Liverpool Pilots Cycle 250 miles for 250 Years: Dave Roberts

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Kevin Walsh, Dan Wardle, Alan Windsor, Scott Birrell, Tim Nuttall, Paul Stephenson,
Rob Baker, Mark Wilbourne, Mark Harding, David Roberts, John Slater, Bill Hughes,
Tom Tebay

I should begin this article with a warning: when you make an off the cuff suggestion on a pilot launch it can gain momentum.

We were discussing the various ways we could commemorate the forthcoming 250th anniversary of our Pilot service and I made the suggestion that we could ride 250 miles on our bikes. So it began.

Eventually a plan was hatched: we would break the 250 miles into four rides and try routes which have some significance in our history. Hopefully we would encompass the district. The stages we chose varied in
length and terrain in the hope that as many of our colleagues and friends would join us. Here’s a taste of the fun we had.

Round the Mersey 55′
The first leg began on 29th February at our spiritual home beneath the Liver Buildings, a position which 250 years ago would have been in the river and in the approaches to one of the original creeks where sailing ships berthed in the embryonic city. Well wrapped up we rode along the river front cycle path which, except for a detour around Garston Docks and Liverpool Airport, takes riders traffic free along the banks of the river to Runcorn Bridge. Runcorn presented a few problems, number one being crossing the bridge. There is a cycleway separate from the roadway overhanging the river. This is not for the faint hearted and certainly not for those with even a hint of vertigo, though as you can imagine all my fellow Pilots spent the crossing discussing the state of the tide and the ships in the Manchester Ship Canal on the southern bank of the river. Recent traffic developments in Runcorn caused problems as it seems all the town’s roads are being altered to accommodate the new river crossing a mile upstream; the necessary diversion UP to Halton castle was not appreciated. Lunch in Frodsham gave the cyclists a chance to warm up and refuel before a tasty climb up Bellemonte Hill in order to pass the old Mersey View nightclub and allow a sight of the whole estuary — we all found that illusive bottom gear, too.

Any ride near the Mersey is also a trip through the industrial revolution. After riding through some quiet Cheshire roads and around Stanlow refinery we joined the tow path of the Ellesmere Canal to the Ellesmere Port boat museum where the canal meets the ship canal. In the gathering gloom and cold we pressed on past our Pilot Station at Eastham locks — a warming cuppa would have been nice. A ride from Ellesmere Port to Birkenhead isn’t exactly picturesque, but all credit to Cheshire and Wirral councils for recently improving the cycle-only paths along the canal and for marking a Wirral circular ride which took us around Bromborough Dock and Port Sunlight. Finally we passed Birkenhead Priory (which overlooks Cammell Laird drydocks) and Monks Ferry, one of the original river crossing points, before reaching our present-day offices near Woodside Stage, Birkenhead.

Aside from a few punctures all went well, but our ‘rider of the day’ was without doubt Tom Tebay. He nipped into the shed the night before the ride, found a bike and between ships joined us to complete the 55 miles in his fleece and gardening gloves — who needs lycra and carbon fibre?

Source to the Mouth 55′
The source of the Mersey is at the confluence of the rivers Tame and Goyt, close to the centre of Stockport. In the shadow of the M60 and below the imposing railway arches there is a sign marking the start of the river. Our group from Liverpool and Manchester Pilots gathered along with our colleagues from Briggs Marine, our pilot launch provider, for the second ride.

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Paul Stephenson, Mark Wilbourne, Tim Nuttall, David Roberts, Scott Birrell,
Chris Thomas, Rob Baker, Peter Simpson, John Slater, Peter McArthur

It was a bright May day and we arrived at the source by car, van and mainly train and set off via Mersey Square (the river passes beneath the town’s shopping centre) and eventually on to the riverside path. When I planned the ride I noticed numerous water treatment works were along the river (let’s be honest, following the Mersey within industrial Manchester isn’t going to be exactly picturesque, is it?). Well, as we cycled along the river on a well-maintained path, we passed impressively clean river banks, Mersey canoe trips and numerous golf clubs. It seemed the old sewage works were now bird watching centres and the low lying land around the river was used more for sports (Sale Sharks and Manchester United training grounds) rather than industry.

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The Mersey at low water beneath
Runcorn Bridge

After lunch at Flixton we joined the four-mile section where the river is also part of the Manchester ship canal. We crossed the lock gates at Irlam, saw the highest tidal point of the Mersey in Warrington, and followed the St Helens canal to Spike Island where barges with goods from Lancashire used to enter the Mersey and where now in the nearby classrooms of the Catalyst museum teachers show groups of school children the influence of the industrialisation on our life today.

As it started to rain our ride was brightened by retired Pilot Jim Pauling joining us. He set the pace for the last few miles from Cressington to our destination, the Pumphouse at the Pier Head. Another 55′ completed and once again another impressive ride on good paths where we all learned something more about the history and geography of our river.

Lynas to Woodside 105′

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Pictured at Point Lynas-Chris Thomas, David Roberts, Scott Birrell, Alan Windsor and Lee Sparks

Many of my colleagues had been tempted by the previous routes, but the ride from our ‘Western Station’ at Point Lynas in NW Angelsey back to Birkenhead was only for the hard-bitten riders amongst us. After some trepidation the night before the ride we made our way to the Pilot hostel overlooking Freshwater Bay. In favourable August weather, and just days after celebrating our 250th anniversary, four Pilots and two launch Cox’ns set off to ride around the North Wales coast and Wirral peninsular. Thankfully for my poor little legs, the majority of the hills were in the first 20 miles on NE Angelsey, and breakfast in Bangor after riding over Menai Bridge was very welcome. As the clouds cleared so we enjoyed the traffic-free route along the coastal cycle path with some impressive new cycle bridges over roads and the railway. We were most grateful along this stretch for the support of Pilot Dan Wardle, who waited where ever his mighty 4×4 could join the route, topped up our empty drink bottles and encouraged us to keep up the pace before the break for lunch in Rhyl.

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At Snae Fell: Chris Thomas, Alan Windsor, David Roberts, Paul Stephenson, Scott Birrell

We were joined for lunch by Ben Hayes, a sensible guy just doing 53 miles. After another flat traffic-free ride through Prestatyn golf club, behind Point of Ayr lighthouse we finally met the old coast road from Mostyn Docks to Queensferry. Not the finest surface, but at least with some encouragement from Lee (Wiggo) Sparks we upped the pace to 20 mph. Thankfully we rejoined a traffic-free route again as we crossed the river Dee and rode on the newly constructed boardwalk path over the marshes to Burton and eventually Parkgate, where we were joined by our Chairman Chris Booker and, now astride his bike, Dan Wardle. We then took the Wirral Way to our destination, the Egremont Ferry Hotel on the banks of the Mersey. Refreshment was welcome and
well deserved.

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Dan Wardle, David Roberts, Lee Sparks, Chris Thomas, Scott Birrell and Ben Hayes

Isle of Man TT Circuit 35′
The final stage of our challenge involved a sea crossing from Liverpool to Douglas, where we enjoyed a day away on the picturesque Isle of Man. In northerly gales Liverpool Pilots land and board ships off Douglas, so it was a treat to visit the island in good weather and for once see something of the countryside. We chose to ride the TT circuit. This iconic road circuit took us all around the island, and the mileage conveniently completed the 250 miles in our anniversary year.

The circuit provided an excellent road surface, just what we needed to make the time in the saddle as comfortable as possible. After a pleasant crossing on the Steam Packet’s Manannan we rode out of Douglas and along the twisty lanes that TT riders take at approaching 200mph. It is no exaggeration to say that on our bikes we had to watch out for some of the dips, nasty bends and narrow bridges. We now have every respect for the motorbike riders for their skill and bravery to complete the course, though after a ride around Ramsey harbour we could have done with a few extra horsepower as we climbed the seemingly never ending road up to Snae Fell. Admittedly the freewheel down, past Laxey and back into Douglas, was very welcome.

I hope you will allow me to thank everyone who joined the rides, in particular Chris Thomas and Scott Birrell for the miles they covered helping me check the routes in advance. We were grateful for the financial support of Liverpool Pilots for a final meal in Douglas and the medical cover from Dr Guy Sissons on the Isle of Man.

There were numerous tales from the ride. I have mentioned Tom Tebay’s effort on ride one and Jim Pauling onRide two, but if jerseys were being presented (as they do for the Tour de France) our King of the Mountains would be Paul Stephenson for his ride up Snae Fell. King of the breakfast would be Scott Birrell — three Greggs sausage rolls in Bangor with 80 miles still to ride took some doing, and all credit to Cox’n Alan Windsor for completing the coldest tyre change of the 250 miles, in a bus shelter in Rock Ferry. I am sure the rest of us would have been in a taxi.

I am pleased to say I was not lynched after the final ride. Instead we looked ahead to more rides in 2017. The 250th anniversary provided an excellent excuse for Liverpool Pilots to get together with friends and colleagues, enjoy some banter and if nothing else to try to keep fit.

I hope the grimly smiling faces in the photos don’t put you off cycling. Perhaps there is a route around your district or to your neighbouring Pilots that you could get together and ride? I wish you safe cycling in the year ahead, for in doing so you have the opportunity to learn more about the history of your service.

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One Response to “Liverpool Pilots Cycle 250 miles for 250 Years: Dave Roberts”

Nigel Chamberlain
April 8th, 2021 at 12:51


Can any of your team help me track down an old school friend David ‘Donald’ Pears who left Liverpool College in 1969 with a career as a river pilot very much in mind?

He was a gritty scrum half on the rugby field and a fearless goalkeeper in our unofficial football team – if a bit on the short side for the high balls.

Thank you



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