Padstow, Sunday 26 November Day 211 4960 miles
It was lovely to see you in Bristol and to go round the Exploratory with you. But I felt very sad after you'd gone back to London.
Have been going slower and slower as the hills get steeper and steeper in Devon and Cornwall, and the weather gets wetter and wetter. Today even a hailstorm in Tintagel! The last two days have finally seen aggravation exceed determination and have given up on the steep and twisting little coast roads.
However, tomorrow I should round Lands End and turn for home with the wind behind me.
Whenever travel agents want to impress upon tourists the joys of the British bed and breakfast they extol the virtues of the farmhouse breakfast. That is what I enjoyed the next morning. I sat at a large scrubbed-pine table with a Welsh dresser filled with crockery behind me and a huge double-sized Aga before me. Mary's daughter produced platefuls of bacon, eggs, sausages and tomatoes cooked to perfection with the practised ease and economy of effort of a professional caterer. Helping mother look after the bed and breakfast guests was simply a relaxing interlude before the serious cooking of her day began.
I was ready to leave by nine only to discover that the bike had a flat front tyre. The puncture in the inner tube was so small that to find it I had to resort for the first time to the time-honoured method of immersing the inflated tube in a sink of cold water and looking for the stream of tiny bubbles escaping from the hole. A tedious start to the day, but at least I could do it in the comfort of the farmhouse rather than crouching by the roadside on some cold and windswept moor.
And it certainly was a cold day. Mary told me they'd had a couple of frosts earlier in the week, and the trees were now starting to shed their leaves. Cold but not clear. A misty drizzle plagued the roads and, as the morning progressed, the mist dissolved into a steady rain and the temperature dropped even further. For the first time I began to suffer from cold hands.
Though there is much for a traveller to see in Gloucester, I wanted to press on to Bristol for the weekend because Richard, Adele, and Jamie were driving out from London to lend me moral support before I began to tackle the West Country. I stopped for lunch in the grandly named Cafe Paris on the outskirts of Gloucester where a huge roast beef dinner for less than four pounds restored my circulation.
Whilst I was gorging on roast beef the rain stopped so I was looking forward to a better afternoon's cycling. But when I set off the muscles of my left leg stubbornly refused to loosen up and enter into the spirit of things. I developed a serious pain in my left thigh so that I could exert little force in that leg. Fortunately the terrain was very flat and I was able to trundle along slowly in a low gear, stopping periodically to perform stretching exercises in a vain attempt to get the leg working properly again.
I coaxed my rebellious body to the youth hostel at Slimbridge hoping for a quiet evening. But a party of boisterous eleven-year-olds had other ideas. Even the best behaved youngsters have difficulty honouring the notion of the quiet room in a hostel but these kids were being wound up by a teacher at the end of his tether whose hectoring screams were more disturbing than the children themselves. I went to bed early to escape the bedlam.
Slimbridge youth hostel specialises in school parties doing nature studies. It has its own pool and a bird collection which complements the much larger Sir Peter Scott Wildlife and Wetlands Trust which is just up the road form the hostel. At about three in the morning one of the cocks began to crow and continued to do so sporadically for the rest of the night. The teacher must have slept badly too, for he was even more voluble and irascible over breakfast. It was a relief to get away.
The fields were covered with a thick, hoary frost and puddles by the roadside were frozen solid. For the first time I wore fleece gloves underneath my cycling mitts and I donned both fleece jacket and my waterproof top to ward off the chill of morning. But overnight the skies had cleared and a golden light washed over everything. Along the Gloucester and Sharpness Canal, the banks were lined with boats closed up and moored for the winter. No whisp of smoke from a chimney or thudding of engine disturbed the stillness. This was an autumn morning to savour.
Even my throbbing left leg couldn't spoil the pleasure of pootling slowly south-westwards through the level countryside bordering the river Severn. Through industrial Sharpness where the canal enters the Severn having bypassed all the lengthy meanders of the river as it slowly makes its way from Gloucester to the sea. Through Berkeley where the castle, now closed to the public for the winter, has been home to twenty-four generations of the Berkeley family since 1153. Through many quick stops to stamp my feet in an attempt to thaw them out.
At lunchtime I stopped for an hour in the unlikely setting of a motorway service station. Severn View Services is one of the few such service stations open to travellers on minor roads so that all can enjoy the superb view over the Severn Road Bridge. The towers of the suspension bridge stand over four hundred feet high and the bridge is over three thousand feet long. It was dense with vehicles beetling along, distance lending the vehicles a silence and a peacefulness. There is a footpath along the bridge so I could have crossed by bike, but I was glad I had cycled the long way round by Gloucester. Bridges look picturesque when gazed at from afar but not when you are immersed in the traffic they carry.
From the bridge I was faced by a main road through Avonmouth and then up the Avon Gorge into the centre of Bristol itself. I feared that this would be a steep, traffic-filled route but found it an easy six-mile ride along the river. Way above my head Brunel's elegant Clifton Suspension Bridge carried cars from one tree-lined rim of the Gorge to the other. Only at the end did the road steepen to take me up into the busy streets of Bristol. For once traffic planners had made sensible provision for cyclists at road junctions and, with the best signposting I had encountered in city streets, I was guided all the way from the main road through the gorge up to the very doors of the youth hostel, hidden away on the quiet cobbled side of the old docks, with scarcely a break in pedalling.
Bristol youth hostel is the best of the modern hostels in which I have stayed. Knowledgeable and helpful staff, a good cafeteria, and excellent facilities made for an enjoyable stay. But the bunk beds are frankly bizarre. Mine was at ground level, almost on the floor, and the bottom half was covered by an upper bunk sticking out at right angles. The effect was like sleeping in the half-open drawer of a filing cabinet. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason for this strange arrangement, other than a designer's whim to be different. The miniature room had four such bunks and came equipped with its own shower room and a separate cubicle containing toilet and washbasin.
I showered and changed, washed and dried all my dirty clothes, ate in the cafeteria, then settled down with maps and guidebooks to bring my logbook up to date and plan the weeks ahead. I had originally hoped to get home by the beginning of November. It was now the seventeenth of November and I still had to round the West Country and the whole of the south coast before heading back up the River Thames to London. If I averaged 250 miles per week for five weeks I might just get back home in time for Christmas. An unlikely scenario. So far I hadn't managed that kind of pace for more than a couple of weeks at a time. Now I was just too weary in body and spirit and could only expect to get slower and slower as the weather deteriorated through the winter. Tired I might be, but I felt no diminution in my resolve to complete the journey. If taking things slowly and steadily meant cycling through Christmas and New Year, then so be it.
The fine weather continued through the weekend. On Saturday I took the bike out onto the dockside, surrounded it with newspaper to protect the cobblestones, then washed the bike, degreased the chain and the rest of the transmission, and adjusted the brakes and gears. The sunshine and the beautiful surroundings provided the perfect opportunity to prepare the bike for the winter weeks ahead.
Probably twenty years ago I would not have thought these surroundings beautiful for they would have presented a scene of decay and dereliction. But the centre of Bristol has benefited more than most cities from the restoration and rejuvenation of its derelict dockland area.
The youth hostel is housed in one of the rebuilt warehouses and looks southwards across the City Docks to the Bristol Industrial Museum where a small pannier tank locomotive chuffed slowly up and down the dockside railway past a steam tug and steam crane which were also part of the museum's displays. Looking eastwards to Redcliffe Quay, below the tall spire of St Mary Redcliffe church, a reproduction of John Cabot's ship Matthew was being built. Cabot was a Venetian navigator who came to Bristol, already a thriving port in the fifteenth century, in search of fortune. Bristol merchants equipped him for a voyage of discovery and in May 1497 he set sail. After thirty-five days he landed and claimed New Found Land in the name of Henry VII. Five hundred years later the reproduction of Cabot's ship Matthew set sail to re-enact the discovery of North America.
Like many British seaports Bristol
thrived on the slave trade with the Americas, bringing back cargoes
of rum, sugar, and tobacco in exchange for the slaves taken westwards
to work on the plantations. But as the British Empire increased
in economic power and influence, the small, sheltered docks in
the centre of Bristol proved too small to handle the rapid growth
of business and Bristol lost out in importance to Liverpool which
was well placed to handle the trade of the industrial north.