We were really well rested after our stay at Panteinion Hall but our legs were still tired after several stiff days so we planned a shorter half day to Bala. We don’t usually plug specific places on our blog but I would definitely recommend Panteinion Hall.
The setting was amazing and soaking in the log fired hot tub yesterday evening looking out over the tree-scape of the valley to the sound of the nearby waterfall and birds singing was blissful. It sent every muscle in my body to jelly! The whole place was very comfortable and restful ….but time to move on again!
The first section was along 9 miles of the Mawddach trail – a lovely track along the estuary to Dolgellau. We stopped to watch herons and passed numerous family cycling groups coming in the opposite direction. A great place to get your biking legs.
Dolgellau is one of my favourite towns in Wales and well set up for our needs. It was busy but not heaving. We managed to get a patch for the small hole in our flysheet and a new bottle cage to replace David’s split one within the space of a couple of hundred meters, and chatted to the friendly and helpful man who ran Dolgellau Cycles.
The route to Bala was along a main road – never a great prospect but we needed a short route with not too much climbing. The road was not too busy and the climb was relatively gradual but I was finding it really tough. My legs were really telling me they had had enough! However after a rest by a babbling little river and a large handful of jelly beans I revived – mainly because the wind switched from a head wind to a tail wind.
Over the top of the hill and down towards Bala, and we were able to turn off the main road in order to cycle up the quiet side of the lake. Still there were quite a few cars bon this tiny road, but it is half term and sunny so its not surprising that lots of people are out and about.
We were at the campsite in time for a late lunch. Pleasantly surprised that the nearest campsite to the town and very close to the lake was a quiet, smallish, grassy simple site – plenty of hot water in the shower a marker for 5 stars in or book.
The aim for the afternoon was to rest and revive our tired legs so we pottered about the campsite then ambled into Bala for an ice cream, which we ate looking at everyone else being very active on the lake – canoes, swimming, windsurfing, paddle boarding and lots and lots of children having a great time in the water.
As we strolled back a couple of runners passed us babbling away in an incomprehensible language. I commented that I had heard more foreign languages in Bala than anywhere else; until David pointed out that they were speaking Welsh and we were the foreigners here!
Prior to today, we had covered 966km so, after 34km today, we got into 4 figures by covering 1000km on this trip. However, honesty requires me to say that we were totally unaware of this; but we now know that we passed the 1000km mark about 14km outside Machynlleth. But more of that later.
We had an indifferent, mass produced but filling breakfast at the golf resort – not our type of place really. However special mention of the smoked bacon that was locally produced and was excellent.
We checked out and got on the road by 8.30am, knowing that our first hill of the day was on the main road to Aberystwyth (we stayed about 9 miles south of the town). It was not too steep but a shock to the system to have impatient car and van drivers passing us too close. On minor roads the cars have been great so far but we felt the drag as a few passed too close. Maybe the mentality changes on an “A” road. In contrast, the truck drivers were, as always, patient and gave us plenty of room as they passed with a wave or a toot of the horn.
It was a relief to turn off onto quiet roads even though the gradient was far steeper in places. We picked up a lovely bike path south of Aberystwyth which had the twin attractions of taking us off the road and by-passing a huge hill. Thanks to the EU funding which paid for this and the development of other bike paths in Wales. It will be interesting to see if this funding continues in future years now we are out of the EU. I would not bet on it. There is something of “What have the Romans ever done for us” in EDRF funding for areas such as Wales and Cornwall, which benefitted so greatly from regional funds and then voted to leave the EU. But no point crying over illogically spilt milk.
Aberystwyth was sunny and, as with other UK resorts, is full of young, overweight tourists. Indeed, seeing very large numbers of significantly overweight British people at the seaside has been a feature of this trip. It is a public health time bomb which, I suspect, has understandably shifted down the agenda with Covid and the Climate Emergency, but the sunshine brings the problem out for all to see – or possibly for some not to see it because obesity is in danger of being normalised and thus will be unseen in plain sight. Not that Aberystwyth is any worse than anywhere else – but it has become an undercurrent of our trip around the UK.
There is a great soul song “The only way is up” which I hummed to myself when leaving Aberystwyth – because the only way out of the town is up.
We passed the University where Becky had such a great time and then made our way to Borth. There is a serious headland between Aberystwyth and Borth – and the descent claimed that the road dropped at 25%.
Cycling down a really steep road with 4 panniers is no joke and tough on the fingers – brakes on full and the bike still moves forward ever so slightly faster than I would want! But we got there and saw Borth in all its delight – or lack of it. A stony beach and lots of cafés doing all you can eat breakfasts. But it was busy and lots of families were clearly having a good time, with lots of fun and laughter – laying down great memories for children.
I recall a friend explaining that Borth was the drugs capital of North Wales, partly because the roads were too steep for the police to drive here, and so a cannabis scene flourished without interference. We know the distinctive smell of cannabis only too well from living in Kennington – you can get high walking back from the tube station to our flat – but there was no such smell in Borth. Perhaps the sea breeze takes it away or maybe it is suspended for the summer season.
We stopped, brewed up and watched the golfers on the links course driving their balls into the sea – a wonderful game but it does generate so much frustration.
The wind was against us as we headed up the coast and then turned inland. There used to be a ferry from the top end of the peninsular to Aberdyfi, but the ferryman gave up years ago. The lack of a ferry meant we had a 23 mile detour inland to cross the Dovey river near Machynlleth and then back along the north side of the river estuary. Part was on the main road, so was not great.
Four miles outside Machynlleth we came across the Dyfi Osprey Project. It was tickets only so we could not go in but the helpful woman on duty (herself a keen cyclist) pointed us to the website – which I strongly recommend: www.dyfiospreyproject.com which has live feed of ospreys feeding their chicks. We did not see it in the flesh, but the live feed is amazing.
We lunched by the river just after Machynlleth, and then had a choice as to whether to tackle Happy Valley (where we used to have a holiday cottage, and spent many happy weekends) or brave Aberdyfi on a bank holiday Monday. Happy Valley got the vote and so we plodded up the valley – pretty slowly as it was steep (extra) climbing and we were still feeling our legs from yesterday.
But it was well worth it. The valley is stunning and we stopped off at our old place – part of a barn conversion that seems to have been improved since we left about 20 years ago.
We stopped off in Tywyn for supplies and then faced the last few miles along the coast. By now tiredness was real but the coastal scenery was wonderful and the uphills were thankfully gradually.
We then swung down the last hill and plodded up to our hotel, Panteinion Hall. We got a warm welcome from the couple who run this guest house, and quickly relaxed with the wonders of a hot shower.
Another amazing day in the sunshine, great views and lots of revived memories.
Today was a mega day in all senses – long, hilly, magnificent scenery, wonderful weather. It started with David being woken by cows mooing at 6am. Being first up in the campsite is always peaceful. The sun was brightly shining and it was great to pack up a dry tent. We were off by 7.30am.
We bumped our way back down the track from the campsite then it was largely downhill to Fishguard. The 200m alongside the Harbour was the only flat section of the day! We climbed out of Fishguard and were soon in stunning Pembrokeshire countryside.
The cycle along the Cwm Gwaun valley was picture perfect. A gorgeous tiny country lane along a rippling river, tree clad hillsides, hedgerows packed with wild flowers.
Bypassing Newport, we were nearly floored by a very steep hill but these days we feel no shame at getting off and pushing. A lorry squeezing by us said he would have given us a tow if he wasn’t going in the opposite direction – and I have a horrible suspicion that he meant it!
We had a great swoop down in Cardigan where we stopped for ‘second breakfast’ in a rather haphazard café. We were up for a ‘greasy spoon’ breakfast as although we had already done 650m climbing we still had lot to go. The coffee was good and they let us charge up all our gadgets, but the banter between the staff was hilarious as they tried to come to terms it was busier than usual – but then it was the bank holiday weekend so they could not have been surprised (which they professed to be). It was all well meaning chaos, just like Dominic Cummings’ account of government (without the well-meaning of course).
We faced climb out of Cardigan – of course – but then a lovely road high on the hills parallel to the coast. We dipped in and out of two beach resorts. There were caravan parks all over the place but, as I had discovered when looking, there was very little tent camping. It is far easier here to get a place for a caravan or motorhome than a small tent.
By this stage we had climbed over 100m – our usual marker for a tough day in the saddle – but faced another steep climb away from the coast. It is not the climbing itself that tires us alone, it is the effort to climb very steep hills with all our stuff. However, gritted teeth and this time we managed not to get off and push. Then up, up, up the side of another lovely valley then onto a high ridge where we could see all of Cardigan bay ahead and even the LLyn peninsular misty in the distance.
We rested in a lovely grassy field (the farmer had conveniently left the gate open for passing weary cyclists) and brewed up some tea to build ourselves up for the last section. We had already climbed far more than counts for a ‘big climbing day’ but the incredible views and continuous sunshine kept us going. The last up and downs along the ridge to our highest point at 301m then a glorious decent down, down, down over about 12km. Now with panoramic views inland.
One more much lower ridge to pedal over in the last afternoon sun and the last descent down to the coast. The bank holiday meant everything was very booked up even a few weeks ago when I was looking. In retrospect we were glad that I had been unable to find a campsite as we were absolutely wacked when we arrived at our hotel; a complex of accommodation attached to a golf course.
Totally exhausted after such a fantastic day then able to relax in a large comfy room and a hot bath.
Having had a lazy day yesterday, we were surprisingly ready to get on our bikes again. We were off by about 7.30am and expected the usually tedious process of getting out of a city – but this one was straightforward. There were some sharp hills but soon we crossed the estuary and joined a delightful bike path which followed an old railway line. Lined with trees and wild flowers it climbed very gently up hill and was empty at that time of the morning.
After 20km we dropped down to Broad Haven, the site of one of our least successful holidays. It must have been about 1992 when we camped there with a toddler and a crawling baby and it rained continuously for days – so we gave up and went home rather than face another day of trying to stop a toddler making mud pies in the damp.
Today was overcast at this point but dry. The road along the coast was – as in all roads along the coast – a mixture of seriously steep up and seriously steep down, with short periods of respite along the bluffs. It was fantastic scenery but tough cycling. I suspect we may have a great deal of this over the next few days.
The road swooped down to a series of little hamlets, and then rose out of the settlement over the next cliff. We stopped at Nolton Haven and brewed up, watching children playing on the beach in the little cove. It was the first day of the half term holiday and bank holiday weekend. We pressed on past Newgale (surfers paradise except the sea was calm today) and then up Newgale Hill (18% and slow).
After more back roads and lots more ups and downs, we reached St Davids. St David was a 5th century preacher and mystic who lived a simple life and inspired generations of Welsh Christians. He was quickly adopted as a patron saint of this area and has remained symbolic ever since. A cathedral church was built at St Davids and has remained on the same site ever since. I have mixed reactions to cathedrals – much as I have mixed reactions to anything involving religion. For those who do not know, I am an atheist with a theology degree; someone who lived in a religious community as a young man and has spent his professional career trying to understand and mediate between doctors and patients with profound religious views which cause them to have a different approach to life and death for children and relatives. I have also had so, so many cases that have touched on financial or sexual abuse by those in religious authority that you will forgive me a measure of caution about the motives of anyone in a dog collar.
But St Davids Cathedral was a wonderful experience. In part it was the simplicity, in part the sheer size and in part it was perhaps how we were feeling. Cycling holidays tend towards looking for the good things in life, seeing beauty as opposed to seeing problems and allow time for us to understand the historical significance of historical sights. It was a light, airy building and the sun streaming in through the upper windows. It had a mixed history and was nearly a ruin by 1800, but was rescued and restored. The roof is wooden and the carvings are a joy to observe. (Bernie says one of her most favourite cathedrals ever).
Next we met my chambers colleague, Rhodri Price Lewis and his wife, Barbara, for lunch. Rhodri and Barbara have lived here for many years, managing the commute into London as we do from Worcestershire, albeit their commute is a bit longer. Barbara had career as a teacher, and is a keen cyclist. It was a really relaxed, enjoyable meal on the terrace of an old pub next to the cathedral. The sun was out by now and as we sat soaking up the sun we marvelled at Rhodri ordering our meal on the pub’s app on his phone. As if by magic our meal arrived – albeit with 3 extra portions of chunky chips! We donated these to a grateful next door table!
After lunch we visited the ruined Bishop’s palace next to the cathedral. The religious and political importance of the bishop meant a pad of considerable proportions. Underneath all the main rooms were a series of underground caverns where all the work was done.
After leaving St Davids we adjourned for coffee in Rhodri and Barbara’s garden about 3 miles north of St Davids, and conveniently on our route. We discovered that we had one additional thing in common – we have both been “Daily Mailed”; an interesting experience where a well known national newspaper gets the humph about something and writes slightly less than flattering things about someone to the great amusement of your peers. Not nice when it happens and, as Rhodri says, better not to read below the headline. However, most of us wear it as a badge of honour.
We said our goodbyes and ambled towards the Hill Fort Campsite at Trefassor. Perched high on a headland, the final km of which was up a bumpy track. This is a “green” campsite and there was loads of space. We set up and then watched a spectacular sunset over the sea. Watching the sun descend into the sea was something we had often seen abroad but never in the UK. It was mystical and made me wonder if, after giving us such a superb show, the sun would be bothered to do the whole thing again tomorrow. A superb ending to a superb day.
Today was a day to rest and recuperate and do a little bit of culture. Our AirBnB was spacious and comfortable and perfect for a lazy day. The weather was rainy so we were glad not to be on the bikes.
Pembroke is a pleasant little town with a castle perched on the bend of a river. We managed to time our visit to the castle to a time with the least rain. It felt authentic to be damp and grey! The oldest parts of the castle dated from the 1100’s but a timber castle had been on the site before.
There was lots of information but it got slightly confusing as the one way system that had to be implemented for covid meant that the rooms did not follow chronologically – sometimes we were going forward in time and sometimes backwards! What we did glean was that a lot of killing went on!
The main claim to fame was that Henry VII – the first Tudor king – was born there. I had not appreciated that the Tudors were essentially Welsh in origin. Somehow although Tudors are studied endlessly at school, this fact is not to the fore! Not every area was open but we were able to wander along the ramparts and up and down towers and learnt a lot of Welsh history.
The rest of the day was spent in idleness, finding a solar panel system that might charge phones and cycle computers and thinking about possibilities for our next cycling trip (I know we are not through this one yet but we always like to have one on the horizon!)
Carmarthen did not have much to offer – another town blighted by concrete shopping streets and a museum closed for renovations. It did have a very good Indian restaurant (Cinnamon) – they were impressed that we almost literally licked our plates clean the evening before. We were hungrier than we thought.
The morning dawned with clear skies and sunshine so we were off by 8.30am. One challenge, as a cyclist in Wales and in other places with awkward topography, is that sometimes there just aren’t many roads going in the direction you want. In order to skirt round to the Tenby peninsular the only option out of Carmarthen was the main A40. Luckily it started off with a good bike path alongside the road; so it was noisy but ok. After a short stretch of side road away from the dual carriageway we had to loop back onto the A40 – this time no bike path. We had a pretty terrifying few km on the busy dual carriageway when luckily a bike path of sorts re-emerged. A rather bumpy path but separated from the main carriageway by a grass verge! We arrived at St Clear’s unscathed and turned off the dual carriageway with relief.
We could now enjoy the sunshine and lovely scenery on very quiet roads. We had a long slow climb up a valley by a bubbling brook through beautiful woodland listening to lovely birdsong (the road was good but empty) – such a change from the roar of traffic.
As if by magic, at around mid morning coffee time we stopped at the National Trust Colby Woodland Garden, but only after we had persuaded ourselves to go down an 18% hill. It was not so much going down the hill that causes us to hesitate but the inevitable climb back out of the valley. But we overcame our doubts and it was the right decision.
This tranquil, steep sided valley was the site of a coal mine in the 1790’s but was transformed in 1870 when a pharmacist Samuel Kay acquired the land and started to plant a garden. Over the last 150 years, the planting continued and so it has developed into a wonderful area of woodland, wildflower meadow and magnificent walled garden. It was warm and sunny and we could at last believe we were in May. The colours were fabulous and the place felt very serene as we strolled around.
The walled garden was inspiring – perhaps we can create one at Hitterhill one day (first build walls).
All this was topped off by a superb National Trust tea room! Becoming a connoisseur of coffee and cake, it was difficult to rank todays Bakewell tart with yesterday’s rhubarb and orange cake at the Welsh Rarebit bakery as both were equally delicious.
Suitably fortified and rested we continued on and battled our way our of the valley and were soon at pretty seaside villages Wiseman’s Bridge and Saundersfoot then on to Tenby. Unfortunately each of these settlements were separated by steep headlands so we were back to “powering” up 15% hills. I don’t know what was in that Bakewell tart but it seemed to do the trick at getting me up the hills! However we drew the line at what seemed like 20% and got off to push. There is no shame in pushing and it avoids older folks like us suffering injuries!
We swooped down into Tenby and had a picnic overlooking the expanse of sand and harbour at North Beach (tide was out so no water in the harbour).
On the next door bench were another couple of cyclists so as usual we started chatting. It then transpired that one of them was in a wheelchair and had an amazing ‘hand cycle’ that he clipped onto the wheelchair and that he operated with his arms. There was a power assist battery but getting up and down these steep hills was amazing. People sometimes say we are inspiring but this guy was something else.
Our last section of the day was along a lovely ridge to Pembroke (14% hill out of Tenby first of course). Just as it started to cloud up a little we arrived and eventually found our AirBnB after cycling past it three times as it was strategically hidden by scaffolding! The flat is above a bakery (we have been promised wonderful smells from 6am) in a lovely old building that is in a state of renovation. It even had a bath – what bliss! We will be very comfortable here for our day of for rest and recovery tomorrow.
Today was the day that Dominic Cummings dished the dirt on what was really going on in No10 when the pandemic hit last year but we were unconcerned as we woke up in a campsite in Wales looking out on a bright but cloudy morning. DC may have offered “challenges” for the present occupants of No10, but we were more concerned with the challenges faced by occupants of cycling saddles. However, reading the reports later, his revelations were interesting and it may well be that he abandoned the habits of a lifetime and said it as it was.
There are two things that occur to me about cycling trips. First, I sleep so well. I am a bit of an insomniac when I am home; legal cases, making good relationships, the future of my family and other things all seem unutterably bleak at 4am at home. Here I sleep solidly through the small hours, oblivious to the distortions my mind inflicts on me at that time of the day when I am doing less exercise.
The second thing to share with you is that the challenge is not the climbing per se – even hauling 25kg of kit in front and back panniers on a bike. The real challenge is the gradient. I know we could reduce the amount we take on these trips by – for example – getting rid of the computer I am typing this on – but we have been through all our stuff on numerous times and this is the best compromise. But it makes going steeply uphill a serious challenge. Climbing 200m is fine at 5%, even strangely enjoyable. Climbing the same height gain over half the distance is much more of a challenge, and climbing at 15% is a trial of strength. Over 15% and we get of and walk – very slowly! We sometimes (well often actually) get passed on such hills by cyclists out for a ride on a road bike that weighs about 5kg. They usually have 30 years on us and are probably fitter as well. They have one of 2 reactions. Either it is “chapeau” for even attempting such a hill with kit, or it is a look which says “are you totally mad or just lost”. To be fair it is normally the former – and we could, of course, actually be lost.
So – back to the day. We packed up – a familiar routine now – and got on our way by 8.30. The first 15km to Brecon followed the Monmouthshire and Brecon canal. This canal was authorised by its own Act of Parliament in 1792, which created the Company of Proprietors of the Monmouthshire Canal Navigation and empowered it to raise £120,000 by the issuing of shares, and a further £60,000 if required. The company also had powers to construct railways from the canal to any coal mines, ironworks or limestone quarries which were within eight miles (13 km) of it. Thus, following this motorway of yesteryear, the road was reasonably flat.
Along the way I had an issue with my cycling shoes – a bolt holding the cleat in fell out and was lost. Hence, to get my foot out of the pedal, I needed to take the shoe off. This was probably not a long term solution so I used the other side of the pedal and cycled into Brecon like that. The one bike shop in Brecon was closed on Wednesdays – and of course this was Wednesday. But there was a traditional hardware shop where the inventive proprietors cut down a bolt to the right size and it fitted, whilst chatting about the weather, relatives from Suffolk who were coming to camp and whether she would finally get her bike out of the shed to restore it – unlikely being the consensus. They attempted to charge me 30p for the bolt – but I insisted on paying far more – namely £2. Such generosity will leave us bankrupt.
The road out of Brecon was the first climb of the day. The road was gently uphill for about 200m at about 5-7% to a lovely moor on the top where people came to walk their dogs in the stiff breeze. The rain stayed off but it was cloudy. The views from the top across to the beacons to our south were lovely, with the sun picking out parts of the green slopes.
We descended towards Sennybridge but stopped just before at what I thought was an old school which was converted into the International Welsh Rabbit Centre – which included a café and bakery. However I had read it wrong – it was the International Welsh Rarebit Centre, which perhaps explained why there were no rabbits on the sign. We felt it was too early for rarebit but the coffee and cake were excellent.
The road took us west towards Carmarthen over another series of hills, rising to roughly the same height as the first climb. However this climb was a series of level parts with very steep intervals. We got off and pushed for some of the really steep bits, and powered or way up others – or more accurately applied a great deal of power and made marginal progress. The views at the top were great – well worth the exhaustion.
After that we sailed down the other side and had a final 25km of reasonably flat valley roads towards Carmarthen, with the novel experience of the sun shining on us. First time we used sun cream this trip (hope it is not the last). By this stage we were pretty tired and passed up the chance to look at some possibly attractive gardens – we just needed to get to our destination and relax.
Carmarthen is a lovely city, to the west of the mountains and with a history stretching back to the Romans. We will explore the city tomorrow morning but this evening was a poky Air B & B but that is fine!
Today was a day of bridges and rivers – over the Avon, Severn and criss-crossing the river Usk.
We left Bristol in sunshine after saying our goodbyes and we were soon crossing the first bridge of the day – Clifton Suspension bridge. As usual leaving a city was fairly slow but we were soon out of Bristol and making our way to the old Severn Bridge after 20km where we left England for Wales at Chepstow. The wind was against us but we had spectacular views down the Severn estuary towards the southern (and newer) bridge. There were lots of signs advertising the Samaritans – hopefully a better option than the long drop to the water 50m below.
There was then a long but beautiful climb over the hills to Usk. Steepish at the bottom but then a gentle gradient and lovely views. It was only marred by some problems with my front mec and gear changing yet again. A lovely descent into the pretty (but busy with traffic) town of Usk. There was a very high pub quotient but low café quotient; however it does have a lovely bakery/deli which did take away coffees and steak and stilton pasties that were to die for. We sat by the Usk river bridge and filled our stomachs for the afternoon.
We then criss crossed the Usk along lovely quiet roads to Abergavenny, where a fifth bike shop had a go at my gears. Although they were choc-a-block with bike repairs they turfed one bike off the stand to look at mine and the chap there was friendly and knowledgeable. The problem, he explained, is that the new front mec that was put on back in Ringwood was for 9 speed and not 10 speed, but like every other shop they did not have the right part and said that getting bike parts at the moment was impossible. So he did the best he could and so far so good. We were grateful for his time.
As we headed along after Abergavenny it began to cloud up and by the time we got to Crickhowell it started to rain – not the short showers we were used to, but good old Welsh rain. It then alternated between drizzle and heavy rain (with large puddles on the road)! Such a shame as the scenery was spectacular but we had our heads down to get to Tal y Bont as quickly as tired legs would allow.
We briefly considered trying to get a room but a quick look at the forecast showed it should clear up to a sunny evening. We decided to believe the forecast and found our campsite dripping from top to toe. The campsite was divided into several fields – lovely soft flat grass. Luckily in our section there was a shelter and as no one else was foolish enough to turn up without a car, we had it to ourselves. We concocted a method of putting up our tent in the shelter and then moving it onto the field fully constructed with fly sheet so it would not get wet. Showers were hot and we could brew up under the shelter and we soon warmed up in the tent. Then as promised the sun came out to a beautiful evening with wonderful evening light on the surrounding hills.
David cooked up a meal and I am now in a lovely old pub while typing this up. 92km feels a long way but we are tired but not totally exhausted. Perhaps our fitness is really starting come back, at least a bit. It feels like a lovely end to a really good day and we are looking forward to a challenging day through the Brecon Beacons tomorrow.
Rain was predicted for this morning but it was overcast but dry. We got up and got going by 8 and saw Bridgewater on the way to work and school as we cycled through. First impressions are that Bridgewater is a drab town; but it has a theatre and arts centre and is the home of St John’s Street Cycles where we got tandems many years ago. No doubt it has other attractions too but none jumped out as we cycled through on a pretty grim day yesterday..
Once out of the town we had “hillock” to overcome (i.e. a lump sticking 50m above the dead flat surrounding land) as the route took us over that. Then flatness and more flatness of the Somerset levels. A relief after hilly Devon. The sun was shining as we passed through a series of villages that were mainly former council housing – maybe agricultural workers. Not the twee Somerset villages in the hills but working places with schools and community centres where bingo is played – and yes we saw adverts for this (but sadly our timing was amiss).
After about 28km we reached the village of Cheddar, at the base of the Mendip hills. The Mendips rise abruptly from the Somerset levels, with Cheddar Gorge cutting a line through the hills. At its base, the town of Cheddar seems mainly to be built on tourism, with the gorge as the main attraction. It had the usual array of cafes and tea shops (almost all closed), gift shops and a few other places catering for the passing hordes like us. We found one café that was open and sheltered there with coffee and an overpriced bacon sandwich whilst witnessing a cloud burst. The rain came from nowhere, fell in buckets and then it was dry again. It was quite a remarkable 10 minutes.
At one point we were in the gift area of the shop in lycra, rain jackets and cycling shoes when a brother and sister teenager pair came in (same red hair gave the genetics away). They picked up some cheddar cheese and tried to pay us for it, and then acted slightly astonished when we said we were not serving staff! Honesty overcame us as we directed them to the till.
Once the rain subsided we tackled the gorge. The first 2km was advertised as steep – about 12% – but hey, it was not Devon and so seemed pretty straightforward to us. We had to pull around a few steeper corners but it was not too bad at all. The scenery of the gorge was impressive, with the mist rising from the recently fallen rain now that the sun was out.
The upper stretches were lovely and remote. Not many people from the world of the tea shop make it to the upper parts and so we were on our own in this limestone landscape.
The top stretched out for a few miles and then we dropped steeply down to Chew Valley, where the reservoir proudly told us it was started in 1950, was opened by the Queen before we were born (same Queen as now – totally astonishing given I am now 61) and contains 20 million litres of water for Bristol. There was abundant birdlife, swans with cygnets and a tranquil air about the place.
We ambled on, stopped for a picnic lunch on a bench in a village between Chew Valley and Bristol and then made our way around the outskirts of Bristol to our friends’ house where we were due to stay the night. Embarrassingly, we were so early I had to go round the back to let Joyshri know we had arrived! It was lovely to see them – the next stage of reconnecting with people post-lockdown. We stayed dry all day – missing the forecast hail showers in Cheddar and arriving before the persistent rain in Bristol.
We then experienced Joyshri and Parthar’s wonderful hospitality – more lockdown lifting.
One of the key lessons we have learnt from our bike touring years is the need to be flexible and change plans if needed. Today was one such day. Although our initial plan had been to try and take in all the National Parks on our way, we decided that our legs would not take going up and over Exmoor, which would mean even more steep climbing than yesterday. The weather forecast was also pretty atrocious so we also changed our plan to camp in the Quantock Hills – could have been idyllic but looked like being a washout! We therefore changed our route to head for Bridgwater.
The day in fact dawned sunny and we were off by 8.15 – fuelled by scrambled eggs from Kate. Kate joined us for the first section of the day – which was also the hilliest. She nobly offered to take one of my panniers again (key lesson number 2 – always accept offers of help). We pedalled through gorgeous Devonian villages – up and down of course. Then the biggest climb of the day – at times at least 17% and probably more like 20% in places. Kate and I got off and walked but David pushed on and cycled all the way up. Super-strength!! Although it had clouded up the views from the top over to Dartmoor were magnificent. It was then a lovely descent down to the valley bottom at Bickleigh. Here we said our goodbyes as Kate turned for home; and I had to take my full load again!
We continued up the valley to Tiverton where we paused to buy things for lunch and have a coffee at the supermarket. The next section was not as severe but still had plenty of ups and down and occasional steep sections. The roads were quiet and beautiful. If the sun was out our hearts would have been singing. As it was we stayed mostly dry until late morning and the wind was behind us but then the drizzle started and persisted for most of the rest of the day. We huddled under a convenient archway for our picnic lunch in the pretty village of Milverton – we needed it as had already done more the 800m climbing.
Then we were in Somerset and the road miraculously flattened out. The wind was still behind us and blew us along to the outskirts of Taunton. The last section took us over the last remnants of the Quantock Hills – aching legs and still drizzle but glimpses of what the views could have been! Then a long gradual down hill all the way into Bridgwater to our Guest House – which turned out to be very well set up for cyclists. Soon we were warm and dry and resting as the forecast torrential rain started – our timing worked well today!
Bernie braved the rain to shop at Sainsbury’s for dinner because the guest house had a kitchen for guests – such a sensible arrangement. We cooked and then, as we were finishing, met up with James, a touring cyclist who had struggled against the wind over the Somerset Levels (as we had done going north battling a northerly wind on our Lands End to John O’Groats trip in 1991). We stretched the meal to three without difficulty as we discussed cycling, life the universe and everything. James was heading south from Stafford and was going up and over Exmoor. He was “bike packing” – namely cycle touring with a mountain bike and less luggage than us, but this meant he was able to go off road. Great conversation and then to bed.
Today ambled into existence, fuelled by tea and coffee and continuing hospitality from Jane and Pete. We packed up, said our goodbyes and then went off in the wrong direction. A good start! Then further work on Bernie’s gears and an incident with a lost glove – happily found and eventually we found the route and got going. We felt like a pair or rank amateurs, not highly experienced cycle-tourists.
It was overcast but not raining as we inched our way down a steep mud track to get the splendid Budleigh to Exmouth cycleway – a tarmacked stretch of a former railway. Mr Beeching’s cuts have been turned into a benefit for cyclists.
We met up with Kate and her friend Deborah in Exmouth. They had plotted a 72km route across Dartmoor, which seemed doable at that point. It started easily enough along the Exe River estuary. This meant the route was flat(ish) and well marked. We reached Topsham and Kate murmured about a high proportion of Dowager Duchesses and retired Colonels in the town (where she used to live). There were some amusing signs on the waterfront (see pics) but no sign of elderly posh folk. Now lockdown is over, maybe they had all been out clubbing until late the night before and were not up yet.
We continued to Exeter and then had coffee in a biker’s café – a rather good biker’s café next to an excellent biker’s shop.
After that the climbing began – and it was tough. Devon has the reputation of being the hardest part of any Lands End to John O’Groats ride because of reasonably large and unrelenting ups and downs across the county. Up-hills are often over 15% gradient and down-hills are the same, which on narrow single track roads with a frequent potholes, adds up to slow, demanding cycling. However the rewards in terms of beautiful scenery, fantastic views and idyllic cottages with the Wysteria in full bloom more than made up for the toil (even in the rain).
Our route took us though villages which have a large number of unnecessary letters in their names, such as Dunchideock and Doddiescombsleigh. It was beautiful but up and down and then more up and down followed by yet more up and down. The tough Devonians who we were cycling with hardly noticed the ups; we partially cured that by loading Katie up with one of Bernie’s panniers but it made precious little difference. They do these hills all the time but, to be fair, they were not hauling 25kg across 4 panniers.
After yet another 20% hill, we had to face the fact that we would not manage another 50km of this, despite the spectacular scenery. By this time even Kate was starting to feel the hills – in part because she had taken one of Bernie’s panniers. In contrast, dynamic Deborah seemed to treat a 20% hill climb as if it were flat.
There really is something about living and cycling here that is good for the calf muscles. However, in deference to our limited fitness and excessive pannier weight, we diverted off the route to reach the village of Dunsford (no extra letters there) for an early lunch at a very traditional watering hole.
Fortified by burger and chips in my case (quiche and chips for Bernie and various other delights plus chips for Kate and Deborah) we were able to make our way north towards Kate’s home in Sandford. We stopped by Tiverton to see Kate’s home town and then ambled through the lanes to get to her house.
A wonderful day’s cycling – adding up to 78km in total and 1300m of climbing. It would have been even more if we had followed the original route!
The wind howled through the night, the noise of the wind in the trees sounding like a storm at sea. We were cosily wrapped up in our tent and it felt bizarrely comforting. However, with a forecast in the morning of 35 mile an hour WSW winds – a direction that would be dead against us – and 50 mile gusts that could knock us off our bikes, we reached the limits of even our madness. One phone call to a guardian angel and our great friend Pete came to pick us up from the campsite. Before that, we re-learnt how to brew up coffee on our little stove under the fly sheet to keep the flame away from the tent sides. We gradually packed ourselves up as our camping routine kicked back into action.
Our phones were running low on battery and as we wanted to make sure we kept in touch with Pete, David went to the reception to ask whether he could plug his phone charger in. This was met with a blanket ‘no’ for the reason that the campsite was not insured for it, and they could face a claim for £1000 if phones went missing! It felt like “jobsworth” on stilts, particularly as the campsite was virtually deserted and the phone in question was limping along after many years service. Serious were black marks against Hook Farm for lack of helpfulness as well as a total lack of understanding of the liability rules under the Occupiers Liability Act 1957. David thought about giving him the full law lecture about how insane this position was but decided life was too short. However, that approach explains the need for 20p for the showers – same mentality.
When Pete arrived, we managed to dismantle the bikes enough to fit them, ourselves and all our kit into the car and soon we were on our way. Watching the trees bending in the wind confirmed that we were not just being wimps!
We then had a lovely day off with Pete and Jane in their new home in Budleigh Salterton – although not so new as they have been there for 6 months but this was the first time we were able to see them and were privileged to be their first guests staying inside after the lockdown. It was great to see them in situ, and admire all the changes they have made to the house in the short time they have been there. Pete extended his driving kindness to taking Bernie’s bike for a 4th attempt to sort the gears out at a bike shop. Much musing resulted in the addition of a new bottom bracket, some improvement although David still had to do the last adjustments to get all the gears to work without the chain falling off).
We had a blowy walk along the estuary and the sea front, cream tea at home and a lovely evening meal – it will set us up for the next few days back on the road.
There is always at least one day on a cycling holiday when anything that can happen, does happen and the world seems against us. That was today – but the good news is that I am writing this in a pub with a full pint, where we intended to be and having eaten a delicious one pot meal. So what could possibly have gone wrong?
Well we started well – up, breakfasted and broken camp by 8am. That felt good. Soon after we started Bernie started to notice her gears were not working properly. The new front shifter which the bike shop had put on yesterday was slipping, the gears were out and it was generally not as good as it should be. I stopped, fiddled with the settings (front mecs not being my forte) and thought it was working. But it was not. If anything it got worse.
The road was delightful but it was overcast and there was no sun. The wind was not a problem to begin with but gradually it built through the morning. Another half hour with me attempting to be a bike mechanic slowed us down but it was really difficult to mend the gears on the side of the road, but it was more or less OK.
We stopped for coffee in Dorchester. It may be Dorset’s county town and Hardy’s birthplace, but it was cold, rainy and windy when we got there. The cafe kept the door open for extra ventilation – which would have been fine in May but this was November (or seemed like it).
We ambled off – attempted further repairs and again the front mec on Bernie’s bike seemed fixed, but we had not taken the next 5km into account. First there were the sheep – sheep you might say – what sheep? The answer is the sheep on the only road out of Dorchester which were being steered from one field to another a mile away. So we sat behind the flock cycling at sheep pace. And as we went along slowly, so the weather got worse and the road became a track. The track bounced the bikes around and, of course, bounced Bernie’s front mec out of alignment.
We decided (a) to avoid gravel tracks until we got the bikes 100% and (b) get to a bike shop if we could to get Bernie’s front mec sorted, as it needed professional. Those decisions meant that our only option was to head for Bridport on either minor roads or a seriously major one – opted for minor roads – mistake.
The road climbed a 15% hill up to 200m with a 20mph wind against us and driving rain. At this point I wondered what lack of sanity meant that we were doing this for pleasure. But the wind going up was nothing – I repeat nothing – compared to the wind over the top. Full blown blizzard (but hail not snow) and wind so strong that it picked the bikes up and strung them across the road. It was a good job it was so quiet or we would have been toast.
On the plus side, the scenery in this part of Dorset is staggeringly beautiful. It was just that all we could see was waves of rain coming up the hills. So we ambled on and the rain eased off and we made Bridport at 3pm. If Dorchester was a disappointment, Bridport was not much better. There were 3 bike shops listed. The “Weelie Good Bike Shope” turned out to be a shed in someone’s garden – and the someone was not home. The “Ride” shop was staffed by someone who had taken customer relations lessons from the DWP. “No, he could not assist. They had a single mechanic and there was a 5 day waiting list”. So be it – it is their business and they can run it as they like. But there is an informal understanding that passing cyclists are always given a bit of hand – but that “understanding” has not reached Bridport (or at least this part of Bridport).
Lastly we tried “Bridport Cycles” which, of course, is not in Bridport but a small village outside. There we met the delightful Ron with his even more delightful dog Norman, a Spanish rabbit chasing white and brown dog. He knew Bewdley, used to visit our friend Mark Young when he ran Overspoke, and was a generally good guy who restored our faith in the cycle trade. He deserved lifetime free membership of the ACT (Association of Cycle Traders for the uninitiated).
We chatted, got Bernie’s bike up on the stand and worked on it between us. I had eliminated all the simple problems and together we diagnosed the problem, refined the settings and it was “good enough”. All 3 chain wheels worked and none scraped (or not too badly) and Bernie could change between them (with effort). Mark Young may need to perfect things before our next trip but this should get us to Argyll.
Ron would take no money for his work – sorting out fellow cyclists and fellow dog lovers seemed more important to him. We left him with thanks and genuinely wish him well in his endeavour to get all the over 65s in Bridport onto ebikes.
The next section was on main roads – so the downside is lots of traffic and even more trucks. The upside is normally that the gradients are not that tough. Here we had trucks and 15% gradients – and multiple ones as well. The rain had eased off but the wind was as bad.
We struggled into Lyme, bought supper and then found the campsite; arriving at 6.30pm. It was not too windy or rainy so we got the tent up and had a one pot meal – totally delicious. No showers though because the chap who showed us around the campsite forgot the vital information that we needed 20p pieces for the shower. The assurance that the now long closed shop kept a stock of 20p pieces was not worth a great deal.
Then to the pub for a couple of pints and a blog-writing session. A tough, difficult day with lots of frustrations but it’s amazing how quickly all that can be erased with a full stomach and pint in your hand. All seemed well in the end.
We woke to rain on the windows and got up and pottered around quietly, sorting ourselves out in the hope of not waking our hosts – suspect we failed but hopefully not too much. The rain eased and we cycled across Winchester to have breakfast with our long standing friends, Tony and Liz/Helen. Six weeks ago their 28 year old daughter had died – no medical cause has been found –it appears her heart had just stopped. Their grief is deep but maybe not as raw as I would have expected, but they are facing a world they never expected or would never have wanted. Rachel was wonderful and had 3 small children; her lovely husband Matthew also faces a life he never expected or would never have wanted.
They were back from Rachel’s Cambridge College where she was a choral scholar; the chapel had put on a memorial service. It could have been too much for others but their faith is rock solid and they are trying to make sense of these terrible events. It was good to share time with them even in these difficult times; they remain so important to us and – we hope – us to them.
We cycled off with slightly heavy hearts but it was soon too beautiful to be thinking of death. The lanes going south from Winchester were lovely and the sun was out. Then a section of the route hit main roads as we ambled towards Romsey. There are so many cars, vans and trucks in the South East of England! I suppose all this prosperity causes traffic but I was not sure why they had to all be out on the road at the same time as us!
Romsey was forgettable but the route soon took us towards the New Forest. The road ambled through the open countryside – lots of wild ponies with odd clumps of trees. It was very different to the dense woodland of the Forest of Wyre where we live.
Then a new experience – gravel riding. For the uninitiated (i.e. us until yesterday), this is riding on gravel tracks with unpredictable surfaces. It is quite a challenge when there is any weight on the front wheel and there is no rolling effect to ease the journey – so it adds up to hard work, especially as the trail went uphill.
But the upside is that it was quiet, beautiful and peaceful. We stopped for a sandwich lunch – Tony and Liz had given us hard boiled eggs from their chickens and – with a bit of squeezed mayo – these tasted like a 4 course meal at the Ritz.
Then we cycled into Ringwood leaving the delights of the New Forest behind us. A few repairs at the excellent bike shop in Ringwood and then the relief to hear Becky had exchanged contracts and so would be moving to her new home in Bristol. We ambled off with smiles on our faces towards a stop for tea in Wimbourne Minster. Thought about looking round the Minster but it was already getting late so we pressed on to reach the campsite at Wareham.
Long day – 93km and started later than usual but our pressing thoughts were on Rachel – a very full and varied life cut tragically far too short.
Today began a little gloomy but with the promise of both sunshine and rain – the question was the proportion. We had no idea but we set off after saying our goodbyes to our wonderful hosts.
The first part was flat as we ambled across the flat coastal plain towards Chichester. It was a “B-road” but anything but quiet. A steady stream of cars patiently waited behind us and then overtook when it was safe and they could give us enough space. Most British drivers have become far more cycle-friendly in recent years; there is always the impatient one but the vast majority are prepared to wait the few seconds needed to avoid a close shave.
The final route to Chichester was along a canal toe path. We passed a young woman taking her pug dog for a walk in a pram. There is a story behind every sighting and we don’t say “surely the dog would prefer to walk”, mainly because she was engrossed in a telephone call at that point (or possibly all the time). It amused us anyway.
The city was lovely in the morning light. Faded splendour along the High Street and then we stopped at the Cathedral. It was 9.30am and it did not open until 10am; but it seemed open and so we ambled in. A beautiful peaceful space, mixing ancient walls with modern art. There was a Graham Sutherland portrait in a side chapel and stunning tapestries behind the alter that exuded colour to whole building. The nave was empty of chairs, perhaps showing that the thousands don’t attend on a Sunday. These buildings are the symbol of a collective faith that has now left us as a country. They are monuments to past ways of seeing the world – not necessarily better or worse – but no longer with us.
After Chichester the route wound through a series of wonderful villages and back lanes. We glimpsed the occasional country pile with obligatory tennis court and then wound our way to Rowlands Castle. This is a slightly mythical place for both of us as we spent our childhood years commuting to school by train. Hence we learned the names of the stations all the way down the line to Portsmouth but, of course, never visited them. Rowlands Castle was one of these but we had no idea who Rowland was and why he had a castle. Better than that it had the superb Bubblebee café – excellent coffee and our favourite meal ‘second breakfast’.
From Rowlands Castle we climbed up a beautiful wooded valley towards Petersfield and then skirting westwards past the town. We hardly saw a car for about 20km. We had lovely sunshine interspersed with a couple of sort showers. Then our second sightseeing stop of the day at Hinton Amphner.
As we started strolling round the gardens the heavens opened but we were able to shelter in the little shop. The rain stopped as quickly as it started and we continued round the lovely garden with magnificent views over the Downs. The final stretch was along a lovely river valley to arrive at Winchester.
The overwhelming memory of the day was of colour. All the trees were in new leaf and an incredible array of greens. There were bluebells, vivid yellow fields of Rape, the white ‘candles’ of horse chesnuts and reds and maroons of magnificent copper beaches. Here, pink and red of arrays of tulips. Clouds of the whole pallet of greys broken by bright blue skies. All twinkling and glittering from the recent rain. All stunningly beautiful.
In Winchester we stayed with David’s godson Stephen and wife, Katie (about 8 weeks to go to the birth of their first child). The day ended by going out to a lovely restaurant…..sitting inside! Good food and a lovely evening.