Thursday 2 September 2010, Filed in: General

For some reason because the South West of England isn’t in our usual haunts of Scotland, Wales, Ireland or South of France we rarely go there so this year we decided to take the blinkers off and go somewhere completely different. As we live in South Warwickshire and occasionally read the Guardian this suited us as we could start the tour from home without the need of road or air transport. It would also mean more time to cycle, yippee!

In retrospect there’s nothing new in this. Cycling to Cornwall and back on yer tandem is exactly what your Grandparents did although they were much harder than us of course. None of your carbon fibre, titanium and breathable clothing for them it was all cast iron and Harris Tweed.

We stayed in B+B’s, however the silver haired brigade nearly always beat us to the best. We chose September to avoid the families but ended up with a vast army of retired people who being older and wiser than us did things like book in advance and arrive earlier.

September brought fantastic weather, little wind and lots of hot sunshine. The first three days were a romp down to Lyme Regis with the need for constant lashings of suncream. We passed through the territory of the CTC David Duffield challenge ride but chose to avoid the mountains to the south of Bath by visiting the hippies on the Kennet and Avon canal and then heading out along the former Somerset and Dorset railway to Radstock. Now our tandem was at this time brand new and still showing off its ‘bling’, four miles later on the soft ballast that had been left behind by Dr. Beeching and it looked several years old, never mind! If you’re interested this route isn’t quite complete yet and a number of obstructions take you uphill anyway. Like many of these trails it fizzled out un-signposted, this time into a riding stable before the inevitable climb out.

Now isn’t Midsomer Norton a TV programme about murder? Well we now know it’s a real place but didn’t see John Nettles and any murders going on, very pleasant toilets though and a nicely re-surfaced car park. No time to loiter here as we had to get to Wells. Being aliens to this region we couldn’t believe the volume of rush hour traffic leaving MSN, we thought it was just a few tractors and milk tankers down here, quite a surprise. Things brightened up arriving in Wells though and if you’ve never seen the Cathedral and Bishops Palace before it has lots of wow factor. Unfortunately can’t say the same for the pub food we had that night!

After a fine lunch in Crewkerne a couple walked passed us and clearly stated that they were also tandem riders and added ‘tandem couples never get divorced’ and walked off, how bizarre! From here the B3165 to Lyme is very tandem friendly and it’s easy to cover the distance in about an hour as it’s well graded and very quiet. We were looking forward to the summit and who would see the sea first…this delight never happened as the mist descended and visibility got down to about 20metres and we needed the lights on at 3.30 on a summers afternoon!

The Lyme Regis to Holcombe leg of our trip was perhaps one of the hardest with so many hills. We decided to walk Peak hill after Sidmouth as it was extremely steep would be too tough with the panniers. Thing is though with SPD shoes and a forever steepining gradient we weren’t confident in stopping on it either so went for the heart attack cycling version instead, silly fools! Afterwards we were able to relax on the ferry over from Exmouth but it’s a bit of an obstacle course getting off the boat at Starcross onto the pier and then over the railway before taking further steps down to the road. If you’re heavily loaded it would probably be best to go round and save yourself the expense of the ferry and avoid the possibility of slipping and ending your tour.

Another tandem friendly road is the B3193 following the River Teign with an easy climb to Mortonhampstead before heading north and round to Okehampton. This avoids going ‘over the top’ of Dartmoor and gives great views over north western Devon. Okehampton toilets are situated next to Somerfield and are of the modern rather horrid talk to you unisex variety but at least they gave us the opportunity of emptying the tank prior to the long climb up to the station which we hadn’t noticed on the map thinking it was all flat from here. The first part of the former London South Western Railway trail we’d seen on BBC’s Countryfile and so wanted to get the fantastic views and viaducts into our trip. What the BBC didn’t tell us, is again it’s not continuous, so lots of time is spent dismounting and doing some rough stuff to link the various sections, great fun with 28mm tyres and panniers!

Unfortunately we were on a roll and passed through Lydford without stopping but must go back there sometime as it looks lovely. A few moments were spent at Brent Tor before the long and enjoyable descent to Tavistock which is a delight and very Scottish looking in all its granite. The combination of ‘Aprils’ Cottage B+B and Steps Restaurant made this a great stop-over.

Unfortunately we had to escape from the next accommodation, a very dodgy B+B on the outskirts of Bodmin onto the Camel trail. This is a far more established trail and has few obstructions although it was a shame to be on the very leafy southern section on an extremely sunny Saturday morning, however it does deliver you direct to the town centre toilets in Wadebridge.

Boscastle is a delight and it’s a straight forward climb out. The hills on the minor coast road to Bude however are extremely steep and provide a very tough walk, pretty pleasant on a fine day though. Before Bude we called into the toilets at Widemouth Bay and felt very out of sorts on our tandem in Lycra cycling kit amongst all the grungy surfers…but to you and us they’re the odd ones! The town is no longer a fine Victorian resort but a rather scruffy hang out for the surfing set. Our pre-booked (the night before) 4* B+B provided us with a woodchip papered attic room backing onto a curry house kitchen vent. We were desperate for a day off our tour and Bude wasn’t going to be it.

Although technically heading home we were getting very weary so enjoyed the long down hill section along the River Yeo to meet up with the Tarka trail. This is a splendid scenic trail with few obstructions, shame it ends in Barnstaple though with all its road works and believe it or not on a Sunday no public toilets! The only option after much time wasting was M+S. We couldn’t find a cosy café either…hardly surprising we bonked 10 miles before Lynton.

After a couple of dodgy B+Bs and the enforced tour of Barnstaple, Lynton was fantastic. Everybody should visit here as it’s gorgeous but warning this is not your regular cycling territory (if unfamiliar, study the OS map very carefully)! This is where we had our day off to relax, in retrospect we should have had a week. On leaving we visited the Valley of the Rocks where cycling around the roundabout a few times deciding on what to do, a youth shouted over ‘on a round trip then?’ very refreshing after all the usual ‘Daisy Daisy’ or ‘they’re not pedalling on the back’ etc.

We were too exhausted to ride up Contisbury Hill, our excuse being we’d done it sixteen years previously but took the very pleasant Doone Valley along to Dunster. You shouldn’t be put off cycling in the hilly Exmoor region, careful route planning can make you enjoy the spectacular scenery with only the occasional walk and heart attack.

We couldn’t resist taking the West Somerset Railway to avoid the Quantocks. The WSR were very pleased to take us and it was no hassle accommodating our tandem in the guards van, just like the good old days (remember when you could dive on and off trains with your tandem free of charge, any train, any time…progress… ). After so many trails it was refreshing to find a railway that still had trains on it! The WSR run this railway very professionally and no surprise it was extremely busy.

Anybody who has done the end to end via the Welsh border route will have found themselves navigating through the Portbury/Avonmouth complex to get to the Severn Bridge. We were prepared for the industrial scene and criss-crossing of motorways but not the forever missing signs on the Sustrans route, the broken glass, truanting kids hanging around, routes blocked by lorries and so on. In retrospect it is probably easier to just blast up the A38, or in our case plod. At least the weather was good and a pleasant morning had been spent on another excellent trail the ‘Strawberry Line’ from Cheddar to its new Sandford extension open three days before – were we the first tandem?

We only came via Chepstow to say we had also been to Wales and to use the bridge for the first time. The next day despite years of touring, all the experience was discarded in an attempt to get from here to our home near Stratford on Avon in one day. How stupid was that idea? Its 100 miles, we were shattered, some heavy rain was forecasted and there was a rather lumpy Forest of Dean to pass through first. Always plan your days carefully and when on tour make sure you have some rest days!

On approaching Winchcombe we started looking for accommodation, again not ideal when touring, many of you will have been in this un-planned position before, it was also Friday night! Eventually we found somewhere, an absolute classic, 2 miles out of town up a narrow lane on top of a massive hill. This meant we had a 4 mile round walk to cap off the day in the dark to get to the pub!

The final 30 mile crawl home was blessed with fabulous sunshine but it took us ages (normally just a couple of hours) to get home; however once home we dumped the formerly new tandem in the garage, dropped the panniers on the hall floor…and fell asleep.

However we’d had a great tour and seen so much new territory. We shall be doing it again and again hopefully but with more planning next time (East Anglia sounds attractive after this one). Best towns we passed through included Somerton, Tavistock, Lynton, Dunster and the East Devon resorts which are all an absolute credit to their residents. Lyme Regis is probably nice too but we couldn’t see it in the mist! Throughout the 660 miles we never saw another tandem and only four other people cycle touring, popular hobby?

Best public toilets were close to home at Broadway, Worcestershire!

Philip and Helen Muir


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