It had for so long seemed so far away; but all good things must eventually come to an end. Today was my very last day of cycling through all of the OS Landranger maps in numerical order. I had visited the first 202 already in my epic journey that started at the very top of Britain, in the Shetland Isle of Unst, on 9th May. There, at that time, it barely got dark at all. Now it was deep into November and the Cornish sun would setting soon after 4pm. But the sun gods offered us another gratefully seized – if short – day of blue skies, combined with the all important strong, following breeze off the Atlantic. When we saw the chance coming, it was too good to miss. And since this day, of all days, was always going to be a team effort, Mrs W and I made the 400 mile drive together all the way to the end of the road at Land’s End, arriving at 11pm on a Sunday night under a vivid, starry sky.
I have to take this opportunity to recognise that I could not have completed this challenge alone. I have had the kind assistance of many people along the way and I intend to say more about that in another blog as I reflect on the months gone by. But make no mistake: without Jenni being on board from first to last, none of this would have been possible. Aside from her company along the way over many days, and her endless encouragement, there were all kinds of behind the scenes contributions – and especially her route planning through some complicated and unfamiliar country – that got me to the end of each day and kept me on track. It was only right that we started and finished the trip cycling together.
My memory of Land’s End was of a rather tacky, over touristed place. Perhaps it was the time of year; but it seemed very much improved. Certainly the Land’s End Hotel, where we stayed the night, was quite delightful. And the setting is superb. We were surrounded on three sides by cliffs and pounding seas, shining a bright green blue this bright, windy morning under fast changing blue skies with high cloud of every colour. We breakfasted with this as our backdrop, the sound of the wind and the waves only blocked out by the wrap-around glass of the hotel conservatory. Then, obviously, we went and posed by the famous signpost for the necessary photo, before I made final preparations and set off by bicycle for the final time. The ride today would be about 65 miles and hilly. It was important to fit it all into the one day available, and try to do so in the small amount of daylight on offer. That meant getting a few quick miles under my belt and meeting Jenni up the road outside Penzance train station, at the end of the rail network. In this way we would more easily be able to collect the car tomorrow, and it gave Jenni a ride that should (just) be within her range, and that of her bike’s battery. So I made my wind-assisted way through the village of Sennen and past the First and Last pub in England (as well as the first and last school, Spar shop, post office, etc).
It struck me, as I rode along the quiet road, that most other cyclists who come here are either just setting out on a big challenge – as we did in 2008 – or coming to the end of one. I was not quite doing either. Land’s End for me was merely a staging post and the start of my shortest and final coast-to-coast ride, a matter of two OS maps from here to the quaint port town of Fowey, which is so much at the right hand edge of map 204 that the OS have allowed it to spill into the margin!
The only place in between during the whole day that we would be beside the sea was from Penzance for a couple of miles around the bay to Marazion, so I made the most of it by cycling the length of Penzance promenade. It was a cheerful place this morning as the sun shone straight in from the sea and over the art-deco open air swimming pool that also houses Britain’s first geo thermal pool, according to the sign. I feel I need to come back and try that. I can’t imagine it comparing to Iceland; but, well, you never know!
I set off with Jenni on the sea front cycle path that arcs beside the railway towards St Michael’s Mount. The island loomed across the bay forming an improbable castellated silhouette against the near horizon. The rocky outcrop, and the collection of buildings it contains, can be reached on foot at low tide, and by boat at other times. It is a slightly less grand cousin to Le Mont St Michel in Normandy, France; but impressive nonetheless. As I recall, we visited 23 years ago when we were in Cornwall with Jenni’s parents to see the total solar eclipse. It was well worth coming to see. But there was no time for that today.
Here in the ancient small town of Marazion, across from St Michael’s Mount, we headed inland on small roads. We were following the same route that our team of four had taken at the start of our end-to-end ride in 2008, following the untimely deaths of my mum and my uncle. On that occasion, close to midsummer, it had also been a sunny day, and a good thing, too! We were heavily laden and had a very long and hilly day ahead of us, all the way to the middle of Dartmoor. We passed through Fowey sometime in the afternoon. When the BnB host in Postbridge had kindly served our evening meal at somewhere approaching 10pm, he commented – in all seriousness – that we must be feeling good that the worst two days were now over. He was very surprised to learn we had started the day at Land’s End. I think we laughed at the time (maybe not my cousin Lex); but perhaps not the following morning as we got up to do the same distance, about 120 miles, all over again! How hard could today be by comparison?
The route was delightfully quiet right across map 203 and we were just getting peckish when we crossed the Carnon River at Devoran and found Pip, a lady selling hot drinks and cakes from a converted horse box by the side of the lane. Some things are just meant to be, so we stopped for hot chocolate and chatted for a while. She was having a career change, getting away from teaching, and seemed very happy about her new life. There was no one else around this late November Monday lunchtime; but she said it was a year-round business and she would also be selling flowers in the spring. It was certainly an enchanting spot. The next couple of miles along the shores of the tidal river estuary were just gorgeous, with grassy banks, small boats lying on the exposed mud, the river shining in the sun and the hills all around cloaked in trees still showing their autumn colours. There were some exceptional properties tastefully scattered along the bank with the most stunning views from their balconies. I really do think I could live here. Maybe when the drinks business really starts to thrive Pip will need a helper.
It was a quick climb and then a steep descent past The National Trust’s Trelissick garden, with its dovecote-like roadside round stone tower and weather vane, to King Harry Ferry across the broad River Fal. This would be my final ferry of the trip. I believe it was my 70th! Traffic winds it’s way steeply down to a slipway at either side to be ferried across on a moving road vehicle ferry which runs three times per hour in each direction. While we waited, we enjoyed Pip’s cake and then resumed our undulating ride across on the Roseland Peninsula.
The tiny lanes continued and the hills were unrelenting. We were reaching the point in the day where a proper break was needed; but there was nowhere obvious to take it. On a Monday out of season, it seemed as if every village pub was closed and there was nothing else on offer until mid afternoon, when we finally reached the biggest village we had seen for hours, Tregony. Here the pubs were also closed; but there was a Spar shop that doubled up as the village post office, with sunny benches outside, and we settled for sandwiches from the fridge and a takeaway coffee. Don’t tell the shopkeeper; but we also found an electricity socket in the back corner of the shop and charged Jenni’s battery while we ate. Which was necessary, because we still had a fair few miles to go.
The last part of the ride took us along unavoidable sections of main road through St Austell and Par, whose fortunes have depended on the extraction and export of China Clay from the surrounding hills. It makes for a rather odd looking landscape in places, and the docks at Par are not pretty. We kept our wits about us and survived the busy rush hour traffic, which died down as we started the stiff climb up the hill towards Fowey in the last of the daylight. The final descent into the old town starts high above the rooftops and the tall church tower. The road down to the harbour is very steep and narrow, and not a place for cars. But it is all very quaint and the wide River Fowey estuary is a beautiful place.
Alongside the harbour in the dusk we propped our bikes against a pub wall, and through the window a woman waved at us. It was Jo, my welcoming party, with a friend. They had come across the river from Polruan on the passenger ferry to see us over the finish line. This was a very kind gesture, not least because I had only ever met Jo once before. That was in May at Dunnet Head in Caithness, mainland Britain’s most northerly point. She was one of a group of four cyclists who I had seen in Map 12 at the lighthouse, looking across the Pentland Firth to Orkney. When I discovered they had a house near Fowey, we had optimistically agreed to meet at the end of my trip. And now here she was! I was thrilled. It made it feel like a proper end to the whole adventure and gave it a certain symmetry. Jo bought me a pint to celebrate and we chatted for a while before they had to go for the ferry back. I was touched. I was also hungry, however, and the long distance adventure cyclist has to eat, even at the very end of the adventure. It had to be fish and chips. We had ridden to the coast. Again.
And now there are no more maps left to ride and I have mixed feelings. I can’t quite believe it is over and I can’t quite believe I have done it. It was a mad idea; but it came true. I have had a brilliant time. The weather has been amazing. The bike has been great. The cycling has been outstanding, for the most part. And I have seen more of the country than ever before. My adventure worked out very well in the end. I am glad I did it. And I don’t need to do it again. Next time it will be something quite different.
I want to post a couple more blog entries this year to say thank you to a lot of people and to reflect a little on what I have seen and done. I will also work out the final statistics for the entire trip, as best I can. So please watch out for more in the coming days. I haven’t finished yet. Not quite.