We spent the next few days sorting out the contents of the house. Margaret and Brian were Dad's executors and took away all the financial and personal papers. We agreed on the few pieces of furniture and ornaments we wanted to keep. A nest of tables, a battered old clock of indifferent accuracy and doubtful value, a monk's bench, a small toby jug which played the tune to Do Ye Ken John Peel when you picked it up. Things we might otherwise never give a second glance to but which had been ever-present in our growing up, some inherited by our parents from their parents. The local charity shops did well from all Dad's clothes. Even a few of Mum's things which Dad couldn't bear to part with. Once fashionable but now worthless fur coats; an elegant handbag he'd bought for her Christmas present, unused because she died suddenly before he could give it to her. Load after load of the miscellaneous junk which accumulates in garages because it might come in handy but now no longer would, all taken to the recycling centre. They call it house clearing, but we were really clearing out a life.
Two weeks after the funeral there was nothing left for me to do. It was time to get back on the road. People sometimes express surprise that I continued with my journey, but what else could I do? Margaret and Michael could return to their normal lives; to grieve but be sustained by family and work and the everyday routines of life. The road back to my normal life still led around the coast. I had given up work and left an empty flat to travel around the country. This was now my life, my work; the job was yet to be completed. The routines of travelling would have to sustain and comfort me.
On the eighteenth of October I awoke to a cold and windy, sunless day. I went through the motions of washing and shaving, breakfasting in front of the lounge fire whilst listening to the radio news, then washing up, packing up, and tidying up. The routines started me functioning and gradually built up a momentum for the day. By ten o'clock there was no excuse for further delay, I would have to go whether I felt like it or not. I checked all the rooms, closed all the doors, set the alarm, locked the front door and pedalled slowly away. The great tour was beginning again. But it felt more like an end than a beginning. The end of this house and the end of my father. I was leaving him behind.
The wind blew me past the Lytham windmill, north-eastwards up the Ribble estuary towards Preston, an easy start to a first, short day. Skirting Preston Docks, now given over mainly to marinas, I turned south-west on the other side of the Ribble to renew my acquaintance with that tiresome fellow-traveller, the headwind. Leaving the main road to cycle the flatlands through Hesketh Bank, Hundred End, and Banks there was nothing between me and the wind sweeping in from the Irish Sea. Sometimes there is comfort in the presence of even the most tiresome of friends. I put my head down and let my legs find that old familiar rhythm.
It was too cold to squat down by the side of the road to eat the rolls I had brought with me so I went into the pub at the Crossens roundabout to warm myself on soup and apple pie and custard. Just like old times! The coast road into Southport seemed even flatter and more exposed. I crawled along through bird sanctuaries where there seemed few birds but many bird-watchers, burdened by binoculars and telephoto lenses. I might have been back in East Anglia.
The Tourist Information Centre found me accommodation in a guest house on Bath Street which quite suited my needs. But for the first time I encountered a television equipped with a pay-meter. Not a modern pay-per-view satellite channel, but a coin-in-the-slot machine, like a gas meter or a pay-phone, charging a pound for an hour's viewing. How parsimonious can a landlord be?
It was still early afternoon so, after washing and changing, I set out to wander the cold streets of Southport. There I found the usual high street stores, but also the elegance of Victorian wrought-iron arcades, now filled with boutiques and bistros. In the summertime it would be a thriving cafe society. Pride of place in the grandeur of the galleried Wayfarers Arcade is taken by a statue to Southport's best-loved offspring, the steeplechaser Red Rum, three times winner of the Grand National.
I celebrated my return to the road with a large plate of fish and chips. The rest of the evening I spent in my room with my logbook thinking about the days and weeks to come.
I continued grinding phlegmatically into the wind along the coast road out of Southport, leaving the main road to meander through Formby, Hightown, and Crosby. There I entered the Liverpool conurbation. Mile after mile of grim docklands stretched ahead of me. Grim they might be, but docks mean cafes, and I was looking forward to steaming plate-loads of food in a warm cafe rather than shivering over sandwiches by the roadside. But there was an eerie quietness about the streets. I knew there was a dock strike on, but there was no sign of any picket lines either. No screech of cranes, no bustle of people, no traffic. The coast road was a ghost road.
I decided I would press on to the Albert Dock where I knew there would be a cafe at the maritime museum. Here at least there was life. Huge car parks full of cars and coaches, crowds of school children swarming out onto the roads determined to be unconstrained by the miles of enclosing chain-link fencing. Perversely, I kept on going. This was just too crowded and noisy.
A few miles further on I stopped at a roadside sign announcing B&B £15 and cafe. The door was locked when I tried it, but an elderly lady sitting in a cubby hole like a concierge in a French apartment block produced a key and let me in, locking the door behind me. The menu was very limited, anything fried with chips and no puddings, but I was too embarrassed to ask to be let out again. Indeed, would I be let out again without first crossing the concierge's palm with silver? I ordered sausage, egg and chips and a mug of tea. I was the only customer. The food was indifferent but freshly cooked, and the cafe was at least warm and out of the wind. Half an hour later the concierge let me out again and locked up behind me. Was I a character in a surrealist film where everybody knew the plot except me? What was wrong with Liverpool? I cycled away along the still deserted road.
At Speke I wandered for a while around the magnificent Elizabethan black and white timber-framed mansion before pressing on towards Widnes where I hoped to find accommodation. But, lulled by the day's absence of traffic, suddenly found myself joining a busy dual-carriageway and, before I could turn off, was engulfed by traffic speeding across the bridge which arches over the Mersey to Runcorn. The local library directed me to a visitor centre where a helpful assistant telephoned round some bed and breakfasts for me.
Audrey Meredith was a friendly, elderly lady who sat me down in front of the gas fire with a cup of tea and bade me watch the television until the return of her lodger from work at eight o'clock. Then she would cook an evening meal for both of us. Stan came from Mirfield in Yorkshire. Having lost his job there, he now did contract work at the nearby ICI computer centre, but remained fearful for his future. Still, his wife had a good job in care management and, though she was over two hundred miles away in the south of England, they generally managed to see each other at weekends. He was pleased that he'd just been able to treat her to a weekend away in Jersey to celebrate her fortieth birthday.
My sleep was disturbed by the constant gurgling of a ball-cock in the roof space next to my room, and then by the sound of Stan getting up at six-thirty in the morning. Audrey fed me well and wouldn't let me leave without a supply of fruit to tide me through the cold day.
Like a medieval walled city, Runcorn is defended by concentric rings of fortifications, except the concentric rings are transport systems which are supposed to make movement easier. The town is encircled by the dual carriageway which I had entered over the Runcorn Bridge, moated around by three canals and the River Weaver, and finally hemmed in on the landward side by the M56 motorway. By the time I had broken free I was pleased to be back onto the ordinary main road which leads from Manchester to Chester. But Chester was still two days away for first I would have to cycle around the Wirral peninsula.
I left the main road at Hapsford heading for a tiny road which my map told me led to Ellesmere Port. Looking over my shoulder before turning right again to Ince, I saw a lorry accelerating close behind. Usually the roar of the engine announces the presence of a lorry long before it gets near but somehow I had allowed this one to catch me unawares. I was startled, wobbled, the front wheel caught the curb, and I came crashing down with the bike on top of me. By great good fortunate I fell to the left out of the path of the lorry which roared safely by, the driver gazing impassively down at me. My fall was cushioned by the grass verge. I was shaken but unhurt.
I wandered up and down the lanes trying to find the road leading from Ince to Ellesmere Port which was shown on my map. Eventually I concluded the road was the one blocked by a boom bearing the notice Private Road which led into the threatening mass of a Shell oil refinery. I gave up and returned to the main road.
Ellesmere Port is where the Ellesmere and Chester Canal meets the River Mersey. Built by William Jessop and Thomas Telford in 1795 the canal linked up with others which by 1845 had become known as the Shropshire Union Canal and stretched to Liverpool, Birmingham, Wolverhampton, the River Severn and Wales. What must once have seemed a magnificent embodiment of the first industrial age was in 1891 dwarfed by the massive ambitions of the Manchester Ship Canal taking full-sized ships directly into the heart of industrial Lancashire. That too is now virtually empty of traffic. Meanwhile the port's offices, warehouses and workshops have been adapted to house the collections of the Boat Museum to commemorate the once glorious but now moribund canal age.
It has to be said that the road to Birkenhead is not the prettiest stretch of road in Britain and I was eager to make up time for all the messing about looking for roads which didn't exist. I pedalled on through Port Sunlight, named after the Sunlight soap which created the wealth of Lord Leverhulme, not bothering to stop to seek out the garden village he built to house his workers or the art gallery which, in common with all Victorian industrialists, he created to enhance his respectability and ensure his immortality.
At Rock Ferry I finally stopped for lunch at the only place I could find: the bright aluminium and neon-lit garishness of the OK American Style Diner, appropriately squatting in a car park at the junction of two busy main roads. The food was indifferent even by junk food standards. But the place was nice and warm, made warmer still by the magnetic presence of a beautiful, oriental girl perched high on a bar stool, smiling at the customers and smoothing down an almost non-existent skirt whilst constantly crossing and uncrossing her legs. I perspired even more in my clammy cycling clothes. As far as I could see she had no more than a cup of coffee the whole time I was there. Was she employed by the management to lighten the lives of the sour-faced office workers and representatives who surrounded me? Perhaps she was a self-employed working girl paying a commission to use the Diner to entice passing trade. Or was she owner of the place herself and smiling at all the money she was making from burgers and fries? Not the sort of questions one can easily ask a stranger.