You might not have heard of Brixham — it’s a tiny fishing village on the south coast of Devon. There’s no railway station there, no way to get there other than by car or bus. It’s 270 miles away from where I live. I’m going there because that’s where my sailing trip departs from, and I’ve decided to cycle.
I could easily get a train to Paignton and take a taxi for the remaining five miles, and I could be there in 5 hours. My journey is going to take four days.
Why am I doing this? The forecast for the next couple of days is for snow. I can barely lift the rear wheel of my trusty Ridgeback tourer from the floor, now that everything I need for three months of sailing has been strapped to the back. I could, instead of struggling with my fully-loaded bicycle solidly for several hours a day, be enjoying lazy mornings with cups of tea. But I love riding my bicycle. I love being able to get anywhere I want to just by riding it. I will be living every inch of the journey, reliant only on myself, breathing great lungfuls of country air, getting to know the country that I live in a little bit better.
Day one, and I’m sitting on a bridge on the Thames eating my lunch. The river stretches out towards London ahead of me, Windsor castle sits on the hill to my right, and I’m grinning from ear to ear. I’ve been here a couple of times before, on a train from London, and I love the fact that I just cycled here from my house. The route wound its way through the Hertfordshire countryside, skirting London on the Grand Union Canal, and following an abandoned railway line through Rickmansworth. I’ll soon be riding through Windsor Great Park, past the grandiose Ascot racecourse, and onwards to my aunt’s house in a small Hampshire village. The wind is pushing me along at a fantastic rate and I’m enjoying every minute.
Day two is colder, and further, but I’m still glad to be on my bike, even though by the time I reach my destination my feet are blocks of ice. I pass through Winchester, a charming town with attractive architecture that I’ve never visited before, where two policemen give me directions. “You’re heading for Poole?! And with all that luggage?!” They are impressed that I can haul my load up the steep streets in the town. I cross the top of Southampton Water and meander down through the New Forest. A horse tries to eat my apple. I’m surrounded by scrub and endless woodland. I reach Christchurch and can soon see the vast expanse of the ocean at the end of a lane. I excitedly race towards it, hurtling from the cliff top to sea level, following the wide sweep of Bournemouth Bay towards Poole harbour, my bike allowing me exclusive access to the seafront.
On day three the hills really kick in. It’s an 85 mile ride to Exeter, and my choices are the roaring and exposed A35, where the gusting wind repeatedly knocks me onto the grass verge, or the winding country roads, which are much preferable, but longer and hillier. I cross the Dorset/Devon border, following an endless incline into Axminster, promising myself that I’ll reach the top before the song on my iPod finishes. Three tunes later I am still struggling against the gradient. By the time I reach the town I’m sobbing a little, exhaustion getting the better of me. All I can see ahead of me are more hills. I find the station and take the train for the last ten miles to Exeter, and I don’t regret it in the least.
On day four the sun shines and the flat canal-side cycle path from Exeter to Dawlish is an absolute joy. From there it’s a short 15 miles along the coastal road to Brixham. The views across Torbay are stupendous. I ride down to Brixham Marina and meet the people I will be sailing with for the next three months. “Have you just cycled here?!” they ask. I am smiling widely as I say “Yes.”
When I arrived at my aunt’s house she had asked me “Why do you punish yourself? I would have given you the train fare!” But it wasn’t about that — I simply wanted to ride my bike. It had turned a five-hour journey into a four-day expedition, and an adventure to remember.
Anna Hughes works as a cycle trainer and mechanic in London. In 2011 she cycled the 4000 mile coastline of the UK, and is currently on a sailing adventure also round Britain. She is soon to publish her first book about her bicycle adventure.
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