An impromptu road trip to Exmoor National Park

The Easter bank holiday week-end was getting close. I was due to work most of it, but I had a couple of days off during the week. Spurred by the holiday mood and the longer brighter days, I decided to go on a microadventure. I would take my bicycle, head to Glastonbury and then the seaside. But something about this plan felt wrong. I would be on my own, leaving my partner behind for yet another excursion.

I had been away a lot recently, using my days off to meet up with friends, attend events, or simply do my own thing. Indulging in another solo trip felt selfish and uncaring. So I changed my plan.

‘How do you fancy going to Exmoor on Wednesday,’ I asked her as we got ready for bed at the beginning of the Easter week.
‘This Thursday?’
‘Yes. We could book a B&B and have a little road trip with Exmoor as a vague direction. What do you think?’
‘Okay.’

We opened our laptops and began the search for a place to sleep. On my own I wouldn’t have bothered. I would have packed the tent and headed off somewhere new. But camping, and especially wild camping, is not everybody’s cup of tea. We found a reasonably priced room, booked it, and went to sleep. We were set to go later that week.

We packed our bags hastily, threw them in the car, took our seat and began to negotiate the roads of Bristol before finding an escape into country lanes. We meandered happily to the music blasting off the radio. The hills of the Mendips flattening out as we reached Wells. We parked the car and began our exploration. We stumbled upon St Cuthbert’s Church, its grandeur reflected inside and out with its brightly painted roof and many sculptures.

We lingered a while before giving in to the call of our stomachs. We settled in a coffee shop, tucked in a small street away from the high street and sat at one of the tables.

‘What can I serve you,’ the owner asked.
‘A latte with your Columbian roast and a cappuccino with soya milk please.’
But soon our orders had been changed. The latte would be with another blend as the flavours would shine more, and the cappuccino would be with oat milk as their experimentation had proved more successful with such milk.

The drinks arrived, we ordered our food, and sipped tentatively at the coffees. The owner had been right to change our orders. We chatted lazily as the food arrived, handmade and flavoursome. More customers began to walk in, all known faces in the shop, chatting with the owners about the events in their lives and the news from town.

I would have liked to soak in this genteel atmosphere for a while longer but time was ticking on and we wanted to see the cathedral. We happily paid for the service and went out, this time towards the centre. We were stopped by a sweet shop, filling up on favourites and unknowns for the road, before we finally managed to reach the imposing building.

Set over a small park, the cathedral dominates everything around it. Big and bold, it declaims its importance, a centre of power more than a place of worship. I marvelled at the architecture, its features reminding me of religious French architecture. I would have like to go inside but the price of entry was too much for the little time we had left before our parking ticket expired. So we walked away, taking a route through residential streets, observing another part of the city.

We drove on, past Glastonbury and its Tor, and into the Somerset levels. We selected small roads passing between green pastures and yellow rapeseed fields rather than busier arteries filled with cars and lorries.

‘Can we turn back and have a look at that ruin,’ I asked my partner craning my neck to look behind us.

Alone on a hill, stood what looked like the remains of a church. It probably wasn’t much but I wanted to check it out. We weren’t driving for the sole purpose of reaching our destination. Stopping was an integral part of the trip. So we turned back and pulled into the small parking lot by the hill. A signed informed us that the hill was named Burrow Mump and the building on top was the remain of an 18th century church. We climbed the short walk up and were immediately taken aback. Whichever way we turned, we could see for miles, the countryside spreading in every direction, farmed and ploughed. In the far distance, the tower of Glastonbury Tor appeared a dot in the landscape.

‘It’s quite a view, isn’t it?’ A woman had appeared, surprising us by her presence. For a few minutes this mound had been ours, the stronghold of our kingdom.
‘Absolutely,’ we agreed.
Lillian, as she was called, had lived in the area for most of her life. She was actually from the Quantock Hills were we were heading. She gave us tips and told us of the best places to go, knowledge more valuable than the ones from guidebooks. We thanked her, chatted a while longer about legends and stories of the mound, before walking back to the car park together, each on our separate ways.

The land rose and our views become restricted by hills once more as we approached Wiveliscombe. We checked in our accommodation and relaxed for a while before setting on foot to explore the village. Out of the high street, the roads narrowed, gently ascending, while in the distance the hills filled our visions. It was Thursday night and there was barely a soul out. Lights were beginning to shine from house’s window. It was just another week night for most of the population. But not for us. We had been transported to another world, a place of hills and quiet where time slowed. Here, we had time for an evening stroll. Chores didn’t seem urgent and the only reason to walk back was the encroaching darkness and the call of food.

We settled in a corner of a busy family pub and ordered food and drink, scheming for the following day. Reluctant for the evening to end, we ordered another round of drinks and relaxed in our seats. It wasn’t until children high on sugar began to run all over the pub that we retreated to the shelter of our room. Tired from a long day on the road, we slid under the cover and fell asleep.

The next day as we were finishing our breakfasts, a group of men arrived, ordering beer with their food, the start of their Easter celebration. I wondered if their four days week-end was going to be fuelled by alcohol only. I shrugged. I guess we had different ways to celebrate days off from work.

We packed up, paid for our room, and went on our way. We headed for Dunster, taking as many small roads as we could find. Enclosed between high hedges our views were often limited but as soon as they disappeared we were greeted with wide valleys and big hills, the landscape managed but largely inhabited. We passed a sign welcoming us in Exmoor National Park, cars growing rarer until we approached our destination.

We parked and made straight for the tourism office. There we asked for direction to the Giant’s Chair. We had read the name in a leaflet the previous day and it sounded like a nice spot to hike to and we liked the name.

‘You get fantastic views up there. Let me show you on a map.’ She got the relevant one out and began tracing the paths with her fingers. ‘Don’t go this way, this is steep, really steep,’ she commented as she followed the direct line to the hill top. ‘Instead you can go via ducky path or goosey path. They’re more gentle.’ The two paths formed an oval around the hill, a nice loop for an afternoon stroll.

We purchased a small map of the area and set off through the town. In direct contrast with Wells and Wiveliscombe, the town felt devoid of locals, overtaken by tourists and shops to cater for them. Uncomfortable with an apparent falseness to the town, we headed out, following the green lines of the map. Soon we were by an old military churchyard overlooking the sea. We stopped and gazed at the calm waters for a minute, remembering that the sea is never far on the big island of Britain.

We entered the shelter of the woods and left the village behind. A family passed us by, heading for a different path, and we were left alone. We forgot the bustle of the town as we breathed in the freshness of new leaves and dried earth. We climbed gently for a few minutes, the hills beyond hinted at between the branches of the forest. We eventually emerged to find a bench overlooking Minehead and the sea beyond. A couple of horses grazed in a field directly in front of us, unaware of the human activity around them.

We sat down to take in the view. There was no rush to arrive at Giant’s Chair. The family we had encountered at the beginning of our hike passed us by. The father who was storming ahead suddenly came to a halt at the intersection of paths. The mother arrived, silent and unimpressed, while the children trailed behind, arms crossed over their chests and unhappy to be outdoors.

‘Do you need help,’ I asked the man.
He looked at me quizzically. I wanted to laugh at his hesitation. I had clearly just undermined what he considered his manliness.
‘Huh… yeah sure,’ he mumbled glancing briefly at his family.
‘We’re here,’ I pointed out on the map.
‘Yeah, right. It’s fine to go straight, it’ll loop back.’ His eyes were vaguely considering the map, not seeing that to loop back into Dunster you would have to walk quite a bit further away and prolong a walk nobody was enjoying. ‘Thanks,’ he added as if an afterthought and stormed away, his family grudgingly following him.

We lingered for a while, happy not to be part of this family, and sad at the idea that this man was not instilling a joy and curiosity of the outdoors to his children.

We walked on, soon finding our path to the Giant’s Chair. We weren’t even 200 metres above sea level but there was nothing to stop our view from north to south, east to west. The water of the Atlantic merged with the Bristol Channel calmly, the sea a promise of an idyllic summer. Far off, in a haze of blue lay Wales, another land and yet the same. We soon diverted our attention south, where a bench welcomed us and found us cuddling as we forgot the urban world we had come from, gazing at the hills of Exmoor. They rolled out for miles on end, houses, roads, and cars hard to stop in amongst their green.

In spite of our proximity to Dunster, we saw no one of top of that hill. It was only as we began our descent that we met a few dog walkers. Instead of going back through the town, we followed another footpath, losing our ways and finding an exit into a disused quarry turned woodlands by the main coastal road. We just had time for an ice-cream and a cold drink before the parking ticket expired. But it wasn’t time to go home just yet. Instead we crossed Exmoor once more, choosing roads we hadn’t seen, to arrive at Dulverton. Our hunt for a place to eat was unsuccessful but we settled in a pub anyway, sampling the local beer and playing a game of dominoes by the amber of a fire.

Eventually we had to leave, another parking ticket was expiring and it was time to go home. We avoided the motorways as much as possible, navigating a mixture of A roads and B roads, climbing over the Mendips and down again as we rode into Bristol. The roads were familiar but slightly different from having been gone from our sight for a couple of days.

Wales Border Walk: Chepstow to Monmouth

I can’t remember how it began. There were long-distance walks enjoyed and leaving me craving for more. There were people writing about walking the South West Coast Path in stages. There was Quintin Lake taking photos of the whole British coastline. And there was the move to Bristol right next to Wales. This somehow made me yearn to walk the Wales Coast Path. So when I realised I had a whole week-end off at the start of February, it felt natural to embark on the first walk around Wales.

I popped in Stanfords to get a book about it. There were publications about various stages of the walk and a chunky Cicerone guide. I picked the latter up before anyone else could snatch it and was about to pay when another book caught my eye. ‘Offa’s Dyke Path‘ I whispered, reading the title. Instinctively my hand went up and took the book off the shelve. I had heard of this walk, friends and vague acquaintances had followed it. I remembered it involved the Welsh border. So what if I walked the entire Wales Border? After all, this was only adding a 177 miles to my journey around Wales, and it would make a nice loop. Not thinking any further, I went to counter and paid for both items.

But now had a dilemma: which path would I follow first? I knew I was going to start in Chepstow. But would I veer north or west? I thought about tossing a coin or rolling a dice. Instead I checked the weather forecast. North was predicted to be marginally better. So that was it, Offa’s Dyke Path would be the start of my journey around Wales.

On Friday night, I packed my bag, and went to sleep eager for the hours to tick away. Six o’clock came, my alarm rang and I was out of the house to catch a bus. There was no traffic at this hour and the bus soon arrived in Chepstow. The sun had risen by then and I easily made my way out-of-town, half following the Wales Coast Path signs, half following Google Maps. I stopped on a bridge overlooking an A-road but didn’t linger to watch cars go by. Daylights hours were still scarce and I wanted to leave the urban environment. I spotted the familiar acorn of National Trails and followed it through kissing gates and fields.

The grass was cracking under foot, still trapped in a layer of frost. I thought of the camp I would have to make that night and shivered. I had my winter equipment with me, but I knew it would still be a cold night. But now was not the time to think about it, so I brushed the thought aside and walked on. The Severn estuary rolled away to the east with views of England on the other side. But I was more interested in what was going on to the west. I had reached Wintour’s Leap. Perched high in the landscape I overlooked the Wye gorge as the river made its final dash for the sea. A thin layer of mist hung low over the valley as if the landscape was not quite awake yet.

Buildings and tarmac disappeared as I made a turn into the woods. I remained below the dyke for a while and marvelled at the determination and manpower it must have taken to built it. And yet there are no contemporary accounts mentioning it. So its origin and purpose are still enigmatic today but it is generally agreed that Offa, King of Mercia from 757 to 796 ordered its construction. This earthwork formed the boundary between Mercia and the Kingdom of Powys. Even the full length of the dyke is debated. But what is certain is that it marked and still marks the landscape of the borderlands. More than a millennium later, it still passes within a few miles of the current England-Wales border.

I reached the Devil’s Pulpit overlooking Tintern’s Abbey. Legends has it that the Devil preached on the jetting stone to tempt the monks of the abbey. His efforts were wasted as Tintern Abbey became one of the most prosperous in Wales.

‘Admiring the view,’ I heard a man ask me.
‘Yes. It’s quite something,’ I replied. Two men had arrived from the opposite direction.
‘Are you going far,’ the older man enquired upon spotting my bag on the floor.
‘Monmouth. I’m walking Offa’s Dyke Path.’
‘Us too. We started down there,’ the younger man commented as he pointed to Tintern. ‘We’re going to Chepstow.’
I reassured them that the walk was going to be just as good and with a quite a bit of downhill for them. They couldn’t promise the same for me.
I waved them off as they continued on their way and strapped my bag to my back. There were still many miles to go.

I passed a few more groups of people, all wishing me well on my journey, and reached a crossroad. I could go straight ahead across to the Hudnalls or visit Brockweir and continue along the river Wye. I looked at the hills ahead and began walking towards them but soon I backtracked and descended to the river. I had never seen the river Wye but I had heard of it many times. I had read about people walking alongside it and people kayaking on its water. And I wanted to see it. The hills would have to wait.

I stopped for lunch in the village by the Wye. Its water was running fast and I didn’t fancy trying to paddle upstream. I thought about having a nap before walking on but the weather was too cold. I needed to move to keep warm. So I went on along the river, watching its murky water flow in the opposite direction.

I rejoined the main route at Bigsweir Bridge, climbing back to the top of the landscape, and into the woods. It wasn’t so cold under the canopy of trees so when I got hungry again, I stopped to brew a cup of tea. As I sat on a fallen tree, I realised I had not seen another human figure for a while, nor could I hear the sound of traffic or planes. There may have been human activity a few miles from me, but as far as I was concerned I was on my own in the forest. I smiled and enjoyed that cup of tea all the more.

I checked the maps and instructions and realised I wasn’t too far from Redbrook. I hadn’t expected to walk that far but the cold had powered me on with shorter breaks than usual. Maybe I could make it all the way to Monmouth? I brushed the idea aside. I wasn’t that far but there were a lot of ups and downs and I was beginning to feel the weight of the bag on my shoulder.

I packed my stove and walked on under the trees, occasionally crossing a muddy clearing. The brown and green of the ground were highlighted from the rain of the previous week, marking a sharp contrast against the bare canopy over my head. As I reached Highbury Wood, I found the whole of my body and brain drifting into the rhythm of my steps. The bag felt heavier than at the beginning of the walk and I couldn’t find a position that would relieve the pain. There were many spots that called me to stop and set up camp for the night, but it was cold and there were still another couple of hours of daylight. So I walked on, my thoughts obliterated by the pain.

Perched high in the woods, I was faced with a steep descent into Redbrook. Staying upright took all of my concentration, making me forget for a moment the load on my back. I arrived in the village and wondered what to do. There was a welcoming pub just around the corner from the path. A pub with accommodation. I looked at it longingly, a strange figure on the pavement by a park full of children. In the end, I walked away. I had not come to sleep in a bed in Wales. Monmouth was now just under four miles away. I knew that if I reached it I wouldn’t be able to carry on the following day. The guide was quite clear about the scarcity of transport between Monmouth and Haye-On-Wye (which was just a little too far for another day’s walk). This left me with two options: find a spot to spot between Redbrook and Monmouth or walk all the way to Monmouth and catch a bus home. Not wanting to bargain with buses, I checked timetables on my phone. As long as I kept walking there was a good chance I could catch the last bus to Abergavenny and from there hop on a train.

Invigorated by the idea of making it to Monmouth, I found a new spring in my steps. I left Redbrook via a narrow farm path surrounded by fields. I could see further than I had been able to most of the day. A few cars passed me by, people busy gathering chickens and horses waved at me, and a few dog walkers shared an amicable greeting with me. I was not part of their life but I was not an unusual sight either and in that moment I felt part of the general landscape.

The sun began to set, slowly draining the world from its colours. But the progress was slow and I could still see where I was going. I reached the Roundhouse on the Kymin Hill overlooking Monmouth. The buildings were impressive but I didn’t spare much time for them. Not far in the distance, a few miles below me, lay Monmouth illuminated like a starry night on the ground. And further still, I could just make out the contours of the Brecon Beacons. I gazed at them longingly. Ever since I had known I was going to move to Bristol, I have been lurking at the Brecon Beacons, desperately waiting for the weather to change so I would have time to explore them. The light was rapidly fading and I had a bus to catch. So I tore myself away from the sight and walked on. It was all downhill from there and I found myself almost giggling as I half walked, half slid on a muddy woodland path.

I reached a road, and found myself standing by Monmouth sign. I had made it. I had passed a pub a few metres ago and doubtless there would be more in town. And in that moment there was nothing more I wanted but to sit in one with a well-earn pint of ale. I checked my watch to see if I had time. I didn’t. In fact, I had to hurry to the bus station if I didn’t want to miss the bus. I drank some water, pretending this was an ale and walked on to the station. The bus pulled in as I arrived. I hopped in, the sole passenger at this time of day, and the driver took me straight to Abergavenny station where I caught a train home.

Learning Portuguese and other 2017 goals

At the beginning of the year I didn’t make resolutions. I had vague ideas of things I want to achieve in 2017 but I didn’t vow to make them happen. This tends to put too much pressure on me and I end up not sticking to my goals.

So as the new year chimed, I let my ideas simmer and grow over January, finding time for them in my everyday life, seeing what was going to work and what wasn’t.

A month later, I’m happy to report that the goals that truly mattered have been incorporated into my life. Some are still unfulfilled, but I’m holding on to them and hoping to see them come to fruition later in the year.

In no particular order, here is what I’ve been up to:

  • Learn European Portuguese


    I’m making videos about my learning journey. It’s both a way to connect with other learners and assess my progress.
    Follow me on YouTube if that’s of any interest to you.
  • Record a sound every day


    I never planned for this goal, but as I began to take a photo every day, I thought it would be cool to add sounds to the themes. This however proved too difficult and I ended up simply recording random sounds. This is harder than taking a photo every day but I really want to make this happen. It is forcing me to focus on sounds more often, to really listen, and to make full use of my recording equipment. It’s only been a month but I already feel like I’ve learned a lot.
    Follow me on SoundCloud if you never want to miss one of my recordings.

Other goals include setting up a new blog, sharing the sounds and story from my journey through Spain and Portugal, going on a longboard microadventure, walking the West Highland Way with Zoe and Jenni, exploring the areas around my new home, and reading a book by a Portuguese author every month.

Have you set up goals and resolutions for the new year? If yes, how are you doing with them?

Alone on the isle of Hoy

In September 2014 I went cycle touring in Scotland and the Orkney Islands. It was my first cycle touring trip with a tent on the back of the bike. It was also my first time alone in sparsely populated areas where nature was everywhere. This is an account of my first day on the Isle of Hoy.

I stopped the bike and listened. There were no sounds to be heard. The boat was on its way back to the mainland by now. I looked behind me but there was no one to be seen. The few people who had disembarked were gone on other paths. I thought of the young woman I had talked to on deck before the wind carried our words away. She was heading to Rackwick on the west coast of the isle, like me. But I knew I wouldn’t see her here. She was not one for the roads. She was somewhere to my right, walking among the hills.

I looked at the road ahead and shivered. I took my phone out of my pocket. There was no signal. I glanced over my shoulders, tempted to cycle back to the pier. The boat was gone but there had been houses and a road going south, to Lyness where there would be more houses and even a hotel. I got back on the saddle and pushed the bike forwards. I was going to Rackwick.

My heart was thumping hard even though the road was flat. I tried to ignore it and immersed myself in my surroundings. The sky had disappeared behind the fog leaving me alone with the hills. They stood enormous above the ground as if coming from another world and it wasn’t hard to visualise the tales of a giant building this island as he threw lumps of earth around. My legs began to slow and it was difficult to keep a momentum going. I wanted to get to Rackwick and find the safety of the village but at the same time I couldn’t tear my eyes from the hills. They encompassed everything around me and in that instant felt like they were the entire world. And I, I was the only human in it, on a bike with a tent for only shelter and a few scraps of food in a bag. A chill ran through my body and settled in my legs, grinding me to a halt. I knew this was irrational. This was a very small isle, there were people around, and I was not in any danger. But reason was of no use. My frailty was too glaringly obvious between those hills and I had to face it.

‘I’m okay,’ I whispered tentatively. ‘The worst that can happen is a fall from my bike. I wouldn’t break anything.’ I paused, considering. ‘Would I?’ I took a deep breath. ‘No. I wouldn’t. And why would I fall from my bike? Stop being ridiculous and get back on it.’

I obeyed my own order, trying not to let my sudden fear of death take over me. I was starting to fall into a rhythm, the movement of the bike emptying my mind with each pedal stroke, when I saw stones protruding from the hill. I stopped, intrigued. This had to be one of the burial chambers the guide at Maeshowe had talked about. Maeshowe is a Neolithic chambered cairn and passage grave from 2800BC. I had visited it the day before and had learned about death rituals on the Orkney Islands from all those centuries ago when people were deposited into small chambers made of rock. I left my bike by the side of the road and followed the path leading to the grave.

History and legends had been what drew me to the Orkney Islands. All I had know prior to my visit was what the Arthurian legends had taught me, and I knew most of it was lies. I had wanted to find out for myself what those islands were truly like and how people had lived in the time of King Arthur’s legends. What I had found had been more fascinating than I could have imagined. A whole village from ancient times (between 3180 and 2500 BC) had been preserved at Skara Brae, stones circles still laid on the land free for all to visit, and burial mounds littered the ground. Those traces of the past were mostly left on their own, or so lovingly cared for you couldn’t help but feel initiated to their secrets when being guided through them.

This particular tomb (Dwarfie Stane) was a large rectangular slab with a small hole on one side. A smaller rock was placed in front of the hole, obviously carved out of the main block. How did people transport it here when all I could see was peat and heather? How did they carve such a block out of this huge slab? It was unfathomable to my mind. I knew that all those millennia ago, the world had been very different and there had been more people on this isle, but they hadn’t had the technology we have today. Carving a block of stone, and then creating two small chambers within the main block must have taken ages and be a difficult job. What had it meant to them? Why hadn’t they simply buried their loved one in the ground? All those questions remained unanswered as I explored this ancient tomb, sticking my head in the hole, walking around it for signs of runes and modern graffiti, and leaning against the smaller rock watching the circle of white the sun created in the grey clouds. Eventually I walked back to the road and pedalled towards Rackwick, my head full of questions and my fears extinguished for a moment.

As I approached the village, the road divided into a fork. On my right, I could continue uphill towards the village, or I could follow the road for a few more metres before it petered out into a footpath on my left. I wanted to walk to the Old Man of Hoy, a 449 feet high sea stack, and I knew I needed to go right for that but I veered left. I could see a motorhome before the start of the footpath and I was hoping to be able to pitch my tent next to them, but when I reached the vehicle I discovered that the parking area was entirely made of tarmac. Anxiety began to bubble inside of me and once again I forced myself to ignore it. Instead, I pushed my bike through the grass and leaned it against a toilet block before walking down to the beach. There was an old blackened out house at the edge of the sand.

‘You must go to Hoy’s bothy when you’re there.’ The words of the campsite owner I’d stayed at a few days before echoed in my head. This had to be the place she had talked about. It was as she had described it. Magical. A lone house by the sea with a garden plot on the side, it was easy to fall in love with the sight. But all I could feel were my hands trembling and my breath growing shallower. The shelter was only a few metres from the sea, barely raised from its level. What if the weather turned and a storm battered the beach? This was a stupid thought. This house had obviously been on that spot for many winters without being torn to pieces. This was a safe place to be. I knew it but couldn’t reason with my body. So I walked back to the junction and wheeled my bike to the village.

I didn’t know what I was hoping to find, but a hostel wasn’t on the list. I walked to the door, read the notice on it, and phoned the indicated number hoping someone would come to open the locked building for me or let me know where to collect the key. Instead a grumpy woman told me in no uncertain terms that without prior notice the hostel wouldn’t be unlocked but that yes, I could pitch my tent in the garden but that there was a bothy down by the beach. I hummed and agreed, relieved to be allowed to sleep in the garden.

There were a handful of houses around me, and although they were clearly empty I felt safe in their midst. Nothing bad could happen here miles above the sea level and away from the cliff edge. I leant my bike against a wall of the hostel and prepared a snack for the walk to the Old Man of Hoy.

‘Hey!’

I raised my eyes, a little unsettled to hear a human voice I recognised. ‘Hi,’ I replied to the young woman from the boat. ‘How was the walk?’

‘Great. How was the ride?’

‘Great’, I lied not wanting to reveal how scared I had been feeling since disembarking at Linkness.

‘Are you staying at the hostel too?’

‘Not really. They’re closed and when I called the number I was told no one is going to come unlock it as I didn’t book in advance. But you can try. They know I have a tent so probably can’t be bothered to come.’

She dropped her bag to the ground and tried the number but it quickly became apparent that she was receiving the same answer as I did.

‘Well I have my tent if you want. I only have a sleeping mat but if we spread some clothes on the floor I’m sure it’ll be okay and we can open my sleeping bag into a big blanket?’

We agreed this was probably the best course of action as there was no boat leaving the island before the following day. I finished packing my pockets with sweets and went to refill my water bottle from the tap in the shed. As I came out, I noticed a piece of blue plastic sticking from under a flower-pot. I lifted it and found a key ring full of keys.

‘Heather,’ I called from the back of the house. ‘I’ve found keys.’ I run back to the front of the hostel and excitingly inserted one of the keys in the lock. It fitted perfectly and under my command began to turn.

‘Tadam,’ I exclaimed pushing the door wide open. ‘We have a bed for the night.’

We giggled like two school girls and stuffed our bags in the entrance hall before pocketing the keys and setting north in search of the famous sea stack. The village receded behind us, the waves crashed at the bottom of the cliffs, and the wind ruffled our hair, all isolating us in a world shaped and dominated by nature. But I wasn’t scared anymore. I had a bed for the night and a friend by my side. I was alright.

A cycle tour in Kent – Part 02

Catch up with part 01 here.

I stopped the bike as the first hill came into view and dug in my pocket to get my inhaler out. I breathed in the small particles hoping for the best before climbing back in the saddle. My leg spun as fast as they could while the wheels of the bike slowly turned and made their way to the top. My breathing intensified and my heart pumped harder but I remained able to breathe freely. On top of the hill, I dismounted for a moment and looked down smiling. I was still out of shape but at least my chest wasn’t constricted anymore and it was impossible to deny that the climb had been fun. I put my feet on the pedals and pushed the bike forward, the descent carrying me closer to Ashford. The wind blew against my ears, roaring and deafening all other sounds but I didn’t care. I was freewheeling down the road, propelled on the flat at speed, and I had forgotten that I had ever thought of stopping this cycle tour at Ashford. I cycled in and out of the town before lunchtime, barely sparing a glance for its structure of steel and glass.

The sign pointed to a dead-end. I raised an eyebrow but followed it nonetheless, expecting a shared path would appear at the end of the street to take me away from the traffic. But Sustrans had other ideas. Before I could reach the first houses, the familiar sign pointed up a hill. I looked doubtfully at the path. This was not a road. This was a steep muddy footpath. I checked the sign but there was no indication that it had been dislodged. I pushed the bike up, carried it through two kissing gates and found myself at the edge of a wood, fallen leaves littering the undulating ground.

‘This is not a bike path Sustrans,’ I stated a little apprehensive of what was to come. I was not in the habit of taking to muddy footpath with a bike, especially not when the land wasn’t flat and I only had the front break partially working. ‘Oh well… let’s do it.’ There was no point in turning back. A forest path would always beat a busy road, even if I had to walk most of the way. I climbed on the bike and went on. The wheels turned surprisingly easily on the leaves and I gained confidence that this path would be alright. I stopped at Catha’s seat for a while and admired the views. Green fields were surrounded by brown skeletal trees. I could only imagine what this view would be like when everything was in bloom. I made a mental note to come back and check in springtime.

Back on the saddle, I was soon confronted with my first real downhill. I breathed in deeply, checked the brake a couple of time and let go. The bike went down and my adrenaline shot up. It was going fast, too fast. I applied pressure on the brake as the first bend appeared in the distance but the wheels slipped below me and I barely avoided a fall. I released the brake and focused entirely on the path in front of me, hoping nobody was walking their dog as the bike kept shooting down and I was utterly out of control, unsure of how I remained on the saddle through all the bumps and bends. But I did and eventually the road flattened out. My heart was pounding as I rejoined the road but I was grinning from ear to ear happy to have made it in one piece.

Canterbury came and went, its cathedral looming in the distance, as the Sustrans signs numbers changed from 18 to 1. I had no interest in cycling towards John O’Groats although the signs told me I was on my way. I was after the Crab and Winkle way. It had been a route I had often thought about, its name creating a whirlwind of pictures in my mind. I smiled at the sign and took a picture of it, proof that I had finally met up with this path. I must have looked odd among the other walkers and cyclists that day. They were all on a commute back home and I was excited like a child at Christmas. The way left traffic behind and took me between fields on muddy paths and forest trails. I considered stopping for the day but there was still daylight in the sky and I wanted to hear the sea. So I cycled on and rejoined the road at the outskirt of Whitstable. I headed straight for the beach, sparring no glance to my surroundings until I was sat on a bench by a small pebbles beach. The sun was falling fast below the horizon and I started to think of bed again. Sleeping on a beach has long been an item on my microadventure list but my body was aching and I was still undeniably very tired. Maybe I could find a hotel or B&B before settling for the beach. This cycle tour wasn’t about spending 24 hours outdoors but about fun. And I didn’t want to start the third day in a haze, pedalling only for the sake of it. So I went to the tourist office and found myself a warm room for the night.

It was just before 10am when I left the B&B and got back on the bike. As I found the cycle path that would lead me to the Viking CoastalTrail, I was happy with my decision not to have wild camped the night before. I felt refreshed and ready to tackle the sea wind.

I pedalled onwards on the concrete promenade by the seaside and reflected on the oddness of British people. It had always struck me as odd to meander so close to the beach and yet not to enjoy the clink of the pebbles under your shoes, and a paddle in the water no matter how cold. I quickly forgot the thought as my gaze got lost at sea, watching massive ships standing still in the water. There was a long line of them and I couldn’t help imagine a traffic light some miles off showing bright red. I was glad to be on solid ground with a path mostly to myself and no red lights in sight.

I continued on, feasting my eyes on the landscape and quickly reached Reculver where the Viking Coastal Trail began. Huge cliffs rose to my left and I was left alone with the sea. I slowed my pace to better watch the waves crash on the wall on which I was cycling knowing that soon the sea would not be my own any longer. The seaside resorts of Margate and Broadstairs were looming around the corner and I knew they would bring their share of houses, high-rise buildings, and mansions. I ignored the resorts, their shops, restaurants, and amusements parks desolate under the grey sky of December. The wind picked up and I battled my way into Ramsgate. I was surprised not to be greeted by arcades and tacky shops. Instead it looked like a normal town and I felt compelled to stop. There was still plenty of daylight left but this ride had been good enough. I was content, my stress completely shed away, and I was now happy to go back to my flat in London. But there was still one thing to do before finding the train station. I wanted an ice-cream. There was something about the seaside that demanded of me that I eat ice-cream. So I hunted the streets for an open shop, got myself a scoop of vanilla a scoop of pistachio before going back to the beach. I pushed my bike to the water’s edge and sat in the sand, ice-cream in hand.