Pilgrims Progress – A Bike Ride in Devon, Dorset & Hampshire

What the hell was I thinking? The first two days of the LEJOG in July, over a similar brutal terrain, in the West Country were memorably difficult by any measure I can think of. So would you schedule a bike ride on similar roads and climbs? It should have been the last thing on my mind, surely? It seems that when the legs recover and the excitement of an adventure lies ahead intelligence takes a back seat. I had put together a ride for two friends who despite advance warning of the severity both still turned up.

Martin Appleyard was certainly my peer on two wheels but set off with a ticking bomb of a problem that eventually came to be a considerable handicap and burden. He needs considerable praise for coping with this problem, albeit he’ll not receive it in this blog as I have a reputation to maintain!

Tony Franco or ‘Franco/Frankie’ as he eventually got called throughout (even by Martin!) had passed his ‘physical’ up in Yorkshire in July when he was assessed for this ride by a saunter around the North Yorks hills. We’d toured in England and France before and knew the routine of my planning, grumpiness and desire to move along. However, whilst surviving this ride up until Bournemouth he had an overall experience that seems about as draining and pleasurable as chemotherapy. It’s only his grit and indomitable personality that overcame the challenges of hills and a bike that weighed about the same as an Aga range cooker. His bike is a top of the range US touring bike by Surly but something lighter was compelling for this jaunt. Given he was the youngest member of the expedition I think it safe to say that on his end of trip feedback form he’ll report that his tender years were noted ie. the elders provided all navigation of the route, food stop decisions, accommodation choices, most cultural exchanges and provision of nutrition. Granted, not all of this came with an equitable and friendly delivery…

Having set the scene for a memorable trip then let us begin, you may need to pull up a chair as this is a longer read than usual!

An easy drive to Abingdon placed me at Chez Appleyard and together we cycled off to Reading to catch a train to Plymouth, the start of our tour. Martin was anxious to win the Prologue and start the proper Tour de Pilgrim’s Progress in Yellow. He set off for Reading Station like a getaway driver escaping the scene of a crime. As I’m hanging on behind him my mind wandered onto the days ahead and whether Martin had failed to realise that some holding back might be in order. However, you can’t under estimate youthful enthusiasm, after all Martin isn’t 60 years old until later in the year. Inevitably our train to Plymouth was delayed; sadly (seriously) someone had died on the train’s earlier journey by stepping onto the railway line. Gulp, not a propitious start.

Plymouth started the abandonment of directional control of our ride to my Garmin Sat Nav device. Although not human it had a mind of its own. We headed north in the city to discover we should have headed south to the seafront. On arrival we discovered our landlady was a cyclist and owner of some interesting books.

Bedtime reading
A stroll to the marina in search of an evening meal

She was a participant in the imminent Tour of Britain starting in the city and was leading out the peloton with other fellow women cyclists. This select group got to lead out all the professional cyclists for 500 metres, which is about 480 metres more than I could have accompanied Mark Cavendish on a bike. A stroll around Plymouth was enjoyed with beef stroganoff and then back to our accommodation to read the book.

Lighthouse on the front

Next morning Tony Franco arrived at our lodgings. He’d spent the night elsewhere at Bev’s. Bev, his old friend, became an omnipresent figure for us all over the day as we proceeded through the county. It transpired that all things Devon for Tony had her mark upon them. ‘Oh this is Bev’s favourite beach’ and ‘Bev used to live here’ etc. She quickly became an important Devonian (born in Derby) but I would wager that her navigation skills were not taught to young Franco as we trundled along the narrow single lane roads all bordered with high hedges. These lanes went up and down and often involved frustrated motorists stopping when reaching a head to head jam with another car and having to reverse to a passing spot. Our navigation decisions were troublesome and Franco volunteered we should ‘follow the sun’ at one point as a solution. This ensured that his thoughts on the route weren’t sought for the rest of the trip!

The peloton. I’m already looking worried. Martin’s not wearing a colostomy bag but a holder for a large mobile phone!

By way of consolation after some early arduous and wrong detours I did entertain as, senior elder and guide, stopping for a cup of tea but time pressures were always a problem with a long way to go; we remorselessly headed east. Accidentally we were following the route of Day One of the Tour of Britain and some of the climbs were horrendous. Even for elite athletes the severity of the climbs will have been memorable. A feature of these ascents was the steepness up until the brow of the hill. None of your usual tapering off but a steely 12% gradient until you breasted the summit after intermittent sections at 16%. Oh how we laughed. 

Martin, still luxuriating in the glow of his Stage win the day before, started to feel the pace. He was not riding a bike that facilitated riding up these hills slowly. By this I mean he hadn’t got low enough gears and had to ride up the climbs with a lot of expended energy whilst others might go more slowly by spinning and saving their legs. For those of a technical nature he only had a 28 tooth cassette, whereas Franco and myself were sporting 34 teeth on our rear wheels. He knew about this issue before the start line but his bike was not fitted with the other correct components to fit a 34 tooth cassette. A future solution lay in a new bike we agreed. After flirting with the Tour of Britain route we dropped into Salcombe for lunch. Immediately the peloton were seduced by a pasty and a cake; in the hot sunshine we found a spot to rest and munch. 

A cycle path Frankie managed to miss despite much shouting. He had proceeded half a mile down a no through road sign.( As we had to chase him down and then wait for his weary return to the correct turning it felt appropriate to take a photo of me and the sign for the blog.)
Devonian pasty

Salcombe was enjoying a busy end to the season with staycation holiday makers. In fact a feature of the whole ride was how busy it was. Staycations may have latterly boosted tourism down here but I imagine a lot of these British visitors will be across the Channel next year. If the chance to get our faces around a West Country delicacy wasn’t enough pleasure then another cyclist’s delight awaited: a ferry. This wasn’t the ordinary ‘roll on and roll off affair’ it was a sort of large rowing boat with an outboard motor on the back. The bikes had to be denuded of their luggage and lifted awkwardly into the craft. Aga boy nearly went overboard during this manoeuvre.

A descent into any of the resorts we visited was precipitous and inevitably the climb out of the resort, this time on the other side of the Kingsbridge Estuary, necessitated a slow grind up over 100 metres of height to get to the cliff tops. Here followed a stop-start trundle along these hill tops dodging camper vans, home delivery vans, cars and an outbreak of bin wagons. We were loosely following cycling’s National Route 28 and we fell to Torcross. Here there was a memorial which featured a US Sherman tank they’d retrieved from the sea some 40 odd years after its submergence. It found its way down there when a D Day training exercise went badly wrong in April 1944. Tragically 749 US soldiers lost their lives. Firstly friendly fire and then attacks by German E-boats, passing through Lyme Bay who had stumbled upon this exercise, accounted for the total. The incident at Slapton Sands is one of the biggest military tragedies of WW2 on British soil.

Note camouflage jersey meaning you could never see where he was. Still smiling however.
Taken out of the bay in 1984
Slapton Sands. An unusual sight…. temporarily flat

We were enjoying riding along the spit as it was flat but all good things come to an end and up we went in pursuit of Dartmouth and another ferry. Martin was still going well albeit drooling over my 34 tooth cassette and young Franco was now starting to struggle badly. This didn’t mean he wasn’t gamely spinning onwards but all fight seems to have gone and as soon as the road slanted vaguely upwards the lowest gear was engaged and progress still achieved but slowly. Two ferries in a day is a treat and the Dartmouth ferry was a ‘roll on, roll off’ affair. If the day had been devised to be shorter then I would have wanted to pop into Dartmouth it looked very attractive. In line with the script a long climb followed, albeit less unreasonable than earlier crampon specials. At the top I urged Martin to pedal on the remaining 25 miles to get to Dawlish, our destination for the night. Later Franco appeared at the top. I would lead him home.

Ferry across the River Dart

In front of us were the busy towns of Paignton and Torquay. It was early evening and the rush hour was frantic with cars bumper to bumper. It wasn’t fun. The route we chose was the most direct as the day was quickly expiring and darkness would arrive at 8pm completely with developing gloom after 7.30pm. On imparting the urgency to Tony concentrate and move as quickly as he could to avoid darkness Franco nonchalantly countered that he had bike lights with him should night descend! With several 25 to 30 mile an hour descents ahead then having a small beam to guide you down a potholed road with distracting car head lights in your face was not safe. 

As Martin zoomed off to a shower and a chance to put his feet up I went up every hill as slowly as I could and waited. Along came the boy Franco only to be nagged by me to eat. In fact a mantra I imposed on the peloton throughout the ride was to eat, eat and eat whilst riding. This was not to be a weight losing couple of days. The sugary the better and to eat at least once an hour. This can become difficult as exhaustion starts to rob you of your appetite. Hook by crook we got to Dawlish. It was ten minutes to 8pm (or 7pm if you believed what we overheard the boy Franco tell his wife on the phone later!)

Arriving so late made a mess of my laundry chores as nothing had enough time to dry. Poor Martin nearly got a hernia when he volunteered to put the bikes in the B&B’s basement, I think the Aga nearly made its own way down the narrow staircase as moving it was difficult.

Day One – Plymouth to Dawlish – 70.5 miles and 6,631 feet climbing

So rightly you’re thinking with a 70 mile day and over 6,600 feet (2,000 metres) of climbing involving nearly 7½ hours of cycling that I was wrong to do this to Tony? I agree I felt like a small mean child pulling the limbs off an insect.

So rather than torture him again we should devise Plan B? Maybe he could only ride half the next day’s distance? (Our destinations were already decided by paid for accommodation.) Train the difference? This part of the coastline is not well served by train lines and so this didn’t work as a fix even for half the distance planned for Day Two or if it did work Frankie wasn’t interested. The route wasn’t particularly amendable as it was already a straight run along the coast but, as it happens, we did omit certain planned plummets into various bays to see twee resorts such as Beer. So it was agreed that he would trundle on albeit with the condition that he would have, at some point, need to allow me to depart and leave him to his own directions (or ‘follow the sun’) as I needed to get to Weymouth to wash and dry some kit. Don’t worry, I had a speech prepared to give to his wife when I broke the news of his brave demise on the Devon coastline by himself. ‘When last seen he had had a smile on his face and a Mars bar in his hand as he took his last bite for sustenance.’

(Dawlish, you may recollect had its rail line’s collapse into the sea some years ago after destructive gales and construction workers are still at work developing sea defences. I did comment to Martin the next morning that it must be a spectacular train ride through the resort as it is on the seashore. He confirmed it was and that I had actually done it the day before. Senior moment indeed!)

After such an arduous day a late meal was procured but neither Martin or Franco made a fist of their main courses. They were too pooped. A stern bollocking was administered by the chief nag/nutritionist (me) but to no avail. To add to Franco’s exclusions, firstly from deciding directions he then added not paying the future restaurant bills for the rest of the ride. He’d tipped the waitress 20%. It’s Devon not Manhattan.

Given that Day Two was a longer day an early start was a must. However, Baby Jesus had designated this day as Sunday and the B&B didn’t serve breakfast until 8.30am. It was worth the wait.

If that was a blow then at least the route was initially flat. We trundled to Starcross where a ferry transferred us across the estuary to Exmouth. As the railway line ran along the coast you had to cross it by a footbridge to reach the ferry landing. Unfortunately for the boy Franco he didn’t have Pickfords on speed dial and transporting the Aga over the bridge would have constituted a workout for lesser mortals.

Exmouth looked quite elegant and gentrified as we cycled out heading east. It seemed well worth exploring on a more leisurely visit as we only skirted the front and never entered the town. The hedgerows groaned under the weight of blackberries. Budleigh Salterton was passed and the Garmin was, surprisingly, finding direct and delightful routes. This included asphalt paths through woods and small settlements with thatched cottages. Devon was beautiful. The first climb of the day came as we headed skywards to reach Sidmouth. This was a long and increasingly vicious climb that invited the assailant to dismount as they did the last 80 metres of 16% gradient before literally parachuting down to the cove where Sidmouth lay. I didn’t get off and push but it crossed my mind as yesterday’s climbing was very much in my aching legs.

Budleigh Salterton

The weather was sensational – hot, sunny and dry. In fact we avoided rain on the whole trip and this made progress a lot more pleasurable and easy. September was truly delivering an Indian summer.

Sidmouth was heaving with Sunday sunbathers and looked wonderful. The peloton found a tap to replenish their water supplies and we continued east. The National Route 28 shortly after Sidmouth headed toward the heavens and after 150 metres of grinding up to meet St Peter I thought there must be something less steep and we headed inland to pick up the main road. I was completely wrong.

The pebbly front at Sidmouth
Some Fords on parade at Sidmouth

The A3052 out of Sidmouth was awful  due to its gradient and heavy traffic. It really was in the heat of the midday sun and a climb where each pedal stroke might have been your last before getting off. Again the thought of dismounting was discounted by the prospect of getting hit by a Waitrose delivery van and then run over by the long line of tourist cars following it. The road, putting to one side Sidmouth, was fast and smooth and great progress was made after reaching about 160 metres height at the top. Franco was going well and luncheon was planned for Lyme Regis. Martin during the discussion did look skyward and drew in breath through his front teeth making the kind of whistling noise a plumber would make after being asked if he could resuscitate a 25 year old boiler. He advised on a deep descent and an even more grim ascent out of the town. Hunger and a desire to see some of the resorts on our ride over ruled his misgivings and as always Frankie, our masochist extraordinaire, was up for anything.

Martin was right as we swooped into Lyme Regis but at the very bottom was The Pilot Boat. It turned out to be a wonderful stop and we all ate like kings. Martin had sea bream, I had hake and the boy Franco, noting my displeasure at his avoidance of porridge at breakfast, had some fortifying pasta with a ragu sauce.

Replenished we went our separate ways to complete the remaining 25 miles to Weymouth. The run on this busy road, which became the A35 to Bridport was not an easy ride with lots of traffic and several steep descents and ascents. A common scenario was to find yourself pedalling slowly up a hill with a convoy of vehicles stranded behind you. If the immediate vehicle behind you was a truck then I can confirm few lorry manufacturers make their gearing for moving at 4mph on a 10% gradient. Martin and I reached the Bridport turn to Weymouth together. The traffic soon melted away as we proceeded down a less popular route. The road still rose and fell but the coastline looked superb and inviting. 

Abbotsbury was chocolate box pretty and after the day’s travails the cycling was hard but pleasurable. I was coming back to Dorset with Anna after this cycling holiday and made a note to revisit. Weymouth arrived and the lodgings were found. I arrived at 6.28pm and Martin shortly afterwards. We were staying at a pub and as I arrived first I bagged the double bed whilst the youngsters were left to fight for who had the bottom bunk. Given the pub didn’t serve breakfast Martin and I went to a local Tesco to buy provisions and look for dinner solutions up the street. A takeaway was the only option.

Luckily Frankie had a head for heights (and a strong bladder)
Franco was suspected of bringing this mollusc into the room

Meanwhile Tony F arrived at his favourite time (7.50pm) and was told to shower whilst a Chinese and beer would be procured for his consumption. He was still smiling and viewing his remarkable achievement through the same lens that Neil Armstrong must have used when making his first steps on the moon. It was a remarkable effort.

62 miles and 5,502 feet of climbing (maximum descent speed 48.8 mph)

Day Three saw us away by 8.30am and all feeling sore. After 3,700 metres of climbing in two days our legs had every right to complain. Leaving Weymouth was by cycle path and after a couple of errors from the Garmin I was frustrated and not too clear on where we should be headed. As I struggled to the top of a hill a group of chattering Sunday cyclists span past. They didn’t look across and acknowledge me and I thought how rude. Coming to rest at the top of the hill near them I commented loudly to Martin on the absence of courtesy and kindness of Dorset cyclists. Martin attempted to become invisible by melting into a hedge! However one of the party came across to say hello, shamed by my observation. This introduced us to Les.

(Martin in a moment of unsolicited candour did allude to my intolerance in various other matters including motorists I found blocking my way or going too slowly. Apparently I had been overheard shouting at them. Also inconsistencies in my assessment of situations was also brought to my attention. Apparently on one descent he was chided by me for hanging onto his brakes demonstrating a lack of back bone but I had at another time, apparently, been recorded sympathising that his lightweight bike was unstable at the front and caution on descending was prudent. Do you believe any of this? No, quite…)

Les, the font of all navigational knowledge
Can’t be true, can it?

Les helped us find a direct route east. What a star. I must admit his instructions included the mind numbing advice to ‘turn left at the tea shop’, ‘Over the level crossing’, ‘Past the Black Dog pub and then right at the telephone box’ that type of direction usually loses me after 30 seconds but we hung on to enough of Les’ advice to make great progress. Franco was till in tow but was going slowly. I decided to sit behind him for a few miles, probably not something he would have chosen and debated equitably the appropriate capital punishment for those who had lobbed plastic bottles and food packaging out of their car and van windows which ended up on the verge. Remarkably he still had enough breath to join in the conversation even though I was adding that he should pedal hard at certain sections or not touch his brakes on a descent. Martin sat in behind me but in a vote of confidence to Franco (not) suddenly blurted ‘Sorry, I can’t ride at this speed’ and disappeared up the road. 

We had planned to stop in Wool and we enjoyed out daily intake of fried bacon and eggs: a definite boost for morale before we headed into the Isle of Purbeck. This was my first visit to this part of England/Dorset and it was very pleasant. The sun was now out and it was a hot day. A lot of holiday makers were on the road but we cycled through fairly flat heath land with ferns and grass but few other distinguishing features.

On arriving at Swanage I delivered on a promise to buy the peloton an ice cream. We sat just behind the beach and watched a Punch and Judy act fail to find any audience despite the reasonable fee of £2 each. It struck me that the parents of the children he targeted probably had never seen the show and without parental enthusiasm he stood no chance.

From here it was another spiteful hill before a short ferry ride to Sandbanks. Franco had decided to get a train from Bournemouth to home, a good idea for a man who’d probably exceeded any expectation he may have entertained before starting in Plymouth.

Martin and I had a still demanding ride to north Southampton and it was late afternoon when we alighted from the ferry. Martin’s brother was hosting our visit and preparing a meal; being timely was our courteous objective. However after his epic struggle it seemed an appropriate last act of kindness to chaperone Franco to Bournemouth Station where he’d catch a train back to Clapham. So we wended our way along the front during a Red Arrow display above us toward the railway station. Folk were engrossed in the fly pasts and progress was exceptionally slow on the promenade. It had crossed my mind why hadn’t we left the youngster to switch on his Garmin and make his way there, after all he was in good time to get to London.

This slow progress eventually involved me getting to the Station without the peloton who I think were busy taking photos of the Royal Air Force. I hung around for some time for Martin to eventually appear but no Tony? He’d dived in the Station and caught a train. I assume, in retrospect, as I was lent against the station car park wall, he’d put his trotters up and was cruising back to London. In fairness a WhatsApp message followed.

New Forest

Martin was concerned at our heading north rather than east. I had entrusted our fortunes to the Garmin and after leaving Bournemouth we were heading north through some delightful but indirect country lanes. As always the Garmin routing was mainly about avoiding roads with motor traffic. The evening sun was warm; it was dry and the New Forest was a treat to ride through. In fact a brilliant cycling route.

Wild horses

However, we were tired and the endless cycle paths near and within Southampton were energy and time sapping but eventually the time elapsed and we were nearing our destination. Meanwhile WhatsApp dispensed a cheery message that Frankie was back at home in Tooting feeling very happy with himself. Back on the road we met another roundabout or set of traffic lights. Poor Martin was quite shot and even over shot the turning to brother Andy’s house. We were pleased to arrive at 7.30pm. Martin had bought a surprisingly good bottle of red wine from a Tesco Express and along with some delicious ragu and pasta we relaxed for the night knowing there were still 70 odd miles to go tomorrow before we could hang up our cycling shorts.

86 miles and 3,963 feet of climbing

Day Four saw a quick bowl of porridge, a heartfelt thanks to Andy for his hospitality and then into the north Southampton traffic.

All night Martin practiced for the vacant seat in the Rolling Stones

Much of the early route I recognised from my many visits to B&Q’s offices in North Baddersley when I sold furniture to them. However despite a brief stop for Martin to repair a broken rear rack we were soon into the countryside of the tranquil and scenic Test river. It was idyllic and beautiful and despite having two stumps of pain instead of legs the hills weren’t too monstrous and we made good progress heading due north. A feature of everywhere we rode was prosperity, whether that was the coast with its tourism and second homes or now, more inland, in these smart and manicured villages.

A statue to British Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, in Romsey

As the morning expired we reached Whitchurch and some brunch was called for. Martin demonstrating fatigue with fried food went for a tuna mayo baguette whilst true to the code of the road I had a sausage and egg one. As we’re eating a commotion was heard from across the street where we’d left our bikes. Some ladies, two brandishing watering cans, were gesticulating and spitting teeth at the destruction of some flower stems by a badly parked bike.

In fact one of the ladies moved the bike. Martin has got ‘previous’ from bringing out fury in local villagers. On his recent trip to Yorkshire there was nearly fisticuffs over his language and cycling. Martin nonchalantly ploughed on through his sandwich enjoying the kerfuffle. I thought we ought to go across and make reparations. So across I strolled to make a donation of a fiver to restore the broken flowers. Initially they resisted the money but when I pointed out it wasn’t mine but Martin’s they saw sense and took the money.

War zone

After Whitchurch a miserable climb materialised that brought back to mind the climbing of the earlier day. Martin complained that a Toyota had appeared out of nowhere on this high hedge road to nearly take him out but other than that the traffic was light.

Another route check

With that hill behind us and considerable height gained it was one final push to get to the very top and then a fast descent into Wantage. A cold drink was bought and the final miles to Abingdon covered where I was to meet Anna to head back to Dorset. On this last run the entertainment wasn’t over though as an Open Reach transit van overtook us. That was fine but less safe was the motorcycle with ‘L’ plates and its loony rider who was riding alongside of the van kicking it! The rider was young and unfazed by the oncoming traffic he faced by riding in their lane! Clearly there was a dispute.

73 miles and 3,084 feet climbed

On arriving back at Martin’s house a shower and a quick beer was consumed and then after packing the bike we left to leave the Appleyards in peace (and no doubt to discuss the necessity for Martin to get a new bike.)

2 thoughts on “Pilgrims Progress – A Bike Ride in Devon, Dorset & Hampshire

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