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Lands End - Cornwall : Big Ride

Susannah Osborne
2 Jun 2015

Skirting the dramatic cliffs of Cornwall, Cyclist discovers undulating moors, shady lanes and harbour towns.

We’re huddled in a layby somewhere on Cornwall’s north-west coast, and Ash McDuffie is giving me a history lesson. Ash owns local bike shop Hayle Cycles, so he knows the area well, and according to him the wall that’s giving us shelter dates from the Iron Age, which makes it around 2,000 years old. Some of the walls are up to 8,000 years old, he claims, although I might have misheard him because the wind is blowing so hard and the rain lashing down so torrentially it’s drowning out our conversation. 

This southern-most county of England may have a reputation for being one of the sunniest places in the country, but we’ve clearly angered the Celtic gods that were once worshipped in Kernow (that’s Cornish for Cornwall). Ash and Hari, our guides for today, were strangely silent when they pitched up at the crack of dawn in the grey drizzle. They had eagerly agreed to show Cyclist around their local roads, but when they arrived I sensed somehow that the glamour of the idea had somehow evaporated. A smooth latte in the comfort of the gorgeous Trevose Harbour House seemed to perk them up though, and now they’re chatting away merrily, even if I still can’t hear them over the storm.

'Last week they tried to set a world record here for the largest gathering of pirates'

The route we’re following hugs the coast from St Ives to Penzance and then circles back over the moors to the artists’ haven of St Ives. First, we have to ‘nip up and out of town’, says Hari, a postman whose legs appear to be made from titanium. He ran up 823 steps on his round yesterday and is still making light work of the 4km climb from the harbour to the junction of the B3306 and the B3311, where we fork right. In contrast to Hari, I’m not feeling particularly sprightly this morning and the guys are already a few metres ahead. I can see the route in the distance meandering away from me and it looks like a rollercoaster. 

‘We had a guy from London on the club run once,’ says Hari, a member of Penzance Wheelers, whose most famous rider is ex-Rapha-Condor pro Tom Southam. ‘He couldn’t believe how hilly it was. Had to have a lie down after the ride, he did.’ Hari laughs loudly. I hide the fact that, although born in neighbouring Devon, I’ve been in London for 20 years. In the space of 30 minutes we’ve already ridden past rock tors, granite spires, high ridges and gazed at the distant cliffs that tumble into the sea. But as we climb up to Eagle’s Nest, an impressive house surrounded by huge boulders and overlooking the village of Zennor, I’m feeling a bit drained from the effort I’ve already put in, and so it comes as a relief when the road thankfully dips down again. 

Cornwall Big Ride Mousehole -Juan Trujillo Andrades

The sharp descent gives us some respite from the hills, but my relief is quickly replaced by indignation as the personal rain cloud that has been sitting squarely above my head unleashes another torrent. There’s so much water coming off the roads that my glasses have rivers running down the lenses and I can feel the spray on my tongue. Given the number of cows around here, I shudder to think where the water gets its peculiar taste from. A few hundred metres in the distance though, there’s bright sunshine and a rainbow. I blink and worry that it’s a cruel illusion but as we dive and weave through Zennor, the rain stops and warm sunshine envelopes us. 

Save for a bit of traffic in the town, the road is blissfully car-free, despite this 13-mile stretch often being voted one of the best driving roads in the UK. Ash and Hari clearly know the route and are taking the corners like Lewis Hamilton. We swing out of Zennor and around a couple of bends, passing the bright yellow landmark that is the Gurnard’s Head Inn, then press on to Porthmeor Farm, a collection of weathered stone buildings that straddles the road. With the arrival of the sun I take off my rain jacket, but the gods are simply toying with me. A minute later the comic book cloud returns to give us another soaking, and the wind picks up.

Beside the seaside

The coast around Land’s End is more wild and rugged than the lush, green tourist honeypots of Newquay, Padstow and Rock, further north. Remote moorland dominates this part of the county and, looking west, the land appears to drop vertically into the sea. The road from St
Ives to Land’s End follows the contours of the coast in a series of ebbs and flows, making it perfect cycling territory. Passing the Carn Galver tin mine, a relic of the area’s industrial heyday, the road flattens a little. Carn Glaver means ‘rock pile at the lookout place’ in Kernowek (Cornish to outsiders such as me) and it’s an impressive sight. We pause to check out the eerie shell of the old pump house and engine room, have a chat with a bloke in a mud-spattered onesie who’s cutting the grass, and then roll on.

Hari suddenly starts to curse the road surface, which to me is refreshingly pothole free and smooth. ‘It used to be such a good piece of road,’ he laments. ‘Then they put chippings down and cattle grids in,’ he says, cursing the local road builders who appear to have ruined his route. The cattle grids, however, are probably a sensible option, given that I am now negotiating a pass with a scruffy Belted Galloway cow, which is standing across the road eyeballing me. A fair amount of cajoling later, the cow moves aside and we’re on our way to St Just, mainland Britain’s most westerly town, which lies in an official Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

Cornwall Big Ride Cow -Juan Trujillo Andrades

There’s a nasty 21% surprise before we get there though, and I’m thankful for the 28-tooth sprocket that gets me up the hill and into the town. Ash is clearly hungry and adopts full-on time-trial mode in his quest to make it to our first coffee stop. Passing Land’s End Airport, the road is flat for once. Sennen Cove to the west is a surfing beach and coastal village at the bottom of a very steep half-mile-long hill, which we thankfully avoid as we head for the end of the UK.

Ash is crouched over the bars and blasting along into headwind. Hari is spinning his legs behind and sheep are whizzing past in my peripheral vision. After around 10km we take a left towards Treen and screech to a halt outside the Apple Tree Cafe in Trevescan. Helen, the owner, greets us like long lost friends and we settle in for some sustenance in the form of cider apple bread pudding and clotted cream. ‘We have our club Christmas lunch here,’ says Hari, tucking in. I pass on the cream, knowing the effect it would have on me on the hills to come, and instead look on enviously while the boys smother their cakes until they look like mini ski slopes. I’m reluctant to leave the comfort of the cafe. Helen is busy serving homemade sour dough sandwiches, but we have a long way to go, and so as soon as the plates are scraped clean we press on and enter a magical world of flowers and high hedges. Even better, the sun has come out. 

Fuelled up

The road from Land’s End to Mousehole is a tunnel of towering foxgloves, pink campions and overarching trees. The wind is up and the banks of flora are swirling in the breeze, sending petals flying everywhere. We’re on the route of the Land’s End 100, a 100-mile sportive that takes place in October. It’s a ride that, according to Hari, is ‘quite tough’. I sense here that Hari might be a little bit different to the rest of us, and when he says ‘quite tough’ the reality is something akin to an epic sufferfest. 

We turn off the B3315 towards Mousehole, which the boys are quick to remind me is pronounced mowzel. The descent into town via Raginnis Hill is a seriously steep 1.5km single-track road littered with tourists and parked cars. We have to take it cautiously, but the reward for the 18% decline is a stunning view of the turquoise waters of Mousehole harbour and of St Clement’s Isle, a rocky outcrop a few hundred metres out to sea. Winding through a criss-cross of narrow streets and past stone fishing cottages we arrive in blazing sunshine at the harbour. The last time I was here, 10 years ago, it was a quaint fishing village with a few nice cafes. Now it’s all gluten-free tearooms and Cath Kidston bunting. Nevertheless, it’s still a stunning place to rest and take in the scenery. 

Cornwall Big Ride Coastal Path -Juan Trujillo Andrades

With every down there comes an up, and as we leave the harbour the road tilts inexorably upwards and Ash attacks the hill out of the village once again, with me puffing in his wake. We follow the Cliff Road, which leads from Mousehole to Newlyn, home to one of the biggest fishing fleets in the UK. Ash tells me that last week they tried to set a world record here for the largest gathering of pirates in one place. Ash was one of around 14,000 pirates who assembled in a mass of wooden legs and fake parrots, but apparently it wasn’t quite enough to make it into the Guinness Book Of Records.

We press on into Penzance, the biggest town in the area, and decide that it’s time for some proper food. Over lunch at the Old Lifeboat House, next to the harbour, Hari discusses the demise of the postman’s bike. ‘The first time I rode one I went straight over the handlebars,’ he says. ‘It’s the tray on the front, it makes them really unsteady. Horrible things,’ he adds. ‘Glad I don’t have to ride one any more.’

More is moor

On paper, the climb out of Penzance up Gear Hill shouldn’t be too tough, but after a lunch of fresh crab and gallons of coffee it feels long, gruelling and a bit mean. After around 4km we take a left to New Mill through the tranquil Trevaylor Woods, where beech, oak, sycamore and pine trees line the road. It’s enchanting, magical even, but all I can think is that I could really do with a magic spell to get me to the top of this hill right now. 

After around 2km the hedges recede and we find ourselves riding through spectacular moorland flecked with purple heather. The flat road across the moor is a great place to stretch our legs, so we get into a paceline and increase the speed, enjoying the fact that the wind is now pushing us along. With my head down I only just avoid squishing the fattest, hairiest caterpillar I have ever seen, which is crawling hurriedly across the road. It’s the only other living thing we spy as we fly through the grassy landscape. The solitude lasts until we cruise down a hill to rejoin the B3306 near the Gurnard’s Head – the big, yellow drinking hole that now seems an appealing place to stop. It’s tempting, but we have only around 15km to go, so we press on. 

Cornwall Big Ride St Ives -Juan Trujillo Andrades

We’re on the home run now, but between us and our finish in St Ives lies a nasty challenge that has the Strava name of ‘The Eagle Has Flown The Nest’. ‘We bomb it up here on the club run,’ says Hari as I bust my guts to get to the top of the short climb that peaks at around 14%. With only a few kilometres to go I give it everything I’ve got and by the time we fly over the top I feel like I’m about to be revisited by my lunchtime crab, yet Hari is still chatting away, apparently unaffected by the gradient. Despite my best efforts I know I won’t be troubling the leaderboard on Strava. The KOM on this segment belongs to Chris Opie of Rapha-Condor-JLT, who seems to have bagged most of the fastest sections around here. The Truro-based rider clearly loves these roads. 

A pleasant downhill ride back to the B3311 is followed by a sharp right around Towednack Hill. From here, the moors rise sharply to the west, but we drop down into St Ives through Lelant and Carbis Bay. The day is topped off by a well-earned bottle of Boiler’s Cornish Ale on the terrace of Trevose Harbour House. The ale is going down well as Hari ponders riding on to join the club chaingang, but he decides he might just meet them at the Star Inn, which doubles as the Penzance Wheeler’s Club House. My companions for the day have certainly kept the conversation flowing, which seems appropriate. When it comes to cycling, Cornwall has a lot to say.

Accommodation

Cyclist stayed at the beautiful Trevose Harbour House in St Ives. Ordering an early breakfast was no problem, but with food this good – think home-made granola, sour dough toast, hot croissants filled with Cornish ham, full Cornish breakfasts and great coffee – you’ll want to take your time as we did, starting our ride later than planned. Some rooms can accommodate bikes and there’s a sturdy lock on the secure, decked area. Prices start from £140 per room per night, bed and breakfast, based on two sharing. Go to trevosehouse.co.uk for more details.

Thanks

Huge thanks to Julia Hughes at Visit Cornwall (visitcornwall.com), who provided invaluable assistance with this trip. Thanks to Ash at Hayle Cycles for showing us around his cycling haunts and thanks to Deyna, our driver for the day.

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