The Long Haul

First published in The AEC Bulletin, October 2013

The Long Haul

When you are talking about the UK, the longest trip you can make is likely to be from Land’s End to John O’ Groats. The fastest route by road is generally taken to be 838 miles, although there is a route that is slightly shorter (814 miles), but which is slower as it makes less use of motorways.

The trip has been done in 11 hours 14 minutes on a motorbike (average 74.5 MPH), by push bike in 44 hours 20 minutes (average just under 20MPH) and even by a wheelchair in 8 days and 10 hours (4.2MPH). I guess all these guys were going faster most of the time as they must have stopped for a cup of tea at some time. I did it in a Matador in 4 years and 9 months which would have been an average of slightly over 0.02 MPH if I had taken the fastest route, which I didn’t. Nowhere near.

I must explain. It all started from a chance encounter with some friends, who often went cycling with my wife, nearly 8 years ago (funny how women never seem very interested in old machinery). I was driving back to the barn where I was rebuilding the Matador and they were out on their tandem. We stopped to chat and Chas and Corinne said they had always wanted to ride from Land’s End to John O’ Groats, but had never had the several weeks free of other things that it would require. I suggested that they could do a week every year as a holiday and that if they did, I would bring the lorry along as a support vehicle. At that time “The lorry” was a 1953 Austin K9 GS. My wife, Helen, was also interested, but for a while the expedition remained a pipe dream.

The idea definitely went onto the “back-burner” a year later when Chas became seriously ill and later died. Helen and I thought that the trip was now not going to happen, but a few months later Corinne told us that we should all still go, so on 12th September 2007 I set off in the Matador, with the two bicycles and all the baggage, to drive to the West Country. The journey was going to take more than a day, so the ladies were going to travel down by train the next morning.

The journey at 30 MPH along the A303 brought me a long line of followers. I assumed that they were not there out of interest in Matadors and pulled over to let them pass. After half an hour it was obvious that there was no end to the stream of traffic, so I pulled back into the stream and discovered that 30 MPH was what they were doing without my help at the front!

I stopped for the night at Okehampton. My cousin, who lives in Devon, is very keen in the Military Vehicle world and there was a weekend meeting at Okehampton Camp on Dartmoor, so, since the Matador is ex-army, I joined them for the night. For the first (and only) time I slept in the back of the lorry, or at least tried to sleep! On the plus side I joined the MV people for a drive around the military roads up to the very heart of the moor; these roads are normally closed to civilian vehicles, so it was an opportunity not to be missed.

The next morning I met the girls at Penzance station and took them up to Land’s End where they “ saddled up” and pedalled off, not for the only time on this trip, in the wrong direction (yes, it is possible from Land’s End).

 

Departure from Land's End (In the wrong direction)

Departure from Land’s End (In the wrong direction)

A great friend of my wife’s, let’s call her Annie because that is her name, had arrived by car to see us all off. Since the Mat goes faster than a bicycle (just), Annie and I took the opportunity of a Cornish cream tea while the girls realised their mistake and got on the right road. Annie is a recurring theme in this story.

I won’t give you a day by day account, but just the highlights (?) – like the Mat coming to a standstill not far from Padstow (as a side note never take any truck to Padstow, they don’t have any proper roads there, just narrow footpaths which have been given road names). The problem proved to be an injector pump fault (the only part I ever had overhauled by a professional).

A roadside repair of the pump didn’t seem the best idea, but who do you contact? The AA isn’t interested for very good reasons and the “big lorry” roadside help was not only likely to be expensive, but also unlikely to be too hot on 64 year old injector pumps. Eventually a kind man from a breakdown repair company gave me the ’phone number of someone who might help and Bryn came out in his van, did a bit of a roadside repair enough to get the engine to run at idle and a little more and I limped into his yard.

 

The Helpfull Bryn

The Helpfull Bryn

I had really fallen on my feet. The yard had a large barn like shed in the middle where Bryn worked, surrounded by an enormous collection of old vehicles including at least half a dozen steam road vehicles. A Matador pump was no problem to Bryn and within the hour I was back on the road. The pump has never given any trouble since.

This was the next time Annie turned up to help, because during my troubles the cycling team had their own problems and Annie got them and their bikes to the overnight accommodation in Padstow using her car. Do not ever try to take a truck into Padstow even if the hotel staff do assure you that there is room to park. I eventually extracted the lorry from the narrow streets and parked in a layby to think what to do next. It was now dark. Within five minutes a van with a yellow beacon pulled up next to me, as it turned out, because the driver was interested in the Mat, but as soon as he knew what my problem was, I was offered free overnight parking in his yard about a mile away. Who says the Cornish don’t like visitors?

The days settled into a routine which involved me getting ahead of the girls, finding a suitable spot and have a mid morning cup of tea waiting for them. After doing the washing up I would again get ahead of them and find another place for us to have lunch. A trip to the supermarket would be fitted in somewhere. This all involved me waiting in delightful places listening to Radio 4, a cup of tea and time to read the paper.

Another high spot was a few days later on Exmoor. It was dull and murky and we expected Carver Doone to come charging out of the mist at any moment. It had a wildness that all three of us liked and the night after was spent at a wonderful B & B in Dulverton with one of the best breakfasts I have ever had.

We ended the week at Taunton and set off for home, me in the lorry and the cyclists by train again. Nearing Basingstoke a car overtook me (not an unusual occurrence, even bicycles do sometimes) and then flagged me down at the next lay by. Wondering which bit had fallen off I climbed out, but it turned out he just wanted to photograph the Matador; he was trying to get photographs of every Matador still on the road and proceeded to show me the very large number he had so far

Several things had become apparent to us on this first attempt.

  1. The Cornish people were very nice, but their hills are crippling to Matadors and cyclists.
  2. Thirty and a half MPH is far too slow for a lorry on major roads.
  3. We needed to book our overnight accommodation in advance.
  4. The Sustrans cycle maps were not, in any way, suitable for long distance work.

I undertook to solve No. 4. By planning the future routes with OS maps, and Helen took on booking the accommodation in advance. The speed problem was to occupy a fair amount of the winter.

Martyn Callaghan was able supply a pair of high ratio differentials, but fitting them was a different matter. The rear diff is easy – undo the half-shaft bolts, pull the shafts out a few inches and after disconnecting the propshaft and undoing a few bolts, lift off the old diff. Reverse the above to fit the replacement. With a bit of practice you could do it in less than an hour provided you have a trapdoor in the floor and some lifting tackle.

 

Fitting the Front High Speed Diff.

Fitting the Front High Speed Diff.

The front is different. To start with the half-shafts only go as far as the “Tracta” joints in the steering hubs, wheels, brakes, steering and “Tracta” housing all have to come off before the half-shafts can be moved. The next problem is that the diff fits in the axle from below at an angle of about 45 degrees. A Mat diff is a heavy item and to have to move it forward and up in equal measures whilst lining it up on the studs is not as easy as it at first looks. Actually it doesn’t even look easy. Eventually it was achieved with a trolley jack and a lot of swearing; surprisingly we even managed an oil tight joint.

With the half-shafts back in place you then have to refit the “Tracta” joints in their housing whilst putting the housing back on the end of the axle. This is complicated by there only being room for one man under the mudguard and it all being very heavy. The “Tracta” joint itself is also quite heavy being effectively a ball of steel about four and a half inches in diameter that has to be lined up, not only with the half-shaft, but also the stub axle. Oh, yes, and the whole thing is covered in five pounds of grease, so it all keeps slipping out of your hands.

It was worth it, though. The Matador now could do 43 MPH which was to make a big difference when faster roads were involved. Fuel consumption was a tiny bit better and it was much quieter at 30 MPH. Matadors always have a feeling of over-revving with the normal diff and it all seems much happier. Perhaps I might think differently if I towed a 5.5 inch gun.

The following year the next leg of the journey was from Taunton to Stratford-on-Avon, selected so that we could go to the theatre as a celebration when we got there. This time the ladies took their bicycles with them on the train and I met them at lunchtime at a suitable spot after an early start from home. It should have been very pleasant, but the Gods of meteorology took a hand and for most of the first few days it rained hard.

An exception was the morning of the second day when the girls set off from our Nightstop inn on the Somerset Levels at about 10am. Navigation should be easy as the roads all seemed to be straight either North/South or East/West, the weather was clear, the Mendip Hills clearly in sight in front and the sun on their backs. Glastonbury on its hill to the right was also clearly in view. I stayed at the Inn for long enough for a second (maybe a third) cup of breakfast tea and to load the baggage before setting off to meet them for morning coffee (which I had to brew on the back of the lorry). The road was narrow and a bit rough so I plodded along at just over 20MPH in top gear with the engine happily gurgling away at about 900 RPM. It was all very pleasant. After a few miles I encountered the two girls happily pedalling in the opposite direction. We all stopped, but the girls were unrepentant claiming it was I that was wrong (in spite of the sun being in front of them, the Mendips behind and Glastonbury on their left). This might not be so worrying if not for the fact that one of the ladies was a licensed commercial pilot. I eventually convinced them.

 

Rain!

Rain!

The following day was the worst for weather as it rained very hard all day. Fortunately our night stop was with friends and both guest bedrooms had wonderful en-suite showers. The girls got no wetter in the showers than they had been in the rain, but much warmer and in the meantime their wet and very muddy clothes went into the washing machine. Whilst they were warming up we gave their bikes a good wash with a hose pipe whilst they were still on their racks on the lorry, they were just too covered in mud to be easily removed.

There followed a fantastic supper cooked by our friends. The next day saw the end of the rain and we arrived in Stratford three days later in good time for the theatre, having spent one of the nights being put up by Annie – see, I said she was a recurring element.

By now I had worked out that we needed another three weeks and two extra days to get to John O’ Groats. The two extra days in the end was not a problem as we needed to get past Birmingham. The obvious route for the cyclists was by using the canal towpaths, but this clearly was not going to work for the Matador, nor was it the ideal vehicle for negotiating the narrow roads near the canals. The answer was that in October that year we did the two odd days (Stratford to Lichfield) over a weekend using my 1978 Land Rover 109 as the support vehicle.

 

The Mat by the Ribblehead Viaduct. I really think this pile of granite should be declared a National Treasure, like Joyce Grenfell!

The Mat by the Ribblehead Viaduct.
I really think this pile of granite should be declared a National Treasure, like Joyce Grenfell!

The following year, with the Matador back in the team, we got from Lichfield to a few miles from Carlisle with no major problems except the Matador’s second breakdown in Bradford when the gear change linkage came loose; it won’t do it again as I used Nyloc nuts to repair. For you purists that would only use original spec. items, I will shock you even more, the bolts and nuts were not BSF, but M6! Actually you try obtaining BSF bolts and nuts on a Saturday afternoon on the outskirts of Bradford to mend a lorry that is causing a traffic jam. I’ve never got around to replacing them, handsome is as handsome does.

Our penultimate night was spent at a wonderful B&B at Appleby. When we arrived we found to our great delight that Annie and her husband were already there to greet us having somehow found out where we were going. It is a good job we like her, or it might seem a bit spooky!

 

The Long Thin Road, The B709 with 75 miles of this.

The Long Thin Road, The B709 with 75 miles of this.

2010 saw us into Scotland. From Carlisle we went to Langholm where we joined the B709. If you are going to Scotland with a bit of spare time I thoroughly recommend this road; it is about 75 miles of mostly single track road through beautiful countryside in the Southern Uplands. There is almost no other traffic and about halfway you cross the A72 at Innerleithen which has good pubs and hotels. The first part of the B709 north of Innerleithen runs right through the middle of the golf course without fences or any form of barrier; I suppose 60 year-old lorries are considered a natural hazard.

The only way to avoid Edinburgh would be to go through Glasgow, so we just had to grin and bear the traffic, but by the end of that year’s journey we were at Aviemore having climbed and descended the Pass of Drumochter, the Matador by the A9 and the ladies by the well maintained cycle path that follows much the same route on General Wade’s Military Road built after the ’Forty-Five Jacobite rebellion. Drumochcter is a steady climb for many miles through beautiful scenery, but after a while you lose any sense of incline and start to worry and think that the engine is losing power as you slow down. I’ve been over it four times in the Matador and it catches me out every time. On the plus side you later get miles of gentle downhill with the lorry going like a bird.

After seeing the ladies off at Aviemore station, I then had the two day journey home with a night in Lancaster, the girls having taken the overnight sleeper to Kings Cross (and it is me who likes trains).

The winter mods this time included the fitting of a radio to the Matador. Of course you could never normally hear such a thing in the cab whilst on the move, but my job means I have a very good (and very expensive) noise cancelling headset. From then on I could enjoy the delights of Radio 4 at any time and, as an extra bonus, had a hands free mobile ’phone.

The last year took us to the North Highlands, a truly wonderful week that included a dram of Glenmorangie in the Glenmorangie House Hotel in Tain and a coffee at the Crask Inn at the top of the Strath Vagastie pass on the A836 (which in spite of its classification is a single track road). A night spent at Altna Harra (population 26) was also memorable if only because we met (and had a beer with) a quarter of the population. In the Northern Highlands you say goodbye to any sort of road fencing and the only difference I could see between an ‘A’ road and a ‘B’ road was the distance between passing places.

 

Arrival at John O Groats You almost have to queue up for your place on the line

Arrival at John O Groats
You almost have to queue up for your place on the line

John O’ Groats is a bit of an anticlimax as the northeastern tip of Scotland is a bit flat, although a view of Orkney cheers things up a bit. Civilisation is always a bit of a comedown after you have been somewhere really wild and deserted. We decided to go the extra mile (four, actually) up to Duncansby Head and there for the last time I served afternoon tea on the back of the lorry. Annie had told us that there was absolutely no chance of her turning up at John O Groats, so it was with an enormous surprise that we found that she was not there; she had been telling the truth and really did have another engagement

After that, and a good night’s sleep, I only had to load the bikes and the baggage in the lorry, dispatch the girls by air back home and set off on the two day journey home. Contrary to often given advice the Mat is quite happy on the motorway for hours at 1800 RPM (43 MPH), the only slightly worrying thing at first was the way the oil pressure would start to drop as things warmed up, but the application of one of the oil thickening additives sorted that out.

Apart from the problems mentioned, the Mat never missed a beat. The fuel consumption worked out at about 14MPG. By my reckoning the Mat did about 2500 miles in total, burning about 830 lts (183 gallons) of diesel costing about a thousand quid. Probably not very “green” of us, but we did it.

Since then the Matador has not strayed further from High Wycombe than Newark for the AEC 100 last year, but we are dreaming…..