1st July 2016.
THE ENGLISH PROLOGUE.
It was a later than planned start rolling out of Old Mill House under a cloudy sky and with a clouded mind. A number of loose ends had to be tied up, and as it was only Friday, the working week wasn’t over yet for everyone else. It was only once I’d waved Mum off, clipped into my left pedal and freewheeled down the drive, turned left for the Common and started pedalling away that I felt a small sense of relief – I’d finally left. What seemed like it had been months in the planning and anticipation was here at last, although in reality it had been a very last-minute plan hatched on a whim and a crazy idea.
Setting out on home roads, the long steady ascent onto Woodbury Common and my favourite road sweeping down into the delightful Budleigh Salterton,through Otterton and on to Sidmouth, my legs were on autopilot. They felt fresh and primed, as I hadn’t ridden at all that week apart from an intense chain-gang session in Bristol on the Monday evening. I wasn’t daunted by the 100-mile route, it’s something I’ve done maybe ten times before in various parts of the country whether on a sportif, with a club, solo and whether fairly flat or rather hilly, and knowing that I had all day to enjoy it took away the pressure too.
What I was daunted by was the climb out of Sidmouth, Salcombe Hill, number twelve on Simon Warren’s ‘100 Climbs’. It’s a deceptively tricky one, with a bank heading straight up out of Sidmouth town, then twisting up through the trees at a relentless average gradient of 13% but kicking up to 20% max over the 1.2km ascent.The first time that I’d attempted it on my first year of road biking in 2014 I’d got halfway up and had to cling on to dear life to a stile at the side of the road as I just couldn’t unclip on that gradient and legs couldn’t give any more. The next time I conquered him, when I hijacked the Wiggle ‘Ex-terminator’ and determined not to give up in front of all of those blokes. I tacked up the hill, zig-zagging furiously as some chaps were dismounting and starting to push, I tried not to show how much I was suffering. Wearing a Royal Navy jersey, one cheered after me, commenting that ‘I should know all about tacking’ assuming that I was a sailor, how wrong he was! Since then I rode it at Easter 2015 and this year took some friends up over Salcombe Hill for my birthday weekend, each time being slightly easier and having to ‘tack’ a little less.
However today I had an extra 3.5kg on the wheels, packed into my new Alpkit Koala saddlebag, and not having ridden with it before I was nervous about how I might fare on this less than forgiving climb. It was the only doubt that I had in my mind about the whole trip – although admittedly work and life on the whole had been so manic lately that I’d barely had time to prepare for the tour let alone consider what might be my downfall! The thrill of beating the hill once again, but this time with the added weight was fantastic, testament to my legs getting stronger and stronger – I cheered to myself in delight as the incline eased at the top at the Norman Lockyer Observatory.
The next part of my route was also familiar through some the most beautiful coastal villages that there are – Branscombe and Beer. Branscombe is a long descent down along the narrow lane towards the sea, passing chocolate-box cottages nestled in the steep, lush green valley, it really is the gem of Devon. A tourist honeypot and traffic nightmare in the summer, today it was a breeze rolling down to the centre. There’s a sharp left at the bottom of the hill which rises up steeply as you climb the bank out of the village, by now the sun creeping out from behind the clouds and heating the road, making the climb that bit warmer. The narrow lanes then twist down into Beer, the gorgeous seaside village that I adore for crab sandwiches at Ducky’s on the pebble beach. No time today, again climbing out of the village continuing to head East along the Jurassic Coastline, the rich red cliffs a signature of this part of East Devon.
Branscombe will always be the Jewel of Devon – a long lane of chocolate box cottages in the steep banked lush green valley winding down to the sea, such a beautiful place and easy to get romantic about #Branscombe #devon #heavenindevon #swisbest #southwestisbest #tourdemanche #katherinesgranddepart @devoncycling
The descent into Seaton was good fun as always, and riding along the front by the sea I soon learned that with the added weight and ballast of the Alpkit bag, Enzo was much more stable and riding no-handed was suddenly an option again, or at least I could attempt to! A quick stop for a cereal bar to fuel my onwards travel and an encounter with a local seagull and I went on. Heading North out of the sleepy seaside town, I was suddenly on unfamiliar lands, out of previously explored East Devon territory and really, the adventure started here. For me, there’s nothing quite like discovering somewhere new, exploring the unfamiliar, unearthing new gems or awesome roads to ride.
My first bit of company on the trip at Seaton, it would be feathered wouldn't it. Hoping next time for someone who can hold a decent conversation about bikes and doesn't just want me for my cereal bars… #seaton #devon #tourdemanche #southwestisbest #katherinesgranddepart #seagullsofinstagram #alpkit
The landscape changed from tourist-orientated coastal villages on short, steep climbs and red rock to high-banked country lanes and rolling lush green fields, passing through quiet, quaint villages. Heading East again and enjoying the tailwind, I passed through the town of Axminster and soon moving into Dorset, where the placenames become very entertaining; Monkton Wyld, Wooton Fitzpaine, Whitchurch Canonicorum and Dottery! Feeling peckish and being around midway there, I diverted into Bridport in search of something for lunch. Leakers Bakery was the perfect place, just on the high street serving lovely homemade bakes, their ‘deliciously dorset’ hot pasty went down very well and a pecan and maple flapjack to load into the jersey pocket only came to a total of three pounds. The sun was out in full force by now and lit up the pretty town high street a treat.
Back out to the country lanes, I continued East along the Bride Valley, passing through the gorgeous estate at Little Bredy. A short sharp climb out of the valley took me up to the Hardy Monument, with spectacular views down to the coast and back inland across this spectacular county. At this moment the temperature started to drop as the clouds let out a little drizzle, so it was on with the Castelli showerproof which offered good relief from the changing weather. As soon as I had descended down over the other side of the monument, the roads were dry again, so it seemed like that was reserved only for the highest point.
The next large town was Dorchester, the capital of Dorset, and I enjoyed noseying around the new town of Poundbury on my way in, with the mix of architecture and new shops and services opening up there. Between Dorchester and Wareham I met a chap cycling an entry-level road bike in my direction so we got chatting, he was a PE teacher in Dorchester starting to do the commute by bike rather than by train. He was obviously physically fit but lacked bike experience, so I made it my mission to convince him to; a. buy some clip-in shoes, and b. enter a sportive. Who knows, in a year’s time he could be just as hooked as me…
After pushing hard for ten or fifteen miles to keep up with this new acquaintance, I let him go on as I stopped in Wareham to refill my bidon. I’d only brought one old one with me with the intention of buying new ones out in France but I soon realised it was foolish only having one 600ml flask for a 100 mile ride. A quick refill and an emergency diet coke to quench my thirst and I went on to enter a more suburban area into Poole and then into Bournemouth as I navigated the main roads looking for my place for the night.
I reached Anne-Marie and Mike’s house in Kinson at 6pm, just as they were getting home too. They welcomed me in, as well as Enzo which I was very pleased about. It was a relaxed, low-key evening after a shower, kitwash and grabbing some food in the local supermarket to rest ahead of the early start tomorrow. The tan lines were off to a good start already and I hadn’t even left the country. Relieved that I’d managed the first stage solo and made it to Bournemouth, I was starting to really relax and let myself get excited about the adventure that was about to unfold in the morning…