Thursday, August 8, 2013

Riding Into Wales! Glastonbury to Chepstow.

Saturday 8 June, 2013
Great weather for a bike ride – Westhay to the Mendip Hills – Even the cows are disgusted – Over the Severn Bridge – The Severn Bore

Great weather for a bike ride

It's the sort of day when you look out the window and say: “Come on, let's go for a ride”. And I am keen to move on. But I'm also sorry to be leaving Glastonbury this sharp, cool, clear morning. Why am I moving on so quickly when I have only lightly brushed the surface of a town with so much to entice?

I'm certainly not riding to set a speed record. Several riders we've met so far have been very preoccupied with the time they'll take to get to John O'Groats: the sooner the better and when I mention that we'll take over 20 days, I get something like: “ oh, you're really taking your time, then.”

Of course I am! I haven't flown 12,000 miles (watching back episodes of Downton Abbey for 26 hours) to rush this ride. But every day I am increasingly aware that I am missing so much. Here's how I am rationalising it as I cruise north this morning on flat roads with an almost-tail-wind ( yes, the wind is over my shoulder!)
  • The first time visiting anywhere could be regarded as a trip to investigate what you will come back to see next time
  • I'm here for the cycling, for the closer contact with the terrain around me, the people I pass, the weather I am exposed to. I remember a quote by Ernest Hemingway: “It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a countryside best since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down a motor car you have no such accurate remembrance of a countryside.......
  • You can't do in- depth sightseeing and riding unless you have a big bank balance and no time limits.
So, I resolve, I will email Deirdre, my patient, understanding, wife back at work in NZ to suggest that we return, travel by car, similar itinerary, exploring in depth. 

Westhay to the Mendip Hills

At Westhay the road swings right and into the wind, flooding my nostrils with the richest, earthiest smells of cow-shit and sileage: we climb steeply into Wedmore where, stopped for a swig on my water bottle, I meet Geraldine, wearing a jacket with “Volunteer Gardener” on the back.

She notices the flag and apologises for confusing it with the similar Australian model.

My brother taught in Gore ( in NZ's South Island) and loved New Zealand. Told me so much about it that I grew to love it as well. Then I saw “Lord of the Rings” and was very sorry that I'd never been. But I'm a bit old to go now.”
I asked her what it was like living round here. She looked at me and smiled.
My life in this village is just perfect."

Cheddar Gorge, voted Britain's second best natural feature.

At 10 I ride into  the town of Cheddar, instantly recognisable as a tourist centre – milling crowds, impatient cars, blaring signs, temptations I have no trouble in resisting, especially as I am eager to tackle the Cheddar Gorge, in 2005 voted the second greatest natural wonder of Britain in a national poll. Half a million visitors come each year to gaze, to “Go Cheddar Gorge Xtreme”, to set out on the “Cheddar Crystal Quest”, or to visit the cave where, in 1903, a skeleton was found of a man who lived around 9,000 years ago.

The cliffs tower 140 metres above the roadway, and because the rocks rise steeply from the valley floor, seem to overhang the roadway. Rock climbers dot the cliffs. I labour on, relieved to get to the saddle at what I thought was the summit of the gorge and  where the wind is truly howling in my face.

Whoops! That wasn't the high-point of the hill at all. It's a mistake I make too often – reaching the “top” of a hill, then, unhappily, finding that the summit is higher up.

I toiled on, uphill and into the wind, but it was a grind with good company, first with a group of cyclists from the coastal resort of Weston Super Mare, out for a Saturday training ride. One was Australian. It was good to hear a familiar accent and he didn't make any mocking 'sheep' jokes, as those from his country often do to us more refined and sensitive souls from New Zealand.

Then, Carl, from Bristol, rode with me for several kms. I was a little embarrassed because he was riding a super racing bike and mine is..... pedestrian. Finding the wind harsh, he was happy to slow down and chat and talk about his plans to do LEJOG in September with a group of mates: their goal is to do the 1,000 miles in ten days though Carl seemed a little anxious about the 100 miles a day bit. So, he was in training, his first target the round Dartmoor Race, 117 kms at an average speed, he hoped, of 30 kph. That's about twice my speed on a good day.

Even the cows are disgusted

Carl sped off towards Chewton Mendip, I stopped to goggle at the panoramic view of Chew Valley Lake from high up on the Mendip Hills, then slowly braked my way down the abrupt descent to join the crowds of racing cyclists on the B3114 round the edge of the lake, its surface frisked by lively gusts.

Chew Valley Lake from the top of the Mendip Hills.

David and I had planned to meet for lunch on the outskirts of Bristol and I was happy to sit waiting in sun and shelter sipping a lemonade and trying to understand what the barman was asking me. Very pleasant man, very dense accent.

We loaded the bike onto the car for 12 kms through Bristol to avoid what the guide called “slow going through Bristol' and described by our friends, the Selkirks, who had done LEJOG in 2012, as “ a place that's easy to lose your way in.”

The Avon River, Bristol, with Pill on the right. The height
 of the mud banks indicate what a 15 metre tidal range does to a waterway.

I thought little of this at the time as it was only a few kms but soon decided that from here on I would ride every metre of the LEJOG journey.

I rode from Pill ( from the Welsh word for inlet or pool), a village to the west of Bristol, formerly a base for river pilots and with a reputation as a hell-hole. John Wesley, founder of the Methodist Church  in 1755 described it as "a place famous from generation to generation for stupid, brutal, abandoned wickedness". I promise that's not why I went there! Anyway, the place was boringly peaceful.

I rode through suburban streets, down to the Avon River, the Firth of Severn mistily distant, over the Avon Bridge, guided by an electric cyclist ( you know what I mean) and then onto roads and cycle tracks alongside the Severn Estuary, its two gigantic and beautifully delicate bridges glinting mystically in the distance.

The Severn Estuary with the Severn Bridge mistily in the distance. Cycle path in foreground.

The going was slow because a fierce wind was blasting down the wide waterway but I toiled on stoically, cursing not the wind, but the direction it had chosen. And.... I was getting by the hour more irritated at the idiotic behaviour of the trees at the roadside, at their gyrating, swaying, prancing, mocking, purposeless lunacy. There! I love trees but they can do better than imitate a troupe of drunken Morris dancers!

There are two Severn bridges, the modern and the road bridge. I made a dumb mistake of navigation at Severn Beach, under the modern bridge. Guided by locals, I lifted my bike onto a track along a grassy foreshore (“ yep, you're on the right track”, “ lots of cyclists ride along here”) against my instincts. The surface was..... poor – hard, pitted, rocky, iced with liberal splodges of cow-shit. Even the cows ambled off as I approached and they were sneering, contemptuous of this galoot who chose to trespass on their territory. I now know exactly why early bikes on rocky roads were called 'bone-shakers'.

Over the Severn Road Bridge

I saw a young couple pushing their bikes onto my Demon Trail and warned them off. Together we found a pathway leading up to the entry to the bridge.

It is a truly huge and stirring structure: 1.6 kms long, 50 m above the sludgy waters of the Severn, with a central unsupported length of 1000m and opened by the Queen in 1966. For me, the best thing about it was the cycle/pedestrian lane on each side of the roadway: crossing it was the best single hour of the trip to date. I lingered, took photos, talked to other riders and pedestrians. In Auckland we have a bridge(1020 m long) over the harbour and for years, there has been debate about the need for a cycle lane across the bridge which links two densely populated areas of the city. Why the debate? A cycle lane would be a winning move.

The cycle and pedestrian crossing over the Severn Bridge. A similar addition to the
Auckland Harbour Bridge in New Zealand would be welcomed by many.

The Severn Bore

No, this is not a comment on the Welshman I met on the hill at the far end of the bridge. I asked him for directions to the Afon Gwy B and B in Chepstow. His reply?

”It’s easy to find. Turn off down Ffordd Talargoch Road,  left along Ffordd Penrhwylfa which becomes Ceg-Y-Ffordd, then left along Lon Dyfi "

I gasped, thanked him and rode on.  In fact, apart from the dual language road signs, Wales at Chepstow was little different from England at Bristol.

I found David in Chepstow's main street and  followed him to our B and B right on the shores of the Wye River which flows into the Severn Estuary half a km downstream and, like the Severn, is subject to tides with a huge range between low and high – about 15 metres.

We ate dinner that night watching the tide swirl up the river, so quickly obscuring the mucky banks of ooze that were the river-scape when we booked in.

On 24 days a year, pushed by a good spring tide, a steep wall of water (up to 2m high) sweeps steadily up the Severn Estuary, carrying surfers, canoeists, and debris on its crest at about 10 miles (18kph) an hour. The best surfers can have the ride of their lives as far as Gloucester, 60kms upriver. That's another experience for next time. As a spectator!


Fine weather with a strong north easterly wind blowing, especially across water.

Distance today
78kms. It would have been 90 had I ridden all the way through Bristol
5h 40m
David on the terrace of our Chepstow B and B, the Old Wye Bridge,
 built 1816 in the background. There has been a bridge here since at least 1228.

Chepstow is across the Estuary from Bristol and upriver from Newport.
Glastonbury is halfway between Bath and Taunton.

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