My cycling stories

Scroll down this page to read recent stories or click the red tab on the left for previous stories. These are archived according to the month and year of each outing.

One of the pleasures of touring by bicycle is the planning stage. I do this during winter months when limited daylight hours and colder weather makes it difficult to go for long distance rides. During those months I decide where to go the following year and research places of interest to visit.

The following stories from the past 10 years cover an accumulative cycling distance of 5000 miles. I hope you enjoy each turn of the crank.

During 2020

May: Ride to Rhyd

During 2019

October: My visit to see Siân Owen.

June: Cycling Via Francigena from Canterbury to Rome.

During 2018

September: Cycling coast to coast next to Vallum Antonini.

April: The harbingers of a spring cycling holiday.

During 2017

October: Cycling from Shrewsbury to Blackpool for the British Heart Foundation

July: Following National Cycle Route 72 across Britain.

May: Cycling through forgotten Britain: The Grand Union Canal.

During 2016

September: Morcambe Bay to Whitey Bay

June: Cycling from Lands End to John O’Groats (LEJOG)

May: Lands End to John o’Groats: A story for children at Tŷ Gobaith and Hope House Children’s Hospice.

During 2015

September: Memory Lane: From Merseyside to tour the south Lake District.

July: Cycling alongside the River Rhine from its source in the Alps to the North Sea.

During 2014

October: The story of Bessie my Bicycle.

August: The Trans-pennine bike ride.

During 2012

May: London to Paris by Bicycle along the Avenue Verte.

During 2010

May: Bangor to Aberystwyth Universities. My first 100 miler !

Ride to Rhyd

A steep climb from the Oakeley Arms to reach Llyn Mair
Bridge for the Ffestiniog narrow gauge railway to Tan Y Bwlch
Coastal views from Rhyd
Rhyd
Mountain views from the road to Garreg
Gorsaf Reilffordd Penrhyn
Bakery Crossing
Roadside view of Harlech

A visit to Siân Owen

Capel Salem, Llanbedr

18 months ago I attended a talk about the artist Curnow Vosper. His watercolour painting of worshipers inside Capel Salem included a lady wearing a stovepipe hat and shawl which later became the image of Welsh national dress. Her name was Siân Owen.

This autumn adventure began at Capel Salem to photograph the box pews where subjects for his painting known as ‘Salem‘ positioned themselves.

Whilst Vospers painting was 111 years ago the box pews remain positioned below a wall clock that had stopped just before 10 o’clock.

His watercolour was brought by Lord Leverhulme and is now displayed in the Lady Lever Art Gallery at Port Sunlight. So I decided to cycle there and visit Siân Owen.

The Plan

My last bicycle ride to Merseyside was 4 years ago when I cycled 85 miles in a day to ‘prove I could do it’ – a journey of endurance not enjoyment. That visit was to be part of the 125th anniversary celebrations for the Cunard shipping line.

Todays journey would be at a very leisurely pace taking 3 days with late morning starts and early afternoon finishes; day 1 ends in Llandudno. Day 2 ends with an overnight stay in Port Sunlight where on day 3 I planned to visit Siân Owen.

Day 1 Monday October 14th

This afternoon I set out from home to cycle over the Crimea Pass. A steady 7 – 13% uphill gradient to and beyond Blaenau Ffestiniog is rewarded by a lengthy descent towards to Betws-y-Coed and Llandudno.

Although there weren’t many vehicles driving over the Crimea Pass most of those that passed me drove at a Charge of the Light Brigade speed.

From Betws-y-Coed I joined the busy A470. Sadly this road has been the scene of several very nasty accidents and ends at a double roundabout under the A55 that I consider to be too dangerous for pedal cyclists.

After cycling along a dirt track at the side of the A470 I joined a pavement that ran to the outskirts of Llanrwst. Here I diverted off the A470 to cross over the 3 arched bridge and onto Trefriw. Cycling through it seemed a much prettier village than I ever appreciate when driving this way.

A short distance later I arrived in Conwy with its magnificent castle and premises of Drew Pritchard Antiques.

Instead of watching the 6pm news I watch Drew and his team in ‘Salvage Hunters’. How on earth he remains calm and composed when dealing with people who invite him to buy and then change their minds about selling beggars belief.

From here I cycled out of Conwy and crossed a bridge from the castle to follow a marvellous traffic free coastal path around Deganwy to reach the North Shore at Llandudno. My journey then took me along quiet back roads to the Promenade on the sea front for an overnight stay at the Imperial.

Day 2: Tuesday October 15th

From Llandudno promenade the sea views are of Gwynt y Môr (meaning wind of the sea) off- shore wind farm.

The wind farm is quite some distance from land and like good children, can be seen but not heard.

Most of todays cycling followed the coast from Llandudno on National Cycle Route 5 to beyond Prestatyn. The weather was perfect for a very easy day in the saddle; no noticeable wind, a cool, dry and sunny day. To my left the sea and to the right a railway line. For roughly an hour I was pedalling along flat ground seeing nobody; gosh, cycling here was really dull and boring.

Relief came shortly after Prestatyn when NCR5 bears away from the coast towards Holywell for some moderate hill climbing with homes and shops to see. I celebrated at a cafe for coffee and slab of chocolate cake – yummy.

From here I picked up NCR 568 to cycle through Deeside and its marshes, exiting the cycle route on the west coast of Wirral peninsular. I then cycled across land to the eastern edge of the Wirral and stayed overnight at the Bridge Inn, Port Sunlight.

The following day CCTV caught me getting dressed

Day 3: Wednesday October 16th

After a hearty breakfast I cycled around Port Sunlight village. Its really pretty and the museum is well worth a visit. I brought a fridge magnet souvenir and block of Vinola Soap in the packaging of RMS Titanic. This soap was once purchased by the White Star Line for use in passenger cabins on the Titanic.

I’m now using the soap at home. Not only is it creamy, the bathroom is now filled with a wonderful aroma of vanilla.

The Lady Lever Art Gallery is opposite the museum, My reason for cycling the best part of 100 miles to reach here was to see Siân Owen. She was overjoyed to see me:

Siân was the central figure in the Vosper painting known as ‘Salam’. A 2nd version is displayed in the National Library of Wales at Aberystwyth.

Today I was looking at Vospers original watercolour that was sold to Lord Leverhume who had millions of prints made.

Those who brought Port Sunlight soap would collect soap wrappers and exchange them for a Salem print – an incentive for brand loyalty that also increased the sales of his soap.

The wall clock in this painting was the same clock I photographed inside Salem Chapel. For the story of this clocks time and details about the people in Vospers’ painting, simply click on this link: https://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/ladylever/collections/paintings/gallery4/salem.aspx

As a consequence of so many households owning this print the image of women wearing a shawl and black stovepipe hat was thought to be the National Dress of Wales. It subsequently became a device for tourism, national pride and nowadays Welsh identity – frequently worn by children on St Davis day.

I hope you enjoyed reading about my journey.

Cycling Via Francigena from Canterbury to Rome

The Reason Why

One happy childhood memory was the day Dad took the stabiliser wheels off my bicycle and firmly gripped the saddle to keep me upright. I started to pedal as he ran behind. With a leap of faith his grip released freeing me to balance the bike and discover the joy of cycling. It was a magic moment for both of us and years later that skill has not been forgotten. “You never forget how to ride a bike”.

Aged 8 another great memory was when Dad drove me and my 2 sisters to Dover in a blue Standard 10 motor car for our very first sea voyage – a car ferry to France. He then drove across France into Switzerland to manoeuvre onto the carriage of a car-carrying train, another first. We all sat in the car as the train went through a very long and very dark tunnel under the Alps into Italy.We drove to Pisa where I climbed inside the world famous leaning bell tower, an amazing experience. Our journey continued to Rome and the Vatican City.

This year Dad would have been 100 years old and this solo bicycle ride to Rome was my way to commemorate those happy childhood memories.

Preparation

My luggage weight of 12.7kg (2 stone) consisted of hot weather cycling clothing, wet weather cycling clothing, night-attire, toiletries, a first aid kit, spare inner tubes, wet and dry chain lube, a cycle multi-tool kit, gaffer tape and cable ties for any running repairs plus charging leads for my computer, smartphone and GPS system. Before departure I successfully tested my capability to cycle with this load plus a further weighty bag over 40miles that included gradients of 12% – 15%.

Michelin maps and the cycle.travel software programme enabled me to plot a route, know its gradients, calculate distances to cycle on a daily basis and decide where to stay overnight. Google earth and street view improved my awareness of what to expect and places to avoid. I then downloaded the GPS route into my bicycle computer.

This has been the bike ride of a lifetime.

Roads to Rome

Roman roads were essential trading routes and enabled fast movement of the roman military. Their network of roads also made it easier to communicate messages, including religious teachings. When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in Europe pilgrims walked to Rome and other places of pilgrimage along these roads.

In Britain Watling Street linked Dover to Canterbury, known in roman times as Durovernum Cantiacorum and continued northwards to Chester and beyond, with Chester having a separate  coastal route into Gwynedd. 

As the route to Rome passes through France it has been given the name ‘Via Francigena’ When searching the internet for information about cycling Via Francigena I discovered the ‘Confraternity of Pilgrims to Rome’ (CPR). Their website was so informative I joined the group and received an impressive welcome pack containing guidance and advice for an enjoyable trip.

In AD 880 Rhodri Mawr, the King of Gwynedd, followed this route to make a pilgrimage to Rome. It was said that those doing so would have all their sins absolved.

My journey begins

I began by attending the Canterbury Cathedral Evensong where I received a pilgrims blessing in Trinity Chapel by Canon Emma.

That evening I stayed at the Cathedral Lodge Hotel on the right of this photo. The hotel has been used by pilgrims going to or from Canterbury for many years.

The first part of my bicycle ride followed fairly busy country roads for roughly 20 miles to reach Dover.

At the foot of Dover Castle I visited a memorial by the late Alex Duckham, the founder of Duckhams Oil, where in 1909 Louis Blériot landed a plane having been the first person to fly across the English Channel.

His flight from France took 30 minutes.

I then made my way to the White Horse Pub in Dover where the walls are signed by successful channel swimmers.

The Channel Swimming Association was founded in 1927 and is internationally recognised to observe and authenticate the number of swims across the English Channel. Between 1927 and the end of 2018 the association has recorded over 1,500 people who successfully swam the channel. The youngest swimmer was aged 11 and the oldest 74. It takes an average of 12 hours to swim across the channel.

At the Port Of Dover I followed a maze of bicycle lanes to board a ferry to Dunkirk. A delayed Brexit ensured the European Health Insurance Card would remain valid, bureaucratic boarder checks with travel delay was avoided and mobile telephone costs remained affordable.

On the ferry from Dover I photographed the famous White Cliffs.

The Ministry of Defence tunnelled into the cliffs and created rooms looking towards France. During the 2nd World War a dynamo was used to provide electrical power for lighting, ventilation and communication equipment.

It was from those rooms that the evacuation of troops from Dunkirk, aptly named ‘Operation Dynamo’, was co-ordinated.

In Dunkirk the ‘Operation Dynamo’ museum describes the background and success of this rescue mission.

Between Sunday 26th May and Tuesday 4th June 1940 the lives of 338,000 troops were saved. On the first day of their evacuation, King George VI requested a National Day of Prayer. Then 3 unexpected events occurred that Churchill referred to as the miracle of Dunkirk:

  1. Hitler inexplicably halted the advance of armoured columns.
  2. A violent storm grounded the German Luftwaffe. This enabled the troops to reach evacuation points without aerial bombardment.
  3. Despite stormy weather the English Channel became ‘still’ and remained so until the armada of little ships, big ships, warships and privately owned motor-cruisers completed their rescue mission.

My crossing of the channel was on June 6th, the 75th anniversary of the ‘D’ day landings. A man whose father was evacuated from Dunkirk was later was part of the ‘D’ day landings to liberate France from the Germans.

I cycled to Dunkirk town centre where I had booked accommodation through the Airbnb website. The address turned out to be a tower block. A wall panel in the entrance hallway contained rows of buttons for the various apartments, none of which gave the name of the person I had booked my stay with. I pressed each button to ask if they had received a booking for my overnight stay. Many occupants were out or chose not to answer. Those that did were not Airbnb hosts.

Matters then went from bad to worse. I tried using my mobile telephone to ring the host only to discover the telephone and WiFi was not working. I had no option but to find alternative accommodation.

After booking into the nearest hotel the hotel internet service revealed the reason for my telephone not working. My telephone uses 4G (whatever that means) and 4G did not work in this part of France. Once I switched over to 3G both the Wifi and telephone came back to life enabling me to ring the Airbnb host, alas – no reply. Fearing my £50 booking with Airbnb was a lost cause. I emailed the Airbnb helpline. 3 days later I received a reply to say the hosts had been waiting for me at the accommodation ………..umm.

My journey from the northwest to northeast of France followed the boarder of Belgium and Luxembourg. The terrain was fairly flat or undulating and an absence of headwind made for fast progress along well maintained cycle tracks that edged main roads, or followed level ground alongside canals.

My route passed the sites of numerous war graves and photographs on the wall of a hotel where I stayed showed a village that had been destroyed in the war. All the inhabitants lost their lives.

At the town of Reims I locked my bicycle against the British flag pole and went inside the ‘Surrender Museum’. The building was once a schoolhouse and in here on May 7, 1945, Germany surrendered to General Eisenhower.

I had expected the museum to display photographs of the surrender with the room where it occurred being laid out to depict who was standing where and a copy of the signed document on view.

No chance – the display consisted of these grotesque Manikens, a map room and a 5 euro film show.

What a disgrace. Surely the French authorities can do better.

North of Reims I stopped for lunch at Brienne le Château where Napoleon attended a military academy that has since been used for psychiatric care.

I remembered the saying wrongly attributed to Napoleon that Britain was a nation of shopkeepers. Those words ought to be regarded as a compliment.

During the past few days of cycling I have covered average distances of 20 miles before seeing a shop. Finding a shop that is open is a different matter. Many close on Sundays, some on Mondays, others close on Wednesday. Then many shops close for 2 hour lunch breaks.

It only takes me 2 hours to cycle 20 miles and I always carry a thermos flask of coffee plus a bottle of pop and some sweets. So for me, travelling 20 miles between shops with the chance they may not be open is no big deal. If I was a walking pilgrim those opening hours would be a major concern.

Cycling towards Besançon the front wheel of my bicycle glanced off a kerb and brought the bicycle to the ground with my feet still clipped into the pedals – gosh, this hurt. It took ages to get my body moving, firstly to extract my feet from the cycling shoes still anchored into the pedals, then to prize myself out of the fallen bike, stand up, stand the bike up, pick up my scattered belongings, release my shoes and put this footwear back on.

I saw the bicycle chain had become detached from the front cog, a messy but easy job to put back, then noticed a spoke on the rear wheel had snapped and that the rear mudguard was buckled. Adding to this joyous moment it then started to rain, heavily.

Unclipping my pannier bags I turned the bicycle upside down and set about dealing with matters. Firstly I refitted the chain, then used gorilla tape to attach the broken spoke to the one next to it. After this I used cable ties and gorilla tape to hold my rear mudguard in place.

My rear wheel has well over 30 spokes and whilst one broken spoke was not serious the other spokes were now supporting both my weight and full pannier bags. Further breakages could distort the rear wheel. I decided if a second spoke broke a visit to a bicycle shop would be needed.

An hour or so later it was still raining as I arrived at my Airbnb overnight stay at a hotel on the outskirts of Besançon. To my amazement it was closed. A notice on the entrance door said the hotel was closed for refurbishment and showed a telephone number of the owner who I rang. He came over from an adjoining house and showed me the room he had allocated me. It hadn’t been cleaned, the toilet was unflushed and the bed was not made. As the hotel was closed for refurbishment it had no staff, no wifi and no restaurant. He said meals could be brought at McDonalds in the town centre.

There was no way I was saying here and said a firm ‘No’ , walked out, cycled down the road and checked into another place. Yet again Airbnb failed me. I will never book accommodation through that outfit again.

The following morning I was down in the dumps. It was still raining, I was aching from my fall, unhappy with the damage to my bicycle and really grumpy with the Airbnb hotelier. This morning was the low point of my journey.

I decided to cover todays 60 mile distance by train and having spent the past 6 days making my way through France it was a timely relief to take today off from cycling.

A couple of hours later I arrived at Pontarlier for my next overnight stay. My early arrival allowed time to visit a launderette. By now the sun was shining and a walk to the distillery where Pernod is made lifted my mood.

The following day I set off to cycle into Switzerland. Here the sounds of traffic that had been a background noise for the past week were exchanged by music to my ears, the chiming of bells worn around the necks of grazing cows and goats, lovely !

From here my route skirted around the shores of Lake Geneva and took me to places I have heard of such as Montreux. I wonder if the Montreux film festival still exists?

I then passed through Vevey where Charlie Chaplin spent his final years.

The injured Formula 1 racing driver Michael Schumacher still lives in this area. Today I was looking at the Alps and the lakeside views enjoyed by these people.

That evening my overnight stay was in Orsières. The next day would be the very best cycling experience I have ever experienced; the ascent and descent of the Great Saint Bernard Pass. I had calculated the distance from Orsières to the summit of the Great Saint Bernard Pass was roughly 15 miles. The first 3 would be along a main road shared with vehicles headed to a tunnel that would take them into Italy.

Before leaving my hotel the receptionist insisted on checking the weather forecast. The ‘Pass’ had only opened last week as heavy snow had closed the road since last October and further snowfalls could make it unsafe to travel. Fortunately no snow was expected.

At 10am my ride commenced. The road was in a decent condition, reasonably wide with smooth tarmac and the gradient was an easy 3% .

During the 12 weeks leading to this trip I had been building up my strength and stamina by cycling up hills on a daily basis. With loaded panniers:

  • Gradients up to 6% are easy.
  • Climbing between 7% and 10% involves a bit of effort.
  • I can manage 10% to 15% gradients for short distances.
  • Anything over 15% is beyond my ability.

The main road passed under concrete roof structures known as ‘Galleries’ that shield road users from rock falls and avalanches. The engine noise from passing cars, coaches, lorries and especially motorcycles was very loud. Eventually I came to a fork in the road that took me to the ‘Pass’ as motor vehicles continued through the tunnel. For the next 12 miles I was on my own to enjoy the scenery, fresh air, peace and quiet.

The gradient was roughly 7% which increased to 10% when as the road ‘switched-back’ to climb the mountain contours toward the summit. I stayed in the gear next to my lowest using the lowest for the switchbacks. I combined that routine with a determined effort to relax, pedal and let the bike do the work. The higher I climbed my surroundings became snowier and more beautiful. I adapted to this continuous climb and simply enjoyed the view.

2 miles from the summit the gradient became too steep for me to continue cycling.

It was here that I stopped and took the above photograph to be amazed by both the distance I had covered and the beautiful scenery surrounding me.

From here I pushed my bike for 1/2 mile, stopped to rest, changed position from one side of the bike to the other then pushed onwards and upwards for another 1/2 mile to do the same again.

Eventually the summit appeared in front of me. I had ‘Made it!

A french tourist kindly took my photograph. By now the temperature was a chilly 3 degrees and as the building in front of me was a cafe I went inside to get warm, eat my Kit-Kat and enjoy a drink of lemon tea.

The road I had climbed was flanked by a footpath used for centuries by traders, soldiers and pilgrims going to and from Italy. It is known as the ‘Valley of Death’ due to the numbers of lives lost along its route and is the reason for the breed of dog known as the Great Saint Bernard being used to rescue people in difficulty.

I brought a ‘Saint Bernard Dog’ fridge magnet as a keep-sake then began a descent of the ‘Pass’ from Switzerland into Italy.

Wow, what a descent. I coasted downhill for 25 miles into the Aosta Valley for my next overnight stay.

On the outskirts of Aosta I looked back to the snow capped Alps.

From here my route followed vast expanses of irrigated rice fields literally buzzing with midges and ouch, most of them bit me.

The remaining 10 days of my journey brought rising temperatures and increasing levels of humidity. I decided that early morning starts and mid-day finishes would enable me to cover my daily distances in greater comfort.

Those early starts were 7am local time yet my mind and body clock was still in the UK timezone, an hour earlier. After several days of early starts my tiredness combined with heat, humidity, insect bites and the effort of cycling 60 miles a day caught up with me. I needed a rest.

The next day I put my bicycle on a train to Pisa. The chap sitting next to me was called Beau-Ba whose genuine happiness seemed at odds with his living situation. 

I asked about his French sounding name. Beau-Ba told me his home is in Senegal which used to be a French colony. He came to Italy 5 years ago and earns a living by selling sunglasses and plastic selfie-sticks, or by undertaking any manual labour that he can find such as labouring, gardening, car cleaning or washing up in restaurant kitchens. He sends whatever money he has left after living expenses back to family members in Senegal.

Beau-Ba hopes Italy will give him official papers to legally stay here but knows that officials are only interested in sending him back to Senegal. He complained to me about this injustice as the first economic migrants of modern times were Italians. Thousands went to seek work in the USA to do what he is doing – surviving and sending money home to support family members.

When the train ticket inspector entered our carriage Beau-Ba said he would be told to leave the train at the next station – adding this always happens as he doesn’t have a railway ticket. He simply gets on the next train until he reaches his destination, Pisa.

By the time the ticket inspector reached us our train had arrived in Pisa. As predicted the ticket inspector told Beau-Ba to get off and he happily obliged.

My reason for visiting here was to revisit the famous leaning bell tower.

On my first visit I was roughly 8 years old and remember climbing around the towers outer rings.

Today many people were striking a pose for cameras, giving the impression they were pushing the tower over or holding it up.

From here it was a short 10 mile cycle ride to Lucca where joy-oh-joy, my accommodation had a washing machine in the bathroom; despite hand washing my clothes at the end of each day, you can’t beat a thorough machine wash. Everything I had went into the washing machine and then hung on the line to air and dry. 2 hours later all my clothes were clean and refreshed.

To keep my bike going I maintained my tyre pressures, cleaned the chain, jockey wheels and cogs every evening and applied dry lube on alternate days. Luckily I didn’t suffer any punctures and didn’t break any more spokes. The gorilla tape held the broken spoke and mudguard in place.

My route through Italy was slow; I cycled for miles between fields on dirt tracks covered with a top layer of stone. Where tarmac was present, the surface was soft and frequently deformed by the heat.

For safety reasons I usually cycle about a meter from the kerb , especially when the roadside is in a poor state of repair. Some roads such as the one shown on the right, were so badly deformed that the humps and ruts simply had to be cycled over.

The motorists in Italy were less tolerant towards me than those in Switzerland and France, with many of them passing so close it seemed they were driving as though I was not on the road. Added to this they love the sound of their car horns. What a shame their car horns cannot be swopped with cow bells.

On a more positive note the quality of my overnight accommodation was much better since giving up on Airbnb.

I stayed overnight in small guest houses of old towns that included Berceto, Lucca, San Miniato, Siena and as pictured opposite, Radicofani. All of them were affordable, clean, comfortable, equipped with free wifi and had air-conditioning.

Each guest house left an ample breakfast out for my early morning starts. Evening meals were taken at local reasonably priced restaurants where I would sit at an outdoor table and enjoy Spaghetti, Pizza and a variety of gelato ice creams.

On my last day of cycling I left Radicofani expecting poor road conditions only to discover an excellent cycling road that had been laid over a former railway track that took me all the way to the River Tiber into Rome before threading its way to the Vatican.

By midday I had arrived at my destination, the Basilica of St Peters in Rome.

Was I pleased to arrive – YES.

Would I do it again – NO,

Was this the best cycle ride ever – DEFINITELY !

I had started from Canterbury on Thursday 6th June 2019 and arrived in Rome on Wednesday 25th June, 19 days later. I had cycled 1,016 miles and used 2 cycling rest days to travel a further 102 miles by train = 1,800km.

There is an overarching truth from past travellers of the Via Francigena: this route is about the journey not the destination.

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My GPS tracked route by train from Home to Canterbury, the bicycle ride to Rome and the flight back to London

Cycling Coast to Coast next to Vallum Antonini

Coast to Coast routes are generally well known, extensively documented and extremely popular amongst walkers and cyclists alike. Yet few people have ever heard of the Roman Emperor Antoninus or the existence of  ‘Vallum Antonini’.

Emperor Antoninus succeeded Hadrian and advanced north of Hadrian’s wall to build his own across the narrowest part of Scotland from the Firth of Clyde to the Firth of Forth. This 112 mile adventure retraced it by cycling along sections of national cycling routes 7, 754, 76 and 1; cycling 40 miles each day for 3 days.

112 miles

‘Firth’ is a Scottish term for where the sea meets a river. ‘Vallum’ is a latin word for an earth embankment. As Emperor Antoninus was responsible for constructing the earth embankment between the Firth (the river) of Clyde to the Firth (the river) of Forth, his wall was named Vallum Antonine.

Golf club 2.jpg

Travelling from Harlech on the 08:20 train I arrived in the harbour town of Troon at 6pm and cycled past the famous Royal Troon golf course. Every 7 years the course plays host to the British Open Championship and has carried the footsteps of world famous golfers  such as Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and  Greg Norman completing for the prized ‘Claret Jug’.

Day 1: Tuesday September 10th

After spending most of yesterday sitting inside trains todays bicycle ride gave me some much needed exercise. Leaving Troon I passed a grand looking house called Piersland once owned by the Johnny Walker scotch dynasty and now provides accommodation for golfers.

Today was a gentle 43 mile journey along national cycle route 7. Much of the route uses the A737 which was virtually traffic free. Most traffic now uses the M77 that goes alongside it to Glasgow.

Antonines wall begins on the river Clyde but I missed a turning to the river and descended through a busy ‘cycling prohibited’ tunnel underneath it. Being in the wrong place can be extremely motivating. I peddled through and out of danger at a speed that would have impressed Geriant Thomas.

Emerging at the Riverside museum I saw the Flying Scot:

IMG_0630.jpgFlying Scot describes so much greatness. Everyone knows the Flying Scotsman steam train and during my childhood the racing car driver Jackie Steward was known as the Flying Scot.

Back in the 1920s’ Flying Scot bicycles were made for racing, touring or just jogging along. Museum information boards state these were the bicycles of choice for people living in Scotland.

I loved looking at these exhibits and despite modern day engineering improvements to drive trains, wheel sets and braking systems, todays bikes look much the same as these.

Day 2: Wednesday September 12th 

IMG_0649Today began with a visit to see roman artefacts taken from Antonines wall and displayed in the Hunterian museum, then enjoyed a coffee and light snack in Glasgows beautiful Botanical gardens.

Suitably fuelled I made my way to NCR 754 to my next overnight stay in Grangemouth via the Glasgow Necropolis, where I saw William Millers headstone. He wrote “Wee Willie Winkie”. As a child his nursery rhyme would signal my bed-time.

For cycling storyOn the outskirts of Glasgow my first sighting of the famous Antonines Wall would have been ignored if it wasn’t for a tourist information sign saying what was in front of me.

For the next 10 miles I had a lovely bicycle ride along the freshly tarmaced tow path of the Forth and Clyde canal past the Falkirk wheel to reach the Kelpies. Gosh, what a wonderful, memorable sight:

kelpies.jpg

Day 3: Thursday September 13th 

Todays ride took me along NCR 76 on a pavement past the massive BP oil refinery at Grangemouth. Whilst the path segregated me from an endless procession of oil tankers their noise and fumes were less than pleasant.

Screen Shot 2018-09-16 at 11.48.20.pngAfter a few miles I reached Borrowstounness (known as Bo’ness)  where I followed a quieter road to a place called Carriden to visit a stone denoting the eastern end of Antonines wall.

Different writers offer their own opinion for Antonine building his wall. These range from him seeking popularity in Rome to reports of the Scottish Caledonian tribes fearing the wall was a staging post for the Romans to advance into the Highlands. Other writers say the wall was built to protect roman interests south of the wall –  the mineral rich land they occupied and food they possessed. I guess the actual reason is a mixture of all of these explanations.

Because the Antonine wall was a simply a ditch and high bank, much of it has eroded away or been built over by canal, road and railway builders wishing to link the Clyde at Glasgow with the Forth and Edinburgh.

Its a shame Hadrian didn’t build his stone wall here. Antonines boundary is shorter in length and sea links from the Forth of Clyde and Forth of Firth would have supported  Roman occupation in Britain.

Cycling further along NCR 76 I reached Blackness on the south shore of the Firth of Forth then followed signage taking me through a wooded area to emerge some 3 miles later at the Forth Bridges:

The Forth Road Bridge cycling lane, like the pedestrian path, was completely empty and the road was used by the very occasional bus. Since the adjoining Queens Bridge opened last year (pictured upper right) very few vehicles use the Road Bridge.  3The Forth Rail Bridge is the most impressive bridge of them all. The saying ‘Painting the Forth Bridge’  is from an era when painters starting at one end would take so long to reach the other side that it would be time to start at the beginning again. I now fully understand why.  Its massive !

From here my cycle ride  followed NCR 1 along very quiet side streets and a former railway into the centre of Edinburgh. After booking into my overnight accommodation I had time for sightseeing. A visit to the Scottish Parliament where I sat inside the visitors area and listened to a debate before walking up the Royal Mile to buy a bottle of Scotch.

Antonines route is an ideal short cycling tour, more so for the sights I saw rather than the wall itself.  Nevertheless  ‘All roads lead to Rome’ and with one last big ride left in me, I’m making plans for 2019 to cycle from Canterbury to the Eternal City following the Pilgrims Route. A route that absolves all sins ……

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The Harbingers of a Spring Cycling Holiday

The return of swallows used to herald the end of winter. Then a street full of cats arrived and all the swallows disappeared. These days my harbingers of spring are glimpses of snowdrops, tulips, hyacinths and daffodils that bring with them longer daylight hours, warmer cycling weather and hurray, the freedom that accompanies retirement to take holidays where and whenever.

I love flowers and wanted to see the tulips of Amsterdam.  When speaking to others I was told the tranquillity of flower adorned canals has been replaced by stag and hen parties, red light activities and cannabis cafés. No thank you, I don’t want any of that nonsense.

Could Shrewsbury be a safer alternative?  Its’ parks and gardens are spectacular and 3 days cycling would include a tour of beautiful Shropshire…but umm, having just endured 4 months of cold winter weather made worse by a real battering from storm Emma, ‘Get me out of here’  was firmly fixed in my mind.

Towards the end of March a regional television programme showed the dutch bulb fields. So some weeks later ……….

The big day arrived !

My train arrived in Newcastle-upon-Tyne central station at 14:45 leaving a short and speedy 10 mile bicycle ride to the 5pm overnight DFDS ferry bound for Holland. With a  ‘phew, puff and pant’  I arrived in plenty of time for boarding.

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£260 brought a return ticket in cabin accommodation with evening meals and breakfasts. The last time I used a DFDS ferry was between Newhaven and Dieppe back in 2012. The cost of that crossing was £25 so todays ticket was unexpectedly expensive. The ticket issued was a bar-coded boarding card that detailed my cabin number.

I was reminded to keep the card safe as it was needed to open my cabin door in a similar way to the plastic swipe cards that hotels use. The card would also be scanned to confirm my evening meal and breakfast was paid for.

Wheeling Bessie my bike into the car deck of ‘Sailing Ship (SS) King Seaways’  I wrapped a krypton cable around both wheels and frame, securing it with a gold standard ‘D’lock that a thief would need a diamond tipped power tool to cut through….my job for tonight is to remember where the key is.

Shortly afterwards a couple from Glasgow arrived on a Cannondale tandem and a deck-hand strapped the bikes together. He explained this was standard working practice to prevent them being damaged in rough seas or causing damage on the car deck. I couldn’t be more satisfied that my Bessie was both safe and secure.

IMG_0276I then found my en-suite sea view cabin which I found to be clean, comfortable and warm with ample space for yours truly.

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IMG_0281After unpacking my belongings I went on deck and watched as we gently cruised from the mouth of the river Tyne and into the North Sea. Throughout the crossing the sea was calm and the ship simply glided across the water.

My evening meal was lovely and ended in time to visit the on-board cinema where the ticket kiosk was being manned by the deck-hand who had earlier secured my bicycle. There were three films being screened and I asked which one he thought was the best then paid for a ticket to watch the  ‘Sinking of the Cruise Ship Oceanos’. 

At the end of the film I plotted a route from my cabin to the nearest lifeboat then went to bed for sweet dreams ?….. not after that film – I woke up at 2:30am.

Giving DFDS £260 for a return ticket began to play on my mind. With nothing to see from the sea view window I made a cup of tea and used my smartphone to check how far we had sailed.

Position enroute to Holland at 2:30am

My screensaver image shows SS King Seaways (in blue) parallel to Manchester and two thirds of the way to Holland travelling at 18knots/20 mph.

20 mph multiplied by the 13 hours it takes to sail between Newcastle and Holland informed me that the travel distance is 260 miles. For the 2nd time today the number 260 had entered into my life – how’s that for serendipity?

Dunking a ginger snap into my tea cup it dawned on me that £260 for a sea view cabin, evening and breakfast meals in each direction was only costing 50p a mile.  ‘Mustn’t grumble’ came to mind.

Suitably reassured the £260 return ticket was a bargain not a rip-off, I went back to bed with a happy head to contemplate why is Holland is referred to as the Netherlands and why the good people of Holland are ‘Dutch’.

I assume Holland is an area of the Netherlands in the same way as Wales is an area of Britain, but why their people are Dutch and not Hollandish or Netherlanders remained a puzzle as I fell asleep…..

Safely ashore

I woke at 7am, showered then went to the buffet restaurant for a hearty breakfast and filled my thermos flask with coffee that I took away with a ham & cheese role for lunch.

When the public address system announced we were docking at IJmuiden (pronounced as ‘E-moy-den’)  I made my way down to the car deck, freed my bicycle and disembarked safely ashore.

The weather was warm and sunny with no winds. My route took me to and through the town of Haarlem for an effortlessly enjoyable bicycle ride along the ‘Bollenstreek’ (flower route) on dedicated cycle paths to the next town, Leiden.

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The flower route lived up to its name. I haven’t seen such a crop of flowers since my school day Saturday job in the fields of ‘Pasture Croft Nursery’ near Henley-in-Arden, Warwickshire.

In those days flowers held a characteristic scent. We now have odourless blooms that are chemically treated to last longer…..umm, perhaps I should put some of those chemicals into my coffee.

Today I was able to enjoy a kaleidoscope of different coloured and varieties of tulips, hyacinths and daffodils. This was aromatherapy at its very best; an experience that could not be shared with the passengers of passing tourist coaches.

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We don’t grow tulips at home as the bulbs could poison our dogs, so it was great to see so many of them here. I had thought the tulip came from Holland until a chap I met told me the bulbs originated in Turkey where the tulip is its national flower in the same way as the daffodil is associated with Wales.

He went on to explain the tulip originated from China and was spread by birds, bees and wind to the mountains of Iraq, Iran and Syria before making its way to Turkey where it was cultivated. Fancy that, you learn something new every day.

I stopped for lunch alongside the flower strewn banks of the Oude Rijn (the old Rhine) at Leiden. Before the days of photography artists such as Monet (Water Leidenlilies) & Van Gogh (Sunflowers ) painted pictures of flowers. Another famous artist, Rembrandt van Rijn, was born here in Leiden.The surname Van Rijn means ‘Of the Rhine’  and despite Rembrandt being born in the centre of flowerpot land his fame came from painting portraits of people. I have seen one of his masterpieces at Penrhyn Castle in Bangor.

The journey home

Arriving back at the DFDS port in IJmuiden for my journey home the return sea crossing was as calm as a mill-pond. After my evening meal and a spot of duty free shopping I went on deck to watch the sun settling on a marvellous day out.

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IMG_0273Arriving back at the Port of Tyne for a more leisurely cycle ride back to Newcastle ‘Network rail’  delayed the departure of my train by 15 minutes

Whilst 15 minutes seems inconsequential the delay resulted in me missing a connecting train from Manchester to Shrewsbury and a further connection home, groan.

Despite this ‘ sting in the tail’ I really enjoyed my little adventure and recommend the Bollenstreek route to all cyclists seeking a flower powered holiday.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cycling from Shrewsbury to Blackpool for the British Heart Foundation

Preparation

I registered to join this years event some months ago and the British Heart Foundation (BHF) website gave me access to invaluable training advice that I followed to improve my strength and stamina for the bike ride.

A few weeks before setting off a BHF email then gave a timely reminder of my responsibility to check the bicycle was suitably equipped for cycling on a public road at night. The message arrived on a rainy day and being stuck for something to do……

Browsing the internet for guidance a search engine took me to Cycling UKs information page that explains what the law requires. My front and rear lights were legally compliant but not the pedals; regulations require a set of four reflectors coloured amber and marked BS 6102/2, positioned so that one reflector is plainly visible to the front and another to the rear of each pedal.

Cycling UK point out that although the likelihood of being challenged for not having pedal reflectors is low, the absence of reflectors may be regarded as contributory negligence should an accident occur. So 2 clicks later I sourced two pairs of British Standard pedal reflectors that arrived by pony express the following day. 10 minutes later they were in place.

Looking proudly at my handiwork a passing glance at the tyres sent a shiver down my my spine. The treads were wearing thin and indentation marks on the sidewalls had to be a gypsies warning that bad things could happen. Would I really want to fix punctures during a midnight cycle ride in October? No thank you I would not. As for the mudguards  ‘decidedly shabby‘ came to mind…..umm, the growing shopping list could cost a few quid. And it did.

In addition to buying a new set of clincher tyres I also ordered the manufacturers inner tubes that have greater substance than cheap spares. Inflating them to be suitably reassured I wasn’t starting with a leaky piece of rubber, I let the air out and on they went. As for the new tyres – gosh, the beading was really, really tough. Although blessed with strong grip strength my thumbs ached from the force needed to work them into the rims.

After attaching my new mudguards I refitted the wheels and went for a bicycle ride. Beneath the front mudguard its turning tyre repeatedly wobbled right of centre. Groan…..mauling the tyre over the rim must have bent the wheel.

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My new spoke key is now kept in a safe place….I just have to remember where 

Returning home I turned my bicycle upside down to investigate. The wheel was centred and secure but several spokes were slack. Could I find my spoke key ?  No chance, I had to buy another.

Aided by a neighbour whose working life had involved the black art of wheel truing (straightening), my wheel wobble wobbled away for a safer rolling bike.

After stress testing the spokes off I went for a couple of hours cycling and wow, what a difference. The steering was a seamless extension to my arms, speed an extension to leg movement and as for comfort, I was at one with my bike – perfectly balanced.

The ride: Saturday 7th October

Today began at 6:30am with a dog walk and breakfast, then the 08:20 train from Harlech to Shrewsbury from where I would cycle to Runcorn, a distance of roughly 50 miles. This is the same mileage as this evenings cycle ride from Manchester to Blackpool for the Heart Foundation.

My ability to undertake these additional miles had been made possible by following the BHF pre-ride training plan. Some weeks before this evenings event  I became aware that a 50 mile bicycle ride was well within my comfort zone. ‘Going those extra miles’ would leave my conscience clear that those sponsoring me were not being taken advantage of.

If I wasn’t spoilt by the beauty of living in Harlech I would probably live in Shrewsbury, the county town of Shropshire, where there is much to appreciate:

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Bessie the Bike under Quantum Leap

  • Quantum Leap commemorates Charles Darwin who was born here.
  • Shrewsbury’s folk festival is visited by thousands and countless other people listen on-line to its streamed performances

AND………..

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This haven of self-indulgence bakes my favourite strawberry and cream cake sliced and sold in a more than generous portion size…….Yummy !

The streets of Shrewsbury are adorned with flowers and the place is well known for staging the world’s longest running annual horticultural event, due in no small measure to the late Percy Thrower who worked as the parks superintendent

When we married and brought our first home we watched Percy on the television programme ‘Gardeners’ World’ and learn’t how to grow fruit and vegetables. With todays need for food banks I wonder if updated guidance could help some of the less fortunate to grow and then cook their own nutritional meals.

On the outskirts of Shrewsbury I cycled through the village of Merrington where Percy OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAbuilt his own house. Called ‘The Magnolias’ it sat in a 2 acre plot that was a location for Gardeners’ World.

Just before setting out on this trip I discovered that Percys’ house and garden no longer exists. I did pass a social housing development called  ‘The Magnolias’ and a little  further along the road a street sign bears his name.

Shrewsbury to Manchester

My 75 mile route from Shrewsbury to Manchester

For the next 6 hours it poured with rain. I was so pleased to have brought my waterproofs: a rain hat, sealskin gloves,  overshoes and over-trousers. As visibility was poor I turned on a very high intensity rear light as a warning to approaching motorists.

Arriving in Runcorn I unclipped my pannier and handlebar bags and left them at a hotel before continuing to the BHF starting point at the Trafford centre on the outskirts of Manchester.

With less weight it took just 2 hrs to cycle the remaining 25 miles. The rain stopped.

There is no shortage of food outlets at the Trafford centre. With an hour to go before the ride I enjoyed  some warm food and brought additional servings of coffee that I poured into my Stanley Thermos flask for the night ahead.

According to the British Heart Foundation over 760 people registered for this years event. I am unsure what the collective noun is for people on pedal bikes. Could it be  a ‘Café of cyclists’  or is it a  ‘Herd’ ?

Some folks were just like me, an ordinary leisure cyclist supporting a great cause. Others were club cyclists, others were groups of friends. This is the 3rd time I have taken part.

On my first ride in 2013 I arrived before anyone else and became the first cyclist in first batch of riders to be sent off. Despite the official route being well signed I took the wrong turning off a roundabout and several cyclists followed. A marshal came to our rescue.

Two years later I drove to Blackpool where transport took our ‘herd ‘ to the starting point in Manchester. There was no way I wanted to be first on our coach and what a blunder that decision turned out to be. Being last in my bicycle was first out.

How I hate being first and whether cycling or in life first place is a very bad place. When you are 1st things can only get worse. A dozen or so cyclists assumed I knew where to go and followed me out of the car park and around the Trafford Centre perimeter to the starting point in the car park that we had set out from.

Tonight at the stroke of midnight we all set off towards Blackpool. Being with others acted as a motivation booster. I quickly settled into a comfortable cadence that was occasionally interrupted to stop at red traffic lights. Within the first few miles several cyclists had pulled off the road and onto the pavement to repair punctures. I was so pleased not to be amongst them.

BHF rides are exceptionally well organised. We all stopped for refreshments at 25 miles.  Trestle tables were staffed by hard working volunteers offering fruit, cake, hot soup and bread rolls. I drank water, ate couple of oranges and set off with an energy bar.

Manchester to Blackpool

My 50 mile route from Manchester to Blackpool

During the cycle route it is surprising the number of people that clap and shout encouraging words to the passing riders. Many are just returning from wherever they have been on their night out. One man gave me £10. If he is reading this, yes, I did hand it over to the the BHF and thank you again for your unexpected donation.

This evening I was chatting to a chap who was doing his first midnight ride. He was worried about falling asleep whilst cycling. I’ve known of people falling asleep when driving, but is it possible when cycling? Along the ride an emergency ambulance passed by, so perhaps it is.

Arriving in Blackpool its world famous illuminations twinkle to feed cyclists with that final boost of enthusiasm to cycle along the golden mile and arrive at the Tower Ballroom and its dazzling finishing line. ‘Yep’, it started to rain again but hey-ho who cares.

Supporters cheered every cyclist as we received a BHF finishers medal – the icing on top of a truely wonderful and worthwhile event.

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Data displayed on my Garmin at the finishing line

Since leaving Shrewsbury I had cycled 125 miles. It had taken me 13½ hrs at an average speed of 9¾ mph.

The time was nearly 6:30am, I had been awake for 24 hours and reached the finishing line before 2 thirds of the other entrants

Not bad for a pensioner eh !

 

After returning to Manchester I cycled to a nearby railway station and caught a train to Runcorn leaving me with a short cycle ride to the hotel I had booked into the previous  evening. After much needed shower I retired to bed having now been awake for 30 hrs.

Thank you to all those who have sponsored this years night ride and to the BHF team that made it such a success.

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National Cycle Route 72 across Britain

Tuesday 4th July

Last year I cycled its length. This bicycle ride crosses Britain. My starting point overlooked the Irish Sea close to the village of Anthorn whose radio station signal regulates the UKs automated clocks.

AnthornFrom here I headed north to Bowness-on-Solway and reached the western end of Hadrian’s Wall from where I followed NCR 72 into Carlisle. At this point I have to say a big thank you to Sustrans whose signage ensured busy roads were avoided in favour of quiet safe lanes with countless interesting sights.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA year ago I had cycled through Carlisle en-route to John O’Groats and regretted being unable to spare the time to stop. So I spent the remainder of today sight-seeing.

Carlisle is a busy place with its landmark castle. I managed to find the auction room owned by Bargain Hunt expert Paul Laidlaw.

Wednesday 5th July

I left my B&B without buying the 50 pence breakfast being sold for £5 then hunger took over. The aroma of a bacon butty led me by the nose into a nearby by café.

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Suitably fuelled I set off along NCR 72. My route took me to a pedestrian crossing that bridged the River Eden. It was closed for safety reasons and the diversion took me into parkland.

The diversionary path was an easier, shorter and safer route. I have now emailed Sustrans to request the present NCR 72 signage is updated for cyclists to follow this diversion.

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The parkland route opened onto a quiet country lane that took me out of Carlisle and over the M6 motorway.

I regularly drove along this motorway leaving home at 5am in the morning to work in either Gateshead or Glasgow. Happy days? – no.

Having escaped Carlisle and the unhappy reminder of motorway life the following 2 days of cycling were to be the very best I have ever experienced; NCR 72 weaves through gorgeous villages and places of historic interest including the ancient Roman Fort of Birdoswald where I photographed Hadrian’s Wall:

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I wrongly assumed Hadrian’s Wall was built as a border to Scotland. Todays visit informed me that Walls were the Roman empires’ practice of ‘defence before expansion’. Some years later they advanced into central Scotland where the little known Antonines Wall was built. They eventually retreated back to Hadrians Wall, the Roman empires’ boundary in Britain.

Several places displayed road signs that used the county name of Cumberland. That evening my cousin Kenneth explained that some years ago the county merged with Westmoreland and gave rise to the county now referred to as Cumbria.

My route from Birdoswald took me to Haltwistle, the geographical centre of Britain where I stopped to visit the Mr George Museum of Time.

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Diana the owner is the daughter of George who passed away some years ago. She tells me he was a keen cyclist and cycling club member of a local group. He was also a watch and clock repairer. Diana served her apprenticeship under his guidance and continues to repair time pieces in the premises.

Many museums are boring. This one is fasinating. Display cabinets contained wrist watches, mantel, travel and alarm clocks. Some were like the ones I previously owned. The relaxing sound of wall and cuckoo clocks happily ticked away.

One of the rooms is for children to learn about and draw pictures of clocks and Diana is an accomplished authoress whose illustrated childrens books form a series of ‘Mr George’ stories. The stories tell of the adventures he has with his daughter ‘Dinah’ as they travel round Northumberland repairing clocks.

This was a wonderful visit and whilst entry is free of charge I was pleased to make a charitable donation to support her great work.

NCR 72 took me over the Northumberland moor on a traffic free road with fabulous views:

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From here my journey to Hexham went over a bridge that crossed the Tyne. The view was amazing and equalled, if not bettered my cycle ride alongside the Rhine:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI stayed overnight in Hexham and met with cousin Kenneth who told me about the 7 bridges that cross the Tyne in Newcastle.  I was keen to see the Millennium bridge being raised and he used his smart phone to find out what time I had to be there.

Thursday 6th July

Leaving Hexham my route followed a former railway track where I saw the house where George Stevenson was born.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI used to confuse George with his son Robert. Robert designed the ‘Rocket’ steam train; George was famous for inventing the ‘Geordie’ coal miners safety lamp.

Then onwards to Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Newcastle has its fair share of bridges. Within the space of 3 miles I counted 7 of them; some were for trains, some for vehicles, some for pedestrians.

Top left is the most iconic of Newcastles 7 bridges, the Tyne Bridge. Its builders went on to construct the Forth Road and Sydney Harbour Bridge.

The Swing Bridge ( top right) was constructed to expand trade by opening the upper reaches of the Tyne to larger sea vessels; under the photo of the Swing bridge is the ‘High Bridge’. Vehicles drive through its core and trains on the top.

From left to right the 4 bottom photos show the QE II Bridge that carries the Metro light railway, then the King Edward Bridge for trains only. I travelled over it on the way home. Next is the concrete Redheugh bridge that is used by motorists  getting to and from Newcastle and Gateshead. The last photo is the Millennium Bridge.

The Newcastle Millennium Bridge is the newest. It was officially opened in 2001 by HM the Queen to mark her diamond jubilee celebrations. Having been told by cousin Kenneth that the bridge would open at noon, I arrived in time to capture that moment.

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As the bridge was opening the person next to me said that anything dropped on the deck automatically rolls into special traps at each end of the bridge – wow, how clever.

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NCR 72 then follows the quayside past a cafe and bicycle workshop called the ‘Hub’, then inland to pass the Swan Hunter shipbuilders, then the ferry terminal linking Newcastle with Amsterdam. The end of NCR 72 was reached a mile or so later at the mouth of the Tyne.

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Many cyclists wheeled their bikes onto the beach and undertook the ceremonial ‘end of journey‘ dipping of tyres into the sea. Not for me. I decided to go the extra mile and cycled to the Rendezvous cafe in Whitley Bay for my just desert –  yummy !

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cycling through forgotten Britain: the Grand Union Canal

Background

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Tuesday January 17th 2017 was a notable date. Prime Minister Theresa May delivered a speech that was greater in importance than that of any other politician during my lifetime. Whilst she explained the guiding principles to negotiate Great Britains departure from the European Union I completed this canal scene jigsaw of the ‘Grand Union’.

After spending 3 weeks studying, sorting and assembling 1000 individual pieces of the jigsaw that my wife brought me for Christmas, I became suitably motivated to cycle alongside the Grand Union and experience the sights that were patiently joined together on our dining room table.

Preparation

I prepare for cycling holidays in the same way as putting together a jigsaw puzzle, starting with the outline followed by inner detail.

The  ‘Grand Union’ is Britains’ longest canal stretching 137 miles from the great City of Birmingham to the Capital City of London. And I could think of no other part of Britain where it is possible to cycle 137 miles and completely avoid steep hills or the dangers of motor vehicles, parked cars, bus lanes, traffic lights and T junctions. It sounds too good to be true and made me wonder if it was legal.

An internet search revealed that a permit used to be required to cycle alongside canals. This is no longer the case. These days the  ‘Canal and River Trust’ simply asks cyclists to watch for walkers as pedestrians take priority over cyclists on canalside paths. Suitably reassured the route is lawful I looked forward to the superbness of a safe, picturesque, unhurried and relaxed bicycle ride to London.

It would be misleading to suggest that cycling alongside a canal is completely risk free; internet stories report an increased incidence of tyres being punctured by thorns, sharp stone or broken glass. Cyclists risk injury from hitting their head on low bridges or branches from trees and being next to the waters edge risks falling in. An uneven terrain causes a bumpy ride.

Road maps do not contain the detail required to plan a canal route. Thankfully inland waterway publications do and this story is dedicated to my neighbours Roy and Pat who lived on the canal network and shared their literature of the Grand Union with me and also Tony & Sarah who kindly brought me a ‘Collins waterway guide‘ (ISBN 978-0-00-814652-8) and ‘Pearsons companion for the River Thames‘ (ISBN 978-0-9562777-63); these publications detailed the route to take, interesting places to look out for and the mileage involved:

  1. Birmingham to Brentford via Napton Junction = 137 miles
  2. From Brentford the River Thames leads to Oxford = 78 miles
  3. Taking the Oxford canal back to Napton Junction = 50 miles

The ‘Canal and River Trust’  (CRT) provide a free on-line map of every canal in the UK showing walking routes and where is it possible to cycle. If a canal walking or cycling holiday appeals to you, click on this link then type the name of the canal that you want to travel alongside, press your shift key and away you go: https://canalrivertrust.org.uk/enjoy-the-waterways/canal-and-river-network

Mountain bikes with wide tyres and suspension forks are more suited to the uneven and puncture risk terrain of canal-side pathways. For this reason my light touring bicycle was slightly modified to be fit for purpose:

  • By swapping its seat stem with a long travel suspension seat post the uncomfortable jolts of an uneven terrain would feel less severe.

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  • If I fell into the canal my ‘clip in’ pedals could anchor me underwater. So I changed them for double sided platforms; one side has a ‘clip in’ mechanism for road use, the other is a flat platform that shoes simply rest on. If I fell into the canal this will reduce the risk of being trapped underwater.
  • I carry an aerosol ‘instant puncture repair‘ canister plus two spare inner-tubes to deal with any punctures.

Getting there

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The compartment door closed, a buzzer sounded and the Hogwarts express pulled away from platform 9¾ at Harlech railway station. Apart from Hagrid the train manager asking to inspect my travel ticket I enjoyed an uninterrupted journey all the way to the great City of Birmingham, where I lived and worked for 50 years.

Back in the 1800s’ Birmingham metal and leather trades required coal to produce steam that powered the machines used in factories during the industrial revolution. A wagon and horses owned by transport hauliers would move coal along poorly maintained cart tracks from ‘Pit to factory’.

screen-shot-2017-01-06-at-18-47-11One of the haulage companies called ‘Pickfords’ still exists today. When the demand for coal became greater than a wagon and horse could carry, canals were built.

The canal engineer responsible for Britains canal system was James Brindley. His system linked coal fields with industrial cities, and those cities with four great rivers; the Trent that goes to Hull,  Mersey to Liverpool , Severn to Bristol and Thames to London. These seaport cities provide a gateway for exports and imports to and from the continents of Europe, Africa, America and Asia.

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A canal barge (narrow boat) pulled by a single horse could carry thirty tons of coal at a time, more than ten times the amount that was possible by road. This huge increase in volume reduced the transportation price of coal by nearly two-thirds and the output from Birminghams metalwork industry that included brass fittings, machine parts, buttons, pen nibs, nails, coins, jewellery, guns and ammunition flourished. Coal also had other uses. By burning it in enclosed ovens, gas was produced for cooking and lighting.

My route followed a waterway built for a now vanished form of commercial transport, the working narrow boat.

Day 1: Sunday May 14th

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Having sat inside a railway carriage for 4 hours from Harlech the opportunity to walk was welcomed. So I wheeled Bessie my bicycle out of Birmingham Central Station then through the city centre into Gas Street, the 1st street in the city to have gas lights and down the canal basin for the start my bicycle ride.

Whilst fully expecting the canal side path to be in a poor state of repair I was surprised and delighted to be on a really decent surface. Within 10 minutes I was cycling through a tunnel underneath the long-since closed Curzon Street Railway Station and wondered why the term ‘going through a tunnel’ is not applied to a bridge, where we say ‘going under a bridge’. I think this is because a tunnel is a tube that cannot be cycled under…..umm, the strange thoughts of a cyclist.

Curzon Street used to be the Birmingham terminus for trains from London and there is talk that the station may reopen for trains using the HS2 line from the capital – numbered 2 because it is the second high speed rail line in Britain; Eurostar which connects London with France and Brussels in Belgium is HS1.

A Dutch consultancy firm is drawing up proposals for a new national cycleway that will shadow the HS2 railway from London to Birmingham and the North. Designers aim to stay within 3 miles of HS2 and as most of  railway will run through the countryside, I guess that sections of this proposed new cycleway is likely to follow existing trails.

Whilst looking forward to those plans becoming a reality I was now cycling with the sound of the city above me and its underworld of this tranquil canal stretching out into the distance.

I Screen Shot 2017-03-28 at 18.56.18stopped at Proof House junction to take a photograph of ‘Typhoo’ wharf. Until reading about the Grand Union I was unaware that TyPhoo Tea had been a Birmingham based business. Sea voyages imported tea leafs from China or India to Londons docks that were loaded into narrow boats that travelled here.

Typhoo was our cup of tea. I remember the slogan: ‘You only get an ‘OO’ with Typhoo’ and that each box of tea contained a picture card which would form part of a set you could redeem for a pen, an inducement for brand loyalty and sales.

Proof house junction takes its name from the  ‘Birmingham Gun Barrel Proof House’ where gun manufacturers comply with a legal requirement for weapons to be tested before use. TOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAhe test involves an inspection of the gun that is fired with a higher pressure going through the barrel than normally shot. Weaponry that pass the firing test are certified with a die stamp. The testing process destroys substandard weapons.

Looking at the entrance gate I wondered how many killing machines had been secretly transported along the canal network to and from this place, hidden from public gaze.Yet lots of Birmingham factories made weapons and ammunition, including those with an historic connection to cycling:screen-shot-2017-02-24-at-23-54-48

  • Kynoch’s in Witton, who became part of Imperial Metal Industries where my late Uncles wife Winnie worked as a supervisor.
  • Reynolds on Shaftmore Lane in Hall Green. They once held government contracts to manufacture tubing for flame throwers and bazookas. Reynolds now make tubing for bicycle frames. Mine is made with Reynolds 853 grade tubing.
  • The British Small Arms (BSA) factory next to the Grand Union Canal in Small Health. BSA craftsmanship made military  bicycles for both the territorial army (WW1) and parachute regiment (WW11).

BSA bicycles were transported by canal from Small Heath to an army ordinance store at Weedon Bec from where they would be distributed to troops.

Just beyond Small Heath the nicely surfaced canal side path tapered into a soil track that was originally used by horses to pull barges. One end of a rope was tied to the horses collar and the other to the barge:

  1. The horse was led in front of the barge until the rope was at full stretch.
  2. The rope acts in a similar way to a stretched rubber band that wants to return to its original position. Energy is transferred to the objects at both ends of the rope.
  3. The end with least staying power moves inward to allow the rope to recoil.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
  4. Because water offers very little resistance to objects floating along its surface, the barge moves towards the horse.
  5. The horse takes another step forward and stops, the rope at full stretch recoils and the barge now glides across the waters surface,

Horse power’  then tows the barge along the canal at whatever walking pace the horse is comfortable with. Those towing paths are known as tow-paths.

When all this is taking place the man, woman or child on board (known as a bargee) would use a long pole to manoeuvre or propel it away from the waters edge, giving rise to the saying ‘I wouldn’t touch that with a barge pole’ .  To stop the barge or turn it sharply the bargee would attach a rope to the rear of the barge and whip the other end around a strong post or tree trunk to fulfil the function of either an anchor or pivot point.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPhew !……thankfully I’m not a horse or whipping post and in just under an hour I reached my canal side destination for today, Knowle on the outskirts of Solihull.

Over the next 2 days I would pass several canal side Inns, similar to this one where I spent the night.

My guide books explained that very few bargees could read or write so they collected news and information from canal side pubs where they would stop for refreshment and rest.

Day 2: Monday May 15th

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI resumed my journey alongside the canal to catch sight of a brightly plumaged kingfisher as it darted along the waters edge fishing for its breakfast. It wasn’t just the kingfisher who was fishing, a line of maggot danglers had positioned themselves along the narrow tow-path in front of me. Grrr… canals avoid traffic danger but not the barbed hook of anglers. I remembered that noise will cause fish to scatter and anger anglers, so passed by quietly.

Within an hour I arrived at the Hatton flight of 21 locks. An amazing sight, arranged in succession for boats to rise up or be lowered 147ft (45 meters).

Until reading about canals I had only ever associated the term ‘Road’ with the tarmac surface used for motor vehicles. The proper definition for a road is a ‘way from one place to another’ and bargees use of it describes the length of water between locks. The Hatton flight is a bad road. A good road would be straight with few locks.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI took 10 minutes to cycle the next 2 miles and according to my canal guide book 10 minutes is the average time for a boat to pass through just one lock. I passed several narrow boats working through the flight and noticed the hard manual task of winding the windlass and pushing open or closing the lock gates were undertaken by women. I am told it is a tradition for the men to drive the boat whilst women operated locks – umm.

My route then took me through the county town of Warwick and the forever beautiful Royal Leamington Spa, whose river Leam donates some water to fill the Grand Union that travels alongside it for several miles. I began to think about the damage that rivers cause when they flood and would much rather live alongside a canal with its locks and valves that prevent them from bursting their banks. If only rivers could be so easily tamed.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt Napton Junction the original route of the Grand Union takes a right turn and meets the river Thames at Oxford with a further 78 miles to reach London. I made a left turn towards Braunston and joined the Grand Junction Canal that was built to reduce the distance and shorten journey times to London. Sadly the towpath lacked a defined  well trodden path and for the next 30 miles I cycled on grass. Internet reports of punctures were accurate. My front and rear tyre deflated and the instant aerosol repair was only good for roughly 10 miles. Fortunately I had spare inner tubes and changed the punctured ones with such speed that a formula 1 track-side mechanic would be envious.

The Grand Junction canal was ‘Cut’ to allow pairs of narrow boats to carry greater quantities of cargo through its wider locks; one boat would be powered by a horse or in later years a diesel engine. The other narrow boat would be a ‘butty’ which had no engine and was towed alongside or behind the powered boat.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABecause larger boats could not navigate the locks on the original canal their cargo was left in storage warehouses at Braunston until loaded into smaller boats. Pickfords were one of the haulage and storage companies that had kept pace with the canal revolution by investing in boats and storage warehouses.

Bargees were members of the ‘Amalgamated society of watermen, lightermen and bargemen’ that in 1922 merged with the ‘Transport and General Workers Union’ (TGWU). One year later the first ever strike of the TGWU occurred at Braunston and for months the canal network was at a standstill. Industries had to find a way around the strike. Their solution was to transport raw materials and finished goods along the now much improved rail and road network.

An unintended consequence of strike action accelerated the decline of canals for commercial traffic and with it the end of an era for working horses; Pickfords moved with the times and sold their narrow boats to invest in a fleet of road transport lorries.

Braunston is also famous for its canal tunnel which is over a mile long and although cycling through it appealed to me there is no towpath.

Screen Shot 2017-03-23 at 19.18.21When canal boats relied on horse power the horse would be walked over the top of the tunnel and wait at the other side. The crew would “leg” the boat through, pushing with their feet against the tunnel sides or roof.

I pushed my bicycle up the ramp to the side of this bridge and along a farm track above the canal to rejoin the towpath next to the west coast railway line. At that moment an express train thundered past parallel to the M1 motorway with me cycling along the canal towpath sandwiched between them.

As a train passenger I relate this stretch of canal with its marinas as being a milestone of approaching Birmingham. My visible clue of being closer to London is the advertising board of the Ovaltine maid that is situated alongside the railway in a home counties field.

The significance of where I was then dawned on me. The canal, railway and motorway span 3 eras of transportation. In their day each was built to transport large volumes of goods and people back and forth to London in the fastest time. And this unique place all 3 transport systems are next to each other and all three have been expanded to carry more traffic.

The loudness of another train and the roar of motorway traffic submerged me in noise pollution. Peace was only restored after the M1 veered away at Weedon Bec.

Screen Shot 2017-03-29 at 20.39.36 The Weldon Bec Royal Ordinance depot contained eight storehouses that were arranged in two lines on each side of a branch of the Grand Union via a guarded portcullis. The journey of BSA bicycles from Small Heath would take 3 days.

The BSA bicycle on the left was made for use by the territorial army in WW1 who patrolled the British coastline to keep look out for an enemy attack.

On the right is a  BSA Airborne Folding Paratroopers Bike. This was made in WW11 to give paratroopers a way to cover larger distances after landing while remaining quiet and undetected. The paratroopers held the folded bike in front of them as they jumped out of planes and floated to the ground. Once on the ground they unfolded their bike and kept it in shape by tightening wing nuts that were located at the top and bottom of its frame.

The next 20 miles continued along the bumpiest of tracks where internet stories of the greatest incidence of punctures have been recorded.

  • On the occasions I failed to take my body weight off the saddle when going over bumps my suspension seat post took the edge off a  ‘kick in the derrière’
  • Air in a bicycle tyre acts as a spring when not inflated to the ‘rock-hard’ maximum and I pumped in a 5 PSI lower pressure than for road use. This slight reduction improved the smoothness of riding on an uneven surface and guarded against the rim of the wheel hitting the tread of the tyre causing a pinch–puncture.

I then arrived at  Blisworth Tunnel which at 3076 yards (1.5 mile) is one of the longest in Britain.

As with Braunston, Blisworth tunnel has no path to cycle alongside. My route was above the tunnel and along a road to rejoin the canal at Stoke Bruerne where I visited the Grand Union canal museum that celebrates the canal community.

Day 3: Tuesday May 16th

Following an overnight stay in Milton Keynes at a delightful Airbnb run by Ida and Floyd I followed the MK Millennium route, a multi-user traffic free path and arrived back on the towpath for the 2nd half of my bicycle ride to London. Within a mile Gullivers Kingdom was signposted and I cycled with care to avoid the tiny people of Lilliput.

By mid morning I arrived at Bridego bridge where 50+ years ago the famous ‘Great Train Robbery’ took place. Dad read the story from a British newspaper while we were touring Italy in a Standard Ten motor car visiting Rome, Florence and Pisa –  an adventure that probably took as much planning and risk taking as the robbery.

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The mail train from Glasgow to London carrying over £2.6 million in used bank notes was stopped by an armed gang who had hidden an old army truck under the bridge. They loaded the truck with their stolen money and disappeared into the night. I looked along the hedgerows for signs of any unrecovered loot and surprise surprise…… found nothing.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFor the next couple of hours I enjoyed a peaceful and uneventful bicycle ride passing numerous marinas. One was called ‘Cow Roast’ in the village of that name. My pre-reading explained the area was once used as a drovers route for cattle being taken to London to provide meat. The herd would stop here overnight. Cow Roast is believed to be a corruption of the name of  ‘Cow Rest’.

From here the west coast railway ran alongside the canal and intercity, regional and freight carriages flashed by in quick succession. Gosh, this must be one of the busiest railways in the county. I am no longer surprised that the business case for HS2 was based on a need to increase rail capacity along this route.

On the outskirts of Leighton Buzzard ‘Pop‘, my front tyre burst. Rolling to a standstill I noticed the familiar orange colour of a Halfords store and pushed Bessie off the tow-path to buy more inner tubes. The bicycle mechanic offered to replace my punctured inner tube for me so thanking him I went next door to Maccy D’s and brought a chocolate McFlurry ice cream.

The subsequent double crack sensation was not  welcomed. I had bitten down into the ice cream and the hard chocolate chips dislodged a filling on one side of my lower jaw…..groan.  Depositing what was left of my ice cream into a bin I collected my bicycle and spare inner tubes.

Screen Shot 2017-04-10 at 14.40.36A short while later I arrived at the Kings Langley Ovaltine factory whose landmark dairy maid is visible in a field from the train into London.

The factory was built at Kings Langley so the canal could bring in coal to fuel its boilers and transport manufactured Ovaltine throughout the country.

I was unaware the factory had closed and was replaced with apartments. Pleasingly the developers have kept the attractive art deco facade.

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After leaving Kings Langley I cycled under the M25;  London was getting closer and so were the number of people who were living on the canal in a mixture of houseboats and barges painted bright red, dark green or navy blue with names like “Jack”, “Endeavour” and “A Tonic for Ginny”.  Some had window boxes spilling over with flowers, others displayed traditional ‘Diamond, Rose and Castle‘ canal art with elaborately decorated nameplates, watering cans, coal scuttles, flower buckets and tillers painted like a barbers pole. Steam puffed from the polished brass ringed chimney stack of stoves used for heating and keeping a kettle on the boil.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy original plan was to cycle to Brentford and head east alongside the river Thames to my overnight stay in Windsor. Yet I had learn’t from last years Lands End to John O’Groats bicycle ride that the purpose of touring is to enjoy the journey. My decision to detour along the Paddington Arm into London was rewarded:

  • The route took me across a huge aqueduct spanning the north circular road that I have driven along numerous times without ever knowing a canal was above.
  • I passed the place where a Heinz food factory once imported tomatoes for puree via the Thames from Italy, then exported baked beans back to the Italians along the same stretch of canal.
  • Guinness had a brewery here. The canal was used to transport barrels of beer
  • I saw the railway for Eurostar trains and the towers of Wormwood Scrubs prison.

The end of the Paddington Arm joins the Regents canal that continues to the River Thames where there is no tow path to cycle along. Fortunately neighbours of mine (Roy and Pat) had made several narrow boat journeys along the Regents canal and shared photographs of scenes that I was not able to see:

RP THames01Roy took this picture whilst waiting for the tide to rise so he could proceed onto the River Thames. The low water level reveals a layer of clay on the banks.

Canals needed to be treated to hold water and James Brindley used a process which lined the sides and bottom with clay to hold the water in place just like a puddle. For that reason he called the process ‘puddling’.

Flat bottomed narrow boats are suited to the reasonably still waters of canals. On a tidal estuary such as the Thames they have the stability of a floating bathtub.

RP THames 04This next picture was taken by Pat as Roy steered his narrow boat from the Regents canal at Limehouse lock onto the River Thames.

Roy recalled that the skipper of the leading narrow boat was nervous about entering the tidal Thames. Had he got into difficulty Roy would have tied his narrow boat alongside it so their joint power and stability could make forward progress.

The East India docks were situated in this area and East India merchant ships, known as East Indiamen, sailed and traded between London, China and India. It took 6 months to travel in each direction. Their cargo imported spices, silk and tea leafs into Britain.

During the 1700s China would sell to the East India Company in return for silver so imports of tea were in limited supply, expensive and brought by the well-off who stored their purchase in a lockable tea caddy to prevent theft.

During the industrial revolution of the 1800s Cholera and Tyhoid were fatal British diseases caused by raw sewage coming into contact with drinking water. Once people knew this they avoided drinking water and quenched their thirst with ale or gin. Whilst alcohol protected them from waterborne disease it caused (as it still often does) intoxication and unreasonable behaviour.

Tea drinking offered a sober alternative to alcohol. Its popularity was helped by the temperance movement who preached about the evils of demon drink and the demand for tea surged.

Clipper ships, so called because their bows were wide and raked forward (allowing them to “clip” lightly over the waves) reduced the 6 month journey time of imports from China to just 90 days and resulted in a plentiful supply of tea at a price that most people could afford.

Narrow boats carried imported tea leafs to inland blending and packaging factories of British tea companies whose brand names I remember from my childhood: Brooke Bond, Lyons ( who opened a chain of famous tea shops) and Typhoo.

With no towpath to the Thames my cycling on the Grand Union ended in Paddington Basin.

 

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADue to the slow terrain and my numerous punctures it was now 8:30pm at night.

Although my original plan was to cycle to Windsor I was tired. Paddington station was in front of me so caught the train.

Arriving in Windsor at 9:30 at night I managed to capture a picture of the famous Eton bridge at dusk.

Day 4: Wednesday May 17th

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI had a dreadful nights sleep at this Windsor Airbnb run by Phil and Liz. It is underneath the flight path for Heathrow airport and aircraft noise was louder than the M1 and main railway line into London.

Checking out early I went for a short bicycle ride around Windsor town centre, a place that I know quite well as the head office of my former employer was based here. To return as a visitor without the clutter of  ‘where to park, jobs to do, people to meet and things to say’ set the scene for a more relaxed stroll around town.

The Thames, Eton College, the Guild Hall and Castle are amongst my favourite sights. And being a lover of ice cream I know something you may be unaware of: The very first recorded serving in the UK was with strawberries at a banquet for the feast of St. George at Windsor Castle….yummy !

Today was a shorter bicycle ride to the village of Ipsden roughly 20 miles from the  University City of Oxford. And because cycling is not permitted alongside much of the River Thames I cycled along Broadmoor Road, a road I have travelled along many times towards to Woodley where I used to visit a factory.

At 11am every morning the skies would roar with Concords engine noise on its 3 hour flight to New York. 15 years later that flight time cannot be matched; it can take 3 hours to negotiate the boarding checks.

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On the outskirts of Reading it started to rain and despite wearing full waterproofs spray from passing vehicles made a wet day wetter. Respite occurred when outside ‘Huntley and Palmers’, the once famous biscuit maker. It then began to rain heavier and heavier , bouncing off the road to the height of my knee caps.

I found shelter inside a food outlet where the staff place a wet floor sign next to where I was seated…….water dripping off me was flooding the shop floor. With my cold hands clasped around a beaker of coffee I remembered last Sundays weather forecaster who had asserted today would be the finest of the week –  what a fibber.

There was no way I wanted to cycle a further 30 miles in this rain so made my way to Reading railway station and caught a train to Didcot.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFrom Didcot it should have been an 8 mile cycle ride to the village of Ipsden and my wonderful Airbnb overnight stay.

8 miles extended to 19 miles. I missed an easy to find turning and ended up cycling around the perimeter of RAF Benson.

The landlady welcomed me with a pot tea and then drove to a nearby supermarket and returned with a microwave supper, bottle of beer and newspaper – wow, if only my wife looked after me like this. Following a hot bath and an evening relaxing in front of the telly,my clothes dried next to an electric heater. The evening news bulletin explained that a months rain had fallen on Reading –  umm, mostly on me.

Day 5: Thursday May 18th

Hurray, the sun was shinning and what a difference dry clothing makes. I made my way back to the Thames at nearby Wallingford and rejoined the route once used to transport goods from Londons docks to Birmingham – including tea leafs for Typhoo.

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Most of the land either side of the Thames is privately owned so had to cycle along the main road to Oxford. Here the Thames (known as the Isis) is linked to the Oxford canal at the Isis and Dukes lock.

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The Oxford canal goes to (and beyond) Napton Junction that I passed when cycling to London and is part of the original Grand Union of 10 different canals linking Birmingham with the Capital.

As the towpath is known to be difficult to use beyond Lower Heyford I decided to cycle through the city centre to Woodstock, my destination for today.

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I visited Bladon on the outskirts of Woodstock where St Martins church is the resting place of Sir Winston Churchill and his wife Clementine. The church is close to Blenheim Palace his childhood home.

After visiting their grave I went inside St Martins church where an exhibition is dedicated to him. I then cycled to Blenheim Palace.

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The cheapest entry ticket was far more than I was prepared to pay and at the very moment I turned  away , ‘Pop’ , the front tyre burst as it rolled over a tack; puncture number 4 – Blenheim was getting its own back ! After changing the inner tube I booked into my Woodstock B&B. That evening I cycled to nearby Witney for supper with family in their lovely home.

Day 6: Friday May 19th

I left my B&B just after 9am for a 75 miler to stay overnight at my sisters in Wythall on the outskirts of Birmingham. It was a day of sunshine and many short, sharp showers.

The first leg of my journey was a speedy (for me) 30 mile ride to Stratford-upon-Avon. Gosh, the road was busy. Cars and coaches whizzed by and whilst many motorists gave me plenty of berth others were not as sensible. Several sounded their horns and I became concerned that something may be falling off my bicycle so stopped, checked everything was as it should be and continued. I guess motorists wanted to warn me they were approaching or were grumpy at being delayed by yours truely.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADespite visiting Stratford-upon-Avon many times I still managed to get lost. I had wanted to cycle through the town centre but ended up on a busy ring road with just the occasional glimpse of the Avon where a narrow boat at its permanent mooring had solar panels fitted on the roof.

 

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From here I visited St Peter’s Church in Binton.  Steps are built into the wall by its gate which people used for easy dismounting when arriving on horse back. A ring for tethering horses is set in the wall by the gate.

I used the steps to dismount and later get back on my bicycle. The tethering ring was an ideal anchor point to lock my bicycle.

St Peter’s Church is known to me for its link with Scott of the Antarctic who hoped to be the first to reach the South Pole. He was married to Kathleen Bruce, the sister of Bintons’ rector.

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It took Scott and his team of four men 2 years to reach the South Pole where they discovered a Norwegian team led by Roald Amundsen had beaten them by a month. On the journey back they all died and St Peters stained glass window is dedicated to their ill fated journey.  From (L) to (Rt) its picture panels illustrate:

  1. The last farewells of the group setting off
  2. Their disappointment to come across Amundsens flag that signalled they were not the first to reach the centre of the South Pole
  3. Captain Oakes leaving the groups tent. Oates, afflicted with gangrene and frostbite, walked from his tent into a blizzard. His death is seen as an act of self sacrifice when, aware that his ill health was compromising his three companions’ chances of survival, he walked to meet his maker. Rescuers later found Scott’s diary in which was written: ” before Oates exited the tent and walked to his death he uttered the words “I am just going outside and may be some time”
  4. A search party erecting a Cairn at the spot where they discovered the remains of the group.

Cycling from St Peters I made my way to the pretty village of Alcester with its colourful bunting. It really brightens up an otherwise bland High Street.

My next stop was Coughton Court where the Throckmorton family who were linked with the Gunpowder plot, once lived. I went in for nothing and enjoyed a slab of triple layered Victoria sponge, a pot of tea and ice cream  –  wonderful eh !

Day 7: Saturday 20th May

After spending the night at my sisters I visited former work colleagues and then started back to Gas Street along the Birmingham – Worcester canal, joining it from a ramp on Wharf Road in Kings Norton.

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Although the entrance looks a little seedy, the towpath and views from it are marvellous. At just over 5 miles into the City I completed the journey in less than 30 minutes which is faster than a car or train journey.  This route must be a closely guarded cyclists secret. The towpath is wide with a soft aggregate surface and apart from a couple of bridges to go over, it is a marvellous way into town.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYep, today was another day of rain but hey-ho, who cares.

From Kings Norton my canal route passed the Cadbury factory. They used to receive Cocoa that had been imported via the docks at Bristol and brought here along the canal from the River Severn at Worcester.

I don’t know where they get ingredients from these days and wondered whether their once proud boast that a  ‘Glass and a half of milk’ still reaches their chocolate bars.

From Bournville I passed through Selly Oak where the skyline is dominated by a huge new hospital, then Birmingham University buildings and playing fields before coasting back to the starting point of my adventure, Gas Street basin.

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Throughout this journey I have seen a new lease of life for the canal system. Pleasure craft, new moorings and modern property developments must be recognised a life-line as the alternative could so easily be stagnation and decay.

My favourite parts were from Gas Street to the Hatton flight and Kings Norton back to Gas Street. I loved the canal architecture, canal side buildings and the friendliness of people on boats, fishing, walking and cycling can be summed up as civic pride.

It only took 2 and a bit days to cycle from Birmingham into London and although a puncture resistant mountain bike would have been the better bike to use, I don’t have one.

The adjustments to my bicycle did aid safety and comfort; on more than one occasion the flat pedals enabled me to put a firm foot on the ground and prevent a fall. The long-travel suspension seat post is so comfortable that I recommend it to every touring cyclist. I had anticipated and managed many punctures.

Earlier this afternoon my wife read this story and then picked up the jigsaw brochure to spend a long time looking at Hampton Court maze –  umm.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2017 Cycling Plans

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May:  A bicycle ride from Birmingham to London and back, using the towing path of canals that were once navigated by boatmen who carried coal and raw materials to factories during the industrial revolution.

July: Cycling along NCR 72 from the West to East Coast visiting places of interest including Hadrian’s wall.

October: A journey to Trafford for my third Manchester to Blackpool British Heart Foundation night ride, returning to Chester and onward to Shrewsbury to catch a train home.