Most of this trip has been undertaken in short weekend stages, with me trekking back and forth to my last finishing point by train – often at unearthly hours in order to bag the “cheap” (i.e. affordable) advance train tickets. Back in April, I had taken a whole week off work to enable me to tackle the far Northern leg of my journey without all this to-ing and fro-ing. And I have done the same thing this first week of September, with the plan of covering the micropubs between Devon and Nottingham, via South Wales and the Midlands!
And so it was that I found myself spending my Friday evening on a train back to Tiverton Parkway just a fortnight or so after having returned from there. Fortunately, this time nobody was on strike so I was able to do the journey in a couple of hours, direct from London rather than it taking more than 6 hours via Birmingham!
Friday 4th September
I arrived into Tiverton “Parkway” (nowhere near Tiverton!) at around 9pm and headed down the dark lanes to seek out the campsite that I had telephoned a week previously. On the phone I had explained that I was booked on the 9pm train so would not be arriving till after dark, and would that be OK? The voice on the phone had explained that reception shut at 7pm so was there any chance I could get there before then? Not without a time machine, I had explained – would that still be OK? And the answer had been “Yes”.
But now, on arrival there were two problems. Firstly, there was nobody about to consult as to where to pitch a tent, and secondly, it seemed to be one of those campsites mostly given over to caravans and motor homes. There didn’t seem to be anywhere obvious to pitch a tent. I asked a couple of people who were milling around in the dark, but nobody seemed to know where the “duty warden” resided out of hours. So I made the best of the situation and quietly erected my little tent between a hedge and a monster caravan that completely dwarfed my tiny abode.
This was the first time that I had “stealth camped” in a camp site!
Saturday 5th September
Fortunately, my adopted neighbours did not seem too perturbed that a small green canvas thingy had appeared outside their caravan overnight. I explained the situation and made my apologies as I packed up and sought any sign of life at reception. I was pleased to encounter the “deputy duty warden” an hour before reception was due to open, and paid her the princely sum of eight pounds, and then I was back on the road – Ilfracombe bound!
But between myself and Ilfracombe was Exmoor. So, a steep climb up to a plateau at 1500 ft above sea level, but actually quite a flat ride for most of the day. And, compared to my previous forays into such elevated terrain (read my accounts of the North York Moors and Shap summit!), quite mild weather, so it felt less bleak.
Right the middle of Exmoor, a public house was marked on my map. Not just the usual anonymous “PH” symbol, but specifically “PH (The Sportsman’s Inn)”. Unsurprisingly, my wheels took me in its general direction, although a little voice in the back of my head told me to prepare for the worst. If pubs these days struggle to survive in the suburbs of North London, what hope was there for a pub that seemed to be at least 10 miles from the nearest village.
But I needn’t have fretted; I’m delighted to say that The Sportsman’s Inn is alive and kicking, and serving well-kept Exmoor Ales. Although that Saturday lunchtime things were relatively quiet, the landlord of over 20 years explained that t was generally packed in the evenings and that many local community groups, the local farmers, choral societies, you name it, met there.
Back on the road, I met a chap called Harry on a red Colnago racing bike and we chatted for a few minutes, until the road divided and we went our separate ways.
Later that afternoon I got my first glimpse of the North Devon coast and the sea in the distance.
At the end of the day it felt like I burned away much of the rubber of my brake blocks during the unbelievably steep descent into Combe Martin.
I found my campsite, Little Meadow, just beyond Coombe Martin on the road toward Ilfracombe. If you are ever looking to camp somewhere near Ilfracombe then this is the place! Incredible views and a lovely spaced out, terraced layout. What a view!
Sunday 6th Sept.
Today would be a short break from cycling. When I first planned this trip I had wondered for a while how I would cover the distance between Tiverton in Devon and Mumbles in Wales – not far as the crow flies but a very long way by road – perhaps 3 or 4 days’ cycling at my loaded pace! I expected there would be a ferry service somewhere across the Bristol Channel, but alas there is not! And then I had discovered PS-Waverley: the world’s last sea-going paddle steamer. PS Waverley was saved from the scrap-yard in the 1970’s by the paddle steamer preservation society and since has operated excursions at various points around the coast of England and Scotland. When the 2015 excursion timetable was released back in April, it was clear that there was only one day, Sunday 6th September, when it would be possible to use PS Waverley to cross from Devon to Wales. And so it was that I quickly snapped up a ticket from Ilfracombe to the Cardiff port of Penarth, with a two hour stopover on Lundy Island as an added bonus!! The rest of my year’s schedule had all been contrived to get me to this precise point on this very day. So, after all that forward planning, imagine if I had overslept and missed the boat.
Of course I didn’t! I was up bright and early and packed up and into Ilfracombe well before my 12.00 departure time. I explored the harbour, then explored the harbour again, marvelled at Damien Hirst’s artwork “Verity” adorning the quayside. As one might expect, this has received a mixed reception from locals.
The departure of PS Waverley from Ilfracombe harbour was quite an occasion. The town crier had come along, and there seemed to be as many people lined up on the quayside to see us off as there were packed onto the decks of Waverley herself.
I thought back to the Conqueror micropub in Ramsgate, how that pub had been named after a steamer that had been skippered by landlord Colin’s grandfather and imagined that this must be a similar kind of vessel.
A couple of hours later we docked at the small quay at Lundy Island. Those of you who are more into small pubs than big paddle steamers bear with me. There is a very small pub on Lundy and, of course, it was my first destination! But first there was the small matter of nearly a mile of walking uphill – and I thought my legs were going to get a rest today!
The Marisco Arms serves Lundy Ale (alas, not brewed on Lundy) and ALSO ALES FROM THE St Austell Brewery. On the walls hang lifebuoys and other memorabilia from the many unlucky vessels that have sunk off Lundy Island over the years. I felt glad that our steamer had made it this far!
Finally there was the long downhill walk down the steps back to the Waverley. Overhearing the family in front of me was rather like listening to an episode of Outnumbered:
Girl: “Mum, why did grandma stop on a seat and not come all the way up?”
Mum: “Well, she needed to catch her breath. That’s what happens when you get old.”
Girl: “But she was 80 today and this was her birthday present. She didn’t really use it, did she?”
It was a long sail (or should that be paddle?) back from Lundy to Penarth (via Ilfracombe). The sun had set and it was 10 in the evening by the time we finally manoeuvered our way into Penarth.
I can wholeheartedly recommend a trip on PS Waverley! Check out their schedule and the Waverley’s history at www.waverleyexcursions.co.uk
A 4 mile ride, via the Cardiff Bay Barrage brought me to Cardiff Youth Hostel, my lodgings for tonight. Youth Hostel? More like a hotel! Plasma TV in the room, en-suite shower room, bar open till 2am. But somewhere to dry my tent, still damp from the morning’s dew? Err, sorry, but no.
Monday 8th Sept
This morning I discovered that Cardiff YHA was a failed Mercure Hotel that YHA had snapped up on the cheap. So perhaps not so surprising that it was hotel-like.
I weaved my way through the city centre of Cardiff and then through its surprisingly cosmopolitan inner suburbs. Then, all of a sudden the city had come to an end and I found myself in open countryside.
Most of my route as far as Bridgend / Pen-y-bont was on quiet country lanes and I barely saw a soul. Clearly nobody had felt the urge to remove this particular tree, which appeared to have been blocking this road for a considerable time!
After Bridgend, I joined a Sustrans cycle route which alternated between meandering along the backstreets of Port Talbot and Neath and running alongside busy and noisy dual carriageways. But if at any point I felt the need to moan to myself about the gradient I only had to take a look to my right to see how much worse it could have been!
And then I arrived in Swansea and had the pleasure of riding along the promenade for the 5 miles or so to Mumbles. It was close to the end of day 3 of this leg of my trip and only now had I reached my first micropub!!
The Mumbles Ale House is owned and run by Rod and Karen. Like many micropubs, they do not open on Mondays but they had kindly agreed to open up for me to avoid delaying my journey by a day. I’ll do a proper write up of the pub in due course. It was lovely to meet Rod and Karen. They had offered me a bed for the night but reluctantly I declined as the next micropub, which I planned to visit the following evening, was 90 miles away so I needed to beak the back of that journey today. Rod gave me 3 bottles of beer to sample and I gratefully crammed these into what little spare space I could find in my panniers and then went on my way.
I retraced my steps back through Swansea and Port Talbot. As I reached Bridgend it grew dark. I had no planned accommodation for that night as I had intended to wing it. Along the way I had seen numerous signs for campsites but just when I needed one they all evaporated. After riding onwards in the dark for about half an hour I spotted the entrance to a field that appeared to be in the middle of nowhere. Too tired to bother with the tent, I rolled out my groundsheet and bivvy bag and bedded down for the night after downing one of Rod’s beers as a nightcap.
Tuesday 8th Sept
I awoke at first light. No idea what time that was, but the first thing on my mind was that, in the cold light of day, my resting place was not quite as remote as i had imagined. To say I was sleeping in the farmer’s back garden would be an overstatement, but let’s just say that if he had peered out of his bedroom window it would have been difficult to miss me! I’m not a confident wild camper, only having popped my wild camping cherry earlier this year, so I hastily packed up my stuff and within about 5 minutes i was back on the road. Like a responsible wild camper, I had done no damage and left no trace that i had ever been there – or so i thought. About an hour down the road, when the sun grew brighter, it became apparent that in my haste I had left my sunglasses behind in that field.
Anyway the early start had come in handy. By 9am I had reached Cardiff where I took my time over an enormous cafe breakfast, safe in the knowledge that I was ahead of schedule.
My route out of Cardiff took me through the St Mellons area, where mobility scooters seemed to be the default mode of transport for anybody over the age of 40! The last part of Cardiff, before the countryside kicked in, was an industrial estate where all the roads were named after 1960’s programming languages!
During the afternoon, the early start began to take its toll which meant I was unable to fully appreciate the undeniably attractive places I passed through such as Usk and Monmouth. But I made a mental note to return one day to this region.
My micropub destination, Coleford, also turned out to be a beautiful little town. Unfortunately for me it sits on top of a hill, so the only way was up!
I had a great visit to The Dog House micropub (formerly one of three Cobblers micropubs in the region), and then it was time to head to Wye Valley youth hostel for the night. Fortunately, the only way out of Coleford is down!
Wednesday 9th Sept
YHA Wye Valley is as unlike the Cardiff YHA as it is possible to be! Car access is via a crumbling track with hairpin bends and barely wide enough for a single car.
As my first micropub stop of the day was less than 20 miles away and did not open until 4pm, I could have a bit of a lie-in for a change.
Shortly before midday I checked out, and scrambled up the steep precipitous path from the youth hostel to the main road and headed along the quiet but somewhat hilly roads toward Hereford.
In Hoarwithy village, my planned route would have taken me left up what appeared to be a steep incline. The road to the right, following the river Wye looked far more inviting (and flat). A sign indicating there was a pub called the Cottage of Content in the next village clinched it – so I turned right and soon was enjoying a swift pint in said pub in the delightful village of Carey..
But the hill was ultimately unavoidable without a long diversion, so on leaving the pub I took a left turn and gritted my teeth for the climb.
I have never been to Hereford before and it appeared very impressive with its charming bridge and views of the Cathedral. In many ways it is a pity that I’m “only here for the beer” and have rarely had sufficient time available to fully explore the towns and cities that I have been passing through. But at least the memories and the glimpse of what each place has to offer can be used to inspire future weekends away.
I grabbed a cheese & onion pasty from a nearly shop then went to find Beer in Hand. Still half an hour till opening, so I proceeded to devour the pasty outside. But Mitchell, the landlord had spotted me from inside and invited me in for a before-opening beer. I’ll write about Beer in Hand separately.
Alas, I could not stay long, as I had an appointment to keep on the outskirts of Newent. I was to be met by some cyclists from Newent Cycling Group who would escort me into Newent and to the Cobblers micropub along their very own cycle route. After they had received a lukewarm reaction from their local council about developing and signing some cycling routes in their area, this gallant bunch decided to take matters into their own hands. Raising their own funds, they sought permission to erect their own signage and consequently signed two circular routes based on their own local knowledge. Not only that but they designed and produced a map and guide to the routes. And hence the Newent Loop was born!
Thank you Linda, David, Colin and Bill for your insight into your worthy project – if you are ever in the area then check out http://newentloop.org and bring your bike with you !!
While I had been in Cobblers it had grown dark. Needing to get to Stratford on Avon for opening time tomorrow I need to make some headway towards that town, so I had booked myself into a campsite at a pub called the Lower Lode Inn near Tewkesbury. It was beginning to get a little chilly as I set off down the dark lanes. The Newent Cycling Group had come up trumps yet again and Linda had nipped home to print off a section of Ordnance Survey map upon which she had marked the best route to my campsite.
A couple of miles down the road, I encountered another nocturnal cyclist called Will, who was “just out for a ride”.
The dark lanes in the area were not as quiet as I’ve might have expected at that time of night. Will explained that this was all due to the controversial badger cull, and that the groups of people hanging around the lanes or parked up in lay by’s were either those included in the cull or those trying to monitor or prevent it. From time to time a police car would also pass.
Eventually I located the Lower Lode Inn at the end of a 2 mile dead end lane, a aforethought it want really a dead end. The inn was on the banks of the River Severn and the lane continued on the opposite bank linked by a small passenger ferry. I put my tent up and noted into the Inn for a final pint – rude not to!
Thursday 10th September
Next morning I packed up my dewy tent and looked around for any sign of the ferryman. I had been told last night that Tewkesbury was only a mile away from the opposite bank, but without the ferry was a 5 mile detour by road. A man emerged from the building next door: I asked him if he knew what time the ferry started.
“Lunchtime” he said. And then he broke into a grin and explained that he operated it so it started when he decided. We loaded my bike into the small motor launch and set off across the Severn. In the couple of minutes it took to cross I learned that in the recent floods this whole area had been under water. The pub I had been in last night had been submerged up to bar height and there were still the remnants of trashed boats languishing half way up the banks of the river.
I bid the ferryman farewell and pedalled the short distance into Tewkesbury and ordered a large breakfast from the Wetherspoons – yes, they have their uses!
On the cyclepath to Stratford I met a man who was touring the country on an electric bike. Personally, I have struggled to keep my phone and GPS in a constant state of charge throughout this trip and wondered what it must be like to keep a bike constantly charged up.
A couple of hours later I was riding into Stratford-upon-Avon, but as a different kind of tourist.
After chat and a pint with Phil at the Stratford Ale House I made tracks for Warwick where I visited the Old Post Office and meet both the current mayor and the new incoming mayor.
My legs were growing tired by the time I reached Bromsgrove. After 3 nights of camping, two nights in youth hostels and one night of sleeping in a field even the lowly Travelodge that I had checked into for the night felt like a palace! Receptiion were happy for me to bring my bike into the room too. I got showered and changed and then ride the short distance into town to the Little Ale House.
Friday 11th September
I expected today to be more of an urban ride, flitting as I would be between various Midlands Towns, but there turned out to be quite a lot of greenery between them. First on the list was Kidderminster, the town famous for its carpets, where I visited the Weavers Ale House.
Next destination was Wolverhampton where I received a spectacular welcome, and a huge cheque for Alzheimers, at Hail To The Ale. This pub is run by Gary and Angela Morton of the eponymous Morton Brewery.
Things were getting late and so I pressed on towards the wonderfully named “Whippet Inn” in Lichfield. I literally had to whip in and out of there as I still had quite a way to go to Tamworth before the Kings Ditch closed.
On my way, my Garmin directed me off the road and onto a narrow track. Shortly afterwards, a sign warned of an artillery range. I soldiered on, assuming nobody would be doing target practice at this time of night! After a few wrong turns in the dark, I finally met my nemesis in the form of a locked gate about 6 feet high! Having come this far there was no way that I was going to turn back, so I painstakingly removed each piece of my luggage, throwing them over one by one and then finally lugged the bike over the gate and reloaded on the other side.
Eventually I rolled into Tamworth just as it began to rain – the first rain of the week. Luckily, it turned out that the Kings Ditch opened until 10.30 and not 10 as I had previously thought.
Saturday 12th September
It was still raining when I looked out of the window in the morning. I ambled downstairs for breakfast and then headed off towards Tutbury. On the way, the rain became torrential and I was glad that I had donned not only my waterproof top but also legs and overshoes.
Tutbury turned out to be a delightful little town, with a castle, museum, but also proper shops to complement the inevitable touristy establishments that are inevitable in such a location. The town was well connected with a train station and regular buses. Even the weather finally delivered and the clouds drifted away allowing me to spread out my things to dry. Which was handy, as I had arrived over an hour before the Cask and Pottle was due to open.
After a quick pint at the Cask & Pottle I rode on towards Melbourne where I had a date with the Chip & Pin.
A great welcome awaited me at the Chip & Pin. It was great to meet David and Elaine who run the pub, but also aspiring micropub landlords Shaun and Jane who are soon to open the Fuggle & Nugget micropub in the nearby brewing town of Burton-on-Trent.
Shortly before I left the Chip & Pin, a young gentleman introduced himself to me. It was Steve, who had contacted me via Facebook about possibly cycling with me for some of today’s route. Steve was able to join me until the next pub, the Chequered Flag, but would had another engagement later so unfortunately would not be able to ride in to Derby.
On the way to the Chequered Flag, Steve and I passed through the grounds of Donington Park racing circuit. We tried to blag our way into the museum, but unfortunately it was closed.
However, The Chequered Flag micropub in nearby Castle Donington is almost a motor racing museum in itself. More about that later.
It was time to move on to Derby. I bid adieu to Steve a few miles down the road and headed into Derby along NCN6, which avoided all the main roads and followed the River Derwent.
My friend and work colleague Stuart had been due to meet me in Derby in order to catch today’s last two micropubs and then ride with me the following day, but I started receiving texts from Stuart hinting that all was not going well with his train journey.
At around 6pm I arrived at the Little Chester Ale House, who had done a splendid job of raising £81 via a raffle. Alas, no Stuart. He would now get into Derby after 8pm so instead of cycling to Belper with me he would catch the train and meet me there. A very sneaky way of avoiding a steep hill!!
I arrived into Arkwrights Real Ale bar only a few minutes before Stuart himself arrived.
After a couple of pints there we made our way along the road to the George and Dragon where we were staying for the night.
Sunday 13th September
Stuart and I packed up and headed off to the nearby Morrissons supermarket for a hearty breakfast. Then on the road and out of Belper towards our first micropub stop, the Marlpool Ale House in Heanor.
Stuart’s parents, Graham and Marie, joined us in Hucknall at Beer Shack.
A short ride via NCN6 (again!) took us to The Abdication in a northern suburb of Nottingham.
Finally, a visit to Doctors Orders and then it was time to head home after another week on the road that, again, had felt like a whole month!
At Nottingham station, Stuart caught his train back to Peterborough and I boarded mine to London. It had been a long and eventful week. 20 more micropubs visited and an adventure I hope to remember for years to come.