Day 14/15 Tuesday 31 May
The ferry ride the previous day was uneventful, with smooth seas but not a dolphin or seal in sight. My brother Ken, retired policeman and 10 years younger than me, was due to meet me in Penzance. We’d cycle to Land’s End, then on around the north coast to his home in Portreath, a small coastal village, and I’d spend a rest day with his family.
“I’m not much good at hills,” I told him.
“Don’t worry – I haven’t cycled any distance for over a year,” he reassured me. “Besides which there are only one or two hills on the way.” He set off at a cracking pace; I tried to keep up, using that wonderful technique of slipstreaming, where the person behind keeps close to the leader and shelters from the wind. But I soon dropped behind, panting, then stopped to push Milly uphill. Some things never change. Ken waited patiently at the top of the hill.
“Sorry. Haven’t cycled much for days,” I puffed. “Amazing how fast you lose condition.”
The pattern repeated throughout the 45-mile ride, but he remained patient.
We reached Land’s End, now turned into a theme park monstrosity. On a perfect blue-sky day with mild breeze and glorious views out to sea, the longest queue was of people waiting patiently for a 4D spectacular film and the Shaun the Sheep Experience. The famous signpost had been hijacked by a photographer who not only charged £10 per picture but retained copyright.
The cliffs and sea views were as spectacular as ever but we didn’t stay long, cycling eastward along the north coast. Into the wind.
“Sorry, Pat, didn’t remember all these hills,” Ken said as I puffed upwards towards him yet again. But the downhill swoops were glorious.
We reached Hayle, which has been officially given the Pat Smith Award for sheltering the most obnoxious, inconsiderate and dangerous drivers in the whole of the UK. Although I’m less than halfway through my journey I hope I never see their like again. Speeding, dangerous overtaking, sending pedestrians jumping for it at zebra crossings, hooting at any cyclist who dared use the road – they were like crocodiles lusting for food. One driver tried to overtake me as we both approached a traffic island. Was I expected to:
a) cycle up the kerb?
b) start pedalling at 40mph?
c) pull to a halt?
I just kept going and heard his brakes squeal behind me with a savage joy.
But the rest of the journey was glorious. We arrived at my brother’s home and sat watching the sun set over the far horizon with glass of wine in hand.
Day 16/17 Thursday 1 June: Portreath to Falmouth
The Mineral Tramway is a long and splendid off-road trail from north to south Cornwall and I’d cycled it a few years ago. The western route is easy to follow and beautifully signposted. So why did I take the eastern option?
Predictably, I was lost within three miles, even with my Garmin satnav (turn left… turn right… left again… you do the hokey-cokey then you turn around)… and a couple of extremely helpful men who gave me long and complicated directions which I promptly forgot the moment my eyes glazed over.
But I made it to Falmouth, stopping at a cycle shop in Penryn to have Milly’s tyres pumped up. Any pride I might have felt in cycling around the UK rapidly disappeared as I talked to the owner. He had cycled everywhere – North Africa, Spain, France, Canada, Eastern Europe… he mentioned cycling over the Alps as one would talk about eating muesli for breakfast. He’d camped at the side of fjords and in the snows of Sweden, cycled across America and was planning a winter trip (trip!!!) south through Africa.
I slunk away and phoned a couple of friends who lived near by. Yes, we could meet tomorrow and – yes – we could play crazy golf.
I love crazy golf and the way those concrete pitches have no relation at all to smooth. Anyone can win, anyone – even me.
In the meantime, I reached Falmouth and found my hostel, a genteel Victorian house set in a genteel, tree-lined Victorian road overlooking the sea. I wondered how the neighbours coped with the normal run of noisy hostellers, then realised this hostel was different. The road’s influence had rubbed off.
The kitchen had an Aga and a clothes drier on a rope. The landlady went down to the beach every morning for a swim, even in winter. The guests were quiet, considerate and didn’t leave dirty plates in the lounge. One of my dorm-mates was doing a PhD looking into the creation of the Cornish myth compared with the reality, studying Cornish literature and Arthurian legends.
The sun shone; I lazed on the beach then cooked supper on the Aga. The next day I met my friends, ate fish and chips then they thrashed me at crazy golf.
Day 18 Saturday 4 June
Why cycle uphill and down for 10 miles when you can take the boat? “I’ve never seen the Helford Passage before,” was how I justified it to myself and was at Falmouth Pier by 9am, hoping to be first in the queue so I could get Milly aboard without problems.
I needn’t have bothered.
I was the only passenger and glided in stately splendour over the calm waters of the Passage
as the waters narrowed, tree-covered slopes pressed closer to the creek
and tiny beaches and dank inlets hinted at smuggling and dark deeds, hopefully well back in Cornwall’s past.
At Malpas the river turned to a trickle and the boat stopped. Cycling to Truro was easy and delightful, along a shady and gently sloping road which followed the muddy inlet.
I lingered, visiting the beautiful cathedral – not a patch on Exeter’s, though – then set off. I pedalled along neglected roads with grass growing up the middle
and went carefully across two fords, stopping once to paddle as it was so delightfully hot.
And, of course, there were the hills.
I stopped to shop and ended up chatting for some time to an elderly admirer – of Milly, I hasten to add. He had bought a similar bike in 1965 for £90 and used it to cycle to work. Every day he cycled from north Cornwall (St Agnes) to south (Falmouth), then back. Fifty miles a day, in all weathers, up and down these steep Cornish hills… what sort of wimp am I? “Probably done around 200,000 miles on her over the years,” he said. “Can’t cycle right now though – waiting for a new shoulder joint. Already got one, titanium. Amazing what they can do these days – like a look?” He started to remove his jacket and I hastily shook my head.
“Really sorry, I have to move on. But good luck with your operation, hope it goes well.”
The campsite in Padstow was hard to find as the battery on my satnav had gone flat, but I pitched next to a lovely couple who gave me as much tea as I could drink. They had lived in Hong Kong, where I’d mis-spent my teenage years, so we swapped memories.
Then I went for a shower – what a throwback to the seventies. A long row of concrete-floored cubicles with wooden doors ending 6in above the ground, another row of basins, toilets with wobbly black plastic seats… would Ruth Madoc come blasting through loudspeakers with her famous call-sign: “Hi de hi, campers!”?
Day 19 Sunday 5 June
Padstow – what a delight. The Camel Trail beckoned – nothing to do with deserts, everything to do with the railway line along the River Camel estuary. Another victim of the Beeching railway closures in 1967, it is now an off-road cycle trail to Bodmin. And flat.
But first I had a safari in mind. “Best conditions for spotting dolphins so far this year,” said the operator of Padstow Safaris, pointing at millpond-smooth sea and cloudless blue sky. “Though we can’t guarantee anything, mind.”
While I waited, Padstow turned from placid, picturesque fishing port into tourist mecca. Crowds of lilo-toting, ice-cream licking, pasty-munching crowds filled the streets and narrow harbour edges, all in great good humour as the weather was magnificent.
Our safari vehicle was a speedboat and we scythed across the smooth waters. We saw cliffs full of puffins, gulls, egrets and razorbills;
we went into a cave and viewed a wreck; we witnessed a jellyfish invasion;
we viewed the tiny fishing village of Porth Quin and a Victorian folly now holiday-leased by the National Trust;
we raced out over the bay and saw a single sealion.
But dolphins? Not a trace or glimmer of even the smallest fin despite calm waters and blue, blue sky.
I rode along part of the Camel Trail with an Iranian dentist who lived in Bodmin. A Swedish citizen, he’d lived in the UK for over 15 years and his eldest daughter was studying midwifery at Guildford. Large world… small world.
The trail wound along the edge of the estuary.
Birds flew and waded, the incoming tide licked over mud flats and I pedalled peacefully. Further inland the trail was shaded with magnificent old trees and I found the perfect place to wild-camp,
along a tiny trail that surely no one would use, next to a stream and in the perfect stillness of late evening. I sat on a tree stump and… just sat. How long for – who knows?
Then two Labradors came loping along the path, followed by a young couple. Ah well, at least I’d enjoyed the dream of wild camping. And it was good to shower when I arrived at my campsite. Wet Wipes just aren’t the same.