National Cycle Network Route 3 – England
After cycling the North Sea Cycle Route in 2017, I hatched a plan to cycle the Atlantic Coast from Land’s End to John o’Groats, via England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland. Although shorter (I estimated 4,000km), this was going to be tougher than the 6,000km NSCR, but with more dramatic coastal scenery. Starting in April will add to the fun, with the threat of high winds and rain.
The journey started at Slough station, changing at Reading for the Great Western Railways service to Penzance. The guards vans are empty, so plenty of space for a fully loaded Thorn Sherpa. A short, but hilly, cycle ride brings me to Land’s End, deserted in the rain and wind for the mandatory photograph and fish & chips before reaching the nearby Youth Hostel. I rest easy, contemplating 40-50 days cycling, keeping the Atlantic coast to my left hand side. The hostel is full of adventurous types, walking the South West Coast Path.
The rest was important, as this is Cornwall, where the profile of the hills resembles an uneaten Toblerone bar, the older version, without wider spaces between the peaks. A great way to get in shape as you cross the grain of the land. National Cycle Network Route 3 (NCN3) takes me through former mining areas between Redruth, Camborne and Truro, patrolled by eerie squadrons of crows and ravens, that guard the desolate industrial decline, towards King Harry ferry to cross the River Fal.
An ascent up a ridiculously steep gravel path defeats me, I can barely push the bike uphill. This was to be my only ‘off’ on the entire trip, so do not underestimate how tough Cornwall cycling can be. I am pleased to reach the picturesque village of Veryan, with its Sentinel round towers, and a welcoming campsite a few miles further on.
I am up early and follow a routine that will become familiar of the next month or so. A huge bowl of porridge, coffee made using my AeroPress while packing my tent, sleeping bag into my panniers. If I can have pedals turning within one hour after waking I am pleased. I pass by the village shop of Luxulyan, where an old gentleman shouts “Pastie’s just in”. I see the butcher van depart and therefore have to stop. The shop keeper has a pastie, wrapped, still warm from the oven, ready for me. She knows a hungry cyclist when she sees one. It would be daft not to buy one.
I get lost near the Lost Gardens of Heligan, but pick up the route again passing two hostels, a delightful eco-themed hobbit like abode followed by the sheep-pen like shipping container construction near to the Eden Project. Good places to stop.
On the approach to Lanhydrock, two Sustrans volunteers have organised an Easter Egg hunt, but there are no takers. I stop and chat to Melanie and Angie, who apologise for only having Rooibos tea, but unknown to them, it is my favourite. They are full of smiles on this sunny day and lift my spirits as a continue to Bodmin to scoff the pastie, still steaming in its wrapper.
I cross Bodmin Moor, cycling past the granite tors on a beautiful clean cool day. The horse riders are out in force, where both riders and horses clearly enjoying perhaps the first ride of the year. Everyone seems to be happy after a wet and dreary winter.
A steep descent into Boscastle tests my brakes to reach a welcoming Youth Hostel, where I cook up an enormous meal. I study the pictures on the wall and reflect on the devastation this building suffered during the great flood of 2004.
Steep descents mean long ascents, and leaving Boscastle is a hard slog to the A road. It is cold, only 6C, but quiet on Sunday morning, so I take a direct route to Barnstaple. The village shop at Sheepwash is closed, but I have arrived at the right time for a Sunday Roast at the Half Moon Inn. Dare I indulge? Of course! The waitress piles on extra potatoes for a weary cyclist and I’m in heaven, with a table next to an open fire.
I am in need of an afternoon nap after that lunch, but instead join the Tarka Trail for a relaxing ride into Barnstaple, a gentle 22 mile descent along a traffic free rail line, with nothing to do but gently pedal and keep an eye open for otters.
The campsite is closed, like many, due to the wet 5 months which has waterlogged the fields. The cattle are still in the barns and farmers are saying the season is 4-5 weeks late. I have to try five B&Bs before finding one with a vacancy. I sleep well.
Keeping the curtains open is a natural alarm clock and I am soon on my way towards a tough Exmoor crossing towards Somerset. A nice big early climb burns off the luxurious full English breakfast, before a wonderful, windy, wild crossing of Exmoor. I have to layer up with clothing before the descent into Dulverton and a delightful eco-cafe/shop which serves me a delicious pie. Cycling and eating go together well and this meal means I don’t have to cook tonight. I pick up the NCR 344 towards Wellington and find another campsite closed, so I enter Taunton and find a scruffy site on the canal towpath a few miles further on, populated by inquisitive and hungry peacocks.
It’s all towpath now to Bridgewater, the home of Thorn Cycles and the birthplace of my Thorn Sherpa. I want to stop at the shop, but have no need. The bike is running smoothly, although I have picked up a slight calf strain, which is to be expected after all those hills. It is flat and easy going, a nice tail wind sees me progress too rapidly to Weston-Super-Mare where I am contemplating catching a ferry to Penarth. It is too windy and the tide is out and no ferry is in site, so I have no option than to push on to Chepstow. I pass through the ugly industrial landscape of Portishead and Avonmouth with burnt out cars blocking the M5 underpass, keeping a careful eye open for broken glass. Huge wind turbines, with supersonic wing tips guide me towards the Severn Bridge over a complex network of cycle tracks and urban paths.
I am pleased the bridge is open in the strong winds and cycle across the River Severn to Wales, bouncing up and down gently as the traffic passes, causing the bridge to flex. A large dragon mural greats me on the underpass as I make my way to the Independent Hostel in Chepstow. I’m the only guest and the warden couple leave as soon as I have paid. I wander naked around the hostel enjoying the freedom, until I notice the security cameras. Whoops. I sleep and eat well.
The English section is complete, now to cross Wales on NCN4 to Fishguard.