One rainy day jaunt with Beautiful South and Housemartins singer Paul Heaton resulted in sore legs, steep hills, and re-shooting an iconic Bob Dylan image. How he does a whole tour of it, I'll never know...
‘Clack’. Pause. ‘Clack’. Pause.
That’s the sound of me unclipping my feet from the pedals as the road grinds inexorably upwards again. Fuck this for a game of soldiers, not another bloody hill. I’m in the suburbs of Bristol and it’s not really that hilly, just lumpy and I see (when I’m driving) all sorts of shapes and sizes cycling up this road. It’s just at the moment I can’t, not anymore. It’s hot and I’ve just ridden from Newport, which is about an hour past my optimum riding time.
I’ve ridden over the old Severn Bridge, past Aust Services (or ‘Richie Manic Services’ as I rather unwisely phrased it), stopped at the old ferry slipway where Bob Dylan famously had his photo taken on the 1966 ‘Judas’ tour, ridden along paths through meadows and avoided giant yellow skips with weeds in (of which more later). Mostly it’s been very pleasant and enjoyable, great company, sunny weather and a compulsory pub stop where I had a shandy. I haven’t had one of those for years.
The reason for all this fun is that ex Housemartin and Beautiful South singer Paul Heaton has decided to reprise his ‘Pedals and Pumps Tour’ of 2010 by taking it a little bit further. This time it’s 32 gigs in 33 days covering England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Eire. By bike. With a show every evening. That’s 2,500 miles more or less.
“And that’s a little bit more than Route 66…”
Apart from the pleasure of playing, Paul also wanted to commemorate his 50 years and what better way to do that than averaging 50 miles a day for over four weeks? Plus being a pub lover, pub owner and all round good egg he wanted to show his support for a suffering industry. Essentially it’s a pub crawl but a hard, entertaining one, done for good reasons.
I ask him how it was organised. “On facebook basically. And it takes it in some fantastic places and I wanted it like that. It’s not fair that people have to travel to places like the Birmingham NEC to see a band every time. For instance I’d never played in Derry, in the Bogside, before and it was wonderful, really wonderful. Also I don’t like letting people down and because some of these places are really out of the way, and I don’t want that to sound patronising because it isn’t, I don’t want to piss anyone off, not when we’re being put up for the night…”
Essentially it’s a pub crawl but a hard, entertaining one, done for good reasons.
And the weather has been a tad on the rainy, wild and windy side. I’m lucky as this is one of the rare sunny days.
I get a number for the drummer the day before and make an arrangement to meet in Chepstow the next day, to be confirmed in the morning. I cast a baleful look at my bike and think ‘I must fix that slow puncture…’ I then turn my attention to Google maps. Chepstow to Bristol, 16 miles approx. Shouldn’t be too difficult especially with a nice strong westerly on our backs, and as a local I could suggest a nice route into Bristol. By nice I mean flat. Follow the Avon, then flick through the centre of town and then just a slight rise at the end to tonight’s venue. Easy.
Trying to confirm where to meet in Chepstow throws up a problem. I can’t get hold of the drummer chap. No worries, it’ll all come good. And if it doesn’t I’ll stay in.
The next morning contact is made complete with venue change. Noon. McDonalds car park off Junction 24 of the M4. Ok. Where’s that? Ah! Better get going. Pump the tyres up and fling the bike in the car. Where is it again? Near Newport. Near Newport? Right. That’s double the mileage. Bugger.
30 odd miles might not seem a lot but I’m not as good as I claim and Paul and his mate Gus are 21 days into this so are no doubt fighting fit.
Car parked, rendezvous and introductions achieved, like all men/women/cyclists I cast a surreptitious eye over their kit. Good bikes. Nicely used. Normal pedals and Gus only has trainers on. This might be alright, we’ll see.
Bit of faffing about, ‘which way?’ etc and off we go.
Usual etiquette problems. Ride side by side? Chat? Don’t chat? Ride at the back and slipstream? If I take the latter option I’ll be expected to go to the front eventually and that would be a disaster. The road descends slightly so I coast up alongside Paul. I notice that he likes a big gear. Strong.
Gus is a little way behind singing and whistling to himself.
“Gus seems like a nice guy”
“Yeah, he’s great, and he’s an encyclopaedia. He’ll say that we’ll see a certain type of bird in a minute because he’s heard or seen something and then suddenly there it is. I’ve learnt so much about birds on this ride, you know, crested grebes, swallows, swifts, all that sort of thing”.
“What got you into cycling?”
“Lyric writing actually. I’ve always liked to go abroad to write lyrics and although I can speak Spanish and Italian quite well, mainly about football, I can get a bit homesick for hearing English so I like Holland and Belgium and they were easy to get to on the ferry from Hull.
“Anyway I went to a place called Bergen op Zoom and the hotel did bicycles and I just decided that it would be nice to go for a cycle in the morning before starting writing or maybe just to try and find a different bar. And I just ended up really, really enjoying myself”
“The weather’s been awful”
“But when you’re out on a bike you see the changes. The other day we were lucky enough to be in this fantastic storm and people were worried for us and they should have been, it was very, very dangerous. The weather was lashing behind us and then into us and was throwing us from 30mph to 40mph and we had to stop occasionally but we had to go on because we had a gig that night. Things like that, the elements… When you’re in car you think I’m glad I’m not out in that storm but when you’re out there, the sun is better, the rain is better, and even the wind is better.”
The road starts to gently rise so I slip gently back off Pauls’ wheel and wait for the singing and whistling Gus.
The road starts to rise some more and I start to struggle some more. Paul and Gus ride steadily into the distance as I concentrate on my breathing and trying to ignore the lactic acid in my legs. Mustn’t blow already, we’ve only done a couple of miles. Be really embarrassing if I get left behind and they’ve got a gig to get to. I see a sign, ‘Chepstow 12 miles’. Christ! That’s a problem.
Best do it in little mental steps. Chepstow first. Then the old Severn Bridge, up and over it. And then all the flat, following the Avon into Bristol. Bite sized chunks.
Thinking of which, I haven’t had anything to eat today. I was going to stop on the way but was running late and then thought that there’d be time before we started but there wasn’t.
They’ve slowed down enough for me to catch them up and the road is now going down in a graceful arc through the trees. Now I get to do the bit I like best. Go downhill. And it might sound funny but I’m pretty good at it. As I gather speed, I cruise past them, move to the centre of the road, put my chin on the bars and enjoy the speed.
At the bottom of the hill there is some debate as to whether we are still in Wales because if we are a drink is in order, and right there is a pub. Since the village is called Pwllmeyric we decide that we probably are still in Wales. Things are looking up. And ‘Cash in the Attic’ is on the telly.
“My partner was on that. They film eight shows a day and the old bloke with the moustache and specs is an absolute charmer. He can remember everybody’s name…”
“I’ve got enough back catalogue to make nostalgists come in their pants. But feed them and you’re feeding an appetite for shit”
“Do you shave your legs Paul?”
“No, I only hit puberty when I was 32! I’m just naturally smooth. When you’re young, in the showers at school, hairy is good, but I wasn’t. I just used to stay muddy to make up for it. But when you’re older it’s bad. It’s better to be smooth for the ladies…”
“What songs are you doing?
“Mainly Billy Joel stuff”.
A pause. We both take this in. Then he puts me out of my misery.
“A mixture. Some of my solo stuff, some Beautiful South, some Housemartins, and a cover.
“I’ve got enough back catalogue to make nostalgists come in their pants. But feed them and you’re feeding an appetite for shit, but I’m really happy at the moment so I’m mixing it up for a change. I remember being at No.1 in the album charts and there was this working club singer in Hull who’d only say “Aye, but you’ve not cracked the ferries”
“But, you know, enjoy me for what I am, a cantankerous old git. You don’t want to upset me otherwise I’ll go away. You don’t want me to go away do you? Just shut up then. That’s my usual attitude…”
Tempting as it is to stay, particularly as there has just been a fresh delivery of something that Paul was very keen to drink (forget what), we had to get on. A brief stint of bird watching in the car park (what is the difference between a swallow and swift?), we saddle up and continue to Chepstow and the old Severn Bridge.
After stopping for photos at the ‘Welcome to England’ sign Paul and Gus immediately defer to my local knowledge and place the navigational skills firmly on my shoulders. Hmm, right. I guess that they must be sick of reading maps and would rather just enjoy the ride so feeling the pressure, I decide that it’s ‘That way’.
Hoping that Paul wasn’t a Dylan hater I’d earlier shown him the photo of Bob waiting for the ferry back when the bridge was still being built, after he’d been boo’ed in Bristol the previous night. If you look carefully you can see the beginnings of it through the mist and I thought that it would be nice if we re-created it. With Paul as Bob obviously. And Gus standing in for the fella in the background, who may, or may not, be Allen Ginsberg, (except Gus has no hair and not much of a beard). And instead of an old Austin Princess limo we’ll make do with a bike. We all agree that the results are pretty pleasing.
Back on the bikes we head for the main road and here I make ‘The Wrong Decision’. It’s busy with container lorries heading for the docks but there is a bike path running alongside and as there are three of us and we’re also chatting it would probably be better if we weren’t in the road so we take the bike path.
“What do you think it is about cyclists that really winds people up? I ask, “They don’t get wound up by pedestrians and insist that they pay ‘road tax’, get insurance and wear helmets. After all, pretty much all cyclists are drivers too”
“It’s envy. It’s so easy to be cacooned in a car and it makes you feel superior. But we need to give everything a rest. If you cycle over one of the bridges crossing the M6 you look down and it’s like the whole country’s arteries are clogged up”
“Do you subscribe to the Highway Code’s advice of ‘taking the road’, riding out a bit to avoid potholes etc?”
“Yeah, sort of. It’s a weird one though. I sometimes do it to save drivers from themselves as I can sense a car coming that perhaps they can’t and if I move out they can’t overtake and have a smash. Does annoy them though. The other day a van was edging up behind and couldn’t get past. Then it did and then immediately braked and turned right. What was the point of that?”
“Had any accidents on this tour yet?”
“Only when Matt Williams from The Star Inn insisted on seeing us off on his bike. Think he was pissed!”
I don’t usually take this route but feel that logically it should more or less follow the same direction as the road plus the path has little bike path signposts. Turning off to the left we pass through some very pretty villages, past another pub (tempting) and I start to really enjoy myself. This is why cycling is so great. Turning left again we head down a muddy path littered with twigs and debris from the recent rain. Lovely fresh smell. I remark to Paul that it reminds me of bashing about on my bike during the summer holidays.
“Yeah, that’s one of the things I love about it, hearing birdsong and seeing a lot of things, and hearing a lot of things, and smelling a lot of things that you haven’t since you were twelve or thirteen”
Now we come to a problem. A fork in the road but with both signs saying ‘Bristol’ and pointing in opposite directions. Paul and Gus regard me expectantly. ‘This way’s best I think’.
I’m getting a bit worried now as we’re getting further and further from the nice flat Avon and such local knowledge that I do possess knows that there are some bloody steep hills around here and if I make the wrong decision we will have to go up them.
Wrong for me that is, Paul and Gus will be fine. They’ve already done Scotland, The North, Ireland (North and south) and Wales, none of which are flat. Battle hardened, that’s what they are.
Paul tells me about some of the days riding that they’ve had. I must admit it sounds very hard but he’s been loving it and having the encyclopaedic singing whistling Gus along has clearly been a boon.
“We were riding past a loch and there was this beautiful island in the middle, all blue. It was amazing. I said to Gus ‘Look at that, it’s blue. Why’s that?’ ‘Because it’s covered in bluebells Paul. You know, like the band’.
“The thing is you can remember everything much more clearly when you’ve ridden from gig to gig. When you usually tour you can’t really remember anything but with this you get a sense of arrival and a sense of the journey. It’s like being in a western when the strangers ride into town”
“What’s been your best memory so far?”
“Oh they’ve all been good. The gigs have been fantastic. The audiences haven’t always been fans exactly. Sometimes they’ve just come along out of curiosity, you know, sort of ‘Club 48 to 60’ lager louts. When we were in The Beautiful South people always used to tell us that the gigs were ‘Amazing’ or ‘Stunning’ and we always thought that was funny. Where do you from there? ‘Double Amazing?’ Or “Double, double amazing?’ On this tour in Scotland they were so stoic. They’d come up to you after and say in all seriousness that that was ‘Good’. And they meant it”
We take another left (why, oh why? We should have turned right) and the path heads to a bridge over the motorway guarded by giant yellow skips filled with flowers. Or weeds. I can’t be sure but hesitate anyway before squeezing through.
Paul to me: “Are you scared of rubbish?”
“I just noticed that you went all wobbly when we passed those skips. You don’t mind weaving in and out of traffic and racing downhill but weeds seem to get to you”
Hmm. Need to think about that. He might have a point. Am I scared of rubbish? Think that I probably am.
Through another village and doom looms. A bloody big twisting climb. Paul and Gus forge ahead while I struggle. Christ, this is fucking ridiculous. No, it’s no good. I can’t do it. ‘Clack’. ‘Clack’. And I start to walk up which is bloody difficult in cycling shoes as they are, by nature of their design, for cycling not walking. This hill’s very long. I hope they’re not getting impatient waiting for me. If they are still waiting for me that is. Slipping, sliding and cursing I get to the top and remount. Ah, there they are. They did wait. We’ve come out on a dual carriageway that I recognise so off we go. Not realising that they aren’t following me I set off, quickly gaining speed on the downhill.
Dual carriageways. Takes me back to my old time trialling days of the 1970’s. Insanely dangerous branch of the sport, chasing a personal best on what is essentially a motorway while lorries thunder past you.
“When you usually tour you can’t really remember anything but with this you get a sense of arrival and a sense of the journey. It’s like being in a western when the strangers ride into town”
Glancing behind me I see that Paul and Gus have stuck to the bike path on the other side of the road and are some distance behind. I begin to feel that I am becoming a problem.
At the roundabout I wait for them to catch me up for a change and Paul rather assertively suggests the way. I demur as there is definitely a big hill that way and suggest yet another bike path, hoping that that may lead us back more in the direction of the Avon.
Inevitably it doesn’t but we have a pleasant meander through a housing estate and children’s playground while I start to face the fact that climbing another hill is unavoidable. And so it comes to pass. I wait for Paul and Gus to get out of sight past the bus stop before getting off again. Remember, they’ve haven’t seen me do this yet. They might suspect it, but they haven’t actually seen it.
Much later I catch them up (they’ve been forced to stop and wait again) and cheerily remark that ‘It’s all downhill now’.
“I’ve heard that before”, says Gus.
And bugger me he’s right. One more climb past The Downs and then it really is all downhill, all the way down Whiteladies Road to the city centre. Great!
Another chance to show my demon descending skills is rather ruined by a succession of red lights but never mind, we’re on the last stretch now. A final drag up past Temple Meads and Paul sprints past saying “You said it’s up here right?” Crikey, I hope we’re not late.
Turns out we’re not. Particularly as the venue is locked and no-one can get hold of the promoter.
“What are you going to do when this over Paul?”
“And in this modern, thriving music business?”
“Well, fuck arenas, fuck the middleman out, go straight back to what you were, a half decent singer… And there’s always the ferries.”
Smiles and banter all round. Someone asks me how it was.
“Great” I say as I reach for another fag.
And then in lieu of anything more pressing to do, we go to the pub.
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