Thursday, June 30, 2011

Meandering into the North of England

The ride from Ironbridge to the attractive market town of Nantwich last Saturday was largely through gently undulating farmland, with a visit to Market Drayton along the way. Both towns have the usual narrow streets lined partly with 400-500 year old buildings. Again, there were farmhouse buildings of this vintage along the way. [Saturday 25/6: distance 84 km; climbing 661 m]

In Nantwich we stayed at the Railway Hotel, notable because of the live band playing loud seventies rock that night and also because of the Beatles imagery lining the inside & outside of the building. We could hear the music rather too clearly from our room, though we really enjoyed all the old songs from our era.

On Sunday we rode in hot sunny weather and lunched at another lovely historic market town, Knutsford. Afterwards we had the good fortune near there to witness a canal boat being manoevered through a lock. We also saw lots of cyclists out in the lanes in this area doing Sunday rides.

We then weaved our way north between Manchester & Liverpool via minor roads, country lanes and suburban arterial roads. We had carefully designed our circuitous route to stay away from the heavily-trafficked A roads on the western edge of Manchester.

As with the routes followed on most days, we had downloaded the course to our GPS bike computers so that they beeped & showed the required turns in text on the screen. Greg’s bike computer also displays a detailed map showing exactly where we are, and we are also carrying hardcopy strip maps printed back to back (to save space & weight) showing our route. We also have these maps on our netbook computer.

We passed through or near several smaller towns that had very familiar names (Wigan, Bolton & Warrington) because they either have English Premier League soccer clubs or national super league teams, or both in the case of Wigan. The next day we would also pass close to Blackburn, another EPL town.

At one point we rode along a minor toll road and crossed an attractive bridge over the Manchester to Liverpool ship canal. For the last part of journey to overnight at Chorley, west of Manchester, we rode alongside a canal in the early evening. [Sunday 26/6: distance106 km; climbing 511 m]

Monday was a relatively short but hilly day, again mostly in hot weather. The first part again involved steering clear of busy roads in the Greater Manchester area, chiefly avoiding Blackburn, although we had a great view of the town while riding along a ridge through farmland nearby before heading into the Ribble Valley.

Then we headed up the valley and over some steep hills on the Forest of Bowland (not a forest at all, but rather a mountain moor covered in low-level heather vegetation) and then 'dived' into the village of Slaidburn far below. 

We stayed overnight in Slaidburn at the 'Hark the Bounty', an inn that dates from 1310. At dinner we were served by an Australian waitress from Brisbane who had lived in the remote town for 5 years after marrying a Briton. The next morning we chatted with a young New Zealander who had cycletoured from Thailand to Europe over the past 2.5 years and was due to return to NZ in August. [Monday 27/6: distance 63 km; climbing 984 m]

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Into Wales for a day then back to England

We had a nice afternoon wandering around Bath on Monday, visting the Roman Baths as well as the Royal Crescent and the Jane Austen museum. 

Our ride from Bristol to Chepstow in Wales on Tuesday was notable for the major bridges we crossed or passed near. From Bristol we followed bike paths and tracks alongside the River Avon, out to Avonmouth.

Soon after leaving the city we passed under the historic (& very striking) Clifton Suspension Bridge (1864) spanning the Avon Gorge, which was designed by the famous British engineer I K Brunel.

Then we crossed the river on a cycleway separate from the carriageway on the large bridge on the M5 Motorway. Riding north along linked cyclepaths we saw the 1.6km-long new bridge (1996) across the River Severn estuary, near the top of the Bristol Channel.

Then, buffetted by a strong crosswind funnelling up the estuary, we went over to Chepstow on the old Severn Bridge (1966), again on a separate cycleway. This bridge is also 1.6km long; on the Welsh side it also crosses the River Wye near its mouth to the estuary. The Wye forms the first part of the border with England. [Tuesday 21/6: distance 43 km; climbing 284 m]

Late in the day, after arranging a B&B at Chepstow, we walked back to England over rhe border on an elegant cast iron bridge built in 1816 across the Wye, which was at low tide and showed evidence (eg, boats marooned on the mud, and the high tide mark on the opposite bank) of up to 14m difference in tides that occurs daily in this part of the river. This is the 2nd largest tidal difference experienced anywhere in the world. The bridge also gives wonderful views of the Chepstow castle, which dates from 1068.

The owners of our B&B at Chepstow were also keen cyclists, with a room full of bikes in the basement (just like us!). We had a nice chat with them at breakfast about cycling experiences. The breakfast room had a wonderful view out to the castle, which is at the very back of the row of Georgian houses.

On Wednesday we rode alongside the meandering River Wye through various towns on our way to Hereford (which gave its name to the white-faced breed of cattle, and has an impressive cathedral) . As well as experiencing beautiful views in the valley, we visited the spectacular ruined abbey at Tintern (just north of Chepstow). [Wednesday 22/6: distance 80 km; climbing 977 m]

The theme of Thursday's ride from Hereford to Ironbridge was "historic market towns": this is the description given to the key towns that we passed through (Leominster, Ludlow & Much Wenlock) that have compact medieval centres with narrow winding streets, lined in part with black & white timber-framed buildings and other buildings also dating from the 15th & 16th centuries. We also passed old buildings like these in villages on our ride on backroads through the pretty countryside.

At the end of the day we rode down a 25% gradient into the beautiful Ironbridge Gorge, through which runs the Severn River. [Thursday 23/6: distance 90 km; climbing 904 m]

We spent Friday looking around Ironbridge & Coalbrookdale and took in a few museums (there are 10 in total in the area) that show why this valley is variously described as "the birthplace of industry" and "the cradle of the Industrial Revolution". It was here in 1709 that coke (rather than charcoal) was first used by Abraham Darby to smelt iron ore, paving the way for cheaper, mass-produced iron products.

It is also the location of the first bridge in the world built with cast iron, completed in 1779. (Many thanks to our friend Alan, in Essex, for alerting us about the great museums here and suggesting that we take some time to look around the area.)

We continue to have good luck with the weather. While it has looked threatening at times during recent days, with long overcast periods, we have not had any further rain whilst riding.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Our ride along the West Country Way

We had a day off in Bristol on Monday to visit nearby Bath by train, after riding 500km over the previous 6 days. But since our last post we've taken a rather different route than we'd planned. After seeing lots of the scenic Cornwall coast (& climbing too many steep coastal hills !) we decided to head inland for the ride through the rest of Cornwall and into Devon and Somerset.

While this revised route would partly follow disused rail corridors (called 'rail trails' in Australia) there would also be more sharp hills in other parts, but we reasoned that at least there would be far less traffic to deal with while grinding away uphill.

So since Padstow we've mostly followed the West Country Way, a signed cycling route developed by Sustrans, a lottery-funded 'sustainable transport' charity that has coordinated the development of the signposted National Cycling Network (NCN) during the last 15 years.

These routes largely follow lightly-trafficked minor roads and country lanes as well as traffic-free rail trails, bike paths (through towns & cities), canal tow paths and other tracks. Most of the off-road trails are compacted gravel or earth, though some sections are sealed.

After leaving Wadebridge on Thursday we continued on the Camel Trail (a rail trail) that follows the Camel River east to Bodmin and then north, after which we followed the NCN on minor roads to Holsworthy for an overnight stay at a nice pub. [Thursday: 84 km; 911 m of climbing]

On Friday we followed the NCN from Holsworthy to the Tarka Trail (another rail trail) and followed it for 30km to Barnstaple, where we enjoyed a lovely evening staying with Toni's friends from Moruya Hospital days, John & Carol and their daughters Amie & Rachel. The've been based in Barnstaple for 8 or 9 years. [Friday: 64 km; 604 m of climbing]

The Tarka Trail passes through geographical feaures (signedposted along the way) that were used in the fictional account of the life of an otter in Henry Williamson's 1927 novel 'Tarka the Otter', which Greg read as part of the English curriculum in his first year at high school in 1967.

After leaving Barnstaple on Saturday morning we became lost in some sharp hills for a while then from South Molton followed a the wonderful B3227, a very lightly trafficked minor road near the southern edge of the hilly Exmoor area that took us all the way (about 65 km) to Taunton in Somerset.

Our map showed the B3227 as the only minor road thoroughfare in this region that was free of the chevron markings that indicate steep hills. It largely traversed the top of a ridge for the first 2/3 of the journey and when it did drop into a valley a couple of times the long climbs out were of moderate gradient. On the rest of the way to Taunton it went along a valley floor on mostly flat terrain.

Around Bampton we passed lots of cyclists going the other way as part of an event, some of whom commented on our good fortune to have a strong tailwind while they had a corresponding stiff headwind. As with the previous day, we experienced a few showers but were pretty lucky with the weather, which had been forecast to be unpleasant throughout the Southwest over the weekend. [Saturday: 89 km;1135 xm of climbing]  

 In Taunton we had the good fortune to find a B&B at a dairy farm just outside the town; we had a wonderful loft room with exposed wooden beams in an old farmhouse.

From Taunton we largely followed the NCN to Bristol, first alongside the canal that runs to Bridgwater for about 25km and then on minor roads that took us in the vicinity of Gladstonbury (where the legendary annual music festival takes place next weekend). We then followed the Strawberry Line rail trail for much of the way into Bristol. [Sunday: 116 km; 643 m of climbing]

After having lunch in Bridgwater on Sunday we managed to locate the St John Sreet Cycles (SJS) bike shop, from which we bought (over the internet) the Thorn 'Sherpa' frame for Toni's new touring bike (& which Greg has used for many online bike component purchases over the past 13 years).

SJS is a touring, audax & tandem specialist but the visit was a disappointment. The shop doesn't open on Saturday or Sunday and peeking through the front window revealed that there was minimal stock of bikes on the floor of the shop and few accessories on the shelves, presumably reflecting its online focus, so we didn't miss much.

Not that we were looking to make any more cycling purchases. We had just wanted to 'kick some tyres' in a shop that caters exclusively for cycletourists, but still it was interesting to at least see the shop 'in the flesh'.