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23rd June 2006


Captain Constellation's Challenge: Part One

Alun Thomas (aka Captain Constellation) had always wanted to ride his Royal Enfield Constellation around the Isle of Man TT course. This year, he had an extra-special reason for setting off on the trip of a lifetime...

I depressed the tickler for the customary count of three, set the mixture slightly rich, and gave the kickstart a long, positive bootful. 700 cubic centimetres of raw power burst into life. I looked about me, checking that the other machines had all started, primed my chain lubricator, and we moved off in line behind Lead Marshall Harry Cardy's Thunderbird, down Government House drive.

It was 1030.

Turning right into Governor's Road, we crossed the two mini-roundabouts into Glencrutchery Road, passing the legendary pit lane, start line and grandstand, to stop briefly at the traffic signals at the top of Bray Hill, then off again at a comfortable 35-40mph. RealMen are doing over 160 at the foot of Bray, but we were just out for a gentle canter and our bikes were up to 57 years old. Best not push them too hard-and there is a speed limit on non-race days!

It was the 12th May, a couple of weeks before the TT races began, but preparations were well in hand, kerbstones being painted black and white, crash pads fitted to stone walls and lamp-posts. It wasn't hard to follow the course despite the traffic and the euphoria of finally realising the dream of riding a motorcycle around the Isle of Man TT Circuit. The sun blazed down, the haze shimmered, the 500 Bullet in front of me thumped authoritatively. My Constellation rumbled along at scarcely more than idling revs. What an absolutely cracking day!

It could only be one place...

My journey to the Isle of Man really began back in March 2005 when my grandson was diagnosed with a cancerous tumour. He was just four and a half years old. The diagnosis was sudden and devastating. He and his family live in Cornwall, 25 miles from the nearest hospital. His surgery was carried out in London and his treatment continued at Bristol and Truro hospitals. For the six week duration of his daily radiotherapy, the family was accommodated, in Bristol, at CLIC House, which provides bedrooms and shared kitchen, laundry, playroom, garden and lounge, for up to fourteen families, within walking distance of the hospital. At home, a CLIC nurse supported the family and counselled his school friends. Similar facilities are available at many paediatric units throughout the UK.

In October, my grandson completed the aggressive treatment needed to prevent the tumour spreading, and he continues to be screened regularly. The results so far have been all clear and we hope fervently he will continue in remission. We have the greatest admiration for all the many hospital staff, but greater still is our admiration for his parents, who have worked so hard to maintain a normal way of life for their children whilst the treatment continued. CLIC Sargent has made a huge contribution to this, and so my wife, Sue, and I decided to launch 'Captain Constellation's Challenge' to raise both public awareness and money for CLIC Sargent.

I'm an airline pilot with BA Connect, based at Southampton, but as a classic motorcycle enthusiast I have long wanted to ride one of my Royal Enfield machines around the TT circuit, and Sue and I conceived my alter ego, Captain Constellation, to undertake the Epic Ride from Southampton to the Isle of Man, and around the TT circuit, on my self-restored Constellation. Generally, my main interest has been in repair and restoration. I confess that I do not find riding in modern traffic much fun, so, apart from rallies and the odd blast around the lanes of Hampshire, a longish journey such as this was an unprecedented and somewhat daunting task!

Captain Contellation
Random Enfield Stuff on eBay.co.uk

Most of our spare time during the winter was taken up with various fundraising activities as well as fitting a tow hook to our Mazda Bongo support vehicle, procuring a suitable trailer and, of course, the many hours of painstaking route-planning that would ensure that navigational errors did not delay our progress. We decided to trailer the Constellation home after the ride (quit while you're ahead!) and so it seemed a good idea to take along a spare machine.

My Meteor Minor was selected for this role and an excellent Erde three-bike trailer was loaned to us, free of charge, by Gordon Bevis, proprietor of Spike Island Motorcycles in Eastleigh. Both motorcycles were carefully serviced and inspected, and thus I found my first problem with the Constellation. Cracks had begun to appear around the spoke holes in the front wheel hub flanges and I had to get a replacement hub laced in, after machining work had been carried out to repair the worn bearing housings. Whilst checking that the ignition timing was accurately set, I discovered that the rocker oil feed gallery plug, in the timing chest, had fallen out, and the timing chain tensioner stud sheared clean off when I reset the chain tension!

These and many other little glitches were encountered and overcome. The only modification carried out was to fit a chain lubricator to each bike - I think that chains are the silent slaves of classic machines, and when they fail, it's invariably some sort of disaster!

I set off from home on Monday 8th May 2006, initially to stop off at A&A Motorcycles, then to rendezvous with Sue in the Bongo at a convenient lay-by. We then set off in a loose convoy over our prepared route to our campsite near Bristol. Light rain was falling intermittently, the roads were damp most of the way, but my abiding impression is of an almost universal smell of diesel, of which there was considerable evidence on the road surface, especially around Salisbury. We had each written instructions but had spent so long planning the route that we hardly needed to refer to them on the 93 miles first leg.

'You're not taking my picture are you?'

We secured the trailer and awning and then Sue and I set off into Bristol, with Constellation and Bongo, to thank the staff at CLIC House for their assistance and care of our family. It was then that the heavens opened! By the time we reached CLIC House, I was virtually saturated, despite my shiny new Akito gear. All the lights on the Constellation failed, apart from the brake light. Fortunately, the rain eased off and after a cup of coffee we were able to set off back towards the campsite.

About halfway back to the site, my second little technical problem began to manifest itself. It seemed to me that my engine was misfiring on one cylinder, especially at high power, which could only be due, I thought, to water in the magneto. Sure enough, just past the airport, the Connie gave up the ghost altogether. Sue was ahead of me, so I pulled into a convenient gateway to consider my options. I wasn't keen to use my mobile phone, as I would have to take off my brain bucket and the rain had started again. The odometer showed that I had covered 123 miles since leaving home that morning, so I checked the fuel tank contents and found that there was fuel, although the level was low.

I have four Royal Enfields and the supply arrangements are different on all of them. I seemed to recall that the Constellation had no reserve tap, and I couldn't see one from on board the bike, so I tried leaning the bike over to the left to tip remaining the fuel over the central spine of the tank. This met with little success. I could see a little fuel running down the feed pipe, but it was no more than a teaspoonful. I would need more than that to get to the campsite. I pulled the bike onto its centre stand and prepared to phone Sue and ask her to get me some fuel from a garage, but one last check under the fuel tank revealed that there WAS a reserve fuel tap, cunningly concealed right up under the 'skirt' of the tank.

'Is it open or closed?' I thought to myself. There was only one way to find out because, what with the weather and my presbyopia, I certainly couldn't read the labels. I pulled the lever across -- and fuel gushed down the feed pipe!

A gentle tickle followed by a firm prod saw me on my way once again, relieved not to have had to take off my helmet in the pouring rain and sorry to have doubted the excellent job that Sean Hawker made of rebuilding my magneto!

Back at the campsite, I found that the Meteor Minor's battery was flat. Now, this bike has coil ignition, and if I couldn't fix the Connie's lights it might be needed, and if it was, the battery would have to have some juice in it. A brief investigation revealed that the brake light switch was out of adjustment so after correcting that I rigged the battery charger whilst Sue took the Bongo off to the filling station to get some unleaded for the Constellation. When she returned, and I prepared to refuel the Constellation, I discovered that I had no measuring cup for my Miller's VSP! The latest batch, which I had purchased especially for the trip, was in a new type of bottle. No measuring cup is supplied with the new design (Mr Miller please note!) and so I had made a mental note to bring one of the old cups with me. I now remembered that mental note…

I began to feel a little disheartened. Fuel exhaustion, failed lights, flat batteries, cataracts of rain, and now old-timer's disease! I made an experienced guess at the amount of VSP required, said a short prayer suggesting that some slightly drier weather would be a good idea for the morrow, considered the response to such prayer that Noah had obtained, and covered the bikes for the night.

Sue had prepared one of her most delightful culinary triumphs and was busy resurrecting the frozen chilli. A large helping of hot chilli, accompanied by a no more than moderate-sized (!) glass of Cabernet Merlot and I began to feel a little more relaxed. In the morning, the rain would stop, I'd fix the lights, the Meteor would fire up on the first prod, and we had no more calls to make. But as I fell asleep, I thought that, had I been a Catholic, I'd have given my Rosary a thorough telling…

Next instalment: surely, things must get easier?

But don't wait until the next episode to support Captain Constellation's Challenge. Get out your credit card, and visit: www.justgiving.com/captainconstellationschallenge where you can donate to CLIC (Cancer and Leukaemia In Childhood), learn more about this charity, and see how much Alun has raised for them so far…


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