Hit the road…James

I haven’t been on a decent cycle tour for a while, so decided my September break should be used for a pedal round some parts of the UK I haven’t visited before. I did the coast in 2013, and marvellous it was, but decided to head inland this time.

I set off from Salhouse, my new place of residence (moved earlier this year), through Norwich then down to Bury St. Edmunds. Day 1 took me to Cambridge via a slightly different route to the one I’d normally take. The bit down to Bury was alright, but not keen on the road from there to Newmarket. What was nice was to be on my bike again, letting the miles drift by, taking in Autumn sights, sounds and smells, and feeling work stress vanish surprisingly quickly.

After staying the night at my brother and sister-in-law’s house in Cambourne, saying hello to their new chickens, and playing with my niece and nephew, I set my sights on Oxford. I decided to try cycling along the Icknield Way, an ancient trail that runs from somewhere near Thetford all the way to Oxfordshire. It is cyclable, but not really suitable for a touring bike; would be fine for bike packing. After about 20km of hard riding, where my panniers kept dragging on the grass, I swapped it for the road, crossed over the M1 and into the Chilterns, a range of hills my brain had conveniently decided to forget about.

Now I’m fairly fit from cycling to and from work, and longer rides at the weekend, but Norfolk doesn’t have a large number of hills and a fully loaded touring bike weighs quite a lot. I didn’t have to push up any climbs, but there was quite a lot of huffing and puffing, and a bit of swearing. The Chilterns cycle way is a beautiful ride though, and nice to pass through somewhere I haven’t visited before. I stopped at a campsite near High Wycombe for the night, conveniently situated next to a pub, splendid. Incidentally, quite a few of the campsites on this tour, completely by ‘chance’, were situated in close proximity to pubs…a clear sign the gods were smiling on my efforts (apart from Loki who conspires with the sheep).

After a restful night I pedalled off to Oxford, stopping to eat blackberries on the way. It started to rain so I didn’t pause for long in the city, but did find a good pie shop to acquire lunch from. From there it was another pleasant cycle through the countryside, chatting to a few cyclists along the way, and perhaps stopping for a cheeky cider to cool down. My next campsite was near Malborough; forest campsite, cheap, cheerful and quiet, just the job, although there was a psychotic hill to get up just prior to the campsite, on tired legs, that took some doing.

I awoke to a grey and damp day, but with the prospect of Avebury and Stonehenge on the horizon, places I’ve wanted to visit for a while. From Marlborough it’s a reasonably short ride to Avebury, where I stopped to look round the museum, and to pause for thought amongst the stones. There’s a lovely looking pub in the centre of the village, probably close to the centre of the stone circles, but it was a bit early for lunch and besides, wasn’t open yet. I really liked Avebury. There weren’t a lot of people about, the museum was good, and the place had a nice feel to it.

After a good wander about I set my sights on Stonehenge. There I was pedalling along, up and over hills, splashing through puddles, damp but enjoying myself, when I started to pass fields of sheep. Now I’m not saying it was definitely them, but feels a little bit coincidental that as I got near the top of a particularly long climb, where the rain really started in earnest, and the wind picked up, I fell victim to a puncture. I pulled over onto a farmer’s track to fix it, with rain infiltrating my waterproof. A flock of the devils regarded me with suspicion, and not a small amount of malice, from a nearby field.

It took me quite a while to fix that puncture, and there was quite a bit of cursing whilst the sheep continued to watch me, chewing, and occasionally bleating. Travelling Lobster was absolutely no help, you probably won’t be surprised to hear. I have a new back wheel as the old one wore out, and tyres seem particularly tricky to get over the rim; more practice required probably, but hopefully not in the vicinity of sheep.

I plunged down the other side of the pass towards the Salisbury plains and Stonehenge, getting slightly lost due to not looking where I was going and just enjoying freedom from the flock. Thankfully a helpful local pointed me in the right direction, and after a diversion round some closed roads I made it to Stonehenge.

Stonehenge was good to visit, but expensive, and very busy. A warden told me I was there on a quiet day, but there were still bus loads of tourists arriving, being shuttled to the stones, taking a selfie and then getting back on their coach. To be honest the place felt a little dead, which was disappointing, perhaps due to the volume of people and general feeling of disrespect folks had for the ancient monument. I still enjoyed seeing the henge, and taking a turn around the museum to learn a bit more about what they’d found here, and the speculations on how it was built; personally I think it’s obvious that druids flew the stones here, as per Terry Pratchett. I noticed a small number of tents and caravans on some land next to Stonehenge, and wonder if they are there all year, perhaps travellers and pagans wanting to be close to an ancient nexus of power, who knows?

I rode the short distance from Stonehenge to the campsite near Berwick St. James, ideally located for anyone wanting to visit the area, and cheap if you’re on a bike. Whilst there I bumped into a fellow cycle tourer, Carl, on his way down to Cornwall to visit family. It was his first cycle tour in about 10 years, and he was loving it. Unfortunately he had the headwind the next day, which I managed, for once, to avoid.

From Stonehenge I pedalled to the New Forest, passing through Salisbury on the way. I spent the day cycling around the forest, stopping for a double Cornish pasty break Lyndhurst. I spoke to a couple of locals who confirmed the village is always that busy; an endless stream of traffic flowing into and out of it, as ‘they’ refused to let a bypass be built in the seventies. I love the New Forest, despite the fact it’s a bit crowded, even in September. The gently rolling landscape, trees, heathland and wildlife are to be savoured.

After watching a convoy of horse and traps pass me on the road, making there way from some kind of event, I stopped for the night in Ashurst, possibly my favourite campsite of the tour; the staff were really friendly, the campsite beautiful with animals mixed in amongst the tents, and there was a pub next door! I had an interesting conversation with a 70 year old Australian lady about tents. She was travelling round the UK and was admiring my Hilleberg Akto, thinking it would be good for her next adventure; you’re never too old!!

After a restful night, post thunderstorm, I had a early start to try and make it down the coast to my parents house near Hastings. I wasn’t sure I’d make it, and had a back up plan to stop in Brighton, but was hopeful a strong tailwind would help me on my way.

I took the ferry from Hythe to Southampton, then rode round the back of Portsmouth and along the coast following a different route to that which I took in 2013, when I used a few more ferries and island hopped. The weather got steadily worse as I pedalled, with the wind building and rain getting harder. I did however pass several cycle tourers going in the other direction, who were having a much harder time of it; at least I was getting mostly blown in the right direction.

That was a tough ride, in-spite of the tailwind. Even for me it got a bit sketchy at times, especially when I got blown into the verge and had to perform a rapid and not particularly elegant dismount. One can forget just how powerful the wind can be! After around 107 miles, the longest leg of the tour, I made it to my parents house and shelter from the storm, which was really quite brutal by that point; very wet, very windy, kinda exciting.

I had the next day off, drying stuff, catching up with Dad, and meeting my friend Ian for lunch. Mum had travelled up to Cambridge to help look after my niece and nephew, but I hoped to rendezvous with her on my way back to Norwich.

Feeling rested and well fed I set off back North, through East Sussex and into Kent. East Sussex really is quite hilly, but lovely countryside and lots of familiar sights from my childhood. I made my way to Gravesend to get the ferry over the Thames; a passenger ferry you can take your bike on, much easier than going through London. Landing in Essex I rode to Kelvedon Hatch, the site site of a ‘secret’ nuclear bunker, with a campsite nearby which was most welcome after the busy roads and increasingly bad weather. It was another stormy night, with my tent getting somewhat battered, but the Hilleberg Akto is practically indestructible, despite the holes in the groundsheet caused by the voles (varmints) in Sweden, and once again did me proud.

From Kelvedon Hatch I rode back up to Cambridge and Cambourne, overnighting with family again and meeting up with Mum, before the final leg back to Norwich the next day. The weather was again a bit inclement, whatever that means, but the sun did come out as I pedalled through Thetford Forest. The dry spell was short lived, forcing me to take shelter under the bandstand, which isn’t a bandstand but I can’t remember what it’s called, in Wymondham; luckily there’s a baker nearby which helped pass the time.

I arrived back in Salhouse after pedalling around 600 miles, losing a few pounds, and generally feeling a lot more relaxed. Link to the map of my route:

https://www.strava.com/athletes/11810278/heatmaps/7ef5dc22#8/51.90967/-0.18951

To close here are a few pictures from the last couple of week’s in Norfolk, where Autumn has really taken hold. Autumn is my favourite season, and Norfolk looks beautiful.

Norwich beer fest soon!

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