When we set off on this ride I wrote about the overwhelming emotions that I experienced on the first morning as we rode away from our home village of Freckleton. Now five months and nearly four and a half thousand miles later I find myself equally dwarfed by my feelings. The National Cycle Route 5 through North Wales threw one last challenge at me this afternoon and led me up a steep climb on route to Flint. I cursed it initially after enjoying miles of flat coastal cycle paths but then through a gap in the hedge I saw the most amazing view. The whole of the Wirral peninsula was laid out before me and just beyond it the skyline of Liverpool. It almost felt as if I was viewing the last few miles and the finish line and I was overcome by the enormity of what we have done. Now, thinking about summing up what it feels like to do a journey like this I am equally daunted by the task of finding the required words. So much so that I have decided to leave the writing of the last blog alone for now. I think that any attempt to capture the experience deserves some time and space in order to create a perspective from which to view it.
Wales has not disappointed, even the endless static van parks of the north coast were made tolerable by really good cycle paths and a tail wind that made the cycling effortless. The last small rocky outcrops along the coast were like the final waves from the carriage window as we left this gentle country. The mighty peaks of Snowdonia gradually gave way to more gentle hills and eventually to the pancake flat plains of Cheshire as we made the border crossing back to the country we started in and the last night in the tent.
We have two short days left to do and tomorrow night we are having a small treat in the form of a modest hotel in Southport. From there it’s just thirty miles to home and the beginning of readjusting to a non-nomadic lifestyle. A few friends are coming to meet us on the road and ride the last few miles with us. I have no doubt whatsoever that those last few miles will be very special, not least for being with friends that we haven’t seen for so long. That pesky wind may even make my eyes a little watery you know.
So you will have to wait for the analysis. The debrief and summary of what it all feels like until the dust has settled and we can hopefully take in what we have done. Meanwhile here are a few photos from the last few days and one of my favourite notices of the whole trip.
Serious cycling infrastructure over the A55
Don’t forget your helmet
Little Orme, last of the dramatic cliff scenery
Touching base. Liverpool and the Wirral.
Well, nearly all week.
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If you can’t cross a river estuary on a ferry then a magnificent, elegant and frighteningly high suspension bridge comes a pretty good second. The original Severn Bridge also provides two estuaries for the price of one as it floats elegantly over the Severn before putting one foot down on the ground and then spanning the Wye for good measure.
Over the bridge to Wales
There is a track on each side of the bridge and no charge for pedestrians and cyclists unlike most ferries but I do miss the banter with the ferryman or woman. I rode slowly up the climb towards the centre of the main bridge and even though it was a hazy, grey day the views were still spectacular up and down the river. It really is a very long way down to the churning brown waters of the Severn but I was well over half way across and descending before the thought of the entire structure collapsing popped into my head. I don’t know how my brain is wired but I can’t look down at the sea whether it is from a ship or a bridge without such thoughts of drowning creeping up on me.
Pausing/posing bravely half way across.
As I passed over the spit of land that supports the middle leg of the bridge I was able to debate which would be preferable, being dumped in the freezing water or plummeting to the earth. Then I was in Wales.
I lived in Wales for nearly half of my life so this felt like a bit of a home coming. I have visited many parts of this beautiful, quiet country but I was looking forward to filling in the gaps and re-acquainting myself with the more familiar areas. I have always found the Welsh extremely friendly and helpful and it wasn’t long before I was reminded of this. I arrived at the Newport Transporter Bridge full of excited anticipation after the disappointment of the Middlesborough one. Worryingly, it wasn’t obvious from what I could see whether it was operating or not. The gondola was clearly visible on the far side of the river but there was no sign of any activity and nobody obvious to speak to. After waiting for ten minutes or so I cycled back a short way to some buildings and asked a gentleman if it was operating. He called to a chap in a pair of greasy blue overalls who immediately said, “I’ll give him a call on the radio and get him to send it over straight away isn’t it” in that lovely familiar South Wales lilt. Personal service indeed. Back at the quay I watched this amazing feat of engineering and listened to the whine of the cables high over head as the cradle, complete with two cars and a few foot passengers came gliding towards me suspended above the water on impossibly thin wires.
I finally got to ride a transporter bridge
I was charged the princely sum of one pound for the ride by the nicest man you can imagine and given directions for my journey to Cardiff from Newport. “Turn left as you leave the bridge and left again at the big roundabout. Don’t go on the motorway mind” he quipped and we both laughed at what was probably his stock advice to every cyclist he encountered. As I rode away he was making a big fuss of a little boy who was excitedly waiting to board. I love people like him. Just quietly and effortlessly bringing a smile to hundreds of faces every day and making the world a better place. I hope he is still running the bridge should you ever venture that way.
It’s Sunday morning now and we are lying in the tent sipping the second brew already as the sun slowly dries the autumn dew that seems to gets heavier each day. A robin is singing his song that evokes the change of season as the days grow shorter and the trees begin to turn. It’s a lovely time of year to be camping and travelling. We have been in Wales for five days and it hasn’t disappointed. The sun has shone each day, highlighting enchanting coastal scenes of rugged cliffs and sandy beaches.
South Pembrokeshire coast
The people we have met have, as expected, been warm and welcoming, not least Kevin who engaged me in conversation as I gasped and struggled up a stupidly steep hill out of Saundersfoot yesterday. “I expect this is easy for you”, was his opening gambit. I tried to find enough breath to answer him, thus giving away the fact that it was anything but. He was on a super lightweight carbon fibre racing bike, just getting a little light exercise in preparation for today’s big event. I had already gathered from the road closure signs that the Wales Ironman Triathlon was starting in Tenby this weekend and there were cyclists and runners everywhere doing a bit of easy preparation for the race. Kevin and I chatted away in a slightly awkward over the shoulder kind of way as the road was too busy to ride side by side. He told me he had done the swim section of the race yesterday “just to see what it was like”! I am truly in awe of these super athletes and their amazing endurance. I love all kinds of endurance events. I love reading about them, watching them and talking to those brave enough to take part in them. Just don’t ask me to do them myself. Kevin was genuinely impressed with our own journey and was kind enough to say so but ours is a very different event altogether. If we manage to ride more than fifty miles in a day we feel like we have really achieved something. At fifty miles these super men and women are only half way through the bike ride after already swimming over two miles and before running a full marathon. I just can’t begin to comprehend how anybody could do that. We are off into Tenby this morning to soak up the atmosphere and cheer on some of the competitors. Heroes, every one of them. I am hoping that some of their stamina may rub off on me and get me round that corner of Pembrokeshire tomorrow and on our way north and home.
It’s a strange feeling being at this point in the journey. There is probably about five hundred miles still to go but I can’t help feeling that we are near the end. Five hundred miles of cycling is still a long way in anybody’s terms, but still I can almost taste the finish. It’s a battle to hold back and savour the last couple of weeks rather than sprint for the line. I hope today’s iron men and women can savour their last few metres as we cheer them home
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I was thinking about some of the questions we get asked when we tell people about our plans. Amongst the obvious ones and the just plain daft ones (which may be the subject of a blog one day) some of the more common ones are about the route. “Have you got a route planned?” and “Do you know where you are staying on the first night?” seem to crop up regularly. To the second question I would answer that given a favourable wind, we will camp somewhere around Carnforth. A strong northerly might mean a B&B in Blackpool. As for the first question, the answer is yes and no.
We did originally conceive of the trip as a ride around the coast of Britain but this has now morphed into more of a crude hook to hang the plan on. It sounds better than “cycling all over Britain for six months but we don’t really know where we are going” and it gives people something to picture that’s easy and tangible. In practice we do plan to make our way in a clockwise fashion around the coast but we are deliberately not promising to stick to all the roads closest to the sea and we may, shock horror, take a ferry or two across an estuary or inlet. And if that isn’t radical enough for you, we may go to France or Ireland at some point. It was suggested by someone that we would surely be the first people ever to complete a circumnavigation of the country on bikes. I think not. There are books and blogs aplenty testifying to such achievements every year so we certainly won’t be the first but I can guarantee that our trip will be unique. Because they all are. (If you want a better idea of what we are taking on you can read about someone else’s adventure here.)
So this is the plan: Cycle north up the west coast as far as about Ayr then start panicking about the endless options around that really crinkly bit of Scotland. Once we get to Oban we may go to the Outer Hebrides to do the bits we missed on our last trip. The weather might be a factor in this decision. Once around the northern coast of Scotland there will be more decisions about the Orkney and possibly Shetland Isles. I would love to do both but by now we might be in a position to start judging how much time we have on our hands, or don’t. At some point towards the end of June we are hoping we will be on the east coast of England. This would be very convenient as we have accommodation booked in Harrogate to watch the first two stages of the Tour de France. We booked it before making plans for this trip and it seemed a shame to cancel. After a visit to London and hopefully seeing a few friends we turn our attention to the south coast and some serious decision making. We have to tour the Isle of Wight to see my lovely niece and her growing family and we have to visit our two boys in Dorset. BUT, and it’s a big capital letter but, we may, at this point go over to France, travel along the north coast and come back to England, MISSING OUT A SECTION OF THE BRITISH COAST! I know, I know, we are just so edgy. (No pun intended). Then comes Devon and Cornwall which I believe may induce tears at the very least if not a decision to pack up and go home. (“But you won’t have a home”, I hear you all cry. Ha ha.) Everyone that does this trip says the hills around the south west are horrible and make your legs hurt a lot. We’ll see. After more family visiting it’s Wales which is largely familiar to us and rather convenient for popping over to Ireland for a while. Round the corner from Wales of course is north-west England and we will be back where we started.
So there you have it. A rough plan which may change a lot. No rules, no promises, just a relaxed bike ride, mostly around Britain.
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