When I told people that I was going to take part in this year’s Happy Days Rough Ride for the Homeless and sleep rough for three nights quite a few of my friends said, “Well, don’t you like doing that sort of thing anyway?”
A fair comment, I suppose. As a seasoned audaxer and bike packer, I’ve slept in some pretty weird places with my bike, from bus shelters to bank ATM booths, carrying all of the kit I need along with me. But the big difference is that I’m usually doing it in the summer months when the nights are warm and dry enough to sleep outdoors with lightweight kit.
Sleeping out in February in a town centre is a whole different ball game. If it’s not freezing then it’s probably going to be wet and cold. But the whole point of Rough Ride is to experience life out on the streets in winter – a tough challenge that’s worthy of the donations that I’m asking people to give in order to raise money for the Happy Days homeless charity.
I have to say that I was very apprehensive in the weeks leading up to it. I feel the cold when I sleep outside, even in summer I often find that I’ll still need to wear all of my clothes and use a silk liner inside my sleeping bag and bivy bag, especially when my core temperature drops which always seems to happen at around three or four in the morning. What if I just couldn’t do it? Especially after I’d told everyone that I would be out for three nights. I didn’t want to take people’s money and then not be able to keep up my end of the bargain.
The plan for this year’s Rough Ride was for a group of riders to set off from the Happy Days Cafe in Sowerby Bridge and travel in an anticlockwise loop around the north of England, riding first to York, then up to South Shields, across to Carlisle, down to Morecambe, and finally back to Sowerby Bridge. Every night, once the riders reached their destination, they would be sleeping rough somewhere in the town centre. On the final night, back in Sowerby Bridge, riders would be joined by friends and supporters of the Happy Days charity for a homecoming celebration and big community sleep out at the local cricket club.
This is the second year that the Happy Days Rough Ride for the Homeless has taken place. It’s organised by Michael Collins who manages the Happy Days Bike Shop and Cafe in Sowerby Bridge. The Happy Days charity provides support and shelter to get people off the streets, provides them with accommodation and gives them training and skills to help get their lives back on track. You can find out more about the great work they do on their website: http://www.happydaysuk.org.
Michael set off from the Happy Days Cafe, along with fellow riders Darren Speight and Steve Marsden, last Monday morning with five big days in the saddle and five rough sleeps ahead of them. I didn’t have enough holiday allowance left to be able to join in for the whole week, so instead had made a plan to catch the train up to Carlisle with my bike after work on Wednesday and join the lads on their last three rough sleeps and two days riding. We were also joined in Carlisle by two more riders, Jay Hemingway and Paul Mellon, so three became six.
We also had a support van, driven by Clint Gumery, and although Clint didn’t ride with us every day, he was still a very important part of the team and slept rough with us every night. Although we were carrying the majority of our kit with us on the bikes every day, we all had extra spare sleeping kit and dry clothes in the van just in case we needed it. We also had some rolls of silver roof insulation stuff that had been donated for us to put down on the floor under our bivy bags.
The Happy Days team had arranged a place for us to change and shower and lock up our bikes in each destination, along with suggestions for places to sleep. Although some of you might be thinking that having all this extra support is a bit of a cop-out, I think that it makes sense to be sure we had everything we needed to help us complete the challenge rather than being unable to complete it due to being unprepared, becoming ill due to bad conditions, or having our bikes and kit stolen.
I’d been keeping up with the lads’ progress over the first two days via social media and although the weather had been dry, the night-time temperatures on both nights had been around freezing. Steve had been regularly posting up live feeds on Facebook and by the morning of the third day he looked absolutely shattered.
By the time Jay, Paul and myself caught up with them in Carlisle on Wednesday evening all three of them were really starting to feel the effects of the their first three days. Their ride over from South Shields to Carlisle had been a long, tough 100 miles for them. Some of the route was on off-road cycle paths and long stretches had been covered in snow and ice so they’d been forced to walk large parts of it. By the time they rolled into town it was already after dark.
Our ‘accommodation’ in Carlisle was a car park on the outskirts of town with a big gate that we could pull across for safety. After leaving our bikes and kit in the van, we walked into the town centre and grabbed a pizza for dinner. Amazingly my friend Rodger, who lives in Carlisle, managed to track us down while we were eating (I guess Carlisle’s not that big, but still…) and brought us a flask of coffee for the night ahead. This would be the first of many lovely gestures of help and support that we received over the next few days.
After pizza we occupied ourselves in the pub until just after midnight in an effort to keep indoors for as long as we could. The lads had a couple of pints each but I really didn’t want to drink anything as I was concerned that I’d have to get out of my bivy in the middle of the night for a wee in a car park! Of course, we were all very aware that spending the night in the pub is a luxury that not many homeless people would be able to enjoy and over the course of our few of days together our conversation often drifted back to how lucky we all were to have enough money to be able to find places to get out of the cold and wet.
By midnight we were back at the car park where we set up our beds for the night. It was definitely warmer than the two previous nights but some rain had been forecast between 3am and 5am. Michael, Jay and Paul found a small undercover area next to some parked cars but it was too close to the gate for my liking, I preferred to be tucked away out of sight where passers-by wouldn’t be able to see us. I set my kit up around the corner along with Clint, Darren and Steve. We didn’t have any cover but were close to the wall of a building and out of sight. It was hard to get off to sleep as, even with earplugs in, the traffic from the road rumbled through the night.
As predicted, I was woken by the pitter-patter of rain around 4am. The rain sounded very loud inside my bivy, even louder than inside a tent, probably because my ear was pressed up against it. To prevent the water getting in, I tried to close up the opening of my bivy with limited success and realised that the hood of my sleeping bag was getting pretty damp so shuffled further down inside and tried to close it up a bit more. I pulled my woolly hat over my ears and eyes and attempted to go back to sleep.
Half an hour later I was still awake. Big drops of water were falling on to me from the guttering of the building that I was sleeping up against and I knew I had to get out and move. Steve was also awake and had decided to go muscle his way onto the bit of covered space around the corner. That all seemed a bit too much like hard work to me, I just wanted to get back inside my bivy as quickly as possible so I shook as much water off as I could, shuffled all my kit a couple of metres away from the building and climbed back in.
When I finally emerged from my bivy around 6.30am the rain had stopped. Just Darren and I were left out in the rain as the others had jumped ship to the covered area near the gate. The foil insulation that I’d been lying on was soaked through and my bivy was sat in a little puddle. My hat and the hood of my sleeping bag were pretty wet from where my bivy had been left slightly open but I wasn’t feeling cold and the inside of my sleeping bag was dry. Thankfully, despite the puddle, the base of my bivy was watertight and the moisture that I could feel on the outside of my sleeping bag had been caused by condensation from breathing inside it all night rather than water getting in.
After getting packed up we laid all of our wet kit out over the van seats to dry and headed off into town to find a place for breakfast. While eating we compared as many different weather apps as we could find, looking for blue skies and a tailwind, but it wasn’t looking too promising so we resigned ourselves to getting on with it. After a good feed and many cups of coffee we were good to get on the road to Morecambe. Just as we were leaving the cafe we were approached again by someone who’d heard about what we were doing and wanted to make a donation.
The route from Carlisle to Morecambe was around 70 miles avoiding the main roads and instead of taking the predictable route over Shap, we headed further east into the Lake District, skirted the edge of Ullswater and headed up and over Kirkstone Pass.
Michael, Steve and Darren already had three days riding in their legs so I was pretty happy that the pace wasn’t too high, but when Jay and Paul got on the front with their fresh legs requests to take half a mile off were soon forthcoming from the back. We all knew that we’d have to tackle Kirkstone Pass at our own pace and agreed to regroup in the very conveniently placed pub at the summit. Paul and Darren shot off ahead while the rest of us took it at a more sedate pace. It was a bit steeper than I remembered but we were helped to the top by a tailwind for the last 300 or so metres. We also caught up with Clint at the top and decided, as we’d already completed half the day’s distance, that it would be a good place to stop for lunch.
After lunch the route bypassed Windermere, heading south east on a beautiful single-track, gated road that eventually led us out on to country lanes and down to the edge of the Kent Estuary. We’d made good time and didn’t want to arrive in Morecambe too early so we took a detour to Arnside for an afternoon stop.
While the lads headed off to the pub I rode down to Arnside Promenade to take some photos of the sun setting across Morecambe bay but the wind was so strong that when I tried to prop my bike up against the railings it kept getting blown over. After a few attempts I gave up, bough a slice of cake and went to join the lads in the pub.
Happy Days had made arrangements for us to get showered and changed in the cricket club at Heysham, a couple of miles down the coast from Morecambe, but the groundskeeper wouldn’t be coming to open up for us until 7.30pm so we had no need to rush.
The final part of the route took us close to RSPB Leighton Moss which is well known for its starling murmurations. We weren’t aware of any of this while we were pedalling through but we arrived at just the right time of dusk to catch one in full flow. It was a pretty spectacular sight so we pulled over to watch. A few of us had a go at filming it on our phones but it was pretty hard to capture the scale and movement, there were so many birds and it was moving so quickly.
We managed to hit the roads leading into Morecambe just in time for rush hour so the last few miles were pretty unpleasant but we got our heads down and got on with it, arriving in town around 6.45pm. After our obligatory photo shoot on the prom next to Eric’s statue we pedalled the last couple of miles along the seafront to Heysham where we met up with Clint and the van.
The weather had really started to come in and rain was forecast overnight so we hoped that the cricket club would have some kind of a pavilion where we’d be able to get some cover for the night. When we arrived everything was still locked up and we couldn’t get hold of the groundskeeper so we headed to the nearest pub to take shelter while we figured out how to get hold of him.
We were all pretty concerned about how rough the night ahead was looking weatherwise, with 50mph winds and heavy rain forecast. We even contemplated whether or not we could get away with sleeping in the pub’s covered smoking area after everyone had gone home for the night.
While Michael and Clint tried to get more information about the night’s arrangements the rest of us settled into the pub and ordered dinner. It had already started to rain and none of us were eager to get back outside. The pub’s clientele were quite smart and obviously not used to seeing people wandering around it in full cycling kit on a Thursday evening. We had to run the gauntlet of some very funny stares every time one of us went to the toilet which was located right at the other end of the pub to where we were sitting.
Eventually we managed to get in touch with the groundskeeper, who admitted that he’d forgotten we were coming, but nevertheless made us welcome when we arrived. Unfortunately the covered pavilion that we’d been hoping for didn’t materialise, but we were able to stay in the clubhouse until it closed at 11.30pm. Once locked up we wouldn’t be able to gain entry again until the groundskeeper returned at 7.30am the following morning.
We looked around the site for places to get a bit of shelter from the rain but they were few and far between. Our bikes were locked away in a metal container but once they were all in there was no room left to accommodate any bodies. Looking for somewhere to keep dry must be a situation that homeless people regularly find themselves in when the weather turns bad.
There was a small amount of space in the shed where the lawn mower was kept but not enough for all of us and the strong smell of petrol was overpowering. Jay resigned himself to a night outside in the rain and set up his bivy on a wooden bench next to the clubhouse. While the rest of us were trying to figure out just how many of us could fit in the lawnmower shed, Michael went back into the village in search of anything with a bit of shelter – if all else failed we could always try sneaking back into the pub’s covered smoking area after kicking-out time.
A few minutes later he was back with news of a concrete covered area with a tiled floor in front of an old toilet block. It sounded pretty good to me, and far more preferable to being shoehorned into the stinky lawn mower shed, so I bundled up my sleep kit and made my way across the car park while Michael went to rescue an already soggy Jay from the bench.
There were two covered platforms so Michael and I took one while Jay had the other. The tiled floor was already wet but we still had some silver insulation roll left to put underneath our bivys. The wind was blowing some rain inside but this was much better than being totally exposed.
Just as I was settling down I realised how visible we were. I’d been so concerned with just finding anywhere covered to get out of the wind and rain that it was only now that I was starting to relax and take in my surroundings. We were literally no more than 10 metres from the road through the village, set back in a little park area. We were pretty invisible right now in the dark but as soon as it started to get light we would be very much on-show and we wouldn’t be able to get access to the clubhouse, or our bikes, until the groundskeeper came back to open up at 7.30am.
I tried to push the thoughts out of my head and reassure myself that it would all be fine. I was very thankful that Michael and Jay were both close by if anyone were to disturb us in the night.
The rain pitter-pattered on the outside of my bivy once again and it felt a lot colder than the night before. My sleep was interrupted by bouts of a cramp-like sensation in my quads, a feeling that I’d not experienced before, and although there was very little I could do about it wrapped up in my bivy bag, I certainly wasn’t about to get out of it so I tried to massage the pain away.
I woke around 6.30am to discover that Jay was no longer with us. People were now starting to walk and cycle to work and a few dog walkers walked directly past us. It was still dark enough for them not to have to make eye contact with me which I was relieved about. After attempting to take a few photos in the dark, with an hour still to kill before the groundskeeper arrived, I buried my head back in my bivy – there was no way I was getting up yet as I had nowhere to go and it was still lashing it down and blowing a gale.
I must’ve drifted back off to sleep because when I awoke again it was 7.50am and bright daylight. Michael was still asleep so I gave him a nudge and we packed up our kit and legged it back across the car park to the cricket club. It seems that I’d had a better night’s sleep than I thought because I’d managed to sleep through all the good stuff. Turns out that Jay left us in the early hours because he got bothered by a fox sniffing around and decided to jump ship to the lawnmower shed. While he was making his way across the car park he was chased by a police officer who was out looking for a woman who’d gone missing from the village. After describing the woman to Jay the officer’s parting shot was, “Take care if you see her, she’s carrying a blade!” Not exactly what you want to hear when you’re sleeping outside.
It took us quite a long time to get ourselves sorted and packed up that morning. The groundskeeper kept the cups of tea and coffee flowing in the clubhouse and none of us were in a hurry to get on the road despite having another 70 miles to ride back to Sowerby Bridge. The cafe that we’d hoped to go to for breakfast was closed so we ended up back in the posh pub where they put on a good spread for us while we stared out of the windows at the rain pouring down.
It was 10am before we managed to drag ourselves back onto the bikes. Our route took us back through Morecambe, along the start of the Way of the Roses cycle route and into Lancaster where we crossed the river Lune and picked up the gravel track to Glasson Dock. The track was flooded in places and we realised just how much rain had come down overnight. By the time we’d made it to the cafe at the end of the track we were all soaked through, especially Paul who was riding without mudguards.
We pulled in at the Cafe d’ Lune for a quick toilet break. We weren’t going to stop for coffee as we’d not really pedalled far enough and were already behind schedule, but as we got chatting to the staff about what we were doing they offered us coffee on the house and gave us a donation. Another lovely gesture made by people we’d never met before.
Back out on the road we got our heads down and tried to make up some time. We were hoping for a Westerly to blow us back across the Pennines but the wind was coming more from the south. Darren, who was by far the strongest rider, stayed on the front for most of the morning. We were all doing ok on the flat but as soon as we hit an incline I was quickly off the back and struggled to get back on.
As the morning went on the rain stopped and by the time we’d reached Longridge for lunch the sun was shining and we were all way too hot. Instead of a cafe stop we decided to try and save time by going to a garage with a supermarket, although I’m not really sure how much time we saved in the end as there was a lot of faffing and kit removal going on.
Terrain-wise, we’d had it fairly easy so far but we all knew that there were a few lumps to get over to before we’d be back in Yorkshire. We’d made up time so decided to have another cafe stop in Padiham and we were all in good spirits despite being tired. Despite the big climb to come, we knew that we’d be back in Sowerby Bridge before dark.
The final climb of the the day was a familiar one to me. The Long Causeway climbs up from Cliviger, across the moors behind Todmorden and over to Hebden Bridge. It’s a route that I ride fairly regularly as it’s not too far from where my dad lives. Despite the climb up, it’s still far more preferable to pedalling through Todmorden on the valley’s busy A-road. It’s an exposed route on the calmest of days but with Friday’s strong winds it was incredibly tough to keep the bike steady.
Every time I cycled past a gap in the wall I was blown into the side of the road. Occasionally the road bent around to the north and we’d get the benefit of a tailwind for a short time but mostly it was a long slog into a strong crosswind. We all rode across the causeway at our own pace. Darren and Paul were somewhere out in front and out of sight even before the half way point, me and Jay were somewhere in the middle with Michael and Steve not too far behind.
We regrouped just before the start of the descent. There are a couple of routes that descend back down into the valley, but the most direct – and most unpleasant, as far as I’m concerned – is Mytholm Steeps. I’d prefer to pedal the extra four miles into Hebden Bridge than ride down this horrible hill. It’s very steep (Veloviewer reckons 31% at its steepest), twisty and sections can often be a bit slippery as it’s hidden in the trees. It’s also a bit of a rat run so you’ve usually got a car right up your backside too. I don’t think I’ve ever managed it in one go as I always have to stop for a little breather and release my white knuckles from their vice-like grip around my brake levers, and today was no exception – in fact I stopped three times.
The lads were very patiently waiting for me at the junction in the valley. From here we hopped on to the canal for the final few miles back to Happy Days. With probably less than a mile to go on what had, up to now, been a mechanical-free trip, Jay’s chain came off and got jammed behind his cassette. We had to remove the wheel to free it but less than five minutes later it happened again. I didn’t need much of an excuse to get off and push up the 20% slope that leads off the canal into Sowerby so I kept Jay company while we both pushed up.
Minutes later we were at the Happy Days Cafe, all in one piece, more or less, to be greeted by family and friends, cups of coffee, plenty of beer, pasta and treacle pudding. We’d made it back and now all we had left to complete our fundraiser was one final rough sleep, but with the winds picking up and Storm Eric on the way, it looked like we going to be heading for the roughest of rough sleeps.
After a good feed at the shop we made our way over to Sowerby Cricket Club for a bit of a do before the big Sleepout. Here we said our goodbyes to Steve as he needed to get home for his wedding anniversary, and I think he was certainly looking forward to a good kip in his own bed. The remaining five of us would be joined by family, friends, supporters and staff from Happy Days for our final night under the stars.
Although the party was a great homecoming, we were all pretty tired, and despite the storm warning, I was glad when 11pm rolled around and I could finally get my head down. Tonight’s communal sleeping area, with its covered gazebo roof and huge plastic groundsheet, was positively luxurious compared to my previous two nights’ locations.
All of the spaces in the centre were full so I got my kit set up in the corner, popped my earplugs in and got hunkered down for the night. Jay and Paul were also on the edge, only half under the covered area, while Michael and Darren went off to sleep around the other side of the building as Darren’s young daughters were sleeping out in the van so he needed to be close by.
As the night went on the gale really picked up and the gazebo groaned under the strain. It sounded like it might get blown across the pitch at any moment. I just snuggled further into my bivy and listened to the wind howl. I was dry for the first time in three nights so this felt like a huge result. The large plastic groundsheet had been lifted up by the wind and was flapping around on the outside of my bivy. At one point it felt like the wind might actually lift me off the ground but I was still nice and warm inside my sleeping bag and was determined to see out the night.
At around 6.30am I heard a few voices and figured people around me were starting to make a move. I didn’t really have anywhere to go though as my bike was locked up in the cafe and I wouldn’t be able to get in until after 9am, so I rolled over and stayed put. By now the plastic sheeting was flapping around all over the place and enveloping me inside it so I thought I’d better stick my head out of my bivy to see what was happening. Turns out I was the last person left out there!
Everyone who’d been sleeping under the gazebo had abandoned their sleeping bags and taken refuge in the cricket club’s changing rooms. Jay was up and about trying to search through the carnage for his inflatable pillow which must’ve blown away in the night. I was a bit surprised that I was the only person still camped out and we joked that the plastic sheeting was now only being held down by my weight.
Despite feeling knackered, I was really pleased with myself. I’d felt that I had a duty to all of the people who’d sponsored me to see it through and not find excuses to wimp out so I was very happy that I’d managed to stick it out.
I dragged myself and my sleep kit into the changing rooms to join the others and grab a cuppa. Jay and Paul had both brought their bikes with them to the cricket club so were getting packed up so they could head off home early. Paul had a long drive back down south ahead of him and needed to get on the road. Michael and Darren were still sleeping out around the other side of the building out of the wind. Michael had managed to find a spot in a doorway with a bit of cover but Darren was completely soaked as he’d just been sleeping out next to the van and had no shelter from the rain all night.
So that was it, all done and dusted. We’d made it though our final rough sleep and could look forward to a night back in our own beds. Between us we’d managed to raise over £5000 for Happy Days and all had an experience that we wouldn’t forget in a hurry.
Throughout the three days I’d been taking photos whenever I had the opportunity and sharing our Rough Ride on social media was important to me. I wanted to document as much of the experience as I could and keep people at home regularly informed of how we were doing and where we were sleeping, so as well as taking photos during our rides, every night I took photos of our ‘accommodation’ and another every morning when I woke up.
A couple of people on social media accused us of looking like we were all enjoying it all a bit too much. So, did I enjoy the experience? Well, yes, I did.
I was cold, wet and sleep-deprived for three days but I wasn’t alone and that’s really what got me through it. The seven of us were all in it together and sharing an experience like this really helps you to just get on with it. We instantly got on well, had a great camaraderie and developed a great bond between us all in a very short space of time. Each night we sat in the pub delaying the onset of another cold, wet sleep but knowing that we weren’t alone made it easier to get out there and do it.
After taking this challenge I can honestly say that anyone who thinks that sleeping rough is a ‘lifestyle choice’ really needs their head examined. As I’d joined the lads half way though, I’d only had to suffer being outside for three nights but that was enough to give me a taste of how hard it would be to have no choice but to do this every night. We had each other, plenty of cash for food, good kit and lovely bikes to ride, outside support and people back home spurring us on. We also had warm beds and loved ones to go back to. For us the experience was temporary – we had a way out.
So, if you think what we’ve just done sounds hard and not something you’d like to try, spare a thought for those who have no choice and no hope. In the 21st century it is shocking to think that in a country like Britain, on any given night, between 4,000 and 5,000 people bed down on the streets – a figure that has almost doubled since 2010.
Our fundraising efforts will help Happy Days to make a very small, but important, dent in that number. so if you’ve not sponsored us already, please do now: https://localgiving.org/fundraising/angela-happy-days-homeless-rough-ride/