Cycling for Curlews: reflections on the journey

After nine days on my bike, riding through all weathers and across a blurr of different regions and landscapes, it feels odd to be (relatively) stationary once more and preparing for third year at university here in Falmouth.

I was elated to finish my trip last Monday, riding the last few kilometres to Land’s End on a glorious autumn afternoon. And I’m even more elated with the response my fundraiser has received: you’ve helped me raise £2,187, which will go towards the BTO’s efforts of saving Britain’s Curlews. Thank you so much!

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My JustGiving page is still open for donations – just head to justgiving.com/fundraising/bardseyben

I thought I’d put pen to paper (in the virtual sense at least) and reflect on the journey: an exciting adventure that took in some fantastic areas of the country, albeit not in the best weather conditions, and which produced a great variety of wildlife enjoyed from my saddle-top perch.

The route I decided to take was not simply trying to get from A to B as quickly as possible, which would inevitably have involved sticking to busy main roads. Instead, I used the excellent sustrans National Cycle Network of low-traffic routes to form the basis of my cycle path. Whilst often bereft of busy traffic, the only downside of these lovely routes is their winding and rather hilly nature, often on small hedge-enclosed country lanes! Great for wildlife, but a little distracting for a cycling naturalist…

So here is a rough map of the route I took, give or take a few wrong turns and unintentional deviations…

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To have a more detailed peruse of the route, please follow this link to an interactive view: www.plotaroute.com/embedmap/463581Route

Day 1: Aberdaron to Barmouth

After leaving Bardsey a few day’s previously during a lull in the stormy weather, I was dropped off by my Mum at Porth Meuddwy at 7.40am on the Sunday morning to kick off the cycle. Having never undertaken a cycle ride longer than about 40km, it was a little daunting to set off with the knowledge that 870km of leg-powered travel awaited, involving some 40,000 feet of altitude gain overall.

But then, as Martin Luther King Jr remarks: ‘faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase’. After all the planning and thought behind the trip, it was time begin this first ‘step’.

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Setting of from Porth Meuddwy in Aberdaron, along with a would-be mascot (unfortunately a little too delicate to take with me on the whole ride!)

I set off with grey skies overhead looking alarmingly threatening. As I rode through Aberdaron and up the mountain of Rhiw, I looked back to glimpse the familiar humped shape of Bardsey – the last I’d see of home for a few months!

Apart from a few navigational mishaps, the cycle around Pwllheli and on to Porthmadog was enjoyable and easy-going. Hedgerows passed with a splash of colour in the form Tufted Vetches, Red Campions, Toadflax and umbellifers; traffic was minimal, and the bike riding smoothly.

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Toadflax (Linaria vulgaris)

And then the rain began. As I entered Porthmadog for some lunch at midday, sleeting sheets of heavy drizzle were being whipped past by a gusty westerly wind. After a short break, I braved the weather and commenced the day’s second leg by riding passed ‘the cob’: a causeway bisecting an excellent estuarine habitat that (despite the grim conditions) held my first Curlews of the trip. It was great to see Goosanders, Black and Bar-tailed Godwits, Common Snipe and a Greenshank too – some battling west over the cob into the blustery wind.

I took a more inland route from Porthmadog, through sheltered woodland valleys, over rugged little hilltops and beside sturdy welsh drystone walls covered in an epiphytic adornment of lichens, ferns and mosses. A tough uphill pull into the hills above Harlech was followed by a pleasant and speedy descent and level ride to finish the first day at the coastal town of Barmouth.

 

Day 2: Barmouth to Llanidloes

My diary entry at the end of Day 2 reads:

‘Huge cumulonimbus clouds heaving over the hills adjacent in a bruised combo of greys, blues and purples. Great to be safe, dry and finally out of the rain! Looking out to Nant Glas from the bunkhouse with a Red Kite or two hanging in the wind nearby’

This image probably does justice to summing up the day’s cycle:

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A rather soggy Common Carder bumblebee (Bombus pascuorum) atop Devil’s Bit Scabious

As is suggested, it was a rather damp one. I set off from Barmouth at 7.30am and within ten minutes my feet were sponges of water. I nevertheless had a brisk tail-wind to whisk me along the enjoyable trail that straddles the Mawddach estuary at the foot of Snowdonia. Curlews, Herons and gulls huddled against the conditions in the marshes.

 

I took a turn inland at Dolgellau and ended up taking a lovely, sheltered lane through woodland and spruce forests in the Corris valley. This route took me over a swollen Dyfi River and into Machynlleth for midday. After a lunch break and retreat from the conditions, I headed out for the day’s second (and rather daunting) leg: a long pull-up of some 1000 feet into the hills of Powys.

 

The rain remained as a light drizzle, and the wind intensified as I climbed. With the first Red Kites of the trip beginning to appear in the sky, a passing Red Admiral battling into the westerly gave me the required motivation to make the final push over the crest and ease down into the valleys beyond with the wind at my back.

The rest of the day’s cycle took me around Llyn Clywedog, through mossy forests and twisted Oak woodlands – eventually landing me in the pleasant town of Llanidloes, where I found my bunkhouse for the night and peeled off the sodden gear!

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Day 3: Llanidloes to Llanthony

I awoke on the 12th to promisingly clear skies and little wind (finally!). It was a pleasant start for Day 3, and riding out of Llanidloes I caught a glimpse of a Hobby snatching a Swallow from within a mingling flock of some 100 hirundines – a great start!

The day’s route took me along small, windy lanes beside the meandering course of the Rivery Wye. The soundscape was pierced with the uplifting cries of Red Kites, audible above the rumble of the river below.

It was a beautiful route through the Wye Valley’s wooded slopes, past looming hills such as Foel Gurig and Bryn Titli. After passing through the town of Rhaeader midday, it was on and into another stunning catchment: the Elan Valley. Following the ever-widening course of the river through Builth Wells, I crossed back over the Wye through Glasbury, and then started the day’s main ascent: up into the Brecons.

 

A storm was due in for the early evening, so I was keen to make the pass in good time. The pull up was a long and brutal zig-zag approach, passed ponies and barren sheep-grazed hillsides. With a sky rapidly darkening, it was a relief to make the Gospel Pass and whizz down the Golden Valley through Capel-Y-Ffin, sandwiched between the Black Mountains.

 

My spot for the night was a cluster of houses besides Llanthony’s Priory Abbey – throwing distance away from the Offar’s Dyke. The hostel (Llanthony Treats) was a gem of place: buildings long surrendered to the encroachment of all manner of lush green epiphytes, and a small farm holding run by incredibly welcoming hosts.

It also possessed the much-needed luxuries of a shower and a kettle!

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One of Llanthony’s amazing epiphyte-clad buildings

Day 4: Llanthony to Chepstow

After the forecast storm pummelled the Capel-Y-Ffin valley overnight, the 13th dawned a tad chilly with bright clear skies above. The first half of the day involved meandering down from the Brecons and into the realm of South Wales: navigating along the sustrans routes through the sprawling conurbations of Cwmbran, Abergyvenny and Newport.

 

As I noted in my diary: ‘Left behind the rugged and rolling Black Mountains and entered the realm of urban sprawl and traffic noise’

For the most part, though, my cycle was remarkably distanced from the bustle of the surrounding urban life: I took the stunning canal-side path that cut straight through most of the towns en route. Wildflowers lush riparian vegetation characterised the stretch, with innumerable species added to my trip’s flora list.

 

The day’s midway stop was at the Newport Wetlands RSPB, where I met up with great friend Jen Hallet for lunch and a peruse about the extensive reed beds. It was a little quiet in the breezy conditions, save for the explosive song of Cetti’s Warblers and a buzz of some 20-30 Southern Hawkers and Common Darters.

 

With the wind at my back and the odd scrumped apple to revitalise energy levels, the cycle to Chepstow through marshes and a network of ditch systems was easy-going, and I arrived at the Greenman Backpackers hostel in good time. The highlight of the evening was strolling down to the bank of the River Wye and enjoying amazing views of a female Peregrine plucking a freshly-caught Pigeon…whilst I enjoyed my (not-so-fresh) Pizza.

 

 

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Looking across the River Wye in Chepstow, watching a female Peregrine enjoying its Pigeon meal

Day 5: Chepstow to Langport (Somerset)

One of the bigger days for distance, the 65 miles covered on Day 5 made for a tiring day, especially owing to the slow navigation through Bristol.

It was time to say Adios to Wales in the morning, as I crossed the Severn Bridge and struck on into England. Cycling for a time beside the estuary, it was great to see a variety of waders and gulls feeding in the extensive mud flats. I even caught wind of the Curlew’s burbling call over the sound of M5 traffic!

 

It was actually a really pleasant cycle through Bristol: the national cycle route follows the Avon Gorge into the heart of the city, with a trackside bursting with wildflowers and the nearby river hosting plenty of birdlife. I meandered out of Bristol through the Ashton court estate, and then by mid-afternoon was enjoying great views of two Great White Egrets at Chew Valley Lake.

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the Avon Gorge

I gradually ticked off the miles as I entered North Somerset, zig-zagging country lanes and descending onto the vast levels by late afternoon. In bright and breezy conditions, I met up with great friend and fellow photographers Max Thompson and Steve at RSPB Greylake. This is one of several superb reserves on the levels, that holds hundreds of thousands of waders and wildfowl come late autumn. Most wintering birds haven’t arrived yet, but we were content to see Marsh Harriers floating by, a Kingfisher dart through the reeds and an abundance of darters and wasps by the track side.

 

My sixth night was enjoyed at Max’s home in Curry Rivel, where we set out a moth trap for the night and enjoyed watching Pipistrelles hawking over his back lawn, Little Owls calling nearby and the incessant ticking of Grey Bush-crickets in the hedgerows.

Day 6: Langport to Twitchen (Exmoor)

Arousing soon after 6am, Max and I checked the night’s moth catch and enjoyed Lilac Beauty, Pale Mottled Willow and Light Emerald amongst the commoner species. We then took a brief visit to nearby Swell Woods to check on some emerging Stinkhorn fungi, and stumble across a passing flock of Marsh Tits, Goldcrests, Treecreepers and Blue Tits.

The cycle for Day 6 began by joining the Taunton canal just west of Burrow Mump: a pleasant ride past hedges bursting with blackberries, hawthorn berries and rosehips. After Taunton I tracked north-west through Somerset and entered Devon just east of the Exmoor national park.

 

Midday lunch stop was enjoyed in glorious sunshine at the busy village of Dulverton – a much-needed top-up of energy levels before commencing the long and gruelling climb into Exmoor. My afternoon stretch to Blindwell Hostel in Twitchen was hard work: several very long and steep climbs followed by unfairly short downhill sections.

Nevertheless, I made it to the lovely isolated spot of Blindwell by 4pm, and spent a good half hour enjoying a myriad of insects on the garden’s Ice plant (Sedum spectabile): Red Admirals, Small Tortoiseshells, Speckled Woods, Marsh Hoverfly, Marmalade Flies, Honey Bees, White-tailed Bumblebees and plenty more!

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Small Tortoiseshells on Sedum spectabile

Day 7: Twitchen to Bude

I awoke to a golden dawn, valley sides and hedgerows glistening with sparkling water droplets after a heavy deluge of rain overnight. I set off over the rolling Exmoor hills shortly after dawn, passing panicked groups of Pheasants scarpering away; and over a decidedly tree-less landscape (but for a few birches clinging to crumbing stone walls).

 

I have to admit I don’t find this landscape particularly inspiring; indeed it seemed that a bustle of birdlife emerged only when entering the suburbs of Barnstaple’s vegetated housing estates! Without straying too far onto another subject altogether…onwards with the cycle!

From the riverside town of Barnstaple, I joined the fantastic ‘Tarka Trail‘: a 48km track following the old railway line that connected the industrious Great Torrington to the commerce of the ports at the coast. This trail runs smoothly along the course of the River Torridge, through lush woodlands and along the superb Taw-Torridge Estuary.

 

I found it hard work to make any headway initially: a plethora of waders and estuarine birds stole my attention on the first 4-mile stretch, whilst a vibrant assemblage of wildflowers adorned the pathside for the rest of the trail! Needless to say, I also spent a good 20 minutes enjoying close views of a flock of Curlews and godwits busily probing for lug worms in the mudflats – a good reminder of why I was doing this!

Gradually the miles passed with ease, and it was sad to leave the Tarka Trail at Petrockstowe, traversing the county west into Cornwall. Passing through village after village – each studded with four-spired churches atop small hills – I struggled over the final hill and into the seaside town of Bude with aching legs – relieved to have made my night’s stop after 63 miles’ ride!

 

Later that evening I ventured out to marvel at a fast approaching storm which dominated the entire skyline in a furious mass of cumulonimbus. It was incredibly atmospheric watching 300 Jackdaws tearing across the sky above Bude prior to roosting, with the imminent thunderstorm looming to the west!

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An atmospheric end to the day in Bude

Day 8: Bude to St Austell

Once again, I jammed in on avoiding the worst of the weather which passed through overnight, and left a still and sunny vista for my penultimate day’s ride.

The first few miles of Day 8 felt tough, descending and ascending numerous rolling hills as I gradually eased onto Bodmin Moor. A passage of migrants kept me somewhat distracted, with Meadow Pipits, Yellowhammers, Swallows, Stonechats and Wheatears all clearly on the move; accompanied by the odd Goldcrest and Chiffchaff in the hedgerows.

 

By late morning the sun was high in the sky and I’d made the cycle over Bodmin Moor, descending through Temple onto the Camel Trail. Another brilliant woodland-valley trackway, this cycle route followed the River Camel downriver before diverting into the town of Bodmin. It was clear that the area had received the same thunderstorm as Bude, with the river swollen and muddy with silt.

After lunch in Bodmin, it was a shorter leg onwards to St Austell, passing the Eden Project and beginning to enter familiar surroundings once again. I descended through the town and navigated to my rest-stop for the night: at the home of some great friends the Herewards. Meeting Hannah and a visiting friend, we actually headed straight out for a lovely walk around the Dodman owing to the afternoon’s glorious weather.

 

The day was completed by indulging in some much-needed homemade scones and jam upon return, followed by an early night!

Day 9: St Austell to Land’s End and Falmouth

It felt odd kitting my bike and saddling up for my final day’s ride; I had a long day ahead of me, but my head was still in something of a blurr from the previous week’s travel and all the places I’d passed through en route.

I waved Hannah goodbye at 7am and was off into a chilly morning; mist rising from the nearby valley and the air soaked in the scent of Himalayan Balsam beside the stream. As I rode down towards Mevigassy, my front tyre decided to give up, hissing flat with a puncture. Typical on the final morning! I kept calm and swiftly changed the inner tube (thankfully I’d brought spares along). After a tense 10 minutes, I inflated the tyre and all seemed to hold – I could continue!

 

With a golden sun rising to the east, it was a stunning (if very hilly) cycle along the coast, passing through idyllic coastal villags like Caerhys, Portloe and Mevigassy. I zig-zagged the country lanes over the Roseland’s familiar landscape, and even glimpsed Ring Ouzel, Tree Pipit and Firecrest by the roadside. By 9.30am I was queuing beside the Truro river awaiting the King Harry ferry.

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boarding the King Harry ferry

It felt odd to be back on ‘home’ turf, crossing the peaceful wooded estuary on the chain-powered ferry before cycling on towards Devoran. Steering east and north of Falmouth, I joined the old mining ally-way of the Bissoe Valley for the next stretch, passing through brilliant heathland, woodland, freshwater and scrub habitats as I rode. It was bizarre to bump into university Professor Brendan Godley midway up the Bissoe trail, who kindly treated me to an energising Latte and interesting conversation with a visiting researcher!

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Ling Heather (Calluna vulgaris) in the Bissoe Valley

From Bissoe, my route took me through the outskirts of Redruth and Camborne and eventually to the Hayle Estuary. Although the low tide wasn’t ideal for birding, I spent a good hour or so scanning the sand banks and marsh: hundreds of gulls lounged and bathed in the creeks, Teals and Wigeons roosted alongside feeding Curlews, godwits, Dunlins and many other waders. A great spot to enjoy my celebratory Cornish pasty for the final homestretch!

 

After rejoining the sustrans route 3, I made a b-line across the country to St Mounts Bay, cycling from Marazion along to Penzance, and then joining young photographer Josef FitzGerald-Patrick for the final push. It was great to have some company for the last 20-mile cycle to the tip: we topped the final hill overlooking Sennen Cove in glorious afternoon sunshine, and freewheeled down to my finishing points: Land’s End!

After 550 miles on the road, it felt odd that the trip was over; almost anticlimactic. The tourist-infested nature of Land’s End meant I didn’t stay long to take in the moment, but enjoyed the vast view out over the Atlantic and the feeling that I’d actually made it!

Riding back to Penzance, I boarded a train to Falmouth and felt distinctly odd sitting aboard the speedy carriage without peddling to make headway! I took a cursory diversion through my university campus in Penryn en route home to complete the day, and then collapsed for the evening. It was over.

Thank you for all the support, and let’s hope we can see the decline of the enigmatic Curlew turned into a great success story of conservation.

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5 thoughts on “Cycling for Curlews: reflections on the journey

  1. Pingback: Student cycles 500 miles to return to university – All-Latest-News

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