Day 19 Monday 6 June: Bodmin to Tavistock
I got lost. For a change.
And everyone I asked the way shook their heads. “You’re cycling where?” A glance at Milly and her load, then at me. “Dreadful hills.”
They were right. I was prepared to push, but at times I could go no further and had to lean against Milly to rest.
“Five steps at a time,” I’d say and that was how I did it. The hill from St Neot’s was the second worst; it must have been 1:3 for a loo-ong way. And the worst? Gunnislake.
I only went down this hill and it was truly terrifying on a bike. Especially when the brakes are rapidly giving up. A few miles before this my brakes had gone decidedly spongy so I pulled off the road and managed to bodge my rear brake though the front one was beyond hope. I could pull the lever as far as it would go and the wheel just kept a-turning.
“Perhaps there’s a bike shop in Gunnislake,” I thought and continued with due caution. Then came the hill. It kept on and on, getting steeper and steeper and I could not stop. Thank goodness I had some traction with the rear brake which stopped me hurtling off the side of the road. But traffic was heavy and the bends tight.
We neared Gunnislake and the road flattened slightly so I heaved on both brakes and managed to stop.
“I can go no further,” I thought and sat on a bench to recover, next to the bronze statue of a miner which had been decorated with crocheted red, white and blue rosettes to honour the Queen’s birthday.
In fact, the whole area had been decorated with crocheted red, white and blue rosettes to honour the Queen’s birthday.
“No bike shops here,” said a helpful bartender. “You’ll have to go to Tavistock.” He phoned a taxi firm and 10 minutes later Milly was loaded up and I was speeding towards Tavistock. Up and down some very steep hills. It cost me £18 – far cheaper than a broken arm.
“Someone’s been messing with your brake pads,” the cycle shop mechanic said gloomily. I kept quiet. “Shouldn’t take long to fix, though.”
All seemed fine as I cycled to the campsite, which deserves the title of ‘midge-capital of Devon’. They loved me and licked at my insect repellent with joy and happiness. The bites lingered for days.
But I had more on my mind. The site was on the edge of Dartmoor. Did I have the courage and tenacity to go right over, or would I take the far easier cycle trail that skirted the edges and was relatively flat.
All would depend on tomorrow’s weather.
Day 20 Tuesday 7 June
The sun shone and cycling over Dartmoor was a delight. Such a sense of space and freedom – I was almost on top of the world, with far-distant panoramas stretching below me.
And the downhills… roads were well-surfaced and straight, there was little traffic, so who needed brakes anyway! I celebrated by having a cream lunch. For the uninitiated, that’s the same as a cream tea but at 11.30am. Delicious.
Yes, of course I had to suffer the uphills, but they gave me a chance to stop often, look around and take photos of beautiful places, Dartmoor animals and people enjoying themselves.
I thought I’d head for Tiverton and glided downhill to Moretonhampstead. A sign read: ‘Community Swimming Pool Open Today’. And they had a community campsite for only £5 a night. Fifteen minutes later I was floating on my back and gazing up at a still-cloudless sky.
What a day.
Day 21 Wednesday 8 June
Rest day. Sort of. I decided to take the scenic route to Castle Drogo, taking in an Iron Age hillfort along the way.
The hedgerows were beautiful, with foxgloves, cow parsley and speedwells. I didn’t find the hillfort – I turned right instead of left at an insignificant junction too tiny to deserve the name and ended up on the main road to Drogo.
From a distance the castle looks like a wrapped-up present as it’s encased in scaffolding and polythene. Why? Its roof leaks, the walls leak, every window leaks – in fact it is one huge sieve. The National Trust is spending over £11 million on a huge restoration project which is taking five years but it is still a fascinating place to visit.
I took the ‘hard-hat tour’, though I couldn’t see why we needed the hats. Just another fashion accessory, really. We were allowed into the chapel, which contained a sculpture which haunts me still, especially with recent commemorations of the Somme. It shows two men leaving the castle for the trenches, in trousers, shirt and braces, literally disappearing into the chapel wall. One man is still clear, the other only part visible. “It’s to show them going into the unknown future,” the guide said.
Castle Drogo does ‘quirky’ with style.
Where else would you find a Grayson Perry and medieval tapestry displayed opposite each other; persuade a volunteer to play Brahms on a Steinway piano; discover a toilet and kitchen hidden behind panelling;
phone up the butler and get a reply; shudder at giant silverfish, moths and woodworm? I spent hours wandering around and chatting to the volunteers, who loved their jobs and were unfailingly enthusiastic.
The gardens were magnificent and I walked a trail along the Teign Valley.
Then back to a certain open-air swimming pool. I decided to risk the main road, which is the only A road I know with passing places. It took me a brisk 30 minutes to reach Moretonhampstead, compared with two hours on back roads. Is there a lesson here?
Day 22 Thursday 9 June
Some days are better enjoyed in retrospect. I left the campsite soon after 10am and discovered that the shop close by had been robbed in the night. The site was next to the community centre and unsecured; with only three tents it was vulnerable. But the thieves clearly had more on their minds than my possession, though I’d left Milly unlocked.
The road led uphill – and uphill – and uphill. I was soon in the beautiful woodlands high above the River Teign.
At last, downhill. I started that wonderful glide down steep, curving lanes and – my brakes gave out. I pulled on them as hard as I could and saw a wide, flat track off to the right so managed to stop on it. What had gone wrong? The Tavistock mechanic had fixed the brake pads – why had my brakes disintegrated after only three days?
Time for drastic action. I removed all panniers, turned Milly upside-down and poked at the brakes. “I’ll tighten this screw here… and this one…” Nothing seemed to make much difference, but at least they responded a little.
Taxi? I certainly couldn’t get far on my own. I got out my mobile and cursed Vodaphone. I could get a crystal-clear signal in Shetland… so why not in Devon? Nothing for it: I cycled downhill as if pedalling on eggshells, dismounting whenever anything steeper than the slightest of slopes appeared and positively enjoying the uphills. I’d knock at doors and ask for a phone… people would help.
Growling dogs or empty houses. Clearly, Devon goes out for the day. Or doesn’t answer its front doors.
I noticed a small sign, affixed crookedly to a tree trunk. “Sweet Meadow Campsite: 200 yards away.”
This tiny campsite had a series of pitches tucked away in ‘The Wild Wood’ near a stream, each with its own barbeque pit and not much else. Beautiful.
But I couldn’t linger – brakes were a priority. The proprietor phoned a taxi firm, gave me tea and encouraged me to wander while I waited.
The taxi took 40 minutes to arrive and cost £38. Ouch! But Crediton has one of the best bike shops in the business, Bike Shed, and within an hour Milly was back to her brake-tight best.
And I cycled along flat. The taxi had transported me down from Dartmoor and I shot along roads. “Have I really covered 15 miles in less than an hour?” Used as I was to slow, torturous climbs, this was nothing short of splendid, though I should have been warned when the terrain changed and I asked for directions to my campsite at Forest Park, near Sheldon.
“Ah. Steep hill when you’re nearly there. Very steep.” And it was. Even the sign couldn’t make up its mind how steep it was.
I didn’t arrive at my campsite until 9pm. I was fit only to put up my tent and crawl into my sleeping bag after showering off the muck of the day.
Day 23 Friday 10 June
the site was proud of its shop, and rightly so.
“Croissants? Yes, but you’ll have to wait 10 minutes while we cook them.”
Bliss! I ordered two and a pain au chocolate then sat in the sunshine to eat. They even had decent coffee to go with them. It was the most delicious breakfast of the entire journey. And the sun was shining.
The day’s journey was long and fascinating. Apart from the usual hills, I passed through Hemyock, a village with a fortified medieval farmhouse
and a most interesting memorial in the middle of the road.
Then, finally and at last, I reached the Somerset Levels, with streams, river, marshes
and a delightful water garden in Langport complete with a whistling and very friendly woman who invited me in for a cup of tea and a sandwich. Then onward.
I happened on a retro-car park. “It’s our monthly reunion,” the Morris owner told me. “We meet up at a café and – well – just talk cars.”
Once I left the café I relied on my satnav which sulked then rebelled, taking me miles out of my way. But the campsite was in an orchard, with a kettle – what simple pleasures we take for granted in ‘normal’ life. It also had a badger which popped into the orchard around 2am.
And it rained.
Day 24 Saturday 11 June
Today I decided to celebrate the Queen’s 90th birthday by stopping at various village festivities. Although the rain was steady, it wouldn’t dampen any spirits – after all, we are used to rain. It’s part of our national identity. For the last week I’d passed poster after poster advertising picnics, fairs and fêtes on this weekend. Today, what did I spot? One solitary sign for an afternoon picnic on the green. And I passed it at 11am. So, onward.
Hills appeared and grew steeper. I set out for Pilton en route for Shepton Mallet and splashed through a ford at the bottom of a grassy lane. Posters at the sides warned: ‘Pedestrians using this road: Beware’. Strange – I couldn’t see why anyone would even drive along this narrow, twisty lane.
I came near a large blue tent with pennants flying from the top. “Have I come to the Bath and West showground?” I thought. Seemed a long way from Bath, but with a satnav you’re never quite sure.
“It’s Glastonbury Festival, starting in two weeks,” one of the workers told me. Of course – the festival is nowhere near Glastonbury and Pilton is the small, picturesque village that has to suffer the annual onslaught.
I’d imagined long straight roads around it, but no. These steeply twisting roads must be a nightmare, especially for lorries.
And the A321 was another nightmare. A steep hill, narrow roads and heavy traffic added up to an unpleasant and dangerous cocktail. I just put my head down and cycled, glad of my high-vis top.
After that, Shepton Mallet was a delight. But where were all the people?
“At Collet Park – it’s our summer festival,” they told me at the library. It was packed out with stalls, the highest and steepest slide in the world
and a zany water-dragon called Dennis that flapped his ears, blew bubbles and delighted children.
A huge arena hosted dance and acrobatic displays, including a splendid rendering of The Lion King by the local dance school and some cheerleading. Magnificent. And I even got to meet members of the Shepton Mallet U3A, who were manning their own stall. What could be better?
But I had to move on, so sat on a bench watching the dragon’s antics. Rain had started to plop on to my campsite map and I suddenly felt very, very tired. Was the nearest site really 10 miles away? In the rain? It was all too much. The rain settled into a drizzle and people started to leave the park. I checked Booking.com. Not half-a-mile away was the Old Masonic Lodge, a reasonably-priced B&B. Yes, they had a room and somewhere safe to keep Milly.
Twenty minutes later I was sitting on a comfortable bed, feeling sleepy. My landlady even offered to do the washing for me. I showered and crawled into bed; clearly all those hills had caught up with me. And by now it was raining hard.
Day 25 Sunday 12 June
It was so lovely to wake up in a real bed. I had another shower to celebrate this, picked up my washing and chatted to the landlady and her husband about how they came to own the Lodge.
“It was a sealed-bid offer,” he explained. “We couldn’t afford much, but we won. We didn’t have the top bid, but we wanted to live in it ourselves and run this business. We were totally honest about what we were going to do, and though other bidders could afford more, they were developers and would have changed it all. So they chose us.”
Onward. Although I felt tired, I soon left the violently steep hills and continued looking for village celebrations. Nothing. But the sun shone and it was summer again. I pedalled over a beautiful stone bridge
and in front of me was a notice: “Gardens Open. Café Open.” I’d reached Iford Manor, with gardens designed by Harold Peto, a name which meant nothing to me though he was, in his day, a famous Italian garden designer.
Tea was excellent and the gardens beautiful. But best of all was another notice: “Iford Festival. Opera tonight.” As I wandered around, beautiful music and a rich operatic voice sounded over the air, coming from a small building. Inside was dark and circular, like a small mausoleum but with stone seats and archways. A woman stood in the middle, her head lifted in beautiful song. I sat and listened, entranced, until she stopped and glanced at me, so I slunk out.
If I went to the opera that night, where would I stay? I checked my campsite book. Iford manor had its own small site! I could attend the opera that evening then wander back to my nearby tent.
Did they still have tickets? Yes.
The campsite? I have a cycle and a tent.
The manager shook his head. “I’m really sorry. The book is wrong – the site is only for people with their own sanitation.”
I knew my Wet Wipes and the promise that I’d use the hedgerows very, very discreetly would not be enough, so turned away sadly. My attempt at culture was doomed.
So I cycled off into the distance (actually, up a very, very steep hill that I cycled for approximately three metres) heading for Bradford on Avon and the CANAL.
Twenty minutes later the canal stretched out before me, a ribbon of water sparkling in the sun, leading towards Devizes.
A couple of canal boats chugged elegantly onwards and the towpath was wide and smooth. I lifted Milly down a flight of steps and set off. Then paused.
“Which way is Devizes?” I asked a pram-pushing mum.
She pointed back the way I’d come.
Thank goodness I’d asked.
The ride was delightful and delicious. Everyone was in holiday mode and I was offered glasses of wine by boat owners sitting in deckchairs on the towpath. “You’re cycling all the way around the UK?” they asked as they poured and I settled down to tell my story.
I didn’t reach Devizes before sundown, but the site was easy to find and I managed to pitch without too many problems, shooing a few too-friendly ducks out of the way. Tomorrow I’d follow Cycleroute 4, taking the canal when possible and following back roads when not.