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RCP Charter Cycle – Taunton to Birmingham

An encounter with a former England batsman on the approach to the Quantock Hills begins RCP registrar Dr Andrew Goddard's latest report from the RCP Charter Cycle.

2–3 October – Taunton to Southmead

  • Miles: 60
  • Calories: 3,320
  • Cycling buddies: 1 (most famous yet)
  • Weather: mostly sunny, windy, occasional shower
  • Mechanicals: 0

It was an early start from Derby train station in the morning as I needed to get to Taunton for just after 9 to get to Weston General Hospital in Weston-super-Mare for 12. The train was, of course, delayed by 30 mins so I arrived at Taunton station anxious to get off. I obviously had my game face on as I sat at the traffic lights just outside the station and another cyclist pulled alongside me, dressed for a morning training ride. I thought I recognised him but kept my counsel and he asked me where I was heading. We were on the same route for the first 10 miles and so kept each other company before parting after a long climb into the Quantock Hills. 

My companion for those 10 miles was none other than Marcus Trescothick, ex-England opener and long-standing servant of Somerset cricket club. He was great company and I was impressed that he thought nothing of cycling with a stranger for the love of the ride. I have met a few high-profile celebrities and sportsmen over the years, too many with a sense of their own importance, but not @Trescricket. It was an honour and a pleasure to ride alongside him (and I took him on the hill).

The descent from the Quantocks to Bridgewater was fast and fun. The weather was beautiful and although there was a bit of a side wind it didn’t bite until a bit later after I left Bridgewater. I hit the Somerset Levels and made good progress through beautiful countryside and villages to arrive in Weston on time. As an aside I am actually a member of Weston cycling club, but that Weston is in Derbyshire not the south-west. When cycling away from home people often assume the Weston on our shirts is 'super-Mare' so I can now at least say I’ve cycled there. 

Tom, the Weston General college tutor, and Natalie from the RCP were there to greet me as I arrived and we set up for the signing. We had a few visitors but not as many as at other hospitals, and I suspect this represented the education centre being out of the main hospital and that others were at the regional update in Bristol – where I headed next.

The trip out of Weston was a little hairy, as all roads lead to the M5 and whilst there are some good cycle paths next to most of the roads they are not there on all. I survived the roundabout over the top of the motorway (the cycle path goes around the central island and is barely wide enough for a person let alone a bike – who designed that?). Busy country roads gave way to quieter roads and more hills as I approached Bristol. I had been told that the best way to enter Bristol is via the Clifton suspension bridge so that is what I did. No toll for bikes and an amazing view of the gorge and the city.

The descent from the bridge through Clifton to the city centre required the brakes to be on top form and a gentle patter of rain greeted me in the city. There is a lot of building/road work going on in Bristol at the moment and I had to take a couple of short detours before finding the hotel and a welcome cup of tea. Once again I created a slightly smelly, sweaty bookend to the regional update president’s open forum but the meeting had apparently gone well so people were in a forgiving mood. Lots more signatures later my bike and I retired to my hotel room for a shower (well me anyway).

The following morning saw another early start to get up to Southmead Hospital for a signing in the main concourse. Bristol is a ‘cycle city’ and apparently 20% of the population cycle to work. This was understandable when I saw the long queues of traffic streaming into the city. The clear cycle lanes and numerous companions as I headed out of town toward Southmead made it the best city I have yet cycled through.

Southmead Hospital is huge and impressive. We set up the signing outside one of the two Costas (other coffee houses are available) and gathered several signatures as people arrived for work. I then did a quick change out of cycling kit to meet trainees, consultants and management staff on behalf of the RCP and the president who was in Manchester at the Conservative party conference. Jane might have been hobnobbing with Jeremy Hunt but I found the company in Bristol much more grounded and with a few more practical solutions to solve the issues of the day in the NHS. Thanks to Ella and the rest of the Southmead medical team for their time and support.

I headed up to Bristol Parkway train station and back home to Derby. The logistics of the next leg were not going to be as simple.

9–11 October – Wythenshawe to Liverpool

  • Miles: 93 
  • Calories: 5,050
  • Cycling buddies: 0
  • Weather: sunny/cloudy with occasional showers
  • Mechanicals: 1

So, how do you get a man and his bike to Wythenshawe Hospital (near Altrincham) for 9am on a Monday morning by train from Derby? I couldn’t find a way and given my totting up of nights away from home I wasn’t keen to spend Sunday night in a local hotel. Thankfully my sister-in-law (Mrs G’s sister) works in Stockport during the week and changed her days to allow me to put my bike rack on the back of her car and get me to the hospital on time. When asked how long it had taken me to cycle that morning I had to confess that the 2 mins from the outpatients drop-off was one of the easier rides I had done.

A signing and meet with trainees and college tutors later (thank you all) I headed out the back of the hospital, which is a bit more scenic and country lane than the front. Five hundred yards later my pannier bag fixings broke and the bag came off which was both noisy – I was going at a fair speed – and potentially problematic. This is a chance to explain the intricacies of the ‘CTS’ (charter transport system) so, please, bear with me.

The charter is A3-size so when thinking about how I was going to transport it around the UK I had to decide whether to roll it up or keep it flat. The latter was preferable as signing the sheets if they were all curly wurly (one of my favourite childhood sweets by the way) after being in a cylinder would be tricky. I could only find one pannier bag large enough to accommodate a flat A3 sheet and came up with an (ingenious) way of protecting the charter inside the bag from weather leaks and the other less flat contents of the pannier. However, the downside of this is that the bag is large and, when filled with my kit for one or two nights, quite heavy (this is a way of me saying it’s not my fault I cycle slowly). 

It was therefore only a matter of time before the plastic hooks on the bag started to malfunction. Thankfully there was no-one behind me and thus the charter was not run over by an irate driver. After a bit of high-performance engineering (string) all was safe to continue and I headed towards Liverpool. On the outskirts of Wigan I passed 504.5 miles into the trip – ie one quarter of the way through. This felt like a big deal as not only was I making progress but I had passed the 500-mile mark which I had considered as the total distance when setting up the trip. I’m glad I settled for 2,018 miles as although 504 miles had been tough it wasn’t really tough, and I know you, keen followers that you are, want me to be able to say I’ve suffered. Thanks.

Whiston Hospital was easy to find and very welcoming. The president arrived soon after me (having driven from Wythenshawe – where’s the fun in that?) and we had a productive time with consultants, trainees and managers. The hospital photographer was the keenest yet and really put the local physicians through their paces with various publicity shots. David Bailey would have been proud. After a couple of hours with the Whiston crew (we were in St Helens!) I set out for Liverpool city centre.

Now, I like Liverpool and I think it is a great site for RCP North (more on that in a minute) but the roads are rubbish. Huge potholes, broken glass, smoking bus exhaust pipes and ‘interesting’ van driving styles. More cycle lanes please! Still, I took a scenic diversion through Anfield which was fun and made it to my hotel in one (wet) piece. The hotel staff were fantastic – not at all phased by me and a wet bike and happy to store it behind reception. If I could do a TripAdvisor for bike-friendly hotels they would get five stars.

The following day I did a ‘there-and-back’ ride to the Mersey and NW regional update at Haydock Park. I left an hour before the president and arrived 30 minutes before her. Not bad for 24 miles, although the update was delayed by an hour due to major traffic congestion. The route included some scenic views across the Mersey from the top of a hill and I suspect the hill was a taste of things to come as I venture further north in rides to come. I did have a diversion onto a cycle path through some woods then along a very muddy farm track but it was good for the bike to get a bit of off-roading under its belt. There’s no point in having mudguards if you don’t go through a bit of mud.

There was a slight altercation as I arrived at the racecourse with a guard who didn’t think my cycle top with ‘Royal College of Physicians’ in large letters on my chest was good enough evidence I was coming to the RCP meeting. Then again, I may have been the first person to turn up for a conference at the racecourse on a bike. Once he realised I was not part of any illegal gambling ring we became the best of friends and he looked after my bike whilst I looked after my CPD.

The update was good and I heard a lecture on re-entry tachycardias that I actually understood. I also learned that ablation for atrial fibrillation is far less likely to succeed if coexisting precipitants (alcohol, smoking, obesity, diabetes) are not adequately controlled. This put me off lunch a bit and as the other delegates queued I quietly slipped away to head back to RCP North in the centre of Liverpool for its grand opening.

When I arrived I asked the RCP staff if they thought I should change but the general feeling was that I should stay in Charter Cycle kit. I suspect some of the local dignatories were not quite sure what to make of me but I was just glad to be there at a landmark occasion for the RCP. I was a bit sad that Sir Ian Gilmore wasn’t there in person as he was in Oz but this did allow people to have a glass of wine without feeling guilty. Still sober (honest) I headed to the hotel to shower and meet up with examiners arriving for the first PACES exam in RCP North the following day. An early-ish night then allowed me to be fit and fresh for a quick 6-mile ride to Liverpool South Parkway in the dark (my first bit of night riding) and then back on the train to London.

19–20 October – Rugby to Birmingham

  • Miles: 79
  • Calories: 4,660
  • Cycling buddies: 0
  • Weather: misty then heavy rain (both days)
  • Mechanicals: 0

At the end of the 2,018 miles I will be an expert in which trains are the best to take a bike on. The Virgin train to Birmingham via Rugby leaving just after 7 from Euston is one to recommend. Easy to get the bike on and lots of space. I’d chosen Rugby as a start point as it allowed me a reasonable distance to get to the Queen Elizabeth in Birmingham (where the president was doing a trust visit) but also allows access to the east side of the Midlands to start to join up the bits of the ride next year.

I cycled out of Rugby in slight mist and mingled with the school run traffic. The first half of the ride was pleasant through the Warwickshire countryside and riding along wooded lanes. Once past Leamington Spa the houses got a bit bigger and then I really knew I was in a posh bit of the world when I happened on a McLaren garage and lots of very fast looking cars. I was metaphorically drooling (you can take the cyclist out of the boy etc) but then realised that my top was genuinely getting wet - it had started raining. Then it really started raining. 

The cycling gods were with me, though, and between stair rods I saw that most longed-for of signs: ‘garden centre ahead’. I found a table in the corner where I could drip in peace and partook of a lovely pot of tea and chocolate brownie. The staff were equally lovely and donated to the Physicians for Africa appeal after I explained what I was doing. Some people are just brilliant – it was a warming stop for both the body and soul. Time was pushing so I braved the weather and set off again.

The roads became busier and busier as I approached Birmingham city centre and the rain clouds parted slightly to reveal the leviathan shape of University Hospital Birmingham on top of a hill. This was a welcome sight but as is often the way it didn’t seem to get much closer as I cycled towards it. Eventually I found my way through the university to the hospital and parked my bike amongst the smokers outside the main entrance. We have this problem in Derby except they congregate outside the entrance to the radiotherapy unit and Macmillan unit. There is an irony there lost on many of this congregation.

The RCP team (Helen, Sue and Emma) were waiting with a towel and (another) cuppa and it wasn’t long before I was sitting in the medical grand round listening to the president running through the modern history of training. I am grateful to the consultant on the opposite side of the lecture theatre who had also cycled through the rain to be there. We looked like bedraggled bookends with hairy legs (sorry for that image). Birmingham then pushed hard to break the record for charter signatures at a single hospital site and at 68 I think they did it. 

I wheeled my bike around the corner to the RCP West Midlands regional office and popped it in the back of Sue’s car for a ride to Coventry Hospital the following morning. Sue covered it in a (warm) blanket as a security measure but looking at it I just wondered if it was getting a little too much of an easy life. I returned to my hotel to shower and get ready for an evening meeting when I realised that once again my logistical abilities were under par: I had forgotten my satnav charger. After a fruitless hour in Birmingham city centre trying to find a replacement I gave up and as I drifted off to sleep that night I convinced myself that it would be fine and that Coventry-Birmingham shouldn’t hold too many problems for me navigationally…

The following morning I caught the train down to Coventry and was reunited with my bike at the education centre of the hospital (which is another rather large, impressive affair) and then met lots of local physicians who were keen to sign the charter. Obviously catching people as they come into work is a good ploy. It helped that the RCP treasurer was there to rally the troops but most of the hard work was done by Dr Narasimha Murthy, the college tutor. Thanks Murthy for all support.

As I set off towards Birmingham there was a gentle patter of rain but this didn’t last long and the sun came out to greet me as I headed north-west through the suburbs of Coventry. I had tried to commit as much of the route into my head in case my satnav died so felt like a local as I recognised road names and villages as I headed out. When I approached the village of Kingsbury I then headed back down towards Birmingham and started the process of threading my way between lakes and motorways. There are a lot of both but I eventually reached the area of Castle Vale on the outskirts of Birmingham.

Then, as had happened the day before, the heavens opened. Then, as predicted, the satnav died. Then, due to some pretty awful cycle route signage, I got temporarily lost. As bunnies go I was not a happy one. My iPhone mapping software was some help but it doesn’t show cycle routes and the ‘Ward End’ cycle route into Birmingham has more twists and turns through different roads and streets that I have ever come across. Furthermore, as I said above, the signage is awful. I’m sure I cycled past people on bikes who had been going around in circles for 20 years. Furthermore still the amount of broken glass on the route required the bike to be carried almost as much as ridden. In the end I gave up on the signs and followed my nose and soon found myself within sight of Birmingham city centre.

Wet, slightly tired but mostly relieved, I arrived at the West Midlands regional update at lunchtime and was reunited with the RCP team. As usual I stood and sat around gently smelling and am grateful for the local consultants and trainees for putting up with me. I had loved the people of Birmingham and Coventry but the weather and cycle paths were the worst I have come across so far. Wales next.

Read previous entries of the RCP Charter Cycle blog to catch up with what has happened already during Dr Goddard's journey. You can follow updates and find more photos on Twitter by searching for #RCPCharterCycle and #RCP500.