Great Torrington to Bridgwater (67 miles)
Again it has rained hard overnight. It is a pity that we left one set of our cycling kit out on the line overnight. It is still a bit drizzly over breakfast but is showing signs of clearing. The weather forecast for showers etc. is similar to the previous day.
We decide that a steep hill climb to start the day with cold leg muscles is not too clever an idea and so opt to head up to the top by a different route including walking the first bit while we warm up. Then we make the transition to wheels and get under way, taking it gently until we reach a flat bit of road. We head through Atherington and then down to cross the River Taw at Umberleigh. The B3227 has a couple of exciting longish and multi-arrowed hills of the down then up type of switchback that Devon specialises in. At the first we hold the tandem back on the brakes until we get a confident view of the way through the bottom then take a 40+mph run at the other side working our way up the hill and rapidly down through the gears to bottom. After a creditable ascent three-quarters of the way to the summit we opt for the slightly faster option of completing the climb on foot. We try a repeat performance at the second hill but (for the only time in the whole tour) half way up I manage to shift the chain straight past the granny third ring leaving us pedalling fresh air. We manage not to fall off but having stopped to return the chain to its rightful place we resign ourselves to plodding up to the top.
All around us on this part of the journey are dark skies and we can see heavy rain falling in various directions, but while running over wet and recently rained upon roads we manage to dodge the heavy showers all the way to South Molton. So if the chain had not fallen off and we had gone a bit quicker over the hills we would only have got soaked in South Molton – there is always a silver lining.
Zena from South Molton CAB and her husband meet us here complete with an impressive bundle of helium filled balloons that are added to the banner and other bits for the official tandem and staff CAB publicity photos.
Having said goodbye, had a snack and stocked up with bananas, we continue through North Molton towards Exmoor. There is nothing else to add about Devon and hills – they are frequent and quotes, “steep and challenging” and that’s it. For a change of scenery we climb our way up onto Exmoor, past the Sportsman’s Inn and into completely exposed terrain. On a good day it should look stunning. In fact I well remember sitting on the moor in sunshine during the West Country Way trip while Bob tortured Keith with a leg massage. But along here our luck runs out with the weather. There is a dramatic temperature drop (“how high above sea level are we?”) and it is on with the full waterproofs: overshoes, Goretex tops, waterproof trousers and neoprene gloves. Rain, hail and thunder ensue (it is possible to get quite a lot of hailstones wedged in the ventilation slots of a cycle helmet) and we pedal and then freewheel downhill on our way to reach Withypool. On arrival the worst of the rain has abated but a café stop for hot coffee requires little discussion. Bravely we sit outside at a picnic table in order to eat our own lunchtime food but the rain has stopped by now. Also the public loos next door have hot air dryers that can be directed towards particularly cold bits of one’s anatomy. I take a couple of photos of Sheila with and without bike and bridge. We become engaged in conversation with some other visitors (So far as I recall on this occasion they are not previous tandem owners). They decide that we are an essential part of their holiday snaps and video, so we duly oblige by waiving our normal Equity rates and performing with a scenic departure across the bridge while smiling at the cameras. This is fine for a start but of course around the first corner it is time to “save your breath” and get back into serious climbing.
Spared further serious rain but still in waterproofs we reach the River Exe at Winsford where we pose the tandem for a photo beside the fast flowing ford. However, we opt more sensibly to use the footbridge alongside having gauged the swollen flow of water to be well over hub / bottom bracket level. After a short spell on the A396 we locate our “lane on right signposted Witheridge Farm”. This little number from the CTC route instructions is well up to Sustrans at their most perverse. Narrow, with grass in the middle and very very steep with no apparent summit, it would be a challenge on a fine day. Today, immediately after the heavy downpours, at the sides of the grass where there may be a tar surface hidden from view is a torrent of water+mud+random debris. We need no persuasion to dismount and push the bike. The only choice being, “is it less hard to walk on the grass and wheel the tandem up through mud and debris, or to wheel the bike on the grass while paddling oneself?”
Back on two wheels at the top of the lane and on a small road with a discernible surface we set off for the Brendon Hills (hills? – well that will make a change). I had not encountered this little range before – something to do with the Quantocks as I understand it. In fact once we are up there they are not too bad as the road seems to manage to hold to the ridge line through various “crosses”, past a radio mast and then descending to Handy Cross. By now the sun is shining again and we travel on to Bishops Lydeard, which is an interesting estate village, to arrive in warm afternoon sunshine. A rest is definitely in order, and as there is nothing in the teashop line we select a sunny spot in a pub yard and sit on the steps with weary backs propped against the wall. We allow the legs to recover while enjoying flapjack and Smarties – it does not take a lot to seem a real treat at this time of the day!
We also debate the possible whereabouts of Sylvia (a serious cyclist and Bridgwater CAB advisor) and her cycling club mates. They were intending to come out and meet us and we had sent them a map of our route. We wonder if the weather has put them off, but don’t want to miss them and so have selected our rest pitch to have a clear view of the road as well as parking the tandem in a prominent place.
Somewhat restored we take to the road again, noting that between Bridgwater and us is Cothelstone Hill, and to which the map attributes three arrows all pointing at us. We toil our way up in bottom gear. Being not too clear, as the road twists and turns, where the top might be we hop off and walk for a spell for a change, then get back on and resume the climb. Over the summit it is basically downhill all the way to Bridgwater. We pass a cyclist going the other way (drop bars etc). Is he one of Sylvia’s cycling club? We wave and slow down and peer over our shoulders. He shows no sign of stopping or turning, so we continue.
Finally on the fast run into the outskirts of Bridgwater we see two female cyclists on the other side of the road, one of whom is wearing a multi-sponsored cycling kit – must be Sylvia. We make a rapid stop and they turn round to greet us. Sylvia explains that the club had been out for a ride in the morning and had got cold and soaked, so the others had gone home for hot baths and had stayed there. But she had changed and had then come back out with Judith who was also from CAB. Sylvia explains that Judith who is mounted on a “round-town for shopping” type of bike is not a serious cyclist and so we must not go too fast. This does not give us too much of a problem and we happily allow them to pilot us through the town to the CAB office where we are met by Kevin, the deputy manager, and his family. The children have been patiently preparing various welcome signs and a finishing line.
We take group photos of everyone with CAB material, tandem etc and then Sheila goes for a bureau tour and discussion. Rory, the number-one son is taken by the tandem. As his toes can just reach the rear pedals, and it is a quiet road I offer to give him a spin. We plonk Sheila’s helmet on his head and the two of us have a practice run out. All seems well so on the return I wind the bike up to about 20mph for an impressive whoosh past the crowd together with big grin from Rory, before turning again for a gentle cycle by everyone for photos to be taken. Finally Sylvia pilots the way for the car and us to follow across town to our overnight stop with Sally. So as not to inconvenience the car Sylvia never drops below 20mph and we hang onto her back wheel for the fast straight bits. I’m glad we had Judith with us on our way into town.
Loads of hospitality for the evening at Sally’s, where Sylvia also joins us for dinner. She has instructed Sally in the dietary requirements of cyclists and so we are fed vast quantities of super food in which rice and pasta play a large part (She also tells us she has laid in plenty of bananas to accompany breakfast). It turns out that Sylvia, who is bursting with energy and ebullience, had been running the wholefood café at St John Street Cycles, but that it is no more, having been closed and is now let as a pub. Sally’s son has also worked for a while in the SJS Cycles shop. The Bridgwater cycle club and Sylvia are coming down to the New Forest the coming weekend for a cycling trip that will include the "Round the Island" Randonnée, so we tell her about it. Subsequently Bryan, a friend of ours, meets up with them and spends the day cycling round the circuit with them. There is, of course, also lots of talk about CAB matters.
Bridgwater to Chepstow
To Lands End
Prologue - Lands End to Ludgvan
Day 2 Ludgvan to Trelill
Day 3 Trelill to Great Torrington
Day 4 Great Torrington to Bridgwater
Day 5 Bridgwater to Chepstow
Day 6 Chepstow to Ludlow
Day 7 Ludlow to Church Minshull
Day 8 Church Minshull to Slaidburn
Day 9 Slaidburn to Penrith
Day 10 Penrith to Eskdalemuir
Day 11 Eskdalemuir to South Queensferry
Day 12 South Queensferry to Blairgowrie
Day 13 Blairgowrie to Tomintoul
Day 14 Tomitoul to Alness
Day 15 Alness to Bettyhill
Day 16A Bettyhill to John O'Groats
Day 16B John O'Groats to Kirkwall
Orkney and Home