By Bike to Barcelona – Steve Beswick

I have cycled in a modest way pretty much all of my life. I joined Oldham Century when I was at school and tried to be insignificant on the Friday evening meets. It was easy to be unnoticed because the club had members like Kevin Wood who later rode the milk race, and Peter Buckley who died tragically early (I think in a training accident?). Several other outstanding riders were also members. The majority of my riding after this was going to work or the occasional Sunday ride.

This happy situation may well have continued but in 1987 we moved house and of course my route to work changed. On my new route I sometimes cycled part of the way with a man who was plainly a committed cyclist. He spent lots of holidays cycle touring, belonged to cycling pressure groups and was an all round energetic enthusiast. He had ambition plus experience and made me think I might try something myself. He was Bob Grainger.

In about 1996 my brother-in-law moved to Barcelona. We visited him via Easy Jet on a regular basis and on these journeys I had ample opportunity to look down on the landscapes of France and Spain and contemplate taking a closer look from my bike.

On May 14th 2004 I set off on my bike to cycle to Barcelona and this is the record of my daily progress.

Day 1. Friday. Styal to Tamworth.78 miles.

I left home and headed south through Leek and took an early lunch at Basford Green. This is a restored railway line station cafeteria on the Churnett Valley Railway.

The cycling in this area is very good but completely out of order if you have 10 kilograms of luggage in the panniers to lug up and down the steep sided valleys. Through Cheadle, skirted Uttoxeter, down to Abbots Bromley. Round the garrison to the north of Lichfield and into Tamworth. I went straight to the tourist information office and the girls booked me into Bridge House at Hopwas. This turned out to be a splendid old house on the bank of the Coventry canal.

In the planning of this trip my family had hit upon the redundant T shirt strategy. This involved me setting off with umpteen old T shirts and discarding one a day as it became used. This ploy had the advantage of my luggage becoming lighter as the trip progressed and keeping the daily washing to a minimum.

Day 2. Saturday. From Hopwas near Tamworth to Chipping Norton. (The gateway to the Cotswolds). 63 miles.

Interesting cycling to avoid the worst of the midlands. The signposted route around Coventry is wonderfully idiosyncratic with urban clearways and ordinary roads through shops and residential areas. The plan to eat lunch at garden centre cafes or roadside tea shops was shown to be wishful thinking. So I headed into Royal Leamington Spa for sustenance. I ate in a really strange snack bar. I think it was a father and son operation. The father had a haircut from his imagination. Half of his head (the left) sported a traditional trim whilst the other half, had a network of shaven lines forming an intricate pattern. Anyway the steak and onion pasty was O.K. and so was the tea. Later in the day my arrival at the gateway to the Cotswolds revealed that the wolds are out of sight from Chipping Norton.

Day 3. Sunday. Chipping Norton to Winchester. 84 miles.

Finished the day in Winchester which considering its image is curiously down at heel. I arrived at about 5.15pm to find the tourist information office closed at 4pm. What difference this may have made is a moot point, I trawled the hotels and pubs, asked the locals, but B & B accommodation on a Sunday night was elusive. At this point I seriously considered trying to cycle to Portsmouth some 26 miles further on. Then I had a puncture. It was about 7pm. In a last attempt to find accommodation I enquired at the Royal Winchester Hotel. The two uniformed receptionists looked me up and down and announced the overnight rate was £90. I announced, “I won’t be staying here then”. At this point one receptionist said she would look for a discount for me. Joy what joy; they could give me a room for a 33% discount at a bargain rate of only £60. Suddenly I was given the facilities to wash the smalls and the bigs. I offset the cost by eating at Wetherspoons, which is only to be recommended if you can afford the teeth implants. I mended the puncture the following morning in the conservatory restaurant. At one point a uniformed waiter asked me if I would like a tray of water to help locate the perforation. I declined his offer.

The days cycling is mostly a blur of hills which are not major but enabled my legs to extract due revenge for all my abuse of them in the past. The scenery was typical of southern England on a hot day in late spring with fields of hops on their tall frames to be seen at several places. The names of the villages in this area are interesting, I passed Kingston Worthy and several other worthies near at hand. None of which had a single B & B. South of Wantage I crossed the long distance footpath called The Ridgeway. Just on the south side of the Thames I travelled through Kingston Bagpuize. Is this the inspiration for Bagpuss? It certainly sounds like it.

After passing through Wantage I took a B-road to Newbury. This is an impromptu racetrack for the local and loco motorcyclists. The road crosses the Ridgeway at one point (a European long-distance footpath). I realised its significance at once as the number of parked 4x4s would not be out of place on the King’s Road. The people in these posh villages have a competition going on, this is to see who can cut the largest area of roadside verge that doesn’t belong to them. I saw a man cutting the grass at such an angle that lesser men like commandos and steeplejacks would have demanded a safety rope.

Day 4. Monday. Winchester to Cherbourg. 26 miles.

An interesting day found me on the super cat (catamaran ferry) to Cherbourg. The journey is only 4 hours. The man at the ferry booking office in Portsmouth also booked me into The Ambassador Hotel in Cherbourg. As it turned out it was the same hotel that Anne and I stayed in 20 odd years ago.

The cycling was memorable because of the difficulty of accessing the port of Portsmouth if you are not driving or going by train. I think I remember Bob having a mini ordeal on one of his trips. I had taken the precaution of photocopying the OS map of the area but I was still reduced to seeking advice from a passerby. In truth there is a cycle path but it isn’t on the map or well signposted.

Day 5. Tuesday. Cherbourg to Villedieu-les-Poeles. 76 miles.

I am travelling almost due south down the Cherbourg peninsula, trying to stay on the quieter roads. A full days cycling brought me to Villedieu-les-Poeles and a decent hotel found for me by the tourist information office. The cost of a room is 45 Euros which is pretty typical. The luggage that adorns my rear panniers together with the gently rolling hills makes the going fairly tiring. On the plus side my new bike is even better than I had hoped and the wide range of gears are a real benefit.

Day 6. Wednesday. Villedieu-les-Poeles to Ernee. 46 miles.

The symbol for a hotel was shown on the map in Ernee so it looked like a good spot to head for. The landlady of the Grand Serf looked me up and down and said they were full.

An enquiry at the town hall, which doubled as the tourist information office, led me to a chambre d’hote in a genuine French farmhouse. This was excellent and the room with petit dejeuner cost 22 Euros. I had stopped in Landivy for lunch at a workmen’s café and tried the plat du jour. I wouldn’t normally have picked the various courses (as I didn’t know they existed) but they were very interesting.

I cycled all day today with my coat on to try to keep the sun off. The temperature, as yesterday, is about 29 degrees.
I later passed through St. Hilaire du Harcourt and the market was on. Another chance to have my conscience pricked at the sight of all the animals for sale.

Day 7. Thursday. Ernee to Angers. 72 miles.

Came from Ernee to Angers today. Everywhere the shops and cafes were closed. Today it seems is Acension Thursday hence no shops. Fortunately the garages remained open and like the petrol stations back home sell pop and sweets. I was relieved. Now, Angers is on the Loire and I felt I was really in the French heartland by now, the weather is splendid and I had been looking at vineyards as I progressed southwards.

Finding accommodation was interesting and following my by now usual routine I went into the tourist information centre and requested assistance. They had a system in place that demanded a 3 Euro deposit and they phoned round the potential hostelries to find a room. This sounds simple enough. However the guy dealing with me was, I believe, a telephone dyslexic. He worked the keys with aplomb but always got the wrong number. After a few minutes I came to the conclusion that he thought the phone included some kind of random number generator. I gave up and walked out. The railway station square is some three minutes away and contained a selection of hotels. I went into the nearest one. A forbidding looking French matron confirmed to me that a room was available and my bike would be safe behind her sofa. Splendid stuff.

Day 8. Friday. Angers to Parthenay. 78 miles.

A good tailwind gave me some extra propulsion today. It got up in the afternoon. Together with the cloud cover the cycling was probably as good as it gets.

Came over the Loire and what a big impressive river that is. The rest of the day was mostly in the rolling countryside of rural France. I stopped for lunch at Cersay where I had the Plat du Jour. It consists of 3 small courses. The first came with a basket of ‘pain’ and a plate with a tablespoon of crab salad, a piece of forcemeat (maybe pate), tomato salad and 2 pieces of salami-like sausage. One salami was like processed ham with bits of pepper and it was OK. The other was dark grey and looked to have been sliced from a large mass of mouse tails. The smell was the most gamey concoction I have ever experienced. I could only eat half. Must try to identify it.

Tonight I am in Martine and Patrick’s historic guest house and it’s a treasure. And so are they.

Day 9. Saturday. Parthenay to Ruffec. 62 miles.

By now I am in the rural centre of France. I noticed after leaving the Loire that there are almost no vineyards, commercial agriculture, on a big scale is now commonplace. Wheat, lettuce, more wheat, peas and lots more wheat.
Today a fearsome wind blew pretty much all the way. It was mostly on my left shoulder so on the occasions when the road turned that way it was graft. I really must get organised with cakes or a sandwich in future as the café bars/restaurants don’t seem to cook at lunch, maybe because it’s weekend. Monday will reveal all.
Sunday tomorrow! Will the roads be full of cyclists?

I’m in the Torq Blanche hotel and it’s a bit basic.

Day 10. Sunday. Ruffec to Nontron. 52 miles

An easy day apart from the wind which although mostly on my left seemed to be dead ahead on many occasions.
This morning I had the foresight to buy some cakes from the boulangerie and I ate these with some pop from the bidons. A good move as the cafes etc. again seem to be mostly shut. It is now 18.15 and I have sorted out the washing and the route for tomorrow and have come out for a drink. Literally everything is closed, so they will either waken up later or I will be eating and drinking in the hotel bar. I’ve just phoned Andy (brother) and passed on details of my journey so far and also mentioned the road kills that a cyclist gets a good view of. There have been any number of hedgehogs etc. but I have seen at least 3 good-sized (5-6 foot) snakes. I think the last one was an adder.

Tomorrow may see me cross the River Dordogne on my journey south.

Day 11. Monday. Nontron to La Bugue. 62 miles

On the back roads south. I missed an early opportunity to stock up on pop and about 11.45 I stopped for a coffee. A sign advised that sandwiches were available and I asked for a cheese sandwich. The proprietor took a fresh loaf into the back. He reappeared a few seconds later and asked me if he should butter the bread first. I said yes. Suddenly the clientele in the bar woke up. The proprietor was a man who was versed in the peculiarities of the English. The sandwich was presented with due ceremony and the other men in the bar watched as an Englishman ate a sandwich with both butter and cheese. This, I feel, confirmed all kinds of suspicions about the Brits.

Shortly afterwards I met a cyclist called Fred Ivory at a garage. He was returning from Javea near Benidorm, his daughter’s home. He had left Farnborough in April to cycle there and after a few weeks visiting he was on his way home. He had a Dawes Galaxy and it was loaded big style. He was camping and the bike contained all sorts, including the maps he had used on the way. He said he aimed to do 200km a day. He is 59 and some kind of hero.

Day 12. Tuesday. La Bugue to Moissac. 75 miles

Another good day after a long night’s sleep. Went to bed about 10 and slept through to 7.30. Last night’s hotel was the Marroniers. It was a treasure that someone like Somerset Maugham could make a career on.

About one and a half miles ouside La Bugue is La Gare (the station). It advises that it is on the main line from Paris to Perigeuse. Don’t you believe it. It’s a single line and I had the opportunity to witness its operation. The station buildings are empty and secured against all entry. The platform is the model for the halt in the Sicilian episode in The Godfather. The train, when it arrives, is new and impressive but is about the size of a single-decker bus. Despite this, people enter and exit and it is a fine example of French commitment to the railways. The Hotel Marroniers is about 40meters from the platform but seems empty. The terrace tables are all set with linen cloths and napkins and inside all tables are also ready for the big rush. The husband is an unkempt but once handsome man of about 42 who has reasonable English and is making efforts to renovate the place on a room by room basis. She is late 50’s and is educated and travelled. I feel they may be stuck in circumstances from which there is no answer or escape. The setting of the deserted La gare and the rundown hotel in its green and shady trees that ease the worst of the hot sun is most appealing, to me at least. There is a big black labrador called Saxo who plainly thinks that life is all beer and skittles.

Today’s cycling came through the southerly reaches of the Dordogne, into and out of the Lot region and I’m now in the Garonne. From here I can get to the Canal du Midi which runs from the Atlantic to the Med. The canal goes through Carcasson and from there I can strike off to the Pyrenees. The weather forecast says that the weekend may be poor.
I am sitting for the second time on this holiday in a laverage automatique doing the smalls and the bigs.

Day 13. Wednesday. Moissac to Villefranche-de-Lauragis. 76 miles

Cycled mostly along the Canal du Midi which was a breeze apart from coming through Toulouse which was heroic. The canal, with its sometime towpaths is literally right in the middle of the city so everywhere that the towpath goes under a road or rail bridge it has become a home for all manner of single men doing not very much. Whether they are immigrants from Eastern Europe I don’t know. The canal has a properly instated tarmac surface and is wonderfully quiet and peaceful. It’s a magic way to cycle from sea to sea if you have the desire to do so.

I have just eaten one of the great meals of France – Cassoulet, in the hotel restaurant. As well as lashings of goose it contained pieces of ham spare rib and the whole came in an earthenware dish that would have fed two really big eaters who had taken nothing else all day. As this followed the Salade d’hotel I was completely overfaced. I made an attempt but was defeated. The hotel is really rather fine but again is in a time-warp. The price is only 25 euros per room. The toilet flush is a hand-pumped arrangement. I love it. All of it.

A few minutes ago the large dining room started to fill up with men, a big telly was wheeled in and the Champions League Football Final started.

Today was the first day I wasn’t able to get accommodation where I had planned. The man in the first hotel (which was full) advised me to go to Villefranche-de-Lauragais. He said it was about 10-12 km. It had been a really hot day and I should have stopped and put on lashings of sun block. But I didn’t. I woke in the middle of the night burning up and have felt crap ever since.

Day 14. Thursday. Villefranche to Limoux. 50 miles

I’m still paying the price for yesterday’s carelessness in the sun.

Today’s cycling was about 30miles along the Canal du Midi so that was easy. The remaining 20 miles were wind assisted but it still felt like the hardest day of the trip. Today was a good deal cooler so hopefully a recovery is in prospect.
Tonight I’m in Limoux at the beginning of the Pyrenees. I’m giving some deep thought to staying on for an additional night.

Day 15. Friday. Limoux. Rest day.

I’m staying in the Tivoli hotel in Limoux for a second night before the Pyrenees tomorrow. I spent the day idling, tried to do The Telegraph crossword and ate at the Tivoli. It was without doubt the worst meal of the trip. Also, the machine which processed the visa bill seemed to be malfunctioning. I’ll have to keep an eye on the statement when it arrives, although 112.20 euros is probably not over the top for 2 nights stay, 2 really poor breakfasts and a poor meal.

Tomorrow things will improve.

Day 16. Saturday. Limoux to Mont Louis. 60 miles

This is the day I discover what’s what.

I set off from Limoux early and by 11am had done 25miles. The entire day I cycled up the gorge and valley of the river Aude and this is the only occasion that I am likely to do this as it turned out to be 57 miles almost entirely uphill. I breasted out on the Col de Quillon at 1774 metres. This left about 3 miles down to Mont Louis and a hotel with a receptionist who was training for the SS. She told me that dinner was 7.30pm. I hazarded a small joke in my less-than-schoolboy French about all sitting down together just like school. I thought I caught a trace of a smile cross her face before her moustache bristled and the professional face was back on.

The cycling was as good as I expected, peerless scenery and a quiet road with lots of consideration as usual by the French drivers. A little cameo was played out for me mid-afternoon. I was overtaken by a British VW Passat with a 40-ish couple inside. It later reappeared going down the hill. Some time later I was sitting on a wall enjoying the art of the patisserie in the shape of a large apple tart and a bottle of pop when the Passat came back up the hill, this time with her looking worried and him looking angry. I thought the conversation in the car revolved around the formula ‘I thought you could map read!’ ‘Your instructions were all wrong anyway!’ At times like this I like to speculate that he is with someone else’s wife/girlfriend and a grand reckoning is in the offing.

To bring me down to earth today the road up the Col de Quillan had the names of cycling stars prominently painted on the surface. Most common amongst them, understandably, was Richard Verenque. I was flogging up a steeper part of the road when some kids pointed at me and shouted ‘C’est Jacques Tati!’ My grand visions were grounded and I carried on flogging.

Mont Louis is a walled town but who they are protecting against right up here defeats me. Looking through the climbing guides in the local shop there is an area close to here called Little Yosemite. Interesting.

In Mont Louis summer reigns but the surrounding mountains are still covered with snow.

Day 17. Sunday. Mont Louis to Puigcerda. 15 miles

Just cycled up the valley a little from Mont Louis to Puigcerda. So I am now in Spain. I am meeting Francis (brother-in-law) tomorrow at the station and will have a day’s cycling in his company before going to Barcelona properly on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Day 18 Monday. Puigcerda to Berga. 54 miles

Met Francis and Dave at the railway station and we set off through the Pyrenees towards Barcelona on the Route National. After a very long typical climb we crossed the Col de Toses in the mist at 1700m then turned off up the climb to the ski station at a place called the Col de Cruetta and we finally topped out here at 1880m in thick cloud and cold temperatures. After a few miles in cloud on the descent we came out into the Spanish side proper; we dropped like stones. Francis had (for the second time on this route it seems) neglected to bring gloves. Fortunately I was able to provide him with the £1 pair I bought from U & Me in Hazel Grove. Fleece lined and all.

By the time we arrive at La Pobia la Llobegratt we were all in need of sustenance and were served coffee and doughnuts by a South American Indian lady (what was she doing here?). She thought Francis was French. ‘C’est la vie’ as they say in Manchester.

Francis and Dave got the train back to Barca and I wandered around the placas and carrers of Berga looking for a bed for the night. I was eventually tempted by the Hotel Estel for no better reason than the approach drive was being dug up by some men with pneumatic drills. The language difficulties mattered not one bit here. I couldn’t hear the receptionist and she couldn’t hear me. She showed me a wonderfully compact room for 33 euros. I took it.

Washing off the debris of the day’s exertions I realised the shower screen was rather low so, being modest, I spent the major part of the clean up doing an impersonation of Toulouse Lautrec. I reappeared at reception, clean and holding a large bag of dirty washing. During a lull in the pneumatic drilling I asked the young woman if she knew a launderette nearby. She didn’t but directed me to the local dry cleaners. I asked the proprietor if he knew a launderette and he asked me the nature of the problem. I demonstrated my large bag of sweaty clothes and he enquired about how long they had to do the job. I told him tomorrow morning and he said it might be arranged.

It might be that the dry cleaning business is a kind of apprenticeship for the mafia round here. Certainly the phraseology and innuendo are similar. This arrangement might cost 10euros50 or I might be sleeping with the fishes… nursing a bag of dirty washing.

Day 19. Tuesday. Berga to Montserrat. 51 miles

What a fine day! Started in the cloud at Berga and on to the road to Manresa. The old C1411 has largely been consumed under a new motorway. This caused all kinds of route finding difficulties as in places there is no alternative to the motorway. For these purposes the motorway is declassified back to a C-road and the cyclist takes to the hard shoulder.
The first time this happened I went to a guy working on the side of the road to ask him if this apparent state of affairs could be correct. Considering he spoke no English nor I any Spanish the sign language was expressive. At one point he took me by the shoulders, pointed at the bike, indicated the hard shoulder and said ‘Go!’ He accompanied this instruction with an imitation of somebody pulling their hair out. Having taken the plunge it was, of course, OK; the drivers allow as much room as possible and it wasn’t for that long.

Manresa is a busy commercial town with traffic to match so I went for the coward’s option and cycled straight through the middle, a strategy I can recommend as the flow of vehicles is slow and you can keep up well on a bike.

Out the other side I had my first views of Montserrat with its startling skyline of huge rock fingers pointing vertically. The road goes to Igualara for about 6km then off to Montserrat on a big climb. And it is big; it’s steep and long and the scenery is ace. I fetched up at about 4pm at the monastery of Montserrat which is quite a place. It has 3 separate funiculars and, crucially, a hotel. No washing to be done just another hugely rewarding day.

Day 20. Wednesday. Montserrat to Barcelona. 38 miles

A big descent from Montserrat then onto the back roads to Barca. Another long though not steep climb brought me to the summit of Tibidabo. This is a big hill that overlooks the city. Tibidabo means the viewpoint from which the devil showed Christ the riches of the world and offered it all to him if he would go over to his side. But for me it meant another few miles and I would have finished the bike ride that had been my ambition for a long time.

Within the hour I was in a bar outside my brother-in-law’s apartment waiting the arrival of my wife and the other brother-in-law. A splendid trip completed!

Steve Beswick

  • 2018 Hill Climb Championship

    The Hill Climb Championships were held on Sunday 7th October on Long Hill.

    Fastest Chesh rider was Rob Bailey.

    See the result here.