Friday, 25 January 2019

Big Vern Goes to Shetland 2: Chester Draws us in

Without anywhere near enough planning, one Tuesday lunchtime we headed off. 

Ready for the off

The auspices were not great. Despite our intention to only use A-roads, the only way north was across the Severn Bridge to Chepstow, and that meant the first 30 miles would be either a horrid ride through the chemical flecked wastelands of Avonmouth, or up the M5 and along the M4.
Not having ridden the Bonnie along a motorway yet and having a pathological hatred of riding motorcycles along them anyway, I didn’t enjoy it. We stopped briefly at the first services to make sure all our luggage was staying put, then progressed at a steady 65-70 up the M5, onto the M4, stopped at Aust, rode over the decidedly pockmarked old Severn Bridge, with a considerable crosswind and the threat of a shower, and passed Chepstow into the Wye Valley.


This experience was better. I hadn’t ridden the Chepstow to Monmouth road in an age, but it was as good as I remembered, though it did also seem to have quite a lot of cliffs falling onto it. We stopped briefly at Tintern, then headed onwards, blatted through Monmouth and kept going. 
Like the rebels we were we had not, at this stage, considered a first night stop off, intending to find “somewhere near Shrewsbury”. 
Sean’s speedometer snapped it’s needle and seemed to seize. We got to Hereford, which turned out to be a horrible place to navigate. This was especially the case as we hit it at school run time, in a city that had just the one bridge over the River Wye and is a massive bottleneck.
Halfway across town my clutch started playing up and was slipping badly. We pulled over in the car park of a closed-down pub opposite a run down Pizza Hut. I have to be honest, Hereford wasn’t as pretty as I remembered it. In fact, it was so ugly I didn't take any pictures.

After giving the bike half-an-hour to cool down and tweaking the cable a little, we were back rolling. We had actually broken through the worst of the traffic and the road to Leominster is a good one, though the time lost waiting for things to calm down meant we had to forego the recommended stop at the OK Diner. The road stretched northwards, and after the Bonneville's little tizzy, there were clear and delightful roads through the Welsh Marches, through Church Stretton,  where I forgot to take any pictures here too, which was a shame as the area is stunning. We whizzed and clattered around the Shrewsbury bypass and on to an old school transport caff outside Whitchurch where we had to decide what to do next. 
Maps were studied, and websites perused, and we decided to head for Chester, for no more good reason than it possessed a cheap Travelodge. 
Old ruins in Chester...
Vern marks his territory, and not for the first or last time

Here we found our promised twin room had been given to a trio of angry Japanese tourists, So we got one with a double bed and a put-me-up single. Dinner was had in the inevitable 'Spoons and Sean had his first experience of my snoring. The hotel was indeed cheap. Sadly the overnight NCP parking wasn’t and swallowed up all the savings made... 

Wednesday, 2 January 2019

Big Vern Goes to the Shetlands

It started, as many good things do, over a pint on a winter evening. I’d had a communication about the Shetland Classic Motor Show and thought it might be a suitably stupid thing to visit. I mentioned it to my chum Sean, over a pint of Wetherspoons finest mediocre real ale, and he, owner of an early 80s Kawasaki Z650, agreed that riding motorcycles from Somerset to Shetland was a stupid idea, so we decided to go for it. At the time I wasn’t sure I even had a suitable machine to attempt it on. Back in my teens I’d managed to pilot an MZ150 from John o’Groats to Lands End along with a trio of like-minded fools, but I thought I might try something a little larger. 
I had my BSA Starfire, but the idea of taking that on a 2,000 mile round trip wasn’t something that filled my heart with joy, and while my FT500 Honda single was a possibility, I felt it might not really be up to the job of hauling self, plus gear to the other end of the country. My XS650 was in a state of flux, as despite an expensive top end rebuild it stubbornly refused to run effectively. My Ducati was definitely not a goer in any way, needing far more money throwing at it than it warranted. Still, the plan was born, and I was sure a suitable machine would either materialise, or the Yamaha would rise from its zombie state. Perhaps I could borrow something if needs be? The Ducati was sold some months later, and I was lurking around HJ Pugh’s auction site one Saturday morning, considering picking up some superannuated old Jap four for the trip, but few attracted my attention. 
And then I unexpectedly bought a 1973 Triumph T140 Bonneville. Which of us can say they haven’t done that?  I had placed an absurdly low bid upon it and expected someone to over bid me. Nobody did. The Bonnie arrived a few days later, and apart from a dodgy paint job, it seemed a fine bit of kit. I’m one of those people who likes to name their motorcycles and it was christened Big Vern. Why so? Big Vern, back in 1975, had a bit part as a getaway vehicle in an episode of the Sweeney (Season 3, episode 5, The Taste of Fear).

Big Vern, is also a character in the scatological adult comic Viz – a 1970s gangster who constantly rants about “needin’ a shootah” to visit the shops and always shoots himself in the last panel after a misunderstanding, because “no copper is gonna take me alive”.
A mid 70s Bonneville wasn’t part of the plan to go to Shetland. I’d been planning on a cheap old jap, or a new Royal Enfield Interceptor 650. Or a Guzzi V7. None of which looked like materialising, and in any case the cookie jar was empty. So the Bonneville it was.

Sean and I were, we freely admitted, not really match fit. We looked at maps. We decided that motorways were out, out of deference to Big Vern’s years. We would try to do most of the journey on A and B-roads. We were also far too old and stiff to camp or do anything silly like that. Pubs, Travelodges and B&Bs were the agenda. We worked out a route that meant we would need to cover 180 miles a day at the most, with plentiful stops. We went on 150 mile weekend proving runs. The Bonneville and the Z650 were fine – the Bonnie wasn’t rattling or banging, burning or leaking excessive amounts of oil, and the Z was whirring on nicely, if occasionally squirting out black smoke. The Bonneville was given an oil change, spare bulbs and a clutch cable were acquired, and as it wasn’t obviously broken anywhere else, I decided that I wouldn’t fix it. If it broke on the way, I’d just have to fix it or give up. The tool roll was packed with as many spanners and sockets as I could manage – probably enough to do an engine rebuild.
The Kawasaki broke its speedometer drive the week before the trip, so that was replaced and Sean, concerned about the state of his front forks, slotted on a replacement set from a Z750L4.

Tank bags were bought at a discount at Stafford, Sean picked up panniers and a tail pack from Ebay and I resorted to my old army surplus panniers. We were good to go.