Brighton to Exeter: a Bikepacker's Tale

It was the first big climb of the day. Earlier on we’d spotted it on the map of Dorset – a chevron marking a particularly steep section. As the road began to rise, a 17% road sign announced the gradient we were going to have to attempt. I looked up ahead to what really seemed like a wall and wondered if I’d be able to get up this one. It would have been tough on my light skittish road bike, but here I was loaded down with 30 kilos on the back of my touring bike.

  At the top of another Dorset climb

At the top of another Dorset climb

I like climbing hills on my bike. There’s a point when you’ve changed down to your lowest gear and you know it’s just about you and the hill. A solitary one-on-one battle of wills to overcome the desire to stop. Find a rhythm, enjoy the scenery, take a drink of water if you can. Hairpins are the best as you get a chance to look back on the road you’ve just climbed and are more often than not rewarded with spectacular views that reveal how high you’ve come. What a spur!

But this was one of those English lanes with high claustrophobic hedge walls that seemed to lean into the narrow space. As the road ramped up I began to zig-zag to lessen the gradient. The sun broke out from behind the clouds and I blinked the beads of sweat away from eyes.

  Rider and bike take a break

Rider and bike take a break

Dancing on the pedals in Contador style isn’t really an option on a fully loaded tourer so you just have to sit down, keep to a steady pace and grind it out. With ragged breaths and pains in my knees I did so, determined to defeat this beast of a hill when a double whammy presented itself. I rounded a corner and the road became even steeper, then I had to change my pace to make way for a car coming the other way.

I stopped.

Resting elbows and head on my handlebars I took great lungfuls of air and wiped the sweat from brow. I looked up again. Just too steep. There was no way I was going to get started again on this gradient. I turned back and saw that Ellie was already off her bike, pushing it with arms outsretched. For the first time ever, I resolved to push my bike up a hill too. Finally a hill had well and truly beaten me.

Welcome to bike touring.

  The Saltern Way which follows Chichester Channel

The Saltern Way which follows Chichester Channel

It had been a dream of ours to go on a bike-packing holiday for some time. We even had lofty ambitions of crossing the Americas and passing through countries I’d grown up in: Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil.

So it was with that in mind that we set off on the rather more modest, not to say mundane, mini-adventure of a week’s bike tour along cycle route 2 which follows the south coast of England. Exeter, some 300 miles away was our destination.

Setting off from our Brighton flat a few days before the fateful climb that beat me, we made the familiar ride to the beachfront to join the cycle path where tourists with death wishes like to stop in the middle of for selfies. Strange to be setting off on an adventure on such well ridden territory, but at least it allowed us to adjust to our heavily loaded bikes and get to grips with new shoes and cleats.

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The pan flat path ran alongside a similarly flat, grey sea. Shoreham, Worthing, Littlehampton. The constant smell of fish and chips. Georgian grandeur interspersed with suburban conformity and rundown estates. It wasn’t exactly the North American Divide. Bognor Regis, Butlins, lunchtime and the forecast rain arrived. We made do with a mediocre pub lunch on the sea front. While puddles of rainwater formed at our feet we listened to a local explain the intricacies of the micro-climate of the area.

On our first day of bike touring the heavens had opened and conspired to dump a month’s worth of rainfall on us and our flimsy tent in the space of 10 hours. A true baptism indeed. But that night, as we hunkered down in a cosy Italian restaurant, we looked at the map with some satisfaction. It was good to be out of our patch and venturing into the unexplored.

  Messy campers, drying out kit over breakfast after a month's rainfall

Messy campers, drying out kit over breakfast after a month's rainfall

The further west we went, the stretches between towns and dull little conurbations lengthened. The Saltern Way was a glorious off road track that followed the banks of the Chichester Channel. Here was proper countryside. A slap up pub lunch in the quaint sailing village of Bosham revived us.

We met a couple who had flown over from South Africa with a tandem and were due to cycle across France and Spain. A true adventure. So it was that we set off with renewed purpose across Hayling Island, another rough track that skirted the edge of Langstone Harbour. Beautiful sunshine dried up the puddles and shimmered off the little choppy waves.

  The Hamble Ferry

The Hamble Ferry

Here we began a series of ferry rides, firstly to Portsmouth then across the harbour to Gosport. The tiny pink boat that took us across the Hamble was my favourite as it weaved in and out of the hundreds of moored yachts.

  Southampton to Hythe

Southampton to Hythe

At Southampton we met another bike tourer. He was a Dutchman with a brand new bike that he said had cost several thousands of Euros. Its handlebars were a tangle of cables and high tech navigation equipment that seemed to be directing him along the busiest roads and we urged him to follow our route with its quirky off road patches interspersed with winding and labyrinthine passages through quiet housing estates, so quiet you wondered if you were part of a Doctor Who episode where the community had been comatised.

  Ponies and cattle nosed around the tent and bikes in the New Forest

Ponies and cattle nosed around the tent and bikes in the New Forest

In the New Forest we camped in a remote site where the wild ponies and cows nosed around our tent and bikes. It was a warm night so decided not to zip up the inner shell, an invitation to a rather large frog that made friends with us. In the morning he’d secreted himself into one of our panniers. We ushered him away only for him to leap back into the tent and under my rain jacket. Later he made a home in the tangle of cargo netting. We shook him out and said our goodbyes.

  Our friend

Our friend

Further west and into Dorset the hills became longer, steeper, more frequent. Corfe Castle greeted us in the evening: majestic, imperious and mysterious like an eerie setting out of a Hardy novel.

  Corfe Castle

Corfe Castle

By now we were used to the routine of setting up camp and went about our tasks with quiet efficiency although, in truth, we remained messy and untidy campers compared to our neighbours. Our reward was barbequed steak and a bottle of wine picked up from the local store. Simple pleasures that brought great delights with each delicious mouthful. We slept deeply with tired bodies and happy hearts, content with the work we’d done.

On route to Lulworth we met some members from Dorchester Cycling club who offered us encouragement and took our photo at the top of a hill.  We complemented them on the beautiful part of the country they lived in and they, in turn offered us encouragement and advice. Lovely people.

  Durdle Door on a beautiful day

Durdle Door on a beautiful day

We’d given ourselves a light day and the weather was perfect for a trip to the beach at Durdle Door. Here thousands of tourists had thought the same and we smugly cycled past the queues of traffic that waited entry to the overfilled car parks. The walk to the beach was more like Picadilly Circus than a beauty spot. Chinese women wrapped in hooded pink kagools and brightly coloured umbrellas to protect themselves from the sun negotiated the rocky path and the beach was rammed with Indian tourists delighting in the sensation of such a cold sea. But we stretched out, basking in the sun like a pair of cats, luxuriating in the lack of activity for a couple of hours.

The Hardy monument is a few miles out of Dorchester, perched on the peak of a large hill that overlooks the seaside resort of Weymouth. With its kiss me quick seaside attractions it’s an unusual view to honour one of the country’s greatest novelists. We laboured up the flanks of this hill when, near the top, we were passed by a large and overweight road cyclist who seemed to take immense pleasure from overtaking a couple of other cyclists, an occurrence he probably wasn’t used to.

  One of the tracks through the New Forest

One of the tracks through the New Forest

With a stupid, immature, competitive streak ignited, I decided to chase him down the other side of the hill for a couple of miles only to find that I’d deviated from our intended route when I’d got to the bottom. We’d have to climb the same hill again from a new angle. I think that’s what you call karma.

Next day we left our campsite of cheery families and their enormous tents, decorated with fairy lights and flagpoles. It had constantly amazed me how teenage children would contentedly go about their daily camp chores of washing up and collecting water so uncomplainingly.

  De Ver Cycles in Dorset

De Ver Cycles in Dorset

We soon found ourselves on a busy road which we decided to escape from as quickly as possible. A country lane took us away from screaming trucks and caravans back into lush countryside. Back as well towards the Hardy Memorial. Somehow we’d managed to climb the same dreaded hill not once but three times, and this was the moment my will finally cracked on the 17% slopes. I conceded ignominious defeat and chose to walk.

Limping into our campsite after a steep climb out of Charmouth, spirits were low that evening. The unmanned campsite was in fact a large field sandwiched between two busy A roads with a steady hum of traffic. A strange man holding a large Alsatian on a tight leash stood silently by the sorry looking Ladies toilet block. Another solitary male sat in the open porch of his tent looking sad and depressed. We commandeered an apparently abandoned set of chairs and a table and cooked up a brew.

  "Oi! That's my stuff!"

"Oi! That's my stuff!"

In the morning as I set about getting breakfast ready a shaven headed Neanderthal wearing a bright green polo shirt shouted a loud “Oi!” across the field. He seemed to be shouting at me.  “Oi!” he repeated, his chin jutting out at an aggressive angle and he strode towards me, dragging his knuckles behind him along the dewy grass.

“Oi! That’s my stuff!”

The table and chairs weren’t abandoned at all. It had seemed a perfectly reasonable assumption at the time that two decrepit camp chairs and a wobbly table had been simply left behind by a previous camper, but no amount of apologizing and explaining would placate this furious knuckle head and it was all I could do to avoid a fat lip or worse. We left Charmouth behind vowing never to return.

  Dorset cream tea as recommended by the Dorchester Cycling Club

Dorset cream tea as recommended by the Dorchester Cycling Club

We’d left a lot of ground to cover on our last day. 50 miles doesn’t sound much to the hardened roadie who may spin through that distance on a Sunday club run before lunch, but this was a tough day with 1300 metres of climbing. Add to that the weight of all our kit and heavy legs after six days of cycling, we knew it wasn’t going to be easy.

The climb towards Axminster was a brute that continued endlessly and a puncture shortly afterwards by the water treatment works slowed us down further. Why do we puncture in these places?

By the time we got to Beer it was early afternoon and our average speed showed a paltry 7 mph. Three big climbs awaited us and we wondered if we’d get to Exeter before nightfall. We began the steep road out of Beer with great determination and were rewarded with a lovely descent into Barcombe, from which we began another ascent. Less steep and surrounded by picture postcard thatched cottages and beautiful scenery it was worth it.

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Sidmouth doesn’t sound like the kind of place you’d want to visit. I once knew someone called Sid, and the utterances that spilled from his mouth on a regular basis are unprintable. But as we flew down into this genteel seaside town it was with a heavy heart that we flew straight through the other side again. The flying crashed to an abrupt halt immediately outside the town however as we were confronted by another wall and I have to confess to stepping off the bike for a second time on the trip.

  Peak Hill, Sidmouth (20%)

Peak Hill, Sidmouth (20%)

But from here on in it was plain sailing and the final 10 miles along the cycle path that hugs the banks of the river Exe through pretty Lympstone , Exton and Topsham injected new energy into tired legs. The prospect of a hotel bed with clean sheets spurred us on further and with a huge sense of achievement we rolled into the courtyard of our resting place for the night and our final destination.

It had been an adventure indeed, even if a rather genteel one through rolling green countryside and the safe knowledge that civilization was never far away. But seeing how the landscape changed on a daily basis from the gentle pace of a touring bike was an experience you never get by car or train. And our route always came up with the unexpected: an obscure path would lead us out of a desolate housing estate through woods, then out into country lanes with views of the sea and gorgeous villages off the beaten track, then turning another corner would reveal a little town nestled in a valley, often a welcome stop for food or drink.

  Homeward bound, the Light Blue Darwin says farewell to the West Country

Homeward bound, the Light Blue Darwin says farewell to the West Country

And the people we met, usually fellow cyclists, who shared tips, bonhomie and warm good humour: how good to be part of such a fraternity! We’ll remember them all, from the roadie wearing a De Ver jersey, our old South London stomping ground, to the French family with their three children on a mad cap epic journey to our South African tandem riders who I’m sure we will meet again one day in a far flung part of the world map.

  Back at the Baskets, our local. No place like home!

Back at the Baskets, our local. No place like home!

So, bike packing looks set to become an important part of our lives after all. Next summer we plan a longer trip across France and, beyond that, who knows? Perhaps our dream of crossing the Americas will be realized after all.