I wanted to get to the White Cliffs Visitor Centre, and a fingerpost pointed the way for both walkers and cyclists……what it didn’t tell me was that I would be pushing my laden bike up horrendously steep dirt tracks to 400ft above sea level, when there was a nice surfaced road (albeit longer) that allowed cars to get up there. What the hell….I was wearing my superman suit anyway.
The Visitor Centre was very disappointing. It didn’t even have an information display, so when I asked about cycling along the cliffs to South Foreland Lighthouse, I got a ‘big no, no’. The National Trust had recently banned bikes, so I teamed up with another biker, on his fat tyres, looking every inch the gravel biker, and he showed me the alternative route……if you are familiar with the shipping forecasts, you will have heard reference to the North Foreland Lighthouse…….it always seems to succeed Gibraltar Point (the Wash), and precede Selsey Bill (nr Portsmouth). The history of the lighthouse was fascinating, including one of a dynasty of keepers who fathered 13 children in the nearby cottage…..(well, it was Victorian England, after all. What other fun was to be had?)
I passed kite surfers………
this gentleman on his new elliptical pedal cycle, which roared past me at twice my speed, but made pedalling look like climbing stairs…..
crossed this narrow gauge railway…….
and found myself wending my way along quiet country tracks strewn with autumnal leaves…..
And when all is said and done, and the going gets tough, do the ‘tough really get going’? Not really…….they just eat chips…..
On the train home, I met a friend from the same village, and showed him the GPS app I use on my phone for tracking my rides……I switched it on as we sat there and detected that the train was hitting over 130mph….and it was just a normal commuter train out of London taking people home from their day’s work.
Oh, and btw, this must be the most photographed signpost in the whole country. You couldn’t make it up……reality is sometimes stranger than fiction.
And finally, the route……. (total distance for the whole trip: 237km)
When the landscape was flat, it was extremely flat. When the roads went skywards, it was like a kick in the gut. There are extensive marsh lands (Romney Marsh, for one) along the coast, meaning a high cruising speed on the bike with a gentle following wind. But when the road climbed one of the notorious escarpments, like the one out of Folkestone, tailwinds were of no assistance. They were like a sympathetic friendly arm over my shoulder….understanding my pain, empathising, but powerless to do anything about it.
The morning was miserably misty with a sea fret that seeped through the clothing, but the sun protested loudly in the afternoon and poked its face through the gloom. This coastline is truly dismal when it’s wet, but when the sun shines, it has a magic all of its own.
Hard concentrated riding tends to rob me of my appetite, but mid-afternoon a breakfast muffin filled an empty space, and fuelled the climbing muscles for the final big climb out of Folkestone, steep enough to keep me in my lowest gear, and long enough to require 20 minutes of my attention. This was the view of the escarpment as I started the climb….
And if I had done my route planning properly, my Garmin should have taken me to the front door of my overnight…..a backpackers hostel in Dover.
But when I arrived, it was completely enshrouded in scaffolding, the whole place a building site, so I wheedled my way into another place, overlooking the port.
41 conubial years celebrated, now this man has hit the road yet again for another ‘flash-dash’……I pedalled down to Bedford, jumped on a Thameslink train and stayed with it until it’s terminus two and a half hours later: Brighton, which seemed to be ‘rockin’ and rollin’ with half term fun fairs.
So at 2pm I climbed on the bike and began to follow the wind, heading eastwards along the coast, and the meteorologists are promising I’ll have a supportive breeze all the way to Broadstairs and Margate, where I might jump on a homeward bound train…..or I might head into Canterbury and take the train from there.
Don’t be impressed by the tracking map. I left it running while on the train. My total of 61km on the bike topped and tailed the journey, and I am now in a youth hostel in Eastbourne, where the average hosteller is well beyond middle age…..time for the institution to have a name change? Age Hostels UK, perhaps?
And a fellow dorm companion has given me a dire warning…….there’s not just one, but two snorers to provide the entertainment in the small hours…..now where are those earplugs?
OK, you’ve never heard of it before, because I have just coined the word. No, it’s not stolen from some online video game, but it definitely has a line of ancestry. For those of you who have heard of Alastair Humphreys, you will be familiar with his concept of the ‘microadventure’, aimed directly at the 9-5 wage slave, and asks the beguilingly opportunistic question: so what about your 5-9? Those 16 hours from every 24 hour period when you are not at work? How do you use them?
From his musings spawned the brilliant idea of the ‘microadventure’ which, for the cyclist, could mean jumping on the bike at 5pm after work, and heading off to the countryside/hills/lakeside/forest with a bivvy and a camping stove, and sleeping out under the stars. It may mean occasionally getting a bit cold and wet, but heading directly back to your place of work the next day, the regenerative impact of doing something so adventurous on a micro-scale can raise the happiness barometer enough to turn a dull boring week into something much more memorable. Instead of watching your favourite panel game or soap in the evening, you may have gazed at the setting sun, seen an owl on the hunt, or even a murmuration of starlings. And instead of joining dozens of other bored commuters on the train in the morning, you may have descended directly from a nearby hill and had breakfast at your desk. So, let me take this concept one step further, and bring a degree of spontaneity to it, and less of a reliance on bivvies and camping stoves, which are not for everyone. This is the knee-jerk reaction of the ‘flash-dash’.
One evening last week, after taking delivery of the internet food shopping at 9.30pm, I clicked on a weather-app only to discover that the following three days were going to be fine, even sunny in parts and, more importantly, with the wind generally blowing from the west. I suddenly got excited. Somewhere in the dark recesses of my travelling brain sprung the crazy idea of ‘what if I head off with the bike, on a train, in an upwind direction and spend the next few days cycling home, with the wind behind me…….?’ I didn’t need to look at a map to realize that the Peak District in Derbyshire would be the perfect location……cycle 25km to a local station, spend 90 minutes on the train, and then head up into the hills of the Peaks for what remained of the day. Brilliant idea, but ……………I still needed to float it by Jenny for her approval….and that meant waiting for her to return from a choir practice.
By 10.30 I was granted AWL (absence with leave), I stuffed some tools and a change of clothes into a saddlebag, quickly booked two £10 overnights online at Youth Hostels, and jumped on the bike after breakfast the next morning to head to a nearby station. By 2pm, I was leaving Chesterfield station and heading out into the hills. Admittedly, I had to battle against the wind for 58km that day, but the next two days were generally wind-assisted, taking me through some of the most stunning countryside in the Peak District National Park, following rail-trails and NCN routes, meeting steam locomotives and crossing micro-streams, sometimes in the footsteps of legendary fictional heroes like Ivanhoe, sometimes stumbling across a road named in my honour.
I didn’t sleep under the stars, nor heated a tin of beans on a camping stove, but I did wake up to the sunrise from my top-floor window in the hostel, I did encounter numerous reminders of the impact of the industrial revolution, and I did meet a host of people from all walks of life, some from Canada, others from South Korea and China. In many ways, this ‘flash-dash’ was in direct contrast to my normal full-on adventures, that take weeks to put together and several months in the planning. It was an unpremeditated response to a weather forecast, and a certain itchiness to get out of my normal comfort zone and go with the unplanned.
If you have read this far and have been just a little intrigued, why not open your own mind to the spontaneous, to the here and now? Although pre-planned microadventures are a great idea, you never know what the weather is going to be like in a few days’ or a few weeks’ time, so what if you can respond immediately to a sudden impulse, to the promise of a few days of fine weather and act on it immediately with minimal planning? The chance of it being successful is increased enormously. So too is the chance of it being serendipitous……. not just taking the road less travelled, but choosing the least expected moment. Make the ‘flash-dash’ a wardrobe that takes you into Narnia, or a hidden doorway that takes you into the secret garden.
As I hammered the 123km that separated my hostel overnight in the National Forest from my home, a generally favourable wind drove me into a lashing rainstorm just one hour from my destination, and I arrived home soaked, hungry and exhausted……but ultimately thrilled by the whole experience. Try it sometime……it is exhilarating.
As I woke up this morning and peered out of the window, I was visited by the piercing rays of the dawn….
Oh, and not to forget the 86km route from Ravenstor to the National Forest at Conkers (Moira)……quite a route, with plenty of climbing…..
On the road again, and heading for the hills……the wind, the rain and, ultimately, the pain. But why? Why do roadies look for the pain? “No pain, no gain?”. That’s only a very tired cliché…..but without a doubt, getting to the higher elevations has its rewards….and more fundamentally, getting into fresh territory has even more rewards. Not knowing what is round the next bend, over the next brow, what may be flying overhead or scurrying through the undergrowth…..they all enrich the travelling experience.
and found myself gazing at the icon of the town, the crooked tower….
but I was soon into the Peak District…
and onto one of the many old railway trails, starting at Hassop, the private station of the Duke of Devonshire….unbelievable, I know…
and thinking it was going to be plain sailing (ie. flat) to the end, I forgot that in these parts, railway lines have to climb, and they do imperceptibly to the eye, but not to the legs…..you have to work hard….
till I got to Miller’s Dale, the famous station that provided a connection to the Manchester-London line….
and eventually found the entrance to my overnight…..
a former mill owner’s mansion, now a Youth Hostel, and paid the ludicrous sum of £10 for my bed……
with an amazing view from my top-floor dormitory…..
and a little bit of humour that accompanied having a pee…..
What more could you ask for the first day of a lightening break that I only decided to take at 9pm last night? Viva! the flexibility of retirement……
Let me quote the most notable scientist of his generation, Albert Einstein: Life is like riding a bicycle. In order to keep your balance, you must keep moving…….
One of the most notable writers of his generation, Ernest Hemingway, said the following: It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them.
HG Wells was noted for saying: Whenever I see an adult on a bicycle, I do not despair for the human race.
Every walk of life looks for a ‘higher’ authority to give credibility to whatever they do. Cyclists are no different. If people like Elgar, or JFK, or Leo Tolstoy (who learned to ride at 67) rode bikes, we know we are in good company……
Today was one of those magnetic days for climbing on the saddle. On a bright sunny autumn morning, I hunted out narrow country lanes that I hadn’t ridden for several months, even a year or two. The foliage of the over-hanging trees was ‘on the turn’, carpets of leaves were scattered across roads and tracks. The cattle grids were almost hidden beneath their coats of vegetation, and the odd sign told us the farmers meant serious business for undisciplined dog owners…….. No doubt they were relying on the ‘2nd Amendment’ to support their cause…..
And a mid-ride stop to visit a dear friend in Oundle, and be treated to coffee with cream…….well, to mix my metaphors, it put the ‘icing on the cake’.
As a member of the international online cyclists’ hosting community Warmshowers.org, we sometimes take in passing cyclists who are generally on a journey, sometimes of several days, sometimes of several weeks. When Bert messaged me about staying a night with us, all I had as an introduction was a brief profile on the Warmshowers website, so meeting him and getting to know him would be a journey of discovery.
When I opened the door to greet him, we didn’t exactly meet face-to-face, because my own head height was directly in line with his chest. In fact I first noticed the enormous size of his bike before I raised my head to look him directly in the face. Bert stands at a cool 7 feet in height. When I got round to asking him how tall he was, his reply was “Too tall!”. And when I stood up next to his bike (which is probably a 4XL in size) his saddle height was chest high for me, and it was just as well we could give him a double bed to sleep in, so he could lie across it diagonally.
Bert was from Holland, and was spending 3 weeks of his annual leave (from his work as a research scientist) cycling around the south of England, and when he stayed with us, he was en route to the port of Harwich to catch his return ferry to the Hook of Holland. As with all guests who have stayed with us, it was a pleasure to host Bert, and there is every chance that we will meet up again sometime in the future.
The last route ridden of the CTC Birthday Rides, the last pints drunk, and after the reluctant farewells to companions of the road it was time to de-camp, pack up the dew-sodden tent, and ride the 75 miles home. I had a ‘grand plan’…….make the National Trust property Upton House on Edgehill (of the famous battle) my first cake stop…….grand plan it was not because I made a needless ascent of a 16% gradient only to find this……
I will keep the expletives as a valve for the release of my own inner frustration….
….but I was cheered up by a gentle breeze coming from my right flank, this pub sign….
….and being welcomed home by Jenny to a superb meal that just happened to complement a nice glass of ‘savvy blank’ (kiwi for ‘Sauvignon Blanc’, if you didn’t already know).
Mention both Woodstock and Blenheim Palace and most people will acknowledge familiarity with both iconic sites, the first for its music festival and the second as the creation of the Duke of Marlborough and ancestral home of Winston Churchill.
We poked our noses through the gate of Blenheim to view the estate from the end of the drive, but noticed there was a footpath sign through the grounds…..but how did people get in? Simple really, there was a button to press to summon someone to open the gate…..remotely we presumed.
Then we took a pause on a grassy embankment, and was asked by a fellow cyclist which way we were going……and we all answered in unison “That way”!
Today’s ride was an undulating journey round small villages, but silly me, I forgot to switch on my mapping app, so can’t display the route here. So in its place, you can admire the juxtaposition of my bike next to this lime green machine tied up a lamp post…..I wonder who put it there?
Settling into a foursome, with Edward and me on solos, and Alex and Jean on a tandem, we headed across open rolling countryside to have a relaxing tea ‘n cakes in what seemed like a domestic cafe, sitting in the courtyard amongst the drying washing, and popping upstairs to use the family bathroom as a necessarium. So relaxed were we that Alex nodded off…..
I took an hour out to check out Hailes Abbey, a 12th century Cistercian Abbey that had met the same fate as most Abbeys in 1538, where monks were pensioned off and the buildings and contents dismantled. The early stages of the reform……
But coming away, to climb once again ‘over the Edge’ (to a height of 1000ft), we had this radical change of elevation that revealed a beautiful pastoral panorama behind us….
But a highlight of the entertainment programme last night was a presentation by Andrew Sykes of his journey from Tarifa to Nordcapp, a journey of some 7,500km. I can highly recommend his book (available on Amazon).
You can’t go anywhere in the Cotswolds without stumbling across places with quadruple-barrelled names……there are no simple Stows or Bourtons….they have to be ‘on the water’ or ‘on the wold’, or even ‘in marsh’……which means that aspiring wordsmiths like me fail to keep to notional word limits……
…as Alex and Jean did when they tried to cross this on their tandem…..but happily, it had a positive outcome. Pride had taken a knocking, but no broken bones, and not a scratch on the tandem…….and a over-dinner talking point for years to come. Yep, we will tease them….
With almost unbroken sunshine today, all 460 birthday riders were out on the roads, sometimes descending on the same cafes and adding to the frenetic tourist industry that has become the lifeblood of these parts.
There were only two options: do we or don’t we? I was linking up with Jean and Alex from Shropshire, and they were tandem riders, and like 460 other cyclists at this festival, we were confronted with the same choices……do we set off in the pouring rain and hope for an improvement or, like so many of them, do we mooch around indoors waiting for better things? Many stayed indoors about the venue, but we……..yes, the heroic ‘we’…..we headed out prepared to get soaked in the morning and (possibly) dry out in the afternoon……and our calculations were spot on.
Even the sun broke through the gloom, zooming along an old rail track, having escaped the tourist-ravaged Stratford and breathed a huge sigh of relief. But the sting in the tail (and tale) was having to climb back into the Cotswolds. The hills round here may be short, but they ain’t half steep!
Alex and Jean are nifty tandem riders. They took full advantage of the many descents, gathering speed and hurtling down the hills. There was no way a solo rider like me was even going to keep up with them…..but then the advantage was on my side when it came to climbing the hills…..there’s some complicated equation at play based on weight, speed and strength……but I don’t fully understand it.
“I’m riding a sportive” said the cyclist standing by his gleaming carbon bike and popping a couple of tablets in his water bottle. “What are those for?” I asked. “Oh they help with cramp. D’you want one?”. “No, I don’t dope…..” I said. He hesitated, looked at me, was about to say something, when I interrupted him…”You do realise they will be taking a blood sample at the end of the event……”. The expression on his face changed, and I left him to ponder his situation…..I got on my bike, turned to say goodbye, and I knew he had sussed my little ruse.
The forecast for today had been dire, and everyone set off on their chosen routes with expectations of getting very wet. Many did, but those of us who headed west stayed dry all day, even enjoying several hours of late sunshine.
But once off the Edge, there was no other way back to Moreton-in-Marsh but to laboriously climb back over it. A local passed it off as being nothing at all, but that was the reaction of a motorist whose only experience of climbing is changing down to a lower gear and going a bit slower…..with no physical penalty to pay. I gave him a smile and prepared myself for the 3km climb up to Snowshill……
I quietly crept out of the caravan, leaving a ‘thank you’ note to Elaine and Roley, but was greeted to a dank and misty morning. The 14km trek out to the Head had a mighty sting in its tail…..both a headwind and a 20% kick upwards at the end…..but I was treated to a free coffee by a mobile coffee stall perched on the top of the hill.
What had started at Mizen Head 1300km ago, roughly following the Wild Atlantic Way
a name that is well known to insomniacs who hear either, or both, of the shipping forecasts at 00.45 and 05.20 on BBC Radio 4. In the morning sea fret, it had a sense of drama all its own.
Even so early in the morning, a steady flow of people had begun to arrive, some on motorbikes, others in cars, to spend a fleeting few moments, take a “I woz ‘ere” photo, and scurry off to their next destination. Notable by their absence all along my route from the south were other trekking cyclists like myself. Unfortunately, the MizMal route is primarily seen as a classic charity ride, taking the shortest and least interesting route across the heart of the country. When I met people who proudly said they too had ridden the MizMal, I was always disappointed to discover it was invariably with a fully supported charity ride. Doesn’t Ireland have any unsupported adventurers who carry their own stuff and sleep in a tent?
So, now in Derry (Londonderry) to unwind, box the bike for the flight, and spend a few days discovering the fascinating but disturbing past of this troubled community. And the only indication that I was crossing the political border of NI was this sign telling me that kms were changing to miles. I wonder if that will change with Brexit…..?
I told Bernard, my camping pitch benefactor, that when he drew back the curtains in the morning he wouldn’t see me. As I crept away at 6.30, he wouldn’t have seen me anyway…..his bedroom was at the back.
All was silent as I cycled out of the village, and made my way through Glenveagh National park, over the huge climb that revealed sights like this
Looking for a pitch for my tent, I met Eileen and Roley
in a little caravan hideaway behind trees, a place they have owned for 30 years,
and they offered me their spare caravan for the night, and Eileen prepared me a chicken salad for supper. It is the fate of the solo traveller to have to accept such spontaneous acts of kindness.
If the BBC weather app is telling the truth, I will arrive at Malin Head, just 14km to the north, tomorrow when it is bathed in unbroken sunshine….so what of this mythical spot which is a star of the shipping forecast and famous for its stormy bad temper?
Was I glad I had left the climb over the Pass of Glengesh till this morning…..the conditions were perfect and the views from the summit had me lingering overlong chatting to a young couple who also couldn’t tear themselves away. They told me of their dream to walk the Camino in Spain, and I told them of the more ancient route along the north coast.
The descent from the pass was so steep, with tight switchbacks, that I thought the bike was going to run away with me. So glad I was only carrying 9kg of kit. The heavily loaded tourist might have had to walk down…….unless of course he had discs.
Once down into Ardara, it was breakfast time, which stoked me up for a longer stretch to Dungloe. Along the way I passed this team of men gathering in the dried turf, which in this country is used as, and sold for, winter fuel.
I chose to stop for the night at Gweedore simply because I liked the sound of the name. Something straight out of Harry Potter……and when I was told a good spot for camping would be down by the beach in the grounds of an abandoned hotel, I took one look at the site and knew I would have visitations from spectres during the night, so I asked a local if I could pitch on a patch of grass opposite his house. “Excuse me, do you own that patch of grass across the road”. “Maybe I do, maybe I don’t. Why, what you have in mind? To cut it for me?”. This wasn’t going well. “May I pitch my tent for the night?”. “Course you can. Is that all? Where you ridin’ from”. When I told him, this is how he reacted: “Jeez, that’s a fecking long way…..just look at yuh, carryin’ no weight at all”….and I thought he was referring to my luggage, but he said it while patting his own considerable girth. “Suppose yuh want a shower then……”.
The morning brought a promise of decent weather but strong winds…..the reality was rather different: I had to wait out heavy rain before getting started, and dodge the showers as they occurred. However, heading due west to take in the dramatic cliffs of Slieve League, the northeasterly wind helped me over the numerous climbs, heading towards yet another remote corner of Ireland where Irish is still the working language.
The Slieve League cliffs have all the drama of the Cliffs of Moher, but without the crowds. They are too distant from anywhere, and they haven’t yet built the critical visitor’s centre that draws in the tour buses, and hence the huge crowds.
When I got to Glencolumbkille, situated right out on the edge of the peninsula, I’d run out of steam, and the thought of turning into the wind to climb over a challenging pass to get to Ardara (stress on final vowel, btw) suddenly lost its charm. Decision made, I looked for a pitch, and the landlord of a local pub kindly allowed me to hunker down on a patch of grass in his car park.
The village of Glencolumbkille has a very interesting history. From the days of the Famine in the mid 19thC, this part of Ireland has suffered dreadfully from mass migration, simply because there has been no employment. Then along came a priest, Fr McDyer,
in 1951 who decided he had to do something to stem the flow, and he set about building the folk village (a museum of local life), and fighting vigorously for investment in the infrastructure of the area. His success has made him a legend in these parts, so now I get the opportunity to spend the night in this very special place, where the community is scattered widely across the valley, and the air frequently resounds with the sound of tumbling water as streams come crashing down from the heights.
Although this is meant to be down time from the bike, there were a couple of out-of-town visits I had to make, and one was to a cemetery in the tiny village of Letterbarrow up in the Blue Stack hills.
You see, it was exactly 50 years ago, almost to the day, that I arrived in Letterbarrow with John and Pat (two class mates), only to discover that John’s great grandmother had died, at the age of 101. Anecdotally, I seem to remember something about her having a fall from a bicycle…..but that could have been just another good old Irish story fuelled by the Guinness. Anyway, I had my very first taste of an Irish wake where the body was laid out in the living room and people filed through the house continuously to pay their respects, and then stopped to have a drink and a chat. And this seemed to go on for a couple of days……and the supply of drink was endless.
As I stood by Annie Kerrigan’s grave in 2017, life really had come full circle, dragging back into my memory space so many forgotten things. Randomly, and nothing to do with Annie’s death, I remember how embarrassingly easy it had been to hitch hike in Northern Ireland in 1967, the year before the outbreak of the troubles. And as I cycled up to Donegal yesterday, I passed through a narrow bottleneck of land only 8km wide where the NI border almost meets the Atlantic. The proximity of NI is also corroborated by the accent in these parts….to me it is almost indistinguishable from the harsher tones and inflections of the six counties.
Serendipities happen aplenty on a journey like this, and they go far beyond discovering what is round the next bend or over the next summit. They abound in the people you meet along the way who have fashioned an extraordinary existence for themselves, overcoming many obstacles in search of their dream.
Rob and Mairead, both passionate about their cycling and walking, are also dedicated organic homesteaders, and I was privileged to be able to overnight at their house, sample the fruits of their organic labours, and share stories of the road. Like us, they are enthusiastic tandemists, and I was impressed to discover that their bespoke-built Thorn tandem was the same colour as the Dave Yates I am currently riding……in fact, it was from an advert of the yellow Thorn that I got the idea to have my new frame sprayed yellow.
When cycling through a country, it is one thing to discover its physical geography and its architectural and artistic beauty, but it is quite another thing to discover the people that live behind the frontages of the thousands of dwellings you pass along the way. I have been very fortunate to meet people like Rob and Mairead who have afforded me a glimpse of Irish life behind the scenes. And the many glimpses I’ve had during this trip have defied all of the stereotypes I’ve carried around in my head for years about Ireland and its people.
I am now in the town of Donegal, where I intend spending a couple of nights, and enjoying some non-bike time. I came here last as a 17 year old with two class mates as we hitch-hiked around Ireland grabbing free accomodation from the many scattered relatives we numbered between us. When we arrived in Donegal, John’s great grandmother had just died at the age of 101, and we found ourselves thrown into the thick of a full traditional Irish wake, followed by the funeral. I remember being bewildered by the whole affair…