The ups and downs of the south

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

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

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

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 an empty beach

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.

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.

Chesil beach

Chesil beach

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

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.

… 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.

Nowt so queer as folk

Up north you will hear this phrase, there’s nowt so queer as folk. Well I put it to you that there is, and it’s campers and caravanners.

One of the joys of camping is watching other people on the site. There can be few more entertaining spectator sports than watching an otherwise loving couple fall out over the erection of a multi-pole mega dome tent. It’s mostly a macho dominated affair where the man becomes construction manager and his partner is reduced to pole feeding assistant. That’s when it all goes wrong. “That’s the wrong pole”, he cries in frustration only to be fixed with a steely stare and the reply, “well it’s the pole you gave me so you must have given me the wrong one.” The performance can go on for up to an hour and only the lack of a hostess with an ice cream tray renders it second to the best theatre experience available.

Once the tent is finally up there comes the business of setting up the kitchen and lounge and all the while the dog, which has been cruely tethered to a spike in the ground is going demented trying to catch the pigeons flying overhead. “Did you pack the washing up bowl?” cries the poor harrassed pole attendant, “no, you did all the kitchen stuff, I was in charge of the tent and sleeping stuff, which you will notice, is all here by the way.” Oh dear, it’s going to be a difficult weekend isn’t it? It usually ends with a truce over a bottle of wine and suddenly they remember how much they love camping and the curtain comes down on our entertainment for the evening. Occassionally there is an encore in the form of late arrivals but that is more a case of irritation than entertainment.

Now where's that kitchen sink?

Now where’s that kitchen sink?

Then there are the camp characters. There are two types that stick in my mind; the nice, sociable and generally interesting ones and the ones that just know better. Better about everything that is. They usually have a better tent, a better stove, a better multi function Swiss Army, air bed inflater cum wind generator device or something and whatever you have bought, brought or used for years without issue, theirs is better. Like the friendly chap tonight who bypassed the usual social graces to explain that his teenage children were noisy but his stove was even noisier. I beg to differ actually. I heard him cooking dinner and now I am listening to his children and believe me, his stove is not that noisy. I know teenage siblings argue all the time but actually arguing about what the time is? That’s just ridiculous. He latched onto us as a fellow cyclist so I should really cut him some slack but riding up and down the road with four empty panniers on the bike and ‘tweeking’ his brakes and gears while his exceptionally loud stove boils the water for the green tea is just a bit over the top isn’t it?

The sociable ones are the likes of John and Denise who turned up on big loud motorbikes and turned out to be the best of close neighbours and Chris and Margaret who kept Gill talking for so long I nearly reported her missing. It wasn’t their fault to be fair, Gill was telling them of our adventure and they were genuinly interested, I think.

You're not having one Gill.

You’re not having one Gill.

We have stayed on our current site for two nights and I’m pleased to say that most of our immediate fellow campers have moved on today. I  don’t know what the problem was but we didn’t seem to able to get any social interaction with any of them. It’s kind of normal on camp sites to smile and say hello to other residents but the bunch we have been surrounded by seemed to be too busy sucking on lemons and gazing intently at the ground to engage in any kind of greeting. We both managed to squeeze a mumbled good morning out of most of them eventually but boy it was hard work. They certainly weren’t the kind of folks that you would want to end up stuck in a lift with. I really don’t understand why anyone would choose to set up a temporary home in very close proximity to lots of other people if they don’t actually like people. Surely two weeks trekking across the wastelands of Mongolia would suit them much better. It’s a mystery to me.

Anyway it’s all quiet now and it looks as if we should be in for a peaceful night’s sleep. That is assuming that that wood pigeon and it’s lady friend go to bed any time soon.

P.S. Strictly speaking this morning’s encounter doesn’t fit this blog as the chap concerned probably wasn’t a camper but I’m going to tell you about him anyway. There was a path going out of the back of the campsite that connected with a lane into the village of East Runton and having walked it three times during our stay we had noted that it was easily rideable and would save us a long slog up the stony pot holed track we had arrived down. So we are rolling down this path at eight in the morning when we spot a man and his dog walking towards us. Gill slows down to a stop to give him room to pass and he greets us with a cheery “are you lost?”. At least I thought it was cheery. Gill explained that we weren’t lost but just taking a short cut down to the village. His reply was delivered with all the venom and hatred of a thoroughly ticked off snake as he said, “well this is a path and you have no business cycling on it.” His dog then joined in snarling and snapping at us as I played the innocent and said I thought it was a bridle path. “Well it isn’t”, he replied, “it’s a footpath and you shouldn’t be cycling on it.” I turned to him and said, “you know you are a miserable little man spreading spite and bile all around you and the world will a better place once you expire and I doubt very much anyone will mourn your passing! Oh and your dog’s not much better either.” Actually that’s not true. That’s what I thought of saying about ten minutes later as we cycled through the village. What I actually said was, “oh well I’m terribly sorry and you have a nice day too.” Really, some people.

Phone the path police!

Quick, phone the path police!

People we meet

This Larry. He was a bit camera shy at first.

This is Larry. He was a bit camera shy at first.

Today we met Larry, a very young fledgling magpie cycle touring around the north of Scotland. He wasn’t actually riding a bike but he was riding on a bike. He was rather cute and very attached to Kaleb, the owner of the bike he was travelling on.

We have met a lot of people so far on this trip and they add an interesting counterpart to the scenery and the weather. I’m fascinated by the range of reactions when we explain what we are doing. It varies from manic excitement and a barrage of questions to total indifference and a rapid change of subject. Currently we are mostly meeting other cyclists on a mission. The proximity of John O’Groats over the last few days means that everyone we meet is either doing Lands End to John O’Groats (or the other way round) or assumes we are. It’s hard not to deal the ’round Britain’ trump card when asked if we are doing ‘the end to end’ but today we were out trumped by Kaleb, the owner of the magpie. He generously expressed interest in our journey before casually  mentioning that he had cycled from UK to Mongolia last year. (

Four lovely sisters

Four lovely sisters

In Moydart we stopped to look at a plaque which tells the story of the Seven men of Moydart and bumped into the four sisters of Moydart instead. The seven men were mates of Bonny Prince Charlie and helped him escape when things went a bit pear shaped. The sisters were on a very different mission. They had come together from their various homes, including one from Singapore, to visit the island where their mother’s ashes are scattered. They were lovely and we now have an invitation to stay with Juliet when we get to Suffolk. She isn’t the only one to offer us accommodation either. We have contact details from at least two others who after less than five minutes conversation have potentially opened their homes to us. Including Jan that we met on a campsite near Arisaig and we have arranged to stay with tomorrow night. It is incidents like these that confirm my faith in humanity.

Heidi and Mark. Hitch hikers extraordinaire.

Heidi and Mark. Hitch hikers extraordinaire.

We first bumped into Mark and Heidi as they emerged from their wild campsite near Applecross and enjoyed an enthusiastic exchange about our various exploits before waving them goodbye. Two days later as we strolled through Ullapool we bumped into them again as they unloaded their bikes and luggage from a car they didn’t own. Unbelievably, whilst debating how to get from Gairloch to Ullapool, they got chatting to somebody who offered to take them, their two bikes and all their luggage, simply as a favour. He wasn’t actually planning to go to Ullapool but was happy to make a round trip of 112 miles just to help out a couple of strangers.

We spent a very pleasant hour at the summit of Dunnet Head brewing up and chatting with Jane and Eric about dating agencies amongst other things. They had met in similar circumstances to ourselves but in their case they had both been let down twice before but they got it right third time as evidenced by the fact that they have just celebrated their silver wedding anniversary. They too were travelling just like us but as Jane put it they were spending the children’s inheritence on posh hotels so not completely like us. Eric really looked the part in his scottish tartan kilt and Jane was dressed in a stylish country way. We must have looked an odd foursome to a casual onlooker but we seemed to have more in common than our appearances suggested.

Of course there have also been the characters that we have been happy get away from too. Like the cyclist who was terribly disconcerted because we weren’t using a particular brand of tyre or handle bar tape or whatever it was. I don’t remember because I was busy plotting my escape rather than listening to his explanation of relative grip in wet and dry conditions or something. I actually quite enjoy these encounters to be honest. They just add another dimension to the experience.

I could go on and on relating stories of these meetings. They are a very important aspect of this journey and the time we spend with complete strangers means just as much to us as the sites we see and the miles we cover. Some of them we will never see or hear from again but others I am sure will become life long friends and acquaintances. It’s a fabulous part of this journey of discovery and the affirmation of the good that is in most people.

Larry about to settle into his travelling home.

Larry about to settle into his travelling home.

We left Kaleb loading Larry into his handle bar bag ready to continue to their campsite for the night. I have no doubt we will meet many more colourful characters over the next few months but at the moment a black and white magpie is contender for most unlikely encounter. He’s going to take some beating.