Once Upon a Time in the West

Last June, for the annual tour with my friends Jeff and Tim (our usual fourth member Matt being sadly ruled hors de combat with a back injury), we tackled the West Country Way, an epic 240 mile ride along Route 3 of the National Cycle Network, travelling through the highly varied landscapes of North Cornwall, North Devon and Somerset. It took place a couple of weeks before the EU Referendum, and will be forever known as our ‘Brexit bike trip’.

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Things get off to a gentle enough start with a 17 mile ride out of Bodmin station (four hours from Paddington) along the converted railway track of the Camel Trail (flat and, ironically, hump-free) to reach the start of the West Country Way at Padstow on the north Cornish coast. We toast the beginning of a new adventure sitting outside a pub overlooking the picture postcard harbour, soaking up the late afternoon rays and trying not to think about the weather forecast for the weekend ahead (apocalyptic as per usual for a summer bike trip), before cycling six miles back up the Camel Trail to our first night stop, the Molesworth Arms at Wadebridge.

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Wadebridge, one would imagine, is normally a sleepy market town, but this evening the streets are jammed with people spilling out of the pubs, most of whom appear to have been drinking since 9 o’clock this morning. The atmosphere is good-natured and carnivalesque, but things suddenly kick off in the street outside the Molesworth when a feisty young woman thumps a man in the face, ramming the back of his head against a shop windowpane, and chucking a pint over him for good measure. Wisely, he retreats and stands glaring at her from a safe distance.

Ten minutes later the scene morphs from saloon bar western to the golden age of silent movies as the local cops turn up and chase the man up the steep hill through the town. They all vanish from sight at the top for several minutes before the man suddenly re-appears and runs back down the hill chased by the red-faced and wheezing cops, cheered on by an appreciative crowd, before they finally catch him, pin him to the ground and cart him off in a waiting panda. Maybe he’s broken a restraining order or committed some previous assault on the woman, or maybe it’s all a piece of performance art staged for the benefit of any cycle tourers passing through.

Back inside the Molesworth Arms I find myself in a long conversation with a couple of very jovial men who explain that we have arrived in Wadebridge in the middle of the three day Royal Cornish Show, a major event in the county featuring many different kinds of agricultural machinery and prize livestock for sale, and involving industrial quantities of cider. Full of beginning-of-holiday bonhomie I show a tad more interest in the subject than I truly feel, and have soon learned more than I ever thought possible about current developments in the technology of hay-baling.

The rest of the evening passes without incident as we enjoy some decent pub grub, a few more ales and a gig featuring local celebrity crooner Josh Kernow, semi-finalist on Britain’s Got Talent 2016. Josh delivers a full-throated and well-received performance but slightly lets himself down during the interval (according to an eye witness account from Jeff) by failing to wash his hands following a visit to the urinal. As always on a bike trip, all life is here.

Seven pints/23 miles cycling is not the most sensible ale/physical exertion ratio on the first leg of such a big trip, and the next morning I awake with a throbbing head and a nagging feeling that I may have agreed to buy a combined harvester and a couple of heifers by mistake. Meanwhile, the second day of the Royal Cornish Show is already getting underway and in the breakfast room of the Molesworth Arms a man is ordering a full English and a pint of scrumpy.

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Our first full day is a testing 47 miles to Bude as the Camel Trail gives way to much hillier terrain. Panting up one particularly tough climb we round the bend at the top and are confronted by a dispiritingly huge red and white ‘Vote Leave’ poster, the first of a great many over the next few days and a harbinger, as it turns out, of what is to come later in the month. There is clearly an almighty shit storm brewing out here in the shires and we begin to feel a long way from London in more than one sense. Jeff points out that, being Cornwall, the poster could actually be expressing a desire to leave the UK.

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The route skirts the western edge of Bodmin Moor crossing a blank expanse of sparse vegetation and abandoned airfields, strange and desolate-looking under heavily overcast skies, then veers west to join the coast road near Millook. The ride into Bude is spectacular with very steep ascents (unrideable at times), nerve-jangling downhills and breath-taking clifftop views of the waves crashing onto the rocks far below. We arrive just as the long-threatened rain begins to fall and check into the Atlantic House guesthouse on the seafront, a decent establishment which also boasts the only Creole restaurant in the South West of England.

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After a long day in the saddle and a good dinner it’s always such a pleasure to fall into bed. There’s nothing like a really physically tiring bike ride or a walk for getting a great night’s sleep. In As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, the young Laurie Lee recounts his journey on foot from the Cotswolds to London in the early 1930s, describing the wonderful solace of rest after a long day on the road: “Even exhaustion, when it came, had a voluptuous quality, and sleep was caressive and deep, like oil.”

It was alright for Laurie Lee though. He probably never had to share a room with snoring middle aged blokes. The key lesson, knowledge hard-won from previous bike trips, is to make sure you’re the one who nods off first – better to be the snorer than the snoree. On this occasion I fail to do so, but at least have taken the precaution of bringing ear-plugs. Flight ear-plugs, in fact, designed to block out the din of a Boeing 747 taking off. Unfortunately they fail to muffle the roar of the Jumbo taxiing on the runway over the other side of the room. I stare at the ceiling deep into the wee small hours, contemplating the prospect of a gruelling 60 mile ride tomorrow and wondering if anyone has ever been found dead in a B&B, strangled with their own bicycle chain.

On the morning of day three we cross the county border out of Cornwall and the landscape subtly shifts to something classically Devonian with rolling hills and the congenial charm of Midsomer Murder-type villages like Holsworthy and Petrockstowe, where we join the Tarka Trail for nearly 30 miles of welcome flatness as far as Barnstaple. Another fine old post-Beeching railway track conversion, the Tarka Trail traces the journey of the eponymous critter in Henry Williamson’s 1927 story Tarka The Otter, made into a successful film in 1979 with a screenplay by Gerald Durrell.

Henry Williamson, as well as being a celebrated local author and naturalist, was also a keen Nazi, an admirer of Hitler and member of Mosely’s Blackshirts, though this tends not to be mentioned by the North Devon tourism industry. Were he alive today he would probably, one suspects, have been a Brexiteer, although in the 1950s he did write for a journal called The European, edited by Mosely’s wife Diana Mitford, established by the Moselys as a platform for the BUF leader’s belief in a united (fascist) Europe as a bulwark against the US and Soviet Union.

The Tarka Trail is a lovely, family-friendly ride which can also be cycled as part of the 100 mile Devon Coast to Coast Cycle Route (from Ilfracombe down to Plymouth). In addition to its other delights it’s probably worth doing if only to have an opportunity to tell the old curry house joke: “Waiter, what is the tarka?’… ‘It’s like the tikka sir, but it’s a little ‘otter”. We follow the trail along the River Torridge, stopping for lunch, Spartan fare (for once) of cuppa soup and coffee at the Torrington Cycle Hire café opposite the Puffing Billy pub, before continuing up the Torridge Estuary, getting caught in one of those heavy but mercifully short summer downpours, then quickly drying off in the afternoon sun.

Past Bideford on a short detour to the North Devon coast lies Westward Ho!, notable for its fine beach and fish and chip shops, but also for its unusual name. It is, as far as I know, the only village in Britain to be called after a novel (written in 1855 by local author Charles Kingsley, who also wrote The Water Babies). It is also the only place name in the country to boast an exclamation mark. In this respect, however, it is outdone by the Canadian town of Saint-Louis-du-Ha! Ha! which has two exclamation marks. Westward Ho! could surely settle this once and for all by changing its name to Westward Ho! Ho! Ho! But that would be daft.

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We leave the Tarka Trail at Barnstaple and begin the relentless pull up to Long Holcombe, 483 metres above sea level at the top of Exmoor. Thick swirls of cloud obscure what must be stunning panoramic views in clear weather, but today they add to the atmosphere of this beautiful, lonely place. Meanwhile, Tim’s bike seat has become mysteriously detached from its post and the machine is barely rideable. Dusk is creeping over the moors and there are few landmarks up here which can help us to find our night stop the Sportsman’s Inn, located somewhere between the villages of North Molton and Withypool. With our only GPS system fast running out of charge we manage to find the place (completely hidden from view on a turning 100 metres off Route 3) just in the nick of time – another 15 minutes and we would have cycled straight past the turning and been stranded up here in the inky black with barely a passing motorist.

The Sportsman’s Inn is a delightful old pub and we are royally looked after by Graham, the sprightly old chap who runs the place with his son Martin (who is away with his mates enjoying a similar weekend jolly to ourselves, but something involving fast cars). Utterly shagged out after the climb up Exmoor we collapse in the bar in front of the TV (watching England’s underwhelming opening draw with a mediocre Russian side in Euro 2016), barely able to speak as we shovel down onion soups, lamb shanks/battered cods, sticky toffee puddings and pints of Exmoor Ale. For half time entertainment we play hunt the mobile phone signal in a pitch dark field full of bleating sheep behind the pub.

When we have regained the power of speech we ask Graham how they manage to run an obviously thriving pub up here in such a remote place. There are many regulars who drive here from the villages scattered around the top of Exmoor, but the Sportsman’s Inn, as its name suggests, is also very popular with the hunting community who gather here for lunch after a morning’s shooting. ‘What do they shoot?’ we ask. ‘Pheasants, partridge, rabbits, hares, foxes, deer – pretty much anything that moves really.’ Graham is also bracingly unromantic about life up here in the winter months (‘bloody awful, covered in fog for days on end, can’t stand it’).

Next morning, after serving us a superb breakfast cooked by his wife, Graham cements his status as a total legend by ushering into his workshop at the back of the pub, an Aladdin’s cave of tools, where he performs some form of demented alchemy on Tim’s bike seat with a lump of wood, a bunch of screws, a couple of spare bungees and a pomegranate; an ingeniously make-do solution straight out of the Heath Robinson cycle repair book.

The next day is another 65 miles, but far easier than yesterday as we descend from the top of Exmoor to Dulverton, crossing the border into Somerset and continuing on undulating minor roads to Tiverton and Sampford Peverell. The deep silence is punctuated only by the occasional Sunday driver and, at one point, repeated bursts of gunfire coming from a field around the next bend. One of the things you begin to notice on cycle trips is how much shooting there is in the British countryside. Unsure whether the intended targets on this occasion are some form of game, as described by Graham, or possibly a cull of Remain voters, we cycle past nervously just as a fresh batch of clay pigeons bites the dust.

The Globe Inn in the village of Appley (about a mile off Route 3), reputed to be 500 years old, provides a fine lunch of monkfish curry, hot with chilli and aromatic with coconut and tamarind. Afterwards, flying down country lanes in the afternoon sunshine I lose concentration and only a last second swerve narrowly averts a crash into the hedgerow at 24 miles an hour. When you haven’t come a cropper on a bike for a long while you can start to feel a bit complacent, almost invulnerable. It’s sobering to remember now and again how close at hand disaster can lie if you get careless. The author and farmer John Lewis-Sempel said ‘There are only two good ways to fall of a horse – be either young or very drunk”, and the same probably applies to a bike (though only the latter option remains open to me now).

Route 3 continues through the centre of Taunton, past the county cricket ground and the Joel Garner stand, prompting fond memories of ‘Big Bird’, the six foot eight lethally quick West Indies and Somerset bowler of the late 70s/early 80s. There’s a nice easy finish to the day along the Bridgewater and Taunton Canal to our night stop at the Friendly Spirit pub in Cannington, just off the route four miles outside Bridgewater.

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The final day is the longest (over 70 miles to Bath) and the cycling conditions, a bit like the local cider, are mostly cloudy and flat as we cross the Somerset Levels, these days often an area of severe flooding but thankfully not at the moment. Approaching Glastonbury the distinctive mound of the Tor beckons us on, popping up first on one side of us and then the other as the road twists and turns, its 14th century ruined tower pointing skywards like an ancient one finger salute.

This stretch of Route 3 almost certainly follows a ley line because strange phenomena now begin to occur: firstly a horse-drawn carriage carrying a man and woman, dressed in what appear to be Elizabethan costumes, comes clattering towards us down a country lane. Minutes later, this is followed by a second world war Lancaster bomber flying very low overhead and disappearing across the ancient peat moors outside the town, raising the strong possibility that we have entered some kind of wormhole in the space-time continuum.

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We enter Glastonbury itself, passing the Excalibur pub, the Merlin petrol garage & mini-mart and the Joseph of Arimathea pizza parlour. Judging by the rest of the town centre the local economy seems to be mainly dependent on the sale of crystals. With horror I realise we have failed to include a single proper cake stop in the entire trip, an omission partly due to time constraints given the longer than usual distances covered. We finally manage to squeeze in a late morning hunk of coffee & walnut at the Uther Pendragon café, before riding up the High Street (or, as it used to be called in Arthurian times, New Age Tatte Shoppe Street), then on past Glastonbury Abbey. The ‘discovery’ of Arthur and Guinevere’s tomb was announced here in 1191, though this is now seen as a publicity stunt to attract more pilgrims to the town and generate revenues for the re-building of the Abbey which had been destroyed by fire seven years earlier. Tourism marketing strategies clearly haven’t changed much in the past 800 years.

Where would King Arthur have stood on Brexit? It’s entirely possible, given that he was always up for a bit of Saxon-bashing, that he would have been in favour of triggering Article 50 at the earliest possible opportunity. But I’d prefer to see the egalitarian nature of his famous Round Table as evidence of a commitment to the European Social Charter and the Convention on Human Rights.

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After the tackiness of Glastonbury town centre the more sedate and elegant charms of Wells come as something of a relief and, stopping for lunch at a pub overlooking the magnificent cathedral, I drink a token pint of Somerset cider just because I feel I ought to at least once on the trip, the acid sharpness refreshing for the first couple of swigs and then offering diminishing returns, reminding me why I’m an ale man. On the other side of Wells the West Country Way offers one last test with a strenuous afternoon climb up and over the Mendips rewarded by great views back across the Levels, before we join the Bristol & Bath Railway Path, the very first section of the UK National Cycle Network to be built back in 1984.

It’s been a challenging but very memorable trip (though I’d suggest taking at least an extra day on top of the four and a bit we squeezed it into), and the weather, though hardly the stuff of balmy evenings and long shadows on cricket pitches one always hopes for, has been nowhere near as dire as predicted. We finally reach the end of the West Country Way at Bath Spa station, leaving us just enough time for a final celebratory toast before catching the train back home to our metropolitan bubble.

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