I had been thinking of a long distance cycle for a while and the knowledge that I lived at the easterly end of the widest part of England led me to plan a route across England, following a line westwards, avoiding A roads and sticking to cycleways and country lanes. The ride was going to take in Saffron Walden, the Chilterns, Milton Keynes, Chipping Norton and the Cotswolds, Tewkesbury, Ross-on-Wye and end at the Welsh border in Hay-on-Wye. I then planned to cycle on to Hereford to get the train back to Ipswich.
The lockdown, because of the COVID pandemic, caused me to postpone my preferred start date in June, but a window opened in September 2020, when restrictions on travel were lifted and the journey became possible.
I purchased a lightweight tent and some carriers and had a few practice runs in Suffolk to test the increased weight and volume on the bike. All seemed to be good. I am not a road cyclist pounding out the miles, but prefer to amble along, so my modest 40 kilometres a day meant that I should be able to achieve the 450 kilometres in 8 days. I plotted the overnight stops at campsites, hotels and airbnb’s which committed me to the challenge, locking in each day’s itinerary.
The forecast was mixed, but I set off in good spirits and butterflies in my stomach, on a bright mid-September morning, from my home in Ipswich.
The Suffolk byways are special, meandering though villages with Anglo-Saxon names -Flowton, Aldham and Lindsey. I quickly got into a rhythm and my mind wandered about how things have changed in my 60 years in Suffolk . The mew of the buzzard in fields, replacing the flocks of ringed plovers. Eucalyptus trees and yuccas, replacing vegetable patches in cottage front gardens. Saplings that I had helped to plant turning into semi-mature woodland. Life slips by. Maybe the ride across England will give me a chance to store those memories and provide a fresh lens on England, in 2020.
I stopped at the Chapel of St James the Apostle on the edge of Lindsey. A 13th century flint building that had been built for the owners of Lindsey Castle [long since gone]. The atmospheric building is now looked after by English Heritage. If James is the Saint of Pilgrims, he was certainly out to test my resolve, as, after leaving the chapel, the thunderclouds rolled in and a deluge, of biblical proportions, pored down for over an hour, soaking me thoroughly. I eventually found a church lychgate where I was able to shelter and tip out the excess water from my shoes. Eventually, though wet through, I cycled on to my first overnight camping spot, just outside Sudbury. A testing first day.
I broke camp, had a cholesterol-laden breakfast in Sudbury and set off along a disused railway track through the water meadows of the upper Stour. Leaving the river valley and getting into more arable countryside you became aware of the season’s change. Where the combine harvesters had finished the wildlife was having to cope with less cover, enabling me to see a herd of deer and a hare, which froze until I got very close-by. I was running along the Suffolk-Essex border going through the villages of Cavendish and Clare. The house design was starting to change after these settlements, more traditional timber-framed cottages giving way to modern homes suitable for the high-tech industries to the south. The planes flying overhead as they circled reminded me how close I was to Stansted.
A quick pub lunch and then the afternoon cycling the lanes around delightful Ridgewell, Thaxted and on to Saffron Walden. I had booked an airbnb for the night and was met by a charming lady who made me very welcome. We swapped stories of hosting before I headed into Saffron Walden to explore and grab an evening meal at a lovely Indian restaurant. After complimenting the staff about the homemade mango chutney[spiced with ginger] I was offered a complimentary pot to take-away. This lovely touch I had to decline as the thought of the pickle leaking through my gear in the panniers was not worth the risk!
Saffron Walden is a picturesque, medieval town which derives it’s name from the marketing of crocuses for their saffron, obtained from the stigmas of the flowers. This reached it’s height in the 16th century. It’s ancient market has a great reputation, helped no doubt in modern times by sightings of Jamie Oliver.
An idyllic start to the day, going past the splendour of Audley End - a Jacobean country estate, reputedly one of the finest in England. It certainly looked grand from the roadside, as I travelled past the landscaped gardens. A mile further on and I passed under the M11. The first of a number of south/north motorways which would bisect my cycle trip. I was entering a countryside of large arable fields with stormy skies overhead. I frequently startled buzzards and spotted a red kite wheeling just above me. I had headed out early to try and beat the predicted lunchtime rain but by 10.30 showers were increasing into steady rain and another soaking.
By 11 am I had suddenly left the rural landscape behind the A1 cutting across my path and entered a string of towns- Baldock, Letchworth and Hitchin. The rain made progress dreary. The topography had become more undulating as I travelled today and was aware of the clay soils suddenly giving way to chalkland. I could see the rising shape of the Chilterns through the clouds on the horizon. I was anxious about tackling my first real gradients and the predicted gusts of 50mph winds on the exposed hills tomorrow.
Today I had an unexpected road rage incident on a single track byroad. Every vehicle user had been polite and thoughtful thus far, giving me a wide berth, holding back, if an overtake was dangerous and often a giving a wave in their rear mirror. I, in turn, also tried to acknowledge thoughtfulness with a thumbs-up or wave. So I was taken aback when a large articulated lorry came up behind me on a lane where it was impossible for him to overtake. I sped up trying to find a safe place to pull over. Twenty yards on I stopped and tucked in, turning in time to see the manic driver wind down his window and verbally harangue me. For the next few miles I re-ran the incident over in my head, trying to make sense of the driver’s anger, but in the end had to accept that some people have burden’s to carry through life.
I rolled into the pleasant town of Hitchin and was welcomed into an old coaching inn. The staff going out of their way to make me feel welcome as I dripped puddles in their reception area. A shower and fresh clothes shook off my melancholy and I went to explore meal options for the evening.
A mixed day, as far as riding was concerned, with some glorious stretches, urban jungles and frustrating detours. The expected climbs over the Chilterns didn’t really trouble as they always seemed to be on my left and the cycle route I was following, skirted the hills whilst always giving me a distant vista. Barton le Clay slipped past and I pedalled onwards under the M1, to the hamlet of Tingrith. Here I took an unmade track along a bridleway providing me with a wonderful spectacle of a hobby flying fast and low across a meadow banking and twisting as it shot past. The weather was warm and sunny and it felt a special buzz to have made it halfway across England as I headed on to Woburn. I cycled through the middle of the estate without seeing any safari animals but lots of walkers, enjoying the sunshine. The village of Woburn was packed with coach tourists and the restaurants, cafes and pubs heaving with well-dressed sightseers. It all felt a bit surreal, so I cycled on. Milton Keynes was ahead with it’s cycle friendly lanes. When you can follow the signage the cycle-paths work well. However, it is so easy to miss these and then you find yourself on a fast dual-carriageway with vehicles hurling past. Another 200 yards further on and you suddenly pick up another marked route and calm returns. I lost my way this time in a residential estate before popping out the far side of Milton Keynes with a 10 mile rural section of cycle track ahead of me. Half a mile in and a barrier across the track told me that there was a “temporary closure” due to road or rail networks. No alternative diversion route was offered, leaving me high and dry. My frustration at the lack of planning increased, as I vainly tried to get to my destination of Winslow, being turned back on numerous occasions it seemed that all routes were blocked as I took increasingly large detours in an attempt to get to Winslow. Thank you rail planning department! Grrr!
High winds were forecast and so it proved to be, as gusts of 50mph slowed me down or blew me sideways. Fallen branches and sticks were a further hazard. If the wind was head on, it certainly reduced your speed considerably, but was less dangerous than a buffeting side wind, which could slew you into the ditch or out into the road. As I cycled I came to search out the protection of hedgerows which protected me from the bullying winds and to brace myself as I left the protection of vegetation cover. The countryside was varied, sometimes hilly with deep valleys, a flat plain around Bicester, a Roman road,and a picturesque section around the Oxford canal at Tackley. I recorded two further counties- Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire and started to see the honey coloured stone of the Cotswolds. A long day’s cycle for me battling the elements of wind and rain- I hoped that I would find a sheltered spot for the tent that night.
Chipping Norton was a typical busy Cotswold market town and after erecting the tent a few miles away, slipped down, into the town, for something to eat. A young family settled into a table next to me. The 5 year daughter was celebrating her birthday with mum and dad. The girl was being quite difficult and demanding, putting on a whiny voice to make life uncomfortable for her parents.
“ I don’t want this…. you know I don’t like that”
The dad had tried to bribe the daughter to be good, if she wanted her £200 birthday bonus! The mother, at this point, said to the little girl that she was acting like a diva; the girl naturally complied and burst into fake tears. She was eventually quietened with a chocolate treat. What were the parents going to do, I thought, when the girl hit her teenage years!
After a quick breakfast I headed out into the countryside. After 3 miles I was surrounded by a large pack of beagles and two outriders on bikes, as the local hounds took their morning exercise. It was a good job I hadn’t stood in any fox scat or they would have been after blood!
The bike had behaved itself apart for minor brake adjustments and cable lubrication and it needed to be at it’s best on some of the inclines. Again the high winds played their part. Not so good when I had an eight mile stretch on a busy B road swelled with holiday and Saturday traffic speeding past. The countryside was rolling and partly wooded. I stopped for a breather at a roadside pub. The quiet sections were lovely and suddenly I had reached the escarpment of the Cotswolds with the Severn Valley below. The sweep downhill for a mile around some tight bends, reaching speeds that Chris Froome would be proud of, was glorious, as I headed toward Stanway. A few miles further on and I crossed the M5 the last of the artery North/South highways I was intersecting. My overnight stop was in the lovely town of Tewkesbury, with it’s timber framed high street. I was staying at one of the coaching inns, a bustling watering hole, where the locals were making full use of the lifting of restrictions, due to the pandemic. I was elated that I had reached another milestone in getting as far as the Severn Valley - it felt a long way from home. The accumulated miles felt significant and weighty in a way they would not have done had I travelled for the five hours from my home, by car. I felt fit and didn’t have any major aches or pains and Hurricane Phillip, or whatever the thing was called, had finally buggered off to France or Denmark!
The wind had finally calmed making progress easier although the hills were getting progressively steeper.
It was Sunday morning so all the club riders were out in numbers, haring as quickly as possible between their stops. I can’t help thinking that they miss so much by racing past the rural landscape. It is part idleness which means that my progress is slow and punctuated by frequent stops. I had been following the Severn River valley for an hour and came across the hamlet of Hartpury. Next to the church was a huge 14thC tithe barn which I found out was one of the biggest in the country [161ft x 36ft]. I sneaked inside to have a quick look at the incredible timber roof. Wandering around the churchyard I came across a large listed stone bee shelter which could house 28 skeps [ traditional basket-like hives]. It is estimated that it could house 840,000 bees! The stone shelving structure had been restored in 2002. It would have been so easy to cycle past and miss a wonderful bit of history.
The pale Cotswold stone had given way to red brick which I associate with the Shropshire and Birmingham area. It is to my mind an unattractive reddish, apricot hue which tends to make the houses look a little drab. The countryside more than made up for it.
When I arrived in Ross-on-Wye it was bustling with holiday-makers. Families were out and about and at 3pm the shops were all open trying to make up for lost revenue due to the COVID restrictions. It was a bit too chaotic for me after many days cycling alone. I retired to the lovely Royal Hotel.
Another early start through through some lovely countryside following the river valley and passing a mixture of grassland, woods, orchards and arable fields. After 1 hour cycling I made a bad map-reading error and suddenly found myself way off the route I had planned. To make matters worse, the extra miles needed to get back on course, featured some gruelling hills. I switched on the data on my phone to access the GPS so that no more mistakes were made. I was making my way towards the Golden Valley and eventually stopped for a beer and a sandwich surrounded by beautiful hills on all sides. The weather was once again wet as I climbed towards my camping destination at Michaelchurch Escopi - a small hamlet in the shadow of the Black Mountains. I had pre -booked an evening meal at the Bridge Inn, as it was the only option on that part of the route. The meal did not disappoint, even though I got a soaking getting back to the tent. The stream over the Bridge had become a torrent in the space of an hour. As I lay in my tent that evening I reflected on my journey and smiled to myself that I had managed to get this far under my own steam. That self-congratulatory smirk was to cost me the next day! Smugness comes before a puncture!
The tent performed really well in the rain and gale. I stalled my departure so I could break camp without getting too wet. Rain chased me up the valley to Cracknow. I passed a farmer cutting back the hedgerows and 200yrds later suffered my first puncture - 7 miles from my finish point! I had cycled about 250miles and now in the most remote section of the ride I had my first emergency. I unpacked the bike and was struggling to get the wheel off. I reloaded the bike and pushed the bike to a point where I could get a phone signal and sheepishly called for a taxi to pick me up, to ferry me to Hay-on-Wye. It was a galling end to the ride. I had made sure I practised puncture repair before the trip but stupidly came short “in the field.” I was fortunate there was a cycle shop which could help me. I reflected how life has a way of keeping your feet on the ground. The irony of completing the final few miles in a taxi was not lost on me.
I had spent nine days travelling across the widest part of England and whilst my daily targets of 30-40 miles, were modest by road cyclists standards, they were sufficiently taxing for me, on a loaded bike, at the age of 64. In truth I could hardly believe that I had achieved my goal. I had battled the worst that September weather can throw at you-50mph gales and deluges of biblical proportions. I had had a brilliant adventure, seen some of the best countryside that England can offer, all under the shadow of the Covid crisis. It had been a memorable trip, as much for the lows, as the highs. A short 20 mile journey to Hereford to catch the train home awaited. It proved to be a delightful ride, across lovely countryside and home by nightfall.