Friday, 26 September 2014

From one Hall to Another

Location: Prickwillow Road, Isleham, Ely, Cambridgeshire CB7 5RQ, UK
We left Clippesby Hall on a glorious sunny Thursday morning and had our best day of cycling inland to Isleham (you pronounce the 's') near Ely.

We had great weather all day and cycled through Thetford Forest Park on quiet back roads past Lakenheath Airbase and another MOD army base.  Both of these were actually surprisingly pretty and we got a little airshow off a helicopter which was quite exciting.  We had lunch in a picnic area in the Forest Park in blazing sunshine and then did the last 20 miles to Isleham.

Nokia Lady (the sat nav on Tom’s phone) told us we’d reached our destination, but we couldn’t see a campsite so we carried on along the incredibly straight Prickwillow Road and saw a track leading off to the right with Camping & Caravanning Club signage, we headed down the track past a beautiful field of leeks towards a gated compound passing a couple of occupied caravans and eventually found a buzzer next to the large locked gates.  An oldish gent wandered out to meet us and opened the gates, it was £7 a night (bargain) and we could pitch up where we liked.  I asked about showers and toilets and he said ‘oh they’re extra’ to which I laughed, but he wasn’t joking.  We paid the extra £3 to get the key to the loo and shower, much needed after a sweltering day of riding.

On the Friday we had a vineyard tour with wine tasting and afternoon tea booked at Chilford Hall near Cambridge and we decided since we’d had no luck getting a Warm Showers host in Cambridge that we’d leave the tent and gear and cycle to Cambridge for a couple of hours in the morning, cycle on to Chilford Hall and then back to the campsite, about 60 miles in total.  This seemed like a great plan in the lovely evening sunshine, but we awoke to an incredibly grey, wet day which put a bit of a dampener on it.  Anyway we set off for Cambridge and arrived about 2 hours later soggy and disheartened.  We found a brilliant indoor bike park where we locked our bikes up next to hundreds of others.  Honestly I think this was my favourite bit about the city, but I don’t think we gave Cambridge a fair go.  It seemed to be overrun with tourists and we didn’t find a nice place for brunch/warming drinks, so we were quite pleased to be off again a couple of hours later.  It had stopped raining by now and we got to Chilford Hall in good time and transformed ourselves in their disabled loos from sweaty bikers to semi-respectable afternoon tea company.  The vineyard tour and wine tasting were excellent and it turned out that, Jed, the Chilford Hall wine tour guy, knew my sister and her husband – and I totally love that small world stuff!

We didn’t get back until after dark, which was a bit of a pain, but at least the tent was all set up and we set about making a feast of instant rice and tinned chilli under the red lights from our head torches due to the incredible multitude of daddylonglegs that shared our campsite, singing ‘Roxanne’ and then sipping whisky and looking at the stars.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

First Few Days (Testing, Testing)

Location: Clippesby, Great Yarmouth, Norfolk NR29, UK
Our first multi-day adventure with all of our kit; figuring out what works, what doesn’t and if we like this kind of thing.

So on Sunday we set out from Sheffield, on the train, across to Lincoln.  We decided to hop on the train because we would have been just covering the same ground as the micro trip in July.  It’s always quite nerve racking using trains around Sheffield because on so many of the lines they only really allow two bikes, which means that if anybody else had decided to take a trip on their bike at the time to Lincoln, or any stop on the way, then our holiday would be off to a bad start.  Fortunately, the line started at Sheffield and we were the only folks with bikes so we headed east.

Once we arrived, we disembarked, got fully laden and had a bit of a fight with the tiny lifts at the station which only just fit one bike and rider at a time, but with the loaded bikes probably weighing in at over 30kg carrying them up the stairs and back down was not really an option.  Making our way out the station we headed to our first campsite in Fishtoft, just outside of Boston.  We found ourselves on some very picturesque back roads with no traffic so we could cycle side-by-side and just talk away the miles.  The roads were good quality and almost spirit level flat and we made pretty easy work of the 30+ miles to the campsite; all in all a great start to the first day.  We even managed to get the paraffin stove to roar away, I feel it wasn’t amazing and it took a long time to actually heat water but Sophie is determined and adamant that in Central and Southern America that we will be able to find plenty of fuel for it and any gas powered alternatives won’t be viable.

The night brought heavy rain and restless sleep, while the morning was spent battling with a wet, soggy tent and preparing for the day.  The Monday was the first time we’ve woke up in the tent, cycled, then set up camp again.  It was a full 60 mile day and I wasn’t sure how shattered we’d be after a full day cycling on heavy, very heavy bikes.  The cycling started off fairly dull; just mile after mile of main road with Monday morning traffic and rain just beating down as we just ground it out towards Kings Lynn.  After refuelling and buying some food for the next couple of meals we planned the route to Deepdale Backpackers, and pretty much by chance found a CTC route (Route 1) than followed a similar route to what we were planning, but with the added advantage of passing through Sandringham.  We joined the route and from the get go I was complaining about why I hate this kind of marked out route.  It takes you all the way round the houses to get to the same places.  It covers more miles but hinders any proper speed by making you cross roads or navigate tight turns and gates.  But then, it pointed us back onto the road, turned us right up a country lane and we yet again were cycling next to each other without the issue of cars.  Cycling this way is such a nice way to travel.  You get to see more because there are the two of you looking around and spotting things (like the crazy amount of dead frogs on the roads in Sandringham grounds), you have company to chat too and the miles just disappear and everything just seems easier especially now that the sun was shining.

Wednesday morning we set off in dreary mist along what we thought was the coast road towards Cromer and round to Great Yarmouth.   I say ‘thought was the coast road’ because we only managed the odd fleeting glimpse of the sea and despite being a fairly small road it was busy with traffic and presented us with rather undulating terrain.  Whenever we have talked to people about our holiday they have always commented about the flatness of Lincolnshire, Norfolk and Suffolk.  Maybe it’s the routes we are choosing but the roads are not that flat.  Don’t get me wrong; Sheffield is a very hilly place and I love a good climb, and the hills over the last few days have not been a scratch on the Peak District.  But it interesting how people often comment on the gradient of an area, but only have experience of it by car, where unless a hill is something major it presents no obstacle or even real feature to a driver, but the even slightest incline on a loaded touring bike is noticeable to the rider, and those comments about how flat and easy it will be echo in my ear as I’m spinning away up the hills.  So after a hilly morning of seeing next to no coast line in the rain we have some warming noodles in a car park in Cromer.   The final leg before our rest day was a fast (flat) 30miles to Clippersby Hall in glorious sunshine.

All in all the first days have been a major success.  The heavy bikes have been difficult at times but we’ve managed to get them where we need them to be.  The camping has been a little uncomfortable but I’m sure our bodies will adapt to it.  We have about week of cycling still to do but so far all’s well.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Optimus No. 96 and the Hunt for Fuel

Location: Sheffield, South Yorkshire, UK
When looking at possible stoves options I remembered that somewhere amongst my Dad’s stuff that I had put into storage in Tom’s folks’ attic was a small brass stove, with a name ending in ‘…mus’ if I remembered correctly. 

So we dug it out of the attic and I unpacked the contents of the small cardboard box emblazoned with the name ‘Optimus’ joined by Colin (Tom’s Stepdad) who told me that they’d had a stove like that when he was young.  My Dad had kept all the bits together and I pored over the instructions, spare parts and soon had the bits of the stove assembled.  It’s a beautiful little thing and when I told my Godfather, John, about the stove he said he remembered using it with my folks in India many years before I was even born and I loved the idea of taking this little piece of Swedish kit that my Dad had used away with us.

The instructions say that it requires methylated spirit for the spirit cup and ‘best quality paraffin (kerosene)’ for the actual burner.  It seems a bit faffy to have to carry 2 types of fuel, but I figured these would both be easy to come by and relatively cheap.
We’ve got ourselves some meths from the hardware shop down the road, but getting hold of kerosene or paraffin has proved nigh on impossible.  We’ve tried Go Outdoors, Towsure, B&Q, Wickes, local hardware shops and The Bike Tree which Optimus have listed as a dealer on their website and nothing, no joy.  But on the recommendation of one of the guys at Towsure we tried the garden centre and managed to find lamp fuel with ‘hydrotreated light kerosene EC265-149-8’ on the label having googled this and coming up with an MSDS we were pretty sure we’d found kerosene and this would work in the stove.   Then lo and behold I was in the massive B&Q near my work with Faye, my colleague, and her eagle-eyes spotted a lovely big canister of paraffin.  Bingo!

Since we’re off on our 2 week practice cycling holiday on the 14th September we wanted to have the stove working for this little trial so we had a go in the back garden with the paraffin and meths.  Not entirely sure how to evaluate this first attempt...  We got it to light, but you can see from the photos that this was rather uncontrolled and regulating the flame and keeping it alight were not really achieved.  I am sure this is user error and that with a little patience and practice we can get it working a treat.  Tom isn't so sure.  So we'll take it on our little trial run and report back in a few weeks.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Less than 6 months until we fly!

Location: Sheffield, South Yorkshire, UK
On February 27th at 12:40 we will take off from Manchester Airport to fly to Oaklands International Airport, San Francisco to start our 2 year trip around the Americas on our bikes. That is less than 6 months away; it is such a crazy thought.

Just for the record; I have never done anything like this before. I remember that after Sixth Form I wanted to go backpacking around Europe with some school mates as part of my gap year. Most of them went but I stayed home to work in a factory. While during the summer holidays at uni there were great ideas of travelling around the States or hoping on a train and heading off into Europe then Africa before coming back the next year. Again, friends went but I just found myself working in a shop up in Durham, a bus ride from my family home.

But in less than 6 months time we'll be flying out to California to start our trip. And do you know what, I'm nervous and I have pretty much no clue what to expect.  Loads of questions keep popping into my head:
  • How do you find a safe, comfortable place to wild camp?
  • What do we do if something goes wrong?
  • Will we have enough money?
  • How do I know if I actually like cycle touring?
At the moment I can't answer most of these questions and there is a voice in my head that says "You know what Tommy Boy, this was a nice idea but give it up and just stay in Sheffield, stay in your job and stay nice and safe with these questions unanswered".  However, I am really bored of that voice and I hate the fact that that voice calls me Tommy Boy. So that voice can do one, I want some answers and in six months time I'll start getting some!