bristol

Border Country

UK Tour Stage 2 (Bristol to Heysham, Lancashire):
Cycling Distance – 385 km / 239 miles
Ascent – 1949m / 6393 ft (0.22 times the height of Mount Everest)
Toughness Index – 50.66 (100 = Really Tough)

Total UK Tour Cycling Distance – 725 km / 450 miles
Total UK Tour Ascent – 4861m / 15944 ft (0.55 Everests)

Borders are funny things.

Funny in the sense of ‘peculiar’.  And sometimes funny in the sense of ‘not funny at all’.

They’re just (usually squiggly) lines on a map.  Artificial, squiggly lines, by and large.  Created almost at random, by geography, by prehistoric tribal areas, by war, by shifting royal alliances, or by the straight, ruled lines of an administrator’s pen.  There’s often no good reason why they cut through one field, rather than the one next door.  And there’s usually no significant difference between the people on one side and the people on the other.

But then we, our governments, and our media define ourselves against (and it’s pretty much always against) the people on the other side of the imaginary line.  We are good.  ‘They’ are bad.  Our religion is right.  ‘Theirs’ is wrong.  We go overseas to work.  ‘They’ come here to steal our jobs.  We retire abroad.  ‘They’ sponge off our healthcare system.  ‘They’ need to be controlled, or we’ll be ‘swamped’ by a ‘swarm’.

So we build the borders higher, and wonder why desperate people turn to smugglers to help them escape from death or persecution.  ‘They’ must be stupid, too, mustn’t they?  And we scratch our heads in puzzlement, and watch ‘them’ die against our fences.  For years.

Until a picture of a dead child on a Turkish beach reminds us that ‘they’ might be people, just like us, after all.  I wonder how long that little glimmer of truth will last…

As you can probably tell, riding long distances on a bike can give you a bit too much time to think.

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Thankfully, the border I was concerned with as I rolled out of Bristol was the border between England and Wales.  It’s been around pretty much since the Romans left Britain, which is quite a while.  The Anglo-Saxons, the English and the Welsh have all fortified chunks of it over the years.  And its history is just as messy as any other border.  Hundreds of years of keeping ‘them’ out of England.  Violently.  But the last couple of centuries have been a bit quieter.

Straight over the Severn Estuary from Bristol, you hit the Wye valley.  It’s a steep, beautiful river valley, with England on one bank and Wales on the other.  The ruins of Tintern Abbey (above) dominate the Welsh side at the southern end of the valley.

I lost track of how many times I crossed the border over the next couple of days.  Sometimes there were bilingual signs (that’s UK language number three, after Cornish and English) welcoming you to Wales.  The ‘Welcome to England’ signs were all monolingual.  Sometimes, there was a (thankfully) sleepy guard dragon instead of a sign:

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And sometimes, I only noticed that I’d swapped countries again when I saw the word ‘SLOW’ painted on the road.  If it just said ‘SLOW’, I was in England.  If it said ‘ARAF’ too, I was in Wales.

As I was approaching Welshpool, after a lovely-but-hilly day through the border area, I saw this signpost, which illustrates how hard it could be to remember how many border crossings had happened:

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It’s bilingual, so I know I’m in Wales.  Chirbury (2 miles down the road) is in England.  Church Stoke (another 2 miles down the road) is in Wales again.  I think that’s right, anyway.

After Welshpool, I headed into North Wales (or at least, in and out of North Wales).  The hills had levelled out, as I was avoiding beautiful Snowdonia, where the big Welsh mountains are.  But there was one more hill I had to climb before I left Wales.

Because I wanted to see the canal boats in the sky.

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I’ve come to the unexpected conclusion that there aren’t enough aqueducts in the world.  Many of those that do exist just move water from one place to another.  But the Pontcysyllte aqueduct is a little more ambitious.  It takes boats across a valley.  A couple of hundred feet in the air.  Over a river.  Well worth the detour.

After the excitement of the aqueduct (boats go across it as fast as 2 mph!), it was back to the flatlands.  A quick nip through Chester, which was once a Roman fort, for controlling the Welsh border.  And a pause to appreciate what’s reckoned to be the world’s first ‘indoor shopping centre’ (note the medieval covered galleries on the buildings, to enable the wealthy shoppers to avoid the toilet buckets thrown from the upper storeys.  And the rain of course).

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At this point, I was only a few tens of miles from finishing the English section of the tour.  It was nearly time to depart the UK for a couple of days.  I just had the flattest day so far, across the plains of Lancashire, to go.

Liverpool is only a few miles up the road from Chester, and I trundled up the Wirral peninsular to take the ferry across the river into town on Sunday morning.  As you’d expect, no clichés were spared; The Beatles were playing on loop in the cafe while I waited for the boat to arrive, and they managed to play ‘Ferry ‘cross the Mersey’ twice over the PA on the boat during the short crossing.

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I’d not really seen much of central Liverpool before, but the waterfront, which saw so many migrants depart from Europe (that’s right – hundreds of thousands of migrants leaving Europe; who’d have thought?) for Canada and the US, is really impressive.  And the city was quiet as I headed north across the flat lands for Lancaster.

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Another Roman city, this time with one eye aimed at the Scottish rather than the Welsh.  The last major Roman outpost before Carlisle, which sits right on the border of the Roman empire at Hadrian’s Wall.  It’s a bit of a shame that my route takes me away from there, and the Lake District national park between them.  But there’s new stuff to see, and I’ve been there before.

And so it was that I set sail yesterday, leaving England behind.  And leaving the UK behind, temporarily.

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A short ride from Lancaster brings you to the small port of Heysham.  Journey’s end for the English and Welsh section of the ride.  To the north of the port, you get stunning views across the bay to the Lake District.  To the south you get nuclear power stations.  Lovely.

Across the water to the west are new places for me to explore.  Tomorrow (Weds), I’m on an early boat to Northern Ireland.  For today, I’m offshore on the Isle of Man.  Same language, same accents, same buildings.  Different money, different taxes, and a roaming mobile phone.

But more on that next time.

I crossed a lot of borders on my half-way round the world trip.  Lots of border guards taking things very seriously.  Lots of people stuck on one side or the other because of their luck (or lack of it) in where they happened to be born.

On this ride, I’ve carelessly criss-crossed a border that was fought over for centuries, and left my country without showing any ID.  These are borders that don’t (at least generally) kill any more.  Nobody storming the ferry or sitting desperately behind a fence peering in.

Funny things, borders.

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Out of the West

UK Tour Stage 1:
Cycling Distance – 340km / 211 miles
Ascent – 2912m / 9551 ft (0.33 times the height of Mount Everest)
Toughness Index* – 85.66 (100 = a proper tough day)

UK Total Cycling Distance – 340km / 211 miles
UK Total Ascent – 2912m / 9551 ft (0.33 Everests)

Well, that hurt a bit more than I expected.

I’d intended to write a post between the start and today’s (Wednesday’s) first rest day.  But when the time came, I was exhausted enough to nod off while thinking about what to write, and it didn’t quite happen.

So there’s a lot of ground to cover; the whole of stage one of my ride up the country.  All the way from the Isles of Scilly up to Bristol.  Sunshine and rain; hills and, erm, more hills; sweat and vomit.  It’s all here.  But we’d better start at the start.  At the very end of the UK.

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The Isles of Scilly are 30-odd miles into the Atlantic Ocean, south-west of the tip of Cornwall.  St Agnes, which you can see in the background of the photo above, is the southernmost inhabited place in the UK.  Despite being stuck out in the ocean, the Scillies seem to benefit from a microclimate, and were noticeably warmer than the rest of the country.  I had a little pootle around the main island, St Mary’s, partly to get used to riding with bags on again, and partly to calm the Beastlet, which was understandably traumatised after being consigned to a container for the trip over.

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A sit down overlooking the bay at Hugh Town (above), and a pint in (roughly) the third most southerly pub in the country, and my time on the islands was up.  The grumbling bike was containerised again, and it was back to the mainland on Friday evening.  The proper riding would begin the next morning.

I was up early, encouraged by my early success in putting my tent up in the dark the night before, and was on my way before eight.  There are few better places to wake up than next door to St Michael’s Mount at the eastern end of the bay at Penzance:

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Tanked up on greasy food and coffee (as any sports nutritionist will tell you, it’s the only way to prepare for a long bike ride), it was time to move.  The north awaited (well, everything’s north from here).  And the hills.

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Pretty soon, Cornwall was teaching me lessons.

Lesson 1 was that, if you want to avoid the main roads in the south west (which you probably do, as they’re basically 70 mph motorways full of trucks and caravans), you’re going to be punished by climbing hills.  The smaller roads in Cornwall link the towns together, and pretty much every town seems to be on top of a vicious little slope (or at the bottom of a steep valley, which you need to climb out of).  I’d later discover that in Devon, they don’t even bother to put towns on top of the hills; the roads just go there anyway.  These small roads are nice and (fairly) quiet, and the countryside is lovely, but you’re not going to be setting any speed records in this part of the world.

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Lesson 2 taught me that, despite my earlier statements about being fit enough to get back to touring, my back’s still struggling a bit.  Not so much with the cycling, but just with being up and about all day, bending and stretching, without the option of three or four hours in a comfy seat.  I’m hoping that the rest day today will give it a chance to recover, and that things will get easier.  We’ll see, I guess.

Third, I’ve learned to avoid fish while I’m riding.  That’s eating fish, obviously; it’s relatively easy to avoid running them over on the road.  Top protein source that it is, fish has a greater chance than most food of, erm, going a bit wrong on you.  And, as any sports nutritionist really will tell you, the explosive loss of half a day’s carbs and protein is not a good way to set yourself up for another day in the saddle.  Sadly, that’s exactly what happened on Saturday night, and I wobbled across the border into Devon on Sunday afternoon, running on fumes.

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Leaving Cornwall, you get another reminder of the impact of the great Victorian engineer, IK Brunel, on the infrastructure of the south west.  I’ve gone on about Big Isambard before while trundling around Bristol, so I won’t overdo it this time.  But his railway bridge across the Tamar marks the end of Cornwall, and the beginning of England proper (Cornwall, or Kernow, is a little bit different from the rest of England, with its own Celtic language, which you might have noticed on the picture near the top of the post, and its own flag, which you see on a lot of cars and houses; some people there think it should be a separate country).

Devon turned out to be a struggle.  Having limped out of Cornwall, I assumed that a good feed and a decent night’s sleep would sort me out.  I also assumed that the rolling Devon countryside would be a little kinder than Cornwall’s rocky outcrops.  In fact, Monday was spent slogging up and down more hills.  A lot more hills.  My depleted energy levels made themselves felt again, and I finally rolled into Exeter absolutely stuffed.

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I had a sit down next to the fine cathedral, and pondered the facts.  I had no energy left.  And while that would have been fine at the end of the day’s ride, I wasn’t at the end of the day’s ride.  I’d like to claim that I agonised over this for hours, but I really didn’t.  I got on the train for the last few miles to Taunton.  And spent the evening wondering whether I could actually make this trip work (or, at least, whether I needed to double the amount of time it’s going to take).

But yesterday (Tuesday) was another day in every way.  The sun was out.  A proper sleep and feed seemed to have sorted me out.  Or maybe it was just the psychological aspect; knowing you’re heading home for a rest day definitely makes things easier.

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It also helped that the first half of the day was across the Somerset Levels.  As you may have inferred, the area has that name because it’s flat.  Or at least mainly flat.  There are a couple of ridges and artificial hills, but it’s flat enough that the tower of Glastonbury Tor sticks out from miles away (above).  In any case, it was pleasant, and relatively easy riding to lunch at Cheddar.

While Glastonbury is famous for the music festival, the little town of Cheddar should also be globally famous; after all, you can buy ‘Cheddar’ cheese pretty much anywhere in the world.  Unfortunately, the region was too late in protecting the name, so its rightful place as the home of the world’s finest cheese has been a little lost, usurped by plastic ‘cheddar’ in plastic pouches.  How very sad…

Cheese-related rants aside, Cheddar does have another string to its bow; the Cheddar Gorge.  I could have looked for a flatter route to Bristol, wiggling around the Mendip Hills, rather than pushing straight over, but the Gorge is a special climb, which I really wanted to ride.  There are a bunch more pictures and a review of the climb here.  Not wimping out of it definitely shows how much better I was feeling.

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After fortification with chips and sugary drinks, it was time to hit the climb.  The steeper section is about 150 vertical metres, but it’s over 200 all the way to the top.  Which is not massive by world standards, but it is a decent little hill.  And, despite the 16% gradient, the Beastlet and I did OK.  There were even enough tourists around to give encouragement (once they’d finished laughing at the number of bags I was lugging up the hill), which was nice.  And because the really steep bit is relatively early on the climb, the top section, which is somewhere around 4-5%, feels more-or-less flat.  I’m putting it down as the first loaded climb which I actually enjoyed on this trip.

Once over the Gorge, I was nearly on home turf.  Another big lump over Dundry, and then the drop into Bristol (complete with Brunel’s – again! – iconic Clifton Suspension Bridge, below).  Past Ashton Gate, along the edge of the floating harbour, and up the familiar railway track.  Home in time for tea.  And that well-deserved day off.

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How it goes from here is going to be largely determined by how well the back recovers; if yesterday’s anything to go by, things should be OK.  There’s even a rumour that August’s awful weather may be replaced by a drier spell, at least for a few days.

And so, tomorrow (Thursday) it’s off to Wales.  My second country of the UK.  Another language.  More hills.  But definitely no more fish.

*The Toughness Index (TI) was developed in New Zealand, in 2014, after a conversation with fellow loaded tourer (and hill climb obsessive) Ben Greeve.  It gives you an idea of how hard the riding is on any given section.  TI 100 is a benchmark ‘Tough’ day on a fully loaded (say 35-45kg) touring rig.  TI 100 is equivalent to climbing 1000 vertical metres per 100km (roughly 3280ft per 62 miles).  A lot of the riding in New Zealand’s South Island comes out around TI 100.  For comparison, crossing the Great Divide in the Rockies took me over Wolf Creek Pass, and down the other side.  That 98km / 61 mile day had a TI of 90.1.

The Railway, the Ridge and the Extra ‘S’

It’s surprising how your strength starts to come back when your back finally decides to cooperate.

Helped by decent weather (but hindered by unfeasibly high pollen levels), I’ve upped my distances to over 30 miles (50km) in the last couple of weeks.  And 50-odd kms is now comfortable enough that I’m chucking in some 15-20% gradient hills as well.

I’m pretty chuffed with this; it’s a big jump from struggling to do 20 miles on the flat just three weeks ago.  In fact, it’s not so very far away from the sort of level I was at before I began the trip last year.  The Magic Shrug continues to work wonders.

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With my range increasing, I’m re-discovering more of the cycling I used to do as a kid.  I’m pretty lucky around here, with a bunch of different riding options.  Flat rides, hilly rides, rivers, cities, all within fairly easy reach on a bike.  You can even get to another country (well, Wales) within about an hour.

Which means I can avoid boringly repetitive rides quite easily.  But when I head south, it’s harder to avoid the Bristol to Bath railway path (picture above).

The path was built around the time that I was allowed out on a bike by myself, and was the first section of what eventually developed into the UK’s national cycle network.  So it’s another big dose of cycling nostalgia for me.

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It’s also a well paved, traffic free, and fairly quiet route between the two city centres.  Bristol is pictured above and Bath below.  If you ignore (or, perhaps more appropriately, carefully avoid at a sensible speed) the odd wandering child, dog and mobility scooter, it’s quick, easy and flat riding, which is ideal for getting the miles in when you’re still not 100% fit.

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There’s loads of history and culture at both ends of the track.

Bath‘s got world-famous Roman remains and hot baths, and some elegant Georgian architecture (it’s a World Heritage Site as a result).  And I caught a bit of professional bike racing there last week, among the old Cotswold stone buildings and the cobbles.  It’s a beautiful little city.

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Bristol, meanwhile, is responsible for: English-speaking America (North America having been claimed by ships from Bristol in the late 1400s); Banksy; stacks of Brunel‘s best engineering work (like the SS Great Britain, above); Concorde; and, erm, Wallace and Gromit.  Among many other things, of course.

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And if I don’t fancy the cities (let’s face it, getting into town on a nice vehicle-free route is all very well, but once you’re there, it’s back to diesel fumes, potholes and traffic lights), I head north-east, into country lanes and the Cotswold Hills.  The western ridge of the Cotswolds runs for miles down the Severn valley, and is only a few miles from me.

Being southern England, there’s not much in the way of really big hills here, but there’s a multitude of short, sharp climbs to choose from.  Many of these lanes plunge straight down from the ancient highways and odd monuments along top of the escarpment to the villages at the foot.

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All in all, it’s not that bad round here…

This is starting to sound a bit (maybe even a lot) like a tourism advert.  So, let’s move on to the Extra ‘S’.  You’ve probably noticed it already, haven’t you?

No?  Well, go back shamefacedly to the top of the page.  Got it now?  That’s right.  The word ‘trundle’ at the end of the subtitle of the blog has gained an ‘s’.  I guess you’ll understand the significance of that immediately.

The Extra ‘S’ (along with a new pair of shiny hand-built touring wheels that arrived last week) means that I’ve finally committed to the inevitable.  Despite my initial thoughts of abandoning the round-the-world ride after the accident, it was probably never going to happen.

I can be a bit stubborn like that sometimes.

The Extra ‘S’ means more than one big bike ride.

In fact, it means a total of three.

I will definitely go back to Thailand to complete the circumnavigation by riding back to London.  I’m still a bit concerned about the amount of money I’ll have left on my return, but that’s just something I’ll have to sort out when I get back in 2016.  Finishing what I started is more important.  Round-the-world Part II is on.

The monsoon season, and the fact that I’m not yet up to full speed physically, means there’s no point in going back to Asia until the northern winter.  And that gives me the chance to squeeze in a bonus tour between the two halves of the round-the-world.

And now, big ride 3.

I’ve still not clicked back into taking the UK for granted, perhaps because I didn’t expect to be back here yet.  And there are actually a bundle of places in this country which I’ve not seen (or, at least, haven’t seen by bike).

So I’m going to take the opportunity to ride from the southernmost to the northernmost point of the UK (with a few ferries included, as I still – frustratingly – can’t ride on water).  This is a bit longer than the classic Lands End to John O’Groat’s ride, which is ‘just’ the length of Great Britain.

The UK stretches all the way from the Isles of Scilly in the south to the top of the Shetland Islands.  And the ride will include all four countries that make up the UK; England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland.  It should be somewhere in the region of 1150 miles (1850km) in about four weeks, which will be a nice little warm up for returning to Asia.

The overall plan now looks like this:

July and August will be for getting fitter, and riding sportives (probably three, the last of which should be my first ‘official’ 100 mile ride).  Then I’ll convert the Beastlet for loaded touring.  I’ll start the UK tour in late August or early September.  Once I finish that, I’ll have a couple of months to maintain a degree of fitness and get the logistical bits and pieces together before heading back to Thailand.  With a bit of luck, and no further interventions by heavy goods vehicles, I should be back in London next summer.

All sounds pretty straightforward.

Though I guess it might be just a little harder than it looks on paper…

The Magic Shrug

There’s a stage when recovering from an accident hits a plateau.  One week, you have nice, morale-boosting day-to-day improvements (more movement, less pain etc).  The next, you’re frustrated with the apparent lack of progress on the problems that remain.

In my case, the frustration’s been all about my back.

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While the most obvious visible damage – the collarbone and the shoulder-blade – has been improving nicely, my time on the bike has been severely limited by the slower-recovering cracked vertebrae.  I got to the start of last week unable to push past about 15 mile (25km) rides.  The riding itself is pretty much pain-free now, but having to stop to relieve the ache in my weakened back every twenty minutes is, erm, a pain.  And after an hour or so, the weakness seemed to spread around the rest of my body, forcing me back to the sofa to recover.  For a couple of days.

Some might say that it’s unreasonable to expect to be back to full speed two months after damaging your spine in a serious road accident.  That may be true, but it’s very, very irritating, to say the least.

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Still, I managed to get out and about for short loops, continuing my rediscovery of the local country lanes.  And I was climbing better than I was while riding the same hills last year (before the trip).  Clearly, cycle touring does get you fitter.  And it takes a while to lose all the improvements while convalescing.  Which is nice.

Then there was a breakthrough.  I was back at the physio last week.  And it turns out that he’s a genius.  He did his usual routine of a couple of minutes’ visual inspection of my shoulder.  He nagged me (again) about my posture.  I had a bit of a moan about my back.  And so he taught me the Magic Shrug.

I didn’t know it was magic at the time.  But I performed it a few times, as instructed.  The next night, I went to sleep on my front for the first time, as my back seemed more comfortable.  I woke up late.  I woke up without an ache for the first time.  The magic was happening.

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Encouraged, I went on a nostalgia trip the next day.  The run out to the old Severn Bridge and back was one I used to do a lot when I was a kid (after I realised that 20 miles on a bike is really not that far – even on a five-speed clunker, as it was in those days). It’s roughly ten miles each way.  I made the return trip with no problems.  I didn’t need to collapse into a comfy chair when I got back.  And the next morning?  I could have done it again.  Except that the English early summer was doing its thing (driving rain and high winds).

So, with the Shrug working its magic, I feel like I’m back on track.  If 20 miles isn’t a problem, then why would 40 be?  Or 85?

Well, 85 is the number.  I’ve finally signed up for my first sportive ride; the Magnificat at Newbury on 12th July.  Appropriately enough, that’s a year since my departure from Greenwich to ride around the world.  So, about six weeks to get myself together for 85 miles in a day (just over 135km in new money).  Hopefully, an achievable target on the way back to full fitness.  And a return to loaded touring later in the year.  And maybe, just maybe, a return to Thailand to finish the ride…

With the Magic Shrug in my arsenal, what could possibly go wrong?