Category Archives: travel pieces

Homage To Caledonia

Two years ago my son Sam and I cycled Lochs & Glens North from Glasgow up to Inverness. This summer we decided to retrace that journey but this time taking an entirely different route, incorporating the Caledonian Way (Route 78 of the National Cycle Network, newly launched by Sustrans in 2016) which starts in Campbeltown on the Kintyre peninsula.

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Sitting on my bike in Campbeltown harbour I swear I can hear the faint sound of Macca’s ghostly bagpipers floating on the breeze as I gaze wistfully towards the Mull of Kintyre. Mist is rolling in from the sea. My desire, as you can probably guess, is always to be here. I can’t though – we’ve got 240 miles to cycle and we have to be in Inverness six days from now. Besides, mist isn’t really rolling in from the sea anyway. It’s pissing down with rain and we’re getting a bit goose-pimply. I’m not entirely convinced Macca has ever been here to be honest.

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Our epic trip got off to a good start yesterday with a nice, mostly flat 40 miles in warm sunshine following NCN Route 7 south out of Glasgow, along the Clyde and down the Ayrshire coast to the port of Ardrossan where we caught the evening ferry over to Kintyre. The three hour crossing felt like an adventure in itself, with stunning views of the mountains of Arran silhouetted dark blue against the silvery light as we settled back in the lounge of the CalMac ferry, swigging bottles of beer from the Isle of Arran Brewery (motto ‘Guid ale keeps my heart aboon’).

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Kintyre is a peninsular though it feels as cut off as an island: long, thin and straggly, ten miles wide, dangling down into the North Channel of the Irish Sea between Arran to the east and Islay to the west. Its southern tip (the famous Mull of K) is a mere caber’s toss from the coast of County Antrim in Ulster.

Campbeltown, 15 miles north of the Mull, is the region’s main town and it’s a long, convoluted trip by car from Glasgow, which means the peninsula has found itself cast adrift from the Scottish ‘mainland’ over the years. The ferry service, fully launched only in 2016, has now offered a new lifeline to this wild west fringe of Scotland, as well as opening up the region to cycle tourers like ourselves.

Campbeltown retains traces of past glory in the faded elegance of its grand hotels around the harbour and it once claimed with some justification to be the ‘the whisky capital of the world’ with 34 distilleries (which helped to fuel the illegal smuggling routes into Prohibition America in the 1920s). Today though there are only three active ones left and it was named in 2012 as one of the two most economically vulnerable towns in rural Scotland. The B&B where we’re staying in the town centre displays a defiant nationalism with SNP posters and leftover Yes stickers still blue-tacked to the windows nearly two years after the referendum on independence. Maybe they’ve just been left there for the next one.

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Route 78 starts in the harbour and goes up the eastern side of Kintyre with several very steep hills made even more challenging by the driving rain and thick cloud, so low at times on the summits that we are can hardly see the road ahead. Occasionally the clouds break up enough to unveil tantalising views of Arran over to our right. A sound like the distant baying of a hound percolates through the porridgy gloom, adding to the romantic and very Scottish feeling of the lonely landscape. There are few places to stop on this section of the route but a restaurant on the way into Carradale village provides brief respite from the rain along with welcome cheese toasties and coffee.

Now there are some people who claim that when you get caught in heavy rain, after a while you just can’t get any wetter. Those people are fools who should be rapped on the head with a small bicycle tool. It is in fact possible to get very wet and then to get much wetter still, and then to carry on getting wetter until the rain has soaked not only through your clothes and the contents of your panniers but has seeped into your pores and inundated your very soul. This is the level of wetness we are to experience over the next few days on the Kintyre Peninsula.

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Luckily I have been reading Robert McFarlane’s book Landmarks, a powerful manifesto for the reclamation of the disappearing language of landscape. McFarlane believes that an ability to describe the richness of our natural world can help us to value and protect it more. As a result I have acquired a glossary of regional terms to describe the many types of rain across the British Isles, a good number of which are, unsurprisingly, Scottish or Gaelic dialect words. I suspect this list of rain words is going to come in pretty handy this week.

Arriving at our night stop, the coastal town of Tarbert, we find our B&B has been double-booked by mistake and we have been gazumped by a party of Dutch people doing a whiskey tour of the islands. We sit in the kitchen thawing out from the day’s plypes (sudden heavy showers, Scots) and sipping hot tea as the owner frantically rings round trying to find us an alternative bed for the night. Eventually he finds us a willing host, Andrew who runs The Moorings, a guesthouse with fine views of the harbour front who is already full but offers to put us up in his spare room in the attic.

The Moorings is a comfortable and quirky place, the front garden like a fairy tale grotto stuffed with a menagerie of ornamental creatures: monkeys, bears, big cats, snakes, turtles and exotic birds peeking out from behind plant pots or camouflaged by thick green foliage. Andrew ushers us inside, a stocky bearded Scot, very kind if slightly bossy. ‘I’m afraid I’ll have ter ask yers not to smoke anywhere in the hoose’ he says, rather unnecessarily as I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many no smoking signs gathered together in one place, pinned to every available wall space and door. The house is also festooned in multi-coloured lights that wink on and off as you approach them, including some floor-level bulbs around the toilet in our room that unexpectedly bathe my legs in a disconcerting purple glow as I’m taking a dump later that evening.

Andrew offers to run the sodden contents of our panniers through his washing machine and tumble drier. It’s amazing how many B&Bs do this but I suppose they must be used to bedraggled, miserable looking cyclists down to their last pair of dry pants. On our way out for the evening he beckons me over, looking very grave. He’s spotted Sam sneaking a crafty fag across the road. ‘I can’t believe the young man smokes!’ he says. ‘And him a cyclist!’ ‘I gave up 15 years ago. And I never touch a drop ‘o booze’, though you’d never believe it’ he says, gesturing around at shelves piled high with bottles of spirits from around the world. ‘Me only addiction is me telly’, he says. ‘I’m off to watch Emmerdale…’

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Tarbert is a pleasing fishing village with a pretty harbour full of colourful boats. King Magnus Barefoot of Norway sailed here in 1098 and claimed Kintyre as part of the Viking Kingdom of the Sudereys (Southern Hebrides). High on a hill overlooking the town is the picturesque ruined castle mostly built by Robert The Bruce, the Scottish king who after a famous encounter with a spider in a cave decided to abandon his previous devo-max position and form the SNP back in the early 14th century, a crown more recently held by his descendants, the fishermen Alex The Salmon and Nicola the Sturgeon (Did you check all these facts? Ed).

As well as facing seawards Tarbert is also located on the shore of Loch Fyne where the restaurant chain of that name originated. The whole area is famed for its seafood. The Starfish in town has a high foodie reputation but you need to book in advance to have any chance of getting a table. We settle instead for The Anchorage, a cosy harbour-side bistro where we dine as handsomely as no doubt King Magnus Barefoot once did on local produce including fish chowder, smoked salmon and venison sausages. We go on for a couple of beers in the bright green painted Corner House pub next door where old men in kilts are playing pool and the TV is showing a feisty Friday night Scottish League Cup tie between Arbroath and Dundee. It all feels nicely authentic in a low key sort of way so we decide to round things off properly with a ten year old Isle of Arran malt. I judge it to be pleasantly peaty, although I have no idea what that means. It just sounds like the sort of thing you might say when tasting a ten year old malt.

Next morning we are joined at breakfast by two other cyclists, a nice German couple from Konstanz who are thankfully too polite to bring up the embarrassment of Brexit. They are doing the iconic Lands End to John O’Groats route or Das LEJOG as it is probably known in Deutschland. It’s not entirely clear how they managed to end up this far west. They set off from Cornwall about two weeks ago. ‘The weather was good at first’, says the man, ‘but as soon as we entered Scotland it became not so good. And this –  this is not a holiday!’, he says gazing mournfully out of the rain-spattered window and looking a little tearful. His wife squeezes his hand and we all agree that cycling is still brilliant even when it’s raining, if only because it makes you appreciate the good days even more. We swap stories of our past campaigns completely forgetting about the bowls of strawberries in front of us until Andrew comes in, looking rather peeved. ‘Are yous all not eating yer froot then?’ he wants to know. Bike chatter is instantly replaced by the clatter of spoons.

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From Tarbert the route turns across the peninsula towards the west coast, through the lush if totally unpronounceable Forest of Achaglachgach, memorably described in Richard Guise’s cycling book From the Mull to the Cape:

“The lochside stretch I was rolling through formed the trickily named Achaglachgach Forest, where I panted up and down Glen Achaglachgach, past Achaglachgach House and through Achaglachgach village, which was totally deserted. Maybe they’d all choked to death trying to say ‘Achaglachgach’.”

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At this point Kintyre becomes the Knapdale peninsula and the minor road up the west coast offers lovely views of the island of Jura (where George Orwell stayed when he wrote 1984), but today its hazy outline is filtered through the steady ciuran (drizzle, Gaelic). Whatever the weather though, there’s a deep sense of stillness and spaciousness about this landscape which calms the spirit and declutters the mind – ‘fabulous nothing’ as the poet Kathleen Jamie described Jura.

The Kilberry Inn is one of the few places to stop for refreshment round here and has excellent gastronomic credentials, but we are still stuffed from Andrew’s full Scottish this morning and just settle for a bottle of IPA from Colonsay, apparently the smallest island in the world with its own brewery.

Turning inland the route continues along the Crinan Canal towpath and across the raised peat bogs and mossy hummocks of the Mhoine Mhor nature reserve before we encounter the first of many stone circles, standing stones and burial cairns of Kilmartin Glen. This area contains one of the most important Neolithic sites in Scotland dating from around 4,000 BC with around 150 prehistoric monuments crammed into a radius of six miles. Nearby is Dunadd, an Iron Age fort said to be the home of the first Kings of Scotland.

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Climbing up into Kilmartin village we reach our night stop the Kilmartin Inn, its slate roof and stark white walls nestling beneath the green slopes that tower above a small cluster of houses, a museum and a village church which contains an impressive collection of medieval gravestones dating back to the 13th century. Carnasserie Castle on the far edge of the village is also worth exploring, an evocative ruined 16th century tower house on a hill overlooking the Glen.

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Surrounded by so many reminders of the ancient past and enclosed by the brooding grey sky, rain blattering (heavily and noisily, Galloway) on the pub windows, Kilmartin is an atmospheric location to stay the night, a perfect blend of time and place. Pies and pints are followed by the already established ritual of the nightcap local malt (Isle of Jura). It proves to be pleasantly peaty, though perhaps not quite as peaty as last night’s. But it’s hard to be sure so we have another one just to check.

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Before turning in for the night we switch on the TV and find the weatherman beaming with glad tidings. After a few days of widespread rain tomorrow’s forecast shows a ridge of high pressure drifting in from across the Atlantic, bathing Britain in a pool of warm sunshine. There are bright yellow symbols punctuated with fluffy white pillows dotted everywhere across the map. Well almost everywhere. On that long, thin, straggly bit that dangles off the west coast of Scotland there are menacing black clouds leaking diagonal lines of doom. The only bit of the UK, it would appear, where there is any chance of precipitation tomorrow. Even Northern Ireland has little golden orbs of happiness which seems meteorologically unfeasible. Oh and apparently there’s going to be a heatwave in John O’Fucking Groats…

So next morning the rain (somewhere between a dreich and a mi-chailear with a fair amount of bleeterie and a number of heavy flists since you ask) is already set in for the day as we follow Route 78 past the village of Ford and alongside Loch Awe on a 20 mile rollercoaster of a road through thick forest.

After a shivery lunch in a roadside cabin where we dribble pools of water across the floor we cycle across the lovely Glen Nant, Glen Lonan and Glen Hoddle (are you sure about the last one? Ed). Again the challenging, hilly terrain is matched by the stunning beauty of the scenery but it’s too wet to stop and drink it all in as much as we’d really like. One day it would be wonderful to re-visit this whole stretch up from Campbeltown in more serene conditions. However just outside our next night stop in Oban we do at least manage to take advantage of a brief pause in the rain to explore the 13th century Dunstaffnage Castle in the village of Dunbeg, perched formidably on a huge rock overlooking the Firth of Lorn, and like most Scottish castles boasting a long history soaked in blood and passion.

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I’ve been to Oban before about 25 years ago when my wife and I stayed here for a few days, taking trips from the harbour to the islands of Mull, Iona and, best of all, the wonderfully bleak Staffa, an outcrop of wave-lashed rock famous for Fingal’s Cave, inhabited only by screeching birds and reachable by a thrillingly wave-tossed ride in a small boat. It rained during our entire stay back then and needless to say it’s started raining again as we arrive now. It would not surprise me in the least to hear that it has not stopped raining in Oban for the past quarter of a century. Despite this it’s a delightful town to stay in. We tuck into top notch fish and chips in one of the many restaurants that line the seafront and then retire to the cosy Lorne Bar for a few pints of Kilt Lifter brewed locally by the Oban Bay company, topped off with the inevitable Oban 12 year old malt. When in Oban etc…

The next day is the fourth consecutive day of rain. A full-on Glibbeid (mix of rain, sleet and hail, Gaelic) is even forecast at one point. For the first time since leaving Campbeltown there is the possibility of catching a train to our next night stop in Fort William. I’ve never skipped a whole day of any bike tour so far and am reluctant to set a dangerous precedent. If I was on my own I’d probably just put on an extra hair shirt under my waterproof jacket and shove another roll of barbed wire down my Lycra shorts and get on with it, but I sense an air of weather fatigue about my companion and fear he may have reached peak precipitation.

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Maybe it’s time for common sense to prevail  – sod it, we’re on holiday! So a decent morning lie-in and the train it is. Highlights of the Oban-Fort William stretch of Route 78 would have included the impossibly photogenic medieval Castle Stalker, floating on a small islet on Loch Laich (which played the part of The Castle of Aaargh! in Monty Python and the Holy Grail), as well as two more ferry crossings at either end of Loch Linnhe. Oh well, maybe another time…

Our final day is by far the longest with a 66 mile stretch from Fort William to Inverness, but the Scottish weather gods are on our side at last as we wake up to warmer temperatures and even some hazy sunshine beginning to seep through thin white streaks of cloud. We follow quiet roads out of town to join the towpath of the Caledonian Canal, soon reaching the series of eight locks known as Neptune’s Staircase and the unmistakeable hulk of Ben Nevis, the top shrouded in cloud as it generally is for around 300 days every year.

Following the Great Glen Way walking trail, Route 78 continues to Gairlochy where it leaves the canal and runs through the forest along the edge of Loch Lochy (they must have run out of names for lochs by the time they got to this one). This section feels wild and remote and the off-road trail is rocky and slow-going in places, but the sun is now pouring through the forest canopy and there is pure pleasure in our ride at last.

At Laggan Locks, where the route re-joins the canal, we clamber on board the Eagle, a Dutch barge once used as a troop carrier in the Second World War and now converted into a restaurant of real character. Basking on the top deck in the lunchtime heat we stuff our faces with bowls of chilli washed down with Red McGregor ale brewed in Orkney. Sam plumps for the extra hot sauce option with his chilli and I make a mental note not to be cycling in his tailwind this afternoon.

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Fortified we continue off-road with more sections of towpath and a well-surfaced cycle track running alongside Loch Oich, then on to Fort Augustus which is exactly half way to Inverness, and a kind of lower key version of Fort William with a few tourist coaches and a smattering of tea shops. A cake stop comes in handy here because as soon as we leave the town we hit the gruelling five mile climb up to Carn an t-Suidhe, the highest point of the Caledonian Way at almost 400 metres, our reward being wonderful sweeping views at the top and a long joyous freewheel down to the village of Whitebridge. Here the route forks left and runs along the long southern shore of Loch Ness for the last, easy 20 miles to Inverness.

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As we pootle alongside Scotland’s most famous Loch, the late afternoon sun sinks low, throwing mysterious shadows on the glassy surface. On the edge of my vision something flickers, the hint of a dark shape moving beneath the water. Having had so many slightly disappointing wildlife-watching experiences on holidays over the years (no-show dolphins, mythical puffins, strangely introverted lions), what an irony it would be if I suddenly caught a glimpse of ‘the big one’!

Apparently there have been 1,081 recorded sightings of Britain’s most celebrated monster including half a dozen this year alone and the creature is worth an estimated £60 million to the Scottish economy. If any American or Japanese tourists are reading this they may also be interested to hear of The Leytonstone Lizard, a marvellous giant beast reputed to live at the bottom of my garden in East London (or Jack the Ripper’s East London to give it it’s official name), just behind the pop-up tea room and luxury gift shop.

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Actually they did find a 30 foot serpent in Loch Ness a few months ago but it turned out to be a prop from The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, a 1970 Billy Wilder film starring Christopher Lee. Still you never know. After all it was possible at the beginning of the 2015/16 football season to get shorter odds on the Loch Ness Monster being discovered than on Leicester City winning the Premier League, so miracles do occasionally happen. Nevertheless I feel confident in saying that ‘Nessie’ will never be found and hereby go on public record and pledge that if proved wrong, I will cycle from Land’s End to John O’Groats wearing nothing but a pair of underpants decorated with the Scottish flag.

Meanwhile we finally reach the end of the Caledonian Way beneath the castle walls in Inverness. There’s goat curry, there’s Yellowhammer ale from the Black Isle Brewery and there’s a final toast with a 14 year old Auchentoshan malt – a toast to cycling, to good company, and to the glorious Scottish landscape, to its people and even to its godawful weather. Today has been pretty much the perfect day’s bike ride and we feel we’ve earned it.

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Cymru Gan Beic

Following our adventure north of the border last year my son Sam (now 20) and I decided to keep the Celtic theme going this summer by taking on the legendary Lon Las Cymru, following National Cycle Route 8 from Holyhead to Cardiff.

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‘Well, Holyhead’s right at the top and Cardiff’s right at the bottom so I think you’ll find it’s pretty much downhill most of the way’, said a friend who is Welsh so clearly ought to know. The Lon Las Cymru, 250 miles long, covers the entire length of the country, crossing Snowdonia, mid-Wales, and the Brecon Beacons, and has the reputation of being one of the toughest routes on the UK National Cycle Network. But that must be if you start at the bottom of the map and work your way upwards. Luckily we’re going north to south, so it sounds as easy as an afternoon spin round the park.

We begin the ride after a long train journey from London up to Crewe, and then along the north Wales coastline to the tip of Anglesey. After a showery start the afternoon clears up nicely. In contrast to the dramatic landscape of Snowdonia, visible on the horizon just across the Menai Straits, Anglesey offers flat cycling on peaceful country lanes and an atmosphere of pastoral tranquillity.

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The route passes the Bodowyr Burial Chamber, a Neolithic site and one of over 120 ancient monuments on the island. Later we cycle through the village sensibly described on the map as Llanfair PG, whose famous railway station sign proclaims it’s full name Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwillismtysillogogogoch (that’s pronounced Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwillismtysillogogogoch).

According to the excellent and oddly compulsive Dictionary of British Place Names by AD Mills – my bible on bike trips – the ‘Llanfairpwllgwyngyll’ bit dates from 1536 and means ‘Church of St Mary in the pool of the white hazels’. The rest of the name was added just for a laugh in the mid-19th century, and the whole thing now means ‘Church of St Mary in the pool of the white hazels fairly near the rapid whirlpool by the church of St Tysilio at the red place’.

By early evening we’ve covered 30 miles to our first night stop at the Anglesey Arms just before the Menai Bridge, where some very decent pub grub (pork & leek sausages & mash/steak & ale pie), and a few jars of JW Lees Tackler’s Gold, sets the gastronomic bar high for the week ahead.

Next morning we’re bracing ourselves for an expected deluge. We get away early while it’s still dry, but the rain kicks in about 10.30 and it’s obvious from the thick grey sky that it’s already set in for the rest of the day. We’re probably cycling through some of the finest scenery in Britain but it’s hard to be sure as visibility is soon down to about 50 yards.

It’s time to don my ‘Emergency Poncho’, a bright yellow plastic cape bought for £1 from Halfords prior to the trip. In fact because I was going cycling in Wales I decided to invest in five ‘Emergency Ponchos’. Unfortunately the garment fails on every level, not only letting all the rain in but also turning me into a sort of windsock on wheels, the whole thing ballooning full of air so that I fear I might take off and float away over the mountains of Snowdonia. To make it worse a group of teenagers out on a school trip point and laugh as we go past. Fortunately they are talking in Welsh so I don’t know what they’re saying.

If you’ve never been to North Wales (most people haven’t; even people I know from South Wales never go to North Wales), nothing prepares you for the weirdness of hearing everyone speaking Welsh, ‘the soft consonants strange to the ear’ in the words of the poet RS Thomas. To the outsider it sounds as otherworldly as Elvish or Dothraki, with the occasional English-sounding word thrown in to fool you into thinking you know what’s going on.

I’m immediately fascinated and decide to enrol for a course in the history of Welsh at the University of Wikipedia. The language emerged in the 6th century from Common Brittonic, the ancestor not only of Welsh but also Cornish, Breton and Cumbric (now extinct but once spoken in my home county Cumberland).

Welsh is characterised by a number of strange sounds that occur in hardly any other European language such as the ‘voiceless alveolar lateral fricative’ (apparently also found among Zulu and Navajo speakers). This is the thing that enables Welsh people to manage all those ‘LL’ sounds, and involves constricting the passage of air through the throat as well as some quite strange use of the tongue.

Meanwhile the rain is getting heavier. We shelter for a while in Caernarvon in the ramparts of the impressive 13th century Castle, but standing still just makes us feel colder. I may have written elsewhere on this blog about the joys of cycling in all the elements, the wind in the hair, the sweet solace of summer raindrops or something or other. I’d now like to withdraw those remarks, especially that bit about the sweet solace of summer raindrops, and make it clear that cycling in all the elements is definitely over-rated. In fact it’s often pretty shit.

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Around lunchtime in the middle of nowhere we find brief sanctuary in a roadside portakabin which houses a greasy spoon for passing lorry drivers. We clutch our tea mugs with both hands trying to extract whatever heat is available, but by the time food arrives Sam is shivering all over, and even a double cheese burger and chips fails to work its customary magic.

Studying the map I suddenly realise we can cut off a 12 mile loop around Criccieth by taking a short detour along the main road, which would leave just a few miles to our night stop in Porthmadog. But I hate missing out bits of a route even when the weather’s miserable, a grim stoicism I put down to a northern childhood of trudging through rain and wind on country walks with my father. And I was really looking forward to seeing Criccieth Castle.

For about fifteen minutes (I’m not proud of this) I consider just not telling Sam about the short cut. But his teeth are now chattering quite alarmingly. If he checks the map later he’s not going to be pleased. I offer the detour and he grabs it with desperate gratitude. Actually if truth be told I don’t really mind too much. I’m normally pretty gung-ho about these things, but even my ho is not feeling quite as gunged as usual today.

We take the main road for a couple of miles and re-join the cycle route further on. Through the blanket of cloud we can just make out the dark shapes of hills towering above us. We pass through villages whose grey stone houses and slate roofs as black as bibles add to the austere atmosphere of the Snowdonia landscape in teeming rain. Eventually we arrive in Porthmadog. It’s a bustling market town even on such a dismal day, with a great variety of small shops all lit up and cosy-looking, feeling more like mid-afternoon on Christmas Eve than early July.

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Our accommodation, the Bluebird B&B, is tucked away down the back streets of town. I hammer on the front door, tempted to shout like Richard E Grant in Withnail and I, ‘We’ve come on holiday by mistake…I demand to have some booze!’ The landlady, a plumpish woman of mature years with the unlikely name of Mrs Lightfoot, seems shocked by our appearance. But once we have wheeled our bikes into the backyard she ushers us inside with a show of fuss and welcome talk of steaming baths and piping hot mugs of tea.

Up in our room we peel off our wet things as rain continues to lash against the window panes. Wimbledon is on the telly, and annoyingly Centre Court is baking in hot sunshine. It’s Kings Landing down there and North of the pissing Wall up here. But things soon get better as I thaw out in one of the most sumptuous baths I’ve ever had. It’s unusually deep and wide with a useful handrail for climbing in and out, and is presumably designed for the elderly and infirm. As I lie soaking I wonder about getting one of these installed at home, but that might feel a bit macabre.

Everything in our panniers is saturated but Mrs L kindly offers to put all our clothes through the tumble drier. Sam, meanwhile, hits on the clever wheeze of drying his sodden trainers using the hair dryer in the bedroom. I have a go on mine too, shoving it down into the toes and waggling it about to blow the hot air around. This seems to be working well until there’s a loud pop from the hair dryer and a stink of burning. I’ve had some low moments on bike trips but I’m fairly sure this is the first time I’ve set fire to my shoes.

Later in the evening, in between showers, we venture out to eat. It’s time for something traditionally Welsh so we head for the Sima Tandoori for a kickass curry. This seems like a good moment to call home and share the news of our heroic battle against the biblical elements. But as I’m waiting for someone to pick up the phone at home the waiter comes over to take our drinks order, so when my wife eventually answers the first thing she hears is me saying, ‘Two large Cobras and some poppadoms please.’

‘Well it certainly sounds like you two are having a good time’, she says. ‘Yes, all is well now’, I say, ‘But you should have seen us earlier – it was hell! ‘Really?’ she says, clearly unconvinced. She has had a long and tiring day at work (school parents evening), has a pasta ready-meal to look forward to, and it’s only Monday; sympathy is in short supply.

Back at the Bluebird we manage to sleep well despite the rain drumming on the windows through the night and seagulls shrieking in the yard. But next morning, although the skies are still leaden, the rain has at least stopped. We eat breakfast in Mrs Lightfoot’s parlour, surrounded by family photographs, many showing young men in army uniform. The shelves are stuffed with ornaments and evidence of a collector’s zeal with numerous chess sets designed on a military history theme: Waterloo, Custer’s Last Stand, The Charge of the Light Brigade…

We are joined by four fellow guests at breakfast, all of retirement age, here on classic British holidays: walking, bird watching and riding around on heritage railways in the rain. They seem a bit glum but cheer up when Mrs Lightfoot tells them the weather prospects for the rest of the week are looking up. She turns to us, and says, ‘And I’d like to say the same to you two, but I’m afraid it’s going to get worse where you’re going…probably much worse…’

This is a bit of a downer and completely at odds with my own reading of the forecast. According to the BBC things should be brightening up as we move further south. Is Mrs Lightfoot privy to some infallible local intelligence on such matters? Or maybe she just thinks we carry our own personal weather around with us – a relentless drizzle – wherever we go.

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Leaving Porthmadog we reach the town of Penrhyndeudraeth (‘The promontory between two beaches’). At this rate I might be able to fill an entire blog post with unpronounceable place names. The route continues on a viaduct across the estuary but unfortunately it’s closed for repairs and is not due to re-open until next week.

The only alternative is a ten mile detour on a very busy A-road. I can tell this is not going to be one of those bike trips where everything goes smoothly according to plan. Luckily there’s a railway station in town and the next train leaves in an hour which gives us time for a second breakfast of two pots of tea, a plate of Caerphilly Welsh Rarebit and the Independent crossword.

We take the train a few stops down the line past Harlech Castle to the village of Pensarn where we re-join NCN 8. The sun is shining weakly by now, and I’m pleased to say that Mrs Lightfoot’s Cassandra-like prophesies are proving wide of the mark. The rest of the day is one of my favourite sections of the Lon Las Cymru. The route cuts inland over the hills then follows the coast road down to Barmouth, a seaside resort long past its glory days but retaining a faded windswept elegance. We cycle along the front, sandblasted and showered by spray from the waves crashing in over the Irish Sea, stopping for a late lunch of chip butties and beer.

The route continues along the Mawddach Trail, a lovely ten mile stretch which crosses the River Mawddach via a 700 metre long wooden viaduct built in 1867, and then follows the estuary inland to Dolgellau. There are stunning views of the southern Snowdonia mountains. The Trail uses part of the old Great Western Railway route which used to ferry visitors from northwest England to Barmouth from Victorian times into the early decades of the 20th century. The line fell victim to the Beeching axe in 1965 but, like so many others in Britain, has been happily reincarnated for cyclists and walkers.

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From Dolgellau the road gradually snakes upwards 400 metres, reaching high into the clouds, bleak and beautiful up here on these lonely fells, the sky dark and brooding and pierced by occasional shafts of sunlight. Panting heavily to the top I suspect my Welsh friend’s topographical reading of the landscape was not entirely correct.

As we cycle over the brow of the last hill and reach the summit a middle-aged couple climb out of the back seat of a car, grin sheepishly, and get into the front. You could probably be up here all day normally and not see a soul. From the top we swoop ten miles down through the forests of the Dulas Valley to our night stop at Machynlleth, a place described by Mike Carter in One Man and His Bike (a wonderful book about his cycle trip around the British coastline) as ‘a place light on vowels but, if pronounced properly, heavy on expectoration’. The White Lion in the main street provides us with fish & chips, Banks’s Bitter and a comfortable bed.

Rain is falling again when we awake but is expected to stop by mid-morning so we opt for a late breakfast and a delayed start. After cycling hundreds of miles around Britain over recent years, failing to spot any interesting wildlife apart from sheep, today brings a rare success. Outside the White Lion the manager of the pub points out a red kite flying high above the town.

Over the next few days we spot more examples of this supremely graceful bird of prey, now thriving in the UK after once being on the brink of extinction. Once identified it’s easy to spot, even for me, with a wingspan over five feet, forked tail, brown and white colouring with streaks of red-rust, and has such economy of movement that it barely seems to fly at all, gliding effortlessly on pillows of air.

Machynlleth nestles in a valley between the mountains, and the road out of town is almost a mirror image of yesterday afternoon’s climb but this time reaching 509 metres, the highest point on the Lon Las Cymru. At the top we catch up with a man and woman aged about 60 who we saw earlier this morning at breakfast in the White Lion. Both look to be seasoned cycle tourers, whippet-thin and weather beaten, their bikes heavily loaded with luggage. We stop for a chat. One of the great joys of a bike trip, I say, is spotting interesting wildlife.  They agree enthusiastically. Indeed only yesterday they saw ospreys, one of the rarest, most elusive and majestic of all British birds! I was about to mention red kites but decide not to bother.

The route continues along the upper course of the River Severn dropping through Hafren Forest and down to our lunch stop in the town of Llanidloes. The name just trips off my tongue like a native, and, mysteriously, I think I may now be acquiring a voiceless alveolar lateral fricative. The sun comes out and we sit outside the Crown & Anchor in the town centre with a pint of Hancocks (served by Ruby, landlady here for the past 50 years), munching pastries from the Talerdigg Bakery next door.

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For lunchtime entertainment there’s a procession of brightly coloured and decrepit looking estate cars, 500 in total, streaming through town with klaxons blaring and a cargo of Dutch passengers in very high spirits. It turns out this is the Carbage Run, an annual car rally in which competitors from the Netherlands have to buy and customise their own vehicles which must cost under 500 euros and have been built before 1998.

There’s a different route every year and this time it goes from Holland to Aberdeen, on back roads via London, Swansea, the Peak District and Glasgow. It’s like a cross between the Wacky Races and Jeux Sans Frontieres, with competitors given daily tasks to earn extra points. Today’s challenge is to find someone called Ben and persuade him to travel the rest of the way to Aberdeen with hundreds of crazy Dutch people.

After lunch we enjoy a peaceful and undemanding afternoon on undulating minor roads down into the Wye Valley. At one point the way ahead is blocked by a group of sheep who have wandered from a neighbouring field. Startled by our arrival they hurtle down the lane with a great chorus of baaing as Sam chases after them laughing and ringing his bell for about half a mile until they manage to escape through a gap in the hedge.

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Arriving at the Horseshoe Guesthouse in Rhayader, we shower and watch Andy Murray win his Wimbledon quarter final before heading out to The Eagles, a fine old pub which dates from 1579. The menu features locally sourced Welsh black beef and a wide range of game dishes, as well as kangaroo, crocodile and ostrich. We plump for a couple of rich, dark casseroles, mutton (Sam) and pheasant (me). The evening concludes with a fiercely fought game of darts at the Cornhill Inn round the corner from the Horseshoes. Turning in for the night I wonder how Ben is getting on.

Next morning, we’re cycling beneath deep blue skies at last as the route meanders along the course of the River Wye, passing through Newbridge and on to a lunch stop in Builth Wells. There’s more of a sprinkling of English-sounding place names down here, particularly as we get closer to the border. It’s been a couple of days now since we’ve heard any Dothraki and everyone now speaks with a proper Welsh accent like on Gavin & Stacey.

After a couple of pints of Hereford Pale Ale we enjoy some more afternoon cruising along flat quiet roads in glorious sunshine. But everything is going too well. Just as we are approaching the town of Glasbury, near Hay-on-Wye, my back tyre explodes with a frighteningly loud bang.

I’ve not had a puncture in years so I’ve been dodging this bullet for a while. I’ve got a spare inner tube and have even practiced changing it at home so although it’s annoying I’m not too worried. But then I realise the full extent of the damage – it’s not just the tube that’s punctured, there’s a large gash in the tyre itself. There’s no way I can mend this and we’re still 15 miles from our night stop in Brecon, and that’s via the most direct route on the dual carriageway of death.

Luckily for circumstances like these I have a contingency plan up my sleeve which is to Throw Myself Upon The Beneficence Of The Universe. We suddenly notice a bus stop 30 yards down the street and, ten minutes later, the last bus to Brecon pulls up. The driver looks at the bikes and shakes his head. It’s strictly against the rules. I pull my most desperate face and he softens. He’s a mountain biker himself and will not leave us stranded. Top man. Like most bike trips – I think even more than most – the kindness of strangers has been striking throughout the whole week.

He drops us in Brecon town centre and we wheel our bikes to our accommodation at the Bridge Café. This is a wonderfully quirky place run by Carole and Jon, an agreeable pair of rat race escapees who have poured their dreams into this charming and higgledy-piggledy 16th century house, full of nooks and crannies and chickens clucking around in the yard outside. The sloping floors upstairs are strangely disorientating. ‘You don’t need to go the pub’, says Jon. ‘You feel a bit pissed just being in the house.’

I tell Jon about my gashed tyre. ‘You can sometimes do a temporary fix by wodging a bit of cardboard into the hole’, he says, hinting at a level of technical competence I can only dream about. The Bridge Café doubles as a bistro at the weekends and the menu looks enticing but unfortunately this is a Thursday night. We make do with takeaway pizza in the main square and a visit to The George Hotel where we drink fine ale brewed by a local company with the Welshest of names, Evan Evans.

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Next morning the Bridge Café wins the coveted Worthington Top Breakfast Of The Trip award: eggs with intensely yellow yolks,  local organic sausage and bacon, field mushrooms, artisan bread and excellent coffee. It’s all very much to my liking although Sam, who has developed gritty northern tastes since studying in Hull, would prefer something more authentically proletarian and bemoans the lack of sliced white Sunblest and Nescafe.

After popping into the local bike shop to get a new tyre fitted we set off on the last leg of the Lon Las Cymru, which follows the Taff Trail mostly off-road for 50 miles from Brecon to Cardiff. The first section is one of the most scenic and remotest sections on the whole route, following quiet roads to the Talybont reservoir, and a long hike up through Taf Fechan forest on the western edge of the Black Mountains, pools of warm sunshine pouring through the trees.

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We are alone save for a troupe of scouts on an orienteering exercise and the occasional red kite hanging on the breeze. The Brecon Beacons National Park is a pussycat this morning and it’s hard to believe only four days ago a couple of walkers were tragically struck by lightning in separate incidents up on those high peaks. From 450 metres at the top we plunge ten miles downhill (the surface loose and treacherous in places) to a last lunch of omelettes at a pub on the outskirts of Merthyr Tydfil in the one-time heartland of industrial Wales.

The final 30 miles follows the River Taff on flat cycle tracks and B roads through Pontypridd and on to the centre of Cardiff where we end the trip in The Cambrian Tap, Brains Brewery’s newly opened craft ale bar. The city centre is lively and buzzing with the collective relief of another Friday night, heightened on this occasion by the joy of cricket fans pouring out of the Sophia Gardens down the road where England are slaughtering Australia in the first Ashes Test of the summer. And as we toast the successful completion of the Lon Las Cymru, I’m not sure life needs to get much better. It’s been a great trip. Glad we don’t have to cycle all the way back up to the top though.

I hope this encourages someone to try this wonderful ride. If so please do let me know in the comments below, or also if you have any recommendations for other trips.

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An Autumn Adventure

‘Remember the couple who cycled around Cuba?’ I say. She knows straight away it’s been a difficult week at work.  I’m dreaming of escape again.

Some years ago, before the children were born, my wife and I were on a train journey and met a couple in their mid-60s who had just returned from cycling around Cuba, taking their own bikes on the plane and carting their luggage about on trailers. This was before I had done any proper cycle touring myself and it was the first time I realised that a bike holiday could be a great way to have an adventure, to get off the beaten track and discover the ‘real country’. I’ve since discovered that this holds true not just in exotic locations but closer to home as well.

But what really made an impact on us at the time was the openness to life shown by this older couple, their hunger for new experience still burning bright. They were an inspiring example of how the autumn of life might be lived, spitting in the eye of the ageing process and refusing to go gently into that good night.

And in recent years, ‘Remember the couple who cycled around Cuba’ has become a reassuring mantra for us both, a promise of good times ahead, wheeled out whenever we are feeling stuck at the bottom of the u-bend of mid-life . (As Dante put it, ‘Midway in the journey of our life, I came to myself in a dark wood, for the way was lost’ – there being no GPS available in 13th century Italy I guess…)

For my wife though, I’ve come to suspect that ‘the couple who cycled around Cuba’ might be more of a symbol than anything else, a metaphor for the potential freedoms of later life when the birds have flown the nest. It’s shorthand for a wide range of possible travel adventures, some of which may even involve nice hotels, spas, shopping and the like. For me, on the other hand, ‘the couple who cycled around Cuba’ is more literal – I really want to cycle around Cuba.

So I’ve been thinking it might be a good idea to start now, to try out some shorter cycle trips just the two of us, so we can build up to the ‘big one’. The idea is to try a late October ride in the Waveney Valley along the Suffolk-Norfolk border, on Monday and Tuesday of half term week. Son is now away at Uni, daughter is staying with a friend, having reached the age when a mini-break in East Anglia with mum and dad no longer holds the excitement it once did. The dog has been shunted off to my sister’s.

The route is about 50 miles, starting and finishing in the town of Diss, about a two hour drive from our home in east London (also reachable by fast train from Liverpool Street). I want to make this as pleasant and pain-free as possible so we’re going to take things pretty easily the first day with a mere 20 miles to our night stop at Bungay, which leaves 30 miles for the second day.

It’s 11 am on a fresh, sunny morning and the ride out of Diss is pleasant enough, though there are a few more lorries on some of these B roads than we might have wished for. But once we skirt past the village of Hoxne we’re onto quiet lanes alongside the River Waveney, the route dotted with distinctive white-washed cottages with bright red roofs and old watermills. We stop for lunch in The Bell at Wortwell, where I re-acquaint myself with Old Hooky, a friend I haven’t seen for some years. After lunch we’re cruising on flat roads and arrive in Bungay way earlier than expected.

Bungay is a pleasing town boasting the remains of a 12th century castle and crammed full of independent shops selling antiques, second hand books, curiosities and the like. Back in the 1700s it became briefly fashionable as a spa resort and famous for its theatre and music, even acquiring the nickname of ‘Little London’ and attracting illustrious visitors like Dick Turpin and ‘Prinny’ (later King George IV). It’s other claim to fame is the Black Shuck, a ghostly and terrible hound with flaming eyes which has long been part of East Anglian folklore. One of the most infamous sightings took place here in 1577, when the Shuck is said to have burst into the town church and killed two people. More recently, and perhaps most terrifying of all, the Black Shuck was the subject of a song by glam-metal band The Darkness.

Unfortunately the charms of Bungay are not best experienced on a Monday, as most of the town is shut. Woody Allen once said ‘If I had to live my life again, I’d do everything the same, except that I wouldn’t bother to go and see The Magus’ (he’s right, brilliant book, rubbish film). Well, if I had my time over again I probably wouldn’t bother visiting Bungay on a Monday.

We’re staying at the Castle Inn, an appealing 16th century pub which also boasts a Michelin Guide recommended restaurant, though this part is inevitably closed on Mondays. We check in at reception at the same time as an elderly lady and her husband, a sweet old man in a cardigan who endears himself to me by describing himself as an ‘ale man ‘. I ask the woman on duty – the owner it turns out – if she can recommend anywhere else to eat tonight in Bungay.

‘Well actually we also run a very good Italian restaurant, just down the High Street.’

‘Great, what time does it open?’ I ask.

‘It’s closed on a Monday I’m afraid.’

‘Ah.’

‘There is a Thai place, she says, and an Indian, and, er…well there’s always the Fleece of course…’

‘The Fleece?’

‘A chef who used to work for us left to do their food…but most of our guests who end up eating there say they, er, feel rather fleeced actually…’

I sense this may not be the first outing for this joke. I’m also catching a strong whiff of pub-on-pub rivalry and am determined not to be put off. There’s no way we’re not going to be eating at the Fleece tonight.

We dump our stuff in the room and head out to explore the town. Readers of this blog will know there are few things I like more on a bike trip than a bit of serious tea room action. And happily there are no less than three to choose from, even on a Monday! If we wanted to we could go on a toasted tea-cake crawl of Bungay High Street, and that might actually be the best way of spending the afternoon. But in the event we opt for the Old Bank Tearoom, where we enjoy a thick slice of very decent Victoria sponge and a pot of full-bodied rust-coloured tea made with proper leaves.

The Old Bank is a classic tea room blend of the vintage, the nostalgic and the quirky (artfully mismatched crockery, as opposed to the artlessly mismatched stuff we have at home). The standard 1920s tea room music floats along in the background. This music is all part of the gaiety and charm of the tea room experience and I rather like it in small doses, but it must drive you bonkers if you have to work here all the time. ‘I wonder what music we’ll have down at the tea-room today?’ you might ask yourself optimistically on the way to work one morning. ‘Maybe we’ll have a bit of dubstep or the latest Daft Punk album for a change…oh it’s the fucking Charleston again, right…’

There being little else to do in Bungay this afternoon apart from drink tea, we have a short wander before retiring to the Castle Inn to recover from our morning exertions, modest though they have been. Later that evening we go back into town in search of dinner. On the way out of the Castle I spend some time perusing the Michelin Guide-recommended menu on the wall. I feel compelled to see what I could have eaten tonight, had it not been a sodding Monday. My wife tries in vain to hurry me on, knowing no good can possibly come of it. But I’m in a quandary over my main course. I’m tempted by the ‘Hempnall butchers best 21 day hung sirloin steak with a rich red jus and Dauphinoise potatoes’. I’m just not sure I can manage a large steak after all that cake though.

In the end I plump for a starter of East Anglian mussels with smoked bacon lardons, leeks, cider, double cream and parsley, followed by slow cooked shoulder of lamb served on thyme mash, with pan juices and parsnip crisps, rounded off by the dark chocolate tart with chocolate orange sauce and honeycomb ice cream, washed down with a very passable Corbieres, an Armagnac and coffee. I can honestly say it’s one of the best meals I’ve never eaten on a bicycle trip.

Back in the real world of Bungay on a Monday night we find ourselves, inevitably, in the Fleece, eating scampi and chips out of an enormous basket. It may lack Michelin-endorsed finesse but it’s decent enough pub grub and there’s certainly plenty of it for the price. ‘I certainly don’t feel fleeced’, says my wife, a little too loudly. The place is not exactly rammed and a few punters at the baa turn round. She looks sheepish. ‘I think ewe ought to keep your voice down’, I say.

We’re up early next day aiming to get away by 10 o’clock, mindful of the fact that the hour went back last weekend and it’s going to be getting dusk by 5ish. Breakfast at the Castle is good and includes a local butcher’s sausage with an unusual and intense herby flavour which immediately plunges me into a reverie, conjuring up fond memories of my Great Uncle Sam. Proust had his madeleine and I have my sausage. He used to come and stay with us every year in my childhood (Great Uncle Sam that is, not Proust), bringing us yards of this wonderful stuff from his local butcher, Leaf’s of Calverton. He was a sweet, cardiganned old chap, as plump as a fat hen, with a pocket always full of toffees; a First World War veteran, farm labourer (and human scarecrow), Methodist, pencil sketcher and harmonica player (often playing hymn tunes on a country ramble to a field of enthralled cows). He ate a full English breakfast every morning, walked everywhere and lived to his mid-80s.

Later, we collect our things from the room and as I go to settle the bill on the way out I hear our fellow guest, another sweet old cardiganned fellow, complaining to the young breakfast chef. It seems he’s unhappy about the quality of his poached egg and is tearing him off a right old strip. The yolk, apparently, was not runny enough. The young chap is reddening as he tries to explain this is the first time he’s been on breakfast duty, and poached eggs are not really his forte. I’m relieved I went for the fried egg option myself, and secretly sympathise with the old fellow who is becoming less sweet and more cantankerous by the minute. It is annoying to be served a disappointing breakfast egg and it can be hard to let go and move on. I know because I’ve been there.

And all of a sudden I’m confronted with a bleak vision of myself aged 75: the scourge of callow young hospitality industry employees across the Home Counties and East of England. The Cycling Around Cuba Years, I fear, are destined to be followed by the Poached Egg Years.

Meanwhile, it’s a lovely sunny day again as we cycle south of Bungay through a group of small villages known collectively as The Saints, named after a cluster of eleven medieval churches. We pass an enticing turn-off to St Peter’s Brewery, where the very fine ale of the same name is made. Tours and tastings are advertised. It’s only 10.30 though, a bit early for a piss-up in a brewery, assuming I could manage to organise one. I only have a small saddle bag but my wife has a fine pair of voluminous panniers (I vowed this blog would never descend to the level of cheap smut, but I am weak). I suggest we might pop in and take back a few bottles, but the suggestion is not well received.

The route winds on through a network of small lanes, with hardly a vehicle in sight and a deep sense of peace and remoteness. It’s also surprisingly hilly in places considering this is East Anglia (Cuba, I assure my wife, is much flatter), and we are occasionally rewarded with good views across the valley. The horizon is dotted with wind turbines. They generate a fair amount of flak in some quarters and some people think they are not worth the hassle given the size of their energy contribution. In fact data from the National Grid shows that wind generated enough electricity to supply the needs of a quarter of UK homes in 2014, and around 10% of the country’s total electricity supply. It could be an awful lot higher if the ‘greenest government ever’ hadn’t so cynically undermined the industry in a bid to court UKIP supporters in the shires. The ghastly Eric Pickles has intervened personally to stop over 50 planned farms from going ahead, despite a string of opinion polls showing two thirds of the public are in favour. (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/oct/28/war-on-windfarms-tories-latest-sop-to-ukip)

I really can’t understand why some critics see them as a blot on the landscape. Looking down the valley they strike me as elegant, graceful even, with their white sails flopping over in the breeze like children turning lazy cartwheels on a distant beach. A few hundred years ago I dare say there were some people round these parts saying, ‘We don’t want all these bloody windmills ruining the view, not in my backyard…how much corn can they even grind anyway? I had that Squire Pickles in the back of the stagecoach once…’

At the bottom of the valley we rejoin the Waveney at Syleham and for a stretch of around five miles we are retracing part of yesterday’s route back to the village of Hoxne. My wife is suffering from a sudden dip in energy levels (having made rather less of a pig of herself at breakfast than me), and there is a growing threat of mutiny in the ranks owing to my failure to pack any provisions. For the last 20 miles we haven’t passed a single shop or pub (unlike Cuba, I say, where there is a great café or restaurant literally round every bend). By this time it’s getting on towards 2 o’clock and luckily we arrive at the Swan in Hoxne, a lovely 15th century inn with low ceilings and oak beams, just in the nick of time for lunch, refuelling on smoked salmon sandwiches and a couple of pints of Timothy Taylor Landlord.

After lunch we set out on the last leg back to Diss, but following a different route to yesterday, looping around the pretty villages of Eye, Mellis and Thrandeston. The late October sun hangs low in the sky, throwing our shadows onto the high hedges of the lanes as we ride past, as if we are accompanied by two ghost cyclists. Maybe even the shades of our Cuban adventurer friends who, for all I know, may be pedalling the great coast to coast in the sky by now. Everything is bathed in that soft golden light that makes this time of year so beautiful. For once in my life there’s nowhere I’d rather be than where I am at this moment – here in East Anglia. Except maybe the Caribbean.

We thread our way back to the starting point and find our car, just before dusk arrives. It’s been a successful trip and, I like to feel, an important staging post on the road to Havana.

The full details of this route (‘The Waveney Weekender’) can be found in the book Lost Lanes: 36 Glorious Bike Rides in Southern England, written by Jack Thurston and published in 2013: http://thebikeshow.net/lost-lanes-shop/

Also see https://overthedoorstep.com/2014/04/08/zen-and-the-art-of-cycling/