Hi there! Sorry we have not been posting too much in the way of daily blogs so far. A combination of lack of wi-fi cover in half of our stopping places as well, frankly, our own tiredness in the evenings, has held us back. Now, however, is our scheduled rest day at Peter’s brother. So we plan to make amends!
The most important bit first. We are on time and on schedule and can truthfully it has been a most enjoyable trip with plenty to see, decent weather so far, and things more or less going to plan after some early hiccups, or which more anon.
Day 0 – London to Lands End
This was our travel day down to our start point at Sennen Cove just north from Land’s End. Peter had come down the previous day and we had a set off dinner (the words “last supper” being banned) the evening before with some friends over as well. Up at 7.00am, we left at 8.00am to cycle to Paddington to get the 10.06am train down to Penzance. Leaving Ilse, Lucy and George (and Maud) was a bit sad, and we had some last photos altogether at the gate, just before setting off, with Ilse wishing us luck. The sun was shining as it had been for most of the previous fortnight, but it was a cold morning and for the first few minutes I could really feel the cold in my hands until we warmed up.
We had an easy ride through South London to Lambeth Bridge, where we did the tourist thing and stopped to take photos of Parliament over the way. Most uncharacteristically, a white van driver slowed to let us take an unimpeded shot. Nice touch of politeness to start the trip! Then on right past MI5, Smith Square, Westminster Abbey and round the back of Downing Street to Horseguards’ Parade. St James’ Park was looking great in the early morning sun. Onto the Mall where preparations for the Royal Wedding were already in swing with stands to the TV cameras built across the cycle path by Buckingham Palace. On along the cycle path by Green Park and through the arch at Hyde Park Corner. This is the main East-West London cycle path and we with our panniers were cycling against a steady flow of cyclists whizzing East into town on their morning commute as we carried on into Hyde Park and round the Serpentine.
Hyde Park at this time of the morning is an interesting phenomenon, with some well to do types on horses trotting round the pony track for an early canter. Paddington followed quickly. Peter bought breakfast and we waited for the platform to show for our train, which it did with 15 minutes to go. The bikes went into the guards van at the front and then we were off heading Westwards in glorious spring sunshine, with the leaves just beginning to show on the trees. Our driver was an unusually cheery type, joking how smoking was not allowed on the train or even outside it “in the case of anyone stupid enough to lean out of the windows”.
The train goes fast to Exeter in 2hrs, but then slows considerably as it wends its way round South Devon and through Cornwall. Full in London, we lost a lot of passengers at Exeter and Plymouth, and then steadily at later stations through Cornwall until after Truro there we only a few of us left. You could see through the windows the flowers were, as always with Cornwall, a bit further on than in London, and that a number of exotics normally only found in gardens had spread out into the countryside – berberis darwinii was showing orange, the powder blue of ceanothus, as well as the young leaves of crocosmia showing through.
At Penzance at 3.15pm, we collected our bikes and we last off the platform. We then paid a visit to the local bike shop as I had though to buy some new waterproof gloves – Peter had turned up with a pair the day before and with the forecast for the weather to break the next day I thought they might be useful. In the event though they didn’t have any, so we did without. We had planned several alternatives to routes to Land’s End but on the train had settled on the most direct along the A30 on the basis there was plenty of cycling to come. Happily, however, a conversation with a local cyclist (on an unmarked Marin Sausalito similar to mine) persuaded us to use one of our more scenic alternatives, along the south side of the Land’s End peninsula via Lamorna.
The sunshine was glorious and the sea a deep blue and still as a mill pond as we cycled south past the fishing port at Newlyn and onto Mousehole. On the beach at Mousehole dozens where laid out in swim suits soaking up the sun on the beach behind the old harbour wall. A steep push up the hill out of Mousehole and then we continued on up and down the country lanes before the steep downhill to Lamorna Cove. Flowers everywhere in the hedgerows – red centranthus, primula vulgaris, white bluebells, ragged robin, still some late daffodils and anthriscus (cow parsley) just about coming into flower – all in all about a week on from London.
At the top of the steep hill out of the Lamorna valley our first incident struck – Peter had a puncture on the back tire. In and of itself, this was unremarkable – the same had happed on all our last training rides. But what made this different was that when we went to change the inner tube we discovered his local bike shop – when they serviced the bike, which made it especially irritating – had given him Schrader’s rather than Presta. Thus we had no tube to fit, the Presta’s for my 25mms being too small for his 32mms, and try as we might we could not find the puncture. To add insult to injury as I unclipped my pump from his tube while we were trying to find the puncture, the tire end attachment piece flew off into the long grass, and a fifteen minute fingertip search akin to Tiger Woods search for the first ball at the British Open a couple of years back failed to locate it – so we now down to one pump too.
A herd of cows gather at the gate behind us, munching contentedly as we ran through the options. Plan A was for me to cycle back to Penzance to the shop – but it was too late in the day to get back while it was open. Plan B was to walk the 5 remaining miles to Land’s End and try and fix the tube there, and then pick up some more going back through Penzance the next day. That was what we did. After half a mile, scouting a head, I found a small red plastic bowl in some rubbish left at the edge of a field, and after decanting some water into that we located the puncture and patched it – but the patch held for only half a mile. So back to plan B. As we made our slow and stately progress over the hills to Land’s End. Peter pushing his wounded steed and me imitating a contestant in a slow bicycle race, Peter volunteered a further refinement to that plan involving him getting an early taxi the next day to Penzance and for when the bike shop opened and returning with some extra tubes.
At that moment I also suggested: “Of course, if there were a just God in the universe we would pass another cyclist with a spare tube that would fit your wheel and we could buy that off them.” Actually, within a quarter of a mile, just after the Merry Maidens stone circle and just short of St Buryan, we met four: French tourists, two men and two women, cycling around Cornwall on what a glance showed to be 32mm Presta tires. The lead cyclist most generously agreed to give us a spare tube for nothing, but I insisted on giving some Euros I happened to have on me. So equipped the tire was repaired in a couple of minutes and we cycled on to Land’s End.
Some cloud just started to thicken in the last mile as we approached, but it was still the clearest there I can remember, and we could very clearly see something I had never seen before – the Scilly Isles where very clearly and distinctly laid out over the sea to the WSW. After some picture we found the cycle path over the hills to hills to the north that led us straight to Sennen Cover a couple of miles away, and down the hill to our first place of rest – the Old Success Inn. The bikes were locked into the garage, we dropped out bags in our rooms, and went down to dinner – both of us having catch of the day (Haddock) , some fine apple and cinnamon and almond cake, and the local St Austell brewery beer (me Tribute, Peter Tinners) – and thence to sleep with the sound of the waves on the beach outside.
And that was Day 0, before we had even started!
Day 1 – Sennen to Veryan
For two weeks before we set off high pressure had sat over the centre and south of England giving glorious warm weather. But like all good things, this had to end. And for a week the forecast had been for this to end on our first day cycling, with an Atlantic low bringing persistent rain starting at around 7.00am at Lands’ End, and lasting all day.
In fact, when we woke at 7.00am, although cool and cloudy there was no rain, although Peter thought there might have been some in the night. The ground, however, was dry outside the Old Success when I stepped out to take some early morning photos.
Breakfast at the Old Success started last at 8.30am – an hour later than we would usually have it on the trip. The weather forecast on the blackboard in the lounge was also better than expected, being for patchy rain, not too heavy. In honour of the first day of our trip I was sporting my Bart and Ernie cycling shirt for breakfast. The woman at the next table leaned over to me and said: “I do like your shirt – very colourful!” Who said taste was dead.
After breakfast and settling up we had the bikes out of the garage and then immediately got to work practising what would be an absolutely essential skill for the first three days of the trip: pushing a fully laden bike with panniers up a steep hill, in this case from the beach at Sennen Cove back up to the cycle path some 400’ or so higher up. Peter at least cycled the first 10m to the foot of the hill, but I can proudly say I pushed from the off. With the puncture problems on Peter’s bike we had decided to carry on to the road further up, but since that involved another 200’ of ascent we reverted to the cycle path across the hills to Lands’ End. Much more pleasant.
At Lands’ End the rain still had not come, and we posed for pictures at the sign board. The main sign board with its official photographer only got up at 10.30am, so the shots were taken at the smaller post against the rails which showed distances to NYC and John O’Groats – 874 miles per the sign, but over 1175 for us on our route.
A third cyclist hove into view and we got to chatting comparing routes. He had come over from Waterford in Ireland and spent a couple of weeks cycling from Fishguard through Wales and then down to Lands’ End. His plan was to cycle from his own town square at home to Trafalgar Square in London, camping rough along the way. Several years older than us, we both admired his resourcefulness and his hard core attitude to accommodation, quite distinct from our own reliance on B&Bs. We wished him luck and then we were off.
The first miles passed quickly to St Buryan with the rain still holding off and good views over the hills of the peninsula to the North. We met and overtook, and then were passed buy and then overtook again a road repair lorry and bulldozer on our first minor road. Don’t worry, we’ll be out of your way from now on” the driver shouted as we passed him for the third time. In St Buryan we stopped at the local post office to pick up what the next days would prove to be one the most essential staples of the trip – namely Lucozade Sports Fuel (Orange). We then took the B road north east and then the A30 for the last couple of miles to Penzance – one of the very few pieces of A road we would use for the next few hundred miles.
Back in Penzance we returned to the bike shop. They really were an exceptional and well-stocked establishment, and really friendly establishment. Straight up they swapped without charge Peter’s box new but useless Schraders for Prestas. We then also replaced Peter’s tires with new Kevlar protected anti-puncture models. Peter had been debating this for a while, but when he had had his bike serviced a month or so before his local shop had told him his old tires had plenty of life left in them. However, on our last three outings the back tire had had a puncture each trip. A piece of fling we could not find? The tire simply being so old and loose it was nipping the tube against the rim? It wasn’t clear. But after yesterday we were not into taking further chances for new tires it was – and so far neither of us has had a second puncture since.
The shop did not have a new end for my pump, but advised I could order a new one in due course, so that has been carried up to Peter’s brother to be left there. In the meantime I picked up a new one, on the recommendation of the shop a rather snazzy bright fuchsia pink metallic model that goes (or claims to go) to 160psi, and which fits well with my rather questionable taste in bright colours. We chatted to the guys in the shop as we waited for Peter’s new tires to be fitted. One of them raced BMX for Cornwall, had a single speed mountain bike (“great for training”) and was known to ride from Bristol to Penzance in a day. That put our efforts in perspective!
And then we were off.
By now, what with the late breakfast, the faffing around at Lands’ End, and stop at the bike shop, most of the morning was gone and it was 11.30am as we road along the cycle path between the railway and the beach at Mount’s Bay towards St Michael’s Mount and Marazion. Today people were most definitely not sunbathing on the beach. Nor was the sea a Homeric wine-dark mill-pond. Rather it as a most British slate grey with white horses whipped by a stiffening southern breeze, with a one fisherman on the beach casting into the breeze.
At Marazion, although it was only 11.40am and we had only done about 15miles, we elected to stop for an early lunch at the Chapel Café as we were about to enter a stretch of café-less and pub-less country and it was already late. Given the cold weather it was a carrot and coriander soup plus our staple – tuna mayonnaise baguette plus tea. While we were eating the long-heralded rain finally arrived, with squally gusts coming in from the sea to the south. We kitted up in waterproof and overboots (normally we are both pretty lazy about this, but why carry them if you don’t use them) and then set off up the hill. Twenty meters or so from the start we passed a woman and her family and I caught the words “They can’t mean to cycle all day in this, surely?”. But we did.
Actually, the weather eased after half an hour and we were out of our waterproofs and pushing (quite often the operative word) slowing through the steep up and downs of the Cornish hills, through Godolphin Cross, Porkellis and Rame, passing plenty of old abandoned tin mines in the hills on our way. The scenery was beautiful with flower filled sunken lanes and the fields at the margins of agriculture filled with rock outcrops, flowering gorse, and interspersed with low, wind-blown woods.
Cornish hills have a very distinct profile that is peculiarly antipathetic to cyclists. It’s not that they are especially tall. They aren’t at all. But they are steep. Very steep. Essentially Cornwall consists of an up-lifted plateaux a couple of hundred meters high, with several domes of higher ground formed by granite intrusions across the peninsula, the whole being cut by deep intermediate river valleys. The result is that for cyclists progress is slow. The downhill is too short and steep to glide down far in free wheel and, no sooner do you get to the bottom, than you have to go up the next. So it is. Scenically it is beautiful, but cycling wise it is slow and steady.
After Rame progress quickened as we turned north – we were generally heading downhill towards the Fal as we came off the hills near Porkellis. It was a relief not to get out of the saddle to push for a few miles. A cunning route avoided most of the last hills just West of the Fal and we tracked along a couple of miles along the banks of the river with steep wooded hills on our left, the flooded estuary to our right, past houses with gardens running down to boathouses at their bottom.
The route could not avoid one last large hill before we turned down again to meet the King Harry Ferry, an old chain link ferry that runs over the deep Fal river to the Roseland peninsula.
It was at the top of this hill that we made a most unpleasant discovery: a sign announced the ferry was not running at the boat was in dry dock for the first time in five years. Having used it for years I must say I had no seen this coming and was the only ferry on the whole route I had not checked. A lesson there – never assume anyway. In any event, we had effectively driven into a dead end, and were well and truly stuck. The alternatives were not especially attractive – either backtracking five miles plus over steep hills south to find the ferry from Falmouth to St Mawes or backtracking five miles plus to cross the river at the first bridge north at Truro.
Not fancying either option we stopped on the grass verge and phoned around to in the rather folorn hope that we could find someone with a boat to take us across. Trelissick shop did not know of anyone who did this, but did suggest a number of places in Falmouth (e.g. “Orca Safaris”) who might be prepared to bring a boat up from there. But no one was picking up. We tried Trelissick again and this time the reception after some discussion suggested we tried the King Harry Ferry Co and see if they had some suggestions. On the phone to them I explained out situation to a very friendly woman and asked if there was anyway they could get us across, adding forlornly “We’re prepared to pay handsomely!”. “Don’t worry about that,” came the reply. Get yourselves down here. The ferry is in dry dock in Falmouth. But we will get you across somehow. And would you like a cup of tea.”. The answer, of course, was yes.
It was now late and their office shut at five so we sped down the last two miles to the ferry and got there with fifteen minutes to spare, where they were waiting for us and invited us into the office for tea. It turned out the manager was planning a JOGLE in September with his brother, a fireman, and had just bought a Specialized Tri-Cross for the trip, and we swapped ideas about the rides, tips from our own preparation, and gave details of our website. In payment for getting us across – as they wouldn’t take any – we promised a donation to the managers’ own ride later in the year, and asked him to e-mail us details.
With the ferry not running the way over the river was by a tiny little open dinghy with an outboard, one of us each and one bike at a time, manhandling the bike from the slipway into the boat and out again on the other side. Peter went first and I got some hopefully great photos of this feat, before I followed, holding on tight to the bike having no wish to see it drop to the bottom of this very deep river (a laid up cross-channel ferry was sheltering just to the north – an enormous ship in this small, thickly wooded, flooded valley – testifying to just how deep it was).
At the other side we put the panniers on again and made ready to cycle up the steep hills that line the river. A couple of disconsolate looking car drivers came down and then did U-turns as did so, as they saw the ferry was not running, but looking hard at us trying to work out how we got across.
By now it was late, a quarter past five, and as we made our way along the hills of the Roseland peninsula it started to rain again. Opposite Veryan, we phoned ahead to our intended destination, the Hunter’s Moon at Polgooth, but the response on the phone was a flat “We don’t have anything” with no further explanation or suggested alternatives – rather abrupt I thought, the first rudeness encountered on the trip. Always annoying. The back-up plan we had was to stop In Veryan, where we had several places lined up as possibilities, and very quickly Treverbyn House came through for us. By now it was quite unpleasant, with the wind whipping rain across the road, and what with that and the late hour (6pm) the fact the Hunter’s Moon another 10miles further on had turned us down was probably a blessing in disguise. We backtracked into the wind and rain for a mile, and then the rain eased as we went down and up another steep Cornish valley into Veryan. At the crossroads in the town I said: “Let’s phone again so we make sure we cycle the right way to the B&B so we don’t need to backtrack” – but then as I looked over my shoulder – there it was!
The bikes were locked safely in the cellar and the delightful and very friendly owners showed us to some very nice rooms. Dinner was at the New Inn – a whole 20m away. The food there was excellent – real gastro-pub and a cut above: scallops in lemon and garlic to start for me, followed by chicken in tarragon sauce, and for Peter brie and cranberry to start followed by steak and ale pie. Beer St Austell again – Tribute this time for Peter, and for me Proper Job. And then to sleep.
And that was Day 1.
Day 2 – Veryan to Polgooth
A bad start to what turned out to be a very good day.
Breakfast was excellent and at 7.30am to permit an early start – we wanted to make up ground. But after breakfast as we prepared to set off, we discovered that although we had got up in the morning, the GPS had not. It switched on fine, but as it booted up and got to the “installing maps” text, it switched off and went back to bed. Several attempts elicited the same response. Plugging it back into the charger produced no change.
Some quick mental calculations. We had back-up 1:250,000 laminated OS road maps, and also print outs from Bikemap.net showing the route and contours, and together they would get us round. But to lose the GPS after 1 day was, to say the least, deeply annoying and would add extra time to the trip for sure – getting out maps all the time takes time. So equipped we navigated over the hills of the Roseland peninsula to St Austell by good old fashioned paper map methods – never let’s you down. It was great scenery, cloudy but dry, but I had half a mind on my litigation strategy vis-à-vis Garmin and the Cycle Surgery for recouping the cost of this dud bit of kit and/or getting a replacement.
To add insult to injury I also discovered a seam had split on a new pair of shorts I had bought just before the ride. Old shorts, 10 years, no problems until the end. New ones, one day. Pathetic. I assure it is not down to fatness.
At St Austell we put in a call to Garmin technical support, more in hope than expectation. “That’s interesting,” the guy at the other end of the line said. “Never come across that before. No idea what it could be. The only thing I can suggest if you try a reset”. This, it transpired, involved turning it on while pressing on the top left of the screen, until a reset option page appeared. First time I could not get to the “yes” option quick enough. “Try again” was the advice. I did. And, amazingly, it worked. Relief. So far at least, it has also behaved itself since. We would have and can manage without the GPS, but in the short time since I bought it, it has become a very “nice to have” and I would have missed it. So this was a result.
On through St Austell we stocked up at Cost Cutter for the hills ahead, and then cycled up the hill out of town to the Eden Project. North from there we took National Cycle Route 3 (which begins at Lands End and which we had mainly avoided on the first day) to Bodmin. The NCN’s get quite a lot of stick on the CTC website as often indirect and not in good condition. I beg to differ. This was a great route, really beautiful, through steep wooded valleys and under old dramatic railway viaducts, very remote, no cars, and avoiding the main hills. Fantastic cycling. After Bodmin NCN continues north but we broke East along the minor roads on the south side of Bodmin Moor. Still great scenery, and getting brighter. We had a great tea stop in an eccentrically magnificent small garden just as we breasted the moor, and from there the next 10 miles were the familiar up and down of the Cornish hills. Way to the south there was blue sky over the Channel and we could all the time the old china clay workings (the “Cornish Alps” around St Austell, gradually fading behind us.
After one punishingly steep hill which was hard even to push the bike up, the road eased and we rolled along the tops to the high point of the day near Minions and Caradon hill. We passed an intricately carved 8th century Celtic Cross (King Donairt’s Stone) on the right, and then at Minions went and looked at the Iron Age stone ring on the hillside known as The Hurlers. A Cornish pasty followed at Cornwall’s highest café.
By now it was 5pm and we had done only 62km – a statistic that has lodged in our heads as in later days we invariably passed this milestone much earlier around 2.30pm. The last 20kn to Horsebridge, however, with two minor short uphill pushes, was almost all level or downhill, for one 4km stretch there was no need to turn the pedals at all, and we arrived at the old mediaeval bridge over the Tamar out of Cornwall in only an hour and a quarter.
It sounds pathetic as it was only our first county, and plenty of LEJOGers (usually only more main roads than us) get out of Cornwall and sometimes some way beyond it in a singe day. But in the evening light we both felt we really had achieved something getting there and crossing, finally, into Devon.
A short ¾ mile pull uphill beyond the bridge took us to our B&B at Beera Farm. Really great, fantastic rooms. Hilary, who runs it, normally only takes multi-day bookings, so we only got it because be put the call in on the day, in fact from Minions barely more than an hour before. Dinner was back by the bridge at the Royal Inn. I n each case a very filling Steak-au-Poivre, with Legend and Betty Stogs beer.
As I say, after an iffy start, an excellent day. Scenery throughout was superb, and while not sunny the weather held for us.
Day 3 – Horsebridge to Hele
The day before when the GPS was not working I had remarked “Wouldn’t it be great if one day everything went according to plan.” This was that day – and in fact so far every day since has too. The only thing that went not to plan hardly counted – the battery ran out about 3 – 4 miles before the end, but at that stage it hardly mattered.
We nattered about the sheep on the farm over breakfast – Swaledale and Leicester Blue-Face crosses, apparently – which the farm supplied to Waitrose under a scheme showing the provenance of the lamb. Then we were off. We took a slightly different route than planned for the first few miles, to avoid having to lose the height between Horsebridge and our farm, but after several ups and downs and a couple of pushes, we rejoined out intended route and road over the hills to Brent Tor. Again, it was cloudy, with a little whiff of drizzle at odd moments, but mostly dry, and with sun showing away to the north and west away from the high ground around Dartmoor ahead of us and Bodmin Moor behind us.
Past Brent Tor church in another mile or so we crossed Lydford gorge – spectacular, a really deep narrow gash in the landscape with churning white water at the bottom beneath mossy rocks.
A short while after this we pick up the Granite Way – a cycle track along an old rail bed with a very good cycling surface that speeds us over the kms to Okehampton. A really good route – it irons out the contours in the landscape and passes over a couple of spectacular viaducts along the edge of Dartmoor. We are in Okehampton by 11.30 and stop for an early lunch. Peter has sandwiches. I, having had a sandwich already earlier in the morning, opt for a piece of chocolate cake. A passing woman smiles and says “That will do you no good at all”.
From Okehampton we take the old A30 around the north edge of Dartmoor to Sticklepath, and then a parallel very minor road slightly further south to Whiddon Down. It is drizzling, but only very slightly, and the tors on top of Belstone Tor and the top of the massive bulk of Cosdon Beacon a mile or so to the south on the top of Dartmoor are clearly in view. From Whiddon down we speed along the old A30 and minor roads to maintain our height on the ridge, past Drewsteignton a mile to the South where I used to have a cottage, with views to the pointed tops of the hills to the south above the Teign Valley gorge, before turning left at Cheriton Bishop to Crediton.
One of the joys of travelling by bike is you see very clearly how the scenery changes from region to region. The road from Cheriton to Crediton marks one such change. From Cheriton you drop quickly onto the floor of a very tight wooded narrow valley which twists down through the hills, to emerge in the rolling mid-Devon farmland around Crediton. The fields are typical mid-Devon bright red earth, from the underlying Devonian sandstone. This is the point, I think, at which you leave behind the hills and moors of the wilder South West peninsula and emerge in the more rolling hills of central southern England.
Another contrast with previous days is the quality of the hills and thus the quality of the ride. Sure there are still hills – especially early this morning on the way to Lydford. But much longer than in Cornwall, so much easier to cycle up and with correspondingly much longer descents. The net result is much less time out of the saddle pushing than day one and two but far more time in the saddle – great for distance covered and average speed, but not so good for saddle soreness, and also requiring more discipline as to when to stop and take a break and take food.
Crediton is pleasant enough but to both our minds not quite as prosperous as the towns in the more toursity regions we have passed through to date. We stop for some mid-afternoon paninis, before pushing on into the flat lands of the Exe Valley where we arrange accommodation for the night at Arlington House in Hele, just next to the M5. Interesting house, it was built by the Acklands who owned Killerton House and vast amounts of South West land for their daughter, and has a slightly faded grandeur, but the rooms are great and the proprietress very pleasant and friendly. Evening and the local pub, the Merry Harriers, kindly send a car to pick us up and take us back. Dinner is steak and kidney pie for Peter, chicken and vegetable curry for me. Excellent. Also a new brewery – the Teignmouth which I remember from my times at Drewesteignton. We both drink their Reel Ale.
Day 4 – Hele to Wells
Another day to plan. And another good one, if long.
Also our first day of good warm sunshine. Today was all about NCN 3 which we picked up after a few miles besides Tiverton Parkway station and followed all the way north to Wells for the rest of the day. Again, the guys at Sustrans excelled themselves. From Tiverton the route joined our first canal path and we had several really peaceful off road miles besides the canal, with the war sun filtering through the leaves and illuminating the gin clear water in the canal. Tunnels to the north meant there were no boats, which just added to the peace. Sometimes the canal flowed through deep wooded cuttings, past old lime kilns and other old industrial architecture, and sometimes through more open fields with the Blackdown Hills rolling up around, and now and then a glimpse of the M5 as we track north.
In the hills we lose the canal to the tunnels and push up through narrow lanes. Somewhere here we cross out of Devon into Somerset, another milestone, and another regional frontier, but there was no sign so we are not quite sure where. We pass some magnificent old mediaeval houses and churches in some pretty obscure villages. By one ancient mediaeval looking house the owner, possibly almost as old, was cleaning an ancient hand-pushed rotary mower, maybe before the first grass cut of the year. The route rolls on over the hills and through a rather strange deep sandstone cutting before dropping down into Taunton on off road cycle paths that take us straight through to the centre. The finest lunch to date was had at the Olive Tree café – mine a stilton and mango chutney baguette – before we head north again on the canal to Bridgewater.
We had had a bit more cloud as we went over the Blackdowns before lunch, but now the sky is clear blue as we head towards the coast at Bridgewater, with hallucinatory yellow rapeseed fields beside the canal pressed up against the sky, and more and more blossoming apple orchards. The sun is strong but there is a cooling wind in front of us, that slows us only slightly. Just short of the M5 at Bridgewater we stop at the Boat and Anchor pub on the canal front for orange and lemonade. The garden at the front is full of punters having late lunches and soaking up the sun. Some boys are jumping into the water of the canal.
Soon on again we go under and back under the M5 and then out threw the flat Somerset mores to pick up the low ridge of the Polden Hills to Glastonbury. The sun is still shining but the breeze is cooler and stronger, and slows us a bit. By the man made rivers/drains on the moors people are strolling along the paths in the sunlight. At Chedzoy we stop to photo the church and a woman comes out and chats to us about here own earlier cycling career – including a 90miler day in East Anglia. Longer than anything we will do on our route.
We gain the ridge of the Polden hills and head due East towards Glastonbury. By now it’s been a long day and we both feel the uphills in this section, even if they are not steep. Glastonbury takes a long time to get closer, but eventually it does as the route cuts down off the hills and across the floor of the moor past large artificial mounds of cut peat and fishermen fishing in the lakes from where the peat has been cut. Glastonbury itself – you either like it or you don’t. It’s a pleasant looking town but totally overrun buy various shops purveying hippyish tat. Although we are only five miles from Wells we are both low on energy so stop for a large cake and tea. It is now 5.30pm. A wrong turn out of town add an extra 200’ of climbing, before we sweep down again to the moor and head north east in golden evening light on the straightest of straight minor roads. A couple of left turns over low hills brings us into Wells by the Cathedral. I have been before to Wells, but had forgotten just how pretty the whole town is. The cathedral is magnificent. But the surrounds comprising the Bishops palace and the old streets in the centre equally so. Must go back, maybe for a weekend with Ilse and the children?
We arrive in short order at Highfields B&B where we lock our bikes in the garden, and then have a much needed bath, and head out for dinner. A change. Not a pub. But an Italian for pasta. Very welcome. And some wine rather than beer.
Day 5 – Wells to North Nibley
Another day to plan, and another extremely good one. This is our Cotswold day, cutting out Bristol.
There is thick early morning mist in Wells. Peter watches the practice run and the start of the Shanghai Grand Prix (where Button and Hamilton overtake Vettel off the grid) and then we start by 8.15. The mist is already lifting as we leave Wells (and our old friend, NCN 3) and by the time we have climbed the hill behind the town onto the Mendips we are in glorious sunshine. A succession of old classic cars pass us – clearly a rally is going on.
We bump over the hilltops on minor lanes with only the odd bit of pushing. 20km I call Ilse. George has fallen in St James Park and cut his nose, but is his usual cheery self. Lucy is missing me, but has been to the zoo and has a new favourite animal – the Okapi!. A little further and we meet the bike track on the old railway. It passes over the road on a viaduct and we have to hunt a bit, right and right again and a short push through the trees to get the route, but from there it rolls us fast down to Radstock. Unusually it was an old double line, and the old track from the “other” line so to speak, is still in its sleepers on our right. A few confusing turns through Radstock and we pick up the line again to the Avon valley. On this stretch we are partly on the track, partly on hilly lanes besides it. Lots of information boards about the railway along the route. Apparently it was mainly used to transport coal from the south Somerset coalfields. Also stuff on William Smith, who drew the first geological map of the British Isles and lived along the way, bankrupting himself in the process but then being awarded a government pension.
At the foot of this route we gain the Kennet and Avon canal and stop at a very pleasant but busy café for tuna mayonnaise baguettes in the hot sunshine. Great place. The guy on the table next to us is helping organise a 3 day relay cycle race from Nailsea to Aberdeen. Some guys hire a kayak at the canal side in front of us – then promptly proceed to capsize it in front of all the café tables. The food is good, and we sun tan lotion up and head on, over the famous canal aqueduct that spans the Avon below.
The four miles to Bradford on Avon follow the canal path. This is very busy with lots of families out for a Sunday afternoon stroll in the sun, and one narrow boat after another both chugging along the canal or moored by the banks. As we re-cross the canal on a second aqueduct a small boy (about 5) wobble by me – “It’s his first time” his mother says to me. Not sure I would try a first time on a bike beside a canal on a busy path – but each to his own!
The path gets more and more busy toward s Bradford but we leave it and the crowds in the town to cross the Avon on the ancient road bridge before a very steep climb out of the valley and north on country lanes. Still very hot, but with a slightly more milky sky now. I am suffering a bit my usual post lunch energy low in the 50-60kms as we head, broadly, north and uphill. Peter, in contrast, is usually fine at this stage of the day, but tails off more towards the end when I pick up.
A few miles further and we pass the easternmost point of our entire route in an undistinguished housing estate at the south east corner of Corsham. Both low on energy we stock up on lucozade and energy bars and the instant hit of choice from our training rides, Red Bull. This, as usual, does the trick, and we pick up pace again and soon cross the M4 just west of Leigh Delamere services. Another milestone.
For a very short section, maybe a mile, we follow the line of the famous Roman Road, the Fosse Way, that runs from Axminster in Devon to Lincoln, but we soon turn off this again (besides a house with a magnificent running fox weather vane) and head north west on minor roads towards the Cotswold escarpment. Along this stretch we pass a number of classic cars which Peter, the trip’s resident motoring expert, identifies as Cobra AC30s. Another club gathering, evidently.
As we approach the escarpment we pass through some carefully planted woodland studies with non-native exotics and, incongruously for the middle of the countryside, box hedges. On the left a magnificent gatehouse appears on the hill which at first we pass a mile on the right but then cut back to right in front of it. It transpire this is the northern gateway to the Duke of Beaufort’s estate, which we also learn later is the home of the Badminton horse trials – there are signs for a point to point later in the month. There is no one at the gatehouse, and oddly the enormous lattice metal doors are unlocked, so we open them for photos, before closing them again and heading on.
Almost immediately we are heading down the escarpment down a very steep wooded valley that brings us out again about a mile below Wotton-under-Edge. A huge Victorian obelisk commemorating Tyndale, the first translator of the Bible into English sits above the town (he was burnt at the stake). And, in addition, we also pass in a field an amazing futuristic “grand design” house built like a spiral snail shell into the ground. At this point the GPS battery quits again for the day, so we go slightly out of our way and up a bit more than intended before finding our B&B at the Road End House in North Nibley.
Palatial is not the word. Great B&B run by David and Claire, he ex-GKN. They are gardening as we arrive in the Stuart Reece designed garden – lots of tree peonies, a magnificent Banksiae Lutea rose already in flower, pleached sorbus acuparia coming into leaf, Malus in flower, copper beech not quite beginning to show. The local pub is not serving food on Sunday evening, so David, above and beyond the call of duty, runs us 7 – 8 miles to the Gumstool Inn near Tetbury – home to Westonbirt Arboretum and close to Prince Charles’ Cotswold home at Highgrove. Great food and great wine. Fish and chips for Peter, pork belly for me. The waitress is really into our trip, and donates our £5.70 tip to the charity kitty – a really nice touch. Again, all in an excellent day.
Day 6 – North Nibley to Wichenford
The day dawns bright and hot, and the sun is streaming into the breakfast room when we eat with David and Claire. As in Wells, there are other guests, but we are up and out before them, on the road by 8.15am, sorry to leave such a great place but thoroughly refreshed.
In half a mile we are across the M5 and soon in Berkeley. Quite a lot of commuter traffic on the roads. Monday morning! We reset the GPS in Berkeley for the next leg then its buy quieter minor roads to the docks at Sharpness – our only companion a rather lost Bulgarian HGV whose driver has to reverse out of a wrong turn.
At Sharpness we pick up the canal we follow all the way off road to Gloucester. The surface is not bad. Grass first, then pitted asphalt for the first mile, then a mixture of gravel and earth stretches the rest of the way. For reasons that are not obvious, some of the route is an NCN route, and some not, and although the surface is a bit better on the NCN parts, not noticeably so, and all along the way it is more than acceptable – my 25mm tiers cope fine.
As we push north the sky imperceptibly turns from blue to milk and it becomes cooler. I put on an extra top. Unlike Kennet and Avon, this canal is really quiet. Just fishermen and the odd boat every mile or so, apart from the big canal boat marina at Saul. The canal is also very wide, much more so than any we have seen so far. Periodically it is spanned by hand-cranked rotating road bridges – we see a man jump out of the canal side cottage (all similar design with Doric columns) at one such bridge and crank it open to let a boat past.
After maybe an hour and a half on the canal we roll along into Gloucester docks. Tall ships and canal boats are on the quays, and the area is lined with old Victorian warehouses. Unlike London not all have been renovated and there is a distinct lack of waterfront shops – a shame as the location is great. But there is an excellent exception – On Toast – a small café (is it a chain) in cheery bright colours with toast shaped chairs specialising in toasted sandwiches. The seasonal favourite is Cadbury Crème Egg toastie. But we pass this up (and a Mars Bar toastie) for more conventional choices: ham and cheese for Peter, and Fiery Welsh Dragon (cheese and leek with Tabasco for me), plus tea served in a fine clear teapot. We outside in the sun and more people turn up. The milky sky has gradually turned brighter and brighter and now it is sunny again, and really very hot. Sunglasses weather.
Refreshed we cut a cunning route out of town on cycle paths over the two arms of the Severn. The second takes over a single span bridge built by Telford whose span actually sank 25cm after building and was not opened for three years more when it was deemed safe. This is just south of the busy A40. We go down underneath this by a cycle path, then follow the path on its northern side for a couple of hundred yards before taking the cycle path north through Higham. A short stretch on a B road follows then we are on quiet lanes climbing towards Ledbury. Beautiful countryside. Bluebells much in evidence under the trees. We saw some in the woods near Sharpness, but here under the trees they are fully out in great blue carpets. Also as we go more and more apple orchards. We are gaining height all the time but easily and it is 2pm before our first push of the day – easily our latest to date.
In Ledbury we chain our bikes to the rails under the old black and white market hall, and have some very large brie and cranberry sandwiches in the café besides it and, in my case (confession) a coconut and raspberry slice. Unchaining the bikes I accidentally clear the day’s readings from the bike computer, so no time or travel or average speed today, but we have the distance from other measures.
A short an only moderately steep hill out of Ledbury leads to a beautiful minor road that runs parallel to the Malverns a mile to the West. The sun is still shining, but thankfully it is a bit cooler. The countryside round here is great, and both of us agree this is the best day to day, and in some ways unexpectedly so – not because we didn’t think the countryside round here would not be good, but we were surprised just how good it has been the whole route today.
Eventually after 15 miles or so of this we cut the line of the northwards extension to the Malverns at the A44 in a gap formed by the river Teme. Exceptionally we do a mile on an A road. Some contraflow traffic lights help us by sending the traffic on our side down behind us in definite pulses, which we pull off the road to let pass. After two such pulses we make our left turn on a minor road before the third, and begin the only really hilly section of the day – the pull up to Peter’s brother’s at Wichenford.
We head due north on minor roads passed Martley, where one embarrassing incident occurs. We roll over a cross roads, Peter in front, when the GPS unexpectedly initiates one of its “off course” beeps – wrongly as it turns out. “Hold on”, I call. Peter stops. But I am too busy fiddling with the GPS to notice and roll into the back of him at all of around 4mph. No damage done, except I come off into stinging nettles and the stings on my left arm stay with me for the rest of the day.
A mile or so further and we are at Andrew’s and Carol’s who are very welcoming, just as on our training run out here. They cook a great dinner of lasagne and salad followed by a fine seasonal rhubarb crumble and custard and cream.
A great end to a great day, and with it the first third of our trip. Here is hoping the rest is as good.