Tales from a Motorcycle Saddle.

"Wind, Plums, Steam and Rain"

A Weekend in Autumn 1994
with the Vulgar Velo.

7 bhp and 33% hills

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This was not an epic trip, or a disastrous trip, or a sponsored trip, just a trip on a Velocette LE which was eventful only in small ways.

Sorry, not many piccies, it rained too much!

The Vulgar Velo

It was September 1994 and my cousin Juliet, of whom I see very little due to distance, invited me to stay with her for a weekend. She also said that my birthday present would be the petrol paid for. She sounded pleased when I said would come by L.E. Can't think why! The journey from Chelmsford to near Darlington took eight hours last time I did it by L.E. which was the first day of my End to End Dreams Come True trip in 1991. (For foreign readers, End to End refers to John O'Groats in Scotland to Land's End in Cornwall, the furthermost points on the British mainland. Read about it under "One Man and His Velo") The 250 odd miles were covered at 45 mph along the A1. This time I decided to take a different route, new to me, which took me through Lincoln and over the Humber Bridge - another first for me.  I departed at 7.15 on a Friday morning which got me to the Cambridge ring road at 8.30. Oh dear! I'm not sure who appeared more suicidal, the cyclists or the pedestrians. Mental note, avoid Cambridge on return. The progress was also slow on the open road. A strong head to side wind kept my speed down. How far down I could not tell. The speedo had ceased to function. Next!

I was looking forward to crossing the Fens. I love wide open spaces and long straight roads. Strange for someone on an L.E. I suppose. I skirted Ely, spotting the cathedral from the Ely 4 mile sign. March, Wisbech, Holbeach and Sleaford were passed and I headed towards Lincoln on the A15. In retrospect, it all seemed easy but I remember being restricted to around 40 mph and the A15 being very busy. Cars passed with no problem but as the road is not particularly wide, lorries had to stay behind until the road ahead was clear. I became quite accustomed to seeing nothing but the word OVLOV, AINACS, FAD, OCEVI or similar in my right mirror.

A few miles from Lincoln I could see a plane in the sky. It was moving slowly and was a strange shape. It disappeared from view to my left and a few minutes later passed overhead. It was big, grey and very, very noisy. I watched it complete its circle and as I was now closer I could identify a large radar device on top, which gave the plane an ungainly top heavy appearance as if the USS Enterprise was going boldly on its back.

As it passed in front of me, descending slowly with its searchlights blazing, a pair of red flashing traffic lights stopping the traffic in both directions. A number of cars were parked to my right so I joined them and spoke to a chap sitting in a Cavalier, with plane spotting gear beside him, i.e. binoculars, aircraft band radio and a note book. He told me this was RAF Waddington, a Nato base, this plane was on training duties (it had been circling for an hour, almost touching down each time) and that the Italian Air Force were there too, pointing to a number of fighter planes. I took a photo of this grey monster with the bright eyes as it came, surprisingly slowly, over the road. I also took one of the warning signs. It showed a person in symbolic form with his fingers in his ears. "Beware - jet blast." I downed a cup of coffee, put yet more oil in the Velo and left my own jet blast behind. In actual fact it was more of a raspberry - I cannot get the new silencer to seal. As for the oil, some went in at every stop. I used four pints - two sumpfulls - on this trip in 770 miles!

Lincoln looked a fine city with an impressive cathedral. The A15 became as straight a road as I have seen. Despite planning the route with the aim of riding the A15, I was almost relieved when it joined the M180 near Scunthorpe. I avoided the motorway and soon rejoined the A15 to the Humber bridge. Life is full of new experiences and riding across it with a strong west wind beside me was one. Every motorcyclist knows how hard work a strong side wind can be. It is never constant, always buffeting, calling for care and perseverance as this unseen force pushes us about. The ride over the Humber was not like that. For the entire distance the wind was a constant force, never altering in direction or strength. I leant to the left, and relaxed, only being brought to attention by the wobble caused by the shelter of one of the towers. The very strong wind was uncomfortable in an unusual way also. No matter how I turned my head I could not avoid the wind blowing directly up my nose! By the time I reached the toll booth it almost felt sore. Perhaps large noses run in our family.....

I am told the towers are so far apart and so tall that, due to the curvature of the earth, the tops are further apart than their bases. Next time I'll find time to investigate the visitors' centre and country park. The toll was 70p, collected by a pleasant man on the same level as me. The Dartford toll crossing has booths where the staff look down upon the travellers, at least, physically. Who remembers the cigarette commercial, "You're never alone with a Strand"? I don't, but I have come to realise "You're never alone on an L.E."! A chap in a red Fiat Fiorini van had hooted and waved, the toll collector asked "What is it?" and two more men had spoken to me when I bought some postcards. A young girl (by the voice - I never saw anyone but I waved, anyway) yelled out "We like yer bike" in a strong Lincolnshire accent. Another one told me to "Give it some" as I chugged away in second instead of first. I already was "giving it some" but she still indicated with her right wrist what I should be doing with the throttle. Brightens one's day, doesn't it? At South Cave Post Office I purchased some stamps and received another gentle surprise - the lady behind the counter sounded just like Liz in our Club, the LE Velo Club.

My E.T.A. was between 5.0 and 6.0 pm so I pressed on, past York (must visit it one day), Thirsk, Northallerton where Juliet works, and onwards towards Darlington. Then something happened which for a few seconds put me into worry mode. A heavy vibration ran through the bike and I started to lose speed. Maybe I am paranoid but I thought, "Expensive". It only lasted a few seconds and it was with enormous relief that the bike smoothed out and picked up speed again. When I removed the left spark plug at my destination my suspicions were confirmed. The plug was so whiskered it looked like a magnet dipped in iron filings. It happened again on the return journey too. The right plug was a healthy colour and clean, indicating that it is the left cylinder burning all the slippery stuff.

A car came past, tooting gently. Waving and smiling, not from a small Nova, but a large Carlton, was my cousin. As I write, her Nova sits on my drive. "FOR SALE, 1984, one lady owner, taxed and tested. Full service history". You can see 26,000 miles on the clock. You can't see the previous 100,000. I arrived at the former gate lodge that Juliet calls home at 5.30 in front of Juliet - she had stopped to buy milk. The journey as my computer informed me later, was 285 miles and had taken just over 10 hours. I usually average 33 m.p.h. on long journeys but the wind and several stops had reduced it to its present figure. But so what? If I were in a hurry, I wouldn't be on an L.E., would I?

I had a wonderful two plus days there, from Friday evening to Monday morning. The two years' age difference was noticeable in our childhood years but now, at around 40, it is of no import. Her husband is a great chap, even if he didn't warn me sufficiently about the Killer Plums.

I had plums on my cereal twice, plums for desert once, and scrumped some when I was picking them. The next day as I returned to the lounge, my cousin, with a wicked grin, asked, "The plums are working then?" "Working?" says I, "WORKING? They should be issued with a Government Health Warning!" As much as I would like to relate the two days activities of stump pulling, forest walking, stately home visiting, eating out and all the other pleasures of a weekend away, this is the tale of a trip and, distance wise, it was only one third over. 6.30 Monday morning revealed a dark sky with bright patches. My hosts left at 7.30, I departed at 8.00 after giving the bucket of plums a hefty kick. I had to be home at 5.30 on Tuesday.   My plan was to ride west to the Lake District, storm a few passes, perhaps walk a mile or two, admire the views and head south and find B & B. In reality I did ride west; I crept over a few passes, walked ten steps, saw no views but did head south and did find the most warm, comfortable, clean, tidy, friendly B & B in England. What happened? It rained, that's what happened. Not a shower, not a drizzle but eleven hours of constant unrelenting rain.

Earlier this year I was given a bag of motorcycling clothing. I sold some at our club's AGM and kept the rest, namely a thick, blue waterproof Dunlop jacket, and a pair of ex Post Office over trousers. I was also wearing two pairs of socks, leather boots and four layers below the jacket. My helmet was open face with visor and my gloves were thin leather which soaked up water like a sponge, mainly, I believe, as I used to wear a plastic overjacket, the sleeves of which went outside my gauntlets, unlike my present jacket which directed the water inside the gloves. Rethink, methinks. Importantly, I stayed warm and dry apart from hands, lower face and feet. My inner socks behaved like a wet suit, in that my feet were damp but surprisingly warm. As for the Velo, it got a good soaking but did not miss a beat that day.

My route was not direct as I went via Scotch Corner, Richmond, and then along Swaledale, over Butter Tubs pass to Hawes and on to Kendal. Butter Tubs (RAC & Bartholomews' map) or Buttertubs (A.A.Map) are the names given to the natural holes in the limestone at the top of the pass. Some say they are bottomless and some folks have said they are even deeper. I saw none. What I did see through my rain covered visor was a wet road, very few vehicles - and mist. Looking down over the edge might have been enjoyable in easier circumstances, but I had begun to wonder if this was A Good Idea, riding as I was with unproven wet gear.  I recall some lovely names like a village called Crackpot, and a peak called Lovely Seat. I doubt it was occupied today. The summit of Butter Tubs is 526 metres, or just over 1700 feet but I had gained no impression of height.

In the Lakes, awaiting the rain.

I continued to Kendal and on to Windermere. I had spent over three hours on the saddle and decided to take a break. I entered a teashop, hesitated and sat down when the proprietor smiled and indicated to me to do so. Soup and bread was most welcome and, on leaving, I was aware that all eyes were on this very wet person in a crash helmet. In order not to disappoint them I closed the door, turned as if to walk past the window and wrung out a (now very heavy) glove. Dirty water poured out, a couple of fingers imitating a cows udder at milking time. I always regret showing off, and my enthusiastic wringing had closed the fingers and it took a while to get my wet hands back inside.

I saw no lake at Windermere and continued north, purely to ride up to the Kirkstone Pass Inn, at 1500 feet, the highest pass in the Lake District. I stopped for two minutes in the car park, watched a coach pull up, three people run out, snap at the mist, alias the view, and run back in again. I had no desire to be one of them, I was warm, only wet in places I could cope with and in good spirits. I still had Langdale, Wrynose and Hard Knott to look forward to. The Vulgar Velo, my 1961 Mk III LE is reliable but a little tired in some areas, namely forks, bores, and gear selection. I should have changed into first earlier as I left Great Langdale and nearly lost all my speed. I had to use full throttle for a while to gain sufficient speed in first for me to feel comfortable that we would achieve this 1 in 4. Suffice to say we did and set off for Wrynose.

Vulgar admires the mist between Hard Knott and Wrynose passes in the Lake District One pass (my memory fails me and I have lost my Ordnance Survey map) was 1 in 3 with sharp bends which did cause a little consternation. When you are at full throttle in first gear, losing speed and the inside of a hairpin is approaching, there is not a lot more you can do. The engine almost bogged down, but thankfully, we continued forward and up. I look forward to doing this again, post rebore. (I did, in 1998. Read about it in "A Trip Revisited") Confident now we could tackle anything, we descended, still in first gear.

I found that brakes were not necessary due to the engine braking, but I did use them to relieve the strain on the transmission. Half way up Hard Knott, I was aware of steam appearing. I first thought it was rain on the exhaust, but I could make out a little cloud in front of the right leg shield. Luckily there was an area where I could stop and by the time I had alighted and put the bike on its stand, the steam had subsided. The water level had dropped slightly so I refilled from a stream - I had many to choose from. The top hoses were warm, not hot and even the heads were touchable. This episode surprised me as I had never boiled before, except when a head gasket blew dramatically on Day One of my End to End Trip. I can only put it down to the fact that ambient air temperature (it was cold) is less significant to engine temperature than how hard the engine is working. The little engine needed no more top ups on this trip.

My problems weren't over though. I had found a near level area of a few square feet. Now I had to return to a world where everything was sloping 1 in 4. Grateful that I had nothing heavier than an LE, we slid on the gravel to the road, started and pulled away, or at least tried. After two attempts to move off, I realised that the Velo's current lack of low down power meant physical assistance was called for. Still sitting on the bike, I tried for a third time, this time "paddling" with my feet which made all the difference. We were off and up again.   My route was circular from Kendal, and after the passes I took in Boot, Ulpha, Broughton in Furness and was soon heading on a main road towards Kendal again. Once on the A65 I took a detour to see Ribble Viaduct on the Settle to Carlisle line which was a great disappointment. I guess it would have looked more impressive if I had been nearer, if the sun were out and if there had been a steam train on it. The viaduct at Chappel in Essex, which you drive under, is impressive.

From that point I was looking forward to being home, or at least, dry. Around eight hours riding in the rain made me calculate my E.T.A which worked out around 1.0 a.m. Tuesday, not a good idea. I found excellent accommodation on the A659 between Boston Spa and Tadcaster, slept and ate well and left at 8.45 on the Tuesday.  I returned the way I came, over the Humber Bridge and down the A15, this time with the wind helping me. In my mind I was listing what the Velo requires, i.e. attention to forks, gear selection, cosmetics, rebore, speedo, panniers and clutch. I must not complain, I have owned it longer, it has served me better, given me more enjoyment, cost me less and taken me further than any other motor cycle I have owned. Long may it continue.  September 1994

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