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

Before heading down to Devon we stopped off at Sarah and Trevor’s house in deepest darkest Hampshire. I always feel a little bad that my stops are to and from the airport, so we decided to spend a couple days there this time around. Trevor showed us around the country lanes and we fitted in a good coffee stop too. As a born and bred country boy, I grew up with the idea that the South East of England was a continuous maze of concrete. Trevor completely disabused that notion with a winding ride in the low winter sun.

First ride with Sarah and Trevor for a very long time. We explored the country lanes of Hampshire

After that brief stop, it was time for Devon. We had some plans to stop off in Cheddar for a ride accross the Mendips, but as we left Trev and Sarahs house on the way south, the rain lashed against the car and our enthusiasm to kit up declined rapidly. We stayed in the car instead, getting back home quicker. I love the final drive into Combe Martin; the hills parting way to the sea, and the waves crashing along the Exmoor coast. The last quarter of a mile up to the farm is like exiting the real world and driving into a safe haven from reality. A little chunk of green solitude.

We wasted no time in unpacking our bikes and finding some adventure. We had thought about not bringing the bikes, but Christa needed to train, and I didn’t want to miss out on some coastal riding. It’s hard to motivate on a cold and damp winters day. English winter sun just scrapes up over the horizon, seemingly balanced there briefly before it falls back down behind the hills. We had to get out and get going each day to actually fit in a couple hours riding in daylight. The first ride was a leg stretcher around the coast. For a mountain girl, Christa loves the sea. I love that she loves the sea.

Finding the less traveled path around the North Devon coast

We got really lucky with the weather. Everywhere we went, we were met with complaints about the weather. More than once someone actually apologised to Christa for the clouds and rain. We didn’t feel it though. We rode about twelve hours over the space of a week with only five minutes of rain to dampen our spirits – I think that’s pretty good. After a couple days of getting used to the water sitting on the roads, Christa started got used to it as well. In between minced pies, I caught up with a ‘strava friend’, Rob, who I’d ridden with a bit the year before. Rob is a diesel engine who climbs the roads of Exmoor continuously year round. Although Christa was on a little bit of a different program, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to invite Rob along for a ride. I also had a secret motive; when dragging your girlfriend on a four hour epic across an entire National Park, it’s great to have someone else to blame it on!

The top of Windsford Hill on Exmoor; a 1000 foot climb from the town of Dulverton

When not on the bike we tried to stay outside as much as possible. Winter days give plenty of opportunity to sit by the fire, but it also means that daylight needs to be taken advantage of. We headed down to Morte Point near Woolacombe for an exhilarating walk along the headlands. It was blowing a 60 mph onshore wind which was whipping the sea against the rocks. It was strong enough to be turning the water into foam that was blowing inland. Morte Point in the summer is an idyllic stroll along the coast, and it’s hard to picture it as the site of many shipwrecks. In this weather though, it draws your imagination into darker times when ships sailed by sight, and the strong pull of the currents were too much for the sails of the boats.

Waves crashing against Morte Point on the North Devon Coast

A post Christmas turkey burning walk is also a family tradition, and one that is never difficult to organise. Mum has a reputation for underestimating the distance to be travelled, and as such we come prepared for an all day affair. We walked from the sheltered Heddon’s Valley on Exmoor around the coast to Woody Bay, then cut inland across the fields before once again dropping down into the wooded combe of Hunters’ Inn. It’s hard to describe what Exmoor is like to people who haven’t been there. So many people have this weird picture of England as a flat country that the thought of 1000 foot climbs is mind boggling. Also, living in the US and hearing people ask “How was London?” makes me realise that my little chunk of the UK doesn’t get much international press. Maybe I should find a way to change that.

A gorse bush sitting high above Heddons Mouth in the middle of Exmoor

With only a day or so left to play around by the coast, Dad took us down to Lee bay. We took advantage of the steps carved out of the rock to wander around the cliff faces as the tide was rising. As the waves covered our footsteps, we just snuck around through little coves and rock covered passageways.

Christa dodging the Incoming tide at Lee Bay, Devon

And with nothing left to do but see in the New Year, we put on our glad rags and headed to the Sandy Cove hotel. Their Smorgasbord has a reputation for unendingly good food. We gorged on local seafood and drank copious amounts of wine before dancing like white people to disco hits from the 80’s; a typical english tradition! With a wake up call timed for 3:30am on New years day, we didn’t have much time for a wild party, and driving our way up to Heathrow on deserted roads was a stark contrast to the family time we’d had over the last 10 days.

New Years Eve at the Sandy Cove Hotel

We enjoyed the normal British Airways efficiency on our flight back to Denver; an entirely uneventful and smooth flight that took off and landed on time. I’ve travelled with them enough now that they have the disadvantage of my high expectations. We had a great view of the cold frozen north as we flew over the poles. Descending from Iceland over Canada, we could see where the huge Hudson bay finally gave way to the tundra of the Northern Territories.

Hudson bay giving way to the endless North Canadian tundra