By this point in our tour we were very much in the heart of the dramatic South West English coast. Unfortunately, yet predictably, we were also very much in the middle of dreary South West English weather. I think from this point on we got rained on at least a little bit during every bike ride.
Rain poses several challenges for people touring from campground to campground by bike. First of all, of course, you get wet and you can get cold and that’s no fun. Second, it’s generally dreary; it’s amazing what a difference a sunny vs. rainy sky makes for your mood. Third and most challenging, though, is that if it’s raining when you’re setting up or taking down your tent, your lodging and bedding gets wet, and sleeping in a wet tent in a wet sleeping bag is NO fun. So the mercurial and malicious weather forecasts posed most of all a planning problem for us, as we needed to dodge rainfall that always seemed to be threatening to arrive in the late afternoon, prime tent-pitching time.
In the end we covered the distance from Exton to Weymouth with two sub-20 mile days on which we hightailed it to campgrounds before or after the afternoon storms and then a nearly 40-mile day where we faced down the rain, fortified with the knowledge that, thanks to the great generosity of our new friends Chris and Mary, a warm bed and the world’s best washing machine awaited us on the other side.
After leaving Elizabeth, Diana, Xander, and Teddy in Exmouth, we headed east along National Cycle Route 2, an ambitious bit of bicycle planning that aims ultimately to provide a low-stress cycling connection all the way along the southern coast of Great Britain, from Cornwall to Dover. It turns out that “low-stress” has more than one meaning; planners obviously sought to minimize riders’ exposure to large volumes of high-speed car traffic, but apparently did not make any attempt to avoid any number of super-steep climbs that would be strenuous for an unloaded road cyclist and are plainly infeasible for folks on loaded touring bikes.
In fact, riding along the coast of southern England is kind of like automatic, unavoidable interval training: climbs never last more than a mile or so, but they occur very frequently and they’re really steep (regularly over 10 percent grade, and occasionally sustaining pitches above 15 percent). Of course, you don’t get to enjoy a coastline specifically known for rugged, vertiginous cliff faces and sharp river valleys without necessitating a few brutal climbs. This was the downside of Cycle Route 2. The plus side is twofold: first, it was nice to follow posted signs rather than having to constantly be straining to hear and decipher spoken instructions from my phone app; and second, it’s remarkably beautiful.
From Exton we were making good progress eastward, including some lovely riding along the river Otter and a mid-afternoon tea stop at an old water mill in Otterton.
Then, partway up a gradual and exceptionally scenic climb, the skies opened up and we spent about half an hour standing under a tree, sharing an umbrella, wagering that surely this downpour would come to an end soon. Eventually, though, there was nothing for it but to continue riding and to shelter in the nearby fishing/vacation town of Sidmouth. All we had to do was walk our bikes down the nearly 20-percent, rain-slick slope down into town.
Fortunately the views in and around Sidmouth were exceptional (the rain had abated by the time we arrived):
and a charming park/overlook held a remarkably poetic interpretive sign:
Then we huffed and puffed and walked our bikes up blisteringly-steep Salcombe Hill and were rewarded with a beautiful rural campsite overlooking the English Channel:
The next day began with a descent into picture-postcard-perfect Branscombe (which we were too busy riding through to capture), then another eye-watering climb up out of town. Then we enjoyed a stellar breakfast at the Hideaway, nestled among the chalk cliffs of Seaton. I waded into the bracing, crystalline waters of the Channel:
This was another day cut short by the threat of rain. We found a cute campsite run by a control freak named Joy (she was perfectly kind, but there were explanatory labels on absolutely everything in the bathroom and kitchen) that was right by a pub where we could get a warm dinner as the rain fell. The campground also had super fast WiFi, which struck us as a funny amenity, but became incredibly valuable when we wanted to watch a Women’s World Cup game in our tent!
The next morning we knew we had to cover the rest of the distance to Weymouth, but first we had to find breakfast. Unfortunately, the pub was closed until lunchtime, so on we rode – to another pub that turned out to be closed. Finally, thirteen miles into our ride, we reached a pub in Symondsbury where we gorged ourselves on essentially an early lunch. What a relief! On we rode, across incredible landscapes and under threatening skies that finally opened up onto us with about five miles left. But we had an actual roof to sleep under that night, so we knew we just needed to get there.
A little background here. As I mentioned in an earlier post, we met Chris and Mary in west London while buying Sara’s bike from them in May. As we talked with them then, they enthused about cycling in Dorset and noted that they had a second home in Weymouth, on the Dorset coast, and encouraged us to let them know if we found ourselves headed that way.
Chris is a huge bike nerd, and I say that with affection and admiration. When we were examining Sara’s bike, he was able to rattle off details from the sprocket tooth counts (geeky, but not extraordinarily so) all the way down to the brand and make of spokes in the wheels (I could maaaaybe tell you what kind of spokes I have on my bikes, and I built those wheels myself! This was for a wheelset he hadn’t even built).
Mary and Chris are both retired now. Chris was a pilot in the Royal Navy, flying both helicopters and light aircraft; after he left the Navy, he worked for about 20 years as a commercial pilot for British Airways. Mary had been a high school teacher, with a background in psychology. They moved around a lot when Chris was in the Navy – I believe Chris was involved in the Falklands War (or Malvinas War, I suppose, from the Argentinians’ perspective) of 1982 – but settled in Uxbridge, near BA’s home airport of Heathrow, when Chris moved to the private sector. They bought their home in Weymouth about six years ago, finally realizing a longstanding dream of returning to Dorset, where they had both lived many years prior.
Chris and Mary are about our parents’ age, and we’re about their children’s age. So the kinship we felt with them had the intriguing dual nature that we felt like both their friends/peers and a little bit like their kids.
Anyway, their home in Weymouth was a sight for sore eyes, as it had begun to rain and we were tired and wet, and I don’t know whether we, or our bikes, were a bigger mess. We all embraced, and Mary put on a pot of tea. We hosed down our bikes and dumped literally all of our clothes into their washing machine. Then we took a fantastic shower and put on robes – fuzzy robes! This was indeed a far cry from tent camping in the damp English heath. Mary welcomed us warmly to a home-cooked dinner, which was accompanied by some Australian wine from their atypically large wine stash: they’re celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary in just two weeks, so their beautiful home was fairly brimming with wine, which they claimed was for the expected guests. (And I’m sure it was!)
We stayed with Mary and Chris for two nights, which meant we had a chance to go out sightseeing together the next day. They were so kind to drive us around and show off the best of Weymouth and the surrounding area! We headed in to the center of town and walked around an 18th-century fort, then out on a pier to catch a great view of the characteristically Georgian row houses along the beach, which was a favorite of George III himself. (He had a royal bathing carriage that would roll straight into the water, allowing him to swim like a king.) It being the month of the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings, we were moved to note that Weymouth was one of the major ports of embarkation for Allied troop transports headed to Normandy.
Then we drove south onto the Isle of Portland, where Portland stone comes from, past Chris’s old naval base, and down to the Portland Bill, a windy bluff jutting into the English Channel. After that, we climbed up the limestone ridge above the city to an old crossroads where the Roman road between Weymouth and Dorchester crosses a line of ancient burial mounds and earthen forts.
At dinner that evening, we had a chance to talk politics. Chris and Mary both voted Leave in the Brexit referendum of June 2016, but not, I think, without some reservations and certainly not without careful consideration. They felt that the European Parliament system essentially creates a faceless bureaucracy where it’s not clear who is representing you, or whether your interests are in fact being represented. They also felt that the EU had not been receptive enough to earlier British dissatisfaction, so for them (and, I suspect, for many others) the referendum was the opportunity to register frustration with the system, albeit a blunter instrument than they would have wanted. Interestingly, they noted that the referendum format itself is uncommon in the UK and was probably poorly implemented: in most countries where referenda are frequent, they have force only if high voter-participation and super-majority thresholds are met, but the Brexit vote was a simple majority vote with no turnout requirement.
Of course Sara and I didn’t get to vote on Brexit, but if we had done so, we would have voted Remain. And being members of the American “coastal elite,” we’ve mostly been surrounded by Remainers, who have presented a range of arguments (that I mostly find compelling) and scorn for Leavers (that I hadn’t thought too much about prior to our conversation this evening). But the crux of the conversation was Chris’s impassioned defense of his intelligence and integrity: by all means, he said, debate the merits of his points of view – “but don’t call me stupid!”
Frankly, I myself have often thought and said profoundly unkind things about Americans – in the abstract – with whom I disagree politically, so Chris’s exhortation was a valuable reminder to me not to denigrate people who see things differently. (I don’t want to be naive about this. It seems pretty clear in 2019 that not all American political actors are engaging in good-faith debate, and it is dangerous and foolish to “play fair” when others have no intention of doing the same. But that’s a separate problem. In general, “don’t be an asshole” feels like a pretty good operating principle, in politics and elsewhere.)
At any rate, we were stuffed from Mary’s delicious roast pork and risotto, and so much clotted cream, so we soon headed to bed. And so it was that, with deep gratitude, full stomachs, and a valuable lesson learned, we bade Chris and Mary farewell for now and pedaled off east into the heart of the Jurassic Coast. I can only hope our paths will cross again someday soon, so we might return their generous hospitality and continue the friendship!