It was the beginning of September. I was on my weekly run with Richard when I first broached the subject of the Big Idea. We were running through Holland Park and as usual he was doing all the talking. Running and talking at the same time was not a skill I had ever mastered. Richard talked and I gasped yes and no at appropriate intervals. That way Richard relieved the tensions of a week's worth of venture capital and I got to understand a little of the alien world of business finance. But that evening I had something to say.
'I've suddenly had this brilliant idea.'
'Oh, yes?', he asked.
'To cycle round Britain.'
'How far is it?'
'Not sure. It's 874 miles from John O'Groats to Land's End. Double it, add a bit. Say, 2500 miles. Take about three months.'
'Too much like hard work. Youth hostels. They're about fifty miles apart.'
'When would you go?'
Richard didn't need to ask the predictable questions about how to find the time, or how to finance the journey. He knew the background; he could see the possibilities. Still, it was good to have his blessing for what some might have seen as a foolhardy venture for a forty-eight year old non-cyclist.
I had taken early retirement at the grand old age of forty-eight. Divorced, no children, living on my own in a small flat in the centre of London, responsible only to my building society manager, I could afford to please myself what I did with my time.
Thatcherism had come late to the national museums, but come it did. With staff costs and building maintenance costs rising in the face of declining Government grants, the Science Museum sought to become part of the new enterprise culture. Entrance charges were a philosophical pre-requisite, not just a necessary evil. The museum was reorganised into functional divisions. The heads of the divisions fought amongst themselves, pursuing powers and responsibilities which flowed elusively between them as the Director sought to manage by division and rule. Management consultants came and went at enormous cost, their recommendations ignored for coming up with the wrong answers. Contracting out and part time staff. Customer Care, Quality Service, Team Briefing, Managing Staff, Time Management, Performance Indicators, staff training galore. We were all managers now. But the expensive trainers left shaking their heads at the impossibility of bringing order to this seething chaos. I had spent two years trying to argue my senior curatorial colleagues out of their unwillingness to co-operate with staff in other divisions. It was a political nightmare.
And then the bubble burst. The Marketing Division had failed to raise any sponsorship money to spend on exhibitions and, with Alice in Wonderland logic, the Director somehow saw the answer as being to sack curators and use the staff savings to finance exhibitions. Volunteers for redundancy and early retirement were called for with the threat of compulsory redundancies if volunteers were not forthcoming. Many people couldn't sleep because they were fearful of losing their job; I couldn't sleep because I was afraid they might not let me go. In Huis Clos Sartre has written of three dead souls awaiting their sentence in hell, only to discover that hell is other people. He might have been writing about some of my colleagues; I couldn't wait to get out fast enough. At the end of 1993, after twenty years in the museum, I joined the soaring mountain of the pensioned-off with enormous glee. It was a scandalous waste of public funds but it suited me. Don't get me wrong: the Science Museum is the best museum of its kind in the world, and as Curator of Road Transport I had one of the best jobs in the world, but it was time for a change.
When I announced that I wanted to go, many of my colleagues were concerned as to what I would do with all my time. To me that didn't seem to be a problem; I'm not the sort of person who frets if they have nothing to do. I can always sit down and read a book, or sit in the sun and stare into the distance thinking deep thoughts about nothing in particular. I have an idle soul. I didn't know what I was going to do, but the thought of all that time stretching ahead was a source of satisfaction not of fear. To reassure my colleagues I told them that if the worst came to the worst I could always rent out my flat and go off travelling. That seemed to satisfy them. It might not be what they would choose to do, but it was an objective they could understand; it removed the un-nerving uncertainty.
Of course, I couldn't simply do nothing. A public service pension is all very well but retiring at the age of forty-eight the pension wasn't large enough to satisfy my material needs; I would have to work. Like many others in a similar position I vowed I would never work as an employee again. One of the more bizarre aspects of the Thatcherite state is that the cut-back, cash-strapped, public service has seemingly unlimited pots of money to spend on external consultants to advise public bodies on how to carry out their business. We are all consultants now!
I was coming to the end of a very stimulating and enjoyable project for the Museums and Galleries Commission and wondering what to do next. Should I pull out all the stops and hunt for more work, or pick up some of my own unfinished research and write a few papers until earning became a more pressing priority again? Or should I go travelling, the story with which I had fobbed off my colleagues. The trouble was I wasn't sure I was brave enough to go travelling the world by myself. Whenever I travelled abroad it was with other people. On the other hand I could travel quite happily in Britain by myself and there were still large parts of my own country I had not seen. I liked to go on walking holidays but the tiny island of Britain was still too large to walk around; it would take too long. I looked at the youth hostel map. Apart from places like the Lake District the hostels were too far apart to walk from one to another, and I neither wanted nor could afford to spend every night in bed and breakfasts. I looked again at the map. Most of the hostels were less than 60 miles apart, that meant you could cycle between them. Eureka! I would cycle around the whole of Britain. The idea came to me just like that, fully formed and perfect.
No matter that I wasn't a cyclist. A few years previously I'd run three marathons and trekked over 18,000 feet to Everest base camp so I knew the heart and lungs were in good shape. Every sport demands a different type of fitness so I would need to do some serious training. That could wait a while. First I'd better find out what cycle touring was about. And what did I really mean by round Britain?
I headed for The Travellers Bookshop and Sports Pages and came away with a selection of books on cycles and cycle touring. I read and re-read Tim Hughes' The Cycle Tourers' Handbook and Rob van der Plas' The Bicycle Touring Manual; Josie Dew's adventures in The Wind in My Wheels; and best of all the account of the round-the-world cycle tour Anne Mustoe made at the age of fifty-four after forsaking her responsibilities as a headmistress, with the modest title of A Bike Ride. Although there must have been dozens of people who'd cycled round Britain nobody seemed to have written about it. Quite by chance I made a lucky, but frightening, find in a second hand bookshop in Greenwich; John Merrill's Turn Right at Land's End ñ The Story of His 7000 Mile British Coastal Walk. Gulp, 7000 miles! It was further than I thought. Time for some serious planning.
John Merrill was the first person to walk the coast of Britain. The Ordnance Survey told him they thought it would be 6095 miles. He used a map measurer to estimate 6180 miles. He ended up walking 6824 miles along the public right of way nearest to the high water mark. What of the roads? I took a map measurer to the Ordnance Survey 1:625,000 Routeplanner Map to provide an initial estimate of 5280 miles along the road nearest to the coast. Cycling round Britain had crystallised into riding the coast road of mainland Britain.
The most terrifying part of Merrill's book was his approach to walking. An average of twenty-eight miles per day carrying a 50 or 60 lb pack without a single rest day for the whole walk would daunt even the most experienced walker. Not for me. I had in mind something more leisurely and enjoyable. The idea was to see what was there - to tour rather than to race. I liked Anne Mustoe's idea of cycling fifty miles a day with two days a week off for resting and sightseeing. That seemed a reasonably relaxed way to travel. On that basis my journey would take about twenty weeks. Allowing for a few trips to interesting places away from the coast I would need to plan on being away from home for six months. It was becoming a major expedition and I really would have to rent out my flat to finance the journey.
I intended buying a first class off-the-peg touring bike which at the time would cost about £750. I started reading all the magazines and haunting London's cycle shops, soaking up the arcana of cycles. During a week's walking in the Lake District I borrowed a friend's bike to trundle round the Langdale valley. After two hours I was exhausted, had a sore bottom and sore knees, but I'd had a wonderful time. The greatest shock was the awful ride. I had simply forgotten how hard and unforgiving could be the ride of a bicycle.
My thoughts turned to Moulton bicycles. Alex Moulton was originally best known as an automotive engineer. He was responsible for the rubber suspension of the BMC Mini car, and subsequently for the Hydrolastic and Hydrogas suspension systems, developments of which are still used in some Rover and MG cars. In 1962 the launch of the first Moulton bicycle amazed the conservative cycle industry by the use of small wheels and suspension. It was an immediate success and transformed the declining British industry. Every Moulton bicycle since produced has been fitted with suspension and they are acknowledged as the most comfortable bicycles on the road. Unfortunately, the current Moulton AM was aimed at a very high quality niche market and cost two or three times what I was prepared to pay. Nonetheless I joined the Moulton Bicycle Club to get access to information about these bikes, but in the meantime continued to investigate conventional bikes.
Back home I borrowed a friend's Dawes Super Galaxy touring bike and started pounding the streets of London. The centre of London is not the ideal place for an inexperienced person to start cycle training. Fortunately, I live only a couple of hundred yards away from Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park. By judicious use of the few cycle routes through the parks and the public roads around them it was possible to put together a flat, four-mile circuit without cutting across the flow of traffic. There was a hillier, two-mile circuit in Holland Park. But anything more demanding meant a drive out to a seven-mile circuit in Richmond Park, or a much longer drive out of London to reach real countryside. Unfortunately I was short of time as the training needed to be fitted in between intensive carpentry sessions.
I had redesigned my kitchen and was now making from scratch all the cupboards, shelves, drawers, and sliding units. Suddenly there was a time constraint: it had to be finished in time for a tenant to move in at Easter. I pounded round and round the parks, slowly gaining fitness. With the cycling and the carpentry I was in a constant state of exhaustion.