(actual date of post – 6 October)
Match seven – vs Sunderland (away)
Match eight – vs Everton (away)
Combined miles – 1169.3 in 13 days
Total miles: 1,900.7
The longest trip of the season (Sunderland) is now behind me as is – subject to fixture changes – the one instance of back to back long distance away games. That’s also both the 300+ mile journeys done; and (including those) three of the nine 200+ miles journeys. That should mean that it all gets easier from here on in – though I’m sure the weather, mechanical issues and so on will stop that from being the case.
For this blog, I’ll start with the random observations:
- the countryside is changing as we move properly into autumn. The fields of corn had been harvested and replaced with stubble or, increasingly, ploughed mud. But the country remains beautiful
- we are blessed to have so many lovely village churches in this country – each time I went past one it lifted my spirits.
- I know others disagree, but I think wind farms are so elegant and add to the grandeur of the countryside
- despite the Brexit vote it was lovely to see so many of the signs welcoming you to towns and villages proudly announcing their twin towns.
- the depressing exception was Warrington, where someone had spray painted over the names of the twin towns (Hilden, Germany and Nachod, Czech Republic, I later looked up) on the two signs I passed. So sad.
- there are a lot of streets in this country called Main Street. ‘Main’ is a relative term.
- there are also a lot of “Station Road”s. Many of which do not have a station: we can thank Dr Beeching for this, I assume.
- there are few things more annoying when on a trip and in need of sustenance than a pub with a sign outside saying ‘Good Food’ that turns out not to serve food…
I started off for Sunderland on Wednesday 21 September. For the Middlesbrough trip, the start of my route had taken me through south west and west London. For this trip, I headed off through central London. It didn’t go brilliantly. First, when I stopped for a comfort break, the toilet was out of order (but stole my money first!). I reverted to my normal trick of popping into McDonald’s after that… Second, my Garmin started playing up – saying the distance to destination (ie that night’s B&B) was 199 miles, when the total for the day was supposed to be 112 miles. I had to stop a couple of times to cure that bug. Then I hit a sunken drain very hard and was worried what damage I might have done to the bike. The first impact became apparent shortly after – my first puncture of the challenge. In the end I travelled 49 miles in 4 hours 20 minutes before stopping for lunch on the edge of Hitchin.
At lunch I managed to surpass myself and accidentally delete all my routes from my Garmin! After some aborted attempts to find somewhere to re-upload them (internet cafes have, it appears, been consigned to history) I resorted to the straight SatNav feature on the Garmin and ploughed on. The route seemed to take me unnecessarily far to the east, but was pleasant enough and I made it to the Old Pheasant in Glaston, Rutland, by about 7pm. And, very helpfully, Duncan from Wallington Cycles found a neat (if slightly convoluted) work around to enable me to upload the routes to my Garmin without the need for a computer.
The morning of the second day went really well – with 61 miles covered in 4 and a half hours to get me to Retford for lunch. However, when I wheeled the bike to find somewhere to lock it up in Retford, I notice a rattling sound from the back. I’d broken a spoke – probably another consequence of the sunken drain on the first day. The first bike shop I found had closed at 12 (it was, by now 12.30) but the second shop – Discount Cycles – were able to repair the wheel. It meant a late start to the afternoon, but the ride went well and I made it safely to the motel near Wakefield where I was spending the night. And I had some company for the evening as my brother Robert, who was staying in Leeds, came over to meet me for dinner.
I got an early start on Friday and made good time. Much of the early part of the day was spent on roads running next to the A1(M) – not the prettiest, but I was making good time. I then had my first (and as yet only) genuinely scary near miss. As I went straight on at a roundabout on the edge of Wetherby, a car from the left pulled straight onto the roundabout and very nearly straight into me. I managed to take evasive action as he – apparently oblivious – continued into my path; and just avoided either being hit or falling off. I caught up with him as the traffic came to a standstill in Wetherby: I was ready to let rip, but he wound down his window and immediately apologised.
From Wetherby onwards, I rode into wonderful Yorkshire countryside. By the time I stopped for lunch at the Crown in Kirklevington (near Yarm) I’d completed over 70 miles in great time. With only 35 miles to go, it was surely going to be an easy afternoon…
Or maybe I’d spoken to soon. Things started well, but then my route took me off road and onto the Castle Eden Walkway: a shared cycle/footpath along the route of an old railway. At first it was fine – not a great surface for a road bike, so slower going than I’d been used to (and a bit more bumpy) but pleasant enough. But then the Castle Eden Walkway gave way to the Hart to Hartswell Walkaway and the surface varied between mud or large loose stones. Cycling became near impossible and I had to get off a push at intervals. Eventually I gave up and re-planned to route: this took me from the sublime to the ridiculous with a very nerve racking ride on the very busy A19 dual carriageway.
So a considerably slower afternoon, but I made it to the Mowbray Guest House in Sunderland by about 5.15pm. I was given a very warm welcome, and secure storage for the bike, even though the Mowbray is owned by Sunderland fans. It is definitely the nicest place I have stayed at so far.
And so to match day. I cycled to the ground for noon where I was met by some people from the charity and Sunderland’s Supporter Liaison Officer. We were taken into the ground and given a tour – including the chance to sit in the dug out and visit the changing rooms. Following the tour, I had time to kill, so headed back into town to meet a friend for a drink, and then back again to the ground for the match. And what a match.
Palace looked the better team in the early stages, but a rare error from Joe Ledley gifted Sunderland the first goal. In the second half, Sunderland doubled their lead and defeat seemed inevitable. But Palace hit straight back, with Ledley’s effort making it 2-1. Man of the match James McArthur made it 2-2 and then deep in injury time Christian Benteke won the match for Palace. After three long days on the bike, I was aching all over – suffering in particular with back/shoulder pain. You wouldn’t have believed that if you’d seen me jumping around like a little kid celebrating the winner.
In the evening, I headed back into Sunderland town centre to an Italian restaurant for dinner. Next to my table for one was a table of diners in fancy dress. It was a lovely surprise to see that one of them was a colleague from my old work. They were in the area for a 80s themed birthday party in the bar next door – so after my dinner I gate crashed for a quick drink before heading back to the guest house.
Despite the result, the hospitality of the Mowbray Guest House remained excellent, and on Sunday morning I set off on the first leg of the return journey with a hearty breakfast inside me.
Given my experiences from the northward journey, I was worried whether my route planner would again send me on unsuitable alleged cycle paths. And so it proved – after initially following coastal roads, I was directed onto muddy tracks that were quite simply unrideable. I tried re-routing, but even with the SatNav set to avoid tracks, I found myself being directed again and again towards the Hart to Hartswell Walkway. Eventually I made it to Castle Eden Walkway – where I suffered my second puncture of the trip – and on to Yarm for lunch. There I bought some cleaning wipes from Sainsbury’s to give both the bike and me a bit of a wash, and some heat pads to try and relieve my increasingly painful shoulder. It had taken me 3 hours 40 minutes to cover 37 miles.
The afternoon started much better and I made good time until another puncture struck. Worse, I found my back wheel had gone out of true – clearly the unsuitable paths had been too much for it. I repaired the puncture – changing the tyre at the same time to try and ensure no further punctures – and loosened the back brake so it wouldn’t rub on the wobbly wheel; and carried on towards that night’s room above a pub in Castleford.
For much of Sunday I’d been listening to the sport on Radio 5. As I approached Castleford, I thought I heard them say Castleford Tigers had played and won that afternoon. What I didn’t realise was that the pub I was staying at was on the other side of the road from the ground, and therefore packed with happy Tigers fans!
The pub was set up as you’d expect for a pub near a ground – not much furniture to give as much room for customers as possible, and a bottle bar in the beer garden. It didn’t look particularly auspicious as somewhere to stay for the night. I shouted across to the bar staff to ask where I should check in; and was shown out through a yard at the back and up some stone stairs. But when I got to the room it was spotlessly clean and very nicely decorated. At £20 for the night – including a light breakfast – it was probably the best value accommodation of the season so far. I filled up on a Chinese Takeaway (king prawns in batter and chips, with a pot of sweet and sour sauce: chosen because I could eat it without needing cutlery) and then had a couple of beers chatting to some of the Cas fans.
Priority for Monday morning was seeing if I could get the bike fixed. I’d found a local bike shop which opened at 9am – so I waited for it to open while having a cup of tea in the cafe opposite. However, whilst it opened at 9, the mechanic was not going to be in until lunch time. So I stocked up on inner tubes and CO2 cannisters and decided to risk carrying on with the wobbly wheel. There was an Evans Cycle shop on the edge of town, but when I got there I found it didn’t open until 10 and I pressed on.
A few miles down the road, on the edge of Pontefract, I broke one of my normal rules and decided to risk a Halfords mechanic. And so, at around 10.30, I set off again with a mended back wheel. Wallington Cycles had offered to get a new wheel dropped off at my home in case I had further problems and needed a new wheel before setting off for Everton. But in the end, the repaired wheel lasted the rest of the way home and to Everton and back.
The late start before I could properly get going meant that when I stopped for lunch I still had 71.5 miles to go. The pub where I stopped said ‘Good Food’ outside, but didn’t actually serve food. So after a pint (of diet coke) there, I scoffed a tuna bap and a minion biscuit from the sandwich shop next door before setting off again. Somehow, when I got back on the bike, the distance to my destination had increased to 77 miles! Who added the extra miles and why?
The afternoon was hard work; the weather wasn’t great and the terrain hilly (I’d known when planning the route that this was going to be a hard day) so it was approaching 8pm by the time I arrived the George in Desborough where I was spending the night. It was another pleasant evening talking to the locals over a few beers and then wolfing down a takeaway pizza. After a cooked breakfast the next morning, I headed off on the final leg of the return journey.
I split the final leg into three sections. First, 45 miles before late elevenses (11.45am) in the form of tea and victoria sponge at Thrift Farm, a rural training centre for adults with learning difficulties near Milton Keynes. Then another about 20 miles to the Greyhound in Wigginton for a late lunch. The final 40-ish miles were slower going that I’d hoped, due mainly to the traffic is West and South West London, but I made it home shortly after 6pm on Tuesday 27 September. The longest trip of the season was done…
… but there was no time for a rest as I had to set off for Everton the following day.
The good news was that, rather than the 100 plus miles per day for the Middlesbrough and Sunderland trips, I would be averaging around 85 miles a day for Everton. The less good news was that there would be no ‘match day rest day’. Due to Sky TV, the game had been moved to Friday night. I would be arriving on Friday afternoon, and setting off for home on Saturday morning.
The shorter daily mileage meant less pressure for an early start on Wednesday morning. That meant I was able to take the kids to school and give the bike a clean and lube before setting off. I had considered not coming home between the Sunderland and Everton games, but – even though it was only for one night – it was definitely the right decision to get to see Janet and the kids. They are so wonderful to indulge me and let me undertake this challenge and I miss them terribly while I’m away.
Progress on the first morning was slow but ok and I stopped for lunch in Chesham with 36 miles completed. The weather in the afternoon was lovely and, although there was a certain frustration about retracing my steps (pedals?) from the previous day, I enjoyed the ride to Northampton and the Langham Hotel where I was staying the night.
It was dark and rainy first thing on Thursday, but the sun soon came out. Unfortunately, so did the wind. It made for probably the hardest day’s cycling yet; and I was seriously concerned about whether I’d have the legs for another four days on the bike. What was more, in the evening I needed to get out on the bike for another couple of miles to find a pub for dinner. The good news, however, was cycling felt much easier without my luggage, and the Bank House in Hixon was lovely.
Breakfast the following morning at the Common Farm Motel was also a lovely surprise. £4 for a ‘continental breakfast’ had seemed steep – but unlike so many places this was a proper continental breakfast, with a range of bread products, cakes, meat and cheese: not just a croissant and a piece of toast! What is more, I was given my breakfast for free and implored to stock up for lunch. Even better, as I would be returning in two nights and no-one was booked in the room in between, the owner said they wouldn’t bother doing a full clean of the room and therefore charge me less for the second night.
After my worries about the condition of my legs on Thursday, the miles flew by on Friday. Even a diversion due to road works which added about 8 miles to my journey and necessitated some on-the-go route re-planning could not dampen my day. I arrived at the Breeze Guest House in Bootle by about 2.15pm having ridden over 82 miles.
Once again, the guest house was owned by fans of the weekend’s opposition. But once again, this didn’t stop me getting a warm welcome; this was another guest house I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend.
After a signed shirt from Middlesbrough; and a stadium tour – with photo opportunities – from Sunderland it was very disappointing that Everton did not offer anything. It appears they were too busy with all the rigmarole of a live TV game to give any support to my charity efforts. Nonetheless, it was great to once again meet some local supporters of the charity outside the ground. After that there was time to return to the guest house and head out for some dinner before returning to the ground for the match.
Although Palace’s winning run came to an end, it was another great performance. Christian Benteke was again the hero, with a stunning headed goal that levelled the game at 1-1. With different refereeing decisions it might have been even better. Everton’s goal came from a dubious free kick and Palace’s Damien Delaney had a goal disallowed for off-side. But a draw at Everton was a good result; and Palace would head into the international break in a much better position than they were at the last such break.
Overall, I’ve been very lucky with the weather so far. But Saturday 1 October – the first day of the return journey – was definitely an exception. After a dry start, the rain started and didn’t let up all day. Added to that, I had further navigation issues (where roadworks rather confused my route planner). By the time I arrived back at Common Farm Motel, at around 5pm, I was doing a good impression of a drowned rat. I also knew I’d need to head out again to get dinner.
Around 6.30pm the rain stopped, so I headed back to Hixon and the Bank House Inn. Dinner there was, again, lovely; and even the fact the rain had started again by the time I left did not ruin my evening.
I just about managed to get all my kit dry for the morning and, after another proper continental breakfast and with a packed lunch on board, I set off for Northampton. The contrast between Saturday and Sunday could hardly have been more pronounced. I had probably my best day’s cycling of the challenge so far. I rode just under 80 miles and averaged 15mph for all but the last few miles (where the route followed a cycling/walkway followed the route of an old railway). I was back in the hotel in Northampton by 2.45pm.
The final day’s riding was one that was becoming very familiar; as my route back from all three long distance away games was pretty much the same. Once again, I stopped at the Greyhound in Wigginton for lunch (though, for a change, I chose chicken goujons for my baguette rather than sausages); and then finished with the familiar – and to be honest rather dull – drag through West and South West London. I got home around 4.45pm, to be greeted by my children and Janet waiting on the doorstep with congratulatory messages chalked on the pavement.
After a busy September and start of October I get a bit of rest now: an international break, followed by a home game before a ‘mere’ 120-ish miles to Champions Leicester City. That game is the day before Janet’s birthday, so there’ll be a bit of a twist on the return journey to enable me to celebrate it with her and kids: watch this space.
Finally, a few pictures from the Sunderland and Everton trips.
Some countryside views from the two trips
Too soon? An off license in Sunderland
Surprisngly, I was still welcome back at the Guest House
Great to see places celebrating cycling
The view from the door of the pub where I stayed in Castleford
A choice of beds in Northampton – heading for the Everton match
A wise man once told me never to eat somewhere where they have pictures of the food. What about pictures of food that is not included in the meal (not to mention the poor spelling)
Not on my itinerary for the season, of course, but it was nice to ride right passed Crewe’s Gresty Road Stadium on the way up to Everton.
Are you ready for Christmas? Cultivating Christmas trees.
Two of the many wonderful churches I’ve seen on my travels
Time for a bit of trainspotting on the final couple of miles on the return to Northampton
The welcome home