• Jamie Shannon

A brief ride through England

It’s been six months or so that I last sat on a heavily laden bicycle. Hoping that the first few days wouldn’t be too tiring and having said goodbye to everyone, I set off on the 28th March thus giving myself three days to make it to Harwich before catching the ferry to The Netherlands.

Setting off from Manchester - cycle touring through England

I must say, it did feel a little odd to be stared at so much having gotten used to being anonymous for the previous few months. I knew however that this feeling would soon evaporate and so just got to work with making my way East and out towards the Pennines. The sun was shining and with very little wind I was able to cycle a fair distance before I eventually came to Macclesfield.

Coming out of Macclesfield, the road took me higher and higher into the Peak District and towards Buxton. It was hard, sweaty work for the rest of the afternoon and as the day wore on, I knew I wasn’t going to make my target of Matlock by the days end.

The higher I went, the more snow I began to see which I thought a little strange as it was the end of March.

At the top, I stopped and was surprised at the views I had over Manchester and the surrounding land with the Hilton Hotel standing out above everything else. After a while, I got back on my bike and peddled ever higher into the bleak hills.

With some dark clouds gathering overhead, I decided it would be a good time to start looking for somewhere to camp and as luck would have it, when the road flattened out, I was presented with a wealth of places to choose from. I just had to push my bike some distance over the ground and away from the road in order not to be seen.

Looking at my thermometer whilst I was cooking my food, I was surprised to find it was minus one degree. It was cold, but with some food in my belly and being wrapped up in a warm sleeping bag, I must say I was quite warm and snug. Quite reassuring I thought.

I woke the next day to the same freezing temperatures accompanied by a blizzard that put visibility down to perhaps fifty metre’s. It wasn’t ideal and with a fair amount of snow on the ground now, wasn’t ideal either for gliding down the other side into the town of Buxton.

I had been awake since half six but I was just too warm in my sleeping bag to even contemplate moving. It was only when I looked at my map and upon realising that I still had some way to go before I reached Nottingham, that I effectively got my ass in gear. I At these temperatures, even simple things such as getting your shoes on and taking the tent pegs out of the ground become real issues. Luckily, I accomplished the job, albeit with some difficulty and minor frozen fingers and soon enough, I was on my way.

Making my way down the other side was more difficult than expected; freezing temperatures, snow pouring into my eyes and a completely icy surface all combined to make it a particularly miserable morning. God only knows what the other people in the cars and trucks were thinking when they saw me skidding down the road with one foot placed on the tarmac for added traction. What a sight.

Anyway I did make it down the other side in one piece. I pulled over at a garage for some essentials, mainly tobacco and coffee. My canister stove had broken the night before and so I wasn’t even able to make myself a hot drink; something which is an essential part of every morning and especially one where you wake up with snow surrounding you. The stove simply wouldn’t screw onto the canister and although I was hoping it was just a faulty canister, I knew in my heart that the thread on the stove had worn away. I did buy another canister in the next village at an outdoor shop and I was proved correct in my assumption. This was not good. I had my other stove that would run on petrol but when I cooked using this, the flame would stay a relatively cold orange and thus wouldn’t cook my food efficiently. On top of this, it made my pots completely black but I was hoping this was down to the fact that the bottle was filled with lamp oil, a notoriously horrible thing to light and clean.

I spent the rest of the day cycling to Nottingham and made it to the city centre with a good two hours to spare before my train was due to depart at 19:30. I was impressed with this as I'mm usually late for everything.

Having been sat at the station for an hour or so, I realised I could sit in one of the waiting rooms, charge my electronics up and use the internet thus of course, this is exactly what I did. I was sat here quite comfortably and safe in the knowledge that my train to Ely would be arriving soon ready to whisk me off across the country. As it approached half seven, I collected my things and wheeled my bicycle towards the middle of the platform. I did think it quite odd that the train that was disappearing now was fairly long and typical of the trains that traverse the country towards London and with a sinking heart, thought and kind of knew that it might really be mine. Could it really have set off early? I asked the conductor if this was indeed the train to Leicester and when he confirmed that it was, asked him why it had left five minutes early. I'm not too sure if I shouted whilst asking or asked whilst shouting. He then informed me that it was due to leave at 19:32 and not 19:36 as I thought. Bummer. How could I have got it so wrong? I had been here two hours waiting for the train and yet I had still missed it. What an idiot. In the end, after reluctantly handing over £30 for a new ticket, I took the train one hour later. On the upside, this one was direct to Ely and thus wouldn’t require a change so at least I had that. Always look on the bright side I guess…….

I got talking to a lady on the train as I asked her which was the best road to take from Ely that went in a south easterly direction and in the end, she said I could camp in her back garden. Funny how things work out isn’t it.

It was very nice to wake up the next morning to a warm cup of tea. What with my stove being broken, it was nice to still have the option of that. Very nice indeed. I ended up taking the most direct route south east towards Newmarket and what a mistake that was. I was now in a part of the country where there were no motorways thus I knew from experience that most traffic was directed onto a few select A roads. With simply no space for a bicycle and large trucks speeding past at 70mph, pulling me into the road at the same time, I thought it best to pull over and consider my options.

I made some breakfast and having thought about it, decided to cycle down the small farm lanes instead. I had absolutely no idea where they would take me, if they would end up being a dead end or if they would indeed take me back to Ely. I only knew that I could not stay on that road. I really wanted to live you know.

I cycled a little down before turning right but after about ten minutes, I once again came to the same road I had tried hard to stay away from. There was just no getting away from it, I would just have to carry on. With lady luck shining over me and with regular use of my mirror, I hoped that I might be able to survive until Newmarket. Time would tell.

I did make it to Newmarket which was a real relief. I decided to stop just outside the town in order to get all my ‘chores’ done for the day. I knew I still had a good one hundred km’s to cycle in order to make it to Harwich and so if I cook my lunch and dinner now, then I could cycle for the rest of the day and not have to worry about it later on. I mean, fair enough, it would be cold by tonight but at least it would be cooked.

And so it was that I set about trying to make some coffee and my dinner using a stove fuelled by lamp oil. To be fair, although I could never get the flame to turn to blue, it did cook everything I needed but just very slowly. But it worked and that’s the main thing.

Having eaten some sandwiches and drank my coffee and with my dinner now made, I set off again south east towards Ipswich and eventually Harwich. I can’t possibly write about everything that happened during the rest of the day but I did pull over in one very small village and was surprised to find that a man I was talking to and whom had lived there for the previous 30 years was actually from Flixton, a mere one stop from my home town on the train. It really is such a small and coincidental world you know.

I arrived at Manningtree at around five, and having already cycled this last twenty km’s one year previously, knew how difficult it was to find a good spot to camp. With this in mind, I found a nice spot to sit down and eat some food knowing that it would be far easier to find somewhere when the light would be fading. I just knew that I would have to do this fairly close to Harwich as my ferry was due to leave at 9am the following morning.

Arriving in Harwich to catch the first ferry of the trip

I cycled on, following the coastline for another fifteen km’s or so until I eventually came to the last town before Harwich and knew that I would need to find somewhere here. It was still the countryside and so I knew of course that I would be quite safe but I just didn’t want to be seen pushing my bike off the main highway into the surrounding fields or bushes and so was very careful to wait for a lull in the traffic. When this did occur, I wheeled my bicycled off the road and down a small hill, under a fence and onto a track used, for what I can only presume to be horses. After nightfall, I climbed over the gate and pitched on the otherside. Apart from a few horses coming a little too close for comfort the following morning, I had a nice view of my last sunset in the UK, a good night’s sleep and I was close enough to Harwich to not have to worry about catching the ferry on time the next morning. And all for free of course and you can’t beat that.

I just wished that I had had an alarm clock with me...

I rode into Harwich the next morning and was extremely happy that I hadn’t missed another connection. Three guys from Kuwait I was speaking too at the terminal were a little perplexed at what I was attempting but I guess I am too when I really sit down and think about it.

Anyway, let’s go to the Netherlands.