‘What you got there? Jelly Babies..?’, Greg asked Ian. ‘Yeah, keep the sugar levels up’. Ian tore open the packet and offered them round. Uh, sugar. Something I’ve come to avoid as far as possible in processed foods but we had gone a good fair few miles. And we were paused, looking across at the Runcorn Bridge. I took one. ‘Have another couple’, Ian said. I had couple more. ‘Don’t bother about the colours!’ As the soft, doughy sweetness spread around my mouth, childhood memories of stopping off at the sweet shop on the way to school came back.
Three of us were cycling from the WEA North West regional office at the Cotton Exchange in Liverpool to our office, newly opened at Bridge 5 Mill in Ancoats in Manchester. We wanted to raise funds to help take a group of adults over to visit Ypres and the European Parliament in November. ‘How far is it?’ ‘50 miles, if we go by the Trans-Pennine Trail (TPT)’. Would I survive? Richard in the office painted dire pictures of limbs and bones, protruding, of wracked, cramped muscles , stretched beyond despairing point. ‘Oh, and you’ll get the endorphins too!’, he mentioned.
Greg asked me en route, ‘So, how much training have you done for this?’ ‘Well, (I’d taken advice. Whole families who’d never been on a bike before were cycling once a year from Blackpool to Manchester without mishap, apparently…so, that was fine, then…), I’ve been out three times in the past month into town and then back along the river…’ ‘So, about 12 miles then each ride..?’ Should be enough, I thought, and looked at him.
Greg and Ian were in the breakaway group while I held the peloton together. But they kindly slowed down at regular intervals to enable me to catch up. ‘I’m back!’ I cried. By the Warrington Swing Bridge, they’d paused to wait for me again and the jelly babies were out. This time, I reached in and grabbed a handful. Sugar, umm, lovely, lovely sugar!’ , then reached for a few more. ‘We’re half-way there,’ they said ‘and making good time.’
The TPT is great. Mile after mile of trees guide you along the bank of the Mersey and the St Helens canal. You could have been in Devon or Guernsey, as you made your way out of the inverted V gates, used to keep out motor bikes, into small hamlets, greeting smiling, friendly people out for the day or walking their dogs . Ian had perfected the wiggle to pass through with barely a pause. Mind you, he was riding light, while I had enough gear in two full red paniers to keep me for a fortnight in Ibiza. Greg’s approach through the gate was more of a waddle.
‘Sugar!’, I swore, as I accidentally kicked my front mud guard, trying to get through one of the gates. I paused to fix it before hearing male voices behind me. I looked back to see 15 lycra -wearing men, all bonded, out for a day’s hard riding. I looked ahead at the single, muddy track, winding through the woodland, Greg and Ian long gone. So, I decided I would outsprint them and catch up. Several moments later, I glanced back. Nope, the riders were still there, the first now right behind me. This went on for a while till we came to a wider trail where they could pass with dignity. The back rider had a cowbell fitted to this seat. ‘Hey, I’ve got one of them too,’ and rang my ice cream bell in farewell..
Beyond the dark side of Altrincham, passing grimy, oily engineering workshops, Ian called back, ‘This is it, Bern. Bridgewater Canal, taking us right into the centre of Manchester.’ And we flew!
‘Blimey, there’s a football ground there on the right. Anyone notice?’ And then we were spluttered out onto the lively Canal Street Basin in the heart of the city. Ian weaved and bobbed up front, looking for a way onto the canal. It felt like a scene from the French Connection. Quickly, he darted back and by the time I’d turned, he’d vanished, seemingly into plain brick. Greg disappeared too! Barely noticeable between two edges was a snicket some two and a half feet wide, leading down to the towpath. And almost immediately we rode upon a film crew and paused to wait while they filmed a scene from Canal Side Love. Soon, we’d flashed past Piccadilly and Bridge 3, Bridge 4 and, here we are, at our destination, Bridge 5 Mill. Our welcoming committee of Rehana, Ian and his wife, Helen, and Margot of Bridge 5 Mill greeted us with smiles, handshakes, hugs and a great tea.
Would we do it again? Maybe, we could make this an annual occasion to raise funds for a good cause? There was hushed talk of different groups, joining up the dots between WEA offices around the country. Who knows..? But for now, we still need money for our cause, whether we’re in or out of Europe and you can still contribute, if you are able to, at Study Visit to Brussels.
Sitting in the Canal side room, nibbling cake and sipping hot coffee, I checked myself out. Relieved, I was breathing, a good sign. Actually, I felt alright. ‘I’ve just ridden from Liverpool along the TPT,’, I told a young woman, who was setting up an exhibition about bees at the Mill. ‘Oh, yes, I’ve done that with friends. We’ve cycled to Formby, then gone swimming in the sea. It was lovely…oh, and sometimes, we cycled back as well.’ ‘Really, you cycled back too? Wow!’ And I happened to mention it to the train guard, as we pulled into Liverpool Lime Street, ‘I’ve cycled to Manchester today, you know!’ ‘Didn’t cycle back, then..?’ ‘Next time!’, I said. Maybe next time, I thought. And I don’t think I ever will. It’s probably a bit far for me in one day. But I might do Liverpool to Manchester again on another lovely warm and sunny, mid-September day for a good cause. Do you want to come with us?