Last summer I set out on an adventure, an adventure that would see me ride over 3,000 miles around the coast of the British mainland on a 125cc motorcycle in 10 days. To put that into context, it would be the same as traveling by road from England via France, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Romania, Serbia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Syria to Baghdad in Iraq, something that might well have been worth considering instead before I left. Ignorance is bliss, until the blister!
The plan was to leave my home in Suffolk on the east coast and ride south, keeping the sea to my left in order to prevent oncoming cars from interrupting my view, also with the added advantage of avoiding yo-yoing on dead end roads. I would aim to sleep in the larger coastal towns overnight, staying either in hostels or at campsites.
On the first day Brighton was the destination. My father wanted to join me on his BMW R1200RS for the first 150 miles, so we met at the local supermarket at 10am, fuelled up and set the sat nav to Brighton. It proclaimed 265 miles in six hours and 55 minutes. We fired the bikes up and headed towards London, I could hear the roar of the BMW’s engine behind me and as I reached my cruising speed of 55mph, the roar waned and I was sure that the only noise now coming from the BMW would be the sound of my father sobbing at my leisurely pace.
In the city, the air was thick with fumes and it was absolutely stifling with not a cloud in the sky. The traffic was hardly moving and we dodged and wove though the traffic jams trying to keep the air moving through our jackets. Finally, when we could take no more, we pulled into a grimy garage near Bexleyheath, gasping for a cold drink. We had planned to make the days’ main stop at Ramsgate, so with our thirsts quenched, we plowed on and an hour and 10 minutes later, I was joyfully lapping at a cracking Turkish Delight ice cream from a little ice cream parlour called Sorbetto, with a cool breeze on my face, overlooking the boats bobbing up and down in harbour.
Fully refreshed and cooled, we rode on to Dover, where I said my farewells to my father and trekked on alone through Folkestone, Hastings and into Brighton. Nearly nine hours after leaving, I rolled on to the grounds of a very basic campsite, with a nice clean shower block and an old school coke machine and at a cost of only £11 per night.
I pitched the tent and grabbed a coke which I slovenly drank in the shower in my rush to get to the town to quench my hunger pangs, where all types of goodies were surely awaiting me. I parked my bike in a motorcycle bay next to Brighton’s iconic Palace Pier, pulled off my helmet and was instantly hit by the energy, colour, wild clothing and the number of people on roller skates! I wandered into town with my stomach now groaning loudly for food and after a short walk, found a little place called Casa Della Pizza, an all you can eat buffet type of affair. The food was great with pizza, pasta, chicken and salad all passing my lips. I rolled out several pounds heavier and feeling pleased with myself as it cost less than a tenner.
In the morning I woke early, packed up my gear and tightened the chain on my bike, setting the routine for the coming days. I set the sat nav for Looe in Cornwall, clicked it into its cradle and fired up the little bike’s engine, opened the throttle, said goodbye to Brighton and headed for Cornwall. I rode through Portsmouth and on to Torquay, stopping for a drink and to stretch my legs. As I rode, I was in awe of the seemingly never-ending conveyor belt of natural features: sandy beaches; impressive cliffs with sheer drops to the sea; and lazy estuaries, until I rolled into the next campsite.
The owner of the campsite greeted me with “So you’re on your own aye?” with a high twang at the end of the sentence, “Let me see,” he said, “Ah number 28, I think that’s about the furthest away from the play area we can get ya,” then after a short pause, he snapped “It’ll be quieter for ya, we only sell takeaway, but you can eat it in the bar.” “No bar meals then?” I said jovially. “Nope, sorry,” he replied, not even looking up from his paperwork. Bemused and amused, I pitched my tent in plot number 28, and after taking the panniers off, I yobbishly caned the bike back down the hills and winding roads to Looe’s harbour, in search of food.
I parked up in one of the many bike spaces in a car park, which I found next to the bustling main street, the main business of which was clearly tourism. Much of the main street featured hotels, guest houses, pubs, restaurants and shops with beach equipment hanging from their doors, interspersed with ice cream and Cornish pasty vendors.
Looe at its heart defiantly remains a fishing town, and has retained several fish sellers on the east side of the Quay. This, I decided, was where I would like to sit and eat, so I wandered into the first “award winning” pasty shop and purchased a large steak & blue cheese pasty for the princely sum of one pound, as the shop was shutting for the day, along with a tea to go. I headed for the harbourside to watch the boats bob and to eat my fill.
On arrival, I was disappointed at the sight of all of the backs of heads lining the benches and all seemed lost until I spotted a free seat, tucked away at the end. The bench contained a solitary lady who seemed to be staring at the floor and before it could be taken by another person, I hurried over and slid on to the end, banging into the feet of a breast feeding four year old who must have jumped as the mother winced. Now unsure of protocol, I apologised to the disgruntled pair, turned to sit with my back to them and stuffed my face too.
The next day, I rode to the Sunny Lyn campsite in Lynton, where Exmoor meets the sea. The roads were tight and winding, and featured some of the steepest hills that I had ever ridden on my 125cc. Going up the hills, the engine and clutch smelt like they were going to ignite at any moment and going down them, the brakes did the same. It was well worth it, as I was greeted by a campsite set in a gorge with a river running through it and a pub serving oriental food and real ale: a match made in heaven.
Setting off the next morning, I was looking forward to meeting up with an old friend for a coffee in Minehead. I had been looking forward to this part of the trip as David would join me on my journey on his GSX-R 600 up the A39 to Bridgwater in Somerset. It was great to have someone ride with me for a short while, supporting me along the way.
Riding up towards the campsite in Tenby, Pembrokeshire, the landscape changed significantly. Leaving behind the South Coast, the north seemed to be wilder and more rugged with sheer, sharp looking cliffs, flanked by the Atlantic Ocean. That night, the prevailing north-westerly winds hit the coast perfectly, brought in by the low pressure weather conditions that had moved in from the Atlantic, and spots of rain started to fall as I found my way on to the Trevayne Farm campsite. It was almost strange to see the rain fall as we had not seen any rain for what seemed like months, due to the heatwave which we had been experiencing.
I unpacked my panniers and pitched my tent a little way back from the cliff, as all the prime spaces had been taken. I walked through the farm to the shower block which was covered by a tin roof and as I started to shower, the heavens opened for about five minutes. The noise was deafening as the rain hit the tin roof. It sounded more like nails thumping on the metal, giving an exciting almost apocalyptic feel and then in a heartbeat, the rain stopped leaving me in almost perfect silence.
Refreshed from my shower, I rode into another picturesque town: Tenby. I ate pizza in a little café called Get Stuffed and raced back to the tent, fearing a soaking and not wanting to have to deal with wet clothing. I arrived back at the tent, crawled in and fell asleep almost instantly, exhausted by the day’s riding, only to be woken at 2am by screaming children and my tent listing in the wind. I unzipped the tent to see a dozen silhouettes of people running around screaming commands to each other as they packed their kids into the cars and fought to hold their tents down. Luckily for me, their cars and my bike on its side stand next to the tent, took the brunt of the wind and I even managed to get a couple more hours’ sleep. I awoke in the morning to find the remaining other campers gathering their scattered belongings and packing their cars. I too packed up my gear, tightened the chain, set the sat nav for Llanberis in North Wales before I rolled back down the farm track to find fuel and coffee.
As I rode up towards Llanberis, I thought about how the bike’s single little piston, the size of a kiwi, would have to beat millions of times to get me around the coast of Britain. The plan to ride a 125cc machine wasn’t to be quirky or as part of some zany charity stunt, but if I could raise a little money for a good cause then I would. The plan was to have a no-frills and unique adventure, with a bit of back to basics, to push myself and by keeping it simple, show people that you don’t need to spend £20,000 on a bike, equipment, fuel and accommodation to have an adventure. I wanted to show people that it’s not only possible to do it for very little money, but it can also add to the adventure, because in adversity is where adventure often lurks.
Traveling on a small bore motorcycle, the equipment takes a little bit of rethinking. At the planning stage, the thought of trying to make it up 25% hills with 150 litres of luggage and a kiwi piston, would simply not do. I knew the weight was going to be an issue, so I pulled out my mountaineering, lightweight clothing and lightweight tent. I picked up some second-hand soft luggage, packed everything into dry bags and strapped it to the bike, and to my joy it all came in at a little over 6kg.
With the addition of my leather jacket, helmet, gloves and motorcycle boots, it worked perfectly. I was warm and dry and wanted for nothing, the set-up also kept the bike surprisingly nimble and the weight was barely noticeable. The main downside to the bike was the horrifically painful seat. Halfway into the second full day it had started to be a problem, now riding into Wales, the pain was excruciating and I discovered that Gluteus Maximus was no Roman warrior, but a trembling fool, beaten black and blue and left slumped and crying in the gutter. And now after a couple of hours into the day’s journey, the discomfort was so intense that I hoped the engine would just explode, then I could blame the bike and go home. Given the 300 miles, 6-8 hours a day, needed in the saddle, it had to be rectified or I feared permanent damage. I re-set the satnav to Betws-Y-Coed, a place that I had visited many times before, and upon arriving purchased a sheepskin. After fixing the sheepskin to my bike, the severe suffering came to an end and I soldiered on, battered and bruised with eye watering flashbacks when surprised by a pothole or a speed bump.
Riding on to Llanberis there was a downpour and as I climbed the Pen-Y-Pass looking over into the abyss, the water seemingly pouring from every stone, the little bike’s clocks misting over and the engine choking occasionally, I prayed that I would not have to push the bike through the pass. We both plodded on, tired and battered to Llanberis, where I had booked a room in the Bunkhouse at a café called Pete’s Eats, an old climbing haunt and a must visit for anyone on any type of an adventure in the area. Luckily for me, a couple had not turned up and that meant that I wangled a room to myself. Full of joy, I sat down to a Spanish omelet: one of the giant meals that they are famous for, along with their pint mugs of tea.
In the morning it was still pouring, but clothes dried and waterproofs donned, I hit the road for the historic market town of Kendal. I rode up past Liverpool, and as I approached the Forest of Bowland, the sun started to beat down again and in no time, my little bike and I were as dry as a bone. That was the shortest ride of the trip at just under five hours, with a halfway rest and an opportunity to change the oil and fix any issues with the bike. The accommodation was fantastic, called the Kendal Hostel, set in a Georgian town house with the Brewery Arts Centre just 150 yards away. The family run hostel is a friendly home from home with a comfortable lounge, free wi-fi, a well equipped kitchen, dining room, laundry facilities, a drying room and comfortable beds. It is a great place to stop to break-up any journey to and from Scotland, as well as being a wonderful base to explore this beautiful part of the country.
From Kendal, two days of riding with an overnight stay in Fort William took me over amazing roads, not cluttered with junctions, but long and winding passes though some of most spectacular mountains, pine forests and mystical wetland valleys.
For my first night in Scotland, I pitched my tent on the edge of the stunning Loch Linnhe and ate potato cakes and beans from the local shop, and in the morning I pushed on up to John O’Groats. I had intended to camp there, and on arrival felt a massive sense of achievement. But that was sharply followed by a strange and sudden emptying of my soul and a slight feeling of desolation. It may have been due to the “end of the road” sign on display half a mile before, simply just knowing that I was getting closer to the end of the journey or just plain exhaustion, but by an amazing piece of luck, my phone rang with a kindly offer of a free night’s stay at a B&B in Helmsdale, Sutherland. Even though it was over an hours’ ride, I jumped at the offer. The additional hour in the saddle was compensated for by an amazing ride and views of the Scottish coast. After a hot shower, a good nights’ sleep and a mighty breakfast, I was rejuvenated and bursting with energy for the rest of the journey ahead.
Every now and then on the road, and especially on that stretch of the A9, I would see a giant bike chug past me, with what could only be described as three custom-made shipping containers bolted on, topped with an array of dry bags, one strapped on top of the other, wobbling past like the Beverly Hillbillies, a quick hand up, and slap back down, as they passed me on the long roads. When encountering traffic jams and they lost the gyroscopic action that had been holding them up, I would nip back past them, or wave my condolences at them in the petrol stations, with my near 100 miles per gallon on my side. Sometimes I would stop and have a chat, and found that they always gave good advice and great encouragement, and I would gaze slightly enviously at all the gadgets and luxuries that they had.
Like my friend David, a few times on the journey, people would ride with me for a while, occasionally making me feel a little like Forrest Gump and I probably pushed the bike a little harder than I should have out of speed shame. They rode with me until they were picked off by boredom and with a quick thumbs up and a thump of their engines, they would be gone.
I think the automatic presumption of the downside of taking a 125cc machine would be the lack of speed, and it’s true that sitting at 55 mph and dropping down to less than 30 mph on the steep hills could be a little embarrassing. However, on the whole, the speed issues would slip away and a different mind-set would kick in, becoming ‘just me and the road’. On the long stretches, I had time to see the detail in the scenery, with time to think and to get things straight with my plans, then on hitting some of the fantastic winding roads I encountered, I had the joy of pushing the little machine to its limits. To be honest, I found it quite therapeutic and enjoyable, though that said, it wasn’t all song and sunshine, there were dark, dark, days.
The little bike had its problems too, it spat out an oil seal that had been nipped whilst on the production line, which I replaced with a tap washer. The little Chinese machine’s electrics did not see the Welsh rain coming, but the Lake District dried them out again with the help of a can of spray oil. Scotland undid the rear sprocket, and that was very nearly the undoing of me! The chain stretched out like an elastic band with its little knock-off copy engine keeping me in a constant state of anxiety, but it did its job and plodded on, as they do now. I believe that, on whole, with the borrowed engine technology used by some Chinese motorcycle companies, the engines are reasonably reliable, the real hurdle is getting the rest of the bike to cope with the British weather.
During the long journey from Helmsdale, I had planned to hit the days’ travel hard and camp in the North York Moors but the rain came back again and, without my realising it my waterproof trousers had ridden up and the tongues of my boots funneled the water in. I pulled into a McDonalds at Berwick-upon-Tweed on the A1, sloshed through to the toilet and in the cubicle, took off my boots and poured the contents down the toilet and sighed at my stupidity. With that I heard a “come on son, we had better find another toilet, I think he’s sick,” and didn’t have the energy to call out and explain. Now out of my waterproofs, I ordered two meals, both with coffee, and booked myself into another B&B in order to have a chance to dry those boots out.
Luckily, for the rest of the journey down the east coast it remained hot, sunny and dry with a great run down through Newcastle and I really enjoyed riding through the historical and industrial landscapes, through the North York Moors and into Robin Hood’s Bay where I enjoyed fish and chips. I pressed on down to Grimsby and through Boston, when with a bang, the chain was off. Luckily it had just came off the back sprocket, but it had stretched so much that it no longer fitted the sprocket properly. I knew I should have replaced with a heavy duty o-ring chain, but it would have to do and I would just have to be a little more ginger with it to Kings Lynn and for the last miles, a short stint around the coast of East Anglia.
Ten days, 3,327 miles later, I rolled back up my driveway, bruised and battered but with an amazing sense of achievement, and overwhelming gratitude to all the great people I met along the journey and the donations given to The Penny Appeal for drinking water wells in developing countries.