So long South West

Every year hundreds, if not thousands of people cycle from Lands End to John O’ Groats or vice versa. It’s a major achievement in any cyclist’s life and one to be truly proud of. When you talk to these brave souls and ask them how hard it was nearly every single one of them will tell you that Cornwall and Devon were the most trying counties. Much more so even than the hills of Scotland. That is why I left Lands End with more than a little trepidation. It didn’t help that for weeks now I have been getting some discomfort in my left knee and I was constantly worrying that it might get worse and bring the whole show to an end. We are now staying with Gill’s Mum and Dad for two nights and resting up before crossing into Wales tomorrow. Time to reflect on ‘the hard bit’.

The Cornwall and Devon coastline is stunningly beautiful. The reason for this outstanding beauty is the massively high cliffs that plunge dramatically into vivid blue and white churning seas fringed by bright sandy beaches. The roads that follow this splendid scenery seem unable to make up their mind and constantly switch between high and low ground. In a single day in Cornwall I found myself high on the cliff tops then down on the coast no less than five times in succession. I don’t carry anything sophisticated like a GPS or an altimeter but my guess would be that I probably ascended somewhere between four and five thousand feet that day. It was brutal. And there lies the rub. The harder the cycling (or walking for that matter) and generally speaking the greater the rewards. Both in terms of a sense of achievement and the beauty of the landscape. It helped that we were incredibly lucky with the weather for this part of the trip, the blue skies do wonders for the sea views and the heather was in full bloom and decorated with vivid yellow gorse.

Highlights of this stretch are hard to pick out it is so full of stunning and unexpected moments. Descents of up to 30%, climbs so steep I struggled to walk up one or two. Joining in the Ilfracombe Sea Triathlon for about ten miles and exchanging good mornings with about a hundred competitors as they passed me. Dropping down from Martinhoe to a wonderful deep hidden valley and the Hunters Inn only to have to walk most of the way back out. Countisbury Hill; you were right Uncle Richard, it was hard. The thrilling ride down to Porlock on perfectly smooth tarmac with breath taking views that changed with every hairpin. Skies so blue that they looked unreal and with seas to match. The first distant glimpse of Wales across the Severn estuary and the final drop off the Quantocks onto the first really easy ground for three weeks. It was very very hard but magical all the same. Would I do it again? Ask me in a couple of years time.

I hope the pictures below go a small way to give a flavour of what we enjoyed in this lovely corner of Britain.

At Land's End. Bring it on.

At Land’s End. Bring it on.

Old tin mines

Old tin mines

Contemplating a lot more ups and downs

Contemplating a lot more ups and downs

Down we go again

Down we go again

Near Tintagel

Near Tintagel

Descending to Boscastle

Descending to Boscastle

Big cliffs

Big cliffs

Big blue skies

Big blue skies

Towards Lynmouth

Towards Lynmouth

Late summer colour

Late summer colour

I think not

I think not

Porlock Weir

Porlock Weir

Over the Avon. Wales here  we come.

Over the Avon. Wales here we come.

Skerray wild camp

Today has turned into something rather special.

We leave Durness under leaden skies but there is a hint of brightness on the horizon that draws us on towards the east. Cliffs and islands off this most northerly coast of Scotland give way to the vast expanse of Loch Eriboll as we turn south along its shore and follow it for eight miles to the point where it shrinks to just its feeding river.

Loch Eriboll

Loch Eriboll

The heavy rain shower and sudden drop in temperature can’t spoil our wonder at this enormous sheet of silvery splendour and now we are gazing back at the west side of the water as we head north once more. A couple of challenging climbs warm us up again and the rain gives up and passes away behind us.

We plunge back down to yet another sparkling loch, this time Loch Hope, and then begin to climb to a much higher wilder place where heather and rock replace the vivid green grasses of the lowlands and deer peer down at us from their vantage points above.

Down we go again

Down we go again

Cloud wraps around us and steals the views for a while. We are lost in a mysterious small world, shrunk to just the next thirty yards or so and the occasional pair of car headlights emerge from time to time like the eyes of some eerie beast approaching from the gloom. It’s cold and wet and we are relieved when we feel the ground begin to fall and finally after an age of speeding through the fog we emerge into a wonderland of sunlight glinting off the waters of the Kyle of Tongue as we race across the causeway and head for the village and a welcome break.

Fuelled by tea and cake we continue on the single track main road towards Bettyhill but we peel off north on a road that feels as if it is taking us into a different level of remoteness. We are surrounded by grey rock, auburn heather and the ground sparkles with water everywhere. White fluffy tufts of cotton grass give away the fact that this is boggy ground, wholly unsuited to a wild campsite but that’s fine as we don’t want to stop just yet. The road rises and falls and weaves between the rock knolls and then we begin to descend. We are heading for the coast but it keeps itself well hidden until suddenly, like the curtain going up on some sensational drama there is sea and huge, huge cliffs right there in front of us. And this is our home for the night. It’s a dramatic wild place but with a small solid harbour nursing half a dozen tiny boats in its strong stone arms. We find a patch of grass and pitch the tent and then we just stare and stare at the wonder of it. There are sand martins nesting in the small cliffs next to our pitch and a heron is fishing the shallow water on the beach. Oyster catchers peep, peep their piercing calls against a backing track of the sea as it repeatedly swooshes onto the pebble shore just a few feet from the door of the tent.

Home for the night

Home for the night

The sun has finally won the day and pours its bright, colour filled light on blue sea and red rock cliffs. We sit in the porch and gaze in wonder at the scene and contemplate another day that will stay with us forever.

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