Racing slowly to the finish line

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

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.

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 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

South Pembrokeshire coast

Stackpole

Stackpole

Freshwater West

Freshwater West

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

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.

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