Live and learn… or so they say. I was born stupid, and have remained so, although in the autumn of my years, I guess that I can claim that my mental incapacity is somewhat mitigated by experience. Some folks may argue that no-one is stupid, that in fact we merely differ in our way of thinking and understanding, rather than in our capacity to think and understand. Maybe they are right. Suffice it to say that I have always been very slow on the uptake, a dreamer and a dull-wit, with the complementary weaknesses of a butterfly mind, distracted by every new sensation, and a tendency to obsession with the inconsequential. In my youth I never took the time to consider my existence within the wider scheme of things, or weighed my own significance against that of my surroundings, and thus I remained as much a fool as the baby that my mother bore until I was well into my adulthood.
I have made many a bad decision, especially during those important years when I underwent the problematic transition from boy to man. It’s a difficult time for anyone, I don’t claim that my adolescence was any tougher than normal, but it didn’t help that I was an impulsive and headstrong creature to whom careful consideration was anathema. One of the choices I made, possibly the one which I have regretted most ever since, was to finish my schooling at the earliest opportunity. I was keen to abandon the studying, which I took to be onerous and dull, having never known the tedium of a forty-hour week of office work, and to embrace the chance to earn a few pounds each week, which might be spent on the oblivion of too much beer, having never imagined the joy and fulfilment which knowledge and understanding might afford. At sixteen, I threw up my education to work in engineering, at that time the predominant type of employment in my home area. I became an apprentice.
An apprentice is a special kind of trainee, a hangover from a bygone age. Apprenticeships were commonplace in medieval times, and maybe before then. Apprenticeship is a contract, known properly as an indenture, between an employer and a youngster who wishes to be trained in some trade or craft. In olden times the employer would not only train the young person, but would take him into his household and undertake the care and guidance of him. I was indentured by a major modern company, but even so my employer took an interest in the apprentices beyond merely training them towards becoming effective employees. We were given physical training, life skills, sex education, and activities to foster team spirit and a sense of belonging. As we progressed we were graded as to our strengths and abilities, and given advice on where our career paths might lie.
Some of my peers became expert in various crafts, fitters, electricians, sheet-metal workers, or machinists. Others took an interest in systems, administration or accounting, and a few high flyers were sponsored into university to study engineering, maths, or physics.
I presented a challenge to my employer. I had some strengths and abilities, but nothing outstanding. I was most notable as a clown, and a minor troublemaker. I was always, and still am, something of a barrack-room-lawyer, with an opinion on every issue. The only band-wagons that I didn’t climb up on were those that I’d created all by myself. The nineteen-seventies (for then it was) were a time when here in the United Kingdom people were becoming less deferential, and had a growing sense of their rights. We apprentices wanted to change things too. We demanded to be allowed to dress as we liked as we travelled to work and home again–after all, our green boiler-suit overalls would cover up any fashion excesses we might favour. We fought for the right to go into the city during our lunch hour, which was granted on condition that we didn’t return to work drunk. My favourite battle was for the option to refuse physical training. Each Friday we would customarily be marched to the sports ground of the local college, where we would be put through a schedule of exercises, several laps of the running track and a game of football, regardless of the weather. Some of the less sports-oriented guys strongly resented this, having only recently left school where similar indignities had been imposed upon them throughout childhood. Following some agitation and campaigning, we were allowed a vote and won the right to decide individually whether we would take the physical training or not.
Afterwards, those who decided to continue were asked to sign up on a form on the notice board, and the Apprentice Manager was annoyed to find that I had signed the form. I only wanted to assert the right to choose.
And so, being of no obvious use, I was allowed to drift. I spent the final year of my apprenticeship in the design office, and by default I joined the design team. Naturally I was at the bottom of the tree, and being famously nonsensical I was found a place in the most appropriate group, “Heavy Frames”, a mixed bag of reprobates and roughnecks who were considered likely to be able to keep me in line. They taught me a lot–how to drink, how to cuss, how a pinch of snuff can convincingly simulate a terrible cold when you need to take tomorrow off work, and how to brag and tell tall tales. Those guys had seen life, and been to places, done stuff that I hadn’t even dreamed of doing. One had worked oil rigs in the Arctic; another had been a code-breaker at Bletchley Park in the Second World War. One was a rock musician with his own band, and there was also an ex-navy captain and a onetime professional footballer. They were all great raconteurs, each with his own style, and I quickly learned the triggers that I should use to set each of them off telling their stories.
They were role models for me, and I longed to be able to tell similar tales. But I was just a dumb kid and I hadn’t done anything yet. They laughed indulgently at my accounts of my night-time adventures in the pub, and my pretence of chasing girls (I was, by then, already an accomplished liar regarding my sexuality), but I could never impress them as they impressed me. I needed to get some real experience.
My chance finally came when I bought my new bicycle. Bikes were different back then to what they are nowadays. Mountain bikes hadn’t been invented. There were three basic styles of machine; the small-wheeled cycles that might be used by ladies for shopping, the drop-handlebar racer with high-ratio gears, slick tyres, and very little else, and the tourer, built for durability, comfortable to ride, and usually having 12 gears, which was considered a lot at the time. I bought a tourer, a beautiful bike complete with a rack and pannier bags, intending to use it in the holidays to see a little of the countryside. Also I hoped that the exercise might help keep me trim. My drinking had begun to thicken me a little around the waist, and I needed to burn off a few pounds. I started easily by cycling the few miles to work instead of catching the bus, which immediately drew comment from my workmates, along the lines of “Did you lose your bus fare, Davey?” “How did you find your way all by yourself?” and “Are you gonna stink like that every day?” The guys made it plain that they were not impressed by my claims to have begun a fitness drive, and any credit they gave me when I started taking a fifty-mile cycle every Saturday was soon lost when they learned that after this training session I would take a bath, eat my dinner, and then hit the town, feeling that I’d earned a few beers.
I just had to up my game. The inspiration came one evening, when I saw a news item on television about a scheme to scan Loch Ness in Scotland with sonar, to prove or disprove once and for all if the Loch Ness monster actually existed. Loch Ness was 350 miles as the crow flies from where I lived, and 500 miles away by cyclable road, so to go there and back would be a 1000 mile round trip. Could I cycle that far in one tour? There was only one sure-fire way to find out. The coming Monday was May bank holiday, so we would have a three-day weekend. I announced to the guys at work that I would spend the three days cycling to Loch Ness and back. Unsurprisingly, they didn’t take me seriously, but their incredulity only served to stoke up the fire of my bravado, and to make me more determined to carry out my crazy venture. I had little time to plan my trip, and being the guy I was I had no inclination to think things through. I had enough sense to get an up-to-date road map, to pack a couple of changes of clothes in polythene bags, and to put a little emergency cash in my wallet. Also I checked, cleaned and oiled my bike, and I imagined that I had made enough preparations. I took a couple of training runs in the evenings after work, and felt encouraged by thirty miles or so in the cool spring air. I hoped that the dry weather would hold for a few days more.
Finally Friday came along, and boy, was I excited. On Fridays work finished at 1.00pm, and I cycled home to change my clothes and put my map and the clothes that I had packed into my panniers, along with a bottle of water and a packet of ginger-nut biscuits, which I’d selected on the grounds that they were virtually uncrushable. I locked my house, and set off northward. I avoided the busiest roads, which would be filled with motor-traffic, both people finishing work for the weekend and other folks setting off on their holiday journeys. England is not short of roads, and I was easily able to find my way across country, picking out the next significant town from my map, then following the road signs, but making sure to keep off the ‘A’ roads. I made steady progress, at an average speed of around fifteen miles an hour, not intending to tire myself out too early. I passed through some picturesque farmland, and several small but bustling market towns. I saw schoolchildren hurrying home in dishevelled uniforms, clearly as happy as I was that the long weekend had begun. Around six o’clock, after travelling some eighty miles, I was feeling hungry as I hit the suburbs of a city, the centre of which I intended to keep away from. By happy accident my route passed a fish and chip shop, open for the Friday evening meal as has been traditional in England since Victorian times. I chained my bike to a convenient lamp post and joined the queue, and soon had a tasty hot meal which I ate from the newspaper it was wrapped in, sitting on a bench by the roadside, washing it down with lemonade.
Within an hour I resumed my journey, pedalling onward steadily and feeling exhilarated and surprised that I wasn’t more fatigued. I began to contemplate the problem of when I should stop for the evening, and where I would sleep at night. It was my habit on Friday to visit the pub and have a few pints of beer to start the weekend. I wondered if I might be able to keep up my tradition. At about nine, soon after darkness fell, I rode into a place where folks just like me were beginning to circulate around the town centre, going from pub to pub in their best clothes, having a good time with their friends. I found a quiet alley in which to chain up my bicycle, and walked to the noisiest and most brightly lit pub in the square. At the door a heavily-built guy in a dark suit laid his hand on my chest as I tried to enter.
“You’re not coming in here mate!”
“There’s a dress code.”
I didn’t like the way that he looked me up and down, but I had to admit that he had a point. I was wearing a pair of elderly stretch-denim jeans, which I favoured for cycling on account of their skin-tight flexibility, a rather care-worn tee shirt, and trainers. I backed off and crossed to the other side of the square, to the shabbiest tavern of the four that remained for me to choose from. Here there was no doorman, and I strode inside and asked the barman for a pint of bitter. He served me willingly enough, but I noticed that he also examined my appearance, and seemed to disapprove of it. Taking my drink after paying, I turned from the bar to look for a seat. As I crossed the room the throng of drinkers parted before me to let me pass. None of these folks seemed friendly, and many seemed less than pleased that I had appeared among them. I was puzzled. I had never experienced unfriendliness in a pub before. As I drank my beer I wondered if these people could somehow tell that I was not local, an interloper. Perhaps I should move on, and find a place to sleep.
If the folks in the pub had been a little more approachable, I might have taken the opportunity to ask them the whereabouts of any hostel or rooming house where I could stay overnight. Instead I retrieved my bike and rode around the town for half an hour, hoping that I might spot some likely place. At last I saw a house with a sign displayed which read “Bed and Breakfast. Vacancies”. I knocked at the door, and asked the lady who answered if I could have a bed for the night. Once again I noted that she seemed to examine my appearance closely, and then she said “I’m sorry, we have no rooms free tonight”. I was unlucky. By now it was after ten, and fully dark. I was tired and needed to sleep, but where? I knew that if I was to sleep rough then I better find somewhere out of sight. If the police should stumble across me I would probably end up in a cell for the night, and I’d rather not sleep at all than endure that again. I steered northward out of town, keeping my eyes peeled for somewhere to shelter. Alongside a large and brightly-lit chemical processing plant there was a deep ditch at the roadside, with a large piped culvert passing under the driveway at the main gate. The lights of the plant were so intense that any shadow was intensified, and the ditch appeared inky black from the road.
Looking closer, I found that the ditch was dry, with a grassy bottom. It would have to do. If it should happen to rain I could crawl into the culvert, so long as the ditch didn’t fill with water. I couldn’t risk losing my bike, so I chained it to my belt. I tried to get as comfortable as I could, but passed the night fitfully, more often awake than asleep. By the time dawn began to break at five o’clock next morning, I was grateful for the excuse to move on.
By the time that people were beginning to go about their Saturday morning business, and shops were opening, I had covered fifty more miles. Quite ravenous by now, I stopped for a hot bacon sandwich and a large mug of sugary tea at a mobile café outside a large market hall in a Lancashire mill town. The guy serving seemed unperturbed by my appearance, and was quite chatty, as were several other apparently homeless guys, and a couple of men who had driven there to deliver potatoes to a market stall-holder. They listened to my account of why I was there, and concluded that I must be crazy. I parted from them in better heart, and rode on into a brightening day. In the mid-day I toiled up the long and legendary drag of Shap Fell, the slow climb to the ridge alongside the Lake District, and I stopped off halfway up for more food in the town of Kendall, a popular resort for the hiking and outdoors fraternity. I bought and ate a home-made fruit pie from a charity stall in the town centre, and drank a pint of milk, most welcome during the hot ascent of the fell. Recalling my experience of the previous night, I decided to take some precautions.
In a camping and hiking store I bought a lightweight sleeping bag and a waterproof polythene cover so I could use it in the open in the rain if necessary. I also bought a pound of Kendall Mint Cake, ideal sugary emergency rations. When I offered my debit card to the storekeeper, he politely told me that he’d much prefer cash, which surprised me since the store-front window bore several credit card logos. I decided not to argue.
The wonderful pay-off of the hard climb to the top of Shap, which I crossed the apex of late on Saturday afternoon, was the equal and opposite cruise down towards Carlisle and the flat lands edging the Solway Firth. Arriving in Carlisle just as darkness was falling, I made it a priority to find myself some lodging for the night. Asking directions of passers-by, I found a house offering “Bed and Breakfast for Commercial Travellers, at economic rates”. I pressed the doorbell in some trepidation, wondering how I would be received.
“Good Evening” said a thin man, with a broad Cumbrian accent, and an inflection of curiosity in his voice.
“Good Evening” I returned “I’m looking for a bed for the night.”
“Well, we do have vacancies, but first you’ll need to have a wash. Have you got a change of clothes? You’re all mucky!”
Finally the reason for the bad receptions I had experienced over the last day dawned upon me. After a few hours cycling I had gained a coating of road dust, and although I didn’t know it I was quite black on the moister parts of my face, around my eyes and mouth.
I assured the man that I had clean clothes to change into, and that I would be only too pleased to take a shower. He let me put my bike in his garden shed, and invited me in.
Having enjoyed a glorious hot shower, and a chicken sandwich (at extra charge), I went to bed early and slept like a baby upon the crackling nylon sheets. Next morning over a generous breakfast of bacon, sausage, eggs and beans, I tried to explain my quest to my host and his wife. They kindly listened, and indulged me with a few apposite questions, but could not hide the fact that they thought me a fool. I sensed their relief as they wished me luck and waved me off on my way.
Within a few minutes I had crossed into Scotland at Gretna and soon faced another seemingly endless slow climb past Dumfries and over the Moffat hills. This arduous stretch of road began to take a toll upon both my muscles and my bike, and before I passed the highest point, a couple of the spokes of my rear wheel had snapped. I slacked off my back brake to accommodate the weaving rim, and pressed on towards Glasgow, reflecting on the fact that I would not find a cycle shop open on Sunday, or on Bank Holiday Monday.
My quest might be doomed to failure. The beautiful but dour old city did little to raise my spirits as I rolled into it late on that afternoon, but I comforted myself with the fact that at least I had made it all the way to Scotland under my own steam in a little over two days, and I wasn’t quite beaten yet. I rode through Glasgow, which was then undergoing a period of urban regeneration, with many now-redundant industrial sites and some of its older tenement housing being cleared to make way for the more vibrant city that it has since become. The place had a quiet air of resignation and strength, and I resolved to visit again when an opportunity arose. I crossed the River Clyde and cycled squeakily on to the town of Dumbarton, “Ancient Capital of Strathclyde” as the sign proclaimed. I needed to rest and to take time to decide the best course of action, so when I saw a cottage advertising bed and breakfast I didn’t hesitate. This time I apologised for my appearance as soon as the door was opened, and I had no trouble getting a bed for the night. I spoke with my host about the local places of interest, and he suggested a visit to Loch Lomond, only a few miles away. I had heard of Loch Lomond, people sang songs about it. It wasn’t Loch Ness but at least it was a notable place in Scotland from which I could send a postcard to prove that I was there. Unfortunately he had no idea where I might be able to find the five spokes that I now needed for my bike wheel, and could only suggest that I might look for some in Glasgow on Tuesday.
On the morning of Bank Holiday Monday, I rode twenty slow and careful miles, fifteen of them along the western shore of Loch Lomond, to the railway station at Tarbet. I bought a postcard with a view of the Loch, wrote on it “400 miles from home” and posted it to my friends at work. Then, with mixed feelings of relief and regret I caught the next train homeward. I arrived home just before midnight, and went to bed wondering what my reception would be at work the next day. My colleagues listened to my account with some interest, and seemed genuinely surprised that I had actually made the attempt. It pleased me greatly that I made them laugh. Of course they told me that I was a dismal failure and a fuckwit, and of course they were right on both counts. But something had changed slightly both in their perception of me and, more importantly, in my perception of myself. I had learned four important lessons; that a bad plan is better than no plan at all, that appearances always matter, that I possessed a determination that I never realised I had, and that a failure that’s learned from is actually a small success.