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Heading West

I started by boarding a ferry but not the ferry I was meant to be on yesterday afternoon. In this year of kiboshed plans I was supposed to be riding down France to visit my parents now, but quarantine rules and COVID numbers ramping up again in France put paid to that. The original original plan was to ride the pilgrim trail from Canterbury to Rome this month but that went out the window too. Back at Easter I had wanted to ride down to Cornwall but lockdown scuppered those plans, so I’ve returned to them now but rather than audaxing it all I’m having a holiday, riding between B&Bs and visiting family.

The first cycle tour I ever did was from Frimley in Surrey to Cornwall when I was seventeen with a mate from school. He raced for Woking CC and riding his Raleigh Scirocco, later to become mine when he upgraded to a fancy Peugeot when he moved to (the recently formed) VC Meudon based in Farnborough. The club had a deal with the French manufacturer or a bike shop in Meudon, outside Paris, which was Farnborough’s twin. Hence the oh so continental name of the club, differentiating it from Farnborough & Camberley CC, more of a CTC club with less of VC Meudon’s racing aspirations. I was on a mid-80s Peugeot PH8 (pale grey, turquoise and blue decals). We stuck racks on our bikes and that made them touring bikes for a week or so. We both had racing gears but our knees were young and we coped. Well, I may have walked up one hill on Exmoor. The first day we rode from Surrey as far as Dorset, the memory as faded as the photographs I can’t find inevitably are but I think it was the youth hostel at Bridport. Either way it was around a 200km day so even though I only started officially audaxing a few years ago it seems I did my first audax distance as a teenager. Back then you got a hostel stamp in a YHA “brevet card” too. Second day was Bridport to youth hostel on Dartmoor, and I remember absolutely booking my tits off on the climb out of Exeter and sitting on the side of the A30 munching the emergency Marathon (Snickers) from my back pocket.

To avoid roads I’ve ridden a lot in the past and the dull suburbia of the south coast I jumped onto a train this morning to Southampton where I caught the foot passenger ferry across the Hamble to the edge of the New Forest, where the skies are big and there’s no hiding from the wind. Over the top of the forest the Isle of Wight appears on my left reminding me it’s an option for the return journey next week. Cattle grid rumble and pony tails swish against bracken on the turn, the year is rotating into autumn. Signalling right I change course northbound and the road narrows and trees arch overhead, branches and leaves create a verdant interwoven ceiling. Climbing slowly until both the landscape and sky open wide again, the wind making its presence felt once more. Back in the trees a fallow deer stutters in the middle of the road, turns and squeezes back through a fence. Horses and cows are less jittery and have to be swerved. Dropping into Wiltshire I trace the Avon to Salisbury, through the city, past a cricket green, players casting long shadows, the low sun another indication that summer has faded. A city where rivers meet I cross the Wylye north of Salisbury but pick up the Nadder west until I find my pub B&B nestled on the bank of the river. Shower, Tour De France highlights, dinner and a pint.

Early the next morning I start along the gently rolling Nadder valley, sticking close to the river, the blue squiggle on the GPS given a reality by tree lines twisting and turning across the flood plain. I cross a stone bridge and the road starts to rise, signs indicating Lower, Middle and Higher Coombe hinting that I may be climbing for a while. I hit Shaftesbury an hour or so after setting off, time for breakfast. A sandwich, coffee, and Pastel de Nata on the high street listening to the church service over the way. Hovis hill and some faff getting out of town, a steep drop to a lovely flat section of Dorset under blue skies. An enormous buzzard, the biggest I’ve ever seen, swoops across a field ahead. A minute or two later I pass an aerodrome for model aeroplane enthusiasts. A miniature wind sock flutters in the wind and my giant “buzzard” splutters on the landing strip.

Crossing into Somerset then back again, I play tag with the county lines for miles and miles. A crossroads. “Welcome to Dorset” to my left, “Welcome to Somerset” to my right. I appear to be in No Man’s Land? Adding to this sensation I’m in the shadow of a stone wall for the next few miles. Dorset keeping out Somerset? However judging from the number of Wessex this and Wessex that I pass I feel the locals may find the county borders just a bit too modern.

The skies darken as the hills really start. Blackdown Hills grey with drizzle. Some routing errors and back and forth and around that way and somewhere across into Devon but I’m not sure where. Honiton appears on a signpost. Gateway to the West Country, I’m sure anyone actually calls it that but I always feel like I’m into Devon proper by here and Cornwall isn’t far away. Before I drop into town I can see the granite lump of Dartmoor. That’s for tomorrow though, today I only need to get to Exeter.

I’ve plotted a route that first heads north up a hill before a steady drop all the way to Exeter but also aware there’s a flatter option tracing the A30 to the city. After a couple of hours of steep inclines and rain I turn off the GPX file and follow the blue Exeter cycle route signs… most of the way anyway, somewhere near the airport I miss one and find myself on a roundabout about the A30. I retrace my steps looking for the missed sign and make my way into the city via every housing estate, park, dead end street, alleyway, and carpark until I find my hotel. No one bats an eyelid when I wheel my bike into reception and then into the lift. Bath, Tour De France highlights, and a short walk to Wagamama.

“I saw you looking at the café, if you’re after a hot drink the butcher is the only place on Monday.”

I’ve been climbing all morning, up through wooded valleys and slowly clambering onto Dartmoor, trees receding, bracken and gorse plastered across the Moor that stretches out before me. I drink half the takeaway cup of instant coffee before tipping the rest down a drain. I’ll find a café later. From a distance the hills have a red tint, as I get closer I realise it’s from the autumn bracken, more exposed here than the New Forest it’s browner and curlier. Following yesterday’s pattern the skies darken as I climb. I can see a long way south, the Devon coast looks like it’s having a sunny day. Behind me I can see yesterday’s hills, definitively blacked from this distance. I zip my jacket up and tuck low in the drops making myself as small as possible for the desolation and wind. I lose height just to gain it again. And again. Heavily laden camouflage clad soldiers march along the edge of the Moor guns slung across their fronts. Above the prison a communicatuons aerial keeps disappearing into cloud but the views to the land below are clear. I’m not sure if it’s Bodmin Moor I can see ahead or the hills I need to traverse in order to get to that next moor. A not so great pasty in Tavistock, I retrieve the spare ketchup sachet from the early Maccy D breakfast from my framebag to add some flavour.

A steep wooded descent jettisons me across the Tamar into Cornwall. Straight up an equally vicious climb into rain. A fast road covers some distance quickly before I turn into the quiet in-between lanes towards Bodmin Moor. The numbers on my Garmin indicate I’m climbing but there’s a sense of burrowing into the land. Lanes where hedgerow are taller than the road is wide, holloways where even standing on the pedals the base of tree trunks are above my head, roots, moss and earth surround me. I’m venturing into a subterranean realm, swimming through green filtered light, sunlight speckles dancing beneath my wheels, the only sign that the sky is brightening.

It doesn’t last long, by the time I excavate myself from the underground maze the sky is dark and damp again. Whilst Dartmoor feels barren and open Bodmin moor is a bleak emptyness that induces claustrophobic paranoia. I’ve been here a few times, it feels an odd place, ancient and not for people, dark even when it’s light. Probably best to keep moving. I burrow back into the land, earth and trees closing in. Walls and exposed roots are covered in moss and lichen, the land isn’t giving these things up easily, keeping them in its clasp. Hiding from the wind houses are built in the lee of hills from dark stone and black slate, as if designed to suck the light from the day. Keep pedalling. Another hill. Then another. Dark sharp shadows. Into Bodmin itself to find the river to follow towards the coast where the land will open back out embracing the sea and sky.

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