450 Miles of Hard Road (Filming a music video by riding the length of the country whilst raising money for Cancer Research)

September 28, 2017

Riding through the countryside along unmade canal tow paths desperately trying to make up the time.  The light is fading fast and I soon descend (along with the temperature) into the pitch black of the Hertfordshire countryside. I’m just glad I bothered sticking that little LED on the front of my bike. Still, my eyes strain to see the path ahead while the odd interior light of canal boats in the distance help give me some sense of comfort, bearing, and company. Phone battery is as good as dead with about 3% left on the screen, so I’m literally counting bridges to know where to go or when to turn. 

I remember thinking that this particular situation could literally be someone else's worst nightmare, at which point the wing of something brushes against my helmet. Then another, and before I know it, I’m ploughing through what seemed like a flock of bats (or maybe birds?) whilst precariously guiding my wheels along the thin trail inches from the murky water below on my left. No room for error. 

One of them does an aerobatic manoeuvre and swoops down somehow between the frame of my moving bike and my static arms which are firmly gripped to my handlebars.

My first night ride and what a way to introduce myself to it. 

Two hours and around 13 bridges and 7 locks later, I left the canal path and turned to the heavenly street lights of Leighton Buzzard of which I gratefully bathed in. With sight flooding back into my eyes, I felt like singing at the top of my lungs as I rode through the deserted quiet market town. I got to my destination at 10.45pm that night knowing that the ride could only get easier from here on despite me only being on day 2. 

 

The whole idea of the ride came from a conversation about making a music video. I figured the song sounded like someone riding a bike on a meaningful journey. It soon transpired that I’d be that ‘someone’ and that I ought to ride it in memory of my Aunt who passed away 6 months ago. She would after all have been one of the first people to hear my new record and in some ways even half inspired me to write the song in the first place. 

If we could also raise some money for charity along the way then even better. It all seemed pretty obvious and written in the stars. 

Still, all good intentions aside, there’s no getting away from the fact that we’d set a 450 mile challenge that on paper made no sense, especially for someone as unfit and inexperienced as me. The Isle of Sheppey in Kent to Holy Island in Northumbria with just over a week to pull it off. 

 

I got the bike 2 weeks before the ride itself spending everything we had on a Norco Adventure Road Bike. In between rehearsals and gigs, I’d take myself out on it and knock out a few rides around the Isle of Sheppey.  I managed to get a few 12 mile rides and a couple of 20 milers under my belt hoping I’d just about build a little muscle in my scrawny legs, toughen up my nether regions and become comfortably accustomed to my new Lycra look. I remember a few of these ‘training’ exercises to be pretty testing leading me to doubt whether I’d actually even be able to pull the first leg of the ride off; a 40+ miler into London (let alone the whole country). 

 

 

 

Day 1 

 

Sure enough, the big day of departure came around and the weather couldn’t have been any more dull and uninviting. I set off from Sheppey at 9am on the 5th Sept over the old iconic Kings Ferry bridge and we had a talented film maker (Mitch) on board to document the moment. We also used his time to capture a few other nice shots while we could gathering footage to perhaps splice into other bits of the final music video. In order to do that though, I hadn’t actually realised or accounted for the fact that I’d have to initially ride around quiet country roads clocking up meaningless miles before even setting off on the big ride. By the time I actually got going, it was about 1pm and my legs were already pretty knackered. 

I spent the rest of the afternoon riding through Kent and it’s Medway towns which was both fascinating and revealing,  especially from my two wheeled perspective. At one point, I came head to head in the rain with another cyclist going in the opposite direction and offered to give him way not realising that in order to do so I’d have to bury my exposed left leg in a blanket of stinging nettles. I paid a penalty for being considerate. It wasn’t the most scenic of rides into London and a lot of it was uphill in the pouring rain and wind. Come 8pm I was so grateful to have reached my first stop. 

 

Day 2

 

I started the day by riding for about an hour from Woolwich to Waterloo Station where I was due to meet Mitch to carry on getting a few more shots for the video. I’ve never ridden a bike properly through London so that was a pretty interesting and at times a somewhat hairy experience. 

We spent the next few hours capturing footage of me riding along the Thames and going past other iconic buildings and streets.

 

 

By the time we were done it was 3pm and I knew there was a serious chance I was going to fuck things up royally in terms of my actual ride. Still, as I always do with my ‘cross that bridge when I come to it’ mentality, I proceeded on my merry way setting off from Trafalgar Square. 

I knew I had to ‘man-up’ and get to grips with the heavy London traffic quickly if there was any chance I’d reach my next stop on time. I saw an older cyclist whizz past me in amongst the cabs and buses as I set myself onto the road. I figured I’d use him as my guide and inspiration. No more than 2 minutes later he turned a corner and by the time I had him in my sight again he’d gone hurtling over a barrier, clattering onto the tarmac bringing everything to a standstill. Along with every witness, he was definitely in shock and so I rode on a little further to notify some paramedics on motorbikes who happened to be just up the road. It was a pretty crazy initiation and made me think twice about just how urgently I needed to ride through the city’s busiest bowels. 

The road heading North West out of London seemed to last forever and there were several occasions where I wouldn’t recommend anyone riding it for fun. By the time I reached Watford and got out of the M25 tarmac ring fence, I was glad to see the back of the city. 

I thought I’d really accomplished something that day by navigating myself from one side of the capital to the other but that was nothing compared to the set of challenges I faced once I’d lost daylight and was left to fend for myself on those dark countryside canals with nothing but bridges and a few screenshots as my guide. 

I started riding that day at 9am and finished at 10.45pm. 

 

Day 3 

 

Billy (also aptly officially registered as a ’William James’) joined me on the ride, happy to do it for the crack as well offering to film some of it on a GoPro. With him being more of a seasoned cyclist, I was glad I wasn’t having to entirely rely on myself and was so happy to have his positive attitude and company on board. 

 

 

 

We pushed ourselves pretty hard that day as we carved out a route from Leighton Buzzard to South Leicester. The cycle path occasionally led us into a few very long disused railway tunnels where the temperature and light dropped rapidly. We weren’t really equipped for them and we just prayed we wouldn’t hit a pot hole in the chilling pitch black. At one point, I took my eye away from the light at the end of the tunnel (literally) and saw a massive and well preserved dead rat in front of my tyre which I luckily just missed. 

We concluded the day by riding along an 8 mile A-road through the night and it was enough to break us both, especially as we hadn’t stopped for dinner and that the weather seemed to be continually worsening. Headlights would appear without warning and then vanish again in an instant. Between us, we had 2 LEDs on our bikes which were still just about operating. Fortunatley I had a rear light while Billy had a front so we rode closely in tandem. It was stupid and unsafe on our part but we didn’t really have any other options. When we passed a sign for a Premier Inn, we both decided we’d split it and just make do. Upon entering our sanctuary for the night, we discovered Bill had 3 thorns in his front tyre but luckily it hadn’t fully deflated until we were off that damn road. 

 

 

 

Day 4

 

We set off in the early morning knowing I was booked to play a gig that evening at the Whitwell Festival of Music approximately 65 miles north. Most of that day felt like a massive blur as we ploughed on through Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire.

 

 

 

Mansfield was a lot of fun though and we made the most of its long hill’s towards the town centre, weaving in and out of traffic and bombing through it like it was a suburban race course.

We got to the festival at about 6pm leaving me 2 hours to prepare for my slot.

Picking up my guitar and doing my thing on a decent stage to a hugely receptive audience was actually pretty overwhelming. Everyone at Whitwell was really generous too when they’d learnt about my journey. There was no mega party that night. 3 beers and I was done. On top of selling a decent amount of merchandise after my slot, a collection had gone round and we had a further £70 donated to the cause. 

The constant movement of the ride in general is like an assault on the senses so to top it off by doing something so different but equally as mentally intense (playing a gig) kind of finished me off. 

 

Day 5

 

Getting back on the saddle that morning was painful. It was another grim morning and more heavy rain was forecast throughout the day. We had 70+ miles to get through but once we got going we were generally pretty focussed. 

By this point, we’d worked out that the only way we’d hit our target would be to stagger our journey and set ourselves markers for breaks every 15-20 miles. It was physically and psychologically important. 

The ride to and from York was one that really stood out and we were blown away by what a stunning place it is even if we never really got to set foot in it. 

We booked ourselves into a campsite, 11 miles North of York and I swear those last 11 miles might as well have been 30. 

It was Billy’s last night with me on the ride so we had a few beers to celebrate riding 200 miles together in 3 days. 

Together, we’d not only experienced the heartlands of the country but pushed ourselves through some serious physical and mental barriers which perhaps only we will understand. 

 

Day 6

 

With the weather on my side (for once) it all seemed to be going so well and come 2pm, I stopped for a pub lunch well ahead of my usual schedule. Whilst charging up my phone, I got talking to the guys in the pub and several of them rallied together to put another £15 into the charity kitty which was a really nice touch. 

I was really focussed on keeping a steady pace that day right up until I had my first accident on the bike. I was heading off road through some woods when I got to the top of a very steep decline on a massive hill. The rain was chucking down and I stopped to consider whether I should have taken a different route. Considering the circumstances, I decided to take the quick route and get it over and done with albeit at the slowest speed possible. One thing lead to another and I lost control, stacking it over the handlebars and landing heavily in the stony mud. The whole thing happened so slowly that it was actually pretty lame. Still, that didn’t stop my left leg from opening up and exposing the deep white flesh below my knee. I knew immediately that I might require stitches so I kept the leg straight and washed as much mud away from the area as possible. The whole thing was a real mess with blood making its way towards my ankles. Getting off that steep muddy bank with one leg and a bike was a real challenge and I was greeted at the bottom of it by more stinging nettles to wade through. I walked a few miles all the while keeping the leg straight before clambering back on the bike once the trail was more manageable. A large insect then decided it’d be a great time to bury itself in my left eye. 

I managed to knock out the final 10 miles of the days journey by generally pedalling with one leg which once again pushed me to my limits both physically and mentally. 

If there was one thing I’d learnt on the ride so far it was that when physical pain generally hits its constant threshold, its up to the mind to decide whether it can stomach any more. 

Katie tucked into the contents of the campervan’s first aid kit for the first time and dressed the wound up the best she could.

 

 

 

Day 7 

 

My first puncture made itself known when I woke up that day, which isn’t bad going considering the milage. Heavily bandaged and adapting my riding stance to accommodate for the wound I carried on my journey towards the famous North East coast. In some ways, the gash in my leg helped distract me from the more inherent muscular pains I’d developed over the week.

The route that day couldn’t have been worse and I really struggled when trying to cycle through a muddy quarry instantly caking my tyres in thick mud. 

Coastal winds and driving rain followed as I got closer to the sea just North of Sunderland. By now, I was pretty used to the rain but the wind is a different animal altogether. It’s so disheartening when you are on a bike as it severs any form of momentum. In the end I only managed to knock out a measly 35 - 40 miles that day. 

 

I finished the day in a stunning Airbnb which was kindly offered to me and Katie at a discounted rate due to the ride. If anyone wants to visit that part of the world (Holy Island / Northumbria) and stay somewhere truly peaceful, then definitely check out: 

www.elmbankaccomodation.co.uk

 

Further more, a local resident came round that night and offered to give me a sports massage again for our charitable efforts. Mary Gunn is actually one of only 150 residents who actually live on the renowned Holy Island and runs her own independent holistic service. Along with restoring some feeling back into my legs, she was great company.

www.holyislandholistics.co.uk

 

The generosity of people up North is really beautiful. 

 

Day 8 

 

The final stretch of the journey. Because the previous day was so abysmal, it meant setting off a lot earlier than planned to make up the miles. The weather for once was actually great and it seemed a fitting end to the whole ordeal. 

 

 

I knew the whole thing was getting weird when I was peddling past traffic signs pointing towards Edinburgh. 

4-5 hours of cycling later and I began my final approach towards Holy Island for midday. The causeway onto the island is tidal dependent so when the tide is out a single lane road is exposed offering a route on and off for residents and visitors.

It was a surreal and stunning road to ride along with sand banks and the sea either side of me. There was even a descent onto it and a tailwind to really top things off. I was cruising along at speed and grinning all the way there. 

Mitch, who filmed the first stages of the ride a week previously was there to greet me and capture the conclusion of the journey. And then, just like that, it was all over. Finally. 

 

I didn’t have too much time to reflect on the accomplishment as I’d organised with family to scatter my Aunt’s ashes straight after the ride in a quiet bay on Holy Island. It was yet another pretty overwhelming day.  

 

Looking back now, I’m still a little baffled that I actually managed to pull it off. I learnt a lot that week and proved (at least to myself) that we’re all capable of some amazing things if we’re willing to push ourselves and truly focus our minds on the task at hand. There were a lot of people who doubted I’d actually do it which I can completely understand. 

I just hope that in time, the memory of the journey is preserved in the some of the footage and inspires others to tackle their own seemingly unthinkable challenges and ventures. 

What started as an idea for a music video ended becoming something far bigger than I could have ever imagined. The whole thing was a nice testament to my Aunt and we ended up raising over £2000 for Cancer Research; far more than I ever expected. Thank you if you donated. 

 

 

Big love, 

W

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