OK. I’m a tad behind with these posts. Bear with me …
John Plumb had taken up the offer of a bed from Couch Surfer, Alex, a native of St. Petersburg, so we met up in McDonalds for Wi-Fi and a quick coffee, before tackling the border. We had been told that motorcycles don’t need to queue, which was reassuring, but it was clearly not going to be a particularly speedy transit.
First stop was the Bridge Toll office – illogically situated about 2km out of town. The Toll serves no purpose in the immigration process, other than to issue a ticket with a queue number on it : 1€ for a motorcycle, no change given!
We rode back to the bridge and handed over our tickets. The Toll officer immediately raised the barrier and waved us through to the next stage … Polish Border Control. On the other side of the road, half a dozen Latvian and Lithuanian Harley riders were returning from a Rally in St. Petersburg. We noticed they didn’t hang around long. The Border Guard wasn’t interested in the purpose of our visit. He checked our passports, visas and vehicle registration, made an entry on his computer and signalled to us to continue to the Bridge … passing all the waiting cars and lorries, and coming to a halt at the barrier on the Russian side.
The female Guard checked our passports, visas and vehicle registration again, and issued us with three forms: a multi-lingual immigration card, and duplicate copies of a customs form. In our haste to get the process over and done with, it took a moment to realise that the customs form was in German. It was quickly exchanged for an English version.
On to Border Control, and John Plumb’s MT350 was beginning to raise a few smiles. We showed the Customs Officer our Russian-language postcard, describing our trip. He glanced at it briefly before helping us to fill out our Customs forms correctly, gruffly marking crosses in boxes we had missed and then checking that we had correctly duplicated the entries on the second copy. By the time we reached the Immigration booth, there was genuine humour behind the stern façade. Dealing with our Immigration cards, the officer laughed as he told us that, two weeks earlier, he had seen some mad Brit who was planning to cross Siberia on a Honda 90! The gruff Customs officer, meanwhile, engaged in light-hearted conversation with John Plumb, as he proudly showed off the luggage-carrying capacity of his front-mounted ammo-carriers!
Immigration completed, we wheeled our bikes forward a few paces to the Customs booth. With our forms correctly completed, this was really no more than a slightly time-consuming formality. Entries were made on the computer, and a cursory inspection was made of our luggage. Our forms were stamped up, and we were away … at least as far as the first Currency Exchange booth, where John Plumb also had to buy Green Card insurance for his bike. (JR and I are resident in France, and our bikes are French-registered. Our French Green Card is valid throughout Europe, including all the Baltic States, Russia and the Ukraine – though, in my case, the validity was only confirmed after the agent borrowed a pair of reading glasses!)
The whole “fast track” process took a couple of hours. But it was painless and good-humoured. There was no sign of any corrupt activity, and no money was taken off us, aside from the 1€ bridge toll. Cars and lorries, however, are a whole different ball game. Some can queue for 5 days to cross!
Wednesday had been an unsatisfactory day for so many reasons. Once again we had spent the whole day on the road, leaving ourselves limited options for an overnight stop and arriving too late for a proper meal. We were not in the best of humour faced with a choice of flaccid microwave dishes and frothy beer at 10 o’clock at night. Tomorrow would be different, we assured each other. We would get on the road early, eat authentic local food in characterful roadside cafes, and see a bit of the countryside – getting to Riga in plenty of time to enjoy the festivities. Well, that was the plan …
Thursday started well. We made ourselves coffee and were on the road by 7am. By 9am we were eating an Egg McMuffin breakfast at McDonalds in Suwalki, and taking advantage of their ever-reliable free WiFi. So much for the authentic local food!
We stopped for a Kodak moment at the Lithuanian border and again for lunch in a shopping centre in Marijanipole. Other than that, there didn’t seem an awful lot to stop for at all. The countryside was green and flat, the only visible settlements being the odd collection of dilapidated wooden shacks. The only diversions were roadside stalls selling home-grown produce. But we were more pre-occupied with staying alive on a two lane highway that often accommodated up to four lanes of opposing traffic! Bus drivers in particular have no respect for distance from the vehicle in front, whether four-wheeled or two, and one or other of us frequently found ourselves forced onto the hard shoulder to make way. During our entire transit of the country, we only saw one building that might have been worth leaving the road for: an aerodrome motel, with an old Soviet Mig parked outside it! Despite the excellent road surface, it was with a certain amount of relief that we stopped for a photo at the Latvian border.
We pulled into Riga around 7pm. It was later than we had intended and we hadn’t researched anywhere to stay. Even so, it wasn’t a problem. It was a national holiday and no-one had any intention of sleeping tonight. We stopped next to the colourful market stalls in Kungu Iela, in the heart of the old city, and were quickly surrounded by friendly and helpful people – one of whom used his iPhone to locate a hostel for us. It didn’t take long before we were comfortably installed and back out on the street looking for dinner.
In fact, we could have probably saved ourselves some money and had an equally good, if not better, meal down by the river, where the party was in full swing. There were live bands, dancing (though none of it “naked”), barbeques, bonfires, beer and crowds of people, young and old, sporting flower or oak-leaf headdresses, joining in with the sing-a-long. Tradition has it that, during this ancient midsummer festival, everyone has to stay awake until dawn. If a young woman falls asleep before sunrise, it is said that she will never marry.
After our long day’s ride, we faded and went to bed around midnight but the revelry evidently continued without us. When we ventured downstairs at around 8.30am, the hostel manager was asleep on the sofa in the reception! Being a day ahead of schedule, we awarded ourselves a rest from the bikes and spent Friday exploring Riga.
On Saturday morning, we left for Narva, Estonia, and the Russian border.
As we got into bed on Monday, I suddenly remembered … the banners!!! Having left them behind at the Ace, I had asked Jim to mail them to DHL’s depot in Berlin. Though it would have been convenient if I had collected them while the men were working on JP’s bike, the depot was the other side of the city and I am notoriously bad at using GPS. In fact, if John’s Garmin had anything to do with it, I probably would have got lost and spent the rest of the trip circling Berlin’s ring roads … I am strictly “Map Woman”!
Anyway, now we are about to enter Eastern Europe proper, we need the banners for photo opportunities – particularly the Russian-language one. If nothing else, it may explain our mission to the authorities when we, inevitably, have to bail out John Plumb for wheeling his bike onto some national monument for a photo opportunity! So far, he has managed to ride or push his bike, unmolested, into pedestrian-only areas in front of the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag building amongst others, even eliciting a smile from bemused Polizei in Berlin. He did, however, get a mild reprimand for parking it in front of the Russian War Memorial … But I digress. Followers of our progress might have been surprised to see John Plumb leaving Berlin on his own this morning, while JR and I fought our way through 8 miles of rush-hour traffic to DHL’s Forckenbeckstrasse depot.
When we finally left Berlin, it turned out to be a glorious day’s ride into the Polish countryside. There is no formal border crossing now, only a tacky collection of booths selling souvenirs and foreign exchange. We stopped at McDonalds in Kostrzyn for wifi and coffee … and established that JP was moving and some 90km ahead of us. Catching up would prove quite a challenge, as the road surface on hwy 22 varied from merely “bone rattling” to unexpectedly “ butt clenching” and we were unable to do much more than 5mph over the speed John could make.
From what we were seeing, Poland held a lot more appeal than Germany. Importantly, the sun had come out and, for the first time on this trip, we were warm and dry. The countryside is oddly reminiscent of France, with cheerful-looking eateries and bars in every village. The driving too … though I would say that the French have generally calmed down a little in recent years!
We caught up with JP at a small roadside restaurant, where we ordered schnitzel and coffee. The coffee was made in the typical fashion – simply finely ground coffee with boiling water poured over. The trick, I immediately discovered, was either not to add milk or not to stir it, so as to allow the grounds to settle, forming a sludge at the bottom of the cup. It tasted good though!
Gdansk gave us our first experience of hostel accommodation. The first was rejected out of hand, after JP declared that it failed his “Brigid filter”! I didn’t see inside, but a large vertical crevice running from the ground to the second floor, was enough to convince me that the structure might not be entirely sound. We settled on Hostel 21 down by the river. They had a small twin room for John and me, and JP initially accepted a bed in a dorm room … until he saw it and realised that it “smelled of students”!
After our late lunch, none of us felt particularly hungry, so we took a walk by the waterside and had a couple of beers before bedtime.
The following morning, we were due to leave for Vilnius in Lithuania. However, we had heard that there was a national holiday on 23rd June in Latvia and it might be worth getting to Riga a day earlier than planned for their midsummer festival: “beer, food and naked bonfire dancing …” Seemed rude not to. The quickest way to get there would be to take a short cut across Little Russia, staying in Kaliningrad overnight. We didn’t have the correct visas but, talking to truck drivers, it seemed we might be able to buy them at the border.
In the event, this turned out to be false information. It wasn’t so much a case of not being able to get into Russia, rather that the border guards wouldn’t let us out of Poland! In the event we ended up wasting the morning and backtracking in order to skirt around the country. We spent didn’t get as far as the Lithuanian border, and spent the night at a rural hostel outside Elk. Not our best day.
Saturday morning in Arnhem and JP was distinctly uneasy about his bike. Since the carb hose change yesterday, it was running rough at urban speeds and the choke didn’t seem to be helping. Bemused motorcycle shop owner, Rimus Van den Lee, studied the MT 350. “Harley Davidson? What the hell is this?!”
Rimus, in fact, turned out to be an extremely affable and helpful chap. His shop was full of relics of bygone motorcycle glory: mostly dust-covered and almost certainly non-runners. But he offered us hospitality in the form of a flask of instant coffee or exotic fruit juice, while he and JP checked out the previous day’s repairs. In the end, however, Rimus declared that he couldn’t see any obvious faults and didn’t know what was wrong. “Will the bike make it to Moscow?”, asked John. “No!”, said Rimus seriously. John looked worried. Then Rimus laughed …
We had to abandon the idea of visiting the Airborne Museum, but we took some photos at the John Frost Bridge before carrying on. With our late start, we stopped short of Hannover on Saturday night, and found a campsite near Detmold in pretty Lemgo.
I cannot remember at what point it started raining on Sunday morning, but it certainly dampened everyone’s spirits. Everything seemed hopeless. We searched fruitlessly for lunch and a wi-fi hotspot in Braunschweig, before eventually opting for a Subway sandwich in desperation. JP began to question whether the MT350 was really up to the trip. Despite the rain, it operated fine at 60 mph on the autobahn, but started to cough and splutter as soon as he decelerated. There was clearly some sort of fuel issue.
We needed to be out of the wet and texted Robin Jeffery to find us some cheap accommodation in Berlin. What he found was a 4-star hotel in the Eastern sector for €32 per room. The world looked a much kinder place after a hot shower and a beer.
Today we took John’s ailing bike to Harley Davidson Berlin, where it became the focus of much curiosity. Unsurprisingly, they wouldn’t let JP use their workshop to work on his own bike, but the Service Manager did helpfully suggest that he use the pavement outside …
The two Johns duly stripped down the whole choke and carburettor system, while I fetched tools and coffee. The whole process took about two and a half hours. No specific problems came to light. The choke cable was undamaged. Even so, having cleaned and tightened everything while putting it all back together, the bike did seem to be running more smoothly. The sun came out and we were in much better spirits after a late lunch at the Las Malvinas Steakhouse.
It wasn’t the day we had planned. But it was a good one nevertheless.
Doesn’t time fly, when you’re having fun. After all the excitement of the last few days, we were quite glad to get on the ferry and start the trip proper.
After a day of R&R including lunch at Loch Fyne, we took a couple of days to journey back south from Scotland. It had been our intention to stop by a few well-known biker haunts and rattle collection tins but we found ourselves short of time and there were more urgent matters to attend to. JR’s bike had apparently sprung an oil leak, and JP needed to get his looked over by Force Motorcycles in Burton on Trent before leaving the country. After our night’s camping in Buxton, I also realised that I needed to shed some excess baggage. It was a shame we were in such a hurry, as the North of England was beautiful in passing and John (JR) and I would have liked to spend a little more time there. Ah well, there’s always the return trip.
JP had his cam belt changed and Force mended his centre stand. JR’s oil leak turned out to be a misbehaving Scottoiler, rather than any mechanical problem with the bike. So, reassured and repacked, we hit the Ace Café on Thursday evening. Particular thanks must go to “Elvis” and to ex-GP racer and Stoke Mandeville patient, Phil Armes, and to our friends and supporters who came along to see us on our way. Once again, JP’s MT350 was a star attraction – only this time he was joined by four other owners with their bikes, including a 500cc Armstrong version with a (frankly, terrifying) top speed of 95mph! And we mustn’t forget eccentric Ace Café owner, Mark Wilsmore, who managed to find a few words in support of our cause … I think?!
We spent a cheap but comfortable Thursday night at the Palace Farm Hostel, in Doddington, Kent, and completed the last 50-odd miles to Dover on Friday morning. A minor Satnav comedy had us all arriving separately at the Check-in desk, after Garmin directed JR onto the M2, London-bound, despite clear road signage clearly signalling “Dover A2”! Not a huge fan of Garmin, I took off down the A2, while the two Johns did a circuit of the roundabout to confirm their suspicions about the GPS error. All would have been well, had I not mistaken the Canterbury slip road for a lay-by and ended up trapped on the wrong road with no entry back onto the A2.
By the time we landed in Dunkerque, it was raining. JR and I had to raid a local bank for Euro currency and it was decided that JP, on his slower MT350, should try to get ahead. We took nearly an hour with our foreign currency transaction but, even so, were surprised to get to the Dutch border at Breda without apparently passing JP. As it turned out, he had had a problem with a carb hose, requiring a two-hour repair stop just 30km outside Dunkerque. By the time we had pitched our tents in the Arnhem campsite, it was nearly 10.30pm and most eateries were closed. We did, however, manage to find a tasty schnitzel and a can of beer at an all-night snack bar in Oosterbeek.
The Abington Hotel kindly organised breakfast at 7.30am, half an hour earlier than usual, so that we could make a quick getaway to the Scottish Classic Motorcycle Show at Ayr Racecourse. Our surprise appearance came as a result of a clash of dates for our Moscow send-off. We stayed until about 2.30pm and then headed over to the main event.
Moscow had laid on quite a show for us. On arriving in this tiny Ayrshire village, we were stunned to find a field full of visitors’ cars, two bouncy castles and several marquees. There was a bar, a barbeque, a tea tent selling trays of home-made cakes (2 for £1 and, no, you couldn’t just have one for 50p!), local arts and crafts, a children’s entertainer and a bale-tossing competition for aspiring young farmers. We were interviewed and photographed by the local press and, at the end of the day, escorted from the premises by two very good-natured officers from the Strathclyde Police and a local piper.
Without question, the star attraction was John Plumb’s Harley Davidson MT350. Reactions to its suitability in terms of the ride varied from enthusiastic advice to cynical laughter. Even so, by the end of the day, we had managed to persuade both Stephanie Young, Provost of East Ayrshire, and Winifred Sloan, Provost of South Ayrshire, to pose for photos astride the bike. And there is no doubt that its 60mph top speed will do wonders for our fuel consumption over the course of the next few weeks.
Jim was perhaps less lucky in allowing the local MP to try his BMW for size. He was nowhere to be seen as the Police escort pulled out, blue lights and all, ahead of the piper. Fearing an embarrassing hiatus, JR, John Plumb and I followed at a stately walking pace. After a slight delay, a slightly red-faced Jim caught us up. It seemed that, as the MP had dismounted the bike, she had accidentally kicked Jim’s helmet and detached his visor. Being unable to retrieve his specs from the support vehicle, he was more than a little relieved when a young lady, in true “Carry On” fashion, offered to “pop it in” for him!
John and I stayed with my cousin, Leslie Du Cane, at Skelmorlie. John Plumb had contacted the new owners of his childhood home in West Kilbride and had been invited to stay with them. Jim and Robin headed off to a hotel in Glasgow.
Monday was a rest day. John Plumb spent the day revisiting his childhood haunts, while Jim, JR, Robin and I, rode up the West Coast for a seafood lunch at Loch Fyne. Robin, admitting that he was a bit sorry not to be coming to Russia with us, left the truck behind and donned a helmet to ride pillion with John.
We probably couldn’t have wished for a better first day on the road. The good people of Waltham St. Lawrence laid on a fabulous send off, with a silver band, smoked salmon bagels, BBQ breakfast and a magnificent display of classic motorcycles. The weather played ball too. Blue skies and sun shine glinting off all the polished chrome. It was warm enough too for us to show off our Moscow 2 Moscow T-shirts.
Then came 12 noon and the great send off. The local MP, Home Secretary, Theresa May did the honours. A first for her, she said. In all her years as an MP, she had never been asked to do a “wave off” before. We lined up in front of the Lych Gate and, after a few words from Philip Lewis, a former patient of Poppa Guttmann and Trustee of the Trust, who recently ‘celebrated’ 50 years in a wheelchair, we started our engines. Theresa May did her bit, the crowd counted us down, and we manoeuvred deftly through the throng – in my case, rather too closely avoiding a collision with my cousin Mike Mackenzie, Chairman of the Poppa Guttmann Trust, without whom John and myself would not be involved!
Then we were out on the open road with a 360-mile ride ahead of us. For Jim this was something of an achievement. Following several weeks’ illness in April, Jim is unable to complete the whole European leg of our trip and his participation will be limited to the UK events, culminating in our Ace Café send off on Thursday, 16th. Fearing that he would find the ride to Scotland too fatiguing, we tried to persuade him to put his bike on the trailer and hitch a ride with Robin in the truck. However, the warm weather and the speed restriction imposed on us by John Plumb’s 350cc Harley played in his favour. Just as well really, as the support truck that was due to leave at 12.30pm didn’t get away until 3pm.
There were a few excitements, needless to say. The first within minutes of joining the M40, when Jim’s carefully packed black bin liner luggage came adrift. Feeling a slight ‘flapping’ sensation, Jim attempted to wedge the loose end under his bum, but he was unsuccessful. Moments later a pair of black galoshes were bouncing down the main carriageway and lost forever.
Later, John Plumb briefly treated us to a one man firework display, when he lost the retaining spring from his centre stand at 60mph. Robin had just caught us up and we were fortunate enough to have the truck’s hazard lights to protect us as John effected a roadside repair with gaffer tape. Having driven all the way from Waltham St. Lawrence, principally as a support vehicle for Jim, Robin looked quite disappointed that his services were not going to be required for John either.
We ate a quick meal at the Westmoreland Farm Shop and arrived at the Abington Hotel at around 9.30pm. We were happy and tired and no one bothered to look at the clock until we got into the hotel bar. With today’s ride, Jim had achieved more than he or anyone else really believed possible. He ordered a double whisky and retired to his room … and a hot bath!
We discovered via Margot that the send off event at Waltham St. Lawrence had netted around £1900 in takings for breakfasts, tombola tickets and T-shirts. And another £1000 had been pledged in sponsorship.
The plans for the grand departure from Waltham St. Lawrence on 11th June, when the Team leave for Moscow (Ayrshire), are going ahead magnificently – it is proving to be a major hit with motorcyclists and the ever faithful villagers. However the planning for the trip has been somewhat disrupted by an inconvenient bout of Pulmonary Pneumonia. Having headed off to the sun for a bit of R&R, I ended up spending nearly a month in hospital, as a result of which, I also had my driving licence temporarily suspended.
The good news is that the driving licence has since been restored, and I will be completing all of the UK legs of the trip, starting with the fabulous send off by The Home Secretary from Waltham St. Lawrence. The Bell Pub will open at 11.00 hours for pints and earlier for a Bikers Barbeque Breakfast, and we will be having around 150 plus bikers and a show of many fabulous Classic and Modern bikes. You can buy a “T” shirt, do battle with Hilary’s skill at silent Auctions, buy Tombola Tickets or just have a quiet coffee in the Neville Hall.
The Members of the Team who will be riding the full distance from Moscow (Ayrshire) to Moscow (Russia) will be Brigid Rynne, riding a BMW, John Rynne, riding a Triumph, and John Plumb, riding a Military Harley. Unfortunately, the doctors frowned upon the idea of a 6,500-mile motorcycle trip by way of recuperation so, to my very great disappointment, I will not now be able to ride the full distance but, for the UK legs at least, will be bringing up the rear on my BMW F800 ST. And, while the rest of the Team are abroad, I will be acting as “Mission Controller” back at base.
Travelling firstly to Moscow, Ayrshire then to Moscow, Russian Federation and back to Moscow, Ayrshire, our departure on the 11th of June, from the village of Waltham St Lawrence Berkshire, will be initiated by Home Secretary, The Right Honourable Theresa May. The villagers of Waltham St Lawrence will be organising a bacon butty Café, sales of “T” shirts and the hospitality of our local hostelry, The Bell, a well recognised CAMRA pub.
Our departure on the 11th June, is to coincide with the Ayr Classic Motorcycle Show, at Ayr Racecourse www.ayrclassicmc.com on the morning of Sunday 12th June, where all the visitors at that show which ends around 4.00 o’clock on Sunday afternoon will be invited to an afternoon/evening entertainment at a family event in Moscow, Ayrshire, about 20 minutes from Ayr. So a great family day by combining both events in an afternoon/early evening event, all about bikes and bikers, old and new (well at least the bikes!!).
The Lord Provost of Ayrshire, has promised a full afternoons entertainment, food, drinks, great hard surface parking – fabulous views and a pipe band. A truly wonderful event designed to raise the profile of Moscow, Ayrshire Internationally, and Ayrshire in general for bikers all over the world looking for that special rideout hub and holiday destination.
To illustrate that last point we anticipate having a well deserved rest on the Monday after the ride up on Saturday and a full day on Sunday. On Monday however we hope to follow a well kent West coast adventure route: Erskine Bridge/Dumbarton/Helensburgh/Faslane/Arrochar/Loch Fynne Oyster Bar for lunch/ back to Glasgow via Arrochar/Tarbet Loch Lomond/ Luss/Balloch and home. All local riders are welcome to join us, anywhere along that route, but you pay for your own lunch and a donation to our cause would be welcome. Tuesday and Wednesday are reserved for final checks on all bikes and equipment and on Thursday 16th we will rendezvous in North London for our celebrity send-off at the Ace Cafe London. We are planning arrive back in Moscow, Ayrshire on July 13th, and I would appreciate assistance that day in getting off my bike!!!
We would like to take this opportunity to say a big big thanks to all of the personnel and companies who have assisted us along the way, and we hope that your futures’ will be secure enough for you to help others as we have been privileged to do.
This week we had the sad news that Doug Kenyon is no longer able to ride with us. He is as disappointed as we are, so we wont hold it against him.
We also find that our Moscow visit coincides with that of the Lord Mayor of London (the City of London, that is). This unfortunately means that the British Embassy and the Russo-British Chamber of Commerce will be up to their eyes in civic receptions. Alas, no Embassy reception for us then but, on the plus side, it will undoubtedly simplify my packing! Gok Wan, where are you?
However, the absence of any official obligations does leave us free to explore St. Petersburg and Moscow under our own steam. Added to which we have an invitation to ride with the Harley Davidson Club of Russia on their annual rally … they are graciously overlooking the all-too-evident fact that none of us is actually riding a Harley.
And things are looking rosy for our send off from Jim’s hometown, Waltham St. Lawrence – which, if you’ve never been there, must rate as one of Britain’s very prettiest villages. The WStL Café, which normally opens its doors one Sunday per month, has agreed to open on Saturday 11th just for us, so we can stoke up on tea and bacon butties before we leave for Scotland. There will be music from the Waltham St. Lawrence Silver Band and, of course, you’ll be able to buy a T-shirt – or a Teacloth – from the church stall!
We will be leaving the village pound, in front of The Bell pub, at noon … waved off by a very very VIP!