Stuart Yarwood reports on the Port to Port challenge, undertaken by a group of imbalanced industry folk pushing Ransomes pedestrian mowers, that raised over £3000 for Help for Heroes.
Sustained by far too much junk food, they found the route both tough and exhilarating in equal measure
Being in the turf industry, its nice to get an extra day's holiday to rest and recuperate but, at the same time, the grass doesn't stop growing and you have to work twice as hard to catch up in the following four days. So, when the idea of spending an August Bank Holiday walking across the country came up, it seemed like a crazy idea. Then we were told we would be pushing hand mowers as well, that's just suicide, we thought.
It all started over nine months ago when Tim Johnson, assistant greenkeeper at Wilmslow Golf Club in Cheshire, had this fantastic idea of walking coast to coast in aid of the Help for Heroes charity and, wanting to do something different, thought, "lets do it with hand-mowers".
Tim's next step was to get a team together of imbalanced people who are easily led, and who agree to crazy ideas. After contacting Stuart Yarwood (Lymm GC), Gordon Irvine MG (Greenkeeping Consultant), Stuart Walkinshaw (Training Coach at Everton FC), David Steventon (Prestige Garden Services) and David Clifford (Triathelete), the team was born. Unfortunately, David Steventon had to pull out due to family reasons but, standing in the wings, was ex National Ballroom Dancing Champion, Eddie Ainsworth, who just after taking on the role as Course Manager at Avro Golf Club in Cheshire, figured he could do with a little more stress in his life!
As the months and meetings went by, Ransomes Jacobsen were fantastic by donating three Ransomes Super Certes for the event. Our thanks to Jim Whitton, David Timms and Gina Putnam.
We had the mowers, we had the enthusiasm. All we needed now was a route. Tim did an amazing job of planning the coast to coast walk - the Albert Dock in Liverpool to the Albert Dock in Hull - a total of 127 miles up hill, down dale, through towns, cities, across moors and open plains.
A quick call to each county police department along the route confirmed we were crazy, but legal. After driving the route on the weekend before the big push, any enthusiasm we had soon disappeared as we realised the monumental task that lay before us in only seven days time!
After that first drive of the route, we thought about any problems we might incur or what might go wrong. At this stage, the event had been advertised, sponsorship money was arriving and there was no way this could fail now.
The team was ready although, due to work commitments, the numbers would be four walkers on day one, six on day two, five on day three, and back to four for the big push to Hull.
There is Health & Safety all around us in our jobs and, as turfcare professionals, we always work in a safe working environment, so this was no different. You have to look after your team.
We realised, very quickly, that we needed a support vehicle. Tim's father, Stuart, had offered his services from the start, using his transit van as a medical and mechanical support truck. However, driving it at 3mph for 127 miles wasn't going to leave it with much clutch left! A quick call to Gina Putnam at Ransomes Jacobsen and she had a brand new Ransomes MegaTruck en-route from Ipswich within hours.
We had the mowers, the team, the support, and the route. All we needed now was to do it - but it still looked impossible.
The alarm call went off very early on Friday 24th August. This was it! Day one!!
Meeting at team HQ - Tim's dad's house - at 5.00am, we loaded up the MegaTruck on the trailer. The van was loaded with the mowers, tools, overnight kit, fuel and supplies (a mountain of energy drinks, water and energy bars had kindly been donated for the trip). We all sat in the transit van on the forty minute ride to Liverpool, nervously chatting and getting to know each other, occasionally going quiet to chomp on a Nutrigrain bar and contemplate what was coming.
The van pulled up and we unpacked everything in the blink of an eye. The nervous energy and adrenaline was flowing. The mowers were lifted out, the truck was rolled off the trailer and, after a quick team chat, we set off. It was 6.00am. We were on the west coast about to start walking to Hull, and it felt amazing. That was until we got lost! A problem soon rectified as we realised the guy up at the front needs the phone with the directional map on!
The city of Liverpool was waking up, and we got a few strange looks. One taxi driver approached Eddie and offered him £50 for his mower. We thought we could get more, so we pressed on.
Out of the city we calmed down and settled into a routine, swapping over between driving the megatruck and guiding the mower on its journey. Breakfast was needed and, walking towards Knotty Ash, we came across the Diddy Men of Chris Sheehan, Simon Barker and the rest of the greenkeeping team from West Derby Golf Club, who dragged us into McDonald's for a breakfast treat. Thank you guys, that kind of support was overwhelming, and there was more to come.
Onwards we strode, eating up the miles on footpaths, roads, even express ways, past Knowsley Safari Park, with the giraffes straining their necks over the fence at the strange sight of greenkeepers pushing hand-mowers.
Another quick and gratefully received munitions drop of food aid from David Steventon of Prestige Garden Services, and Paul Moreton from British Seed Houses, stocked us with crisps, bananas and more water as we pushed on to the start of the A580.
The East Lancs Road would send us into Manchester and onto the end of day one. The road is long, with many a winding turn ... it's great in the song, but this was getting painful now. We had already covered around sixteen miles, and this stretch would be just over fifteen miles of the same straight road, on the same straight footpath into Manchester. Not a lot when you're used to driving it but, at three miles per hour, it was five hours away!!
The MegaTruck and support van could not flank us any more. We were on our own!
It's at times like these your mind starts playing with you, as it gets bored, eating away at your enthusiasm and focusing on the increasing pains in your tired body. The blood sugar levels drop, followed quickly by morale, then the bickering starts. It was a breakdown on the mower that pulled us back together. The drive chain came off and, having no support van or tools on us at this stage, and using the only thing we had on us - a small tin of Vaseline - we were able to use the lid as a screwdriver, grease her up, and were on our way. Morale boosted, lessons learned and the team intact, we pressed onto McDonald's for a bit of dinner to keep the blood pumping.
During this long and monotonous stretch, we had support from Karen Oultram, the wife of Steve from Wilmslow Golf Club, and Steve Helmsley, Course Manager at Bolton Golf Club, to cheer us on.
Donations were coming in thick and fast, checking online to see the totals increasing mile by mile and the folks that put money into the collection tub on the mower all spurred us on.
We got to the end of the East Lancs road and, with only a few miles of town roads to go at, we were soon coming down the hill into Heaton Park with tears in our eyes after spotting our end.
We arrived in the car park of the Premier Inn at 7.30pm. We had covered thirty-two miles in just over twelve hours. Sore and blistered, with the adrenaline pumping, we loaded up the van, just in time for the heavens to open. It felt fantastic to have done the first day, but it quickly dawned on us that we were only one quarter of the way there. The next few days were going to be tough, so it wasn't long before the alarm was going off again at 5.00am for day two - the big climb!
We knew day two was going to be tough. Thirty-seven miles uphill, across the moors, through Huddersfield and onto the end point of Wakefield.
We had no worries though, as we had a full team today as Gordon Irvine and David 'The Triathlete' Clifford had arrived. Tim, Eddie and the two Stuarts had done a tremendous job on day one, but now we soon realised that the bar had been raised as we climbed up higher, mile by mile, slowly looking down on where we had walked from. Up through Oldham town, passing the football club, spirits were high until we saw the 14% incline that took us up onto the moors. It was like climbing the stairs with a mower, as each step took you higher and higher, sweat pouring from our bodies and ears popping as we climbed.
On the top, with our hearts racing, we could survey every mile we had owned over the last day and a half. It was amazing, and made us forget about the pains in our bodies and, with the most fantastic scenery of the moors ahead, spurred us on and, with the awareness of our isolation and vulnerability in such a harsh and lonely environment, really allowed us to bond as a team.
Over the moors you could survey every mile ahead and, in the distance through the pouring rain, we could see the M62 towards Brighouse. We were actually doing this, and it felt good.
Signs for Huddersfield came up as we dropped over the moors and started to descend. This was harder than climbing as your feet were pushed forward into your trainers, upsetting the natural rhythm you'd set and, with the dead weight of the mower driving you forward, it made us realise that uphills were really our friends.
A breakdown with the Super Certes into Huddersfield slowed us a little as the clutch needed adjusting, and we soon realised our mechanical skills were somewhat rusty. A quick pie stop at a local chippy to refresh parts other foods cannot refresh, and a technical help call to James Breeze, Head Greenkeeper at Midgely Lodge Golf Club in Wakefield, saw us on our way again.
Huddersfield was quite depressing, as we encountered many folk from different religious beliefs who didn't share our support for the 'Help for Heroes' charity. And then the most depressing news of all - feeling very tired after the huge moor climb, we saw a sign. 'Wakefield 15 miles'. Ordinarily, this would be a mere hop and a skip in a car, but being tired, sore and demoralised, we knew we were still over five hours away from our destination, and our balloon was being popped slowly!
But then, heads down in the rain, we had a great visit from Paul Lowe from Symbio. He had driven over from Liverpool, not far in the car, he said (cheers mate), to support us and give us the morale boosting news that our Premier Inn lodgings would be supported by Symbio. Fantastic!
We strode on to Wakefield in the pouring rain, arriving just before 8.00pm. A quick meal and debrief, whilst James Breeze waved his magic spanners across the mowers for a quick service check, and it was time for bed, wishing for a Wakefield massage.
Waking up on a Bank Holiday Sunday, you would usually hope for a lie-in and then a nice cooked breakfast.
This Bank Holiday Sunday offered no such luxuries. A 6.00am start, fruit, yoghurt and cereal consumed, and the great staff at the Premier Inn Wakefield South prepared and wrapped bacon butties to fuel us on our thirty-two mile journey to Goole.
How much fuel does a mower use? How eco-friendly is our job? We brimmed the tanks and set off as a five ball (Dave the triathlete had work commitments) to see how many MPG we could get out of the mowers. It was little exercises like this that kept our minds working and set little goals along the way. We had nicknamed all the mowers Trish. It had to be a girl's name, as these mowers carried on regardless with no complaint. We spent the next day working out why Trish, and trying to solve the acronym of the name.
A short climb out of Wakefield, then it was like we had broken through the sound barrier. All became pain free and easy as the miles rolled past through the beautifully flat Lincolnshire plains. We were bonding as a team, planning and organising as we went, setting tasks and executing with clinical efficiency. We were a well oiled machine now, with structure, the support vehicle moving forward to set mini goals for the mower guys and, all the while, the familiar sight of the Tim's dad, aka The Shadow, always there ready for any eventuality, punctures in the transport wheels being one of those. We could now concentrate on enjoying these moments and knowing there was a possibility we were going to complete this crazy task.
Getting near to the end of day three, Stuart Yarwood was running out of clothes fast, and he needed a washing machine. Knowing the mower guys were safe, he and Eddie raced up to the Premier Inn Goole to book the team in for that night's stay. Whilst there he cheekily asked Trevor, the chap on reception, if he would mind washing his bag full of two days worth of sweaty socks and t-shirts. Trevor duly obliged and, when we arrived later, the clothes were washed, dried and folded neatly. The MegaTruck was now renamed 'Trevor' in honour of that great man who dug deep and took one for the team in sorting out that bad bag of washing.
Gordon Irvine had to leave us around 4.30pm to get the train from York back to Glasgow, as work was calling for Monday. It was very sad to see one of the team heading off in a taxi, after doing such a great job, leaving us now as the original four of Tim, Eddie, and the two Stuarts to complete the remainder of the day and the final leg to Hull.
After a mixed grill, a restless night's sleep, thanks to a wedding party at our hotel, we woke up a little tired to say the least. Not the best start for the last day, but only twenty-six miles to Hull. A breeze? Not entirely!
Lincolnshire is lovely and flat, heading through Howden and down the hill into Hull. It's obvious we thought... Liverpool to Manchester pretty flat, Climb up on top, over the Pennines then drop down all the way to the east coast again.
All was going great until, after fifteen miles of slow descent, instead of seeing the open port of Hull below us, we were greeted with a huge hill to climb. These are the Lincolnshire Wolds, created by nature thousands of years ago, and now pulling the rug from under the feet of tired greenkeepers pushing hand-mowers. It was a very hard slog to the top but, once there, a view to behold of the Humber bridge in the distance. A glimmer of hope!
Whilst on the top of the hill, next to all the large radio masts and mobile phone antenna, Eddie was unable to receive any form of signal to update one of his hundreds of Facebook postings! Descending the Wolds, the pace picked up, momentum and excitement were building, especially when we reached the signpost that said 'Hull 7 miles'.
Yet, there were still two and a half hours to go!
Those last few hours will always be a blur, as the adrenaline is pumping, knowing you are nearly there. The last four miles into Hull, along the expressway, seemed to drag forever. It soon started to get busy around the train station, then through the streets, meeting Rob Welford, Course Manager at Cleethorpes Golf Club, and his family joining us on the last mile for support.
Crossing expressways and roundabouts, nearly running with the mowers, we could taste the sea air again that we'd left behind four days ago. Then the dock road, then the cobbled street of the Albert Dock in Hull. The mowers juddering over each cobble, and then the sight of our friends and family waiting at the quayside. Big hugs and tears as we crossed our finish line.
It truly was an emotional finish and one we'll never forget.
We stayed around at the port for an hour, packing up the vans and sorting out all the kit to travel back. It was also a moment to sit back and reflect on, what was, a truly awesome feat. It was also important to understand not only the physical side of this challenge, but the emotional and mental sides also. The strength of character that is needed to carry on against adversity, knowing the cause that's being helped, plus the team effort and bonding. Everyone in the team learned something about their lives that weekend. Demons were exorcised, friendships forged and many crossroads navigated, helping us all on our personal journeys as individuals.
We went out as greenkeepers, and came back as men, as friends, and as a team.
We would just like to take this opportunity to publicly thank everyone who has donated to the cause and helped support us along the way, and we could not have done it without the help of the lovely people from Ransomes Jacobsen, Symbio, Rigby Taylor, British Seed Houses, Prestige Garden Services, Banks Amenity, Pitchcare and BIGGA.
And, after all that hard work and effort, not only walking 127 miles in four days pushing 'TRISH', but after reading this article, you're probably wondering how fuel efficient is a Ransomes Super Certes?
They are amazing, as they will do just over sixty miles to a gallon. Better than a Prius, and it cuts grass too!
And, after a days of pounding the tarmac and thinking of why we called the hand mower TRISH, what did we end up with? The answer was obvious:
A perfect name for perfect Bank Holiday companions.
We raised over £3000 for 'Help for Heroes', and you may still donate by visiting www.bmycharity.com/TimJohnson
Thank you for all your support, and we look forward to having you on the team for next years 'Greenkeepers Charity Challenge'.