Looking ahead at the weather forecasts, it was clear that the family Easter holiday in Cornwall would contain the opportunity for my brother and I to embark on a little cycle adventure. We were staying in the tiny village of Portholland, on the south coast, so I decided we would cycle to Padstow, on the north coast. There is something very neat about a coast-to-coast ride of any length; a certain sense of satisfaction for having crossed an entire body of land, however small.
With limited knowledge of the local area and limited time to spend poring over maps, I once again turned to the Sustrans online map to string together a route. I was delighted to find that there were long stretches of traffic free paths indicated on the map. This can sometimes be misleading – the orange lines can mean anything from a well-surfaced and clearly signposted converted railway line to a muddy, rutted, 2-foot wide path between hedgerows. Likewise, it could meander over scenic countryside, or it could mean a pathway behind an industrial estate. However, Sustrans’ site has plenty of information on these routes, and there are many blogs with descriptions and pictures, which assured me they’d make a perfect holiday route.
Having manhandled our bikes to Cornwall on the back of my parents’ car, and stored them in our bedroom, we set out on the first sunny morning. This was the first ride I had done since converting my vintage Dawes back to (pretty much) original spec, and I was a little concerned that the gears might not be low enough, not only as the front shifter was a little reluctant to shift, but also because (before the dawn of mountain bikes and super-low gearing) touring bikes tended to be fitted with more or less racing gears. The climb out of Portholland switched back-and-forth up a forest hillside: while you could look out over the tops of the trees on the downhill side of the road, the trees on the uphill side threw a dappled shade. Once on top of the peninsula it was open, cultivated country, and we rode along almost empty country lanes. Fortunately, the shifter which had not worked in the workstand worked fine on the road, meaning the climbs were fine; however, I soon discovered an equal and opposite problem. The brakes were useless, and moreover, they squealed like a stuck pig when applied. This made the steep switchbacks down into Mevagissey were somewhat fraught, though the view was amazing!
After Mevagissey, the path left the road and dropped back down into a forest, skirting the edge of the Heligan estate. The stately home at Heligan had once had incredible ornamental and exotic gardens, but these had become neglected and overgrown following the deaths of most of the gardeners in the First World War. They have been restored since the 1990s, and are well worth a visit (though not visible or accessible from this particular path!). At this point my brother managed to get a puncture so we stopped for a quick break while he fixed it (between Pengrugla and Nansladron – if anywhere in the world has better place-names than Cornwall I have yet to hear of it!). I took this opportunity to shorten my brake cable, drastically improving braking performance. The squeal had disappeared by itself by now.
Through the forest we had been following and crossing various water courses, but when we emerged we found ourselves following the St Austell river itself. A shady riverside path took us past London Apprentice (a village named after its pub – tells you something about local historical priorities!) and into St Austell itself. The Sustrans route through the town is indirect, but it does avoid a knotty double roundabout where the Pentewan Road meets the busy A390. There is the choice of a more direct, urban, on-road route or a gravel path which climbs up to the clay pits above the town. We chose the latter – it climbs past disused mine buildings, now repurposed as the Wheal Martyn museum. Cornwall is well known for its 18th and 19th-century mining booms in tin and coal, followed by economic slumps when the seams were finished. Deserted pitheads with their tall chimneys dot the landscape, though here at St Austell, the China clay was mined from open-cast pits, and the result is an almost lunar landscape, seen to great advantage from the modern bridge where the cycle route crosses the dual-carriageway.
The white gravel paths were a little more challenging in parts along here on narrower tyres, but nothing too difficult. As we stopped to take photos, I realised that water was dripping from my handlebar bag onto my front mudguard. I had been carrying my water bottles in the bag, as the bike has no bottle cage, and one of the lids had been worked loose by jostling with other items. These other items (including my battery lights) were now floating in half a litre of water – the bag had claimed to be waterproof, and to its credit, it was only dripping a little at the corners! Fortunately everything dried out easily (including the lights).
Here the path circles around the back of another tourist attraction, the Eden Project, built in a former mining pit. Like Heligan, it takes advantage of Cornwall’s mild climates to grow unusual and exotic plant specimens, though many of these are housed in multi-faceted, climate-controlled domes that come straight out of science fiction. It’s a fascinating place, and an interesting juxtaposition of how Cornwall’s modern tourist industry sits with its former industrial heritage.
The route joins country lanes at this point, and for almost the first time, begins to make consistent northward progress, along the river Par. We had been ambling along for some time when we rounded a bend and rather suddenly came across the Treffry Viaduct. It seems out of place now in a quiet wooded valley, but it was originally built by a wealthy industrialist to serve nearby stone quarries. It is a massive structure, built from the very stone that it would later carry to shipping ports.
The on-road section continues for some time, sometimes in wooded valleys, sometimes climbing up to hills with open vistas, and eventually comes to the provincial town of Bodmin. Bodmin is a very historic town, and was the only Cornish town big enough to be mentioned in the Domesday Book (which, incidentally, was held in the infamous Bodmin Jail for safekeeping during the First World War). It is also where St Petroc founded his monastery in the 6th century, and the current St Petroc’s church (dating to the 15th century) was the biggest church in Cornwall until the Victorian Truro Cathedral was built. The centre of the town has many solidly built stone buildings from various eras, befitting its historical status, and is a great place to stop and have lunch.
The old Shire Hall, now the tourist information centre
The rest of the square in front of the Shire Hall
Bodmin was also the start of the last section of our journey – our home stretch. The Camel Trail follows the track of an old railway from Bodmin to Padstow. I’ve written about railway paths before (the Tarka Trail and the Bristol and Bath Railway Path), and the Camel trail has all the same advantages. It is basically flat, direct, traffic-free and very well surfaced, and crosses the scenery with much of the original railway infrastructure – through impressive cuttings and over an iron truss bridge. Despite being about a third of our total route, it only took one sixth of our total time. It is a busy path, with many families and other riders about, but it is very wide, and there is plenty of room for everyone. The path goes through Wadebridge on roads (about the mid-point, and a popular staging point for families), before picking up the trail at the other side of the town. The surface is well-graded gravel, though you may experience a washboard effect at higher speeds – unfortunately a few kilometers out from Padstow, the bracket attaching my mudguard snapped, probably from the high-frequency vibrations.
The Camel Trail comes to an end by a row of sheds, housing a bike repair and hire centre (with counterparts in Bodmin and Wadebridge). Padstow itself is part tiny, picturesque Cornish fishing village, and part tourism machine, so in order to get to the town, you have to cross a massive car park and pass Rick Stein’s fish restaurant. The town on the other side is bustling on a sunny day, but, after locating the rest of our family in the car park, we managed to find a spot by the harbour wall to consume a celebratory ice cream.
From the end of the path looking back – you can just about see the truss bridge
One of the reasons I chose to try the NCN 4 route along the Kennet and Avon was the draw of a long-distance, mostly traffic-free path. Nevertheless, approximately one third of the route between Reading and Bristol is on roads, albeit quiet country lanes. A few miles before reaching Hungerford, the towpath narrows to the extent that it is not suitable for bike traffic. You join the road on a hump-backed bridge, and immediately have to climb a small hill. This comes as a shock – canals are by their nature flat (with a notable exception we shall soon come across) and this is probably the first time you will think about your lower gears. It’s not bad, though – the promise of quiet roads holds true, and you could probably go the whole 30 on-road miles and count the number of cars you see on both hands. Likewise, the hills, though frequent, are rarely both steep and long.
I am cynical about riding on country lanes. Part of this cynicism comes from my experience cycling in densely-populated Berkshire – even on quiet days, country lanes are busy with Range Rovers rushing to and from Henley, Marlow and Maidenhead. While that cynicism has all melted away by this point on the Kennet and Avon trail, my other complaint remains. The much-vaunted British hedgerow completely blocks out the equally-vaunted views. Even on a bike, where you are higher up than in a car, the hedgerows tower above you, to a height of ten feet where the road follows old sunken lanes. Views are promised, for example, of the Pewsey White Horse, but I have yet to spot it. A 60 foot image of a horse cut into the hillside in traditional Wiltshire fashion, it ought to be pretty easy to see, but it would take a taller man than me.
A view I didn’t realise was there until I ducked into a gap in the hedge to eat my sandwich
One of the more open sections
I shouldn’t complain, though. More than simply a field boundary, the humble hedgerow is one of Britain’s most important ecosystems. Not only do the roots slow erosion in heavily-farmed areas, but the hedges themselves provide a habitat for a vast array of insect, rodent and bird life, not to mention the various species of plant that, together, make up the hedges themselves. I am not an observant person when it comes to nature. While I appreciate a view as a whole, I rarely take time to appreciate the individual species that make it up. So it’s a pleasant surprise when I realise that the hedges that block my view of the British countryside are in fact the British countryside.
And anyway, it’s not as though this section is entirely enclosed by tunnel-like walls. The road passes over the open Hungerford common and through picturesque settlements, like the Anglo-Saxon town of Pewsey.
At Devizes you join the waterway again, but this time you are on the canal proper, rather than the tamed Kennet. You soon meet clear proof that it is a completely man-made waterway. Caen Hill presented a serious obstacle to the original canal builders – while the Kennet had been navigable since 1723, work on the canal linking it to Bath did not begin until 1794. By 1802 it was possible to get from Bath to the bottom of Caen hill, where goods had to be unloaded from the boats onto a tram which took them into Devizes. From 1809 they could be loaded back onto the canal at the top of the hill, ready to complete the rest of the journey by water. But it wasn’t until 1810 that the flight of 29 locks at Caen hill were opened. The canal rises 72 metres, but the steepest section consists of 16 locks where the canal rises nearly 50 metres in just over a kilometre. The first real downhill of the canal path, you may be tempted to fly down the hill, but it’s worth taking time to admire this incredible feat of engineering – and consider that it would take a narrowboat up to six hours to cover these two miles. (The other reasons not to let ‘er rip are because it is busy – this is a tourist attraction – and because there are narrow but sharp-edged drainage channels across the path waiting to do your tyres in)
My photo of Caen locks from the bottom – I am too short to get a good picture…
…so here’s one I stole from Wikipedia! (Public Domain)
A swing bridge on the Canal
Between Devizes and Bradford-upon-Avon, the path is pretty narrow and has some of the worst gravel of any surface on the route. The chunks are large and can be sharp, and this will be the worse section if you’ve chosen a narrower-tyred, road-focused bike. Anything else will be fine, and a suspension fork will help relieve any stress on your arms from the washboard effect that can occur if you take this too fast. This section is the only place I’ve ever had a puncture. It was the first time I did the route and I had taken my green bike with the skinny 23mm tyres. I had lowered the pressure in the tyres for greater comfort, but this meant that tyres were vulnerable to pinch punctures, where the inner tube is pinched against the metal rim of the wheel without anything actually piercing the tyre. This (in my experience) is actually much more common than a ‘traditional’ puncture, where glass or thorns actually penetrate the tyre. The beauty of wider tyres is that you can run lower pressures for a more cushy ride without running the same risk of pinch punctures because of the greater overall volume of air. As I said previously, while not super-wide by modern standards, even the 32mm tyres on my touring bike were much more comfortable and I had no punctures.
Not a bad place to fix a puncture
The gravel wot did it
Quality of the surface aside, the section leading to Bath is well-developed and clearly man-made, even more so than the section near Reading. Where the Kennet in Berkshire has its gravel pits and squat brick buildings, the canal has the Caen flight and the grand Dundas and Avoncliff viaducts. These spans carry the canal over the Avon river and back again. Made from the elegant honey-coloured Bath stone (an oolitic limestone, for the stone fans out there), they are more than just industrial – they sport balustrades, wide walkways and fine views up and down the Avon valley. Once you are past Bradford-upon-Avon, the paths improve: they are wider, straighter and better-surfaced, and you will see many more narrowboats, including plenty that are used as permanent residences. Cycling along on a sunny early summer afternoon, it’s easy to see the attraction, but I imagine it’s less idyllic the rest of the year.
The presence of all the boats and the monumental architecture hide how impermanent the canal is. As early as 1870, the canal was being undercut by cheaper rail transport, and sections were closed, and neglected locks silted up. By the middle of the twentieth century it was entirely unnavigable, and sections were little better than dry ditches through fields. Even the Caen Hill Locks were choked with weeds and the gates were missing. However, a massive volunteer effort, supported by the government, restored the entire length of the canal between the 60s and 2003, when it was re-opened by Prince Charles.
Bath is a beautiful city. It is uniformly built out of Bath stone, a kind of limestone that seems to absorb the yellow sunshine of summer days and long-drawn-out sunsets and then radiate it back out for the rest of the year. I say ‘uniformly’: most British cities have historic neighbourhoods, where, apart from the anonymous modern office blocks and brick terraces that make up the majority of the city, a small cluster of ancient buildings constitute the city’s distinct identity – Oxford, for example. In Bath, the reverse seems to be true. Not only does it seem to have far more than its fair share of tall Georgian buildings, but so much of the city is built from Bath stone that, seen from afar, it seems to be homogeneously attractive. Where most cities would sprawl, Bath is elegantly draped along the sides of the Avon valley. Its best approaches are from above, over these hills, as the view of the city opens out before you. It is somewhat surprising, then, when the canal path rather abruptly, and without warning, deposits you in the city centre before you really realise you are in Bath at all. Through the city, the path takes you past many of the sights of Bath. After every one it ducks into a quiet back road like so many Sustrans routes, and just as you think that you must be done with sightseeing, you pop out again by the Abbey, or the Royal Crescent.
One minute you’re on the canal, the next minute here!
The Royal Crescent
The inauspicious start of the Bristol and Bath Railway Path
At this point, you are really finished with the Kennet and Avon Canal, but the route carries on to Bristol, an extension it’s well worth exploring. After following the shared path along the River Avon through Bath, you come to the famed Bristol and Bath Railway Path (and yes, it is the Bristol And Bath Railway Path no matter which direction you are going). The path is about 16 kilometres long, and, like the Tarka Trail, follows the path of a disused railway line. In some ways it still serves the same purpose as the pre-Beeching branch line, linking Bristol, Bath and the towns in between for commuters at rush hours and for tourists and locals running errands the rest of the time. As a railway path it is also mostly flat, and it is perfectly paved the whole length to Bristol city centre. It still features magnificent iron truss bridges, level crossings, tunnels and even the occasional former station platform repurposed as a break area. I must admit to not having enjoyed this section quite as much as I might, as my legs were, by this point, more or less jelly. The Railway Path is also significant in that it was Sustrans’ first cycle route, created in the early 80s, when Sustrans was still called Cyclebag (an appalling ‘backronym’ allegedly standing for “Channel Your Calf and Leg Energy Bristol Action Group”).
My route ends at Bristol Temple Meads station, without a whole lot of fanfare – some routes have plaques at either end, no luck here as the NCN 4 ploughs on until Fishguard. When I arrived at Temple Meads in May, it was, by sheer coincidence, the weekend of Bespoked, the UK Handmade Bicycle Show. Unfortunately I arrived as they were closing, but I sat outside the venue (in the sheds at the station itself) and watched the exhibitors wheeling their creations out. I followed the crowd to the nearby ‘Spoons, where I leafed through a copy of the show programme I found abandoned on a table. The bike racks outside were full of trendy steel commuter/bikepacking machines, and men with beards huddled around their cheap pints discussing acetylene torches (well, I’m assuming that’s what bike builders talk about, I’m not sure).
At the station I was told there are no bike spaces back to Reading, but to take my chances anyway. A man on the station platform, fresh from the Bespoked exhibition hall, mistook me for an exhibitor and my Galaxy for an exhibition. Almost any bike of that age is hand-built in some sense of the word, though I imagine the frames churned out of the Dawes workshops in the 1970s were quite a different animal to the bespoke, artisan frames at Bespoked. He was delighted to see a classic frame still ridden though, no matter how utilitarian it may have been when new. A visiting American on his way back to London, he chatted amiably about the parts on the bike – the original (and horrifically flexy) Weinmann brakes and the original (and bulletproof) Suntour derailleurs; the definitely-not-original Modolo drilled racing levers; the modern-but-retro Berthoud mudguards.
Spoons burger – now traditional
The indignity of the railway bike rack
It’s interesting to look back on the route and the histories of industry and transport it intersects. The canals were built to support England’s commerce and industry, and were later displaced when that industry created the railways. The railways themselves came into trouble in the 1960s as Beeching closed lines such as the branch line between Bath and Bristol. In 1963, at almost exactly the same time as the railway lines were being axed, volunteers began clearing out the old canal bed. The railway line did not lie disused for long, either. Cyclebag built the Railway Path between 1979 and ’86. And at the same time as they were doing that, my Dawes Galaxy was being put together in a workshop in Castle Bromwich during the heyday of the British cycling industry. Like most industry in Britain, the bike-building business then went into decline in the 80s and 90s, but Bespoked shows that it is on its way back again, if in a very different form. Unable to compete with Far Eastern mass-production, British builders focus on creative, one-off or limited custom or semi-custom models.
This is what I love about a good cycle touring route. You go slower, you notice nature and you learn about the history that’s shaped the landscape and even the bike you’re riding. That’s what I was looking for when I wanted a break from being harassed on the A4.*
*Yes, the A4 has history too – parts of it date back to the old Roman road from Silchester to Bath…but that’s different!
I’ve done two rides along the Kennet and Avon Canal this year, in early spring and late spring. They were a little while ago now, so this is going to be much more of a reflection on the route itself and on long-ish distance, off-road/traffic-free cycling in general. Oh, and canals.
Commuting by bike 11 miles a day and having to share (admittedly very wide and pretty safe) roads with rushing cars in all weathers is relatively stressful, and, while I enjoy cycling, it means that when I’m looking for a leisure ride I’m not particularly interested in more road riding. Particularly in Berkshire, there is never really a time on any road where it is not busy. At weekends, even country roads are full of BMWs and SUVs rushing about the place, while anywhere more urban is full of people hurrying on errands, hurtling between double-parked cars as though 30 was the minimum, not the limit. Further to that, Britain’s roads (at least in this part of the country) can be pretty appallingly paved, and if I’m honest, a decent unpaved surface is actually more enjoyable than the abrupt and sudden cracks and potholes you get in tarmac.
One of my favourite tools for finding quiet routes has been Sustrans’ interactive network map (currently hosted by Ordnance Survey – a brilliant idea). Say what you like about Sustrans and their policies (and I may do so in a subsequent blog post), they do make it easy to find routes. What I tend to do is use that map to find large sections of orange (traffic-free) and link them together, to get as far as I can over the most interesting terrain. I was intrigued last year by the long east-west route leading through Reading. This, it turns out, is the NCN 27, a route which follows the Kennet and Avon Canal through Reading to Bath, linking to Bristol via a former railway line (and the route of Sustrans’ first cycle path).
The Kennet and Avon canal was first built in the early 18th century (work began in 1718) to transport goods between the two southern centres of commerce, Bristol and London. At that point, road transport was expensive and slow, and it was difficult to take large loads. Boats were able to take larger loads for cheaper, but to go by sea meant risking the rough Atlantic weather and attack by privateers or enemy ships (Britain has spent a lot of time at war with France and a lot less time than it will admit in complete control of the Channel or Atlantic). Linking the two towns by canal not only reduced the risk, but it cut down on travel time, as the canal could be quite direct, using existing sections of river, while ocean-bound ships had to sail all the way around the Cornish peninsula to get to Bristol, more than doubling the distance. It was a vital commercial route well into the 20th century; however, now it sees little traffic other than the leisure traffic at the gentle speed of a narrowboat. The towpath is now open to walkers for the full length, and to cyclists for most of the way (a section follows roads where the path is too narrow).
Riverside houses in the mist
Former industrial buildings
The towpath alongside the Kennet
From my house, my route joins the waterway at the park beside the Thames at Reading. The path quickly turns south and follows the Kennet, a tributary of the Thames. This is one of the oldest parts of the Kennet and Avon route, as before the joining canal was dug, work began by making the Kennet itself navigable. The route runs through the very centre of Reading, on cobbled and brick-paved paths, before running through the trendy Waterside restaurant area, through a residential area and out into a park beside the Kennet. Despite Reading’s sprawl and the general built-up-edness of the south of England, you very quickly leave the city behind. There are still brick buildings and locks on the river to remind you of its commercial past, and paths and roads cross the canal on swing bridges. Large lakes at either side turn out to be former gravel quarries. At times, the route runs very close to the M4, but this is almost the only reminder of hectic modern life as you pass through a region which gives an impression of a distinct but very much historic industrial heritage.
The surface of the route varies a lot. In Reading, road sections are paved (or what passes for paving in Berkshire) with cobbled or smooth gravel sections along the riverside in town. But as soon as you begin to leave the town behind at Waterloo Meadows, the surface becomes much rougher. It’s all kept to a good enough standard for recreational walkers and cyclists, so it’s not as though you need a specialised off-road mountain bike. Some sections will be a bit more muddy in damp weather, but most of the the towpath surface is well-drained gravel, rather than dirt.
Ok, so it was a little muddy. At the worst point, the mud and leaves clogged the rear brake caliper, so I just pushed it out of the mud and cleared it out.
Mine and my brother’s – one was more suitable than the other…
In fact, for a mixed terrain route, I would say it’s a very accessible route, and you could do it on pretty much any bike. The first time I did it, I did it on my steel racing bike with 23mm slick tyres. It had rained recently (it was February) and there were a few short sections where it was a bit like running a pizza cutter through ice cream but even with that I got through in relative comfort. Perhaps the often-celebrated gentle ride quality of steel helped me there, as I later cycled a bit of it in the company of my brother on his stiff aluminium racing bike with similar tyres – I had assumed that if my skinny road bike was fine, so would his be, but he found it very uncomfortable.
My second run was on my vintage 1970s tourer. Like my racing bike, it is also made of the same lightweight Reynolds 531 steel beloved of British framebuilders, but it has a more relaxed riding position, mudguards, a front rack and above all, wider 32mm tyres. To be honest, you could do this on whatever bike you have. A carbon or aluminium racing bike would probably be uncomfortable, though if you wanted to prove a point, you could do it. A full-suspension mountain bike with fat knobbly tyres would be well overkill. Any kind of tourer, mountain bike, cross bike, city bike, gravel bike or hybrid would cope perfectly well with this route though.
Both times I cycled a long way on the path I started fairly early. In February, it was relatively dark and very misty, and though it was predicted to be a sunny day later on, I predicted that fewer people would be out and about on the towpath. There were occasional walkers and the odd cyclist out and about, but not really until the sun came out and cleared the mist. The second time I did it, in May, it was a gorgeous day and light the whole time, and I was surprised how few people were about. I think this is largely due to the fact that there can be long stretches between towns – up to 10km, longer than many people would want to walk in one go – and though you meet a few people in the middle of nowhere, there will be more people around more obvious ‘trailheads’. When my brother and I cycled a bit of it one Sunday afternoon in August, it was predictably much busier – a bell is recommended! So you may want to pick your times carefully if you want to avoid other foot and pedal traffic – remember you ought to be riding respectfully and giving way to pedestrians, so don’t expect to be going at full speed ahead if it’s busy, and always be prepared to meet someone coming the other way on a narrow section even if it doesn’t feel busy.
The gentle towpath continues through a string of Berkshire market towns, gradually becoming more picturesque: Theale, Aldermaston, Woolhampton, Thatcham, Newbury, Kintbury and Hungerford. A short section on the road in Newbury reminds you that you are still near civilisation and provides an opportunity to get supremely lost (forget the Sustrans signs – just look for the river!). Despite the rude but blessedly brief re-introduction to road traffic, by this point I have always felt that the stress of the city is being beginning to be properly left behind, and a holiday spirit where it feels as though all I have to do is just ride forever along the quiet, scenic towpath descends. It feels like a journey back to a slower time where even industry and commerce moved at the firm but gentle speed of wind, tides, current and horsepower.
After cycling to university for a year, I decided to actually get a proper bike. After cycling to work on a proper bike for a while, I decided I should cycle somewhere else. Since Devon is God’s own county, it seemed like the obvious place to take a short cycle tour. Things all came together – I had a work trip to Plymouth, a friend in Exeter offered their touring bike for the weekend and I found a youth hostel in Ilfracombe offering off-season prices. I plotted out a route that took me from just outside Exeter across the county to Ilfracombe on the north Devon coast. I took three days off – one to cycle up, another to hang out and chill in Ilfracombe and the final one to get back. It was a long rambling cycle, and I had a lot of time to sit and think in Ilfracombe, so unfortunately for you, this is also long and rambling and may take a lot of time.
After breakfast with my friends in Exeter, I picked up the bike I was borrowing and headed to Sainsbury’s to buy some food for the trip. This little shakedown trip revealed a few issues, however. Firstly, the brakes. They had absolutely no effect on impeding the forward motion of the bike, but they did squeal like a banshee whenever any pressure was applied. After my stocking up on food, I managed to fix the brake squeal and tighten the cables to try and get some responsiveness in the brakes before I headed to the station.
To my immense joy, the train for Newton Abbot was delayed by half an hour. I spent that time sitting on the platform trying to work out how long it would take to get Ilfracombe. I did 50km once, and that took me two hours – and it was relatively hilly, I told myself. So if this was 100km it would surely take me 4hrs – say 6 to account for really big hills and the occasional rest stop. With my train finally arriving in Newton Abbot at 11:30 or so, I would clearly still be in Ilfracombe in time for tea – fish and chips, I thought, on the sea front. There ought to be dozens of chippies.
Off-season Newton Abbot struck me as the most unlovely of places when I worked briefly at the Waterstones there one Christmas, but in the October sunshine with a market taking place in the high street it almost made up for itself. Newton Abbot to Bovey Tracey was the first leg of my route – just a few miles, but one of the few sections (I thought) not covered by a cycle route. But following ordinary road signs out of Newton Abbot, I soon saw a blue and red cycle path sign reading Bovey Tracey pointing into a field. I plunged across and spent a happy little while following a delightful, traffic free cycle path across stone bridges, through forest glades and down tiny, winding, empty lanes, clearly too small for a car. I actually noticed an adder slithering across the path at one point, but by the time I’d managed to bring the bike to a halt and get my phone out, it had disappeared into the bushes. It says something about the tameness of the rest of Britain’s wildlife that when confronted with the nations only venomous snake, my reaction was to want to take a picture of it.
At Bovey Tracey I was to pick up the Dartmoor Way, a circular cycle path, which I would ride from the 4-o’clock position to noon. It unfortunately became apparent that there were no signposts from Bovey Tracey to Moretonhampstead, and, once I had left the National Trust’s meticulously kept disused railway line turned hiking and cycle route, I became largely lost. At one point, I noticed the same disused railway line passing overhead on a bridge. Clambering up the bank, I found no ‘no entry’ signs. The path was a mass of nettles and brambles, but I decided to trust in the nominally puncture-proof Schwalbe touring tyres and ploughed on through knee-high foliage. That was all very well until I came to a missing bridge and had to turn the bike around and slog back to the road.
A kindly hiker finally directed me in almost the right direction towards the A382 into Moretonhampstead, and I stopped by a roundabout at the top of a hill and ate my now rather battered Sainsbury’s bacon and egg sandwich. I had barely even finished the first of three pages of the detailed maps I had printed off – and those only took me as far as Okehampton, barely the halfway point, where I could pick up the proper Sustrans cycle path. Fortunately I discovered that the maintainers of the Dartmoor Way had had the goodness to install signposts from there on.
What I also discovered (anew) was that Dartmoor had its ups and downs.
I soon decided it wasn’t worth shifting between the largest and middle chain rings between ups and downs and dropped it into second, where it stayed the rest of the way. The rear shifter wasn’t perfectly indexed, and would often skip straight from from herculean effort straight to spinning madly with no momentum with one crunch of the sprocket. So I struggled up hills, sometimes riding, sometimes pushing, always promising myself that there would be an equal and opposite downhill for me to ride down, clinging for dear life onto the brake levers.
That said, the spongy cantilever brakes were not able to do much on Dartmoor’s steeper sections – there were several terrifying downhills where I sat with my hands in the drops, squeezing the levers against the handlebars and praying that I didn’t meet a car around the next corner. It meant, in fact, several downhills where I decided that discretion was by far the better part of valour, and decided to walk the bike down.
Despite my initial misgivings, the next two pages of map disappeared quickly into the early afternoon, and I screeched to a terrifying halt in Okehampton a few hours later. I had genuinely wondered if the brakes would in fact stop me, or if I would go shooting out of the side road, into the busy main road and possibly head-first over the crash barrier on the other side. I considered the implications as I stopped to eat a somewhat squishy banana.
In Okehampton I was to join the Route 27 cycle path, which ran the rest of the way to Ilfracombe, mostly on a long and flat section of disused railway track called the Tarka Trail, a victim of the infamous Beeching Cuts, which closed hundreds of miles of rural railways in the 1960s. However, to get to the Tarka trailhead, the option was either to plunge off in more or less the wrong direction and get there in twice the distance, or simply to follow the main road. I opted for the main road and reached the trailhead at Meeth at about 4:30pm. By this time, my phone told me I had done 65km. I was, I thought, nearly two-thirds done, so the lengthening shadows didn’t worry me at all. After toiling so long and so far, I welcomed the relative flatness of the Tarka Trail. My shoulders, neck and arms were aching from the unfamiliar handlebars and from clenching the brakes so hard, and I was developing a blister on my palm from shifting with the brake lever – something I’d never encountered with downtube shifters. I experimented with different hand positions and discovered the wonderful utility of the ‘frog’s-leg’ interrupter brake levers on the top of the handlebars. Here, finally, I could sit up with my arms and backs straight and still brake (as much as I ever could).
Sunshine over Meeth
I had a bit of a shock as I arrived at the first station on the Tarka Trail. Despite the railway being disused and all the tracks being long gone, platforms still rise occasionally by the side of the track. Sometimes they are at a village, and sometimes they have cafes, but often they simply rear up in the middle of the forest and disappear again just as quickly, overgrown with moss. As much as North Devon is painfully bereft of public transport, it can sometimes be difficult to see what community these platforms ever usefully served. The shock came in the form of a billboard which told me that it was 45km to the final stop in Braunton. This was news to me, as I had been operating under the impression that the Tarka Trail was 30km long – clearly I had misread 30 miles.
The lowering sun and lengthening shadows had originally striped the trail with gold and black, but now the sunlight slowly disappeared. When I arrived at Torrington I put my helmet lights on. By Bideford I stopped to dig out my bike lights. It seemed that the borrowed back light didn’t work. At Barnstaple dusk was almost complete and I reached Braunton under cover of total darkness. I emerged from the trail at a roundabout, and there it seemed to disappear. Even if that was the unceremonious end of the Tarka Trail, there ought still have been signs pointing out the continuation of Route 27. But I couldn’t see them anywhere. Seeing a sign for the A361 to Ilfracombe, I decided to simply join the main road into town.
I had run out of water before I reached Barnstaple, and I cursed myself for forgetting my main water bottle and having to rely on two refilled soft drink bottles from meal deals earlier in my travels. The hills on the A361 were punishing, and I was parched. My light barely illuminated any of my surroundings, just a small patch on the road in front of me. Without a tail light (other than the blinking red LED on my helmet) I was worried about my visibility to drivers, but fortunately everyone but a French coach party gave me plenty of space (I was later told that this was because to turn it on you needed to hold the button down for 3 seconds. Needless to say, this hardly made up for miles of terrified night riding with no rear visibility).
Not long after Braunton, I saw a blue sign, pointing out Route 27 down a lane to the left. On one hand, I could keep to the main road, with its endless uphills and speeding, overtaking cars – but I knew that I would eventually get into Ilfracombe and that it would be relatively direct and smooth. However, the draw of a dedicated traffic-free bike path proved more convincing, and I turned off. I had not realised until then how rough it would be, however. Soon, the tarmac crumbled to a rocky, dirt trail, which became steeper and steeper. The lane was narrow, and the path was deeply rutted. I gave up cycling and pushed. The heavy bike skipped on loose stones and slid into ruts. Trudging on and on uphill in the dark with nothing to see but the small patch of rocky ground illuminated by the headlight, I lost track of time. I was reminded of climbing Mount Cameroon with friends from school. We were woken at 3am and marched upward in the darkness. I remember nothing of those three hours except a vague gnawing feeling of abject misery, cold and just endless trudging. The sound of insects came from the invisible hedgerows beside me and brambles snatched at me out of the muggy air – with the red soil, this could almost have been Cameroon. Unlike Mount Cameroon at 3am, however, North Devon in the evening was warm.
When I finally crested the hill, I tried riding down, but the ground was too uneven and loose. Eventually it gave way to washboard bedrock that ran in corrugated ridges perpendicular to the road. After what seemed like another age, I finally reached a paved lane. The cycle path sign told me to turn left, uphill, but I knew that the A361 was only a short distance to my right, downhill. I checked the map. I had made little progress north, though it was comforting to know that my eternity of trudging could barely have been 45 minutes long.
Still, it was time wasted, and after another interminable uphill on the A361 I stopped on the verge and phoned the hostel where I had booked a room for the night. It was now nearly 9pm. I had realised while still on the Tarka Trail that it would be well after dark before I arrived, but given that I had a room reserved, I decided to push through. After Bideford, I had reached the point of no return. To go back in time to find a hostel that was still open would take more time than it would to simply push on. Fortunately the hostel answered – they were open until 10pm, but they could text me the front door code if I was late.
I ate a cereal bar. I was still parched, but at least I would not be sleeping on a bench in Ilfracombe – it was still warm enough now, but I knew it would get colder and it was supposed to rain in the small hours of the morning. I opened Google Maps (which I had kept closed to save my battery) and found that I was only just over 3 miles away! 233ft of uphill left, then 633 downhill. Buoyed by this thought I got back in the saddle and pushed on. All thoughts of chippies being open when I arrived had long gone. I was looking forward to nothing more than a pot of instant porridge, another cereal bar and a banana – but water was the most important thing. Eventually the downhill came, and I clung on to the drops like before, but this time with the added fear of being almost entirely blind. Cat’s-eyes whizzed past on my right, and the ghostly white line on my left. I had seen from my map that I simply had to follow the road straight into the centre of town and the hostel would be on my right. The traffic had almost disappeared by now, so I took the middle of the road on the downhill corners. Still carrying momentum from the downhill, I actually overshot the hostel and had to turn around and come back.
As I had sped by, I had noticed that Ilfracombe had a Wetherspoons in – characteristically – an outstandingly ugly building near the sea front. It appeared to be the only place still open and, joy of joys, they served food until 11pm. After checking in at the hostel and climbing three sets of stairs with jellied legs, I had enough time for a well-deserved shower and to make myself presentable before heading to The Admiral Collingwood.
Now, you may say what you like about Wetherspoons, and people frequently do. The quality of service and the meals are variable, though many have a soft spot for their ‘fresh from the microwave’ charm. Their buildings are chosen for their landmark nature, not their aesthetic pleasingness, and the Collingwood had a strange ‘50s sci-fi vibe on the outside and wood panelling in all the right places on the inside. I was sharing the entire place with a few quiet elderly couples and an amicably tipsy group celebrating some sort of birthday or anniversary. I sat myself down at table 1 with my book and ordered their ‘ultimate burger’. To their credit, well past ten o’clock at night, I was presented with a healthy-looking burger and a positive mountain of chips and onion rings. This was surprising to me, as generosity had never been a characteristic I had associated with Wetherspoons previously. Perhaps the kitchen staff were twiddling their thumbs that late at night, or perhaps the waiter had seen past my recently-showered exterior to the crazed, half-starved look in my eyes and dropped a kind word in with the kitchen staff. At any rate, it was the most convivial atmosphere I’ve ever experienced in a nearly empty room. I fell asleep the minute I got back to my room.
English seaside towns, however lovely they may be between May and August, tend to be characterised by a particular dispirited aimlessness during anything other than the summer months. The English Riviera is a point in case. In the winter, Exmouth’s Edwardian seafront townhouses glower grimly over the Exe Estuary, while its Esplanade – a lovely walk in summer, past packed beaches and traditional seaside amusements – is a grim mile-long strip of tarmac leading to nowhere but a lifeboat house and a closed ice cream parlour. Budleigh Salterton is full of twee cafes and features some magnificent scenery, but visit after September and the town is more or less shut and you have nothing to do but stare out over a foreboding sea under a grey sky. I have noticed that the sea takes on the aspect of a vast worked flint, with hard, ever-shifting translucent brown faces framed with dirty foam. In Dawlish in summer, you notice the jolly arcades and the bizarre miniature pleasure garden. In winter, you just remember that the railway line was once washed into the sea and you wish the train would hurry up and take you away before it happens again. Newton Abbot remains, unfortunately, Newton Abbot, no matter what month of the year it is.
It was to my surprise, then, to discover that Ilfracombe was actually a very agreeable place, even on a drizzly October morning. Arriving last night, I had noticed the usual hallmarks of a decaying Victorian resort town – excessively manicured public gardens, featuring improbable palms and cacti, the inevitable pillared arcade of shops selling plastic spades, ice creams and premium hand-crafted driftwood. However, unlike the Riviera towns, Ilfracombe is a working fishing port. This meant that the seafront, the little harbour and the lifeboat station all had something more of a raison d’etre than its genteel southern counterparts’. The inner harbour was full of fishing craft and pleasure craft, and the nets and traps on the harbour wall were more than trendy stage-dressing. The town was admittedly more empty than one expects if one is used to seaside towns in the summer, but there were clear signs of purposeful and apparently commercial activity. At Budleigh, the only person you will see out working on an October morning is the occasional high-vis-clad litter picker, jabbing aimlessly at the empty, wind-scoured pavements with his litter grabbing tool.
Apparently Dracula was more of a Whitby man
Ilfracombe in splendour
Fish and chips time!
I spent the morning exploring Ilfracombe. First the harbour (I was really scouting for a good chippie for later on), then up the hill into town through narrow streets – some of which were quite ancient. Two mediaeval pubs jostled cheek to jowl in that charismatic way that mediaeval buildings have that makes it seems as though as soon as you turn your back, they will resume their centuries-long game of elbowing and shouldering each other – an impression reinforced by slogans painted in Gothic scripts on their walls, each proclaiming themselves the oldest pub in the town and their neighbour an upstart newcomer. Coming back through town the way I had arrived yesterday, I went up Hillsborough Hill (possible the site of an Iron Age hill fort) and back down through Jubilee Gardens, in which the town museum has been thoughtfully hidden in a hollow at the back, so as not to get in anyone’s way. As I sat on the harbour again at lunch, eating a pasty from a tiny pasty shop on the waterfront, I turned to consider Ilfracombe’s one glaring fault – Verity.
One can’t blame Ilfracombe for Verity, either. For some reason or other, Damien Hirst simply decided that what Ilfracombe needed (and why Ilfracombe of any number of other hitherto unspoilt locations?) was a statue of a naked and partially skinless pregnant woman, taller than the Angel of the North. I certainly can’t imagine Ilfracombe asked for it, mostly because it’s truly hideous. And not just in the way that something which was a good idea but executed badly can be hideous. From the very outset, the idea can’t have sounded attractive – a twenty metre tall bronze woman with her skin cut away like an anatomical model. Fortunately, they saw reason, and rather than displaying it prominently in the town itself, they decided to put it in a large car park on the edge of town. This is good, because you can see it from a distance, and appreciate the impressive scale, but you will not come across it by accident nor feel any compulsion to get any closer. Unless, of course, you have the misfortune to be in a coach party, in which case you will no doubt be delighted anyway, because you are the sort of person who will appreciate it just so long as you are told that it is Art, and that it represents Truth, and not the disturbed imaginings of a man who pickles sharks.
Unfortunately, for all my charitable thoughts towards Ilfracombe, I had to leave the next morning, and, of course, it was tipping it down. Because of the unique arrangement of rail services in Devon, there was no way back other than to cycle twenty-five miles to Barnstaple and catch a train from there to Exeter. And when I say ‘unique’, consider this – the entire county is served by one main line that passes through Exeter on its way to Plymouth, and two branch lines: one to Exmouth and one to Barnstaple. There is a seasonal service to Okehampton in the summer, but why Great Western Railways imagines that people would be more likely to want to visit Okehampton in the summer is beyond me.
I set about finding the other end of the cycle route 27 and the Tarka Trail, which I had lost two nights ago. After climbing way above sea level, the cycle path then joined the line of another disused railway track for several miles, before spitting me out onto country roads. These roads were narrow, muddy and steep, though not as bad as Dartmoor. I saw a sign indicating the ‘Route 27 Mountain Bike Extension’ and wondered if that was what I had ended up pushing my loaded tourer up and back down in the dark. I decided not to try and find out, and pressed on on the main Route 27, eventually finding the top end of the Tarka Trail. Back on the disused railway, the going was fast, and I soon found myself passing the military base at Braunton. Immediately after that, the trail met the same roundabout where I had lost it coming the other way in the dark. I was astonished that I had lost the trail on Thursday, as it seemed so obvious in the daylight.
Vital equipment for wet-weather cycling
Leaving Barnstaple on the Tarka Line not Trail (confused?)
Barnstaple station was an odd place – not only was it out of the way, behind a retail estate, but it had the air of a heritage railway station. It was well kept-up, with glossy green paint on all the wooden fences and eaves, flowers in boxes and old-fashioned railway signs fastened to the wall. It did have an electronic ticket machine, though. As I went to dig for my wallet, however, I realised that my gloves were completely soaked. I squeezed my hand into a fist and water poured out of the fabric – perhaps the touchscreen contraption was not for today, then. Instead, I purchased a ticket from the lady inside, and, realising that I had started shivering, a hot chocolate from the cafe inside.
That, essentially, is the end of the adventure – apart, that is, from the incident with the sinkhole between Teignmouth and Newton Abbot, of course, but I shall have to tell you about some other time.
It’s been about two months since I last updated my ongoing saga of my sister and my travels around America; and, in fact, nearly a year since we were there! I therefore felt it high time to wrap this up with one last post about the final leg of our journey: our brief stop in New York (less brief than the first one!).
Our journey in was long but undramatic. That said, in that one day, we contrived to use just about every feasible method of transport known to man:
Car: We drove to Denver Airport to get on the plane. I know I mentioned this in the previous post, but it technically happened in the same day.
Aeroplane: Well obviously. We flew from Denver to JFK in New York. An uneventful flight as far as I can remember.
Train: We took the train from JFK to Howard Beach, where we got on the subway to southern Manhattan. This involved the odd change or two, and I reckon we covered not only underground and overground trains, but also the sort that run on tracks raised on poles above the height of the street!
By this point, having crossed the majority of the USA and then the majority of New York in the opposite direction, it was getting pretty late. We stopped in a Starbucks and bought the last two panini from their counter before heading off for our last mode of transport.
Boat: Our AirBnB was on Staten Island, so our only way across was the free Staten Island Ferry. I was actually really impressed by the ferry – it was punctual, the terminals were efficient, clean and organised. In fact, on the Staten Island end, it was genuinely a pleasant place to wait. It was airy and had little aquariums with samples of the kinds of fish and plants that live in the bay.
We sailed directly past the Statue of Liberty, but as the light was failing and we knew we would be sailing back past in the morning, we decided not to join the stampede above decks and instead sat inside, eating our panini! The photo above was taken on the way back the next day, but the ferry actually gets a lot closer than that. Not worth paying through the nose for a boat tour when you can get so close for free!
Walking: Our final stage was to walk from the ferry terminal to our AirBnB. It actually wasn’t all that far, but a day’s worth of travelling had not been kind to our failing suitcase. At this point, having lost structural integrity at the bottom, you could only drag it for a few metres before it would somehow manage to flip over. No matter how you re-organised what was inside, it would somehow still shuffle around until the bag would more easily roll sideways than forwards!
Being both fairly tired after nearly three weeks of travelling, the next morning we resolved to simply take the ferry back to Manhattan, walk around, see some of the sights and buy a luggage strap for our bag. I think it’s fairly safe to say we were successful in all of these! We disembarked from the ferry and figured that our safest bet for seeing most landmarks was to head up Broadway, then up onto 5th Avenue.
The first sight we came across (well, specifically, diverted to see) was the 9/11 Memorial at the site of the World Trade Centre. The main part of the memorial consists of two pits, each occupying the space of the foundations of one of the two towers. They are square and about 15 metres deep, being made of a black stone. Water cascades down the sides, flowing towards the centre before falling down a smaller, central pit.
The depths of the pits were designed so that you couldn’t see far into into the central pit at all, creating an illusion of bottomlessness. The water moved smoothly across the black surfaces in such a way that wherever your eye rested, it was slowly drawn with the flow of the water to the black pit in the middle. I’ve already proved I’m no art critic, but it was actually quite a powerful image.
We returned to Broadway, and after a brief stop at a Burger King (we had had lamentably little experience of true American fast food, we felt), headed further up. Our next stop was in a Flying Tiger store where we refilled water bottles and bought our luggage strap. As I remember, it was pale yellow with pineapples on.
Passing the Flatiron Building, we switched on to 5th Avenue. It was as we walked up 5th that my sister and I both realised that for our entire lives we had had the Empire State Building confused with the Chrysler Building. Both of us had thought that the one with the Art Deco spire with nested arches was the Empire State Building, when, in fact, the Empire State Building has concave buttresses supporting its spire. The Chrysler Building was visible down a side road, and we decided it was the more attractive of the two.
We had been aiming for Central park, with the idea being that we would reach there before turning back. however, the oppressive heat and looming stormclouds made us a little wary of venturing much further. We decided in that case to go as far as the Rockefeller Center where I purchased my only souvenir of the trip – a magnetic Lego Statue of Liberty, which has sat on my computer desk ever since!
Very much aware of the imminent rainstorm (again!) and the fact that we had neither raincoats nor umbrella (one of the few things we actually had in common with Sting’s legal alien) we hurried back down towards Broadway again, and we had just made it as far as the Flying Tiger store again when it hit. We waited till it had died down a bit, but we might as well not have bothered, as it had raised the humidity levels such that we were more or less swimming the rest of the way.
Returning to the flat armed with croissants for the next morning, we re-packed the bag and wrapped the new luggage strap tightly around the bag. This had the effect of compressing the clothes and such inside to the extent that it reinforced the weak point in the bag’s chassis – creating a sort of monocoque as the contents of the bag doubled up as structural support.
After a nice lie-in the next morning, we were able to much more effectively wheel the thing and we repeated our journey to the airport in reverse. Even so, we were at the airport well in advance, and had plenty of time to burn. We even discovered that JFK has a small astroturf garden waiting area accessible from one of the gates! Our flight back went through the slightly weird Irish airport of Shannon, which was small and almost entirely deserted, but filled with colossal photographs of the various politicains, celebrities and other grandees who had apparently passed through the airport.
However, I thought I’d leave you with this photo below. It was taken looking east as our plane flew north up the American coast. I was planning to sleep during the overnight flight, but the view of the horizon opposite the sunset as it faded imperceptibly slowly from pastel blues and pinks to navy and orange was just too mesmerising. We flew on over the lights of Boston and Halifax before I finally tore myself away from the view to grab some sleep as we passed through the night, artificially foreshortened by our passage from west to east.
Photo credits again to my sister, apart from that last one, which I took with her phone. So who gets credit for that…?
If you’ve been reading for any amount of time, you’ll know that I left off the last blog post as we arrived in Colorado. We stayed with friends for nearly a week and it was incredible. I mean, Colorado has a reputation as a scenic state, but I think what impressed me was the abruptness with which the rolling but almost entirely flat farmland around our friends’ town became dramatic forested mountains.
Before I get too invested in scenic descriptions, let me recount the first particularly memorable event that happened to us in Colorado. On arrival, we had had a barbecue with our friends, and their husband had been recounting how he had had to have the windscreen replaced recently on his Chevy truck due to hail damage. “Crazy weather, eh?” we all agreed. The next evening as my sister was in Fort Collins visiting another friend, Annie had left for a walk, and most of our host family was out and about, I was just sitting chatting with one of our friends in the house. The wind had been increasing as we talked, and all of a sudden there was a ‘thunk’ noise outside. We both paused, frowned, then carried on talking. There was a short volley of ‘thunks’, then another longer one before we twigged what was happening.
The hail was in full swing by the time we had left the basement rec room and got to the back door. My friend grabbed a handful of car keys out of a basket on the sideboard and made a dash for the nearest of their family cars, his decrepit and parti-coloured saloon (various mismatched red, white and blue body panels made it look as though it had been draped with the flag of the Russian Federation). By the time he had moved it to the shelter of the nearby church car park and returned for his brother’s Jeep I had located our hire car key and followed him over. We then stood in the opening to their garage and watched the hail come down. One stone landed close to us, and my friend dashed out and grabbed it – it was fairly average in size and somewhere between the size of a golf ball and an egg, and my friend collected a few to put in the freezer and show to the family later.
As the hail had lessened off into a light shower, Annie appeared. Apparently she had spent most of the storm hiding under a porch somewhere down the road. Now, you may remember from my previous post that our hire car was a Chevy Cruze LTZ RS – the RS meaning that someone had taken 5 minutes to glue some plastic trim to the skirts and bootlid. As I approached the car and had a look at the bonnet and roof, I noticed a few small dents, and was counting myself fortunate that nothing had smashed a window until I noticed that at some point in the tempestual bombardment a piece of hail had passed clean through the plastic ‘ducktail’ spoiler. This had clearly happened in the first few minutes of the storm, as when I looked around our original parking space, I found three shards of plastic, together the size of my palm. Fortunately, it seems the Alamo man at Denver Airport was relatively used to this sort of thing and let us return the car with little more than a shrug and a grunt.
We went on a hike in the mountains around, if memory serves me correctly, the Emerald lakes. It was quite a drive up, and on a beautiful summer’s day almost all the car parks were completely full. We had to park so far away that we not only had to take a park and ride bus up to the trailhead, but we had to hike a way to get to the car park that the bus left from! The trail itself was gorgeous, passing by a string of lakes as it climbed upwards. Each of the lakes was a different colour – one emerald green (now that I think of it, that was probably Emerald Lake itself), one a deep blue to match the sky and one completely clear, but from a distance reflecting the surrounding mountain and forest in its glassy surface.
When we reached the final lake, we decided to leave the trail and work our way round the screes at the side of the lake until we reached a protruding rock. Here my sister and friend decided it would be a good idea to jump into the lake (so long as someone was taking pictures, of course). Drying off would not be a problem, I was informed, as it was sunny and warm. All went well until they surfaced, our friend white-faced, teeth clenched and holding her arm. What seemed to have happened was that our friend, not only being somewhat taller than my sister, had jumped somewhat higher than her. My sister, holding her hand and on a somewhat less vertically ambitious trajectory into the water had, in pulling our friend in, actually dislocated her shoulder. I was already thinking how we were supposed to help her scramble over the scree back to the path so we could find help when she said “Oh, this happens all the time”. One complicated and somewhat painful shrug later and all was well in the world and we were on our way back down (yes, I got lost and my sister and I had to slide down a muddy bank to find the others, but we won’t talk about that).
As far as the rest of the week was concerned, we spent one day at Denver Zoo (including watching hyenas being fed while the tannoy played the theme from Jurassic Park – something was mildly unsettling about that picture), one in Fort Collins simply touring odd shops, and two at chilling at Horsetooth reservoir (on the second occasion we had been directed to a local county fair as a required cultural experience only to find upon arriving that they had packed up and left a day early, so we decided to simply go back to the lake). FYI, in case you were on the lookout for the usual tenuous link to a classic rock song in the title, you just found it. We did in fact take our Chevy, but I’m afraid I couldn’t tell you whether the large artificial bank which held the reservoir in its precarious mountain basin was truly a levee or actually a dam.
As far as I could tell, what Colorado didn’t have to recommend it could have been written on a postcard, but it certainly included their proclivity to building speed ‘ditches’ rather than the traditional speed bumps and placing them at the entry to every 4-way junction. They are unmarked and much harder to spot and much more painful than a speed bump. I was, however, very pleased to see an honest-to-goodness roundabout near Denver Zoo – too long had I been stopping (by law) at completely empty 4-way stops junctions.
Colorado was great, but our time there eventually drew close to an end too. We drove to the airport where we returned our car (apparently our insurance covered ludicrous hailstorms). There we left Annie searching for a Panda Express in the terminal as we boarded our flight to New York for our final few days in America.
Again, most of the photo credits to my sister – I had no phone camera at the time!
Recently, the British government introduced much stricter traffic safety laws governing the use of mobile phones in cars. Essentially, as a new driver (within two years of passing) if you get caught using your phone your car you lose your license (with a £200 fine).
Now, this puts me in a quandary. Not only do I want to listen to music from my phone in my car, but I also want to drive as safely as possible – and within the law. Theoretically, there shouldn’t be an issue if I start it playing before I set off and just leave it in a cupholder, for example, but what if I want to skip a track or pause it? Modern cars have Bluetooth and stereos with big knobs and buttons that you can operate while driving, but my car is…err..not modern. All I’ve got is the good old-fashioned aux-in jack.
A solution began to present itself when I started looking at the headphones that came with my phone. Like many Android headphones, they have three built-in buttons (volume up, down and play/pause/skip/answer/hang up phone call) and a small microphone for taking phone calls. I began to wonder – why shouldn’t those controls be on an aux cable? So I did a bit of googling, which turned up this Instructable. A little more googling found this cable on eBay. That was basically what I wanted, but with a less fiddly button for easy use while driving. Time to break out the soldering iron, then!
For the switch, I decided to go with a Cherry MX mechanical keyboard switch because, well, it’s what I have, and its size means it’s easy to hit without looking. I planned to mount it all in a small metal tin attached to the car dashboard using a piece of velcro I had lying around (I think it possibly came with a KVM switch I bought once upon a time, with the vague hope that you could mount the switch out of the way for cable management purposes. ‘Vague’, I say, in the face of the acknowledged fact that by the time you’ve introduced a KVM switch into a setup you’re well beyond any hope of cable management).
Anyway, this is what the cable looked like inside. The square bit is the play/pause/skip/etc button, while the cylindrical jobby is the microphone. Essentially, the end that goes to the phone is actually a 4-pole ‘TRRS’ jack as opposed to the usual 3-pole ‘TRS’ (look at the eBay picture above, you’ll see that one jack has 4 poles while the other has 3). The extra pole is basically for the microphone input, but the play/pause switch also bridges it and ground. Android interprets that switch press as either play/pause or answer/hang up phone as appropriate. This may vary phone-by-phone, but mine also interprets a double tap as ‘skip track’. Android can also handle volume buttons – essentially it’s two more switches with different resistors behind them. On a switch press, Android can tell which thing to do (play/pause, volume up/down) based on the resistance between the ground and 4th pole on the jack. Clever, but I didn’t add this as I can easily change the volume with the knob on the car stereo.
First, I punched a roughly square hole in the top of my tin for the switch (using the tin opener on my pen-knife – primitive but effective).
Then I added a circular hole for the mic, and two holes in the side for the cable to go in and out of. Next, I dismantled the switch/mic etc assembly and set about reassembling it inside the tin. Basically, I chopped off the mic and the old switch and soldered it back together with the mic and the new switch mounted to the tin. And, yes, I sleeved it at the same time because, well, you know. It looks cool. Have paracord, will sleeve, I guess?
The next bit was the worst. I had left myself very little space or free cable to play with, and the wires they use for these aux cables have a tendency to go brittle and snap when heated to extremes. Spoiler alert – soldering involves heating the wires and melting conductive stuff over them to join them. This took some considerable time, especially as every now and then I had to splice in a bit of speaker wire (left over from my previous project) where I hadn’t left enough slack. This is what it looked like with just the input side done. Those chunky red wires are where I didn’t leave enough slack and had to add more in – you can see just how fiddly it all is – especially if I point out that those ‘thick’ red wires are about 1.5mm in diameter!
I finished up just as my housemate was coming down to make supper – just in time, as I had been soldering on the hob so as to be able to use the extractor fan in the oven hood!
I took it out to my car, plugged it all in and – much to my surprise, given my earlier failure with a simple aux cable (see post-script) – it all worked! Music was coming out of all of the speakers and the button caused the music to pause or skip as expected. I even ran a test with a voice recorder and the mic seems to work, but I’ll have to wait (literally!) for a road test to see if it’s powerful enough to be any use. I dashed back inside, grabbed the self-adhesive velcro strip (unfortunately the velcro is stronger than the adhesive so it’s pretty pointless. Ah well…) and rummaged through my spare keyboard keycaps (yes, I have those) to find a suitable one. Obviously, the legend doesn’t really mean anything in this context, but I thought it was kind of funny…
The velcro is stuck to the blanker just below the head unit. And I should point out, that cable is less in the way of the volume knob than it looks in this photo. As I mentioned before, I’m still planning to get one of those retro embossing labelmakers to finish my desk audio selector/monitor stand, and I’ll make a little label to go in the empty space to the right of the button then!
And while I had my soldering iron out, I thought I would have a go at fixing the tragically decrepit aux cable that had been abused for many miles on my American road trip (which I may have mentioned once or twice or maybe three or four times before…). That didn’t go so well, unfortunately. I had assumed the damage was all in the ends, where the strain reliefs had worn badly from use and one of the jacks had bent after a phone fell on the floor under heavy braking. I replaced the jacks and even sleeved it with paracord before discovering that one of the individual wires is broken somewhere inside (as far as my multimeter can say).
Yes, that’s right. The flight we were catching out of Louis Armstrong International Airport was going to Texas. This was part of the trip I was properly excited about. We were going to meet up with yet another friend who hadn’t been able to come to the wedding, hiring a car and driving to Eaton, Colorado via Santa Fe, New Mexico.
After a little bit of unfounded doubt as to whether we would find an Uber in the French Quarter at 3 in the morning, we were winging our way to the glorious metropolis that is San Antonio. We met our friend, Annie, in the airport, and sat in a cafe eating the usual overpriced and slightly soggy sandwiches one finds in transport hubs until our car became available. After a certain amount of shuffling paperwork around (we had pre-booked the car), we were directed to the bus which runs to the ‘lot’. As we boarded, the driver checked over the tannoy (with the sort of weariness in his voice that indicates he does it sixteen times every day) that we were all aware that this was the bus to the Alamo Rent-a-Car lot, not to the actual Alamo itself.
Upon arriving at the (rather empty) lot, a man in the incongruous ensemble of short-sleeved shirt, tie, baseball cap and sunglasses (which I quickly learnt was the de facto uniform of anyone involved in some way with the American transport industry) asked us what category of car we had rented. Clearly, this was not only so he could direct us towards our car, but also so judge our worth as human beings. After learning we had only reserved a ‘midsize’ (unlike the family before us who had clambered into a black Chevy Tahoe resembling nothing so much as the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey in terms of styling and size), he indicated a lonely white Chevrolet Cruze with a nod and a grunt.
It was a car in which we were to spend a lot of time in over the next few days, and we grew to know it well. According to the traditional road trip narrative, we were supposed to grow to love it as well, but I struggled with that. Any hopes raised in my heart by the red-and-chrome “RS” badges on the flanks were dashed when I eventually got to drive the car. I was able to forgive it for having the driver’s seat on the wrong side (no-one’s ever made that joke before), but the automatic gearbox was lazy, the ride boring and the controls devoid of any sort of feedback. As it turned out, I didn’t drive it all that much anyway, so I can’t really complain.
Our road trip got off to a good start as Annie – acting out of muscle memory on an unfamiliar gear selector – unwittingly put the car into manual override mode, pulled out of the lot and put her foot to the floor with the car ‘locked’ in first gear.
We spent the rest of that day seeing the (two) sights of San Antonio – the Alamo and the Riverwalk. The Alamo was actually quite good, and, being free, I can’t help but recommend it if you ever happen to end up in San Antonio for any reason. The Riverwalk was a shopping centre built along a picturesque artificial river through the centre of town, which also had its own charm.
Back at our hotel room that evening, we watched Chicken Run (the specific reasons for which are now lost to posterity) and cooked tinned ravioli in mugs in the microwave. We headed out the next morning after making full use of the free breakfast. It is worth noting that they had an actual Texas-shaped waffle iron. At first I thought it was just a really warped rectangle, but no, it was genuinely Texas-shaped (though Texas just happens to be the shape of a very badly warped rectangle).
That day’s travelling was unmemorable, mostly because it involved mile upon hundreds of miles of dead-straight Texan highway, with the same scrubland stretching away either side, with the odd cluster of water (or oil?) pumps rotating in the distance. Unmemorable, that is, save for, at the insistence of Annie, a stop at Dairy Queen. The Dairy Queen ice cream is a delicacy in the American diet, but is more or less like a giant McFlurry. The waiters have the tradition of turning your cup upside down as they serve you to prove that their ice cream, much like an emulsion of bitumen and Mr Whippy, is so viscous it will not fall out under the paltry pull of earth’s gravity.
Back on the endless highway, we followed, eventually overtook and were subsequently followed by a beat-up silver Chevy pickup truck over the course of several hours. As more or less the only sign of life for miles, we dubbed him Billy Bob and followed his progress avidly. This may sound pretty boring, but you probably overestimate how interesting Texas’ scenery is. We eventually noticed him in the rear view mirror, literally pulling off the single-carriageway highway and driving off into the fields next-door. This was shortly before we drove through a small and apparently deserted town. A dog wandered in the middle of the road as we rapidly decelerated from the highway speed limit of 85mph to the urban 35. Rusty cars sat in front of dilapidated houses and eerie swing sets. I have no doubt that we simply caught them as the entire town was sitting down to dinner, but coupled with Billy Bob’s abrupt departure and the town’s non-existence on Google Maps, I fully expected zombies, cowboys showing down at high noon (or afternoon tea-time) or, at the very least, Indiana Jones in a fridge. No such luck.
The highway was so empty that, as the sun was setting that evening, we simply pulled onto the verge so my sister could stand in the middle of the road and take the classic “jumping in front of the sunset in the middle of the highway” road trip picture. It was as we were in the middle of the slow-motion Chinese fire drill of getting back in and swapping drivers that Billy Bob once again rushed past us. Quite why he had taken his Silverado for a spin through the countryside only to rejoin the same highway, I can’t say. Perhaps he was avoiding the mystery town. Perhaps he just wanted some variety. Can’t say as I blame him.
It’s also worth taking the time now to explain why today’s title is irrelevant. We had spent much of the day, in fact, on the road to Amarillo, but given that we were stopping off overnight in Santa Fe, I could say with a certain finality that at this point, no, it was no longer the way to Amarillo. Sweet Marie would just have to keep on waiting, no matter how much weeping like a willow went on.
As per Santa Fe city ordinance, our motel that night had been decorated in the local vernacular of pseudo-pueblo. Again, microwaved ravioli in mugs for supper, free breakfast the next morning. The waffle iron may have been New Mexico-shaped, but it was hard to tell – New Mexico is perfectly rectangular save for a small irregularity in the bottom-left corner, much a traditional waffle.
We left Santa Fe on a route of my own orchestration (feat. Google Maps), designed to take us past the various landmarks of the city before rejoining the highway. As such, we went in several circles and got stuck in at least one unresolvable one-way system before getting out. But at least we saw the sights.
As we got the the highway junction, the voice of Google Maps (christened, by this point, Sally Satnav) piped up over the road trip playlist. “Merge onto the I25 North and continue for … four hundred and thirty-four miles”. Ah. So that’s what was on the agenda for today. As it turned out, that day wasn’t too bad. The mountainous pass into Colorado was breathtaking, and quite fun to drive (even in a soggy automatic). The journey was also appropriately punctuated by my sister, dubbed Snackmaster General, handing out pieces of fudge bought at the Alamo and sandwiches made from now somewhat suspect components bought from a supermarket in San Antonio.
Predictably enough, we hit Denver at rush hour. Traffic was fairly solid, but we did have the experience of sitting next to, for quite some time, a long-haired dude in a lived-in pickup with a surfboard on the roof. Incongruously, his car was registered in Idaho (not known for its surfing) and was heading north through Denver. I suppose he’d get to the sea eventually…
One recurring character you may be missing is our luggage. In fact, its luck had changed for a while, and, travelling in the boot of the Cruze for a few days, then sitting on the floor for nearly a week, it managed not to suffer further for a little while. Whoops – did I say something about sitting on the floor for a week? Well, we’ll just have to leave that for next time, I think. Suffice to say for now that we rolled into Eaton that evening, more or less when we expected, despite the Denver traffic.
Photo credit to my sister again, coupled with my mad perspective and colour correction skills
‘Way down in Louisiana, close to New Orleans’ – that more or less describes where we were heading when I left off my last post. After a bizarre evening visit to an Atlanta where everything was closed and a short wait on a platform just outside the bus station, we had boarded the overnight Megabus. It was – from my perspective – an uneventful trip, because I slept for most of the time. The two other recurring characters of this account would have to beg to differ. Firstly; my sister, as she didn’t sleep at all, and secondly; our long-suffering luggage, as, when we arrived at Loyola Avenue station, it was discovered that a mysterious coconut-smelling liquid had been spilt on it in transit. Quite what, we never discovered, but we surmised that it was probably some sort of cosmetic due to its oily nature. At least this meant it hadn’t soaked through too badly.
You may have noticed I said (or rather, Chuck Berry said) ‘down in Louisiana, close to New Orleans’ . We were in fact supposed to be going to Baton Rouge, not New Orleans, and we were well aware of the fact when we got on the bus. It meant that, immediately following a long wait in the bus station in New Orleans, we had to get on a Greyhound which took us to Baton Rouge. Given that my only real knowledge of Greyhounds came from Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘America’, I felt that the slick and modern Greyhound lacked the idiosyncratic romance that I expected. Certainly, men in gabardine suits with cameras for bow ties were not forthcoming, and it strikes me as unlikely that Paul Simon would ever have sung:
‘Kathy’ I said,
As we boarded the Greyhound in Pittsburgh,
‘how do you sign on to their wifi again?’
We had been travelling to Louisiana in the first place to attend the wedding of two school-friends of ours, and we were met at the bus station by a group of other friends who had arrived earlier that day. We were immediately whisked to an establishment called “Raising Cane”, which we were assured was an authentic, homegrown Baton Rouge fast-food establishment. It had, legend has it, been founded by a pair of business students who were attempting to prove wrong a professor who had told them their plan for a fast food restaurant serving solely chicken was unfeasible.
Seeing as we hadn’t seen many of these friends for two or even four years we spent the rest of the day in our motel room catching up. That is, apart from a brief excursion to a Bass Pro fishing shop, as a cultural experience for us two Brits and one of our American friends who had shown himself to be too much of a ‘Yankee’. This was all very culturally informative (the outdoor pursuits shop was about the size of a supermarket and dedicated to killing things in creative ways), but it did involve crossing a 4-lane highway intersection with no actual crossing points.
The next morning, we continued to hang out, recieving a tour of the LSU campus (including a visit to their real-life but somewhat geriatric tiger). We ate lunch at a sports bar that had, or so the story went, been founded by two uni dropouts who had been told by an economics professor that the idea of a burger-serving sports bar was never going to work. We continued to hang out as more and more old acquaintances turned up. We finished that day by all going out as a wedding party to an oriental restaurant which, to my dismay, didn’t seem to have involved at any stage in its inception either local students or a tutor convinced that there was no future in sushi.
The wedding itself was a lovely affair. The various ceremonies and receptions were a Dutch-American hybrid – a case of form imitating function, one might point out. It was a lovely ceremony, but I won’t write too much about it, since if you are personally interested, you were either there or have seen the pictures, videos, etc, and if you aren’t personally interested, then…well, you’re not interested.
The next morning, we were dropped off at Hammond station, and we caught the train back into New Orleans. I’ve already described how American trains are more comfortable than British ones, and this train, being the last leg of the long-distance Crescent service from New York was no exception. it was, in fact, a double-decker, and our seats were not only reclinable, but also had retractable leg rests. In fact, there was so much leg-room, you could recline the seat almost horizontally without seriously amputating anyone’s knees.
The view was also dramatic, as the track passed through the bayous and over causeways in the spit of land between Lakes Pontchartrain and Maurepas. Views from the window of the train made it seem almost as though the train was driving on the surface of the water itself at times!
We stayed with two of our friends in an AirBnB in the French Quarter of New Orleans for two nights. Most of those two days we simply spent wandering around the picturesque areas of the city. Unashamed tourists that we were, we also ate jambalaya at a local restaurant, stood outside jazz and blues bars (two of us were under 21, so we couldn’t go in anyway), ate begniets at Cafe du Monde (where a ‘dusting’ of icing sugar involves approximately half a bag of the stuff) and rode the old-fashioned street cars through the most picturesque areas of the town and back. May we be forgiven.
A lot of the traditional New Orleans houses have balconies and verandas, and it’s not uncommon to be greeted by residents who are sitting outside having a drink if you wander around in the evening. It was on one of these occasions, when, after exchanging pleasantries, we were asked “where y’all from?”. My sister, who had now been subconsciously absorbing the American accent for over a week now, immediately piped up in a pitch-perfect Southern Drawl: “We’re from Eng-laaand”.
That afternoon, one of our friends left a day early to go back to Colorado (where we actually ended up following them the long way round). My sister and I caught an early morning Uber to the airport to get on a plane to Texas, while our other friend stayed behind to point out the large hole in the floor in the AirBnB review.
Photo credits (as ever) to my sister – and Google in at least one case…
Last time I didn’t sail to Philadelphia, this time I discovered there is no train station (and thus no choo choo) in Chattanooga. A theme is developing.
I think we were just about to leave Philadelphia as I ended my last post. We left our friendly AirBnB hosts early in the morning and walked back to the river, following it along the recently-built Schuylkill Banks Boardwalk to the station. This boardwalk was very impressive – for a certain distance, the boardwalk was actually and elevated walk- (and bike-) way almost a quarter of the way out in the river. The position of the boardwalk was not all that was impressive, but also its scale. It was a sort of dual-carriageway of footpaths with bike lanes, road markings and frequent lay-bys. There was, in fact, even a pedestrian roundabout – one of the few roundabouts at all I saw in America!
It was at this point that we began to realise that our baggage was beginning to deteriorate. It was a fairly standard, red, wheeled suitcase with a rigid base, but only cloth sides. This meant that if the items inside began to shift to one side, the centre of gravity would shift and the bag would tip or roll over as it was being wheeled along. This was highly irritating, as it was beginning to happen every few hundred yards until the bag was kicked and prodded back into shape to restore the centre of gravity. It was as we were walking along the boardwalk that we realised that the plastic shell that formed the bag’s chassis had in fact snapped around one wheel-well. This meant that as the weight shifted onto the dodgy wheel, the bottom of the bag would bend as it tipped, shifting the items inside around until the bag was so unbalanced it was impossible to wheel along.
We did, however, eventually arrive at 30th St Station and catch our train to Washington, DC. Now, it may not surprise you to learn that, compared to British trains, American trains are slow and comfortable. Much more like armchairs than airline seats, the seats alone must be a good 30% larger than ours, with leg-room that doesn’t require even someone of my stature to sit awkwardly sideways. The carriages do not have the harsh lighting that British train companies seem to favour, while the train itself rumbles along unhurriedly. The lower speed and softer suspension mean that, if it takes longer, the ride is much more comfortable.
We were very kindly put up in Washington by some second cousins of ours, who picked us up from the station and showed us the sights. It happened to be a heatwave that day in DC, but that did little to stop our inexorable tourists’ march – we saw, I think I am safe in saying, all the sights. The Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Memorial, the Capitol, the White House, the outsides of bits of the Smithsonian.
On our second day there, we met up with one of my sister’s friends. We decided to go to the Smithsonian. Labouring under the misapprehension that the Natural History branch contained some actual history, we briefly visited there first, before heading across to the Museum of American History, which was much more promising.
In the meantime, some of our travel plans for the next week fell through, so we spent the afternoon booking an overnight Megabus from Atlanta to new Orleans.
Our next stop after Washington was Nashville, which turned out to be something of a mistake. My sister insisted on going there as she is a big fan of country music, and I think she expected it to be something of a Mecca. However, apart from two massively expensive halls of fame (neither or which we went in) and a street of bars of varying degrees of tackiness, it was more or less devoid of interest. Other than eating at a rather nice Caribbean restaurant, I don’t remember much from the day we spent there – but the reason for that can only be that Nashville didn’t give us much to remember.
Since our change in plans meant we had a day to spare, we ended up, the next morning, at another nondescript and anonymous Megabus stop waiting for a bus to Chattanooga. This time, there were no signs or queue barriers on the streets – all there was to indicate the presence of a bus stop was a small tin sign high on a lamp-post.
In Chattanooga, through a miraculous combination of emails, texts and sheer blind luck, we managed to meet up with Benny, a former room-mate of mine. Now, I hadn’t seen Benny since leaving school, and he’d somehow managed to avoid every means of communication that we’d tried since, so it was good to see him. Here we were introduced to Benny’s cunning ploy for getting one’s money’s worth at Subway – simply ask for salad components one at a time rather than listing them off all at once and the server will add each as though it were the only item. This produced a sandwich, which, though undoubtedly good value, was impossible for Benny to eat in a civilised fashion.
Since there was little to nothing to do in Chattanooga, we then drove with him to Atlanta. This was necessary because, despite what Glenn Miller would have you believe, there is no longer a train station in Chattanooga. We spent (what was now) the afternoon in Atlanta walking around and seeing a number of sights which were all closed by then – other than a large and apparently popular outdoor dubstep festival.
It was nearly 10pm before our Megabus left – this time from just outside the actual bus station. The overnight journey went fine from my point of view, though my sister – and our poor unfortunate bag – would have disagreed. However, I think that, like last time, further description of the deterioration of our luggage must wait for next time.