Just over 100 miles left to home – I woke up eager to get started. But there was zero point in rushing – Yoli would be on a work call in the evening, meaning the optimum time for me to arrive home would be 9:30pm. Being forced to curb my enthusiasm did bring the benefit of having time to really enjoy the breakfast and coffee that was waiting for me downstairs. There was a definite sense of rain in the air as I trudged out and kitted up in the slightly damp market square.
1519km – 24 Aug 20, 08:13 – Angel Hotel, Coleford
I met back up with the B4228 after a short ramp up through the town. Quite appropriately, right on the junction there was a Lucozade factory – although being nicely stuffed, I wasn’t really in need of extra energy for the morning’s riding.
Coleford is pretty much in the heart of The Forest of Dean and, it turned out, also one of the higher points too. The uphill slog of yesterday had positioned me nicely for a very enjoyable hour or so of rolling, but largely easy cycling through a mix of fields, small villages, and deep, sweet smelling woodland. Traffic on the B road was mostly quiet, and even when it became busier, the cars and trucks I can remember all gave me plenty of space. In the grey conditions I had both rear lights on and a front flasher – there wasn’t much point taking chances just to arrive home with a fully charged set of lights. I may as well throw out as many lumens now as possible to keep myself seen.
After a couple of ramps around St Briavels, my wheels began to run freely. It started out as a gentle roll down through Tidenham Chase, a few light spots of rain falling on the road ahead. The slope (and rain) steadily increased though, and I was soon tearing at full pace towards Tutshill, Castleford and, most significantly, Chepstow beyond. This ancient city marked not just my only small incursion into Wales, but also the place I would pick up my crossing over the vast River Severn estuary back to Somerset, just one county from home.
1540km – 24 Aug 20, 09:29 – Chepstow
I crossed the Wye into Chepstow on what appeared a much older bridge than the concrete one a short distance away on the A48. The arching span I pedalled across was a majestic steel structure, although it’s white and green paint was slightly flaked and rusting in places. The town itself took a bit of navigating – I started heading up a pedestrianised section, but after a couple of narrow alleys, finished climbing the steep hill on the main road itself. Fortunately, at the top of the hill I had routed along a side road through Bulwark which ran parallel to the main highway to the start of the massive Severn Bridge.
My first attempt at getting up and onto the bridge was a failure – the cycleway on my side of the bridge was closed. A couple out walking helpfully directed me back down the ramp I had just come up and under the highway to a slightly dodgy looking path that did, ultimately, lead to the start of the path on the other side. Even under dark clouds, the views were superb – and despite the brisk wind, and light rain, it was impossible not to stop several times for photos on the crossing. The bridge itself goes over two rivers. The first, shorter span crossed the Wye (for the last time on my trip), ending on a small spit of land where the second, much longer span crossed the broad expanse of the Severn Estuary itself. The tarmac of the path was wet and slippery, and bouncing noticeably from the thundering traffic on the M48, a couple of meters beyond the metal cables of the barrier. Honestly, if one of the many giant articulated trucks had gone off course, I doubted the cables would have stopped us all from plunging into the river. Added into this were a few strong blasts of wind as I reached the exposed second section of bridge, and the sheer height above the water – with my natural fear of heights, it was a distinctly nervous and not entirely enjoyable crossing. Despite the amazing views, I was very glad to be across and on solid ground again.
Route planning the next section had been a challenge – coming up was a maze of motorway and main road junctions, plus docklands and industry around Bristol. Without taking a massive detour, it was inevitably going to lead to some dull urban riding. Which is pretty much exactly what the next few hours delivered, made worse by what should have been a reasonably pleasant estuary side cycle path being closed, forcing me to ride along a not wonderful stretch of dual carriageway. I managed to turn off this and get back onto my planned route through Northwick, which was considerably nicer and took me around and under the M4 (in sight of the newer Prince of Wales Bridge across the Severn).
This led to possibly the most optimistically named area I passed on the whole trip – “Severn Beach”. Totally surrounded by highways, and industrial estates, I can honestly say, there was little that tempted me to break out my swimming trunks (not that I had packed any). There was, perhaps, one aspect in which the marketing people who came up with the name had not totally lied – the neat rows of modern housing were infinitely nicer than the part that followed. A long, straight, road through dismal, low rise warehouses, offices and factories. What was labelled as a cycle path on the map was often no more than a litter and gravel strewn pavement. It wasn’t all terrible though, in some places the path was decent, and the sight of a facility marked as the “Energy Recovery Centre” brought an impromptu smile. I was tempted to turn in and see what they could offer for long distance cyclists needing a boost. I’ll avoid droning on much more about this forgettable piece. It got me safely to where I needed to be, reasonably directly, and without too much traffic, so it served a purpose. Although when I passed what looked to be the memorial site of a local murder, I was very glad to have been riding through in daylight.
The Avonmouth crossing brought a smile to my face for a couple of reasons. Firstly was that, once again, anyone following my tracker could easily believe I’d gone wrong and was riding on the M5 itself, just beside me. The second was that I had a decent chat with a couple of local cyclists out for their ride. They clearly knew the area much better than me because at the end, they swung left down towards what looked like a pretty village and some riverside riding. Whereas I turned right under the M5, and rode through possibly the world’s largest expands of car park – Portishead. Acres of imported cars stood in yards waiting delivery to dealers – row after row of plastic covered, new vehicles of every brand and type imaginable. At one point I managed to really upset a group of guys checking over one small collection by photographing them. They were the first Honda City electric cars I’d seen in the flesh, and judging by the way the chaps were shouting at me, they didn’t want images of them getting out prematurely. I didn’t hang around to apologise, or delete the photos.
As well as the endless expanses of cars, there was a curious industrial relic of a railway line that I rode along. At times it seemed to have been intentionally preserved and made into short features of remaining track beside the path. But there was nothing really to suggest what it was all about, or why some parts of it were still there. Eventually, both this and the expanse of industry came to an end and I began to see villages and countryside again. When driving on the M5 near here, you see the name Gordano on a service station, and it’s always struck me as sounding vaguely Italian. Riding along, I noticed how many of the towns and villages also included the name Gordano. It turns out, it’s actually an Old English name for the triangular valley between Portishead and Clevedon – a town which arrived arrived exactly as my body was beginning to call for more fuel.
1578km – 24 Aug 20, 12:00 – The Old Inn, Clevedon
I initially rode past the pub but, as I stood staring at the petrol station beyond, I realised that not only didn’t I fancy yet more roadside sandwiches, but with no hurry either today, I had time for something infinitely better. I turned back and headed for the pub, with it’s tempting “Food Served” sign propped up outside. It was a little slice of heaven – the friendly staff let me park the bike inside, by the garden entrance, and then proceeded to bring me beer and food whilst I loafed lazily at the table.
The 6km after lunch consisted of delightful quiet lanes behind North End, and could easily have become the theme for the rest of the afternoon. Except at the village of Yatton, either by some inspired bit of route planning or a happy accident, the purple GPS track led me onto the Strawberry Line cycle way. This proved to be an utterly delightful, and surprisingly long section of converted old railway line. It was wonderful tree lined riding, with occasional tunnels, information boards, and remnants of old station platform along the way. As if to highlight probably this area’s most famous produce, a section of path briefly left the original track line, and detour right past the Thatchers cider house – crossing between orchards of trees weighed down with bright red apples. In total, it was something like 15km of wonderful traffic free riding, and I was sad to part company with it at Axbridge.
The next 25km of riding was mostly along winding and quiet county lanes, with the occasional sections of main road. The two features I remember most are marked by a couple of pauses in my GPS log, although I forget the order they came in. One of them is where I stopped to put air into my rear tyre which was beginning to feel decidedly squishy – if I’d had any lube left, I’d loved to have given my squeaking chain some TLC, but I’d already used the last of it. The other stop was to don waterproof gear when it became obvious that the ominous looking clouds were not going to magically dissipate. After winding through the town of Bridgewater, the clouds did the opposite in fact – turning from grey to black. It was almost a relief when the storm broke, although the 20 minutes of downpour which followed was honestly the heaviest rain I have ever seen. Roads quite literally turned to rivers in the biblical cloudburst. At one point, while trying to ride up a rushing rapid of brown water and leaves, for a brief second I had the oddest vision of the famous statue of Christ in Rio de Janeiro, but transplanted into the branches of a tree on top of the hill ahead. I guess the whole thing could have been unnerving, if it hadn’t also been so comical. They were such ridiculous conditions to be attempting to cycle through that I found myself laughing involuntarily as I splooshed along.
I don’t really recall much about riding through Taunton itself, except wondering as I approached if I’d managed to pick a good path through the busy network of roads. I do remember though debating whether to simply blast along the A38 afterwards to get to Wellington more quickly. As the turnaround point for one of my local 100km routes, it was a such a significant landmark on my tour that I was keen to get there. Once I reached the BP garage, there were just 50km of familiar lanes left. Looping through the grounds of the University of Somerset though, I caught a glimpse of the main road – now brimming with commuter traffic. It was enough to instantly convince me that the lanes I’d plotted were the better option. Plus there was that fleeting vision in the tree – I didn’t really want to take any chances on that turning out to be some kind of bizarre prophecy.
As it turned out, although they zig-zagged crazily across the countryside, the lanes proved to be very enjoyable cycling, made even better by some blue skies as the rain clouds finally departed. At the foot of one tree lined downhill, I turned left into a road I thought I recognized on the outskirts of the town – although as I reached the main traffic lights in the centre of town, I realised this was unlikely given that I was coming from a direction I hadn’t cycled before. But the junction in the centre of town I definitely did know, and the petrol station just beyond that would be my last refuel stop of the tour.
1658km – 24 Aug 20, 18:15 – BP, Wellington
My mind was juggling more emotions than I knew how to fully handle as I downed a chilled cappuccino, fruit juice, and some manner of garage food (in all probability a sausage roll or pork pie). In amongst them was definitely some relief at being almost home, without any incidents – and great satisfaction at how well the whole concept of the tour had panned out. Above all of these though, was that deep sense of inner peace which comes from so many days of simply pedalling along, thinking about nothing, or everything. There was a little sadness too, at the thought there were just three more hours of riding left – although in truth, the end of the ride is never really the destination. Ridden in the right spirit, the journey is the destination. The point you happen to reach when it’s all done is just that, another point on the ride.
The peace transferred itself into my legs as I rolled out – relaxed, and unhurried, the pedals almost seemed to turn themselves. The Niner and I now almost felt like one entity, as we swung around each well-known bend or rose up through each village at the crest of a hill. Those closing kilometres had an almost dream like quality, except for one minor, briefly troubling occurrence. With darkness falling, I leaned the bike gently into the right angle bend through Payhembury. As the bike straightened out of the corner I immediately felt something was wrong – instead of tracking smoothly, it shimmied slightly under me. Instinctively, I knew the cause – the rear tyre I had pumped earlier was not just been a gradual drop in pressure, but the beginnings of a slow puncture. I pulled over, and checked the tyre as best I could in the fading light. There were no obvious nails or thorns, so I pumped it up to a decent pressure and checked again. I couldn’t see any spots of leaking sealant, or hear any escaping air so, with no desire to start fixing anything so close to home, I decided just to ride on and keep checking it. It softened slightly through Feniton and into Ottery, but not to the extent I felt a need to pump it up again. Now, fully dark, I just wanted to get keep going.
1690km – 24 Aug 20, 20:45 – Slade Road, Ottery St Mary
Slade Road is one of those tiny lanes that, unless you zoom right in on Google Maps, you won’t even notice it’s there. When we first moved to Sidmouth, I was oblivious to its existence until I stumbled across it by accident one day. It deserves a mention in the story of this tour for one simple, but important reason. There are very few routes back to Sidmouth that do not involve either a busy main road, or a monstrous double digit climb, or both. Until I discovered Slade Road, I had been troubled by the thought of finding a gentle, and unhurried way home without battling traffic or forcing my legs to lug a heavy bike up one last punishing gradient. But now, here I was, doing neither. Instead, I was rolling up a steady, completely manageable gradient out of Ottery, which led to an easy ride just below the ridge of East Hill. OK, the surface is horribly potholed and strewn with gravel, but nothing that the Niner and I weren’t fully equipped to handle. With zero chance of meeting any cars, I put one of my front beams on high, and the other on medium – the lane ahead was lit up more brightly than a sports stadium on match day. I rode along slowly, with nothing to disturb the absolute peace of it all save the occasional bark of a fox or hoot of an owl. In no time at all, I was chasing down the steep hill to the Bowd, and the junction with the A3052. Normally, it’s a busy road that I would cross rather than ride, but this late of an evening, the short downhill stretch to Woolbrook Road was the quicker option.
It was all a little surreal to suddenly be riding under the yellow street lamps of the roads in my own town. Had I really ridden all the way from Inverness to here via the John O’Groats and Cape Wrath? I couldn’t hold back a smile as I took the last turn into my street and checked my Garmin screen for the last time.
1700.3km – 24 Aug, 21:29 – Home
Just one one minute ahead of the time Yoli and I had discussed the night before, and almost exactly the notional “170km per day for 10 days” touring target I had started with – I could forgive myself that 300m of overrun. When Theunis and I embarked on Munga in 2018, he said to me “we’re just riding home“. Cruising up the drive to my house, with Yoli at the front door, hugs and beer in hand, I think this was a ride he’d have enjoyed as the very embodiment of that spirit. Cheers bud!