Old Man Ride
This past weekend, I went on a leisurely adventure, with three others. Caspar I’ve met before, and I know him from cycling advocacy especially in Devon, but also nationally. Simon’s a journalist at Road.cc and cycled the first part of my last Grand Union Canal ride. Tommy’s someone I know from Twitter, and met briefly previously. Click the links above to their Twitter profiles, and do yourself the favour of following them – they’re seriously good guys.
In case you’ve no idea what a Traveling Ouballies ride is (or how to pronounce it) I suggest you read this post first.
Adventure, as I often point out, is a state of mind, and a Traveling Ouballies ride is a gentle adventure. Gentle, in that it would take most people outside their comfort zone, but it isn’t exactly laced with danger. After all, in this case, we were traversing the gentle landscape of Wiltshire and Berkshire, not solo cycling across Patagonia.
Besides idiotic drivers, of which there were very few, our biggest danger was falling into the canal, and on the scale of The Greatest Dangers Ever Faced By Humanity, it isn’t particularly high up the list.
We met up, as agreed, at Bristol Temple Meads train station, then followed the Bristol & Bath Rail Path. This was Sustrans‘ very first shared use path, and remains a flagship project to them, so I was surprised that none of my traveling companions have ever cycled all of it before.
At one stage, we were overtaken by an oldish lady, who said “What’s this – an old man ride?” as she overtook us, and Tommy didn’t appreciate that, though I have to admit she got it spot on. Soon enough, we were in Bath, and deviated through town. I thought Simon wanted to pop in at the Road.cc office, in Green Park Station, but soon we went off somewhere to have lunch.
We found a lovely pub (a theme was developing here) but discovered – after ordering drinks – that they didn’t serve food, so finished our drinks and headed off to a pizzeria nearby. When we set off again, Simon lead us back to the canal, and we continued onwards.
There are a surprising number of National Cycle Network routes that, at least in part, run alongside canals, and I certainly like the serenity that can be found by riding on a towpath, but be under no illusions: canal towpaths are not cycling infrastructure.
As a rule of thumb, it works like this: near towns or cities, the towpath can be surprisingly good, but that’s simply because it will also be busy. As a result, progress will be slow. Away from population centres, the towpath quality will usually noticeably worsen, often quite dramatically. If ever you decide to cycle a canal route (and I hope you do) you need to bear this in mind. If you’re averaging more than 7mph along a towpath, you’re going too fast.
As this was designed from the outset to be a leisurely ride, the days were short distances: roughly 40 miles for the first day, and around 30 miles for each of the other two days. When I cycled the longer Grand Union Canal, over three days, I learned the hard way that more time was needed, and I didn’t want this ride to be rushed.
We stopped at a pub in Bradford-upon-Avon, to watch the Springbokke maul the British & Irish Lions, much to my relief, and the dismay of my traveling companions. (In case you’re new to my site, I’m a South African living in the UK for the past 20+ years). Much banter followed that outcome, which especially Simon didn’t expect.
The forecast for the weekend was a bit grim, and from the outset we were resigned to getting wet. As it happened, the skies saved up all the rain forecast to gently fall on us throughout the day, and decided to bucket it out in the early evening. We got proper soaked just as we reached the Caen Hill locks, by Devizes.
I wild-camp whenever possible, and it’s almost always possible. Wild-camping when cycle touring gives you enormous flexibility, and it meant that we could divert off the towpath, over one of the very narrow little bridges, to camp at one of the potential spots I’d previously identified. We pitched our tents under the shelter of a big old oak tree near the canal, as darkness was falling, and the rain started easing up.
As I expected, it was a busy dog-walking route, and we greeted many dog-walkers and their pooches as we packed up in the morning, under moody skies. There’s a café at the top of Caen Hill locks, but it was closed. Caspar found there was a Morrisons nearish the canal, so we headed there for breakfast, arriving shortly before the café opened (but they were selling coffee already) so we sat down and waited before we could order.
The breakfasts were wolfed down in a hurry, and our mugs refilled several times. We were in no particular rush to leave, as outside the heavens had once again opened up. When cycle touring, you will burn a surprising amount of calories, which means your only concern around calories is getting enough in. If you don’t believe me, alter your weight on Strava, making it at least 20kg heavier, then see by how much calories burned on a ride increases.
When the rain eased off, we knew we couldn’t delay any longer, and we set off again, initially following the canal out of Devizes, but soon we left it. Sustrans, the charity behind the National Cycle Network, have realised they made a mistake by going for quantity over quality when building the network, which lead to a lot of Sustrans routes having a very poor reputation. Despite this, it seems even Sustrans knew the towpath at least to Newbury was so dire that even they didn’t want to include it as an NCN route.
We followed the Sustrans NCN 4 route to Newbury. The route mainly follows lovely and quiet rural lanes, but you soon notice (especially on a laden touring bike) that you’ve swapped the rough towpath surface for smooth tar, and hills.
To be fair, there are no monster hills on the route, and certainly by Devon standards, they’re gentle hills, but your legs will feel them. The route criss-crosses the canal a number of times, and if you know anything about canals, you’ll know they tend to follow contour lines as much as possible. Criss-crossing the canal means climbing and descending over and over.
Lunch was in Pewsey, where we briefly diverted to The Waterfront, a pub right on the canal. It started raining as we were approaching the pub, and by the time we were sat down in their marquee, it was tipping down. Fortunately, the rain didn’t last, and soon enough we were on our way again, still following lanes.
The Pelican Inn
The second night’s camping spot was not quite certain, and was in the middle of nowhere, with a pub, the Pelican Inn, Froxfield, about a mile away. Approaching Froxfield, we had a number of options:
1) Cycle to the spot we might be camping first, pitch our tents, then head off to the pub for a meal and some drinks,
2) Cycle directly to the pub, have a meal and some drinks, then cycle to the potential camping spot, to pitch tents in the dark again, or
3) Cycle directly to the pub, and ask if they’d let us camp in their garden.
We voted for Option 3. When we arrived, we all ordered food first, and all four of us were very impressed with the quality of food. Afterwards, Caspar asked the manager, Martin, if we could camp there, and without a moment’s hesitation he agreed!
The pub is under new management, and is seriously impressive, as well as very happy to help out some road-weary cyclists! Needless to say, we made a bit of a night of it, during which we discovered Simon’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the history of Britain, from the Roman era through till well after the Plantagenets!
If ever you’re going to be cycling in the area, do support the Pelican Inn. Cyclist-friendly businesses deserve extra support, but even if they weren’t especially cyclist-friendly, the great food, friendly staff, prompt service and cleanliness of the place will impress you. Oh, and soon(ish) they will have glamping pods available, too, in addition to rooms available now. Just make a point of telling them you were referred there by the 4 cyclists they let camp in their garden!
Our last day started with breakfast at the pub. Well, you would, wouldn’t you? Soon enough, we were on our way to Newbury. We were effectively going to follow lanes to Newbury, then pick up the canal from there. Caspar and I wanted to get to Reading in time to be on the 15h58 train to Bristol, where I’d left my van, so on the last day we didn’t have too much time to waste.
Newbury’s a pretty town, and we went looking for an independent coffee shop. Unfortunately, the 1st one we found (after having locked our bikes together) was actually a pottery painting place (despite calling itself a coffee house) and was fully booked. I suppose I should give them credit for asking if they could book us in on a different day!
That meant coffee was from Café Nero, directly opposite. Sometimes needs must!
From Newbury we were back on the towpath for a short stint, getting spoilt with very good – if rather busy – towpath surfaces, but we needed to divert via roads, through Thatchford, before getting back onto the towpath. This stretch to Reading was the worst towpath of the entire route, though occasionally there were decent segments.
After Aldermaston Wharf, a stretch of the towpath was a nasty, bumpy single-track experience, and there were several kissing-gates along the way. After having crossed under the M4, the route became far worse, and in places a quagmire of mud. For a short stretch it runs alongside the M4 motorway, veering left just before Reading Services. Signage was mainly non-existent, and the track forced us to ride through large pools of muddy water, and across large stretches of thick mud.
Even closer to Reading, we were following what might have been 3 metre wide tar paths, but they were so overgrown with brambles and stinging nettles that I’m sure half of Reading heard Tommy cursing when he was stung by yet another nettle. In places, the path was reduced to 30 centimetres wide!
We were happy to leave that very overgrown path (seriously, Reading Council, why do you hate cyclists so?) to ride on roads to get to Reading station in time to catch the 15h38. Only, we couldn’t, as there were no bicycle spaces left on that train, and Caspar and I were forced to wait for the 16h58.
Tommy caught a train back to London, and Simon, having had an appetite for more adventure, cycled all the way to Slough, before finally catching a train home.
Caspar and I got a final soaking while cycling the 3.5 miles back from Bristol Temple Meads to my van, but most of the drive back was without any rain.
When I dropped him to his home in Exeter, he was surprised by how much he could feel the ride in his legs. That’s the thing with cycle touring – it might not be full-on racing, but carrying all that extra weight on the bike adds up and makes a big difference. Well, that, and the fact that he did the whole ride on his 3-speed Brompton!
We had us an adventure!