Following in the Footsteps of Turner: an epic journey by motorbike…
Setting out on the road
The painting tour that resulted in JMW Turner’s Ports and Harbours of England print series was the inspiration for this trip – following this route, I would travel by motorbike from Whitby in Yorkshire, to Falmouth in Cornwall, stopping in the areas that he painted in to see what inspired me…
Simple enough in principle, I had no plans to emulate his work or even use his viewpoints, but if it was good enough for him….Soon I was deep into the logistical side of setting it all up: trying to estimate costs and where I’d like to be by a certain date and where I had to be by another, to sleep indoors. Sleeping bag, tent? Oh God, no. How much materiel would I need and could I carry? It soon became clear that while the journey would be easier in some ways if I could travel the coast contiguously, the sheer amount of painting materials needed would end up giving most of it a free holiday around the country or require me to have drop-offs and re-ups dotted around like a polar explorer – time and money in both their wing-ed chariots were also against the idea, so I decided to return to London between each of the stages of the trip.
Accommodation was to be a variety of places, begged and borrowed, but mostly paid for, in an assortment of caravans, Airbnbs, plus a beach hut, a chalet and even a garden shed. Google maps were consulted, laughed at, roads studied, miles unrealistically estimated and petrol consumption deduced from that. Ironically, given my ultra-conservative mileage-per-tank planning and falling oil prices my actual consumption wasn’t nearly as inaccurate as my final total mileage figure would be…
Scarborough and Whitby
My first stop was in Scarborough and my base for the week in Yorkshire. Boarding was easy enough to sort out: a room in the University digs – easy, except no-one told them I was coming, or at least not very loudly. Eventually, the security staff found me a room and the key, but having been escorted into the block, the room didn’t have a door. Or a mattress. Or light bulbs. ‘You won’t be very impressed so far, will you…?’ the security man snorted as we surveyed the scene. ‘Let’s try again…’. But soon all was well and I was ensconsed in my small student dwelling unit, complete with single bed, foam rubber pillows and a tiny duvet incapable of covering my unsupported feet when I slept. Still, I was on my way…The catering staff also hadn’t been informed that I was due breakfast either, and the venue recommended in the brochure for the elegant eating of such, was closed for the holidays – however, Margaret the kindly lady behind the bar, soon sorted that out for the rest of the week. Still, I was on my way. Again…
The first stop in all locations follows the same pattern when arriving on a bike: Parking, toilets, food/wi-fi. It’s invariable. Luckily as I was staying in Scarborough, most places were within walking distance and the first picture I painted , the ice-breaker for the trip, yielded a similar view of the town that Turner used – and that was just from the end of the street that I was staying on.
Food was also easy to find – if by food I meant chips, very easy. Before I left London I had been assured that if I went to (insert seaside town name here) I would be sure to find the best fish and chips in the country and that I must be sure not to miss them. Promise? I would patiently explain that I was visiting up to 15 seaside locations on this trip, staying up to a week in each of them and even with my rough approach to mathematics that would be more f&c than I eat in ten years. Still, after 6pm, pizza is also obtainable in Scarborough too, for a more varied diet.
The main view of the town with the castle ruins behind was attractive, but I began to favour the far side for my morning sessions – the castle stood in stark relief with no foreground detail to distract me. But the weather was still bitterly cold and having lost the use of the heated grips on the bike, was reduced to painting left-handed at some points, in an effort to keep warm, as I stood in the freezing wind off the North Sea.
Whitby was a ride up the coast, a pretty seaside town perched on the hillside as the river meets the sea. Because, at this point, I was sticking rigidly to my coastal painting plan, I didn’t take advantage of the location to paint the town itself or some of the domestic scenes that I passed on the road – normally that would have had me stopping, unpacking the kit and getting stuck in. Sitting at the foot of the breakwater as the tide went out provided me with a couple of good half-panels that were later scaled up successfully into larger canvas pieces.
The week passed much quicker than I thought, absorbed as I was in painting every day from dawn. Most mornings were grey and overcast, something I didn’t really appreciate until Cornwall – it took almost the whole week to discover what I was actually doing there. It’s all very well to set out to do something, but since all plans invariably change once the battle actually starts, it’s as well to get an idea of the big picture, soonest.
(On the way back, unable to have breakfast at the Uni due to the idiot student volunteers at the bar, I set out late hungry and into a run of awful weather most of the way past the Humber. The bike was fine as ever, but as the weather roared at me, rain soaked my clothing, everything: gloves, leathers, outers, inside the helmet, streaking both sides of the visor, when going fast is sometimes the only way to see clear ahead, it did cross my mind that this isn’t the only way to travel. But those thoughts don’t last, you’re never wet or cold on a bike, you can’t be, it’s too distracting to think like that. I finally found a petrol station that was open and could produce something faintly warm for breakfast, even just a sausage roll – the Gothy lad behind the counter asked where I’d come from, as I dripped onto his carpet, and then said in a tone of amazement: ‘That’s well hardcore…’)
Great Yarmouth, Lowestoft and Aldburgh
A brief respite in London allowed me enough time to catch up on sleep, restock my painting materials, dumping the canvas and easel I’d started with in favour of panels exclusively and come down with a filthy headcold, generously spluttered all over me by someone about to head off on their holiday abroad. This was to dog me the entire trip and resulted in me eventually reducing the East Anglia section by three days.
(A stern letter arrived from the Chief Constable of Turnip, or similar, noting that my road speed had been a trifle excessive when passing one of his cameras. Oh dear. Not having undertaken a road trip for ages had left me too frisky for my own two wheels. Not even screaming-down-the-devils-highway fast, more Justin-Beiber-at-the-wheel-of-a Lamborghini fast (The police officer noted about Bieber that ‘…he musta been doing at least fifty….fifty-five miles an hour in it!’) And he wanted some money, too. Or as a chance for rehabilitation, I could be talked at for a bit. I opted for the latter and vowed to behave and become an altogether better and possibly more fulfilled person. I hope that this change was duly noted…)
Staying with friends just outside Norwich meant that I had a daily commute to Great Yarmouth to paint. Normally not too much of a problem but setting out into the fast A-roads to the coast, in the frosty first light, when under-the-weather made it all more of a chore.
Lowestoft I visited twice, but the days were hard going and I was feeling feeble, never a recipe for relaxed scouting for painting sites. Besides, while these ports were bustling in Turner’s day, shipping fashions change like everything else and neither of the locations had great views to seaward. Lowestoft did provide a couple of pictures, but it was a longer commute – especially if Yarmouth had yielded nothing in the morning, and I’d then set out to Lowestoft in hope that it would improve. Hope there is the operative word. Nothing’s guaranteed in outdoor painting.
While the seafront on Yarmouth itself had little of interest for me, I soon discovered that just off the A47, across the marshes, lived a world that looked unchanged over three centuries and so, in the absence of suitable maritime scenes, decided to paint some landscapes instead. I’m sure that Turner would have understood. This also had the effect of allowing me to paint wherever took my fancy again and not to feel too dependent on the sea to provide a subject. It was also a handy reminder to me that, in the end, the trip was about my work and what I could produce and not what Turner already had!
A move nearer the coast to a chalet, just above GY, shortened my daily travel time considerably. It was only for the weekend, but despite getting soaked the day I moved, it was invaluable for a more relaxed end to the week. I was soon out painting near Winterton – the first morning produced an OK view of a hillside church, on a half-panel, but I wasn’t too bothered about it, it was just an ice-breaker for the day. However, after packing up and re-loading the bike, I glanced up and there, behind me, was a perfect silhouette of Winterton Church against the dawn skyline, just waiting to be painted. I’ve had this happen a couple of times over the years, the second picture always an improvement and generally done in half the time – but without the first picture I might never have got my eye in sufficiently to recognise it.
For my last day, I was reduced to the notion of spending the final night in an anonymous plastic budget chain hotel, to get a dawn painting done before leaving. I sat glumly in a pub, trying to work out whether to trust my financial info to the local’s FREE WI-FI! to choose a room. But sometimes things just turn around the right way and I struck lucky with a chance conversation to a group of musicians at another table, and was invited to stop over with them. So it was I ended up in Caister – right on the beach. Though still mildly hungover when I woke at dawn, it didn’t stop me enjoying a memorable sunrise as I scrambled through the gorse onto the clean yellow sand.
As far as the trip went, I was over the worst of the head cold and attendant temperature and could have stayed on a couple of days, but I still couldn’t shake off a hacking cough and residual dizziness and with Kent looming closer, I reluctantly cut short the trip, ditching Aldeburgh in the process and hit the road home…
Sheppey, Margate, Ramsgate, Deal and Dover
After the East Anglia trip had been shortened by three days, leaving me without Aldeburgh and little of Lowestoft, I knew that Kent was going to be fairly arduous. Five painting locations and four different addresses. Three weeks away from London this time, about the limit of my range carrying paint and panels to last. Despite the advantages of staying near the painting location in Sheppey, I still soon found myself on a 60-mile commute just to get a decent view of Sheerness from the opposite riverbank. Not very inspiring, either…
I stayed on the Isle of Sheppey, in a caravan park in Leysdown. A tiny time-capsule from a bye-gone era was what it felt like. England on a Sunday from many years ago. The food in the cafes was ’60s era cafe-stodge with vegetables that might have first gone in on VE Day and the recipes more inspired by nostalgia than flavour. But I was soon flitting across the island – again, where I was frustrated by land of seascape opportunities, I found myself taking in the countryside. The south of the island was an unexpected surprise: gone were the campers and caravaners, gone were the sparse shops and holiday homes, gone too were the few cars and many prisons and the unexpected monuments to aviation pioneers. Here all was rolling farmland down to the Swale, a pastoral idyll unconnected with the rest of the island.
The Swampies, as the residents of Sheppey are known, seemed to enjoy their reputation for being slightly different and distant, but I found them unfailingly cheerful, polite and willing to stand and chat – to tell me something about the view or the island and its history, as they passed, especially about the USS Richard Montgomery the capsized ammunition ship still visible at low tide, off Sheppey’s north coast.
Relocating to Whitstable after a week, I actually moved just across the River Swale from Sheppey. Staying right on the beach in a small hut allowed me to paint directly on the shore, either as a good ice-breaker for the day or to grab a view late at night. Though living under reduced circumstances with neither running water nor mains power, the beach hut was a great way to keep focused on the work. Facilities were nearby and a great corner cafe provided me with a good feed to start the day and sufficient wi-fi connectability to get the routine housework done.
After learning the general area, I painted my first attempts at Margate and Ramsgate from the beach hut and planned to return on my last painting day to get some more done – but then, disaster struck: the bike battery died. Died, stone dead. Not a peep. I pushed the bike along the concrete standings as fast as I could and jumped aboard. Nothing. Gathering my strength once more, I shoved it over the slope I was now parked on, all the way down, jammed it into gear as I leaped on board once again…and then sat on it until it rolled to the bottom, without any sign of life. There it stopped. By now, the day was shaping up to be hot, the hottest of the trip so far, and I had no wish and less inclination to push it back up the slope and try again. Sentiment runs a distant second when all the practical measures have failed. Luckily, the owners of the local campsite came to my rescue, nominating their car-dealer son, Richard, who was staying with them. He rose to the occasion splendidly, trying jump leads and phoning around people until he secured a battery delivery for sometime later that afternoon. Top man – so I painted a small picture of their clubhouse, fortuitously including his daughter and her dog in the foreground, as a thank-you for them and wrote off any attempts to get to the coast that day.
The following morning I set off for Frogham in Kent. Where? you may ask. Frogham, I’d say, as the locals, not two miles away from it as it turned out, looked at me in open-mouthed astonishment. There was no point in changing the pronunciation or accent as it sounded the same anyway, but they still looked at me blankly. Just inland from Deal it is, but it took no little time to finally locate it. My Airbnb host afterwards drew me an excellent back-of-envelope map that took me into the town. First impressions of Deal weren’t great: a flat, warm, overcast late afternoon with awful, terrible overpriced dinner on the pier and little of a view to impress me, had left me in a foul mood! By now I was starting to realise a few fundamentals that I should adhere to on this kind of trip and the main one was: Never Paint on a Travel Day – invariably, the area looks awful, you’re tired and really you are trying to stay awake and alive on a motorbike, not get the best out of the painting ops available. Render unto Caesar…
(Deal was the nearest I came to parting company with the bike and possibly more besides. Already a slightly loaded trip for me, from childhood, I took a turn down a side-street towards the possible site of my old school, to find myself confronted by a car roaring up the centre of the street, both sides lined with parked vehicles. He had no intention of slowing or deviating, so, as this became all-too-apparent I threw the bike sideways left, at the last moment. SLAP! His wing mirror hit my bicep squarely through my leather jacket, as I braced myself. He roared past. And that was it. How he he hit me right on the upper arm, but yet we avoided any other contact still amazes me – in the VTR 1000F Mr Honda made an exceedingly good, and agile, bike…)
Three days in rural, isolated Frogham soon shot past, just as I was starting to enjoy sleeping in a log cabin with chickens roaming outside in a nature garden – then I was back on the move again. My final location was in Dymchurch in the south, where a friend had arranged for me to stay in a caravan nearby. The Folkestone area was handy for me to explore Dover, as in my schedule, but I was also slightly behind plan and still needed to fit in a couple of trips to further sort out Ramsgate and Margate.
Dover first, however. As a kid, invariably in rainy weather, I’d be taken reluctantly around the castle to walk the gloomy corridors, gaze gormlessly at the greasy suits of armour stood by the wall and imagine the dismal lives of the inhabitants peering out of apertures for the approaching enemy. Happily, on this first painting trip, the weather was fair and I found an ideal place in the Western Emplacements to view the area and sketch the castle on the opposite slopes. Although there is a busy ferry port, the castle is emblematic and like most castles, makes its presence felt.
However, the next day I arrived to paint the scene with rain slanting down the exposed slopes from the motorway into the town, the road whipped by treacherous side-winds, until I could get up to my previous location. The castle was almost indistinguishable from the surrounding gloom, but the halo of shimmering light produced by the rain and the distant backlighting of the monument gave it an ethereal quality, so I set to work. With the concrete slab of the gun emplacement roof to give some shelter I painted rapidly onto half-panels, trying to keep them and the palette dry as I worked. The sea down below was starting to look interesting, I could see the waves outside the breakwater lashing at the sea walls, while all within was calm. I re-packed the bike and set off.
Changing panels is always the difficult thing under these conditions, complicated by trying to keep the palette dry and as I swapped the first one over, it was caught by the wind, whipped from my fingers and sent skittering across the wet pebbles. I trudged back twenty yards to retrieve it before it reached the car park. Luckily my efforts were left unchanged by this excursion…
Dover done, I re-turned my attention back to the north coast. A view in Ramsgate had previously caught my eye, an ancient slipway complete with boat, but I couldn’t work out how I was going to capture it, as the perfect angle took me too far away. But something I’d seen in Deal as I refuelled one morning came to mind and I retraced my footsteps. Back to the same garage, sure that their Promo Offer could be ‘the thing that is the Thing‘ as John Cooper Clarke put it – and it was: cheap binoculars. A fiver. Result! Decent quality too and they soon brought several scenes into manageable life in the weeks that followed.
Both towns duly fell into order now and so three weeks, 40 paintings and 700 miles later I headed back to London…
(As I pulled out of the caravan park , a large pack of eager Sunday bikers were pulled up opposite, to let a car out just before me. Nightmare. Now I like bikes and bikers as much as the next, well, biker, but an entire pack of bright youngish things on sports iron having a jolly-up is not something I wanted to get involved with on my way home. I won’t be as fast as the fastest, but I’m a lot quicker than the slowest and that many bikes becomes just more traffic to be overtaken. I nailed it out double-quick time, as much as the fully-loaded bike would allow, on public roads, and kept it there a few car lengths ahead of the pack. Once or twice in the mirror I’d see a leading bike pop up a car or or so back from me, or creep carefully forward alongside the traffic behind me, but I’d just barrel along and plant the VTR squarely across the bows of the front car and maintain the gap – country riders tend to be more cautious with cars at the lights: show them a straight and off they scream, but around cars they tend to join the queue, maybe sensibly, but you’ll never get across London that way! They probably thought me anti-social by not wanting to play, but as soon as I saw them peel off behind me at a small roundabout to cane it down the deserted roads to Dungeness I could relax and enjoy the day, the bike and the rest of the ride home…)
Sidmouth, Plymouth and Falmouth
(Now, at this point in the trip I should have included Portsmouth as a one-off trip, before I started on the South-West, but due to the funeral of my mum, who had died after a long illness just as I set out to Kent, I cancelled this section, leaving the South-West to follow as per…)
The South-West was another three week expedition. Although fewer destinations than Kent, each would take me further away from London, so it made sense to treat them as one trip. I had some accommodation more-or-less confirmed, so I loaded up and set out.
My initial destination was Sidmouth, staying nearby in my third caravan of the trip. When Turner painted Sidmouth, he had the advantage of a big standing stone in the harbour, lashed by the waves to depict. Alas, by the time I turned up, the lashing waves had done their bit, it had long since fallen over and disappeared leaving me with an unbroken horizon line out to sea and a bunch of retired folk in deckchairs eating ice-creams in the other direction. Or huddled in the lee of the bus shelters as the rain slanted across the promenade on the day that I arrived.
Happily, these often anthropomorphic rocks still abound in the area, a natural indication of continuous wear and erosion, all indicating the land’s former state as a desert, too. Sea-stacks soon became the subject of a series of paintings – a welcome chance to use up some red oxide paint, too. Their tones changed with the hours and I stood in one spot and painted three panels in succession to try to capture the light. I even hired a small motor boat to explore the possibilities of painting them from the water, a risky business in a choppy sea, trying to avoid pitching the pochade box or my iPad into the ocean as the boat rode the swell. A couple of sketches resulted, but next time I’ll get a driver. It was then I discovered the greater thrill of pointlessly zooming along the waves at top speed – it certainly cured the sea-sickness that was immediately induced every time I bent over to pick up a brush!
(BTW Glass chopping blocks. Discuss. What are they all about – every ‘van I stayed in had glass chopping blocks. OK I know most people use them to stand the sliced bread on, but cooking became a challenge. I’d wince slightly as I chopped any food up as it invariably resulted in ringing gunshots of sound in the enclosed kitchen space, the dangerously blunt serrated knife skewing wildly through the vegetable of choice, missing my remaining fingers and slamming into the glass board. Again. Of course there won’t be splinters, I’m sure it’s not that sort of glass…)
From Sidmouth I took the most scenic route I could find to Plymouth. I’ d fallen in love with Devon by this time: the friendly women with gentle accents like comedy pirates, the lovely winding roads and picturesque villages with wonderful names in mellifluous combination like Huntley Palmer, Stokely Carmichael, Burgess Meredith and more.
Places I’d even heard of elsewhere too, like Dalston and Frogham (again!), were transposed to the south-west of the country. A worm in the apple barrel appeared though: as I neared Dawlish I saw signs on fences and hedges that could only portend bad times ahead – an 80’s revival music festival nearby. Billed to appear were one Thompson Twin, two Nicks, Heywood and Kershaw, G0 (south) West and even the once great Billy Ocean, of Love Really Hurts fame. Thankfully attendance was not compulsory.
Plymouth. A town whose first aspect invited equal comparisons between the Luftwaffe and the town council as to which had most contributed to degrading this ancient seafaring city. It seemed to be built to get people out, rather than in, to judge from the number and sizes of the large roads running across it. Much of the town has had to be rebuilt and a lot of the old part has now been renovated into luxury waterfront flats and developments. But all around hemmed by the clunkiness and clumsy planning of the corporation.
Luckily I was staying near the old docks, a handful of huge Victorian era warehouses with sliding doors, in an unmodernised row of terraced streets so far neglected by the fashionable property developers. This was an easy walk to the Barbican, the remaining old part of town where in days gone by pilgrims departed, Beagles provisioned and marines glowered from the ramparts. The Citadel, a huge fortification overlooking the Sound, dominates the skyline and the harbour frontage, with the red and white lighthouse on the hillside nearby.
Trips across to Mount Batten, a nearby fortification put me in the nautical spirit – if not the full tie-me-to-the-mast-there’s-a-storm-coming Turner mode, at the very least a kind of well-I’d-better-hold-on-even-if-it’s-only-a-five-minute-crossing mode. From there I could see the distant hillside fortifications, with another fort out on the breakwater, complete with lighthouse. With the horizon long dissolved into hazy greys in the light rain, dimly visible beyond the breakwater I could just discern the soft outline of a tanker as it waited in the roads.
A trip across to Cawsands beckoned, but I missed the first ferry and got caught in the rain. As I trudged back to the bike, I glanced over the seawall to behold the gorgeous blue-green of the sea water lapping against the rocks below. Said rocks were where Darwin tied his boat before his epic voyage around the world, I was informed by a passer-by. Having spent the previous week immersed in red oxide paint, now was the chance to break out the viridian and I found myself soon absorbed in the depth and range of the colours – I managed to complete three paintings of the rocks before I had to go home to restock.
Although the weather was still fairly patchy, on the day I finally crossed to Cawsands it held fair for me and allowed to sketch on the boat, passing Drake’s Island on one side and further out, the breakwater with the lighthouse and fort in the middle, which I’d only seen hazily from Mount Batten. As soon as we disembarked, I set out the paints to catch a view back the way we’d come, hoping to catch something of the brisk light summer day. And to get it done before the tide came in, more importantly – as I’d no idea where the high water mark was on this narrow strip of beach.
My final stopover for Falmouth fell through just after I arrived in Plymouth – less-than-ideal timing, but that’s the way of these things, so I had to check my bank balance and get internetting toot sweet. Luckily I had enough to cover an Airbnb that came up trumps, with a flat down by the dock at Penndennis in Falmouth to look forward to.
As ever, I set out from Plymouth in good time, determined to enjoy the ride through the smaller roads around the coast. I dawdled along the quiet country streets, down winding lanes, through sleepy countryside, the only sound to be heard for miles – and it could be heard for some miles, I’ve little doubt, as a mysterious backfiring from the rear cylinder of the bike had been bugging me whenever I slowed down quickly; it probably sounded like a shotgun robbery in the High St, but it was always behind me by then… Still, I reasoned, everybody needs a little fear sometimes. …
Falmouth turned out to be a small piece of perfection to end on. The end of a long journey and out at the farthest point West that I’d ever been – Wales was way behind me by then, even by Plymouth, something I’d wondered at on the journey. Following the A-road into town practically landed me at the front door of the flat at the foot of the Penndennis peninsula – with a shipbuilding yard just out the back door.
London was experiencing a heatwave, and blazing sunshine. Falmouth was not. But standing out in the dawn rain, up-to-here in wet undergrowth on the rocky slopes of the Penndennis gun emplacements gave me an added impetus. Out here, there will only be dogwalkers. And I was up before most of them, too. Another reason for them to peer at me suspiciously. Suddenly I really began to enjoy painting in the rain, in the dreich murk of a blue-grey morning. The romance of the slowly winking lighthouse on St Anthony Head opposite, with a warning buoy in the middle channel to warn the unwary of the rocks nearby, kept calling out, so I returned and painted the view each morning, hoping that the lousy weather would keep up, until the day I left, of course..
Just across the bay was Mt Mawes, a pretty village dominated by its strategically-placed hill-fort guarding the approaches to Falmouth. Being the intrepid sailor now, I stepped lightly onto the ferry and we set out. As soon as I arrived I realised that this castle was the view that Turner had used, not from up on Penndennis Castle as I’d always idly assumed. But I soon found the view I wanted, right alongside the quay, looking across the water at Penndennis receding into the blue-grey distance – the light was perfect, the rain and spray from breaking waves not causing too many problems with the painting kit, so I set down everything as quickly as possible.
Actually, thanks to the bad weather, I finished Falmouth a day or so earlier than I anticipated – after a sudden run of good views, I was left at a slightly loose end. The weather was hung heavy and humid, as close as a wool overcoat, with no relief. So, apropos of nothing, I jumped on the bike and decided to see how far I could go. With a nomined ‘next town’ as my stopping point and keeping a weather eye open as I passed each petrol station, in case it should prove the last, I followed the tarmac. Now, as any biker and indeed hitch-hiker knows, after the start The Road becomes everything: no matter what you planned or where you intended to stop, the road just takes over. You head for a town, get there, think ‘huh‘ and drive on through – over the roundabout by a shopping arcade, past an air-sea rescue base, down that road, along this one, past those trees, I wonder where it all goes? Then a sign appeared: The Lizard. That’s a sign worth following. (I once followed a sign to somewhere called Westward Ho! just because it had an exclamation mark in the title)
And so I ended up at The Lizard, looking out at cormorants dancing on razor-like rocks that jutted out from the majesty of the ocean, painting from high up over the ruins of an old boat shed and slipway. The Lizard King, Mr Lizard, that’s me!
Another relief from the humid morning had been the early-morning bike run. It so happened that Penndennis Peninsula was once the site of a road-racing TT back in the 1930s, the sort of thing that the English hate these days and is restricted to the mad spud-farmers’ sons in Northern Ireland or the Isle of Man. But back then, this short circuit was the stuff of hairy-chested legend for maniacs on rickety two-wheelers. I had to have a go. It was still effectively a one-way route even now so, fed and out the door by 5.30am, I left the bike unpacked and took it up and around the tree-lined run in the proper manner. To my left far below a tanker sat in dry dock, then up through the damp overhanging trees I went and out to the hairpin right at the tip of the peninsula, before braking hard and heading back downhill, doing my best to leave the mad backfiring somewhere behind me, when I slowed through along the back streets to the start. I enjoyed this so much that I dropped it into the roundabout at the foot of the hill on my return, up around the tricky reverse camber bend, out through the trees again and one more time around Piccadilly Circus, as the song goes. Since I had no wish to become a hedge-magnet, off the hillside and plunging down through the trees to the rocks and sea, and besides, the road was wet and leafy underfoot, I didn’t try to set any records.
My landlady frowned in disapproval: ‘The locals don’t like that sort of thing…‘ I looked contrite, stared at the floor a bit: ‘…Hang on, but there aren’t any locals!‘ I said, suddenly remembering the road layout. ‘It’s a deserted headland with a big castle on the far end of it. No-one lives there!‘ ‘They do at this end…‘, she countered. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘some people just live to complain and besides, that camber far too treacherous to get any speed up at this end. Anyway, I wanted to find out why I could hear locals slipping up there late at night, just as I’m dropping off to sleep,…’.
But in deference to local opinion, I only went up, just the once-more, to cane it for two further laps – the following morning, the day i was leaving. I thought that was considerate. Bring back the Penndennis Motorbike TT, say I!
By now I was starting to feel the effects of two months on the road, eating whatever whenever and being largely restricted to conversations of the: ‘Yeah, pump 4 that’s mine…’ ‘Can I pay by card?’ and ‘I think I’ve got some change…’ type. Even the occasional ‘Do you have wi-fi?’ seemed to add a certain piquancy to the day’s transactions. And as for the ‘Can I have a black coffee, please?’ ‘You mean, Americano!’ ‘Um, yeah, whatever…one of them.’ ‘Would you like milk with that?’-type conversations, these were practically the utterings of the Algonquin Circle for my little world.
After that final bike run around the TT, I loaded up and hit the road to Bath, packed with pasties…
Following a quick rest and relax with an old friend and his family, we gave the bike a cursory once over, mostly to detect the cause of the backfiring, if not fix it, but since it showed no other ill effects after its 3000 mile trip, it was soon packed and I was back on the road to London…
– And so to bed…–