Matt

Writer of words, rider of bikes. Also fond of a good walk.

We tread carefully along the rock-cut path, our faces misted with spray and our voices raised against the white noise of the plunging water. This is what we’ve come to see, this is Sgwd-yr-Eira – the Falling of the Snow.

A waterfall called Sgwd-yr-Eira, The Falling of the Snow, makes a white curtain as it plunges into a pool below

Every few years we return here to the Brecon Beacons to step behind this curtain of water. It’s one of series of falls on a popular walking route. Each has its merits, but it’s Sgwd-yr-Eira that draws us here.

The path we’re on was once used by herders to move sheep and cattle across the river. Now it’s the domain of walkers willing to ignore the signs encouraging them to turn back to the main trail. We follow the herders and press on.

Surprisingly, the path behind the waterfall isn’t very slippery. It’s also set quite far back into the rock, away from the thundering screen of water. As a result, it feels like we’re being cocooned between the waterfall and the rock – a room hollowed out temporarily just for us.

A small river runs through a rocky gulley in a steep, wooded valley.

After lingering a while to take it all in, we emerge on to the far side of the river. The magic dissipates straights away. We are no longer in the waterfall; we are – like everyone else – just looking at the waterfall. Time for another go.

We retrace our steps along the path and re-enter the cocoon. It’s still exhilarating, but more familiarly so this time. We feel less of the need to linger and instead make our way slowly along the path, enjoying the two dozen or so paces for which we are immersed in Sgwd-yr-Eira and invisible to the outside world.

Emerging on to the rocky shore beside the plunge pool, we pick our way back to the steps that lead up the steep sides of the glen. Pausing at the foot of the steps, we take one last look back at the waterfall. Until next time.

#Walks

When a drive back from Cornwall took us past the start of the Granite Way in Okehampton, it was the perfect chance for a ride that offers a unique perspective on Dartmoor.

Nowhere is that perspective as striking as on the Meldon Viaduct, a few miles along the trail from Okehampton towards Lydford. The viaduct rises over 40m above the valley below, offering panoramic views back up to Meldon Dam and the high granite massif of the moor, as well as across the lower-lying land to Exmoor 20 miles to the north-east. But the history that lay beneath us as we paused to take in the scene was just as striking, if not as obvious.

Underneath the non-slip surface, battered boards and weathered railings is a viaduct that’s so special it’s a Scheduled Ancient Monument. It was built in 1874 with riveted wrought-iron lattice piers (the vertical supports that hold the viaduct up) and is one of only two remaining railway bridges in the UK using this form of construction. (For bridge fans, I should probably mention that the other is the 1877 Bennerley Viaduct over the Erewash between Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire.)

Beneath the historic structure, the lush valley and the pool beyond are not all they seem. At the time of the Industrial Revolution, the valley would have been thronging with miners digging for minerals such as copper and arsenic. Lime kilns would have belched thick smoke, fed by the quarry that is now flooded by Meldon Pool.

The waters of the pool, nearly 40m deep, were the setting for a story that crops up in tales of Dartmoor folklore. It was here, goes the tale, in 1936, that a man went missing. It was presumed he had drowned and that his body had sunk to the inaccessible depths of the pool. So the community resorted to the old custom of ‘singing the body’, to see if a choir chanting prayers and hymns at the water’s edge could raise the corpse by attracting its lost soul to their sacred words. Within a week, the body was found floating on the lake.

Fortunately, there are no bodies on the day we visit and – after one last look at the view – we press on to Lydford through the rolling countryside, the soft edge of the moor. The Granite Way is part of a coast-to-coast route, which at Lydford returns to minor roads for its next section. With a long journey home still ahead and our car parked at Okehmapton, we turn around and head back.

#Rides

Our largely car-free week in Cornwall showed what’s possible when people have access to good cycling infrastructure.

A young boy in a blue t-shirt sits on a sandy beach, his yellow bike propped up in the sand behind him.

Heading to Cornwall over the August bank holiday weekend focussed our minds on how we could avoid contributing too much to the traffic that blights the county through the summer. Fortunately, we found accommodation that was only a few hundred metres away, via a path through the woods, from the Camel Trail.

A largely traffic-free, surfaced and virtually level multi-use route, the trail is nearly 30km long. It runs in a sort-of Y shape – a long branch between Padstow and Bodmin, via Wadebridge, and a shorter branch between Bodmin and Wenfordbridge. The tourist board describes it as passing through some of the most spectacular countryside in the south-west, and it’s an attraction in its own right.

I’d seen it quoted that the trail attracts 400,000 visitors every year, and it felt like quite a few of those were there over the bank holiday weekend. The route resembled a busy cycle path in the centre of Amsterdam. Streams of people were pedalling in either direction, happily chatting and negotiating their way smoothly around the various obstacles and towing a variety of child and canine cargo.

But the trail has a use for utility cycling as well as leisure. I rode it into Bodmin to buy groceries at the supermarket, where the lady helping me at the checkout saw my panniers and told me how her son uses the trail to get to college. When we wanted to visit Lanhydrock House, we took the trail into Bodmin and then followed back roads and a few more paths along the National Cycle Network.

Even a day at the beach was possible, with panniers laden and a circuitous route plotted through Padstow – avoiding the celebrity-chef-induced chaos in the town centre. The flat, surfaced trail made pedalling easy for old and young legs alike. The hardest part was pushing the bikes across the sand when we reached Hawker’s Cove.

Over the course of the week, we rode more than 150km as a family without it seeming like very much at all. The problem, of course, came when we wanted to visit something that wasn’t along the trail. We chose to drive to the Eden Project, deciding the ride involved too many roads for G, aged eight.

Car-obsessed politicians can argue what they like, but the simple truth is that if there were more safe, segregated cycle routes, then more people would cycle more places. And everyone would be better off (less pollution, healthier community, more space on the roads for people who really need to drive).

The council website says there are 7,250km of roads in Cornwall. While the Camel Trail isn’t the only off-road route in the county, most seem aimed at leisure cycling. It feels high time for local politicians to take utility cycling seriously and build more safe routes.

#Rides

Following a year in which the pandemic had kept us close to home, the prospect of a few days pedalling along tracks by the River Wye felt like a distant adventure.

Three bikes lean against a wooden gate and fence in a forest.

With Covid-19 adding the the hassle of holidays, we kept things simple on our first overnight trip and opted for a long weekend at a cabin in the Forest of Dean. This meant that I could cycle there, while G and J took their bikes in the car.

I planned my route carefully, taking in as much off-road as possible. It cut through Dymock Woods on the way and entered the Forest of Dean as soon as possible to make use of its network of logging roads and bridleways. I hoped to weave my way through the trees, emerging only to cross the main roads that divide the forest.

My reward for hours spent scouring maps and aerial photos was 60km of some of the quietest riding I’ve experienced in a while, and the longest ride since my back injury last autumn. By chance I also came across my dad – out for a ride of his own – on the way and stopped for a chat. It seemed destined to be a good trip, and we spent the first evening settling into the cabin and looking forward to exploring the trails.

The next morning – our first full day in the forest – we started gently by following the Peregrine Path, running along the course of a disused railway by the River Wye, from Symonds Yat into Monmouth. The ride included a quirky semi-official back way into town along a rusting, unloved and rutted old railway bridge. There was also a derelict viaduct, a fortified medieval bridge, a paddle in the river and miles of lovely cycle path. Oh, and ice creams of course. There are always ice creams.

Not every ride was such easy going. The forest stretches steeply away from the River Wye to the east and we often had to haul our way up long inclines. And one bridleway exploration included a fair bit of hike-a-bike, which G took with good grace.

The fact that you'll get there in the end, even if you have to push up the steep bits is one of the things kids learn from riding bikes. They also learn that those tough times make the views from the top seem even better. And that it’s good to enjoy the descents and the flats – because there’ll always be more steep bits ahead.

Soon enough there were no more trails ahead for us – steep or otherwise; it was time to leave, and for me to retrace my steps on the ride home. Some new tracks kept things interesting as forest turned to common and then to country lanes. Before long I was back on more familiar ground, lanes and tracks I had circled during months of lockdown.

I took with me memories of a few days well spent. The sun shone, the routes were (mostly) as good as they looked on the map, and the forest absorbed months of worries – leaving calm in their place.

#Rides

It had been six months since we’d been to Mortimer Forest and it felt good to be back.

A young boy in a blue t-shirt cycles away from the camera on a forest track.

For family rides, forest tracks offer us the sort of traffic-free exploration that’s hard to come by where we live. Whenever we roll out of a car park and into the trees, we feel free.

But forests weren’t originally about freedom. As Nick Hayes points out in The Book of Trespass, the word ‘forest’ comes from the Latin foris meaning ‘outside of’. They were areas that operated outside of common law. They were where monarchs from William the Conqueror onwards kept deer and where, thanks to forest law, everyone else enjoyed fewer rights than they did across the rest of the land.

So, had G and I been unloading our bikes from the car centuries earlier, we might have been about to get into big trouble. But the royal hunting grounds were already long gone when the trees at Mortimer were planted by the Forestry Commission in the 1920s. The deer that live there today belong to no one, and we’re free to ride the tracks.

We pedalled out of the car park and began the climb to the High Vinnalls viewpoint. This was our usual route – getting the pain of the ascent out of the way, with the reward of a 360-degree view to spur us on.

There was more to my sense of achievement than just completing the climb, though. This was my first longer ride after six months of injury and I was relieved it was going well. There had been times during the dark winter when I’d doubted I’d be able to do this again.

After stopping to take in the scenery, we sped down the gently curling logging roads on the far side of the hill. On the way we spotted the huge forestry machines parked up on their day off. They enable a couple of operators to harvest stacks of timber that used to require whole teams of men and horses.

G and I thought that one machine – the one tasked with cutting down the trees – looked evil, due to the arrangement of grille and headlights that made up its ‘face’. The other one, responsible for clearing and stacking the felled trees, looked friendly. Both had massive tyres that cut huge trenches through the mud.

The cutting seems devastating, but it’s part of a delicate balance Forestry England (as the Forestry Commission is now called) must strike between commercial forestry, encouraging plants and wildlife and providing an area for recreation. In a country where we have a limited legal right to roam over just 8% of the land, that last part is crucial.

I enjoy riding through a working landscape where people are welcome, one that provides a home for wildlife – including a unique long-haired fallow deer – without excluding humans. For a morning we’ve become, as much as we can be, part of the forest. As we complete our circuit and freewheel back down the hill to the car, we’re both content.

We’ll be carrying some of the forest home with us. Not just the mud on our tyres, but the swish of the tall trees, the glimpse of a deer and the memory of a morning where we felt free.

#Rides

When the fruit farm’s website announced the ripening of the strawberries, we knew exactly where our family ride that Sunday would take us.

A child in a blue t-shirt rides a bike away down a farm track.

The farm is in the next town over, across the flood plain. Its fields straddle the route of an old railway line, although sadly not one that’s been reborn as a greenway. But with some local knowledge, it’s possible to weave a route there across a golf-course bridleway, through a disused army camp track, along quiet lanes and beside a B road on a neglected cycle path. The circuitous route makes it feel like a secret way, known to us but long forgotten by locals who rarely venture out of their cars and away from tarmac.

Crossing the golf course on the bridlepath is a curious business. The path cuts right across the middle, severing fairways and skirting greens. When I first rode it I expected golfers to resent my presence on their immaculate grass. But they’re always friendly, often waving me across before they take their shots or offering cheery thanks when I stop to wait for them to play. And so it was again that morning as we followed the line of white posts that mark the path.

We made good progress along the tracks and lanes, arriving just as the farm shop opened. Selecting two punnets of strawberries, we stowed them in our saddle bags, bid the friendly farm chickens farewell, and set off along a nearby track for a picnic.

We sat and ate (not the strawberries; we wanted those for later) and G photographed the buttercups for his school half-term project. Aged seven, he was half way through what would be – by the time we retraced our route home – the longest ride of his life. Like so much else, he took all 32km of it in his stride. That’s what the first strawberries of the season can do for you.

#Rides

It was an adventure I’d dreamed about since a childhood bedtime story – an adventure that spanned 14 years, starting in Minehead when I was a teenager and finishing in Poole as I was about to become a parent.

A wooden signpost with writing that says Coast Path and footpath.

Sometime in the mid 1980s, my dad read me an account of one man and his borrowed dog’s walk along the South West Coast Path. Mark Wallington’s 500 Mile Walkies made a lasting impression. Even as a child I could appreciate the self-deprecating humour it found in the everyday life on the trail – from battles with misshapen tents to encounters with curious local characters. Sure, it would be fun to be the children in the Chronicles of Narnia, but I was old enough to know that wasn’t going to happen. The coast path, though, was a real possibility.

In the years that followed, I read and reread 500 Mile Walkies. I joined the Scouts and relished the hiking, camping and other adventures. Through school I took part in the Ten Tors events, walking dozens of miles over Dartmoor in a weekend. But still there was the coast path – awaiting, unwalked. Then, during my time at university, my Dad and I began our adventure.

I’m not sure now how or why it started, other than that we’d both always wanted to do it. The notebook my dad kept of our trip doesn’t record the reason – just that we started, leaving Minehead one lunchtime and arriving at Porlock Weir in time for a fish and chip supper. In subsequent pages it records how, in sections over the years, we walked the 630 miles to Poole.

The walk itself was a mixture of nostalgia and discovery. I was passing through places I’d been before, albeit only through the pages of Mark Wallington’s book. Yet many were not entirely as I’d imagined them. Yes, the Exmoor woodland brooded steeply down to the sea. North Cornwall’s high cliffs were stunning. But I liked areas I’d naively assumed would be a bit dull in comparison – like the creeks and inlets along the South Hams coast. One particular day of walking that stretch, which ended with the ferryman rowing us across the Yealm Estuary to a B&B tucked away on the wooded east shore, sticks in my memory.

My dad has never been fond of camping, so it was B&Bs all the way. The hit-and-miss nature of these added to the highs and lows of the path itself. As we approached our stopping point for the day, we’d start to wonder what that night’s accommodation would be like. Aside from our glorious digs on the banks of the Yealm, where we had the luxury of our own space in the converted garage, the high point was an unassuming place in Paignton, where my dog found herself treated like the pedigree royalty she thought she was, even though we had no paperwork to prove it. Complimentary dog biscuits, dinner in bed. That was the life.

The dog – a rescued chocolate Labrador called Wispa – had joined our trips on the south Cornwall coast, after she’d come to live with my then fiancée and me. The first year we had Wispa I went on the coast walk trip without her – worried about how she’d behave and unwilling to shoulder the extra hassle that taking a dog on such trips entails. But it felt wrong. After all, Boogie the dog was an integral part of 500 Mile Walkies. My dream was, in part, to walk the path with a dog as well as my dad.

At West Bay, a turquoise sea and golden sandy beach is visible in front of a small town.

So, from that point on, Wispa came too. She loved it and we loved having her along; her exuberant presence added an extra dimension to our trips. She was indulged by train guards on our journeys down to the south west (one gave her a bacon roll). She displayed endless enthusiasm for walking and swimming in the sea, even when we were flagging. And she provided a handy alarm clock, licking my dad in the face when she considered it was time we got out of bed and started walking.

Wispa only looked miserable once – and on that occasion she wasn’t alone. Torrential rain had turned the stretch of path along slumped cliffs into Lyme Regis a miserable trudge. A sign at the start of the section warned of the arduous terrain and the lack of access from the path either to places inland or to the sea. Later, as I struggled to make my frigid fingers function well enough to peel off sopping layers of clothes in a Lyme Regis public toilet, I realised we’d definitely make it to Poole. If we could cope with days like that, the rest would be no problem.

And it wasn’t. We returned in the autumn of the same year to walk the section to Weymouth. Then, in spring the following year, we walked the final section to Poole. My wife, pregnant with our son, took some photos of me, my dad and Wispa crossing the finishing line. Our 14-year adventure was at an end.

My son is now eight years old and Wispa is gone; she died a couple of summers ago. The walk, a fixture of my life for so long, is complete. All 1,014km or so.

#Walks

Another snowfall. Peering through the window into the early-morning gloom we could see a deep covering in the street outside. The hill beyond was obscured by cloud but we knew straight away that we wanted to go up there.

Two distant figures walk up a snow covered hill through sparse woodland.

Being the first people to experience a landscape freshly revealed by nature, be it a snow-blanketed hill or a sandy beach uncovered by the falling tide, is a rare and special feeling. A reward for getting up earlier, and walking further, than other people.

We busied ourselves eating breakfast, packing a snack and a flask of hot chocolate, and pulling on our layers of winter clothing. It was growing lighter as we left the house, dawn breaking somewhere behind the low cloud. We weren’t the first to have walked along our street that morning, but the signs were good: only one other set of footprints. Few had yet ventured out.

After making our way up a couple of streets, we turned onto the path up the hill. We were going the direct way, straight to the top. As we climbed through the trees on the lower slopes it was clear we were the first to pass this way. The first humans, that is. A few birds and a fox or two had been out, surveying their changed world.

We climbed higher and the powder got deeper. Walking turned to wading. Some drifts on the exposed ridge were deep enough to require caution. Elsewhere grass still poked through where slopes had been sliced clear of snow by the cutting wind.

Bending into the icy blast, we pushed up the final stretch to the summit. All was white, the cloud still smothering the hill. There was no view, but that wasn’t what we’d come for. We were the first here, our footprints leaving the first impressions in the snow.

We celebrated with hot chocolate from the flask before building a snowman – a monument to our little adventure.

#Walks

Around 92% of land in England is off-limits to the general public and where rights of way do exist, cyclists can only ride around 20% of them. We deserve better access to our own country.

A child in a blue t-shirt rides their bike away from the camera through a grassy field.

This problem goes back a long way. Centuries ago there used to be lots of common land where local people had a right to graze animals and grow food. Then came the enclosure movement of the 18th and 19th centuries, in which land belonging to everyone was confiscated by the aristocracy. These lines from an 18th century folk poem sum up the brazen double-standards of this legalised theft:

The law locks up the man or woman Who steals the goose off the common But leaves the greater villain loose Who steals the common from the goose.

The descendants of those land-confiscating villains continue to profit from enclosure. As author Nick Hayes points out in The Book of Trespass, half of England is owned by just 36,000 people. That’s less than 1% of the population. And much of the land has been in the same families for generations. Over half a million acres of England is now owned by offshore companies – to avoid capital gains and inheritance taxes.

What about rights of way? Don’t they allow us to access some of this land for leisure even if we can no longer all graze our sheep there? Well, yes and no. Hayes points out that today there are roughly 118,000 miles of public footpaths in England. That sounds like a lot, but it’s half what there were a hundred years ago. And cyclists only have access to around 20% of the rights of way network – on bridleways, byways and permissive paths.

In many places across England, finding routes to ride off-road is very difficult. It’s almost impossible to join up rideable sections of trail without going on busy roads. And the condition of those rights of way varies enormously. See the photo above? It shows G this summer on a local byway that’s technically still open to all traffic. From a map you simply can’t tell whether a route like this will be a track, an overgrown thicket or – as in this case – an open field with no sign of a path. Navigation is tricky to say the least and I imagine it quickly puts a lot of people off exercising their right to ride.

There is good news, though: change is in the air as England’s neighbours show the way forward. The Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 gave people access to most land and inland water in Scotland as long as they act responsibly. And it doesn’t distinguish between modes of travel: canoe, cycle, ride a horse or walk. Scotland has reaped the rewards, with cycle tourism bringing in hundreds of millions of pounds to the economy every year.

Wales is now set to follow Scotland’s example, announcing proposals in April 2019 that would permit cycling and horse riding on most public footpaths and lifting restrictions on open access land to allow a wider range of activities – including cycling. Expert groups, including Cycling UK, are now working with the Welsh government on how the proposals can be implemented.

For now, England’s establishment resists such reform (or rather reinstatement) of access rights. I’m confident, though, that while us geese may never get our common back, we’ll one day win the right to go for a bike ride across it.

#Thoughts

Every now and then, a tell-tale line of undergrowth cuts across my path. It marks the route of the old railway line. Of the hop pickers who once rode trains into Herefordshire in search of seasonal work, there remains only the slightest trace.

A track through woodland passes the brick pillars of a dismantled railway bridge.

It seems the Worcester, Bromyard and Leominster branch line was never a financial success and Beeching’s axe dealt the final blow in 1964. Behind the numbers, though, there were people. The hop pickers. Thousands of racegoers heading to Bromyard. Locals popping into town.

Today, in their place, I see an occasional walker, another cyclist. Do they know about the railway? There’s little of it left to see, aside from a couple of bridges. In one spinney, where the path dives steeply down a hill, vast brick columns of a long-dismantled bridge hide among the trees as if they’re ashamed of what they’ve become.

The bridge pillars stand as a memorial to the railway, but also to the resilience of the natural world. In the 50 years since the rails were ripped up and the bridges pulled down, nature has recolonised the railway’s cuttings and embankments. As humans, we often think we think the things we do to reshape the world will last forever. As I ride, I’m under no such illusion. My tyre tracks will soon be lost to the wind and rain.

#Rides