Day 3: Elmscott – Exford

After two epic days of slightly over-ambitious saddlebag touring, we scaled it down a bit for day three. some sly-route planning meant cutting out a visit to ilfracombe, in favour of a blast straight up over the north devon hills onto exmoor. Ilfracombe is a bit of a toilet anyway, so no great shakes there. we came across some cows and a slightly cheeky farmer who chastised us for getting out of bed late, it was around 9.30am.

cheeky cows

i found the most specific road sign ever:

the morning began misty and dank, but it cleared quickly as we headed inland towards Barnstaple. a second encounter with cows enlivened the initial miles, then as we dropped down towards the torridge flood plain, for the first time in ages we managed to get some speed up. there was also some welcome flatness along the Tarka Trail, and with each passing mile the sun began to peek through the clouds. the scenic estuary was merely a prelude; climbing out of Barnstaple (another toilet-town, do not stop, continue straight through, i should know, i was born there) onto the North Devon hills the landscape became more and more incredible. it’s hard to explain the allure of North Devon, the steep undulations and densely wooded valleys around Snapper and Chelfham, vertiginous and verdant in equal measure, lead up to the headlands above the Atlantic which then fold suddenly into the ocean. it’s a beautiful place. we took in Woody Bay and then the valley of the rocks, which is genuinely unlike anywhere else. at this point i began to get a sense of what cycle-touring is about; the sense of movement and journey through the landscape, the tranquil transience and the interstices between space and time.

we plummeted into Lynmouth to take in the climb out – Countisbury Hill. It’s hard not to overegg this, but the experience of riding up Countisbury was one of the best experiences I have ever had and i recommend it as one of the great road climbs in the UK. it starts off steeply, at least 25%, but then relaxes to a more manageable 10-12%. the road is etched into the cliff face and rises steadily up to the threshold of Exmoor, providing awe-inspiring views of the coastline and across to Wales.

cloud rolling across the headland
Graham and Steve climb Countisbury
the view of wales from the top

Once over the top we rode across Exmoor before dropping down to Exford. As with the previous two nights, we ended up in a faraday cage of woodland, with no mobile signal at all. i’d almost forgotten how payphones work. It being the last night, we had a few beers and a pub dinner. The Exmoor Gold crowned a perfect day.

we did *just* the 70 miles, with only around 6000 feet of climbing.

Porlock Hill

I’m beginning to think Samuel Taylor Coleridge was a latent cyclist; first brockley coombe, and now Porlock Hill. He was quite the adventurer (and drug-crazed visionary); his frequent perambulations taking him to the very edge of the precipice; sometimes literally:

In 1802, on a stormy summer’s afternoon in the Lake District, Samuel Coleridge is playing a game of Russian roulette. Standing on the summit of Scafell, a stubby, precipitous mountain if taken from the wrong angle, he has chosen to descend at random, ‘too confident, and too indolent to look around’ for a safe route down.

Coleridge is soon in trouble. Lowering himself over a small cliff, he soon realises he cannot retrace his steps. Then, he finds himself teetering above a steep drop. He appears to be trapped. True to his nature, Coleridge lies down on his back and, with his senses reeling from the wild perspectives you can only find on a steep mountainside, feels himself enter a state of ecstasy: ‘O God, I exclaimed aloud – how calm, how blessed am I now – I know not how to proceed, how to return, but I am calm and fearless and confident.’

Liberated from fear, he achieves a serene, practical awareness and what has seemed like a dead end now becomes a way forward. Most of us regard risking our lives in this way as foolish, but such profound experiences are compelling, even addictive.

i retraced some of his steps this weekend, cycling the 80 miles or so from bristol to lynmouth on friday after work, before returning on sunday. it was quite an epic slog, all told, of long hours spent in the saddle. but what elevated this from a typical training ride was the purpose – heading down to lynmouth to see old friends and new (which always makes me feel a bit antediluvian because everyone else is driving down in short time whilst i’m spending 5 hours riding across the length and breadth of somerset) and the short distance from minehead to lynmouth over the tops of the headlands. it is one of the most serenely beautiful parts of England; cliffs lurch up out of the bristol channel, climbing over 1100 feet, and the coast road goes directly over, rather than around.

the excitement starts just after nether stowey; a small sleepy village with further coleridge connections. the road begins to undulate and the views across to wales become more pronounced; the stark monumental rectangle of Hinckley Point serves as a counterpoint to the soft contours of wooded hills, dipping and rising to the sea. this continues to minehead, at which point the view of the forthcoming headland dominates; in every way impressive, the road a distant silver script etched across the open moorland, winding upwards with a flourish. signs warn of the approach of porlock from some distance – advising caravans, lorries and pantechnicons to take another route that offers less chance of disaster.

1 in 4 doesn’t sound too bad, until you realise that in new money it’s a 25% climb – for about half a mile, and then beyond. and after that it still dances upwards, mockingly. i really like hills – genuinely, i thrive when riding up and relish the challenge. i really like porlock hill, it’s incredibly beautiful and utterly impressive. but it is not enjoyable to ride up, it’s utterly horrendous; this is simply because it is too steep; thus destroying any rhythm. it’s so steep that if you sit down and pedal the front wheel lifts off the ground with every pedal stroke. there are two savage hairpins where the angle must ramp up a further 5%, with one of them on the inside, forcing you to accelerate just to get up.

for this next picture i paused briefly (on the return leg, not whilst going up – any pause would mean walking, it’s impossible to clip back in on a hill this steep) in the escape road, a gravel trap intended to stop any runaway cars…

i made it up, but it destroyed my legs for the remainder of the ride; i was also carrying a large bag with my clothes and shoes for the weekend, which isn’t recommended. i continued up over the top, with views of exmoor to the left, and the bristol channel and wales to the right. the road clings desperately to the edge of the slope, before dropping down into lynmouth via countisbury hill; another 1:4 incline, but with clear lines of sight that allow speeds of up to 65mph, if feeling brave/stupid.

on the return, roles are reversed; countisbury becomes savage and brutal, but unfortunately porlock doesn’t reward the effort, such is the steepness that a hair-raising descent is not possible; it’s a fingers to the brakes, delicate and fearful drop. the warning signs don’t help.

my legs feel very heavy today; but it’s that sort of dull heaviness that promises more strength to come. i have paid homage to one of the road climbs yet to elude me, and feel calmly satisfied.

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