This was my first real solo adventure. I usually have a Platoon of men to command or a friend to travel with. This time my partner was the bicycle and a ukulele.
Cycling through Yorkshire was a real unexpected highlight of the trip. As a Yorkshire man, I almost take the beauty of my home county for granted. It was great to visit small towns and cities that I have never been to. Places such as Halifax, Bradford and Harrogate were full of friendly people who were more than happy to stop and talk to a complete stranger. One man in Harrogate even bought me a pint after I sat on a patch of grass next to a pub to recover from climbing up a big hill.
The first performance
My first busk in Ripon was terrifying. It was around 5pm and I had been cycling all day on what was one of the hottest days of the year. I sat on a bench, got my delightful pink music stand out and started to tune the ukulele (the music stand is the wife’s, I promise). Playing those first chords was easy enough but plucking up the courage to sing was much harder. My singing was far too quiet. With no amplification, my ukulele was getting drowned out by the sound of distant cars and the bustle of a marketplace in the summer. I had to sing louder to get noticed.
After the first five songs, I had received nothing in my pathetic empty baseball cap. I was ready to give up but I thought I would give one more song a go. Then the most amazing thing happened. I received a pound! I had been paid for singing! That person will never realise how happy that pound made me. I eventually made another pound and called it a day with £2 in my pocket. I felt rich. Having made that money by using my limited talents felt so much more satisfying than any pay packet I had received before.
Catching up with old friends
In Bradford, I played for about two hours. I made over £5! Never before I set off did I think I would make that much money in a day. An old friend from university saw on Facebook that I was in the area so he popped into town to see me. It was fantastic to catch up with someone I hadn’t seen for six years. We went to the local chip shop for lunch but I wouldn’t allow him to buy me lunch as that would have been cheating.
The cycle from Yorkshire to Liverpool was beautiful. I followed the Rochdale canal for as far as I could. It was much slower than the road route due to the gravelled surface but it was worth it. The canal is a cyclist’s paradise. I didn’t want to leave the canal but I had to get onto the quicker route to make it to Liverpool on time.
Across the Pennines
The route to Liverpool after leaving the Rochdale canal was long and tedious. Hugging the A580 was dirty, polluted and boring. My aim at this point was purely getting miles under the belt to get to Liverpool.
Upon arriving in Liverpool I had four spare hours until I needed to get the ferry. So at 6pm on a Saturday night, I got the ukulele out and started playing my set list. Two songs in (and £2 up) a man with long silver hair came up and asked how much longer I would be. I told him I was going to play five more songs. He then offered to give me £5 if I would move on. It turns out I had picked a great busking slot and he usually performed there.
After agreeing to move (I was more than happy to make a quick £5) I asked the man what his act was. He told me he plays music on his speakers, puts on his roller blades and skates around the streets. I laughed, thinking he was joking. He wasn’t. He told me his alias is ‘quicksilver’ or Jeff to his friends. Jeff quicksilver made about £20 in 5 minutes!
It was quite astonishing how quickly he had made the money. He was entertaining and unusual. It’s not often you see a pensioner roller skating to music in the streets. I told Jeff I was heading to Belfast, it turned out that was his home town. He wished me well and I was on my way with £7 from my stint in Liverpool.
I got the overnight ferry to Belfast from Birkenhead. Travelling with a bicycle through the metro system in Liverpool was a bit of a pain. I had to get to the other side of the River Mersey and you can’t just cycle across. After lugging my heavily laden bicycle into elevators that were far too small to fit my bike in I got to Birkenhead and made my way to the ferry port.
The ferry across was pleasant enough. Priced at £30 each way, it was a bargain. I didn’t pay to get a cabin so got my roll mat and sleeping bag out and got a few hours’ sleep under a coffee table. This was also a good place to charge all my cameras, phone and GPS.
After three days of scorching summer weather (by English standards anyway) arriving in Belfast to rain was fairly pleasant. I set off from the port at 6:30 am with no real destination as my target other than to follow the coast west. After an hour of cycling in the constant rain I started to feel tired and sorry for myself. I started following the coast initially north, then west towards Larne was my first leg.
Having the sea on my right-hand side was nice, for some reason I have always enjoyed following a coastal route. Stopping on the beach in fine weather always puts a smile on my face. This wasn’t going to happen today. The rain was becoming tiring. I was cold, wet and hungry. All the shops were still closed as it was about 7:30 am. I spotted an underpass for the small A road I was following and decided to get some shelter. Slowly I placed my roll mat and sleeping bag on the floor of the heavily graffiti-laden underpass and got an hours sleep. I was that tired that I wasn’t even particularly bothered by the strong smell of urine in the tunnel.
I woke and the rain had slowed. Time to get back on the bike and stop feeling sorry for myself. In Larne, I stopped at a Lidl supermarket to buy some food with the money I had made in Liverpool. I bought an absolute feast for £3. I got a jar of olives, bunch of bananas, a cheesy bread roll, eight tortilla wraps and a pack of ginger nuts biscuits. More than enough to keep me going.
The scenery past Larne was a pure coastal cycling dream. Long winding roads with the occasional fishing village with nothing more than a local post office and pub. This type of scenery was what I was looking forward to the most before I started the trip. I continued past the lovely town of Ballygalley heading west. The only problem with my route was the distinct lack of towns to busk in. Most towns didn’t have a town centre as such. Just a handful of shops on a road with little or no people on the streets to perform to. I had enough food to get me through the day and had some money left over from Yorkshire but I needed to busk at some point.
The real Game of Thrones
Like most of the rest of the world, I am a big Game of Thrones (GoT) fan. Northern Ireland is the major filming location for the series so I was keen to visit some of the sites made famous by the series. The first GoT filming location I stopped in was the coastal town of Cushendun. Here are the caves where Melisandre, the red woman who gave birth to a demon that eventually went on to kill Renly Baratheon. The caves are easy to access, I took my bicycle all the way to them and parked it inside the cave. There were only a couple of other tourists about who had probably gone there due to the GoT link as well. I considered wild camping in the cave but a hard floored tourist destination didn’t seem to be the best place I could sleep that night.
I continued west along the Torr head scenic route. It was glorious weather and you could see the Mull of Kintyre in Scotland over the sea. The route was beautiful but also very hilly. I had to stop and push my bike up the hill on a number of occasions. My water was running low and I was miles from the next town. I pushed on, soaking in the scenery and enjoying the steep downhills. It was still light at around 8 pm with the sun setting at around 9:50 pm each night. I spotted a small forest on the downhill towards Ballycastle and picked that as my camp for the night.
It was a great wild camping spot. Close enough to the road that I could get back on route quick enough in the morning but far enough in cover that nobody would ever see me. It was also next to a small flowing stream. Always great to freshen up in the morning.
The next day I continued west to Ballycastle. A nice enough town but I arrived early so everything was closed. From Ballycastle, I moved off the coastal route and started heading South-West towards the Dark Hedges. This has again been made famous by GoT. It is a road with huge looming trees, interwoven to create almost a tunnel. It is an impressive sight. Almost as impressive is the number of coaches and tourists that they manage to squeeze into the narrow functioning country road.
A local half marathon being held and the dark hedges were the highlights of the route so the police stopped the tourist buses for an hour or so whilst the race was being held. Once the race was finished the hordes of American and Asian tourists flooded back into the area; snapping away with their DSLRs. It’s not like I should be complaining as after all, I am just the same as the rest of the tourists.
I was still struggling to find a busking spot. At this point, I should have got my ukulele out at the dark hedges but I didn’t feel comfortable ruining the tourist’s day with my awful singing. Running short on money, I needed to busk, so I headed to the next town on the coast with the aim of busking regardless of the amount of people there.
I headed quickly downhill towards Ballintoy Bay, again made famous by GoT. This is the location of Pike, one of the Iron Islands. I could instantly see why they used this site to film the Iron Islands. The small Bay looked old, almost like it was from another time. On a rough day, I could imagine the waves would come right over the craggy rocks with only the man-made walls there to protect the boats. There was a small cafe in the bay and a good number of tourists. I popped into the cafe to ask if it was ok to busk. They gave me their blessing so I set up for the first time in Northern Ireland. After an hour and half of performing, I made £3. I was more than happy with that amount. It meant I wouldn’t go hungry.
Taking the scenic route
The road down to Ballintoy Bay was great fun to cycle down. It is a long, winding road but fairly steep in places. Rather than retracing my route up the hill, I decided to follow the Causeway footpath. It hugged the shore of the coast west towards the Giants Causeway.
This was a mistake.
The route was boggy mud in places which meant getting off the bike and pushing. This meant lifting my heavy bike onto my shoulders and crossing the deep mud, gates, stiles and fences. There were large boulders and rocks blocking my path which meant carrying the bike again and there was lots of loose dry sand. Wet sand is fine but dry loose sand I discovered is an instant handbrake for a bicycle. However, despite all of that taking that route was the most enjoyable part of the whole trip.
Taking my bicycle where it wasn’t meant to go got strange looks from the local ramblers but they often stopped and talked to me, asking why I was going this way with the bike. They often told me that I wouldn’t be able to get the bike through the next part as it’s too wet/rocky/sandy. This was just the motivation I needed to get through the next part of the route. The long beach between Ballintoy and Dunseverick was brilliant to cycle across. Miles of wet sand, rugged coastline and even a herd of cows sat relaxing on the beach!
When I arrived at the Giants Causeway and thought this was my time to cash in. I played two songs and had made £2 already. I was on fire! That was until the nice lady from the National Trust extinguished my act and told me I couldn’t play there. I followed her direction, packed up and made my way towards Coleraine.
This was the last part of my short adventure in Northern Ireland. I found the Northern Irish people to be friendly and always happy to stop and talk, even to this English man. Not once did I mention that I am in the British Army or talk about politics. It is always easier to avoid talking politics anywhere in the world.
I got the train from Coleraine back to Belfast and stayed in a hostel that night where I met a fantastic busker performing in the hostel kitchen area. His name is Ruben and is the Swedish Street performer champion for the last three years running. We shared our tales of busking and travelling and went for a well-needed pint in Belfast.
Lessons from the Road
I am always looking for different ways to push myself and to have different experiences. I joined the Army to deploy on operations and test myself in the most challenging environment possible.
Unfortunately (or many would say, fortunately) during my six years as a regular Army Officer I have never deployed in a combat role on operations. I deployed in a staff role to Afghanistan and never once left our largest base, Camp Bastion. Due to missing out on this I feel a need to find ways to push and test myself in the form of adventures.
This adventure ticked many boxes. Not because of the hundreds of miles spent on the saddle of a bicycle. It was the learning of a new instrument and singing in the streets for the first time. The cycling almost took a backseat for this adventure. The busking is what pushed me out of my comfort zone.
Don’t get me wrong. Physically, the cycling was at times challenging. I learnt that ‘scenic route’ actually means the route with horrible hills that you may have to get off and push your bike up.
Travelling alone can be liberating. Having nobody to answer to, all your decisions become based on the here and now. I feel that everybody should experience solo travel at least once in their life. You learn so much about yourself.
I need to keep doing these types of adventures. Be it alone or with somebody else, the world is a big place and over a lifetime, we can all only scratch the surface. I also realised how important my wife is to me. She is a Saint. She puts up with my constant escapades and I shouldn’t take that for granted.