebelled in 1172.  Half the land was given to his widow by the King while the rest remained the king’s property.

I then went on, but shot past the turning we should have taken (through not studying my Satnav).  I was just turning round to get on track, about 2 miles off the route when Sam phoned me and I rejoined my three sons who were hunting me.

Down to the railway line where we stopped at a disused station at Culgarth for a very good lunch.  On through Langwathby where we climbed up to a ridge where we got marvellous views of the Lake District in the distance.  The shape of Blencathra (aka Saddleback) was particularly  noticeable.  On and up to see Long Meg and her daughters, a 12 foot high monolith outside a ring of about 70 stones.  Long Meg is to the South West, where the sun sets at mid-winter.  Of course there is a belief that she and her daughters were turned to stone for dancing on the Sabbath.

We now rode across the streams feeding the Eden, up and down a lot until we came to Hallbankgate near Brampton where we spent the night in a pub called Belted Will, who was an Earl Howard who lived locally.  Half the party stayed in another pub 5 miles away.

In the morning we set out, to meet the rest of the party at Lanercost Priory.  We looked at the church, which was open to the public.   The transept and chancel had been unroofed by Henry VIII and the East end of the Church had a huge window where one could see the ruin.

Reunited we rode across the grain of the country up and down to the Border at a stream where we stopped for our morning snack.  Photos were taken.  Still cross country, up and down with some quite cheeky hills (all blessedly rather short) to Langholm, where Tom and I stopped at a bakery to buy some cake.  We now climbed steadily up the glen to Eskdalemuir, and on a couple of miles to a Buddhist-Tibetan monastery for lunch.  We looked at the monastery, and saw a few bonzes and some clearly identifiable followers.  The monastery is about 20 years old and the temple is heavily gilt and red paint.

On and up the glen again (which is a steady climb, for which my bike is really suited, and on past Ettrick (James Hogg C18. Poet the “Ettrick Shepherd”) up another glen, to the pass and a 6mile run down to a pub where we stopped for tea.  One of my fellow riders had told a group of elderly ladies about our trip and about me.  They insisted on photographing me and gave a donation to the 5 causes.  One was 82, and talked about cycling again.

Another climb up to a pass and descent, like the others, green fields and trees at the bottom, with cows in the fields, giving way as we climb to sheep moorland and dry stone walls, together with Forestry Commission pine forests (and very heavy lorries which squeeze us off the road, they are so big.  Off the B road onto a by-road to bypass Innerliethen to Peebles where we spend two nights.

Blessed rest, but my tablet is wonky.  I took it in to a computer shop in Peebles, and he could not mend it.  The jack to the USB is damaged and he does not carry stock.  So this may well be my last blog.

The group are now well integrated and seem to understand each others’ foibles, and cycling ability.  They all seem to try and help me, which is nice, but possibly unnecessary.

One silly incident was outside our hotel in Peebles where we stopped to cross the road, but I took my foot off the pedal to put down on the ground.  But the road had a heavy camber, and so I started to fall.  It was slow, and I rolled off my bike, landing on my bottom with my legs going up in the air.  It looked very dramatic, but I was totally unhurt, surprised, but not shocked.  Passers-by rushed to assist but it was not necessary.

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Day 10 – Norman

Today from Gartang, Lancs to Casterton, by Kirkby Lonsdale .

Set off with a cloudy sky and the tops of the Pennines covered with fog.  A gentle climb with a couple of short climbs (both quite short) which the Geordies would call “Cheeky”  The result was that the ride seemed tougher than Cornwall, which the enthusiasts say is the worst part.  Then a steady climb up to Bowland Trough and round the edge of the Forest of Bowland (which is treeless)  The weather was not too bad, but some of the climb was tough.  My worst part of the day seems to be the second mile, when I have not settled down and my muscles start to ache, but it then improves.

The roadside plants have changed as we go north.  No more wild Montbretia which was rampant in Cornwall, and no policeman’s helmet which is a serious weed in the Midlands, to more ragged plants, and of course, nettles and ragwort every where.

We came down to Slaidburn after a long ride over the heather covered moor.  It was good to see fields and trees again. We had lunch at the top of the hill beyond Slaidburn and it came on to rain, but soon stopped  Up some more then a long descent down to High Bentham, we we had tea in a shop,  On along the river to Kirkby Lonsdale, where we rode over the Devil’s Bridge into the town and looked at the church, which had some good Norman carving, and on to admire what Ruskin called the finest view in England, over the Lune across green grazing well wooded, and the hills at the back.

The fifteen travellers all seem to be middle-aged and middle class, and make good companions for the ride.

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Day 9 – Norman

Today we left Northwich in Cheshire for Garstang in North Lancs, about 71 miles.  The first bit was through pleasant rolling countryside, until we reached Lymm and found we were going through the Mersey valley industrial area.  The only interest there was a toll bridge, high over the Manchester Ship Canal.  On through Leigh, and West Houghton, and we reached countryside again.  The weather was overcast.  We turned East to avoid Preston and climbed up the hills between Blackburn and Preston. And eventually reached Garstang via Ribchester.  For once I felt very stretched and weary, but managed to complete the 71 miles and 2000 feet.  We have gone more than half way.

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Day 8 – Norman

We set off from Ironbridge to climb a steep hill and turn left a little way up it.  I missed the turning and went on to the main Telford-Much Wenlock main road up a long steep hill.  At the roundabout I paused to see if I could spot the road I should have been on.  It was visible, half a mile away crossing the main road, so I set off down hill to the crossing, only to find that the crossing was a flyover.  I turned back, up the hill and then down to the turning I should have taken.  This road quickly became extremely steep, and I could not propel my bike by the pedals.  I dismounted, and found myself seriously out of breath and felt unable to push the bike up the hill.  So I texted Tom to explain where I was and that I was stuck.  My texting abilities are poor and by the time I had sent the message I had recovered, and managed to cycle slowly up the hill, and flew over the main road and up and over the Wrekin  (not to the top but to a pass).  An hour and a half later, Tom picked up my text and phoned me.  I was half an hour from the tea break, and by the time I got there everyone else except our guides, the van and Tom had gone on.  Tom and I then cycled across the North Shropshire plain to Audlem, where we met the others having lunch.  We looked at Audlem Church, the on to Nantwich, where we had more lunch and conversation.  On to Hartford, where we spend the night.

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Day 7 – Norman

We set off through the boring suburbs of Worcester and missed out turning off the main road, but we were quickly corrected by others. We crossed the Severn to ride to Bewdley for our mid morning snack.  The road was very rolling; up a short sharpish hill and then straight down the other side.  This kept on through a string of villages with good views of the the Malvern Hills and the Severn valley through gaps in the hedges until we reached Bewdley,  an attractive small town on the left bank of the Severn.  It suffers from bad traffic queueing to cross the river.  I had to do some shopping so I went ahead and bought what I needed and found the only loo was in the museum, 1900 yards from our car park through a well tended garden, but with a locked gate so I had to go back the long way.

On to Much Wenlock again very up and down.  I could find no one there and evidently I had pushed ahead, although I was riding slowly.  Tom and I visited Much Wenlock Priory, a magnificent ruin of an old abbey, with not much standing except for the walls of the Chapter House and the transept.  The Chapter House was decorated by four layers of blind intersecting arched arcading, with some decoration.

On 10 miles, up a long fairly gentle hill and down to Ironbridge, where we crossed Abraham Darby’s first iron bridge,

and then on to our hotel.  This was previously the home of Maw, a tilemaker, and is decorated with magnificent tiles in the public passages and staircase.

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Day 6 – Norman

Last night I wrote my blog, but my tablet died and I could not send it out.

Yesterday, we started in Wells, and cycled to Cheddar up along a range of hills.  Cheddar is like any other small Somerset town, except for a multitude of the “only genuine cheddar cheese” shops.  The bottom of the gorge is extremely tacky with people queuing to go into private caves.  The gorge itself is magnificent, and except for a few yards where I ran out of steam, cyclable.

At the top we paused and Tom produced and shared some real Cheddar cheese.

On to our mid-morning snack, at Chew Valley lake, a reservoir, with flocks of gulls, coots a few ducks and great crested grebe.

At Chew Stoke I got lost three times by misreading the Garmin Saddle Skedaddle provided us with.  Finally, I got to Long Ashton and was taken through a complicated route through a big housing estate.  Endless cul-de-sacs and small snickets to navigate.  I got lost again and was rescued by our guide who cycled ahead showing me the way.  Round Ashton Park and over the Clifton Suspension Bridge for lunch at a café on Bristol Down.  On about 10 miles to the Severn Bridge

And on again past Chepstow to Tintern.

Next day, we set off up the Wye Valley and turned up a steep hill to climb to Coleford and then through the Forest of Dean where we stopped for a snack.  I was delighted to see the Dilke Memorial Hospital in the middle of the Forest, so that every boy born there could become a free miner.  Up to Hartbury for lunch, where we stopped between the 11th century chuch and the tithe barn, the largest in the country.

Our next stage was to Upton on Severn for tea and then to our hotel in Worcester.

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Day 4 – Norman

We set out from Tiverton for Wells, 68 miles in cloudy but dry weather, negotiating Tiverton and then cycling up the Exe valley along a very twisty main road, through magnificent woods  with the Exe flood plain just below the road.  Off up a long hill to Bampton along a busy B road and then on (up and down) to Wiveliscombe, where we stopped for refreshments. So, on to Taunton, our first large town, which we went round avoiding the centre but not very pleasant.  On through Creech st Michael, and on to small roads, and across the Somerset Levels.  We went up a hill and stopped for lunch at Meare (one of several such places in Somerset) at a factory and show room for wicker work, where they used several different varieties of willow for a pattern effect.  On cycling to Langport beside the River Parrett which we could not see, because there was a huge anti-flood wall between us and the river.  We crossed several levels separated by low hills until we came to a place where we said a temporary goodbye to the others and headed for Wedmore about three miles off our route, and just above  the levels. to visit my nephew Rob.  He and his wife gave us an excellent teas, and we set off to our base in Wells 10 miles away to find we were split between two B and Bs.  I had ridden over 70 miles that day.  Because so much was on the flat it did not seem a strain.

Tom had bought an inverter to help recharge the battery from the support van’s battery.  This converts the battery’s electricity from 12 volt DC to 240 volt AC which the battery’s charger will then transform back to 36 volt DC to charge the battery.  In the two hours that it was connected for it almost completely charged the battery.

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Day 3 – Norman

Today we started from Launceston to go to Tiverton.

The weather had cleared up and it was a mixture of cloud shade and sunshine.  Balmily hot in the sun, but quite chilly in the shade.

We started by going through the middle of Launceston, and then up a long quite steep hill, which my bike took me up ok.  I think I have sussed the relationship between gear, electric power, speed and the slope, and would like to delete my yesterday’s whinges.

It was a pleasant ride into and through Devon, with some very long descents in one of which I found myself going 37 mph! I  find that I have a tremendous advantage over everyone else, although my electric motor cuts out if I go faster than 15 mph.  I can go up hill at a higher speed than ordinary cyclist can, although they beat me on the flat, and the net effect is that I seem to catch up with, and overtake everybody.