Wednesday, 9 August 2017

The Last Leg Home Through England and Tour Summary

I had completed the main part of the tour, through Wales, but I still had to make my way through England to get back home to Colchester.  I knew that the most physical days were behind me and that things should get easier from then on, but this was the part of the tour I was least sure about, mainly because of the maze of roads between me and my final destination.

Coming off tours in New Zealand and Australia, where map reading skills and route finding aren't especially difficult given the lack of roads and wide open spaces, I was worried that I might make quite a few wrong turns or even end up on some rather dodgy roads for cycling in heavy traffic.

I needn't have worried, however, the app on my phone helped me pick my way back through England mainly on quiet B roads, taking-in sleepy, picturesque English villages along the way.

After an early morning pit stop in Gloucester, my main place of interest for the penultimate day of the trip was The Cotswolds; and area of natural beauty, classic villages and architecture in South-West England.  It is exactly what you might picture in your head when you think about old English towns and villages nestled in the countryside.

I stopped at Bourton-on-the-Water for some cream tea, something I had been telling some of my Chinese students to do if they ever went to England during my English classes.  The mounds of clotted cream and jam on my scone also provided much needed calories.

Cream Tea in The Cotswolds

It was just a nice, peaceful, and pleasant place to walk and cycle around, nothing spectacular, but how one would like to think of one's own country after leaving it's shores.  This was as English as it got, and the surroundings were about as stereotypically England as you could imagine.

After my short stop in the tea room, I packed my bags, ready to set off once more, I had a big day ahead of me.  I wanted to do some good mileage so I could get home later on the following day in not too much of a rush.  As I packed, a couple of cyclists locked-up their bikes next to me.  They were doing Lands End to John O'Groats.  They were packed much lighter than me as they were staying in B&Bs all along the way.  We had a good chat and I was envious of their big trip through the country.  They couldn't believe I brought my bike all the way from Australia, something that many people found quite astonishing while I was back home, as they just assumed it would be too expensive.  As a matter of fact, these days, most airlines just count it as part of your baggage allowance.

As I said, nothing spectacular, but I was enjoying the ride.  The steep hills of Wales were behind me and my backroad route took me through lots of little villages with old pubs and churches.  The only break from this was a short stop in Bicester, a slightly larger town, inhabited mostly by Muslims, it seemed to me.  There weren't many White faces around, that's for sure.  This did feel strange, as throughout the whole trip, seeing as I was going an almost totally rural route, I never saw any hint of the changing demographics of the country.

I had no idea where I would be spending my last night of the tour, but I was keen on making it to somewhere near Woburn in Bedfordshire.  Woburn is a very upmarket little town which hosts a famous golf course, abbey, and safari park.  All very nice, but not the best place to spend the night if you want to save money.  No campsites and no budget accommodation.

I couldn't afford to stay in Woburn and with little cover around for wild camping, I found a cheeky little spot behind a few trees not far off the road in a small forested area not far from Woburn Abbey.  The bells rang-out continually for about an hour from 7-8pm.  I didn't mind at all as it was just another taste of England on a very English kind of day.

The camp spot was a bit precarious though.  I was a little exposed to being spotted from the road (though unlikely), so I covered my bike with branches and made it all into a kind of bush to cover me and my tent from being seen.  It worked a treat and I had a comfortable night's sleep after a big day of over 170Km.

I woke up needing to do about another 130Km to make it home.  I was keen on getting home a little early so I could have a day's rest before working the following day, not to mention that I needed a wash after two nights camping in the forest and cycling all day.  I was looking forward to some creature comforts.

I began the day early, getting away at about 5.30am.  It was a cool, misty morning and I got a treat as I was coming out of Woburn, as presented before me were hundreds of dear grazing on the grassland the other side of the forest.  It was quite a sight, I had never seen so many in my life.

The rest of the day I continued to pass through countless villages with churches, cricket grounds, and old pubs.  It was a nice finish to the tour, and things got progressively easier as I came closer to home, doing less and less climbing, despite regular small hills.

Ironically, my last 25-30Km was down a path that I had trodden many times in the past.  Several years ago, I got a job as a science technician in a private school in just outside of Halstead in Essex, not too far from my home.  I say not too far, but it was still about 30Km away.  At the time, I was finding work difficult to come by and could find no other job.  At the same time the petrol prices were extraordinarily high, so inspired by my friend's recent cycle tour from Korea to the UK, I thought I should try cycling every morning.  The last part of my cycle tour of England and Wales was to retrace the old route back home from work.  It did bring back some memories passing the school again.

I got back home and completed another successful bicycle tour, ahead of schedule, but much tougher physically than I had anticipated.  I was very glad that I had brought my bike all the way from Melbourne, it had definitely been worth it.

Tour Summary

Total Km: 867Km

Total Ascent: 7748m

Daily Average: 124Km

Hiking: Approximately 18Km on day one in Snowdonia and 15Km on day 5 in the Brecon Beacons.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

The Pembrokeshire Coast and The Brecon Beacons

Day 2 in North Wales was tougher than I expected, and things were to continue that way for the duration of my trip along the coast of Wales.  As beautiful as it was, the hills were crazy.

In my preview to this trip, I commented that I didn't expect Wales and England to be much of a physical challenge compared to what I had gone through in Australia and New Zealand.  How wrong I was.  I have since learned that my Dad has a business associate in Wales and they had told him that I'd never get up the hills on the roads following the coast.  Well, I got up them, but it did take a lot out of me.

I have learned that, while forecasts may not be perfect, it is always worthwhile planning a couple of days in advance in the event of dodgy weather.  With this in mind, I knew that the forecast was rain for the night and all the next day, so I needed to get somewhere dry and comfortable.  Add to this my fatigue, and I was pretty keen not to camp overnight, so I had my eyes set on a YHA hostel in Manorbier, right on the South West coast near some beautiful sea cliffs.

At nearly 150Km away, and with the Welsh coastline throwing-up some incredibly steep climbs (as you can see on the profile, not huge ascents, but steep every time), I knew this wasn't going to be easy, but I had to make it.  Wild camping in the rain when exhausted is not much fun.  I actually enjoy wild camping, but on a hard bicycle tour, I reckon doing it 50% of the time is more than enough.

The pattern of the day was a steep descent into a picturesque town or village, followed by a steep ascent out at at 15-20% incline.  This happened all day and continued for the first half of the next day as well, and was incredibly draining on the legs as a result.


I did pass-through some lovely seaside towns, though, which made the effort all worthwhile.  The stand-outs were Fishguard and St Davids, the later being a city (the smallest in Britain), but St Davids is really only a small town.  It got city status because traditionally in England and Wales places were given city status if they had a diocesan cathedral, and St Davids has one, and a very pretty one at that.

St Davids

It was a hard grind to reach Manorbier, and I was hoping the hostel wasn't all booked-out, and luckily there was a bed in a dorm room available.  Before settling-down and showering, I took a walk around the sea cliffs close to the hostel to take in some of the views before sundown.

I had contemplated having a whole day off the next day due to the bad forecast of rain all day, however, the weather was supposed to clear-up the day after, which would be great for hiking up Pen-y-Fan in the Brecon Beacons.  So I prepared myself for a wet day.

I had about 130Km to get to another YHA hostel, this time right in the heart of the Brecon Beacons and not far from the start of the hike up to Pen-y-Fan.  I gave myself a bit of time in the morning and filled-up on a huge breakfast to give myself some energy for the day.  Fortunately, the weather in the morning wasn't as bad as forecast, with very light drizzle at the worst, which did not spoil the coastal views that much.

Picturesque town of Tenby on a cloudy morning.

The first part of the day was still hilly, but slightly less so, and followed a really nice route along the coast, including some cycle paths along the shoreline and through tunnels in the rock.  For much of the first couple of hours, I didn't go on any roads at all.  It was at these times I was thankful for a phone app call  The downloaded maps were almost flawless and all the bike paths and routes came up and were easy to follow.

Fantastic bike path through the rock along the coast.
As I turned inland on a long country road, the hills picked-up in severity yet again, and tiredness began to set in once more as the weather also deteriorated.  I was still working my way very efficiently through the back roads, however, but eventually I had to get on an A road.  It was quite a busy one and not much fun to cycle on, although at least it was fast.  I was only on it for about 15Km in the hard shoulder, but I covered the ground much quicker as the road was far less undulating.

I managed to find quiet B roads after that all the way into the Brecon Beacons, an area of higher mountains in South Wales.  Once into the national park, it was a very steady uphill climb to nearly 450m.  This was one of the biggest climbs of the trip, but even though it was also done in the pouring rain, because it was steady, it was a doddle compared to what I had been doing along the coast.

The Brecon Beacons is famous as an army training area in the UK, especially of  the SAS, the British elite special arms forces.  I saw plenty of soldiers and army trucks on the way to the hostel.

I arrived at the hostel totally wet-through and was hoping and praying for a bed, and again I got one. I really don't know why I don't book in advance, especially as I pretty much always hit my daily targets on the bike.  I dried-off, settled-in and prepared for some hiking the next day, followed by 80Km of cycling again afterwards.

Handily, the hostel had a path conveniently connecting with the trail up Pen-y-Fan.  I wasn't planning a huge day, about 14Km total in a circuit back to the hostel.  The weather was improving, but still wasn't perfect, so I was unsure whether I'd have views from the top.  All the way up, I could see the peaks shrouded in cloud, although there were still great views from lower down.

As I reached the top, I could see nothing, but I decided to hang around for ten minutes, as things can change fast on mountains, and especially in Wales.  Sure enough, the clouds started to clear and offered stunning views of the Beacons in all directions.  I met a lovely chap from Merthyr Tydfil who took a photo for me and also educated me on some Welsh pronunciation (apparently it is pronounced "Pen-a-van").

On the way down, I was rather taken aback to see two disabled people being helped up the rocky path on 4-wheel drive mobility scooters.  At various times their helpers were placing planks of wood across difficult areas and even partly lifting the scooters.  It looked back-breaking stuff, and the disabled people looked cold, as they were just sitting there.  At my gym back in Australia, we have pictures of an inspiring man without legs scaling peaks in Tasmania and other countries, so I'm not saying mountains aren't a place for the disabled, but it really didn't look a good idea getting those disabled people I saw in Wales up a mountain.

I made my way back to the hostel in good time, but my day wasn't over.  I wanted to see if I could make it into England before the end of the day, and with one last almighty effort, I made it to a wild camping spot in the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire, about 30Km from the city of Gloucester. After a slightly scary experience with an angry Dad of a family of wild pigs - he stared and huffed at me for quite a long time (he was quite big and looked very upset) - I settled down for a quiet night in the forest.  Wales was amazing, but I was very pleased to leave the hills behind me.

Wild camping in the forest.