At breakfast this morning, it did not take us long to put Kingsbridge behind which, after a night of rain, was just wallowing in sludge. It was one of those close, sticky mornings with a sky of sombre grey that foretold of more rain. The Plymouth road was like a narrow lane between high banks that, though they shut out the views, displayed hosts of roses and honeysuckle; it was full of steep hills, rarely rideable and, much to my joy, was all pot-holes full of water. One gets sick of immaculate surfaces, and really appreciates a few miles of rough riding and splashing. So I got as many pot-holes in to the yard as I could. This country is very sparsely populated, and it is quite a common thing for schoolchildren from the outlying farms coming to school on horseback. We saw several such.
Although we were on a regular touring route, Modbury turned out ‘en masse’ to see us. And as Modbury is situated all the way up a steep hill it had the chance of seeing us properly. Youngsters who ought to have gone to school spoke loudly and scathingly because we dismounted, maidens pulled faces and giggled at me (so my friend said, though I swore it was him !) and old ladies left their washing to gossip about our clothing, for, as my friend wore generously made ‘plus fours’ and I ‘shorts’, we undoubtedly made a fine pair of freaks; so by the time the top of Modbury was reached, I, at least, was ready to do a sprint. After that the ripples in the country grew less pronounced, until at length we were riding at least a mile without walking a hill, and the surface had deteoriated to its usual perfection.
The entrance to Plymouth was dull and tram-lined. The inside of Plymouth was exciting, the traffic and cars, and a heavy downpour of rain deciding us not to take up permanent residence there. My companion was just as anxious to get out of it as I was, and as his way was not mine we parted company, he making for Devonport and I for Saltash ferry. I never saw Plymouth Sound or any of the ‘lions’. I left my companion at exactly noon, by a nearby clock, enquired for the route, walked up many steep streets, rode over millions of setts, and at exactly 12.40 reached the same place again.
The second attempt put me right after I had wandered all over the warehouse district, and inside the cape I came to Saltash Ferry and found the craft on the wrong side. It took me an hour to get across to Saltash, making the journey by a sister-ship to the one at Dartmouth. A ‘Teas’ notice in a quaint little alley attracted me, and I had lunch in the rear of an oyster shop with an open window in front of which the budding manhood of Saltash stood watching me. But that is not all. All the street came to look at my bike and to whizz the pedals backwards or ring the bell. Then a baby started to cry, and in two minutes pandemonium reigned, every baby for miles around joining in sympathy. Clicking freewheel, ringing bell, and the lusty howls of a host of seamen-to-be struck up a tune that would make Jack Hylton’s celebrated Savoy Orphans weep with envy. The houses were quaint and doddering; upstairs one might shake hands across the street; fishing tackle was piled up by the doors, the street was cobbled, a pungent shrimp-cum-lobster-cum-oyster smell prevailed, and the kiddies spoke in the drawling Cornish accent. When I left the alley I was given a royal send-off by a cheering crowd of urchins.
After that – ugh !, it was all hills, all ups, with the scenic tide at its lowest ebb since leaving home. It was inland Cornwall, dreary, half moorland country, very hilly, with rain coming in spasms, each spasm leaving me sticky and thirsty. Happily every hamlet had its pump ! At Callington I discovered that the last ten miles had taken me two hours. Callington is a bit quaint, steep-streeted, and whitewashed very white. The next stage of ten miles to Launceston started very unpromising, uphill, with dreary, lumpy hills all around and a hampering sidewind, but after a few miles an improvement took place, then, dropping into a little combe, I passed through some wonderful woodland scenery. After that things went more pleasantly, and I got many a fine view of the valley of the Tamar on my right, until I reached Launceston, which lies on the main Exeter-Land’s End road, only 80 miles from the latter. It is a steep little town of historical interest, owns up to a castle, a priory, and the remains of a wall, and is picturesquely quaint. I joined the Bude road, and, of course, the worst of two alternatives, precipitous down, into the Ottery valley, and ever so hard up. Then I got another dose of rain and hills, but both were left behind at Yealmbridge, from where a rippling stretch of high country took me to four cross roads at the Red Post Inn. I was torn between two desires, the Bude road and the Kilhampton road, and the latter won. A real Devonian lane took me to Kilhampton, an ordinary looking village on the north road to Land’s End, but Kilhampton possesses a very good tea-place, which, after 38 Cornish miles is more than just a tea-place.
It was a good job that I got tea there, too, for I came in for it when I started, open ground, dismal, very hilly, and a high wind of mushroom growth anchoring me down to one place, but after about five miles it turned completely round and, in violent contradiction sent me scudding along like a whirlwind. After a time I deserted the main road and was soon heading furiously down into scenes of riotous beauty. With now and then a momentary glimpse of the sea through the foliage, I went down, down, until, turning a bend, I looked upon that gem of Devon – Clovelly. Some folks say “See Venice and die”: I would say, “See Clovelly – and live!” I left my bike at the top of the cobbled street which goes down to the sea in steps. Every building in that street was a picture; verandahed, whitewashed, each wall had a most beautiful show of roses. Down one goes on slippery cobbles, then in and out of quaint little alleys, and actually through houses until the shore and the tiniest of harbours is reached. It is possible to walk along the harbour wall to a little lamp set at the narrow entrance. From this point one may look back on the houses, tier upon tier above each other, at the high cliffs red and brown stretching away in headlands and toothed promontories, at the tiny, secluded little harbour with its fishing boats, and away over the foam-flecked waters to the low dim mountains of South Wales and Gower. It was all so gorgeous, so stunning in its loveliness. For a long time I stood by the harbour lamp, contemplating the scene, until, finding the time creeping on, I pulled myself together and tore myself away after a stern battle with a desire to stay in Clovelly. So I climbed in and out of the alleys, and (with many a backward glance) up the cobbled street to my bike.
In a narrow lane above the combe I sat on a gate and watched the sun dip into the sea. It changed the rolling waters into a long, rippling glory of crimson, tinted the meeting sky and sea as on the night when Hiawatha sailed into the great Beyond; as Longfellow quotes:-
“The evening sun descending
Set the clouds on fire with redness
Burned the broad sky like a prairie
Left upon the level water
One long track and trail of splendour
Down whose stream, as down a river
Westward, westward Hiawatha
Sailed into the fiery sunset,
Sailed into the purple vapours
Sailed into the dusk of evening “
“A dozen miles or more to go if I would make Bideford tonight, and now it is 9.45”, I murmured to myself as I sped down the glossy road. I had set my heart on going to ‘Bideford in Devon’, for it stirred up thoughts of ‘Westward Ho’ and Amyas Leigh and all the heroes of schoolboy days. So – I had set my heart on going to Bideford. The wind had risen to gale velocity, roaring behind me, sending me scudding over hills and dales, through many a picturesque village, and on the sea edge of Dartmoor. Darkness had fallen, and the streets were very quiet when I reached Bideford and perused my handbook. I had gone too far, so back I ambled up a steep hill until I found the place at last, and just scraped in as the people were going to bed (11pm). It is getting later each night ! Over supper I read a bit of Kingsley’s ‘Westward Ho!’ which lay on the table. Very often I have perused that book, and now here I was in the town that forms the base of it. So I turned in, with many thoughts on the past day, soon lapsing into the sleep that comes easily to one who set 92 west country miles behind him in the day.