Jamie’s Solo Tour of the West Country

At 9:20pm on Friday 10th April 1992 a massive truck bomb planted by the IRA exploded in the heart of the The City of London killing three people and causing almost a billion pounds worth of destruction. The Baltic Exchange was damaged beyond repair and The Gherkin now stands on this site. Just hours earlier the General Election results had came though, showing that all the opinions polls had been wrong and it would be John Major, not Neil Kinnock, as Prime Minister for the next five years. The next day Leeds United won and went top of the table on their way to winning the league, back when it was still called the first division. When the bomb went off, I was in The Astoria (now demolished for the Crossrail works at Tottenham Court Road) watching a gig by the Pale Saints and the Boo Radleys with my best mate. Afterwards we discovered that Liverpool Street station was closed as the police were sealing off the area, so we had to get the tube to Epping and then a taxi to his house in Harlow because (and here, finally, comes the point to this paragraph) the next morning we were setting off on a weekend cycling break going to and from the youth hostel at Castle Headingham. Until August this year, this was the last time I had gone touring and the last time I had stayed in a youth hostel – a very long time ago.

For several years I’ve looked jealously at Strava rides and Facebook photos as people I know have ridden around The Alps and The Pyrenees, done Land’s End to John O’Groats or sportives in The Dolomites. Last summer Carsten and Hanna went on a seemingly never-ending tour around half of Europe while James loaded his panniers up with camping equipment and rode from Walthamstow up to Edinburgh on his own. At this point I decided enough was enough and I really wanted to do something similar myself. This would require delicate negotiations and massive favours (to be repaid!) to sort out the childcare and dogcare while I was out on the road. By January agreements had been struck and I rejoined the Youth Hostel Association after a 26-year hiatus and got to work on booking accommodation and planning my routes.

My initial plan was to ride down to Land’s End and get a train back, but the more I looked into it, the more it seemed that the train side of things was going to be too much hassle. I ended up with a modified plan with a loop heading from Sussex (where my parents live) to Dartmoor via The New Forest and my in-laws’ place in Poole, then up to Exmoor and then back across to Sussex again over six days. I booked myself in to hostels in Burley (New Forest), Beer (the Devon coast), Dartmoor and Minehead (the Exmoor coast), but there was no suitably located hostel for the fifth night. I decided I would probably treat myself to a B&B or Premier Inn in Salisbury but would book that nearer the time. This would mean about 460 miles over six days with back-to-back days of over 90 miles to finish off. I’d never ridden so far in such a short space of time, but was pretty confident I could do it no problem.

I had been growing disillusioned with racing and decided this tour would be my new focus and target for the season. I also wanted to do more car-assisted rides in the south-east to explore places I hadn’t ridden before, such as The Chilterns, The Cotswolds and bleak landscape at Dungeness. I was going to make these a monthly thing so I got all my routes planned and posted my plan on the forum: https://leavalleycc.microco.sm/conversations/317642/#comment14155783

Then things went horribly wrong. On a Friday afternoon in the middle of March, with ‘The Beast From The East’ returning for its second blast of Arctic temperatures, I finished work, picked my daughter up from school and took the dog for a walk in Lloyd Park. While my dog was off the lead and chasing a ball, a much bigger dog ran over and started to attack him. Trying to intervene, I went from a standing start in the cold to sprinting as fast as I could in jeans and walking boots – in the first steps I felt this sudden pain as if someone had thrown a cricket ball hard into the back of my leg then suddenly realised I couldn’t run any more. In fact even walking was extremely difficult. And there was no cricket ball lying around. The owners of the aggressive dog pulled him away and then swiftly left the park while I lay on the ground wondering what I was going to do next. Eventually I limped agonisingly home clinging onto walls and cars, taking over half an hour to manage the quarter of a mile. A visit to the hospital got me a pair of crutches, the GP gave me strong painkillers and signed me off work for several weeks and then a specialist sports injury physio confirmed that it was a badly torn soleus muscle (part of the calf) that would take 12 weeks to recover from.

There followed a miserable and mostly housebound month. After four weeks I was given the all-clear to drive again and return to limp around work. After seven weeks I was walking almost normally and the physio told me to try climbing back into the (lowered) saddle and ride on the turbo trainer for a six-minute session: I managed a rather depressing 0.5 miles averaging 5mph with a cadence of just 41. I just could not turn the pedals any faster than that. Within a week I was able to do a couple of miles at 11mph and after that I started doing my 1.5-mile Walthamstow commute again. At the start of June I finally broke through the 10-mile barrier with a slow 11.6-mile ride. A week later I got the psychological boost of joining the club run at the Town Hall for the first time in three months, though I only went as far as High Beach before turning back for home alone. The physio had stressed that I mustn’t try to do too much too soon and not to increase the load by more than 20% each time – but there was now less than two months to go to the start of the holiday and I was running out of time to build up my strength and fitness for it.

Common sense kicked in and I had to accept that there was no way I was going to be ready for doing rides of over 90 miles by the start of August, especially with fully-laden panniers. I decided to ‘cheat’ and move the start and finish point about 100 miles west from my parents’ place in Sussex to my in-laws’ place in Dorset. This would shave about 100 miles off my tour’s total distance and reduce the longest daily distances from about 95 miles to about 65 miles. This new target was more attainable and by late July I had managed to get a couple of 65-mile rides under my belt (including the car-assisted Cotswold ride I had planned months earlier).

In the meantime I had had to get my bike ready for the tour. The wheels on my winter bike were near the end of their life and not really suited to carrying heavy loads so, at the suggestion of my local bike shop, I had some new ones purpose built for me with extra spokes and tubeless tyres. Add on the cost of a carrier, a service and various bits and bobs and I ended up spending more than the bike itself had cost in the first place.

My plan was to do a ‘dress rehearsal’ by packing my panniers with everything I intended to take on the holiday and setting off on a long ride to see how it was. However, the scorching heatwave that had burnt its way through June and July abruptly came to an end the weekend before my holiday. There were ridiculous 45mph winds on the Saturday and torrential rain on the Sunday (as those who did Ride London or the Dunwich Dynamo will attest) so I didn’t fancy a long one and just did a short ride into Central London and back. Crucially, this didn’t feature any hills at all, so my rehearsal didn’t really warn me about what was to come.

 

Day One: The New Forest            66 miles, 15 mph, 574 metres climbed

A relatively easy day as I didn’t have to carry all my luggage (I left some with my in-laws) and there weren’t any proper hills. My main enemy was the 30C temperature and the constant interruptions by ponies, cows and donkeys. Despite the name, it wasn’t all forest (or new). There was plenty of purple heather and I also made a brief visit to the beach at Milford-on-Sea with a view across the sea to the Isle of Wight. In the evening I was delighted to discover that youth hostels now sell beer – this was absolutely unthinkable back when I previously used them. I was less happy to discover that handwashing your cycle kit is quite laborious and that even lycra takes a long time to dry out when it’s absolutely dripping wet.

Day Two: Poole to Beer                67 miles, 13.8 mph, 1,340 metres climbed

A bit of a late start as first I had to drive to my in-laws first and repack my bags, then I had a frustrating few miles trying to ride through the endless Saturday traffic jams around Wareham as the every tourist in England tried to drive down to The Purbecks. Once through Dorchester I had my first proper climb of the holiday up to The Hardy Monument. At this point two things rapidly became clear: the South West of England is much hillier than the South East and I was carrying far too much weight.

At the end of the holiday, after a week of feeling like I was carrying a piano on the back of my bike, I weighed everything and discovered that my panniers had a combined weight of 11.5 kg. A substantial part of this was the heavy D-lock I took with me and never once needed to use. The bike itself (plus saddle bag, video camera, water bottle etc.) was a further 11 kg on top of that so I was riding with approximately three times as much non-body weight as I normally would (and, if I’m honest, a few more kg in body weight than I had had pre-injury). It’s no exaggeration to say I spent 90% of the holiday in the small chainring. Climbing was a huge struggle and descending was terrifying due to a feeling of instability and brakes that seemed to take forever to stop me.

To describe the hills I encountered it’s useful to have a more local reference point. We often spice up the start of our club runs by riding up Mott Street in Epping Forest and the steep part of this is used for our club’s annual hill climb championship every autumn. The vital statistics for the hill climb course are: length 0.61 miles, height gained 67 metres, average gradient 7%, maximum gradient 12.5%. That’s basically as tough as it gets in our part of the world. Venturing south of London there are some more serious climbs. For example, Leith Hill in the Surrey Hills is the toughest climb in Ride London, and it is essentially a double Mott Street (i.e. the same average and maximum gradient, but twice as long and with twice as much height gained). Both of these would be dwarfed by what the next few days had in store for me.

To get to the Hardy Monument you climb for more than two miles with the steepest section right at the top. My maximum heart rate is 190 bpm and I hit 189 as I reached the top. I then pulled into a National Trust car park, got off the bike and lay on my back panting – this is not my normal hill climbing behaviour. Once I was able to ride again, I found that the other side was even steeper as I plunged down to Abbotsbury. Having come all the way down, I then had to go straight back up Abbotsbury Hill – one mile long, but taller and steeper than Leith Hill with a maximum gradient of 18%. It wasn’t long before my heart rate hit 186 with my speed at just 5 mph and I was still only half way up the climb. I had to swallow my pride and do something I hadn’t done for years: stop, put my feet down and try and recover before pushing off again. I managed another 200 metres, then had to stop again on the very steepest section. This time I had to do the unthinkable: I got off and walked 50 metres or so until the gradient eased enough for me get back on. The horror! Not only was it embarrassing, it’s actually also surprisingly difficult to push 22.5 kg up an 18% incline while wearing cleats.

Having finally reached the top I was rewarded with a glorious section along a ridge with views all around and the sea shining blue far down below. Then I swooped down to Burton Bradstock and turned inland to Bridport. When I had planned my route, I had avoided going along the coast to Lyme Regis because it looked too hilly. I’m not convinced it made any difference: as I plodded along the country lanes crossing from Dorset into Devon I found myself on a third horrendous climb near the village of Marshwood. Nearly three miles of continuous climbing, mostly at a manageable gradient, but with a horrible 17% sting in the tail. For the second time that day I had the humiliation of having to climb off and walk 50 metres to make it round the very steepest bend.

I still had about 16 miles to go, the sun was still baking me, I was getting dangerously low on drink with nowhere to buy anything from, and getting later and later. I remember seeing a sign for a village called ‘Compbyne’ and riding deliriously for about half an hour with “Oi’ve got a brand new Compbyne ‘arvester” going round and round my head in a loop. Finally I reached the coast again at Seaton and then the village of Beer (where, to add insult to injury, the youth hostel was located at the top of another very steep hill).

I was so late by this point that I couldn’t order any food at the hostel so had to walk back down the hill into the village to find something to eat so I treated myself to some swordfish in a pub and studiously avoided making any jokes about beer when I ordered a beer in the pub in Beer (on the offchance that somebody might have done this before).

 

Day Three: Beer to Dartmoor      47 miles, 11.7 mph, 1,441 metres climbed

I didn’t get much sleep due to the humidity and the snoring competition that took place through the night in my dormitory, but I still got up early enough to take a walk down to the beach. It was beautiful and peaceful there and I would have loved to just spend the day there instead, but no. Without any warm up whatsoever my first mile of the day was entirely uphill (measuring 1.5 Mott Streets). I headed away from the coast and inland to Exeter. Then the climbing really began.

The section of the B3212 that I rode rises from virtually sea-level to a height of 460 metres, but it does this by repeatedly grinding up, then plunging back down again, then grinding back up again. It is spirit-crushingly never flat. It was essentially about 20 miles of torture with three separate sections of climbs over three miles long. I did the equivalent of three consecutive Mott Streets, plunged down, then immediately did four Mott Streets, plunged down again, then did another four Mott Streets. It’s fair to say I’d had enough by this point. It wasn’t so much the amount of climbing (I did well over double this in the North York Mooors last summer), but the cumulative effect on the legs of climbing while carrying the equivalent of a dozen bottles of wine stuffed in my back pockets. I dodged sheep and ponies (two of which tried to eat my phone when I tried to film them – is this normal?) and arrived at the hostel in the heart of Dartmoor an hour before it opened and just lay on the ground exhausted outside their front door, drifting in and out of sleep until they opened up. That evening I revitalised myself with the chosen recovery drink of the holiday (beer).

Day Four: Dartmoor to Exmoor (Minehead)          67 miles, 12.5 mph,  1,552 metres climbed

By this stage my legs were knackered even at the start of the day and I couldn’t get comfortable on the saddle at all. Although I set off in sunshine within minutes thick cloud had descended around me there was little visibility as I opened the day with three more Mott Streets and a load more sheep in the first four miles. Then I turned off the B3212 onto a series of insane country lanes – incredibly narrow, often with plants growing in the middle and steep banking at the sides. As I descended off the moors I had to slam the brakes on, get off the bike and climb out of the road to let any oncoming vehicles get past me (fortunately there weren’t too many). In fact most of the lanes in Devon were like this so I spent the day going up and down them while passing though villages with strange names like ‘Black Dog’ and ‘Nomansland’. Another very hard slog of a day, but after an emergency pub stop (for orange juice and lemonade, not beer) at Wheddon Cross things picked up with a long, fast descent and a quick visit to the north coast. The hostel was not in Minehead itself, but up a muddy, stony track on a hill in a forest in the middle of nowhere. I had no energy left to head back out again so stayed there and drank…some beer.

 

Day Five: Across Somerset                  58 miles, 14.3 mph, 852 metres climbed

The route I had planned and loaded on my Garmin would have taken me south to the Blackdown Hills, but I woke up to light rain and dead legs and just thought ‘nope’. Instead I desperately tried to find a relatively flat way of getting to my destination (Axminster, near Yeovil). I headed south-east along the foot of the Quantocks, carefully avoiding actually riding over them. Then, after Taunton, I headed into the Somerset Levels in the hope that this would be flat. All I knew about this part of the world was that it was in the news a few years ago when the whole area was flooded for more than a month with various villages abandoned and/or under water. For the most part it was pleasingly flat, a south-western equivalent of The Fens, but punctuated by several short sharp hills.

During the couple of months of inactivty following my calf injury I had piled on a few pounds that I had hoped to burn off with the intense exercise of this holiday. In fact, when I reached the end I weighed exactly the same as at the start, partly because of the nightly beers and partly because I had to eat so much each day just to get the energy to keep going. This day was particularly self-indulgent with a steak sandwich, chips and salad for lunch, something that would raise a few eyebrows if done on a club run.

The destination was my treat to myself: after days of hostels I had the whole upper floor of a cottage to relax in. My own private bathroom, a double bed, and a kitchen with an unrivalled selection of books that I tucked into. A brief look at ‘Goats’ (especially chapter 4, ‘Lodgings for a Goat’) was followed by an in-depth look at the ‘1956 Household Guide and Almanac’ with its unforgettable advice about double chins. Then I was off to the pub for some dinner. What better to drink here in the land of scrumpy, the home of cider, than…some more beer? Suitably refreshed I returned and settled down for some bedtime reading about the different types of foundations required when building houses on different types of soil. Fantastic.

Day Six: Axminster to Poole       38 miles, 14.6 mph, 543 metres of climbing

Demob happy! Just a half day of riding and I would be back at my in-laws’ house. Once again, I decided to jettison my original plan which have involved several 15-20% climbs around the Cerne Abbas Giant neck of the woods, and sought out the flattest route I could find. As always, this was a relative thing – even ‘flat’ Dorset is taxing by Essex standards, but it didn’t matter as I knew the end was nigh. Through Blandford Forum and I was on the home stretch, riding lanes approaching Wimbourne Minster that I had ridden many times on family visits over the last ten years. I put my head down and actually averaged something approaching a respectable speed for the last dozen miles. Then it was finally over and I didn’t have to ride any more. I insisted on weighing the bike and panniers before had a shower and a lengthy lie down, moaning to my clubmates by messenger about the elephant I’d been carrying all week. The reply was “it almost sounds like you haven’t enjoyed having a week off in perfect weather, in beautiful countryside, doing your hobby while the rest of us have been stuck at work.” Well, I wouldn’t go that far, but I’ve certainly learnt the benefits of travelling light.

 

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