Author: Mr A
Location: Somerset, Devon and Cornwall, UK
After months of blue skies and less wind than Prime Minister’s question time, I decided to head off for a few days on a cycle tour when England copped its first storm of the Autumn season. Oops. Didn’t I read the forecast? I did…but I thought I should reacquaint myself with the ”joy” of riding in the full gamut of weather England can throw at you. I also like exploring in the off seasons, so, “Toughen up!” I thought. In a reluctant nod to the forecast and that most camp sites were shut for the off season, I ditched my plan to carry camping gear at the last minute, and went for the pub/B &B option.
So in summary, how did the trip work out? Well, with the glass half full perspective, I saw some new-to-me areas of south-west England that are staggeringly beautful, proved that the solo cycle touring model works on an e-bike (something I was concerned about with range anxiety!), and had my view of the kindess of strangers totally reaffirmed. That latter point is particularly crucial given I did hit a few speed bumps. Read on…and laugh with/at me.
The trip itinerary was ”flexible”, I had a clear diary for five days. I didn’t even make any accommodation bookings, making the assumption, erroneously it turns out, that in October, away from the coast, not school holidays, how hard could it be to find a room? So of I toddled into the dawn of a Somerset morning with the vague plan to ”Ride towards Lands End”. I was going south and west, with the aim to end up finishing my trip in a town with a direct train line back to Taunton, then a short ride back to our place.
Somerset is a very rural county, and I rode on that first day through tiny villages and hamlets, undisturbed by 4g coverage. Never travel here without offline mapping tools. I rode through green corridors, with tall banks and hedgerows to either side of the narrow lanes, and sometimes this turns into a tunnel. A tunnel taking me back in time I felt, as another little hamlet would emerge around a corner, with the odd car parked on the tiny streets the only reminder I was still in the 21st century.
It’s pretty hilly in the south west of the UK, a mantra I would repeat to myself over the next few days, so I was happy to come across my first town after a couple of hours riding to top up my bike and tummy battery. A much needed breakfast of champions, and a mains plug socket for the bike, as all this kit I was carrying, plus my not insignificant weight, were giving me a lower cycling range than expected.
The lovely ladies at the Old School Cafe in the small service centre type town of Tiverton (code for…it’s a bit ugly and you wouldn’t go for for any other reason!), made me very welcome, despite my dripping clothes and muddy boots. Yes, I had been treated to what the locals call ”Devon Sunshine”. Traditionally the climate down here is a bit wetter than other parts of England. Although this year we were in drought though like the rest of the country, so the rain is much needed. Despite lashing out on the best wet weather gear money can buy, I was soaked from sweating and a bit of water ingress. There will be a section at the end on my wet weather and other gear for those interested.
I had at least done some research on the next town with any chance of accommodation, and that was another 55 kilometres ride, and more importantly, over a lot of bumpy bits (it’s hilly down the south west, remember!), so I was committing. It was going to be a big day, but I felt good, and the Devon Sunshine had stopped and been replaced by…well…”mizzle”. Even though Google won’t let me type that word without autocorrecting, it is in the Oxford dictionary, and such a lovely word. One that evokes the experience just through saying it. Thats called Onomatopoeia by the way. You see, you’ve learnt something already. For our non-English resident readers, mizzle occupies the continuum between rain and mist. You don’t notice its raining, you just get really wet.
I pushed on. Unfamiliar with the area, I saw another cyclist coming the other way and shouted over to ask him a question about the best route. He pulled up. He had a couple of small bags on his bike, so I asked where he was heading. Now we could run a competition until Christmas 2023 on his answer, and I guarantee no one would win it. Istanbul. He’d left home that morning, first day of his trip. Will was raising money for a charity I’d never heard of, Andy’s Man Club. They were set up to provide support to men who are in need of mental health support. Will Thurgood had lost a good friend to suicide, and at the funeral heard of this charity. As a keen cyclist he thought, ”I’ll ride to Istanbul and raise money and awareness”. And indeed he has started well on that quest.
It’s at moments like that, I know one of the reasons I love cycle touring so much. The unexpected encounters on the road that just make you think about your own life through getting inspiration from others. I find riding solo helps these encounters. I’m more alert to a conversation opportunity, and people seem to be keener to engage, rather than interrupting a pair or a pack. Will rode on, and I watched him go with the utmost respect. Strangers whose lives momentarily intersect. In a car you’re isolated, on a bike its easy to start up a conversation. And I regularly do.
More hills loomed, with the huge mass of Dartmoor dominating my vision and thoughts, as I knew I had that treat in store at some stage on this trip. Now I should interject here and explain that for those of you who haven’t had the pleasure to ride a loaded up electric bike, which is a heavy bike to begin with, it’s not a moped. You need to pedal, and get various levels of assistance of your choosing, from none (downhill mode!) up to Sport (make yourself unpopular mode with the manual brigade option). But there isn’t a “stop peddling and go up hills” option. So I arrived at my destination, the small town of Okehampton, completely exhausted with 1100 metres of climbing having taken its toll on legs that hadn’t been doing any training. Ok, so I had found my limit loaded up. I had been out with camping gear in September on a two night trip, but had done a lot less climbing.
I staggered into the hotel that I had called the day before to check if they could store my bike and asked if they had availability, Yes and yes the nice man said. Did I need to book? No, he said, its very quiet at this time of the year. So I arrived to be told, no room at the inn. There was only one other place in town, a brand whose mere mention brings shivers (of a bad kind) down the spine of the British travelling public. Wetherspoons. I walked through the bar trying to find the hotel reception, negotiating a large group of absolutely hammered lads staggering around at 2.30 pm on a Tuesday afternoon. Eventually I found someone to ask about a room, although she looked like I had just woken her up. I’m not kidding when I tell you it took the receptionist a good 10 minutes to wind up the old desktop and stab what seemed like 300 keys before announcing yes, they had a room left. She almost seemed disappointed she now had to check me in. She asked my mobile number three times, asked me to spell out my home address twice. I gritted my teeth. They did have bike lockers she said. After 10 minutes trying to open and store my bike in one, I decided the engineer who designed them must have had a wicked sense of humour, or who had been knocked over and injured by a cyclist! Jeez. Another couple of tourers turned up with their bikes and a smug air of ”We’ve been here before, we know how to do it”. I watched as they wrestled, and swore, and had their bikes fall out and bite them. So it was my turn to be smug, as I gave in and folded down my handlebar stem. In it went in then like a breeze. How you would get full size bikes in them remains a mystery to me.
Finally. I staggered up to my room, trying to not breathe in the smell of cheesy feet that oozed out of the hallway carpets. The room looked OK, so I walked in, and fell over. There was a crater under the carpet that would have swallowed a small dog. In fact, when I bent down to look at the floor, it did smell like in fact a dog had been there and never left.
I started unpacking to get my devices charging, searching for the bag containing the various power leads that I carefully packed in one of my panniers, and had now mysteriously dematerialised. Uh oh. I had pulled out my iPhone cable at some point during my morning’s ride, and noticed a few minutes later that in my stupor I had not fastened back up the pannier top. My charging cables bag must have leapt out and grabbed the brief opportunity to become road-kill. I phoned the ”Broad Oak House, Level 1 Emotional Support” hotline (Catherine). I was ready to give up the trip. I thought the chances of finding all the cables I needed in this remote little desert of electronics was slim. I mean, with barely any phone coverage (one bar of 3g in the town centre), why would people have phones? But no, I learnt on this trip that there may not be a bakery, butcher, greengrocer etc, but there’s always a phone shop. I could scrape by on what, for an eye watering price, they could sell me.
I ate in the restaurant downstairs, once again there were blind drunk folk staggering round, and they were good enough to share some of their pints all over my clothes. Great.
Lesson 1: Don’t trust nice young men from Okehampton who say you don’t need to book. The compromise between not being locked in to an itinerary and being in a Wetherspoons, is to book somewhere nice 24 hrs ahead. Good learning.
Lesson 2: Before recommencing riding, rotate my head like a meercat, checking carefully all bag fastenings! Sigh…
I packed up in the morning and headed towards the scary bike lockers. I opened the door to the outside world to be nearly bowled over by a tremendous gust of wind and driving rain. Oh. One of those days that would be another ”valuable learning experience“ in how to ride in proper English weather. I set off. After being blown all over the road, and I’m no lightweight, l called into the emotional support line again, also doubling as weather research, as I had no 4g signal. (Why do people even need smart phones in the south-west?). Catherine had a good look at the weather reports, and could see the next couple of hours were going to be grim, but if I could get through that phase, then it was clearing up a bit.
So this is how I found myself sitting in an old pill box type shelter, by the side of rail trail. Or from the smell inside, it was actually a toilet without a sign announcing it as such. Tree branches came whirling past the open windows. The rain pelted down. Time for a Cadbury’s Hot Chocolate I thought, thanks to a recent purchase of lovely little stove. I have three now, Catherine reminds me with that Paddington Bear hard stare she has perfected when providing ”feedback” on my outdoor gear buying habits. In under a minute from pulling it out of my pannier (a pannier I immediately close), it is assembled and boiled a steaming mug to replenish the spirits, which as at this point are flagging somewhat. Don’t believe the nice young man from the outdoor shop either, when he says, “This coat will keep you dry”. It’s impossible when you are heating up through exercise, even the most breathable of waterproof membranes will have you damp. Add in some time, and leakage through bits you can’t seal around your face and remain breathing, and you’re going to be wet. But at least not that cold.
Well, my forecast hotline was spot on, and the wind eased to just below a level I could ride in without becoming airborne. So off I went, once more into the breach. I rode through stunning countryside in the green and glistening heart of Devon. Little villages that surely didn’t look much different from when the French came over to wipe the floor with us at the Battle of Hastings, then built their imposing Norman castles across this landscape.
All was going so well, and I arrived at what I thought was going to just be a quick lunch in Launceston, just over the border into Cornwall, a top up of batteries and belly. I plugged in my iPhone and up came an error message that said “Moisture has been detected in your charging port. This could take several hours to clear before you can recharge”. Oops. But the nice young man from Apple said my iPhone 11 was waterproof? Surely Apple wouldn’t lie to its customers? According to their website “An iPhone 11 can be submerged in 13 feet of water for up to 30 minutes before risking damage”. You’d think I would have noticed laying deep underwater for half an hour, but apparently not. I imagine somewhere in their tiny T’c and C’s it says ”Avoid riding for four hours in proper British weather”. Anyway. I was stuck. No phone. No navigation. Try buying a paper map nowadays.
Here’s the part where the kindness of strangers gets reaffirmed for me, starting with manager of the cafe I had chosen to park myself in to make a plan, apologising profusely for dripping everywhere. Liberty Coffee, it was called, in case you’re passing through. She welcomed me to my own little area in the hallway where I could drip to my hearts content and even park my bike next to me. Time to reach out to ”Practical Catherine” for some emotional counselling and top tips from Dr Google on drying out phones. Put in a bag of rice and leave for up to 24 hrs seemed to be the go. Advice and directions were sought and off I went to buy those.
By the time that was done, the afternoon was marching on and I was going to need a place to stay in town, and lose half a day off my trip. I headed to the Library for working wifi, then Tourist Information centre for hotels. How long everything takes without a working smart phone! The Eagle House Hotel was the only place with a room. I rushed round and walked up to the front door all excited at the prospect of a nice hotel, and was confronted with a battered front door with peeling paint. First impressions anyone?
It didn’t fill me with confidence, but how wrong can first impressions be? I later found out from the owner the reason the door was like that due the lack of any tradespeople, or doors, as both had been an order for six months! Supply chain kinks and labour shortages be dammed. Lovely staff – kindness again – even allowed my bike in my room to keep me company. Think I looked in a pretty sad state.
I pulled my phone out of the bag of rice and tried the charging cable. Next problem – the charging cable wouldn’t fit – bunged up with soggy rice no doubt. Off I rushed to the phone shop. There’s always a phone shop isn’t there? Another nice young man produced a tool designed for the purpose of cleaning out the ports, and bingo, a phone that charged once again. I shall be treating any terms like ”waterproof” with a pinch of rice in the future.
Back at the hotel I happened to see a sign to the ”cocktail bar”. Having low expectations from my last night’s experience in the darkest depts of Wetherspoons, I came round the corner to be blown away by a wonderful bar. A gorgeous balcony overlooking the valley, ideal for more summery weather, and a very perky barmaid (personality wise I mean, Catherine), who mixed me up a fantastic negroni. There was even a custom-made ball of ice containing a flower and herbs from the owner’s garden. I had a chat with Rebecca, the owner, to get the story on the place. She and her husband are local farmers and decided they didn’t want to see the loss of the hotel (it was headed towards demolition by the looks of it). They bought it five years ago, and told me they have spent longer as hotel owners in COVID restrictions than out of them. It clearly needs a lot of work, but I wish them all the best. Had a wonderful dinner, the only person in the dining room.
I had decided I needed to abandon the lofty goal of Land’s End on this trip. With a half day of riding lost to phone issues, and a train strike on Saturday, I had to rethink. My criteria was to head for a railway station with level access. Stairs and e-bikes are not happy companions. Plymouth came up trumps. A bit of retracing my steps, then it was up, and up to the wild open moorlands of Dartmoor. I was just thinking, “I’m going to get to Plymouth early”, as a horse rider coming the other way shouted out, ”Road closed ahead, long detour up over the moor”. Mmmm. Keeps you on your toes, this cycle touring lark. I had already chewed through one battery, so thankfully pulled out the spare (from Catherines bike) and settled in to another climb.
What a beautifully stark and evocative place. We had ridden some of Dartmoor before, but that was okay. It has a lot of wild space to offer a hiker or a rider. I met one car coming across, no one else. I finally dropped down off the moor to find a rail trail that would lead me straight into Plymouth. I powered along this fabulous route (Drake’s Trail), that we had also ridden before, but that didn’t matter, it is gorgeous and traffic free.
So that was it, a well earned beer at my hotel in Plymouth, a lively pub with great rooms overlooking the harbour. Off to the station, loaded up the bike into his little spot, and remarkably smooth and cheap trip back to Taunton and was home, weary but fulfilled.
More cycle touring in the south-west of England is definitely in my future. If we invest in two more batteries, then perhaps with Catherine. I want to get up on Exmoor in the spring with my tent. See more of the west coast of Cornwall, there’s just so much, and a limited amount of time where it will be within my prowess. Carpe Diem.
Gear Locker (for those interested)
Bike: Reise and Muller’s Tinker. It partially folds (stem and bars), handy for those bike lockers! Has 20 inch wheels with tryres wide enough to deal with gravel. A belt drive so no gears to maintain, and built in lights front and rear. We’ve been thrilled with the build quality. In this case we got what we paid for. A high quality, reliable, well thought through ebike.
Wet weather gear. Jacket: Arc’teryx is the brand, a Canadian company producing high end outdoor gear I’ve come to really rely on. Have the over trousers to match. A new addtion on this trip were a pair of waterproof over-mitts from Extremities, with normal cycling gloves underneath. Just kept off the chill and super light and pack up small. Very pleased with the combo.
Boots: Also from Arc’teryx – very comfy for riding and hiking, super lightweight. My feet still get wet though. I think unavoidable when you’re riding and trousers lift up and water gets over the top of the boots. But my secret weapon, again first time out, a pair of Extremities waterproof socks underneath. Kept my foot dry, and not too sweaty and smelly either. A result.
Stove: the new acquisition, from MSR a Windburner. Such a great design for just heating up water when you’re mixing with dehydrated food, or just hot drinks. Light, simple to set up and really compact. It will be out with us on winter hikes for sure.
Panniers: I look like an Ortlieb advert. A pair of the dirt rider side rears, a seat pack, handlebar roll and front bag for bits. All kept everything bone dry. All stayed put. Shame they dont have an automatic closure!
Clothes: nothing really worth highlighting other than my Icebreaker, merino wool jacket. I’ve had it now for at least 12 years, and its still going strong. The weight to warmth and packed size ratios are amazing.