Thursday, 1 November 2012

An Irish bike ride

Last night I went to an excellent talk by traveller and adventurer Jasper Winn. This was one of the Wilderness Lectures, a series of wonderful talks held every year in Bristol on the theme of travel and adventure. Jasper has a lifetime of travel experiences to draw on: cycling across the Sahara (and back), spending a year with a Berber family in the Atlas Mountains, crossing South America on a horse, the usual sort of thing we all do now and again...or maybe not. This particular talk was about a solo kayak trip around the coast of Ireland. Although I enjoyed it very much, I had no desire whatsoever to take up kayaking. Or canoeing. Apparently there's a difference although I wouldn't know...

When I got home I dug out my photos from the cycling trip I did earlier this year in Ireland, from Mizen to Malin (the scenic route). Unlike Lejog, I had decided not to write a blog whilst on this trip, although I wrote copious notes. In hindsight, I rather wished I had (blogged I mean). I had been determined to carry less stuff on this journey than I had on Lejog and the laptop became a victim, along with the shampoo and conditioner (a buff will cover a multitude of sins including hair that has not been washed for a month) and most of the clothes (pah, cleanliness is over-rated anyway). Hopefully the notes from the journey will at some point form the subject of a future book, which is one of the reasons this blog is suffering from a little neglect lately. But I thought I would take the time to post a few pictures, not least because it will force me to sort them out rather than leave them all stuffed in a virtual shoebox called 'pictures of Ireland'. Here are a few of my favourites in no particular order:

Maccarthy's AKA McCarthy's Bar

The Railway Inn, Dingle Peninsula
The Doolin Dolphin

A popular Irish drink

Beara Peninsula

Cliffs of Moher

Baby Hannah's, Skibbereen

Gus O'Connors, Doolin


More scenery than you can shake a stick at

Maeve the goat queen

Giant's Causeway
The Conor Pass

Donkey, Inishmore


Connemara horses

Blue Sky in Ireland...
Typical weather - Ireland

More typical weather - Ireland

Titanic Exhibition, Belfast

Friday, 26 October 2012

Stumbles and grumbles on Exmoor's coast

I'd decided to pop down to Ilfracombe to visit Mick (by car this time). Last night we popped into the Ship and Pilot for one. Or two. Or four. The beers we tried were all excellent:

Firstly, Supernova from BHB (Black Hole Brewery) based in the old Ind Coope bottling plant in Burton on Trent. Unsurprisingly they have added 'brewed in Burton' on the pump clip - the town has been known to turn out a decent brew or two after all... The beer was a golden ale, very light in colour and had a delicious citrussy flavour. Mick tried to argue that it was the Pale Ale as it was the lighter of the two, the other beer we had ordered was Pale Ale from Devon Brewing Company, an amber coloured beer with a malty taste, brewed just up the road in Braunton. The brewery is a newish one and so far the PA is it's only brew. Not a bad start as far as I'm concerned. Druids Fluid from Wizard Ales was the third beer we tried, brewed here in Ilfracombe, and a regular at the pub. Rich and dark and with an ABV of 5%, it's not a beer I would want to drink all evening, but it's a nice pint to finish with on a chilly, rainy evening by the sea.

Giant Polypore I spotted in Heddon Valley.
Hard to miss actually...
We were therefore rather slow off the mark this morning but finally we managed to get it together and get out of the house. We drove to Heddon Valley just along the coast and a place I had never visited before. It was drizzling as we parked the car by the Hunter's Inn and headed off down the path. Despite the weather it was a magnificent walk. We stopped to admire a buzzard sitting quietly on a branch. The trees were a riot of colour with leaves of burnished orange and vivid yellow. The Heddon River wound through the centre of the valley and as we walked towards along its banks the woodland was replaced by bracken and scree slopes lining steep, steep banks on either side. Much steeper and this would be a gorge. A few determined trees clung to the sides of the hill, trunks twisted and gnarled, and occasional bushes of gorse (or furze - is there a difference?) bloomed by the side of the river.

Gorse or Furze

It was only a mile or so to the mouth, where the water tumbled over a shingle and boulder strewn beach to reach the sea. Like many of the coves along this coast, this route was used by smugglers to land spirits and tobacco. It was also used for burning lime, which was brought in by sea to many of the coves along this coast, with the resulting fertiliser used to improve the generally poor soil.

The river was running fast after the recent rain. 'Careful on the rocks,' warned Mick, 'you can see they are under water at high tide. They'll be slippery.'
'Yeah, yeah,' I said, taking no notice and setting out to cross the water. I was wearing wellies which were great for keeping my feet dry but not so great for gripping on the rock. Almost immediately my feet shot out from under me and I found myself sitting on a slab of rock in the middle of the river.
'Don't just stand there!' I exclaimed, 'help me up!'
Mick was unable to move as he was laughing so much so I hauled myself gingerly to my feet. We tried again further upstream where there were allegedly stepping stones under the water. I managed to stay upright this time although the water slopped over the tops of my boots. Great. Wet feet and a wet arse now.

There are stepping stones here somewhere...
The south west coast path weaved down a path clinging to the cliff, crossed the valley and wound itself up an equally precarious looking path off to the north. 'Let's go up there,' I suggested. I had noticed on the map that there was marked a roman fort at the top which I thought might be interesting. Mick reluctantly followed me as the path began climbing up. As the river receded until it became a thin silver ribbon far below us, Mick decided he had had enough. 'This is for nutters!' he exclaimed. 'I'm not going up there.'
'But it's fine. Look the path is wide enough. Just don't look down.'
He edged a couple more yards before stopping again. 'No, I'm not going along there.'
Coastline looking north
He refused to budge so I headed on alone to the top of the hill where an outcrop of rocks made a fine viewing platform. In both directions a series of promonotories stretched out like fingers into the misty sea, with brown bracken skin and rocky fingernails. I waited for Mick to join me but he never appeared. I would have to go back. As I rounded the corner I caught sight of his blue jacket. He was hiding behind a bush. As I drew closer he emerged onto the path.
'Why were you hiding from me?'
'I wasn't. I was hiding from the drop,' he shuddered. 'Let's go down now.'

Coastline looking south

Happy at sea level

Back at lower level we made our way back to the pub. Along the way we saw pumpkins, spider webs and tombstones that I was sure had not been there turned out the pub was having a somewhat early children's halloween party.

We lounged on the sofas in the bay window with a pot of tea watching miniature spectres, draculas and witches arrive for the fun. Outside we admired the peacocks before setting off. A woman was feeding them who turned out to be the mother of the pub's owner. She told us that recently she had come to feed them and the pheasants had all been up on the eaves of the pub.
'How do you feed them up there?' asked a customer. 'Do you climb up on the roof?'
'Um no, I wait for them to fly down...'

Hunter's Inn, Heddon Valley

We headed back to Ilfracombe along the coast road over Trentishoe Down. The view of Combe Martin nestling in the valley far below was spectacular. As we wound our way back in the dwindling light I said I could see why Mick had decided to move here. This coastline is stunningly beautiful. 'Yes there are some great walks around here,' he said. 'But too many of them are at ridiculous heights. They're not for me. I'm just low life.'
'I do believe you are,' I said.'

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Keynsham - Ilfracombe Day 2

Loading up
After yesterday's 65 mile ride we reckoned we only had around 40 miles to cycle today. We had a more leisurely start with a full cooked breakfast at the Royal Oak. Afterwards we chatted to one of the staff about our cycling.
'How far today then?' she asked.
'Oh, only forty miles,' I said breezily.
'How far do you go before you stop for a rest then?'
'Well, we stop about every ten miles or so for a rest and maybe a snack,' I said.
We fetched our bikes from the garden and loaded up. The pub was on the corner at the bottom of a steep hill. I decided we would go back through the village and up an alternative hill in the hope it would be less violent. This hope was a vain one and we were both much too full of bacon and eggs to try and struggle to the top. We immediately dismounted and began pushing the bikes up the hill. No sooner had we done so than a car came past. It slowed and the woman from the pub leaned out.
'I thought you stopped every ten miles!' she said, laughing.
'Ah did I say ten miles? I meant ten yards! In fact we're walking to Ilfracombe really.'
She laughed again. 'Still, you make me feel guilty, I only live up the road and I'm driving.'
Mick pretending to read the local notices
to sneak in a rest.
Given the gradients around here I thought she was pretty sensible. We puffed our way on up the hill. 'Couldn't we have gone up the easy way?' complained Mick.
'This is the easy way.'

Once the hill had been conquered the route followed pleasant lanes to Couple Cross where we turned left and headed down to Heath Poult Cross and the junction with the B3224. It had started raining and the surface was wet. A car was stopped just back from the junction, and as we passed it I noticed they were looking at a map.
'I think they're lost,' I said. 'I'll just wheel round and check.' As I did so my back wheel slipped and I toppled off the bike. Mick did what he always does in these situations, he looked embarrassed and tried to pretend he wasn't with me. 'Don't wander over there, help me up!' I said crossly.
Once I had dusted down I looked back at the car. 'I think they are lost, you know.'
'Who cares? Just concentrate on staying on your bike.'
'That's not nice.' Just as I was about to go over, the car rolled forward. As he passed us the driver leaned out of the window. 'Would you like some help with directions?' he asked. 'Do you know which way you want to go?'
'Ah no, thank you, we're fine,' I said. After they had gone Mick turned to me. 'You see? Mind your own business!'

We needed to drop down off the escarpment to join the A396 which winds its way through Exmoor from Dunster to Tiverton along the valley, following the line of the River Quarme. We headed down a tiny and very steep lane which dropped us 200 metres in a very short time indeed but did little for my brake blocks which had already been worn considerably by this little jaunt. Following rivers is often a good idea if the intention is to avoid hills so, on leaving the Quarme, we followed the Exe to Winsford. By now it was really hammering down and I was grateful for the cape which I had been given free by Belfast tourist information centre a few weeks earlier. It was emblazoned with 'Belfast 2012 - Our Time Our Place' in big black letters which seemed a bit incongruous down here in Devon but it certainly did the job in offering another layer of weather protection. The only thing was that with my hood, buff and then helmet on, I couldn't hear a single thing Mick said. Oh hang on - maybe that was an advantage.

Wet weather gear

The village of Winsford is hopelessly pretty, with thatched cottages and pub and a stream that runs through the centre of the village. The pub claims to be 'one of the most photographed inns in England,' which may well be true. It was another Royal Oak, probably not surprising as (depending on who you ask) it's the second or third most popular pub name in the country, named after the oak tree where Charles II famously hid from Cromwell's men at Boscobel in Shropshire. The name Winsford comes from the ford over the Winn Brook. With all the rain we had it was quite deep and we had an enjoyable ten minutes cycling to and fro through it, before deciding we had better get on.

As we climbed out of the valley we were treated to spectacular views of Winsford Hill and 'the punchbowl', a glacial cirque basin.We joined the B3223 which swept over the moor from our left. When we reached the junction with the 3224 Mick was very impressed. 'We've bypassed Exford!' he exclaimed. 'I was dreading that hill out. 'Well done Routes, I may buy you a pint later, after all.'

The Punchbowl

The weather forecast has said that torrential rain was expected at 14.00. At 13.59 the heavens opened and the rain came down in sheets. At that moment we were just coasting down the hill into Simonsbath, and so no discussion was needed. We swung into the carpark of the Exmoor Forest Inn. I dashed inside expecting Mick to follow me. He didn't so I went back out. He was looking in his panniers for his wallet. 'It's not here,' he said. He goes through this performance about five times a day.
'It is there,' I said. 'You always do this.'
'No, this time I really have lost it!' he said crossly.'It's not funny! It's gone this time! I've bloody well lost it!' He started pulling all his clothes out of his pannier bags. 'Oh, there it is.'
'Can we go in now? I'm getting soaked.'
Devon Dymspy was on the pumps and it took all my will power to order a pot of tea. For once though, we decided to be sensible. The weather was foul and we still had a way to go. After tea and a ploughmans we had dried out slightly and decided to press on. It was looking decidedly dark for three in the afternoon.
Mick is pleased to be back in his adopted county
For the final few miles we had no choice but to use the A roads and got a good soaking from the passing motorists. The rain was still driving down. 'Are you alright?' I yelled to Mick.
'I'm fine!' he yelled back. 'This is what it feels like to be alive!' The wetter he got, the more he appeared to enjoy himself.

Ilfracombe is a sod to get out of but getting in to the town is a pleasure - a long, long coast down. 'I need some milk,' said Mick, 'we'll go to the shop on the way.' He turned the corner. The road to the supermarket was a climb up. 'No.' I said. 'I'm not going up there. I'm not doing it.' I stuck my chin out and Mick knew he was beaten.

'Lets take the bikes back to my place and go to the pub. We can get a pint of milk in the Co-op on the way.'
'Now that,' I said, 'is more like it.'

Our route is here

Monday, 1 October 2012

Keynsham to Ilfracombe Day 1

Blimey. We had determined to set off early today and by some miracle 7am found us at my garage dragging the bikes out ready for the off. This is practically unheard of. We were heading down to Mick's place in Ilfracombe, planning to break the ride at Luxborough on Exmoor tonight so we knew we had to cover roughly 65 miles. Couldn't afford to be late off today. We loaded the panniers and then I reached for the '3 in 1' oil and dabbed some on the chain. We set off.

'Bollocks!' shouted Mick.
'Shh, it's early, the neighbours will hear you swearing. What is it?'
'I've got a sodding puncture!'
Sure enough, Mick's front tyre was as flat as a pancake. We wheeled the bikes back to the garage and he bad-temperedly grabbed the pump.
'Aren't you going to change the tube?' I asked.
'No, can't be arsed, I'll pump it up and we'll see how we get on.'
I wasn't sure this was a good idea but as he was clearly not happy I decided that I would keep my mouth shut (for once).

Tyre re-inflated we set off once more. As usual I had decided on the route and Mick was following along. Why he still allows me to do this after some of the monumental foul ups I have made I have no idea but he didn't seem bothered. He says that I'm so bossy that there's no point in him making suggestions which I think is unfair. It's not my fault if all his suggestions are rubbish. 'Ah, I'll leave it up to you Nappers,' he said. Nappers is shorthand for Napoleon as he says we have height (lack of)  and other characteristics in common.
Cows on Maes Knoll
He cheered up once we got underway and we followed a now familiar route down to Chew Magna and Chew Valley Lake, pleasant in the early morning sunshine. We were too early for the cafe but we stopped anyway for some snacks we had brought with us and then continued on alongside the lake to Bishop Sutton where we joined the A368. Our first challenge was to climb up onto the ridge that is the Mendip Hills. There is no easy way of getting up from this side, save a very long detour to the Strawberry Line. At West Harptree there is a way up to Mendip. 'I thought I'd try the the one further on,' I said to Mick. At Compton Martin the turning came up sooner than I expected and I made a last minute swing left.
'Can you give me more warning next time,' said Mick
'Sorry, I saw the sign for The Wrangle at the last minute.'
'The Wrangle?' he said suspiciously. 'Well as long as it's not that vile steep hill we came down from the Mendips that time, do you remember? It was too steep to go down let alone...' he trailed off as we turned the corner.
'This IS that road!' he exclaimed.
'Er, is it?' I said lamely. 'Never mind!'
'Yes it bloody is! Tell you what, if you can cycle up without getting off I'll buy you a pint.' This was unfair. Mick knows I can't resist a challenge especially if beer is involved.
'Right,' I said, settling my bottom into my saddle, which is so wide and padded Chesterfield would be proud of it. I embarked on my getting up hill technique - lowest gear possible, sitting down, really, really slow and counting elephants. 'One elephant, two elephant...'
It was working well too until a car came down the hill and I was forced to put my foot down to let it pass.
'Ah well, never mind,' said Mick. 'Better luck next time.'
'But that wasn't my fault!'
Mick just grinned.

Once we were up the Wrangle we were on the top of the plateau and it was glorious. The Mendips are beautiful and I enjoyed the ride across to the top of Cheddar and then a long, winding descent through the chasm between ever higher cliffs. We coasted into Cheddar and stopped for a coffee before pressing on to Wedmore. I love this run, heading out onto the Somerset Levels, it never fails to delight. At Wedmore we turned left and climbed a tiny hill and then had a long flat ride along to Mark and across the Levels to Woolavington.

I was expecting the next bit to be totally shit and it was. We joined the A39 which is heavily used by lorries heading to the nearby M5. There were a few moments respite on the way into Bridgwater where a short cycle path took us off the road - but only to get us across the bridge over the motorway, then it disappeared again. I made a mental note to find another route for next time. I am never cycling through Bridgwater again if I can help it. Mick expressed some forceful opinions of the same nature as we battled alongside the heavy traffic. We were both relieved to turn left onto Durleigh Road and soon we were on quiet country lanes once more.

'Ellie, I'm not being funny but can I mention something?' said Mick as we pedalled along.
I wondered what was coming. 'Yes, what?'
'I saw you using the 3 in 1 this morning.'
'Maintenance is my job. You're Routes. The thing is, if you do a man out of a job like that, pretty soon I'll feel like there's no point in coming along.'
'Ah yes, I see your point. Sorry. I won't do it again.'

The second challenge of the day was looming: getting over the Quantocks. Last time we came down this way we had stayed on the A39 but we hadn't liked it. This time I decided we would stick to back roads. We took a tiny lane up through Great Wood, which was superb. Climbing ever higher we could see the river glistening as it ran through the valley below. At the top the lane turned into a steep gravelly track. We decided to walk down, I didn't fancy skidding down there with loaded panniers. At the bottom we remounted and threaded our way through muddy, slurry-strewn lanes. 'I'll have to take the map off you in a minute Nappers,' warned Mick. He was right, this route needed some 'fine tuning' lets say.

Great Wood

Eventually we got onto the B3224 and a stonker of a hill up Exmoor. By now I was feeling pretty weary. This was the third big lump we had toiled up today. 'I wish I hadn't cycled up the Wrangle now,' I grumbled. 'I peaked too early.'
'You should never tangle with the Wrangle,' said Mick smugly.

Once on the top though, the road was flat and fast until the turning for Luxorough. We had booked into the Royal Oak, having called in here before on the way to Exford and liked it very much. I had forgotten, though, that the village is nestled in a steep valley. We gingerly rolled down, gripping the brakes. There was an additional hazard, the neighbouring fields were full of pheasants which kept running out in front of us before disappearing with a squawk. One bird, even stupider than the rest, panicked and flew straight into a tree trunk.

We had conquered our own 'three peaks challenge' and felt pretty pleased with ourselves when we finally arrived at the pub and checked in. It was five o'clock and we had just time for a hot bath before settling into the bar for several pints of real ale and a slap-up meal. Mick's tyre had stayed inflated all day, he decided he must have left the valve open or something. This seemed like a good reason to celebrate with another pint before turning in. I decided not to let Mick know the bad news: the hill to get out of the village was even steeper than the one to get in.

Our route is here