Matt

Rides

We dived into Pizza Express, hungry after a day that had been a bit more adventurous than planned – combining a family ride on the Monsal Trail with a hike back into Buxton.

A child rides along a path in a deep cutting on the Monsal Trail

Never too keen on driving unless we have to, we had decided to take the train up and stay for a couple of nights to do the trail. The tricky thing is that, as with so many cycle paths, the Monsal Trail isn’t actually accessible by train; it starts a few miles outside of Buxton.

So, on the morning of the ride, the three of us – me, J, and G (aged five) – were up early to catch a bus out of town to the start of the trail at Blackwell Mill. After a short walk along the track, we picked up our hire bikes and set off along the trail towards Bakewell.

Passing through cuttings, across bridges and through tunnels, this is a spectacular route. It’s also a busy one during the school holidays. For G this meant, on top of nearly 23km of riding, the added challenge of handling his bike on a busy path. It’s not always easy to remember to look where you’re going when you’re five.

We decided that Hassop Station would be our half-way point and elected to turn back there (after an ice cream, of course). It would be gently uphill on the return journey and we didn’t want to test G’s stamina too much. We needn’t have worried; he made it back without us resorting to pushing, towing or walking. As it turned out, it was just as well he had some energy left.

Back on the A6 where the bus had dropped us, there was no sign of a bus stop as such, no timetable and no mobile phone reception. We thought there would be a bus passing within the hour, but we weren’t sure. What should we do?

We decided to continue the adventure. We didn’t know if and when the bus would come, but we did know that we could walk back to Buxton. It was about four miles and would take us a while, but we’d definitely get there. And so we set off, crossing the road and heading up a path alongside the quarry opposite.

Our route took us through the nature reserve of Deep Dale and its limestone habitat, then along a stretch of the Midshires Way long-distance path into Buxton and, finally, straight into Pizza Express for a well-deserved blow-out.

22.85km 99m ascent

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The Elan Valley Trail, set amidst the Cambrian Mountains, had been on our cycling wish list for a while. There can be few family-friendly cycle paths as spectacular.

A child rides their bike up a trail through the trees on the Elan Valley Trail

The trail takes in a series of dams built over a century ago to supply water to Birmingham, climbing steadily to the final dam, Craig Goch, which sits 317m above sea level.

G had just turned five and this was a chance for him to get a taste of the ‘Welsh Desert’, with its tough and remote riding, on his own terms. He pedalled keenly along the gently inclining gravel path that contours along the reservoir shorelines.

We were riding on a burning July day so were only too glad to stop often to admire the view; the summer sun made for a long hot climb, despite the forested sections that provided welcome shade. After a lunch stop among the trees, we made the final push to the top.

Eventually, hot and tired but happy, we reached Craig Goch. It had been a long climb – particularly for little legs – but the sense of achievement was worth it. We stood and saw how the final expanse of water gives way to the mountains beyond. We would save those for another day, when G is older.

For now, we were happy to know the rest of our ride would be easy; our return trip to the visitors’ centre was downhill all the way. We turned around and freewheeled our way back to the cafe for a well-deserved ice cream.

26km 500m ascent

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The mountain bike I’d hired was in quite a state when I handed it back. And so was I. Storm Brian had taken its toll on the Tennyson Trail and we were both caked in mud.

I’d taken half a day out of our family holiday on the Isle of Wight to explore by myself. After a gentle pedal along the old railway path from Yarmouth to Freshwater, I joined the Tennyson Trail to head along its bridlepaths and byways to Newport.

I’d hoped to see some ‘nature, red in tooth and claw’ – or at least a red squirrel – but I expect the sound of my panting drove most of the wildlife into hiding. The mud certainly made for tough going over Compton Down and through Brightstone Forest, but I missed it when I dropped down on the roads beneath Carisbrooke Castle.

King Charles I was imprisoned in the castle after the Civil War, but I didn’t linger long. Instead, I picked my way through the town until I found the Red Squirrel Trail and followed it along the line of the old railway to Cowes. I paused to eat a sandwich on the Esplanade, savouring the memory of the off-road part of my ride.

The final section would be back along the roads through the Newtown nature reserve and Shalfleet. Despite the island’s reputation for good road cycling, I found the traffic busy and missed my earlier ramblings. Cycling on the Isle of Wight, I decided, is best done off road – just don’t count on seeing a red squirrel.

57.42km 736m ascent

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Storm Brian was in full force as our ferry crossed the Solent. This was an inauspicious start to our holiday on the Isle of Wight.

Benji the bear peaks out of a rucksack near Freshwater Bay on the Isle of Wight

It was October half term and we’d journeyed south in search of better weather and to explore a new area of the country. Cycling was part of the plan when we booked a stay in Yarmouth and, after a couple days exploring locally while Brian blew out, we hired bikes and set off along the old railway path towards Freshwater.

With J and me on mountain bikes and G, aged four, pedalling his tagalong, we soon completed the three or so gentle miles to Freshwater. This wasn’t our final destination, though; we were aiming for the beach at Compton Bay. Playing on the unusual ink-black sand was to be G’s reward for his efforts.

The second half of the route was tougher. As we followed the Tennyson Trail up to Compton Down a thick sea mist engulfed us. We puffed our way through the fret until, finally, we saw the Freshwater Way leaving our path to the right. Following it, we descended to the main road, swooping downhill around a bend until we could pull off and leave our bikes at the top of the steps down to the beach.

We’d made it. But little did we know the adventure was only just beginning.

On the beach, sandwiches and drinks came out of the bags – along with Benji the class bear from G’s school, who was accompanying us on the holiday. Benji looked on as G and J finished off their picnic and began a series of races along the beach. Then came the big wave.

G’s feet were soaked. We didn’t have spare socks for him with us, so I gave him mine. It turns out adult socks work okay on a child, you just pull them up further. Crisis averted, we finished off our beach games by making contrasting pictures and patters with the white pebbles on the black sand.

As we climbed back on the bikes, the mist was thicker than ever and we didn’t fancy mixing with traffic on the uphill drag along the road. Instead we took the byway opposite that led back onto the down past Compton Farm. Before long we were slipping and sliding as we pushed the bikes up a farm track, my sockless feet oozing in the ankle-deep mud.

Eventually, at the eastern end of the down, we met the Tennyson Trail again and turned west – into the wind. As G and I battled uphill, we looked behind us for J. She wasn’t there. We got off and waited, growing increasingly cold and just a bit worried. Finally, she appeared – pushing her bike. This wasn’t a good sign. Her chain had slipped off the largest cog and become firmly wedged between the cassette and the wheel.

With limited hire-bike tools we couldn’t free it, and we couldn’t hang around in the cold for long. We decided that the best option was for her to push her bike up the rest of the hill then use a mix of scooting and freewheeling to descend to Freshwater. It worked well enough, and we were soon inside a warm cafe eating cake while the bike hire company came and swapped J’s bike for the final few miles riding back to Yarmouth.

Benji would certainly have a few stories to tell when he returned to school.

17.71km | 280m ascent

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I’d been looking forward to riding this route, which bisects the Black Mountains on the highest road pass in Wales. And – despite three punctures and some ill-advised fish and chips – it didn’t disappoint.

Specialized Roubaix bike pictured at Gospel Pass above Hay-on-Wye

This was a loop of two halves: the first from Abergavenny along the towpath of the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal, the second following National Cycle Network routes through Talgarth and then across the Black Mountains via Gospel Pass and back to Abergavenny. I chose this anticlockwise direction because I wanted to finish the ride with the rush of the 19km-descent down the Vale of Ewyas, from Gospel Pass through the village of Llanthony and its ruined priory. This was to be my reward.

I was prepared for some challenges on the way, but I didn’t expect the first one to confront me as I stepped from the train at Abergavenny. My front tyre was completely flat. I must have picked up a puncture on the half-mile ride from my house to the station. How unlucky is that? No matter, I put in a new tube and then weaved my way through the outskirts of town, crossing the River Usk to join the canal.

Had I been travelling this way in the early nineteenth century I could have expected to see the canal busy with coal boats – in 1809 alone, 150,000 tonnes of the stuff shipped from wharves along the River Usk to the docks in Newport. Today, the canal serves the leisure industry and I encountered only the occasional narrow boat and a swan or two.

A gentle 35km or so on the towpath provided the perfect warm up. But the wet weather of recent days didn’t provide the perfect conditions for my road bike’s tyres. The detritus washed across the path obviously included a few thorns as I was soon fixing my second puncture. As I neared Brecon, I picked up my third.

The tyre was only deflating slowly, so I pushed on – stopping occasionally to top up the air. Luckily, Brecon has a good bike shop – Biped Cycles – so I called in to get a couple more tubes. Next I needed fuel for me.

I’d forgotten my lock so it would have to be something that didn’t involve straying far from the bike. As I rode towards the edge of town searching for a good option, I decided just to grab some fish and chips and guzzle them outside the shop. Comforting? Yes. Ideal cycling food? No.

The takeaway sat heavily as I followed National Cycle Network route 8 towards Glasbury, with digesting seeming to take more energy than pedalling. I didn’t exactly feel prepared for what lay ahead as I turned on to the start of the 400m climb towards Gospel Pass. The title of the Strava segment for this part of the ride says it all: The Hard Way up Hay Bluff.

It was certainly a tough climb, but the rewards outweighed the effort. Before long I emerged from hedge-lined lanes on to open hillside, the views wrapping around me and the Bluff looming ahead. I ground my way on, through a small ford and on to the last stretch of the climb to Gospel Pass. Rounding the final bend I summited the pass and pulled over to take in the view ahead of me down the valley towards Llanthony.

This was the highpoint, and the highlight, of the ride. It was all downhill from here – well, for 19km anyway.

97.98km | 1,012m ascent

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The bridge lifted to allow a narrowboat to pass underneath. If you're three years old this sort of thing is indescribably exciting.

G is three years old and the promise of seeing the bridge in action had kept him happy in his bike trailer as we pedalled nearly 50km along the back roads, bridleways and cycle paths from Malvern to Gloucester Docks.

It was our first attempt at a family bike ride on this scale and as we took in the scene we were proud of our achievement, even if it went unnoticed by car-borne daytrippers around us. Having watched more boats come and go and briefly fantasised about buying the disused lightship moored for sale, we sought a chain restaurant to fill G up with comforting, familiar food. Then we went to bed in the cheap hotel we had booked online the week before, thinking that we’d be too tired to care much about our surroundings.

We were right; sleep came easily to us all. This meant there were none of the problems we typically encounter when sharing a hotel room – chief among which is having to hide in the bathroom while, in the darkness outside the door, an over-excited child tries to fight off sleep.

The following morning we joined the other guests with young children at the early breakfast shift, unashamedly packing in as many calories as we could for the journey home. After checking out, we returned to the spot around the back of the hotel where we had locked up our bikes. A little wearily, we began our long pedal.

Almost immediately we were cycling among meadows as we followed the Sustrans route through the Alney Island Nature Reserve. The rare-breed cattle grazing there raised their heads as we passed, giving us a better look at their magnificent horns.

It was too early in our journey to linger, so we rode on. We soon passed a landmark of Victorian engineering: Telford's bridge. Surplus to the requirements of the modern road that thunders across an ugly steel and concrete bridge nearby, the elegant lines of the old bridge now provide a grand way to cross the river by bike. But we followed instead the path that hugs the river as we made our way upstream and home.

The return journey was more tiring and less eventful than the outward stage, our legs heavy and the route now familiar. There were detours to explore bridleways that prompt cries of “Too bumpy!” from the trailer. No bent mudguards and frustrating attempts to reshape them in a pub garden. Not even too many cries of “Are we nearly there yet?” from G – or either of the two adults.

Just a quick stop for lunch and home in time for tea.

98.8km | 582m ascent

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