“We were expecting you to be in a motor home,” said the man with no name. “We don’t take tents outside of August,” he added a little aggressively. “I was quite clear when I booked that I would be riding a bike and camping,” I replied calmly, adding that I had already paid and realising that I had been charged as a motorhome. I had agreed to this extortion as I had an appointment that I didn’t want to miss out on during Monday and nowhere else to go locally.
“Just one night is it?” he continued. “No, two, I said feeling that if he wanted me to move he would have to use force. I was already pitched and inside my tent and felt I had the moral high ground on this one. He went of to check my booking and returned later saying that I had given the impression I had a motor home. Now I’m muddled and sometimes fuddled but I’m pretty sure I would know if I owned a huge lump of white plastic with wheels and an engine. Was he implying I had hoodwinked them into taking a tent by saying I had a motorhome?
For the rest of my stay they hardly spoke,just managing a hello and a weak smile whenever we passed each other. My pitch was atop a grassy knoll. Perhaps they hoped I would get shot? Either way it was an inauspicious start to my latest adventure and not the way I would have chosen to begin.
The cold shoulder from the management team was equalled by a cold front from the weather. A freezing wind was gusting constantly across the campsite, rustling my little tent in a fairly alarming way. From the inside it seemed to breathe deeply in and out, the inner tent drawn up and blown down like a giant pair of lungs. Every breath it would slap me on my face while I lay quietly inside writing or trying not to think about how small a space I was living in. Living outside in the evenings was not yet an option.
I had an excellent ride from home to get here using roads and trails including half of the newly completed Exe Estuary Trail My route would now take me along the south coast of england all the way back to Hampshire where I used to live. Once there Michele would join me for three days cycling in the New Forest National Park, a place where ponies, donkeys, deer, cows and most other animals rome freely in this ancient woodland.
While in Budleigh Salterton I had a visit from my friend Graham Heysett. As well as volunteering for Sustrans, Graham works as an cycling instructor for : Ride On: Cycling for all who are based in Exeter. He is also helping set up an all-ability cycling venture in the city. We retired to the local fish and chip restaurant for tea which happened to be opposite the local pub. Walking into the pub after eating we suddenly came face to face with around forty ukulele players. I was so tempted to say “Gee, They’ve got a band,” in a squeaky voice like the blonde in the now ancient TV advert but managed to refrain.
I have to say that this particular instrument has limited appeal and equally limited emotional range.Everyone who was playing seemed to be having a great time but as a listener I think it would have eventually driven me around the bend completely. Some things just shouldn’t be played on a ukulele, but that didn’t stop the band. Jink, jinky jink, jinky jink, jinky jink………Aaaaaaaargh.
The following day I set off, finally escaping from the grassy knoll and the ukulele band and never have I been more pleased to move. Two nights with little sleep as I adjusted to the change of bed, being outside, and the howling that went on all around had almost put me off from continuing. It was the cold and cramped nature of my new house that I was struggling with but I knew it would get better over time and crossed my fingers that the weather would follow suit.
My route more or less followed National Cycle Network 2 (NCN2) which appears to wriggle and squiggle around in the most indirect and almost ridiculous way. Although the route is not complete, it will eventually run from Dover in Kent to Penzance in Cornwall, large sections are there, signed and ready to be enjoyed. When riding it, and like so many other Sustrans routes, it just feels right, taking a sensible and enjoyable route through extremely difficult terrain.
From Budleigh Salterton to Seaton there are more steep hills than I care to think about. Sadly I couldn’t help but think about what lay ahead as I had ridden this way when I circumnavigated Britain by bike in 2011 (Riding2Recovery:a journey within a journey) and could still feel the pain of the up and coming hills, particularly the one from Sidmouth to Salcombe Regis which is evil whether you are heavily loaded or not.
East Devon and West Dorset only know up or down, flat isn’t in their vocabulary. Not only is it up or down but it’s generally steep as well away from the main roads where you wouldn’t want to be on a bike, trike, or any other pedal powered vehicle. Ionly know this because I have been and wished that I wasn’t. Peak Hill came and went and I plummeted into Sidmouth before almost immediately beginning the dreaded climb to Salcombe Regis. At least the trees gave me respite from the viciously gusting wind and heavy showers accompanying it.
The sky was full of cumulonimbus clouds, their anvils scraping the tropopause, the very top of our atmosphere. They blasted away at everything in their path and I felt thankful that I wasn’t at sea, the surface of which was whipped-up violently by constant squally gusts. I climbed and stopped to rest, rested and climbed again, I made a few more metres each time but this was the absolute limit of what I could drag Trevor, Kermit and myself over at the moment. I looked forward to the view from the top and when I got there, there wasn’t one, just a peep of things to come through the trees, a semi-detached view that tantalised me into continuing.
I recovered soon enough making my way to Beer and on through Branscombe village to Seaton. Branscombe lets you roll all the way down through the village for several miles. It’s a trap, the climb out is punishing and the road so narrow that I was glad I wasn’t here in the summer when car tourists flood this adorable area. There’s a Constable painting at every turn and my heart sang loudly as I went.
At Seaton, where in 2011 I carried on along the coast to Lyme Regis, I headed north, north, east to Axminster, famous worldwide for its carpets. The change was dramatic as the road levelled somewhat and the cycling became considerably easier. It felt like the tough job was done as I relaxed in to the journey. I was heading for Bridport, determined to stay at Eype on the coast just south of this small market town. En route to Axminster I came across a section of rail so narrow that I was forced, for the first time ever, to carry Kermit to where it widened. Other than that my day just got better and better.
The storm clouds diminished, the sun warmed my skin, and Kermit and Trevor were at one with the world. Even Monkey, who had been swinging madly all morning, calmed down as we left NCN2 to make our way to the coast and our overnight stop. Some calm was restored today. The attractive villages of Colyton and Kilmington led me away from the coast along pretty lanes until a high-quality traffic-free path led me just shy of Axminster. There were signs telling of floods and diverted National Cycle Network but I chose to follow the original route without any problems from surface water.
After what felt like a long and arduous climb away from town, and a few shimmies around main roads to avoid them, Marshwood Vale led me gently cross-country north of the A35 trunk road and left me feeling as though I had discovered paradise.
The valley opened before me and my route sauntered left and right along the lanes at its heart. Peace filled my being as I pedalled carefully past the school in Symondsbury where a gaggle of small and very excited children escaped school into the arms of waiting parents. I made my way from Bridport slowly, on tired limbs, to the expensive but excellent campsite at Eype from where I could watch the antics of the setting sun from my sheltered pitch.
The next two days were little more than half days with regards to riding. I could have ridden this stage in one day but why would I when time is on my side? This was great for my morale as it meant lots of space to relax and enjoy the ride, view and everything that came my way with zero pressure. Trikes and Graeme’s work best when they are relaxed and unhurried. If you want to hurry, buy a Dogma or something similar built from carbon fibre. If you want to enjoy the journey get a fat seat, three wheels, and eject all the electronics you normally take other than your phone.That’s my recommendation. “Are you on Strava,” the man at the shop asked me. “No, I don’t even have a cycle computer.” “But people want to know how far you’ve ridden.” he enquired. “But I don’t,” I answered. He was travelling light and we had a good chat before he left.
For me, a driven, Capricorn, perfectionist with poor mental health, it’s better that I learn to live without these aids and distractions. They add nothing to my journey but consternation when I’m going slowly as I get tangled in the numbers and completing distances. It’s taken me a while to get to here, using phones and computers etc for a good while after starting cycling again in 2009, but the trike encourages a more relaxed attitude. I don’t have motivational problems. Like many others I have had to learn to relax a little more and at times ask a little less of myself. It’s all part of the healing process.
This was the case as I made my way to one of my favourite places in the form of Tom’s Field campsite in Dorset. The leg I rode to Osmington Mills and the gorgeous Pirates Inn pub that sits walking distance away from the campsite was possibly twice the distance I needed to ride as I wormed my way around deepest Dorset to find its secrets. Dorset is full of surprises for the unwary: Shipton Gorge has no gorge. The Isle of Purbeck isn’t an Island at all and a sign informed me that I was passing a CAT FIRING RANGE. My mind imagined furry creatures, looking very surprised, flying through the air towards targets that are presumably made of velcro.
The Lulworth ranges were closed when I got to West Lulworth forcing me to explore the lanes that skirt its perimeter. It was a complete joy and a small adventure as I described a large square and climbed over East Creech to a view that made me stand up and take notice. It felt great to avoid all the main roads while heading for Corfe Castle.
Corfe was where I bumped into the real world again for the first time in a while. Everything rushed around as I took in the sleepy looking buildings with their limestone tile roof slates. Cars, caravans, coaches, lorries, everything comes this way, the only way into Purbeck outside of a small chain ferry and the lanes I had used. The climb to Kingston and the Scott Arms that lies in wait on the topof he ridge seemed as tough as ever with Trevor in tow. I managed to avoid the temptation of a pint as I could already envisage a lazy afternoon on the grass at the campsite just a few kilometres away.
Tom’s field changes every year but somehow always feels the same as it did in 1979 when I first camped there. It’s a place for lovers of the outdoors, lovers, wildlife, a quiet life, and just relaxing. It gets too busy for me at bank holidays so I would rest tomorrow and clear off on the Saturday to avoid the melee. Like a fine wine it gets better with age and I would sip from that glass a little before moving on always in the knowledge that I will return.
My final day prior to meeting Michele led me to the Sandbanks ferry, a small affair that drags itself across the narrow channel on chains. Somewhere en route I lost my maps. I never ever keep all my maps in one place so why I did this time is a mystery. Mapless, but without panic, I headed for the easy miles along the front passed Bournemouth to Christchurch. Several people had told me the cycleway was shut but on arrival I found it open, all but empty, and showing a wide inviting beach and turquoise sea.
I stopped for coffee to take it in. It felt like an age since I last sat at the beach relaxing. As I soaked it up more and more people emerged to begin their day. There’s a summer restriction on this cycle route during July and August. Be sure to look it up if you are heading this way for a ride. Apart from getting lost in Christchurch and not finding any traces of NCN2 in the New Forest, where some locals have taken exception to cyclists, I had the most relaxing day. I cruised, the outcome never in doubt, not in my mind anyway. The sun was getting warmer and the wind had dropped a little. Everything was urging me to enjoy the experience which I had no trouble doing.
The final three days of this stage of my journey were spent riding in the New Forest National Park. It was a delight, from the well-marked trails in the forest to sitting beneath giant sequoia trees and redwoods. Animals wandered freely around everywhere and the huge, but still pleasant campsite made our stay an enjoyable one.We went to see old rineds of mine and ate out at night to save hassle in the cold weather.
I struggleda little with seemingly wild children running around from dawn until an ungodly hour at night. But it was good to see them riding cycles and walking, to see families cycling in the forest and playing outdoor games rather than everybody being stuck to a small screen for the duration.
The balance of open spaces and relatively open forest make the New Forest a delightful experience. I used to live not far from here and have spent many happy days amongst the animals and plants that make this place special. All in all this was a good way to start this years adventure. I never felt ready to ride for a long time and these feelings were reiterated time and time again during this stage. I struggled with the cold and rain as well as living in my tiny tent. I’ll be taking a bigger one when I ride in August that’s for sure.
I learned that even when I feel relatively unfit and unprepared that I can still enjoy touring. I learned also that times and distance really don’t matter to me. I’m as happy to ride a few miles as a century and that is a seed change in my approach to life. In ten days I will be in Scotland revisiting some of he many places that have shaped me as a man and sharing some of them with Michele. I first went as a young teenager, my last ever family holiday. It left a mark on me that has seen me returning year on year for the rest of my life. lets hope winter gives up by then.