I seem to unable to go on a trip without some form of disaster. Whether it’s capsized canoes, encounters with wildlife, leaking air mattresses or broken equipment, something is guaranteed to go wrong, bringing the trip to a grinding halt. This trip was no exception- before I’d even left London, things had already gone wrong and would only go downhill from there. It’s only through stubbornness and sheer bloody mindedness that I managed to finish this trip.
I was planning to ride, alone, on the Transpenine Trail, a national coast to coast route for recreation and transport – for walkers, cyclists and (in parts) horse riders. The Transpennine Trail or TPT runs 215 miles from Southport near Liverpool to Hornsea, near Hull. Although the route can be ridden in either direction, it’s traditional to go from east to west – so I went west to east.
Unlike my previous bikepacking trip, this one was well planned. I had the route downloaded onto my GPS, I had every coffee shop, campsite and bike shop waypointed in my phone and I was well equipped with all the camping gear I could carry.
What could go wrong?
Day 1 – Southport to Thelwal
I’d packed my bike and backpack the night before, obsessing over my gear and the best possible place to store it. The first aid kit should go just here. I needed a lighter- oh and backup lighter in case the first lighter failed. Oh, and a third, backup lighter, stored elsewhere, in case I lost the first two lighters. And also some emergency lifeboat matches…well, just because.
Leaving home at about 8am, I cycled through the early morning London traffic to Euston station to catch the 0930 to Wigan. I had a ticket to collect and I was planning to buy breakfast and coffee to take on the train with me. I’d also need some extra time to get my bike loaded aboard the train. I hadn’t counted on the traffic being quite so bad and my cycling being slow, so I was horrified to find I’d arrived at the station at 0920. No time for breakfast, I’d have to move fast if I was even going to make the train. I jogged into the ticket office to collect my pre-booked ticket, the touchscreen ticket machine stubbornly refusing to work with my cycling gloves on. I fumbled with gloves, helmet, wallet, credit card and mobile phone, while trying not to drop my 40kg+ of fully laden bike.
The machine needs the correct card, inserted twice, two multi digit codes before it will spit out my train ticket, seat assignment, cycle booking, receipts… all as the seconds tick away. My heart is hammering, sweat is pouring off me and I’m breathing like an asthmatic warthog. C’mon, C’mon…. I grab the tickets and waddle to the platform. Phew, made it! The bike is safely stowed away in the cargo cabin of the train, I’m in my seat, tickets in my sweaty mitt as the train pulls out of Euston heading north to Wigan and the start of this adventure. I’m breathing a sigh of relief and looking forward to ordering some coffee and a breakfast sandwich from the buffet car when I notice my wallet is missing. I must have dropped it, somewhere in the station as I was fumbling about. The wallet has my cash for the trip and my backup credit card. It also has my coffee shop loyalty cards- very important. Luckily, I separated out the train tickets and my debit card so while this was a massive inconvenience, I still have the means to draw more cash and pay for campsites.
I changed train in Wigan and with a half hour wait for the connecting train to Southport, I was able to finally have breakfast and much need coffee.
Another half hour on the train and I’d arrived in the town of Southport, a place I was soon departing. Most notable for the vast number of elderly people shambling about, I quickly rode to the Trans Pennine Trail marker on the seafront. After a few brief photos to mark the occasion, I was ready to set off. It’s 1300, the suns shining and I’m keen to get going. It’s traditional to dip the back tyre of your bike in the Irish sea when leaving on the TPT (and your front tyre in the North Sea when you arrive in Hornsea) but the tide was out, and the sea appeared to be a half mile or more from the promenade, I decided to give this a miss.
Perhaps I should have dipped my tyre, I might well have had more luck. Leaving Southport behind me, I set off on a shared use path, south through sand dunes. Almost immediately, my GPS betrays me. It keeps insisting on trying to navigate to the beginning of the route. I need to navigate to the end of the route. No amount of turning it off and on again or fiddling with the settings will make it change its mind. As far as it’s concerned, I’m going away from the place I need to be and I’m wildly off course. It beeps its disapproval constantly.
“No, idiot, not that way, the other way!”, I imagine it saying.
This would be its constant refrain for the rest of the trip.
“Beeeeep! No, Idiot, that way!”
It’s a pretty area though, the weather’s perfect, beautiful blue sky, warm but not too warm. A few miles down the coast, I manage to take the wrong turning. I find myself at a junction, signs for various routes pointing in different directions. I can’t see any that point to the TPT but really, how far wrong can I go? I see a trail marked as the Butterfly Trail which looks like it goes in roughly the right direction, so I take that. It’s beautiful hard packed dirt trail that winds through woodland, very quiet and peaceful. I end up in the village of Ainsdale. A fellow mountain biker gives me directions- follow this trail and eventually you’ll rejoin the TPT at the Leeds canal. Or turn back and go back at the turning I’d missed. The stubbornness kicks in and this route looks nicer than the TPT anyway.
I push on, heading for the coastal path. It’s a longer route and it’s taking me well out of my way but I’m glad I took it as it gives me a chance to see Another Place, a piece of modern sculpture by Sir Antony Gormley located at Crosby Beach It consists of 100 eerie cast iron figures facing towards the sea. I enjoyed seeing them and the ride along the coast was fun but I’d ended up in the suburbs of Liverpool, nowhere near the TPT.
Cutting diagonally through Liverpool I attempted to find the TPT. I’d found the Leeds canal and followed that, the towpath offering a smooth and traffic free route. The TPT proved elusive, though. Time and again, the GPS would insist I was “on the course” but I couldn’t find any signage to support this. I reverted to street level routes, heading roughly in the right direction, with lots of diversions and back tracking. As I approached Alderhay Hospital, the GPS beeped again- “on course”. I cast about, desperately trying to find what should be an obvious, well-marked route. By chance, I glanced down from the road- there was the TPT- below me! A set of stairs carried me down to the gravel bed of an old abandoned railway cutting.
So the reason I couldn’t find the TPT was because it was below me the whole time. I’m now aware that I’m behind time. I had planned to stop overnight in Widnes, the afternoon is wearing away and I’m still miles away from my destination. I put the railway route to good use, trying to make up the lost time. I head towards John Lennon airport and the village of Hale. Here I get my first view of the River Mersey- first smell too. It reeks here. The river has strong swampy smell. On top of that, there are chemical works in the West Bank area whose smell makes me gag. The TPT route takes me up a flight of stairs and directly alongside a chemical factory- I’m glad to leave them behind and head up river towards Spike Island, a 19th-century chemical industry hub, now a scenic, riverside park with paths & a visitor center. I had made tentative plans to camp here but it’s still light and there are lots of people about.
The lingering smell from the chemical plant decides it for me, I’ll push on a little further. Looking at my map, I can see I’ve waypointed a caravan park in Warrington, just a few miles further along the TPT. I plan to head there, the thought of a shower and an early night driving me on. My GPS route once again fails me as the route is diverted away from the canal due to new construction work. I flail about, trying to follow the canal towpath and trespassing on a construction site but I admit defeat as chain-link fence blocks my path. I follow the diversion signs, taking me through a grubby industrial suburb of Widnes.
Eventually, I’m back on the TPT proper, heading along canal towpaths and old railway lines towards Warrington. Ending up in Lower Walton, I head along cycle paths towards Upper Walton and the imaginatively named Two Acre Caravan Park. A pretty flowerpot lined lane guides me into a bare concrete lot, filled with mobile homes, static caravans and vans. I see a lot of surly faces and grubby kids, there’s none of the open grassy fields or shower blocks I was expecting. I ask someone from the caravan park if there’s an office or a manager about, I’m directed to a beefy, string vest wearing man who rudely says,
“no camping here, off you go.”
Turns out this isn’t a commercial caravan or camping site but rather a Traveller site and they are none too keen on me and my bike.
I’m at a loss, I wasn’t planning on riding this far, the sun is low in the sky. There are no other camp sites in the area. I briefly consider camping in the local stately homes’ grounds, but I decide to push on along the TPT and wild camp tonight. I ride a few miles further along the canal towpath but at Stockton Heath I take a wrong turning. I should go straight on, following the canal but I take a left heading through a park. I blame being tired and dehydrated, it’s been 12 hours since I set off from home. I’m back on the canal but on the wrong side, running parallel to the TPT.
I finally find a campsite for the night- less than ideal but a quiet spot on the bank of the Mersey near Thelwal. There’s no-one else around, there’s water and flattish ground. It’ll do. I set up my tent and get some food on the go by the light of my head torch. I’m glad that I have a good quality water purifier as I must wash and drink in the water from the Mersey. I’ve ridden 95km, with lots of back tracking and frustration, I’m exhausted. After meal of dehydrated spaghetti bolognese I can crawl into my sleeping bag and try get some sleep before setting off again the next morning.