Part two of Harry Mottram’s cycle ride to Scotland at a dig at Threave Castle when the UK looked like North Africa

After cycling the 100 miles to Weobley in Herefordshire from Somerset on day one on my way to Scotland and an archeaological dig at Threave Castle I awoke at my sister Alex’s house at dawn. After a breakfast of cereal I got back on my bicycle (or rather my mother’s bicycle) and set off along the A49 and the A4112 to Tenbury Wells with the plan to reach Sheffield by nightfall some 140 miles away. It was six in the the morning and the sun was up and set for another blazingly hot day.

Looking back now I find it hard to believe that I thought it was possible due to the incredible heat of that summer of ‘76 to cycle more than 100 miles every day. Sticking to the A roads – as there were no cycle lanes or Sustrans National Cycle routes in 1976 – I made steady progress ticking off the towns and cities of England on my old AA handbook map. I had written out the route on a piece of paper so I was confident of not making any wrong turns.

In those days there were far fewer bypasses, complex road junctions and diversions which made my journey more straightforward. So I simply looked for the next town on my route on the signposts and followed them – with the first major one being Kidderminster. I had heard of the football team Kidderminster Harriers and that was about all I knew of the town. What I found was something that has slowly disappeared from town centres since then: essentially a race track past the shops as cars, lorries and vans zoomed past the historic buildings in a time when planners put motorists first and pedestrians second – and cyclists not even considered.

If you look at a road map of the Midlands in the 1970s there’s since been a proliferation of dual carriageways, motorways, spine roads, relief roads new roads as the suburbs has spread out linking up towns and villages. Dudley, Wednesday and Walsall were ticked off as the sun climbed high in the July day. I remember stopping more than once to knock on a door of a resident to ask for a refill of tap water. They were always friendly but made the same joke: “Better not spill it as there’s hardly any left.”

The drought had turned the English countryside into a bleached semi arid North African landscape where once green fields were dusty yellowy white spaces between yellow brown hedges as the leaves fell as the trees and bushes became distressed.

I listened to my transistor radio perched precariously in my front bag for news of the West Indian cricket team’s progress that summer as they played England in sub-tropical weather – familiar to the tourists.
And there was my usual interest in the news in an age before the 24 hours current affairs cycle. Peter Hobday with the World At One on BBC Radio 4 with reports of dried up reservoirs and plans to install stand pipes in the streets or the PM Programme with its merry jingle and the Government’s Denis Howell suggesting people should share bath water or even Alistair Cooke’s Letter from America pointing out the Brits don’t have air conditioning – a thing I didn’t even know existed.

And I had a portable cassette player – something of an innovation at the time – an audio device that had set me back £13 from the Radio Shop in Seaton the year before. On it I had recorded some of my favourite albums from The Jimi Hendrix Experience to John Mayall’s Blues Breakers – and in complete contrast Elton John and the Beach boys. Although with the constant rumble of traffic it was hard to hear much – and I didn’t have headphones.

I’ve always found that I don’t feel particularly hungry when cycling long distances. Instead with only a few pence in my pocket – and this was before meal deals in supermarkets – which then were not the ubiquitous 7-11 stores they are now – it was small grocery shops and petrol stations when I satisfied my sugar cravings with Aztec bars, Milkyways and Jelly Babies.

The A38 north of Birmingham as it heads towards Derby was even then very busy – with a constant stream of lorries, Ford Cortinas and Bedford vans – and yet it didn’t faze me as I peddled along on mum’s bicycle with its five gears. No cycle helmet, no hi-vis clothing or lycra – just jeans and a t-shirt and a pair of daps for footwear.

The cooling towers at West Burton power station slowly came into view by the afternoon as I pressed onwards towards Chesterfield, Clay Cross and around seven o’clock I arrived at my friend’s house in Sheffield.

I had met Gabby in Cornwall on an archaeological dig at Launceston Castle and she’d given me an open invite to call in when passing – so I had written her a letter giving her a rough idea of when I’d be cycling north – but she was very surprised when I knocked on her door in Broomspring Lane.

Gabby, her house mates (and her previously unmentioned boy friend) were very welcoming and I wheeled my bike into the hallway – as I didn’t have a lock and they said ‘this is Sheffield it’ll disappear.’

It was a shared house of female art students and my abiding memory was sleeping on the floor of the living room surrounded by bras, knickers and jeans hanging on the furniture to dry. Supper was peanut butter on toast and a cup of tea. No wonder we were all so slim back then.

The following day was to be my third on the road – and setting off while Gabby and her house mates were still in bed I headed out of town in the direction of Huddersfield on my journey to Scotland. I didn’t make Scotland that day but ended up on Shap Fell sleeping in a field of cows on the edge of a cliff. Note to self – always check the land when you wild camp.

Rapscallion Magazine is an online publication edited by Harry Mottram

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