A Cycle Tour of Scotland in 1987 … Part One
This is where it all began. A winter’s night in 1958. Three miles down the road my auntie was giving birth to my cousin Bill and by the time I arrived, shortly after midnight, my grandmother was two grandchildren to the good between dusk and dawn.
The cottage was much simpler then, more artisan and smaller. The garden was given over to vegetables, the large side window wasn’t there and neither was the extension where the roof rises, but there was a barn. The latter was demolished by a runaway lorry crashing down the embankment in the 1960s. I think the lorry driver escaped but the barn didn’t.
I’d always wanted to go back to the places that made me but I was either too busy with other things or simply lacking the motivation. Once I’d decided to make a sojourn to all the houses I had ever lived in I had some new decisions to make. The first was how was I going to travel. The most obvious way was by car, but two thousand miles by car is unappealing and I wanted to enjoy this journey. I also knew that by the time I’d driven more than fifty miles in a day I stopped taking an interest in where I was. And then there is the problem that seeing the world through a car window is not a good way of seeing the world.
I considered walking it but gave it up on simple grounds of cost. I couldn’t afford to go that long without earning some money and I couldn’t see any way of earning money on a walking holiday other than by busking and a guitar was a bulky piece of luggage to strap to an already full rucksack. There was always a possibility that the urban dwellers en route could be cheered into parting with the price of a meal and a campsite. I was less sure if the villagers and outlying farmers would be so welcoming of a hiker pitching up at the farm gate and bursting into a rousing chorus of The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.
I’ve always associated Scotland with trains (blame WH Auden) and wondered about a railway journey. After all my main Scottish destination had a mainline station (in fact a terminus). This, in the end was the argument against. I couldn’t see why I shouldn’t simply get a return ticket to Thurso and be done with it. By then I’d begun to be tempted into a more thorough exploration of Scotland. If I was going to travel that far then it seemed a wasted opportunity not to see Loch Lomond and Loch Ness, the Western sea ports and the Cuillin Hills. I wanted to re-trace the journey I could vaguely remember as a five or six year old in the back of a big old black Wolseley and I wanted to cross Rannoch Moor and travel through Glencoe.
And then I thought of a bicycle.
It wasn’t a thought I held onto for very long. I’d been on plenty of long rides but I’d never done anything on this scale. I didn’t have any panniers and had no idea how they attached to the little frame of a bicycle. I went to see my friend Jon and he said that cycling was the only way to do the journey. He’d cycled around Norway and Finland, Poland and Germany. As a twelve year old he’d loaded bags onto his bike and spent his summer holidays pedalling all around the Cornish peninsular.
“You see more when you’re on a bike, you go fast enough to get there and, if anything goes wrong, you can always bung it on a train. Plenty of trains in Scotland.”
Jon was someone who did things. I’d visited him in his shed where he was busy making a replica of a Viking long boat from green timber. Not something for display. This was something that gained the interest of Scandinavian academics. When he finished it he sailed it in the Exe estuary.
Busking came in handy. I’d just qualified as a teacher but really didn’t know if I wanted to go into the profession. I could get a job in a school but there were precious few other jobs around in Devon at that time. So I returned to the pitch outside the back of Marks and Spencer, where I’d busked enough money to keep me on my teacher training course. Two days earned the price of a set of panniers from the Bob Dylan and Jackson Browne fans among the Exeter shoppers. Two more days earned my train fare up to Barrow and the three days following allowed me to put enough into the bank to draw a frugal expenditure for three and a half weeks. I had two commissions as a songwriter to write songs for a Huddersfield production of Don Quixote (Proper Job Theatre Projects) and to write a score for a dance project to raise awareness of deforestation in central Africa (Dance Stance). Both had secured me the promise of Arts Council grants which gave me some future money to negotiate an overdraft against if things went badly wrong. A fifteen hundred mile pedal would give me plenty of time for working on lyrics and melodies.
Packing the bags was a scene from Three Men in a Boat. This was my first time and I’d made a list of everything I was sure I was going to need. Jon and a couple of other newly qualified teachers came round to help me and soon cut down the list to a point where it was almost physically possible to attach everything onto a bicycle just so long as you had no intention of ever moving the thing.
“Are you really going to need five shirts?”
“Are you taking food? Don’t they have shops where you’re going?”
“I’ll lend you my Sig bottle for your paraffin. Save taking all that.”
And so the provisions that had covered the sitting room floor were whittled down and packed away. Beer was drunk to celebrate and wish me good cheer and a fair wind.
It was either the end of September or the beginning of October. All of my fellow students from the last year were safely inside their new classrooms and planning their first mortgages. I was pedalling a red German bicycle resplendent in blue panniers from Lancashire towards St David’s Station in Exeter. I had a wallet full of cash and a ticket to the town of my birth. I was going to cycle the main roads and country lanes of my life and I was very excited.