How far North?

Our MVP Scott Butler decides to ride a free pushbike as far as he can, because these are the sort of mad things he does, and that's why we like him so much...

Here is his story!

"How hard could it be? It's just riding a bike, right?" I asked myself. I'd been caught out with this thinking back in 2015. That was brought about by spending too much time repairing my ocean rowing boat, Pacific Pete, that I'd neglected to train for an 1800 mile ride across Europe with full panniers. I'd learnt many lessons on that ride - travel lighter and take spares among them, but here I was again, seemingly overestimating my cycling proficiency and endurance.

The idea was born out of the need to do something now. It was all well and good having adventure plans in the pipeline, but after the lockdowns, I had a burning need to just 'get out there.' So after scouring social media ads, I finally found what I was after – an ancient folding bicycle that was generously offered for free!  

But what could I do with Fallulah, the folding bike? Vacation from work was in scant supply, with weddings and holidays all being pushed back to this year when I had my four days off to work. 

No problem; the idea had formed. How far North could I ride this silly little bike (I didn't mean that, Fallulah) in my four days and get back to work again for a 9 am start? Sometimes the simplest plans are the best ones.

I packed light this time with just spare inner tubes, one change of clothes, a sleeping bag and a Bivvy bag. Essentially, that was a good thing, as Fallulah only has one gear! 

The front brake was literally a rubber pad that pushed down on the front tyre – effectively no use whatsoever and the rear brake was activated by pedalling backwards, using the frame as leverage! Uphill? Slog. Downhill? Somewhere between exhilarating and terrifying!  

After a busy night shift, I eventually left Caversham Road Fire Station at half nine in the morning. The first day was always going to be tough, as I had to cross the Chilterns, which involved 3300 feet of elevation! The going was indeed challenging, with muddy paths and steep hills, although I still overtook other cyclists, much to my delight and surprise! One such Lycra-clad carbon fibre riding fella must have had a few words to himself seeing me cruise past him dressed in Firefighter fancy dress and honking my clown horn (not a euphemism).

In all, I covered 77 miles on the first day and arrived on the outskirts of Northampton, checking into a cheap hotel and devouring a roast dinner.

Day two started with a delightful conversation with Frederick, the 84-year-old Night Porter, who only worked because he wanted to and donated 80% of his salary every month to various charities. Fred was the kind of person I wanted to meet -full of vigour, enthusiasm, stories and genuine positivity. He would later that day make a huge contribution to my own endeavours. Did I mention that I was raising money for the Firefighters Charity?

Old railway routes were the ticket on day two, which was low on navigation issues. Still, the terrain was poor, and Fallulah began making some awful grinding noises, audibly demonstrating her chagrin at this late in life adventure. Country lanes dominated the rest of the day. We have many lovely churches tucked away in tiny villages and hamlets - with a stop to treat Fallulah to a bit of oil and a scrub with a toothbrush outside a discount shop. At the same time, the sales assistant, Shane, looked on bemused, straightening his name badge proudly for what I assumed was the hundredth time of the day.  

I ended up In Newark-on-Trent after 78 miles. I felt that I could have gone further, but Fallulah needed a bike shop, and there was nothing after Newark for many miles. I dropped in on the local fire station, hoping that I might be able to kip on the station, but alas, Covid rules struck, and I was turned away to the embarrassment of the duty crew.

Day three started with the guys in the local bike shop giving Fallulah a little service amid disbelief about what I and, more importantly, the bike was achieving! 

"She was only designed for a half-mile trip to the shops!" They cried. Fallulah and I knew better; her rear hub was now spinning freely, and without the same grinding sound, my knees gave out. 

I set off feeling refreshed and aiming for a big day. I followed canals and tried to use small country lanes as much as possible. 

Large towns and cities are easy to aim for, with the lure of facilities and sights, yet once there, they are a nightmare to navigate and often, the designated cycle paths just add huge amounts of time. I arrived In York just as the sun was setting with another 77 miles done! But I wanted more. I pushed on in the dark, cruising past the horse race track and off into the dark countryside, the unpronounceable river Ouse to my left. 

It began to rain, the firefighter helmet coming into its own with the visor flipped down, but I began to fade physically. In my eagerness to push on out beyond York, I had been remiss in re-stocking my chocolate supplies and was now out of food. I passed through tiny villages and hamlets with no shops or petrol stations until I came across a junction that had me studying google maps. 

"HOLY COW! THERE'S A CHIPPY!" I immediately headed for it. My luck was in. Jake was cleaning out the fryers, but one portion of chips left along with a battered sausage - Oh my days! 

Jake also donated his secret stash of chocolate, and I headed back out into the night, cold and wet but rejuvenated. 

That night, I reached Thirsk at half nine, walking into my accommodation in the right state, dripping muddy water everywhere, but ever so happy to have completed 107 miles and be about to devour as much food as I could lay my hands on.

My final day arrived, and I set off with that odd feeling I get at the end of an adventure where I relish the end yet want it to continue. It was a beautiful day of meandering roads and old railway tracks. I took the time to snap some pics of Fallulah sitting in front of the beautiful rolling green countryside. 

Upon entering the county of Durham, I got my first puncture of the trip, justifying carrying the inner tubes all that way. Although to be fair, I was attempting to pull off skids on the old bike…

Then, looming up ahead was the Angel of the North, welcoming me to Newcastle and the end of my little adventure. I headed for a fire station in the heart of the city and got my photo taken by the crew in front of their pump. To be honest, I don't think they were convinced that I was actually a real firefighter; I was quite a state by then. Covid reared its head again, and I wasn't even allowed in for a cup of tea. Oh, how that pesky flu has affected the world!

A ten-hour Megabus (Never EVER again!), two rush-hour tube rides (with Fallulah still) and a train journey later, at 8:30 am, I rolled back into the yard at Caversham Road fire station. I showered and reported for duty at 9:00 am, having covered a surprise to most, 327 miles. 

Now, I had a brilliant four days and felt that I'd made the most of my time. 

Hell, I've raised over a grand for the Fire Fighters Charity and had some tremendous interaction over the journey! But this enthusiasm has come mainly from the online community. In general, my little jaunt was a real eye-opener into the psyche of the country at the moment. Brexit, Covid, rising fuel prices… It was hard to raise a smile from those I passed, unable to change the frowns as if modern life was truly getting them down, grinding out the day's routines. Of course, this rested heavily on my mind as though it was my job to help burden their troubles, but If I managed to put a smile on at least one person's face, then the trip was a success.

What the adventure did prove, however, was that we don't need to travel across continents or be involved with grand, expensive trips to inspire people. I've had some wonderful comments since I've been back regarding inspiration and motivation, and I guess I put that down to the fact that this journey was something that anyone could do. 

It was just a bike, and I just rode North. I think that struck a bigger chord with people than any ocean crossing.  

Scott Butler

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