Our first impression on entering the grounds of the Victorian estate at Rousdon East Devon could best be described as spellbound tinged with disbelief. Glenys and I had spent the best part of a year looking for that elusive mix of peace, quiet and tranquillity and until that day in late summer 2009, we had not even got close to achieving our aim. Even before setting eyes on the quirky Engine House, a visit to the estates private piece of Jurassic coastline sealed our fate. It was a sunny day and the only other sign of life was a solitary seal and a pair of buzzards; Glen said “have you seen any fossils?” My reply “Just the one” which I admit was a cheap shot, elicited a whack.
Strangely though, despite its benefits Rousdon had a detrimental effect on my ability for rational thought. The decision to build a multipurpose bicycle and keep it at the Engine House may have been sound, but the decision to ride it from Whitstable was in hindsight completely bonkers. Not that I lacked cycling experience, it’s just that the distance and time constraint was always going to be challenging, especially when coupled with lack of planning, poor preparation and bad eyesight. Indeed, in the back of my mind lurked the thought that when the time came I’d probably put the bike in the car and take the easy option, which is why I told everyone about the plan, reasoning that having set myself up, pride would prevent me from ‘bottling’.
So, during the winter I sourced the bits and built the bike; on clement days I even cycled a few miles around the Kent lanes. Then as spring approached I scoured the internet for a suitable tent. The tent arrived while Glen and I were at Rousdon and so my neighbour took delivery of it. He thought that it was a packet of handkerchiefs, but noticed the name ‘Gelert’ on the packaging and Googled it to check. He would not accept that it was a tent until he had witnessed me trying to get into and out of what was basically a funereal shroud. He gave Glen a sympathetic smile, muttered “plonker” under his breath, shook his head and walked away.
A reliable northeasterly breeze is rare, but this was what I needed to shove me west from Whitstable to Rousdon. So, when a few days of suitable wind direction with dry conditions were forecast I loaded up and set off at the crack of dawn on a Sunday morning. Initially I made excellent progress along the old ‘Crab and Winkle’ cycle route, through East Kent and on to the Romney Marsh. I was cruising comfortably at 12 – 14 mph with the wind behind me and the morning sun on my back, thinking “this wasn’t such a bad idea after all”. And then the wind shifted. I noticed that all was not well as I hit the coast road with the sensation of a cool sea breeze on my left cheek. By the time I reached Winchelsea the wind was a steady south westerly and my speed had dropped to below 10 mph. And then came the first major slope; Fairlight Hill highlighted two elements of poor planning and preparation. The bike only had provision for rear panniers and with weight on the back end it was difficult to stop the front wheel from lifting on the hills, so basically it turned itself into a unicycle. The other obvious cock-up was my choice of route. A lover of fresh sea air I’d reasoned that the coastal scenery would be a pleasant distraction and would aid navigation since all I needed to do was keep the sea on my left. The downside was that the traffic was horrendous and the hills epic.
It was dusk when I eventually reached a campsite at Arundel; I had covered 120 miles in 13 hours. Shattered, I limped to the shower block, freshened up, staggered to the pub and demolished three pints of best and a huge curry, then crawled into the ‘shroud’ and promptly got a severe attack of cramp.
As day two dawned I was up, packed and raring to go. Enthusiasm was tempered by doubt though due to uncertainty about the route. It had occurred to me several times whilst poring over the maps that the south coast was not well served by quiet lanes running east-west; I’d dealt with this during the planning stage by convincing myself that the way would become clear once I was on the road. Sadly, whilst in the midst of the morning rush-hour traffic negotiating cycle lanes designed by people whose approach to route planning was lamentably similar to my own it became apparent that the shortest distance between two points was out of the question. South coast topography lends itself to the north-south bicyclist though, so I embarked upon a meandering zigzag with a subtle westerly drift, which is where the eyesight problem started to manifest itself resulting in considerably more zigzagging than was strictly necessary, so when I spotted bikes outside a café in Emsworth I decided to seek help and it was at this point that I realised how irritating ‘proper’ cyclists can be.
A few years ago Mark Beaumont cycled around the world; he set the record, wrote a book about it and the BBC made a documentary about his truly epic endeavour which was a testament to the benefit of good planning. I digress, but the point of this digression is that since Beaumont’s adventure lots of others have set out to beat his record which probably accounts for the fact that every cyclist I met en route greeted me with “hello mate, you on a round the world tour?”. And thus was the ridicule that greeted me on entering the café at Emsworth. What was more irritating and a little sad was that the retired brethren therein were unable to suggest a reasonably traffic free route heading west; one of them (to the obvious embarrassment of his mates) suggested that I head east instead as the roads were better. I enquired how this would lead to Lyme Regis; he just shrugged.
After a bacon sandwich and several cups of coffee I bade farewell to my amiable but unhelpful friends and continued my meanderings interspersed with myopic squinting at the OS, eventually arriving at the Town Quay in Southampton for a relaxing ferry ride to Hythe. The Hythe ferry provides an excellent view of Southampton Water and the huge passenger liners that frequent Southampton docks, but the best bit is arriving at the end of the pier at Hythe. If you arrive at Hythe without a bike you can take advantage of the world’s oldest pier train and gain access to this gateway to the New Forest.
From Hythe I picked up a cycle route bound for Brockenhurst; it was clearly signposted which was handy as I knew that there was a good campsite at Brockenhurst and I was by then, to put it bluntly knackered and unable to focus on the map. Inevitably the signs ran out at about the same point that civilisation ended, so I followed the setting sun and eventually ended up at Lyndhurst. The ride across the national park was superb, but the only camping in the vicinity of Lyndhurst required that you arrived with your own facilities, which in my case was problematic so I pressed on towards a dot on the map called Linwood which according to the OS had a campsite near a pub. At this point I decided that if the campsite was but a figment of the cartographer’s imagination I’d make for the nearest pub for anaesthetic and chips and then find a spot for rough camping. In the event the pub still had an adjacent campsite and although the Antipodean lad sussed that the sad old bloke with a bike was desperate, he must have been having a laugh when he charged me £15 to pitch my ‘shroud’ and chain my bike to the fence! And then the landlady in the pub charged me for too many pints, although to be fair they were disappearing quite rapidly, so I may have lost count. All in all though it was a good night.
As day three dawned I was once again up and ready for action. I’ve spent a fair amount of time under canvas over the years but I have to say that the dawn chorus at the ‘Red Shoot’ campsite was phenomenal; it must have been something in the beer because the campsite was fairly full and everyone was snoring – the birds didn’t get a look in!
With the sun just showing over the horizon it should have been impossible to cycle away from the campsite in the wrong direction. Nevertheless, I’d covered several miles before the warmth on my face alerted me to the fact that I was heading east. Not the best start to a day that was about to get a lot worse.
Having turned and retraced my tracks back past the campsite, it was just outside the village of Verwood that I decided to remove some layers as the morning sun aired the road. I stopped by a farm track and leant the bike against a gate. It was still early and the lanes were deserted apart from the Morris 1000 pickup that juddered to a halt with its rusty front bumper resting against my shin. My first thought was “you don’t see many Morry thou pickups nowadays, must be a classic”. Then the driver’s door flew open and things became tense. The man hastily squeezing himself out of the van looked as though he had started life in the Appalachian Mountains; indeed, all that was missing was ‘duelling banjos’ playing on his eight-track. As he growled “can I help you”, my buttocks were as clenched as his fists. His beady eyes darted about looking for a spot to land his first punch and it was obvious that he was not going to await my reply. At this point I need to digress again and refer to a mate called Tony. Tony is a big lad and one of his more colourful jobs was as a bouncer, so he knows what he’s talking about when it come to violence. It was Tony’s advice about what to do when faced with a situation that is about to ‘kick-off’ that I recalled. Evidently the trick is to get the first punch in and make it a good one. Apart from tattoos, there isn’t a mark on Tony, but his knuckles are all broken, so I believe his theory to be sound. And so it was with Tony’s advice in mind that I too clenched my right fist as tight as my buttocks and was picking my spot just as the ‘hillbilly’s’ eyes stopped darting about and focussed on my bike. “You cycling somewhere then?” he said, the tension visibly easing from his fists. “Yep” I responded breezily “I’ve been going a couple of days; on my way to Lyme Regis”. We chatted, we relaxed; evidently the gate I had chosen to lean my bike against belonged to his parents and backed onto their house which had recently been burgled, so seeing me at that time in the morning he was convinced that I was the burglar back for another go. Anyway, we shook hands, but when he moved in to give me a hug by way of an apology the storyline from ‘Deliverance’ once again sprung to mind, I re-clenched my buttocks and beat a hasty retreat.
After Fairlight on day one I decided that major climbs were to be avoided and that the safest bet would be to go around significant topographical obstacles wherever possible. So it was with this in mind that I squinted at the OS map with the intention of plotting a zigzag that would avoid the bit where the contour lines became plentiful around Bulbarrow Hill. I headed confidently along a lane that was just about to be closed for resurfacing. Exchanging insults with the engineers as I passed by and just (in my estimation) coming out on top in the ‘who’s a smartarse’ competition it occurred to me that a repeat run of the mornings lapse in navigational prowess, followed by a U turn would in the circumstances be ill advised.
I cycled on past a few cottages bidding a jolly “good morning” to the locals as I ambled along the gentle incline towards an ominously large escarpment. In hindsight, the fact that all I received in return for my greetings were quizzical looks, perhaps I should have foreseen trouble ahead.
Rounding a bend I came upon a large cottage with outbuildings and skidded to a halt as the road turned into a track. The reasonably fit looking chap in his mid forties who asked me where I was going was pleasant enough as he directed me to the footpath behind his house; as he said “I think it leads to the top of Bulbarrow Hill mate but I can’t say for certain as it’s too bloody steep for me to walk up”, not for the first time that day I felt a pang of unease.
I rode the first few hundred yards and then got off and walked; at this stage the climb seemed ok. Then the track started to deteriorate and became difficult to push the bike along. Then the gradient increased. Then the large stones on the track increased in size until they were large boulders. It was impossible to push the bike so I stumbled slowly backwards dragging the loaded beast behind me. As sweat oozed from every pore the flies got wind of me and without a spare hand to bat them off I soon resembled the Japanese bloke in ‘Lord of the Flies’. It occurred to me that at my age expending this amount of effort was probably unwise and that in the worst-case scenario, given the size and quantity of the flies, within 24 hours I would be reduced to a pile of bones.
Eventually the path ran out in the middle of a fallow field. Through pinpricks of light between the flies I could just make out the sun which enabled me to head west. Fairly soon I was relieved to hear the sound of traffic and soon after that I reached a road. The view from the top of Bulbarrow Hill is indeed magnificent, but to be honest it was a view I could have done without. Allegedly flies fly at an average speed of 5 mph but can reach speeds of up to 15 mph when threatened; my experience is that if they’re hungry you need to exceed 12mph to get away from them and if you stop to consult a map they are onto you again in a flash!
The free-wheel off of Bulbarrow was cooling and enjoyable. I then headed towards Dorchester through some pretty villages and encountered yet another opportunity to make a bad decision. Anyone who has explored the southwest will be aware that there are plenty of hills, so whilst trying to avoid the main roads I cannot be blamed entirely for choosing such a tortuous route but the stupidity of some of my decisions is just plain embarrassing. Still, I’m being honest here so I’ll confess that the view from the Hardy Monument, over Chesil towards Portland and then across the Dorset countryside was spectacular; once again a view I neither wanted nor anticipated. On this occasion I was certain that the Hardy Monument car park was in the valley and the climb was made on foot; ok, I should have checked the map more carefully. Whilst unicycling up the hill towards the summit a group of American cyclists on racing bikes flashed by “tough climb” drawled one, “you on a round the world tour”, intoned the next “bollocks!” exclaimed I.
The free-wheel down from the Hardy monument was cooling and enjoyable but I was going so fast that I missed the turnoff and ended up in Abbotsbury. “Not a problem” thought I, “the coast road from here to Bridport is fairly flat”, which was when I unicycled past the sign for sharp bends and a 20% gradient.
Bridport was more or less where the final OS map came into play so I was on the home straight. Keen to avoid the A35 my intention was to follow National Cycle Network route 2. Sadly I needed to consult the map that I had omitted to pack to ascertain where NCN 2 started. Never mind, a trip to the Bridport tourist information office provided the necessary leaflet and the pleasant lady provided concise instructions together with a warning to be careful near the school as the school run was imminent. After executing some hair-raising evasive manoeuvres in the vicinity of the school, all was going well until a point where it was not immediately clear which lane the little NCN route sign was pointing to and a helpful farmer stopped in his Land Rover to enquire if I needed assistance. He dissuaded me from following my instincts (which given my track record seemed like a good call) and instead sent me off in a slightly oblique direction stating that the lane I was about to choose was far too flinty for a bike. Sadly I had just been dissuaded from making my only good decision since leaving Whitstable, a point that was driven home by the extremely ‘fit’ young lady who shared her OS 1:25,000 with me an hour later as we deduced that I was once again going the wrong way.
Eventually I hit the B3165 just south of Crewkerne and finally cycled through North Lodge Gate at Rousdon late afternoon on day three.
The distance from CT5 to DT7 by car is 212 miles, so allowing for the requirement to avoid main roads I had estimated 250 miles by bike. In the event I covered 288 miles. Whilst sitting in the bath at 1 Engine House with a large glass of malt I decided that on balance the trip could not be described as enjoyable, but it had been an experience. When on the following morning a neighbour asked if I’d do it again my answer was “probably not”. If asked now though I’d say “you bet”. But would I invest any more time at the planning stage? Nah, life’s more interesting without a plan, although I have been to the optician…