The Exmoor Explorer

The Exmoor Explorer is a ‘non-race’ around the amazing trails of Exmoor, starting from Minehead.

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What is a non-race, I hear you ask? Archaic English land laws prevent competitions on public rights of way. This means races are restricted to private properties, and anything using the extensive and fantastic network of trails we have has to be called an ‘event’, rather than a ‘race’. It’s a quirky system, but it has some advantages. The first, exemplified by the Explorer, is that friendly events attract a huge range of people, from first timers to seasoned experts. The second is that because events on public paths are rare, they get a great turn out, are well organised, and are supported by the local community.

The logistics of organising a ‘non-race’ are pretty funny. It’s like a race in most respects. There’s a start line. There’s 500 riders with numbers attached to their bikes, and there’s a start, like any other. The organiser annouced before the race event that it was ‘non competitive’ to a few chuckles from the racers participants. There’s also a finish line, and results. So it’s a little bit like a race, really.

We started through town of Minehead behind the neutral car. For once the pace actually was neutral, and we rode steadily to the base of North Hill, a 15 minute climb onto the coastal hills above the town. I didn’t know what to expect from the start, but got a surprise when everyone decided that 700 watts was the appropriate effort for the start of a ‘non-race’. It soon settled down, and I was left with a young and enthusiastic rider who was rallying the descents to suggest he’d ridden them before, and a self confessed ‘veteran’ who was being cheered on by all the marshals, so he was definitely local.

We rode into the first check point (it’s timed, but it’s not a race) to the surprise of the marshals, who quickly worked out how to scan our tags and sent us out onto loop number two. This one was longer, taking in forest roads and some tight single-track through a plantation. I got a gap on a couple of the shorter climbs and just kept riding. The non-competitive part of the event made me hesitate for a second or two. Through the first check point I’d waited up for everyone to get scanned, and we left smiling and chatting. The first couple of gates we went through were opened and closed together. So it seemed almost rude to go ahead and ride off. But then I realised I was being slightly too British, and I should ride at my own pace. I did so, enjoying myself a lot more when I realised that the trails on Exmoor are best ridden at full speed and nothing slower!

The three loops came back to the same feed zone each time. It seemed like some people had a different order of priorities than I did!
The three loops came back to the same feed zone each time. It seemed like some people had a different order of priorities than I did!

I came through the check point at the end of the second loop to see a huge mass of people heading out to start it. The directions given for the third loop were “Follow the road until you see the Fish and Chip shop, then take a left and the course markings start”. This was accurate, but the friendly marshal didn’t tell me that the left turn would lead me to a 15 minute climb that gradually got steeper and steeper, with no corners whatsoever, and a slick moss covered surface that had been lovingly churned by the lead moto.

From here on I could enjoy myself. The trails on the last loop were sublime; hidden wet roots underneath pine needles, and tree stumps on the apexes of off camber corners. I enjoyed it. The course did some gratuitous climbing to make up the miles, zigzagging back and forth through a small section of forest. Each up was followed by an awesome down, though. It would have been better with someone to ride it with, as the trails sapped all speed and energy out of your legs, leaving you floundering without momentum on heavy, damp soil.

The race crossed the Knowle Plantation above Minehead a number of times, taking in all the good trails and some hard climbs between. This is the view due north, looking across the Bristol channel with Wales just clear in the distance
The race crossed the Knowle Plantation above Minehead a number of times, taking in all the good trails and some hard climbs between. This is the view due north, looking across the Bristol channel with Wales just clear in the distance

I knew the final climb was over when I crested it to see the Bristol channel staring back at me. The Sea! From here it was all downhill back into Minehead, where I was greeted by endless cake, and tea from my favourite tea company, Miles.

Endless Miles tea in the feed zones. This event is great
Endless Miles tea in the feed zones. This event is great

The Exmoor Explorer is a fantastic event run for all the right reasons. Although I feel it would be enhanced by becoming an official race, there are lots of people who disagree. Its current format allows a wider range of abilities to take part, which is certainly the aim at the end of the day. I had great pleasure in propping my Turner up in the finish area and watching successive groups of riders come over to stare at it – it garnered a lot of attention in a short space of time!

The Czar garners an audience pretty much everywhere it goes
The Czar garners an audience pretty much everywhere it goes

Road riding on Exmoor – a biased review

Which way? There's almost always more than one way to connect each village. The options spread the few visitors out even further, leaving you with endless roads to yourself

The Exmoor coast is the most primitive shoreline left in England. The huge cliffs have protected 35 miles of coastline from development, and the result is one of the most one unique landscapes in the UK. The cliffs role inland onto huge flat-topped hills. The relentless atlantic storms and long winters have scoured the vegetation from the tops of the moorland, leaving hardy plants and wildlife. The wooded valleys cutting between these hills are a contrast – part of the huge variety of terrain you’ll see if you cross Exmoor by bike.

Countisbury Hill is famous in the UK as one of the hardest climbs. The first mile is at 25% gradient

The Tour of Britain has visited Exmoor on every iteration since it’s rebirth, and it’s easy to see why. The roads cutting straight up and down the hills create 25% gradients that are impossible to ride easily. With all elevation starting from absolute zero – sea level – and rising to 1600 feet, the climbs are bigger than they appear on the map, and some of the most challenging in the UK.

Towards the top of Dunkery Beacon. Most climbs on Exmoor are devoid of switchbacks; instead, small roads wind directly up the barren faces of the hills
Towards the top of Dunkery Beacon. Most climbs on Exmoor are devoid of switchbacks; instead, small roads wind directly up the barren faces of the hills

As soon as you travel off the top of the moor, the trees grow taller, plant species become more numerous, and the weather a little gentler. The weather is fast-moving and unpredictable on Exmoor. The storms moved rapidly off the atlantic and over the coast, dropping heavy rain any time of the year. The wooded valleys are the protection from the elements, and it’s not uncommon to have different weather at the bottom of the hill from at the top.

In the bottom of the valley's, it's sometimes impossible to tell what the weather is doing just 1000 feet above
In the bottom of the valley’s, it’s sometimes impossible to tell what the weather is doing just 1000 feet above

The inaccessible coastline was further protected when Exmoor became a national park. Unlike the Wildernesses that make up American national parks, in the UK the national parks are living places filled with farms and industry. The protection comes from stopping development that would ruin what is already there. As such, Exmoor is filled with small villages, each with its own identity. Some of the villages are just a couple of miles apart, separated by open moorland and winding roads. These winding roads have often been replaced by (slightly) larger roads that now carry cars around the park, leaving winding country lanes to the bikes and horses. It takes a lot of local knowledge to successfully piece together a route through the best parts of Exmoor, and it takes a strong pair of legs to carry out the planned ride.

Trentishoe Down is at the western edge of Exmoor, where the unrelenting hills finally subside into the friendlier North Devon countryside
Trentishoe Down is at the western edge of Exmoor, where the unrelenting hills finally subside into the friendlier North Devon countryside

With Weather and fitness on your side, there are endless options for riding, taking in the busier coastal areas, or the quieter high moorland.

Porlock Hill has a warning for cyclists to dismount. It's hilarious for an experienced rider, but casual bike riders will struggle on Exmoor
Porlock Hill has a warning for cyclists to dismount. It’s hilarious for an experienced rider, but casual bike riders will struggle on Exmoor

I’ve been riding and walking on Exmoor for a long time, but it’s only recently that I’ve truly appreciated Exmoor for what it offers to cyclists. The variable weather that can never be predicted is the biggest factor in keeping people from coming to this part of the world – it seems that sunshine is often the determining factor when riders decide where to visit. Hot summers days might be the easiest time to enjoy the riding, but some of the best days are the ones where you’re the only person around for miles, the roads are your own, and the bleak moorland rolls on for days.

The heather, bracken, and gorse bushes are the natural flora of Exmoor. Hardy plants that can survive the harsh winters and bloom in the warm summers
The heather, bracken, and gorse bushes are the natural flora of Exmoor. Hardy plants that can survive the harsh winters and bloom in the warm summers

Lee Bay

Lee Bay in North Devon

I love Lee Bay. It’s tucked away between Ilfracombe and Woolacombe. You wouldn’t find it without looking, as it’s not on the road to anywhere. This is both in it’s favour, and the reason it’s had a hard time in recent years. When tourism relied on public transport (that is, before the motorcar), Lee was a destination for holiday makers who would come for a week and spend money whilst enjoying the scenery. Since that era has ended, Lee has sat quietly, bypassed by the majority as they travel towards the famed three mile long beach in Woolacombe.

Mill Cottage is really beautiful, but it floods every year.

It’s a rare pleasure to see Lee Bay at high tide. The calm August water conceals the full power of the waves during a winter storm.

Lee Bay, looking towards Damage Woods

A walk along the Exmoor coast

Early morning light in Lynmouth, looking east towards Foreland Point
Early morning light in Lynmouth, looking east towards Foreland Point
Castle Rock in The Valley of Rocks. Famous and photographed, but justifiably so.
Castle Rock in The Valley of Rocks. Famous and photographed, but justifiably so.
A small cottage in the grounds of Lee Abby. This private estate is just west of Lynton and has amazing grassland going right down to the sea
A small cottage in the grounds of Lee Abby. This private estate is just west of Lynton and has amazing grassland going right down to the sea
Lee Bay, just west of Lynton.
Lee Bay, just west of Lynton.
The Exmoor coast path is an unbroken stretch of prime singletrack. It's technically off limits to bikes, so riding it means waking up very early, or finding a rainy winters day. It's worth it though
The Exmoor coast path is an unbroken stretch of prime singletrack. It’s technically off limits to bikes, so riding it means waking up very early, or finding a rainy winters day. It’s worth it though
Looking into Heddon's Mouth.
Looking into Heddon’s Mouth.
From Heddon's Mouth looking towards Woody Bay. Woody bay was a very popular Victorian seaside resort, but now it's a hidden village tucked into the hillside and bypassed by most.
From Heddon’s Mouth looking towards Woody Bay. Woody bay was a very popular Victorian seaside resort, but now it’s a hidden village tucked into the hillside and bypassed by most.
The coast path climbing out of Hunter's Inn towards Combe Martin. This path gains 900 feet in a mile
The coast path climbing out of Hunter’s Inn towards Combe Martin. This path gains 900 feet in a mile
Trentishoe Down is one of the highest points along the coast. This is looking west towards the Hangman Cliffs and Combe Martin
Trentishoe Down is one of the highest points along the coast. This is looking west towards the Hangman Cliffs and Combe Martin
Combe Martin Beach in August. The sheltered cove and warm water means it's one of the best swimming beaches along the coast
Combe Martin Beach in August. The sheltered cove and warm water means it’s one of the best swimming beaches along the coast

Home for the Holidays

Christa and I headed back to England for Christmas and New Year; it was a huge step for Christa to forego her own family to spend time with mine, and I’m so glad she did. Missing the holidays is a big deal, and one that I haven’t done yet. Having her in England was amazing though: no extended skype time in the evenings, and a great opportunity to settle into Devonshire life. The first time she visited, we fitted as many tourist attractions into our week as possible, and didn’t get a feel for the slow life that my parents lead. This time around we had no such commitments and enjoyed a quiet week at Crackalands Farm.

The Seaside at Combe Martin on a dark winters day

Continue reading Home for the Holidays

Twelve Months, Twelve Photos

January

It all started with Dad and I driving across the UK, into France, through Belgium and Germany and ending up in a snow covered Tirolean valley. Innsbruck was now home, and we celebrated with a couple of days skiing just above the city. I couldn’t think of a better way to start living in the capital of the Alps.

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Continue reading Twelve Months, Twelve Photos

Not the normal Monday morning

6 am. Alarm goes off. An hour earlier than normal. I lie half awake but nowhere close to falling back to sleep. Busy day ahead. I do the normal routine; coffee, poached eggs on toast, and heading out the door. This week doesn’t hold five days of research, writing, lectures and seminars though. I’m going home.

Work flies by. I have four hours to get things tidied away. 12 noon comes around so very quickly, and I find myself heading out of to get lunch, but instead of taking my normal hour by the river with a sandwich and a mountain view, I’m off to the train station. The 12:45 to Munich calls my name.
The Innsbruck hauptbahnhof is a organised and efficient hub of movement, with people bee-lining to and fro. I get aboard and fall deep into the seat. Its rigid frame rejects my body though, and I sit awkwardly, wishing to be more comfortable. Within 10 minutes I’ve fallen from an uncomfortable daze into a sleep. The train sleep that rocks you slowly until you’re dreaming without even knowing you left consciousness. I wake to see the huge towering cliffs of the Inn river valley gradually begin to taper. The packed towns that fill the Austrian portion begin to diminish and are replaced by farms spreading over the pancake flat and fertile valley bottom. The mountains get rounder and softer and we exit the mouth of the valley into the expanse of Bavaria; Germany. The train shoots a straight line north towards the metropolis of Munich. Its a city not bounded geographically like most European places; it spreads more like an American city, with industrial villages now engulfed by the outer tentacles of the suburban railway system. München Ost train station feels like an anonymous interchange, too far removed from the city centre to have any true identity of where it serves. The signs are in English, the language being spoken is no longer the rough but friendly Tyrolean German my ears have gotten used to, but clipped and unidentifiable German, spoken by those with no interest in representing their origins. I buy a coffee and get onto the tram to the airport. The attendant is unfazed by my German accent; unlike Innsbruck where a non native speaker is still rare, here anything goes. My timing of Monday afternoon flights means the airport is deserted. I walk in to find that Lufthansa aren’t flying today; union action forcing planes to the ground as employees demonstrate for more in a world of ever increasing decreases.
The Easyjet counter has a line long enough to think they must be giving something away, but closer inspection reveals a gaggle of goggle-tanned Brits wrestling their skis into the oversize luggage bins. The last of the skiers departing the Alps for another season. I stroll through the hallways of the airport, avoiding the empty moving walkways; I don’t need the time advantage and I’d rather walk than wait at the gate. I get through security without alerting the personnel to my Englishness;  a small personal challenge fulfilled towards my goal of speaking real German. The plane boarding gets underway, with those gullible enough to have bought speedy boarding asked to stand and wait first. As 80% of the crowd rises, you can see delayed comprehension on the faces of a few who realise their €4 bought them very little in the time advantage stakes.
I finally make my way to the small chunk of space my fare qualified me to occupy. The plane hops up and into the sky with barely a rumble; the irony that nowadays the low cost airlines have the newest planes, as they can afford to invest in the fuel saving technology. The cabin crew hustle the trolley down the aisle, toting generic canned fizzy alcohol and double extra-salted food type products.
The Alps are hazy on the left, and soon disappear as we cruise across northern Europe: the boundaries we call countries seeming even more abstract than normal when I look out at the continuity of habitation. I see a grey hue on the horizon that the pilot happily informs me is Paris. I believe him. The clouds break as we jump the small moat that the British call the English channel. The sun reflects silvery rays off the sea, and huge boats look tiny in the expanse of water.

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The greenery of England is instantly striking, but soon enough the clouds return, and the plane dives through them and onto the tarmac at Gatwick; the southern most of London’s encircling airports, and the one I have visited the least. Grounded, I rush through the corridors to customs, where I lament the electronic machines who fail to read my passport. The lack of a big bag means I can stroll out the exit with no extra wait, and head to the ‘integrated transport hub’ also known as a train station. I avoid the over priced express train, that costs twice the price for the privilege of saving 5 minutes on the journey into London. I sit in the train, next to a friendly cyclist making his normal commute home. We talk about Strava and I’m briefly back in a friendly place, not surrounded by strangers, but a bike rider; someone who understands. Soon enough, I’m spat into London Victoria; a magnificent cavern of movement. I cross the concourse, head up and looking around in a sea of LCD screens and people texting their way to wherever they’re going.

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The tube pulls up as I step onto the platform, and the journey continues under the Thames, under Hyde park, to Paddington. With little hope of making an earlier train, I’m not concerned of the time, and I find some passable food at a supermarket to stop my stomach from complaining. I know I haven’t done any exercise, but somehow my body fails to take heed, and demands the same amount of sustenance regardless.

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I inform my brother of my diesel-express arrival time, and get on the train to Bristol. Capital to The West. The train pulls out of Isambard kingdom Brunel’s most famous of railway stations, and into the London evening. The last of the light fades from the grey sky; not so much a sunset as a removal of lighting. By the time London has relinquished its grasp of the carriages, the sky is black, and the increasing greenery goes unnoticed. Reading, Didcot, Swindon. The stations pass anonymously. The memories of each place are not requested in my mind, as my subconscious knows that each town holds no bearing on my destination this evening.
Finally, we chug into Bristol parkway station, into the greeting arms of my brother, who furnishes me with food and refreshment. We jump onto the empty motorway and jet south and west, into the reaches of home. The whole journey, save for central London, has been devoid of crowds, and the lonely roads are a pleasure for Frank who has had a long day in wait for me to arrive, on top of working and running more than is sane.
We catch up, the standard questions, the routine investigation into the life of my brother, who I live so close to even though in distance we’re a long way apart.
The roads constrict, pushing the car ever tighter between hedgerows: Frank drives confidently and smoothly, my trust in his driving means the time goes fast. Each of our bodies pre-empt the corners of the familiar roads.
We dive down the rabbit hole that our parents call a driveway, and navigate through banks of flowering wild garlic and lush grass. The glow of home comes into view, and both of us sigh a big relaxed sigh as the the engine is switched off.

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My grandmother passed away. My Dads mother was an ever present part of our childhood, with their proximity to home meaning child herding duties were often passed to them. It has been abstract since my dad called me on Saturday morning, and informed me bravely and steadily that his mum is no longer with us. Coming home is the validation of her passing, and the celebration of her living happens on Wednesday. My Mum had asked whether I intended to travel back home for it, but really none of us questioned whether I would. The sometimes cold efficiency of Austrian rules said that my grandmother was not a close enough connection to warrant compassionate leave, so I filled in my holiday form, happy to come home and be with my family.

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We awake on Tuesday morning. Although a little sombre, our spirits just slightly dampened by the recent events, we have a happy breakfast of fresh Crackalands Farm eggs, tender bacon, good pork sausages, black pudding and delicately fried mushrooms. Tea aplenty, home is a contrast to the exhaustion it took yesterday to get here.

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With things to be done, we get going and head out into the bright but cloudy day. Its warm, and I quickly overheat in the spring sunshine as we walk up through the dandelions and clover starting to flower amidst the grass. The tame lambs come dashing towards us; their enthusiasm not for us, but the bottles of milk we bring like clockwork everyday. They’re at the cute and fluffy stage; small enough to handle, they bounce around with disregard for the sheepdogs who are doing their best to contain themselves on the other side of the gate. With sheep fed and horses happy, lunch is a chance to reconvene before a more exciting afternoon.

The weather is agreeing that the rain needs a rest, and we kit up for a short and playful paddle along the coast in the kayaks. Its a rare opportunity to play in the sea, and we embrace the frigid water to make our way out of Combe Martin bay into the Bristol channel. The water is quiet; no tourists around and only a few fishermen line the shore. We can see a couple large boats chugging up the channel, poking their heads just above the Welsh coast in the distance. The vegetation extends as far down the rocky cliffs as it can, holding onto the last inches of soil. The trees; Ash, sycamore and oak woodland looks wintry, with a lack of foliage that would normally be expected this time of year. Primroses instead provide the colour on the banks, and their yellow flowers contrast first against the deep greeny grey of the lichen covered slate rocks, and secondly against the brilliant white of the nesting kittiwakes whose colonies adorn the smallest nooks and crannies facing the sea. These loud and shouty birds hide here from all the predators further inland. They investigate us with low sweeping flights; jumping off the cliffs and gliding across the surface of the choppy water before circling back to their young. They shout at each other in short sharp bursts. These aren’t tuneful birds.


As we dip into successive bays, we count the changes from the year before, taking stock of what the harsh weather has done to shape the face of our land. Some of the coves are named, a few have steps carving a precarious path towards the waters edge. We hug the rocks close, buying up and down with the 5 foot swell; not waves, just lumps of water heaving backwards and forwards into the coast; smoothing and sculpting the rocks with each push. We paddle into broad sands beach – a perfect and exotic cove of trees and empty sand. Its paradise, Devonshire style. Its hundreds of steps that wind down the cliff from above are a filter, ensuring only those who really want to will enjoy its pearly green waters that are sheltered from the waves.
We turn tail as the light begins to fade into silver. Like good seafarers, we had paddled into the incoming tide, taking the extra resistance on the way out and flowing with the tide back towards Combe Martin. Its not feel rest apparent, as we hit some choppy water, that the current is helping us, but a momentary break from effort reveals a slow but steady drift in the right direction.

Tired shoulders accompany me home to the smell of roasting pork drifting under the kitchen door. A family of chefs has no problem in pitching in, and soon a huge roast dinner is assembled and we sit down to own home grown, home loved feast. A feast by normal standards, a weekday meal at Crackalands farm.

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Funerals aren’t as horrible as your pre-emptive emotions make them out to be. Its the opening of hearts that allow us to come to terms with what has gone to pass, and understand the new future without the one we loved. For Grandmother had 80 happy years, and I learnt a great amount about who she was before my father gave her a new identity as a mother. My cousins are all doing the same as I – getting out and taking hold of opportunities that probably didn’t exist when my Nan was our age. Talk has progressed the last five years from Uni life to jobs and cars to the speed of life, and the enjoyment of finding something that persists for longer than an academic calendar. Houses and dogs and tax bands are now conversed over with no resentment of moving on from the fast life.

A Baddick family gathering is dominated by food. We’re a group that doesn’t determine tasks by gender, but skill and enthusiasm. With not a person in the room who couldn’t craft an excellent dish, the table ends up packed with more food than necessary, and the diners endeavour to sample as much as possible without endangering themselves or others around.

We head to bed weary from many words spoken and embraces shared. To call today a success might at first seem strange, but I don’t think there would have been a better way to celebrate the life of a Devonshire lady, who grew up before world war two, who had seen so much that is not around to be seen again.

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A cacophonous alarm clock rings outside my window much earlier than I would have set it, if I had control. the birds seem to be screeching from every bough, and I open my eyes to a misty morning, with the sun fighting its way through. I head downstairs; Frank is again running, my mum heading up to care for her other child, the horse called Georgie. Dad and I walk up and sate the lambs’ thirst, and then I release the dogs from their beds to take a stroll on the beach.
The tide is fully in. We throw some sticks into the gently lapping morning tide and wandering home. We get home to a brewed pot of tea and sausages sizzling, awaiting a bread wrapping and imminent consumption.

With breakfast over, the whirlwind home time comes to a close, and I hastily pack my bag before jumping in Frank’s car. We make a  caffeine stop with Grandma Parkhouse, always marvelling at the dexterity of her slender fingers as she knits nonstop in front of us, never a break for conversation, only small pauses for a slurp of coffee.
Finally its time to break the grasp of Devon and get on the snaking road towards everyone else’s England. Driving with Frank makes the first chunk of the travel fly by, and we get into Bristol traffic just a couple of minutes too late for the train. It gives us time for a proper goodbye though, before Frank carries on up the country to Loughborough and the arms of his lovely lady.

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I get on the train and watch the Cotswolds rush past the window, enjoying a slice of homemade fruitcake. The approach to London gives me a last glimpse of the countryside before the city swallows it whole. The sun shining through the huge glass roof of Paddington station is a complete change from three days prior. Running late, I don’t have time to dawdle, and jump for the first circle line train back under the big smoke, before emerging just in time to walk onto the packed plane for the return journey.

What a whirlwind. What a week.

Christa Came to England

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London, England. There’s a light flurry of snow on the motorway, and taillights are flashing in front of me as nervous drivers negotiate the increasing volume of traffic that appears in the shadow of the great city. I’m following road signs, an old fashioned and unpopular way to navigate in the age of mobile information, but the road signs don’t move, and I’m making good time, with only an iPod to distract me from the road ahead. The car smells fantastic. The grey and dismal outside looks cold, but the smell of the flowers on the front seat next to me is warm and colourful.

I get to the airport. Early. Eager. I’d told myself to be patient, arrive 20 minutes after the flight landed, and I’d still have time. But I got there 15 minutes before the plane was due. Christa was probably still somewhere over the north Atlantic at that point. I find a good position, bustled between families waiting for parents and children to arrive, and bored taxi drivers holding up scrawled names on dog-eared pieces of paper. I have a direct view of the sliding arrivals doors, and my heart races just a little every time they open. I know I’m too early, but I stand there anyway, just waiting.

Finally, the status board tells me the flight is landed, the bags are delivered, and I find myself looking through the doors longing the next person to be Christa. It finally is. We both have tears in our eyes, and we don’t say a word. I feel like everyone in the hall is watching us, and I’m glad to be holding the centre of attention. Together again.

Saturday January 12th wasn’t that exciting for everyone else, but getting lost in the outer reaches of London was paradise for me. We turned out of the airport on the hunt for Windsor Castle. A massive hulk of medieval building on the banks of the Thames. Somehow we ended up in Hounslow, a massive hulk of beat-up Indian restaurants. At least Christa had seen that not all of England was like The Holiday! We found Windsor 15 minutes later, the castle towering over the pretty shops and restaurants by the river. We walked alongside the grand castle walls in the twilight, and strolled down past the river, before settling on a nice pub for a quick evening meal.

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With the light truly fading, it was time to make the journey back to Devon. Although not many miles, the sinewy roads mean the drive would be four hours at least. Late on a Saturday, though, the roads were clear and we sped free of London and towards the countryside. Past Bristol, the biggest port in England, we were within reach 3 hours later. Winding down from the hills into Combe Martin, it felt like magic that Christa was coming home with me.

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We awake to something strange outside. The sound of waking throughout my childhood was the pattering of rain, light or heavy, onto the tin-roofed shed opposite the house. This morning though the gentle winter sun, hovering just over the greens hills, was reflecting off the roof. We woke quickly and booted up. Rain jackets a necessity, no matter how sunny it looked outside.

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We walked down past the Combe Martin seaside as the tide receded to its furthest point, and then followed the edge of Exmoor National Park up a small footpath and into open pastures filled with sheep. The track was muddy from continuous rain, and we negotiated sliding down a couple of cliffs to open up into a huge view of the North Devon coast. As we climbed up the last reaches of hangman, the true expanse Exmoor becomes visible. Although the sun was shining, a heavy haze filled the horizon blanketing the distant sea and keeping Wales undercover for another day. Day one success.

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With my parents off work, and the rare fact of the sun shining for a consecutive day, we unanimously agreed to show Christa perhaps the most idyllic spot on Exmoor. We drove East into the National Park to Watersmeet; the confluence of the East Lynn river and Hoar Oak water. We followed the east Lynn through a mossy and humid gorge along a windy and leaf covered trail leading to the small village of Rockford; only one road in or out; this is the British idea of solitude. The steep sided oak clad hills tower over the river, and the path to the top was equally as muddy as the day before, but we made the top of the hill in no time. The distinctive rolling tops of the moorland contrast with the secluded valleys.

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The windswept hedgerows are known for their sideways growing trees, and we sheltered along their length as we made our way to the top of Countisbury hill. On the border of Devon and Somerset, this hill is a famous climb for British cyclists, but today it was desolate. At the top, seemingly impervious to the gale coming off the sea 1500 feet below, a herd of Exmoor Ponies grazed on gorse bushes and tough grass. Their nonchalance to our advances showed that there were certainly more suited to the Environment than we were. From the top of the hill, we descended to Countisbury church, a small and bare church tucked into the hill. Just below that, the Blue Ball Inn, a welcoming pub filled with open fires and friendly dogs waiting by the hearth. We ate heartily, knowing the walk back to the car was all downhill. It was difficult to re-dress and head back to the cold outside, but we eventually mustered the courage and found ourselves back among oak trees as we descended our stored elevation on a winding singletrack path. The steep valley meant we were within 200 feet of Watersmeet before we could see the bridge over the river. With rain clouds just building, just got back to the car in time to avoid getting wet. Two dry days in a row; someone up there must have been in a good mood.

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Day three, the contrast to the rugged North facing Exmoor Coast is the smooth sandy beaches of Western facing Woolacombe. We parked in the empty village and strolled down to the beach. Three miles of almost untouched sand, with only a handful of people in sight. We walked almost the full length, taking in the vast expanse of headland jutting out from the sea. Morte Point lies to the North; named for its jagged and dangerous rocks that have claimed many ships in darker times.

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With a low tide, we could see all the rocks, and why sailing here is a skilled past-time. We hopped onto the sand dunes and made our way back towards the village, before getting back onto the beach to find some pretty driftwood and take some photos. We were soon to discover that being the only ones on the beach was a problem. Everywhere was shut, apart from a small shop tucked into a side street. Christa enjoyed hot chocolate with a side of chocolate cake, and I devoured my first cup of tea since breakfast. We drove back towards Combe Martin, but detoured into the valley that half of my family would trace to be their ancestral home. Simply named ‘Lee’, which is a local term for a sheltered valley, the name is apt. I had to stop and show Christa the steps carved into the rock, during a time where the quickest route was along the coast. We skipped stones across the incoming waves and once again enjoyed being alone with the sea and the sand. Unlike before, Wales was now sitting high on the horizon – the towns and hills clearly visible 30 miles across the coast. Back in the village, we saw a restored cottage, with rounded walls, low ceilings and small windows, typical of North Devon. Its thatched roof had just been refitted, completing the picture.

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With three days of exploring the natural beauty of my home county, it was time to head towards civilisation once again. Devon is old, its history rooted in farming and fishing. The houses are humble and quaint, built for warmth and purpose. They show what happened in England before the idea of industrialisation was ever conceived. We had to move on to the ‘big’ city. We caught the train to Bath, stopping briefly for a change of trains. Christa survived the backwards seating and we got to town in the middle of the morning. The same population as Boulder, but very different, Bath sits in a bowl of wooded hills, the river Avon snaking through the centre of town. We had 8 hours to explore before we’d get back on the train and head to London. The uniform sandstone architecture is the responsibility of two 18th century architects; John Wood and John Wood Jr. They constructed a grand town with little financial or physical constraints in their way. The fortuitous fact that Bath suffered little damage in World War two means its beauty remains unaltered. The most famous buildings are the ones we visited first.

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Bath Abby, a huge and magnificent Cathedral, is one of few inhabited monasteries left in the UK. We sat and marvelled at the grand arches reaching to the ceiling. We sat in silence and absorbed the total absence of sounds inside the great hall. The kind of warm quiet that fills churches. After a tour up the main street, we visited the Royal Circus and Royal Crescent. The most desirable residences in Bath, these arcades of huge houses typify Bath. The light snow falling just added to the winter magic. With the sights seen, we ate lunch in a small cafe next to Pultney Bridge overlooking the River Avon. With refreshments consumed, we had to do some history

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The town of Bath has been inhabited continuously for over 2000 years. The romans invaded Britain before Christ was born, and made their settlements during the late first century. The thermal waters rising from the ground signified something special for them, and the location became a shrine to Minerva; the roman goddess of art, education and trade. Named Aquae Sulis, the town was created around the bathing complex that still survives under the main streets of the city. The shrine survived until 300 AD, when Christianity was brought to the country, and worship of pagan gods died out. The town that replaced it remained powerful and constantly changing. It wasn’t until the last phase of construction in the 1700s that the roman baths were uncovered, and once again rebuilt to utilise the warm waters. These bath houses still stand, but the roman foundations, and locations of the shrines, can be seen under the ‘modern’ buildings.

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A long day was finished off with a carafe of wine and good Turkish food in a small restaurant. Turkish, although entirely foreign to Americans, is common in the UK and a great example of how one culture can become part of another. With the wine finished, we sat back and enjoyed the relaxation of train travel to London. Two hours later, we stepped into Paddington station, and walked towards Hyde Park and our hotel in light flurries of snow.

With snow falling heavily outside, we buttoned up and headed out into the morning to see the sights of the great city. We rode the tube under Hyde Park to Kensington, and the grand building of the Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum. Set up to show the splendour of the British Empire by the Queen who formed it, the V&A now holds collections of culture. It makes no attempt to catalogue the life of a region or country, but takes the finest examples of art, sculpture and fashion across every age. We walked around the display of western fashion from the 1300’s to the modern time with amazement, and marvelled at Japanese samurai swords, before walking around the corner and seeing the world’s best examples of marble sculptures from ancient Greece. We left before we ran out of capacity to look at anything else, and recaffeinated in anticipation of the Science Museum. Encyclopaedic collections of technology and innovation. Full size replicas of space crafts, and a whole room filled with what makes a human a human. We played in the ‘Google Lab’ creating music with people across the world, and saw how a robot can draw our own faces. Sometimes, tourism feels a lot like education!

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With hunger building, we jumped back on the tube and went to Covent Garden; the famous glass house that used to house the market stalls of fresh fruit and flowers brought into the city by traders and farmers. Now, the area is full of restaurants; we picked a pie shop and Christa tucked into a heart Pasty. With the light fading (yes, at 3pm!) we made the walk into Leicester Square; home of the west end and the biggest theatres in the world. We wanted to see a play, and found ‘Spamalot’ to be exactly what we were looking for. Light hearted comedy with no pretence of anything else. As we ran out of time to head back to the hotel, we headed for the Thames, and walked across the Embankment Bridge to have dinner.

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The snow was falling hard, filling the sky with a reflective orange glow from the city lights. The London Eye towered over the houses of parliament, but with no little visibility, we decided to give it a miss. Walking into the theatre after dinner, we climbed up four flights of stairs to find our seats in the upper stalls, high above the stage but with a perfect view of the action. The place was packed, and the cast enjoyed endless laughter and applause from the crowd. It was perhaps the best money we spent, and a great first experience of theatre in the west end. Tired and with aching feet, we made it to our hotel just before midnight, ready to start again the next day.

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Saturday in London. So much to see and do. No trip would be complete without seeing the seat of British power. Buckingham Palace, grand and old is a magnet for tourists, and we dodged the crowds to see the Union Flag flying high over the rooftop; a sure sign the Queen was currently in residence.

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We walked through St James’ park to Parliament square and Westminster Abby. The site of royal weddings and national remembrances, the Cathedral beats Bath for size and grandeur. It sits up against the bank of the Thames, next to the houses of Parliament; Parliament Palace and Big Ben adding huge towers to the skyline. Christa and I both seem to be equally crowd averse, so we danced around the hordes of people to find our very own phone box in which to pose. What could be better than me and my girl living it up in London?!

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Lunchtime. Again. We dashed to Kensington and found a seat in a cafe for soup and coffee, just the energy needed for a trip to Harrods; the emporium of everything expensive ever made. Four stories and countless departments filled with Dior, Armani, and thousands of other people! We viewed the boutique clothes and daydreamed of driving off in the Aston Martins parked outside, but left on foot, back to the tube, happy to be happy and not caring about anything else. With one stop left on our whistle-stop London Experience, I found my good friends from University to be in town for the evening. We dashed to the Tower of London and Tower Bridge for a quick photo in the frigid cold, but cruising across town to our hotel. We freshened up and hit Covent Garden once more for a late night meal with Trevor and Sarah. Conversation, like normal with four cyclists at one table, revolved around cycling. We drank beer, ate burgers (which could not live up to their American competitors), and didn’t leave the restaurant till 11pm. Our idea of a late night film dissolved as we realised not even London cinemas show films that late, so we called it a day.

The last day. No time for being sad though, as happiness is the cure of all ills. We ate Croissants until we could no longer move, and drank coffee until it seemed like a bad idea. The heavy snow coming down in sheets outside the cafe was causing panic in the British media, but we kept a close eye on the departures board, and could see no reason why Christa would not be getting back to Colorado. The train lumbered slowly out of Paddington station on the way to Heathrow. We held hands tightly. No words are needed after 7 days together; we knew what we were both thinking. Goodbyes suck. The airport formalities distracted us from the inevitable, but soon enough Christa walked through security and out of sight. A heavy heart is never a bad thing though; the negative emotions of leaving are the balance needed for the next hello to mean more than the last. Absence makes the heart grow fonder.

Back at it

I’m back to riding a lot after the Christmas break, and it feels great! My experimentation with the cyclocross season ended well, and I’m hooked for life on that sport. It left me confused on fitness and motivation levels though. By the beginning of December I’d lost the sharp speed I needed for cross season, and had no motivation for longer rides. I tried a couple times to get back into it with some two hour jaunts in the rain, but I wasn’t feeling it. I had to walk away for a while.

Reading over some old blog posts, I realised I had felt pretty similar at the same time last year, and the cure had been a really good rest. With the new year ticking around, the rain relenting, and renewed vigour, I finally had all the pieces in place to ride properly. No more motivational speeches to myself, no more ‘why am I doing this?’ in the back on my mind, finally I was riding because that’s what I wanted to do. I’m happiest when I’m riding. Just ask anyone who knows me how grumpy I am when I haven’t had any exercise!

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This week I had the pleasure of a riding companion. Rob (/) is an Exmoor local who has ridden more miles around here than almost anyone else. I’m excellent at the off-road topography, but his knowledge of every road name, every connector, and the gradient profile of each climb was excellent. After I contacted him out the blue, he planned a long route on Saturday, and we headed off for a full day. I knew I was in trouble when he turned up on a road bike. The silent whoosh of his tyres along the road amplified the buzz coming off of mine. I’d told him I wanted a hard ride though, and that’s what we both got.

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We headed up and away from the coast towards the high ridge separating Exmoor from the rest of Devon; the boundary between rough moorland and the productive and fertile farmland to the south. We managed to find the clouds and mist, even on a relatively clear day. The view south, which can stretch over 50 miles, was shorter today but still wonderful to look over the rolling green hills. We dipped down into Dulverton, a market town on the southern end of the National Park, then climbed back up within sight of the coast. From there down to Porlock is an undulating descent through well kept farmland and pretty little villages. This area in the summer is prime tourist land, and it was a relief to see many more horses and cyclists than cars. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen that many cyclists out on Exmoor as I did today.

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I’m sure Rob had intentionally included the longest climb on the Moor on our first ride. I wasn’t perturbed though; it’s a beautiful road, winding through a couple hidden valleys before skirting around Dunkery beacon. After a month of non stop rain, I couldn’t help but enjoy the uninterrupted views across the Bristol channel, even as far as Wales.

Porlock and bristol channel from top of Mill Lane, Dunery Beacon, Exmoor National Park

From there it was a fast ride west, back towards Lynton and Combe Martin. Rob’s road tyres came in useful for both of us; for him it meant cruising along at 18 mph, for me it meant unashamed wheel-sucking and enjoying the draft. I hate riding alone.

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I’d aimed for four hours on the bike, but realistically knew it was going to be further. After parting ways with Rob in Barbrook, I ate my Emergency chocolate rations (few people know this, but I rarely ride without chocolate in my pocket!) and rolled home to Combe Martin. I felt really good. Refreshed. I was expecting to be completely worked over, but I felt the opposite. Sometimes what you need is exactly what you think you don’t need.

Lovely weekend on Exmoor!