SPRING IS THE TIME TO EXPLORE WALES AND THE WEST COUNTRY – REGIONS THAT ARE ESPECIALLY BEAUTIFUL WHEN EXPLORED BY BIKE, SAYS CYCLIST AND AUTHOR JACK THURSTON
There was a time when I would cycle to Cornwall every summer from my home in London, to join friends in a holiday cottage on the beach. Each year I took a slightly different route, staying overnight with people I knew along the way, or just sleeping out in the open.
It usually took me four full days. By train it’s just a few hours. My average speed on those summer rides was about 12 miles an hour, which sounds slow but by historical standards, the bicycle is actually pretty quick. It’s four times walking pace and double the speed of a horse-drawn carriage.
The bicycle, and only the bicycle, combines speed, efficiency and freedom with a total immersion in the world around us. Riding through the sun, the wind and the rain, every sight, sound and smell is as vivid and immediate as it can be. Cyclists experience the landscape with a detail and definition that is just a blur when travelling by car or train. As Ernest Hemingway puts it, “It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them.”
Nowhere is this more true than in the west of Britain – the hills, downs and moors of the west country and the mountains and valleys of Wales. I have felt the powerful call of the west all my life; when I moved to the Black Mountains of south-east Wales, a big part of the appeal was all the cycling to be had there. Of Wales’s 21,000 miles of roads, a full 60% are narrow, rural and unclassified.
The old joke goes that if you flattened Wales out, it would be bigger than England, and it’s true that Wales is considerably hillier than its neighbour, and its mountain roads make for breathtaking bike rides (in both senses). But it’s not all about the hills. There are gentler lost lanes in the lowlands and along the coast, too; perhaps the greatest concentration of lost lanes just right for cycling is in the rolling borderlands between England and Wales. Frontiers and edges, the places where one thing gives way to another are always the most interesting. The first real taste of the west comes with the sight of the chalk downs that fan out from Salisbury Plain; thatched cottages, an Iron Age hill fort, prehistoric burial mounds and standing stones. Then you have a choice: the ups and downs (albeit with spectacular views) of the Dorset coast, the flat straight roads over the peat moors of the Somerset Levels, or the gentle farmland of the Blackmore Vale. Any of these will bring you to the rich red earth of Devon with its high-banked lanes. Then there are the granite tors of Dartmoor before reaching the rocky Atlantic coasts of Cornwall.
Britain’s rural lanes comprise as much as a third of the entire length of the road network. The story of these lanes, capped in just a thin veneer of Tarmac, is the story of Britain itself, from Neolithic trackways to Roman military roads and medieval pilgrim’s trails. Most common of all are the timeless, nameless lanes that have seen nothing but the unremarkable and unrecorded to-ing and fro-ing of daily life. Over countless years, these everyday journeys have worn their way into the landscape. And whenever I ride down a dark, wooded holloway or follow a chalk-white scar that strikes out across the downs, I can’t help thinking of all the feet, hooves and wheels that have passed this way before me.
A road is for travelling between places, but a lane is a place in itself. Lined by flower-studded verges »
and venerable hedgerows, twisting through shady woods and bright green pastures, lanes follow rivers, cross clifftops and pass by cottages and farms, pubs and churches. In a hectic and stressful world, they are the superhighways for the soul.
I’ve spent many happy days and nights following lost lanes, forgotten byways, peaceful towpaths and wilder off-road tracks. Each route offers detours and diversions, improvisation and alternation. No two bike rides are ever alike. As the seasons come and go, you can witness the searing summer sun, the fire of autumn, the first snows of winter and that most special time when the russet, khaki and pewter of winter is replaced by dazzling shades of bright green and the hedgerow fireworks begin with the pearlescent fizz of blossom. There’s no better way to immerse yourself in spring than by riding a bicycle down a country lane.
l Taken from Lost Lanes Wales and Lost Lanes West by Jack Thurston (Wild Things Publishing). Buy the books and you can download the route instructions and observations for your GPS or mobile device.