Friday, 11 May 2012


James and Agnes McGowan

This year really started the day before, on Hogmanay. Gordon Stoddart and I, and an old pal I hadn't seen for years, Danny Millar decided to climb the Cobbler at Arrochar and toast the year to come at the top. We were lucky with the weather. Although it was reasonably mind, it was misty near the top and threatening to snow. But we made it and had a grand day out. Sadly that was the last time I was ever to see Danny. He was a truly talented artist with a temperament to suit. Life had given him some pretty hard knocks over the years so later he decided he'd had enough  and went for the swim that needs no towel.

Danny Miller and Gordon Stoddart on the Cobbler
After the usual New Year do at Minard, I was watching a TV play on the evening of January 1st, about an old guy who, fed up with the boredom of being retired, makes up his mind to walk the length of Britain from Land's End to John o' Groats. I can't remember the name of the play, but Joss Ackland was the main character in it. Now, whether I was still befuddled from the night before, or suffering from a lack of sleep or whatever, I made the mad resolution to set out from Land's End on my bike and see how far I could go.

Gordon and I on the Cobbler

Well, we had no holidays planned this year and finances were taking a bit of a hammering with one thing and another. So this year, no spending ! It was all I could do to keep myself afloat in the garage. As fast as I was earning money, I was having to spend it on equipment to try to keep us up to date technically. BMW were going deeper and deeper into electronic engine management. It was getting to the stage where, if you didn't invest in diagnostic equipment you were getting left behind and the Main Dealers were taking over. As far as I was concerned, this wasn't going to happen, if I could help it !

I'd went into a sort of informal partnership with Jim Bryson about this time. Jim Bryson had been for years a kind of semi-legendary local BMW guru. Somehow or other he was able to supply replacement parts, like brakes, filters, engine parts etc, much, much cheaper than Fairbairns or Henry Brothers, the main BMW dealers.  Jim's premises were out in the back of beyond in the hills between Hamilton and East Kilbride. So much so that even people in Glasgow preferred to have their orders delivered by mail. He worked from home and his workshop and stores were big wooden garages. It was really handy to be able to get second hand parts from him too. Gearboxes, manual ones anyway, rear axles and things like this were so good that they rarely gave trouble, but when they did, the quickest, cheapest repair was by fitting a second hand unit from Jim Bryson. For example, an exchange 5 speed gearbox from the dealers would cost £700 plus fitting. We could strip and repair the same box for about £250 but the car would be in the garage waiting for parts for over a week. For the same price we could fit a second hand box from Jim Bryson and return the car in the same day ! Because our workshop was so small, we didn't really have the room to have cars lying about, so this was often the preferred  way to get the customer back on the road. 

The Workshop at Delvin Road....not a lot of room !

Jim had started repairing BMW's about twenty years beforehand but now, because of the amount of sophisticated electronics involved, he was wanting to earn his living from selling parts rather than doing repairs. Unfortunately for Jim, Euro Car Parts, a London based firm, were now selling the same parts even cheaper than Jim. And because Jim just refused to become VAT registered, I couldn't reclaim the VAT on anything I bought from him which made his parts so much dearer than Euro Car Parts. Within a year or so Euro Car Parts had a branch in Glasgow and I became one of their biggest customers. Euro Car Parts were set up in London in the early eighties by a family of Sikhs who'd been expelled from Uganda by Idi Amin. I really liked dealing with them, they were forward thinking and gave me great service when I needed it. I later met some of the family when they invited me down to London, actually to try and sell me some stuff, and they impressed me with their hard work and straightforward attitude.

A lovely old BMW 2002tii ....Jim Bryson's favourite !

The winter that year was mild, windy mostly, but mild. I was using my bike as much as I could and at weekends started building up the mileage I would need to be able to do come summer. The Sustrans Cycle Route from Glasgow to Loch Lomond had opened in the last year  so I would spend most Sundays riding to and from Balloch on Loch Lomond , a total distance of about 80km. At first I thought I was going to die ! But as I built up my stamina I gradually started to increase the distance I covered. I remember one Sunday ploughing my way into a constant headwind  to Ayr but being rewarded with a tailwind all the way home via the Ballageich hill over the Eaglesham Moor. On the descent I got up to 70 kph, I was flying !

John Neil, Lucy, Maureen Blackbourn at the Drovers.

Around about March, or maybe April, a bunch of us had a pretty lively weekend in the Drovers again. Lucy brought her new beau, John Neil, for the first time......more, much more about this blackguard later, so watch this space !! 
This was the time they all say that I was so overcome with something that I fell off the stool into the open fire. The truth is I was probably just knackered ! At least I never quarrelled with the geese and had to run for my life, like some people !

Andy Blackbourn and Terry  fleeing the Geese !

The Guard Geese at the Drovers Inn

I'm sure there was also an incident with a donkey, but Andy Blackbourn could give you the full details about that !

Apparently when they pulled me out of the fire they put me to bed but when I woke it was pitch black and I'd no idea where a light switch or even the door was. You can imagine the shock I got when I found a door, opened it.... and stepped into a wardrobe ! Fortunately the chamber pot was in it's usual place, under the bed.

So apart from hard work in the garage and training on the bike things were pretty quiet over the next few months.
This was the year I first took part in an organised long distance cycle run from Edinburgh to St Andrews. I think there were something like seven hundred people on this run that year. I thoroughly enjoyed it ! Alistair Rickett, Ian McGivern and some other suspects were there along with Douglas Reilly. We'd set off from Edinburgh with a police escort out of town and spent the whole day riding from pub to ice cream shop to pub again. The route was superb, the weather was good and the hills were climbable. I had no idea at all what I was going to do when we eventually reached St Andrews but after a good meal of chili con carne and several medicinal beers later, Ian McGivern managed to get us a berth for the night with a girl friend of his. And the weather even held out for the ride back to Edinburgh the next day ! Great fun ! Pity there was no photos taken .

Foggy start from Land's End at 7am.

Almost before I knew it , it was time for holidays and my big adventure. My first experience of this was a couple of years ago when I'd cycled across Scotland following the Southern Upland Way.
I took a train from Glasgow Central to Penzance on a one-way ticket and I was surprised at how expensive it was. Anyway I baled out the train at Penzance about six o'clock in the evening, damp and overcast but mild and no wind . The last time I was in Cornwall was in 1983 on my motorcycle and then I'd used the main road. This time I was going to use quiet back roads to the camp site at Land's End. It was only 20k away !
Well, I wasn't even out of Penzance before I was toiling on the hills. Mind you, I was carrying panniers and full camping equipment so I shudder to think what the total weight of the bike and luggage was !
That was probably the slowest, hardest 20km I've ever cycled ! I don't think there was a single piece of flat road the whole way. If it wasn't a 1:4 descent it was a 1:4 killer climb  and no respite at at all till I reached the camp site.
I was done in before I'd even started, but there was no way out now, I had to just get on with it. So, tent up, a bite to eat and crawl into my sleeping bag.

6am, I fill myself with porridge, pack up, photo of the fog and I'm off.....on the main road ! to hell with the scenic route !!
Actually it wasn't too bad. It was early on a Sunday morning so the main A30 road was quiet. Still foggy and dreich though !
I'd spoken to Sandra's father, Jimmy McGowan, about my trip and he'd told me to split my daily ride into 50km then 25km then 15km stretches. I managed to do the first 50km and stopped for lunch in Perranporth but when I set off again the heavens opened ! And it rained !! I thought it was a judgement for cycling on Sundays or having impure thoughts or something !
By this time I was going over the bleakest part of Bodmin Moor and really beginning to flag. It was a combination of a poor recovery from yesterday, lack of sleep, poor diet and weather. I'd forgotten that there were no camp sites in this area and there was no way I was going to camp wild in these conditions. 
This was not at all fun ! I just managed to make out through the rain , a sign for a B&B at the side of the road. It could have been the Bates Motel from Psycho as far as I was concerned, if they had a berth, I was staying here tonight !
Well they did, and as soon as I'd set my clothing out to dry I collapsed and slept for ten hours. Nothing to eat, just sleep !

Next morning after a fine athlete's breakfast of bacon, eggs sausages etc, I was on the road by 9am. Not raining, thank goodness and a bit of a tailwind springing up. The sun actually came out by mid morning. This was more like it ! I was fairly bowling along by now and got my first 50km done pretty quickly. This was where I made a basic mistake, I never ate enough when I stopped and 25km later I really thought that there was something seriously wrong with me. I could hardly walk, let alone cycle and I was dizzy and feeling nauseous. I staggered into a pub for a sandwich and began to realise that I was suffering from the "knock"more commonly known as low blood sugar level. I hadn't paid attention to my diet and I was paying for it now ! Although I struggled to eat it, the sandwich perked me up enough to do another 15km to a nice camp site in Tedburn St Mary where pitched for the night. I still had no appetite but I forced myself to eat as much as I could and slept like the dead for over ten hours.

I woke the next morning feeling ravenous. So I stuffed myself with porridge and dried fruit. This morning I felt transformed !
Still had a bit of a tailwind, so after stopping in Exeter for chain oil, the rain having completely washed off any lubrication, I carried on till mid morning then stopped at a Truck Stop for another breakfast, heavy on protein this time. I was off the main road by now but still on decent roads, no Cornish switchbacks. My natural appetite was back by now, so when I felt hungry, I stopped and ate. After about 140km I found another good camp site in Weston Super Mare.

Looking at Brunel's suspension bridge in Bristol.

Next day, having got my diet and pace sorted, I reeled off another 120km. Stopped briefly in Bristol then got fed up with the heavy main road traffic so turned left and just got lost for a diversion. I ended up in a wee village called Oldbury on Severn and spent a pleasant afternoon just digesting and soaking up some sun. I felt as if I was in Wicker Man territory, very pleasant though. I hope it's still like that, but I doubt it !

Town Hall, Oldbury on Severn.

I got back on to the main road heading north but couldn't find anywhere decent to camp for the night near Cheltenham so ended up booking myself into an expensive roadside hotel. If I hadn't paid cash up front, I think they would've turned me away. It's always been an unpleasant aspect of British life, unwarranted snobbery ! It's not like that in France, turn up at a smart hotel on a bike and not only will they lock it up for you, they'll offer to have it washed !
Different country, different attitudes.
Mind you I did enjoy soaking in a large bath for a couple of hours, most relaxing !

After the price I'd paid I felt justified in making a big attack on the buffet breakfast, I think some of the staff were beginning to feel a bit uneasy. Maybe they thought they were next ! 
Within an hour or so's cycling I made a totally unplanned change to my route. I was going to go through Shrewsbury and head north, but I decided to drop into Wolverhampton and catch up with some relatives.
I took a detour off the main road and had a pub lunch in a pub old enough to have had people wearing armour as customers. It's a strange feeling I get in some old places where the original character of the place still remains. Good lunch, nice beer and good company. It was there that I first became aware of the curse of the morlocks. The barman told me that they were going to be closing in the evenings at weekends because teenagers and folk in their early twenties were just coming in to get as drunk as they could as quickly and cheaply as possible. This was putting older people off and completely destroying the ambience of the village pub. No wonder villages are dying and turning into dormitories.
So another 100km done today by the time I reached Wolverhampton. It really was a bit of a slog though on the main roads. I was now getting a clearer idea of what I wanted in a bicycle. Dropped handlebars and a more responsive frame for a start. Then better, lighter wheels and tyres. And more bottle cages. I found that I was running out of water too quickly and I had to keep stopping to unpack bottled water.

Once Uncle Barry and  Aunt Anne got over the shock of having me turn up unannounced on their doorstep, they couldn't have done enough for me. Fed like a fighting cock and pumped full of Banks's Best Bitter. Some things never change, or so it seemed at the time. I spent a couple of days with them and with Aunt Muriel and Uncle Sam so when I set off again I was feeling pretty fit.

This was a long day, over 150km. I stayed the night in a B&B near Preston and just ate on the road. The weather continued fine, if anything a bit too hot, and I was beginning to burn around the edges.

Then it was a long slog over Shap to Carlisle where I invaded John and Irene's home for a day or so. Dragging myself over Shap really made me long for a more suitable bike. It was my hands and fingers that were giving me most problems because of the straight handlebars. I'd nowhere else to rest my hands and as a result I was losing the sensation in some of my fingers and developing pains in my shoulders.
I'd decided to drop in to Glasgow and take a day off and dump a lot of stuff I found I didn't need so that I could travel lighter if I was going any further.

Jimmy McGowan.

I was hardly in the door when Sandra got a phone call to tell her that Jimmy, her father, had died.
We all knew he wasn't in the best of health but it still came as a great shock to all of us. 
James Taylor McGowan, they just don't make them like him anymore.
I first met Jimmy McGowan in 1964 and immediately thought "He's a dead ringer for Kirk Douglas !"  Nearly twenty years later, and he still had that sort of military bearing about him. As I got to know him, very occasionally, he would tell me bits about his wartime experiences. He was among the last off the beaches at Dunkirk and among the first into Normandy. He would tell me about diving into roadside ditches to avoid enemy shelling by "moaning minnies" and sometimes being the only one alive to get back out. And how they had to use piles of dead bodies as bridges to cross rivers going into Germany.
Jimmy worked for Black and White Whisky and he certainly liked a drink, for men of his age it was almost compulsory, like smoking. Personally, I just can't stand whisky, but I was seriously impressed when Jimmy was asked to do a blind tasting to identify blended whiskies in his local pub, the Spring Inn. Not only did he correctly identify them but he could tell what malt whiskies they were blended from. 
Like a lot of men of his generation, and who could blame them !, he occasionally had a bit too much, but never once was he seen showing the signs of too much drink. He always marched home in a perfectly straight line !
But I used to love Saturday mornings, when Jimmy would make breakfast for us all, and then, when it was just Sandra and I in the kitchen he would talk......about anything and everything ! About cycling before the war, about every single shop on Sauchiehall Street, about sport in general, everything. He was a treat to listen to !

As you can imagine, everything else then was put aside. We had other things to do.

So I never went any further on that trip, but I thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience, even the bits when I was nearly weeping with despair. Character building I think they call it !

I was pretty pally with David Walsh who owns Clarkston Cycle Centre so I asked him to get me a new bike and we could do a bit of trading to pay for it. Davy's a great guy and would do anything for you, but some things just take time, so it wasn't till November that I got my new bike. It was a British Eagle Touristique in a dark grey metallic colour.  It came with drop bars, indexed downtube shifters for the 27 speed Shimano gearset and cantilever brakes onto 700c wheels. And it had a rear rack and two bottle cages. And it was quite light ! But I never rode it till the next year !
Meanwhile, I'd decided that cycling was a thing that suited my temperament, especially long distance cycling. I used to love reading about people taking long trips on a bike and started reading things like New Cyclist and the CTC Gazette. I couldn't climb, I couldn't sprint and I couldn't race but I could get great pleasure out of doing long solo rides. I was really inspired by reading an account of a ride in the Paris-Brest-Paris Randonee by Jock Wadley. Jock Wadley was passable racer in his day in England but had become enchanted by the French attitude to cycling  as a way of life, not just a furtive, semi-masonic activity as in Britain. This was the kind of cycling I wanted to do, long distances on a nice lightweight bike with minimum luggage at a brisk steady pace, either solo or with one or two like minded companions.
But I needed to build up a year round base fitness, which was no bad thing, after all, sensible exercise is good for all of us, is it not ? So I worked out a 50km route I could use whenever I wanted to. It took me from the house , down through Govan, past Ibrox Football Ground, out through Renfrew and Inchinnan, then onto quieter, hillier roads past the Monkey House and climbing over  into Kilmacolm. Then passing Houston and the rhubarb fields to complete the loop to bring me back home through Drumoyne and Govan. This became a favourite regular training run for me. Later, I would be up at 5am to get some training in before a day in the garage and often before an Audax event I would get extra training in by doing this run in the dark late in the evening.
Did it become obsessive ? 
Read what happened in the later years and judge then !
At first Douglas Riley would come along with me, and he could be quite an entertaining character on a run. I must give him credit, he could have been a much better cyclist than I would ever be ! He was tall and didn't carry any excess weight, although he could eat like a bloody horse ! But although he could fly past me on any climb, he somehow or other, couldn't get his head round riding steadily for a long time. It was tortoise and hare stuff. He would often sprint off into the distance, lose me, then take a wrong turn and get lost. And by the time I'd got to where we were supposed to be going, I would have to wait for ages until he found his way there. He was a scatterbrain ! But I liked him.
He loved music ! And he got me to listen to things I'd just dismissed, like Abba and Bee Gees and loads of other stuff. He was like Jimmy Muirhead in that way, he could just sense good music !
And he was open to listening to absolutely anything.

Maggie, John Aire and the other young John Aire.

The next big thing that year was young John Aire's wedding in Renfrew. It had seemed like ages since all the Aires and McGowans had got together for something enjoyable, and this was it ! In this photo are Maggie, who turned out to be Mary's sister, Sandra's cousin John Aire who had become a multi millionaire through the motor trade, and Cousin Billy's young brother John who's wedding it was.

Sandra's Uncle William and cousin Billy Aire.
Here's cousin Billy and his father Uncle William. I hadn't seen Billy for years and I was pleased to see that he'd done very well for himself....and his wives, ex-wives, numerous children and adopted children ! We did a fair bit of business together, Billy and I. I actually sold the BMW 316 that we used to go to France to one of Billy's wives. He became an entertaining regular at the garage.

Sandra with Billy and Aunty Rita.
Here's a photo of Sandra and Billy. You can almost tell by the look on his face that he's about to do something hilarious ! 
Don't worry, there'll be more stories about Billy Aire in the future...

Mimsie, Cousins Greta and Sylvia at Millport.

Mimsie's cousin Greta was by now a regular weekend fixture. I actually quite liked Greta and I know Mimsie was fond of her. Her brother Ian McLeod and his wife Sylvia started to be frequent visitors to Minard around this time too. Cousin Ian could be the life and soul of a party at the drop of a hat. And Mimsie just loved a party ! So I was pleased to see her enjoying herself even if they were behaving like senile delinquents at times.

Lucy in the kitchen
Lucy, by now had decided to pursue Law as a career. She really was an admirable daughter, she decided that she was going to work full time in Safeways supermarket and gain her qualifications by doing part-time degrees in Caledonian University and later Strathclyde University. Lucy has never had any illusions about money. If you want it, you work ! Simple as that !
It was a pity that the creature she was now involved with could never figure that out !

Dave and Blandine were still a kind of an item and Ricky and Mary were thinking about setting up home together. Although we didn't know anything about it until it was done ! Typical !
We could have helped, and as it turned out we all did, but that's for later !

River Cart in full flood !
So the last major event for me that year, was when the river Cart, running along the back of the garage, decided to flood. It's a poor picture, I know, but you might just get some idea of the extent of the flooding when you realise that there is usually a gap of 5 or 6 meters underneath that bridge ! 
If it hadn't been for us building a wall to link two of the buildings,the garage would have been a meter deep in water. As it was it was just about to come in the windows ! Fortunately the tide turned and we were saved.
Years later, at huge expense, a series of high bankings were put in place along the River Cart hopefully to avoid situations like this.

We'll see !!

Next year, more cycling and more Alistair Rickett !

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