Sunday, 19 August 2012


The thing about taking a holiday in this country is that you must be prepared to accept the vagaries of the English weather. Generally speaking I've always had the most fortunate good luck in this respect - whenever I go away I know the weather will, at worst, be okay, but mostly I seem to attract fine, sunny days.

Unfortunately that winning streak ended last week with operatic calamity. A week camping in North Devon on an exposed campsite, with gale force winds, thunder, lightening, a mini-tornado and rats left me shell-shocked to say the least. The night was worst - a repetitive heaving, buffeting, slapping and flapping when the tent felt like it was shortly to launch itself skyward made sleep uncomfortable and at times impossible. It was a shame really, because here is a part of Britain that is nationally protected for the beauty of its landscape. 171sq km of coastal landscape stretching from Marsland Mouth on the Cornish border to Coombe Martin on the boundary of the Exmoor National Park.
The hire bike

I hired a bike. I wasn't able to transport one of my own - I picked up a heavy, steel hybrid from Otter Cycles in Braunton - I chatted to the Scotsman who runs the business, he was truing wheels out in the yard making the most of the warm sunshine. "I've been here since 1970" he said "Worst year I've ever known" I was unsure if he meant because of the weather or the trade "Both" he elucidated.

Despite the scary, apocalyptic nights in the tent - daytime was mainly okay - and we spent time on the beach, building sandcastles, bodyboards in the surf etc - I cycled around the lanes comparing them to the ones I'm used to back home. They are steeper. And narrower. The hedges are higher - and sometimes lower. The flowers are prettier and the sea is never far away - every now and then I would get a tantalising glimpse between trees or hedges - a rolling sheet of shimmering jewels glistening and tempting. But the hills - wow - they are steep. Signs for 25% gradients are common - nasty grinding tracks that heave and push their way up from the coast to the green hills, tense and taunt like wiry veins and each full of walkers and cyclists. Tackling such roads on the hire bike was foolish - even though the bike seemed in good order the gearing wasn't particularly 'full' - I decided I wouldn't be able to get up the steeper climbs and so opted for the easier 15 and 20% routes instead.

After a few miles I felt sick. The heat was unbearable - I was melting - didn't remember hearing anything about a heatwave on the weather forecast? - I soldiered on - and up. Over fords, up tracks with more grass than concrete, over a packhorse bridge, a stile, through the grounds of a firestation... the route was varied and interesting - it would have been much easier on my own bike - but by now I was enjoying the scenery and I'd found a rhythm which was slow but constant.

I came across a fierce track that descended the hill more or less vertically. There was a Mountain Bike Club here, they seemed to be practising being organ donors - each would line up and then launch themselves down the track. I stopped to watch and chat. They talked about accidents with a cheery bloodthirstyness, the way I imagine big game hunters might talk about lion attacks or hippo bites. "We had one kid who went down safely" I was told "Then his Dad followed, hell for leather, came to a jump, lost his nerve, slammed on the brakes, fell on his head. Now he comes to watch in a wheelchair"

I moved off at a sedate pace - cycling is dangerous enough on the roads - I'm not at all interested in hurtling down mountain sides thank you very much. In a short while I arrive at a clearing - there are picnic tables and holiday sized litter bins, and stone slabs for portable barbeques and a cafe for those who can't be bothered or forgot to bring their own. There's a souvenir shop selling clotted cream shortbreads with a dollop of strawberry jam in the middle and glossaries of the local dialect. On the grass a group of pensioners on folding chairs drink wine from plastic wine glasses and help each other with sodoku and crosswords. A group of young people are getting slowly sozzled, laughing and hugging each other. A father throws a ball to his son, another son climbs onto and jumps off a big old stump. People prod sausages and lick ice-creams and a pair of riders walk their horses into the stream. The land lays itself out in the last, soft, warm light of day - like a lush and gorgeous nude, perfectly aware of its own allure and power, the curving secret body reclining under the green mantle of trees.

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