I’m just home from a cycle ride of somewhere between 1600-2000 kilometres. I know I should know the distance with more accuracy but the cycle computer I hid behind the seat of my trike refused to work properly most days even when I remembered to set it leaving me to wonder why I’d bothered. I don’t like cycle computers at the best of times but I do like to know the day to day and overall distance of my rides. My rough estimation is based on pre-ride planning during which I chose a rough outline for my journey by linking places I wanted to visit using Apps and maps: rhyming cycle guides.
On the road there was only one afternoon during a month of riding when I thought the traffic on the busy side. There were no near misses, one or two ‘a bit closer than I’d like’s’ and thousands of times when people gave me all the space I needed and more besides. Where was this magical kingdom where cycling was a joy and nothing go in the way of that? It was right here in the UK. “You wouldn’t catch me riding on the roads,” say the ne’er-do-wells. I must say I would have been inclined to agree prior to being reclined on my trike. Since then I’ve seen nothing but courtesy with the one or two exceptions that you would expect to find in any field of endeavour. This apparent lack of vehicles was due to the route I chose having little traffic on it. I avoided almost all the major towns and cities en-route unless they were ones I wanted to visit.
I like to think that my pleasant and rural wanderings were unbothered by cars due to my own good choices but that wouldn’t be entirely true. The National Cycle Network (NCN), as being constructed by Sustrans and other parties, had a hand to play in guiding me through many areas. I ended up riding many happy kilometres of quiet roads, bespoke traffic-free cycle trails, old railways and peaceful canal towpaths as well as the steep and arduous minor mountain roads of Wales. On the odd occasion I got fed up with the convoluted and often much more demanding roads that the NCN follows. At those time I took to much bigger roads for a relatively fast ride, but only when they seemed quiet.
My part in the route planning involved unravelling the myriad of country lanes that criss-cross England and Wales to link up with sections of the National Cycle Network. What I ended up with was a fascinating and interesting rural extravaganza with a few larger towns and cities thrown in for good luck. The map at the top of the article is a rough approximation of the journey I took from the south west of England. I headed for the east coast, then cross- country again to the west coast with a lumpy ride down the length of Wales finishing in Chepstow on the English-Welsh border.
The east and west sides of the UK couldn’t be more different. Compare pan-flat Lincolnshire with the mountains that run the length of Wales for example. How would my trike and legs cope with these different terrains? I wouldn’t know until I got there. I knew my route would be fun as you can’t go far in the UK without the scenery changing dramatically. This is partly why it’s such a good place to take a cycle tour. Add in a myriad of country lanes and the place was made for cycling.
I’d already had a false start. For reasons largely unknown I left to start this trip and panicked (See previous article). I went home, tail between my legs, and began to look at what I could do to change how I was seeing the ride in my head. Without funding I felt afraid of spending anything at all. I changed the way I saw this into a positive. This journey would be therapeutic and give me material for another book. Changes to equipment meant nearly 10kg’s were knocked of my load. I ditched Trevor, my much loved trailer, on the grounds that I didn’t need to draw people to the ride and because there is no energy efficiency advantage to towing a trailer with a trike. I swapped back to a smaller tent and reduced everything else to a minimum without compromising comfort.
As well as pragmatic things like those listed above I made mental adjustments too. I decided to leave from home, something that aided all but one of my previous rides. I could sneak away, little by little, until I was comfortable about what I was undertaking. That way I would have an opt-out clause should I feel the need. My body, which had felt low-energy all winter, was telling me it wanted to ride in easier terrain. On that account I would head east, building fitness as I went and saving the tough stuff for the end of the ride when I would feel better prepared to tackle it.
Leaving is never easy. It takes time to adjust to your new and minimalist lifestyle. I crept away from home that Monday morning feeling apprehensive of a repeat of my first attempt to leave. I pretended that I was out for the day and concentrated on enjoying what it offered. It was a fine morning, a mite chilly, but it was only August! Just three miles from home I met a man walking his dog. He asked question of the trike and I endeavoured to answer them. It set my mind at ease, letting me know I would never be alone or without contact unless I chose to be. It also distracted me from the first steep hill of the ride that started outside of the man’s front door.
Devon was at its most beautiful that morning as I headed for Tiverton with Dartmoor ever present to my right during those initial kilometres. I climbed up onto various ridges that left me feeling I was looking down on the whole world. I took my time getting used to the heavily loaded trike and enjoyed every inch of the journey to Tiverton where I spent several years teaching in the secondary school prior to my breakdown.
As I headed for the start of the Tiverton canal, a gentle and peaceful path that would lead my first overnight stop, I thought I recognised the woman walking towards me with a dog. I was right, it was a neighbour who had moved from next door to me some eighteen months previously. What a coincidence? She doesn’t even live in Tiverton but works there. This happened just as I was feeling edgy about being away from home and in the place where my world collapsed nine years ago. Serendipity? Coincidence aside, it was pleasant to stop and talk to somebody I knew and it left me relaxed and excited about what other coincidences and chance meetings this journey might throw up.
The initial week was dominated by canals. Tiverton was just the beginning. I used canals for the sections from Taunton to Bridgewater and Bath to Devizes. Since riding the Nantes-Brest canal in Brittany, France, I’ve enjoyed reconnecting to waterways, something that was a major part of my young life when I lived alongside the Grand Union Canal.
It isn’t the easy riding that attracts me, it’s the locks, the narrow boats and a feeling that I’ve been transported back in time. The tow paths that allow cyclists to enjoy some canals and waterways will never cycle super-highways and encourage a slower, more relaxed approach to journeying. Many narrowboats chugged along these sections with a bock, bock, bock noise from lethargic diesel engines and I even found one converted into a café. It felt just perfect. When I finally left the canals behind, in terms of riding along the towpath at least, it was with a certain sadness. This was coupled to the notion that I was now firmly in the twenty first century again. Each time I crossed a canal, and there were many, I would stop and look, still fascinated by their seemingly timeless existence.
Through the Cotswolds and into Northamptonshire I visited the places I had lived and gone to school. I even found a small campsite aside the Grand Union canal in a village where I would deliver Sunday papers as a boy. I could feel the memories all around and remembered many places, people and events that my mind had long filed away in a cupboard. I felt uplifted as I gently passed through the rolling Northamptonshire landscape comprising of sandstone. It was one that, over many years, had burned indelible memories onto my internal hard-drive. Houses of red stone, each block of which was wearing differently, harboured a deep warmth. They almost glowed a wide variety of reds and oranges in the sunshine that illuminated them. I loved the area as much now as when I was living there, some 37 years ago.
Out towards the flatlands I spent time in Cambridge, a city of cycles and one I had never visited. What a city it is with its grand architecture, history, and punting. I could have stayed for a year. For a romantic soul there is beauty around the corner of every street, park, and building. Kings College, the banks of the river Camb and the parks and gardens that appear in the most unlikely places made for an emotionally scintillating experience. It’s still a city not overrun by cars which is an oddity today. Cambridge is a better place for the restrictions it places on vehicles. This is in part due to the law and part natural as it’s well known for being dreadful to drive through and thus gets avoided. From here I rode out into Thetford Forest where I found an abundance of peace, most noise being absorbed by the trees. By now I was extremely relaxed without doubt or reservation about my undertaking.
The day I headed for the coast near Lowestoft I met a poet on a recumbent bike. I hadn’t ever seen anybody else riding recumbent aside from Michele and as we rode we chatted and laughed our way along the road at high speed for over ten miles with a following wind. At some point I realised that I was going completely the wrong way. It didn’t matter, we just laughed and chatted our way diagonally back to where I should have been an hour and a half earlier on. On such a gorgeous day, riding on into the evening was a complete pleasure and I felt only a slight pang of annoyance at my error.
From there I got lost in Lowestoft thanks to confusing signs that locals might understand but don’t need and visitors need but don’t understand, Ending up on a tiny campsite I had used when I cycle around the UK coast in 2011 felt particularly good that night. It lies just to the East of Great Yarmouth near Burgh Castle. To get there I deployed a cunning plan. I followed my nose and for once it had the right scent. It lead me perfectly to somewhere that I had held in my memory for four years via roads I have never previously ridden through housing estates I didn’t know. Sometimes you get lucky.
Great Yarmouth may not be everybody’s cup of tea, with its Blackpool style illuminations and crass gaming venues but the beach is still a sight to behold and I love the pier. My father was born in Yarmouth and my grandfather worked the Herring boats, trawling for a catch in the wild North Sea regardless of the seasons. It must have been a harsh life. The mouth of the river Yar and the harbour are now all but empty. In my memory the fishing boats stretched from one side of the harbour to the other. It was in Yarmouth that I watched sweet rock being rolled out, smelling all minty. How did they get the words all the way through? To a small boy this was a major conundrum but I remember the warm, soft chewiness of rock that hadn’t fully hardened to this day.
There was always going to be floods of tears at the graveside of my parents. This was only my second visit and forty five minutes went by in a flash before I tore myself away in order to continue my journey. Even then I felt I was abandoning them. Part of our minds want the painful truth to be wrong. We want to find our parents still there but graves are a stark reminder of the finality of death and perhaps that is their purpose and comfort.
Up through Norfolk I continued, which I should add isn’t flat, and around the coast to Lincolnshire which most definitely is flat. Before you throw up your arms in disgust at the thought of being there I might suggest that you go and look. I love these eastern counties. The huge skies without anything poking up and spoiling them and the pastille drawing softness of Norfolk with its waterways and windmills. I wonder how many people considered these windmills to be ugly in their day. They now house people who are reasonably well healed but at the time they were built they were industrial just like windfarms are now.
If you live in a city with buildings all around, this would be diametrically opposite to that. The land is cut like a cheese wire has be used, straight and true into squares it’s divided by watery dykes and rivers. Long roads follow the drains, with names like: Tilney Fen End and St John’s Fen End. The grid-like pattern makes it feel like it is: artificial, borrowed from the sea.
The reclamation of the land is something remarkable, an engineering achievement of immense proportions that leaves you aghast at how ingenious we can be when we use that ability positively. Out of the marshland Peterborough appeared like Gotham City on a bad day. My approach to the place where I was born was provided by NCN 63, another Sustrans route that had led me here from Kings Lynn, the town where the river Ouse meets the Wash, via Wisbech. I rode along a dyke, high above the river Nene a place from where I could see for many miles across the flatlands.
Next morning I puffed myself up and rode into Peterborough in the rush hour to find the house where I was born in an area called Dogsthorpe. I dodged the main city riding up the east side, parallel to the Green Wheel trail that circumvents Peterborough. Sticking to the roads I soon found Eastern Avenue and the house where I came into the world on 2nd January 1960. Aside from the missing front hedge, now made into the inevitable parking space, it was the same, as was the green where I played as a child and the school I attended during 1964/5. Before leaving I rode around the block, the one I used to ride around as a 5 year old cyclist, but this time I used the road rather than the pavement. And with that I left, retracing my steps to where I stopped overnight and then using the riverside path to escape to Rutland Water after a quick look at the magnificent catheral in the city centre.
The next week was spent dodging cities and big towns like Leicester, Nottingham, Stafford and Birmingham and Shrewsbury. I used the wide open spaces of Rutland Water, Cannock Chase and the like to miss all the industry other than that in Charnwood forest south of nottingham where Snibston pit head (in Coalville) still rises ominously, towering over the community. No longer part of a working coal mine it’s now a discovery centre where young folk can learn industrial archaeology and the history of mining. This was the only section of the ride when I felt I might be on roads that were too fast to be safe. That section lasted just a few hours and it was more a shock after all the peaceful riding than any real threat.
By the time I reached Shrewsbury it was cooling, the warmth I had elt for three weeks was waning. My chosen campsite sat atop an ancient monument in the form of the iron-age hillfort at EburyHill. It had been taken over by the military in WW2 but all past tennants are both long gone. The tree covered hilltop with its ancient banks and defences makes for a great place to escape the madness for a couple of nights.
Pedalling into Wales via Knockin I had hardly conjured up the schoolboy humour when right in front of me it appeared: The Knockin Shop. A cup of tea for 50p, a few items of food and a long chat/giggle with the owner and I was all set to hit the mountains. What actually happened was that the mountains hit me, hard. Hills became big hills which in turn gave way to the Berwyn Mountains. “You’re not going over there,” asked a concerned local. I did and it was hard all the way, as agreed with the roadie who seemed flabberghasted at my being there when he eventually caught up with the chugging and heavily loaded three-wheeler. The descent to Bala was awesome and brought a ridiculous, maniacal, grin. Yin and Yang.
From Bala I meant to go up into Snowdonia. I concluded there seemed little point, in dreadfully wet and windy weather, in spending several days pedalling around an area I know like the back of my hand just for the sake of it. Instead I headed south for the winter following the tough but beautiful NCN 8, perhaps the hardest cycle route on Sustrans UK Network. It certainly felt it and I was surprised at how well Kermit and I coped with the endless steep gradients and hills lasting many kilometres. We took our share of rest stops and admired the view on those fleeting occasions that we could see one.
This was a repeat of my first proper multi-week tour that I undertook in 2010 while preparing to ride around the UK coast. More golden memories flitted through my mind as I saw and remembered things from that period of emergence. On my penultimate day I rode two of the days I did back then in one push. It was still as challenging as it was then, possibly more so. I’m older and was tired from riding the rest of the tour having started without the level of preparedness that I would have liked. But it still assaulted my senses in every way. The heat of the sun. The feeling of riding up to touch the sky and the views, they still blew my mind.
In between it was the weather that provided the assault. It felt like a physical battering with high winds and torrential rain. I was so glad to be tucked down low on my trike and that the heavy, continual rain tended to fall overnight. Those I met on bikes grimaced while hunched over their handlebars, I twiddled slowly and sang songs to make it feel better: Raindrops keep falling on my head!
And that as they say was that. After many miles, smiles and places, all without a GPS in sight, I rolled into Chepstow and the end of my Ride. There are too many people and moments to mention in an overview article like this. I could never do them justice. I hope they and many other happenings might form the basis of a fourth book but I have a third to finish editing and publish prior to that. This route provided a delectable journey, one that took me as near to going back in time as is humanly possible. Who knows where I will venture next. This small island is full of places that are worth visiting. Why not join a few up on a map and go see them on your bike. I have a bag full of ideas for future routes, more than enough for several more lifetimes.
Never stop exploring. Every ride is an adventure in its own right, however big or small.