By Robyn Jankel
It was as I cycled home during Storm Jorge, my poncho flapping like a sail and my fingers frozen to the bone, that I decided I could definitely tackle the Trans-Pennine Trail.
In retrospect this probably isn’t the normal response to battling the wettest February on record, but then again, it wasn’t a normal plan to take a 25kg Dutch bike along the UK’s longest continuous cycle route. So I suppose I was off to a good start.
It had occurred to me some months previously that when people (usually men) talk about their cycling achievements, it tends to be in terms of extremes; feats of strength, speed, and stamina. As someone who rarely displays any of these, I considered myself unable to tackle a long-distance cycle ride, although secretly I had always fancied it. And with back issues stopping me from riding any bicycle with a forward lean, I assumed it wasn’t for me anyway.
Then one day, I thought: what if I do a long-distance route on my old faithful Dutch bike, and just go really, really slowly?
What if I make it over the Pennines and prove that you don’t need special equipment or training to take on something which should be fun and open to anybody?
My plan was simple: each day I would cycle until I was tired and then find a hotel to sleep. I wouldn’t buy any specialist equipment and I would wear my own ordinary clothes (ordinary being a somewhat objective term). Since I didn’t own large panniers, I would take my trailer; and since I didn’t have a waterproof cover, I would protect it with an old poncho. I would wear skirts because my bike has a skirt guard, and I would wear heels because why on earth not?
The trains to Southport were remarkably easy. Trans-Pennine, which took me to Manchester, are one of the few companies which don’t insist on bicycles being hung from their front wheel, and Northern (Manchester-Southport) doesn’t even require a cycle reservation. I was off to a good start.
I had been so nervous about not actually reaching the starting line that it had blotted out my anxiety about the bit that was all down to me. At the huge Trans-Pennine sculpture on the seafront, I met a nice man from Bootle who pointed out Blackpool to the north, and a windfarm on the horizon which was next to Liverpool. It seemed very far away. The enormity of what I was doing began to hit me. I reminded myself of my plan: to go at my own speed and not worry about what would come next. And with that, I was off.
The trail starts by winding through sand dunes, and eventually turns on to the Cheshire Lines, which the man from Bootle had told me to avoid. I wasn’t sure why but as the rain started and the trail – stony and muddy, with fields on either side – became increasingly waterlogged, I began to wish I’d listened. Just a couple of hours in and I was already regretting all my life decisions. As the clouds cleared, I emerged onto a canal; not the sealed towpath that ran alongside the Grand Union in London, but a grassy ridge with a thin tyre track. At one point, my bike skidded underneath me and I only just managed to halt the entire contraption with the front wheel hanging right over the water. With nobody nearby to witness the near-death experience, I pulled myself back onto the safety of the soggy towpath, shaking with laughter, shock, and fear. Shortly after that, I discovered that in order to leave the canal, I would have to push my bicycle up a tall flight of concrete steps – which for the first time in my life, I managed to do. And all of this whilst wearing a pair of patent red high-heeled shoes.
The trail would take me to some unexpected places, but not all of them were entirely picturesque. At this point I emerged onto a suburban retail estate whereupon I sought shelter in a McDonalds and ate the best Big Mac I’ve ever had. I considered my map, double-checked on my phone, and was horrified to learn that despite feeling as if I’d covered 100 miles, I had only reached Aintree. I had naively assumed that the trail would be lovely and tarmacked the whole way, and I would zip along with relative ease for the first few days, struggling only when I reached the mountainous middle. These muddy fields, concrete steps, gravelly paths and and dangerously slippery towpaths had simply not entered my sphere of reasoning. After just a few hours I was exhausted, and I hadn’t even turned eastwards yet.
The sun was already hitting the horizon, taking with it the phenomenally naïve hope I’d had of reaching Widnes in one day. As darkness fell, I was pedalling through the eastern suburbs of Liverpool, and headed for the cheapest hotel I could find on Booking.com; this turned out to be a grim terraced house with flickering lights and no sign outside, smacking of people trafficking and murder victims, so I scarpered, raised my budget by £5, and ended up in a room above a pub I can only describe as extremely local. I was too achey and scared to leave, so I forfeited dinner, locked myself in, and slept for ten hours.
The next morning I awoke feeling remarkably refreshed. Once I’d rescued my bicycle from its safe space on the podium under the pub’s TV (“nobody’ll touch it” insisted the bartender, and he’d been absolutely right – I’m not sure floral baskets are a Scouse favourite), I headed off for the trail in high spirits. The route to Manchester was perhaps the most varied of the entire trail, wending its way over old railway lines, through manicured parks, past feats of Victorian engineering, next to the great Mersey estuary, amongst ancient woodlands, along quiet country roads, and round the back of redbrick suburbs. It changed constantly and thanks to my sedate pace, I was able to take it all in and appreciate the variety.
Near Widnes, I realised to my horror that I was approaching more steps. In fact, there were four flights, each with a staggered barrier, and this was the only way up the side of the cliff. I heaved my bike up the first step and gazed with utter dismay at what lay ahead of me. Just as I was cursing the Trans-Pennine designers and their claims of accessibility, a man appeared and asked if I wanted a hand. I tried to assure him that there was really no need, but he breezily insisted that he had nothing better to do, and having just walked all the way down the steps, he then proceeded to walk back up them again, this time hefting a behemoth of a bicycle, plus trailer, plus basket, with me shoving ineffectually from behind. We ungainly squeezed it through the barriers, stopped for a couple of breathers, and when we uproariously reached the top I wondered whether I should offer him my firstborn child as fair payment. I pantingly expressed my immense gratitude but he brushed it away, telling me that his poorly son would be delighted to hear of his escapades – “And to think I only had a heart operation last year!” he cheerfully added, to my absolute horror. I told him of my plan to cross the Pennines and he seemed genuinely thrilled to have played a part in my journey.
This was to be one of many encounters I had with people keen to help and bear witness to my ridiculous endeavour. They were enamoured by my set-up, and eager to hear more. I had started out my journey with the intent of being entirely self-sufficient but one major realisation I had on the journey was that it’s ok to accept help when it’s offered. Sometimes you’re not the only one who benefits.
Much of the trail from Widnes to Manchester runs along more towpaths. This time it’s sealed, relatively wide, and protected from the wind, which makes it quite a pleasant if somewhat isolated part of the route. Unfortunately, like so much of this section, it’s peppered with horribly tight and ableist A-frame barriers; ostensibly to stop mopeds but which hindered my process every time. One particular barrier near a popular part of the trail was absolutely impassable, and two men who were walking nearby stepped in and lifted the entire contraption over the gate. They were worried for my onward journey; the barriers continued all the way along. “If you can’t get through this one, you won’t get through the next one, and you won’t find anyone to help you up there” said one of the men, whilst his young daughter circled around us on a tiny pink bike. I was stymied. If I couldn’t follow the trail, what could I possibly do? Not to worry: my new friend had a plan. He showed me a route on his phone which headed through Penketh, adding several miles to my journey but ensuring I’d miss the tightest barriers, making me repeat his instructions until he knew I had it memorised. Then he gave me his home address and insisted that if I got lost or stuck again, I was to cycle back and find him, and we’d work something out.
I followed his route to the letter and rejoined the trail with no problems whatsoever. From then on, the A-frames were a nightmare, but just about passable. (I developed a method of lifting, shifting, squeezing and pushing, which resulted in bruises on top of bruises, broke the windmill off my handlebars, loosened my basket and damaged the brake cable, but at least I made it through. And hey, no mopeds, so I guess that makes up for all of the disabled people who’ll never be able to experience the Trans-Pennine trail).
Towards the end of the day, I met a couple just outside Manchester who were intrigued to know of my plans. I told them with evident lack of confidence that I hoped to cross the Pennines. They were so enthusiastic: “Of course you’ll do it. Of COURSE you will” the woman smiled at me, with absolute belief. Then they gave me some invaluable advice: “Maybe don’t try to do the whole thing in one day? Go half way up tomorrow if you can, and then cross the highest bit on the second day”.
I was feeling on top of the world as I entered Sale; I had covered 60km that day, further than I had ever cycled in one go before. But on a towpath just a few kilometres away from my hotel, I waved at a narrowboat captain and lost control of my bike, falling spectacularly onto the gravelly ground to the sound of jeers from the gang of youths on the other side of the fence. I could only praise WorkCycles, the makers of my beautiful bicycle, for its inimitable sturdiness; despite the fall, nothing had fallen out of place, and the bike was still in perfect working order, even if I wasn’t. Running solely on adrenaline and fumes, I ignored the stickiness on my hand, wobbled to my hotel, and in the room I discovered that my left hand and right knee were covered in blood. The lacerations were fairly deep – under normal circumstances I suspect they may have required stitches – but covid-19 was already beginning to overwhelm the hospitals and anyway, I was on a mission. So the next morning, still bleeding (and still stubborn), I bandaged up my injuries and continued on my way.
With the couple’s advice ringing in my ears, I wanted to reach Hadfield, which from my superficial research (flicking through the condensed TPT guide and cursorily comparing the elevation to the map), seemed about half-way. From Sale to Stockport the route was flat but hard-going; the incessant rain of the previous months had rendered everything, even the nicest sections of the trail, muddy, gritty, and slimy. It was like running on sand, requiring twice as much effort and constant concentration.
At Stockport the hills began, although blessedly they tended to be short steep bursts followed by long, fairly flat sections. Then, in the middle of the woods, I came across a flooded section of the path. This wasn’t the first time, nor was it to be the last, that I was to find the trail completely underwater. Fortunately, despite the remoteness, Googlemaps enabled me to navigate a long detour. Unfortunately, this detour included a steep descent into an offputtingly narrow wooded gully which felt like a ratrun for Lancashire’s fittest drug dealers, followed by an ascent so steep that I was barely able to control my bike as I shoved it to the top. Here, I emerged onto another canal with an unsealed towpath, along which I wobbled nervously before rejoining the TPT at a bridge with steps I simply didn’t have the strength – either physical or mental – to push my bike up. Thankfully the gods of human kindness were still smiling on me, and out of nowhere a family appeared on the bridge, including two men who cheerfully picked up both my bike and my trailer, and carried them uncomplainingly up, along, and down the other side.
By now the hills were beginning to feel somewhat relentless. I cycled at a snail’s pace through a pretty little village centred around a steep central road. A man in Lycra on a road bike pedalled past me and even he looked a little wobbly, so I felt somewhat vindicated considering I was probably hauling four times the weight he was. The village led to a country lane and the country lane to a farm from which a bridleway reared steeply up, covered in rocks and opaque puddles, many of which stretched across the entire path. I had no choice but to cycle straight through, crossing my fingers and hoping I wouldn’t meet a submerged rock sending me careering off once again.
Through the wateriest parts, it was then a case of half-cycling, half-pushing my way up the gritty, muddy, uneven track, covered in rocks and shards of brick and what appeared to be the beginnings of a small stream. It felt like the longest mile of my life. At the top it joined a road which headed downwards again. I was alarmed – as Newton said to Einstein, if an apple falls then it’s got to go back up again at some point, and have you seen those storm clouds? Suffice it to say that delirium was beginning to set in.
I trundled off down the hill, cursing every meter I dropped, and refusing to enjoy a moment of it, until I had a revelation: dreading the inevitable climb wasn’t going to make it any easier. I wasn’t allowing myself to enjoy the moment because I was so scared about what was to come, but that just meant allowing the anxiety to last even longer. So what if I had a slog on the other side? What harm was there in enjoying the descent from the peak that I had worked so hard to reach? I freewheeled down the remainder of the hill in the highest spirits I had enjoyed for hours. It lasted for about five minutes until I found myself pedalling slowly up an off-road path next to a major A-road. I could see the Pennines all around me, and I was still 20 minutes from Hadfield, when the heavens opened and the winds picked up.
By the time I reached the town, I felt like I had done twelve rounds in the ring. I was so bone-weary that it took me ten minutes and four stops to cycle the final steep half-mile to my B&B. As the owner checked me in, I told him that I was hoping to cross the Pennines. But I was on the verge of tears. That day had been so relentless, the possibility of going even further was simply unimaginable. With northern gruffness, he brushed away my concerns. “You’ve done the hardest bit”, he said. Really? I couldn’t believe it. “Yup, that’s the hardest bit. I’ve done it before. The rest’s easy. You’ll be fine”. He didn’t seem like someone to sugar-coat or display unnecessary kindness, and the tension began to leave my body. Maybe I could do it after all…?
But as I headed out for dinner, aching and exhausted, I saw the train station. I could leave first-thing tomorrow. I could just give up and go home and nobody would ever have to know I’d attempted this foolish, ridiculous journey. Nobody would ever have to know that I’d failed.
I arrived at the pub five minutes before the kitchen closed; perhaps that was a sign. Perhaps I was meant to do this. I threw back the largest Sunday roast I’d ever seen, and a medicinal glass of red wine, and headed slowly back to my room. Maybe I’d push on through after all.
I had been heavily rained on every day so far, but against all the odds, in this region dominated by overcast skies and thick fogs, Pennine day dawned dazzlingly blue, with not a single cloud to be seen. It was, by all accounts, the nicest weather they’d seen in months. Sign number two: I had no choice but to carry on.
I had anticipated relentless ascents, but actually the path leading out from Hadfield is fairly flat, running high above a series of huge, cobalt-blue reservoirs snaking through the Longdendale Valley. It was beautiful and peaceful, and I kept stopping to take photos. I had the time, I reasoned. This was the whole point. Go at my own pace. The previous day had been so unpleasant that I had hardly any photos; today was different. Today the sun was out, and I would cross the Pennines.
At the end of the valley, I was faced with a long, steep ascent up from the carpark to the busy A628. I didn’t have the energy to cycle all the way up it – I pushed with inching steps, and eventually tottered my way to the top. My guide said that I needed to cross the road and rejoin the path, but all I could see was a lorry in a layby. Signal was poor, but after some frantic googlemapping I realised to my horror that I had missed a turning way down at the bottom of the carpark and the trail was back down the road. I had a choice: go back the way I came and pick up the trail downhill, thereby doubling my uphill slog and rendering the last 30 minutes completely pointless, or continue up this busy A-road and hope that I didn’t get squashed by one of the numerous lorries trundling along at 50 mph.
I chose the latter.
At this point the road was so steep, my load so heavy, and my breakfast so long ago, that I couldn’t make it further than half a mile at a time. I wobbled along from layby to layby, the neon yellow poncho on my trailer announcing my presence, and probably had fewer close passes than on an average amble into York. After a couple of miles, the path recrossed the road and I breathlessly dived into the relative safety of the rocky track.
Just a few minutes away from the road and the traffic sounds were muffled. The peaks were all-encompassing, the grass was scrubby, the walls were drystone and it felt incredibly remote. I was absolutely astonished that I had made it all the way into these barren hills, that I’d started next to the sea, and I’d done this whole thing using my own body. A body which got out of breath climbing the stairs, and thought nothing of lounging on a sofa watching Netflix for five hours straight. I had never considered the reality of actually making it this far. I had dreamed about it, but I didn’t think I could do it. Crossing the Pennines was for athletes and professionals, for the people who cycled 50 miles before breakfast, for men in Lycra and aerodynamic helmets. It wasn’t for women in fancy shoes and animal-print skirts, on flowery Dutch bikes with trailers designed for groceries.
Except apparently it was.
I had read accounts about the nasty final stretch: a steep and narrow rocky path which the incline alone rendered uncyclable, but the sharpness of the rocks perhaps even more so. But by this point I didn’t even mind. Planets turned, civilisations rose and fell, and I pushed my bike up that gnarly track. It wasn’t as difficult as the ascent from the carpark or the path from the farm the previous day. Maybe this was because it was blissfully dry, or maybe it was because I was within spitting distance of the Trail’s highest point. Maybe it was because now, I knew that I could make it.
Once more I crossed over the A628, cycled up a terribly unprepossessing side-road and when it flattened out, I stopped. This was it: Windle Edge. Although it had no signs or markings to prove its importance, I had officially reached the highest point on the Trans-Pennine Trail. I gave an experimental whoop. And then I did it again – louder. I screamed into the valley: I’VE MADE IT! I’M AT THE HIGHEST POINT! I’M HERE! I started laughing, and then I couldn’t stop.
Eventually I calmed down enough to get back on my bike, push off, and whizz down the unbelievably steep descent on the other side. Half-way down, still giggling maniacally, I realised that my brakes weren’t remotely up to the task; I was squeezing as tightly as possible and showed no signs of stopping. After using my feet (today clad in iridescent plimsolls) to scrape us to a halt in a cloud of burning rubber, I decided that positive as it was to enjoy the descent, I should perhaps rein in my excitement just a tad, and from then on I was a little more reserved. My Dutch bike is designed for many things, but heading down a mountain pass at full speed is not one of them.
The man from the B&B had been correct: I really had done the difficult part the previous day. It hadn’t been an easy morning, but the hardest part was over by lunchtime (although thanks to the remoteness of these parts, that was a sandwich eaten whilst overlooking a large carved wooden rabbit). I trundled along into the hilariously-named Penistone by late afternoon, staying in the friendliest B&B I had encountered thus far and still riding the high.
I had read that the trail from Penistone onwards verged on boring, and I suppose that might be the case if you’re a hardcore trail cyclist used to glorious vistas from mountaintops. But I was on top of the world, and nothing was going to crush my spirits, even boggy bridleways and featureless woodlands. It was a fairly long day from Penistone to Doncaster, heading through winding wetlands, along precarious ridges, past a stunning viaduct, and passing calmly both over the M1 and under the A1. I had driven along those roads countless times and there was something quite special in realising that I’d never known I was zipping under (and over) the Trans-Pennine Trail.
It was strange to be heading into a part of the world whose names I recognised. I was unfamiliar with the western side of the Pennines but now I saw signs for Barnsley, Sheffield, Rotherham and Leeds. It was home territory but I was to keep going. I wondered whether I could reach Selby by that evening, and if I could reach Selby, should I take the spur home to York and head off again the next morning? I had gone from tentative and unsure to wildly over-confident, and so it came as something of a surprise when just outside Sprotbrough, my left ankle starting suddenly and insistently aching. I decided to cut my losses and book an Airbnb in Doncaster, which was the right decision because by the time I arrived, I was struggling to move.
I hoped it was a sprain which would ease up overnight but the next morning, I cried out in pain when I sat on my bike, and I couldn’t go above first gear. I called my mum in tears. “I think I have to go home”, I sniffed. Later I discovered I had given myself Achilles tendinitis in my left ankle, most likely as a result of overusing it whilst taking pressure off my injured right knee. It had definitely been time to call it a day.
At Doncaster station I pleaded with the guard to let me board the Trans-Pennine service to York with my bicycle – it’s just one stop, I begged, please, I need to get home. By now the trains were already nearly empty as the country slowed to a halt in the face of the virus and he allowed me to wedge myself in next to the toilets. It was an unceremonious return as I slowly, painfully, cycled over the Ouse and crept home bruised, battered, and disappointed.
I beat myself up about a lot of things and my immediate thought was that I had set out to do something and failed. My inner voice berated me for injuring myself, for falling off my bicycle, for not pushing further. But uncharacteristically, the other voice shouted louder. I did achieve something, it said. I cycled 60km one day. I cycled 195km altogether. I crossed the bloody Pennines. And I wasn’t even sure whether I’d make it to Liverpool.
And I did the whole thing in a leopard print coat and patent red heels, with a sequinned backpack in my flowery basket.
A lot of people asked me why I did this. There are a few answers: because I wondered whether I could. Because it seemed like a good idea at the time. Because I hoped to prove something to myself. But there’s another reason, too. I wanted to show all of the people – and especially all of the women – who think they can’t do endurance sports or climb mountains or be brave or get on a bike and cycle to the shops: maybe you can. If I can cross the Pennines on a bike designed for short zips across cities, with a base level fitness in minus figures, no Lycra, no specialist equipment, as little planning as makes no difference, and wearing wildly inappropriate clothing, then you can definitely have a pootle around the park on that old bone-shaker gathering dust in your garage.
Go slowly, go gently, take photos, have courage. Sometimes bravery is in taking a step outside your front door and saying “today I will go for a little cycle”. And sometimes, if you keep going, you’ll cross a mountain.