Rough Stuff Fellowship Easter 2014

At long last I got to go to a Rough Stuff meet. The South West of England doesn’t have a local group, with most of the membership in the north, which seems like a terrible shame (for the south-west I mean!). The Easter meet has a new location each year, and this time they chose Dunster, just a few miles from home. What better chance to meet up and find out more.

If you’ve never heard of them, the RSF is a cycling club for ‘those who prefer to cycle on byways and tracks’. It’s not mountain biking, but more a case of taking a regular bicycle somewhere slightly different for the hell of it. For those who prefer a comfortable mode of transport, a mountain bike is certainly an option, but no one is looking for adrenaline inducing thrills and spills. You’ll see plenty of bone shakers, road bikes, folders and maybe even a penny farthing. It could go by the tagline of ‘Whatever Happened to the Lycra Lads’, except for the fact that Lycra isn’t often the clothing of choice for many of the members. They’ve been peddling since before the advent of modern technical fabrics and even off-road capable bikes, so you are more likely to see knee length wool socks, knobbly knees and an interesting selection of headwear. It’s a fantastic sight, and one that often leaves passers-by befuddled, and no doubt thinking ‘whatever happened to the lycra, lads?’

The Easter Meet runs over the weekend, Friday to Sunday evening, with a few early arrivals and late departures doing their own thing on Friday and Monday. The dinners and meetings were held at the Yarn Market Hotel in the centre of Dunster. Friday night was a dinner and slide show of photos contributed by members during the year, judged and awarded for merit. Some cracking views from around the UK and much further afield.

Saturday there were several rides for different interests and terrain, some more road orientated, some more off road. I chose a group heading towards Selworthy comprised of Steve, Jim, Pat, Lorna, Graham and Jonathon. A younger dynamic than perhaps many of the RSF members, our ages probably averaging around 50, although Jim I think was doing his best to raise the average. Not sure of his exact age, but I suspect the pension started quite a few years ago! He is however, one of the fitter members of the group, and a long time Rough Stuffer.

As we left Dunster we crossed the old Packhorse bridge, which was somewhat obscured by roadworks. We then made a small navigational error and ended up on a footpath which meant we needed to cross a style to get back to the main road. We then started an ascent of Grabbist Hill, which was too steep to cycle, although some made an attempt on the less steep sections.

The ride along the top gives some lovely views across Minehead, North Hill, the Bristol Channel, and Wales beyond. After a couple of miles of undulating track we descended through the woods. Unfortunately Pat picked up a branch into the spokes which set him teetering off to one side for a low speed and ignominious dismount. No injury to the rider, but the mudguard stays got torn from the guard, which itself fractured and buckled (it being a aluminium guard – the bike itself a steel framed road bike). But zip ties to the rescue, we collectively fashioned a working repair and got back on the way.

Tea and sandwiches came courtesy of the Periwinkle Tea Rooms in Selworthy, marred only by the smoke alarms sounding for several minutes which the staff seemed unable to silence. No one seemed ready to evacuate and leave their lunch, so fingers in ears for all. After refreshments, we headed uphill on the climb onto Selworthy Beacon. The way was fair but quite steep, and one-by-one people reverted to walking, but I’m pleased to say that I managed to make it to the top, in the company of Jonathon.

The 'Selworthy Team' enjoy the views over Porlock Bay

As this was home turf for me, Steve was kind enough to allow me to guide the group, and we headed out across the beacon towards Bossington Hill, before the descent towards the village. I’d forgotten that this track, although a bridleway, was actually pretty narrow. Not a problem for a mountain bike, but it took some careful steering on the road bikes to avoid the steep drop off from the side of the track. Whilst raising the pulse rate, everyone made it and (at least said that) they enjoyed the challenge! The narrow path widened out to broad track, the only hazard was drainage channels crossing the track, which made for the occasional bump or dip to be careful over. On reaching the road near the Hawk and Owl Sanctuary, we headed along the lane towards Allerford. Steve volunteered to take a ride through the ford next to the lovely Packhorse bridge, and got a wet foot for his trouble, then goaded the rest of us into a try, so I took the bait and also got wet feet. No one else seemed to want to follow, so we headed on towards Horner.

Jim shows us how to traverse a stoney stream. Note the gardening gloves!

On the way along the road Jonathon took a fall as he ran right into the back of Steve who had stopped for a technical adjustment to his freewheel, which had been being pesky most of the day. I assume Jonathon must have been enjoying the view and failed to spot the obstacle, but no harm done to either bike or rider.

Time for another pit stop, courtesy of the tea rooms at Horner, and a chance to sit and enjoy the sunshine for half an hour over tea and cake. From here we had several options on which way to go. Jonathon seemed very keen take the riverside track through Horner Wood, then head off along the lane towards Cloutsham and an ascent on Dunkery Beacon, but the day was getting a little short by this time, and some where starting to flag a little. We also decided to skip my first suggestion, which was the riverside track and a steep climb out toward Horner on a track I took a couple of years ago which was near vertical in its ascent.

Steve wonders if there is actually a road anywhere around

Instead, we picked up a stretch of the Coleridge Way. A steep climb uphill and over loose ground meant that we all had no choice but to walk, but eventually the track levelled out and we were able to cycle through the woods to the parking area at Horner. Crossing the road here on a dog leg, we continued to follow in Coleridge’s footsteps and headed out across Luccombe Hill with great views across to Bossington, Selworthy, Wootton Courtney and as far as the Quantocks. A narrow and technical section meant that only those with mountain bikes could keep up the ride, the others taking a leisurely walk amongst the gorse and heather, enjoying the remainder of the fine sunshine and views.

A technical section that allows the group time to enjoy the view

Eventually we found tarmac again and then had a smooth ride home along the lanes between Wootton Courtney and Dunster for a great finale to the days ride. Everyone was pleased with the ride, and we peeled off in various directions to accommodation, or in my case the car and back to the van for a clean up before dinner.

Saturday evening was dinner and the AGM. Dinner was convivial with many animated discussions of the days various rides, and followed by the AGM. Annual General Meetings are often dull affairs, but chairman Steve moved through the various items at a good pace. There were more photos (the paper kind this time) to view, as well as back issues of the RSF journal and some merchandise. I picked up a mug for myself, and some leaflets which will get distributed around the area to encourage some new members.

Alas I couldn’t attend the Sunday ride or dinner due to other commitments, but then the weather wasn’t great all day so perhaps I was lucky there. I thoroughly enjoyed the weekend, and will be making a point of attending other rides during the year. I think I’m going to have to put my name forward and try and get something going in the south-west as well, as it seems such a shame its not represented well in the groups activities, especially given the variety of scenery to enjoy.


Back on Home Ground

After 5 months, 7 countries, 7 ferries and 4,500 miles of driving, we finally return to where we started, Hellwell Bay at Watchet. The suns shining, the sea looks lovely, and after a few pints of distinctly English ale last night, I can’t complain that the travels have come to an end for now.

I’m sure we’ll get to explore a bit of the UK during the summer to help keep the spirit of adventure going. Meanwhile, it’s going to be fun catching up with family and friends.


In Bruges

The last two days of the current tour, and what better way to round it off but with a trip to Bruges. We’ve been twice before so know most of the sites, which means there is more time to spend enjoying coffee, cake, moules, frites and the lovely and extensive range of Belgian Beers. I do enjoy a good Gueuze (deliciously sour beer).

Some excitement at the campsite on Saturday morning when the garage of a neighbouring house went bang, then burst into flames. Don’t think anyone was hurt, but it gave everyone something to gawp at for a bit.


The Eifel National Park and Ordensburg Vogelsang

After the Rhine, we headed North West into the Eifel. A region I didn’t even know existed, it borders Luxembourg and Belgium and is a former volcanic region (I think there may be some existing low level activity in places).

As it turned out, we headed for the park area and missed the volcanoes! Not sure why you’d have national park that didn’t encompass the major geological feature but there you go.

The park is nice though, and we found a site on the edge of a reservoir system comprised of Rurstausee, Schwammenauel, and Urfttalsperre. It was the later, higher reservoir that our site was near. A startlingly neat parking area-cum-campsite on the edge of the town of Gemünd.

We went for a walk the evening of our arrival along the banks of the reservoir and found the former Ordensburg Vogelsang, one of four centre designed to educate form leaders in Germany’s Third Reich. As you ascend through the woods these stark buildings come into view, the trees softening what was once a glaring example of machismo gone mad. It’s still immediately apparent that this was once a place of misguided ideology.

It operated between 1936-39 and was intended to train Nazi Germany’s future administrators. However, those chosen where blond haired, blue eyed, athletic types, and academic excellence was not relevant. Thus they spent their time learning such useful pen-pushing skills as archery, horse riding and flying.

On the outbreak of war the centre was handed over to the army, used for barracks and latterly a fitness camp for Hitler Youth members. After the war it was used by the British Army and then, right up till 2006, the Belgian Army. It’s only recently returned to German control, and is now a museum.

The estate is alleged home to one of the best preserved collections of Nazi propaganda. The buildings themselves do that, but there are also statues and emblems about the place. We stumbled across the ‘Torch Bearer’, now emancipated by rifle fire, and with key words of the inscription removed.


Bad Kreuznach and Good Company

Sunday, and a slow start, what with the time change. But another day to take a stroll, this time a little shorter than perhaps planned, but it was a good sunny day, so a stroll was probably a better idea than a hike, and by the time we’d found a beer garden within the first couple of miles, well that pretty much sealed the fate of the day. Still, we got a good walk around some woods overlooking the spa town of Bad Kreuznach (with it inhalatorium, where you sit outside and breath salty air). We also got to climb to the top of Rotenfells, alleged to be Europe’s highest sheer rock face north of the Alps, at about 200 metres. We were underwhelmed at first, until we realised we were looking at the wrong bit, which was a rather steep drop, but a nice view too.

After the shortened walk we headed into Bad Kreuznach and found a riverside restaurant, enjoyed more Schnitzel (what else is there?) and more beer, followed it up with Italian Gelatto style ice cream (a darn sight cheaper than the Italian prices, although perhaps not quite up to the standard), and then sat about at the campsite drinking yet more beers. Sebastian had done us proud with a plentiful and wide ranging selection of German beers, we we did our best to make inroads, and then he was generous enough to allow us to keep the remainder, which should keep us very happy for a few days!

It was great to meet up with Sebastian and Nadine again – I first ran into them (or perhaps more aptly stumbled into them) on the South West Coast Path last year, and we spent several enjoyable days together then. It was a marvellous treat for them to drive south to meet us, and we had a lovely time again! They are now planning on a year in New Zealand from early 2015, so I hope we get to see them again before, and perhaps even during that trip!

Thank guys for a smashing weekend!


The Rhine

Saturday was hiking day. Sebastian and Nadine had arranged a route, but first we needed to drive north from the campsite, alongside the Rhine, across on a ferry to the west bank, and then along a little further to Loreley. A site of ancient legend (I think), and an impressive view point across the river known as Dragon Rock. Our hiking route started just north, took a wide sweeping arc and then approached the rock from the south. Lovely sunshine accompanied us, and we all had a thoroughly good time.

The Rhine here is very charming, steep hills either side to the broad river below, pleasure cruisers and freight boats chugging back and forth, and a railway on either side.

Back to the van via the supermarket and Sebastian showed off his culinary skills and rustled up a traditional Putenschnitzel (thats Turkey to you and I, not reclaimed Russian president), and Schepnudeln (I think I may have misspelled that, but its a bit like Italian Gnocchi but firmer). A sauce, salad, some great German wines, and of course, great company. Perfect day!


The Black Forest and the Schwarzwald Hockstrasse

After a days cycling around Lake Constance, we decided it prudent to move on and into the Black Forest. I’d been remise in checking my Facebook messages and not realised the Sebastian had replied, confirming that he and Nadine would be joining us along the Rhine for a weekend of hiking. That left us with a few miles to cover, so we headed into the forest and found a parking spot for the night.

On Friday, we took the Route 500 (the Schwarzwald Hockstrasse) north across the forest towards Baden-Baden. This is renowned as a great driving route, and out of season there isn’t much traffic, just sweeping bend after sweeping bend. Not quite the thrill ride in a 4 tonne motorhome, but you could see what fun it would be on a motorbike or in an open topped sports car.

Alas it was a whistle stop tour, but we had a BBQ appointment with Sebastian and Nadine at Bingen am Rhine.


Lake Constance (or Bodensee if you prefer)

After the fun of skiing, it was time to leave the mountains, and what better contrast than the edge of a rather large lake. After arriving late in the day, Thursday was spent cycling around the north east corner of the lake starting from Meersburg, going anti-clockwise to until reaching the northern half of Constance, then crossing the lake back to Meersburg via the ferry. About a 40 mile jaunt, and very lovely too. Despite a chilly start with mist hanging over the lake, by the early afternoon we had a lovely sunny day, and a good excuse for both a coffee & cake stop, as well as a lunch on the shore of the river, beer included. Lunch legs followed making the last stretch to the ferry a little uncomfortable, but one does have to suffer for ones art.


Skiing St. Anton Style

Finally the clouds parted, the sun shone, and the snow delivered a lovely afternoon of winter sports fun. I wouldn’t say St. Anton provides the best skiing in the world, but it was certainly good enough for an afternoon of piste bashing.

The lower slopes, even with the fresh dusting are now trashed. I got caught out on a black run by a wall of slush puppy, but it wasn’t much of a tumble, just ended up going unexpectedly backwards whilst trying to find something to get the edges into to arrest the descent.

We are going to head into Germany today, probably around Lake Constance, and see of we can find Some nice walking or cycling. Only a couple of weeks left before we are back home, so trying to make the most of it.


A Winter Wonderland

It snowed continuously for 36 hours, but the reward was one of the prettiest views we’ve ever had out the bedroom window. Not a huge amount of snow overall, maybe 3-4 inches in the valley, but it looks like it’s topped up the slopes nicely, so will need to go and investigate.

Some pictures of those stakes I mentioned, up along the side of buildings. Still can’t figure out the use of them, there are hundreds of them about. Best we can figure is that it’s something to do with hay drying. Any idea?

Travelling Through Life