Still in the West

It’s been a month and I probably have enough material for another spell of idle rambling… and with work understandably quiet, it’s not like I have an excuse for not finding the time.  For someone with a history of depression, being able to get out for a ride during an extended spell of fine weather has undoubtedly been key to maintaining my wellbeing during this period. Like a very many people I suspect, I have periods of anxiety about what the future might hold for my self-employment, at times I feel very alone, and other times I just feel utterly hollowed out… and then I go riding for bit and return home whistling cheesy tunes very badly; I was never an accomplished whistler.

I see the term “forest bathing” with increasing regularity. For the more hardcore however I think “bluebell snorkelling” should be on the list of mental health therapies. It works for me and around here, being in the far west where temperatures are always a degree or two warmer, the bluebells popped out in spots at the end of March.

It has been interesting to be out riding around over the past few weeks. There are very many more people on bikes, whole families clearly having dragged bikes out of the shed for the first time in years, and people who perhaps have woken up to the fact that a bicycle is not just for children.. it’s a key element of sustainable transport infrastructure with the handy side-effect of improving physical and mental health; both useful things if keen to avoid or mitigate poor health in both the current context and the future. I really hope that awareness sticks once restrictions are eased.

I used to be quite binary when it came to cycling or hiking; I would be out for one or the other, increasingly over the last few years however I find myself mixing the two.

To be on a bike during the first week or two of the lockdown was an invariably pleasant experience. People were open and friendly, there was a real sense of solidarity. It was quite unsettling however to see how quickly that decayed into a more toxic narrative, particularly online, in which some people, who I think just need to hate, began to use the current situation as another tool to attack others. Cornwall is largely still relatively chilled, only once has a driver deliberately targeted me by driving directly at me from the opposite side of the road before swerving away when within a meter, but things have become a little more tense in spots farther north, judging by reports in the cycling press, with wires strung across trails, tacks on roads, and hostile signage. All that despite all the evidence pointing to the fact that the risk of transmission from runners, walkers, and cyclists outside is so low as to be practically nil. It’s distressing to see, especially as I count among my friends front-line NHS staff that reIy on their bikes as both transport and as a means to manage the stress of their work. After seeing some particularly vicious, small-minded attacks on social media I spent the long Easter weekend with phone and internet off. It was much better.

With that in mind my local explorations have taken on much more of a hike-a-bike flavour in which I can link together sections of trail and access spots well away from more popular routes. I used to be quite binary when it came to cycling or hiking; I would be out for one or the other, increasingly over the last few years however I find myself mixing the two. I’m not allergic to spells of carrying my bike, the extra dimension to my rides is highly enjoyable, it allows me to access favourite spots without having to drive to a trailhead, and it’s a good workout. There’s an awful lot of dogshit around on the paths in certain spots now too so this strategy also helps me avoid that; I think it’s probably a consequence of some folk who previously would have used a dog-walking service now having to exercise their own animals.

 

I realised at some point that I had never been to the top of Carn Galver. It’s a steep scramble on a narrow, rocky trail. I decided that my Allday light steel fixed-wheel makes a perfect “hiking-specific” bicycle with its absence of derailleurs to snag on bushes while the bike is on my back, and a level top tube and open triangle making it very easy to shoulder. While the bike industry has become expert at exploiting niches and sub-niches, many semi-imaginary, I suspect this is one niche I won’t see being marketed any time soon….

The current situation is deeply unfortunate and sad on so many levels and will only become more so the longer this goes on. With that in mind I am hesitant to describe the coast of Cornwall without overwhelming crowds of tourists and endless queues of cars as a “delight”… but it is. It is more reminiscent of the Cornwall I grew up with. There was always tourism, and I’m not against tourism, it’s important to Cornwall, but it was a gentler, more inclusive flavour of tourism rather than the increasingly apparent, much more aggressive “f*** you” flavour in which the Cornish are often viewed as little more than a serving underclass, and the county simply as a resource to be exploited. Instead of the dread that many now feel as summer approaches, we used to look forward to the holiday season; seeing familiar faces, and meeting new ones that all brought life to the community, with visitors vs locals cricket matches and watersports events for example. As the lockdown approached there was much debate over whether or not it was a good idea to keep Cornwall open to tourists given the limited healthcare capacity and vulnerable population, and some of the commentary around that on online communities was horrific. Increasingly over the last few years I’ve noticed that outside the county there is a feeling that the Cornish should be grateful that people “bring their money here”.. something that was really brought into stark relief with genuine comments, from tourists and second home owners alike, along the lines of “it’s not my fault you Cornish are too stupid and lazy to earn your own money, you should be grateful I worked hard to earn my money and spend it here so I will do whatever the f*** I want and there is nothing you can do to stop me“. Of course they’re in the minority but a growing minority from where I’m sitting, and as always it’s the shitty minority that drowns out the decent majority.

The thing about tourism here is that while it represents roughly 20% of the Cornish economy (the rest being manufacturing, tech, farming/food, and fishing), and roughly 20% of jobs, the tourism business has a powerful voice so it dominates 100% of the narrative around Cornwall. It has created a dysfunctional environment that stifles the development of a more balanced, healthier economy. It’s an environment in which many of the jobs it creates are seasonal minimum wage ones in a context where house prices are some of the highest in the country, and where many of those who collect the profits are based outside the county. Housing developers use loopholes to get around requirements for affordable housing, and much of what they build ends up as second homes. Great example, a new development at Perranporth.. prices start at £430K, not a single affordable unit. Communities are gutted, there are places where 40% of the houses are second homes, and another 40% are holiday lets. While I don’t want to see that side of Cornish life suddenly come crashing down all at once –  it would be hugely damaging – I would like to see a shift back to a gentler, more sustainable model that is less destructive both socially and environmentally. I’m probably dreaming, and I’ve certainly ranted on a little more than I intended so with that in mind… pictures. It has been wonderfully therapeutic to carry a fixed lens camera with me while I poke about on my two-wheeled forays beyond the front door.

There are a number of locations around the coast that tend to be no-go areas on sunny days during the holiday season. It’s a combined fear of being mown down by angry drivers of huge 4x4s, and finding crowds stressful. This is Godrevy… just a few miles from me, and rather than feeling overwhelmingly crowded it’s been a “soothing” spot at the end of a short trail ride from home in which to pause for a few moments to process what’s going on and watch the sandpipers.
I’m very lucky to have a loop of about 30km from my back door that takes in some woodland, some clifftop path, some inland tracks, and a few km of road.
I had hoped to put some “loaded for camping” miles around the place on this thing this year.. I don’t know at what point during the easing of restrictions it will become OK to nip out for a discreet bivy somewhere… hopefully it will become obvious although I don’t anticipate from Downing Street any announcement of “it’s now OK to kip out under the stars with your bike”…. it’ll be a judgement call at some point I expect. Just not yet.
Ordnance Survey trig point on top of Godrevy Head…
… and the view down to the lighthouse, which never gets old.
Another way to breathe life into old trails… use a skinny-tyred fixed wheel. The occasional fully-suspended mountain-biker has given me some odd looks as I slide gently down some sections sideways with my rear wheel locked with my legs. It’s fun and I’m never in a rush.
It kind of feels like “road plus” exploring. It’s not suited to more technical trails but as a way to make a primarily road ride more interesting it works well. It also harks nicely back to when we were kids and didn’t need a different bike for every flavour of terrain likely to be encountered….
It is fun on more rugged terrain too but I have to be a little bit mindful of the risk involved in tackling more technical stuff on such a bike, although speeds tend to be very, very low on such terrain, and it is very good for improving bike handling skills.
I find myself dragging my bike across the soft sand of Loe bar on a regular basis..
It has a different feel every time I do.
It is rarely a busy spot.. there is no car park within a km or two, and it’s not a swimming beach…
Subject to the full force of immense Atlantic swells, there is still a vicious undertow on apparently calm days. The beach shelves very steeply and there have been a number of unfortunate fatalities here.
More bluebell snorkelling…
.. and forest breast-stroke.
The emergence of the spring wild flowers has been an absolute delight.
Same spot, one week later. I love the seapinks.
They represent yet another reason to slow down. I’ve noticed a number of fat bumblebees too which is good news.
There are a surprising number of stretches of bridlepath out on the Lizard Peninsula. I’ve been heading that way with reasonable regularity. Heading out on trails, home via the road, or vice-versa depending on wind direction. The road is usually horrible in the holiday season, it’s twisty and gets very busy, and many folk use it like a racetrack.
In the presence of such geology/geography I do, and have done many times in the past, spend a few moments to contemplate how fleetingly brief and fragile existence is… it is both grounding and motivating.
Geologically the area is very interesting. The Lizard Peninsula is an ophiolite – a splinter of oceanic crust forced to the surface in an ancient subduction zone. The rock is serpentinite, normally buried deep within the earth’s crust; the cliffs are dark and foreboding even on a bright day.
It’s a good place to explore, scrambling down to tiny coves more normally accessed, in my case, from the seat of a sea kayak.
I found sections of whale vertebrae on this one. Quite recent too judging by the presence of some connective tissue. A 60ft fin whale stranded not too far away from this spot back in February so it might have been from that although did not look big enough… more minke whale sized perhaps.
Also found some wonderfully coloured and patterned pebbles. The serpentinite rock produces some fabulous colouration and patterning. I’m not a pebble collector, I find a pebble like this is far more beautiful when seen in context than it could ever be on a shelf at home. It’s illegal in spots too.
More Lizard.
I confess that I have been using some stretches of footpath too, to link the bridlepaths, much as we did when kids. This isn’t public land and the National Trust seem ambivalent about it, and while I wouldn’t do it when it’s busy, there’s absolutely no-one around. Most objections to riding on the coast path seem based on the fact that it’s not suitable for riding (it isn’t) rather than you shouldn’t… there is a an awful lot of carrying, lifting, and pushing which would be beyond many less ‘motivated’…
… other objections tend to be based around the myth that it is bicycle tyres rather than feet that churn up the trails… hmmmm.
I love the signage.
Abundant wildflowers do make everything seem better.
Kynance Cove is another honeypot normally given a wide berth from April to October. I am very happy to be able visit in the stormier months when the scene is wild and rugged, it has however been undeniably nice to be able to visit in finer weather without the usual crush of people, provided I don’t give too much thought to the reasons behind that.
Dirt roads are not abundant in Cornwall but I am grateful for the few scraps to be found.
Gorse.
I have been gravitating towards the coastal spots as I do love the coast, was lucky enough to grow up on the coast, and these will be the places that are busy again as restrictions ease… there is, however, plenty of more inland exploration waiting for me when that does happen.
I recently turned down this path near Madron on a whim….
To find the abundantly moss-covered ruins of an ancient celtic chapel…
.. and Madron Holy Well. Dating from pre-Christian times it would have been a sacred spot, as well as a water supply. It is still a spot for healing; many ‘clouties’ (scraps of rag) are tied to the trees. Torn from parts of the body with hurt, the belief is that as they disintegrate with time then then the hurt goes.
In modern times many have been replaced with non-biodegradable scraps and keepsakes but the belief remains strong.

 

18 thoughts on “Still in the West

  • What a beautiful series of images. My enjoyment exceeded my envy which must mean they are very good!!

    I’m among those getting back in the saddle. I bought a used bike, got it couriered to me, and put in 12, then 14, and then 26 miles. It gives me the heady joy of childhood cycling, the freedom of travelling independently, efficiently, speedily, with the world your oyster. On the longest ride I made it to the coast and the visit propped up my sanity for a little longer. Locked down in civilisation is a struggle. Thank god for two wheels and may those who are critical be a little more compassionate.

    As a newbie enthusiast I’m bursting with tedious technical questions, wanting to understand how you cover the terrain and manage the carrying… and is that a single speed bike?? I have only five gears and need every one of them!

    Keep well.

    • hey, thanks for writing and that’s very kind of you!
      I’m really stoked to hear that you’re discovering the delights of being back on a bike, I think that’s simply fantastic.
      Anyway, as for that bike – it’s a fixed wheel, single gear, no freewheel. I find it no more difficult than a geared bike… I think just a consequence of decades of conditioning and not really thinking about hills in a negative sense….

      Wishing you some very happy trails!

  • Thanks for your post Mike, it is a refreshing read. The reflections on Cornwall are very astute. I have paddled off the Lizard, Praa Sands, Falmouth and Helston. Hope to meet up with you when we are finally free to visit. My wife and I live in Milton Keynes. I have followed your blog for years and always find something of interest highlighting the stunning photos.

    • Hi John, that’s lovely of you to say so; lifted my day immensely. It would be super to meet you when we can all move around and can do some paddling and/or riding. Give me a shout when you’re down!

  • I’ve read and enjoyed your blog for a while now, Mike. Your thoughts on cycling – its benefits to mental health and its place in a happy society – really strike a chord with me. I also love travelling vicariously through your stunning photos. In these strange times I have, like you, been heartened to see different combinations of people out cycling around where I live: families with young children who feel safe enough to venture out on the roads now they’re quieter, parents and teenagers enjoying a ride together. Is it possible to keep some of this good when all this is over? I hope so, and that other shifts are possible, such as the shift back to a more sustainable tourism industry for Cornwall you write about. In the meantime, I’m going to keep on riding.

    • hey Matt, thanks for taking the time to write, and for your lovely feedback. There’s so much potential for positive change to come out of this, change not mandated through government but changes in habits and thoughts about what is important; as part of that bicycles and e-bikes have such an important part to play in a healthier future. I did see a survey, on the BBC I think, that said only 9% of people want to go back to the way things were, which I found very heartening; maybe we will end up with a fairer, healthier, more sustainable society. In the meantime, yep… keep pedalling and happy trails!

  • What a wonderful backyard you have to explore – I’m a little bit jealous to see those spring flowers from the other side of the planet! Happy pedalling amigo. Enjoy the peace and quiet while it lasts.

    • hey, great to hear from you. I hope you’re coping OK with life not on the road. I heard in the news that NZ has been able to declare 0 cases which is really great news. I am lucky to live in such a place… there are no mountains, deserts, or volcanoes, or any wilderness at all really, and normally a lot of people.. but it’s pretty nice, especially in spring!

  • I have only been to Newquay once so it is lovely to experience parts of Cornwall vicariously through your photos and read about your reflections on the impact of the negative elements of tourism on locals. Some visitor attitudes are truly shocking even if they are in the minority.
    Like you getting out and exploring quiet hidden local trails on my bike, running or snorkeling through blubell woods is essential for my mental health. Even though our plans for a year cycling through South America are on hold indefinitely, i am still hopfull, hasta manaña.

    • hey, cheers for reading. The renewed focus on my local area has been really good for me, instead of thinking about bigger adventures farther afield, making even more effort to enjoy what’s on my doorstep has been really positive. It’s shame your plans for South America have been delayed.. lets think of it as a delay rather than cancellation… I’m sure you’ll get there at some point!

  • The photo titled “Gorse” was so nostalgic, brought back many childhood memories and made me smile. Raised in Kent my bike was my steed in adventures and my freedom.
    Tied to Texas by love and responsibilities my get up and go days are limited so I long for you to be back in the beautiful and remote places of South America so I may continue to live my life vicariously through you!
    Be safe and thank you for sharing.

    • what a lovely sentiment, thank you. I feel touched :-) I’ll do my best to keep things interesting for you. Stay well and happy!

  • Wonderful pictures and words, thankyou. Great synergy between fixed-wheel bike and fixed-focus camera :-)

    We have done the walk from Porthleven to Loe Bar and around the pool a number of times, always in spring time, and it’s always a joy.

    One of the blessings of the current situation is that the roads are very quiet (although that has started to change in the last week or so over here on the East Coast) which makes it ideal for getting out on the bike.

    • hey Mike, thank you for the kind words. I hadn’t considered that about the fixed wheel and fixed lens.. not sure what it says about me.. simple, luddite… perhaps.. ;-)
      It is a fabulous walk. I do marvel at the range of environments to be found here, even if restricted to just the far west.
      Traffic has been creeping up here too.. Thursday/Friday last week felt almost normal….

  • Stunning as ever Mike and great to see you summitting Galva; I feel it’s amongst the most atmospheric of all neolithic sites. The girls and I bouldered there at the weekend, enjoying the unsurpassed views across Zennor to the North (but making me thirst for the Gurnard’s Head to open again). Your high contrast Lizard image is award winning. When will you publish a book of your best… and just how would you go about choosing ’em?

    • “summitting Galva” :-) I always like to see your family outdoor adventures in the area. Cheers for the feedback too! On a book.. ha… well, I’m pondering doing something with the street photography… maybe… don’t know. Perhaps I could try crowdfunding it!

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