So that was what I knew before I left the comfort of my armchair to spend 14 days in the saddle. What I did not know was that the significant effect Hurricane Bertha would have on my second day; that we would only have one day free from rain; that there would be only one day when I cycled wearing only one layer, ten days when I needed three layers and three days when four layers were required.
The other major unknown was who would I be cycling with? I used a specialist company to organise and support my cycle challenge, the same one as last year and so I knew that there could be up to twenty more meeting up in Dover. It turned out to be smaller than that, only thirteen with ages ranging from 19 to 73 but all with an experience of tackling long distance routes to a greater or lesser extent. We had a father & daughter; a mother & son; a maths teacher; a past world record holder in distance running over 24 & 48hrs; a former professional musician; a farmer from Atlanta, Georgia amongst others and all focused not only reaching Cape Wrath but providing the help and support to their colleagues to ensure that we would arrive as we had set off – together.
With that mixture of people and personalities over such a long and interesting route I looked forward to fourteen days of hard work but tempered by the wide ranging conversations I would be having with my colleagues. At our meal, as we gathered during the evening of Friday 8th August, we seemed to get on very well as we excitedly discussed the route and what particular aspects we were looking forward to, or indeed dreading. An early night was the order of the day and we, after breakfast, gathered for our group photograph at the place where all swimmers, leaving Dover to swim to France depart. The formalities over and done with and with the sun shining warmly on us we set off through the streets of Dover and were quickly faced with our first climb up to Dover Castle and headed towards Canterbury. This would be a long day, nearly 90 miles, and it was to be punctuated by three breaks; the first, mid morning, to provide drinks and food from the back of the support van; lunchtime, to provide some tasty food such as soup, pasta, sandwiches etc., and finally a mid afternoon drinks and food break. At each of these breaks, we could also call upon assistance for any bike problems that might have arisen. We were therefore, well supported, well fed and given the comfort of minimising problems, allowing us to concentrate on pushing on those pedals and propelling ourselves forward. This was Saturday and a sunny one and so the traffic developed significantly as we passed by the Medway towns of Gillingham , Rochester and Chatham and onwards to our first ferry crossing at Tillbury. The added rest of waiting for the ferry and whilst on the ferry allowed us to steel ourselves for the last 25 miles of the day which to include a final and substantial climb about 5 miles from our day’s end at Brentwood.
Day 1 done we settled into developing our own end of day practices which was to include checking on the next day’s weather forecast; and so there was a sombre mood as we ate that evening as we contemplated what Hurricane Bertha might visit on us. At first light we knew – rain, and a lot of it; wind, strong and unrelenting and generally in our faces. Off we went after breakfast and our daily safety briefing – straight into the wind and rain, and a climb! The rain was incessant and penetrating and so the challenge was to stay warm and focused. At around 25 miles we had to negotiate our way through Bishops Stortford which was going well until we approached a dip in the road which was covered in water. We could see how long a stretch we had to cycle through but had no idea how deep it was and so I moved to the centre of the road and carefully practiced quarter turns on the pedals but quickly realised this was not enough to propel the bike forwards and so to avoid stopping had to employ full rotation of the pedals only to find the water half way up my calf and my feet totally immersed. We ploughed on with the only bright thought that the lunch stop was only about fifteen miles further on and the might be our best lunch stop of the whole trip as it was at the pub owned by Jamie Oliver’s parents. The day’s weather was to take a further toll on our resolve after lunch; with the wind still blowing but the rain relenting we were now nearing the outskirts of Cambridge when we turned into a quiet village road to find the road blocked by a fallen tree and two ambulances in attendance. As we approached, trying to take in the scene, we realised that at least one of our number was involved. It turned out that the 19 year old daughter was cycling in front of her father when she heard a crack and thought it was some more thunder and instantly felt herself surrounded in green foliage – and just as quickly felt herself being picked up by the broken bough and then falling from it and her bike landing on her. She was taken to Addenbrookes Hospital and found to have cracked vertebrae and so could not continue. Quite a day and so we were relieved to finally see our overnight stop at Hemmingford Grey.
The next day seemed more favourable as it started dry and bright and so we set off into a wind and were soon facing a series of sharp ascents and tricky descents. A consequence of heavy rain is that the road gathers more small debris and the incidence of punctures increases – and so it was that a number of us were slowed repairing punctures and at lunchtime, a couple of us needed new tyres and tubes.
We pushed on over the next few days to tackle the big climbs and descents in the Pennines and the Yorkshire Dales and now doing so cycling into northerly winds making the days long and exhausting by the close each day. The dramatic scenery, I regret, was sometimes lost to my eyes as I had to concentrate on delivering the effort and coping with the rain. In such conditions the best that can happen is that the conditions improve during the last two hours of cycling and allow some drying out before stopping for the day. That was our good fortune when arriving in Penrith and crossing the border to end at Thornhill.
The following day as we battled towards Ardrossan presented a further unexpected outcome. Whilst competing the last 50yds of several miles of cycle paths, and only a couple of miles from the Ferry, my front wheel hit a patch of long wet cut grass lying over the path and suddenly I found myself uncontrollably heading for the ground. In a split second I was on my back with a searing pain in my left leg and certain that I had done something quite serious. Two of my colleagues circled back to help and after ten or so minutes I felt able to stand up. They phoned for the van, gathered up my bike which looked somewhat damaged and supported me until the van arrived. The bike and I went into the van and off we went to make the ferry crossing to Brodick. The weather was such that the first three ferry crossings of the day had been cancelled and our ferry was now on amber alert. With everyone aboard, the crossing began but was not guaranteed but good fortune prevailed and we got to Brodick and I got to my bed to rest and recover.
The succeeding days were a gradual rehabilitation for my leg (my bike was repaired more quickly) as we wended our way northwards, island hopping (Arran, Mull and Skye), each day my colleagues remarking on the seemingly never ending beauty and grandeur of the west of Scotland scenery which we were able to take in whenever the rain clouds shifted and the sun occasionally shone.
By now the incessant physical effort was telling on all of us but the gentle and consistent support provided by colleagues brought each person successfully to the end of each day. On our last big day, Ullapool to Durness, we gathered in the rain with mixed feelings, a realisation that we were nearly at our goal but we again were to face wet, cold and windy conditions which would test our resilience and resolve. After about a couple of hours the skies began to lighten, the rain lessen and as we gathered at the morning tea stop our spirits clearly were lifting and by the time we reached our lunch stop at Badcall Bay nr Scourie, the sun was bathing the landscape in a warm glow and we were gently drying out. This changed dramatically in the last few miles to Durness when the rain clouds arrived again, to ensure that when we finally glimpsed the sea ahead of us signalling our completion of our coast to coast ride, we were thoroughly wet again. That evening we gathered in a local hotel to have our meal together. The mood was jubilant as we knew we only had a 30 mile round trip to the lighthouse to negotiate in the morning.
First light was promising and it only got better as we gathered at Keoldale for the open boat ferry to the other side of the Kyle and access to the track to the lighthouse. We had it in our minds that it was “only 30 miles” but they were tough and treacherous and there was a critical time constraint for us: we needed to get to the lighthouse and record our arrival and then return to the ferry before the tide was too far out to allow a return that afternoon. I was in the last group to make the ferry and we just made it by about 15mins. This was all completed in bright sunshine and reasonably warm conditions. As a last act, however, as we pedalled back to Durness, a heavy rain shower passed over and we were once again soaked!
Looking back on the adventure, I can only describe it as very tough but extremely rewarding. The satisfaction of having succeeded will live long with me as will my memories of how a disparate group of people, faced with a common challenge supported and demonstrated kindness to their colleagues readily throughout our time together. My final thought is of my deep gratitude to all those who sponsored me in raising money for the Cystic Fibrosis Trust who continue to seek out a cure for this life limiting condition. Their work affects the future of so many including my own granddaughter, Morven.
Ex Deacon Convener