adventure

Exit, Pursued by Covid Restrictions

The Brecon Beacons were not on my initial plan at all.

Riding them would be lumpier than the coast. It would make the end of my trip unnecessarily hard, and also shorter. I’d miss both the big cities of South Wales, and the southernmost point in Wales. And the apparently beautiful Gower Peninsular. All very irritating…

But, as the clunking fist of Welsh Covid restrictions tightened its grip across the region, it became clear that the detour away from the coast was a good move. Partly because climbing a range of big hills isn’t really all that bad, at least when they look this good.

And partly because the few areas of South Wales which were still navigable when I started out were locked down by yesterday (Sunday), making ‘non-essential travel’ illegal as well as very difficult.

If I’d stayed on the coast, I’d either still be firmly stuck there, or would be finishing the tour on a train instead of under my own steam. Neither of those outcomes would be entirely satisfactory.

Instead, the biggest climb was over by Saturday lunchtime, and I was admiring the views that usually come from a little bit of altitude. The Brecons are also one of the UK strongholds of the once-extinct Red Kite, and I was lucky enough to watch a magnificent bird of prey riding the thermals over the tops for a few minutes.

Then it was a fast drop into the Usk valley, before a long, gently downhill (if slightly undulating) afternoon, including a nice stretch on the canal towpath out of Brecon, above.

After a bit over 100kms, my penultimate day on the road was over. I was only a relatively short day’s ride from home, and within a couple of hours of the English border. With worrying about the restrictions, re-planning my direction, and a slightly shorter line than the original coastal route, I’d barely noticed that the ride was basically done.

A cold but sunny start yesterday (Sunday), with a northerly wind pushing me straight towards Bristol, and home. Things speeded up with the tailwind. Breakfast in the cold, some country lanes, one more proper hill before the drop to the River Severn. A nice view back into the Welsh countryside from the top of my last 15% ramp (above).

Blown along the ridge above the Wye Valley through Devauden. An even higher-speed drop to Chepstow racecourse, and a gentle but quick run along the gently descending bypass to the original Severn Bridge. The end of Wales. Which, with castles and kites and spectacular coastlines, was actually pretty good, despite the Covid-related frustrations. Diolch, Gymru!

I got to the middle of the mighty River Severn, suspended between Wales and England, before I decided I needed to slow down a little. And actually enjoy the end of the trip, rather than just hammering towards it. I had to slow down and smell the roses, or wake up and smell the coffee. Or something like that.

As it happened, it was smelling (and drinking) the coffee. Dan from Bool’s Bicycles and a mate of his were (almost coincidentally) crossing the bridge in the other direction for a couple of days away, so it was a cuppa and a chat at a legendarily disappointing service station, just into England.

And a rare opportunity to get a picture of the bike, trailer and me all together. Stylish, huh? With possibly the least inspiring background of the whole trip, too…

A gentle and flat drift along the floodplains on the Bristol side of the Severn. Marvelling at the industrial warehouses, incinerators and giant wind turbines. It’s not the way I’d normally choose to head into central Bristol – there are plenty more direct and more scenic options.

But there’s one big benefit of putting up with the industrial detritus out by the Severn. It means you can follow the River Avon into town, through the gorge. And there’s really only one proper way to enter Bristol centre after a long trip away – under the Clifton Suspension Bridge on a lovely sunny afternoon. Not too bad…

I trundled gently home through the city, past surprisingly large crowds of drinkers on the quays, soaking up the sunshine before the depressing prospect of a dark and virus-dominated autumn and winter.

The post mortem starts almost immediately. Another big ride done. The four corners of the UK covered. A suspiciously round number of miles under the wheels. The mixed feelings of satisfaction at finishing, and wishing that the ride would go on for longer. The warped sense of time that makes it feel like I’ve been away for years, even though it’s been less than 80 days.

And the question that always surfaces for me at the end of a big trip…

Right, then. Where next?

Escaping the Pembrokeshire Dangler

As you may have gathered from the previous post, Covid-19 (or rather, the various UK authorities’ reaction to it) is finally having a major impact on my route and plans.

It’s left it very late in the day, thankfully. And it seems to have left just enough of a gap for me to squeeze over the finish line before the gates slam shut.

Just a few minutes after I last posted here on Wednesday morning, I was already firming up plans to re-route to avoid the local lockdowns in South Wales. I was also being soaked by a continual band of heavy showers, and getting somewhat upset with the weather forecast, which had promised me a nice sunny, if breezy, day.

The rain eventually cleared in the afternoon, and I continued south with a tailwind before hitting the huge inlet of Milford Haven (though I was well inland of the town of the same name). As well as being a base for local yachties, Milford Haven also contains a colossal gas terminal further towards the sea, keeping the UK’s fossil fuel addiction burning.

Although increasingly unbelievable, the forecast for Thursday was awful, so I decided to risk one final rest day to plan how to finish up without getting trapped.

Pembroke is not a bad place to be stuck on a rainy day, with possibly my favourite castle of the whole trip (though there’s stiff competition) parked in the centre, and another old and wiggly town built around it. There’s a lot of history there, too, as there’s been a castle in Pembroke since the 11th century, and it’s the birthplace of King Henry VII.

Meanwhile, out in Covid land, there were more rumblings from the Welsh government about adding even more areas to the local lockdowns, including Cardiff and Swansea, Wales’ two biggest cities. This would wipe out any small chance that I could zip through the Covid zones on each side of Cardiff.

I had to give up on following the coast, commit to the hilly inland route via Brecon, and get planning.

The Covid ‘second wave’ in Wales is actually not as bad as it is in England, but the Welsh government seems to tend towards stricter lockdown measures. During Lockdown 1, back in the springtime, they had a five-mile travel limit. I don’t want to risk getting stuck with that sort of thing, so am aiming at the quickest possible route back, without touching the exclusion zones in the south.

After a wetter than expected day, and a fully wet day, I was fully expecting yesterday (Friday) to defy the weather forecast and be wet too. In fact, it turned out OK, with just the odd (very heavy) shower scudding through the area on a strong northerly wind. I headed slightly north of east through the sunshine towards Carmarthen (above and below).

As well as the Welsh road surfaces being by far the most consistently decent in the UK, they’re also making some decent strides on the bike infrastructure side of things. Some rubbish signposting aside, Carmarthen boasted both some extremely bright (and therefore easy to follow) bike paths, and a fairly spectacular cycling / pedestrian bridge.

Carmarthen is also the gateway to the pretty Towy valley, which provided a gentle route towards the big hills of the Brecon Beacons. Even as I was heading up the valley yesterday, the expected Swansea and Cardiff lockdowns were announced, so it looks like I made the right call on the route.

Today, it’s a big hill pretty much straight out of the gate, up onto the Brecons. Fingers crossed, that’ll take me to the start of an exceptionally long (by British standards) downhill run across the top of the Brecon Beacons National Park, avoiding the Welsh Covid zone.

And one more day should take me home, and the end of the trip. Suddenly that’s tomorrow, which seems slightly insane. It remains to be seen whether things will actually be that simple.

And the Pembrokeshire Dangler? Nothing rude, and not a peculiar local delicacy. Nor even a medical condition or the local serial killer. No. It’s a line of rain showers which occur when there’s a northerly wind picking moisture up off the Irish Sea. Beautiful weather on either side, and a constantly miserable time for anyone stuck underneath.

Sounds very familiar. But I’m not in Pembrokeshire any more…

To Anglesey, and the Covid Squeeze

After the stunning success of pretty much every pun I’ve come up with, I’ve spent a chunk of the last few days on the bike trying to come up with a way of getting ‘it’s the angle, see’ into a sensible sentence. Having found no realistic way of doing so, I’ve decided (wisely, I think) to just leave it.

I escaped from Liverpool on the ferry ‘cross the Mersey 24 hours before they announced new Covid restrictions, along with most of the north of England. The only barrier to my departure was a significant number of sand drifts covering the sea-wall bike paths along the edge of the Wirral peninsular.

Just a couple of hours after leaving Liverpool, and fresh from a decent rail path down the west side of the peninsular, I was heading across the valley of the river Dee when I crossed into Wales (the fourth and last of the UK’s constituent bits for this trip).

I’m not sure if the nice boardwalk over the Deeside marshes (above) was in England or Wales, but being confronted by a wooden miner a few miles later (below) confirmed that I had, indeed reached the Welsh side of the border.

The north coast of Wales is a series of holiday resorts, for the most part with broad concrete sea walls to ride along. This should be both nice and quick. And the lack of traffic is nice. But the propensity of wandering pensioners to lose all sense of spatial awareness when grappling with chips or ice cream made things slow. Very slow in places. In a normal (non-Covid) summer, it must be nearly impossible to make any progress at all along the north coast.

Things change after Llandudno. The coastline tilts southwards, faces the island of Anglesey across the Menai Straits, and takes on more of the character of the mountains of Snowdonia, which are never far away.

And castles begin to appear, like at Conwy (above), ringing the areas of Wales which the English found hardest to control back in medieval times. Pretty soon, it’s hard to move without stubbing your toe on another castle.

The pensioners disappear as the coastline becomes more rugged, and the route (still mostly traffic-free) becomes more spectacular. The only downside of this is that progress is a little tougher than it would be on the flat.

I spent most of the last two days lapping Anglesey (the second, after Northern Ireland, of my two laps-within-a-lap). Crossing the Menai Bridge (below) gives you a good view of the ferocious tidal current running between the island and the mainland.

And on Anglesey, the landscape changes again. The south of the island, especially, feels a bit like being back in Devon and Cornwall, with short, but very steep climbs on tiny country lanes. It’s very pleasant, but if you don’t already know the Welsh word for ‘Slow’, you will after pottering around the island.

If you’re in a hurry, the jet fighter trainers buzzing out of RAF Valley will exacerbate any frustration at the lack of speed. I wasn’t hurrying, so it was fun to watch them zipping around in formation for a while, before trundling down to the beach at Trearddur Bay (technically on Holy Island, a sub-island of Anglesey).

Yesterday (Saturday), it was the return to the Menai Straits and the small city of Bangor. There’s been an unusual, really strong north-easterly wind for the last few days, which blew me nicely along the north coast, but was pretty fully in my face as I struggled back towards the bridge. It’s all, erm, about the angles, see?

Ha! Think I got away with that pun, after all…

A quick stop at Beaumaris en route revealed part of another castle, but also a spectacular view back across the straits, almost all the way back to Llandudno. There’s more of that sort of landscape to come as I head south in the next few days.

That’s all assuming that the Covid situation doesn’t finally mess things up. I’ve been very lucky so far, but the last few days have seen restrictions ratchet up all over the country, and serious-sounding talk of further measures to come. Especially worrying for me is that there’s some discussion about areas of South Wales, which are on my route, and would potentially block it.

Having got so close to finishing the trip, it would be pretty gutting to be halted by Covid restrictions just a few days short of home. But it’s out of my control, so I’ll just have to keep plugging away until I can’t. Hopefully, I’ll at least get to somewhere with a direct train connection before things fall over…

Solway Wiggles

I’ve ridden nearly 300 km since the last post (I had a weather-induced rest day on Friday in the middle). And yet, in a straight line, I’m only 100km from where I started in Stranraer. Yesterday’s 110 km (69 miles) only got me just over 40km (25 miles) away from my start point, after a roughly 160 degree turn in the middle of the day.

There’s no doubt that I’ve been back in the west of the UK, as the road has wiggled around headlands and through hills around the Solway Firth. I didn’t really know much about the area, as English tourists tend to either stop to the south in the Lake District, or burn straight through to Glasgow on the motorway.

More should stop, as both the coast and interior of Dumfries and Galloway are lovely.

The two pictures above are on the way from Stranraer to Whithorn. I was super happy to be following a quiet, beautiful coastline that I’d never heard of, without the recent stresses of dodging showers all day.

The coast dives in and out of various estuaries, making following it a lengthy and time consuming process. In many cases, there are towns with bridges, but these are usually a detour of several miles upstream.

So I decided to cut inland a little to get a straighter line to Dumfries. But then you hit hills. The area really has it all; although hilly, these are not massive mountains, and mostly benefit from roads engineered with moderate gradients (if a few awful road surfaces).

The inland area is as pretty and quiet as the coast. And the area is also the UK’s first ‘dark skies’ zone, so you can even have a nose at the stars without background light pollution (if you get a clear night).

Dumfries town was pleasant enough, and a day of awful weather on Friday gave me the opportunity to wash my clothes for the first time in, erm, much too long.

It’s another place with a Robert Burns connection. He was born over on the west coast in Ayrshire, but spent a lot of his later life in Dumfries. You can certainly see how being in the midst of such stunning landscapes would be inspiring for a writer.

I wasn’t expecting an encounter with Devil’s Porridge on the way to the English border yesterday (Saturday). In the modern world, I’d imagine some sort of weird, spicy breakfast cereal. But it turns out that it was actually the explosive cordite.

As well as being the Scottish centre for eloping English couples to get married, Gretna was also the location of the biggest factory in the world during the First World War, turning out delightful explosive material to help everyone out in the trenches. There’s a little museum there now, just a couple of miles short of the border.

Crossing the border back into England brought with it the feeling that the trip is coming towards the end. That’s still a while off, as there’s still a large chunk of the English North West to get round (I’m starting in Maryport, above, on the Cumbrian coast this morning), as well as the whole of Wales. But I do feel sad to have left Scotland behind for this trip; it’s been great.

Those pesky local lockdowns haven’t yet impinged on my route, but there are more of them every few days. Liverpool and South Wales are probably the ones I need to keep the closest eye on. But for today, it’s more of the standard bike touring issues – near storm force headwinds, and those west coast wiggles. I’d better get cracking, as it’s not going to be quick today…

Unpredictable Watery Ways

The UK is an archipelago of hundreds of islands, which means that the water between is always important.

It was the only way to get around for centuries, avoiding hostile terrain, tribes and bears. Especially in the more northern parts, and where the shoreline has been splintered by the Atlantic. But, though travelling by boat used to be the most reliable way to get around the islands in the west of the UK, that’s not necessarily the case in 2020.

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Saturday was an unexpected little bonus. I’d planned to be on an early morning ferry out of the Hebrides to Mallaig on the mainland. I hadn’t factored in the local stock sales, which are apparently important enough to completely change the boat schedules. The good side of this was that it was now an evening sailing, which gave me a chance for a short trip to Eriskay (above) before I left the islands, which was nice.

The better side was that the sales apparently went very well for the locals, and I was plied with some top quality, free whisky while waiting for the boat in the evening. By farmers, who are not exactly well known for their largesse.

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The downside was that the ferry was now taking me to Oban, further south than Mallaig, and cutting two spectacular riding days off the trip. It was also dark, meaning that my view of the Ardnamurchan Peninsular (above) was a little restricted. A shame, as that’s the westernmost part of Great Britain, which I’d been hoping to have a proper look at.

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Still, the next morning I was back on the bike on the mainland. The sudden transition from the windswept, almost treeless islands to the lusher, more heavily-forested mainland was a little bit shocking. There were actually palm trees in the centre of Oban!

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Once I’d got over the shock of swapping one micro-climate for another, I had a lovely day’s ride along the brilliantly-named Loch Awe. It’s worth noting, if you’re ever intending to do the same, that the map makes it looks like a road right by the loch side, which must be pretty flat. It really isn’t like that (above). But it was nice and quiet, and very pretty.

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Loch Awe drops you off close to the Crinan Canal (above), which again shows the importance of water around here. It was dug to save huge amounts of time for boats coming out of Glasgow and heading for the west coast and islands. Being Scotland, it’s now got a rather lovely shared-use path along it. The canal essentially removed the need to go around the Kintyre Peninsular, which is a long finger of land, extending south to within a few miles of Northern Ireland.

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This time it was Covid messing the boats up. There’s normally a small ferry from the tip of Kintyre to the Antrim Coast. But that’s been shut down this year. With the Isle of Man also out-of-bounds due to Covid restrictions, my only option to get to Northern Ireland is via Cairnryan, way to the south. So, while I started off yesterday down the Kintyre Peninsular (above), this was only with the aim of hopping onto the Isle of Arran…

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…before hopping straight off again. The island is often described as Scotland in miniature, although the pass I had to ride over straight off the boat didn’t feel especially small. But using the island as a stepping stone between two ferries which were working as expected (hooray!) has worked a treat.

I’ve now just got a long run down the Ayrshire / Galloway coast to reach Cairnryan, and a boat to Ireland. It’s probably time to rebalance the number of miles covered by bike with the number covered by ship. This isn’t a blog about British ferries (if such a thing exists), after all.

But I hope Northern Ireland will give me that chance in the next few days.  Assuming I can get there…

Big Skies at the Top

As you get towards the end of the road north, things start to disappear.

Pulling out of Elgin on Thursday morning, I was heading to Inverness, the most northern city. No more cities after that.

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I was also still enjoying Scotland’s cycle infrastructure, including the nice old railway bridge near Forres (above). But, as I dropped into Inverness on yet another well-signposted, segregated cycleway, I knew I wouldn’t be seeing much more for a while.

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North of Inverness, there’s a lower volume of everything. Fewer roads (just the A9, basically), fewer people, fewer towns and shops. And of course, fewer nice bike paths.

But there were more of some things as I pushed north. Oil rigs and threatening clouds. And finally, quite a lot of long-distance cyclists.

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The rigs were parked up in the Cromarty Firth off Invergordon, where many are repaired or decommissioned. The clouds have been threatening me all the way up to the far north, and taking up an undue amount of my mental processing power.

Given the lack of route options, the weather forecast becomes more important. Do you go or stay? Try to outrun the next shower, or wait for it to cross the road ahead of you? Is that rain at lunchtime just a shower, or are you going to be stuck for the rest of the day? Or do you just ignore the whole thing, pull on the waterproofs, and plug on regardless (getting soaked in sweat instead)?

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Where the clouds clear for a while, the skies get bigger as the road goes north. The landscape at the very north end of mainland Scotland is not as imposing as you might think, leaving plenty of room for the sky and the sea to fill the space.

By the time you start the final gentle drop towards John o’Groats (below), you really do feel like you’re getting to the end of something, despite the fact that you’re not, really. You can see the island of Stroma fairly close by, and Orkney in the background, after all, so it’s not really the end of the road at all.

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If you’ve stuck with this blog for a while, you’ll know that I don’t really understand why John o’Groats is any sort of big deal. It’s not the northermost point in the UK, Great Britain or Scotland. And it’s not even really a town; more a collection of tourist-related services massed around a signpost.

But it’s been famous for ages as one end of the Lands End to John o’Groats (‘LEJoG’) route up Great Britain. And, more recently, it’s been included on Northern Scotland’s North Coast 500 route as well. So, for a signpost in the middle of nowhere, it does get a lot of visitors.

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I suppose, technically, arriving at John o’Groats on Saturday meant that I’d completed my own LEJoG ride in 2020, albeit by an extremely convoluted route. Perusing the records, it looks like I took 33 days, compared to most riders taking 8 or 9 in a stright line. But then, most of them don’t go via Kent, or ride 40kg rigs. To be honest, I was happier to have hit 3000 km without any punctures, mechanical issues or physical breakdowns. Had the South America trip happened, I’d be just a few days south of Santiago in Chile by now.

There was a fairly brisk headwind yesterday, as I headed west from John o’Groats. Given the headwind, and a few tough days ahead, I’d already decided to just trundle across to Thurso. A short ride, but it did give me the chance to have a look at Dunnet Bay (below), and the actual northernmost point of Great Britain at Dunnet Head, across the water.

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The current headache is again the weather. There’s a big storm spinning in from the Atlantic, which is a reminder that things will get autumnal soon. It’s also apparently a massive lump of wind and rain, which should make conditions horrendous across the whole country tomorrow (Tuesday). Except for the very, very northern edge, apparently.

So, I’m resting up in Thurso on a perfectly ridable day today, in the hope that the weather forecast is right, and I can get pushed across Scotland by the edge of the big storm tomorrow, but without getting (too) wet.

It’ll be astonishing if that works out…

The Transit of Plague City

Since Perth, where I wrote the last post, it’s been one haar after another. Every morning up to yesterday (Wednesday), things started dark, damp and foggy. And every day, things perked up in the afternoon. The weather forecast dummied me into another rest day in Montrose, with talk of rain which didn’t come. And then the supposedly fine day afterwards turned out wetter than the wet day. At least I do now know the proper name for Scotch Mist…

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Scotland feels more bike friendly in general than England. Although the road surfaces (in towns, especially) can be very poor in places, pretty much every single town now has decent bike routes in and out. And there are loads of converted railway lines and officially-designated ‘Cycling Friendly Roads’, which show how different the attitude seems to be up here. Some of these routes include chainsaw carvings by the roadside. Though I don’t actually know if this is anything to do with the cycle routes.

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I’ve felt the need to make some long-ish miles when I have ridden. There’s always a good chance that a major storm could shut you down for a few days. So as I zipped through Dundee on another lovely riverside cycle path on Sunday, I just had time to grab a couple of pictures of the Tay Bridge (above), and the ship Discovery (below), which was used on Captain Scott’s first Antarctic expedition.

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I made it to Montrose that evening, and was conned by the weather forecast into taking the next day off. This gave me the chance to figure out how to deal with Aberdeen, which is still under ‘local lockdown’ due to Covid-19. Luckily, after reading the regulations, it turned out that, while going in and out of the city is not really allowed, ‘transiting’ the city is fine.

Apparently, Covid transmission all depends on whether you intend to stay in a place or not. Still, it meant that I was OK to shoot straight through the city without breaching any regulations.

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The next morning (Tuesday), the haar was back. The fog is probably a decent metaphor for some of the whys and wherefores of Covid regs, but for me, it was just getting a little old, and feeling a wee bit sketchy as vehicles came flying out of it at slightly alarming speeds.

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Still, a slight cross-tail breeze was pushing me up the coast at a decent rate, and meant that I managed to hop across the Covid zone of Aberdeen city in less than an hour, with only two stops for traffic lights, and one for a photo (above). And then it was on up the coast, on flattish roads, to the fishing port of Peterhead.

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Peterhead marks the easternmost point in Scotland, which meant that yesterday’s (Wednesday) ride could only really go in one direction; mainly west. Thankfully, once again, there was yet another nice railway trail out of town, heading pretty much due west for nearly 15 miles. Which was a great start to the ride.

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And, as I hit the coast again, there was plenty more cycle infrastructure to play on, including the seaside viaducts at Cullen (above). Although long, the day turned out to be really fun, with a mix of gravel and tarmac, beautiful seaside views, and a gentle sea breeze nudging me forwards.

I finished up in Elgin. Again, rolling into town on a nearly new, smoothly surfaced, flat bike track by the river. A track which drops you off directly in front of the town’s impressive ruined cathedral.

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The storm rolled in last night. As usual, the weather forecast has been sounding semi-apocalyptic. I don’t know what it’s doing further south, but the initial band of rain has blown through here, leaving beautiful sunshine behind this morning.

So I’ll be pedalling off again shortly. I should be rejoining my 2015 route for a bit in the next few days, before I head off to the west coast after I hit John O’Groats. Assuming no more hold ups from either the weather or the plague…

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?

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***