Friday, 18 September 2015

Cycling from Southampton to Saltash

       For the past few years I have planned to do something for my birthday. Last year was my 40th and I ran the Flanders field marathon in Belgium. The year before I did a 42 mile ultra marathon running for Ely to Cambridge and back and the year before I held a skateboard jam/competition at a ramp in Mytchett, near Farnborough. So, what would I do this year?

   Well, the original plan was to try and cycle to Dylan Thomas' boathouse via visiting my family in Carmarthen. I thought it would be too far and too hilly though and decided against it.
Instead, I came up with a 197 mile route to Plymouth. The journey would end in Plymouth to meet a few friends for some birthday drinks and then the train back home. Nobody knows why I want to do these things, but I just do!

     So, I had my 197 mile route planned. I had Wednesday until Tuesday booked off work. I had 3 cycling maps from Sustrans with my route on. I had a heavy rucksack with 3 spare t-shirts, 3 pairs of socks, spare pants, spare inner tube, a pump, some protein bars, and a hooded top and some gloves for those cold, early morning starts. I was ready but not that confident to be honest. I was thinking maybe I could do a 100 miles a day on my mountain bike and I would be done in a couple of days. I was thinking of booking b&b's in advance but my buddy Mike Mattingly advised me not to as he said I would never know how far I was going to get in one day. This was my biggest fear: cycling all day only to find out that you couldn't get any accommodation for the night! I made a backup plan of listing all the railway stations on my route and if I had to, i'd just get the train straight to Plymouth and abandon the ride.

        I left on a Wednesday morning at 7am. It was still a bit chilly and there wasn't much sign of a sunrise. I cycling into Totton and then to Lyndhurst and onto the bike trails which I always get lost on but still manage to get to Balmer lawn and Brockenhurst eventually. It didn't take me long to get lost but I got there. I didn't bother getting out my map and just cycled the route to Boscombe that I ran last year. Which was via Sway and New Milton, and then into Christchurch. I bought an expensive breakfast bap and a bottle of water at Boscombe pier. While my bacon was being fried, I decided to steal some tea bags, sugar and milk cartons. I thought it would make up for the £1.50 bottle of water. I then realised that I would have to carry these items along with all the other crap I already had including my digital Nikon camera that I forgot to mention earlier. I ate my bap and played on the musical instruments on the pier where some guy jokingly said he'd hire me for his band one day. (I was that bad).

      Now I had a nice cycle along the seafront from Boscombe pier to Bournemouth pier and then Poole and into Sandbanks. It was here that I would get a ferry across the water over to the Isle of Purbeck. It was only £1 and gave me plenty of time to scoff down a double decker. I also made sure that I stopped my Garmin watch as I didn't want to cheat myself out of un-cycled miles. An old lady in leather gear looked at my mountain bike and said "You should get a motor on that". It made me laugh and I told her I was cycling to Plymouth. Then she told me stories of her son's adventures while we waited to board.

     Right, we're across the water. I had time to study the cycle map as well. I cycle to Studland and then up a big hill. I then cycle back down this hill and then back up it again. Hill reps? Nope, i'm lost! I can't find this path on the map and end up on the Isle of Purbeck golf course on pretty rough terrain.
I had read many reviews about these cycle maps before I purchased them. "They are rubbish, you'll get lost, not detailed enough". "They're only made of paper and rip really easily, I wouldn't buy another one". The list of negatives went on, but I bought 3 of these maps anyway. Hampshire and Isle of Wight cycle map, which I never used. Dorset Downs cycle map, the one which had already got me lost. And South Devon cycle map which I would be trying out in a couple of days.

    After a while I gave up trying to find the right way and made my own way via Corfe Castle. I followed this old couple up a hill on the main road. I wasn't sure about cycling on this main road as it was quite busy and the cars were going quite fast along it. I followed this old couple anyway and came off the roundabout in Norden where they did and caught up with them to have a chat. They were just doing a loop to Arne and were from Wareham. I cycled past them many times but then they would catch me up when I was lost and looking at my map. The whole time I had been cycling I had yet been on the cycle route! I cycled through Ridge and then finally Stoborough which would be the start of me actually on the National cycle network route number 2. It then got easier. Next was West Holme and then East Stoke and then it was time for a late lunch as I found a Nice pub in Wool.
     It was 2pm when I ordered my burger, chips and coke at the Black bear pub. I was sat in a lovely beer garden with the sun shining. I was starving and had managed 60 miles so far. My original plan was to make it to Axminster on the first day. I had estimated that it was 62 miles to Dorchester but I was nowhere near there and had been on the road for 5 hours already.

       I got back on my bike after doing some recalculations of my journey. I cycled through East Burton, Moreton, Woodsford and then at last.. Dorchester. At this point I had covered a good 70 miles and it was pretty easy going but I never really thought about it until now. From Dorchester to Bridport (18 miles) it just seemed to be climbing in elevation the whole time. Cycling was getting harder now and I was getting tired. There was also the fact that I needed to find somewhere to stay before it got late/dark.  Axminster wasn't looking likely today.

   I bought two bottles of water from a weird little shop in Martinstown and cycled up a massive hill to Portesham where Hardy's monument is located. I did a bit of research afterwards and Thomas Hardy (not the author) was the person who is famous for holding Lord Nelson in his arms as he died saying the so-called immortal words "Kiss me Hardy". I could see for miles on top of this place and then sun was still shining. It was beautiful.
I went through some little places like Little Bredy, Long Bredy, Litton Chenney, Shipton Gorge, Loders, Uploders and then Bridport. It was about 5-6 pm and I just went into some tatty old looking pub and asked if they had any spare single rooms.

Me: "Do you have a single room for the night?"
Barmaid: "I'll just go and ask".
Barmaid returns.. "No, sorry. We only have a double room left".
Me: How much is the double room?".
Barmaid: "I'll just go and ask".
Barmaid returns.. "£40".
Me: "I'll take it, anywhere safe to put my bike?".
Barmaid: "I'll just go and ask".

   In the end I got a Family room to myself for £35 because I was leaving too early for breakfast. This included a double bed and a single bed and wide screen t.v bigger than my bike and bathroom with bath, shower and toilet. I emptied my rucksack all over the place and then ran a bath while I ate food and drank tea. Those extra tea bags and milk definitely came in handy. It was then time for a quick walk around the town, pick up some supplies and have a couple of pints at the bar with the locals during bingo night. I was the second youngest there :) End of day one. 93 miles cycled to Bridport.

    Day two soon came around and my calves were a bit sore despite doing a lot of stretches after my bath. I also then realised that I hadn't really done any training for this bike ride. I rode 82 miles to Bath once over the summer and 84 miles around Kingclere. Both rides were months apart as well.

The landlord had to let me out of the pub as I wanted to leave at 7am again. I don't think he was too happy about having to get up early. I wheeled my bike through the pub and thanked him. I then noticed I was staying at the Lord Nelson pub. I now knew the connection with Hardy's monument!

   I cycled out of town and then it was miles of country roads but very hilly country roads. If I thought Dorchester to Bridport was hilly, I was wrong. Today would prove to be the hilliest route I would probably ever attempt to cycle in my life! I found the place called "Dottery" and then it was a matter of following the cycle route. Obviously the cycle routes were not always signed. I also discovered that it was easier to get lost cycling downhill as I didn't like breaking when I was doing 40mph. I went through Broadoak, Wooton Fitzpaine and then I got lost again and ended up in Fishpond's bottom and Hawkchurch. These two place were not on my route. I then just cycled down the main road where cars were whizzing past at top speeds. The sign behind me said "Welcome to Dorset" and the sign in front of me said "Welcome to Devon". I followed this road all the way into Axminster.

      There wasn't really anything to see in Axminster as I cycled through it. I must have missed the town completely. I soon came to a wooded trail and then out onto a field where a guy warned me about the cattle in the field. The cows were actually lying on the cycle path. I cycled past them on the grass. I then came to a road in Kilmington and cycled up it. I wasn't sure where I was going because there were two routes. One was a prone to flooding which they labelled as the summer route. This had really confused me but I figured it all out in the end.
   Thursday was such a hot day. I could feel my neck burning and the hills were getting bigger as I got nearer to the coast. I cycled through Whitford, Colyton, Colyford and then Seaton. My brakes struggled to work as I squeezed them on really steep descents with traffic. Seaton was lovely though. I stopped off at a CafĂ© on the beach front as I hadn't yet eaten and was starving. I got speaking to a couple who I offered to share my table with. They were also from Wareham. Seems like a popular place to live!

       Again, it seems hard to pick up on the cycle routes from the bigger places or cities. I got lost again and cycled to Axmouth which was the wrong way. I cycled back into Seaton and then into Beer. I was cycling really fast downhill when I slammed on my brakes. The sign ahead said "Welcome to Beer". I had to grab a photo of that didn't I? I didn't see a pub in Beer though or even an offy. All I remember is a big, long hill up towards Beer Quarry caves. After Beer it flattened out a bit and into a lovely village named Branscombe. There were lots of people around but they weren't real people. They had been made by the local villagers. Some of us tourists stood around and chatted and took photos for one another. I took photos for people and they took photos of me. It was a fun, friendly place. Then came Salcombe Regis and the biggest hills which were in Sidmouth where I had to walk up a hill walking my bike when I got heckled by an octogenarian "Aren't you supposed to be riding that thing" she nodded at my bike after she wound down her car window and smiled.

      I walked back out of Sidmouth with my bike and got speaking to a woman about my travels so far and trying to reach my destination. She had every faith in me and wished me luck as she drove away in her campervan. There really are some lovely, friendly people out there. She stayed in my mind for a few miles and how encouraging and funny she was. Good to see someone who is able to interact with a complete stranger and make jokes and tell weird stories.
Then came Pinn, Otterton, East Budleigh and Budleigh Salterton. I work with a woman called Jane who seems sure she wants to win the lotto and move to Budleigh Salterton even though she's never been there! I stopped off for a pasty and bought her a Budleigh fridge magnet and took some more photos for a couple who were struggling with a selfie.

        Today was tough with all the ascent. Again, I didn't think I was going to make it all the way to Okehampton which was going to be my next stop over. It was getting later so I thought Exeter would have to do. After cycling through Exmouth, the route came away from the coast and followed the Estuary up to Exeter. This was called the Exe estuary trail. At last, all flat and no more hills for the day. This trail seemed very touristy and all the other cyclists seemed miserable. I could barely get a smile or a "hello" out of any of them. Through Lympstone and the lovely Topsham and then back on the trail I thought I saw a kingfisher. I braked and turned around and sure enough, just in front of me was a kingfisher. He was just sitting there on a brickwall. This was the closest I had ever been to one. He soon flew off when he spotted me.

         I finally made it into Exeter. I cycled through the busy city looking for accommodation until I came to a Jury's Inn. I didn't really want to stay here but had seen nowhere else. The whole journey I was trying to support the independent businesses and not give money to the man. That means , no Tesco, Costa, Travelodge etc.. Anyway.. Turns out there was no room at the Inn. And the guy working there said I was unlikely to find anywhere to stay in Exeter. I could have cried right then. He explained that all the students were back and it was mental. He printed me off a map and moved his pen down the roads where he knew all the b&b's were. He was so helpful and he really didn't have to be because he was so busy and still had the time for me. I would give him some of my birthday lottery winnings but it only came to £25.

    I Cycled to the other side of the city and tried a pub. It looked closed. They had no rooms but again the staff were very helpful. I carried on cycling and it was nearly 8pm now! It would be dark soon but I was too stubborn. I didn't want to get that train to Plymouth, I wanted to cycle there. I then saw a sign! It said "Vacancies" in bright red lettering. My first thoughts were that they had forgotten to turn it off. I rang the door bell and a woman came out. The usual conversation ensued and she said there was only a double room left and it was £60. I was desperate, so wasn't too bothered. I had to chain my bike in the garden though to a plastic drainpipe which I wasn't keen on but the lady assured me that it was very safe. I showered and went to the pub for a Lasagne with garlic bread and extra chips and a couple more pints of cider. Day two done. Only about 70 very hilly miles to Exeter. According to my original guess, I was only 30 miles away from Plymouth! As you can tell, my calculations were a bit wrong.

         Day Three had arrived. I was up slightly later because I wanted a nice fried breakfast and it was really delicious and plentiful. The lady at the Oakcliffe hotel said it was another hilly day for me and I was kind of hoping that my bike had been nicked as my quads were really sore from all the hills from the previous day. Of course, my bike was still there. I tried to ask for directions but couldn't quite remember where I was going...
Me:  "I'm trying to get to a train station, Saint something?".
Her: "Saint Davids?" " she quickly replied.
Me: "No"
Her: "Exeter Cent-ral"
Me: "No"
Her: "Ah, Saint Thomas".
Me: "Yes, that's the one".

    She gave directions but I failed to follow or memorise them. I cycled around Exeter for a good 40 minutes until this student girl approached me on her bike when I was looking at my map.
"Are you lost?" These students are clever I thought! "Where are you trying to get to?" The same conversation followed. "Saint Davids? Central? Ah, Saint Thomas". She didn't know the way but did her best to make me not feel so lost. I thanked her all the same and headed back the way I came and ended up in Alphington and couldn't find Whitestone (pronounced whitstone). I got more directions from strangers and cycled down the main road and skipped Whitestone along with another big hill. I came into Pathfinder village instead. The road pretty much just ran along side the A30 now. It wasn't a busy road but a very long straight one with undulations.

     This was a much better day for cycling as it was an overcast day and the hills were tame in comparison with the previous day. Although now, I was very hot and was cycling topless. It was on quiet roads in the middle of nowhere. So I had a wet t-shirt tied around my rucksack trying to dry it out. I threw my t-shirt and socks away from Wednesday's exertion. Less to carry! The road was easy to follow now and I could just tick off the place names mentally. Tedburn St Mary, Cheriton Bishop, Crockernwell, Whiddon down, South Zeal. This road and these places really reminded me of Wylie valley next to the A303. Then I came into Sticklepath which looked like a lovely place to stop for teas, pub lunches etc but I just wanted to get on with it and get to Okehampton at least. And sure enough, I was soon in Okehampton having another Pasty and a Dr.Pepper.

           The road climbed high out and above Okehampton. The scenery then changed dramatically as I came into Meldon, an old quarry on the edge of Dartmoor. As I rode further around the perimeter of Dartmoor, I asked myself why I had never been here before. It was absolutely stunning and the cycle route was flat. Into Sourton where I visited the old church and then the beautiful Lydford with stunning views from the Viaduct and then the village with its pubs and Castle. I would have liked to stay there longer and will have to return and explore more another time. The buzzards were hovering so close overhead. I stood and watched them for ages. At one point I think there were about 12 of them just circling around over the viaduct.
     I got to North Brentor from here and watched as an athletic family overtook me on a hill on their bikes. We exchanged hellos and then I caught them up with some of my fierce downhill cycling. I got speaking to Mum and Dad at different times. It reminded me a lot of my marathon running. Slow uphill and getting passed by everyone and then flying past everyone again on the downhill. This happened a few times until I saw them resting for refreshments in a pub in Mary Tavy.

     From Mary Tavy the route went around backroads avoiding the main road into Tavistock and into the woods and then out to Peter Tavy which was a quite little place that got me to Tavistock where I managed to cycle into a lamppost before stopping off for another pasty. Tavistock was a very nice place and had a lot more going for it that I had imagined. This was definitely the nicest scenery from the whole trip and it got better as it went rural again through Horrabridge, Yelverton, Clearbrook, Bickleigh and then I knew where I was from Plymvalley as I had done the parkrun here before. I had about 10 miles to Plymouth.
A strange feeling came over me as I knew I was going to achieve my goal. Wow, I thought, I am actually going to be able to say that I cycled to Plymouth from Southampton. Okay, it's taken me 3 leisurely but tough days of cycling but I haven't trained for this and it's been the best adventure ever. Not knowing quite where you are or what lies ahead, who you are going to meet and what you will witness.

     So, I cycled through Plymvalley and then to Saltram. When I got to Saltram it started to rain and then, it really started to rain. I stopped to put on my raincoat which I hadn't yet used. I didn't bring waterproof trousers though, so my shorts and legs got soaked. I cycled through Cattledown and into the skatepark at Plymouth. I had reached my destination. Day Three done. 238 miles Southampton to Plymouth. I stayed at my friend's place. Nick and Hannah. Hannah had made me pizza and tea, Nick was working until 10pm. Sadly, I was asleep in bed before he even finished his shift.

   I totally forgot to mention the tunnels from Tavistock to Plymouth. There are two of them. The short one in the photo and a longer one which has a bend. I cycled through these pretty quickly and on the second I was getting soaked from all the drops of water from the roof. I also didn't notice a cyclist coming from the other direction but then I saw the light from his bike. I quickly switched my bike light on and luckily he saw me. I never really thought about this. The next day I remembered telling my mate Carl in Saltash that I was actually pretty scared cycling through these tunnels and probably shouldn't have gone so fast and then he told me stories about kids who liked to put logs in the tunnel just for fun! I'll be going slower next time.

   Anyway, my adventure didn't end there as the next day I thought it would be a good idea to get to Cornwall at least. So I went to pay my mate Carl a visit in Saltash. Nick told me to just follow the coast around from Plymouth until I got to the Tamar bridge. It really wasn't that simple. I cycled to the Barbican, then the Hoe, followed it around and eventually got to Devonport and then a climb up to Stoke Village. Then I got lost and did a loop before cycling down the dual carriageway of the A38 and the next thing I know i'm cycling over the Tamar bridge on the main road when I realise I shouldn't be there as there is a cycle path on the other side of the barrier. I got off my bike and lifted my bike over the barrier and climbed over. I made it into Saltash alive (just about) Had a nice walk and lunch with Carl and then cycled the quick way park to Plymouth via St. Budeaux and Central park.

     256 miles in the end. I'm already having withdrawals from this amazing adventure. As soon as Spring arrives, I think i'll do that bike ride to South West Wales and maybe even LEJOG on my mountain bike. A big thanks to Sustrans who sort out our National cycle network and the volunteers who give up their time. The routes are far from perfect and not always well marked but they do rely on donations from us and I think they do an amazing job to supply us with so many traffic free routes around the country.
People said that I was a bit mad doing it on a mountain bike but I did it and got no punctures and never fell off and didn't have to wear lycra!