Gold Duke of Edinburgh’s Expedition on the Trans Pennine Trail – 2019
Gold Duke of Edinburgh’s Expedition on the Trans Pennine Trail – Matt Bryan
Although the days we spent touring Norfolk and Suffolk during the Summer of 2018 were enjoyable, our group of Gold DofE cyclists wanted a real challenge for the final expedition the next summer, and to have something impressive to show for it. Rather than meandering aimlessly through quaint villages on the East Anglian coast, we wanted to say that we had completed a journey akin to crossing oceans, but by means of the humble bicycle. And so the dream to ride from one side of Great Britain to the other was hatched. First, our minds naturally went to ‘Lands End to John o’ Groats’, before deciding that the 1407km was perhaps a little far with laden panniers and a 32 hours riding requirement to fulfil (which would’ve had to have been at Tour de France pace). After some research and recalling how good the numerous Sustrans routes we had used in Norfolk/Suffolk were, we settled on the Trans Pennine Trail, a c.346km, mainly off-road cycle route from Southport on the Irish Sea to Hornsea on the North Sea. In just four days we would cross the Peak District and bridge the gap between the two bodies of water that flank Great Britain, no mean feat considering the only aid we received would be water ‘top-ups’.
The team of seven could not have been more perfect:
- Joel had instigated our formation and being a decorated cyclocross and cross-country mountain bike racer, the natural method of transit was the Along the way he would often and effortlessly display his fitness and bike-handling skills, alongside his mechanical know-how and his ruler-straight cyclist’s tan lines.
- Angus masterminded our nutritional (and less nutritional) intake, having spent the last two years brushing shoulders with the rich and famous boarding in South Wales, and at the end of it all, honing his culinary art rather than attempting to become part of a royal family or infiltrate the higher echelons of Welsh
- Jake did his best to ensure that none of the ‘Michelin-starred’ grub went to waste, and even helped out Southport Premier Inn by helping himself to eight of their crumpets before the big journey. Alongside map-reading and card-stamping, his other duties including lengthy testing of the campsite showers and lifting bikes when others’ weedy cyclist arms could do no
- James provided much needed laughs in our darkest hours, whether intentionally with his wide array of personas, or unintentionally when one of his panniers would fly off or saddle return to child’s His days in the gym came into good use through the many barriers along the trail or when hammering up to the top of the Peaks to deploy his stool for a much needed ‘Nutri-Bar’.
- Callum completed the comedic trio and provided fantastic running commentary in the local Alongside his role as the group’s hydration supervisor, his stories and enthusiasm kept everyone going and his inability to get out of breath was both infuriating and reassuring that the going wasn’t as tough as it first appeared.
- Arthur and his online ordering skills made sure we were always supplied when it came to ‘Nutri-Bars’ and was generous in their distribution. Hyper-aware of our surroundings, he was the first to alert us to the presence of a car or the numerous hilarities on the route, but also kept us grounded when the road ahead got tough and ensured the camp was as organised as it could
- I (Matt) lent my ‘skills’ as a purveyor of the fine art of bodging when it came to hastily repairing mechanical issues that really should have required a workshop full of tools, only to have them return five minutes down the
- We were of course supported by Anne Harris, who many of us started our DofE journey with years ago and was still by our side in what was our twentieth day of expedition. Nick was the other half of the ‘dynamic duo’ and had the unenviable job of having to pack a rather small van with some rather large bikes, as well as following us around all
- Adrian was our assessor and could not have been better suited to the job; not only did he have invaluable local knowledge when it came to challenges along the route, but also fantastic bike knowledge as a shop
And so, after fitting nine full sized bikes and a full complement of luggage into the back of a short-wheelbase rental van in the back of a Tesco car park – a scene that could only have looked more dodgy if we had worn balaclavas – our convoy of two set out over the South Downs and followed the ominous signs on the M40 for ‘The NORTH’. A quick service station lunch and a much longer toilet break just ten minutes from Southport, we arrived at the Premier Inn that would be our haven and luxury for the night. The team indulged in a last meal: a Nando’s before the onslaught of boil-in-the-bags and freeze-dried that was to come, before completing the long walk along the sand to the Irish Sea that was to be the start of the trans-Pennine pilgrimage.
Day 1: Southport to Dunham Massey – 88.2km
The next morning, under a grey Southport sky, we assembled the bikes that were to be our homes for the next few days before venturing out to the start of the Trans Pennine Trail. Only after standing under the steely spinning wings of the monument and seeing the tiny scale of the accompanying map did the challenge seem very real. Joel’s answer to this pressure was to almost fall off riding down a few stairs on the promenade on the way to the first stamping station (perhaps a sign of things to come). The Eco Centre/bus station provided our cards and the first stamp of ten and the start of the journey. After navigating the sea front, we found ourselves amongst towering sand dunes on the way out of town and onto the Cheshire Lines in what would be our short few miles of countryside for the day. The sun emerged as we kicked up dust alongside the bridged brook that headed southwards towards Maghull.
The trail took us further into the suburban sprawl of Liverpool before taking us past Aintree, the home of the Grand National, and back from the bustle again onto a submerged cycleway. Sunken a few metres below the city and encased by two rock faces, the path gave much needed relief from the sun and made us forget that we were within the fifth-largest city in the UK. The childhood homes of the Beatles and A Flock of Seagulls went past as we skirted around the enormous Jaguar-Land Rover plant at Speke, a modern testament to the area’s engineering prowess. Lunch came in the quiet Hale Village, which lays claim to a 17th Century giant who apparently stood at 9 foot 3, and we hoped that our meagre packets of macaroni cheese and chilli con carne would allow us to grow to that size, or to finish the day at least.Having collected a second stamp at the local pub, we pedalled on along the river in sight of the impressive Mersey Gateway Bridge. But an obstacle stood in our way – stairs. If pushing a nearly forty kilogram bike up hardly grippy stairs wasn’t bad enough, there were additional narrow arches that had to be navigated by sliding the bikes under them in what was up there with the least user friendly solutions to the problem. After the trauma was rectified with a handful of snacks and a chat at the top, we pushed on alongside Fiddler’s Ferry Canal from Widnes to Warrington, where we navigated stationary traffic before getting back onto what we loved best: country lanes. Passing through Lymm, we soaked up the evening sun on the way through open country to the pub which represented the end of the day. A quick ride down with Adrian led us into the stunning Dunham Massey Estate, where the deer seemed unbothered and uninterested in us walking by. Heaving the bikes over yet another wall led us to our camp for the night, and having pitched up and enjoyed pasta that would’ve offended an Italian, we settled down for a night’s rest.
Day 2: Dunham Massey to Penistone – 94.8km
We already knew that the second day was to be our most difficult; not only far but scattered with hills as we crossed the Pennines into Derbyshire and South Yorkshire. After re-packing our bikes relatively well, we once again walked past the deer and house before heading back into the idyllic countryside we had travelled yesterday. But this quickly turned into Altrincham then Sale, but despite being in the huge conurbation that is Greater Mancheseter, the route through country parks and back streets felt quiet and secluded. However, Angus became stuck in his pedals as he lost a cleat bolt, but we managed to rectify this with a bit of brute force, and he remained surprisingly calm throughout it all. A quick diversion through an impressively modern Stockport town centre and over the M60 led us into the peaceful Reddish Vale country park, the northern end of which was to be our lunch stop. Along the way came a number of steep hills and one such downhill was littered with small wooden steps. Six of us took them carefully, whilst Joel made the mistake of picking up speed without realising that the stairs got steeper and the drops between them bigger. The end result was the pained image of him rolling his bike and having its full weight land on his left side. At first he seemed fit to ride, but having prepared his curry lunch, his condition worsened and a trip to hospital confirmed that he had fractured his wrist.
Demoralised, a man down and still with a hilly 50km to go, we got a stamp and continued eastward. The terrain started to point upwards as we drew closer to the Peaks and a seemingly endlessly steep gravel hill led us to what appeared a flowing road descent, which turned out to be yet another hill as we turned the corner. These mental tricks continued as we cruised down through the lovely village of Broadbottom but it was over the river that it all went wrong. Just when we thought the day couldn’t get much worse, the signs for the Trail dried up or in one case, pointed back towards the way we came. After exploring all the opportunities, we settled on travelling through a country park hidden back the way we came. Rather than leading us into Hadfield where we intended to get onto the Trail again, we emerged into a residential area that looked nothing like where we needed to be. I wouldn’t say this lightly, but after completing countless days navigating through the New Forest, Dorset, South Downs, Brecon Beacons and Norfolk, this was the biggest geographical mistake I had ever experienced and the closest I had ever been to calling it quits. After spending some time trying to locate our cul-de-sac on the low-detail 1 in 50,000 map, we trudged from Glossop to the Hadfield car park we should’ve been at some hours earlier and collapsed in the shade.
Feeling vaguely rejuvenated by some much needed ‘Nutri-Bars’, we got onto the Longdendale Trail at seven in the evening, but the hardship was certainly worth it. A wide trail with a constant gradient meant that the miles flew by as we flew past stunning views of the reservoirs and surrounding hills. However, this newfound speed led us to a steep hill over the A-road, one that was too loose to ride. The trip to the top of the Peaks was a real slog and littered with sheep and their unsightly accessories, but an almost Alpine road descent was our reward and cooled us down before a few more kilometres into Penistone and a few more again up the hill into camp as the sun set. Angus’ feast of chorizo, pitta and rice was a much needed treat as we exchanged a few exhausted words before retreating to the tents safe in the knowledge that this was our hardest day.
Day 3: Penistone to Snaith – 87.8km
After our eventful day in the Peaks, nothing could stop us, or Joel for that fact. Having transferred both his brake levers to one side, he could ride one-handed and rejoined us for the much flatter day that laid ahead. An early stop for a stamp at the local pub left us in high spirits as we pressed on into Yorkshire. A technical descent followed on what we agreed was the best bit of trail so far, and we longed to trade our workhorses for something a little faster to do it all again. But at the bottom, Angus had a rear flat which Joel somehow managed to reseat the tyre of, even with a broken wrist, as we looked on with awe. Having taken the opportunity to stock up on snacks, the trail led us to an encounter with a police diving team outside the friendly cafe at Wigfield Farm that provided another stamp. It was a little further on that a group of roadies eerily told us not to go into Doncaster and then rode off – certainly an odd encounter and one which the Doncaster tourist board would not have been impressed with. A quick stamp stop at the RSPB centre brought the first part of the day to an end.
After an unscheduled trip through a few hedges when the path didn’t split as anticipated, we found ourselves on an elevated path above Conisbrough Castle and a holiday camp that looked like a cross between a Bond Villain’s lair and a Mars colony. Back down to the River Don and under the viaduct, we followed the water to the beautiful canalside of Sprotborough, which hosted our lunch, the beauty of which did not match its surroundings. Across the water, a man juggling knives kept us entertained as we tucked in watching the boats go by. This brief moment of tranquility was brought to an end by the need to keep moving, and we did, heading north before we were blighted by yet another puncture from Angus.
Weaving through Doncaster (which was lovely despite prior warnings) led us to some quiet country lanes, past farms and cottages that led us to an impressive canal complete with huge swing-bridges. Along the straight canal path came another puncture from Angus, the probability of him alone getting three in one day being one in three-thousand (with a few assumptions). Having then stopped at a pub for a stamp and sadly not a drink, we continued up the lanes and along a slightly dicey A-road to our campsite. We regrouped at a bench and enjoyed the last of the chorizo ready for our final and longest day in the saddle.
Day 4: Snaith to Hornsea – 105.2km
With the end in sight, we got back onto the country lanes early and ready for a final slog, first taking an old airstrip north towards Selby, where the library provided us with an eighth stamp for our collection. Then the trail followed the Ouse towards its mouth, first along farm tracks accompanied by James’ and Joel’s joyous song that would’ve given any cathedral choir a run for its plate of donations. The quaint villages kept on coming as we passed over tributaries and railway lines and the route opened up into wide straight roads reminiscent of the American Midwest, on which we made good pace. A quick stop in Blacktoft’s Village Hall was a surreal experience for a stamp and we left a note for the next person to stumble upon what felt like a ghost town. The miles flew past on the flat road until Yorkshire had one last surprise for us: four hills in quick succession, catching us off guard and in need of sustenance at the top, and it seemed a fitting time to finish off the last of the 50 ‘Nutri-Bars’ we had started with.
The quiet lanes morphed into the sprawl of Hull as we darted under the impressively massive Humber Bridge and onwards into the centre of town. At this point, the off-road experience became very on-road and weaved in and out of Hull’s residential areas, down alleyways and through parks until we hit the city centre, which was far quieter than expected. After a little tour of an industrial estate and a further few bridges, we reached the edge of the town, which just seemed to turn into fields again without warning, and what had seemed like hours in the city had gained us little in the way of distance. Just 10 miles stood between us and our seaside fish and chips, but the Trail still had something for us.
A dusty surface under a powerful sun was hard going, especially as the accompanying scenery didn’t change for what felt like an eternity, trapped in a barren purgatory. And when we finally did get some shade, the surface under-wheel rode like a cattle grid, with panniers flying off left, right and centre, narrowly missing a
group of dog walkers. Now even the bikes themselves were screeching for respite, most of all when we had to slow down and prolong our finish. Hornsea, our beacon of hope, was in sight and after a further few flat kilometres, Anne, Nick and Adrian joined us for our jubilant arrival into town and to the spinny-post-thing that had started our journey three days ago. We had done it.
After a celebratory dip in the sea and a final stamp at the local, Joel broke the news to us that our final campsite was two miles up the road and up a hill. At this point, having come so far, we were frustrated by his inability to follow the instructions of ‘book a campsite in Hornsea’, but the grief we gave him soon turned to praise. Our final night was to be spent with the most amazing sea view from a grassy cliff and at that moment, it was all worth it. After the usual mad dash for the showering facilities, we caught up with the lives we had left on pause and naturally went out for celebratory pizza and cake. Over the evening, we reflected on what had been a lovely four days, despite its literal and metaphorical highs and lows. Having repacked the van with surprisingly little issue, we began the five hour journey home, fuelled by a hearty McDonald’s breakfast, and soon enough, we were back in that same dodgy Tesco car park. More importantly, we were home.
The Trans Pennine Trail had been a pleasure: functional and mostly well signed, it got us from one side of the country to the other without much fuss. It’s moments of beauty came perhaps less often than say a scenic mountain pass, but the ease of travel far exceeded the virtues of any rugged, half-hearted rocky cutting. The TPT gave us few mechanical issues and provided us with a whole host of friendly local people as well as kept us safe across what is one of the most densely populated areas in the UK. Whilst we had a taste of both the city and country, it was never overwhelming and the Trail was perfectly suited to bikepackers, even if some of the gates were a little narrow and came more often than we would’ve liked. In all the TPT made what was a real physical feat: crossing a country, feel like a breeze but more importantly, it was an absolute pleasure to ride it.
Pat and Bryan’s story has helped our Partners right across the Trans Pennine Trail network to see how changes can make the route more accessible. Take a look at what they've helped to accomplish.