First published March 2014
In December 2013 I started turning some notes and photographs of a recent cycling tour of Scotland, Ireland and Wales into a series of blog posts that I entitled Cyclist on the Celtic Fringe. When I began the series I had very few followers, by the time I completed it we’d become a happy band. Here’s just one from when the journey took me near the Shropshire town of Telford.
On an earlier journey, I’d cycled through England telling stories. Armed with a bagful of improbable tales, I set off on a tour that had me following a winding route as I visited the schools who had booked me. In Dorset I enjoyed a week of reading, writing and tramping in the undercliff at Lyme Regis like some latter-day Charles Smithson. The return journey saw the “Storyteller on a Bicycle” call in at Exeter, Glastonbury, Wells and a small place near the Malvern Hills. I didn’t have any more bookings and had found an idyllic campsite – more a field where the local farmer was happy to let me put up a tent and get water from a tap in his yard – on the banks of the River Teme. It was one of those places where you are almost astonished at the beauty. I’d never heard of the Teme and wasn’t expecting such a perfect English river. Deciding to stay for a day or two, I rang home from a red telephone box (this was before mobile phones), to let T know my plans.
She was happy about this but informed me that a school in the Telford area had been in touch to book the Pedalling Tales Show. I’d Taken a break from full-time teaching to explore the possibilities of making a living out of performance and these shows were my sole income. I was a bit down at missing a few days in a secret Worcestershire valley but pedalled on towards Telford the following day. I’d offered the farmer some cash for the camping but he wouldn’t hear of it.
“What are the roads like between here and Telford?”
” Up and down like a pair of whore’s drawers.”
There wasn’t a flat bit of road the whole way and by the time I pulled into Ironbridge I was ready for a rest. I wasn’t ready for the bridge. It was breathtaking. I bought an ice-cream and sat on a bench and just looked at it.
There are many fine and lovely bridges in Britain; Tower Bridge in London, the Clifton Suspension Bridge near Bristol, The Forth Bridge just north of Edinburgh (I’m choosing from bridges I have crossed). These are all bridges that make you want to take a moment and just look at them. The Ironbridge keeps company with any bridge in the world. Its historical significance alone would include it. It also happens to be one of the most aesthetically perfect bridges I have ever seen. In certain lights, it casts its reflection into the waters of The Severn and makes a perfect circle. It was built to show off the potential of iron. It is one of the great monuments to the early stages of the industrial revolution. The elegance of the structure and the Romantic beauty of its setting combine to make it one of the great wonders of modern Britain. It’s a world heritage site, and deservedly so.
There’s no time to explore Coalbrookdale and the foundries and forges of a succession of Abraham Darbys. We return a year or two later on a special hotel deal that gives us a comfortable room, plenty of breakfast and an open ticket to all of the museums in the Ironbridge area. There are plenty. I’m not always a great enthusiast for museums but these are fantastic. There are plenty of visitors of all ages and backgrounds and nobody is bored. I’m thrilled to be at the very place I’d read about in a dozen history books; the place where the first Abraham Darby decided to smelt iron with coke rather than charcoal and changed the world. Children enjoy the wide open grassy spaces, the hands-on, interactive exhibits and visiting shops and funfairs at Blists Hill Victorian Town.
I pedal away from Ironbridge and find a campsite near Dawley, where the manager tuts and rolls his eyes at the name of the school I’m heading for in the morning and reluctantly gives me directions. Seems like all I need to do to find it is to get on a cycle route called The Silkin Way and I can’t go wrong.
At eight thirty the following morning I’m packed up and pedalling along the Silkin Way. Everything is rosy. I’m heading for a place called Trench to tell some stories and then I’m heading for home. By nine o’clock I’m hopelessly lost. The route looked very simple on the map but in reality, kept dividing and at each fork in the road I seem to have chosen unwisely. I find a telephone and ring up the school to say I may be a little late. The receptionist takes my message but obviously doesn’t know who I am, nor that I am expected.
I have my first thought of not bothering; of just pedalling right on by and heading for Staffordshire. I suppress this. It shouldn’t be too difficult to find a school if I can find the area of town the school is in. It shouldn’t be too difficult to find that area if I can find the centre of town. (I’m coming from the south, Trench is in the north of Telford). Finding a town centre should be easy.
It wasn’t. It simply didn’t exist; at least on that particular morning. Telford is actually several towns combined and there are several town centres. Right in the middle, where most towns have main shopping streets, parish churches and council offices, Telford had an industrial park, a railway station and an awful lot of wasteland.
I’m sure I’m doing the town a disservice, but this is what I encountered. I determined to give it ten minutes and then give up. I’d cycled eight hundred miles, camped out twenty nights, told a hundred stories, run a dozen storytelling workshops and nicely covered my expenses. I was rapidly losing my enthusiasm. It’s still the rush hour and I’m in the middle of a major town and there is absolutely nobody about. I push on through some alleys and come out on the main road. Cars thunder by. I hope for a road sign to Trench and cycle to some traffic lights. Patience has run out. I’ve decided to head for home when an older man pulls up next to me on a mountain bike. Before the lights change I ask if he knows how to get to Trench.
“Follow me,” he bellows and sets off like Chris Hoy after gold. He’s at least sixty. He’s on a bicycle designed to go up hills slowly and I’m not at all sure he understood my request. He’s disappearing into the distance but he’s my only hope. I pedal faster than I have pedalled since leaving home and catch him at the next lights. I need some confirmation.
“Is this the way to Trench?”
“Follow me,” he bellows with the power of trumpets.
And we’re off again. Not only is he a fast cyclist, but he’s also a daring one. Oncoming cars and lorries turning hold no fear for this fellow. I take my life in my hands and grab his back wheel and pedal like Chris Boardman in a time trial. After two more sets of lights I see a sign for Trench and at the next lights I gasp out, “I’m looking for The Sutherland School.’
“Follow me,” comes his stentorian reply and off he goes again.
He blazes down main roads, up snickets and alleyways, across playing areas and past parades of small shops. I’m certain that this is his idea of fun. “Nice run out on your bike darling?” “Oh yes. Good workout and led a fellow altogether miles out of his way. Left him for dead at the motorway junction.”
“Sutherland School?” I repeat at my next opportunity and I get a familiar answer so I continue to do so.
And then we’re pulling up by a school. The fellow goes straight in at the back gates. “Follow me,” he says. Now, this was peculiar. It was before schools became fortresses but it was still unusual for someone to simply cycle into the grounds. I follow dutifully. He gets out a bunch of keys and opens a door to the side of what looks like the boiler house. He repeats his two-word invitation and I follow him into the place where he keeps his bicycle. I’ve been following the caretaker of the Sutherland School and I’ve not only made my appointment on time but I’ve also got my bicycle securely locked up in the safest place in the school.
Well, after that the day goes wonderfully. The English staff are superb and welcoming. The students are alert and full of the wonder of stories. I’m experienced enough as a performer to put on a decent show and experienced enough as a teacher to make it purposeful. They love the tall tales and shaggy dog stories, the tales of myth and legend and the ones from more recent times. The story they like the best though involves my journey to their school and stars a rather popular caretaker.
I leave with a bag full of happy memories and pocketful of cheque. A year later I get a letter inviting me back to take part in the school’s day of stories. By then I’ve been lured into a proper job and can’t make it. I was sadder than I expected to be. It was a school I’d have liked to go back to; magnificent staff and fabulous pupils … and a rather unique fellow who looked after the site.