It’s been over three weeks now since I rode into Hull after six days on the saddle. I’d spent the past 250+ miles wondering how I might feel at the sight of the Humber bridge, and at no point did I expect the tide of emotion that welled my eyes at this point. Neither did I equate the daily mileage and route planning to the rollercoaster of emotion I would experience along the way.
I can honestly say that riding #TPTsolo was one of the toughest challenges I have ever faced. The Trans Pennine Trail is ridden by many cyclists in large chunks or it’s entirety, but usually in groups. Riders usually don’t include a gruelling detour to Queensbury on the third day either. That final ascent to one of the highest points Yorkshire was probably the most challenging individual sections of the ride, but it was the location which also had most significance. It added two days to the usual TPT route, but it was worth every calorie I burned.
The reasons for this mad adventure had been personal. As an ambitious professional trumpet player, I have been and continue to be inspired by some great musicians. Some of my heroes have come from similar backgrounds to my own by beginning their playing careers in brass bands, and have gone on to great things from this firm musical grounding. Three such heroes have also sadly passed away quite recently, two during my time at the Royal Academy of Music, where all three of them taught at some stage. James Watson, Derek Watkins and Rod Franks were three exceptional men and my ride was deliberately planned to take me to places with significance to all three of them.
It’s fair to say I’m no expert rider, and a 250 mile off-road cycling expedition is not exactly something I do every week. It was actually my first attempt to cycle a long distance trail, and the most distance I would ever have covered on consecutive days. Starting small wasn’t in my interests; I wanted to achieve something monumental that would honour the cause and to pay tribute to the men that had inspired me by doing something extraordinary. I would also be raising money for the James Watson fund, a charity fund which supports their former students and all young aspiring professional brass players. I was the first to benefit from this fund, set up in order to support ambitious young musicians through expensive study courses. These courses are costly and a financial struggle for students from even the most privileged of backgrounds. Considering there is a tradition of great brass players coming from not-so privileged backgrounds it is only through the support of such charities that this country will continue to produce such universally admired musicians such as Jim, Rod and Derek, amongst many others.
I hadn’t given myself long to prepare for this gruelling journey. The decision to ride was in turn a reaction to the news of Rod Frank’s death earlier this summer. Rod had suffered with a severe illness over the past decade, but had never let it compromise his supreme professionalism. During one trumpet lesson I vividly remember him describing the emotions of going in to an operation and not knowing whether he would wake up again to see his family again. He was trying to explain to me why I should play everything like you really mean it, and not waste a single breath; a mantra you could apply more widely to life I suppose. After all he had been through it seemed like this man was invincible, still playing at that time as principal trumpet of the London Symphony and with the most effortlessly beautiful phrasing. To hear he had died in a car crash was a shock, and a bitter twist of fate that seems most undeserving.
Riding the Trans Pennine Trail was something I had intended to do for a number of years. With the news of Rod’s sudden death it occurred to me that life is too short to put off things you intend to do, and a clear week at the end of my summer would be the ideal opportunity to get this one done. That this was the week leading up to the British Open brass band championships would also prove opportunistic, as it allowed me to coordinate my ride with some visits to old friends and some significant checkpoints. The rest of the plans just fell neatly in to place.
Day 1 – Southport to Warrington
Day one came around quickly after some frantic last minute planning and training. I have a new found respect for tour operators and guides – I discovered that detailed tour planning of this nature a logistical headache! The first challenge was getting me and all the necessary kit (minimally packed and insured) up to Southport where the TPT begins on the West Coast. It’s fair to say I was nervous throughout the journey, knowing the beginning of an epic and painful ordeal was about to begin with a growing legion of online supporters expecting social media updates through the week. I had put a lot of weight to my shoulders in more ways than one!
Progress was slow to begin. The first 5 miles were the worst through the journey in some ways as I battled against a storm that had blown in off the Irish Sea. I was already behind schedule with an anxious start and the whole width of England was in front of me. Once I had wound my way through to Aintree to find an express route along an old railway cutting, progress had picked up and I was flying past Liverpool. It occurred to me only afterwards that I had missed a trumpeting themed photo opportunity at Penny Lane, although this would have been a detour in the wrong direction and one I might not return from with two wheels!
As I passed Runcorn darkness was falling with the help of some miserable weather, and the race was on to reach Warrington in the light. Visibility was the only deadline factor and on this occasion I failed. The last few miles were cycled under street lamps and with a small detour from the trail, but I made it to the hotel in time to order in a much needed steak dinner and a first post-ride muscle soak in a hot bath.
Day 2 – Warrington to Glossop
The staff at the Best Western were very accommodating, allowing me to clean up my bike in the service area. There had been quite a bit of mud spraying up in the rain, and keeping the rear mechanism clean and oiled would be a crucial factor in getting the bike to Hull. Unfortunately on day two there was still a lot of surface water though the sky was looking much clearer.
The section from Warrington to Urmston was amongst memorably pretty countryside, and on a pleasant Sunday morning the trail was being well used by walkers, cyclists and horse riders. My mind however was on reaching my first deadline – 1pm at Stockport to visit the Fairey Band at their bandroom in Heaton Chapel, on the site of the Williams Fairey Engineering works. With military precision, I arrived on Sir Richard Fairey road at precisely 1300 hours and sneaked in to hear the band mid-rehearsal, catching my first snippets of the test piece and a band in impressive form.
I had arranged this meeting beforehand with band manger Nigel Beasley, and conductor Garry Cutt. Garry had attended music college with Rod Franks and was only too happy to support my efforts with a photograph in front of the band. Faireys is a special place for me, as I was born down the road whilst my dad was playing for the band, as well as working for the company. It was always my ambition to play here, which I did whilst at the University of Manchester. I idolised Brian Taylor as a teenage cornet player whilst he was principal at Faireys, and it was my great privilege to have him guiding me through my early days as principal, though I sadly realise that more now with the benefit of maturity. They were difficult days for the band, and it was my great regret that it wasn’t to last.
Brian Taylor however remains on the 2nd Solo cornet chair where he continues to nurture and advise the current generation. This band has a knack of finding great unproven musicians and allowing them a platform to flourish at the highest level. Perhaps the greatest name to have ever risen from these ranks was Maurice Murphy. He occupied the ‘bumper up’ position to Norman Ashcroft in the 1950s, who legend tells recommended him for an audition for principal at Black Dyke. They were great rivals then as now and no doubt a move that prolonged Norman’s own reign in that seat! The rest is history – Maurice becoming one of most celebrated trumpet players of modern times with the London Symphony, and later and colleague of Rod Franks with whom he shared the principal chair.
It was a thrill to hear the band in such great form again, sounding more like the Faireys I aspired to join than I remember in recent years. I had to tear myself away though to get back on the trail. My accommodation was near Glossop and there were some hills to climb before dark. The countryside around Manchester is surprisingly charming, winding through the Mersey valley, Reddish Vale and up past Hyde, through Broadbottom and into Charlesworth. I thought victory was mine as I approached where I thought the B&B was. I even made a final twitter post before losing signal, but what happened next was quite astonishing.
As I reached the top of the hill, the days mud had taken its toll on the rear mechanism and pushed the chain into the rear wheel, jamming it between the cassette and the spokes. I’d tried to release it but I needed better tools for this job than I’d carried. Having carried the bike up the last stretch to where my map was indicating I should be, I reached the end of the road, leaving me in the back end of nowhere without trace of any farmhouse accommodation.
Just before the horror of the situation had fully dawned upon me, a car appeared. I asked the man if he might know where I should be heading, and to my relief he pulled out a map with the correct location of the farm on it. He also happened to be a mountain biker himself, and had all the tools on hand to release the back wheel and free the chain. I was blown away by the coincidence of this man being here when I needed his genorosity. I can only think that this was more than a stroke of luck, and fate was suggesting I was supposed to complete this ride. Sir, If you end up reading this, I can’t thank you enough for your selflessness in helping me at this moment!
However, I still wasn’t at the B&B. The phone number of the farm hadn’t been released by the booking agency so I was running out of options at this point to pinpoint it. Fortunately, I had a phone call just as I had pushed my bike up hill into the darkness way above the twinkling street lights of Glossop and Manchester behind me. My resolve had been tested to the limit, but I was relieved to freewheel down the other side of the hill in the darkness towards my destination despite now being about 6 miles out in the wrong direction from where I’d hoped to be.
Day 3 – Glossop to Shipley, via Queensbury
Very few days on this trip went exactly how I’d planned them, if any. Day three was the day where contingency plans kicked in, and even then I was freestyling as the day progressed!
My deadline was to be with Black Dyke band by 7pm. Between me and them was a lot of very large hills, and about 35 miles of road. Ambitiously, I’d planned a few scenic stops along the way too. However, my setback the night before put me a few hours behind schedule with some essential maintenance so I also had to make up some time, as if I didn’t have enough to do already!
The weather was still less than pleasant heading towards the hills. I left Glossop literally in a cloud and headed along the scenic reservoir path of the Longdendale trail towards Woodhead tunnel. The TPT gains altitude towards its highest point just beyond this, but I was taking a left turn to join the Pennine Cycleway for even higher reaches. There was still graffiti on the road here from the recent Tour de France opening stage and it was at this moment I thought maybe I was asking a bit much of myself, given the supreme fitness of those riders and my comparatively low fitness level!
The Pennine Cycleway was proving a bit much of a challenge for me as I passed through Holmfirth, so at about midday I decided to head for a more direct route through Huddersfield. This city has its own great legacy where music is concerned, particularly where brass bands and choral societies are concerned. It was also a place that Rod Franks would have known well having attended junior music school there, and being a visiting professor at the University music department. He would also be familiar with Brighouse, the next town I would pass through, as a former member of the Brighouse and Rastrick band.
It was with Black Dyke that he and Maurice would have most brass-banding success however, and this was to be my final destination that day. Unfortunately their Queensbury bandroom is at the top of a huge hill which took a full hour of continuous climbing to reach.
I was warmly welcomed by Prof Nicholas Childs and the band, who spent the first 10 minutes warmly reminiscing with me over James Watson’s days as conductor. Nick was full of praise for what Jim had achieved with the band, acknowledging the strong foundation he had laid for their current run of success. After my second checkpoint photograph, I enjoyed listening to half of the rehearsal on the same test piece that I had heard over 24 hours before at Faireys. There wasn’t much to pick between them on this evidence, but that Dyke went on to win Saturday’s competition wasn’t a surprise, only that Faireys weren’t much higher placed than 9th.
I had to leave early to make the long descent into Shipley where I had a night booked in a hotel, but not before sampling a very fine Indian curry dinner to regain strength!
Day 4 – Shipley to Dearne Valley, via Grimethorpe
A relatively straightforward day nearly ended in disaster, as I rode into Grimethorpe’s rehearsal with minutes to spare. Complacency had set in here and I thought a gentle pace over 30 miles would get me in with time to spare. I also hadn’t been quite as diligent over keeping myself as hydrated as I should have been, one of the many concerns that cycling solo could land me in some serious trouble.
Fortunately the terrain was much more gentle from here onwards, allowing my tired muscles to recover after the hills of day three. Cycling in the morning sunshine from Shipley to Leeds along the canal will be one of my favourite memories of the ride. Knowing that the hardest work had passed allowed me to enjoy the picturesque scenery with the comfort of having achieved two of the four checkpoint goals on time.
After lunch I picked up the Northernmost point of the TPT in Leeds. The scenery was getting less inspiring as I traced this windy path along canals, rivers and old railway lines. Time was also marching on, and my concern grew towards making it to Grimethorpe for rehearsal.
As I entered this former mining territory, the path took me through some fairly desperate looking former mining communities. The evidence is plain to see that the villages amongst these old coalfields are not coping well with the closures, even after all this time. Another lasting memory of this day will be my decision to try and cut time by sneaking under railway tunnel off the back of an estate which had obviously been harbouring some dubious activity not so long ago. Thinking back, I was possibly risking more than a puncture by making that move. The bike and my possessions would have no doubt fetched a good price if I had stumbled across the wrong sort of person down there but fortunately my path was clear and the short cut worked out so that I made it in on time.
Relieved, I made it to the school where Grimethorpe were holding an open rehearsal. Bob Childs had agreed to meet me there and pose for a similar checkpoint photograph with the band. He had also much praise to give for James Watson, having been the principal Euphonium player at Black Dyke under his baton. Kevin Crockford was also there as the soprano cornet player, also now enjoying his time at what seems to be a rejuvenated Grimethorpe band.
This band was also in great form. They gave an authoritative performance with real clarity and class and I was relieved not to be have the job of the adjudicators in separating it from what I had heard in previous days. That Grimethorpe were eventually placed outside the prizes with Faireys leads me to think there must have been some incredible brass playing from seven other bands, which I regretfully had to miss out on. This years British Open was described as a ‘classic’, which I would attribute to the choice of music; enjoyable to listen to, no doubt to play also, yet challenging and progressive at the same time.
A short ride down the road in the dark brought me to my hotel and final resting point of the day, where I got a good meal and headed for some much needed sleep.
Day 5 – Dearne Valley to Sheriff Hutton, York
Over the past few days I had been contacted by Richard Smith, from Smith Watkins asking if I’d like to stay with him before my scheduled visit to the workshop on my final day. This made far more sense to my plans and so I gladly accepted the offer, despite adding another 12 miles to the 50 I faced on day 5.
This day would be the only day where I managed to keep to schedule, with no hitches or unplanned drama. I knew it would be tough so I started early, picking up the TPT again by the RSPB centre and following on through scenic pathways past Doncaster and up towards Selby. I was making good progress at lunch, but after a stop I was starting to tire and saddle sores were starting to form. By the time I’d reached Selby, I was in quite a bit of discomfort and was fearful for the state of my under-anatomy if I continued in this way! A Halfords store cropped up along the route and I ran in to purchase a gel padded saddle cover. Not the most effective way to avoid sores, but at least it would give me an extra layer of comfort now I had them!
The route up to York was less painful, though just as tiring. York is a beautiful English City which I have enjoyed visiting several times, but unfortunately my stay would be very brief on this occasion. Passing through on to Sherriff Hutton became another race against the sun, again just narrowly missing out on the advantage of having daylight to find Richard’s farmhouse in the middle of a dark field! Once I’d arrived though he and his wife Debbie were most hospitable and we sat down to a much deserved and needed dinner, celebrating my achievement of reaching the final checkpoint entirely under my own power.
Day 6 – Sherriff Hutton to Hull
As planned, Richard kindly showed me around the workshop where he produces some of the finest trumpets on the market. The cornet I play in the Welsh Guards was made here, as was the set of fanfare trumpets that the band and most other military bands own. To see the workshop in operation was an education, as was hearing about Richard’s experimentation into brass instrument design and testing. His expertise in the science of acoustics and sound was the perfect complement to the musical talent of Derek Watkins, with whom he started the business after departing from Boosey & Hawkes. I learned that during his time there, Richard had designed the 928 Sovereign cornet that became a firm favourite, one that in many player’s opinion has not yet been bettered. I do not hold that opinion, because I play his new cornet! Frankly I’m in some way surprised that more players haven’t made the connection between the two but also not surprised that there is still much loyalty towards the old company.
I was also pleased to learn more about Derek Watkins on this visit, some of the experiments that Richard had been working on with him, and the stories from the early days of Smith-Watkins. I hadn’t realised that they’d been going nearly 30 years, and those instruments in the iconic videos of Derek on YouTube were some of Richard’s early designs.
Sadly I had to get back on the trail, and due to the fatigue from the day before and the desire to stay a little longer I gladly accepted a lift down to Selby where I could pick up the TPT at the splitting point towards Hull. This meant not having to retrace my path along the trail from York, which wasn’t the most inspiring piece of the trail, and meant I wouldn’t be missing any individual section of it. Cheating a little perhaps, but a worthy compromise for an extra few hours at the workshop!
After six days and about 220 miles (I’d not really been counting!), I had only 30 miles left. However, by then I was exhausted and feeling sore in many places. I wheeled my weary body slowly towards Hull, crossing the expansive East Yorkshire plains field by field, church tower by church tower. The first sight of the Humber bridge lifted my spirits, appearing like an enormous finish line on the horizon. It was still some way in the distance though, but the end was finally in sight. In the excitement I might have misread a sign, and ended up on a riverside walking section rather than the Cycleway. I wasn’t turning back though, and I lifted my bike over the gateways and enjoyed the scenery. Unfortunately this meant I’d also be riding the last section smelling of what the sheep had left behind.
After another pub lunch and a water refill, I headed out back down the the river and the sight was overwhelming; my first clear view of the bridge and the pathway that led to it. Cycling these last few miles was the outstanding memory of the ride. I have no shame in admitting I was welling up with the emotion and the sense of achievement. I’d set myself a harder task than I’d realised, yet with the help of all the support I’d been shown I’d managed pull through. It was a great sense of achievement, especially because this was something I’d done for other people, not myself. The generosity and support I’d experienced over the week because of that was the most gratifying part of it all.
Since I completed the ride, donations have risen to well over £500. I’m very grateful for all those who have donated, and for all your messages of support. It means a lot and I hope this can be used to help another student on their way to great things. That they might achieve as much as Jim, Rod or Derek with the knowledge that they have shared might be the greatest tribute a student could pay.
Donations area still being taken, if you wish to donate please visit http://www.virginmoneygiving.com/tptsolo.