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20th July 2006
Captain Constellation's Challenge: Part Two
Alun Thomas (aka Captain Constellation) always wanted to ride his Royal Enfield Constellation around the TT course. The second leg of his journey took him to within shouting distance of the Isle of Man...
After the mechanical woes of the first day, we needed some cheering up. Day Two dawned cloudy and overcast, but the rain had stopped, indeed, it stayed dry pretty well all day. Things began to look up. I soon found that the Constellation's lighting failure was due to the loss of a grub screw from the light switch. I had no spares, but I did find that the set screw from an emergency cable nipple would fit well enough, and so the lights were quickly restored. The Meteor's battery now overflowed with wigglyamps and the engine started easily, so we set off towards Much Wenlock.
We had decided to stay clear of motorways as far as possible, and so headed on A-roads through Bristol, the Clifton Gorge, across the Severn, via Chepstow and after lunch into the beautiful countryside of the Wye Valley. Tintern Abbey made a marvellous view as it came into sight, and we both noted several picturesque spots that we would have stopped at, had we more time. Another day, perhaps, but I was very glad that we had elected to take the 'gentleman's route' rather than the M6!
After Hereford we continued north on the A49 under gradually brightening skies. Traffic was still light, and the Constellation was a joy to ride. The only cause for complaint was an encounter with what I can only assume was a shell-crater in the middle of the carriageway, about 100 yards after passing the sign heralding my arrival in Shropshire. I couldn't avoid it due to overtaking traffic and the forks bottomed out, but I managed to keep my seat. After that, progress through Shropshire was rapid and smooth, I didn't even see much of the famous Shropshire fertilizer on the roads, although there were several spreaders to be seen and olfactory evidence was plentiful!
By the time we reached Craven Arms, the weather was dry and sunny with scarcely a cloud in the sky. As I approached the filling station via the rather tortuous approach road, the white, long wheel-based van ahead of me stopped abruptly. He had failed to make the turn into the pump lane and, without further ado, began to reverse quite quickly. I was obviously in the centre of his rear view mirror -- we had both been making a right turn, and I was in his five-o'clock. I turned to my left and took off like a scalded cat, only just managing to prevent the collision which would have wrecked my bike and injured me.
I took the bike back around the block and approached the filling station. As I parked at the next pump to the van I thanked the driver for almost writing me off. When I explained what had happened, he said I wasn't in his mirror, but after considering the matter for a minute or two, apologised, saying he hadn't seen me. Not the same thing, is it?
A few miles further on, at Church Stretton, we turned off the main road and headed up onto Wenlock Edge along the B4371. I had high hopes of the scenery along this road, and we did caught the odd glimpse of the valley to our left. We reached the town of Much Wenlock at about 3 o'clock, with 241 miles on the Constellation's odometer, and we soon located our campsite.
Day Three dawned bright but cloudy. After the usual breakfast and camping chores, we set off at about 1030 after phoning ahead with our ETA to HMS Eaglet, the Royal Navy establishment in Liverpool where our vehicles were to spend the night. Our journey went well, apart from A minor navigational hiccough at Shrewsbury. Thereafter the A49 And then A41 took us all the way to Birkenhead, and the Queensway Tunnel. The weather was fine all the way, with the cloud cover breaking up throughout the morning and traffic conditions light.
Passing RAF Shawbury, home of the Joint Military Helicopter Flying School, we were entertained by a Bell 412 carrying out underslung load lifting exercises. I would have preferred to see him keeping clear of the highway rather than flying along it at low level. There are really only two kinds of helicopter pilot: those who have dropped an underslung load and those who haven't -- yet! I kept a bead on him until he was clear of the road.
The brightly painted narrowboats on the Shropshire Union Canal made a pretty sight as we passed Whitchurch, mentally planning another future visit to a beautiful corner of the country, and carefully avoiding the elderly lady who seemed to have forgotten which exit she should take from the roundabout and was therefore completing repeated circumnavigations, in the outside lane, presumably until she should recall where she was supposed to be heading for!
After Chester, we continued in gradually heavier traffic through the suburbs of Whitby, Bebington and Birkenhead, easily following the dual carriageway and stopping to refuel the Bongo at Upton Heath Service Station where, upon seeing the posters in the rear windows of the van, the very kind lady attendant made a donation to our Challenge appeal.
We had planned to cross the Mersey via the tunnel shown on various maps as the 'Queensway' but as we drew nearer to the tunnel mouth, it became evident that this is not the name commonly in use. All the signs I saw referred to the 'Birkenhead' Tunnel. We each suppressed similar doubts and arrived at the toll plaza in bright sunshine to find that traffic was moderately heavy but that only one booth was open. The occupant of this booth was busily telling drivers who offered him cash to throw it into the hopper, and it seemed to be taking quite a while. We queued for ten or fifteen minutes until Sue, driving the camper, was able to proceed.
I'd established beforehand that solo motorcycles were permitted through the tunnel free of charge, I was somewhat surprised to be stopped by the barrier and a peremptory; 'You can't go through 'ere' from the cashier! I was directed 'over there' where a short reconnaissance revealed a hitherto unnoticed motorcycle lane that I could have passed through without delay!
We emerged from the tunnel into the sunshine on the Liverpool side with the Liver Building to our right. A little further on and we were turning into the main gate of HMS Eaglet, in Brunswick Dock, where the sentry admitted us immediately and notified the Commodore of our arrival.
Commodore John Madgwick, OBE, is the Naval Regional Officer Northern England (NRONE), headquartered at Eaglet, but is better known to his friends as 'Magic', and he had very graciously agreed to our leaving the camper, trailer and bikes in his establishment for security overnight, and so that we would be ready to board the nearby Seacat ferry to Douglas next morning. He and I have met briefly once or twice during the intervening years, but we served together in 826 Naval Air Squadron, HMS Eagle, in the 1960s. Naturally, our meeting brought back many pleasant memories, but after an all-too-short interlude, duties called us both, Magic to the organisation of a forthcoming mine countermeasures exercise and myself to the trailering of both motorcycles in readiness for the ferry.
I had to unship the Meteor Minor from the centre track, and position it onto the right side track, but first of all, since the Meteor has only 17" wheels, it was necessary to remove the offside footrest so as to clear the trailer's mudguard. I then persuaded the Constellation onto the left side track, securing both very carefully for the Seacat's boarding ramp and sea crossing. All this was pretty thirsty work, as the sun had come out with a vengeance, and I regretted neglecting to bring a hat to protect my (nowadays) rather thinly-covered scalp...
Fortunately I was assisted, quite unasked, by a very helpful young man who emerged from the establishment accommodation block and took a very great interest in my bikes. I didn't catch his name, but I do thank him most kindly.
Once the bikes were securely 'bowsed down' and all was 'laid along' (these are seamen's terms, I am assured. I was Fleet Air Arm!) Sue and I thanked Magic for his invaluable assistance and repaired to the Travelodge next door to HMS Eaglet. Spending the night in a hotel meant that we could pass the evening in Liverpool doing a little sightseeing, which we very much enjoyed, along with supper in the Ha-Ha Bar in Albert Dock. Tomorrow, the Enfield would finally set wheel on the Isle of Man…
Next instalment: Captain Constellation reaches his destination on the Isle of Man
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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