Having decided to commit three months of my life to sitting on a bicycle saddle I decided it was high time I went for a test run. Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve done plenty of cycling in my life, including a couple of multi-day trips. But I must admit it seemed to have slipped my mind that I have never done an extended trip whilst carrying all my worldly possessions, snail style.
Now I understand why snails are so slow…
Carrying your house, kitchen and wardrobe on your back is extremely hard work. And to have the added worry that somebody could tread on you at any time, rendering you a slimy splat on the pavement. It must be hard to be a snail.
The plan for the weekend was to cycle with my long-suffering friend Jonny from Barnstaple to Bristol, covering the whole length of Exmoor during the journey. I suppose at that stage alarm bells should have started to ring, alerting me to the the potential hilly terrain that this route would entail. However I was far too preoccupied trying to ensure our bikes also made it onto the train to Barnstaple with us. Cross Country trains seem to have tried to make the process of booking a bike onto a train as difficult as possible. After a convoluted twitter conversation during which I must have lost at least twelve followers, painful when you don’t have many to start with, I still only had a reservation for one bike.
Fortunately we must look like a trustworthy pair and we hopped onto the train without being asked to produce our reservations, guilty looking back at the one cyclist that got left behind. By 7:30pm we were rolling steadily west away from Barnstaple towards the serenely setting sun on the Devon coast.
One of the benefits of the snail lifestyle is the freedom to make home wherever you would like (within reason). We whizzed through the throngs of people pouring out from Woolacombe’s surf bar, stopping only briefly to pick-up some heavily overpriced beers, to a secluded peninsula near Morthoe. Lugging our bikes up and down the mossy, rutted hillside in search of the perfect spot paid off when on Saturday morning we woke up to a beautiful view out to sea and the confused faces of a mob of sheep.
We were planning on following the National Cycle Network for the majority of the day. This is an excellent system of over 14,000 miles of safe routes for cyclists connecting all major towns and cities across the UK. I’ve used it many times before and despite the occasionally sporadic signing would highly recommend it as it makes navigation so much easier.
Although the network goes out of the way to avoid traffic, the same cannot be said for hills and the morning was spent in a continual roller-coaster like pattern of thigh-burning ascents and hair-raising descents. By lunchtime we were pooped and still had 30 miles to go to our planned camping spot.
Cue our saviour: The A39!
Despite being classed as an A-road by Devon standards it was a far cry from the roads I am used to and offered a much gentler gradient with stunning views out to sea. With the wind behind us I reached a new lifetime top speed of 34mph! We even had time for a quick cream tea (when in Devon..) and a couple of pints (when anywhere…) before making camp just before dark in a woods on the outskirts of the Quantock hills.
Luckily for us the second day of our journey took us over the Somerset levels. Probably for the best as I’m not sure our legs could cope with many more hills and even some of the flats felt like we were cycling through sand. So you can imagine our horror when in Burnham-on-Sea the cycle path spat us out onto the beach and expected us to cycle along it for six miles?! Given the load I was carrying in my shell (panniers) my back wheel sunk at least an inch into the sand making any progress literally impossible. Back to the road it was to find a way around.
The detour took us through the delights of Brean, a mile long road packed full of arcades, amusements, inflatable toys and chip vans. After the peace of the last 36 hours the hoards of families, shouting children and funfair rides were quite a shock to the senses. We stopped on Brean beach at 11:30am for a very early lunch, keen to get rid of our food as early as possible in order to lighten the load. This was a strange beach where the cars drive onto the sand and park at the back then everybody piles out of their vehicle but aims to sit as close to it as possible whilst eating their picnic. Often behind the boot so they can’t even see the view. It’s not a place I would hurry back to but certainly made a great people watching spot.
In the afternoon we continued back to Bristol via the Strawberry line and Avon Valley Cycle way, both of which are lovely routes for bikes with great views and gradients which were kind to our legs. We finally pedalled into Bristol around 5pm, after covering 65miles (104km!), caked in a sticky cocktail of suncream, sweat and bike grease, something that I will have to get used to in Europe!
The clock is ticking fast now with only 53 days until I set off on my trip. Although much tougher than I had anticipated this little microadventure has only made me more excited for my departure. Over the next few weeks I will aim to finalise my kit list and reduce weight as much as I can. If I’m going to resign myself being a snail I certainly want to as speedy a snail as possible!
To read about my motivations for the trip click here
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