A tandem is a great way of getting around with the other half if you don’t want your ears burnt from the castigation of leaving the better one behind again on the latest 10% plus climb. With this in mind Sue and myself have locked legs and pedalled almost 1500 tandem miles together since we first became a unit back in 2015.
Looking to broaden our horizons and to extend my experience of cycle touring I purchased a great pannier rack for the tandem from some oriental Ebay seller – eight quid including delivery! It arrived before I could utter Jack Robinson and was fitted to the bike post-haste. The fixture was solid and great quality so I’m convinced that someone must have knocked off a container load to be able to supply at that price.
Buzzing with excitement, I had our first tour planned before the better one had chance to get home from work. The half term holiday was only a day away and we were heading to the Isle of Man (subject to approval).
Day 1 – Doris
When it comes to cycling, Sue and I are stubbornly determined at the best of times and regardless of the imminence of Storm Doris heading in from the Atlantic, we set off from Congleton at 4 am on Thursday 23rd February. Hoping to avoid punctures and/or mechanicals we needed to reach Heysham port, 85 miles away, in time for our sailing at 2 pm.
Cruising the leafy lanes of Cheshire by torch light we felt a few spots of rain and the sound of Doris’s borborygmus escalating by the minute. Thankfully, ignoring gusts, the direction was south of south west allowing for a comfortably progressive journey on our northerly bearing.
Dawn was accompanied by increasing volumes of rain and a heavy rain jacket pit stop was called for under the convenient front canopy of Lidl in Wigan. The timing was perfect – in our 10 minutes of protection from the elements, a deluge of biblical proportions ensued. The precipitation eased to a downpour and we continued along the A49 through the early morning traffic of Standish, Charnock Richard, Leyland and Bamber Bridge to Preston.
The main road so far had been kind – reasonably wide, low volumes of the four-wheeled menace and generally uninterrupted by traffic lights and road works. However, Preston was a bit of a ‘mare on a fully loaded tandem in the spatter of the rush hour congestion. A number of pavement hops and white line traverses kept us well ahead of the lines of parked vehicles going nowhere fast.
Escaping the misery of the Preston jams and tentatively crossing the roadworks at junction 1 of the M55, we joined the A6 through to Garstang heading for Lancaster. It was about 9 am and mobile phones started to ring and ping so we pulled under a welcoming petrol station canopy just before Forton to find that both our Airbnb host in Douglas and my mother had contacted us with the bad news that Doris had ordered the cancellation of our ferry.
It took the stubborn pair a small moment to agree that we must press on regardless with the prospect of spending the weekend in the banal confines of Morecambe-on-Sea if absolutely necessary.
Lancaster was equally gridlocked but unequivocally prettier than Preston. From here we picked up a disused railway line along the Lune Valley to Morecambe. Passing the grimness of this ghastly place we arrived by 10:05 at a deserted Steam Packet terminal to the unwelcoming sign – “FERRY CANCELLED”. The good news was the friendly counter lady booked us on to Friday’s 2 am sailing – we were going to the island after all – only 16 hours to kill!
The ferry terminal was, at best, lukewarmed by ineffective ceiling-mounted infra-red heaters and the backup electric fan blower system had been inconsiderately isolated due to lack of custom. The stoker kindly provided several hot (and expensive) drinks from the vending machine whilst the pilot did his very best to spill the contents with exaggerated shivers due to his semi-hypothermic state.
We donned the few dry clothes we had, read every tourist leaflet in the terminal and played
countless games of Sudoku before realising there was a pub half a mile down the road. It was now 5 pm and The Duke of Rothesay opened his doors to welcome us to a malty aperitif and a steak dinner with a nice bottle of red Iberian grape juice. We ambled back to the terminal about 10 pm, boarding the Ben-my-Chree, at 1:45 am.
Day 2 – Tourist Trophy
Doris had now taken a short nap so the crossing wasn’t the Alton-Towers-like experience we’d expected. The main distraction was the noise created by what seemed to be the whole entourage of Birkenhead cub scouts travelling to Douglas to perform and watch their gang show in the Gaiety theatre. They were accompanied by a gaggle of Arkelas who commandeered the bar and kept two very tired and miserable travellers wide awake with incessant puerile laughter. A pint of Guinness eased the pilot’s insomnia but the stoker battled on until we docked about 5:30 am.
On disembarking we took the opportunity of a quick snap of St. Mary’s Isle at dawn and then rode very wearily northwards on the promenade to avoid the predatory tramlines which were prowling in the twilight.
We arrived at our apartment just under 3 miles away in Oncan at the far end of Douglas Bay. Our host, Victoria had kindly left the key for us and at 8 am, so as not to disturb them, we crashed out still humming for a couple of hours of sleep deprivation therapy.
We needed to get back on track and plan A was to circumnavigate the TT course before the end of the day regardless of the 16 hours lost in Heysham. Victoria had laid on complimentary Weetabix, toast and marmalade so we had a good fill before we headed off to the race pits at Nobles Park above Douglas town.
What an amazing route … wide open roads, a few tight right-handers which would call for serious breaking on a 200 mph Superbike and a great mixture of flat, undulations and serious climbing. We set off downhill from the pit lane – a great place to get the average speed up to 25 mph before the first set of lights.
Encountering the first roundabout we turned right onto the Peel Road and started to tap out a rhythm through Union Mills, Glen Vine and Greeba Bridge to Ballacraine.
We left the A1 here and turned right onto the A3 immediately kicking up onto the pleasant climb to Glen Helen and Lambfell. The wind was in our favour here and the fast descent off the fell to Kirk Michael began to make our average speed look respectable again. Keeping up our not inconsiderable momentum from Kirk Michael it was six miles through Sulby straight before we hit the next skyward incline out of the river valley just past Sulby Bridge.
I’d never been to Ramsey before so we took the opportunity to park up outside the Trafalgar Hotel – the only hotel I’ve ever known to have a lunchtime menu of plain, salt and vinegar or cheese and onion! I think the chalk board outside was a bit of a give away. Never mind, the beer was quaffable and we had a generous supply of emergency energy products tucked away in our rear pockets. As I struggled to release the tandem from the security of a wooden bench outside, one of the locals quipped “You don’t need that lock here mate! This is the Isle of Man you know!” – oh well, I suppose I’m too accustomed to living in the crime-riddled confines of Cheshire.
Onwards and immediately upwards – out of Ramsey on the A18, up May Hill and onto the Mountain Road. As we topped the climb at Mountain Box with Snaefell clearly in view the south by south west gale hit us squarely in the face making the significant ease of gradient barely noticeable. We battled on through the twists and turns of Verandah for an encounter with Joey Dunlop, immortalised in bronze astride his Honda at Bungalow Bend. Sue straddled the pillion and snuggled up to try and get warm not fully appreciating the heat sapping effect of bronze in this brass monkey weather.
The bitterly icy wind suggested that our life expectancy would not be great if we stayed here for too long so we remounted, made the short climb up Hailwood Rise to the aptly named Windy Corner and began the final descent. The buffeting wind made for a jittery passage through Keppel Gate and our amply sized disc brakes began to glow as we cranked the tandem over to the right at Creg-ny-Baa – not quite getting our knee sliders down.
We were soon back in the urban surroundings of Douglas and our pathetic attempts to pull a wheelie as we took the chequered flag at the finish line were in vain …. dream on! Our starvation at lunch time urged us to make a b-line for the town centre takeaways each of us devouring a 12 inch pizza in record time.
Gagging for a cuppa, in the inimitable style of Guy Martin, we made our way back to the apartment for some pampering then off to The Terminus Tavern for a couple of pints, procuring tomorrow’s ration of bananas and malt loaf from the local Spar shop on the way.
Day 3 – Memories
Sue has fond memories of her childhood, spending many summer holidays with her grandparents who semi-retired to the Isle of Man in the sixties to run the Post Office in St.John’s. It was the pilot and navigator’s duty to devise the route of our second day on the Isle with this in mind. As we set off he knew full well he’d be in for a barrage of reminiscent ramblings from the back seat so tried to stay as attentive as humanly possible to avoid the pain of a quick jab in the lumbar region.
We like to travel on a budget and today took the biscuit, so to speak – we clipped our quid’s worth of malt loaf onto our eight quid rack from the other side of the globe and headed off, direction Douglas once more. Today’s route was only 55 miles so this along with a couple of bottles of TorQ powder should have been sufficient to keep the legs spinning vigorously for the duration.
We headed south passing the TT pits and right onto the A1. Within a short distance a left turn took us off the TT course up a pleasant and manageable climb through Braaid. We joined the A3 through Lower Foxdale and continued into St. John’s, the home of Tynwald Hill, the original assembly place for the Isle of Man Parliament.
We’d decided by now that a single malt loaf wouldn’t contain sufficient calories to fuel our twin-engined steed over the remaining route so we called in at the Post Office for some acute nostalgia … and a couple of pasties washed down with hot tea.
From here, a quick out-and-back down the A27 allowed us a whistle stop visit of the quaint seaside town and fishing port of Peel, the third largest town on the island after Douglas and Ramsey.
From here the road south took us through Glen Maye before the tandem randomly decided to ship its drive chain during a granny gear shift at the bottom of the climb up to the moors around Kerroodhoo Plantation. A bit of nifty finger work and a couple of dock leaves later we were back on the road.
Following our Strava course left at the Plantation we soon found that the road deteriorated into a rough bridleway suitable for motorised two-wheeled green-laners and horses only. A quick about-face saw us climbing into the fog taking a slightly longer route on to the ultra smooth A36 and eventually plummeting down to the coast and on to Port Erin.
For the sake of it, another dog leg ensued. This time to tick the visitor’s box for Port St.Mary. By this time we’d begun to calculate the number of daylight hours left – maybe just enough to complete the route as planned and not miss out on too many of the remaining sights. We cracked on anyway, heading along the coast road to the aptly named Castletown.
From here the wind assisted blast down the A3 rapidly brought us to the turn for Silverdale Glen where we took some time to gaze in wonder at the Victorian water-powered roundabout.
From Ballasalla we headed along the A25 through Crogga to hang a right down to the ghost town of Port Soderick once famous for its pleasure grounds and beach in Victorian times.
Lifting the tandem wearily over a padlocked gate, we entered the traffic-free section of Marine Drive. We made the most of the twilight solitude, looking out to sea and listening to the waves crashing on the cliffs below. We were soon approaching the old Victorian toll gate through which an amazing night time panorama of Douglas came into view.
From here, feeling the day’s dampness penetrating our bones, we raced back to our lodgings carefully avoiding the tramlines along Douglas bay. In no time at all we were cleaned up and washing our bar meals down with a couple of pints of Okell’s best in The Terminus Tavern.
Day 4 – Ferry To The Mersey
It was Sunday morning and the last day of our adventure. The next destination was Birkenhead and another roller coaster cruise across the Irish Sea on the Ben-my-Chree. Departure time was 8 am so we crept out from our apartment at 6:45 for the short journey along the tram lines to the Douglas harbour. Damp again on arrival, we checked in and boarded immediately taking a few snaps of the Steam Packet catamaran, Manannan. In no time at all we were on board and fuelling up on a full English apiece!
The crossing was rough but by no means the worst I’ve experienced. A number of the other passengers were not at their best as sick bags were handed out left right and centre. Shortly before our approach into the Mersey estuary we braved the blustery conditions to view the spectacular sight of Burbo Bank offshore wind farm.
Below deck for a last minute to store up some body heat we docked at Twelve Quays ferry terminal at 12:15 pm. As we were not wearing the obligatory high-viz and safety boots, a burly docker blocked our descent of the ro-ro ramp insisting that we load our tandem into the back of the Steam Packet courtesy bus for the traverse to the terminal building – I wasn’t going to object!
Being almost an adopted son of the Wirral after 25 years working at Stanlow, I was very familiar with the local roads and our route was a 48 mile b-line back to Congleton. We needed to get back sharpish in order to give Sue time to prepare for work on Monday so we pressed on in cool but relatively dry conditions and were home-sweet-home by 4:30 pm.
Not easy but extremely enjoyable – I think that sums up a hastily planned tandem tour in stormy conditions. We’d ridden 236 miles in four days with 10,115 feet of climbing in some horrendous conditions …. we’d donned damp malodorous clothing each day due to the lack of drying facilities …. we’d endured the discomfort and cold of crinkly trench feet …. the legs of man (and woman) were truly aching …. would we have missed it? …. not a chance! A great holiday, never to be forgotten!