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.

Back on the roller coaster rails

Go to to the first blog post

Is it possible to ride two roller coasters at the same time? Well yes it is actually. It’s also possible to have an adventure within an adventure but more of that in a moment.

We left Penzance last week in a whirlwind of emotion. Gill was no longer riding her bike but driving our borrowed van (which we have christened Vera) and I was now riding alone for the final thousand miles or so of the journey. The emotions were a mix of fear, elation, sadness and excitement. Quite a cocktail to sip on as I rode out of Penzance and the drizzle added yet another layer to play with my mind.

Leaving Penzance. My mind was busier than the harbour.

Leaving Penzance. My mind was busier than the harbour.

First night with Vera

First night with Vera

We were both still coming to terms with the change to our plans and the fact that we would not now be finishing the ride side by side on our bikes. If the only point of this adventure had been to tour the coast of Britain, unsupported and on bicycles, then you could say we had failed. But it wasn’t the only point at all. The idea of cycling the coast came out of discussions we had around a much bigger challenge, that of changing our lives. Of jumping off the merry-go-round whilst it was still spinning, a scary and dangerous thing to do. We both wanted that change and the inevitable fallout that would come from it, whatever that may be, and cycling around Britain just happened to be the means that we chose. For that reason, the fact that we will be continuing with me on my bike and Gill driving Vera doesn’t matter one little bit. The life changing adventure continues.

The next few days involved some of the steepest ups and downs of the route so far. As I ground my way up the climbs and nervously rolled down the other sides of the roller coaster like terrain my mind was travelling it’s own big dipper with equally stomach churning results.

Turning points

Turning points

But it worked. As I came to terms with the periods on my own, Gill gained confidence driving the van and navigating to rendezvous points and slowly a whole new adventure began to emerge from the old one. It was like recycling an original adventure and making a new one from all the old bits plus a few new ingredients. We continued to talk about the bigger picture and that is when I realised that this bike ride around the coast of Britain was actually an adventure within a much bigger and more important adventure in our lives together.

We both began to see the stunning views once more as the curtain of worry and doubt was slowly drawn aside and Cornwall put on a truly spectacular show for us.

Minack

Minack

The riding was as hard as any I have done and it was bliss to find Gill waiting for me by the side of the road with a smile and a sandwich just as I was beginning to flag. We’d plan the next meeting point, reflect on the common sights we had seen along the way, describe the ones the other might have missed and genuinely share the whole experience together. To our delight it really was working and slowly, mile by mile, day by day, all sense of failure faded away and just the journey remained.

We left Cornwall behind in spectacular fashion tackling 30% gradients (on foot in my case) and gawping at vivid blue seas, white sandy beaches and the grandest of vertical cliffs framing both. Devon brought a brief escape from the ridiculous gradients and a very pleasant ride along the completely flat Tarka Trail to Barnstaple and Braunton and  a two day break with family and friends. We reconnected with some amazing people and met some new ones too.

Thanks for the bed Uncle Richard and Fiona

Thanks for the bed Uncle Richard and Fiona

Gill and Georgie on the beach

Gill and Georgie on the beach

The feeling of really sharing our odyssey with others was strong and brought us right back to where and why it all began. A splendid farewell dinner, late night and one too many glasses of wine weren’t the best way to prepare for the rest of the Devon hills but I have no regrets.

Happy times

Happy times

I left Braunton mildly hung over but very content despite the early morning hill climbs. The sun was shining, there was a cool hint of autumn in the air and everything felt right again. Gill would be meeting me at Lynmouth along with Georgie, Annabelle and Sabrina and I was really looking forward to the next twenty five miles. If only I knew what those roads had in store for me.

Into the unknown

We have just made plans for exactly how we intend to restart our ride and it’s got me all excited again but also a little bit edgy. Having looked at the maps and worked out where I am going to ride tomorrow afternoon and where we might camp in the evening the trip feels very much alive again. Now I am imagining what it is going to be like to be riding alone and only seeing Gill at intervals along the route. I have also had a closer look at the first 200 miles and it’s definitely going to be the hardest in terms of terrain. I have a jumble of feelings going on in my head, some positive and some not. I’m looking forward to riding without so much weight on the bike but still daunted by the amount of climbing that I will have to do. I’m really happy that Gill has found a way to be with me but I will still miss her even during the short periods on my own. I am excited to be moving again but trying not to think that there is still over a thousand miles to go. It’s a mixed bag of emotions but on balance it makes me really happy.

In the intro to our blog I made reference to how rubbish I am at being on my own so the next few weeks are going to be a challenge of a very different kind. It may be that the format we have worked out will carry me through but I’m still a little bit nervous. It may turn out to be just another really laid back way of touring, like a long holiday, but it doesn’t feel that way at the moment. It feels like a serious undertaking that may push us into yet more unknown territory. Maybe that’s a good thing. All this stepping out of our comfort zones is what it was all about in the first place so I’m not complaining. I will just be glad to be on the move again, extending that wiggly black line around the coast and heading for home.

What I am really looking forward to is reaching particular milestones that only a week ago I thought we might not reach at all. Lands End is the first and most obvious one but it’s the visits to family and friends that are the most important. After all the build up, the support and the anticipation of people dotted along our route the idea of not reaching them was a hard one to contemplate. I think that, above all else, would have made our journey feel incomplete. Now we are both looking forward tremendously to catching up with friends old and new and the remaining members of our coastal dwelling families. (You know who you are).

The same applies, of course, to seeing everybody back home in Lancashire. In some ways with all the contact that the blog and social media gives us it seems like we haven’t been away at all but we still miss people lots.

I don’t know the north Cornwall and Devon coasts all that well. I do know that they are very beautiful but that the beauty comes at a price for cyclists. Everybody that rides Lands End to John o’ Groats says the first two or three days are the hardest and I’m getting a little tired of that knowing look on people’s faces when it accompanies phrases like “ooh you’ve got a few hills to climb there”. As a friend said just the other day, “it’s not called a ‘push’ bike for nothing” and I’m not too proud to push if I have to. In my mind it’s a going to be a tough ride back to Somerset and then apart from a few lumps in Pembrokeshire it will be a breeze all the way home. I can’t wait to get going now.

A few pictures from South Cornwall

The joy of small ferries

The joy of small ferries

They can be erm, intresting

They can be erm, interesting

Cornwall is hard to beat on a sunny day

Cornwall is hard to beat on a sunny day

St. Michaels Mount

St. Michaels Mount

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