Two of our most distinguished military leaders have been Admiral Lord Nelson of Battle of Trafalgar fame and , perhaps lesser known, but equally important, Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington. It was he who beat Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.(Hence the Wellington monument). He won his fighting spurs in commanding the forces, including both Portuguese and Spanish troops, which drove the French out of Portugal and Spain.
That campaign covered much of the Iberian Peninsula but Wellington’s offensive against the French began at Torres Vedras a town 30 miles north of Lisbon and finished in Toulouse, four years later. As the crow flies that’s a distance of 775 miles via the A62. In 1810, of course, there was no A62. The road system hardly existed. An army could march about 11 miles a day. Think of going on a walking holiday taking your food and water for several days as well as carrying a rifle and ammunition. And I nearly forgot – there were canon weighing about a ton with all their paraphernalia to get from a to b.. I hope you get the picture?
When a friend suggested let’s follow Wellington’s campaign by bicycle – why not? We could cycle more than 11 miles a day. And unlike Wellington’s infantry, we would stay at inexpensive hostelries en route – meals provided. What we hadn’t appreciated was the terrain, the weather and the state of a lot of the roads. Imagine cycling up many hills steeper than Cothelstone, on a gravel rutted surface into a stiff wind. Thank goodness for electricity! We were lucky. Wellington’s troops didn’t have electricity and at the end of an exhausting march they often had a battle to fight and frequently food and water to find.
Our efforts were rewarded. Averaging 12 mph one can get a much better feel of geography and place. Although the spring flowers were glorious, much of Spain is drying out. Even the weeds looked thirsty. The climb up the Serra da Estrela was rewarded with spectacular views and a nine mile free wheel into Mantegais. Similarly the views as we climbed up from Irutzun to Etxerri in the Basque Pyrenees were stunning. As were our stops in Salamanca, Burgos, Pau and Toulouse, not forgetting Lisbon. And Wellington’s battlefield sites. They are now under industrial parks or housing estates except Talavera. That is marked by a crumbling monument.
Many thanks to William Waddington who completed this epic cycle ride.