Ilam Hall is a grand old limestone building in the beautiful Dove Dale in Derbyshire. Check out the photo
And yet it is let to the Youth Hostel Association for anyone from kids to ancients to enjoy overnight stays while in that part of the Peak District on hikes and bike rides. I chose to stay there one night this week during a farewell bike ride from Chester to Nottingham.
My son decided to try cycling to work in Nottingham and in my garage leaned the first Dawes Super Galaxy I owned. Surplus to my requirements since my wife bought me a brand new one two years ago today, I offered it to my son. Of course he expected me to take it on the train or the car but where’s the fun in that? And my bike deserved one last cross-country ride. It had faithfully taken me to Cheltenham many times as well as to Snowdonia and beyond. I’ve had the urge to ride to Nottingham since son went to university there but the route eluded me. It seems easy planning north to south minor road routes, embellished by National cycle routes but not so west to east at this latitude. Nottingham is almost due east by about 100 miles from Chester with the Pennines (the backbone of England) in the way. Also there is the conurbation of Stoke-on-Trent with its subsumed towns of Kidsgrove – never easy to cycle through while navigate on the wheel. Nevertheless, I enjoyed planning the route and on Wednesday I set off with two loaded panniers on the rear, and a map-holder on theh handlebars. The forecast was cloudy but no rain and a slight headwind, made worse the faster I cycled so I cheated and cycled slowly.
On nearing Sandbach close to the dreaded conurbation, I saw a National Cycle byway sign for route 5. Umm, tempting because it headed east and in the direction of one of many canals. They have tow paths, many of which have been surfaced for cycling. Risking going off my route I hurtled into unknown but quiet country lanes. They actually took me over the canals and their humped-backed bridges but along a disused railway. Marvelous cycling but for one thing: I didn’t know where I was! Mile after mile, the nice level gravel path passed under bridges and when by a canal up the lock slopes, but there were no signs to say which roads passed on the overhead bridges or what the towns were. I just had to stop and cycle up to one of the overhead bridges and ask a local: “Is this the A50?”
“Dunno, mate, it’s the Stoke Road.” Grrrr.
Route 5 leaves the security of traffic-free journeying at Kidsgrove but, hey, a Tesco! Toilets, cafe, hooray. Not many customers in there only buy one banana, and one bottle of isotonic energy drink but I did, then asked an assistant for where they hide the single bars of Snickers. She made a wild guess and said: “Are you on a bike ride?” I resisted a one-liner and followed her for miles away from multipack confectionery. Since I had an operation on my calcaneous heel many years ago, I walk slowly. After a couple of hours of my legs in rotating mode, I found walking even more silly and so had to guess which aisles she steamed around. In the Mens I enjoyed washing the salt off my face. To amusement of others, I used the high-force drier to jet the moisture away from my face. It nearly blew away my nose – amazing how powerful - those new driers. In Stoke-on-Trent I had to leave Route 5 to cross a suburb – very hilly Chell – to find Route 55 for a few more miles. I met a few unleashed dogs, most of which returned to owners when called. I stopped, ready to blast them with my dog-dazer though it wasn’t necessary.
Back on my route, the hills climbed up the foothills of the Pennines. I found no alternative but to cycle along the A52, ostensibly a main road. However, it was surpisingly quiet but more up than down. Some stretches warned drivers to use low gears on the uphill! I did too, but I have a rule: if it’s faster to get off and push then do so. I did, for hill after hill. Funny thing is that sometimes once the momentum of downhilling runs out on the up, I could carry on far easier than on other hills. I think some tarmac is more go-faster than others. Eventually I saw the very welcome sign for Ilam Hall, 3 miles. And downhill! My brakes were in danger of meltdown but it is so heart-lifting to see the final signposts for your destination after a days hard cycling.
My brain must have been tired too because it took me a few cycle arounds the grounds to find Reception. Once there I asked directions for the cycle store. “Sorry sir, there isn’t one.”
What? A youth hostel boasting of its refurbishment last winter and with pictures of cyclists most of its door signs and yet has no safe cycle store. The 12-year-old receptionist recommended I took the bike around the back to a recycle store instead. No locks on the gates and I had to move the large bins to get at the only metal bar available to lock my bike to. The need to use a recycle store instead of a cycle store aside, the youth hostel is very fine indeed and I slept like a hibernating bear, waking up hungry.
Thursday morning it was foggy with light rain. Aaarrggh. Even so I had to go. There are several problems cycling in rain: poor visibility for drivers, brakes don’t work, slippery roads, I couldn’t see the lovely Dove Dale so well, and my glasses don’t have windscreen wipers. Nevertheless, the route to Nottingham from Ashbourne, although mostly on main roads, went very well and it was a joy to reach the boundary of Nottingham.
I handed over the bike to bemused (he’s quite mad) looks from son’s fiancee’s mum and in exchange son made me a wonderful humous and olive sandwich for the return journey by train.
It felt strange being back in Chester on Thursday night, knowing that I’d left it only the previous day having cycled and pushed hard for 100 miles. Strange but wonderful and answering the question I’d asked while struggling up some hills on why I did it.
On another matter entirely, my scifi Exit, Pursued by a Bee, is soon to be serialized by http://www.kalkion.com