65-year-old John Brooks tells how he got together with old school friends to recreate the cycle ride around Devon and Cornwall they all did aged 15.
50 years on, their Great South West Cycle was a very different experience.
'Anyone interested in a cycle trip round Devon and Cornwall?'
It was a more interesting e-mail than the usual stuff that fills my inbox.
50 years ago, eight lads from Hayes, Middlesex set off on a 3 week, 500 mile tour to Devon and Cornwall. The e-mail proposed that we should repeat the trip, or at least part of it, on the 50th anniversary (2012), so that's what we decided to do.
Initial responses ranged from outright refusal - ‘You must be @!*% joking’ (expletives deleted) - through fence-sitting to open enthusiasm. The final group consisted of seven people, four of whom were on the original trip.
Age and weight dictated a less ambitious route this time
Age and weight dictated something more modest this time round, and we finally settled on a 1 week route of 240 miles starting and finishing at Dartmouth.
In the spirit of the original trip and despite some minor grumblings, we spent 3 nights in YHA hostels. It would have been more, but despite booking 6 months in advance, the other places we wanted to stay were fully booked. So we had to use alternatives – Dartmouth Golf Club, Fort Bovisand, a hotel and a Travelodge - all of which seemed delightfully luxurious after a night or two in the hostels!
Traffic has increased vastly in 50 years
The volume and speed of traffic has increased vastly in 50 years. Major roads like the A38 and the A30 are suicidal for bikes now, so our route stuck to back roads which often took us away from the tourist haunts. How many of you have been down the delightful riverside road from Lostwithiel which abruptly finishes at the sewerage works? This was just one of the many unexpected delights we discovered!
This time everything was planned on digital maps that showed all the roads in contrast to the cheap Esso maps we used back in 1962. This revealed that our total ascent for the route was about 25,000 feet over the whole week, but we looked on the bright side: it might have been the height of the Himalayas, but the roads were much better.
Out with the khaki, in with the lycra
Fortunately our bikes were a little more advanced than the ones we used in ’62 even if the riders weren’t. This time we all had at least 18 gears, more effective brakes and we looked more the part: out with the khaki shorts and in with the Lycra. There was a good collection of cycling shirts, snazzy socks, gloves , helmets and dark glasses on display as well.
All this was topped off with custom bright blue T-shirts, which read '50 Years On' on the front, and '1962 – 2012 HCGS' on the back (HCGS is short for our old school - Hayes County Grammar School).
This rather limited information seemed to tantalise the great British public and we had countless jovial discussions with perfect strangers about what we were doing. One gentleman was really interested and told us he’d love to do something like our trip, but he was too old; it turned out he was 66 - we hadn’t the heart to tell him we were all 65 plus or minus a bit.
And the public interest didn’t stop with pedestrians. We received cheers from passing cars and one women even slowed down to our pace while I told her what we were doing (not to be recommended!)
From left to right: Pete Mason (65), Greg Dyke (65), Ron Crisp (66), Dave Hornby (65), John Brooks (65), John Matthews (65), and Robert Wallis (64).
Jeff's vital role and Greg's impressive total
One key member of our team has not been mentioned so far – Jeff. He drove a van that carried all our kit so that we were not restricted to the limits imposed by saddlebags and panniers. Jeff also kept us supplied with water, fruit and nut chocolate (as essential now as it was in ’62), occasionally transported those who were too weary, and carried sick bicycles to the closest cycle repair shop for treatment. Few photos seem to have survived from the original trip, but this time Jeff photographed our every move. He was indispensable!
Although we had no declared reason for our trip apart from doing it for the hell of it, one of our number managed to raise over £42,000 for VSO. It probably helped that he was ex-Director-General of the BBC Greg Dyke! We even had some donations from the great British public when they knew what he was up to.
Tips on finding great cycle routes
If you fancy cycling in Devon or Cornwall don’t be put off by all this talk of hills. Sustrans have created a great cycle network that includes a number of routes on old abandoned railway lines which are largely flat.
We incorporated parts of the Camel Trail, The Tarka Trail and the Granite Way in our route. Not only was there no traffic to put up with, but we also got to enjoy wonderful scenery with quirky sculptures and information boards adding additional interest. Magic!
Visit www.sustrans.org.uk for more details
...But was it all worth it?
'But was it all worthwhile?', you ask.
Well, at the end of the trip somebody said, ‘It made me feel like I was 15 again!'
What more could you ask for?