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.
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:
- Birmingham to Brentford via Napton Junction = 137 miles
- From Brentford the River Thames leads to Oxford = 78 miles
- 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.
- 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.
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’.
One 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.
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
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 stopped 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. The 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:
- 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:
- The horse was led in front of the barge until the rope was at full stretch.
- 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.
- The end with least staying power moves inward to allow the rope to recoil.
- Because water offers very little resistance to objects floating along its surface, the barge moves towards the horse.
- 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.
Phew !……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
I 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.
I 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.
At 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.
Because 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.
When 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.
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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.
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.
WW1 Cycle Corps Bike
BSA Parachuters Bicycle from WW2
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.
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.
For 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.
A 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.
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.
My 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:
Roy 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.
This 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.
Due 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
I 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.
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.
From 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Despite 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.
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.
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:
- The last farewells of the group setting off
- Their disappointment to come across Amundsens flag that signalled they were not the first to reach the centre of the South Pole
- 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”
- 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.
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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.
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.
Yep, 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.
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.