Ian J Wray
Having previously travelled from my home in Ipswich to the Welsh Border by bike trekking 2 years ago I was keen to find a new adventure this spring.
Whenever I go on a cycle ride I always enjoy the outward journey far more than the return leg. The morning is invariably sunny, there is anticipation of the journey, you are fresh legged and keen to explore. The return, by contrast, seems to drag, the wind is always in your face tiring you as your thoughts turn to home and putting your feet up. When you think about a long distance cycle trek however, the whole experience is the outward journey with none of the negative aspects of the return leg. You are travelling along unfamiliar roads, not knowing what is just around the corner and ,for me, this is the attraction. You appear to be able to double your range because there is literally no turning back. The distance is “banked” at the end of each day and you continue onwards. You can map your progress, often in a new county and feel the sense of achievement without having to start again from the beginning.
So it was that a ride from London to Totnes in Devon was routed and planned using the excellent cycle.travel for route planning. The ride would start in Cobham travel through “Austin” country to the chalk streams around Winchester and Salisbury. I would be skirting Salisbury Plain to Bruton and the Somerset levels before heading over the Blackdown Hills into Devon. The route was all on minor roads and tracks often following beautiful river valleys. I had planned 3 nights camping and the rest of the overnights would be in pubs and airbnb’s. Minimal spare clothing and lightweight camping kept the bike relatively unburdened.
After staying with friends in Cobham, I set off on a showery, Sunday morning in May. Heading south-west, the wind was behind me along some gentle country lanes. After a short stretch running alongside the busy A3 the footpath suddenly dipped into a countrypark on the outskirts of Guildford. I dried off in a lovely, authentic Italian coffee shop before a steep climb onto the Hogs Back with extensive views North and South. The cycletrack cut through felled woodland before descending past the Watts Gallery, famous in Victorian times for the Arts and Crafts movement. I followed another long off-road section through mixed woodland and bypassed Farnham. Back into Forestry Commission land for a section which went past a Go-Ape complex and a final stretch along a pleasant B road around Binstead, before arriving at Alton at 5pm.
The kind reception staff and the Alton House Hotel allowed me to wheel a very muddy bike into their conference room to keep it secure overnight. [34miles ]
Leaving Alton, I followed a lovely track along a dry valley of meadowland giving way to woods as it climbed the hillside. A section of rolling countryside after heathland followed and then a long descent toward the River Itchen and the unusual sight of commercial watercress beds. The clarity water due to the natural springs have enabled the watercress to thrive and Alresford is the centre through which I was travelling. Well actually I stopped, in the sunny market square for a well earned coffee!
The sun didn’t last for long as I headed for the ancient capital of the Anglo-Saxons and by the time I reached Winchester at lunchtime, it was raining heavily. I would have loved to have gone in the cathedral to explore but I was concerned about leaving the gear on my bike, so instead sheltered in the porchway and eavesdropped as the tourists came out exclaiming about the “unseasonable weather.”
“I left my brolly in the car”
“Well it wasn’t raining when we went in dear ,was it”
“Do you think we can make it to the cafe”
There was a steep climb out of the city along a busy road before finding the old Roman road running straight across downland for 10 miles. There followed a fast descent into Kings Sombourne followed by a ride along the old railway track into Stockbridge. I had entered serious fly-fishing country and the town was suitably attired with a range of shops and restaurants. As I wandered over a bridge on the High Street a big brother loudspeaker issued a warning from the riverbank not to trespass, you are being watched. Up until then I had rather liked the town. I was camping overnight at a wild campsite just above the town. It was a huge field with views over the downs and I had the whole site pretty much to myself. [32miles]
An easy day of 24 miles. There is something quite satisfying about breaking camp and loading everything you need on your bike, which you then ride away on. The lightweight tent straps across my handlebars. Spare clothing stored in the panniers along with the airbed. Essentials such as tools, charger, phone and first aid in the small crossbar bag and sleeping bag and lock on the back rack. And away! Down the delightful Test valley before hanging a right at the NationalTrust estate at Montisfont. I maintain bad signage led me on a 12 mile, unintended detour at this point. The upside being, I was able to explore the lovely town of Romsey, that seemed to be unaffected by the retail collapse and was busy and bustling. I stopped for a smoothie in the town square. The sun was still shining as I got into Salisbury which was full of tourists meandering through the cathedral grounds and old town. I followed the river westwards towards my overnight stop at Wilton, the old capital of Wiltshire. [36 miles]
I was up early and determined to cycle 12 miles before a breakfast stop. My route took me along the valley of the River Wylye. [pronounced Why Lee] A breeze was on my back and I zipped along taking in a string of villages and the full May hedgerows with hills as a backdrop. I felt I had earned scrambled eggs and two flat whites by the time I reached Boyton. When things are running smoothly on the ride I usually have a sing, making sure I pause if someone passes. Birdsong, sheep, cow parsley, downland and the ever present chalk stream accompanied me until I stopped for a beer at a pub in Maiden Bradley. I was met on entering, by a young barman, who though absolutely polite, managed to make me feel unwelcome. Country tweeds instead of cycling shorts required I think! Just to stake my right, I plopped down in the most comfortable armchair in the place.
After 4 days cycling I was beginning to feel my fitness levels improving. I was now in Somerset and explaining my journey from where I had come, instead of my intended destination.
I had originally intended to camp at Kingsettle but the weather forecast predicted thunderstorms and with a 3 mile jaunt to the nearest pub for food I decided to stay at the pub instead. The food at the Old Red Lion was home-cooked and delicious. I enjoyed watching the clouds and rain roll over King Alfred’sTower and Kingsettle as I tucked into my meal.
An early cycle downhill into Bruton after a cooked breakfast, is always a good way to start. The mist and chill soon cleared as I cycled along a lovely B road with some steep, dingly dells, full of fern and wild garlic, towards Castle Gary. Then open countryside for the next section. Fields of buttercups, sunshine the wind on my back barrelling me along towards Somerton, the ancient capital of Wessex, where stone houses, an atmospheric market cross and the local populace gave a pleasant feel to the place. I picked up a tiny lane skirting a hill and realised the chalk downland had definitely been left at the Hampshire/Somerset border. The stone was red and the earth black peat and very different in character.I had a distant view of Glastonbury Tor as I followed the River’s Cary and Parrot. A long flat cycle with the wind in my face slowing me on what was the longest day of the ride so far. A final steep climb to my campsite at Ball Hill Farm, in an ancient apple orchard overlooking the Somerset levels. I pitched my tent on the only flat spot and had only the ewes and lambs for company. That evening I walked a mile to the nearest pub for an evening meal and retired to bed with the patchwork of fields far below being lit by the headlights of passing cars. [38 miles]
Slept really well in the tent although it started to drizzle at 4am.so I stayed in the tent until 7.30 am, but had to break camp in the rain. Cycled off, looking for breakfast and eventually found it in the form of a sandwich and takeaway coffee at a petrol station on the main road. I sheltered under the canopy as the rain came down. I knew route finding was going to be tricky today as the landmarks were sparse and the lacery of lanes giving you opportunities to miss the route. So it proved, as I gradually slogged my way up onto the plateau of the Blackdown Hills. I misjudged a junction and took a wrong turning. The problem was, there was no real village I was heading for and I left it too long before consulting the sat-nav on my phone. A energy sapping error. The only thing on the plateau of note was the banger racing track at Smeatharpe, which also incidentally was the border. I entered Devon my final county and toasted with a drink of water. I descended down into Broadhembury and cycled the last 12 miles fatigued, but happy to have crossed the hilliest section of the ride. I stayed in Broadclyst overnight and was able to dry and repack my camping gear. [36 miles]
An early start and an easy ride into Exeter,negotiating the suburbs to cross the River Exe and cycle on to Exminister. Some switchback riding over the Devon hills, slow descents on skiddy, twisting lanes followed by even slower ascents.
When riding it is weird that often wind is a larger factor than gradient. With a tailwind you can bomb up a hill and conversely with a tail wind you can be “treading treacle” going downhill. I skirted around Newton Abbott to hit a string of hamlets surrounded by Devon at it’s best. In one, a cottage on a crossroads was colourfully dressed for the Queen’s Platinum celebrations. Eventually I descended into Dartington to the steam engine line and the bridge over the River Dart. The final part of the trip took me through the cycle trails of the Dartington estate before hitting Totnes- my final destination on the trip. A celebratory wild swim in the river capped the day.[34 miles]
Most car drivers on the route had been super courteous, occasionally a driver had punched through on a single track section without a wave of thanks, but only a handful of times on the whole 250 mile trek. I was so pleased to have achieved it. My 66 year old body was feeling fit with no aches and pains.
The rail trip back to Suffolk awaited.