Matt

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

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 it in his stride. That’s what the first strawberries of the season can do for you.

32km 329m ascent

#Rides

Walking the South West Coast path was an adventure I’d dreamed about since a childhood bedtime story. It was 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 signpost on the South West Coast Path national trail

Sometime in the mid 1980s, my dad read me an account of one man and his borrowed dog’s walk along the 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.

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.

1,014km 35,035m ascent

#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 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.

32km 570m ascent

#Rides

Why should you always have to know where you are, and where you’re going?

A signpost by a tree in the middle of nowhere

Don’t get me wrong, navigation is important. Understanding how to read a map, use a compass and operate a GPS will get you back in time for tea. It could even save your life. But sometimes, just sometimes, I get bored of knowing exactly where I am.

I don’t always want to pinpoint my precise location. I resent being enslaved by a little blue route line that I’ve uploaded on to my Garmin. There are times when I want simply to pick a direction and see where it takes me, to get lost and experience whatever happens – the good and the bad.

I recently spent a happy couple of hours circling around a maze of paths in a deep wooded gorge, unable to figure out which would take in the direction I wanted to go. I’d avoided this area previously because it looked so confusing on the map. It was. But it was also a lot fun, and when I finally found my way out of the dark, damp woodland I felt like an explorer emerging from the jungle.

For me, there’s great satisfaction in this part of getting lost: the moment when I re-enter familiar territory and piece together in my mind how I got back there – connecting the known and the unknown. For this, I’m willing to put up with dead-ends, delays and other downsides. In the case of the gorge this meant mud and brambles.

Wilfully getting lost is something I did more often when I was younger. As a grown-up with a job and a family, the potential consequences of an afternoon adrift are more severe. Stumbling in through the door muddy and exhausted hours later than I’d promised would be unfair on the family members who were expecting me home earlier and the clients I was supposed to call.

So I tend to go for a lighter version of getting lost – one that means I won’t actually risk being late collecting my son from school. My favourite method is to aim for a landmark in the distance that’s near where I want to go, and head towards it just following my instincts. Turn left here, right there – whatever feels good.

Being able to see my destination in the distance keeps me from getting completely lost but in the meantime I can enjoy pedalling in blissful ignorance. The result? Most of the time I pop out somewhere familiar and trace my way home from there. If not, well, there’s always the Garmin.

#Thoughts

Until recently I didn’t see the appeal of riding at night, but I’m increasingly drawn to venturing out after hours.

Bike light illuminates a track at night

In the past, rides like my dash down the Ridgeway from Avebury to Streatley and back felt like a race against the setting sun. Dusk signalled the end of my cycling day – a barrier to further progress. The practicalities of riding at night seemed too much hassle to grapple with; the powerful lights I needed too expensive and my bed just too tempting.

I always thought cycling through darkness was something to be endured, not enjoyed. Then, one Christmas, there was a high-powered front light waiting for me under the tree. I tried it and was hooked. After setting up everything else I needed to be legal on the UK roads at night, a new world of darkness opened up for me to explore.

Night is a time of opposites. As moon replaces sun, stillness replaces busyness on the roads out of town, cold replaces warmth in the air I draw into my lungs, and familiar ways become unfamiliar in the shadows cast by moon and bike light.

Ride into the night and, as dusk turns into pitch black, the world both shrinks and expands. I feel I could reach out and touch the constellations, yet in the foreground I can see no farther than the beam my light projects on to the track. The hinterland of fields or forest lies unseen, dark and silent.

Cycling after sunset seems subversive, like I’ve broken through a door into the nocturnal world. It comes from knowing most people are tucked up inside, slumped in front of the television while I fly free. It’s my escape from the mundane.

This escape is precious, yet fleeting. The time always comes to acknowledge the fun is over, that I have had the world to myself long enough and must head to bed. Not for me, the through-the-night rides of the Dunwich Dynamo or the Ride to the Sun. Not yet, anyway.

#Thoughts

We’ve just sold G’s old bike. It’s not the first bike he’s outgrown, and it certainly won’t be the last. Yet it marks a moment in the journey through his childhood.

So far he’s been unsentimental about this rite of passage, easily transferring his affection to the new machines and happy to know that his old bikes were going to be enjoyed by other children. I wish I could say the same for me; I find it an emotional moment. Because it’s not just saying goodbye to a too-small bicycle, it’s letting go of the memories it embodies.

Those scratches on the rear mech? That’s from a crash on our first overnight trip, a tour of the Strawberry Line from Yatton to Cheddar. I’d worried that a spill would spoil the trip for him, but after some tears he recovered and put it behind him. And I managed to bend the hangar back into shape to get his gears working again. I was proud of us both.

That seat post – look how much is exposed now. When we first tried the bike it barely extended above the top tube. I remember that day well. We caught the train to Ludlow and walked out of town across the fields to the Islabikes factory. He tried out the bike on the little circuit at the back of the building, taking to it straight away. It felt like a big moment.

The bell? That’s a crucial navigational aid. G’s sense of left and right hasn’t fully developed yet, and often deserts him when he’s tired or under pressure. So saying something “look, there’s deer in the trees on the right” isn’t any good on a family ride. Instead, we go by which side of the handlebars we mean: bell side or gear side.

The sale of the bike has confined those things firmly to our past, and another child is adding their own memories to the bike. Maybe in a few years, they’ll pass it down to a sibling to add some more. Maybe their parents will part with it, taking a moment, as we did, to mourn what’s gone.

#Thoughts

I stood on the edge of the lane and photographed the sunrise-silhouettes of the trees and the ridge line of the hills. A moment of stillness in a world of upheaval.

A gravel bike silhouetted against trees and hills at sunrise

The UK had just been locked down to try and halt the terrifying progress of the Covid-19 respiratory disease, and I was out at dawn to take my one permitted dose of daily exercise. Soon I would turn for home, where my family and I had shut ourselves off from others to try and avoid catching and spreading the virus.

A loud cough behind me jolted me away from my thoughts. What on earth? Who was coughing out here, miles from the nearest village? A month of worsening headlines and media stories about the potentially gruesome symptoms of Covid-19 had made me paranoid about hearing people coughing. Now here was someone right behind me with a chest infection. Who was it? I spun round.

It was a sheep. I saw her, standing at the fence of the field – watching me and chewing grass. My pulse slowed. I was still the only human around. This, barring the slight sheep scare, was what I needed. A brief escape from the world, a taste of the freedom I took for granted until so recently.

Fortunately, as everyday life came to a halt, the government had realised the value of cycling. It was promoted as a safe way for essential workers to get to their jobs, and a good way for everyone to take their daily (solo) exercise. Bike shops were allowed to remain open as others closed.

Keen to avoid people, I’d set out at dawn to do a short loop over the Malvern Hills and into Herefordshire. It was a strange ride. Although it was the most beautiful of mornings, I felt eerie and uneasy – jumpy whenever I sighted another human being, even in the distance.

As the miles passed, the rhythm and effort of pedalling gradually settled my nerves. And by the time I climbed back over the Malvern Hills into Worcestershire to head for home I was starting to feel at ease – more glad than ever of the opportunity just to go and ride.

Reflecting on my morning, I didn’t know how the pandemic, or the disruption it was causing to our society, would play out, but I knew I would do one thing to help me through it: ride on.

#Thoughts

For much of the ride we followed the ghosts of old steam trains – their rails now long gone and their presence a distant memory. In their place: cycle paths and forests tracks.

A child cycles away from the camera up a forest track

By the late nineteenth century, railway companies had stretched their fingers deep into the Forest of Dean – keen to get their hands on revenue from transporting minerals and then, later, passengers. It didn’t last long, however. Less than a century later, the last of these lines fell silent after collieries closed and the railway companies struggled. The forest’s railway boom was over.

Now the waymarked family cycle path uses some of the network, the former trackbed making for a gentle gradient well-suited to young legs. We’d ridden the family trail many times and since G was now six and capable of going further, we branched out.

Taking in loops of forest tracks, we bypassed the busier sections of trail and made up our own route. The wide tracks meant the three of us could ride side by side and we could chat, falling into the steady rhythm of a longer ride. The Severn and Wye Railway and Canal Company’s loss was our gain.

22.37km 280m

#Rides

In the absence of proper infrastructure or access rights, UK cyclists who prefer to avoid traffic have to get creative with their route planning. Some of my favourite rides make use of canal towpaths – off-road arteries that can take you some seriously long distances and right into the centre of busy towns and cities by the back door.

A gravel bike on a canal bridge

The Kennet and Avon Canal has helped me access the Ridgeway largely off-road, the Caledonian gave us a fabulous family ride through the Highlands, and the Forth and Clyde took me to marvel at the engineering of the Falkirk Wheel. I regularly find myself riding the towpath of the Worcester and Birmingham canal, using it to escape the web of busy roads that surrounds the towns along its route. And there are plenty more towpaths on my wish list – including a trans-Pennine trip on the Leeds and Liverpool Canal.

Legalities

All these routes, and more, are perfectly legal to cycle. Basically, if the Canal and River Trust owns it then I can cycle on it. Towpaths are permissive paths, and the Trust gives everyone permission to ride them. You might hear talk of permits, but those days are long gone – you just need to be considerate of other users.

What about rivers? That’s where things get frustrating; they don’t have a network of permissive towpaths. So unless I can find a bridleway alongside a river, I’m out of luck. This can be particularly annoying at the point where a canal enters a river and the towpath comes to an abrupt end or turns into a footpath. Another example showing why our access laws need reforming.

Practicalities

Despite that frustration, the 2,000 or so miles of Canal and River Trust waterways offer plenty of towpaths I can ride. They’re pretty flat, of course, which means they’re often thought of as ‘worst of all worlds’ – too difficult for road biking and too boring for mountain biking. I tend to think of them as ideal for my gravel bike. I’d argue that if you’re into exploring or touring off-road, you enjoy a riding at a relaxed pace and you have a bike with chunkier tyres, then towpaths are for you.

While the shared nature of the path means I have to take care, give way and can’t hurtle along flat out, I’ve made good progress along many miles of towpath without encountering anyone else. Time and place are key. If I choose a weekend morning on a section of towpath within easy of reach of town I’ll be weaving my way slowly between anglers for mile after mile. If I pick a remote stretch on a Tuesday afternoon I’ll have the path to myself.

Logistics

When it comes to the logistics of a ride – like getting to the start, finding food and water – canals are a good option. They often run along the same transport corridors as the railways that were built after them, so the train can be a good option for getting to the start of a ride. For my ride on the Ridgeway this year, I caught the train to Bradford on Avon and rode the canal as far as Devizes before heading cross-country to the Ridgeway.

What about re-supply? There may not be shops along a canal but you won’t usually have to go far to find them. And there are a quite a few canal-side pubs as well as the occasional cafe. As for more basic needs, zoom in on the Canal and River Trust map and you’ll see toilets and taps marked. I bought myself a key from the Trust shop (£7) so I can access the facilities.

Route planning

I find that the Trust map is a good starting place for planning a route and that Canal Plan is also worth a look, as it offers a quick way to get the distance between two points on the canal network. Its GPX tracks don’t seem to plot an accurate enough course for cycling, though – for that I use OS Maps.

Towpaths are marked by a continuous black line on 1:25,000 OS maps and a dashed black line on 1:50,000 maps. Then there are the parallel dashes that mark tunnels and mean I’ll probably have to find a route that diverts around them. Sometimes the towpath diverts too and I can simply follow that, at other times I find myself weaving through back lanes or housing estates while canal boats chug along somewhere deep beneath my wheels.

Plotting a route point by point on the OS Maps website can be a bit tedious. But I haven’t found an alternative that provides the same accuracy, given that other route planners – such as my favourite for road-based adventures, cycle.travel – seem reluctant to route you along towpaths unless the paths are part of a local or national network. Besides, I love staring at OS Maps almost as much as I love cycling.

But as with most routes, it’s impossible to tell whether a towpath is any good until you’ve ridden it. So enough of this waffle, I’m off out to explore a few more miles of underrated gravel.

#Thoughts