Wednesday 14 September 2011

Tour of Britain - Stage 5 Guide

Exeter Cathedral (© Charles Miller CC2.0)
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So which one's the Queen Stage this year? Yesterday's 184km trek through the Welsh mountains from one ancient castle to another, or today's 180km among some of the most challenging terrain in England from a Roman city to an age-old port? Whichever way you decide, you'll have to agree it's a close-run thing - both stages have everything necessary for a great cycle race: testing climbs, deadly descents and killer corners for a challenging parcours along with plenty to look at along the way. One thing's for certain - Britain might not have natural beauty on the scale that France, Spain and Italy have, but there's plenty of it in smaller portions and this race is undoubtedly among the greatest after the Grand Tours.

One fact about Stage 5 that's well worth knowing if you happen to live in the area - although the race itself loops far up into the Devon countryside to complete its full 180km, the start and finish lines in Exeter and Exmouth are only about 18.5km apart - that's 11.5 miles, a distance easily covered on a bike. Why not watch the start and then show your support for the riders and your appreciation of the bicycle itself by showing up at the finish line to welcome the winner with your own trusty steed by your side?

Like any successful city, Exeter recognises the need to
embrace the modern and that contemporary architecture
can be as beautiful as the ancient. The newly-built Court
complex is as fine a structure as the cathedral.
(© Derek Harper CC2.0)
Exeter has grown up in one of those locations that seems so ideally suited to human inhabitation that it could almost have been designed specifically to host a city. Centred around a hill on the eastern bank of a river both navigable and full of fish, it became an important trading post and supported a large and relatively wealthy population from ancient times - Greek coins discovered in the area show that there were trade routes between here and the Mediterranean at least two centuries before the Romans took control of England.

As we all know, the secret to Roman success was to make use and develop what they found in the lands they conquered, combining it with their own contributions to ensure local support and avoid having to start afresh as would be the case had they have ransacked and pillaged - this was very much the case here. More than a thousand Roman coins and an extensive baths complex have been discovered in the city and traces of the Roman walls remain, showing that they strengthened the trading routes and nurtured the old Celtic town into what would have been one of the most modern cities in Europe at the time. However, as tended to be the case throughout the country, Exeter entered a long period of decline during the Dark Ages when the nation became subject to rival kings and split into several warring states. There is no documentary mention of the city at all from the Romans' departure in the 5th Century right up until 680, a period of more that 250 years; however, the city didn't completely fall apart: the 680 documents records that St. Boniface - patron saint of Germany and the Netherlands and, according to some traditions, the inventor of the Christmas tree - was educated at an abbey in Exeter (in fact, he was born just 13km away at Crediton, site of a Catholic church that preserves a shrine to him.

If you like cathedrals - and whatever your opinions on Christianity and religion in general, you've got to admit that they're spectacular objects - the assembly point at the beginning of the neutral zone is going to be among your favourite spots anywhere along the 2011 parcours, because it's right in Cathedral Yard as depicted in our photograph of the church at the start of this guide (50°43'21.70"N 3°31'54.38"W). From here, the riders move out onto South Street, following it north for the short distance to a tight left turn onto the High Street - in fact, it's so tight with the widened footpath along the left side of the road that we may even see an early crash and pile-up here. The High Street becomes Fore Street which becomes New Bridge Street and joins the gyratory system based on the two wide bridges - the roadbook doesn't mention if both routes will be open, but the route to the right - against normal traffic flow - is considerably shorter. The road passes under the railway - not over, as Google Maps shows - and becomes Cowick Street, then changes again to Dunsford Road past the yellow box junction. The route turns right onto Tedburn Road at the bottom of Pocombe Hill, shortly before the A30 bridge and reaches the end of the neutral zone- where racing begins - by the nursery,  4.9km after setting off from the cathedral (50°43'14.47"N 3°34'48.44"W).

Tedburn St. Mary
(© Derek Harper CC2.0)
The road descends on Five Mile Hill just beyond the neutral zone and start of the race. However, though it's a long one it's not especially steep at any point, so won't generate massive speeds in the pack; which also means a gang of breakaway hopefuls might try to take advantage of it. The race reaches Pathfinder Village - a managed community for the retired - after 4.4km, taking the second exit at the roundabout 0.9km ahead towards Tedburn St. Mary.

Half a kilometre later, the peloton arrives at the first of a series of three roundabouts in 3.7km, taking the second exit at the first two and the third at the third. Note that the roadbook instructs riders to take the second exit at all three - however, this will lead onto the A30; whereas the third exit on the final roundabout leads into Cheriton Bishop and the start of the stage's first sprint beginning at the Mulberry Inn Pub (50°43'25.00"N 3°44'19.08"W).

House at Crockernwell (© TubeStudio CC3.0)
The riders arrive at Crockernwell after 14.4km, passing an extremely impressive stately home on the left. Having left Crockernwell, they follow the road for 6.09km; passing over the A30 and, after 20.1km from the start, arriving at an interchange and taking the exit for the A382 leading through Whiddon Down. The second exit at a small roundabout just beyond the village carries the race along the A382 and into Dartmoor National Park, one of Britain' most beautiful regions.

Almshouses, Moretonhampstead. Don't be fooled by the
stone carved with the date 1637 - dates on buildings often
refer to a momentous happening in the lives of past owners
or, as is the case here, to the date of a restoration or
refurbishment. In fact, research has revealed the Alms-
houses to be at least two centuries older.
(© Penny Maes CC2.0)
The following section most consists of straight, unchallenging stretches of road with the exception of a steep descent in woodland 2.61km from the Whiddon Down roundabout. With 31km covered since the start of the race, the riders reach Moretonhampstead, apparently the longest single-word place name in England. The town was granted a Royal Charter in 1207 by King John, an act that permitted it to exercise certain rights and to hold a weekly market and annual fair in return for paying the monarch a rent of... you'll like this... one sparrowhawk per year. The Domesday book records the local manor as having owned 5000 sheep; sheep having formed the basis of the local economy and bringing considerable wealth to the area prior to the industry's decline in the late 17th Century. However, Moretonhampstead's position left it ideally placed to act as a stopping point for travelers making what was in those times the difficult, dangerous journey over Dartmoor and thus it was able to survive in relative financial health, many of its fine ancient buildings surviving intact. Sadly, a number of them were destroyed in several fires during the 20th Century, but enough survives for the town to be very much worth visiting.

The A382 continues through the town, but there's a tricky section in the middle where a tight left leads to a crossroads 25m ahead at The Square, followed by a narrow passage - the several bus-stops nearby increasing the probability of spilled diesel on the road, making the initial corner even more potentially hazardous. In the rain, this section could be treacherous. Note the old tollhouse on the left just beyond the village where travelers would once have had to stop and pay to use the road - a method of funding road maintenance largely replaced in Britain by road tax except for a few sections such as bridges and tunnels operated by private concerns. The following 9.3km pass by wooded slopes, fine homes and some very, very beautiful countryside.

Sts. Peter, Paul and Thomas of Canterbury in
Bovey Tracey, built by the family of one of
men responsible for the latter saint's death
(© Derek Harper CC2.0)
Bovey Tracey comes after 40.8km. The name is a combination of the name of the river, often pronounced "buvvy" by locals, and that of the de Tracey family who became Norman lords of the manor following the Conquest. A descendant, William de Tracey, was one of the four knights who murdered Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1170. William was excommunicated and exiled for his crime (a non-aristocrat would have suffered a far worse fate) and began making his way to Jerusalem to pray for forgiveness - what happened to him next is not known for certain. Some stories stay that he died of leprosy in Italy in 1174, others that he reached Jerusalem and spent the rest of his life praying, lamenting and seeking atonement before death and burial there. A tomb at Mortehoe, not far from here near Woollacombe, bears an extremely damaged inscription translated by some as reading "Syree Williame de Trace-Il enat eeys-Meercy" which has led some to believe he went into hiding but remained in the area. This inscription has, however, been explained by historians going on probable dates suggested by the decorative carvings on the tomb to refer a 14th Century descendant. His family, in penance, rebuilt the church which was subsequently rededicated to Saints Peter, Paul and Thomas of Canterbury - it still stands in the town to this day. If you're visiting the area with children, repay them for their patience while you watched the bikes with a visit to the House of Marbles, a museum of the game where they can race marbles around various obstacles on long marble runs. Entrance is free and you may as well admit it - you want a go, too.

Those following the race on television won't see much of Bovey Tracey unfortunately, because the route takes the third exit at the roundabout on the western perimeter and heads off on the B3387 in the opposite direction and immediately begins the first of the stages climbs; Category 1 Haytor Rocks. The riders take the left path at a junction 0.59km after the roundabout and cross a cattle grid 2.6km later - note that since it lies under overhanging trees, the rungs may host algae and other slimy stuff, meaning that they'll be even more dangerous than most. Riders would be wise to stick if at all possible to the sections kept clear by car tyres and avoid the edges or middle. The highest point is 2.85km along straight roads with few bends, through Haytor village and bt a carpark l(50°34'37.84"N 3°45'12.92"W). Hay Tor itself, one of the many granite outcrops left exposed after surrounding softer rock eroded that characterise the area, can be seen rising up to the right of the road.

Hay Tor (© Smalljim CC3.0)

The drinks station is 1.9km after the top of the climb, coming 165m before a cattle grid - which, in our opinion, is a mad place to put it. Drink and feed stations are notorious blackspots for crashes in cycle racing as riders scoot back and forth from their team mates to the team officials, carrying large numbers of bidons on the way back. Each team has its own preference to whereabouts in the zone its particular station will be, but all the same placing it so close to such a hazardous feature as a cattle grid seems as inadvisable as it is easily avoidable to us.

1.1km after the cattle grid, just around a left bend, the road enters a very steep descent with a gradient of 20%, dropping 70m in 0.5km - those with the bravery to do so will get up to very high speeds here, so keep your eyes on Thor Hushovd of Garmin-Cervelo who hit incredible speeds on the descent into Lourdes during this year's Tour de France, enabling him to win the stage. Those who are not so comfortable on steep descents will be extremely cautious here.

St. Pancras, Widecombe - a woodcut depicting
the Great Thunderstorm of 1638
At the bottom of the hill, 150m lower, is Widecombe-in-the-Moor with a 14th Century church dedicated to St. Pancras and often called the Cathedral of the Moors on account of its grandeur. On a Sunday in 1638, the village was hit by what has become known as the Great Thunderstorm, during which the church suffered much damage due to what is now believed to have been ball lightning. According to eyewitness accounts, there were about 300 people attending a service when the storm struck, plunging the church into an eerie darkness. Suddenly, "a great ball of fire" smashed through a window and entered the building, bouncing around the interior and killing four of those whom it contacted while leaving others completely unharmed. A man named Robert Meade was thrown so hard against a pillar by the ball that it bears an indentation to this day; his skull was shattered and his brain dashed on the flagstones. Unsurprisingly, the phenomenon was attributed to the Devil, said variously to have come to take the souls of the four who had been apparently playing cards during the service or due to a local gambler named Jan Reynolds who had made an unholy pact to guarantee success at the card table, his side of the bargain being that his soul would become the Devil's possession should he ever fall asleep in church. This explanation was apparently confirmed when the landlady of the nearby Tavistock Inn claimed that her pub had been visited by a man riding a black horse the night before the storm. When he entered the pub to ask for directions, he was seen to have cloven hooves instead of human feet and when he drank his ale, it hissed as it went down his throat. He left coins on the bar in payment but, when the landlady tried to pick them up, they turned into dry leaves.

After passing straight through the oncoming crossroads and junction while climbing, the route enters another very steep descent at the 56.1km point. The steepest part comes at a crossroads shortly after a left-handed bend by farm buildings (50°33'19.24"N 3°49'47.15"W), dropping 50m in 0.68km to Ponsworthy. As if that wasn't enough of a hazard, there's a very narrow bridge (this is the reason the village has remained so unspoiled - tourist coaches can't get to it) at the lowest point just as the race enters the tiny hamlet and the Ponsworthy Splash, a ford - there's a narrow, dry footway which one or two riders may be able to take, but the majority are going to get wet.

The Coffin Stone (CC from Geolocation)
Cat 2 Dartmeet Hill starts in the hamlet with the highest point 1.2km ahead at the ominously-titled Coffin Stone, lying split in two by the road. According to legend, pall-bearers carrying coffins over the hill for burial at Widecombe would stop for a break here, placing the coffin on the stone while they had a nip of fortifying whisky and, if the inhabitant of the coffin had been a popular character, carve his or her initials into the rock. One day, they were carrying a coffin containing the mortal remains of a man said to have been the most evil in the parish when a storm began to blow up, making them look forward to the whisky even more than usual. When they placed the coffin down, a bolt of lightning shot down from the crowds, cracking the rock in two and completely engulfing the coffin in white fire which, as was discovered once they were able to approach, completely consumed both it and its contents. Crosses and letters can still be seen carved into the rock, suggesting that coffins may once have been temporarily placed here, but the split is far more likely to have been caused by ice expanding in tiny fissures over many winters.

Fox Tor (© Herby CC1.2&others)
The descent is short, leading to a T-junction 0.6km ahead where the peloton turn right and then, 0.1km later, begin the next climb, Cat 2 Huccaby Tor. The highest point is at 59.6km, at which point the race heads towards another 20% gradient descent ending at a cattle grid and narrow bridge leading into Dartmeet. There's another cattle grid 0.7km after Dartmeet, another 2.4km later and a third 1.8km after that. Note the large stone-built enclosure in the the field to the right as the races passes through. As the race crosses the 66km mark, approximately 1km from the last kilometre, it passes to the left of Fox Tor Mires - a treacherous peat bog that still claims the lives of walkers to this day and which is said to have been the inspiration for Grimpen Mire, the location of Jack Stapleton's secret hideout in the Hound of the Baskervilles. We wonder if he might be an ancestor of HTC-Highroad manager Bob Stapleton? (And before anyone emails to inform us that the story is fictional and so for that matter is Sherlock Holmes, don't bother - we know.)

The ancient clapper bridge, Postbridge
The Two Bridges hotel appears after 69km, where the riders turn 110 degrees onto the B3212 and begin heading back to Moretonhampstead, arriving at Postbridge along the way. The village has a well-preserved clapper bridge, believed to date from the 13th Century and probably constructed to allow the passage of packhorses carrying tin to Tavistock. There's another cattle grid around 0.55km after the village, then a long straight section leading across the moor to the Warrenhouse Inn - the highest pub in southern England and with possibly the finest views enjoyed by any pub in England. No matter what the weather outside, the fire in the pub has been kept burning continuously since 1845. According to local legend, a traveler staying at the Inn at some unspecified point in the past was a little surprised when he opened a trunk in his room and discovered a human corpse within. When he informed the landlord, he was told that the corpse was the landlord's father; salted by his wife and put there until the weather improved and he could be transported to Tavistock for burial.

The first part of the road ahead is straight, but a couple of tricky bends lie 3.46km away by a carpark. The first, a wide right, wouldn't normally be hazardous were it not at the end of a fast descent and in an area where there's a fairly high possibility of the sheep, cows and Dartmoor ponies which roam semi-wild about the moors leaving slippery little presents on the tarmac - there's another cattle grid at 82km, too. The second,a left, is 0.27km further on; the same potential hazards being compounded by the much tighter turn. There are two more 1.58km ahead; the first being a tight left and the second a tight 90 degree right 0.27km later, just before the road passes the Miniature Pony Centre, another attraction worth knowing about if you need to bribe children into behaving themselves while you watch the race.
Dartmoor, covering 954 square kilometres, has been a
National Park since 1951

Moretonhampstead makes its second appearance as the race reaches 87.5km with the peloton taking the second exit at the roundabout to ride onto Court Street, staying on the left of the road to line themselves up for New Street and a left turn at the oncoming T-junction onto the A382 which they'll follow over two crossroads to the feed station at 96.9km - the same route as earlier, but ridden in the other direction. It begins at a sign for a campsite (50°42'20.18"N 3°51'8.80"W and ends at the 30mph zone signs just beyond Whiddon Down.

The roadbook instructs us to take the second exit on the roundabout onto the A3124. Problem - the A3124 is rather a long way from here. Thus, going on the supplied left/right directions, we think they mean the A382. It then tells us to turn left 0.4km later onto the A3219. Problem 2 - the A3219, also known as Dawes Road, is some distance away in Hammersmith, West London. The B3219, meanwhile, is in the right spot. This leads over the A30 and north to a crossroads 8.8km away just south of North Tawton, where a right turn carries the peloton onto the A3072 - the book gets that one right. It's long, straight and - in comparison with the beautiful moorland roads earlier on in the stage - rather boring for the 5.4km section into Bow. As it happens, the distance is roughly the same as that between the A3219 and Bow Street in London - we wonder if that's where the mix-up began? 

Copplestone Cross
A depiction pf a knight carved above a doorway at St. Bartolomew's Church in Bow (actually in the contiguous village of Nymet Tracey) is said to be a representation of the same William de Tracey we met earlier. Approximately 1km to the west is a woodhenge, plainly visible in aerial photographs. Believed to have been used for similar purposes as the better-known stone circles, archaeological investigation following discovery in 1984 located 19 postholes.

The road passes straight through with the peloton staying left at the junction near the end of the village to remain in the same road and arrive at Copplestone 5.3km later, site of the 3.2m tall intricately carved menhir known as the Copplestone Cross, first mentioned in 974 but evidently much older. It looks rather incongruous and dejected, standing on a junction in the middle of the town.

The race continues straight ahead at traffic lights, crossing the railway bridge as the road becoming the A377. There's a potentially dangerous left bend under overhanging trees 2.6km after the bridge, the the remainder of the section past Barnstaple Cross into Crediton - birthplace of St. Boniface, remember? - 124.3km from the start. The unusually late second sprint starts 0.7km later on Western Road, just outside Queen Elizabeth's school. We hope that the inmates will be allowed out to watch the race, because we'd have been too annoyed for words had a major bike race passed by our schools and we hadn't been permitted to watch. Once over, straight ahead leads onto the High Street and Union Road, then the peloton turn right onto East Street just past the Church of the Holy Cross and the Mother of Him who Hung Thereon, site of St. Boniface's shrine and commonly known as Crediton Parish Church for obvious reasons.

Traditional Devon cob houses, Silverton (© Penny Maes, CC2.0)
East Street takes the race onto Mill Street after a left turn, leading to a junction 1.5km later where the peloton turn 90 degrees right onto an unclassified road leading around a golf course. The road bends to the left, reaches a crossroads and continues ahead past Shobrooke. Some way beyond the village, the race reaches a T-junction where riders will need to turn right and then left 25m later to continue towards a kicked crossroads  2.5km later, requiring the same process but on an even smaller scale. The road then leads into Thorverton, where the race turns left along Bullen Street and follows the road through to Latchmore Green and a T-junction with the A396, 138.8km from the start, turning left to head north and then right 1.1km onto Upexe Lane into Silverton.

Arriving at a roundabout, the riders take the second exit onto School Road then repeat 0.3km later to join Park Road. This leads to a crossroads 0.8km later where they go straight through, keeping right to arrive at Ellerhayes, following the road to a T-junction 146.1km from the start, just over a bridge crossing the M5 motorway. A right turn leads into Broadclyst 2.3km later. Just south of Broadclyst and contiguous with it is one our very favourite British place-names, Dog Village. At a junction 1.2km ahead, the riders turn left onto Station Road, staying right past Broadclyst Station until they arrive at a T-junction and a left turn towards Rockbeare. The final sprint begins 2.3km at Cranbrooke Veterinary Surgery.

To the south of Whimple - not in the town, as the roadbook appears to suggest - the road reaches a roundabout. The peloton take the second exit to pass under the A30, arriving immediately at a second roundabout where they once again take the second exit, leading them out onto the B3180. They pass straight through the crossroads 2.6km ahead. After 164.7km, the arrive at a junction with the A3052 where they need to turn left and then right 40m later to get back onto the B3180. Having passed along the fantastically named Outer Ting Tong road, the race travels through a tight right/left Z-bend and to a junction with the B3178. They turn right here onto Salterton Road and head into Exmouth, continuing straight through several traffic lights before reaching a roundabout 179.6km from the start and taking the second exit onto Carlton Hill.

The Clock Tower, Exmouth, built to commemorate Queen
Victoria's diamond jubilee in 1897
The following section is straight for 223m, ending with a slight kink to the right. They turn right 56m later and begin the final sprint. There's a slight bend to the left after 95m, followed by a straight 182m to the end of the race at the Clock Tower 180.3km from the start (50°36'57.12"N 3°24'54.35"W).

While their is evidence of trade with overseas taking place in Exmouth during pre-Norman Conquest times, including a number of Byzantine coins found on the beach in the 1970s, Exmouth didn't develop into a town until the 13th Century; progression having been held up by the shallow waters at the edges of the estuary and the economic power of Exeter. The modern town came into being during the late 18th Century, when sea-bathing became a fashion among the rich and trendy; making it the oldest seaside resort on Devon. The modern docks were built in the 19th Century and parts of the estuary dredged so that larger vessels could come into port. It was connected to the railways in 1861, facilitating the beginnings of mass tourism and a golden age during which it became increasingly wealthy - many of the grand buildings date from this time.

Predictions: It's almost certainly a stage for a climber, though none of the climbs today compare with the high mountain passes of the Tour de France so it could also go to a strong all-rounder. However, those two steep descents will permit any rider with the confidence to ride them fast to build up a good time advantage - which is why we favour Thor Hushovd on this one.

Weather: Not looking too bad, though it's not going to be particularly warm with lows of around 13C and highs up to 17C. It can get colder on Dartmoor, so spectators planning to watch the race there should take extra clothing. The wind, blowing from the east, will be very light throughout the race - though once again, things can change quickly on Dartmoor. No rain is predicted anywhere, nor are giant thunderstorms with ball lightning either produced by the Devil or otherwise.

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