If there was a single day of this journey that I could erase from my memory, it would be this one. It started off well enough. I didn’t let the lengthy stretch of the A487 get me down, and when I turned onto a single-track lane at Corris, I felt pretty good.
The weather was outstanding, and visibility in all directions was breathtaking. It was a hot day, though, and while it had been quite bearable when I was following the coast road, with a hint of a sea breeze to savour, now I was ascending more than 1,000 feet alongside Cadair Idris in Snowdonia, there seemed to be no air to breathe at all. This was a short section of National Cycle Route 8, which connects Cardiff with the island of Anglesey. The whole route passes through two national parks, the Brecon Beacons and Snowdonia, and is 243 miles long. Sustrans, the custodians of the National Cycle Network, claims that it would take the average cyclist 20 hours and 17 minutes to complete. In my case, the four miles of the route that I followed consumed more than two of them.
It was the steepest climb of the journey so far, and I was managing just a few yards at a time, before stopping to take off my helmet, mop the sweat off my head and face, remove the steam from my glasses and wait for my panting to calm down. Progress was painfully slow, and the moment I stopped moving, a cloud of storm flies collected around me, so close that I swallowed hundreds with each intake of breath.
When the track finally levelled off at the peak, I made an extremely worrying discovery. The cold storage pack, containing all my supplies of my MS medication, was missing from my pannier. Twenty pre-filled hypodermic syringes, representing my next three-week supply, had vanished. I called the hotel in Aberystwyth, but nothing had been found in my room. That could only mean that they had fallen out somewhere along the roadside over a distance of twenty miles.
I could have returned to Aberystwyth, in the hope that I might find them. However, this was medication that needs to stay cool in order to be effective, and with the temperature close to thirty degrees, it was likely that even if found, it would be beyond use. More worrying still, it is medication that needs to be taken every day. For nearly sixty days, I had managed to nurse my supplies, transferring them from hotel fridge to cold pack each day, with a fresh supply delivered by Emily back at half term at the Lizard. Until today I had been proud to demonstrate to others with MS that it needn’t be a life sentence, and that travel and adventure was still entirely possible, despite the inconvenience of travelling with cumbersome and invasive intravenous medication. Right now, it looked as though my reassurances were misguided.
I put faith in Teva, the manufacturer and distributor of my medicine, and gave them a call. I explained what I was doing and what had happened. I didn’t expect that the operator I spoke to would arrange a helicopter despatch right away, but I did expect at least a little sympathy. How wrong could I have been? He told me that they would arrange for a new prescription to be sent out to me, but that it could only be delivered to my home address. As for what I should do in the meantime, given that I needed to inject myself daily, if I was at all worried, I should go to a hospital. ‘Would they be able to give me a dose for today or tomorrow?’, I asked. ‘Very unlikely’ was the reply.
With the company refusing to deliver to a hotel, or indeed anywhere other than my home address in Kent, it looked like my adventure was over. My health was more important than seeing the remaining lighthouses. As for my message of hope and encouragement for people who feel trapped by their MS, well, the world is your oyster … just so long as you can get home to sign for a delivery from Teva.
I phoned home. I’m not sure why, or what I thought Emily might be able to do. I phoned George Pepper, the founder of Shift MS, the charity I was fundraising for, and the friend who had inspired me to make this journey. I phoned my MS Nurse at the hospital in Canterbury. I phoned my GP. I started to feel angry, manic even.
However, between us all, a plan evolved that served to prove the power and value of social media. There was no time to push on to find somewhere sheltered from the sun, so I sat on boggy marsh grass at the side of the track and got to work. With just one bar of 3G data, I got on to the Companies House website, made a list of directors of Teva Healthcare, then googled them one by one to track down their Twitter feeds. Meanwhile the Shift MS team got in touch with their own contacts, requesting help and advice. I started to tweet about my journey having to end prematurely, thanks to Teva’s unwillingness to compromise on their home delivery policy. I made sure that my tweets were tolerably polite, but was secretly delighted when George Sharpe, a fellow MS sufferer from New Orleans who had followed me avidly from day one, started tweeting a series of increasingly aggressive messages saying things like ’Shame on you Teva Healthcare!’.
I am not sure which of our combined efforts caused a change of heart, but an hour or so later, while sheltering from the rain under a pub umbrella in an alleyway in Dolgellau, a member of Teva’s UK executive office called me to say that they could deliver a fresh batch of medicine to Barmouth, my next stop, as long as I was there to sign for it in person.
After four hours of panic, I could breathe easily once more. I was extremely grateful, and took some pleasure in calling Shift MS with the good news, and getting in touch with George Sharp to ask him to tweet his appreciation.
A weight had been lifted. The rainstorm stopped as quickly as it had started. Even the trail ahead of me, the final ten mile stretch to Barmouth, rapidly flattened. I followed the Mawddach Trail cycle route, winding along the disused railway track on the southern edge of the spectacular Mawddach estuary. There were stunning views in all directions, across to Diffwys and the Rhinogs, and up the estuary to Y Garn and the Arans beyond Dolgellau. The railway once ran from Ruabon, south of Wrexham, all the way to Barmouth on the west coast. With the railway a victim of the Beeching cuts in the 1960s, this cycle path provides a beautiful and lasting legacy.
At the mouth of the estuary, the iconic railway bridge crosses into Barmouth. Despite being hot, dehydrated and tired, both emotionally and physically, it was impossible not to appreciate the scene. The view of the town opposite, and the viaduct itself, can’t have changed much since it was constructed for the Aberystwith and Welsh Coast Railway on its line between Aberystwyth and Pwllheli in the 1860s.
I checked into the Min y Mor, a charming hotel on the promenade, where I spent an hour or so rehydrating myself in the hotel bar before retreating to my room to call it a day.