Tuesday, 31 July 2007


We are starting to feel like Mr and Mrs Noah, travelling towards the flooded lands, two by two. Tandems, children, trailers, toy puppies, the only thing not duplicated is the baby; we have no plans to do that on this trip. As we bomb through Bristol, with its historic harbour and welcome hotel facilities, we consult the map, wondering if the waterlogged Midlands have dried out enough to accommodate our travelling circus. Can we get through Gloucester without our tent sinking?. Will our buggies grind to a halt in a puddle of Tewksbury? While we stop under the Severn Bridge to picnic and discuss it, the kids make a collage on the sand from bits of sea glass and driftwood. Out of the corner of my eye, I see a man pedalling along with what looks like a large portion of a tree slung across his basket and handlebars. I half expect him to take off and soar over the Severn, like the child from ET. He dissapears towards a row of houses while we lay out our maps on the wide cycle path.

“How do you get on with your trailer?” The man is back, with his basket now empty. “Everyone’s been telling me to get one for years” he says, grinning through a rack of corrogated teeth, “but I’d never get it through all these gates.” We swap horror stories of getting the bikes stuck in some of the worst of the barriers, designed to keep out motorbikes, but unintentionally bringing a halt to our HGV style bikes time and time again. Jim explains he negotiates the gates each evening, riding the sea front picking up driftwood to heat his living room, making himsef and his wife self sufficient for fuel. “In the winter we move into the living room, make a right good fire, and sleep there,” he tells me. “It’s our only way of keeping ourselves warm.”

On his daily round he collects each piece of wood individually, throws it across his handle bars, then takes it home to dry out. Much of the wood he stores away for winter, although he collects it all year around. But over the last week or two he’s gone into overdrive. The floods in Gloucester have washed down so much driftwood that he’s concerned there’ll be nothing left to pick up in the autumn. We chat about self sufficiency and being green, and he shakes his head. “Agh, while there’s just a few eccentrics like me combing the beach there’s enough wood to go around. But if everyone was doing it I’d be finished. Ive been doing this for years and it’s funny how it’s come around again. You know, I modelled myself on the old girls from Liverpool after the war, scrabbling around on bombsites, picking up and burning the wood to keep themselves from freezing. ” He shows us his bike, a single geared 1950’s classic with a red plastic crate that looks like its been borrowed from the milkman tied on the front with string. “What do you think of this then?” Jim asks. He poses for a picture, “I’ll cover up me teeth; not so photogenic eh?” then he mounts his bike to get on his way. “Enjoy yourselves. You’ve picked a good evening for it. ” he says, peering out at the calm waters towards Wales. “This mighty Severn can kick up real nasty,” he shouts, moving off towards the sea. “ We fold up the maps, and decide for now to head for Wales. The rest we can work out on the road.

Tuesday 31st July

Today's ride; Bristol to Severn Bridge via Avon Gorge, 36km

Monday, 30 July 2007

I am the Anti-Carist

“Why did that car just throw coffee at us?” asked Matthew as we headed out of Bridgewater. I wiped coffee off my face and jersey as we crunched over the now empty styrene coffee cup lobbed from the window of a Ford Fiesta boom-box whose occupants stuck fingers up at us out the window as they sped off down the road.

How do you explain that to a six year old? If I’d had the energy to sprint and catch the finger sticking youths, I think I’d have found a new use for my penknife, slicing tyres and scratching go faster stripes. But it wouldn’t have set a very good example so I tried to make light of it. “Maybe they thought we were thirsty?” But no-one really got the joke.

I pedalled on fuming to myself. Not just at stupid yobs who think it’s a laugh to chuck coffee at cyclists but at all the cars, lorries, campervans and caravans that have cut us up, stare-eyed us, beeped at us or joked ‘Can’t you go any faster?’ or ‘John O Groats, you’ve got a long way to go then’ as they passed us on the hills. I mean it’s not like we’re looking for trouble and for the most part we’ve had none but the longer I ride for the more Anti-Carist I become.

Struggling up to Priddy in the Mendip hills a car crawled slowly past, the driver slowing down while passengers gawped stalk eyed at us, fat noses smeared against prison windows. There comes a point with a loaded tandem and trailer at which the reverse pull of gravity defies all attempts at riding uphill. As I reached that critical point and got off to push up the impossible gradient, the car pulled into a layby just ahead. ‘Great,’ I thought, ‘perhaps they’ll help.’ But no, they preferred to watch as we sweated and struggled up the hill. Almost without fail, pedestrians who have passed us in this kind of predicament have offered helped. On our way into Bristol, four drug-eyed teenagers even put their spliffs out to lend a hand, but motorists? No; they seem prefer to watch the show from the safety of their tin coccoon.

Traffic is not only choking me up but it’s choking this country. South of Bristol, we stopped briefly in the pretty village of Chew Magna, mysteriously (and incorrectly) associated in my mind with being Britain’s first Carbon Neutral community. The volume of cars speeding down single track lanes to get quickly to the village traffic jam soon put me right. Parked cars, vans and traffic queues made it hard to negotiate our way through the village. It’s sad to see once quiet rural environments strangled like this.

As a cyclist, it’s hard not to feel like a second class citizen. For sure we’re given cycle routes and facilities but they never match those given over to the car. In the Tesco car park in Taunton we struggled to find a place to park our tandems to do the weekly shop. Give them their due there was a signposted cycle path, and the place was accessible from a cycle track but there were only spaces for twenty ‘ordinary’ cycles while the car park must have had spaces for five hundred plus cars. Once we’d managed to park our bikes, they were obviously something of an inconvenience to those trying to get their trolleys back to their cars.

We’ve given over too much of our country to the car. Just look at the swathes of roads, eating into the countryside with each improvement and widening scheme, the acres and acres of car parks in towns, cities and shopping centres and all so we can be free to travel whereever we want whenever we want. Does no-one see the price of this freedom? We followed the cycle path on the M5 road bridge across the River Avon, cycling just yards from the deafening noise of thousands and thousands of vehicles going nowhere on important business, while we tried to pick our way along a cycle route littered with shards of broken indicators, glass, straps and debris from traffic accidents. That’s the price we pay for our freedom.

The people that do stop and talk to us ask almost us everyday, “Are you enjoying yourselves?” Well despite all this, we certainly are. Why would we bother if we didn’t? The freedom of the bike is an intoxicating thing. And I’ll enjoy it even more now I’ve got all that off my chest.

Monday 30th July

Cycling through the urban splash of Bristol

Today's ride: Priddy to Bristol via Mendip Hills, 40.34km

Sunday, 29 July 2007

Sunday 29th July

Today's ride: Glastonbury to Priddy via Wells and Wookey Hole, 24.4km

Saturday, 28 July 2007

Glastonbury Camping

Glastonbury: Muddy and rainy of course. Hours of fun in the family tent.

Saturday 28th July

Today's ride: Bridgewater to Glastonbury via Peat Moors Centre, 24km

Friday, 27 July 2007

Friday 27th July

A muddy ride canalside, Taunton and Bridgwater Canal

Today's ride: Wellington to Bridgewater, 52km

Thursday, 26 July 2007

An alternative Britain

Twelve days in and we’ve almost reached Taunton, having clocked some 400km. But something doesn’t add up; my road atlas tells me Taunton is only 250km from Lands End. So we’ve been clocking up the miles but going in the wrong direction. I put it down to software failure. I programmed all our route options into our laptop before we left home only to discover on day two of the ride that the software had become irretrievably corrupted. So we resorted to our more traditional route planning techniques, poring for hours over a library of OS maps then deciding it was easiest to follow the Sustrans National Cycle Network (NCN), after all someone went to a lot of trouble to plan those routes just for cyclists.

We were doorstopped by Emily, a Sustrans ‘fundraiser’ on the Tarka Trail just outside Barnstaple. “Do you use the Sustrans network?” she asked with an engaging smile. I explained we were using it to get to John O Groats before realising I’d committed myself to becoming a financial supporter of Sustrans as well as a network user. Not that I mind; it’s a good cause and a great network. Just a shame it’s left to a charity to develop and promote sustainable transport instead of it being at the heart of government policy. At the very least, you’d think the government might fund them properly and save them begging for donations on cycle routes.

Anyway, Emily was very pleased to get me signed up as her first donor of the day and didn’t seem to mind waiting six weeks to contact us to get our bank details for the direct debit mandate. “John O Groats eh?” she said dreamily as she got me to sign her form, “Where’s that then?” She had as much idea of the way to go as we did.

I’ve developed a love hate relationship with NCN3, the Sustrans cycle route which runs from Lands End to Bristol. Riding sections of it on the Camel and Tarka Trails I can imagine another England, where bikes, trikes and tandems rule the road and young and old alike abandon their cars to pedal to school, work and the shops and save the planet. The numbers and diversity of people using these sections of the network is testament to the potential there is for getting people riding on safe, flat, traffic free trails.

But it’s not all so free and easy. Away from these panflat rail trails, while the route follows beautiful, quiet country lanes, it’s the cars that get the flatter routes and the bikes that get the hills. Don’t get me wrong, the scenery and routes are outstanding, but you get much more of a workout than the cars do. And then there’s the gates and barriers; strategically placed to stop cars, scooters and motorbikes using some of the traffic free sections of trail. Trouble is they stop us dead too. You can just about get a bike through the various combinations of offset gates, zig-zagging metal latticework and decorative concrete bollard gardens but there’s no accommodating a tandem and trailer. It’s infuriating, barring access to the very thing that we value the most; safe, quiet traffic free trails. There must be a more elegant solution.

While Britain’s highways are maintained by an army of paid contractors, the Sustrans network is looked after by volunteer Rangers. “I ride the route once a month, checking signage, looking for hazards like fallen trees, reporting problems and trying to keep the route in good order,” explained Ivor Annetts, a volunteer Ranger we met in the Riverbank Restauarant in Tiverton. He was taking coffee and struggling with his Guardian Kakoru when the restauant owner introduced us, hinting we should get some route advice from him. “I was very excited when I heard the route was coming this way,” explained Ivor, a reaction pretty typical amongst those of us who like to use our bikes to get around, “so when I saw a meeting about it advertised, I went along and volunteered to help…… on a flat stretch.” His wishes were granted three years ago when he became Ranger for NCN3 between Tiverton and Taunton, a section including fine, flat, traffic free trails along the great old industrial waterways of the Great Western and Bridgwater and Taunton Canals. These masterpieces of Victorian engineering were part of a bold privately financed vision to create waterway links between the Bristol and English channels, to avoid the need for treacherous journeys around Lands End and the Cornish Coast. It’s a vision which resonates with that of Sustrans, who continue to work tirelessly to create a safe cycle network around the treacherous traffic of 21st century Britain. Hopefully, with the right investment, perseverance and support form government, supporters and volunteers, Sustrans will have more success then the waterway companies who were forced to give up on their vision when the railways made the whole venture unsustainable.

As I talked with Ivor, he chuckled as revealed he was up for a Sustrans award, “I’m not sure what it’s for, either Ranger of the Year or Best Signed Route.” I throttled back my zig-zagged gate fury, grateful for the efforts of people like him and Emily whose efforts as volunteers are helping create a sustainable alternative to our congested roads. OK so it might be a rough, hilly, gated network that’s difficult at times for tandems and trailers, but it is a network that takes you through a different, quieter, greener, less congested Britain.

Thursday 26th July

Today's ride: Tiverton to Wellington via Grand Western Canal, 21.6km

Wednesday, 25 July 2007

Wednesday 25th July

Today's ride: Somewhere on Exmoor to Tiverton via Dulverton, 51.3km

Tuesday, 24 July 2007

Tuesday 24th July

Relaxing in Barnstaple at end of Tarka Trail

Today's ride: Bideford to Exmoor via Tarka Trail to Barnstaple, 41.88km

Monday, 23 July 2007

Monday 23rd July

Today's ride: Tamar Lakes to Bideford via Gnome Reserve, 31.7km

Sunday, 22 July 2007

Sunday 22nd July

Today's ride: Bude to Tamar Lakes, 17.79km

Saturday, 21 July 2007

Time for a shower

Boscastle is famous for the floods of 94. Today it appeared to be the only place in Britain that wasn’t flooded. ‘TWO MONTHS OF RAIN IN TWO DAYS’ said the headline in the Daily Express as we pushed on through the one pocket of sunshine in the UK. The radio reported people stranded on the M5 all night, with Gloucestershire and Worcester both flooded. “It’s bedlam up and down the country,” said the owner of an empty campsite on what should have been one of the busiest days of the year.” We dipped down into Boscastle, and wandered through the picturesque streets squeezed between hillsides leading down to ancient harbour. In the tourist office we watched a stream of cars being constantly washed away on a DVD loop, mirroring last night’s TV.

As we paused to refuel on our final Cornish pasties before making for Devon the sun went behind a cloud and the tourists began running for their cars. We togged up in waterproofs and prepared for a two hundred metre climb out of the tourist honeypot. A couple wandered over to chat and introduced themselves as long distance cycle tourers, Julia and Gary. Amongst other travels they had spent six and a half years circumnavigating the globe, although they only set out for a year initially. “Come and camp in our garden,” said Julia. “We live on the route. It doesn’t matter what time of day or night. You arrive. Just pitch up and have a shower. People offered us so much hospitality on our adventure that we’d like to give something back in return.” They sped off in their Land Rover hooting and waving as we mounted our bikes.

Five hours later, wet, bedraggled and exhausted we cycled up to the address they had given us in Bude. But no one was at home. It was late, the hotels and B and B’s would be full and we had passed the only campsite two miles up the road. We had no other option.“Let’s hope it’s the right address,” said Stuart, laying the tent out onto the small patch of grass, taking up every inch. We left the tent to grab something to eat, crossing our fingers that we wouldn’t later be evicted from the garden by an angry home owner that didn’t remotely resemble the people we had met earlier in the day. As we walked into town a friend rang to ask about our progress. “You’ve camped in someone’s garden but you aren’t completely sure it’s the right one?” she said incredulously. “You guys are unbelievable.”

When we returned to our tent there was a light on in the house. “ You made it! Come in for coffee and meet everyone. Do have a shower too,” said Gary. He showed us into the living room, past bookcases of travel guides, galleries of photos from Australasia, South America and Europe and lovingly maintained old touring bikes hung like picture frames on the walls. We had certainly come to the right house and talked biking and adventuring over coffee with Gary, Julia and other friends and family staying with them. And as we told our story and they all revealed a little of theirs we discovered ourselves to be in the company of not just circumnavigating cyclists but Olympic standard canoe paddlers and keen scuba divers.

“Will you be touring again after your round the world trip ,” I asked Julia as we made coffee. “Oh we’ve done loads since then and plan to do more,” she replied. “Gary suggested we tour Ireland next year. But I reckoned that might be a bit boring so I changed one letter. I think Iceland will be fun. I find the shower a great place for planning.” At the third mention of a shower I gave in. They were obviously finding us a little ripe. But as I entered the bathroom the first thing I noticed was the shower curtain, a complete map of the world; it wasn’t a hint about our cleanliness after all. As I shampoed my hair I listened to the kids playing in the tent, and traced our journey so far on the map of the UK and wondered about the possibilities for circumnavigating the rest of the shower curtain with a family of five.

Saturday 21st July

Today's ride: Camelford to Bude via Camel Trail, 32.4km

Friday, 20 July 2007

Friday 20th July

Today's ride: Bodmin to Camelford, 27.14km

Thursday, 19 July 2007

The Big Push

Someone told us the Camel Trail was like the M25 for bikes, jammed with families crawling along bumper to bumper. But by the time we reached Padstow the bike hire shops were closing and families were heading home for dinner. We had the trail to ourselves as the sun made for its bed beyond the Camel estuary.

It was eight in the evening, and we still had another eight miles of trail to ride to reach Bodmin. We stopped in Wadebridge to give the kids a run-around when during a high level sit-down protest about moving on, Cameron tumbled down a slide and cracked his knee on the metal steps. A large red bump was quickly treated with a packet of frozen mixed veg from the nearby Londis, strapped to his knee with a bungee to reduce pain and swelling. And so the rest of us pedalled on while Cameron rested his kneee and defrosted our dinner with his feet up on the stokers bars of his tandem.

All pedalling stopped when we reached the outskirts of Bodmin and discovered our third puncture in three days. And we’d failed to notice that the only campsite in the area was a three miles detour into town, then up a steep hill with a hundred metre climb. We began to push the bikes up the hill, exhausted, and were soon overtaken by a couple with a dog. I watched them struggle with their consciences for a few minutes before the man gave in first. “I can’t watch you struggle up that hill,” he told me, stationing himself behind my buggy and giving it a helpful shove. “It helps you know,” he motioned to his wife and her conscience gave way too, giving Cameron a helping hand pushing Stuart and the baggage trailer up the hill, leaving the dog to potter along behind.

Our helpers introduced themselves as Bob and Jayne from Norfolk. “We don’t do hills,” said Bob as we puffed along, “in fact we haven’t seen one of these for years.” Bob and Jayne were holidaying at the same campsite and pushed and chatted with us all the way up the hill. “We’ve got bikes with us you know,” said Jayne as we reached the top, “but I think after this they’ll be staying in the car.” But I think our description of our beautiful sunset ride along the Camel Trail may have persuaded them to give it a go.

Bob and Jayne’s kindness extended beyond the hill. As darkness fell and we busied ourselves setting-up camp and cooking dinner, they appeared once more in a second umprompted act of human kindness. “I reckon you guys deserve this,” they said handing over two ice cold Canadian beers. I didn’t know what to say. “Thank you,” I mumbled, “Errr do you want to stay for dinner?“ They glanced quickly down at the empty packet of mixed veg by the stove. “No thanks, we’ve already eaten.”

Thursday 19th July

Today's ride: St Mawgan to Bodmin, 41.15km

Wednesday, 18 July 2007

Wednesday 18th July

Evening ride, Coast road to Padstow

Today's ride: Truro to St Mawgan, 32.65km

Just like the Presleys from Bovey Tracey

“You’re just like the Presley’s. They cycle everywhere from Bovey Tracey,” says Anne, our landlady for the night, as we begin the long walk from the pretty guest house with flowers climbing up the wall, to the ‘annexe’ a quarter of a mile away that looks like a DHSS hostel. Securing the room had required some negotiation with the lady in the bling encrusted spectacles dressed in a yellow two piece. She had been reluctant to give us permission to take over a family room for the night due to the fact there were ‘shopfitters’ upstairs. When we established that she didn’t mean shoplifters and reassured her I had no problem with shopfitters we agreed a deal. “They’re actually no trouble, ” she whispers. “They’ve been with me for six months. But don’t leave your bikes outside, too dangerous!” She deposits me in a gloomy hallway in front of a payphone and hands over a key. “I have to give my shopfitters breakfast first in the morning. So you can’t have breakfast until a quarter to nine. And you have to ring me first. When I answer the phone I need you to ask “Are you ready for us?” And I will say yes or no. Can you remember that?” Anne enquires without taking a breath. I tell her I’ll be sure to handle the situation appropriately. “Here, have a practise,” she says, handing me the receiver. When she is satisfied I have understood the procedure she nods approvingly and gives me the key. “The Presley’s are mad too,” she sighs as she bustles down the hall back to her flower clad house. The kids are hungry so we pile out into the streets of Truro in search of food, heading for the cathedral, led by the sound of the bells.

In the morning we regret spending our money on an evening meal as breakfast is a production. About fifty cereal boxes line the windowsill, and Anne, still dressed in yellow, comes in to take our order while welcoming three German Tourists. They don’t speak English, but that doesn’t put our host off, as she tries to introduce us, trying out a few different words for trailers. The Germans don’t understand the words ‘pod’ or ‘bucket seat.’ When she gets nowhere she askes them if they enjoyed their night on the town. “An y girls?” she asks, as they look at her blankly. “FEMALES,” she shouts, miming an hourglass figure. More blank looks and she gives up. “Full english,” she says, ignoring the German’s attempts to point out they just want toast. “Where are you off to today?” she turns her attention to us. We tell her Camborne, and she nods. “The Presley’s from Bovey Tracey went to Dorset by bike once,”she cries, commanding someone in the kitchen to get on with the breakfasts.

Ten minutes later and two full English breakfasts come to the next table in the hands of her employee, then a third follows, “For the cyclist” says the waitress, plonking a massive mound of bacon, sausages, eggs, hash browns and beans in front of the German who is still miming toast being spread with butter. A couple of minutes later and Anne appears at the Germans table and snatches the plate while the guest’s fork is in mid air. “I said for the cyclist. You’re not cycling to Camborne today are you?” The Germans catch on and announce they are off to Stonehenge. “You need a good breakfast,” she announces to Stuart.

His breakfast appears, piled onto his plate. The German whose breakfast was stolen looks over and make a noise into his serviette. “What is he saying about my beans?” says Anne, hands on yellow hips. “What are you saying about my beans? They’re good beans, from Sainsbury’s.” She whips away his plate and his toast and turns to us. “Good luck with your cycling. But don’t go on the main roads, will you? The Presley’s do and I worry so. It’s such a long road to Bovey Tracey.” “It’s even longer to John O Groats,” says Stuart. “Not after one of my breakfasts,” says Anne with a wink as she waddles out of the breakfast room with the German guest’s toast.

We set out through Truro town centre, keeping one eye out for the Presley’s of Bovey Tracey, the first cycle heroes of the trip.

Tuesday, 17 July 2007


Lost for the third time in a day, we were delighted to stumble across a cyclist’s oasis in the midst of disused Cornish mining trails. If we’d come six weeks earlier we wouldn’t have been so lucky. Owner Liz Hart took over the Tramway Café and Cycle Hire Centre at the end of June and has done a fine job regenerating the place. Mind you she knows the business, having spent twenty two years running the cycle shop in Scorrier.

As we sat on the balcony eating ice creams, Liz and centre manager Martin Beck attended to two cycle damsels in distress who had worn through a tyre on a ‘cycle pootle’ around Cornish Villages. While Rose from the café served the damsels jacket potatoes, Martin organised a van to whisk them away to find a new tyre, leaving apprenctice Sam to multi-task, manning the shop and tuning up the hire fleet.

As we left the last of the day trippers were returning their bikes for Sam to clean. As he worked off the muck with a brush, perhaps he was looking forward to finishing up and enjoying the freedom of his own ride home.

Tuesday 17th July

Today's ride: Redruth to Truro, 21.65km

Monday, 16 July 2007

Pedal Powered Pensioner

Jean, from Camborne, has been cycling for a lifetime, well 57 years to be precise. She started as a teenager, at sweet 17 and at seventy four still uses her bicycle to get around town, equipped with two pannier shopping bags and just three gears. She’s had her current model for twenty two years and says it’s a bit tough on the hills. While she doesn’t mind doing hills, she doesn’t do punctures and was just dropping it off for repair at the local bike shop. “That’s my neighbour,” she said, pointing to a less fit man down the street, “he could definitely get out more on his bike.”

That’s the spirit Jean. I hope I’m still riding at seventy four.

Monday 16th July

Let the pushing begin

Today's ride: Marazion to Redruth, 29.8km

Sunday, 15 July 2007

Sunday 15th July

St Michael's Mount

Today's Ride: From Lands End to Marazion, 26.63km

Wednesday, 11 July 2007

Ready, steady, ??

It's just two days before we're due to leave and we're without a plan more detailed than wanting to ride from one end of the country to the other, from Lands End to John O Groats.

We've done the maths; it's about 1000 miles and we've got six weeks before the kids need to be back at school. That's twenty five miles per day. Every day. For six weeks. It doesn't sound an unachievable daily distance, but I do wonder if we've got the stamina to do it day in day out, come rain or come shine, for that length of time, with three children, two tandems, two trailers, and hauling all our camping, cooking and clothing gear.

Kirstie and I have talked it over and over and over, and still reckon there's a chance we could do it, if everything goes to plan.... which would be great if we actually had a plan. Still it all adds to the sense of adventure. I mean you can't really have an adventure if you know exactly what's going to happen, can you?

But the thing which fires me up most about the trip though is not the classic route, the cycling or the challenge but the boy's enthusiasm and excitement. They're really into the idea of Lands End to John O'Groats although I expect they have no idea what it actually means, except some kind of really big, long family adventure. And what could be better than that?