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Across the Midlands

Wednesday 7 February
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Day 1 Peterborough- Owston

The northerly wind whipped off the Fens, as I stepped off the train at Peterborough. I had planned a 5 day ride across the middle of England ending on the Welsh border, but my favourite month of May felt more like January and I instantly started shivering. I wanted to find my bearings quickly so that I could warm up by pushing the pedals.

My bike was packed with two rear panniers and a lightweight tent strapped to the handlebars. I had reduced my load from previous trips so I no longer had additional baggage strapped on the rear rack. There was a small pouch on the crossbar with a few tools, pump and charger stuffed in. I carried two water bottles, 1 clipped to the seat post the other in the traditional place on the seat tube.

I was initially heading north out of Peterborough before veering west on what I hoped were quiet country lanes. The cycleways out of the city were well posted as I made my way through the suburbs and out into the countryside. The landscape was pleasantly rolling as I headed through Ufford and Barnack. At Burghley there was a beautiful uncut field of buttercups enclosed within stone walls. Stamford was bustling with tourists and privileged teenagers wandering into town from the private school founded in 1510.

My route took me within a hairsbreadth of the noisy A1 before slipping off and I found myself surrounded by birdsong [skylarks, blackbirds , crows] and arable fields. A woodland section followed, running parallel to Graffham Water and eventually dropping down to follow the cycle-track alongside the reservoir, leading into Oakham.

I stopped for a bite to eat at 3pm in Oakham as I was rough camping and would have nowhere to eat later on. A farm at Owston had kindly offered a woodland site and the owner accompanied by two dogs showed me a favoured spot deep in the woods. I was indeed a tranquil spot and I was left to pitch my tent and make camp for the night. I never bring a cooking stove so as to keep the weight down, so relied on snacks to fend off the cold. The evening lay ahead and I felt energetic enough to take a evening ride to Launde Abbey, once the retreat of Thomas Cromwell. I had been enthralled by Hilary Mantell’s Wolf Hall trilogy and was delighted to see the atmospheric Abbey in the evening sun. The journey added 7 miles to the days total, but was well worth the visit. The Tudor hall is surrounded by landscaped open grassland and today serves as a Christian retreat.

I dragged my bike back through the long grass to my tent in the woods. Sleep was interrupted by efforts to warm up, it was a cold moonlit night when I stepped out to relieve myself at 2am, hoping to startle an owl or deer. I was the only one stirring that night though! [39 miles]

Day 2- To Snarestone

I broke camp at first light and packed my dew wet tent. I warmed up cycling the hills towards Twyford, heading for a cafe breakfast of coffee and porridge. A map-reading error led me to ride a 5 mile detour but as I ended at a great breakfast stop at Burrough-on-the-Hill, all was not lost. The countryside in these parts is beautiful, lots of mixed farmland edged with the verdant May growth in the hedgerows.

I was heading towards Leicester. The route into the city-centre followed a canal and lakeside, bypassing the busy roads. The signposting was excellent, at one point taking me past the incongruous National Space Centre. Leicester was vibrant and bustling. I purchased a second sleeping bag as I had been so cold the night before. I steadily worked my way out of the city up a two mile hill towards the ‘delightfully’ named Ratby. I was following the Ivanhoe Trail, sometimes off-road, usually on country lanes. The village names kept me amused -Groby, Botcheston and Newton Burgoland were all passed. I eventually landed in Snarestone at the Globe Inn camp-site, to test out my sleeping bag within a sleeping bag. I explored the Ashby canal-side and Tunnel [which was dug under the village in 1804] before an evening meal at the pub. [49 miles]

Day 3-To Stafford

I had a warmer night’s sleep thanks to the double sleeping bag and then stopped at Measham enjoying a hearty breakfast and the Midland dialect of the friendly locals at the adjoining tables. I made good progress, as yesterday’s strong headwind had disappeared, but then headed incorrectly for Burton-on-Trent instead of Walton-on-Trent. I had to double-back over a busy stretch of road with heavy lorries heading to the local quarry.

I crossed the River Trent and headed up to the lovely settlement of Barton under Needwood. Too big to call a village to small to call a town. The excellent Skinny Kitten cafe provided an welcome stop. The parkland westwards is very pleasant, rolling grassland and then a car-free track, taking me the next four miles. I picked up the Rugby canal further on and travelled the last few miles into Stafford on a busy switchback. Speedy cars and vans overtaking far too close. I stayed at an airbnb in the city centre with a friendly host and was able to freshen up with a hot shower and dry my camping gear. [33 miles]

Day 4-To Shrewsbury

I reflected on the counties I had cycled through- Lincolnshire, Rutland, Leicestershire, Derbyshire and Staffordshire with Shropshire and Powys to traverse, today and tomorrow. I started the day hunting around for the Newport to Staffs Greenway. This brilliant 10miles of off-road cycletrack is poorly signed at the Stafford end. I have mixed feelings about designated cycle-tracks.They often follow old railway lines and are often encased by trees which means you see little of the surrounding landscape; however because you are travelling through a tube you escape buffeting winds. This greenway was well surfaced and I therefore made good time. I made my way through the dreary outskirts of Telford before chancing on a great coffee shop and butchers, Antonys of Wellington butchers, where I was treated like a celebrity. The weather had improved and after some minor bike repairs I travelled the last 8 miles into Shrewsbury along undulating country lanes lined by May hedges. The weather had improved today- the first day without an anorak.

Shrewsbury is a lovely historic town, on the horseshoe of the River Severn, which seems to be prospering. Lots of good places to eat. I chose a vegetarian bistro and had a tasty dish of baked new potatoes with mushrooms all in a saucy salad. [35 miles]

Day 5 To Wales

I awoke and found a message from my host for my final night, saying the owner had suffered a heart attack. After sending my best wishes, I trawled the internet to find another stopover. I chose a wild camping spot in the Shropshire hills. Cycling out of the city southwards, I stopped for a breakfast at the Ground Coffee Company, full of a bustling crowd of local families and friends who had completed a fun-run. My onward route was busy with traffic, which didn’t make for relaxing cycling, but the scenery was changing- green hills and rolling valleys. My pitch was a mile up a very bumpy stone track, impossible to ride; but the 360 degree view, where I camped, more than made up for it. I went for an afternoon walk to the Stiperstones.These are a series of exposed quartzite rocks formed 480million years ago on a ridge. The lower fields were marshy grassland as I gradually climbed and left the meadows for the heather-clad tops, clambering over dry stone walls to get to the moorland. There was no obvious path to follow as I waded through waist high fern and scratchy heather to reach the summit. Red kites circled overhead.

I completed the day with a cycle into Wales for some pub grub. Journeys end. The next day, I broke camp and retraced my route back to Shrewsbury to pick up the train, to head home. [32 miles]