From End to End - over £3,000 raised to reduce carbon emissions
Thanks to everyone who preferred to sponsor the trip for this mighty cause rather than wring their hands in despair. May the wind not be in your face, the rain not run down your neck, and the sun not burn your skin. Sponsorship as of 16 October 2007: £3,213 (92 sponsors).
The trip blog appears below, most recent posting first (i.e. start at the bottom and work up!).
Where the money has gone
Simple, contemporary, radical: Quakers were instrumental in setting up Greenpeace, Oxfam, Amnesty, Campaign Against Arms Trade and others, and were also pioneers in the abolition of the slave trade. They've never made oats (that's true). Find out more about Quakers.
The money will help to buy a glamourous new combined heat and power boiler for the Quaker central office, Friends House - these boilers are ecologically responsible, shiny and horribly expensive. Yes, it's a bit boring but it will cut carbon emissions. Find out more about CHP boilers (oh go on!).
09 August 2007
I bumped into the tandem pair again, looking fresh and a good deal happier. They made it to the end, by the way, bringing to a close the many strains of their journey and allowing them to go home.
I turned off the main route for a few miles to climb the little road to the cliffs of Dunnet Head, the most northerly point in mainland Britain. From there I could see as far west as Cape Wrath and east as Duncansby Head - 70 miles apart. To the north was Orkney, where I hope to go tomorrow (for a bike ride, I think). The detour to Dunnet Head (and later to Duncansby Head, the extreme north-easterly tip of the mainland) means that I'll be squeezing just a few pennies more out of those who have sponsored me by the mile (but tomorrow's trip to Orkney is off the books, so don't panic). From there, I followed back roads by the sea, past Mey Castle to the final sign: 'Welcome to John o'Groats'. I hadn't been anticipating the ending but when it came, I felt joyous and moved. Every journey is merely a series of events until it ends, when it becomes a story: a whole in which every part has a place and a meaning. It seems so long ago that I set off from Lands End, when the bike was still clean and my bottom was as soft as a white pudding (another Scottish delicacy). Raquel has been faithful to the last - no punctures or broken spokes - I knew she was no village bike, whatever people may say about her.
When I rode into John o'Groats - the tourist trap at the end of the world (apart from a friendly campsite and a wonderful restaurant, the School House), people actually greeted me, saying 'Congratulations!' and 'Well done!', which I later had the chance to say to a couple of other end-to-enders as they arrived. I got my photo taken by the signpost to Lands End and bought a bottle of Highland Park 12 year-old single malt whisky. I didn't have anything to drink from, so I took a swig from the bottle - I hope that doesn't offend any readers, but I never went to finishing school. I drank to the friends who have supported me and to the gods in many guises who've helped me along. The rest of the bottle is for anyone who has supported me, sponsored me, left comments on the blog (apart from 'Knickers Girl'), or heckled me on the way.
I put my tent up at the campsite, right on the shore overlooking the Pentland Firth (I can hear the sea now as I write this in bed, and out of the open tent door the sky is still orange at 11.30pm). By the time I'd had a shower and got changed, the sun was starting to set over Orkney and on my journey. I'd come all the way from Lands End - more than 1,200 miles over the face of an island as beautiful as any in the world, passing 60 million people - I couldn't go any further without getting wet or going home. I savoured the memories of the journey and looked out over the world still unmet, and felt I might just be the luckiest, happiest person in the world.
08 August 2007
07 August 2007
In Lairg I bought some Powerade. It's isotonic, which means 'good for gullible people'. Amundsen (I think), who led the first successful expedition to the south pole, gave his team the following nutrition advice (wise this is, listen carefully you should): never eat what a dog won't eat. So if you've walked 50 miles and can't wait to sink your scurvied teeth into a piece of raw seal blubber, throw it to the dogs first. If they eat it, you can too, if there's any left. Well I'd like to fill a hungry dog's bowl with blue Powerade and see what it does, because I think it would rather drink its own urine, or someone else's. However, with no dog available, I took a swig of the Powerade I'd bought and rode on.
The Lairg-Tongue road is one of the most remote in Britain, running for 38 miles over the north highland moors with nothing on the way except a pub. The wind, which was forecast at 29mph in Lairg and would be more than that in the hills, was from the north-west today, so I was only managing 7mph and going uphill. Every ten minutes or so, a car passed, but otherwise there was nothing up there - no people, anyway, or any signs of them apart from the road. The open moor stretched out its grey body without visible end in every direction. It was a bleak day and the skies were so low there seemed no room between them and the earth; they pressed down on the moortops, wanting to rain. The heather was purple and orange - the only colours that were not a variation on grey. The landscape here, being most untouched, is most itself. I remember coming past Birmingham, where most of the landscape is not itself anymore - the wilderness is of an urban kind down there. Here the face of the earth speaks for itself - simple, austere, beautiful, distant. It's what left when everything's been taken away. To be there is to be shaken down to a basic self.
The road dips briefly into Althanarra, a hamlet where there's a pub. In there was no-one but a retired couple, who quickly told me that they'd climbed every munro - Scottish mountain above 3,000ft, of which there are more than 200 - and were now working their way through the corbets - mountains over 2,500ft. These were munro baggers - people who collect mountains like others collect the numbers of trains, climbing hills for a purpose that has nothing to do with the hills themselves. 'It's difficult to enjoy it,' one of them said, 'because you're just going up to tick the next one off the list.' Well, that's pretty honest. It reminds me that I passed a trainspotter on a railway bridge somewhere down south. He was standing on a little stepladder and his camera was ready for the train when it came. 'Is there a steam train coming?' I asked. 'No,' he replied, looking away - no smile, no joy, no point. There's a lot about this universe I don't understand.
Leaving Althanarra, the road climbs again. The rain started up (and didn't stop for the rest of the day), and it wasn't long, in such a wind, before I was wet through. Perversely (I recognise), I was loving every minute of it. Up ahead, I saw the father and son on their tandem, crawling up the hill, wobbling over the road in their lowest gear. If they'd come from Land's End like that, every mile would have been a hardship. I drew level. They were dripping wet, fighting against the wind with every turn of the pedals, and their faces said it all - fed up and yet determined to keep going. I rode next to them for a chat but I think, although they tried to be cheerful, it was better that I left them, so I did. Wise guy, but I so didn't want to be.
Eventually, I reached the top of the hill, and Tongue on the north coast. A howling wind blowing chilly sheets of rain from the sea was my welcome - at the height of summer - but through the mist I could see that this is an exceptionally beautiful place. Turning east, I had the wind at my back for the next 12 miles to Bettyhill, where I'm camping tonight, if the tent doesn't blow away.
Sarah posted a comment asking about the state of my botticelli - blessed are those who post comments on the blog. Well, it's like this: If I bent over and you whacked my bottom with a cricket bat, sandblasted it, and tried to file it down, I could still be playing the violin without a murmur or pause, if I could play the violin at all - that's how resilient to impact and chafing my bottom now is. Om shanti!
06 August 2007
As usual, I didn't know where I'd be staying overnight but I'd spied a youth hostel on the map. This turned out to be Carbisdale Castle, which the Scottish Youth Hostel Association have cared for, so it really feels like a castle but still only costs £16 a night. The castle, its contents and large estate were gifted to the SYHA at the end of the Second World War, during which time the king and crown prince of Norway were taking refuge here. Old paintings line the walls and there's a hall of statues (see photo). I'm staying in the tower. Breakfast in a castle costs £2.70 here. I hope that by then my clothes and tent will have dried out. Tomorrow if the weather's not too character-forming I'd like to reach the north coast, although the weatherpeople say that God has planned to stiffen the north wind tomorrow. I will then have seen north, east, south and west coasts of Britain on this voyage. I've ridden 1,100 miles and have just over 100 to go, inshallah.
Top 16 Frequently Asked Questions
(Some of these are just questions that I frequently ask myself)
1. Have you had any punctures, broken spokes or other mechanical calamities?
2. What's the best food to eat while riding?
The best I've found is halva with honey - over 500 cals and 18g of protein per 100g and it tastes good.
3. Which is the only freshwater fish that looks like it might be smiling?
4. How many times have you nearly been knocked off your bike by a vehicle?
Many, but very nearly about 3 times.
5. Does James Blunt have the buddha nature?
6. Does the endless solitude of the road crush you until your lonely soul shivers in despair?
On Tuesdays and Fridays.
7. Will you survive?
8. What is the prevailing wind in Britain?
I don't know any more.
9. Does Raquel have ears?
Do you have ears? Well then.
10. What's been the best bit of the journey so far?
All of it that hasn't been on a main road or in the pouring rain.
11. Is it true that you've written all your blog entries on a mobile phone?
All but 3 or 4, yes.
12. How fast have you been?
Max as shown on the cycle computer is 40.3 mph, in Cornwall.
13. Who shall inherit the Earth?
14. If a ton of feathers landed on your head on the moon, would it hurt?
15. If you chant the sacred syllable 'om' backwards, do you sound like a cow?
16. You've not been asked any of these questions, have you?
05 August 2007
The thing is with cycling is that after a meal and a good night's sleep, it's possible to ride another day as if the last never happened, as long as you're eating enough of the right stuff and nothing cataclysmically bad happens. It gets easier the more you do, to a point where it's almost as easy as driving, albeit slower. It's also more enjoyable than careering about in a car, not least because the big hills bring out the endorphins on the way up and the songs on the way down.
Leaving the hostel yesterday (Saturday), the weather put on a show. Great rainclouds were hanging low over the valleys and clinging to the mountainsides. The sun shone through wispy cloud edges, turning them bright white and patching the verdant valley floor with soft yellow. Clouds collapsed into sudden showers, veiling the landscape with grey murk and chilling the air. The stiff breeze - finally, the prevailing wind from the south-west - bent the roadside trees and carried me along.
Between Fort William and Inverness is the Great Glen, a line of lochs, rivers and canals running from south-west to north-east, cutting Scotland in half. There's an ugly trunk road all the way along, but with a bike it's possible to avoid it using off-road routes and single-track roads. The first section runs along the Caledonian Canal, built in 1822 and beginning with Neptune's Staircase - the staircase of locks at Fort William - and running initially to Loch Lochy (English: Lakey Lake?). I soon reached an old swing bridge, in the middle of nowhere, with a man sitting in a hut next to it. It turns out that his job is to open the bridge each time a boat comes along, which is about once every couple of hours, and close it again so that the farmer, if he should need to, can visit his sheep in the field opposite. The bridgekeeper's other responsibilities are to paint something every now and again and mow the grass after he's watched it grow a bit. Now that's a job. He's proud of his bridge - he said it's the original from when the canal was built, making it 185 years old, and the only hand-operated mechanism on the waterway. He could leave the bridge open if he wanted to, he said, because the farmer's away, 'but then I'd be really bored.' He took a minute out of his day to take my photo by his bridge.
From there the route takes a single track road through ancient birch forest on the steep north bank of the loch. The trees' bark is broken and peeling off with age and old blue-green lichens reach into space from every inch of branch, like small corals. The road, marked as an 18 mile dead-end on the road map, peters out to a forest track, which follows the lochside, sometimes high above the water, sometimes with the waves lapping at Raquel's wheels. At the end of the smaller Loch Oich (Eng: Oik Lake?) another canal path runs as far as Fort Augustus. Here the canal lowers boats into massive Loch Ness - almost at sea level - via another set of staircase locks, which run right down the village's High Street, cutting it in half. By then the showers had gone and the day was sunny and still windy. On the lockside by the top lock, two pipe bands were playing together: one local and one from Switzerland, called the Swiss Midland Pipe Band. I boggled that the prospect of playing Scottish highland music would appeal to anyone other than Scottish highlanders, but evidently it does. I wonder whether there's a Scottish Yodelling Ensemble that visits Switzerland from time to time: with God, all things are possible. Occasionally, the bands played separately, and I couldn't tell them apart for musicianship - both were superb. All the players were immaculate, too - kilts, cream socks, garters, hats, tunics - and each played with their feet together, which I assumed was part of the discipline, despite the strong wind. Whenever I heard pipe buskers in Edinburgh, I developed a nasty rash, but I'd never heard bagpipes played like this - I've rarely heard music sound so alive and joyous and free. The bagpipes are a really weird instrument but with it these guys made loud magic. When the bands stopped, a woman led one of the pipers to a seat - he was completely blind. Then their marquee blew over.
Despite being surrounded by mountains in Scotland, I'd not gone up any serious hill since the English Pennines, travelling as I have been along valleys. After Fort Augustus came the first challenging climb, however, because the little road leaves the lochside and climbs over the tops, rising nearly 1,000ft in a mile and a half, then another 400ft after that, less steep. I was suprised that my legs managed it, but riding day after day has made me much stronger. Even so, I was reduced to a sweaty, sticky pink ball of flesh by the time I reached the top, and my attempt to punch the air in triumph was more of a camp flap of the hand. Then followed what cyclists dream of every night: a long, slow, straight descent with a strong, warm following wind. (I dream that dream between the one with the bookcase that falls over on Carol Vorderman and the one with the chickens stuck in my best friend's hair that I'm trying to remove with a nit comb). As I zoomed down this hill at 30 miles an hour, I saw a couple riding up the other way, faces scrunched up with pain and despair. I waved cheerily and wished them good day but I don't think that's what they wanted.
There was then more ancient, seemingly untouched birch forest, mixed this time with Scots Pine. The River Foyers tumbled down the hillside among the trees, before falling over a gigantic, sheer cliff, several hundred feet into an enclosed lagoon like something straight out of the Garden of Eden. These are the Falls of Foyer - go see! From there the road, all single track, rejoined the shore of the great Loch Ness. The sun was shining down its length, turning it silver and silhouetting the peaks to the south-west. I tried taking a photo but the universe refused to shrink into the camera.
With the wind blowing me along at 20 miles an hour, it wasn't long before I arrived in Inverness, which has a beautiful riverside park and a busy campsite nearby. I put up the tent, had a shower and wandered along the river into town. The city's well-to-do were doing the same, on their way to a fancy restaurant or wine bar, but I don't know where they went because the city centre is dominated by a rough-edged collection of pubs and clubs with a predictable, small-town feel. The city felt altogether like somewhere at the end of a line - half-forgotten by the rest of the world - but its streets are wide and there are great views of the skies, so it feels open and spacious. It's unusual in having almost no cafes at all - this morning I could only find a Costa Coffee, just like the ones in London (in fact, they send up the sandwiches overnight from Buckinghamshire - I asked). Inverness also has a church on every street corner: many looking fresh and bearing names I'd not heard of before like the Reformed Baptists; and many older,more familiar ones, like those of the Church of Scotland, looking neglected.
This morning I did my laundry and then set off out of the city, over the suspension bridge on cycle paths to the Black Isle, so called because the soil is blacker than a hard-fried morning roll (ie a bread roll fried until it's burnt - a Scottish delicacy. Look it up if you don't believe me.) I rode over the rolling hills of the isle via Munlochy (Eng: I'm Unlucky?) to Cromerty, a weeny village made famous by the Shipping Forecast. A tiny, rusting two-car ferry called Cromerty Rose took me (and three other cyclists bound for John o'Groats) about three quarters of a mile to a thin strip of the mainland to the north, where there's a peculiar cafe, that feels like someone's living room, and nothing else for miles. I rode the last few miles to Dornoch Firth (Eng: Fourth Doorknock?) campsite. The midges launched a full-scale assault within seconds. I was reminded of the improbable 70s movie, Swarm. There were so many midges that I felt sure that I must be losing blood at a dangerous rate, maybe a pint a minute. I told myself that they were God's creatures just trying to get along but it was no good, I felt no mercy and wiped hundreds out with each heavy blow to my face; thousands more fell as I rubbed my legs, their little black carcasses sticking to my rain-drenched skin. I climbed into the tent, leaving the hordes to bash their tiny heads into its mesh wall - without siege equipment, there was nothing they could do.
04 August 2007
03 August 2007
There was an easy climb with a following wind (the prevailing wind prevailed today for the first time since the west country) onto Rannoch Moor - wild and bleak, and beautiful even in the cloud and rain. From there, it was a soggy slog across the top before the long, exhilarating fall through narrow Glen Coe, weaving between mountains. Bombing down a mountain pass in the rain on a bicycle is best done while singing a song, so I sang These Are the Days of Our Lives. I belted it out, only pausing each time an impatient lorry passed me, when I felt compelled to shout, 'Whooooooaaaaah!' while it lurched past and I waited to see whether I would survive. A huge lorry fully laden with wooden gables for houses missed me by a whisker.
In the Glen Coe visitor centre, the story of a massacre in the valley is retold. To summarise, and I hope I've got this right, the Highlanders wanted the deposed king James to take the throne again, while the Lowlanders and England wanted the new king William to stay. The Lowlanders sent a party of soldiers, with England's blessing, to Glen Coe to massacre a village - no-one was spared. We English have so much dirty history to take responsibility for, not only in Scotland but pretty much everywhere we've ever laid claim to power. We still fancy ourselves a world power, but with so much imperial wrongdoing to our name, I can't feel proud even of the empire's great achievements. We inherit the deeds of our ancestors, good and bad and all in between. The first time that chemical weapons were ever used in Iraq, for example, was in 1920, by the British to put down a rebellion of several hundred people who opposed the puppet king we had installed there to serve our interests just after the First World War. This seems similar to me to the massacre in Glen Coe.
From there it was a short fall to sea level by Loch Leven and finally a turn in the road to the north-east with the wind behind me. What a difference! I was in Fort William by three o'clock and headed straight for the railway station. The steam train used in the Harry Potter films arrived in a cloud of vapour at four o'clock, stinking of oil, steam and coal smoke. The footplate (I think that's the name for where the driver stands) was all polished brass, mysterious dials and tantalising levers, and its three drivers looked like dirty smudges in the steam. I wanted to be one of them. With or without Harry Potter, it was magic. God, let me come back to Earth as Fred Dibnah! I took the engine's photograph for you (it's black, not red like it is in the films), although it didn't come out too well. I also hatched a plan to come back to Fort William on the sleeper and take the steam journey out to Mallaig, get the ferry to Skye and go walking there.
I'm staying in Glen Nevis youth hostel tonight because it's pouring with rain and I know that the campsite next door can get badly waterlogged overnight. The hostel is right under Ben Nevis, which is pretty much invisible behind rain and cloud. Well, it rains three times as much on the Scottish west coast as the east, so I guess this place seldom sees a sunny day. Tomorrow's forecast, although habitually unreliable on this trip, is for fine weather and a breezy tailwind to take me to Inverness, inshallah, and I'm back on the cycle routes as well, away from these busy A roads.
02 August 2007
The road from Stirling turned north into the mountains today at a place called Callander. At the town boundary, a big picture on the road sign showed a course fist clenched around a flaming wooden crucifix. Blimey, this town must be pretty serious about God, I thought. Why not add underneath: 'No heathens, no pagans, no Quakers, no vampires - thank you, please drive carefully.' Anyway, it was a lovely place, at least during daylight.
The village marks the boundary of the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park and it's heart-achingly beautiful. (Not sure what a Trossach is.) From there, a cycle route took me along disused railways and forest tracks, along the valley through the woods and along the shore of Loch Lubnaig, all surrounded by steep-sided mountains - wow. It's a wonder that they managed to get railways to cling to the steep mountainside and to find routes through the mountains at all given that trains can't manage anything more than a shallow incline. At Glenogle summit I had an ogle then rejoined the busy road to Crianlarich. It was a soulless A road of speeding, careless traffic and I was heading into the wind again but the landscape was terrific - huge peaks rising over 3,000ft all around, some of their summits in the clouds.
At the campsite, it took five minutes for the midges to find me. I left off putting the tent up to slap myself about - it didn't help because they're using asymmetric warfare methods. The midge is sustained by God's abiding love for all her creatures. The wee thing is just trying to get along in the world and have a little midge family. The problem is that the midge has no moral sensibilities and, incapable of imaginative thought, is not able to negotiate a solution where my needs and his are both met; for example, I could leave a thimble of blood by the tent each night in return for a non-aggression pact. Unfortunately this state of affairs puts midge and me in a state of violent conflict.
The best way to think of midges is like supermodels: it's unclear what they're for, they're always hungry, and they can't withstand the slightest gust of wind. Their mandibles have serrated edges with which to saw a little hole in your skin and get drinking (midges, that is - supermodels feed in a slightly different way). And they're sneaky - you can never have a fair fight with them, one at a time.
'Are you doing Lands End to John o'Groats?' the campsite warden asked me. 'There was a guy here last year did it on a unicycle,' he said. Yeah, a wise guy. 'There was a woman who did it with one leg,' I said, 'because she only had one.'
Towards Fort William and the west coast tomorrow!
01 August 2007
Crossing the bridge, I struggled to contain in my mind the journey so far all the way from Land's End. Many people have ridden longer distances, but the journey so far still feels like an epic narrative of landscape, climate and culture, peppered with encounters of various kinds - it even covers a distance that can be seen from space. Crossing the bridge, I felt happy and free, and that the world was full of possibility. We took photos. Jonathan jumped in the air; there was no need, but it did show that futile acts are often the most glorious. Shabba.
On the other side of the Forth, we got lost. I wanted it to be Jonathan's fault but I had the map. Even so, we made it to Dunfermline eventually. I expected Dunfermline to be an ugly place because it has an ugly name for a town, like Leeds, Dusseldorf, and Reims, rather than Mythelmroyd or Dar es Salaam. As it happens it's a relaxing place with a beautifully cared-for park that has sweeping views over the Forth valley plain to the south.
Leaving the park, we found the bumpy track that promised to take me to Alloa, and there we parted company. I hadn't minded too much travelling about 10 miles an hour slower than usual so that Jonathan could keep up. [I say this only to provoke his indignation, which he will try to rise above]. It was quite a moment as I rode away, with still 400 miles to John o'Groats to travel. Inaudible to all but Jonathan and me, there was rousing music - probably a bit of Beethoven, and we waved to each other in slow motion and soft focus across the stretching distance, our figures tinged with sunlight... Unfortunately, that track ended up in a field of cows: that's what happens when you put rousing music on. The cows looked at me, cow-eyed, as if I were a vainglorious fool, and sheepishly I rode back the way I'd come. The proper track was 100yds away, as flat and smooth and enjoyable as a glass of real ale. It was another disused railway, running some 12 miles to Alloa.
Far from the drone and danger and dirt of fast-moving traffic, these old railways are quiet conduits through the countryside. They also form rich wildlife corridors, flanked by wild flowers and grasses hosting insects like butterflies and bees, while birds feed on the wing nearby.
The cycle route from Edinburgh to Alloa - about 30 miles - is one of the easiest and most pleasant I've ever done. The map is available as a free leaflet - Round the Forth - and a train can bring you back from Alloa to the city. It's an ideal Sunday afternoon - more people should know about it. From Alloa to Stirling, however, the route is complicated, including muddy tracks that were only just about doable on my road bike without getting off to walk.
I'm staying at Stirling youth hostel because the campsite has shut down. Still, it's right by the castle on the hill. From the castle esplanade, I could see for many miles over the plain. Immediately to the north, the mountains thrust abruptly to 2,000ft from the valley floor. I felt a tingle of anxiety and excitement at the prospect of a journey into more wilderness than I've known on the journey up to now. Tomorrow, I go into the mountains, along busy roads but by lochs and through forests. I can't wait. Right now, I'm sitting in a pub - the Number 2 Baker Street, it's called. I asked a passerby to recommend me one, and he sent me here for the live folk the band are playing now. Welcome to Scotland!
31 July 2007
Leaving Jedburgh, I had no option but to trundle along the busy A68 heading north. Drivers passed me with lots of room - I wondered whether there had been another government public information campaign, about how car drivers had to recognise cyclists' road safety, since the one with the pigeons in the 1970s - but it was still pretty miserable on the busy road. After a couple of hours, I arrived in laudable Lauder, which is bisected by the main road. One side of the village is good, the other evil. I'd run out of water so I went into the nearest pub (it turned out to be on the evil side) to ask whether they'd be so kind as not to mind awfully if they'd consider filling up my water bottle if it wasn't too much trouble. The landlord hesitated; his face twitched, then screwed up just a little bit, the way it would if you were chewing on a spider. This didn't look good. I thought he might stub me out with one of his ample thumbs, like a cigarette or a university student from England. Instead, he raised his arm slowly and sort of zombie-like without bending it at the elbow, and stared into the middle distance past my shoulder. Perhaps he was trying to warn me of some impending danger behind me, so I turned around. No, he was pointing out the window at Lauder's public toilets. 'You can fill it in there,' he advised, in such a way that I felt our conversation had come to an end. I didn't go to the public toilet; instead, I crossed the street to where the sun was shining and went into another pub, which filled up my water bottle for me, and gladly. I'm not sure what the moral of this story is, but that's the end of it - work it out for yourself if you like.
From Lauder, the A68 climbs into Scotland's Southern Uplands. It was a soulless journey on that unpleasant road - don't do it unless you're trying to punish yourself for something. At the summit, there's a new windfarm. I took a photo of it for you. The windmills are massive, clean and white, and today they moved gracefully and quickly in the high wind (which was another headwind, by the way, from the north-west). I wondered why the nimbies complained about the noise of windfarms because you can hardly hear them at all.
On the way down the hill, I could eventually leave the monstrous road and take minor roads all the way down to Longniddry, to the east of Edinburgh, and the sea. The salty seaweed scent of the sea air was a welcome sensation, reminding me of the Atlantic off Cornwall and Devon two weeks before. The rest of the journey into the city was along the coast road and beach esplanades. It was a beautiful, slow ride in the early evening sun: kids playing in the sand, lovers strolling, friends meeting friends. I arrived in Leith, where I'd be staying with my good friend Jonathan. He cooked a very large and welcome hot meal and in the morning recited some poems to me.
Tuesday was a rest day. I met old friends Heather and Mark for a walk around Edinburgh's especially beautiful and well cared-for botanical gardens, which offer views of the city skyline. It's a refreshing place to be and I used to go there all the time as a student in the city. Mark lent me the national cycle route plans for the rest of the way to John o'Groats. I'm looking forward to getting going again - it's been wonderful to see friends in Edinburgh, although the cityscape feels claustrophobic after the spaciousness of the open road.
29 July 2007
Climbing into the north Pennines felt like I was leaving all of England's homely landscape behind, for above the A66 the country becomes rougher and more remote. When I swung north-east towards Middleton, it was my first chance since Somerset to feel the wind at my back. I felt like the ethereal hands of angels were gently pushing me along to the theme tune from Ski Sunday. It didn't last long: at Middleton, I turned north-west which was like landing in mud. Don't know where all the angels went because now the wind was like someone's hand in my face for the next 24 miles. From Middleton, the road climbs steadily nearly 2,000ft in about 12 miles, which is not as hard as it sounds on a calm day but the wind slowed me to 7 or 8 mph. I stopped at High Force to look at the waterfall. 'It's a waterfall,' is all I can think to say of it, but do go if you want to. I met a cycling girl there who'd ridden from Paris to Lands End to John o'Groats to where we were, and was on her way back to Paris. 'Zere eez so much poziteev energie,' she said. From there I resumed the climb while the angels took her and her partner away with the wind in the other direction. Near the top of the hill the wind was like having 20 hairdressers holding hairdryers at your head while sitting in a ship's engine room. At this point it started to rain heavily - the vindictive work of aggrieved gods, I'm sure of it - and I thought my glasses were going to smash to pieces with the force of the raindrops [ridiculous exaggeration]. But I whispered a few sweet nothings into Raquel's ears and she got us through the wet. Eventually, the road started down, although the wind (have I mentioned it?) was so strong that I had to pedal just to go downhill to Alston, which seemed a run-down, unloved sort of place. Leaving it, the wind died down and I rediscovered route 68, which directed me along an old railway track at a place called Slaggyford, which name is suggestive of a certain type of uncivilised lady, although I ain't seen none while I was there. The track went on for miles and included the huge Lambley Viaduct, which crossed the South Tyne high above the forest valley - a beautiful sight in the evening sunshine and a long way down to the river, I tried not to fall over the side. Eventually the track took me almost as far as the campsite gate, just short of Haltwhistle. The camp wardens boiled a kettle for my ginger tea bag and gave me a midge coil to keep the wee creatures at a distance, gnashing their sawlike teeth.
Today (Sunday) was a fine day with the same strong westerly wind. I crossed Hadrian's Wall, which was built in 1960 to defend Scotland from the Conservative Party. Actually it's a bit older than that and no-one is sure why it was built, although there's evidence that it was fortified against possible raids from both north and south. It's basically a very long fortress with integral milecastles in which to garrison soldiers. It was certainly a way for the Romans as the occupying power to control the movements of the indigenous people, which leads me to wonder if the wall was resented as much as the one in Israel-Palestine. You can find lots of religious imagery along the walls that we would associate with India nowadays, including a well-preserved temple to Mithra, an ancient Indic god of light, which is still symbolised in India today with the swastika (meaning light). Hitler coopted the same imagery to frame his fixation with purity. At one point in the wall you can see where a Roman once etched the same symbol, although I've never seen it myself. Hadrian's wall has all the hallmarks of the tyrannical 'bright idea' that plagues politics - the brainwave of some Roman imperial advisor that no-one could fault although everyone thought it was nuts. I imagine some overfed, pudgy finger on a map of the empire, it's owner saying, 'Just build a wall there - it's only an inch across.'
From there I had a hilly ride through the Borders, often through eerie, silent conifer plantations and not seeing any traffic or people for miles - a taste of things to come. Tonight I'm camping in Jedburgh.
I've ridden 745 miles now and the Scottish landscape sits massively impassively before me like an obese curmudgeon, albeit an exotically beautiful one, if you can imagine that.
It's getting much colder, too: I'm having to wear my clothes to bed.
27 July 2007
'Because it's fun,' he said, 'well, it must be because we wouldn't do it if it wasn't,' he said. He was walking the Dales Way.
Hm, not all things have reasons. Take the moon, for example, or Hull. But there's something driving or drawing the Shackletons and Scotts of the world, and James Holman, the blind traveller. He wrote that, on occasion, when he felt the wind on his face and could smell the living Earth, he felt not so much blind as mute - that a world so brimming with sensual wonders could exist at all. (I wish I had the passage to hand). Surely it's for similar reasons, less eloquent, that the rest of us nylon-encased wanderers turn up to find something meaningful in the face of a little manageable adversity. But I wonder whether there's a more uncomfortable motive, too: that we're brought here by restlessness - the conscious manifestation of an unconscious ache to take part in the glory of life that, once tasted, forever tantalises through the hazy veil of the everyday. I imagine that James Holman, despite all his travels inner and outer, was never quite satisfied - his life's fulfillment was always just over the next hill. He felt cramped when at home in England, stifled by polite conversation and parochial preoccupations, while Creation's magnificence waited to be uncovered abroad. I can identify with that existential longing, although 'abroad' is a matter of more than geography alone. The downside of Holman's drive, then, was that he couldn't easily find wonder in the mundane everyday. I wonder whether the final frontier ends up being right where are are, finding wonder in the simplest joys and sorrows - the walk into work, or the meeting of friends - when these are all the magnificence that we need or want. But then again, perhaps that comes with the serenity of older age, not the tempestuous hungers of youth.
It's a rest day for me today. It's been good to get out of the youth hostel and go for a walk. Not only is the world a wonderful place to walk in, but I was harried out of there by some synthesised classics they played in the background over breakfast - Bilitis, Chi Mai, Pie Jesu and the like, generically known as swaying music. It seems that all the hostels in the country make breakfast the same way now: they cooked up a load of food and leave it in a bain marie to exude juices, wrinkle up, congeal and go slowly luke-warm. Bits of shrivelling bacon and crinkly sausages, a beany gloop and the one food less appealing than the space it occupies, the hash brown, sit there waiting to be put out of their misery. I can't eat most of it anyway because I'm veggie, and it costs £4.20, while the best veggie breakfast I've ever had (the other day in Meltham) cost just £3.70, cooked to order. Life's a lottery, I tell you.
Half the youth hostels have been booked out by school and youth groups for the summer. There has been 'a lot of correspondence about it', a rambler told me, because it means ramblers can't turn up and stay the night. The YHA (set up by Quakers, I believe) exists in theory to help young people of limited means to enjoy the countryside, so it makes more sense for hostels to be full of school groups than retired people in BMWs. Even so, I don't think mass bookings by schools was what the hostelling movement's pioneers had in mind. In Lynton, my room-mates wree thre lads of about 15 or 16. They'd organised their own trip together - a few days in Devon - and were just just off out to scramble up the river. Considering that these kids couldn't afford B&Bs, and that they could just as easily be sitting at home with their Nintendos, the YHA was just what they needed, but they wouldn't have been able to stay there either if a school group had booked the place out. As it was, they had to share a room with a cyclist smelling of Tiger Balm, so it wasn't perfect for them anyway, unfortunately.
Every village I've passed on this journey has its own war memorial. Most are in the same mould of a rough concrete cross - there must have been a factory mass-producing them just after the First World War. All the memorials are engraved in more or less the same way. The most striking text I saw just outside Minehead, which read something like, 'Never forget that these men willingly gave their lives that you may be free.' This is a half-truth at best, aimed not at remembering the war for what it was but at ennobling it, and thus forgetting what it was like. In fact, many of the men listed on these stones either volunteered to fight believing that the war would quickly be over, or were conscripted against their will. The brutality of the war had been obscured by the government propaganda machine. The fields of Belgium and France were not places for willingly laying down one's life for a higher purpose, but for having it savagely and ignominiously ended by the new technology of mass-killing. That is not to take away from the bravery of many men, nor is it to argue that they should have stayed at home. It is to say that we fail to honour their lives and deaths by ennobling the war and forgetting its horrors. The war was, more than anything else, a a human catastrophe for all involved in it on all sides. It was the product of choices made by men who never saw the front. By glossing over these realities, wrapping the tragedy in heroism, it makes it easier for us to go to war again. When I visited Bolton Abbey yesterday, I saw that the same text appears on the memorial inside the priory but underneath it stands a small table with a burning candle and the message: 'Pray for peace and justice in our disordered world.' For once, here was a message not only for the past but for the future too, for there is no better way to honour the lives of those who have died in war than to do what we can for a more peaceful world. It is also the meaning of the Cross, on which all these memorials appear.
26 July 2007
Ps I put my shoes back on.
25 July 2007
But that's camping - you're only ever a nose away from nature in process. One time I was camping in my bivvy bag during snail humping season. The snails must have been drawn to the warmth because they swarmed all over the bag (snails swarm slowly). If you ever see snails mate, believe me you'll want to be one: they look like they're kissing each other with their whole, glistening, sensual bodies, and they take their time. It's a sumptuous affair. (I've already asked God if I can come back as a snail but she said no.) So my bivvy bag was covered with this great hajj of invertebrate sensuality, such that whenever I moved an inch in my sleep - crick, crickle, squelch... a couple's orgiastic pleasure came to a sudden, viscous end. I tried not to move at all, but in the morning there were bits of former snail all over the place. Some were still at it - I moved these two by two to somewhere safer to complete their life's satisfaction.
So it was a gorgeous day today, wind blowing ferociously in the wrong direction (I'm still waiting for the prevailing wind to prevail on this trip). I jumped on Raquel one more time (this is the new name for my bicycle) and zoomed off at 10 mph - all I could manage in the wind. (I was humming Sailing By - why? I don't know. Yesterday it was the Marseillaise.) There was a fierce climb on single track roads into the Peaks proper and the top of the world again. I found a cycle trail along the disused High Peak railway (part of national cycle route 68 to Berwick) that took me most of the way to Buxton, a beautiful town with its own opera house. I filled up with water at the municipal spring - the water comes from so deep that it emerges warm. It soon cooled in the unforgiving headwind as I climbed out of the town. Still following the 68 cycle route, it sent me down what my map said was a dead end, but actually had a secret stony track joining it to another road and so through to another valley. The 68 route did this all day, defying the map to uncover some beautiful deserted tiny roads overlooking the valleys. Some roads were very steep and it was hard work but well worth the effort. At one point in the evening I could see the whole of Manchester far below, an urban wilderness shimmering massively in the sun. I think I even saw the oil refinery at Ellesmere Port, 40 miles away. The road descended for a long time into Glossop, before rising again to pass to reservoirs along Longdendale - all in all, 52 magnificent miles.
I'm now at a campsite in Crowden - just a clearing in the steep wooded valley. I stayed here alone on New Year's Eve once when walking the Pennine Way. The campsite was shut - I had to sort of gatecrash it. I was in the bivvy bag again, lying on my back looking into the universe above and wondering about wonders. I'd be doing that now but the midges would chew my face off. I think they're organised, you know.
Bottom update: Adversity has for now fortified it against the trammels of the journey - life is like that. As Nietzsche said, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. He'd never read Heat magazine, though.
24 July 2007
The drizzle set in for the next couple of hours as I picked out a route on back roads past the motorway mangle of Birmingham. When the rain gave up, I stopped for lunch by the church in Coleshill. A suited woman on her break was sitting on the other bench eating a sandwich, alone with her thoughts. I imagined that we had the same fundamental preoccupations but existed in different worlds today, each of us buried under different sets of rules. Perhaps somewhere a mum and dad worry over her as well.
There weren't too many hills today but a strong headwind made cycling hard work, even on the flat, although I managed to reach Ashbourne (another fairtrade town) and the Peak District in the end. I found a campsite at the top of a hill under an orange sunset, all for just £5.
Thanks for all the text, email and blog messages - the journey is mute solitude for most of the day so the occasional greeting feels like contact from afar.
22 July 2007
Leaving Stroud on the Slad Road I saw the worst effects of the flooding for the first time. Behind open front doors, families were trying to dry out their homes and salvage their belongings. The water level had fallen, leaving a layer of river sludge over everything, including the road and people's living rooms.
Climbing out of the town, the road eventually reached the hilltops. Steam was rising from the fields and roads and collecting in the woodlands as mist, giving the landscape a balmy, primal feel. If a pterodactyl had flown across the road, I'd have thought nothing of it (although the fatal risk of a very large bird poo might have crossed my mind).
Soon I was on single track roads through quiet, mysterious, misty forests that seemed hidden from the rest of the world. The previous day's torrents of water had eroded the road edges and left sludge and stones in islands on the way. Water was still running across the roads from swollen, brown streams but nothing was too deep to pass; from above, the world would have looked like cold coffee dribbles over a new green rug. I could hear running water everywhere. Every now and then, a plush house emerged from the landscape. These remote houses seemed like homes hidden from worldly worries - a sort of purchased freedom, I suppose, and a reminder of the wealth of the area.
Coming into Winchcombe, it was raining again and I realised that I hadn't had a cream tea since Cornwall. I found a cafe and piled in. It was all tinkling china cups and quaint ornaments with an atmosphere tight as a corset. It had about it that kind of strained politesse and decorum that comes when wealth and parochialism combine. I was wet, wearing a yellow 'Go green, go bike' t-shirt, and had mud spatters down my legs and oily hands. In other words, I was a yellow demonic presence dripping ectoplasm everywhere. I felt I didn't belong in this state so I left, put on a pullover, straightened my hair and crashed back in with a bit more force than I'd intended, making the 'open' sign clank noisily against the door. Pachelbel's Canon in D was playing on repeat as I ate my scones, and apparently all day long. This gave me one of my heads - I was at such sixes and sevens I nearly knocked over my tea cup.
Leaving the cafe, I spied the front cover of the Daily Mail. Instinctively I recoiled, but then drew near again to read the headline - Midsummer Monsoon. Only then did I realise something of what the previous day's rain had done. Winchcombe itself had been completely cut off, the lady in the tourist information office told me.
Along the rest of the route there were many places that were impassable the day before but had now cleared [excuse my grammar, now and forever - thanks]. In these places, abandoned cars lined the road at awkward angles, as if sprinkled along it. These must have become stuck in the water the day before. One or two had broken windows - looted. The roadside greenery was crushed flat, combed down by the rushing water, and there were large islands of stones and mud on the tarmac. Some sections of road were still slightly flooded but passable, although just three miles to the west, Evesham and Welford were underwater.
When I reached Stratford and my parents' house they showed me the news, confused as to how I managed to get through all the flooding - in fact, I'd barely been aware of it. Dad had been interviewed for the Today programme in the morning because he'd been organising sandbags for homes near the river. He missed his chance to tell the nation to stop the arms trade, but he did get in a dig at 4x4s somehow. Well done, Dad.
Today (Sunday) has been a rest day. Two friends from London, Sara and Helen, came up for lunch and a wander around the watery destruction. It was good to see some friends and family today - it's off on my own again tomorrow, and the forecast is for more rain, if the sky has any left to give.
20 July 2007
It's a little-known fact that 37% of the world's 'sham, drudgery and broken dreams' consist in a four-mile stretch of the A46 just south of the M4. Very busy, very fast-moving, as well as narrow, hilly and windy, and with Carmina Burana booming constantly in the mental background, it is the epitome of cycling hell (well, apart from Halfords). Add the pouring rain, the slippery road, and my glasses steaming up so I couldn't see much more than fast-moving coloured blobs, and there's a voyage of mortal peril that I dearly hope my mother never finds out about. Once again, I want to emphasise that it's not a perilous road, but a road full of perilous people (with a couple of exceptions) all too greedy with time to slow down - they'd rather put my life at risk.
Coming off the Cotswold edge into the valley and another problem raised its boily head - floods turning the roads into rivers. With local advice, I managed to avoid the worst of it and didn't have to ride through anything deeper than a foot. Just before I reached Cam I saw a sign to Waterley Bottoms and stopped to take its photo because I felt an affinity. I now have Hotley Bottom and Waterley Bottoms - I want the full set. Cam is a fairtrade town (I wonder if the local Quakers were involved in achieving that) and v cycle friendly (unlike the much larger Bath that ought to know better). A narrow cycle lane offered great views of the Severn estuary that I'd have stopped to enjoy were it not for all the edifying rain running down my neck and chilling my spine. The floods have closed many roads (and railways) tonight, and I might have some problems getting along tomorrow. Still, where there's monomania there's a way.
19 July 2007
This morning I rode up Cheddar Gorge. After Cornwall, the Gorge was what the Americans call a walk in the park. Big new muscles have appeared in my legs. I can feel their newness, as if they don't quite belong to me. Going up hills now feels easier and the bike feels lighter to ride, even though I can hardly pick it up.
On the other side of the Mendip Hills the terrain remained hilly and interesting. I stopped at Stanton Drew to see one of the largest and least known stone circles in the country - about 100 yards across and 4-5000 years old. The stones are huge megaliths about 40 yards apart in a perfect circle. They reckon that circles like this were used for rituals - places to encounter the sacred and mark a centre point around which all things revolved, an axis mundi. In those days we could do little to control the forces of nature and we had to negotiate with them via the gods - mysterious powers like fire and wind that we didn't understand but made understandable by giving them faces and personalities like our own. The stories that we told about them - sacred myths - became the way we understood the world and where it came from. These myths framed and coloured all our experience and through them, order could be found laced through chaos. It's difficult to imagine how a ritual in this great stone circle would have felt. I assume that the surrounding fields would have been forest then - the fearsome chaos of the wildwood - with the circle forming a clearing, a place of order. The village/forest dualism appears in many religious traditions, both as reality and as a symbol for all order and all chaos, respectively. A sheep munched on grass next to one of the megaliths, with no cerebral cortex.
From Stanton Drew I was back on single track roads for a long time, picking my way over the landscape from hamlet to hamlet, then up onto a high ridge, from which I could see all of Bristol laid out below. It was a glorious ride along these tiny roads, many covered in weeds or mud, hardly used.
Down from there and the outskirts of Bath covered the next hillside with a modern estate. 'Little boxes on the the hillside and they're all made of ticky tacky and they all look the same.' Half way up that hill was the site of a fatal hit and run collision on 7 July. Many bouquets, candles and other tokens were arranged at the side of the road, with messages addressed to the young man who died. They said that a lot of people will miss him because they loved him. Someone had strapped a small packet of cereal to a bowl and written on its rim: 'Frosties on a plate at 8'. I don't know what it means, only that somehow it must mean a lot: to someone somewhere it's its own story about someone they loved, and that's how we remember each other: through the stories made when we're together. Road vehicles are extremely dangerous - we forget, or a lot of the people overtaking me do. One day we'll look back and think we were mad to career along at such speed, see so many die and still carry on regardless.
From there the hill went up and up. Bath was way down the valley to one side. When I reached it, down a huge hill, I could hardly see it because God had visited a plague of tourists upon it, including me. I couldn't get near the eponymous bath, although if it's anything like my bath at home, then it can't be much special. There's a new place you can go for a dip in special water (or 'waters', the posh word for water) but it costs a lot - I could tell because the receptionist was wearing a tie and there was no price list. I would have liked to soak the sun cream, mud and dead insects off my body, and sooth the many bites and stings appearing on it, but I guess that's not what waters are for.
Insects are one of cycling's privations. I think that's the word. Thunderbugs dying slowly in the run cream, flies, beetles pinging off the helmet like bullets, gnats jumping down your throat, greenfly, flying ants, bumble bees, mosquitos and midges - all creatures sustained by God's love. The most challenging of God's creatures down this way is a type of horsefly called a cleg. It's an ungainly big brown fly that sort of flaps onto you like a bat, plunges its mandibles - not much smaller than garden shears - into your prone, innocent flesh, and sucks like a Dyson. Look them up - they exist. (They don't sting as far as I know but the females do scratch and pull your hair.)
Now, yesterday I reported on the health of my bottom, which was starting to get a little sore all for the sake of a new ecoboiler for Friends House. The best way to describe it is a sort of chafing difficulty, although today it has been less acute. I'll keep you posted.
And if you haven't sponsored me yet, please make a pledge to email@example.com - as little as a penny or as much as £200,000. Thank you.
18 July 2007
So does that mean there's a town called Dairylea Triangle as well?
And does it mean that the guy who told me Cheddar Gorge was a cheese eating competition was pulling my leg? Ah.
Today's journey from Minehead took me out of the hilly West Country and over flatlands from Bridgewater to Cheddar. I'm sorry to leave the sea behind - I won't see it again until I reach north of Inverness. I already miss the hills and the small-is-beautiful of Devon and Cornwall. The terrain around Bridgewater is quiet but very flat and desolate, as if first tamed and then forsaken. Riding through its expanse reminded me of the Belgian Jacques Brel's song called Le Plat Pays Qui Est Le Mien. (Unfortunately if you don't know the song you won't know what I mean and that will just seem like a showy French reference, which of course it is.) A few pill boxes still sit squat in the fields, no longer watching for the invasion across the marshes. They seem ludicrous now - who would sail up the Bristol Channel now and fight a war here, and for what? War is such hard work - it may be this realisation that turns us to peace in the end.
Most of the day's charm was concentrated into an hour for lunch with my friend Joanna's parents at their house right on my route at Nether Stowey. They offered me the use of a shower, which at first I insisted was quite unnecessary (showering is such hard work - it may be this realisation that...). However, when clean people you're with offer you a shower, it's wise to accept, and after looking in the mirror, I relented and got cleaned up. Instead of my usual lunch of a handful of nuts and raisins, a banana, juice, a dried fig, a piece of halva, some biscuits, a cereal bar, shortbread, some jelly sweets and a couple of pickled eggs, I was treated to smoked salmon, avocados, salad, home-made bread and cheese, and conversation. I'd not net Jo's parents before and I felt very well looked after. I was left marvelling at the generosity of human beings. We give ourselves a bad press but we can be so generous with each other and it's often because, at bottom, we so like each other, even those we hardly know. That's a strong statement that many people would call naive but perhaps it bears some reflection - I don't say it's the whole truth about us. It's the dog-eat-dog mentality that is truly naive - and futile, less interesting and 'such hard work...'.
Did I mention 'bottom' then? I think I did. Mine started to feel a little sore today. I'll report back on the situation tomorrow, in more detail.
PS Minehead eco youth hostel desperately needs an assistant for the rest of the summer - beautiful location, crap pay but enough to get by on. Need to cook and clean toilets and be friendly etc. Interested? Let me or the hostel know.
After half an hour on top of the world, a blue cyclists sign suggested that I leave the main road on an alternative route which would avoid perilous Porlock Hill. I took it, although I couldn't tell where I was on the map; I was thrust into trust. The road became a single track far away from the rest of the world and plunged down down down into forest calm. Eventually I reached a gurgling river in the middle of the forest, touched here and there with patches of sunlight. Here the route turned off the road to become a dirt bridleway and I had to get off and push my bike. The path became narrower still and steeper, following the cascading river down with the road I had just left on its farther side. I soon realised that the signs had been misleading and I should have stayed on the tiny road but I couldn't reach it across the river. My bike bumped over the stones as I guided it down the path. I kept wondering why I hadn't reached the bottom yet but still the river tumbled down the hillside and my path became steeper and narrower. Then I came across a bridge over the river, so I rejoined the road and rode down to a strange gated stone archway, of which one side was a tiny round house with a small, worn hole in the middle of its white door. 'Toll: £1.50. Please ring.' I rang. The bell made no sound but soon something shifted about in the darkness behind the hole. Slowly, the door opened and an old woman stepped out. She was small, huddled up and covered in thick wrinkles as if a giant had scrunched her up in huge hands. I felt in my pocket and found a £20 note. She turned back inside and shook her head miserably. She returned with some change and said, 'I still owe you some money.' She did this three times until we were straight. 'What is this road?' I asked. 'It belongs to Lord Lytton,' she said. The toll money is not enough to maintain it, she explained bitterly. Then she looked at me for the first time. 'People say it's like a rainforest,' she said slowly, her eyes suddenly full of pride and wonder.
If ever there were a hidden road somewhere off the map where journey and dream mysteriously meld and profane and sacred cannot be told apart, then this tiny passage through the forest might be it, this woman its faithful keeper.
Finally, I'd reached the bottom - sea level again - and rode the rest of the way to Minehead, bits of forest still clinging to me and my bike and my dreaming.
17 July 2007
Coming up the steep hill out of Boscastle Harbour, I passed two other tourers on their way to John o'Groats, sweating like hams in the sun. I felt like a wise guy just passing them by like that, and I was just feeling sorry for them when I heard someone whisper 'Morning!' in my right ear. I turned to see that I was being overtaken with ease by an old man - grey hair, wrinkles, grandfatherly smile, the works. I told him that he was humiliating me and he laughed and slowed down to chat to me. 'This is one of the few places you can climb 1,000ft from sea level,' he said with alacrity. Wise guy. He turned into a little blue dot as he accelerated towards infinity in front of me. At the top I could se the whole world, disappearing in the distance into sunshine haze - when sweaty dribbles of sun cream weren't filling my eyes. The lesson here is never to put sun cream on one's forehead, let it burn because the pain is less? Anyway, that was only the first big hill of the day. From there it was down to sea level again at Bude, up across single track roads up-down-up-down-youmustbejokingup-down and up to Torrington then further up over the tops and a roller coaster ride down to Barnstaple at sea level. Finally, there was the long 20 mile drag up into Exmoor in the showers - a beautiful lonely ride through deep green and quiet, emerging into the sub-tropical dank profusion of the Lyn Valley and Lynton Youth Hostel. It was a long day's ride and I felt exhilerated to have made my destination. Unfortunately, I could no longer move my limbs, so before bed, I rubbed Tiger Balm into them. It was my friend Anna's idea to bring a small pot of Tiger Balm. I suddenly felt like I was in my own private bubble of fire. Powerful, exotic vapours enveloped the dormitory and the last thing I remember before disappearing into sleep was my room-mates' shifting uncomfortably in their beds in polite agitation. I woke up an hour later to the sound of one of them opening a window. In the morning I slept through my alarm but my room-mates didn't. They didn't complain, though - their stoic patience with me was salutary.
This morning I'm sitting in the cafe by the clifftop railway in Lynton. There's a photo in here of the railway just before it opened in 1888. Originally built to haul cars from Lymouth at sea level to Lynton on the clifftop, it is based on two carriages hanging from a large pulley at the top of the cliff. The carriage at the top fills a water tank from a stream, which then pulls the other carriage up the hill, the two passing half-way. The route is dead straight down at about 45 degrees, blasted out of the rock. It must take a certain monomania to embark on a massive project like that for such little purpose. I salute it for its unreasonableness, its refusal to care for the question, 'But what's it for?' It's one of life's eccentric mysteries that some of the most enjoyable things are those least necessary, like this journey, for example, and life itself of course.
Later I have to go up Countisbury Hill, up over the top and down Porlock Hill - the steepest A road in Britain - to Minehead, just 20 miles today. In 1899, a few men and horses managed to pull a lifeboat over the same hill, which is ridiculously steep, travelling overnight in rain and high wind in an attempt to save a stricken vessel off Porlock; at one point they even had to demolish part of a cottage to get round a corner. It's an amazing story remembered in a little display in Lynmouth. Now I'm going to descend via the crazy railway to Lynmouth in a cloud of Tiger Balm vapour.
PS Blessed are those who have posted comments on my blog - thank you.
PPS I'll send some pictures soon - it's a bit of a complicated process from my mobile.