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.

A 2016 retrospective

When I look back over 2016, I cannot deny that my trip to the Iberian Peninsula dominates my mind. I spent nearly six months away from home and the memories I created during this time are still vivid, feeling indelible. But 2016 wasn’t just about fulfilling my dream of cycle touring for longer than a week. It was filled with many other outings and experiences.

January

The plan was to go to Reading and cycle towards Bristol following Sustrans cycle route 4 along the Kennet and Avon canal. I was going to meet up with Pete whom I had last seen in September and we would make a week-end out of it. Only, Pete wasn’t feeling too well and I missed my train to Reading and found myself in Windsor instead. What followed was a very enjoyable winter day ride.

February

The ferry to France that marked the beginning of my cycling escapade was booked for late February, so my partner and I took the opportunity of left-over annual leave to book some time away. We ended up in Lyme Regis, enjoying long walks by the seaside and on the cliffs, retreating to a cosy B&Bs when night fell.

March
untitled-2

My journey into the Iberian Peninsula began. Nothing was going according to plan. The weather was colder and wetter than expected, I got sidetracked from the Camino del Norte almost on the first day of it, and I ended up cycling in Spain for almost a month. But it all worked out for the best and those guys are the perfect illustration of it. They invited me for some coffee as I was waiting for the shops to open and we got chatting. They extended their invitation to their home for the night. We took the train to their place only to find out that the wife of one of the guys was not up for it. I ended up in Bilbao after another train ride where I met a man who led me to a hostel, saving me the struggle of finding it in the dark.

April
resize_P1100761

I was finally in Portugal, the weather was brightening up, and I was discovering the most beautiful region of Portugal: the Alentejo (I may be extremely biased). I spent my time cycling under the sun, devouring Alentejo bread (that rivals French bread), eating freshly caught fish and amazing sausages accompanied by hand-picked vegetables. All while hopping from dam to dam sleeping by peaceful lakes in the company of other travellers.

May
resize_P1120343

In May I discovered the joy of Warmshowers.org, frequently getting kidnapped by my hosts and learning more about the Portuguese way of life. This was also a time when I struggled with the fact that I was on my own and the company of strangers became essential to my well-being. Meeting the family pictured above was a blessing. They had been cycling from Morocco and were heading home (Belgium) via France and the UK. We spent a week cycling together and it undeniably became one of my fondest memory of the year.

June
resize_P1120398

I was back in France, cycling long hours of flat straight roads in the Landes region to meet up with my father at the estuary of the Gironde river. It was almost Summer and although the weather wasn’t always up to it, the landscape certainly was with its long, long stretches of forest, immaculate beaches and lakes. It was idyllic. And so was the company of other cycle tourists.

July
resize_P1120558

My partner came to France and we spent an unforgettable two weeks travelling between family members and city escapes. There were barbecues on an almost daily basis with beers, wine, and cocktails (and even a bottle of Champagne once). There were long swims and games in the pool. There were football matches and long hikes with my niece and nephew. But most of all there was the sun and long hours shared with my partner, my bicycle gathering dust in a shed at my grandparent’s home.

August
There is no record of August.

I was back in the UK and finally took the time to go through everything I’d recorded and photographed while away. But I didn’t stay cooped up inside. I made the most of the British summer and cycled to Bristol from London (and back) to be re-united with the Belgian family on wheels. I also made my first friends in Bristol, cycled 100 miles as it if was nothing for the first time, and enjoyed being alive and free for a little while longer before the struggle of house viewings and job hunting began.

September

I met up with Jonathan and we set off to walk the 1066 Country Walk, reacquainting me with my walking boots and the English countryside. The sun was still shining and I was full of optimism for what lay ahead.

October

I ended up in Wales sleeping in my tent once more for the #OutdoorBloggers week-end. There were new friends and the crackling of the fires, a long hike up Snowdon and nature all around. I was being reminded of what mattered in life. The strain of modern life and bills had led me to accept a job I barely tolerated. The week-end was all I needed to hand in my resignation.

November
31174864866_600dd499c3_h

This was the lowest I had ever been this year. Landlords kept turning us down, job interviews didn’t work out (and the feedback was never helpful), and money was running low. I spent long hours on my longboard, the focus needed to acquire new skills obliterating every thoughts from my mind. But however long I stood on that board, I always needed to come home, to check e-mails, to apply for jobs, to arrange for viewings. But it wasn’t all doom and gloom. My partner took me away for a much needed break in Sussex. We followed Constable’s footsteps and discovered Colchester, making me forget about everything else for a week-end.

December
screen-shot-2016-12-28-at-12-40-11

Not much outings other than walks and rides on Bristol many footpaths and cycleways. So I will only copy what I wrote a few days earlier on Instagram:

Five carefree months on the road when money was no issue (so little was needed, it could be earned easy enough). Four months struggling to find a job when money was a constant struggle (what with rent and food and transport to interviews). And finally today when I receive the first pay check of my new job (well-earned and much appreciated). This year has seen many ups and downs (literal and metaphorical) and I am grateful to end the year on a positive note. A new life lies ahead of me and to celebrate its beginning I treated myself to churros at the Christmas market. It felt overly indulgent and I savoured every last bit of it.

I hope your year was as good as mine but with less emotional roller-coaster.
Feel free to drop links of your best posts and 2016 retrospective. I’ve missed a lot while away and I’m really enjoying discovering what you’ve been up in the first half of the year.

And finally, as a little thank you if you’ve made it this far into the post, a collage of sounds from this year. This track includes sounds from my trip in the Iberian Peninsula, a little sneak peak of what’s to come in 2017.

Visit SoundCloud for a full description of the track.

Walking the 1066 Country Walk

A month ago, I received a message from Jonathan (from In Which I). We’ve been in touch regularly via our blogs but it was the first time we’d chatted through e-mails. His message went something like that:

’Are you a walker? We’re planning to walk all of the 1066 Country Walk on 10-11 September over two days.’

I did not hesitate when I read that line and replied that I would be more than happy to tag along. Ever since coming back home from my recent cycle tour, I have been meaning to go on a walk. I had gone as far as cleaning up my walking boots. They were still dirty from the Lyke Wake Walk. And that had been almost a year ago. I had missed the slow pace of my feet and the amount of details that come to life from this mode of transportation.

1066 directions

river

On Saturday 10th of September, Jonathan, Dan and me departed from Pevensey train station, quickly exciting the village to venture into the flatlands of Pevensey levels. The sky was hidden behind a cover of grey clouds choked up with rain but I did not worry. The weather people had assured us it would remain dry until mid-afternoon. Our stride was light and eager as we followed the green line on the map more than the signs. We talked a lot and without us noticing a couple of hours had passed. It was easy to walk.

But soon the hills began. We stopped on a bench in a churchyard for a break, filling ourselves with snacks to power us on. Above the field by the cemetery a crow and a kestrel engaged in an air pursuit, the bigger of the two intent on chasing the other one away. We watched them until they became two ball points in the distance, and we couldn’t distinguish which bird was which.

cemetery

map checking

We rose from the bench and went on. We passed Herstmonceux castle, the Observatory Science Centre, and a lone trig point, an odd sight at such a low altitude. We entered a forest, our bodies shadowed by a canopy of leaves and emerged by a very orderly brown field.
‘It’s like a zen garden,’ Jonathan commented.
I had to admit it was impressive. Tidy lines zigzagged throughout, the patterns changing at regular intervals. I couldn’t even spot a wheel track anywhere. I let my eyes rise to the top of the field where the earth stopped and the clouds began. I knew there was a slope on the other side but from the bottom of the rise, I could easily ignore it and pretend the field stopped where my gaze did. I smiled at the simple vision. I would have never found it if not for this walk. I snapped a picture, backing up my mental memory into the digital one of my camera.

zen field

The hills became steeper and I was surprised at how well my legs were taking it. I knew walking and cycling did not engage the same muscles but my body seemed to fair well. I silently hoped it would remain so. There were still many miles to go. But first we stopped for tea under the watchful eyes of cows.

tea time

curious cow

Lunch followed soon after. We were over halfway into our route for the day. As we packed away what we had not eaten, I braced myself for the afternoon dip I usually encounter when walking. But it did not come. Instead of my world narrowing down into pain and boredom, it expanded and I noticed every details of our surroundings. A bee was nestled in between John Dowie apples. Blackberries sprouted on bushes everywhere, their juices melting in my mouth as I pressed them against my palate. The breeze sent ripples through the high grass, their blades rubbing my black trousers. Flowers still shone defiantly in spite of the turn of the season. And we were walking in the middle of it all, words and ideas easily flowing between us.

apples and bee

flowers

And before I realised it we had crossed a road and found ourselves by Great Park Farm shop and café, a couple of miles from Battle, our end point for the day. We sat down for tea outside. And the rain began to fall. We huddled closer, trying to fit under the sun shades that were now used as umbrellas, and drank our teas safe and dry. But one of the sun shade had other ideas in mind and dropped a puddle of water over Dan.
The waitresses came around to clean the tables and it was time to go. The rain had petered out into a drizzle but still we put on our rain coats and climbed one last hill for the day before taking off our boots. My legs were still good but I knew better than to trust my body and began to stretch my muscles. There was still 15 miles to walk the following day.

tree trunk portal

The next day I awoke with the sun. I rolled over in my bed and glanced out of the window. There was a blue sky. I got off bed and eagerly made my way downstairs. My legs felt stiff but I ignored them. I hoped that once we got going, the muscles would relax and forget the miles of the day before. Boots on and snacks packed, we met up with friends and set off to Rye.

group walking

We excited Battle via the Great Wood and soon found ourselves in the middle of a golf course. Balls flew to the clacking sound of metal against plastic, but I paid them little attention. I was too busy chatting away with new friends, getting to know one another. Conversation flowed and it felt great to be sharing this walk with other people on such a beautiful day. It was summer again and my worries about job hunting, interviews, and money melted away.

grass and tree island

lone tree

A lone swing hung from a tree. ‘You want a go at it, don’t you?’ Jonathan said looking at me. I couldn’t resist the smile growing on my lips. ‘Oh yes.’ I admitted and climbed onto the seat sending my legs in the air and leaning into the air flow. There was nothing to do but enjoy that simple moment of joy. So I did.

jonathan swing

We left the sheltered footpath we had been following for an open field. The sun heat fell on us and we took a break to hydrate and shed some layers of clothes. I could have easily taken a nap but there were many more miles to go. I took another swig at my water bottle and marched on with the group. The hills began and we promised Peter that they were all actually flat or downhills rather than uphill. I wished that had been true. My calves began to hurt as we ascended and I found myself stretching at every opportunity hoping it would help the muscles. It mostly didn’t but it wasn’t difficult to ignore the pain. The sun was shining bright, I was in good company, and summer felt like it would never end.

many paths

going uphill

Paths spread out in front of us as we climbed down yet another stile. We poured over the map trying to find the right way. Everybody seemed to have their idea as to which route to take and we spread out over the hill, all trying to find the next way marked post. Jonathan had picked the right path and we all converged towards him, past a farm, past a pub, and into a field where we stopped under the shade of a line of trees for lunch.

lunch time

More hills followed and led us to a trig point. It still felt too low for one but at least we had climbed a hill and the view spreading out in front of us was worth a stop and a photo. Square of greens joined yellow ones, with the occasional brown and white dots of cows and sheep. And everywhere trees clustered in small woods or borderlands between the fields. Above it all, the sky was baby blue, trails of translucent clouds like paint brushes on canvas.

view

view

The afternoon slumber didn’t come that day either, and it was with high spirits that we approached Winchelsea where we had promised ourselves a pub break. But before entering the town, Jonathan got stung by a wasp, sending a ripple of panic through our group with his cries of ‘Get of me! Get of me! Get of me!’. Luckily, he wasn’t allergic and the sting hasn’t been deep. He was able to walk on.

We stopped at the pub for a well-deserved break and sipped our drinks with relish, their freshness a welcome relief from the hill climbs, and the alcohol soothing to our aches and pains. I could have happily remained on the bench watching the light of day dim into night but we were not at our final destination yet.

pub break

We strapped our backpacks on once more and walked out of the village and met up with Dumb’s Woman Lane before leaving it for the gentler ground of a footpath. The sun was at our back, its warmth fast disappearing. I gave it a silent thanks for the day it had given us and walked on. Houses began to appear and it hit me that we must have reached Rye. ‘Is that Rye?’ I asked Jonathan unsure of myself. I couldn’t quite believe that the day was already coming to an end. There had been two miles to walk from Dumb’s Woman Lane and somehow it didn’t feel like we had done two miles since then. ‘Yes, it is.’ He confirmed. So that was it. We had walked the 1066 Country Walk and it was time to go home.

sign

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.

A cycle tour in Kent – Part 01

‘Great,’ I uttered in annoyance as a strip of red on the computer screen told me the train I needed to catch to Kent would be delayed. I had planned to be in Tunbridge Wells before lunch time so I could have cycled out of it and be in the countryside to eat my sandwich. But this was obviously not going to happen. Frustrated, I shut down my laptop and finished packing my panniers as slowly as I could. Daylight was getting scarce and I didn’t really want to cycle at night but this train delay was giving me no choice. Panniers closed I brought them downstairs to the bike. I was ready to go. I looked at the bike. I have been riding on it for a few months now and it had lost its new shine. It was my bike with its scratches and dirty light reflectors on the spokes. I smiled at the idea of riding it for another destination than work in a long time and felt my annoyance vanish. I had three days cycling ahead of me. What did it matter if I was going to arrive in Tunbridge Wells a couple of hours later than planned? Eating my lunch in a train carriage wouldn’t be as scenic as on the top of a Kentish hill but then eating lunch on a hill was hardly the point of this small cycle tour.

The last time I had been on a microadventure had been almost two months ago. I had let November slip by without going out and enjoy the outdoors on the pretext that I had been too busy with work and other travels. I now realised how rubbish that excuse had been. I had just been too lazy to take a train out of London bound for the English countryside, and I was paying for it now. That previous week I had been on edge, work had become little more than a chore, receiving people had turned into a burden, and I was feeling tired all the time. I needed time out, time for myself traipsing about in the countryside.

I disembarked at Tunbridge Wells station two hours later than I had planned and headed straight for the hills. Within twenty minutes, I had left the busy roads behind and was cycling along small lanes that couldn’t fit two vehicles side by side. I rode past empty orchards, deserted farms, and private mansions. With each hill my breath caught in my throat and I felt my heart pumping too fast as I tried to familiarise myself with the bike gearing system. I cursed myself for not having done more exercise those last few weeks. I was out of shape and what should have been a relaxing ride was turning into an uncomfortable burn in my chest.

As dusk fell, I was happy to find myself at the edge of Bedgebury forest. It was the perfect excuse not to ride through the dark and set camp early. I freewheeled between the trees, my heart and breath resting for a while. On my right giant pine trees rose above a small lake. It looked idyllic from the road but somehow this part of the forest was fenced off. I pulled on the brakes at the sight of a gate. There was a sign announcing that this was the Pinetum at Bredgebury. I pushed the bike through the muddy path behind the gate and laid it to rest against a small toilet block. I locked a wheel, more out of habit than fear of theft. There would be no one to steal my bike in a deserted pinetum. I scampered down to the lake guided by my head torch and thought of setting camp by the picnic table. I could have breakfast with a view. But for the moment I meandered further in this tree refuge, the effort of walking on a flat terrain resting my lungs.

P1050709

Houses appeared in the distance and I could see lights behind glass windows. I went back on my steps not wanting to attract any attention. I walked past the lake and again thought of setting camp by it but when I reached the toilet block another idea occurred to me. It was supposed to rain that night and although I had my tarp with me, it would be infinitely easier to just sleep in the toilet block. I checked the time. It was only five o’clock. I decided to give it until six before unpacking everything. If there was a warden, surely they wouldn’t tour the pinetum after that time on a dark winter evening. I settled among the trees with some nuts to nimble on and began to read.

A couple of chapters later I found it difficult to ignore the grumbling of my stomach and decided it was time to empty my panniers. I pushed the ladies’ door open, pushed the bike in and one by one I unclipped the panniers. I laid out the sleeping mat, shook the sleeping bag, and began to sort out some food for the evening. As I dug into one the pannier’s pocket for my plastic spoon, my fingers came to rest against my inhaler. I took it out and shook my head. This had been why the climbs had sent my heart pumping so hard within the first pedal stokes. I had known my asthma had grown worse this past year, but I still had the same careless attitude towards it. It had never been so bothersome as to make riding a difficult affair in the English hills. I put it away in my jacket pocket so I wouldn’t forget it the following day and went back into the pannier for the spoon. I was too hungry to dwell upon my stupidity.

Dinner eaten and dishes washed, I settled into my sleeping bag with my book but I only managed to read a couple of pages before falling asleep. I awoke to the sound of rain hitting the metal roof and the wind sending leaves and twigs against the concrete floor outside. I felt glad to be indoors on such a night and went back to sleep. The next time I opened my eyes, it was morning. It was still dark outside but most people were already out of bed. I ate a quick breakfast and packed everything as quick as I could, not wanting to be discovered in the toilet. My body ached with tiredness and I barely managed to suppress a yawn as I climbed on the bike. Riding away from the pinetum I considered stopping my cycle tour early that day, the memories of the previous day’s pain still vivid in my mind.

Read part 02 here.