25 July, 2014

Land’s End to John o’Groats by 1973 Honda Moped & Sidecar

by Carl Squirrell 

18th—25th July, 2013

Having enjoyed previous long-distance rides in the company of fellow NACC (National Autocycle & Cyclemotor Club) members in 2010 — Lowestoft to St. David’s Head, Wales, and 2012 — Land’s End to Lowestoft; l fancied doing something as far as feasibly possible independently. LeJog was an obvious target but I put it to the back of my mind until towards the end of 2012 when I heard of the untimely death of a good friend of mine who I raced with in the 1990s during my time as a Sidecar Grasstrack driver.

Kevin was only 58 and as I myself was now the wrong side of 50 I decided if I was going to be able to cross this idea off my “bucket list” (who on earth came up with such a daft concept?) I had better do something about it soon. I discussed the idea with my good friend Roland Scarce — who conveniently happens to own a nice Ford Transit van — and he said that he would willingly transport both me and my machine down to Land’s End, meet me at designated points along the route, and best of all bring me back home from John O’Groats. However he said that the trip would have to be done during his two weeks’ summer leave from the school where he works. Conveniently this coincided with the date of the NACC National Rally which is held in July so this would make a nice overnight stop for us on the trip.

Now I had to sort out a route. Previously we used Travelodges for our long-distance runs; they are convenient, offer good facilities and are reasonably priced, so I decided that these would be my first choice. Early in 2013 Barclays wrote to me saying that I would be getting a PPI [Payment Protection Insurance] refund. A few days later I had quite a substantial sum deposited into my bank account, I paid off my Income Tax bill, and started searching for Travelodge rooms! By booking well ahead you can get some incredibly good rates, so after studying a map of Travelodge locations I booked rooms for myself and Roly — it was a once in a lifetime adventure so we might as well make it as comfortable as possible — at: Barnstaple in Devon, Stonehouse in Gloucestershire, Preston in Lancashire, Carlisle in Cumbria, Dundee and Inverness in Scotland and also at Hayle in Cornwall which was the nearest to the Land’s End start point.

I figured that I could do the ride in eight days so thanks to Barclays Bank we had accommodation booked from July 17th —24th. I would either camp or stay with friends at the NACC rally which is held near Wolverhampton.

Now what machine to use? I have a good stable of 50cc machines; I also have a 31cc Cyclaid attachment on a BSA Cycle and a 11OOcc Honda. One would be too exhausting, the other far too easy so these two were quickly eliminated. For me there was only ever going to be one choice — my 1973 Honda PC50K1 fitted with my self-designed and built Sidecar, combining my love of mopeds and sidecars. This is my favourite machine, and as an added bonus is comfortable to ride. I used this on the 2010 Side to Side Run and also on the 2012 L to L run (although I was persuaded to remove the sidecar by the other riders for the 2012 ride!); so I knew it was as reliable as a 40 year old moped could ever be.

I researched the choice of vehicles used on previous End-to-End runs and couldn’t find that anyone had attempted the ride on a moped with sidecar previously so if I completed the ride I could create some sort of record albeit very minor and insignificant.

Although it would have been nice to use similar roads to the other two runs — mainly B roads and cycle routes — this wasn’t really an option as I would have to cover many more miles per day owing to the longer distance and short time period I had allowed to complete the run. So by and large, my chosen route took me on A roads although sometimes it was possible to utilize B roads where they run virtually alongside the direct route, and/or they provided a convenient short cut.

Motorways were never an option as my machine is not permitted on them, being under 100cc. I marked out my planned route on a large-scale road atlas and also on as many OS Landranger maps as I could obtain which covered the areas I would pass through — especially useful to find routes to bypass large towns. I printed day-by-day routing instructions which I could clip onto the route board I have fitted to my machine. So by Spring 2013 everything was in place; now it was a waiting game…

My machine is well-travelled and has never given major problems so my preparation was limited to “freshening up” the engine with new piston rings, contact points, and general servicing. I fitted new wheel bearings in all three wheels, new tyres and tubes on the front & rear wheels, new chain and sprockets. I fitted some extra cycle LED lights front and rear, extra reflectors to make me and the machine more conspicuous; I also fitted a Sat-Nav Holder and a 12 volt battery in case my route planning went astray!

I always carry spare Inner Tubes, Tools, Oil and spare Petrol so there was no extra preparation there, the only things to carry either in my pannier bag or on the sidecar platform was waterproof riding gear and “Mike the Meerkat” who my Niece Freya, visiting from her home in America, insisted came along for the ride!

So now we had to wait. The run was planned for July; now in July 2012 in our area it rained every day except for three! There was nothing anybody could do about the weather. Everything was booked and if it came down to riding eight days in pouring rain then that’s how it would have to be! The more I thought about the trip the more apprehensive I got. Some people — especially my Mother! — thought I was very foolish to attempt the ride on such an underpowered machine especially on my chosen roads; others gave me encouragement and had no doubts that I would make it to John O’Groats. I consoled myself by reading books and reports by people that walked, cycled, unicycled, ran, and traveled loads of other ways End-to-End, all of which made my planned choice of transport seem very insignificant indeed…

July was soon upon us. Roly pulled up in my drive to load everything into his van that we would need for the next nine to ten days we'd be away from home. In went my machine, together with a spare Honda moped (if for some reason my sidecar outfit had a terminal failure, hopefully I could complete the run, albeit on a solo machine). Roly’s machine was already loaded as he would be using it at the NACC Rally weekend. I had prepared spare wheels, engines and other associated parts that I packed as “insurance” — no good having the spares if they are hundreds of miles away at home! Clothing, tools etc. were also packed neatly around the bikes. After a hearty breakfast we set off to travel to our overnight stop at Hayle, Cornwall in readiness for an early start the following day.

Carl Squirrell at Land's End, the start of the 8-day challenge.

Day 1: 18th July, Land's End to Barnstaple, 137 miles.
We unloaded at a deserted Land’s End. With no official photographer on site at that hour, I had a photo at the sign taken by back-up driver Roly. After getting my sheet signed at the Hotel, I set off at 8 o’clock with some trepidation on my ride of a lifetime.

This part of the route was familiar to me as I had ridden it less than 12 months previously, but then I was following Dave Wickens and didn’t really pay much attention! However, I found my way, and soon remembered the hills we struggled with last year.

I then diverted onto the notoriously bad A30 for a few miles. In my haste to leave this road, I turned off too early, came back through Redruth and had to ride the same bit again! I then joined a very nice cycle route to Columb Major before joining the not-too-busy A39 to my first overnight stop at Barnstaple where I arrived at 3.30pm. A good start to my ride with no machine problems. The weather was very hot though.

Day 2: 19th July, Barnstaple to Stonehouse (Nr Stroud), 140 miles.
I set off at 6 o'clock for two reasons: the forecast was for very hot weather, and I planned to get to Stonehouse early as Roly was heading off to the NACC rally that afternoon and I wanted to shower, do my website & Facebook reports and put my gear in the van before he left. It was lovely riding in the cool morning air and, unlike last year, it was dry!

By 8.45 I had crossed another border into Somerset and stopped off at Glastonbury for breakfast. I sorted the Speedo which had become very noisy, and carried on across the Somerset levels. At Wells I changed course from last year and continued on the A39 — last year we got lost in Wells and everyone bar me wanted to take this direct route to Bath. Well, boys, you can thank me for sticking to my guns! This road had hills which went on and on. Eventually I pulled in and lowered the gearing; this helped, but it was still a struggle.

Eventually I got through the worst, and on the outskirts of Bristol I phoned Roly. He was some way behind me so we arranged that he would leapfrog me on the bigger roads and we'd meet at Stonehouse. The rest of the day went smoothly and I arrived at 2.30 to Roly waiting for me. I did my reports, checked over the bike, showered and left Roly to face the Friday afternoon traffic on his way to the NACC National Rally at Wolverhampton. Another satisfactory day, and two shorter days to look forward to.

Day 3: 20th July, Stonehouse to NACC National Rally, 89 miles.
After a disturbed night's sleep (I was warned on the Travelodge website) not helped by the hot weather, I again set off at 6 o'clock with the hope of arriving at Wolverhampton Rugby Club in time to join in with the Saturday Road Run. A wrong turn meant I did more miles on the A46 than I intended but soon I had reached Cheltenham racecourse. I then stopped off at Ecklington, bought some postcards and had an interesting chat with the shopkeeper.

Nice quiet roads led me to Pershore where I refuelled, and soon I had reached Kidderminster. Things were looking good for an early arrival at the rally but then things went a bit astray and I had to resort to plugging in the SatNav.

I programmed it wrong and soon realised it was sending me back to Kidderminster, so I reprogrammed it and it led me directly to the Rally site up some narrow and very hilly roads. I was too late for the run but Reg and Denise Jones looked after me and allowed me to use their Caravan as my “office” to do my reports. I changed the oil and checked the tappets and timing on the bike, before showering and enjoying the meal and entertainment provided by the South Staffs Section. No Travelodge (or tent) tonight, as Bob and Liz kindly put me up at their house. It was a good day, but I was disappointed not to be able to join in with the run on the East Coast Pedalers “Track Spare” Honda Novio which was in the back of the van.

Day 4: 21st July, NACC National Rally to Preston, 116 miles.
This was latest start so far: 10am, as I set off on the Sunday run with everyone else before heading off on the “Rabbit Run” to Telford. Then I took a few (planned) deviations on minor roads before rejoining the A49 to Whitchurch — happy memories for me here, as it was where in 1990 I won my one-and-only British Sidecar Grasstrack Championship — then to Warrington and Wigan.

Once I crossed the border into Lancashire it began to dawn on me just how far I and my little machine had travelled in just a few days. With my machine celebrating its 40th birthday this year, and me having passed my half-century 18 months previously, it didn't seem a bad few days for a couple of old-timers! I must have been reflecting on this as I sailed straight past the Travelodge on the outskirts of Preston where Roly was waiting in the car-park, looking forward to sleeping in a proper bed after two nights of roughing it in the back of his van. As a thank you for all his good work so far I treated him to a meal in the local pub down the road — it was a “two for one deal night,” but l didn't tell him that!

Day 5: 22nd July, Preston to Carlisle, 99 miles.
It was easy routing today: straight out of the Travelodge and follow the A6 to Carlisle — that was the plan anyway! I set off at 7 o'clock, got through the Preston roundabouts and traffic lights with no problems, and took a planned diversion through Garstang where I stopped to stock up on Fruit and Breakfast bars. Monday morning traffic was busy through Lancaster; once through this I phoned NACC member Dennis Gallyer whom I had arranged to meet in Kendall. He advised me of a better route to Kendall and I rang Roly to inform him of the change of plan. He later met me along this route, and we had our first scary moment of the trip when he drove off with the van side-door open! With visions of me arriving in Carlisle loaded up with toolboxes, kit bags, spare wheels etc., I frantically tried to phone him. Fortunately he realised a couple of miles up the road, and as he stopped in a layby, the door shut of its own accord.

Dennis spotted me checking directions on my road atlas, and after we introduced ourselves he led me to Kendall, where we met up with Roly and had breakfast together. I decided to fit my spare rear wheel with a bigger sprocket as we were then to tackle the infamous Shap climb. On removing the standard wheel, I noticed a broken spoke — someone was really looking after me on this trip.

As Dennis was going to lead me straight to Carlisle we decided Roly could have an early finish and motorway it straight there. Dennis and his Yamaha led me out of Kendall- with 250cc under him he was never going to struggle, but I soon lost momentum and so pulled into a lay by to fit my smallest front sprocket. As I was doing this a group of Honda step-through riders came thundering down Shap, all with big grins on their faces. This gave me a well-needed boost and soon we had reached the summit.

From there we had a straightforward run to Penrith where we stopped for a drink and chat before we carried on to Carlisle where Dennis led me straight to the Travelodge. Here we chatted to a bemused local for some time, who was amazed to think we would chose to stop in his hometown.

I thanked Dennis for his company and help and bade him a fond farewell before checking over the bike in preparation for tomorrow’s ride into Scotland. A couple of interested youngsters wanted to try out my bike — No way, boys! — but I satisfied their curiosity by demonstrating some two-wheel sidecar riding around the car park before loading the bike back into the van for the night in the hope it would still be there in the morning!

Day 6: 23rd July, Carlisle to Dundee, 177 miles.
I knew I was in for a very long day so set off at 6am. Thanks to advice given to me by a new-found friend we met yesterday, I got through Carlisle with no problems and was soon heading up the A7 towards the border. In no time at all I was in Scotland and took a few moments to reflect on the journey so far. Soon after, I turned off onto to a very minor road with absolutely no-one on it at all; the only company was a few sheep. The road was very narrow and dropped off steeply at the sides! I did feel a bit vulnerable for a couple of hours.

The weather was a bit drizzly, but PC50 engines excel in these conditions and my little machine pulled me up all the hills with no problems. Eventually I saw some signs and headed off to my rendezvous with Roly at Peebles. Roly had found a superb stop at a very scenic car park, complete with an excellent snack van which provided me with a top class Egg & Bacon Burger and a welcome steaming mug of tea.

I reverted to standard gearing and set off ready to face my next challenge: the Forth Road Bridge. I enjoyed a great ride on mainly traffic-free roads. Skirting Edinburgh I met Roly just before the bridge and he followed me across with hazard lights flashing to warn other bridge users that there was an underpowered lunatic ahead! I was grateful for this as it was rather drizzly and windy up on the bridge and the traffic was travelling at rather more than the 50mph limit. Soon after the bridge I said goodbye to Roly as he was going on a different route to Dundee. I stopped off in Inverkeithing to get my log sheet stamped at the Post Office. The Postmaster was reluctant to do this — he said it wasn’t allowed. No other Postmaster had shown any reluctance. Eventually he did give me the required stamp and as was my normal practice I did put something in a charity box on the counter.

I then continued on my chosen route to Dundee with no problems. Another bridge to cross: the Tay Bridge, and Dundee was in sight. I had a big problem finding the Travelodge, not helped by the SatNav becoming unplugged crossing the bridge. Eventually I enlisted the help of a local who directed me there but not before I had to get off and push the outfit up a series of incredibly steep hills! I arrived at 5pm after a very long day, but not as bad as I expected it to be.

NACC member Neville and his family came over to join us for a few drinks. Amazingly he wants to build a sidecar similar to mine as well, fool! As time was getting on we elected to eat at the Travelodge but wished we hadn't!

Day 7: 24th July, Dundee to Inverness, 182 miles.
Once again I knew I was on for a very long day, so at 6.30am I set off in full waterproofs. My plan was to set off on the A90 and then turn off on some minor roads, but visibility was poor and I felt safer on the bigger roads so elected to stay on the A90. I followed it to Stonehaven, which is the birthplace of Robert Thomsen the inventor of the Pneumatic Tyre. It's a great invention and one which has made this trip much more bearable; plus, so far I haven’t even had a puncture!

Roly was waiting for me opposite a petrol station. I pulled onto the forecourt to refuel and just as I did the heavens opened and in no time at all the road was under inches of water! I paid for my fuel and after speaking to the cashier, decided to fit my lowest gearing as there was a steep climb out of the town. She assured me that my chosen route across the Correen hills would be OK though.

Once I had carried out my gearing changes, the rain had stopped and the sun was out, so once again luck was with me. This part of the route was great, very scenic and on traffic free roads. I met Roly again and went up a tooth on the drive sprocket. I arranged to reach Roly once more, but time was running away. All too soon it was lunch time and hunger got the better of me so I stopped in Dufftown. I rang Roly and he was only 3 miles up the road doing the same!

We decided then to meet up in Elgin; I carried on for a couple of hours and soon the signs for Elgin appeared. There were many unplanned diversions due to roadworks, but I got through and out of Elgin with no problems but never saw Roly. I rang him and he was parked at a junction where I somehow missed him. He carried on and overtook me further up the road and pulled into the next lay-by.

I refuelled from the van, grabbed an apple, and as we were only now 25 miles from lnverness instructed him to head straight for the Travelodge and check us in. My ride went smoothly: I turned off the A96 and went onto to the B9006 past Culloden Moor battlefield and arrived at the Travelodge at about 4.00pm — Roly had only been there about half an hour as, in a reversal of fortunes, he had suffered SatNav problems.

The last day: 25th July, Inverness to John O'Groats, 117 miles.
I thought I might split this leg over two days but having under-estimated the distance of the last two days, 120 miles or so should be a walk in the park! There were only two roads to follow, the A9 & A99. I had a 7 o'clock start in dry conditions, but it soon became obvious that my waterproof oversuit on the rear carrier would be needed. After 23 miles Roly caught up and pulled over. I pulled on the waterproofs and carried on.

All too soon the hills I was fearing appeared. On the first long one I passed a couple of fellow “End-to-Enders” on cycles, but then I had to stop and lower the gearing for the final time. They overtook me as I was doing this and gave me encouragement. I then got going again and managed to get past them and returned the encouragement they gave to me previously. Fortunately I gained enough of an advance that they didn’t see me pushing up to Caithness!

By now I was high up and visibility was very poor; for the first time I started to feel cold and the PC50 engine had lost its edge a bit. I suspect the ignition timing had retarded a little but I wasn’t about to try to alter things with just a few miles to go, so the motor plodded on. In my mind I must have already been at John O’Groats, as I ran out of petrol for the only time; fortunately I had my reserve can on the sidecar so this was easily rectified.

I met Roly once more before pushing on the last few miles through the gloom of North Scotland and before I realised, I was riding through Wick and saw the signs to John O’Groats. A bus-load of tourists waved encouragement from their coach; I was later informed that the driver made some funny remark about my machine. I was soon there, arriving at 1.30pm.

John O’Groats is not exactly high class but there were lots of people around including a group of "proper" bikers who couldn't believe what I had done on my machine. I flashed the cash and had an official photo taken at the sign, and a freelance photographer also took a load of pictures.

We then had some overpriced refreshments in the restaurant, bought some overpriced nick-nacks from the shop, and spoke to & had photos taken with several holidaymakers. I had planned to carry on to Dunnett Head but abandoned this plan as it was rather cold and wet by this point, so we loaded up and headed back in the hope of reaching my friend’s home in Penrith where we had planned to stay the night. We abandoned this plan and instead managed to get a room at a Glasgow Travelodge instead.

Reflections and Thanks 
It was a trouble-free ride and far, far easier than I ever expected it to be. I'm absolutely stunned by the reliability of the Honda PC50 — Mr Honda would have been proud — and even more amazed that my self-designed and home-built sidecar went the distance! It's an ambition achieved, thanks to Roly giving up his time to support me on this trip. (If there is a record for the longest time taken to do LeJog in a Ford Transit van he would qualify!) My route was based around Travelodge locations — without exception the staff were fantastic and we couldn’t have asked for better. My thanks to Bob and Liz for putting me up on the Saturday night and to the Staffs Section for such a great weekend, not just for myself but for everyone else there.

Thanks to Dennis and Neville for their company on a couple of days and to all the NACC members who offered assistance had I needed it when passing near their homes. And lastly, thank you to my loving partner Debbie who issued me with an extended “Kitchen Pass” to enable me to do the run, and booked us into the Glasgow Travelodge whilst we were driving back.

What’s Next? 
Having done Up and Down — Land’s End to John O’Groats — and the Side to Side (the long one) — Lowestoft to St Davids — with the Sidecar, my last drive before it goes into semi-retirement is likely to be the Coast to Coast — Hartlepool to Whitehaven. In my own unique way, it will probably be over 2 days. Day I: Hartlepool, Whitehaven, Alston. Day 2: Alston, Hartlepool.

1 comment:

  1. Well done on your epic ride, great reading about it.
    I am hoping to do LeJoG next year on my 1979 Peugeot 102 moped.
    I'm 60 years old and have wanted to do this for years.
    Hope that you have completed your other rides.