I’ve always been a regular donor to water charities. In general, I am appalled that we waste money on fripperies while a significant portion of people on the planet lack the basics of life. I struggle to understand that in a world where we can achieve so much we can’t ensure food, water and shelter for everyone. Children dying of something as commonplace as diarrhoea is just beyond comprehension or justification.
Having met FRANK Water’s Founder, Katie Alcott, I started to take an interest specifically in FRANK and the work they do. I love the fact that FRANK Water supports such great locally managed projects but still has a grasp of the bigger picture. I am really impressed with the focus on women and girls, who are disproportionately affected, and by the need to reduce plastic waste. FRANK works with great partners and has a positive and affirming vibe which celebrates the positives of the local culture and avoids the ‘white saviour’ complex.
When I set out to train for this challenge, I tried to keep family and friends in touch with my training by using social media (which I don’t normally use). I’m lucky to live in a lovely part of Herefordshire and discovered lots of new places and saw things that I’d missed when driving around, eyes firmly on the road. I always took Frank (my water bottle) with me to photograph him whenever I found anything quirky, beautiful or both (see the photo gallery below). I soon found that Herefordshire has an incredible variety of churches and they became my ‘services’, so Frank learned a lot about church architecture, from Norman frescoes to Italianate Victorian bling. He also learned about the diversity of our agriculture, from hops to berries, pigs to alpacas.
Keeping everyone in touch with Frank’s adventures helped me to generate interest in my ride and in Frank and I reached my original £500 target quite quickly, so I decided to go all out to raise £1,000, which I finally managed by continuing to post messages after the ride.
The Challenge - June 2019
Team Unwin Walney Island to Holy Island cycle
I lived for nearly ten years on the edge of the Lake District. Walney is a small island connected by a road bridge to the nearby shipbuilding town of Barrow in Furness. The nature reserve at its southern tip is an under appreciated gem. It has great hides and walks around the scrubby, windswept land, with the half eery, half funny sounds of eider duck competing with a vast (and frankly terrifying) colony of breeding gulls. There is even an oyster farm tucked in the middle. In the migration season, you will see an incredible variety of waders as well as seals and dolphins. And almost certainly no other human being. I loved it.
As a student, I had lived in the north east and visited the Northumbria coast with friends. Holy Island, also known as Lindisfarne, is connected to the mainland by a causeway which floods twice a day. Cut off from the mainland, it becomes a magical place, and its long history dating back to early Christian pilgrims and Viking invasions, gives it a mystical and mythical air. In the evening there are few visitors to share the island with and it is a lovely way to enjoy a temporary feeling of semi isolation.
This ride was planned to join these two special places and to enjoy some experiences with my support team (wife and two children) along the way.
Saturday, was planned to be a sociable and nostalgic way to ease into the challenge. We would set off on the 220 mile journey to Walney while the roads were still quiet and arrive in time to meet our old neighbours to walk around the nature reserve together. Team Unwin would then cycle the coastal path after which I would carry on to our old village to show the junior support team our house and the church where we were married. Then, I would cycle on to arrive at Stan Laurel’s home town of Ulverston for a meal out with our old neighbours. Not only was this a gentle and convivial start to the challenge, it was also a way of having a few miles less to cycle on Sunday, when I would be making my biggest climb of the challenge to the top of the Kirkstone Pass.
A very good plan. Unfortunately, fate intervened with a ‘significant life event’ on Friday which meant we were unable to set off until lunchtime on Saturday. With us grinding through heavy traffic, our arrival time was slipping further behind when the M6 finally ground to a halt and was closed for two hours. Playing games in the sunshine on a closed motorway was a slightly surreal experience.
When the motorway reopened and we began to slowly move again, it started to rain. Heavily. By the time we got to a soggy Ulverston, it was too late to eat out and too late to cycle, leaving more miles to do on the next day.
But little things like that are much less important than a lovely evening with good friends we don’t see often enough. Day one turned out not to be day one but somehow great fun anyway.
After a thoroughly sustaining but leisurely breakfast, we very belatedly made it to Walney Island and the Irish sea. The challenge started with a four mile ride as a team along the coastal path, back to Ulverston then through the deserted hills south of the popular fells to Haverthwaite. There is only one route along Windermere, a busy A road which I suspected would be a traffic jam on bank holiday Sunday, so, having compensated by taking a long and steep route from Ulverston to Lakeside, I met the support team to catch a train at the Haverthwaite Steam Railway to Lakeside and, from there, the ferry across Windermere to Bowness.
Refreshed and rested it was time for the most challenging section of my ride, climbing the Kirkstone Pass. In the event, I’d done so much hill training I didn’t really find it much of a problem. What I did find was that travelling through Troutbeck to the top of the Kirkstone Pass, seeing maybe half a dozen cars along the way, was fabulous. I arrived at the highest pub in England, the Kirkstone Pass Inn, ahead of the support team. By the time they had arrived I had taken my photos, refuelled and I was ready to finish the day with a downhill stretch so long and steep I hardly turned a pedal as I took in the breathtaking scenery on the way to Glenridding.
Arriving at YHA Helvellyn to settle into a land pod was never going to be a disappointment, but finding they were the first Youth Hostel I’d been to with draught beer was an unexpected pleasure. 40 miles and just under 3,500 ft of ascent. 145 miles, 9,500 ft to go…
I always knew I could cycle long distances and big hills but I wasn’t completely confident that I could do it on consecutive days. Day three was from Helvellyn to The Sill on Hadrian’s Wall. It was the longest ride, 58 miles, and the steepest with 4,300 feet of climbing. I felt pretty fresh at the start of the day as I cycled along Ullswater, traffic thinning out while I headed out of the Lakes and towards North Yorkshire and Northumbria. The miles passed easily by because the weather was kind, the scenery lovely and the roads deserted.
I stopped for lunch with the support team by a village pond and then a longer stop at a country park in Northumbria. The next section was tense. This was play off finals day, when my children’s team (and mine) had a chance of promotion to the Premier League. I was using (of course) my phone as a satnav, and was relieved to see the text announcing they had won. I stopped to ring the support team and, due to the poor coverage, it took several calls to get through. Several battery-draining calls. I set off again in a great mood. An hour later, the support team rang me to tell me they had arrived at the Youth Hostel. I was only about eight miles away. I blame that call for the fact that my phone battery ran out just as the rain began. I knew Haltwhistle (the geographical centre of the UK) was on my route so I followed signs there. I was able to get some very vague directions from a local to find Hadrian’s wall. Somehow, I arrived, late, cold, wet, tired and very hungry.
This was my easy, family day exploring a couple of sites along Hadrian’s wall then a short (30 miles), flat (1,800 ft) ride through Northumbrian countryside to a village near Morpeth. I had finally started to find hills to be a bit of a burden. Once again, I beat the support team to the destination, which was a pub as the local YHA was full. The shower was incredible, the food was just what we needed and so was the early night. The live music and the noisy after hours staff ‘wind down’ wasn’t. Hey ho.
Day Five (Final Day)
The last day was another 58 miles and started with a number of climbs, making up 3,500 feet of ascent. The fatigue from consecutive rides had finally set in. So, it was great to see the pub redeem itself with the biggest (and nicest) breakfast and friendliest staff we could have hoped for
The hilly start to the ride sent my legs into a state of rebellion. I stopped at Alnwick to visit the castle (used as a set in Harry Potter and Downton Abbey amongst others) with the support team.
I reluctantly left them there to get back on the bike for the last 30 or so miles. I ground up a very steep hill onto a beautiful moor then cycled for miles through fields of wild poppies. I realised there were no hills left and my legs felt fine. It was almost an anticlimax, just beautiful countryside, Bamburgh Castle and the Farne Islands out in the North Sea to enjoy as I counted down the last few miles. By the time I got to our meeting point, the last cafe before Lindisfarne, the support team had only just dragged themselves away from Alnwick Castle. So, it was cycling shoes off and an excellent coffee and cake with a view towards Lindisfarne as I waited for them.
And then the ride finished how it started, four miles together as a family, cycling along the coast. This time, the coastal road was a causeway and we could see Lindisfarne castle getting closer to us.
The return tour!
Not content with 220 miles, Mike’s back in the saddle. This weekend, he rode a cool 100 miles to Snowdon…and then proceeded to walk up it the following day!
You can still donate to help Mike reach his fundraising total. Click here to show your support.