Shivering outside a quaint Cotswolds cafe, waiting for photographer Joby to be served his pricey latte, I curse the fact that general elections always happen in May. It had seemed like a great idea, this election ride between party leaders’ constituencies, but as the slow drip of details revealed themselves I’d started to wonder whether it was such a sound one.
For starters, to get it done in time for publication we’d have to ride it well before Britain goes to the polls on 7 May, at some point in the grip of winter. And as with the TV election debates, there was the question of how many constituencies to visit. Do I include the Greens leader Natalie Bennett’s Holborn and St Pancras patch? What about the extra legwork involved if I were to start at the South Thanet constituency UKIP’s Nigel Farage is fighting for? Or even a sojourn through the hilly Peak District to reach the Sheffield Hallam seat of Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg?
In the end we opt for a point-to-point between the two major players, Conservative prime minister David Cameron and Labour’s Ed Miliband. Turns out it’s a long way between Witney and Doncaster North…
Thankfully, the first day of our 240-mile, two-day epic up through the spine of England is a fabulously sunny one. Our starting point is, of course, Cameron’s office on Witney’s High Street, a rather anonymous first floor residence that doesn’t exactly scream that the most powerful man in the country occasionally conducts his affairs from here. But I guess that’s the point.
Affluent and rural, Witney is what you’d expect as a constituency of a ruling Tory PM. It might be freezing, but our saunter round the Friday market is very pleasant and we’re not exactly in a hurry to get on our bikes.
I’ve been joined on this ride by James Golding. You might already have heard of James – a cancer survivor who’s spent the last several years raising huge sums of money for charity. His most recent challenge was an attempt on the world seven-day mileage record last year, which left him with several chronic injuries. On his physio’s advice he’s spent much of the winter off the bike, and this marks his first proper ride in months; for a guy renowned for his prodigious appetite for miles, he’s a little bit uncertain about how his body will hold up.
Spinning gently out of town, our first port of call is Dean, the hamlet a few rolling, scenic, Cotswold miles north of Witney which the Camerons call home when they’re not at No 10. Holding up my phone to try to match the Google image result of Dave’s gaff to the house in front of us with its smattering of security paraphernalia that suggests a serving PM might well live there, we realise we’ve found the place. It might not be the biggest, fanciest house in an area filled with big, fancy houses, but our leader is doing very nicely for himself.
Up next is Chipping Norton, a town that several years ago gained prominence – and later a degree of notoriety – through the ‘Chipping Norton Set’, a termed coined by a Telegraph journalist to describe the group of powerful elite from politics, media and showbiz who have homes close to the town and were known to socialise together.
The Camerons were part of it, as was former News of the World editor Rebekah Brooks and her husband Charlie (a friend of Cameron’s from university), bike-loving Jeremy Clarkson and Elisabeth Murdoch (daughter of Rupert), among others.
The phone hacking scandal at News International put distance between them, and the ‘Set’ appears to be no more. Still, poor Chipping Norton has a reputation to salvage, despite never actually being the home of any of them. As a first time visitor it is exactly how I imagined it, a town where bunting rules and red trousers have never gone out of fashion.
From Chipping Norton we say goodbye to the always-lovely Cotswolds and set out to our target of Daventry and a coffee stop at Leisure Lakes Bikes, where James works. It might be his day off, but a stiff, biting breeze and rolling countryside means it’s far from an easy one.
In keeping with the political theme we pass by Ashby St Ledgers and its Manor House, where planning for the Gunpowder Plot took place in 1605. And just down the road to the scene of ever-so-slightly-more-current politics – the site of the Battle of Naseby, the decisive ruckus of the First English Civil War in 1645. We stop at the monument for drinks and, staring out at the exposed field, it’s hard to imagine the utter carnage it must have been here almost 400 years ago among the swords and muskets.
From here with light fading and over 40 miles to reach our overnight stop in Melton Mowbray, it’s time to put a stop to the tourist thing. The relentlessly up and down back roads north of Market Harborough wear James and me down and our early season rustiness is all too apparent. It’s almost like every pedal stroke has to be thought through, the muscle memory left back in the previous season. Still, there’s nothing like a target to give you a kick up the backside and for us that’s sunset – neither of us have much inclination to be riding after dark so it’s all power to the pedal all the way to the hotel.
Though we don’t exactly feel on top of our game, this is winter’s riding at its best, with the sun beating down from the first moment to the last. Now it’s setting and the blue sky that’s been so dominant gives way to a hazy red – somewhat appropriately given the political odyssey we’re on.
Fed, watered, rested, stretched and self-massaged on the floor of our room in the Best Western Sysonby Knoll in Melton Mowbray, we wake to what we’d expected the night before – drizzly, leaden skies and temperatures well down from the day before. We leave as early as possible to give us the maximum amount of daylight on what promises to be, with well over half the distance still to cover, the difficult second album of the tour. Rather than heading directly north to Doncaster, we want to maintain the political theme, which means heading to Grantham, birthplace of Margaret Thatcher, our first and only female PM. From there it seems silly not to take in the Lincolnshire Wolds, a part of the country I’ve never been to before, and then our route will turn west as we head for Ed’s office in Doncaster.
Grantham will be our first stop, though – once we’ve helped ourselves to a couple of obscenely large pork pies from Melton market, naturally. When in Rome…
Maggie’s home town doesn’t appear to have gone overboard on remembering its possibly most famous daughter, and there’s still no outside monument in the town for the former PM. But there is a somewhat hidden plaque on the first floor of the house on North Parade where she grew up, which we scoot by on our way up towards the Wolds.
Into the area around Coningsby and it’s English terrain I’m just not familiar with at all. I’m originally from the Ribble Valley and now live in the southwest close to the Mendips, and hills dominate both regions. Here the terrain’s flat as day-old lager, straight-as-an-arrow roads stretching all the way to the horizon that bring to mind something you might see in northern France. With a brutal crosswind it takes a special set of skills and body type to enjoy such roads, and being a 70kg-wet climbing type, I don’t have it. Fortunately James is a bigger chap and sitting on his wheel in such conditions is a godsend.
On into the Wolds and yet another change of scenery, as lumpy as the Cotswolds only more exposed. The weather gods have turned on us now and at this point into our tour we both start to feel we’ve bitten off a little more than we can chew. But determined to make our polling booth of sorts in Doncaster, we keep moving forwards.
Out of the Wolds and into Caistor, we follow the B1205 towards Waddingham and then Gainsborough. Again we’re back onto flat roads, always tough to ride for someone of my build – hills at least provide a target to aim towards. Before we get to Doncaster we stop for an early dinner at The Pit Stop mobile cafe, where I finally get to wrap my lips around the pork pie I’ve been thinking about since the morning, and wash it down with a much-needed warming coffee from the van.
I ask the proprietor, Paul, a man who’s slowly made his way northwards throughout his life, whether he likes to discuss politics with his punters in this part of the world. “Oh no, never!” he insists. Lots of his customers come from the old mining communities and can get very defensive when the subject comes up. So what does he talk to them about, I ask him, football? “Absolutely not,” he laughs. “That’s even more of a touchy subject!”
The end is pie
Pie polished off and coffee quaffed, the end is in sight, but the long, flat, blowy route from Haxey through Blaxton down the B1396 into Doncaster is horrendous at the end of a two-day tour. James again serves as my own personal windbreak and I congratulate myself on my choice of riding partner for the weekend.
For the first time we’re in a Labour heartland on this Tory-heavy Big Ride. The difference between green Witney, with its farmers markets and independent shops, and gritty Doncaster and its abundance of Poundlands and cash shops, is stark. The same could be said of the respective party leaders’ constituency offices – we stumble across Miliband’s on a rundown business park, a ramshackle building that, perhaps in keeping with his sometimes hapless stint as leader of the opposition, has blue shutters. You’re the red ones, Ed!
With the tour at an end, we load our bikes into the boot of the Zafira and begin the far more direct route home down the M1. Exhausted and ready for a sleep, I have plenty of time to reflect on a ride that was much like a modern day general election campaign itself – long-winded and not always convincing! But, as with politics, whether it’s in the green, green grass of Dean, the rolling hills of Lincolnshire, the flatlands of East Yorkshire or even the back streets of Doncaster, there’s something for everyone to get behind along the way.