A glimmer of light
It was my friend Jason who managed to rekindle my belief that the trip was still possible. Around ten years earlier, he had realised his own dream by visiting every UK pleasure pier using only public buses. He had always fancied a new challenge and on the surface seemed determined not only to help me, but also to join me on the way.
I had shared my dream of the lighthouse trip with him many years before, and he had shown real enthusiasm and empathy. So just talking about it with him over a pint one evening brought back some of the old excitement. Now Jason was once a well-meaning friend, but he is also a savvy businessman, as well as a great fixer of problems. It didn’t take him very long to come up with a solution for how the trip should still go ahead in spite of my health.
‘Now a bike is out of the question,’ he began over his pint of IPA in The Unicorn in his home town of Deddington. ‘Your legs aren’t up to it, you’re not fit enough and, besides, I couldn’t take more than thirty days off work. But don’t worry. I know the Sales Director at Aston Martin, and I am pretty sure we could borrow a DB9 for two or three weeks. They’d probably pay for a photographer to follow along behind us. I’m picturing a giant coffee table book, with photos of remote lighthouses, with an Aston Martin parked in front of each one. It’ll be a winner, and the whole expedition probably won’t cost you a penny!’
Over the course of an hour, in the pragmatic yet well-meaning way that only he can, Jason had deconstructed the dream I had held for more than thirty years. What began as a free-range bicycle tour around our coast had become a two-week, high-speed rally sponsored by Aston Martin. There was no time, and it would not be possible to visit every lighthouse, so we would handpick thirty or forty of the lights most accessible from the principal motorway network. We wouldn’t need much luggage. And there would be no need to wash clothes en route because his PA would simply courier us a bag of clean ones every few days.
My evening with Jason had a profound effect. My passion for lighthouses had returned, the excitement about the trip was palpable, but I knew that compromise on its length or scope was out of the question. So was the Aston Martin. For a while I wondered if this was the effect that Jason had intended all along. I’m too proud to ask him and, in any case, we are no longer in touch.
Jason may not have come up with a formula that held even the slightest appeal, but he had reignited my desire to fulfil the mission. After my initial diagnosis, I had joined several of the MS charities but it was Shift MS, a social network for people connected by the condition, where I felt I really belonged. Theirs is a simple and positive mission, to empower people with MS to be as active and engaged as they can be. I’d discovered the charity through a newspaper article about its founder, George Pepper, who was diagnosed with MS when he was just twenty-two. His reaction to his own diagnosis was extraordinary. He decided to travel the world while he still could. On his return, he set up the charity to motivate, encourage and bring together other people with MS.
George’s inspiring story resonated with me, and provided confirmation that I had given up on my dream too soon. But it was the Shift MS motto that really attracted my attention:
MS doesn’t mean giving up on your ambitions. It just means rethinking how to achieve them
The fact was that since starting a course of daily disease-modifying injections, my health had stabilised and was the best it had been for years. And now the positive message from Shift MS made me more determined than ever to make my lighthouse tour happen.
If it was going to be possible, there were two hurdles to overcome. The first was money. The trip would take around a hundred days, and even if I camped or stayed in budget B&Bs, the cost would escalate out of control very quickly. Salvation came initially from Shift MS. A quick review of their membership location map revealed that they have hundreds of members dotted around the UK coast. After an introduction to George Pepper, he kindly offered to email the charity’s membership, and the desire to support me was overwhelming. Many Shift MS members may not have been fit enough to cycle the coast with me, but they were keen to lend their support and raise awareness for the charity by offering me a bed for the night along the way. The offers of accommodation started to land.
With the Shift MS membership on board, I started to look at other networks that might be able to help me. Years earlier, I remembered proudly joining an organisation called The Association of Lighthouse Keepers. A quick search revealed that they still existed, and I re-joined without hesitation. Once again, their support humbled me. They contacted their membership, and several more offers of overnight stays resulted. Thanks to the two networks, it looked as though a third of the overnight accommodation would be sorted, and the strongest objection to making the trip had been overcome.
The other hurdle related to my health. My injection routine was helping me feel well, but was it artificial? Could I seriously ride a bike every day, for more than a hundred days, for upwards of 3,500 miles? Would a middle-of-the-day rest stop be practical, or even possible? What about a longer rest or snooze?
My first thought was that I should look for an electric bike. I justified it on the grounds that I would still be outdoors, my independence would be retained, and I would still be on two wheels rather than four. However, even though battery-assisted bikes are now capable of regular journeys of eighty miles or more, many are heavy and awkward to ride once the battery is drained. I pictured myself on the hilliest section of the Cornish coast, pushing a heavy electric bike up a hill, perhaps ten miles short of my intended overnight stop. I was probably worrying needlessly, but it was a sobering thought.
Reminding myself of the Shift MS motto, I reached a natural compromise. I would start the journey on a regular touring bike, but would switch to a battery-assisted bike if my health deteriorated, if the hills of the Devon and Cornish coasts got too much, or if I just fancied a break. And if I did need or want to swap my mode of transport, it would give my friend Allan his perfect role.
Allan knew only too well of my lighthouse obsession. He was one of the sixty wedding guests who had survived the force 9 gale in the Bristol Channel back in March 1998. He had stayed in The Old Lighthouse the night before the ceremony, and I think just a little of the magic had rubbed off on him. He had always wanted to play a part in my adventure, and quickly volunteered to keep an electric bike safely in his garage in Oxford, and drive out with it to meet me on the coast if the need arose.
That left me to focus on sourcing my preferred mode of transport, a regular touring bike. The only bike I owned was rusting away in the shed, with buckled wheels and a couple of flat tyres. It wouldn’t get me to the first lighthouse on the list, Dungeness, let alone all of them. It’s a shame really, because it was a very fine bike in its day, an electric blue Dawes Street Sharp that I bought when I lived in London and commuted from Whitechapel to Shepherds Bush each day. It must have been one of the last hand-built, British-made Dawes models, before the brand was sold and the factory closed down.
My plan was to look for a touring bike, preferably a British one, that could accommodate my ample frame. At six foot five, and weighing a shade (ahem) more than sixteen stone, it was unlikely that I could buy something off the peg. I started to put together a list of possible manufacturers, but I hadn’t appreciated just how much the cycling scene had changed since my London days, and many of the brands that I had once cherished had long since been sold off, or had disappeared altogether. A day spent trawling the Internet left me heartened however. It seems that just as microbreweries have offered an antidote to the giant multi-brand beer brewers, so dozens of smaller, specialist and highly regarded cycle builders have begun to crop up all over the British Isles. While this meant that I had plenty of choice, I am no cycling expert and so had no idea at all about which way to turn.
Help came once again from Allan, who introduced me to Simon Hood, a keen cyclist and York City FC supporter (you don’t meet too many of them!) who had cycled to every game, home and away, over the course of the 2010/11 season. I had read Simon’s book about this mad and ultimately futile venture, A Season in the Saddle, and had enjoyed it immensely.
It was Simon who initially suggested that Thorn Cycles would be a good match for me, and my goodness he was right. I drove down to Bridgewater to meet the company’s founder, Robin Thorn, and their long-standing touring bike designer, Andy Blance. I had been a little apprehensive about my visit, not least because a Google search had revealed slightly disingenuous descriptions of the two men such as ‘maverick’, ‘cantankerous’ and ‘abrasive’. I feared that my lack of cycling knowledge and jargon would leave me open to ridicule, but I needn’t have worried.
Andy met me in Thorn’s foyer and gave me a tour of the factory and warehouse. Spread across several outbuildings behind a side street in Bridgewater, it gladdened me that British companies like this still exist. Thorn is the cycling equivalent of Morgan cars. Every bike is hand built from the ground up, and matched and fitted precisely to its rider. With an options list running to dozens of pages, no two Thorn bikes are the same. And like a Morgan, you have to be prepared to wait for it.
Andy talked me through the three principal frame designs from which all Thorn bikes are built, and the advantages and disadvantages of each for an expedition like mine. He insisted that I tried out each one on Somerset’s roads, and set me off on a five-mile circular route out of Bridgewater. In all honesty I would have been happy with any of the three, but when Andy described the Nomad model as ‘bulletproof like a Land Rover’ my decision was made. So I opted for a ‘Tonka’ yellow Nomad tourer, with front and back racks and a dynamo hub that powered the lights and can recharge an iPhone. The only drawback was that it came with an eight-week wait.
It was now the end of March, and the only major decision left was when, exactly, to set off. I wanted to cover as much ground as I could during school term time, partly because I thought accommodation might be a bit cheaper, but also so that I could perform my parental duties and be with the family during the holidays. I settled for the first Monday in May.
While waiting for Thorn to build my transport, I turned my attention to money. I spent a few days in the garden shed, listing redundant garden machinery on eBay. I was able to add some money I had put aside for panniers and equipment, after Simon managed to secure me a complete set of Carradice panniers, a Brooks saddle and a decent Lazer helmet in a series of sponsorship deals. Even with the funds I had already put aside, money would be tight, but I would be ok.
I collected the bike from Thorn on the Wednesday before setting off. That left me four days to train and practise, which turned into just two after the delivery of my saddle was delayed until the Friday. I decided to ignore a note that accompanied it, suggesting that it would take up to a hundred hours of riding before the seat leather would feel supple and comfortable.
A publicity agent had arranged a handful of press and media interviews, and I kept being asked about my preparation and training routine. I lied for the first few, and described tough timed trials along the seafront, filling my panniers with increasingly heavy weights from the gym. But when a charming freelance writer for the Sunday Telegraph asked me the same question, I admitted that I had done absolutely nothing.
Despite the lack of preparation, I was committed. I cycled the five miles from my home to Dungeness and back three times over the May Bank Holiday weekend. It seemed to go OK. I fashioned a bag lined with ice packs to keep my Copaxone injections (my MS medication) as cool as possible during each day’s ride. I practised taking the panniers off, and putting them back on again, something that would become a daily ritual.
These were just distractions, however, designed to make me feel prepared, and to muffle the doubt that was increasing by the hour. I did my best to disguise my fear when Allan asked me about my preparations in the video below.