Cycling through Southwest England

Every few years I go on a cycling trip, and I like to write small travelogues about these trips. This is personal and has nothing to do with AI or NLG, so is unlikely to be of interest to most of the usual readers of my blog.

I couldnt do much in 2020 or 2021 because of Covid, so it was really nice to be able to do a cycling trip again in 2022! This year I decided to explore part of southwestern England, which is an area I have never properly visited. I’ve done a few work trips to Exeter and Bristol, but didnt have much of a chance in these trips to explore the area.

The North Sea as I leave Aberdeen

Monday, 20 June 2022: I got the 0820 CrossCountry train from Aberdeen to Plymouth, which is the longest train trip in the UK. The train first (mostly) goes down the East coast of Britain from Aberdeen to Newcastle via Edinburgh, then crosses to Bristol on the West coast (Irish Sea) via Leeds and Birmingham, then goes to the South coast (English channel) at Exeter, and finally along the coast to arrive in Plymouth 11.5 hrs after leaving Aberdeen. Its an amazing trip across a huge chunk of Great Britain. I must say, though, that the train itself was a bit of a disappointment – no mention anywhere that this was the longest train trip in UK, and no onboard food/catering except for a food trolley (fortunately I had brought my own food).

The tunnel!

Tues, 21 June: I had a nice day exploring the Plymouth area on various bike paths. The most memorable moment was when one of the bike paths led me to a tunnel with no lighting. There was some light by the entrance and exit, but the middle of the tunnel was pitch black (supposed to have lights but they werent working). Fortunately I met a local cyclist who guided me through; he had been using the tunnel for decades (long before lights were installed), so knew exactly what to do. It was quite an experience, I don’t think I’ve ever been in such a dark place before without lights. Incidentally I was going to get lights for my bike but decided not to bother since I wasnt planning on cycling at night; I wasnt expecting this tunnel!

Hanging out by the sea in Plymouth

Wednesday, 22 June: I took a train and visited the Eden Project in Cornwall, which is a very impressive collection of giant greenhouses situated in an old clay pit. I especially liked the tropical rainforest, not what you usually see in Cornwall. Afterwards I hung around Plymouth, which impressed me as a nice place to visit: great sea views, interesting old buildings, plenty of history (the Mayflower left from Plymouth), nice restaurants, and (at least from a tourist perspective) a mellow atmosphere. Maybe I’ll come back!

Devon pub founded in 1028

Thursday, 23 June: I cycled from Plymouth to Torquay. Very scenic but also somewhat hilly, I guess this describes most cycling in Devon… One thing that really impressed me was that when I stopped for lunch at a pub in the middle of nowhere, I discovered that the pub was almost 1000 years old! Of course this is unheard of in USA (there are 1000 year old archaeological sites, but not 1000 year old pubs). Even in Aberdeen there are very few buildings that are 1000 years old, and they are major monuments, not random pubs in the middle of nowhere.

Narrow street in Dartmouth

Friday, 24 June: I did a day trip on my bike from Torquay to Dartmouth (the original one, not the home of the US university). Lovely setting where the river Dart goes into the English channel. I also really liked some of the super-narrow “streets” in the town (village?). I spent some time in Torquay when I returned. My wife had warmed me that it was full of pensioners, but I was nonetheless surprised when a random person in his 80s (?) sat down at my table in a cafe and went to sleep, without even asking me if this was OK. Not what I’m used to, but maybe the norm in a pensioner-oriented tourist town? At least it made me feel relatively young; usually I’m interacting with people who are much younger than me.

Country road near Torquay

Saturday, 25 June: I cycled from Torquay to Exeter, along the usual mix of scenic-but-hilly roads; some of the roads felt like green tunnels (but well lighted, unlike the tunnel on Tuesday!). The weather forecast had shown a risk of thunderstorms in the afternoon, so instead of my usual messing around, I headed straight to Exeter and arrived there around noon. Only to find that there were in fact no thunderstorms, so I could have taken my time. I have worked with weather forecasters and I realise forecasting is a matter of probabilities, not of certainties; but in this case I would have appreciated knowing that it was going to be a fine day. Oh, well… At least I had a chance to explore Exeter a bit.

Railside path to Dawlish

Sunday, 27 June: I did a day trip from Exeter to Dawlish, along a fantastic bike path which went along the river Exe and its estuary; I walked the last bit along a very dramatic path between the train line and the beach (no cycling allowed, so I walked my bike). My brother-in-law Mike Ralls spent several years in Dawlish after he retired and before his untimely death, so I had heard quite a bit about Dawlish from my wife, but never seen it myself. Probably not where I would retire, but I can see why Mike liked it.

Political sign near Tiverton

Monday, 28 June: I cycled from Exeter to Taunton, passing close to Tiverton. The area was quiet and rural, but had been front-page political news in the UK a few days previously. The Tiverton MP, who was a member of the ruling Conservative (Tory) party, had been forced to resign because he was caught watching pornography in Parliament. So a by-election had been held on 23 June for a new MP, which was won by the opposition Liberal Democrat party. This was front-page news throughout the UK, and it felt a bit odd to be cycling through areas that TV journalists had been reporting from.

Where I fell into the canal-side vegetation

Tuesday, 29 June: I cycled from Taunton to Weston-super-Mare. Mostly very pleasant, but I did have one unfortunate accident. I had been following Google Maps, which led me on a canal path which was narrow and overgrown with vegetation. So I decided to reverse out of the path and go on a road instead. But while backing out, I misjudged the edge of the path and fell into the canal-side vegetation, getting myself and my bike sopping wet (fortunately my phone and clothes were protected and stayed dry). I felt like an idiot, and in retrospect should have been more careful! Anyways, my first priority after arriving in Weston-super-Mare was finding a laundromat so I could wash everything I had been wearing.

Woodspring Priory

Wednesday, 30 June: In the morning I cycled out to Woodspring Priory. My wife’s grandmother (her father’s mother) grew up in this area, so I was curious to see it. I’m not sure of the details, but I think the family were tenant farmers at or near the priory. Anyways, the priory itself wasnt open to tourists (you can visit but this requires advance notice and planning), but I could see the outside. The area seems like reasonable farming country, as far as I can judge such things.

Google Maps wanted me to cycle on this!

Thursday, 30 June: I cycled from Weston-super-Mare to Bristol. Actually, I didnt cycle the whole way, I “cheated” at one point. Google Maps wanted me to cycle along a busy dual carriageway (divided highway) with cars whizzing by at 60+ mph and no bicycle lane. I decided I wasnt going to do this, so I backtracked to a train station and took a local train for 2 stops in order to avoid the dual carriageway. Anyways, I got into Bristol around noon and was really impressed, its the most bike-friendly city I’ve seen in the UK.

Panic – my train isnt going to Aberdeen!

Friday, 1 July: Time to go home to Aberdeen! I had booked a ticked on the 1130 train from Bristol to Aberdeen, and planned to spend the morning exploring Bristol. However, when I checked the train during breakfast, I discovered that it was going to stop at Newcastle and wasn’t going to Aberdeen, because of a shortage of Scottish train drivers! The UK train system has been hit hard by industrial action in summer 2022. There was a nationwide strike during the first week of my trip (fortunately it started on 21 June, after I arrived in Plymouth). This was over, but local actions continued, including a no-overtime rule by Scottish train drivers. Anyways, I had a bit of a panic, since finding alternative trains is not easy with a bike (trains have limited bike places). Fortunately, a very nice lady at the Bristol ticket office was able to sort things out and book new trains for me; took a bit longer, but I managed to get home OK, which is what matters!

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