A hard day's ride
Cycling from Land's End to John O'Groats was a tough gig for Warren Howard and his band, and that's before they sang for their supper – and charity – every night as well
Thursday 25 August 2011
It is 11pm on a Sunday at The Star Inn in St Just, and a good, hazy hour after the band were planning to get to their beds – but what can you do when a pub full of Cornishmen is trying to buy you just one more pint and a character known decorously as Eddie the Snake has just whipped out his didgeridoo in your honour? Not much.
Besides which, over by the door, a regular who's seen the likes of us come and go over the years, is holding the lads in thrall. "Do you know how many people," he says, taking a long, slow swig of his Trelawny, "have died doing this trip?"
It was a perfectly imperfect beginning to an adventure that was due to start the next morning just a few miles down the road in Land's End – a cycling trip from the tip of Cornwall to the (bitingly cold) wilderness of John O'Groats. Thousands have done the trip before, but not many, I suspect, in quite the same way that we were. Doing the End to End was one thing, particularly when the last serious biking action you've seen is pulling wheelies on a Raleigh Burner; doing it as a travelling band, peeling ourselves from our saddles at the end of a long day and hoiking our instruments into pubs to play for the locals – and ask for their cash – was quite another.
In January, after my offer of a 1,000-mile, one-way ticket to a blistered undercarriage (albeit in aid of Cancer Research UK) had been politely declined by almost everybody I knew, I had somehow persuaded a group of six complete strangers that this could be the trip of a lifetime. Over the months, we huddled together in Brian's kitchen in Brixton and knocked up a set-list of guitars, ukuleles, a clarinet and a double bass; we bought or repaired bikes we already owned and became acquainted with the rolling beauty of the South Downs.
To anybody along the route who'd listen, we'd flogged it as a pub idea that had sobered up, sprouted legs and bought a bicycle; now, with a matter of hours to the off, it – and I – didn't seem quite so sober after all.
Yet it's incredible how galvanizing a fresh pair of lycra shorts and a Youth Hostel breakfast can be. The following morning, after the obligatory photographs in front of the Land's End sign, the journey began to swallow us up in a way that would become familiar over the next 17 days. The burn on the thighs and the lung-busting effort of taking on another slow climb were balanced by the dazzling views that met us at the top.
In Cornwall, we got lost repeatedly, found our way again, and somehow managed to bump into the local BBC radio van in Looe and play live on air; in Devon we climbed to the top of Dartmoor and sacrificed our back-marker, Dom, to the bottom-biting attentions of a horse that chased us through a village; and in Somerset, veering north on a long ride towards Cheddar, we descended slowly into the Summerland Meadows, with Glastonbury Tor rising to the east and Michael Eavis's farm sitting somewhere, quietly, in front of us.
Taking in Britain like this, by bike, is a revelatory experience; at this pace you get a proper sense of how the country changes, not only in terms of its landscape, but in terms of its people, its accents and its local delicacies. In his book Pies and Prejudice, Stuart Maconie tries to pinpoint where it is that the North actually begins; here, gliding along the Welsh border and in and out of Herefordshire, Shropshire and Cheshire, it felt as though you were going to break through some invisible boundary at any moment. Was the North Nantwich, just to the south of Crewe? Was it Chester, where the Cross Keys pub that night bustled with Merseyside accents?
The gigs themselves became boisterous, sweaty affairs as we tried to cram into packed pubs. Gladly, the band, or Buskers on Bikes as we'd called ourselves, had begun to gel; unplugged, we'd created a kind of folk-meets-country-meets-rockabilly sound, but shamelessly played to our audiences with a series of classics: "Valerie", "Walk of Life", "King of the Road" (naturally) and Dan's storming, lilting version of "Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me)".
On Dartmoor, at the gorgeous Warren House Inn, we sweltered in front of a fire that had been burning for the past 160 years; at the Bike Shed Theatre in Exeter, we were joined by the fantastic folk musician Dave Wood, who'd written a biking song especially for us; at The Ship in Windermere we tried to persuade a pub brimming with tourists to pay attention to us rather than their gammon and eggs.
We were met everywhere with generous donations, affecting stories about personal experiences with cancer and incredible warmth. Outside the Drouthy Neebors pub, in Stirling, Jonny had his ailing knees massaged by a physiotherapist who'd noticed his bandages. Miraculously, save for general chafing, his was the only physical injury sustained – apart from Neil's guitar, crushed under the weight of Dave, who'd slung up and fallen out of his hammock in the back of our brilliant Boxer van, leant to us free of charge by Peugeot.
We saved the best, perhaps, for last. Two days before the end, after an incredible ride through the Scottish Highlands and down to Loch Ness, we fell into the arms of the Invershin Hotel in Sutherland. By this point, with the temperature dropping, the log fire was no longer incongruous, and surrounded by a bravura bevy of local musicians – fiddlers, accordionists, a bagpiper – we gleefully ripped up the informal two-pint rule set since our first night in St Just and basked in the sight (almost) of the finish line.
To donate to Buskers on Bikes, visit www.justgiving.com/buskersonbikes
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