Monday 22 June 2015

Britain's Cycle Byways

We were in Spain when we started getting the warnings.

"I wouldn't cycle in England if I were you - it's far too dangerous," said one Englishwoman.

"Many people don't like cyclists," said another. "It's not like here. In the New Forest they were so fed up with cyclists they threw tacks on the road to puncture their tyres."

More than three years after buying our tandem - the Beast of Bridgwater - from SJS Cycles in Bridgwater, we returned to say hello. It was a Saturday and the shop was closed. Maybe they were cycling.

Well, our experience in our first few days cycling here is completely the opposite. Drivers almost to a fault have been courteous, slowing down behind us on narrow country lanes, patiently waiting for an opportunity to pass. When they do slip by, we acknowledge them with a friendly wave and get one back.

It may not be the same in big cities, when cyclists and drivers jostle for position on the morning commute - but so far so good.

Path on the Taunton - Bridgwater Canal in Somerset. We shared it with walkers and other cyclists and found everyone patient and prepared to get out of the way of our tandem (perhaps not surprising given its size and weight).

However, that friendly reaction is just a small part of the story. The real bonus of cycling in Britain is the National or Regional Cycle Network (NCN), more than 20,000 km of routes which crisscross the U.K. - sometimes on roads, sometimes on specially built tracks or on old, disused railway lines that have been repurposed.

On the Devon Coast to Coast. It passes through this cemetery in Ilfracombe on the North Devon coast.

We've just finished riding the 158 km (99 mile) Devon Coast to Coast cycle way from Plymouth, via a wonderful break with family in Tavistock, north to Ilfracombe on the edge of the Bristol Channel. The Coast to Coast takes in Dartmoor, the valleys of three rivers and the estuaries and beaches of North Devon.

Jack, Harvey the dog, Cathy, Mike, Judy and Mark at Tavistock.

Much of the route is on traffic-free converted railway paths. It's well surfaced though there are a couple of short stretches where the track is rough and unfinished and we pushed the tandem. 

We found campsites and food when we needed them, and the weather was kind.

A peacock joins us at our campsite near Taunton, Somerset.

It was cycling at its most relaxed, and for anyone contemplating a U.K. cycle tour do not be put off by talk of bad tempered motorists. So far we have not encountered them, and there are excellent opportunities to ride where there is little or no traffic.

As our Coast to Coast ride was nearing its end we met four cyclists coming in the opposite direction on a 100 km (60 mile) day ride.

Stinging nettle is everywhere on country lanes. We have both been stung several times when we have pulled over to allow traffic to pass. 

After the usual exchange of pleasantries, we sought their advice on which way to go once we reached Ilfracombe - stick to the coast as we work our way East and then up to cross the Severn Bridge to Wales, or cross Exmoor. To us, both seemed hard work with lots of short but very steep climbs - the sort of riding we find tough on the tandem.

Boats aground waiting for the tide to come in near Burnham-on-Sea. The tidal range here can be more than 11 metres and the locals say only the Yellow River in China has a greater tidal range. Beach goers who wade out at low tide have to be rescued by hovercraft - the only craft capable of not getting trapped in the mud.

Opinion was divided, and the best bet seemed to be to go to Ilfracombe and stop cycling. That's not an option so we have decided on a compromise, following the coast to Combe Martin before tackling a steep climb of more than 300 metres to head inland on the sometimes narrow A399 where the drivers were as polite as usual. 

This startling sculpture is by the London and Devon based artist Damien Hirst. It stands on the foreshore at Ilfracombe, at the end of the Devon Coast to Coast cycle way.

Entitled "Verity", it stands 20.25 metres tall and is said to be an allegory for truth and justice - the upright, defiant sword and behind her back the scales of justice. A cross-section of her head and torso reveal a developing foetus in her womb.

We are camped near Bratton Fleming and tomorrow we will cross Exmoor on minor roads which are part of the NCN. It will be the quickest route and we like the sound of those wide open spaces.

Sculpted by the wind, this tree shows the prevailing wind is anything but gentle.

Post Script

We crossed Exmoor in cold, windy weather with very poor visibility - not what we had expected at all. While it would have been nice to get good weather, we told ourselves that we were seeing Exmoor with lots of "atmosphere".

Judy adds another layer of clothing as we cross Exmoor in cold, wet conditions. Despite the weather, we had a great day's ride.

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