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.

Are we nearly there yet?

I used to catch the train from Preston to Welshpool every week for work. I had to change at Wolverhampton to pick up the Mid Wales line that runs to the coast at Aberystwyth and in the summer it was always packed with seaside trippers. I stood on the station one particularly promising sunny morning and watched a lone father trying desperately to herd cats. They weren’t really cats. They were four excited little girls aged from about two to seven but he might have had more success with cats. He looked relieved when the train finally drew into the station, blocking off the fall to the line and reducing the number of immediate dangers to his brood by one.

They all pushed and shoved to be first on the train and ran to make first claims on window seats leaving Dad to manage a ridiculous assortment of beach based paraphernalia on his own. By the time he had stowed everything on the overhead luggage racks the girls had demolished most of their picnic sandwiches and pop. At the rate they were going they would need a Red Cross parcel before they ever caught sight of the sea. He looked a little stressed but was actually doing a remarkable job of keeping control of what amounted to a powder keg of excitement. I was watching all this and contemplating their return trip later in the day, tired, sunburnt and grumpy. For once I was rather looking forward to my uneventful day in the office.

Sinister spade

Sinister spade

The train lurched forward, one of the girls let out a dramatic high pitched scream, and we began to move laboriously out of the station and the scream was replaced by hysterical squeals of delight. The last carriage of the train had just cleared the platform when a very small, but surprisingly loud voice cried out in desperation; “are we nearly there yet Dad?” A ripple of suppressed laughter could be heard passing through the carriage and I swear I saw the poor father eyeing the largest spade above him with evil intent in his eye.

This lovely little story has been on my mind today because I’m feeling a certain empathy with that little girl right now. To be so close to something really exciting. Something that you have been looking forward to for nearly nine months and which is now only nine days away is almost too much to bear. It’s really difficult to slow down and savour the final build up and anticipation. I am in danger of wishing away what should be a lovely journey just as she wanted to.

Still, ten more sleeps. Seven more days in this house. Three more social events. One Easter Bank Holiday weekend and eighteen more Weetabix and we’ll be off on the ultimate trip to the seaside.

“Are we nearly there yet?”