Train, train, sixteen coaches long….

Our tale this week begins at 0450 this morning, my designated waking time for Tuesdays, as the day starts in a warm and comfortable bed in Norwich, and gets me to a desk in Newcastle a few hours later, full of the sort of vim and vigour that you might expect of a fellow with a heavily interrupted sleep pattern.
And our journey takes us, initially, from Norwich to Peterborough, courtesy of the comedy train line that calls itself Greater Anglia. It is a little known fact (by which I mean that it’s a complete fabrication), that Abraham Mazlo first had his bright ideas on hierarchy of needs while travelling on the 0550 from Norwich to Newcastle. Idly sketching to pass the time, he drew a triangle, and put at the base of it all the things that were missing from his journey –  lighting, heating, tea, power sockets, wifi, 3G, working toilets, something to look out of the window at, and so on, and before he knew it he had the bottom of his picture filled in. 
Sort these things out, figured Abe, and we’ll be able to talk about things like the human condition and purposefulness of thought, without too much worry at all.  
Anyway, accompanying me on this journey this morning was my eldest son’s bicycle, which he’d kindly asked me to take up to him in Newcastle that morning. So I’d pedalled it furiously down to the station at 0530, cutting quite a dash in a bizarre combination of cycling and work clothing, and popped it onto the train and locked it into position before you could say ‘first come first served’. Which is, verbatim, the Greater Anglia process for carrying bicycles on trains.  
All was good, and I settled down for the light combination of early morning emails and occasional naps that the journey allows, and awoke a few minutes before we pulled into the station at Peterborough.   And that’s when the problems started. Did I mention that I’d locked the bike to the train? Yes, but I hadn’t mentioned that I’d done it with a lock I’d liberated from the garage late the night before. Funny, I thought, as I put it in my bag, that one of the kids would just put a perfectly good (albeit cheap) lock in a drawer and not use it. Unfortunately, now was the time I found out that it was not a perfectly good lock. Although I knew the combination, it jammed. It was still jammed when the train doors opened. It was still jammed when one of my fellow travellers kept the door open to stop the train leaving, and it was still jammed when a member of the Peterborough station staff, almost apoplectic with rage, told all parties that the train must, must, must, leave on time. And the door was shut. Ten seconds later the bike was unlocked, and I found myself en route to Liverpool Lime street.   
And it is at this point, dear reader*, that when I expected my day to be heading for something of a decline, that things started getting better. 
This is what happened:  
I asked the conductor of the train for some help. She helped me. She told me to get off at the next stop (Grantham) and get a train to Newark. She printed from her ticket machine a revised journey from Grantham to Newark to Newcastle. I asked her if I’d be charged, and she said probably not, but wrote on the back of the ticket a message for future conductors. I have the ticket in front of me now, and I’m afraid I can’t actually read any of the words, which is a drawback. I have this problem generally with people with bad writing – my wife’s writing is appalling and I do have to second guess any cards she sends me – I tend to read them as ‘you’re the only thing that matters to me and I would like you to shower kisses on my upturned and eager face’ but for all I know, they may actually say ‘please see below for details of my solicitor, I’m having the house and you can keep that ridiculous car’. Similarly, this ticket may well say ‘this man is clearly deranged and doesn’t deserve to be in charge of a bicycle lock, never mind a bicycle’, but I like to think that it’s more like ‘please give safe and unpunished passage to this bloke who’s had a bit of bad luck and the world will be a better place’.  
Then I get off in Grantham. (Never thought I’d write those words down…) at which point the train waits for a good 5 minutes as it has got in early, thanks to its speedy departure from Peterborough. A man in a uniform calls across the tracks, and asks me if I’ve got a reservation for my bike. What I say is ‘no, I’ve missed my connection’. What I think is ‘gawp help us, what I really need now is a bloody jobsworth getting in my face’. He asks me to bring my bike across the footbridge, and I lug it over, expecting the worst. The worst doesn’t happen, he just explains that I need to pop into the ticket office and get bike reservations. This is very easy to do, I come out and he tells me that he’ll phone all my stations and make sure that the guard’s van is opened. That’s why they need reservations, on this train line, as otherwise you wouldn’t be able to get your bike on and off the train.  
And a man turns up next to me for the Newark train, and he unlocks the guard’s van, lets me get my bike on, and I hop into my carriage, which, this not being a Greater Anglia train is heated, lit, with a power supply, and before I get my coat off there’s a nice bloke asking me if I’d like a cup of tea. Which I do.    
And the conductor comes by and I steel myself for another difficult discussion about penalty fares, I start explaining myself, and she says ‘oh, that’s alright sir, you’re the one with the bike. Don’t worry, we’ll look after you’.  I’m not expecting to hear that level of reassurance and comfort again until I finally make it into a care home. Actually, I need to rethink that – given that my children are likely to have a pretty key part in the choice of where I spend my soup dribbling years, and given that I’ve tried to impress on them that every part of their leisure time should be spent in spartan pursuit of healthy improvement or quality of reading (advice that they’ve largely ignored), it’s pretty likely that they’ll get their own back by choosing something less comfortable as a fitting retaliation. So perhaps I’ll never hear that soft assurance again, which would be a shame.  
I bowl into Newcastle only 45 minutes after my original target, which was pretty good going. #1 was there to meet me.  
“Have you got a lock?”, I ask him 
“Yes, I bought a cheap one yesterday”, he said, showing me a TK Maxx bag.  
His turn next then.    
*evening dear. Don’t forget to put the bins out.

Spot the happy cyclist

How can you spot a happy cyclist? goes the old joke. Count the number of flies on his teeth,  goes the old answer.

And this particular cyclist is currently scratching off a large number of flies from his teeth (not to mention hair, shirt and legs) after a pleasantly challenging two and a half days in the saddle with the lovely Mrs E.

An emotional start to the journey as we waved goodbye to jr emu#1, to start his new life in the quiet, reserved city of Newcastle, where almost nothing is likely to lead him astray from his studies, and then we set off on what would prove to be a fairly ambitious plan to cycle from Newcastle to Edinburgh.

There are some things that by now I should have learnt about planning cycling trips. You need to build in a bit more contingency, for example, to your journey than if you go by car, as if you get a problem or go in the wrong direction, it can take you ages to recover. You need to look at the weather forecast a bit more carefully and a bit more skeptically than you might otherwise do, as you kind of need to know which way the wind is blowing. And, particularly if you decide that the ideal vehicle for your journey is a single speed bike, you ought to have a quick look at the terrain. These were all very useful planning tips that we completely ignored and may well ignore again, as was our first mistake when leaving Newcastle.

Mistake number one: When asking for directions, never ask a car driver.

Specifically, never ask a Newcastle car driver the way to Tynemouth. They’re likely to tell you to take the coast road, which is about as unfriendly a start to the journey as you can imagine. I’ve spent a bit of time in the last few weeks thinking about where I want to live for the rest of my life and I’m afraid the coast road to Tynemouth, which appears to be the busiest and most industrial road in the northeast,  isn’t going to feature anywhere near the top ten. But, after that inauspicious start, we turned left when we got to the sea and started pedalling North.

The coast and castles cyclepath is part of the SUSTRANS network of bike routes around the country, and basically takes you through terrain that by turn is not suitable for mountain bikes, road bikes, children or anyone with any sense of sanity running in their family. But the bits are kind of stitched together in a ‘we haven’t got any money so we’ll see if we can link together some tarmac, footpath, A roads and sheep fields with neat little blue stickers’ style. And if you can put up with that, it’s just great fun.

Heading up from Tynemouth, we got as far as Newbiggin by the sea, found our B&B, and headed into town to see just how wild a Friday night in Newbiggin could be. Relatively tame, it would turn out, a few kids on skateboards and a bit of aimless adolescence by what is apparently Britain’s  longest promenade, but that was about it. Even the curry house (‘can we get a table for 8?’ ‘No, you’ll have to wait until 9, we’re really busy on Fridays’), seemed really quiet, with about a dozen people in with their heads together, in the sort of hushed reverence that I don’t think I’ve seen before in a curry house on a Friday night. 

Had an interesting conversation the next morning with a couple of Australians, who’d been in Newbiggin for 3 days, apparently to recapture the husband’s roots.

 ‘It was pretty easy’ he told us. ‘There’s two family names in Newbiggin, and one of them’s mine’.

 I asked if he’d been able to trace any relatives in the churchyard headstones.

‘No mate, the sea’s worn away the writing, and that’s just the one’s that haven’t sunk’.

Wasn’t really sure what he meant by this, so we biked up to the graveyard by the church overlooking the sea, and sure enough, there were loads of headstones with only a few inches of granite above the grass. And those that you could see looked as if they’d been wiped clean. Now, if I was a tad more pretentious, I could make some profound statement about the analogy of life and remembrance. Fortunately, that’s not going to happen here.

So onto the big day, which I’d rather optimistically calculated at 70 miles, and which turned out to be the sharp side of 80.  We pretty much hugged the coastline, seeing a few castles on the way, hitting some fabulous country around Amble, Boulmer, Embleton, Seahouses and Bamburgh, where we ate about half our body weight in panhagerty pie, while fielding questions about what we were doing.

Kindly waitress:  ‘Are you doing this for charity or for pleasure?’

Mrs E: ‘Neither’

Past Holy Island, and on towards Berwick on Tweed, (incorporating a fairly hairy spell on the A1), where I had to break the news to Mrs E that we were booked in to a hotel about 10 miles further north. And it was getting dark. And we didn’t have any lights. And she’d had the pleasure of #1 chastising her all the way up to Newcastle for not bringing a reflective bib or lights, as a payback for all the times we’d nagged him. Oh, and we had to go across the border into Scotland onto something spookily called Lamburton moor.

A couple of things you need for context here. All of the glasses in the Emu household are filled to exactly 50% of their capacity. Mine are half full, and as I look at them, my hat is on the side of my head, and I have fond memories of drinking them to this point, and enthusiastic expectations of drinks to come. Mrs E’s drinks, however, are very much half empty. Worse than that, they’re also in a chipped and cracked glass, with someone else’s lipstick on the rim, and occasionally a fag end in the bottom. Which is a bit of a shame, as the chivvying along that I try at times like these tends to get pushed back at me with a certain amount of interest added.

After we’d had the inevitable discussion about which parts of my wife’s anatomy hurt the most (in reverse order, the top five were: back, knees, wrists, bottom and bottom), we then had a hearty chat about how her bike wasn’t really up to the job. She described it on one of the hills as like ‘pedalling a dressing table uphill’. Now, Mrs E and I have few secrets, but we did both have a life before we met, and it may well be that she has some experience of pedalling dressing tables. I know for sure that when moving house she once went up Gas Hill in Norwich on a sofa being pulled by a mini van, so she may well have worked her way out of motorised soft furnishings and into self propelled bedroom furniture, so I tried not to argue. Or indeed, to point out that I was doing the whole exercise with one gear. I think I offered to swap bikes at one point, but for some reason this didn’t seem to be perceived as much of an olive branch.

But with the light fading, we started what would end up being about a 6 mile descent into Eyemouth, and even Mrs E cheered up at the prospect of a pretty fab hotel and a seemingly unlimited supply of 7.5% cider.

Day three, and we were keen to try out both a new concept and a new word. We’d invented the word ‘Companyful’ the day before on one of those stretches where we had the path to ourselves, it was wide enough to cycle side by side, and to was comfortable to ride, and enjoy each other’s company . Perhaps a little twee, but I think it’ll catch on. Try a companyful  ride yourself some time. So we were looking for as much of that as we could, but unfortunately the fates were against us. You know those pictures of God controlling the winds that you see sometimes in religious drawings, where this great omnipotent being puffs out his cheeks and breathes a gale all over the world? Well, He was at it again, and although occasionally He may have looked back on an eternity of cigar and pipe smoking and run out of puff, it was only for an instant, and He was at it again almost straight away.

Well, at least we got a few sympathetic looks from fellow cyclists as we were on our way. These were, inevitably, the ones travelling at 30mph in the opposite direction without having to pedal. Particularly in Northumberland, people really went out of their way to say hello, and in a fairly peculiar way – typically their face breaks into a grin, then they jerk their head to the side and then across as a gesture of goodwill. Unfortunately, this not only acts as a friendly hello, but also looks like the early onset of Parkinson’s disease or some sort of stroke. Thinking about it, I’m worried now that it wasn’t a greeting at all, in which case there’s a real worry for the southern bound ramblers and cyclists of Northumberland.

As a result, we spent pretty much 60 miles in single file to Edinburgh, but stretches like the drop into the cove before Torness or the railway path near Tranent made it all pretty much worthwhile. If you take the train along this route (the coastal bike path crosses the train track half a dozen or so times, so it’s pretty much the same), you’ll blink and miss some of this stuff, but it’s  a fabulous coastline, with deep blue seas, cliff tops and coves, and only a couple of enormous power stations and cement factories to get in the way of the view.

Passing through Cockenzie, we found ourselves in the middle of the reenactment of the battle of Prestonpans, which was taking place in the rather odd setting of the field next to the power station. Knowing nothing about the battle, I assumed it was one of those contests involving knocking back the sassenach invaders, so I looked it  up, and, surprise, surprise, that’s pretty much what it was. But everyone seemed to be having a whale of a time, if you judge people’s happiness by randomly firing muskets and sitting on horses in Jacobean costume looking rather miserable, but for all I know, it may well have been the party that they’d been waiting to go to all year.

And so, after miles and miles into a bloody awful headwind, we hit Edinburgh, and, weaving our way through a million tourists, onto a train that neatly deposited us back in Newcastle an hour and half later. A bit demoralising when you think it had taken us two and a half days to go as far as a train goes in 90 minutes, but as far as I could see from the train ride, the driver had very few hills to contend with. Oh, and he had the wind behind him all the way.