1145km – 22 Aug 20, 07:04 – Cross Keys Inn, Tebay
Tempting as it was to lie in and wait for the staff to arrive so that I could enjoy a full breakfast at the pub, the best way to start pulling back some of the lost time and distance from the previous day was to get up and going. Luckily the emergency provisions in my fork bags still contained one freeze dried breakfast, although despite its name (chocolate muesli), it was actually the least tasty of the lot – closer to weak hot chocolate with a few grains floating in it. Of course it’s entirely possible I hadn’t read the instructions properly and had over-hydrated it. If the energy stats on the side of the packet were to be believed though, the lack of flavour would be compensated for in calories to fuel what appeared to be another damp morning.
My nerves twitched slightly at the sound of the door clicking shut behind me – there was literally no way back in if I’d forgotten anything important, other than to hang around for an hour or more and wait for that breakfast. The roads were wet, but it wasn’t actually raining and down the valley there were definitely a few bright patches in the sky. The forecast was for showers and more wind though, so I was starting in full wet weather garb – most of which had dried reasonably well overnight. After a couple of kilometres, the slightly damp patches would be indistinguishable from the fresh sweat of the day, although the immediate stretch ahead of me wouldn’t produce much of that as it descended sharply following the course of the river.
It was proper country lane riding – mud and cow muck on the road, which on one occasion threaded itself between the farm buildings, almost becoming an extension of their yard. Some of the farms had set aside fields for camping – soggy kids sploshing around whilst their parents packed up sodden tents with the relieved look of people who had survived a Lake District “summer” camp trip and were glad to be returning to the dry comfort of their own homes. I’ve lost count of how many of those my sister and I went on with our parents, most of them wonderful memories in spite of the weather (or maybe perhaps because of it – dam building is certainly more fun when the streams are in full spate).
The wind was still moderately strong, but the route was sufficiently downhill that it didn’t slow my progress much, except on the odd places where it rose to get around an exposed fold in the land. At one of these, I was treated to the delightful sight of wild horses roaming across the open moorland. For some reason I’d forgotten (or perhaps never knew) they were found up here, one tends to associate them with the New Forest or Dartmoor. Looking now at the photo though, they do look more like farm horses, so perhaps they were just free roaming rather than fully wild. This early part of the day was a delight even with the wet conditions – vast swathes of green, natural countryside and relatively easy riding, although as the road dropped lower it also led back towards civilization, with a steady stream of villages and towns punctuating the natural landscape.
I’d intentionally stayed east of the M6, rather than travelling through the Lake District proper, which I suspected would have much busier roads given the likely tourist traffic at this time of year. Doing so didn’t save much elevation though, and in many places the roads rose sharply at short, steep, uphill sections, many of them with double digit gradients and one or two heading towards the 20% mark. It added some variety to the riding, but there was the odd twinge from my Achilles reminding me that I wasn’t fully forgiven yet for making it lug such a heavy rig up and down through the Highlands. Overall though, it was more enjoyment than effort, even with the random soakings from a few brief heavy showers. One of these, amusingly, started literally as I ducked under a thick canopy of trees in a small patch of woodland which spanned the road. Had it been downhill, I would have emerged back into the rain, but my progress was sufficiently slowed by the ramp up through the trees that by the time I came out the other side the shower had passed, and I was coasting along under sunny, blue skies again. The timing could not have been more immaculate. It was almost enough to put out of my mind the worst piece of driving I had seen on the whole trip so far – and from a school bus no less. If our son went to school in the Killington / Middleton area I’d seriously think twice about putting him on the silver transit van which drove me off the road and into the ditch. Arsehole!
Another memory from childhood came back as I wound through the town of Kirby Lonsdale, although I don’t really remember on which of several visits we went there (or why). It was a lovely old, and busy looking town though, decked out in bunting which I rode under as I pedlaled slowly through. Soon after this, every town seemed to appear with a “City of Lancaster” strap-line under their names. It was a welcome sign of my progress given that it was still early morning, although I knew that it was a little premature – according to the Garmin, I was only around halfway into the 60km distance to the city itself that I had started the day with. The riding became easier and faster from this point on though, as the route emerged from the hilly country of the lakes and out onto the flatter plains that stretched down towards the coast at Morecambe. My eastward approach had also given me the opportunity to pick up a cycle path into and through the city – the entry to which started with a switchback beside the River Lune, before ducking down a zig-zag path onto the track of an old railway line. It was a slightly confusing junction, and I passed a group of riders who weren’t sure of the correct the path. In helping confirm their direction I also learned that this was a short section of a 274km coast to coast trail known as the Way of the Roses (presumably a reference to the War of the Roses, since it connected the two regions that had fought).
The cycle path was delightful, but sadly cut short by maintenance work just after it went under the massive M6 flyover. I was stood trying to figure my way around the diversion along nearby surface streets when three riders came up to me on what were clearly properly kitted out (and rather lovely) bikepacking rigs. We stood for some minutes having a fat conversation about each of our steeds, and the trips we were on (there’s a quick micro adventure into the hills for the weekend). It was amazing to see how in the few years I’d been pottering around on long distance trips that the whole genre had become mainstream. Sadly, as I write this now I can’t remember their names or the exact bike models, but it was a great few minutes break chatting with such enthusiasm over the sport we loved. As we parted company, they also gave me some helpful hints through the diversion which they had just travelled in the opposite direction. Being mostly on pavement beside the road, it wasn’t nearly so pleasant as the old railway line, but it did carry me into the heart of the city.
At a crossing with the busy main road, my Garmin eTrex suddenly died. Off route, and with a blank screen in front of me, it wasn’t the ideal scenario for navigating an urban maze of streets. I assumed it was just the batteries, but although the fresh set did revive the device, they did so without any maps – just a purple route track. As a short term fix, I stuck my phone on the handlebar mount and loaded up the RideWithGps route as backup. Pedalling slowly along the opposite pavement though, a dim light bulb started to glow in my brain. I had owned an earlier generation of what was largely the same device (a Garmin Vista). These were notorious for having battery connections which joggled loose on rough ground. The eTrex had fixed this problem but, located under the same battery compartment was the SD card containing the OSM maps I had loaded for the trip. It occurred to me that if this had popped loose it would cause the exact scenario I was seeing – an otherwise working device, but with no map. It took no more than a few seconds to open the little beast up, prove the theory, and fix it. It’s entirely possible of course that I had just inadvertently unclipped it whilst fumbling with the batteries. Either way, once reseated I could return my phone to its primary duties of messaging, photos, and uploading the stream of track points it received over Bluetooth from my watch. It made me reflect on another thing that had changed in long distance cycling in recent times – the extent to which technology has made our journeys almost live and interactive.
Just beyond this point, the route took a refreshing detour onto the peace and quiet of a canal towpath, although one which needed some care at times to safely traverse cobbled sections and duck along narrow sections under very low bridges. One careless grab of the bars or brakes could easily have seen my rig overbalance under its own weight and pitch into the motionless, green weed covered water. A short section through what felt like the very middle of the city avoided an impassable section of towpath, and diverted briefly onto surface streets. Crossing these I found myself suddenly flung into the midst of bustling crowds of pedestrians – it was a relief to get back to the canal side soon after, and quieter riding again. At some stage, the scenery included the completely incongruous sight of a field of dark brown llamas grazing on an open field beside the canal – a surprising addition to the menagerie of city animals I seemed to be collecting as I headed south.
I left the canal just before Aldcliffe, and almost immediately took a wrong turn. I was glad to be paying attention and spot it quickly, as the correct route instead of climbing a sharp incline, dropped down towards the salt flats to pick up the next piece of cycle track. In theory, had it not been for the closed section, I could probably have followed this all the way around the city rather than going along the streets and canal – although for some reason I hadn’t plotted that option on my original route. Either way, the 5km of path which remained was delightful, accompanied by a fresh breeze, and the smell and sounds of the Lune estuary just beyond the thick screen of hedges. Even better, having failed to spy a decent looking coffee option through the city itself, exactly where the path ended was a perfectly placed café – not only a perfect time for a break, but a lovely setting for one too.
1209km – 22 Aug 20, 11:45 – Condor Green
I sat at one of the outside tables initially after ordering a plentiful selection of food, in the form of a BLT, chips, soup, coffee and a cake (I think). But at the first light spots of fresh rain, I bailed and headed to an inside spot near the door. The tables were spaced out due to COVID, and pretty much all full by the time I started demolishing the contents of my small feast. It was just what my body needed with a long afternoon of what I suspected might be fairly ordinary, rural and urban cycling ahead.
I’d already decided to abandon my idea of visiting the bungalow I was born in. Amazingly, despite my parent’s photo of the house being over 50 years old, I had managed to locate it – thanks mostly to my cousin Bron remembering the street name, and some sleuth work on my part using Google Street View. But it was a 30 or 40km detour, half of which would be directly into the teeth of what was still a strong wind. Sad as it was, already behind the clock, the motivation simply wasn’t there – it would have to wait for another trip up this way.
Instead, I began the slog south on the sometimes rather too busy A6 towards Preston – although my planning had managed to find some occasional quieter lanes alongside. Taken on its own, this would have been pleasant riding – green fields, small towns, some of them very picturesque, and reasonably quick passage even with the wind. The trouble was, of course, I had been utterly spoilt by the rugged and jaw dropping natural scenery on the first part of the trip. If ever there was a reason to do the southbound JOGLE, rather than the more favoured northbound LEJOG, this in my view was it. You got to see all the best scenery at the start, whilst fresh. The flatter less stunning parts came at the end – when you were fitter, and probably also running short on time and needing to push on rather than stop for photos. Even now, on my second day riding into the seasonal southerly wind, I still had no regrets about my choice of direction. I also did not have the legs to latch onto the tail of the flying peloton of pink jerseys which rushed past me – despite receiving an invite. For a moment, I mistook them for the charity riders at Lairg (I even called that out to them), before realising it was actually the Kelly’s Heroes guys I had seen setting out from John O’Groats a week ago. Except they were now down to about six riders, in this group at least, although when I swapped greetings with their support crew at a junction ahead I got the impression there were other groups still behind me on the road. A few kilometres along I saw the support guys again – who in a wonderful gesture of kindness, indicated I should join them at their rest stop. If I’d had more time I would have taken them up on the offer, but reluctantly I thanked them and pushed on. My legs simply wouldn’t be able to muster the speed of their lead riders and catch up any further time I lost.
The run into Preston itself is largely lost on me – on these long, uneventful stretches I find my mind drifts off. I do notice the passing sights and familiar town names from planning, like Barton. But the steady, rhythmic turning of legs, pedals and wheels sends some part of my thoughts to a deeper, more contemplative place inside. I recall emerging from the meditation to negotiate a massive roundabout junction with several main roads, followed by town cycleways which alternated between pavement and marked off cycle lane. For some reason, I had plotted myself through the very centre of the city itself – possibly in case I needed food or accommodation. It was pedestrianized, and beginning to fill with shoppers – making it slow to weave along. But it was also a beautiful sunny day, which limited any desire I had to rush. I missed my turn in fact, and had to double back through the wandering bodies. I wish now I’d asked someone why so many where dressed in Harry Potter costumes – Yoli failed to find any connection between the movie and the city of Preston, so presumably there was some event nearby. Maybe some of them had travelled down from my earlier wizardly encounter at the steam train in Fort William.
At a street corner, on the way down to the River Ribble, my route headed into Avenham Park – green, and lovely, but with a viciously steep entrance pathway. It required an impressive amount of braking to keep my speed low enough that I could thread the bike safely between the other park visitors strolling around. The park path ended at a pedestrian bridge – with lovely views both ways along the river. Oddly now, whilst I stopped to take photos of a shopping street, I seem not to have snapped this far more majestic view. Parts of the subsequent stretch felt like purpose built pathway through parkland, but further along it joined a short section of what was clearly another disused railway line. I missed my exit point by a few meters, and had to swing back once again – this time to drop down to the foot of an old brick bridge and join the lane under it.
I confess to hardly recalling any details of the subsequent section of route. I do remember passing by Leyland, once home to a substantial part of the British Car Industry – when it actually had one. After that, looking at my route, all I am able to pull back is fragments of mostly urban riding. Part of the problem here is that it’s overshadowed somewhat by what came next – my first visit to a Starbucks on the trip.
1268km – 22 Aug 20, 16:00 – Starbucks, Marsh Green
Ordinarily, there’d be nothing very special in this (in fact I’d typically look for somewhere with a punchier blend). But this one popped up at just the right time, and included a wonderful random interaction with one of the other customers. He was clearly local and well known to the staff, and fascinated by my whole setup and where I was going. We struck up an interesting conversation, whilst his 7 year old lad slurped away at his smoothie (occasionally chirping in with the fact that he was also an excellent bike rider). I wish I could remember the guy’s name (Richard maybe?), and also wish I had saved the lovely animated Instagram picture he created of us all in the coffee shop. What seemed to grab him most, which I think he included in the post, was that I was out riding all this distance for no specific reason, aside from the simple enjoyment of it. It’s incredible how these short, sometimes intense, bursts of contact seem to make a “solo ride” feel anything but actually alone.
My friend Martin had commented on WhatsApp that he’d been to watch our team (Southampton) play just nearby the previous season, and I saw the massive football stadium as rolled out again – fueled up and fully caffeinated. The 20km from Wigan to Warrington could easily have been yet more urban blur, except somehow I’d managed to route myself through something called the Sankey Valley Trail, which followed Sankey Brook and the disused Sankey Canal. This was another, for the most part very picturesque trail around what would probably have been some pretty dull riding through housing and industrial estates. For some reason though, perhaps because it was so deserted, or maybe the contrast to my recent company, I felt very exposed and a little vulnerable along this part. It wasn’t helped by the dark grey, foreboding skies that were building overhead. There was absolutely nothing tangible to make me feel this way – no event, or dodgy characters, just an odd “hairs on the back of your neck” feeling as I slipped silently through woods and waterside paths. At some stage I had a call with Yoli about possible night stops further along route, and I remember commenting to her that I didn’t feel comfortable standing chatting on the phone at that spot. It’s unusual for me to get paranoid out on the road, but I didn’t hang around through this section.
It’s interesting how you’re only really aware of big cities when touring if you actually go through the middle of them. I had almost past Warrington before I was really aware I was anywhere near it. The last section of the trail wound through some smart, new canal side housing developments, and a mix of towering blocks of flats and road flyovers. At Sankey Bridges, I suddenly spotted that I’d been skirting the edge of the urban jungle proper and had almost worked my away around the city. The very last section took me across the Mersey itself, through short some scraps of wasteland around the river and the railway marshalling yard, before finally crossing the Manchester Ship Canal and heading back out towards the countryside again.
The only memorable aspect of the next couple of hours riding was that it was my first encounter with the A49. I guess anything this far north that is called London Road is hardly likely to be a quiet route and, sure enough, it became a road I almost immediately wanted nothing more to do with. Where there was a cycle path or lane, it was generally overgrown, or more potholed than the track to Cape Wrath. And when there wasn’t, which was a large part of the time, it was a road that was too busy to be pleasant riding. None of this was helped by the fact that after my map checking and discussions with Yoli, I now had in my head the names of some landmark points (Weaverham, Winsford & Wettenhall). But these were sufficiently far distant as to slow the passage of time in reaching them to a seemingly never ending crawl in traffic. Eventually, I did at least leave the loathsome A49 (hard to imagine why so many LEJOG routes use it), and a little further along saw the happy sight of my Garmin signaling me off the dead straight road in Winsford, and onto the last section of country lanes before the bed which was waiting for me in Nantwich. If only it had been that simple – but, typically, the day was not quite finished throwing experiences at me.
A very recognisable, sweeping circle of route led me into the hamlet of Wettenhall. It’s memorable for a couple of reasons. The first is that Yoli had literally missed the last room at a B&B there by minutes when she called. And the second is that, barring this unlucky piece of timing, I would have escaped the afternoon and headed to my bed completely dry. But this was not to be and, as I pedalled slowly past, the brooding clouds finally broke – not with anything light or friendly, but fat, heavy drops of ran that sang out as they bounce off my helmet, and stung as they hit my cheeks. In moments, the quiet, scenic lane was completely awash – and it got worse as the lane became narrower and more agricultural. I couldn’t see them under the surface, but I could feel from the bumping of my wheels that the surface was badly potholed. As if the risk of dropping unknowingly into an especially deep one, or slipping on the thick clods of mud from tractor wheels, wasn’t bad enough, but it was now getting dark. On full brightness, my lights did a great job of showing me where the lane went, but they also reflected uselessly off the water making it impossible to pick out any lurking dangers. All I could do was ride on, peering through the downpour, and hope for the best – which, somehow or other, was actually what I got. Arriving at the Nantwich ring road, I was thoroughly soaked, but had managed to stay upright on two wheels. From there it was a mercifully short few twists and turns into the town, and the Chesire Cat pub were Yoli had booked me in.
1338km – 22 Aug 20, 21:05 – Nantwich
It turned out not to be especially easy to actually find my room – the staff at the front helpfully pointed me around the back but, after a full lap of the building, I arrived back at the same entrance none the wiser on where the actual rooms where. On the second attempt, they showed me inside the bar area itself and, somewhat to my surprise, the lass who offered to show me to my room suggested I wheel my bike through the middle of the restaurant and out the courtyard to the back. She didn’t even bat an eyelid at my request to take it up to my room – both I and the bike were so wet and filthy at this point, that I half expected she was going to reject us both as unfit for their lovely establishment. The only negative was that the kitchen was now closed, and I’d likely be leaving too early for breakfast as well (again!). I was so pleased to be dry, and with a bed, and shower, these were not exactly major setbacks. I’d eaten well during the day, and had not ridden hard either. Added to that, there was hot chocolate in the room and several snacks that had somehow survived: a pack of the biscuits from the accidental multi-pack at Lairg; one final muesli bar; and even more unexpected was the discovery of a remaining Tunnocks bar from Alastair’s donation. Together they would see me through until I could find breakfast on the road tomorrow. One last, very pleasing sight, was a message from Chris on the JOGLE WhatsApp group commenting that I’d racked up close to 200km for the day – 40km of my missing distance from the day before already recovered.