As I climbed away from the busy streets of Bristol and up what is known on the map as Broadoak Hill, but locally as ‘the steepside’, I couldn’t help wonder what I’d let myself in for.
At an average of 10% for nearly a mile, were the following 200 miles I’d planned going to offer much more long stretches of the same unforgiving climbing? After all, I do live in Essex.
I was on my way to meet my good friends Anna and Dave, who were cycling Lands End to John O’Groats in 10 days.
Responding to news of my brain tumour, they’d decided to take on the route. They would put in around 100 miles every day to raise money for The Brain Tumour Charity.
Fearing my health wouldn’t be up to the whole trip, I’d arranged to join them for two days: from south of Bristol to Worcester, then from Worcester to Northwich in Cheshire.
It turned out Anna and Dave had already done much of the heavy lifting by the time I met them not far from Chew Lake. The view of it sat like a reward from the top of ‘the steepside’, then scooting back down the descent.
We’d arranged to circumvent Bristol, which meant less climbing but also an unpleasant five miles ride through the grubby gritty built up docklands around Avonmouth.
But for our trouble we enjoyed our first real reward of the day: crossing the Severn Bridge. There’s a cycle path across the whole mile long stretch, one we took at a leisurely pace in order to fully take in the incredible views of the estuary.
Then, as we very briefly headed into – then out of – Wales, Dave put the hammer down and gave the indication of the speed we’d need to average if we were to get the miles done in time for tea.
They’d already done three days of hilly climbing, so it was only fair that I sat on the front for long stints during the two days I’d be with them. Both my fresher legs and the novelty of being part of the trip meant I was happy to turn the pedals and take us all along at a decent tempo. After all, I wouldn’t have another 600 miles and six days to go once we’d reached Cheshire.
Though that first day was hilly, the real problem was the heat. After a summer of rain, the British weather had finally put away the doom and gloom and offered us the hottest day of the year so far.
That meant taking on extra fluids – and its weight – and trying to keep going for longer stretches. Every time we stopped, or if we had to stagger up a climb, the heat became stifling and did nothing for our moral.
That first day was filled with rolling countryside, with some steep climbs duly rewarded by steady sweeping descents. We rolled happily into Worcester, gave a nod to the Elgar statue at the town’s heart, then headed gratefully for our hotel and then the Pizza Express below it.
Next morning started early, not because we wanted to get off as soon as possible, but because gulls had taken residence on our balcony. They were calling to each other with gusto before the sun had even come up.
After an all-you-can-eat breakfast, we were on the road again. My day two and their day five.
The west side of the Midlands was more familiar to me. As a child from Wolverhampton, a family trip to the Malvern Hills was as good as it sometimes got. Less hilly than day one, the Worcester to Northwich stage was just as hot as the day before, but it also brought highlights.
One was drinking a gloriously cold bottle of Doctor Pepper outside the Sainsburys in Bridgenorth, just in view of the very hospital in which I was born.
Out of Bridgenorth came another highlight, the historical town of Ironbridge, end station of the Severn Valley Railway into which a steam engine was just pulling. There is also a very famous and beautiful, er, iron bridge.
There’s a saying in the West Midlands about about ‘going all round the Wrekin’, which roughly translates as being sent on a wild goose chase. This was the first time I’d actually done it physically, rather than metaphorically. The climb and then the descent made me happy to be alive and on my bike, surround by two great friends.
Then it was back to business.
A ladder of relentless long drags into a headwind, where the scenery didn’t seem to change much. As the sun continued to stoke the fires, the greenness of the countryside took on a yellower, burned hue. The shady tree canopies became far fewer, exposing us to the rays and the wind in unwelcome equal measure.
Twenty five miles from home, a refreshing spray from a pub’s hosepipe – remember to let the sun-warmed water run through first, I learned the hard way! – and we felt renewed as we headed into what would be for me the last leg of my trip.
Ten miles later and the dry countryside gave up the fight. We were suddenly surrounded by traffic and homes. The busyness of Norwich was a shock to the system after having been away from civilisation on the bike for a day.
But none of us hid our delight at finishing, as we climbed off our bikes in the town centre. As we enjoyed a delightful B&B evening meal, we joked that no-one had worked harder than us on the bike that day.
That was until we watched the evening highlights of the Tour de France, and saw Chris Froome tear the peleton apart on his second trip up Alpe d’Huez that day.
With real regret I said goodbye to Dave and Anna that night, and when I woke next morning I knew my legs could have done another 200 miles at least. They had to be satisfied with 15 miles, as I ambled in the morning rush hour out of Northwich and into Warrington, from where I took the Virgin fast train to London.
Dave and Anna completed Lands End to John O’Groats, including a short extra loop to make the distance up to 1,000 miles, in 10 days. It was only on the last day that Anna’s gear cable snapped, leaving her in a single gear for the unforgiving hills that sit at the very top of this island we call home.
- To read the daily highlights and view photos of Dave and Anna’s whole trip, visit www.twitter.com/BrainTumour1000
- The challenge raised over £3,600 for The Brain Tumour charity, but more donations are desperately needed. Please give generously at www.bit.ly/BT1000