The author supporting the ladder!
POPE’S PILGRIMAGE – BROUGHT TO YOU BY OUR ON-THE-SPOT CORRESPONDENT - John Holden - Support team
It is hard to know where to start. Words almost fail me. That alone says something about the horror of it all. One is reminded of John Simpson, doyen of the evening TV news broadcasts - accomplished journalist, suave, sophisticated, master of his studio situation, perhaps even a little smug – deciding that a true reporter needs to get out in the field occasionally. And then cut to pictures of John Simpson, our roving reporter, live from Northern Iraq, with blood-splattered trousers against a background of burning vehicles. So it was with your scribe. The blood was there, the sense of impending doom, the overnight ageing, the loss of innocence. All in the cause of on-the-spot reportage.
Then think of Jerome K. Jerome and Three Men in a Boat. Or the Last of the Summer Wine. It was all these. Of course, a rational being, wanting to start from Land’s End at lunch time, would not set out at midnight from Ladies Night. No Sir! He would go home, grab a few hours kip, and set off early in the morning to arrive by noon. But hey, who said anything about rational beings? So a midnight departure it was to be, followed – supposedly - by a few hours sleep at Land’s End as it grew light and the car park started to fill with the type of nutter who finds Land’s End in the early morning fascinating.
Two things became immediately clear. Sharing a caravan with our Mo is not a good idea. A herd of heffers on the rampage would be barely audible above the thunderous trumpeting of Mo in repose. Sharing a caravan with Mike isn’t a good idea either. Mike doesn’t do repose. Mike does hyper-activity. Preferably on several things at once. Untidily. Mike would need a caravan the size of his grain store before there would be clear space. And still he would be pushed to find things. A week or two in a caravan with Mo, yours truly and Diane – his co-cyclist, who remains largely blameless in this saga - was going to require survival skills on the Big Brother scale.
Anyway, off we went, with a good send-off from Mounts Bay Rotary. Mike and Diane are on their cycles, Mo at the wheel of Mike’s motor, bikes on top, caravan behind, me keeping Mo broadly on the right road. Now I am not going to spoil Mike’s tale by giving you chapter and verse here. I will instead content myself with a few small vignettes, as we settled into our routine. Mike and Diane set off early each morning after an unspeakable breakfast of “performance food”, whatever that might mean. Mo and I follow with the caravan after a more leisurely start, clearing up the worst of the mess, hitching up the caravan, finding the essential items “lost” since the afternoon before, packing the tent. (Your scribe quickly took to retiring to a tent in a bid – only partly successful - to get to sleep.)
We would pass the intrepid cyclists, sweating up hill and careering down dale and stop in a lay-by to administer ice packs and offer words of solace and generally congratulate ourselves on not being on cycles too. (If God had intended us to ride bicycles, he would surely not have put our vital equipment in its present position.) Sometimes, we would get a slightly longer interlude. Once, I recall, was atop Dartmoor in the warm sunshine, listening to the skylarks wheeling and the ponies munching. Idyllic.
It is in situations like this that you learn more about your fellow Rotarians. There is no doubt in my mind that, had Mike been born in a previous generation, he would – topically speaking - have been first up the beach on D-Day, intrepid and unstoppable. But then someone else would have found the landing spot and pointed him in the right direction. Mike doesn’t do navigation. Nor does he give way at roundabouts. (Well, in his shoes, would you?) Nor does he have anywhere on the cycle to fix a map. Diane has a map holder. But she must ride a few paces behind so that Mike can take in the road ahead. So when Mike takes a wrong turning in Tavistock after Diane has very properly adhered to the rules of the road and fallen back some way, all she can do is shout hopefully into the wind after him.
Result: Mo and I have an extra half hour in the sun on Dartmoor while Mike explores alternative routes to the same spot. Nonetheless, by their Tuesday lunchtime feast of bananas and Mars bars, Cornwall and Dartmoor are behind them. After Truro and Tavistock, it is Taunton. The support team get to do what we do best, assessing good pubs for the evening meal, preferably by testing them at lunchtime, having first found our pitch in the intended caravan park, set up the caravan and put the kettle on.
Wednesday is Mike’s big PR bash at Bristol airport, after which it is over the old Severn Bridge and up through the Wye Valley to Monmouth and on to Hereford. It is here that he saves both his venture and the roof of his expensive motor car as Mo endeavours to drive it under a 6’6” barrier – still with three cycles on top. I am told it only took one word – “Stop!” Such is the power and economy of the English language in such unexpected hands.
The lack of sleep – for reasons already alluded to – and a couple of long days’ riding take their toll. But Friday is another lovely day through what must surely be some of England’s most delightful and unspoilt scenery – the A. E. Housman country where Herefordshire borders Shropshire and the Welsh Marches – to Shrewsbury, where we are again met by the local Rotary club.
Saturday is another story. The route takes our intrepid cyclists through Whitchurch, Warrington and Wigan to the depths of post-industrial Lancashire, near Chorley. Will they get there? Will they find their way? Will they be understood by the natives? Will the increasing threat of rain come to much? The omens are not good. Mike has a puncture. The support team turn around; but all is well. Mike has found a spare inner tube and fitted it. We are enjoined to find the other five spares. But to no avail. We turn car and caravan upside down. No inner tubes of the right size are to be found anywhere. Let’s hope that’s the last puncture. Otherwise it is the other bicycle.
Half an hour later and the phone rings again. Another puncture. The support team turn back again and lift down the spare cycle for Mike’s use. But where are the spare inner tubes? Frantic phone calls to Carol reveal that they are there at home on the kitchen table! Well, for Heaven’s sake, who needs extra inner tubes when setting off on a 1,000 mile cycle ride without a puncture repair kit?
Caravan parks to this point have proved quite classy affairs. The kind of place you might not be surprised to find people like, say, Walter and Jackie in. Nice loos, good setting; that sort of thing. Chorley’s is in a different league. It’s big and brash, noisy and nouveau not-quite-riche. Sort of footballers’ wives, second division style. So it is with some trepidation that we await our cyclists from our pitch, conveniently close to the ablutions. They duly arrive, tired after a long day; but a short drive to the local restaurant provides relaxation before we all turn in to our respective bunks, Mo and I having drained the dregs of the bottle of wine to allow the cyclists to get their heads down first.
Sleep is slow in coming with a party going on a few caravans away. It is disturbed at 2 a.m. by an incessant and very loud ringing of a bell close at hand. From the direction of the disabled toilet and shower. Hm. Mike is in his bunk, having just returned from a clomp around. But where is Mo? Mo reappears, ashen white in his underpants. A frightful sight to behold. Having used the disabled loo, he has endeavoured to turn off the light, as any thoughtful person would. Unfortunately, the light-pull isn’t. It is the emergency cord. Mike and Diane, exhausted by the day’s ride, don’t want any of this. Mo stands bemused, as well he might. I mutter the well-worn schoolboy ditty, “If £5 you can afford, try your strength and pull the cord. If £5 you do not own, leave the bloody thing alone.” Not helpful.
A quick recce reveals no hint of a fuse box, a trip switch or similar, and no access whatsoever to the bell in its enclosed box, high on the outside wall. The bell continues to ring. Fortunately, no one appears. Fortunately? Mike or even Maurice could have bled to death on the floor, for all the help they would have had. Mind you, by the look of some of the caravanners, Mike or Maurice could still have bled to death had any of the aforesaid, their sleep so rudely disturbed, laid hands on the most likely suspects. How this saga was resolved need not detain us here. Suffice to say that, within two minutes of silence being restored and we four collapsing back into our bunks, Mo was once again straining the caravan’s rivets with his vibrato.
Sunday was intended to be a short day: a nice easy ride up the A6 through Preston and Lancaster and God’s own county to Kendal. So it proved for the support team, who could start to think of beloved ones left behind and home cooking again; possibly less so for our cyclists after their shattered night’s rest. Nonetheless, by 2p.m. we were established in a delightful caravan park on the banks of the river near Kendal. The new support team arrived with Carol and, in the manner of the last scene of Cosi fan Tutte, harmony was restored all around.
Whether Mike and Diane reach their destination or not is unknown to me as I write this, fresh back from the north of England. I would, however, be extremely surprised if they do not, such is their evident spirit and determination. (I can now report that Mike did, as expected. Diane, sadly, was forced to stop against her will and was admitted to hospital in Inverness with pneumonia, having completed much the major part and certainly the most difficult part of the journey. A great shame.) N.B. She finished the ride in August when x-rays gave her a photo of clear lungs.
I hope they will be richer for the experience. The St. John Ambulance certainly will be. And for those who read this piece who have sponsored Mike, he has undoubtedly earned your money by the sweat of his brow. If you haven’t yet sponsored him, there is still time! I have as ever taken the mickey out of Maurice, but his fellowship and support for an old friend are a credit to him and testament to what I understand of the Rotary ideal. As for me, I found it a thoroughly interesting and often funny few days. Educational too, to see Mo at work, ladling on the charm and negotiating “free of charge” at caravan sites in the cause of Mike’s charity. Under Maurice’s expert tuition, I even learnt the rudiments of reversing a caravan. But I don’t want to see another (or a bicycle for that matter) for at least a year!