Author: Tim Snaith

Scotch Mist

There’s a cliché or two about the weather in Scotland. I’d hate to be one to perpetuate any such stereotypes.

And, in fairness, the drizzle’s only really been an issue in the mornings, and it did start just before I got into Scotland. But it was definitely there, and it’s definitely wetter than mist – I’ve been fairly thoroughly soaked a couple of times.

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Newcastle was as easy to bike out of as it was to get into. Under grey skies for the first time in ages, but scooting peacefully along an off-road bike track to the end of Hadrian’s Wall (helpfully located in the imaginatively-named suburb of Wallsend).

Hadrian’s Wall is often assumed by southerners to be the border between England and Scotland. In fact, there’s an awful lot of England remaining on the eastern side of the country; the border is considerably further from Newcastle than it is from Edinburgh.

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The coast to the north begins in a civilised way; seaside resorts and small ports. But it quickly becomes wilder and more remote as you push on towards border country. The area was contested for hundreds of years. Vikings attacking monasteries, English attacking Scots, Scots attacking English etc, etc, etc.

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As a result, Northumbria is sprinkled with castles, including Bamburgh (above), which look all the more menacing as the fog rolls in from the sea. And the marshes and sands of the remote shore provided a perfect retreat for ancient monks, most famously at Lindisfarne, which requires a causeway to access. The downside of this landscape is that the National Cycle Route 1, which I’ve been trusting on-and-off since Kent as a fairly quick, efficient route, is literally reduced to a sheep track in places.

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And all of this before you even get to Scotland. The last stop is the fortified town of Berwick-upon-Tweed, which has changed hands many times, but currently sits a few miles inside England. Although the local football team plays in the Scottish league, as some sort of bizarre consolation prize.

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I hit the border in the drizzle shortly after leaving Berwick on Friday morning, and soon after ended up in the clouds (the clouds were very low, rather than me doing loads of climbing). The first impressions of Scotland were, well, foggy.

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Thankfully, it’s still August, even all the way up here, so the sun is strong even when you can’t see it, and the dampness seems to be burning off in the afternoons. The run into Edinburgh even came with a tailwind, which was an unexpected little bonus. As was another city with great, well signposted and well used cycle routes.

I even had the chance for a quick wander around Princes Street in the evening, and have a distant look at the castle, which was looking lovely in the evening sunshine.

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Yesterday (Saturday), it was time to head further north. To get north from Edinburgh, you need to cross the Firth of Forth, a huge estuary which almost cuts the country in half. In the olden days, there was a ferry. Then, back in the 19th century, the iconic rail bridge (below) was built.

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It’s now been joined by two road bridges; one from the 20th century (which is the one used to cross by bike), and a new, 21st century crossing. It’s very impressive to see three kilometre-plus long bridges from three different centuries all right next to each other.

Going forwards, there seems to be some heavy rain in the forecast, which may force a day or two off in the next week. It seems hard to believe, as I’ve not had a weather-enforced day off since the south coast of England.

I have, of course, got wet a couple of times. But that was just the Scotch mist – it doesn’t count at all…

Edges, ‘Edges, a Parmo and an Angel – Long Miles To the North East

The wind had flipped around as I left Boston on Saturday. It was a bit unfortunate to have a headwind to deal with for the first time since the south west. But also amazing that I’d not had a headwind to deal with since the south west.

Lincolnshire is still largely flat lands, following on seamlessly from East Anglia. And, as I followed the canalised River Witham northwards, progress got easier or harder every time it slightly changed direction, as my angle to the wind altered.

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You could argue that I cheated ever so slightly by trimming the edge off Lincolnshire. Being Saturday, I thought it was probably better to avoid the hordes of potentially Covid-infested day-trippers at the big seaside resorts on the coast, so cut inland along the river instead. Or maybe this is just an excuse for avoiding the worst of the headwinds along the coast.

In any case, I was doing a quick roadside map check, when an elderly chap on a light touring bike screeched to a halt next to me (he really needs to replace his brake pads). The encounter didn’t last long, as I was treated to a high-speed monologue ranging from my trailer to his £1000 Rohloff hub, to his planned ride for the day, and where he was going to have lunch.

This was where I realised that I’d definitely entered the North of England. I’d been vaguely thinking about the edges of the country. He was worried about edges too, or at least that I wasn’t going to be getting much shelter from the wind up on the riverbank. There weren’t any ‘edges there, though there were on the ‘ills, where he was heading.

It took me a while after he’d gone to realise that he was talking about hedges. I’ve not heard very many aitches since.

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Crossing the Humber Estuary on the huge suspension bridge removes (I think) any doubt as to whether you’ve left the midlands behind.

Since the Humber, it’s mainly been old railway lines (first from Hull to the coast, then the Cinder Track from Scarborough to Whitby) and hills. Mostly not the nicely surfaced, commuter-friendly sort of rail paths that I’m used to in the South, but the sort of dusty, rough, rocky paths that keep your speed frustratingly low, and would probably break a road bike in half. On the plus side, like most railway paths, they were surrounded by ‘edges, so the headwind stopped being a major problem.

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The Cinder Track, in particular, put me back right on the edge of land and sea. It’s a beautiful route, including some lovely views, like Robin Hood’s Bay (below).

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Though I’d give yourself a day for it rather than the half day I pushed through it in. The drop into the bay was a rutted, bumpy test of both me and the trailer; we both passed, just, though with the front wheel sliding around in a somewhat alarming manner. And the track was hard enough going that it didn’t set me up well for the rest of the afternoon.

Which was unfortunate, as I needed to cross the North York Moors National Park. This is a beautiful place, and somewhere I’m very familiar with, as it’s where my Dad’s family came from. So I knew what was coming; stunning countryside, but with ups and downs as steep and frequent as Cornwall.

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It didn’t especially help that I’d gone a bit too deep on the Cinder Track. But it also didn’t help that the National Cycle Route planners had seen fit to drop a couple of miles of very rough, very steep gravel into the mix, just when I thought I’d got through the tough parts.

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It looks a little like the ‘White Roads’ of Italy, where the pro road racers take in sections of gravel road. But once again, it’s steep, and pitted, and the gravel is a bit too big to actually ride on. It was a beautiful end to the day, but I really need to learn to take things easier sometimes. I should be old enough to know when I’m biting off more than I can chew by now.

Dropping off the Moors into the flatter lands around Middlesbrough puts you right in line for one of the UK’s biggest calorie injections; the Teesside Parmo. I was immediately biting off more than I could chew again. A Parmo is effectively a deep-fried double chicken-breast schnitzel, knee-deep in bechamel sauce and melted cheese. They’ve been clocked at over 2000 calories each, including the chips. That’s a day’s worth of energy on one plate; not normally advisable, but just the thing to fill the tank of a touring cyclist who’d slightly overdone things.

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And so, rather than being completely destroyed on Tuesday morning, I was ready to press on northwards. After negotiating Middlesbrough and Stockton-on-Tees, is was another old railway line that took me into County Durham. Although not sealed, the surface was smooth, and the progress quick. I wonder why some railway path builders can make them smooth, and others can’t?

After the railway line, I was already approaching Gateshead, and then Newcastle. After wiggling through a bunch of small mining and industrial towns, a short climb led me to the symbol of the region; the Angel of the North, standing guard over the main road into Tyne valley.

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And then, an unexpected delight. You never hear about this region in discussions about cycling infrastructure in the UK.

But, for the very first time on this trip, I rolled through Gateshead, and across the river into Newcastle on well-signposted, smooth cycle tracks. I just followed large, clear signs through cycle-specific traffic lights, along clearly demarcated, wide shared paths, and segregated bike tracks. No frustrating map checks, no close passes, no conflict with pedestrians. Someone has actually designed this properly.

With the posssible exception of London, I’ve never seen a UK city which is easier to navigate by bike than Newcastle / Gateshead. It should be embarrassing for so many other cities and towns that I’ve been through, which still seem not to get it, but it’s great to know that at least one city region is doing bike infrastructure properly. I wonder why some councils can do it properly and most can’t?

Windmill Whirlwind

Flat lands, water and winds.

East Anglia is defined by water and wind, in just the same way as the similar lands on the other side of the North Sea. The winds also define your rides on the flat, and the winds have been good since Essex.

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The water can get in the way, but then, much of the region would be either marshland or under water entirely without extensive sea defences and drainage. So the odd ferry is entirely acceptable, in my book. In any case, some of the ferries are quite fun, like the one above, just north of Felixstowe.

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With the multiple ferries of south Suffolk out of the way, it was full speed up the coast to Lowestoft (above), and the monument marking the easternmost point of England / Great Britain / the UK. As you can see, Lowestoft Ness is also home to a massive wind turbine, and all the way up the east coast, the sea is dotted with huge wind farms.

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The other things that were really noticeable about Suffolk were that the road surfaces are relatively lovely by UK standards, and that there was a lot of sand around. Quite a lot on the beaches, but also quite a lot by the roadsides inland. It’s only the sea walls here that keep the shape of the land as it is. I passed Dunwich, which was a major port in the early middle ages. The vast majority of the town was lost to the sea due to coastal erosion.

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Wind and water continue to be the driving forces over the border in Norfolk. Much of the county is below sea level, leading to odd (for Britain) scenes with old windmills surrounded by waterways which are above road and ground level. It looks like chunks of the Netherlands.

Wind power is not a new idea in these parts, and it adds to the mystery as to how humankind forgot about it for so long in the last couple of centuries. Imagine how far ahead we’d be if we’d not been distracted by the weird practice of burning dead sea creatures… The wind was still pushing me along at a decent speed too, despite finding a lump or two in the route around the north coast.

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Anyway, after a quick transit of the Queen’s estate at Sandringham, there was one last stop in Norfolk at King’s Lynn before crossing the border into Lincolnshire yesterday, ending up at Boston (above). Boston gave its name to a bigger town in the USA, and also had a small part in the story of the Pilgrim Fathers – a part which (as is not unusual with history) been expanded enormously as time has gone on.

It would be hard to say that the landscape has changed much so far in Lincolnshire. It is also hard to judge whether I’m already in the North of England, or will enter it shortly. Lots of place names shifted to Viking-sourced rather than German-sourced as I headed through Norfolk, but I’m not sure how much of Lincolnshire is northern, and how much is midlands.

Whichever it is, the landscape will remain pretty flat for a few days, and the wind direction will dictate how far I can go, and how much fun it is. And I will be in the North very soon, if I’m not already. And at some point, I’ll lose the windmills, which I feel are beginning to stalk me. This is what’s outside my window as I write this:

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***Note: Although I have collected a vast number of images of windmills in the last few days, rumours that I’m planning a coffee-table Book of English Windmills are not true. Sorry for any disappointment this may cause.***

Roaming Roman Roads

London’s a big, big city.

As we’ve already established, riding a bike in most UK towns is not without its frustrations. So, as there was no real need to go through the biggest city of all, I’d always intended to brush London as lightly as possible.

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But London’s been unavoidable for ages. You need to cross the Thames at some point, and most of the bridges are in town. And ever since Roman times, the capital has been the hub of the country’s major roads. All roads in England seem to lead to London.

Coming in towards town from Kent, I was running along the line of the main Roman route from the English Channel. A route so important that it was fortified and defended for centuries. Rochester’s impressive castle (above) guards the route’s crossing of the river Medway.

And coming out of London into Essex over the last couple of days, I’ve been pushing north-east on another major Roman road, which led out of the metropolis to the garrison town of Colchester. These old Roman routes have the great advantage of being built in mostly dead-straight lines, making them fast, if slightly boring riding. Although it’s always interesting to think that you’re following a route that’s been used for thousands of years, and imagine how many feet, hooves and wheels have passed this way before you.

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I lived in London for a long time, so making distance was not the key point of the last few days. I had friends and family to catch up with (in a responsibly socially-distanced way, of course). As a result, the mileage has been down, and there’s been a certain element of consuming beverages which are, let’s say, somewhat counter-productive to athletic performance.

The other key issue was getting across the Thames. On Sunday, the ferry at Gravesend was not operating, but I was slightly surprised to discover that there’s a free shuttle service for bikes across the monstrous Dartford Crossing (pic above). Arrive at one end, find the magic telephone, and a grumpy driver appears to whisk you from Kent to Essex.

After which, a few uninspiring miles through London’s eastern suburbs took me to some drinks in Romford. A few more similar miles the next morning took me back out of Greater London, and I was soon heading for my final planned social stop in Essex, where I met the newest arrival in my friend’s family (providing a rare opportunity to add a kitten picture to a cycling blog).

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Things are not always exactly as they seem, and despite being cute, the kitten in question is a proper little psychopath.

But things are sometimes exactly as they seem, and the landscape after Chelmsford has quickly begun to fit the East Anglian stereotype. I’m entering the UK’s flat lands, and the cliffs and hills of the south west and the south coast are a memory. Most of the eastern side of England is likely to be big skies, big fields, and an almost total lack of big gradients.

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This will be great with tailwinds, and awful if there are headwinds. I’ll have to wait and see which combination I get as I head north into Suffolk and Norfolk.

I did notice one sign yesterday that there may still be some surprises ahead. Stopping by the side of the road for a map check, I was admiring the hand-painted advert below for a local honey producer.

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Then I noticed that they seem to sell bears as well. I never quite got to the bottom of this, but I think that’s illegal in the UK, as well as impractical, and I’m surprised they are willing to announce this sort of thing by the roadside. Maybe East Anglia will be more interesting than the landscape suggests.

Anyway, the weather still seems OK, and the legs are still pushing the pedals around. I’m on a ferry across into Suffolk this morning (Wednesday), so I’ll find out pretty quickly…

The South Coast is All Wight

Apologies for the laboured pun in the title – I should have done better.

Those last two words have been rattling annoyingly around my skull ever since I hit the island in question on Tuesday, and I’m disappointed that I’ve not managed to come up with a better heading in all that time…

After the rain in Bournemouth, Tuesday saw me released along the flat, straight sections of the South Coast of England, with a super tailwind meaning the miles could finally start piling up properly. Three days was all it took to polish off most of the Channel, before turning another corner in Kent.

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The Isle of Wight is England’s biggest island, which isn’t really saying that much. However, there are several interesting things about it. It was one of Queen Victoria’s favourite haunts. It has one of the few remaining red squirrel populations in England. It’s often full of sailors. And it was the test bed for the abortive UK Government Covid App (whatever happened to that?).

For me, the main attraction was that, despite involving two ferries, the Isle of Wight provided the quickest route into the fast, flat-ish (if you ignore the odd cliff!) sections of the south coast. Although the riding has been easier and faster, it’s been a few days with some odd contrasts.

I’ve seen both the best (on the Isle of Wight) and the worst (Kent – inexcusably bad) road surfaces of the trip so far. And the traffic has ranged from negligible (again on the island) to traffic jams on the cliffs as I pushed properly into the South East from Brighton.

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The other strange contrast is a Covid-related one. While most people are managing to keep a reasonably level head about the crisis, there are a lot more exceptions than I expected. Some people don’t trust the government because they think we’re all going to die, and some don’t trust the government because they think the whole Covid thing is some sort of scam to persuade us all to get microchipped.

And you see this weird bipolar split in the old seaside resorts of the English Channel and Kent. Today (Friday) was the hottest day of the year, and saw roads blocked, traffic jams all over the place, and people happily squeezing themselves into three square feet of beach.

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But I spent Monday night in Bournemouth, Wednesday night in Eastbourne, and Thursday in Folkestone (all major Victorian resorts). And when the evening comes, those towns are suddenly dead; complete with hotel rooms in the big hotels going for less than a campsite in places. Yes, some of the pubs are open, but everything else is shut up tight, and there’s a very peculiar, almost deserted feel.

It makes it look like the country’s not bothered about the virus during the day, but terrified and hiding at home in the evenings. Odd, odd, odd…

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The south coast is also England’s invasion corner, where most attempts to take the country over by force have been focused. William the Conqueror launched his successful takeover bid around Hastings, and I spent a little time riding alongside the Royal Military Canal, which formed part of the unused defensive lines against Napoleon, before being re-fortified in case Hitler managed to make it across the Channel.

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The reason he didn’t was the Battle of Britain, and a long drag up onto the clifftops above Folkestone takes you to the memorial (above).

After Folkestone, it was time to turn the corner out of the Channel, and into the North Sea. The coast was rammed (it was daytime, after all), but the country lanes were much quieter a little inland, and provided a bit of shade from the hottest day of 2020.

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Next, it’s the fringes of London. Things will get a little slower, as there are some (socially-distanced) meet ups to do with people I’ve not seen for a while. Given the abnormally good weather, I’m hoping to drop in a couple of half-days, rather than taking another full day off just yet. I know, this being the UK, that I’ll hit a bad patch at some point, so I want to keep moving for now.

Hopefully, I’ll be able to get away towards the north before any more interruptions…

***NOTE – not sure how clear this was before, but the map and stats for this ride are now working properly, and can be found under the ‘The Rides’ tab***

Rest Day 1 (Or, a Bit of a Rant about the UK’s Cycling Infrastructure)

It feels like a couple of days ago that I started. It feels like months ago that I started.

Bike touring’s time-mutating magic has kicked in. On the road, a day flashes past, while a single hill or town can take ages to get through. On a rest day (like yesterday), time drags itself out, and you wonder how you’re not making more distance when you ride all day.

The hills and towns of southern Devon have been the backdrop for the last few days, and have certainly made their contribution to things taking longer than expected.

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First up was the relatively small city of Plymouth (above), which took ages to get across, despite apparently having loads of cycle routes. As is depressingly usual in the UK, spotty bits of randomly-disappearing (and / or poor-quality, badly-signposted) bike infrastructure are the problem. It’s not specifically Plymouth’s fault; it’s a general urban UK issue. But having to stop 10+ times to map-check when crossing a city centre is clearly not going to encourage more cycling.

Plymouth Hoe, where the picture was taken, is where Francis Drake was allegedly playing bowls when the Spanish Armada was sighted. It’s just as well he didn’t have to get to his ship on a bike, or the UK would by now have a long tradition of afternoon siestas.

You can probably see that the clouds were threatening already. Once finally free of Plymouth, I’ve felt like I’ve been stalked by heavy showers ever since, although they didn’t properly catch up with me until yesterday, as I fled eastwards.

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I had a bit of deja-vu while lumping up and down the hills after Plymouth; there was a long-ish stretch where I was following exactly the same route along the fringes of Dartmoor as I did in 2015 (on the Scilly to Shetland ride). And it was drizzling a little, just like it was back then. Soon enough, though, it was time to peel off back towards the coast (above), and the Starcross Ferry across the river Exe estuary.

You might well expect a ferry which is heavily used by cyclists to avoid a detour around the estuary to be easy to access for touring cyclists? Well the crew on the boat were all great, and dealt with the large number of bikes (plus one idiot with a trailer) excellently. But… to access the western side of the crossing, you need to carry your bike (and trailer, or bags, or anything else heavy and bulky you have) up about forty steps, over a railway footbridge, and back down again – beware if you’re running a heavy touring rig!

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Once across the Exe, you’re in Exmouth. It’s a fairly small town, and seems pleasant enough, but is plagued with some of the same cycling issues as Plymouth. On the road out of the centre to rendezvous with a nice bike track on a disused railway, I suddenly noticed a brand new, wide shared bike and pedestrian path right next to me. I had no clue where it began, as I’d seen no signs, and I couldn’t get on it, as there was no access from the road. Grrr!! And when, just a few minutes later, I came across the astonishing piece of ‘infrastructure’ pictured above, I had to actually laugh at it.

The abomination above actually comes between two sections of a traffic-free railway path, which is actually very nice (see below). But between them, the two pictures encapsulate the problem with UK cycling infrastructure; it’s good to ride anywhere where there are no cars. But if you’re anywhere near a road, expect cycling to be a time consuming 2nd class hassle, unless you’re willing to play with the traffic on the main roads.

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Phew. Think that’s rant over on the infrastructure. Devon’s other time-bending tool is the hills. I’ve got one more big set to go today, as I (hopefully) shoot eastwards. They do hurt (especially when they start at 8%, and just get steeper and steeper before maxing out at 20% ish, like the one below). And they’re not that quick on the way down, either, as the trailer needs a little bit of management at higher speeds.

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But, although they slow you down, the hills do give you some lovely views of the countryside, which has been pretty throughout. There have been thatched villages and rolling farmland, and a full-on Fawlty Towers guesthouse experience in Torquay. Devon’s been pretty good in general.

Having avoided the first wet day of the trip by having a rest yesterday, it’s back on the road today into Dorset. There’s another, bigger, storm coming in tomorrow, so it looks like the first phase of the flatter run along the south coast may be a little disrupted.

On the plus side, the rain is rolling in on rapid tailwinds at the moment, so it could be that the time-bending can continue, and surprising amounts of progress can be made. Who knows?

Kernow

Legs get stronger with time. And with tailwinds.

The pain of the first few days of this ride is fading into memory. Dots are advancing on the map (you can find it via the ‘Rides’ tab above). And the weather’s been very kind. Progress is being made.

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The climbing still goes on, but that’s the nature of a rocky coastline. Amazingly, I’ve already climbed 70% of the height of Everest on this trip in just over 300 miles / 500 km. Thankfully, it should only be another few days before I hit the flatter parts of the south coast, although it’ll stay tough for a while.

The rocky coast gave rise to Cornwall’s big industry of previous times. The landscape is dotted with old tin mines and the engine houses which kept them pumped out. Many of these are ruins now, although I found this one, which has been converted into a holiday cottage.

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The other thing that Cornwall is famous for is its tourist towns. It’s an odd situation at the moment, with many places operating under capacity, and many non-tourist towns still feeling very quiet. Meanwhile, tourist areas like St Ives (below) feel almost normal – though presumably with less traffic.

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I say ‘presumably’ less traffic, because there is still loads of it. One of the features of Cornwall is that there are not many direct routes. It’s a skinny peninsular, which obviously gets skinnier towards the tip, so there’s not a lot of space for major roads. So all the big roads are pretty rammed. And driving standards are a little heart-in-mouth at times due to some very inappropriate overtaking tactics. The only option is the tiny country lanes, which are beautiful, but incredibly slow to ride, due to the endless hills, endless potholes, and the occasional need to wait for tiny ferries across rivers (don’t forget your face mask if you want avoid long rides around estuaries this year!).

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But, if you can take your time, and avoid the main roads, Cornwall’s a lovely place to be in the summer sunshine. The only exception so far is Lands End, which has been turned from a fairly insignificant headland into a bizarre cliffside theme park. I was pretty happy that getting to the signpost indicating the end of the country was not a big issue for me. But I’d be quite upset if I’d done the length of Great Britain as a lifetime challenge, or charity ride, only to have to pay to finish. I skipped the theme park, and just completed the turn that the finish of the road dictates. There’s no more south west on the mainland.

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For me, Lands End was just a corner to turn; the first major change in direction. It’s taken me out of the Atlantic, and into the English Channel, which I’ll now follow up to Kent. There’s just half a chance that the wind might be about to turn again to assist, but that’s surely in the realms of fantasy cycling…

The Covid Tour 2020

March 17th 2020. It’s St Patrick’s Day, but the pubs are quiet. A British Airways flight fails to take off from Heathrow airport en route to Buenos Aires. And fails to fly me out to start another big ride.

South America had been bugging me since I went straight from the US to New Zealand in 2014, instead of heading south. I’ve still never been, and was really looking forward to finally getting back on the intercontinental road, heading north on a bike from Ushuaia for as long as the money lasted.

The cash had been gathered, the flight booked, the bike built from the spokes up, and a trailer acquired to better deal with the long sections of gravel roads. I hadn’t actually packed, because there were already rumblings that the pandemic was about to ruin my plans. But leaving drinks had been drunk. And then, two hours after the drinks finished, Argentina closed its borders due to coronavirus. Followed by pretty much everyone else. South America would have to wait. Indefinitely.

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With a degree of understatement, I’d have to admit that was all a little frustrating. On the other hand, given what’s been going on around the world since March, it could also have been a lot worse…

July 14th 2020. Covid World. The UK-wide lockdown is currently being lifted gradually and patchily. Most of the nation’s yearly quota of decent weather has already been used up. The Colston statue has been dunked and removed from Bristol harbour. And we’re on the brink of the biggest recession since I was a kid (or maybe bigger than that – who knows?). So it seems like the perfect time (really?!?) to take the bike, the kit and the frustration out on the road. Wales just half-opened its campsites, England’s pubs have been back for a couple of weeks with no obvious disasters (yet). Scotland are doing their own thing, and Northern Ireland too.

So let’s see if it’s still possible / sensible / advisable to lap the UK on a bike in 2020. Whether local lockdowns, or Scottish quarantines, or track and trace will scupper things. And if my legs have still got anything left in them (as seems to happen constantly, there are a few more miles on the clock than the last time I put thousands of kms together in a row).

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There will be maps and so on later. I’m already late on the first post, as I’ve just woken up on Day 5, which should see me into Cornwall, providing I can dodge the tractors for a few more miles. So this is just a brief catch-up for now, until I can get enough electricity and time to do a proper job.

I’m heading anti-clockwise from Bristol. I wanted to go clockwise, kicking off with Wales, but the various Covid unlocking speeds have dictated the anti-clockwise circuit. It’s going to be something like 6000-ish km (4000-ish miles), assuming that neither the country, bike, the cash, or myself have a massive breakdown before that. And it’ll take in all four of the UK’s current constituent pieces. It should be interesting. But there are an awful lot of variables and potential things to go wrong…

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The anticlockwise circuit is painful from the outset. As most people who’ve ridden long distances in the UK will know, the South West of England is pretty much the hardest bit. You can avoid hills everywhere else, or at least find a road with a sensible gradient. In the South West, it’s a constant battle with 10%+ gradients. And if you want to avoid them, you get 20%, or 25% instead. These are pretty inhuman gradients on a carbon road bike, let alone on a three-wheeled, 40kg touring rig. I wanted to get plenty of miles in my legs before facing this lot. Instead, it’s been pretty brutal from day two onwards so far.

On the other hand, the weather’s been decent until now, the views are spectacular, and there have been some nice breaks from the pain of winching uphill. As I pedalled up the Tarka Trail, an old railway line heading inland from Barnstaple yesterday, the sun was out, the route was flat for a few miles, and I remembered why I got into this bike touring lark in the first place.

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I’m behind schedule (of course), and it seems to have rained twelve hours early this morning, so the weather’s back to standard English unpredictability. Cornwall is only a few miles down the road, so I’d best get cracking. More to come soon, hopefully!

By the way, I’ve spent a lot of time at The Bristol Bike Project since I got home in 2016. Times are tough for many social enterprises and charities at the moment, but please have a look at their website, and consider dropping them a few quid at a difficult time if you can.

The End (Part 2) – Closing the Loop

As you’ll probably have gathered from my brief post last Friday, the long line of red blobs on the map of the world has finally become a loop.

Or, put another way, I’m no longer circumnavigating.

I’ve circumnavigated.

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Last Friday was just over two years since I began (above), including the time off after the accident in Thailand.  I can’t quite believe I was that chubby…

Still, after 480 days actually on the road for the round-the-world ride (and considerably thinner), I rolled back into Kent, then Greater London, then Greenwich, and finally back to the viewpoint next to the Royal Observatory where the whole thing started.

It was a pretty relaxed final leg in the end.

Splitting the ride from Calais to London into three days gave me plenty of time to dawdle, and get used to the idea of finishing the trip.  Although I’m pretty sure that even now, after a few more days and a surprisingly large number of intoxicating beverages, it still hasn’t properly sunk in.

From central Calais, it was just a couple of kilometres to the port.  And then another couple around the miles of high security fencing.  Through the French exit checks, then the UK entry checks, then the ferry check-in.  I was (at least bureaucratically) back in the UK before I got on the ship.

A millpond-flat crossing to Dover, a long wait for all the motorised vehicles to clear the ferry before I was allowed off, and I hit English tarmac for the first time in ages.

Turns out the roads are still rubbish.  Though not quite as bad as Belgium, as I now know…

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Apart from the port, there wasn’t a lot to keep me in Dover, so it was up the hill and into the country lanes towards Canterbury, my first overnight stop back on home soil.  Tiny country lanes, as you can see above.  But full of cyclists; I was running along a National Cycle Network route, and there was a large London-to-Paris group heading the other way.

Nice though it was to be constantly saying ‘hello’ to dozens of other adventurous cyclists, it was also a slightly sobering reminder that, while they were just starting their adventure, I was very close to finishing mine.

When I wasn’t nodding and grinning at the other bikers, I was trying to keep a reasonably straight line through the lanes.  The tiny roads caught me out twice.  Not by getting me lost, but by allowing me to head off on the wrong side of the road after map checks.  Given that I’ve spent most of my life walking, driving and cycling in this country, that’s pretty much unforgivable.  But I guess it was just taking a little while to readjust; the last time I’d been expected to ride on the left was in India…

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Canterbury was a nice last urban stop before the metropolis.  A bit like York, which is probably better known to many tourists, it’s an ancient cathedral city, with narrow lanes and city walls.  It helped that the weather was (by UK standards) spectacular.  And that it’s not exactly difficult to find a good pub for the first decent cider in a while.

After Canterbury, it was the old pilgrim trail to London on Thursday.  Following pretty much along the line taken by Chaucer’s pilgrims in the Canterbury Tales.  At least until the distinctly less-than-medieval M25 motorway came into sight, marking the visible start of London’s massive gravitational field.

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And all that was left the next morning was the suburbs.  Only about 20 miles, but back into the urban traffic madness of the capital.  It took me past the end of the entirely unremarkable street where I used to live in Bromley (above).  Where the journey really started (or, at least, the idea for it was born).  I still find it a bit odd that just selling a tiny flat on that road bought me the time (and the bikes and kit) that I needed to get around the globe.  It’s a bit of a shame that I haven’t got another one to sell in order to keep going…

A cup of coffee, and then it was just a mile of parkland and driveway to the end of the road.  And the mandatory approach to finishing something like this (thanks to LG for both the champagne and the photo):

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If I seem to be concentrating very hard on spraying the champers, I can assure you it was nothing compared to the concentration required to remain upright by the early hours of Saturday.  And I think that waking up with a brutal headache probably masked the mixed feelings produced by finishing the ride.  They’re just starting to crystallise now.

I’m very happy to have made it, of course.  And to be able, finally, to think of myself as a ‘proper’ round-the-world cyclist.  It’s great to be catching up with family and friends (and having drunk arguments with some of them!).  And to be able to look back with a degree of satisfaction on those deserts, high mountains, tropical forests, lakes and coastlines which have provided such a spectacular backdrop for my life in the last couple of years.

I’m also happy that (apart from occasional lingering aches and pains, and a funny-shaped shoulder) I’ve not caused myself any permanent damage on the way around.  And I’m immensely grateful to the people I met all over the world who, without exception, chose free lodging, free food and water, and roadside rescues instead of robbery, theft, or hitting me with their cars.

But there’s definitely sadness too.  No more heading off to see new things and ride new roads every day.  And a slight sense of dislocation.

My life for the last two years has been pretty simple.  Get up, ride, eat, sleep, and then do it all again.  Now, of course, there are things which need sorting out.  I’ve got a blank sheet of paper, which will need filling in.  I’ll need money, and all that tedious sort of stuff, which it’s been so nice to escape for a while.  Where am I going to live?  What am I going to do with myself?  None of this has received a great deal of my attention of late.

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The road ahead may not always be a literal road like the one above.  Although I’m pretty sure that it will be again (and hopefully on a bike) before too long.  The feet are already itchy.

But the Unknown will always be there.  Around the Corner.  I just need to work out how I’m going to keep on finding it…