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Abnormal Freedom – Four Points Part 1

Riding a Harley-Davidson Sport Glide to Britain's most southerly point in the time of coronavirus

I don’t want normal back. I can provide a lifetime of evidence showing I do not do well with normal. Britain’s been in some state of lockdown for almost three months, with some restrictions likely to continue until… I don’t know… Jesus comes back? I’ll admit that’s disruptive, but I definitely don’t agree with the folks who whine about wanting to return to “normal.” No. No lo quiero.

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In all kinds of ways the past few months have shown us that “normal” was rife with problems, and many of us have begun living better-balanced lives, or at least begun to take action to do so. I don’t want normal. Or, at least, I don’t want the normal we had; it made me miserable. I do miss being able to stay at hotels, though. Or campsites. Or anywhere, really. The inability to (legally) stay somewhere other than your own home overnight in Lockdown Britain makes road trips challenging.

My route (roughly) for the first leg of the Four Points Ride

But I can’t just sit here. The weather has been unseasonably dry and sunny, and, much more importantly, Harley-Davidson has given me the keys to a 2020 Sport Glide. The bike is in my care based on a conversation I had with some of the team back when we all thought this coronavirus business would blow over quickly. I had told them about my plan to do a Four Points Ride, travelling to the furthest points of mainland Britain.

If you’re the sort of person who likes to be pedantic, you’ll know that the United Kingdom is not an island; it is an archipelago that consists of at least 120 and perhaps as many as 6,000 islands, depending on how you define an island. I mean, one man’s island is another man’s very large rock. So, the true furthest points north, south, east and west of this country are out in the sea somewhere – none terribly accessible to the others by motorcycle. My Four Points Ride is in reference to the main island, Great Britain. Its furthest points north, south, east and west are Dunnet Head in Caithness (Scotland), Lizard Point in Cornwall (England), Ness Point in Suffolk (England) and Ardnamurchan Lighthouse in Lochaber (Scotland).

In a straight shot, such a journey would see you clocking up at least 2,200 miles if you stuck to motorways and considerably more if you understand the point of riding a motorcycle. Either way, it’s a trip that would mean spending the night in a few different places. As such, it’s one that technically isn’t allowed at the moment – especially in the Scottish destinations.

2018 Harley-Davidson Sport Glide – First Ride

Here in Her Majesty’s United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland we’ve been in some form of lockdown since mid March. In recent weeks, the country’s been trying to ease some of the more stringent aspects of lockdown but has gone about doing so in the traditional British way: slightly confused and conflicting procedures implemented by multiple confused layers of bureaucracy.

In Scotland and Wales, things currently remain largely as they have ever since National Tamale Day. Although now we’re officially able to meet our friends outdoors, rather than conveniently “bumping into” them whilst taking our daily state-sanctioned exercise. People aren’t supposed to be travelling more than 5 miles to visit friends, and riding a motorcycle for pleasure is still technically a no-no. In England, however, the rules are different because reasons. They are different in such a convoluted way that no one is entirely sure what the rules are. But riding a motorcycle is OK as long as you maintain social distancing at stops, don’t ride in groups and are back in your own bed at the end of the night.

So, all of the countries are doing their own thing and moving in phases that are subject to any number of variables. It is extremely difficult to guess how long things will continue, or when we’ll be able to do what. Recently, for example, Motorcycle Live – the UK’s largest motorcycle show – announced it is cancelling this year’s event. It was supposed to have taken place in late November, which shows that many feel we’re in for a very long haul. From a motorcycling perspective, the only thing you can do is take what you can get.

2020 Harley-Davidson Sport Glide in Dartmoor National Park
England can be very pretty

Besides, this Sport Glide isn’t going to ride itself – the road to hell is paved with unridden Harleys – nor am I being allowed to keep it indefinitely. As such, I’ve decided to break my Four Points Ride into sections, doing as much as I can with the Sport Glide while I can, when I can, rather than waiting some indefinite amount of time in the hope that I’ll be able to do the whole ride at once.

All of which brings us finally to a chilly morning in late May. It’s 6:30 a.m. and I’m aimed toward Lizard Point, the most southerly point in Britain. Or, well, I will be when I find a gas station that’s open. Since most people aren’t technically supposed to be out and about in Wales it’s difficult for those of us fudging the rules to find a place to fill tanks early on a Sunday.

I know that a lot of places – cafes, restaurants, etc. – are closed, so I’ve overprepared. The Sport Glide’s panniers are stuffed with as many contingency items as I can think of: waterproofs, a fleece pullover, a long-sleeve T-shirt, a second pair of gloves, an emergency tire repair kit, a Leatherman, a monkey wrench, a towel, wet wipes, an asthma inhaler, a package of Piriteze, a phone power pack, two ham-and-cheese sandwiches, a packet of crisps, an apple, an orange, three breakfast bars, a can of Coke, a thermos of peppermint tea and three 750ml bottles of water. If I were Bear Grylls this amount of kit would signal a multi-week trip. Whereas I’ve told my wife to expect me home for dinner.

Made for Adventure – A Triumph Tiger 800 XRT in Scottish Winter

There are roughly 500 miles of road to travel first. England’s “no overnight stays” rule means I’ll be doing an out-and-back ride. It’s overcast and windy with the promise of warmer, sunnier weather as the day wears on. I eventually find an automated gas station, fill the Sport Glide’s tank and get settled in for the first part of the ride: a motorway haul to Plymouth.

The roads are very quiet, which means I can take advantage of the bike’s cruise control as soon as I’m on the motorway. I lock my speed at 70 mph – the legal limit in the UK and considerably slower than most people ever travel in this country – because fewer cars on the road does not mean fewer cops. In fact, your chances of getting to chat with the po-po are quite high these days; they’ve got nothing else to do.

The sun begins to break through the clouds south of Bristol, warming me through the heavy black leather of my Hideout jacket. I know this section of road well; it’s the route to Exeter, where much of my wife’s family live. It would not be an exaggeration to say I’ve ridden and driven it hundreds of times. Today, though, it is so peaceful, so relaxed that I’m spotting things I’ve never seen before: “Wait! You can see the sea from here?! Whoa! Where did that old church come from? Has that enormous Victorian-style monument been on top of that hill the whole time? Has that hill been there the whole time?”

2020 Harley-Davidson Sport Glide on Torpoint Ferry
I always swoon for the Street Bob, but the Sport Glide really is the best bike in the Softail line-up.

Normally the M5 is crowded with tourists pouring toward the beauty spots of Somerset, Devon and Cornwall like a monied slurry; my attention has always been on the road, on the high-speed chess game that is a British roadway. Things are so quiet now it feels as if I am riding in a different country or a different time. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I mean, to imagine a time when the M5 was last this quiet you probably have to go back to the 1960s, when the motorway was built. To imagine a time when Britain’s air was this clean you probably have to go back a few centuries. Whatever form the new normal takes I hope we’ll somehow be able to hold on to an element of this tranquility.

The sun is shining when I roll into Plymouth shortly before 9:30. The city is quiet; lockdown Sunday morning.

Most American school kids will know that Plymouth is the place from which the Pilgrims finally departed for America after months of setbacks and mishaps. This year marks the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower voyage. So for some tenuous reason that probably only works in my head (You know, the Pilgrims were seeking religious freedom; a Harley-Davidson is a Freedom Machine) I’ve decided it makes sense to make a stop in the city. If anything, the bike looks kind of cool in front of the Mayflower Steps.

The Mayflower Steps is a monument to the Pilgrims in Plymouth’s harbor: a stone doorway highlighted by Doric columns. Flanked by UK and US flags, the doorway (or portico, if you want to use a fancy word to better describe a doorway that has no door) leads to a small platform that looks out across the harbour toward the mouth of the River Plym, allowing the imagination to carry on into the English Channel, out to the Celtic Sea and across the Atlantic Ocean. At the very least the monument is a cool place to take pictures of the bike.

2020 Harley-Davidson Sport Glide at the Mayflower Steps in Plymouth, England
Something something freedom, something something charting your own path

As I’m moving the bike around for photos a slightly intoxicated man (And well done to you, sir. It’s 9:30 am) shows up to tell me that his dad used to have some really cool bikes, which is par for the course when it comes to the sort of conversations you’ll have when riding a Harley-Davidson. It’s a bit like owning a Triumph Bonneville T120 in that it magically compels people to tell you about any and every person they know who has owned a motorcycle. And as I said of the T120, if you don’t enjoy conversations with middle-aged white men, you should consider buying a different bike. Unique to Harley banter, perhaps because the engine is so prominent, is the tendency of men – always and only men – to attempt to sound knowledgeable by making up lingo.

“What is she there, a trip-two?” he asks.

I can’t even begin to guess what he’s asking, so I launch into my typical spiel. As a moto-blogger/journalist you often find yourself feeling a bit like a salesman in telling people about the bikes you get to ride. 1746cc V-twin, 83 hp, 145 Nm of torque, comfortable, stylish, handles well, yours for only £15,295, so on and so on, etcetera, etcetera. Eventually we run out of things to say at each other and he extends his hand in farewell. When I shake it I discover it is soaking wet. I try not to think why that would be and do my best to be subtle in diving to the bike’s panniers for wet wipes.

Buy a T-Shirt!

In the spirit of the Pilgrims I leave Plymouth by boat, taking the uniquely chain-guided ferry that runs every 15 minutes across the River Tamar to Torpoint, Cornwall. Normally it would cost a motorcyclist 40 pence but due to coronavirus no one is collecting fares, so today it’s free. From Torpoint I follow a delightfully twisty series of smaller roads to The Lizard, the small, roundish peninsula that sticks out toward the bottom of the larger peninsula that is Cornwall. It gets its name from a mishearing of the area’s Cornish name, An Llysardh.

Wikipedia says the Cornish name means “the high court” but it’s difficult to know if that’s true; the last native Cornish speaker died 243 years ago. Since then the language has been the purview of nerds and academics who can’t agree on anything. These days there are only about 300 Cornish speakers, who argue to such an extent that they use 12 different grammatical systems. That is a microcosm of Britishness, by the way: a small group of indistinguishably white people arguing over the most pointless shit you can imagine.

Whatever the case, The Lizard is a beautiful, green and floral stretch of relatively open land that sits on cliffs overlooking a bright, azure sea. It’s one of the last bits of England the Pilgrims would have seen before sailing into open ocean. If the weather on that day was half as nice as it is today I suspect the sight of Lizard Point haunted them often as they spent the next two months being thrown around by storms so violent that no one could stand because of seasickness. Sick dribbling from their lips and their heads screaming in pain, they must have at least once or twice pictured in perfect detail the cliffs of Lizard Point and asked themselves: “Why did I leave a place that’s so pretty?”

Lizard Point, Cornwall
The view from Lizard Point

As is the way with most beauty spots in the United Kingdom there is a National Trust car park here, where I park the bike and walk down to Britain’s most southerly point. As is also often the way with beautiful places in the United Kingdom, I find there’s a cafe here. It is boarded up with COVID-19-related apologies posted in the windows. Around the back, I find some picnic benches and tuck into my lunch.

I linger for a while in the sun and peacefulness, then find myself fighting a sense of urgency. I’ve made it to my destination. Everything from now on is just the process of getting back home. My wife and dog and beer and pizza are waiting for me and I want to get back to them. Initially I make my way onto the A30, a dual carriageway that will get me back to the M5 quickest. Such a route means sitting on motorway for four hours, cruise control locked in. To break up the monotony I plan to stop at the Jamaica Inn, the pub made famous by Daphne du Maurier’s novel of the same name. But let’s be honest: you’ve never read a Daphne du Maurier novel, have you? And if you have, it probably wasn’t Jamaica Inn. Besides, there’s nothing particularly special about the Jamaica Inn; it’s just a low-quality pub sat next to a major highway in the middle of a bleak landscape. Its only real value is being a convenient place to stop and pee when my wife and I visit her Cornish relatives.

I decide to visit Dartmoor National Park instead. The area has some excellent motorcycling roads and thanks to lockdown they’ll be relatively quiet. Relatively. As I make my way through the Tamar Valley it becomes clear that a lot of other motorcyclists have the same idea. We’re able to keep out of each others’ ways, though, and I settle into a relaxed but cheerful pace. The Sport Glide is surprisingly excellent in this environment. Words like “nimble” and “quick” would be misleading but the bike handles well. If you think through the curves, rather than adopting the sportbike point-and-shoot approach, you get a machine that is flowing and stable. And engaging; I’ve already clocked up 300+ miles today but this bike has me wanting to take more detours. Doing so means I stumble upon the Warren House Inn, where I took pictures for a Kawasaki GTR1400 review a few years ago.

2020 Harley-Davidson Sport Glide outside Warren House Inn in Dartmoor
The windows are shuttered and the outdoor seating is stacked up, but there is still smoke coming from the chimney of the Warren House Inn

The pub’s claim to fame is the fact it has kept a fire going in one of its fireplaces continuously since 1845. It’s presently closed amid lockdown restrictions, but when I stop and look closely I’m able to spot that, yes, there is smoke rising from the chimney. The fire is still burning. I make a promise to myself that as soon as government restrictions allow me I will come back here and buy a huge meal (and several pints if my wife comes along and can drive me home). I feel an obligation to do so. Quite a lot of businesses won’t make it through the next year; if you care about a place you need to go there and spend money as soon as you’re able.

In the meantime, I follow twisting roads all the way into Exeter, fill up the tank and point the bike toward home. I’m able to stay locked in cruise control for most of the ride, arriving back in Penarth just before 7:30 pm – some 13 hours after leaving. My trip meter tells me I have clocked exactly 502.8 miles. I’m tired, but no more so than if I had travelled the same distance by car. In fact, I’m probably more alert because the bike has kept me so entertained. Most importantly, I’m not sore. That’s good to know, because the next part of my Four Points Ride will see me covering even more miles.

But that’s a different story for a different day. For now, I navigate the bike into my garden (yes, it fits – barely), kill the engine and sit quietly for a few minutes listening to the “tink, tink, tink” of its metal parts as they cool.

2020 Harley-Davidson Sport Glide in Plymouth, England
Just take a look at that beautiful trip-two