I cannot begin to tell you how happy it makes me to be able to say that we have a hill again. What I mean is that from our kitchen window we can, on a good day, see the hills of the Trough of Bowland. It’s been seven years since we lived anywhere with a view of the hills and I am thrilled. Even better, they are hills that come and go with the weather. We had been in the new place for more than two weeks before the lovely profile of Parlick and Fair Snape Fells revealed themselves one sunny morning. The fact that they are so distant and that they are not always visible makes them even more special. Today for example, you have to know that the hills are there in order to see them. They are so feint, so indistinct as to be invisible at first glance but now that I know they are there I can take pleasure in picking out the merest hint of an outline against the hazy clouds. Like an absent lover, they are there but not there and all the more attractive for that ethereal nature.
Fairsnape and Parlick. Big brothers in the Trough of Bowland
I don’t really understand why this outlook is so important to me. I think it is more than simply the fact that I like hills and enjoy walking amongst them. There is something about looking at high ground in the distance that invokes mystery and adventure. It’s a screen, a curtain hiding who knows what. Whenever I am walking in the hills the crest of a ridge or summit peak is compelling and I am driven to reach the top and to see what is on the other side. I suspect these feeling go back a very long way to a time when what was beyond the hills may well have made the difference between life and death. Between starvation and survival or between poverty and untold riches. Nomadic races, victims of war and gold diggers alike may all have looked up at a forbidding mountain range and weighed up the odds of danger versus reward should they make the journey to the other side. It’s no surprise that almost every low point between mountains and hills the world over contains a path, a track or a road that takes travellers from one side to the other. That lure of discovery is deeply ingrained in many of us I suspect. It certainly is in me.
I am looking forward to the next time I walk on Parlick or Fair Snape. It will be great to look east from their lofty shoulders, to discover afresh what lies beyond the view from the kitchen window.
On a totally unrelated matter I must share this spam e-mail with you that I received yesterday. It gave me something to giggle about and I hope it does the same for you.
Just for a laugh
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I have decided that hills are better than flatlands for cycling and potatoes are boring but sometimes have to be endured.
I obviously have too much time on my hands at the moment. Gill has found a job and is out all day and I haven’t and I am at home. The days are long and it’s a challenge to spend eight straight hours looking for work. My thoughts turn to this time last year and I find myself recalling a blog I wrote about signs of spring. It was one of the most popular pre-tour pieces I published and it drew analogies between the life cycle of leaves on a tree and our forth coming journey. There was talk of the leaves nourishing the tree long after they had withered and fallen to the ground and our adventure nourishing us long after our return.
Signs of spring
The final sentence however came as a crushing blow to my negative frame of mind. It read simply;“Who knows what we might be planning then?”
I am sad to say that then is now, and we find ourselves planning very little. In fact the situation I am in is almost identical to that of this time last year, but without the prospect of the most exciting trip of my life to look forward to. I feel as if our life changing journey has achieved nothing more than to provide me with some nice memories for my old age. Surely I must have learned something from it.
Time to go for a walk and do some soul searching.
As I walked I found myself thinking about a part of the trip when we were cycling through Lincolnshire. The roads were flat and rather boring and the scenery was potatoes. (I may have just used potatoes as an adjective but humour me for a moment). On both sides of the road were acres and acres of potatoes. Endless symmetrical rows just coming into flower. I recalled very clearly that all the flowers on one side of the road were white and on the other side they were pink. That’s about as exciting as it got.
There are lots of potatoes in Lincolnshire.
At times like this it’s easy to become focused on negatives. You start to notice that your backside is uncomfortable, your wrists ache and you fancy a pint but it isn’t in the budget. I even asked myself what on earth we were doing. What was the point of this trip? I found myself desperately trying to think of anything interesting to prick the boredom bubble. Aren’t potatoes related to tomatoes in some way? I’m sure I read that somewhere. And are the leaves poisonous or did I dream that? The sameness of the situation grinds you down. In this kind of terrain your eye is often drawn to the horizon, desperately searching for change. Anything to confirm that the whole world isn’t really made of potatoes. It may come in the form of a church steeple or the silhouette of woodlands on the skyline. These things give you hope but what you are really looking for is hills. Hills mean change. Hills mean variety and entertainment and a chance to stand on the pedals and relieve that aching bum.
Those hills or mountains will come of course. The land is never flat forever and no matter how far away they might be, you know they will appear eventually. When they do finally interrupt the flat, boring horizon you are presented with a choice. You can rejoice in the prospect of more interesting scenery or you can focus on how far away they are and how much longer you are going to have to put up with this drudgery. That is when I realised that I had learned something useful from what we did. Today’s lesson: Don’t focus on how far way the mountains are but on how spectacular they look and what fun you will have when you reach them. I became aware that I am sitting at home thinking about how many more fields of potatoes I will have to endure before I get to the mountains.
It also forced me to acknowledge that there are quite a few church steeples and woodlands on the horizon to focus on while I am waiting. I have an interview tomorrow and other work related irons in the fire. Further ahead there is the Cycle Touring Festival in Clitheroe to look forward to in May and beyond that who knows what metaphorical mountains we might climb.
I feel much more positive after that and now I am going to get the tea ready. Now what did I say we would have tonight? Oh yes, I remember. I’d better go and peel some potatoes.
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We haven’t quite finished the south coast of England yet but here are a few thoughts and observations on this stretch so far.
I should start by saying that time and distance have a strange effect on impressions of a place and I could probably write this again in a few months time and it would come out very different. Mostly more positive I suspect but right now I’m not head over heels in love with the south coast. I am relying on this rest period in Devon and the forthcoming scenery of Cornwall to redress the balance but we will see.
By the time we turned the corner at Dover and began to head west for the first time I was already heartily sick of large seaside resorts, linked, as they so often seemed to be, by inescapable busy A roads.
Leaving the madness of Dover
Dover itself was bedlam. At one point we were trapped half way across a manic dual carriageway by a failed pedestrian crossing light and I thought we might be there until the holiday traffic calmed down in September. Ironically it was the sheer volume of cars, buses and lorries that caused it all to grind to a halt and enabled us to escape to the relative safety of the cycle track on the other side. The remainder of that particular day isn’t one that I will recall fondly for quite some time I’m afraid. We only left the fumes and noise behind by dint of a monstrous climb through a seedy housing estate that led us to the worst length of so called cycle route that I have ever encountered. What started out as a poorly surfaced lane deteriorated rapidly until we were picking our way between broken bricks, glass, foot deep pot holes and pools of muddy water. At one point we passed a family of French cycle tourers coming the other way and looking less than impressed. I wouldn’t have been surprised to know that they were heading straight back to France and cycling sanity after only a couple of hours and ten miles of the British cycle experience. It was embarrassing to be honest.
Yes this is an official national cycle route
Hastings, Eastbourne, Brighton, Worthing and many smaller places between and since have all now become a blur of endless shingle beaches, endless crowds, endless noise and endless traffic. Children and seagulls competing to scream the loudest as the latter attempt to steal ice cream and chips from the former. Cycle routes along the promenade are either impassable through the throngs of day dreaming trippers or closed between the hours of 9am and 6pm July and August.
There is a cycle path in there somewhere
Campsites have tended to be of the holiday village style with bars and swimming pools and all kinds of other facilities that we neither need nor desire even if they are included in our twenty three pound pitch fee!
Of course there have been havens of peace and delightful scenic jewels amidst all this horror but for now such memories are buried under a nightmare of too loud, too bright, too brash and too expensive.
The unusual sight of a near empty beach
It hasn’t helped that we have chosen to do this stretch in the middle of the school holidays which also means that every bar, cafe and campsite we come across is full to bursting point. The weather has been brilliant, even too hot at times, which has probably contributed to my ever shortening fuse as we have progressed from one teeming promenade to the next one.
Then we reached the hills.
Everybody said Devon and Cornwall would be vertically challenging. Nobody mentioned Dorset. As we left Swanage on blissfully quiet narrow country lanes we laughingly commented to each other on how nice it was to be away from the crowds and to enjoy the challenge of little ups and down. It was a pleasure to be working up and down the gears once more. Delightful to roll down a long gentle descent whilst taking in a stunning view of Corfe Castle and not a stick of candy floss in sight.
Corfe Castle from a quiet leafy lane.
A few hundred yards on the main road and we were off again on near traffic free lanes and rolling hills. Then we started to climb something a bit more serious. I worked my way up the rear block to the largest cog and concentrated on relaxing my grip on the handle bars. I was mentally coaching myself, “relax, roll your ankles, concentrate on rhythm, relax, slow the cadence down, RELAX!” It didn’t work and for the first time in weeks I admitted defeat and dropped onto the granny ring at the front. It made little discernable difference because at that point the hill got steeper. I made the mistake of looking up only to see that the hill was nothing more than a cliche. It went on forever. Every time I lost concentration my grip on the handlebars would tighten up and I would start to wobble dangerously, weaving left and right and risking a collision with either the nettle ridden verge or the occasional cars as they fought their own battle with this stupid gradient. At moments like this I always wonder what it would be like if the chain snapped and rather ridiculously I try to ease off the pedals. Not surprisingly this only has the effect of bringing me almost to a stand still and an inevitable fall before my brain re-engages and tells me to push again. Then the mental battle starts. “You can do this. No I can’t. Yes you can. But I might injure myself. No you won’t. What if the chain snaps? Of course it won’t. Only another hundred yards. It’s too painful. And so on and so on to the top. I stop at the top in a layby and stand astride the bike heart pounding and lungs bursting and gasping. I am reminded of my favourite line from all of the cycling blogs and books that I have ever read. It was written by Emily Chappell and from memory it went something like, “I stopped at the top of the climb and gradually got my breath back only to turn and see the view which took it away again”. Emily is a wonderful writer and well worth checking out. There’s no sign of Gill yet but I know she will be dealing with this particular piece of torture in her own way and she will be here in her own good time. Looking back I can’t believe how high we are. The whole length of Chesil Beach is laid out below us and we can see the cliffs beyond Swanage some ten miles away. It’s an inspirational sight and makes all the pain and suffering worth it. Or does all the pain and suffering make the view so awesome? I never can decide.
It’s natural to assume that going down the other side will be fun and exhilerating and sometimes it is but that hasn’t been so just recently. Most of the descents are white knuckle affairs on narrow twisting roads. The unreliable surfaces and constantly shifting light as we pass from brilliant sunshine to tunnel like dense woodland mean that we can’t just let gravity do it’s thing. We are gripping brakes so hard that there is a whole new world of pain in the forearms as the legs recover from the climb. It’s another mental battle. How fast can I go? How hot are the rims getting? Will there be anything around that bend? Some of the descents seem to go on forever and that evil little monkey pops up on your shoulder and whispers, “there’s going to be a monster climb back out from the coast you know”.
Leaving Sidmouth wasn’t easy
We eventually arrive at another beautiful seaside cove or harbour, take a well earned rest and get something to eat and drink and then the whole process repeats again. It’s tough cycling.
… and relax.
I hope this hasn’t been too negative and it certainly isn’t intended as any kind of slur on the south of England. People have been just as kind and friendly as everywhere else and drivers have been mostly patient. There just seems to be too many of both down here. It’s full to overflowing and I feel that we need some space. Tomorrow we have an easy twelve mile ride into Plymouth before taking a ferry across the bay to Cawsand and our first day in Cornwall. The next city we have to navigate will be Bristol and I’m hoping there will be a bit more room for two tired cyclists between now and then.
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