Cycle Touring – Oxford to Kenilworth

Our last day of cycling started a little too early with a fire alarm going off in the middle of the night, but a good breakfast served by the friendliest staff, even at 7am was very welcome. (The other four days can be read hereherehere and here). As we retrieved our bikes from the bike store we were surprised to see two high-end Cannondale road bikes unlocked. Even though the bike store was locked I wouldn’t leave a bike unlocked in there. We opted to leave them there as neither bike had anywhere to put our panniers.

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Once we were loaded up we headed off through north Oxford and past yet more posh houses. Having lived in Oxford and cycled around the area for many years the first 20 miles today would be on very familiar roads. It was over five miles to get fully out of Oxford, but there was very little traffic about. We soon left the main road and reached the small village of Bletchingdon. The Oxford Tri Club used to organise mid week bike and run events from there. Fond memories.

With some flat roads and a strong tailwind we were making good progress, and the only other people we saw were other cyclists. After the first tough climb of the day we stopped for a breather, as did a group of cyclists who had been quickly catching us up. It turned out that they were from my old tri club, Oxford, although I didn’t recognise any of them.

We stopped for some food under an old walnut tree in Upper Tysoe, and with a little over 20 miles to go we expected to reach Kenilworth before 2pm, much earlier than we had planned. Helen sent her brother a text to explain this, but he was probably out on his bike so we didn’t get a reply.

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“Would you like to go to Hampton Lucy?” I asked Helen when we saw a sign. “Yes please, I would like to go to Hampton, and don’t call me Lucy.” Dad jokes are the best.

Reaching the outskirts of Warwick we hit a main road, although there was an excellent separate cycle path that took us over the stupidly busy A46. Note to town planners. If you build good quality cycling infrastructure, cyclists will use it.

The last few miles into Kenilworth were the only nasty roads of the day, but by 2pm we rolled to a stop at Helen’s brother’s house. Coffee, cheese on toast, loading up the bikes and we were ready to head home, stopping off in Hambleton to pick up Nelly, who was very pleased to see us.

It was a great little touring holiday, with just the right amount of cycling for both of us, along with visiting family and sightseeing some great places. The obvious highlights were Avebury and being able to show Helen around Oxford. Thirsty Meeples was an added bonus.

Both bikes behaved impeccably, although Helen’s did need a little gear fettling. Over the five days of cycling we covered 435km with almost 4000m of climbing and 395 new Strava segments.

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Finally, we’ve already started to plan for our next little touring adventure.

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Cycle Touring – Salisbury to Oxford

This was the fourth day of our little cycle touring holiday, and our longest day with approximately 72 miles. You can read about the three previous days here, here and here.

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After retrieving our bikes from the garden that my parents call a jungle, we set off. I made my usual morning joke.

“Come on ya big old beast… and you Helen.”

Steady away, was the plan, and after fettling with Helen’s gears the day before, her bike was smoother and Helen was therefore quicker. Our route had a couple of dog legs to avoid main roads, as we headed north towards Amesbury. Salisbury Plain, just north of the city is full of army bases and is famous for the tanks, so when we came across our first ‘Warning Tank Crossing’ sign, I propped my tank (my Trek 920) against the sign for a photo.

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Helen noticed that there was a rumbling noise, but I dismissed it as distant traffic. Moments later the first tank came into view, followed by another four. I was literally jumping up and down in excitement, hoping that I didn’t get arrested for photographing tanks!

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What a great start to the day, although the weather forecast had said that there would be no rain, so after an hour of persistent drizzle we stopped at a convenient café next to the Avon and Kennet Canal.

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The Honey Street Mill Café was surprisingly busy despite seemingly being in the middle of nowhere. Coffee and a shared cake later, we set off up Pewsey Hill before dropping down into Marlborough; famous for the posh school not cigarettes. I’m sure Marlborough is a pleasant town, but the traffic makes it deeply unpleasant to walk or cycle through. This is one High Street that is crying out to be pedestrianised.

Leaving the chaos behind we headed east with the wind behind us, making good time, before turning north towards Lambourn; The Valley of the Racehorse. Climbing out of the town there is a mock racetrack with the funny white fences and furlong signs. No racehorses though as it was the afternoon.

From there it was mainly flat all the way to Oxford with a couple of miles on a minor A road and then 100m on the busy Oxford to Swindon road. Apart from those two small sections it was minor roads the whole way. As we neared Oxford I started to recognise a few of the roads, even though it was 12 years ago that I left. I definitely recognised one dodgy roundabout near Cumnor, as a driver pulled out even though it was my right of way, just like they used to many years ago. Some things never change. Maybe I should ride with a Go-Pro.

Another thing that hadn’t changed in Oxford was the nose to tail traffic in both directions along the Botley Road. Fortunately we could use the bus lane, smiling to the stationary drivers as we sailed past for the last mile. Why would you do that day after day?

A quick shower at the youth hostel and I took Helen to see my old pub. Why I say my old pub, it was where I worked for almost 15 years and running it for the last two. The Kings Arms is a very bust student and tourist pub opposite the Bodleian Library.

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Nothing much had changed. A new coat of paint, but the smell was the same, as was one of the regulars in the back bar, sitting in the same spot, not moving for 50 years. An old photo of me from 1992 was also still on the wall, looking young, with hair and no beard.

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We stayed for a decent pint of Young’s and had a quick look at the Radcliffe Camera in the evening sun, before heading off for some food.

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We finished off the evening playing board games and drinking craft beer at Thirsty Meeples. A brilliant end to a great day.

Cycle Touring – Bath to Salisbury

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Day three of our little cycling tour was from Bath to Salisbury. You can read about the first two days here and here.

A great night’s sleep and a relaxed breakfast at the Youth Hostel meant that we didn’t set off until after 9 am. It was fine as this was going to be our shortest cycling day with less than 45 miles to Salisbury, although the start did continue up Bathwick Hill from the previous day. This was followed by a decent descent and five minutes of confusion at the junction with a main road, as my route indicated we should go straight on at the T junction. There was a small farm track which with trepidation I cycled down, which was all good as it ended at the Kennet and Avon Canal. Flat and no traffic for a few miles to get us out of Bath. Perfect.

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We stopped to take a few photos of a heron looking for breakfast before he flew off. I then spotted a ring. It wasn’t fancy or valuable and I did post a couple of photos on Facebook on the off chance that someone might claim it, although my wife has her eyes on it.

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Leaving the canal we found the steepest hill ever! Both of us were off our bikes and walking. Thankfully it wasn’t too long. At the top there was a sign saying that it was unsuitable for coaches. There must be a story behind that sign.

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A few miles later we hit an A road, but we knew that we would only be on it for one mile. I had done some checking on my routes to ensure that there were no nasty surprises. After that the roads were great as we stopped to take a couple of photos of the white horse at Westbury. I hadn’t realised that there were four different horses in the area. Most famous is the white horse at Uffington created over 2,000 years ago, followed by the Cherhill horse from 1780, the Alton Barnes horse from 1812 and finally the horse that we spotted near Westbury from 1778. You can almost make out the white horse in the background of the photo below (almost).

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Not being in a rush we stopped for a brew and cake at the Ginger Piggery.

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Carrot cake was good but the lemon cake not so good, although we could have stopped to watch the pigs for ages.

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We then ambled our way towards Salisbury, passing through Wilton, the former capital of Wessex and home of expensive carpets. A short dog leg up a hill to avoid the busy road into the city and we were at my parents by 2.15 pm. I then had to fight my way through the wild and jungle like garden to find the shed for our bikes.

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After some food we walked into Salisbury and had a look at the world famous cathedral before making our way back to my parents for more food.

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After three good days cycling we were both looking forward to a rest day tomorrow.

Cycle Touring – Cheltenham to Bath

A good night’s sleep, coffee, some breakfast and we were out of the hotel and ready to go by 8 am. Finding your way out of a strange city at rush hour is never easy and Cheltenham was no exception. With only a couple of wrong turns we soon found ourselves on the busy A46 towards Stroud. Thus began the second of our five days of cycle touring. The previous day can be found here.

Not having fully checked the route created by Strava Route Builder I assumed that we would only be on the A46 for a mile or two at the most, and not the whole way to Stroud. Words cannot express how awful this road was; too busy and too narrow for bikes. We were both a bit frazzled by the time we dropped down into Stroud.

In hindsight I should have checked the route better, or at least have been able to re-route if we had needed to. We had pushed on hoping that my route would improve, but it didn’t.

Once we had safely made it to Stroud we had a sit down alongside the canal. I had a look on Google maps for an alternative route, just in case our route continued along the A46. I didn’t realise at the time that I could have looked at the route on Strava on my mobile app.

We set off blindly following our prescribed route, once again on the A46. Two very close passes saw Helen try to catch one car to punch him repeatedly in the face, and then have a small meltdown after the second very close pass. We pulled over to the side of the road and Helen threatened to catch a train home. Understandably she wasn’t happy, and to be honest it was my fault for not checking our route. I had another look on Google maps and noticed a disused railway line that had been converted to a cycle path running parallel to this section of the A46. Helen’s anger slowly dissipated, although a jogger not looking where she was going and a family with four dogs blocking the whole path didn’t help.

Fortunately at the town of Nailsworth our route joined a much quieter B road. From there the roads became quieter, the villages quainter and the rain more drizzly. We also cycled past a small housing estate called ‘Field View’. Not the most awe inspiring name. Ocean View or Mountain View would work, but Field View feels a little dull.

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Just after midday we pulled into the incredibly posh village of Sherston, and declining the expensive looking hotel/café we grabbed a couple of sandwiches from the post office and relaxed on a bench in the mizzle.

From there we joined the Fosse Way, an old Roman road that originally ran from Exeter (Isca Dumnoniorum) to Lincoln (Lindum Colonia). This meant that our route was now an almost straight line all the way into Bath. The Fosse Way is unusual as many sections are very quiet back roads, probably because it is very undulating. Most Roman roads have evolved and become busy A roads, so this section was a good road for cycling, apart from the one very steep hill which reduced Helen to walking. Being a gentleman I didn’t just wait at the top, I walked back down to meet Helen and pushed her bike up to the top. From there the last six or seven miles were mostly downhill, all the way to the centre of Bath. There were also a few cycle lanes which help us negotiate the traffic.

There was one final sting in the tail, a very big sting. Anyone who knows Bath will mention the hills, and the Youth Hostel was near the top of Bathwick Hill, a particular beast of a hill. It felt never ending at the time, but it probably explains why we saw so many e-bikes.

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As with many Youth Hostels, the one on Bath was an old building, clean and tidy with very friendly and helpful staff. They were having some renovation work going on, so there wasn’t a bike store, but a safe place for our bikes was found. We had a small en-suite room with bunk beds, me on the top. After a shower we walked back down the hill into Bath for a look round and some food.

Suitably fed and watered we headed back to the hostel for a couple more beers and to see if we could watch Bake Off on the telly. It was showing but the bar was too busy to hear it, so by 8.30 we were tucked up in our bunks, all ready for a shorter days cycling the next day.

 

Cycle Touring – Kenilworth to Cheltenham

Last summer, my beautiful wife and I cycled most of the Highland 500 up in the remote wilds of north Scotland. We loved it, even though it was wet, windy and hilly.

This year, partly due to my wife starting her own cake making business (Bunny’s Bakes in Lancaster), we couldn’t get away in the summer, hence why we cycled in September. We also decided that our touring holiday should include a bit less cycling and a bit more sightseeing and enjoying the view. To that end we planned our route to include visiting a few relations, starting with Helen’s brother near Coventry and including two nights with my parents in Salisbury. Initially we had wanted to visit more of my relations in South Wales, but it was a struggle to obtain enough time off work, plus my sister was in the process of moving to Portugal.

Therefore, our cycling holiday would be eight days long; five days would be cycling, two rest/sightseeing days and one day travelling to Kenilworth. Same bikes as last year, a Jamis Aurora for Helen and a Trek 920 for me, although I had new yellow Ortleib panniers, a birthday present from Helen.

With Nelly, our loyal English Pointer taken to stay with Helen’s youngest son and our bikes loaded onto the car, we headed down to Kenilworth. It was good to see Helen’s brother Phil and his wife, especially as we were plied with good food and a beer (or two), followed by an early night.

The next morning and Phil had gone off to work while Helen and I had a relaxed breakfast. Just after 9am we set off through Kenilworth, before quickly finding ourselves on some nice quiet back roads. We pootled along, enjoying the pleasant weather.

Our first stop was after about 15 miles; well it is hard work heaving those heavy panniers along. Luckily we pulled over underneath the Edstone Aqueduct, the longest aqueduct in England and part of the Stratford-Upon-Avon Canal.

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We walked up the steps to have a closer look. The aqueduct was made using large iron troughs welded together, with a lower walkway on one side (which made me think of the log flume ride at Alton Towers) and no barrier on the other, which must be a little disconcerting for the boaters.

Back on the bikes and it wasn’t long before we criss-crossed the route of a sportive that we had done two years ago. Deliberately making each cycling day a little shorter than last year, meant that we could have a laid back lunch in the town of Mickleton, watching the expensive cars clog up the place.

Unfortunately the roads then started to become a little busier, mainly due to road works and diversions off the A46, although the roads weren’t too bad. We continued into Broadway, which was an archetypal Cotswold chocolate box village; very posh and full of tourists. We continued on to another similar village, Winchcombe, which nestled on a long climb with idyllic cottages with names like Pear Tree, Toad Hall or Brexit Haven.

The road then continued up, and then up a bit more as we climbed Cleve Hill, and although the descent was brilliant it was over too quickly. We rolled into Cheltenham just before 3pm and surprisingly found the Premier Inn without too much of a problem. It was clean and tidy and they let us keep our steeds in the room.

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A wander around Cheltenham, a meal at Bill’s, some take-out cans from Tesco and we were ready to hit the sack by 9pm. A good first days riding.

The Bay Cycleway

I like Sustrans routes, even if they do take you around the houses sometimes. A couple of years ago Sustrans made a big fuss about the new Bay Cycleway, which starts (or finishes) in Barrow and finishes (or starts) at Glasson Dock, taking you on a picturesque tour of Morecambe Bay. All you need to do is follow route 700.

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Myself and Helen had decided some time ago that as soon as she got her new touring bike we would make a day of it. So last Saturday we bought train tickets from Lancaster to Barrow and cycled to the station for the 9am train. This is the first problem with the route, most of the trains are run by Northern, who don’t take bookings for bikes. The train pulled in and it only had two carriages and five of us with bikes trying to get on. We were too slow and couldn’t get on.

Plan B: We would cycle to Carnforth and get on the next train, instead of waiting in Lancaster. This train when it arrived was five carriages and had plenty of room, although there was already two other bikes on board. We chatted to the other cyclists, who were off to Whitehaven to do the coast to coast. They had to change trains at Barrow and were slightly worried as they also hadn’t been able to book their bikes. I hope they got there. Helen has since emailed our local MP about the poor service for cyclists on trains run by Northern.

The train journey to Barrow is full of interesting views, as I described in a blog from a few years ago (read it here). Once again I mused over the lack of a cyclepath across the bay at Arnside. One day it will be built.

Once in Barrow we headed towards the start, but as we were an hour behind schedule, we opted to miss out section to Walney Island and join the route as soon as we found it. You can see our route below. As you can see we also missed out the loop through Arnside and Silverdale as well as the loop to Morecambe. We also stopped in Lancaster rather than go all the way to Glasson Dock.

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Out of the train station in Barrow the roads were busy with Saturday traffic and the cycle paths would suddenly stop and then re-appear later. We then almost missed a vital turn that took us down Cavendish Dock Road. There didn’t appear to be any sign posts at all. Fortunately I had created a route for my Garmin which let me know where we should go. This section was brilliant on traffic free cycle paths and views out to Roa Island and The Bay.

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There were also a few narrow barriers that could be a problem if you had wide bars.

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Once beyond the traffic free section the route follows the coast before looping inland towards Ulverston, where you can see the hills of the Lake District in the background.

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Here we made the decision to miss out the loop to Bardsea. Our pooch, Nelly, had been left at home so we didn’t want to be out too long, especially as we were running late. Ulverston was even busier than Barrow and once again it wasn’t totally clear which direction the route went, but we spotted a 700 sign and climbed out of the town, tipping our hats to the late great Stan Laurel, who was born there.

I had warned Helen about the climb out of Ulverston and it didn’t disappoint as it seemed to go for ages, with a couple of fun twisty descents before a last very steep section. It was then downhill all the way to the footbridge and dirt track that we would take to miss out the A590. My beard doesn’t do justice to how windy it was.

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We had been warned about the rough section although you might want to take it easy if you’re on 23mm tires. Once we re-joined the road the route took us up Bigland Hill and over to Cartmel. This is a real monster of a hill, often overlooked because of all the other monster climbs in the Lake District. Cartmel was full of posh people in large cars who had been to a wedding and didn’t want to share the road with a pair of cyclists, so we pushed on, missing out the loop to Cark and Flookburgh. Mid week Cartmel is much nicer, and the sticky toffee puddings are world famous, which you can read about here.

We then found a nice cafe in Grange, had sausage butties and a coffee, before heading back to Lancaster. As I said earlier, we didn’t do the loop through Arnside as we had done this many times before, so we turned off through the deer park to Betham and onto Warton. From Carnforth we took the shortest route home along the A6, which for us was the worst part of the whole route, and is why the official route directs you onto the canal and along the sea front at Morecambe. With a bit more time we do intend to go back and do the whole route.

If you are thinking of doing the Bay Cycleway, here are my top tips.

  • Have a plan B in case you can’t get on the train. TransPennine Trains do take bookings for bikes and they run the odd train here and there to Barrow.
  • It’s very easy to lose the route in Barrow and Ulverston, so either make sure you have the Sustrans map or download the route to your Garmin (other GPS devices are avalaible).
  • Bigland Hill can be missed as the B5278 isn’t too busy. I would also recommend missing out Crag Road to Warton, unless you want to complete the whole route, or love unnecessary climbs.
  • The cycle path from Aldcliffe to Glasson Dock can get really muddy if it’s been raining.

The full route is 81 miles and can be done in one day, although there are a few hills. Overall the Bay Cycleway is a fine additional to the local and national cycle routes and I would definitely recommend it.

Mini Adventure Day 3 – Penrith to Lancaster

If you’ve not read the first two parts of our mini adventure you can find Day 1 here, and Day 2 can be found here.

On to Day 3, and the weather forecast  had constantly changed over the weekend, with supposedly bad weather on Day 1 and sunny on the other days. By the Saturday night the forecast was cold and wet for the Sunday, and our last day. It’s only 50 miles from Penrith to Lancaster, so we should be fine.

When we woke up the weather looked great as we skipped downstairs to breakfast. A Spanish girl was having problems with the toaster, and had filled the kitchen with smoke, while a couple and their three young children hunted for eggs in the garden. Back in the kitchen and another man spent 20 minutes making one ham and mayo sandwich. Hostels are a great way of meeting interesting people and I cannot recommend them highly enough, especially the Wayfarers Hostel in Penrith (link).

As with the previous day we didn’t set off until 9am, and it still wasn’t raining, although it was a bit chilly. Because of my navigation skills (or lack of) from the previous day we opted for the A6 all the way to Kendal. It would be a bit less fun, but not too much traffic uses that section of the A6.

We soon reached the village of Shap, where we stopped for a banana before tackling Shap hill. Just before the climb begins there is a 96 room hotel, literally in the middle of nowhere. Passing the hotel from ‘The Shining’ also coincided with it starting to hammer it down. As we slowly climbed we passed a couple of roadside ‘shrines’, which is never nice to see. By the time we reached the top, both my hands and feet were numb from the cold and wet, making the descent very unpleasant, and there might not have been much traffic, but what little there was would invariably pass too close and too fast.

By the time we reached Kendal both of us were desperate to stop. Helen was worried that nowhere would let us in, but a small cafe called Finkles, located down an alley were more than happy to welcome two bedraggled cyclists. I then suggested to Helen that she phone Dan her son, who had been staying at our house, to see if he could pick us up. “Not a problem, see you in 40 minutes,” he said. While we waited we consumed hot chocolate and warm scones.

I don’t like giving in to the weather, but my waterproof jacket wasn’t, and my gloves were not designed for 5 degrees and rain. If Dan hadn’t been able to pick us up we would have made it home, but it wouldn’t have been much fun. It was a slightly sad end to a great weekend, but we can take loads of positives, even from the final day. Helen now knows that cycle touring (with me) is brilliant. I know that I need to be better at route planning and we both need to be better prepared for inclement weather. In fact, we both loved the weekend so much that we’ve started to plan mini, and not so mini adventures for years to come. I would whole hearted recommend cycle touring to everyone, just go for it.

The Strava route for the final day of our adventure can be found here.

Finally, the next day I bought myself a new saddle, a Brooks Cambium C17, and first impression are very favourable (Strave ride here).