IT WAS, I SUPPOSE, A COLLISION OF SEVERAL IDEAS; THE CROWNING MOMENT OF THE SON AND HEIR’S DUKE OF EDINBURGH BRONZE AWARD …
… the chance to fulfil a long-standing promise to raise some readies for ‘Smile with Siddy’ and, last and very much least, a small homage to the pint-sized, stoker-hatted Isambard Kingdom Brunel and his Great Western Railway. Plaited together and plonked on a bicycle, these disparate threads left Liam Simmons and his fat father with three days to pedal 144 miles from Bristol Temple Meads to London Paddington. It very nearly killed the both of us.
DAY ONE: BRISTOL TEMPLE MEADS TO PEWSEY, WILTSHIRE – APPROX 52 MILES
If I think bad thoughts, does this make me a bad person? Or do I actually have to follow through on them to be considered contemptible? I ask only because there’s a 0900 train from Bristol Temple Meads to London Paddington – calling at Bath Spa, Chippenham, Swindon and Reading – which takes precisely one hour and thirty-eight minutes to reach the capital and there’s a 1100 service from Paddington to Bristol Temple Meads – calling at Reading, Swindon, Chippenham and Bath Spa – that takes one hour and thirty nine minutes to come back. In all probability, it’s exactly the same train.
So – and I swear it only fleetingly crossed my mind – if we’d bought two return tickets, lobbed the bikes in the Guard’s Van, hammed up a sweaty, ‘oh-my-God-we-made-it’ picture at the other end and come straight back to Bristol, we could’ve been in the pub with a log-fire and a Sunday roast by 1245 with all 144 miles taken care of. Say 1330, if we allowed for a bit of weekend engineering.
I know, I shouldn’t have mentioned it. But, seriously, am I really a terrible human being for – momentarily, mischeviously – allowing such a villainous thought to enter my head or – more charitably – am I not perhaps a stouter, nobler person for resolutely turning my back on the Temple Meads ticket office and instead wobbling over the cobbles and across the quay – foursquare behind my boy – to seek out the long and winding road to the capital? No, you’re right. I’m a git and I humbly apologise. Despicable me.
Bristol – actually – takes a while to shake off, even on a dedicated cycle path; factor in a morning that was colder than a greyhound’s nostril, the graffiti, the empty beer cans, the three-legged dog and a dank, dripping – almost melting – tunnel two miles out of town and there was every incentive to push on to Jane Austen’s Bath. But with a ways to go, caution was our watchword; let’s just find a groove, son, keep it comfortable and try to save something for the sprint finish on the Bayswater Road. Cadence would be everything.
So we quickly settled into what was to become a familiar pattern; a smooth one-man breakaway at ‘la tete de la course’ – Lima – followed closely, or otherwise, by a steaming, wobbling, one-man peloton – his father. To be honest, this was predominantly a safety tactic given the the old man was the one wearing the cautionary, luminous jacket to alert the speedsters and tailgaters to our ponderous presence.
And, trust me, there was no shortage of those on the heave out of Bristol, queuing as they were in our miserable slipstream to fizz past in a whirr of cello-string legs and a blinding flash of Lycra. These – presumably – were the people we’d read about in online cycle forums as we’d tried to research the route; ‘Hey, guys, planning to ride from Bristol to London in a couple of days on a Pompino 75GI … is the combination of fixed gear plus 28c Gatorskins a reasonable approach?’ At our first cereal bar break – if memory serves, this was about thirty minutes in – we paused to inventory the traffic flow thus far: cyclists we’d overtaken – zero: cyclists who’d overtaken us – two hundred and thirty-six. To be honest, it’d taken us half a mile to lose the three-legged dog.
Lima then decided to remove his fleece without taking off his lid, whereupon I fell off my bike while trying to get on it. It was thirty seconds of cycling slapstick which, mercifully, I don’t think anyone else noticed but, mutually entertained, we rolled into Bath, teetered the wrong way down a one-way street and – somehow – stumbled across Pulteney Bridge. Finally – literally – we were getting somewhere.
We had another cereal bar, shared a bottle of ‘Lucozade Sport’ and compared bottoms. His – and I took his word for it – was already aflame and had turned his boxers to cinders. Mine felt as though I’d spent sixteen miles astride a bacon-slicer. We’d been expecting the occasional saddle-sore – indeed, we’d packed four tubs of Vaseline for this very eventuality – but we’d not bargained for the ride being quite such a pain in the butt. Indeed the next two days were to be dominated by our ‘Ischial Tuberosities’ – otherwise known as the ‘sit bones’ – none of which sat comfortably for the entire trip.
Bath was our first acquaintance with the Kennet and Avon Canal, our long-haul companion to Bradford-on-Avon and beyond. The waterway here is a string of smoky narrow boats parked alongside a towpath which, on a damp Sunday, was all puddles and pedestrians. Schmoozing your way along it requires sharp reactions and infinite patience, unless you’re one of those smug, stony cyclists who prefers to ride hard on unsuspecting heels, jangle a sharp bell and barge past without a word.
The splendidly named Brassknocker Basin and the equally splendid Dundas Aqueduct took us over the Avon and down past rows of statuesque herons fishing for Sunday lunch. The Avoncliff Aqueduct was rather less fun given it was where the towpath turned into a crochet stitch. Apparently you’re supposed to follow the path over, down, under, up and back whereas we went across, down, under, up and round, a knot which took ten minutes to untangle.
The run to Bradford-on-Avon was uphill; unusual on a canal, I know, but take my word for it, the entire trip was against the grain and into a stiff headwind. The countryside here is bucolic, almost Betjeman-esque and well worth an hour or two of anyone’s Sunday morning. Indeed for fully forty minutes I almost forgot about my backside, which, by now, had its own pulse. We took another break in Bradford-on-Avon for another sharp squeeze of ‘Lucozade Sport’– we were already becoming chemically dependent on the stuff – and while Lima had a rummage in his shorts to retrieve what remained of his boxers, we took stock on lunch. Eat here or push on to Devizes? We pushed on to Devizes.
Unquestionably there’s an intimacy to a canal and its towpath. A fat, old tub called ‘Diana’ chugged past carrying a beaming grandmother and her 85th birthday party. Slowing down for two women coming the other way near Seend, I inadvertently shared a short snatch of conversation ‘… and I said to him, Brian, I said, if you do it like that of course it’ll all go tits up … ‘ The main dangers on this stretch, apart from the loose dogs and the free range children, were the arched bridges where there’s scarcely any towpath or headroom and where – consequently – one wobble can tip you straight into the drink. After two close shaves, we did the dismount thing and walked gingerly around them.
We were some four miles shy of Devizes when I punctured, although – idiot – it took several minutes to work out why the bike was suddenly so slippery. Short of a repair kit – I knew there was something Lima’d forgotten to pack – I opted to cycle – literally – flat out to Devizes. But not only was I pedaling squares in the mud, I had no idea how much more damage I was doing to the tyre, the tube and the rim. So, once more, we got off and we walked.
Three miles of steaming frustration was offset by the chance to get a closer look at the Caen Hill Locks, an astonishing sixteen-flight staircase up the hillside to Devizes. Built by John Rennie and opened in 1810, the locks once ran day and night and were lit by gas-lamps; these days – no less amazingly – there’s a pumping system which feeds seven million gallons of water a day from bottom to top to lubricate all the clockwork, a day being about as long as it’d take to climb the stairs in a narrow boat. Yes, it’s still an uphill struggle but it’s a truly phenomenal feat of engineering.
There was good news and bad news in Devizes. The good news was that there were three cycle shops in town, the bad news being that they were all shut. Marooned outside ‘Margaret Mead Antiques’, the boy and I held a council of war on the pavement. We could camp in Devizes, get patched up the next morning and push on from there, an option that’d lose us even more time and – in all likelihood – turn a three day trip into four. Alternatively, we could call the fragrant Mrs. Simmons in the Broom Wagon and ask her to head down to Wiltshire and sweep up her boys.
But then we bumped into Pete and Dave – forty-something fairy godfathers – who were out for a spin from Melksham and who – generously – offered us the fellowship of the road and a lend of their puncture repair kit. It was a bit of a do trying to rip the tyre from the rim but Pete found the hole in the inner tube, Dave bandaged it up and, thanks entirely to them – chapeau, messieurs – we remained on the road. Indeed the repair was so good it got us all the way to London.
By now, though, it was three thirty; we’d forgotten lunch and it wasn’t just the cycle shops that were shut. All we could find open was ‘Morrison’s’ and while Helen and the crew in the ‘Market Street Café’ had stopped serving hot food ten minutes ago, they took pity and rustled up a lasagne for Lima. He ate it in three bites. Stupidly, I passed on the pasta and went for the fruit scone, which was pebbles and dust.
Hours behind schedule we pushed out of Devizes and into the hushed lanes and the chalk Downs of Wiltshire on what we cyclists call ‘a big ring’; head down, arse up to try to make Pewsey before dark. This was where the weeks of hard training would kick in had we actually done them but – alas – we’d spent a Sunday morning getting lost on a goat track in the Forest of Dean and – a week later – a Sunday afternoon rolling through the Cotswolds where – woefully short of ‘Lucozade Sport’ – we’d bonked badly. Lima had ended the day crawling to his bedroom on his hands and knees leaving his father flat out on the kitchen floor with the dog licking the sweat off his dead head.
The sky was now blacker than a Bible, a mixture of gathering dusk and flogging rain. Given my rucksack was the one with the waterproof cover, I ended up jamming Lima’s gear into my bag and shipping it free, gratis and for nothing for the last ten miles, something which tickled his sense of humour and sorely tested mine. But at least the fretful elements washed off all the mud so by the time we finally weighed anchor in the heart of North Wessex, we were presentable enough to find a bed and some breakfast.
Over a welcome pot of tea, our ischiofemoral impingement was yet again the main topic of conversation; indeed the rectal pain I was suffering suggested a man who now had two jacksies rather than just the one. Lima lay on his bed and groaned; a sterling effort given all I could do was lie on my bed.
None of the three pubs in Pewsey was serving food so it was the Indian Restaurant or starve. We tossed a coin and ate at the Indian.
DAY TWO – PEWSEY, WILTSHIRE TO MAIDENHEAD, ROYAL BERKSHIRE – APPROX 58 MILES
Lima’s grandfather – his Argentinian one – has a favourite phrase – ‘cagar mas arriba del balde’ – which means, if you’ll excuse me, ‘to shit higher than the bucket’. His words were haunting me throughout breakfast. With one day’s cycling already in our leaden legs, was trying to hit Maidenhead by nightfall – today’s bold objective – effectively ‘cagando mas arriba del balde’? But, then again, the Sunday towpaths and the punctures and the pits stops had already left us fifteen miles adrift and we needed to recover some slack. In short we had to ride our bikes like we’d just stolen them.
Lima – foolhardy boy – again went with the shorts and the T-shirt while the old man – thin blood, aging bones – rugged up in his fleece and the – by now – trademark, luminous jacket. The B3087 out of Pewsey promised a gentle five miles of easy wheeling and birdsong but turned out to be a rat-run for builders’ lorries that was knee-deep in dead badgers, two facts that appeared to me to be suspiciously connected.
We finally regained the Kennet and Avon Canal at Crofton and hit a dirt-track towpath that was a small cycle down memory lane. Back in 1965, Lima’s grandfather – no, the English one – paddled this very route in the Devizes/Westminster canoe race, a 125 mile, non-stop and – strictly – self-sufficient endurance test in which he doubled up with another lunatic named Pete Roney in a Class Six Moonraker with plywood decking and a fibreglass hull jammed full of ‘Complan’. Plan ‘A’ was to reach Westminster within twenty-four hours; Plan ‘B’ was to walk away in one piece.
In the dead of night you had to listen for weirs and – somehow – heave the leaden boat out of the water and run round the locks. The race went to a pair of Paras –the Special Forces invariably cleaned up in the DW back then – but the result was dogged by disqualifications and time penalties amid allegations of soldiery lurking amid the reeds on the upper reaches of the Thames with K rations of bully beef and thermos flasks of Scotch Broth. Put it this way, in the eyes of Lima’s grandmother – the English one – there has only ever been one Cockleshell Hero.
The towpath was suddenly liquid so we reverted to the road and swept out of Wiltshire and into Berkshire via the market town of Hungerford where, during the Glorious Revolution of 1688, William of Orange was offered the crown of England at the Bear Hotel. Hungerford was also where we switched maps, which was perhaps why we headed out of town going up the hill towards Sailsbury instead of across the Common towards Kintbury. Yes, okay, I was in charge of the compass but that boy – urgently – needs to get a grip of his geography. I blame his mother. In fact – as usual – I blame anyone other than myself.
The road to Newbury was ten miles of winding lanes where we blended effortlessly into the Arcadian landscape. Given a cheerful whistle and a stiff pair of bicycle clips, Lima would be the village bobby; stocky, ten to two knees and just the one huge gear, presumably on his way to rescue a cat from the vicar’s pear tree. His father’s cycling style is more the village sexton; bent, bowed, buggered at the end of a hard day’s digging and presumably on his way to the ‘Rat and Drainpipe’ for a pint of mild and a pickled gherkin. Put it this way, ‘Trek–Segafredo’ aren’t likely to be inviting either of us to join them in next year’s Tour de France.
Having learnt yesterday’s lesson, we ate early in Newbury – ‘The Bakehouse Deli’ – where Lima devoured a bacon and egg baguette that was the size of a torpedo and where we had our first row. I don’t wish to appear petty but I’d shelled out for a ‘Twix’ on the strict understanding he’d give me a quarter – i.e. half a bar – but instead he left me a quarter of one bar and scoffed the rest while I was powdering my nose. We did not speak again until Thatcham.
The signposting on NCN4 out of Newbury is – let’s be polite – a tease. At one point we were standing outside ‘Carpetright’ scratching our heads. But eventually we regained the canal and got the hammer down on a deserted towpath towards Aldermaston, the super-domestique father – for once – leading the way while Lima wheelsucked in my mighty wake. We must have been touching eight, even nine miles per hour.
In truth, though, we were both struggling given we were trying to upshift on a towpath that was little more than a twelve-inch rut. It meant your concentration had to be one hundred per cent otherwise you’d smack into the ‘kerb’ and lose your wheel. Lima nearly went base over apex into the canal on two separate occasions so at Aldermaston we peeled off the canal and jumped onto the A4.
There are times in life where you need to face unpalatable facts and this was one of them. Idyllic as the towpath may seem, it’s often bumpy, muddy, laborious and, invariably, it winds hither and yon. The A4, by contrast, is an infernal – almost concussive – procession of HGVs and testy women in Mummy Panzers who’re late for the school run but it’s flat, it’s fast and it’s straighter than the flight of the proverbial crow. It was also our best chance of making Maidenhead by midnight.
So, Indian file, we got back on the big rings, Lima taking a long pull on the front and me giving it a push from the rear. We had to ease off for the speed cameras but suddenly amid the deafening traffic we were making some serious headway. Thus does even the humblest bird have the gift of wings.
Reading seems to go on longer than your in-laws but, somehow, we navigated the town centre in the rush hour and headed out the other side down an empty bus lane. For once, alongside a procession of stationary traffic, we were the masters of the universe. The one downside of ignoring the NCN4 trail through Reading was missing out on Cannabis Alley, a rat-run past the Oracle Centre where I’d been hoping to invest in an infusion of EPO. Instead we stopped off at a ‘Sainsbury’s Local’ and bought another six bottles of ‘Lucozade Sport’.
In the gathering gloom, we paused to attach lights and, since we had only two, Lima took the headlamp and his father the ‘lanterne rouge’, although given my rump was still redder than a baboon’s backside, adding a small, winking light to it was a little like pissing in the Pacific. The A4 out of Reading is a long, unremitting, mind-numbing climb past Twyford and up to Knowl Hill – it’s a little like being trapped in a Fellini film – but finally, frantically, we freewheeled into Maidenhead in a full tuck and got lost trying to find the hotel. It was seven o’clock and we were – both of us – oranges with no juice.
Lima looked so tired he’d have struggled to pull a greasy string out of a cat’s bum and, if anything, I was worse. We finally found the Thames Riviera Hotel, tossed the bikes into the laundry room and checked in, hard though it was to (a) remember our names or (b) speak. It was one of those proper, old hotels – creaky floorboards and no lifts – and they gave us an attic room on the third floor which was a delight but which took twenty minutes to get to. I then spent five further minutes trying to take off my shoes; thirty seconds to reach them, two and half minutes to undo them and two minutes trying to stand up again. I fell face first into a piping bath and lay there like a dead hippopotamus.
Somehow we tottered downstairs for burgers and beers and – emboldened by our epic success – ordered one sticky toffee pudding with two spoons. Hey, let’s not get too carried away, son. We’re not there yet.
DAY THREE – MAIDENHEAD, BERKSHIRE TO LONDON PADDINGTON – APPROX 34 MILES
We slept like the dead, Lima spark out and his father spread-eagled like a washed up starfish. Frankly, I could have staggered back from dinner last night, dozily slammed my dingle in the bathroom door and still slept quite comfortably leaning up against the lintel.
The alarm was roundly ignored – twice – and had a wailing police car not got stuck in a traffic jam outside our open window, I think we’d still be there right now. Lima had pancakes and syrup for breakfast while his father had nine Weetabix. I was buggered if I was going to get to the Bayswater Road and ‘bonk’ on the pavement.
But, in truth, the guts of the challenge was over, indeed that was the idea of crawling to Maidenhead by the end of Day Two; to try to turn the last day into a ceremonial, sightseeing stage into London. Even so, it was a guarded start to Bray, granny gears up and out of Windsor and a very leisurely spin past Runnymede to Egham, Staines and Shepperton, where we passed an ‘X’ reg, 1981 Austin Allegro. Granted it was parked but at our speed, overtaking anything is a bonus.
We were now returning – in reverse – to a trip I’d done with Lima and Lima’s sister, Hanna, more than a decade ago; eighteen miles from Hampton Court to Windsor Castle when the boy was just six years old and riding a bike the size of an egg whisk. The Thames had flooded the towpath somewhere near Chertsey and I’d had to carry the two of them through the ebb tide. There were ice creams and mud and more ice creams and even more mud and a train home from Windsor in the dark. It remains, and will always remain, one of my reddest of red-letter days; thus is life – always – a struggle not for survival but for remembrance.
From Walton-on-Thames we rejoined the towpath to Hampton Court and across Bushey Park where, once upon a time, Lima and his sister first learned to ride a bike. At ‘The Coffee Mill’ in Teddington High Street, I ordered a cheese and mushroom omelette that was so fluffy, I laid my head on it and went to sleep for half-an-hour. Lunch – like yesterday – was a struggle; the wonder being how the screaming legs would cope with the afternoon shift but – again like yesterday – we seemed to find unmapped reserves of energy. What’s proved truly astonishing these past three days – apart from a teenager’s inability to smile for a photograph – is how much the body has to offer long after the mind has given up.
So we meandered through Richmond Park – one of my favourite places in the entire world in the embers of autumn – and down through Sheen, Mortlake and across to Barnes, Lima leading the way and me screaming directions from the rear. There was a horrific, heart-stopping moment in Barnes when he went the wrong way round a roundabout but otherwise he was rock solid. It looked as though we might actually get there in one piece.
Hammersmith Bridge – isn’t it always – was under repair and beneath its groaning girders we briefly rejoined NCN4 and the towpath to Putney. It was one of those freshly-laundered afternoons when the whole world was out enjoying some exercise; tots, teenagers, tousle-haired pensioners with wagging dogs and, on the river itself, a coxed four from St. Paul’s School who eased past us in long, languid strokes. I added them to the lengthening list of those who’d – effortlessly – left us in their wake these past three days.
From Putney Bridge we busked it; Parson’s Green, the Old King’s Road, the King’s Road, Sloane Square, Eaton Square and Belgravia. What you forget about this endless stretch of SW6, SW3 and SW1 is how many traffic lights and zebra crossings there are, road furniture that turns a straight line to the finish into Morse code. We stopped outside ‘The World’s End’ pub to get a picture of Lima on the zebra crossing; Mick and Keith meets John and Paul. It was my favourite shot of the entire trip.
And, of course, it’s always when you can smell the finishing line that disaster comes closest to striking you down; in this instance almost literally as a ‘Tesco’ delivery van in the King’s Road overtook, screeched to a halt and then tried to reverse over Lima into a parking space. Tired and terrified in equal measure, I came within an inch of punching a hole in his windscreen.
But then such – it seems – is life in any lane of London traffic. Pedestrians don’t wait for cyclists, cyclists cut up taxis, taxis barge in ahead of buses and buses pull out in front of everyone. How the roads of the capital aren’t littered with the dead and the dying on a daily basis beats me completely. Just relax, take your time and show a little consideration before the death of respect kills us all.
We pulled in to Buck House and snapped a snap. If I had a round pound for every shot taken of that cold, Portland stone façade in any given day, I’d be living in the Bahamas in a palace of my own. Constitution Hill was a brief blast and Hyde Park Corner was Russian roulette. Veering off into the park as three taxis converged on our tail was like waking up from a nightmare.
We were beginning to almost feel the dark of the day. Serpentine Road gave way to West Carriage Drive and to Victoria Gate where our sprint finish on the Bayswater Road was buggered by the backlog of rush-hour traffic. Indeed even with Paddington in our very nostrils it still took twenty minutes to find the place in the warren of one-way streets. And this – emphatically – was not the place to stop and ask a pretty girl the way, not unless you wanted to finish your charity bike ride answering a charge of kerb crawling.
So – bizarrely – we found St. Mary’s Hospital thrice before we found Paddington Station once but – then again – once was all we needed. There cannot be an uglier, less inspiring entrance to any London Terminus but, to us, it was the door to Narnia. Sunday’s 0904 bike ride from Bristol Temple Meads had finally arrived at London Paddington on Tuesday at 1749; put it this way, the train could have made it there and back on thirty-five separate runs in the time it’d taken us to get there just once. But sometimes you don’t have to be a winner to feel as though you’ve come first.
Lima doesn’t do hugs but he did half a one for his fatuous father and – tactfully – didn’t say anything about the tear in my eye. We bought some beers, we sat down next to the eponymous, bronze bear and we awaited the ride home. Our haunches were an inferno, our legs lost to our bodies, our necks sagging and our hands a pulp of pins and needles. I’ve rarely in my life felt quite so bad or, for that matter, quite so good.
27 OCTOBER 2017
A huge thank you to everyone who sponsored and supported this bike ride on behalf of both ‘Smile with Siddy’ and Matt Cahill and his family; in no particular order, Marta Cookman, Scott Drummond, Rob Longworth, Nicky Hannam, Alex Payne, James Lewis, Lauren Maguire, Hanna Simmons, Penny Bearcroft, Simon Glover, Ann Watt, Mary Tovey, Andrew van de Waal, George Salf, Louisa Collington, Stuart Barnes, John Bearcroft, Tim Dale, Eva Brownlee, Sarah Quirk, Dave Rogers, Gail Davis, The Price Family, Roland Watt, Tom Watt, Anne Kayes, Kavin Sayon, Pat Simmons, John Simmons, Suzanne Hale, Alison Smallwood, Fiona MacKenzie, Rory Farrell, David Upton, Bronwen Upton, the Roffes of Longbarn, Kim Burridge, Sam Foskett, Jimmy G, Stuart Barnes and Will Morgan. You are, all of you, wild, wonderful people.
A special thanks to Maria and Hanna who supported us and encouraged us through every turn of the wheel. You are – always – an inspiration.
And – of course – to Lima who complained about absolutely nothing – apart from his bum – and who put in the shift of his life to get the job done. He is – and will always be – my hero.