Two years ago this month author Anna Hughes set off on a book tour from Land’s End to John o’ Groats. This is part two of her four-part mini-series about the journey.
In 1963, the Government published a report entitled The Reshaping of British Railways, written by a certain Dr Beeching. It recommended the closure of around 5000 miles of railway line and over 2000 stations that had ceased to be profitable in the New Age of the Motor Car, and over the subsequent years these lines were duly closed.
One such railway was the Cheddar Valley line, running from Yatton near Clevedon to Cheddar and Wells, and known as the Strawberry Line for the volume of locally grown fruit it carried to the markets at London. A nearby line was the Colliers Way, a tram line that carried coal from the Somerset collieries, and eventually became part of the Somerset and Dorset railway which ran from Bath and Bridgwater to Poole. Like many railways established in the late 1800s, much of this network was built for the transportation of industry, but doubled as passenger lines for the workers who would travel to the coast on their days off. This, too, was the case with the Midland railway which once rolled between Bath and Bristol, an amalgamation of many smaller lines along which horses had once pulled coal carts. When the route closed as a result of the Beeching Axe, a group of Sustrans volunteers began work to convert the trail to a shared-use path for cyclists and walkers – the very first route on what was to become the National Cycle Network.
Now all of these railways are part of that network, having been resurfaced and way-marked as leisure and commuter routes. From the short section of the Strawberry Line at Wells, to the sweeping Colliers Way that glides along the hillside while the neighbouring roads struggle up and down the gradients, to the Two Tunnels Greenway where the bed of the Somerset and Dorset railway disappears under the huge hills at Combe Down and Lyncombe, these Sustrans routes mean that, for nearly 30 miles, I barely encountered motor traffic. The approach to the Combe Down tunnel was daunting to say the least (at over a mile long I would be underground for at least 10 minutes) but the engineers had done a terrific job: well-surfaced and well-lit, there was even music to accompany the ride.
The conclusion of this stretch was the familiar Bristol and Bath railway path, and I freewheeled into the city of cycling on a beautifully hazy morning after having camped in a clearing beneath where the old railway line crosses the River Avon. Thank you Sustrans for that memorable section.
Being a notoriously cycle-friendly city, it was no surprise that my Bristol events were the most successful of the tour. I felt welcomed by the cycling community in this buzzing place and spoke to two sold out audiences on consecutive nights, at Roll for the Soul bicycle cafe and Stanfords map shop.
Back in the saddle after a couple of days, and stuffed full of Roll for the Soul’s delicious vegan burgers, there followed the most enjoyable day of cycling yet. Rivers and bridges would be in abundance, our ingenious solutions to crossing these indomitable courses of nature a source of constant fascination. The Avon wound away from Bristol beneath Brunel’s precarious suspension bridge, then met the Severn where a spectacular bridge-scape panorama opened up. I sat on sheep-grazed banks partway between the original Severn bridge and the new Severn crossing, both structures marching fabulously across the wide, wide river. There is a cycle path on the suspension bridge and across I went, the towers reaching high into the sky above.
From there the road climbed out of Chepstow and descended past Tintern to follow the luscious Wye Valley all the way to Monmouth, a delightful route of easy cycling and beautiful scenery. A talk in Shrewsbury and a book signing in Chester followed, then I was joined by my sister Sarah who would ride with me to Manchester. We followed the Transpennine trail along disused railway lines and canal towpaths into Sale, where I was to give a talk at Jackson’s Boat pub. The crowd was mainly from the local cycling club, one of whom had arrived on a Penny Farthing!
And that concluded my second week on the road. Thirteen days down, 13 to go, 490 miles down, around 500 to go. The halfway point on any tour is potentially difficult – with as much to do as I’d already done, it seemed an awfully long time ago that I had left Land’s End. In that time I had given 12 talks to a couple of hundred people and sold over 100 books. I was getting to grips with the life of a troubadour and its highs and lows: I would leave some venues buzzing, and retreat from others feeling disappointed there hadn’t been more of a crowd. Selling books can be profitable but living on the road was costing more than I earned.
But I was well and truly back into the touring mindset. After the initial physical struggles, my body had remembered what it needed to do. The couple of mechanicals I’d had in the first week were long forgotten: this bike was made to ride. There were some ingenious weight-saving ideas: to keep my wardrobe fresh for my talks whilst saving luggage space I would buy a dress in a charity shop each day and re-donate it the next. Mostly, I was enjoying the freedom of touring, which might seem incongruous with such a strict timetable and route. But everything apart from the events was left up to chance, and with purposely low mileage I was at liberty to explore. My accommodation would work itself out: I had received some wonderful offers of hospitality and found a few beautiful camping spots. It was liberating not to worry. The touring was the easy part, and with the bonus of continued good weather, I was truly in my element.
Anna Hughes is author of ‘Eat Sleep Cycle: a bike ride around the coast of Britain’, and ‘Pedal Power: inspirational stories from the world of cycling’. Read the full LEJOG diary on her website: www.annacycles.co.uk/category/cycling/lejog