Saturday, 31 March 2012

Win a copy of Mud Sweat and Gears

The Departure Board are giving away five copies of my book Mud Sweat and Gears. If you would like to enter go to their website here. If you haven't visited the site before take some time to look around - it's packed with loads of brilliant stuff about travelling both in the UK and abroad.

I went in to Stanfords in Bristol yesterday to top up on my map collection for my Ireland tour. I've now got the set of four 1cm-2.5km maps. I've decided that will suffice, anyway I hear that the signposting in Ireland is brilliant so I'm sure we won't get lost...

Mick and I also came this close (imagine thumb and forefinger very close together) yesterday to buying a smartphone each. In the end we bottled it. We are both technophobic and repeatedly glazed over in the various phone shops. 

Whenever Mick was asked a question by the sales person a look of panic crossed his face and he looked round frantically for me. 'Ask her, don't ask me!' he said.
I glared at him. 'I don't know!' I said.

We left feeling browbeaten and vaguely uneasy. As we calmed down over a pint, Mick looked at me. 'Shall was not bother?' he said. 'I've got a camera. You've got some maps. Won't that do?'
Thank god. 'Yes, let's not bother,' I agreed. 'After all £70 per month for two phones - well that's an awful lot of beer.'

Friday, 30 March 2012

Irish route dilemmas

I've an interview published this week on The Departure Board. When Mick phoned I told him to go and take a look. Later, I asked him what he thought. 'It's good,' he said, 'but I thought you could have talked about me a but more.'
'But it was about me. Not you.'
'Yeah but let's face it, if it hadn't been for me you would never have done the Lejog ride in the first place. And if you hadn't done the ride you wouldn't have written the book. And if you hadn't written the book you wouldn't have done the interview. So it's all thanks to me really. I deserve more credit.'
'Well you are in one of the photos.'
'Am I?'
'Yes. You are in the distance, and you've got your back to the camera, but you are in it.'
'Hmm. Well next time, don't forget to thank me for basically being the driving force behind your little venture.'

Mick in photo
He did have a point though - it was his idiotic enthusiasm that had talked me into doing the ride from Land's End to John o'Groats. That and a few pints of Butcombe in the Miners Rest in Long Ashton. I haven't been back to the pub recently, mainly because it's halfway up Providence Lane which is a bit of a bastard to cycle up. But maybe we should revisit - for old time's sake and also to get some hill practice. The last few rides have been gradient free jaunts along the alluvial wetlands of North Somerset. Pleasant though these are, I fear they are not good training for the south and west of Ireland.

I've been doing some research for the ride. Most people seem to cycle from Mizen Head to Malin Head - Ireland's End to End - in about 5 or 6 days. Calculating that we are at least  three times as slow as everybody else, I am allowing 21. Even Mick and I should be able to manage it in that time.

Mind you, although the shortest road distance for Mizen to Malin or 'M2M' is 345 miles, our route is going to be considerably longer than this.
'Here we go again,' said Mick. 'Lands End to John o'Groats should have been 870 miles or so. You turned it into over 1000.'
'You liked the scenic route though!'
Mick conceded that he did, and we agreed we wanted to keep off main roads as much as possible. The trouble with the Irish scenic route though is that there is an awful lot of scenery. Which mainly involves being on the coast. And the south west coast wiggles in and out like nobody's business - four fat fingers reaching into the Atlantic Ocean.

'We'll miss out a couple of fingers,' I said.
I told my Irish friend Mary that we were not visiting the Sheeps Head or Beara peninsulas.
'You can't miss out Beara!' she exclaimed, 'it's magnificent.'
OK, we'll miss out the Ring of Kerry. Probably too many tour buses anyway.
'We can't miss out Kerry!' exclaimed Mick. 'We can't go to the south east of Ireland and miss Kerry. My sister's been, she says it's beautiful.'
'Ok, we'll miss out Dingle.'
'You can't miss out Dingle!' said Adrian, who has Irish roots and has toured the area extensively. 'There are fantastic pubs on the Dingle Peninsula!'
Bugger. It looks like we are going to cycle three of the four fingers. Maybe we should tour Sheeps Head Peninsula as well, it seems churlish to miss it out if we're visiting all the others.

At this rate it's going to take us three weeks to get to Tralee.

Monday, 26 March 2012

My Mum and Alzheimer's

Off to Zambia on a previous trip c1995
Saturday marked two years to the day since mum died from Alzheimer's Disease. We don't really know how long she had it; mum had always been a little bit disorganised and forgetful. After my dad died in '99 she decided to fulfil a long cherished ambition of teaching in Africa and went off to Zambia where she had got a job as a maths teacher. At the airport she said to my sister and I, 'Oh there may be a few things to put away in the house, you'll sort that, won't you?' When we went round there we discovered she had not even taken the laundry out of the dirty linen basket or emptied the fridge. It was as if she had popped down the shops for an hour. Maybe this was an early sign, but at the time we just assumed it was mum being mum. 'Bloody typical,' we said as we defrosted the freezer.

She stayed in Africa for three years, living in a small village in the bush in southern Zambia. When my daughter and I went to visit I could see she had found her spiritual home, she loved it. But then strange things started to happen. She would wander off into the bush and no-one knew where she was. She wouldn't always turn up for class. She got malaria twice. Her house was infested with cockroaches (they were even in the toaster!) and she didn't seem to notice. She had never majored in housework (a trait I am proud to say I have inherited) but by the time my sister had gone to visit we realised things were not right. We decided she would have to come home. She was furious, declaring there was nothing wrong with her.

A year or so after she came back from Zambia, there was no denying it. We sold her house and bought one in the same street as my sister so that we could keep an eye on her. Gradually things got worse. She took to playing the piano in the middle of the night (the neighbours loved that, she played the piano like Les Dawson on a really bad day) and for some reason she kept putting washing powder in the salt cellar. 'You've done it again, grandma!' one of the grandchildren would exclaim, having ruined yet another plate of burger and chips. One day a neighbour came up to my sisters while I was there - 'Can you help your mum?' he asked - 'she's trying to buy a cornet from the ice-cream van with a pen.' By the time we got down there, the van had gone. Mum was sat on the garden wall in the sunshine, enjoying her ice-cream. There was no sign of the pen.

Finally she acknowledged that something was wrong. She would write lists and would do sums to try and keep her brain functioning. But gradually, she couldn't do the sums any more. It was heartbreaking seeing someone who adored mathematics and with a career as a maths teacher behind her, struggling to add up 3 plus 2 and being unable to spell the simplest of words. After a couple of lucky escapes we had to disconnect the gas supply and she was living on microwaved meals. She refused to let social services in and they said they had to respect her wishes. On some days she was positive, even making jokes. 'At least with no memory, every day is a surprise!' she said. 'And I don't mind eating the same thing two days in a row because I've forgotten I had it!' But on other days she was in dark despair.

One of Mum's paintings
Eventually mum decided she wanted to move into a retirement home, which was something of a relief, especially for my sister who, living closest, had been doing the lions share of the caring. She took up painting and colouring - getting through colouring books at a terrific rate - and would paint everything in wild, psychadelic colours. She couldn't read any more although she loved to have poetry read to her. Her favourite was Philip Larkin's This Be The Verse. 'They fuck you up, your mum and dad,' I would read, and she would roar with laughter. TS Eliot's Macavity was another favourite. And almost right to the end, when her memory had almost completely gone, she would still remember songs and hymns, sometimes the whole thing, word for word.

She attended a clinic at BRACE and underwent cognitive tests as part of their research. She knew it wouldn't help her, but she hoped it might help others in the future. When we cycled Land's End to John o'Groats we hadn't originally planned to fundraise for charity but people kept trying to offer us money. You must be raising money for something,' they would say. 'You can't be doing it just for fun!' So we decided to raise a bit of money for BRACE along the way. It wasn't a huge amount due to lack of forward planning - but every little helps I guess. As BRACE point out, research into Alzheimer's is woefully underfunded, despite the prevalence of the disease. Terry  Pratchett, in a speech in 2008, two years after he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, pointed out that funding into Alzheimer's amounts to only 3% of the amount of funding that goes towards looking for cancer cures, and he personally donated £500,000 towards Alzheimer's research. Today's Government announcement that funding for dementia research is to be doubled is very welcome. But what we also need to do is talk about it a lot more. A public awareness campaign is due to take place in the autumn; I truly hope that these measures will mark a turning point in how we deal with dementia.

If you want to donate to BRACE you can do so via their website here, and if you want to know more about Alzheimer's there is lots of information here and you can donate to the Alzheimer's Association here.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Off roading without a mountain bike

The best laid plans of Mice and Men often go awry. (I know, I know, Robbie Burns didn't say it quite like that!) The plan had been for Mick and I to get off nice and early and as it was going to be sunny, ride down to Weston again, as I wished to make some improvements to the route. But we were hindered by the following factors:

1. It was not sunny, it was cold and foggy
2. We decided we couldn't leave without first consuming an egg and bacon roll at Wetherspoons next to the station.
3. On leaving Wetherspoons I realised I had lost my gloves and spent half an hour looking for them in the pub and in the station.
4. Advancing years combined with too many cups of tea necessitated a ridiculous amount of loo stops.

It therefore took two hours to cycle from Temple Meads station to Ashton Court, a distance of about two miles.

Having lost my gloves I was forced to wear Mick's Maintenance Marigolds
The new cross harbour ferry in Bristol Docks

Annoying sign at toilets in Ashton Court. Is a rubbish bin too much to ask for?

After this inauspicious start we made good time though, initially retracing the route of the previous ride (but without the Nailsea loop) along to the top of the Strawberry Line at Yatton. The path is initially very rutted and we bumped our way slowly along before it smoothed itself out. At Congresbury there is a stretch of the A370 to be traversed before rejoining the old railway line; we were pleased to see work going on to build a parallel cycle path linking them , away from the traffic.

New ramp on section linking two halves of the Strawberry Line

Several posts had posters asking for information about Peppa, a dog that had gone missing in the area. Plastered over the top was a second notice saying that the dog had been found - safe and skinny - having fallen down a mineshaft.

Thatcher's orchard - Katy Way through young trees which presumably will one day produce Katy apples for Katy cider
 Down through the Thatchers cider orchards and then at Winscombe I led the way off the path. I had a shortcut to try so we picked up the quiet lane that ran around the back of Crook Peak, emerging near the Webbington Hotel and the M5. Mick was suitably impressed.

Feeling peckish we stopped for some scram at a farm gate (Mick is on catering and surpassed himself with Yorkshire ham and mustard rolls, pasta and pesto salad, little cheeses and some energy bars. I had brought a little picnic blanket so we sat and had a feast.) Replete, we re-mounted our bikes and headed on towards Bleadon. On the way up the hill, Mick started the campaign. Opening gambit was a query about the time.
'Almost one o'clock,' I replied.
'Ok. We've made good time since leaving Bristol haven't we?'
'Not really!'
'Are you cold? Would you like to warm up somewhere?'
'No I'm fine.' (I was cold actually but I knew what he was doing and I like winding him up.) We passed through the village and I swung left, ignoring the turning to the Queens Arms on the right.
'Shall we pull in a second?' said Mick, sounding a little panicky now.
I pulled in, trying not to laugh. 'What is it?'
'Um, you don't fancy the pub?'
'Oh ok. Maybe we could have a coffee.'
Mick, now in sight of the pub door, had finally had enough. 'What are you, my effing doctor? I'm having a beer!'
Happy now

After a pint I was still shivering and went to the Ladies and stood under the hot air dryer for a while. The weather was not behaving today. When we left we (I) decided to try following a back route into Weston. This should be Route 33 but it evidently requires some work. The quiet flat lane was pleasant but then we turned right, into a field of shitty, runny slurry. 'Ugh!' said Mick,  who is borderline OCD, 'I'm covered in crap!' We made our way through the stinking slime and into a field before emerging under the cliffs at Uphill quarry. On the top was the roofless church of St Nicholas, below which some lunatic was hanging off the cliff on a rope. The church looked interesting so we made our way round to the other side of the quarry, tied up the steeds and climbed the hill to the church. Which was locked. A sign outside said the church was open to all. Not today it wasn't.

 If you think it looks bad you should smell it!
Hanging about in Uphill
St Nicholas church, Uphill

Leaving Uphill we followed the road next to the beach until it abruptly ended in a carpark. We could see Weston front, a few yards on, and so decided to cycle along the beach. 'It's quite hard going!' said Mick, puffing, his wheels gradually sinking deeper into the sand. It was a bit of an effort but better than going all the way round and soon we were coasting along the promenade on shit and sand smothered bicycles.
'Shall we have a bag of chips each today?' I said. 'I think we've earned them.'

Cycling on the beach
It's quite hard going!

Birnbeck Pier

Same road back round to Kewstoke as before but this time I was keeping an eye out for the left turn to take us out towards Wick St Lawrence and Bourton, a longer route than the A370 but flat and quiet. We passed
Very, very old
RCH Brewery, producers of Pitchfork and other fine ales, before continuing to Puxton.
Time was getting on but Mick persuaded me that we should stop and have a look at the little church. I'm so glad we did, it was wonderful. Holy Saviour Church is a Grade 1 listed building dating from the twelfth century with a dramatic leaning tower. It was open, and the interior was ancient too, with unusual old box pews and Jacobean pulpit. I loved it.

The Leaning Tower of Puxton

The road back was a gamble - it was marked as a bridleway on the map. It was not a good choice - full of massive ruts and potholes - and hellish to cycle. 'Hope my frame survives this,' said Mick. A farmer coming the other way in his land rover gave us a strange look. 'I expect he's thinking "unbelievable, what are they doing here when she's carrying a bloody map!"'
Around the corner it got worse as we were confronted by three massive puddles. no choice though so we peddled through them, trying desperately to keep up momentum in the mud and not put our feet down.
'Interesting choice Routes,' Mick commented on the other side, after we had also negotiated passing three massive Dobermans. On we went, bumping up the Strawberry Line. I felt like my brain was leaking out through my ears. Finally, and this one was not my fault, Mick said he knew a shortcut back into Yatton. Which it was. Through a farmyard.
On Ellie's 'improved' route

Weary and with the fog descending lower, we cycled back to Bristol. The sun had not put in appearance all day, the bastard. I began to worry whether I would be allowed on the train with my stinking, shit-soiled bike. We stopped for a quick pint in the 'Spoon before going our separate ways.
'That route,' said Mick, after sinking a long draught of beer, 'was definitely NOT an improvement.'
I had to admit he was right.

Oh, and  when I got home - my gloves were on the chair in the garage - right where I had left them.
Our route is here

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Camra's Bristol Beer Festival

Here is a quick round up of the beers I tried at the opening night of Camra's Bristol Beer Festival (in alphabetical not tasted order). I'm no tasting expert, just a beer fan, so these are simply my impressions of the beers I tried. It's the first time they've held the event on a Thursday evening & it wasn't packed by any means, but there were enough there to ensure it didn't feel too lonely in Brunel's massive Old Station at Temple Meads. I suspect the Friday and Saturday evenings will be a lot less sedate...

The room was the original terminal station for the GWR railway. Designed by the great Isambard Kingdom Brunel, it was opened on 31 August 1840 to Bath and a year later to Paddington, with the Bristol and Exeter station being built a couple of years later at right angles to Brunel's. I love the interior, with it's huge roof and mock hammerbeams, designed to emulate Westminster Hall.

So, lets get down to business. The beer. The choice was stupendous, about 135 different beers and obviously I didn't try all of them or I would not be sat here writing this today, I would be throwing up somewhere in a gutter at the back of the station.

Here, then, is a quick rundown of the ones I did try. The glass you get when you come in is usefully lined (yay, lined glasses!!!) with pint, half and third measures, so I stuck to thirds on the basis I could try more beers. I also agreed with my companion that we would not try the same beers and taste each others to maximise the number of different beers we could try.

Chocolate Orange Stout from Amber in Wigan 4.0%
Yes - it really does taste like Terry's Chocolate Orange. Very yummy indeed although too sweet to drink more than a pint or ten.

Hop a Doodle Doo from Brewsters in Lincolnshire 4.3%
Ok, I'll admit that this was the last beer of the evening  - I was feeling a little tipsy and my tastebuds had taken a hammering. My tasting notes say 'jaunty'. I think it was nice.

Trade Winds from Cairngorm in Scotland 4.3%
I love this beer - I voted it my favourite beer of my Lands End to John o'Groats cycle ride. Lovely pale golden beer with lovely citrus and elderflower notes.

Ginger from Enville in Stourbridge 4.6%
Maybe I'm not very subtle but I like a ginger beer to really taste of ginger. This one doesn't. It was agreeable enough but lacked a punch.

Litehouse from Forge in Devon 4.3%
This was SIBA Champion South West in 2010 so hopes were high but I found it a bit flat and disappointing. Nice golden colour but tasted a bit - well - saggy and tired.

Windermere Pale from Hawkshead in Cumbria 3.5%
This was super - low gravity but not low flavour - fresh, hoppy taste and went down very well.

Wenlock Stout from Ironbridge in Shropshire 5.1%
A smashing stout this - very smooth. Malty without tasting burnt or bitter.

Riders on the Storm from Kelham Island in Sheffield 4.5%
Amber coloured, nice flavoured - can I taste orange in there somewhere?

Ginger from Marble in Manchester  4.5%
This is what I call a ginger beer! Strong ginger flavour and lots of bite. Liked it very much.

Oscar Wilde Mild from Mighty Oak in Essex 3.7%
Dark reddish beer with unusual flavours but rather overpowered by coffee which I wasn't terribly keen on - bit like drinking cold Nescafe.

Dark Island from Orkney in Scotland 4.6%
Consulting the beer index of Mud Sweat and Gears I see I tried the bottled version of this at John o'Groats. Dark beer with notes of chocolate, fruit and coffee but with none of the flavours overpowering the beer. Lovely. Easy to see why it's twice Champion Beer of Scotland.

Brewers Gold from Pictish in Lancashire 3.8%
Very fresh and fruity! Pale, hoppy beer which zings the taste buds.

Pure Gold from Purity in Warwickshire 3.8%
This beer apparently uses four different hops and two types of malt. Obviously used to good effect - a really quaffable beer at 3.8%.

Pure Ubu from Purity in Warwickshire 4.5%
Very tasty amber coloured brew wich is lovely to swill around the mouth. Pronounced caramel flavour.

Steam Spring from RCH in West Hewish 4.6%
Lovely, lovely fresh and zesty beer, one of my favourites of the evening. I cycled past the brewery the other day, I may call back and stock up on this one!

Blackberry Cascade from Saltaire in W Yorks 4.8%
I was expecting a reddish beer, in fact it is a blonde but with hints of blackberry and other fruits. Nice, fresh beer, lovely on a summer day in the pub garden.

Ginger Tosser from Skinners in Cornwall 3.8%
No ginger or anything else much in this one. The beer was flat (in flavour I mean) and didn't taste of anything much. Disappointing.

Cornwall's Pride from Tintagel in Cornwall 4.0%
Beautiful amber colour; this Cornish beer had plenty of rounded flavour and body.

Midnight Sun from Williams in Scotland 5.6%
I hadn't read the notes and expected a golden beer (cos of the reference to the sun), in fact it's a black, strong flavoured porter that packed a punch. Lots of malty, roasty, hoppy, gingery taste.

Old Trout from Worsthorne in Lancashire 4.5%
Middling colour, middling flavour. A reasonable session beer although it lacked any wow factor ,as far as I'm concerned.

Overall, a cracking choice of beers from across the country. I realised at the end of the evening that I had merely scratched the surface. I have much work to do if I'm going to try them all.

Monday, 12 March 2012

Book signing at Stanfords 10 March

I was a little nervous about the book signing at Stanfords bookshop in Bristol. I spent the night before practicing my signature. 'Bloody hell mum,' said Anne, 'if you can't even write your name you might as well give up now.'

I got down to Bristol city centre in plenty of time. Mick met me at the station and we had a little wander then went for a coffee. I went to the loo. I didn't think I'd been gone long, just brushing my hair, re-applying mascara etc. etc. but suddenly my phone rang.
It was Mick who had been waiting outside. 'What the bloody hell are you doing in there? It's five to twelve!'
'Shit.' I sprinted down Park Street and across the city centre and charged through the doorway into the bookshop.
'I'm Ellie,' I gasped to the woman behind the counter.

She smiled and said she would fetch the manager from downstairs which gave me a few of seconds to regain my composure. Having been introduced I gratefully sat down at a table behind a daunting pile of my books. It was a lovely sunny spot by the window and it was a gorgeous day; one of those early spring ones when it is unseasonably warm and everyone feels like they  overdressed that morning.

Soon lots of people were gathered round, asking about the ride. Once they have read the book everyone will know what a hopeless cyclist I really am. 'Oh yes, it's a great thing to do, cycling End to End,' I enthused, failing to mention that I had started crying even before we got out of Devon. (Near Okehampton if you must know.) Still, nice to bask in the glory for now, until my cover is blown.

The hour flew by and, by the end, the pile of books had almost disappeared. Mick asked for the poster from behind the desk, hoping to take it without me seeing. Apparently he was going to frame it and give it to me later as a surprise. Gob-on-a-stick that I am, I managed to ruin that.
'Why did you get that poster?' I whined. 'I saw you. I wanted that.'
'It is for you, you silly mare.'

All-in-all though I had a lovely time - and I'd like to say a great big thank you to Stanfords for hosting it for me.

Afterwards I went for a drink to celebrate. After everyone else had drifted off Mick and I headed down to the Bag of Nails in Hotwells. By now I was a little merry. Luke - if you are wondering who stole the 1951 edition of the Bristol guide by Tudor Edwards from the Ladies' loo - it was me. Sorry. It was so tremendously interesting I put it in my handbag. (I'm not being facetious, it was interesting.) I'll bring it back.

Beer in the Bag of Nails - and a fast moving barman. Or a shaky cameraman. Or both.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

The Weston Figure of Eight

'Hills, hills, hills,' said Mick. 'We can't have too many hills. When we're training. What about cycling the two gorges - Cheddar and Burrington?'
We were deciding where to go on today's ride. 'Ok,' I said, 'Cheddar Gorge it is.'
We decided to try out the relatively new Sustrans route which takes cyclists west out of Bristol, the Festival Way, and then head down the Strawberry Line to Axbridge and Cheddar before climbing up onto Mendip.

In Bristol city centre I decided to deviate from our usual cross-Bristol route and swung left down the road. St Philips is not the most salubrious part of Bristol and the locals evidently derive entertainment by slinging empty beer glasses (or full ones for all I know) at walls as they drive home from the pub. We proceeded along the road next to the Cut which was busy with lorries and vans all driving like maniacs. It was with some relief that we got onto the traffic free chocolate line.
Chocolate Line
Create Centre

At the end of the choccy line, the Create Centre occupies one of the old tobacco bonded warehouses. It's an Environment Centre where everyone is very keen on recycling and green energy and things of that nature. It also had two things I wanted: 1. a toilet and 2. a free cycling map for North Somerset. Emerging in improved physical comfort and with a new map on my barbag, I was feeling cheerful as we headed across Bristol's spaghetti junction of Cumberland Basin and through the grounds of Ashton Court mansion house. Deer were grazing in the park and the mansion looked splendid in the sunshine. We coasted out the other side of the grounds and across the road, intending to head down through Long Ashton.

Suddenly Mick yelled out to me to stop. He had a puncture. Some people seem to get a puncture every time they go out, but with our solid kevlar tyres, this was a novelty. Mick calculated he last had a puncture in early 2009 and so initially this was disconcerting.
'I'm not being funny...' said Mick (a phrase which invariably precedes criticism in my experience) 'but this is your fault.'
'How so?'
'For taking us along that shitty road. The day is ruined now!'
'Ah. I see.' Feeling conciliatory (for once!)  I agreed that the fault had been mine and placated him by saying,' 'The day is not ruined - and you can show me how to fix a puncture.'
He cheered up immediately at this - blokes adore being able to explain to someone how to do something practical, don't they? 'Oh yes, ok then. Pass me the tyre levers.'

Ashton Court

Once fixed, we set off again, down through Long Ashton and then along the lovely new cycle path out towards Backwell and Nailsea, where we conducted a huge loop round Nailsea Moors through Chelvey and Claverham and then headed towards Congresbury and the Strawberry Line. Time was getting on and it was my turn to sulk. 'If we had not followed your suggestion to go via Nailsea,' I grumbled, 'we would be in Cheddar by now. We're hopelessly behind.' Mick, in turn, placated me by saying, 'Look you know I'm crap at routes.  Don't listen to me, I talk bollocks.' And so, between us, we managed to get to Axbridge without an argument, something of a triumph in the circumstances.

'Motivation Corner' near Claverham village

Heare lies the bodey of poor Atkins - St Bridget's, Chelvey

Strawberry Line

In Axbridge we stopped for a cup of tea in the Almshouse. It dates from 1433 and offers cake instead of alms these days, but is a delightful cafe, although Mick failed to take into account the low beams and twice banged his head on them getting upstairs. Whilst we supped on our drinks and Mick rubbed his forehead, the chap on the next table, who was sitting alone, turned to talk to us.
'Bet that hurt,' he opened.
'Yep,' said Mick.
'I had a bike in Germany,' he said. 'When I moved here I was going to buy another one but I looked at the roads and changed my mind. Too dangerous.'
He went on to tell us he had lived in Berlin but had been brought up in Saarland on the French/German border. 'I was born in France but then moved to Germany,' he said. 'Without moving house! I used to do a bit of smuggling in the old days.'
'What, cigarettes?'
'No, antique jewellery. My 70 year-old aunt used to help. Sometimes I would call on her and she would say 'Ooh lovely, are we going smuggling today?' Of course, with the EU free movement of goods that all went. You should go to Weston from here,' he offered, as I pulled out the map to have a quick look. 'It's a lovely road.'
I looked at Mick. 'Shall we?'
He shrugged. 'You're Routes.'

So on leaving the cafe we headed west and crossed the A38 at Cross. The road skirted the end of the Mendips. Towering above us on our right was the 600 foot Crook Peak whilst across the  flat moors to our left,the distinctive Brent Knoll rose up in the distance. The road undulated along, hopping over the M5, before the short, puffy climb up to the village of Bleadon. We whizzed down the other side and at the bottom we paused before turning left. Up on our right was a rather inviting looking pub, the Queens Arms, a Butcombe pub. No words were needed, we turned right and tied up the bikes and went in for a pint. I liked it. The pub had not been mucked about with and there was a nice old-fashioned seating area. And it opened all day! Two pints of AH's Rare Breed later we re-emerged, blinking after the darkness of the pub.

It was only a ten minute hop down the main road to Weston sea-front. We pushed the boat out and bought abag of chips to share. Twelve quid on beer without a second thought but we demurred over two bags of chips! Priorities, I suppose. It has been a while since I have been to Weston-super-Mare and I was mightily impressed. The promenade has been resurfaced and revamped and the beach looked clean and ready for the new season.


Weston Pier - victim of fire but now refurbished

 derelict Birnbeck Pier

Birnbeck Pier
We cycled past Marine Lake and round the headland where the derelict Birnbeck Pier juts out mournfully into the estuary. The Pier has recently been bought by developer Wahid Samedy of CNM Estates who also own the site previously occupied by the Royal Pier Hotel until it was unfortunate enough to catch fire twice in twelve months. (Fires do seems to be a problem in Weston. The Grade 2 listed Grand Pier burnt down in 2008 and was totally rebuilt. The historic Victorian Royal Pier Hotel caught fire in June 2009 annd September 2010. In 2011 another derelict hotel, the Bayside, was destroyed by fire. Firefighters in Weston must hardly get a wink of sleep.) CNM Estates have plans for some very low key development on the site which you can see here. I think this looks tremendous and so in keeping with the Victorian surroundings at this end of the town. Not. Apparently Mr Sameday is currently preparing a 'Masterplan' for the entire site and the council, for some reason, appear to be giving him their blessing.

The Toll Road (which no longer collects tolls) hugs the edge of the coast round to Kewstoke. The road is notorious for accidents and has rumblestrips along its length, great fun for bumping along and making silly aaaahhhh noises, although one can use the cyclepaths alongside each one if not in the mood to have one's brain shaken about.

Coming out of Weston was a route foul-up on my part which included a terrifying belt across the junction of the M5 with the A370 followed by a run along the latter for far too long until we could once again rejoin the sanity of the quiet lanes around Claverham and then pootle back home, rather pleased with the longest (albeit flattest) training ride so far.
Our route is here

Friday, 2 March 2012

A Welsh Tour

Aust Ferry pier
One of the tremendous benefits of travelling by bicycle is the 'Ooh what's that?' factor - the ability to easily stop and look at things of interest en route. We had parked the car in Aust village, just off the M48 (ex M4), intending to head over the Severn Bridge. However I had spotted a small road heading down towards the river bank and guessed that this was the site of the old ferry. 'Ooh what's that?' I said, pointing down the road. We cycled down for a closer look. It was indeed the derelict building that used to house the Aust Ferry, the means of crossing the Severn before the Severn Bridges were built. We picked our way down the derelict pier where Bob Dylan had posed for 'No Direction Home' and countless holiday makers had
queued to cross the Severn. All was quiet now, the only visitors a couple of anglers on the end of the pier and spent an enjoyable half hour examining the remains before returning back the way we had come.

Aust Ferry 1964 with part constructed bridge in background
I think this was the turnstile to the gents toilet

We crossed the old Severn Bridge. Both sides of the bridge have cycle paths and it's nice to stop halfway and watch the water swirling below before coasting down the other side. I was, however, slightly panicky as I did not have a map. Mick was laughing at me.
'Ah, no comfort blanket today? he mocked.
'You won't be laughing when we get hopelessly lost,' I told him.
'But we get lost when you do have a map! Maybe we'll get on better without one.'

So, in the absence of a map we decided to follow a Sustrans Route and see what happened. We decided on Route 4 which after a brief ride up the side of the very busy Wye Valley Link Road turned onto lovely country lanes. The peace was slightly marred by the proximity of the M48 for a short period but then redeemed itself by turning onto a track at Crick which turned out to be the route of the Via Julia or Julia Strata- the Roman road from Bath (Aquae Sulis) to Caerwent (Venta Silurum) and Caerleon (Isca). Caerwent is only a small place now, but as Venta Silurum it was a major Roman settlement. The remains, including long lengths of Roman wall, give some idea of the size of the place. This seemed like an excellent place to have a snack stop so we perched on the end of the wall and tucked into a couple of sarnies.

From Caerleon we headed into Caldicot. Here I could stand it no longer and went into the newsagent to see if I could get hold of a map. I came out with something called Lôn Las Cymru map 8a. On the plus side it was only £1.99. On the minus side it was a map for the wrong area as it covered north of Chepstow and we were headed west. However when I want to cycle from Chepstow to Builth Wells I shall be well sorted.

We pootled along for a while on the Gwent Levels, the counterpart to the Somerset ones with which I am more familiar. As in Somerset, Bronze and Iron age trackways have been discovered here, used to cross the saltmarsh before the area was drained and the estuary held back with defences. And, crucially - like the Somerset Levels, the Gwent ones are flat. Unbelievably Mick complained. 'We are training for Ireland,' he said. 'We need some hills.'

As we headed into the village of Redwick a three legged black and white cat was hunting in the fields with, it must be said, somewhat limited success. As we passed through the village I announced we would be saying farwell to Route 4 and heading north. Accordingly we ignored the next Sustrans signpost. As we left the village Mick looked over to his left. 'Either,' he said, 'there are a lot of three legged cats around here. Or - we are heading back the way we came.'

Damn. I had already become concerned at the failure of the Llanwern Steelworks to appear on the horizon. Even I couldn't fail to spot a 600 acre steelworks, surely, even if it does no longer manufacture steel. I knew we had gone wrong somewhere but I was hoping he wouldn't notice. The tripedal cat gave the game away. I fessed up and we followed the sign for Magor where we stopped for a cup of coffee and got things back on track.
Someone has too much time on their hands

Crossing under the M48, the road north then began a steady climb up through the Penhow Woodlands. At the top of the hill Mick stared across the valley at the even bigger hill in front of us.
'Up there?'
'OK you've made your point. Next time I won't complain about the lack of hills. Lets go another way.'
'Too late!' I said cheerfully. 'We're committed now.'

So we coasted down to and across the A48 and then began the climb up through Wentwood Forest. This, according to the Woodland Trust is a PAW - a Planted Ancient Woodland, an very old woodland which has  since been planted with conifers to provide us with cheap wood. Wentworth it turns out, is a pretty major forest and I feel slightly guilty/ignorant that I have never heard of it. Especially as not so long ago it was the subject of a major campaign supported by the likes of Judy Dench and Bill Bryson (not to mention 15000 or so other folk) who raised funds for the Woodland Trust to buy the wood and commence work to restore it to native species. See here.

We enjoyed the ride up through the Forest, despite the fact it is still mainly coniferous. We emerged onto the Chepstow-Usk Road which meant I had the chance to use Lôn Las Cymru map 8a properly. As we stood on the road junction whilst I checked it, a police car drove past. It then stopped and reversed back down to us.
'Can I 'elp you?' asked one of the police officers. 'Are you lost?'
We explained we were hoping to get back to Chepstow via the scenic route. The two of them had a discussion and then pointed us down the road opposite. 'That's the best way,' he assured us. It tied in with map 8a so I was quite happy to go along with their suggestion.
'Bye then,' waved the officer, running round the car to jump in the driver's seat.
His colleague was already sat in it. 'Oops, wrong side,' he said, sprinting back round to the passenger side. 'I'm always doing that!'
After they had gone Mick remarked: 'How nice - friendly coppers. But - is it me or did it seem to you like they'd been to the pub?'
'No - surely not,' I said. But thinking about it, maybe Mick was right...

It's this way, idiot
After an exhilarating zoom down a long hill we cycled up and down lanes to Shirenewton where, despite the map, I completely cocked up by missing a left turn. Instead of entering Chepstow via the scenic route we hit the A48(T) four miles outside and had to cycle into town along it, which was vile. A quick coffee in Chepstow and then we pressed back over the old Severn Bridge (stopping for an impromptu game of Pooh sticks with banana skins halfway) and returned to the car.

'Not bad, Routes,' said Mick, 'but I noticed quite a few mistakes. Next time, I'll be in charge of the route.'
'Not a chance,' I said.

Our route is here