This Easter weekend, I went and tested my Somerset Circle route. COVID restrictions remain in place, but as from the 29th of March, effective relaxation of the restrictions meant I could wild camp, without falling foul of those restrictions.
My day started early, and I was on the road, cycling the 11 miles to Plymouth train station before sunrise. It’s been far too long since I saw dawn breaking around me as I was cycling, and it felt good. I’d made a flask of coffee, to have on the train journey to Bristol, and in no time I had my bike on the train.
Obviously, you have to wear a mask on the station, and on the train, and I did that, lifting it just long enough to take a sip of coffee every now and then. I snoozed a bit, too, and before long, the train pulled in at Bristol Temple Meads.
A company I used to work for used to have an office in the old B-Bond warehouse, on Spike Island, Bristol, and I often visited, by taking my bike on the train. As a result, I knew the beginning of the route well. The Chocolate Path is still being repaired (I hope they give it a decent surface this time, and not the dreaded paving that resembles slabs of chocolate, from where it got its name) and the diversion is, as I expected, via Cumberland Road.
The only iffy bit of the diversion was at the end, at the start of the busway (which cyclists aren’t supposed to use, but evidently, many do use) but soon I crossed the bridge over the Avon, and turned right, taking the Pill Path. What followed was a curious mix of industrial wasteland, gorgeous scenery, with the ever-present proximity of the M5 motorway. I was glad when I finally left the M5 behind.
This was new country to me. Sure, I’ve crossed parts of the Somerset Levels before, but only ever at night, when riding the Exmouth Exodus. Cycling on the Levels during the day was a new experience. The Levels are undeniably pretty, and as I followed the Strawberry Line, I had a smile on my face.
I really should’ve delayed this ride until after the 12th of April, when COVID restrictions will have been relaxed even more, to the point that beer gardens at pubs will have been open, but impatience got the better of me. The Strawberry Line cuts right through the Thatchers brewery, where they offer tours (when not prevented by COVID) and I’d have loved that.
Actually, the combination of Easter and COVID meant that a great many places were closed, and affected availability of food, as well as access to toilets. I must confess, that didn’t feature in my planning.
The Strawberry Line takes you to Axbridge, then on to Cheddar. This was only the second time in my life that I was in Cheddar during the day – the local Scouts group usually has a feed stop as part of the Exmouth Exodus – and Cheddar Reservoir surprised me with it’s size. On a map, it mostly come across as a large puddle, but in reality, it’s big.
I didn’t dwell in any town or city, but mainly just cycled through. Leaving Cheddar was done via some gorgeous (if rather potholed and bumpy in places) gravel droves. As you enter the first, you’re faced with a sign that states “No public right of way”, but the public is permitted to use it.
Following the route along gorgeous, quiet rural lanes, it wasn’t long before I was in Wells – it really is rather small. The temperature was noticeably plummeting, and there was a snow warning for the Monday (a day and a bit away at that point). As a result, I didn’t linger, grabbed some supplies at the local Morrison’s, then set off to my probable camping spot for the night.
Wild camping requires a considerable degree of flexibility. I use Google Streetview to scout places beforehand, but the reality of what you encounter on the day could be majorly different to what Streetview promised. As a result, I like to have at least four potential camping spots identified beforehand, knowing that even then I may have to find somewhere different.
As it happened, I wanted to camp in a wooded area, due to the shelter it offers, both from being seen, and from the weather, but my first potential camping spot had the vegetation severely cut back, and so was entirely unsuitable. My next potential spot was too overgrown with brambles to access, so I settled for my third choice, which was fine.
After locking my bike to the fence – don’t ever take the chance of leaving your bike unlocked – I hurriedly pitched the tent, then zipped it up behind me. The temperature was falling fast, and I was feeling cold, and tired.
After a quick improvised meal – Crunchy Nut cereal, and half a grab-bag of Fruit Pastilles, if you must know – I changed out of my (by now) smelly cycling clothes, gave my body a wipe-down with a damp, slightly soapy flannel, then got dressed in all the other clothes I brought with. That meant I was wearing Lycra cycling shorts, tracky bottoms, a long-sleeved compression top, a long-sleeved cycling jersey, a fleece jumper, and finally, my cycling rain coat.
I went to sleep while it was still light, figuring I was too cold to venture outside to boil water for coffee. And no, don’t ever take the risk of lighting your camping stove inside your tent! Even if you don’t burn it down, the gases trapped inside your tent can be lethal, and sadly, people have died from exactly that.
I woke a number of times in the night, feeling a bit cold. I wasn’t freezing, nor anywhere near hypothermic. Have you ever woken in winter because you were a bit cold, but didn’t want to get out of your warm bed to get a blanket? I felt a bit like that, and soon enough went back to sleep.
When I woke in the morning, and went outside for a wee, I realised why I was cold: the tent was covered in ice. I was originally planning on setting off quite early, but waited for the sunlight to hit my tent (I was in a bit of a valley). Soon, I could hear the ice cracking as it was melting, and the temperature increased noticeably in a short space of time.
I started packing up, and as I was putting down my tent, a farmer was driving by in the field alongside. They looked over, and one person in the farmer-mobile pointed, so I waved. I didn’t get a wave back.
A few minutes later, everything was back on the bike, and I set off again. I never saw the farmer again 🙂
It wasn’t far to Shepton Mallett, but being Easter Sunday, almost everywhere was shut. Fortunately, I found a Greggs that was open. I was gob-smacked by the number of drivers who’d park diagonally, across several parking bays, and leave the engine running in their unattended cars, while they popped into Greggs!
Somewhere before Radstock, as I was puffing like a steam-engine up a hill, I was overtaken by two runners, who clearly didn’t understand the uphill part, and were carrying on a conversation, as if sat down in a pub!
At first I thought of stopping, pretending I was only going slow because I wanted to stop anyway, but realised it’d have been pointless, as they were already past and ahead of me. When I finally crested the hill, all that weight from my panniers & tent that made ascending so slow was acting in my favour, and in no time I was zooming down the hill. I was rapidly gaining on the two runners ahead in the distance, smug in the knowledge that – even if they sprinted as fast as possible – I’d easily outpace them. Then I noticed the next hill, and while still on the downhill, started braking, so I wouldn’t shoot past them, only to be overtaken again on the next hill! That was my dignity saved from having them overtake me for a second time.
It wasn’t too long before I was in Radstock, but again, I didn’t linger. Though I had no need to be in a mad rush, my train ticket back was for a set train, at a set time, and if I missed that, I’d have to buy another. This meant I didn’t hang around unnecessarily, either, as I was very aware that I was cycling slowly, with a fully-laden bike.
From Radstock it is but a short hop to the start of the Two Tunnels Greenway, and soon I was riding traffic-free again. As the Exmouth Exodus route runs through the Two Tunnels, I’ve cycled it often (though in the other direction) but only ever at night, and I was delighted by how beautiful the route was.
Crossing the Avon again in Bath meant it was a short hop till I was on the Bristol And Bath Railway Path, which I knew well. I stopped at the Avon Valley Railway’s café, just in time to get some hot food, before the kitchen closed – the first food since Shepton Mallet that morning – and I was very glad for it.
Soon enough after, I was back in Bristol, and wheeling my bike onto Platform 12, at Temple Meads. The route was everything I’d hoped for, and so much more, and I had an enormous grin on my face.
I have no doubt that you will love cycling this route as much as I did, so I suggest you head over to the GoCycle route guide page, where you can buy the guide (PDF and a very detailed .TCX) for less than a coffee and breadroll. The .TCX file is far more than just a route map – it will act as a digital route guide, telling you about the landscape through which you’re cycling.