A quick dash through the Lancashire hills
Bank holiday weekend was spent in the Ribble Valley at the Cycle Touring Festival – a gathering of cycle tourers old and new organised by round-world cyclists Tim and Laura Moss. It was a melting-pot of ideas from over 200 cyclists, some veterans, some novices, the young, the old and everything in between. Everyone had something to share and the willingness to listen to the experiences of others. I saw some old friends – including the indefatigable Emily Chappell who’d cycled non-stop from London – and made some new; it’s always lovely to realise halfway through a conversation that the person you’re speaking to is such-and-such on Twitter and you’ve been following each other for ages. I also met two other round-Britain cyclists – James Harvey and Bill Honeywell. It’s a joy to meet others who have followed the same route that I rode almost four years ago, the memories as fresh as if it were yesterday.
After two and a half chocca-block days full of talks, workshops, panel discussions and lots of cake, the festival came to a close. I was to spend the night in Manchester with friends, and I decided to cycle; the sky had brightened so it seemed a shame not to take advantage of being in such lovely countryside, although I wasn’t best prepared – no ‘proper’ cycle clothing at all, just some leggings and plimsoles and a vest, no socks, no cycling gloves. I wobbled off with my tent strapped to the rear rack, my waterproof boots dangling by the laces, one from each pannier.
From Clitheroe my chosen route went straight over a pass – no warm up, no ceremony, just upwards, thank you very much. I overtook a solo male riding a road bike with no luggage and full lycra, wondering what he thought as I zoomed up the hill past him looking every bit the amateur. Who needs the kit when you have a healthy dose of determination? The landscape fell away as the road climbed, views over farm houses and lakes and viaducts framed with the endless hills on all horizons, hills with rain-heavy clouds snagged on their tips, waterlogged fingers reaching down from the heavens to the green, green earth. Each inching ascent was followed by the thrill of the down, the dare-devil speed accompanied by a niggling worry that part of my haphazard luggage might fall.
North of Accrington I joined the Leeds-Liverpool canal, route 6 of the National Cycle Network that would lead me the rest of the 40-odd miles into Manchester. A couple of villages then a disused railway line, following a slow upwards drag into Baxenden. I climbed from Helmshore following the ridge of the hill as the traffic on the M66 rushed far below on the valley floor. Farmsteads clung to the hillside and villages gathered around the waters of the Irwell, once centres of industry, their cylindrical brick chimney stacks elevated high above the rooftops. I saw Manchester about two hours before I reached it, its unmistakeable skyscrapers settled into the valley around which these old industrial villages spread. Another disused railway descended steadily to Bury, a tarmacked remnant of a branch line of the old East Lancashire Railway. Grand columns made of red steel lined the path, once having held the railway tracks aloft the river running beneath, now holding up the sky.
I approach Manchester through Prestwich where I bump across the roaring M60 on a narrow cast-iron bridge and enter the beautiful solitude of Drinkwater Park. The route criss-crosses the River Irwell as it meanders towards the city centre. Soon I enter Salford, uniform rows of clay-coloured houses behind low brick walls taking me back to my university days. It’s all so familiar, even in a part that is wholly unfamiliar. The rain had so far held off but, as one might expect, now I’m in Manchester the clouds are seeping. Whally Range, Withington Road, Princess Road. I’m hungry and nearing the end of my energy – why do I never pack enough food? I’m grateful to Lucy, the other vegan at the festival who had brought some vegan brownies with her – I have one left in my pocket and gobble it hungrily. She’s going to try to stay vegan on her next cycle tour – much better than I’ve achieved on previous tours (every time I cycle to the sea I seem to eat fish and chips…)
I could’ve taken the train and been there in an hour and a half. But I would much rather be on two wheels, breathing the fresh air, travelling slowly, earning my journey. I’ve seen a different view of Manchester, a city I thought I knew so well. I’m exhausted but energised; I had an idea and I followed it through. And as I stand on Princess Road scoffing chips (no fish) I feel glad to be a cyclist.