The final day of crafty companions’ bike ride

All good things inevitably reach their end as morning broke for day four, the final day of the bike ride. This brought with it the dawn chorus particular to this locale, the deafening roar of multiple aircraft engines from nearby Heathrow Airport. The riders piled into the support vehicles for the journey back to yesterday’s finishing point, with the riders looking forward to the last gentle 20 or so miles into London, as experienced by Chris Bruffell and Steve Walls only two years ago.

The Paddington Packet Boat.

The Paddington Packet Boat.

With bikes and kit unloaded and full water bottles, it was soon time for the ‘star’ of the ride, Angela McShane from the ‘R’ Charity, to lead the riders into London. Angela is an event coordinator for the ‘R’ Charity at The Royal Liverpool Hospital and until last year, when she led the cycling team along the Leeds Liverpool Canal, had never taken part in any long-distance bike ride. That year and for the greater part of this year, she continued at the head of the group, facing every low hanging branch, brushing aside thistle and thorn and laying a route for the others to continue in her track.

The bike ride started at the Packet Boat Marina at Cowley Uxbridge. The Paddington Packet Boat Marina takes its name from the boat of that name, which in former times used to run daily from Paddington to Cowley, one of the few passenger boats plying regularly along the Grand Union Canal. Pulled by four horses, it took precedence over all other boats and covered the 15-mile lock free run in a time that was remarkable at the beginning of the 19th century.

At Little Venice, from left to right, are: Gordon Sandford, Chris Bruffell, Steve Walls, Angela McShane and Tony Farrar.

At Little Venice, from left to right, are: Gordon Sandford, Chris Bruffell, Steve Walls, Angela McShane and Tony Farrar.

Packet boat crews were noted for their smart blue uniforms with yellow capes and yellow buttons. The Paddington Packet seems to have been a well-used passenger service, which continued for a number of years from when the canal opened in June 1801. On 10 July 1801, a public inauguration took place, when a barge full of dignitaries arrived at the Paddington Basin. For the next 20 years the canal enjoyed great popularity, both as a commercial and a leisure facility. The picture above shows a packet boat full of passengers enjoying a trip on the canal which made trips five times a week and was always packed out, but by the 1830s the railway came and the canal concentrated on its commercial goods purposes.

The towpath over this next 20 miles was a joy to ride, passing through the much-industrialised area of Hayes and Harlington, before reaching the Paddington Arm at Bull’s Bridge, after just 3½ miles. Bull’s Bridge was once a large British Waterways yard (and formally the Grand Union Canal Carrying Fleet Depot), where canal maintenance boats were built and repaired. It was here that the riders took a left turn to head towards Little Venice, where they would eventually have to leave the canal. In days long gone, this arm of the canal was surrounded by large warehouses backing onto the canal, where the working boats would collect and discharge their cargos. Sadly, most of the old warehouses have long since gone, although some of those that do remain stand as a testament to the areas past industry

Steve Walls with London’s finest at the Mall.

Steve Walls with London’s finest at the Mall.

Amazingly, there has been a lot of change in this particular area since the trip of 2016, with the towpath having been cleared and re-laid for most of its distance (work is still continuing). The ongoing work meant the riders had to walk along a 500-yard pontoon anchored in the canal, whilst workmen laid the new towpath.

With the miles to complete now well and truly diminishing, the cyclists soon crossed the large aqueduct at the North Circular Road, which presented a stark contrast between the tranquillity of a more pastoral age on the canal and the modern cacophony of the motorised traffic passing below. In no time at all, the intrepid cyclists where passing the rear of Wormwood Scrubs Prison, leaving just three miles to go before their arrival at Little Venice.

This year the riders would leave the canal here, instead of travelling on through London Zoo and Regent’s Park as they did on the 2016 trip. Just four miles short of their destination and facing the London traffic, they gingerly meandered their way through to Lancaster Gate and then Hyde Park. On reaching Rotten Row, they met with a most wonderful site, the King’s Troop, Royal Horse Artillery out for manoeuvres and practice. The ride rapidly turned into a tourist trip, cycling down through the Wellington Arch and along Constitution Hill.

At 10:50am, a melodic tune was perceived floating through the air, which turned out to be a military band accompanying the Irish Guards, who were marching through to take their post at the Changing of the Guard ceremony. This coincided perfectly with the arrival of the riders, with Angela vying for the attention of the public by having her first puncture, which was quickly repaired, only to have another one within 200 yards. Leaving Buckingham Palace and passing the Victoria Monument, Steve Walls had the absolute audacity to accost a guardian of the law, a fellow cyclist, who cleared the Mall and escorted the team with unhindered progress along the Queen’s main thoroughfare. The crafty companions now obviously consider themselves to be ‘The Queen’s Troop, Royal Mounted Cyclists’. Having thanked the escort, they made their way passed St James’s Palace and Pall Mall, before reaching their final destination, Mark Masons’ Hall at 86 St James’s Street.

Yes, it really happened. Penny farthing passes Mark Masons Hall.

Yes, it really happened. Penny farthing passes Mark Masons Hall.

While waiting here for their support vehicles, the occasion was further enhanced due to a fly past of a Lancaster Bomber. Steve was adamant that it had tipped its wings in salute as it flew over them. After a well-earned refreshment in the nearby Doric Arms, everything was loaded into the vehicles for the trip back to Liverpool. However, Amanda and Tony Farrar made their way across to Euston Station, having decided they would let ‘the train take the strain’ for their journey back to Blackpool.

And so, the fifth annual charity bike ride has been successfully completed and for yet another year no one had joined the ‘Captain Nemo Appreciation Society’. Next year may prove to be a rest of sorts, with support being given to a neighbouring Province for their inaugural ride. Will omni-cycles make an appearance, or maybe the passing penny-farthing they passed in London, could prove to be an inspiration. After all, it was either one of them or a ‘bone shaker’ that Steve first rode as a lad.

Special acknowledgements go to the support team, as whist the riders are the ones in the spotlight, this year’s event could not have taken place without the very important input and preparation of the support team who accompanied the riders. The support team consisted of Amanda Farrar, Jan Walls and John Bruffell.

Many thanks are due to numerous people over the last five years, either for participation in the events, or to those who have donated generously to the charities. A de-brief meeting will soon take place back at headquarters in Liverpool, to study facts, figures, donations and a full resume circulated for all to see. To all concerned, two very important words – Thank You!

The ‘Queen’s Troop’ on the Mall, from left to right, are: Major Angela McShane, Captain Chris Bruffell, Captain Tony Farrar, Captain Gordon Sanford and Private Steve Walls.

The ‘Queen’s Troop’ on the Mall, from left to right, are: Major Angela McShane, Captain Chris Bruffell, Captain Tony Farrar, Captain Gordon Sanford and Private Steve Walls.