trailer

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?

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…