It was 0845. A goldfinch fluttered across the road in front of me. This was followed by a bullfinch, buzzard, Jenny wren and a yellowhammer that sat atop a hedge singing its song: ‘little bit of bread and no cheese.’ As I approached it flew away leaving me smiling with joy. I had cycled less than 5 km at this point and the world seemed to be welcoming me with open arms to this new and exquisitely warm day. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky but I was banking on a sea breeze before lunchtime, to keep me cool as I cruised along the coast towards Barnstaple.
From my house, there are several ways to get to the Tarka Trail. You can simply ride the 5 km to Meeth and meet it there. This route has a long steep hill and sharp bends, where you are vulnerable to fast moving traffic on a relatively narrow stretch of road. The second route leads you away from Hatherleigh in a big loop, adding several kilometres to the distance to Sheepwash, a change to National Cycle Network route 27 that’s a source of constant annoyance for me. The third, and the direction I took, is more direct in getting to Sheepwash but has three unreasonable hills, whatever the time of day you face them, regardless of direction of travel. This was the route I chose to ride, mostly because it had the least traffic and the prettiest views. If I made all the hills without distress, it’s a good sign for my riding and fitness in general.
Now I’m sure you all know that I’m not a morning person. I can do mornings but only by shutting my mind and its protestations away and just getting on with it, without thinking. And that’s how it was today. I got up, showered, ate and prepared, leaving the house at 0815. Kermit (my trike) was shocked. He hadn’t seen me this keen for over a year. To be honest, I had no idea what had changed over the last few weeks, but something obviously had. My mind, so often jelly-like and unclear or clouded and anxious in the mornings, just accepted its fate without complaint.
The real joy of an early start is that, short of farmers, there will be practically nobody around at all and the peace that seeps into your bones feels completely unblemished. The bir
moaned and nothing complained at all. It was a big effort, but that was it. Watching the buzzard circling high above me, it seemed to get smaller and smaller as the thermal in which it flew lifted it away and out of sight. Shut away in these steep-sided little lanes I felt similar, a stealth cycle rider, the only give away my bright orange flag that stood up and stood out for all to see.
For twenty kilometres I saw nobody else, just one car that passed in the opposite direction. As I tore down the hill to pick up the Tarka Trail at Petrockstowe, everybody seemed to be sleeping still, aside from one wee chap, who along with his grandfather, was exploring the hedges and flowers. He broke into the broadest smile as I pelted past waving frantically as I went. Crazy downhill machine, Kermit. I just cruised the lanes between the high hedges and slipped along without fuss or apparent effort. Now that was a refreshing change.
The Tarka Trail is always a joy. Today it seemed almost entirely void of life. I saw only four cyclists between Petrockstowe and Barnstaple (35 km away), and Sim, the owner of Orchard Café, who kindly held the gate open for me. The tall vegetation that lined the trail left me feeling like a tiger stalking in the long grass. I’m sure it could do with a trim, the trail seems quite narrow in places, but being long, it harboured many butterflies and other flying beasties. Without the need to think or navigate and with no thoughts about anything of any real value, I continued along the trail making crunching noises as Kermit’s tyres rolled over the loose, dry, surface. Mindfulness personified.
It was blissful to be able to rattle along without a thought for others. The further I went the more I became absorbed in the surrounding vegetation and nature. It didn’t matter that I had cycled this way a thousand time before, because today something precious was afoot, something unusual that you should grab with both hands while it lasts. Today was a day when I felt glad to be alive and not one where I questioned whether I still was. Every moment was therefore precious.
Through Bideford and on toward Instowe, where the balmy weather and slowly increasing sea breeze made it feel like the world had suddenly become air-conditioned, I rode seemingly effortlessly. I stopped at John’s shop, in Instow, now also a deli and a café. Like the Tardis, it seems bigger inside than outside and today it felt even bigger than usual for some inexplicable reason. Anyway, it was still a good place to stop and rest, take some pictures and absorb the view across the estuary to Appledore.
Continuing along the road, and cutting up a private lane past the cricket pitch to survey a shoreline more akin to the south of France than North Devon, I was amazed that the Hocking’s ice cream van didn’t appear to be where it always is. For those who don’t know, Hocking’s, Devon made ice cream is superb and worth a try wherever you see a van. There was a sailing regatta taking place here and the beach was packed with people. The flotilla of small dinghies was reminiscent of a cloud of butterflies and they glided serenely across the azure water, sails glistening and billowing in the summer sun. And then I was back on a tarmac section of the Tarka Trail, with a following wind pushing me along. Bliss.
Reaching Barnstaple at 1215, I was amazed how quiet it was. There were a few people playing with their children in the parks, even a few cyclists waved as they passed by on the trail, but the town centre was the quietist I’ve ever seen it. I doubt the same could be said of the local beaches which I imagine were heaving, along with the roads that take people there. Before I knew it, I was heading out to Bishops Tawton and my route home. By now it was baking hot and I began to wonder whether I should have had a siesta in Barnstaple, rather than getting fried on the return leg of my journey which would see me high up on exposed roads with few trees to offer shade.
By now I was becoming acutely aware of just how searingly hot it had become. I guessed it had passed the thirty degree mark but decided to ride on anyway. For once I had plenty of food and drink. It was more a matter of whether I would melt before I got home, leaving a big sticky patch on the already and increasingly sticky road. To wait for it to start cooling would have meant a three-hour siesta, and I didn’t want to do that and then find I no longer had the will or the legs to get back on my trike and pedal. The best thing I could do was to cover up, slow down, drink lots of water and take plenty of rests in any available shade, which is exactly what I did.
Arriving in Bishops Tawton was a rude awakening. Cars streamed past in long and almost continuous lines. The noise shook me out of my meditative state as I became all too aware of the clear and present danger that vehicles represented, in my mind at least. I don’t worry about other drivers. I keep an eye out, looking and acting as defensively as I can. Anything else that happens is out of my hands and it seems pointless to worry about ‘what ifs.’ As ever, these drivers gave me and my strange contraption a wide berth. Thank you one and all.
Eventually I turned up towards Atherington and the long hill that would lead me there. Continuous oncoming traffic forced me to stop several times, breaking that precious rhythm that gets you up big hills. I switched into; ‘I don’t care how long it takes,’ mode and plodded upwards. Arriving at the top I took a breather, sitting for at least twenty minutes on a bench, conveniently located outside the less conveniently closed Post Office. It was covered by a convenient porch that kept the sun off my head. I needed food and to cool down as much as I could. Taking a break was just perfect. I walked around the churchyard and lay on the grass in the shade for a bit. I even sat on a bench beneath the lychgate, wondering how many souls had been rested here on their final journey.
From there my route would take me high above the rest of Devon, or at least that is how it felt riding the plateau. The initial climb felt tough, purely due to the heat that now pounded the road. I could smell the tarmac as it began to disintegrate and my tyres began making ‘this road is sticky’ noises. Eventually this splendid road leads, in a series of swooping curves and straights that would be appreciated by motorcyclists, past High Bickington to Dolton. By the time you reach Dowland the road narrows again and more shade can be found as you head for Iddesleigh. It was one eye on the traffic and the other on the view, trying not to think about how my body was wilting slowly from the heat. The further I got, the more I stopped in the shade as parts of me previously known as muscles turned to jelly.
On nearly reaching home I feared that, should I stop, my tyres would be instantly and permanently glued to the road. There was now a loud squelching and sucking noise as each tyre rolled over the wet, sticky tarmac. I was grinning but tired as I rode that last couple of kilometres. This was to be expected of a ride that’s almost twice as far as my longest this year. I felt good, but for the heat in which I have always traditionally struggled physically and mentally. Not only did I manage a memorable day’s riding in fantastic countryside, but my recovery was also good, seeing me riding again after just one day rest, with little ill-effect. How pleasing it is to have a sense of being more settled for a while. Long may it last, the weather and the feeling of joy the cycling left me with.
Until next time………….