It’s not everyday that you get to see a bicycle named Herman blessed in church. But the archdeacon of St Bride’s Church, Fleet Street – the spiritual home of British journalism – thought that blessing the bicycle would be a great send-off for its guildsman Padraig Belton, who cycled the length of Great Britain for charity last year.
I first met Belton, or Paddy, 36, at a National Union of Journalists meeting at the Parliament in 2010, where I asked some stupid questions, and let my union colleagues down. But the dashing, roguish journalist, fencer and PhD candidate of politics of University of Oxford humoured me anyway. My brain doesn’t quite match his Oxford-Yale-SOAS prowess. UCL is as far as I could manage before they tossed me out with a diploma. It says ‘Master of Science’, but it could be anything. Happily, our interest in cycling and running (perhaps rowing) overlaps.
Here, Paddy tells GLUE about the hardest routes to John o’ Groats, the motivation behind the ride, Herman the metal steed, and not upgrading to iOS 6.0 (because iPhone’s Google Map would take him to France).
Q: What was the motivation behind your cycle ride from Land’s End to John o’ Groats?
I cycled from Land’s End to John o’Groats from the 1st to 12th October. I was very eager to be able to arrive at my destination on the sixth anniversary of my mother’s death, in whose memory I was pedalling and raising pennies.
Q: What was the connection with St Bride’s Church?
I am a guildsman at St Bride’s – the journalists’ church on Fleet Street, and being a guildsman basically means I gown up and read a lesson every few weeks at evensong. (The hangovers generally have started to go away by the evening service.)
The pennies I raised from my lunatic escapade went to the Trauma Unit at the Royal London Hospital. I was very grateful to have had quite a generous amount of support – I received 81 donations, totting up to £3,500. The Royal London, in Whitechapel, serves the East End and the City of London (where I have a few involvements, through St Bride’s, livery, and the Aldgate Ward Club). They are putting the pennies towards a portable CT scanner, for people who’ve suffered head and neck accidents—often, they’re flown in by helicopter to the top of the building, and since the existing scanner lurks in the bottom, the trip down the lift often bangs them up a bit more.
Q: I followed the whole journey which you documented on Facebook. You had many friends cheering you on. How did you find that online support, compared with the offline? And how did you keep tab while on the road? Using your mobile?
This was perhaps not one of my better ideas. Perhaps this summer I had watched too much of Wiggins, and got notions.
The road had its charms – pedalling twelve days through a randomly chosen sample of Britain – Cornwall, Bristol, Yorkshire, Caithness – I was left with a grateful knowledge both of what a lovely country it is, and that only 1/12th of it is Birmingham. Each night I partook of the hospitality of utter strangers.
Lovely as were both the scenery and my hosts, there also were lonely, cold, unlit nights on A-roads, jousting with lorries who ran me right the way off the road once daily, chipping teeth and leaving me with scrapes better fitting a rugby player. The utter darkness made me so grateful for the brief, illuminated moments of a village or – God, delights – a petrol garage. Light, and warm baths after weather miserable, soggy and Scottish, I’ll never take for granted. Then I had friends’ texts, their Facebook comments, their tweeterings, as an encouraging moment of light in the dark. I suppose with all of their help I’ve learnt that sometimes, with the help of such friends, you can be braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.
I had offline support, also. From Dumfries to Glasgow, because of some conspiracy within that organisation, every passing Stagecoach driver sounded his horn and waved at me.
Without all of their help, I’d not have succeeded in doing this lunatic thing. It was particularly silly because, simply put, John o’ Groats is not worth cycling 1,000 miles to see.
“I didn’t upgrade to iOS 6.0 because I knew
that way I’d inadvertently end up in France.”
Crazy routes and easy rides
Q: What maps or routes did you consult?
Google Maps, right the whole way through. I used the walking directions, and apart from being sent up the odd mountain, it got me there – generally along A routes, where I just stuck in and did battle with the lorries. I didn’t upgrade to iOS 6.0 because I knew that way I’d inadvertently end up in France.
Q: What was the hardest bit in terms of terrain, weather, or simply, motivation?
The last Highlands stretch of A9 – when I couldn’t find a corner store to sell me aspirin for love or money – was surprisingly hard, particularly as I knew I had friends waiting for me at the end!
Night time cycling, in the bits of A-road which weren’t spectacularly lit (or at all), didn’t have much in the way of a shoulder, and were fairly heavily trafficked, required digging in a bit – but so does reaching sundown on less frequented roads and realising you’ve still 70 miles to go. There was a bit 30 miles off of Glasgow, in Hamilton, where after 15 hours of cycling, at 3 am, I pretended to myself for a second that I’d chucked myself in to a taxi, and decided I’d made it to ‘greater Glasgow’. Having done that, it was easier to decide I was going now to be exceptionally hard core, and go the rest of the way.
The one time I did chuck my bicycle into a taxi was to go backwards – 20 miles out of Birmingham, when my right cycling shoe melded with the Shimano pedal, and I couldn’t clip out and had to go back to Birmingham city centre to sort it. Then set off again.
Q: And what was the easiest?
The daytime stretches, particularly the mornings after I’d been packed off with a cooked breakfast and paniers full of sandwiches, when I could see the scenery (and the lorry fauna, which infest the A roads, were slightly better tempered).
Q: On Facebook, it was quite emotional reading the last stretch of your journey, the friends egging you on. What was the feeling once you accomplished the entire ride?
PB: I’m quite glad no one spotted me arriving at the sign at the entry to John o’Groats – I was in danger of getting a bit wet, seeing it after so much pedalling, and was grateful for the chance to compose a bit myself before the finish line. I did cycle scared, most of the way, with no notion whether I’d make it or fail embarrasingly and publicly – it was only in the last six miles I started to concede the possibility I might actually make it.
I was met roundabout then by a motorcade of kindly John o’Groatsians, who surprised me by steering me in the rest of the way. I vanished shortly after to Culloden House, in Inverness, whose owners so very kindly put me up in a suite for the weekend, leaving a plateful of sandwiches in my room. And a bottle of bubbly.
“The one time I did chuck my bicycle into a taxi was to go backwards – 20 miles out of Birmingham, when my right cycling shoe melded with the Shimano pedal.”
Q: I have never seen a bicycle and cyclist being blessed in church before. I thought the photos were awesome. Whose idea was that?
The Rector’s! The archdeacon of St Bride’s, the Ven. David Meara, who established for once and for all that, in processions ecclesiatical, the ‘cyclist’ when present takes precedence over the crucifer.
David sent me off, in my spandex and packed for battle, to cycle down the aisle of St Bride’s and onwards to Paddington, and Land’s End. The blessing which David picked talked of God as the journey and the destination, and as a result, I had the Bunyan hymn ‘To Be a Pilgrim’ in my head most of the way to Scotland.
Q: Is the bicycle an extension of yourself?
Actually, no! Herman (as I called him) was my trusty steed. He acquired quite a personality of his own over the course of the trip, and starred as my Sancho Panza and rascally counterpart. In Inverness, we both scampered away from Nessie, up the A9. In Gretna, where I arrived at two in the morning (in a day which began in Sunderland, and ended in Dumfries, after following all of Hadrian’s Wall), I kept him from eloping with a wee Scottish Brompton fillie.
“It was only in the last six miles I started to concede the possibility I might actually make it.”
Q: What make is it? Did you have to make any special adjustments for the journey?
A Ridgeback Voyage – he stood me in very superb stead. I only added a few paniers (loaners from a pitying psychologist triathlete), extra water bottle cages, and a handlebar holder for my iPhone.
A very kind member of the House of Lords, Lord Laird of Artigarvan, heard about my trip and invited us to the House of Lords for a charity dinner after. (To illustrate my trip to Scotland, he even donned a kilt for the occasion.) And so, finding myself on my feet, speaking, with most of a bottle of port in me — always dangerous — I seem to have promised to turn this into a triathlon, and run the length of Ireland in October 2013, followed by a doggy-paddle to France in 2014. At which point I’ll give up exercise wholeheartedly, and become fat.