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The best laid schemes

Friday 16 September
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This scheme wasn't even best laid. It deserved to 'gang agley' in the words of Robert Burns. It was a highly optimistic scheme even by my slightly optimistic standards: to ride the 144 mile trip from our canal boat in the Midlands back home to our house in Debenham, Suffolk. In a day. Do-able for sure but on my boat bike – a folding Airnimal Joey which I'd never gone more than 40 miles on in a single trip, that was the catch.

I did have a fall-back plan – ride to Cambridge, 90 miles, bail out onto a train for a hop to my nearest station and then pedal the last ten miles home. But even that fall-back fell over backwards.

I had a route, of course. A mix of quiet roads and NCN cycleways. I was familiar with the starting miles and the finishing ones. The large bit in the middle was a black hole into which I fell.

The day began brightly; a little later than it should (blame that extra coffee at breakfast) but sunny and the Airnimal, never a lightweight but burdened now with a modestly full pannier coped okay. The 11 speed Alfine hub gear has what I came to call my 'crawler gear' for spinning steadily up hills. There are a few in that area – enough for the Grand Union Canal builders to spend eleven years of the late 18th century digging the Braunston Tunnel to get through them. Braunston, if you've not been there, is worth a visit: the busy canal hub lies below the villge and fine church where famous boating families have their graves.

My route I'm afraid wasn't via Circling south of industrial Daventry meant hard hills for my ancient legs so I went round the top on equally quiet roads, via Welton, Norton, Whilton (all canal viewing spots) and on what was called 'Roman Road', a remarkably quiet route bringing me via the bustling but attractive village/suburb of Duston on the edge of Northampton. The local Co-op was a refreshment stop – a robot accosted me on the way in; seeming you can order food to be delivered locally by it. And there was the first of the many seemingly abandoned electric scooters I would see.

More worrying, but I didn't know it yet, was the first of my 'Road Closed Ahead' signs. My usual principle is to ignore these; the road is rarely closed for walkers and cyclists if you're polite. As here: skirt round the bollards, find a foot path round the back of some houses and return to the road via a gap in the hedge.

Northampton I had been worried about; busy cities and bikes don't go well together. It's a bit of a 'seen better days' spot with the too familiar modern chain stores amid scruffiness and decay. But fortunately it's on the River Nene, which flows from the Midlands east to the sea, has a decent river front park, Becketts Park, and a pretty well signposted network of paths and cycleways to take you there. I ate a sandwich and, to my surprise, saw a kingfisher fly and land in a branch across the river. Northampton is a nightmarishly car-centric place, cut and spliced with fast moving highways on which bikes are not even allowed even if they were crazy enough to want to be there.

Fortunately there is a route out eastwards, the Nene Way, even though after  winding through the park it effectively becomes a pavement beside the six lane A45. Noisy, smelly and sometimes bumpy with the heave of tree routes. After a polluted mile or two it veers off onto the Northampton Washlands, a vast flood plain created to absorb the Nene's surplus flow and save flooding downstream – it might look a tranquil river but it has a huge catchment and can turn to a torrent after little rain. And then came closure two. A roughly drawn arrow pointing pedestrians across onto the grass. I tried my usual method: ignore and carry on. The path was blocked utterly; pipework was being laid and there was no way through. I retraced, followed the sign and found no more, just a fence, a stile (trying getting your bike over that!) and beyond it a river lock. I found a gate and got through the fence, I grappled with the self-closing gates of the lock walkway and wrestled my bike up and down the steps. I came out the other side, found the footpath...five metres down below a road bridge. The only way to reach it was to scramble down a muddy slope.

Back on the Nene Way, off the A45 and finally heading towards Cogenhoe (prenounced cook-know), a hilltop village above the river. I know it's a hilltop village; I rode up to it, down the other side and into Road Closed number three. There was no way through; there was even a man whose only job was to tell me there was no way through. I was not going to Whiston, or Grendon or anywhere else down that road. It was 'more than his job's worth' to look the other way and let me slip past.

This was the deal breaker. There was no easy way out: the route cuts between the suicidal A45 and the almost as busy A428 Northampton-Bedford road. My ride through the pretty villages and gentle undulations of the Nene Valley was disappearing. And – this is the good planning bit – the only GPS I had was my iPhone. My route notes were on a slip of paper I could now throw away. And my phone was steadily running down. So I opted for a route i vaguely knew from driving before the A45 became a super-highway; the old main road to Wellingborough, Irthlingborough and then across country towards my route once more. Except it was no longer my route: I was so far behind schedule that Cambridge rail station became the goal and St Neots rather than St Ives the en route target. A coffee stop in Higham Ferrers – a little pearl of a town among swinish over developments – gave my phone a brief revival and I headed across country towards Yelden and Swineshead. Pretty roads, except the road to Yelden wasn't there. "I've been here seven years and it's never been a road," said the security guard of the wind farm site. "We've told Google Maps, the Ordnance Survey; we've had delivery drivers, cyclists, supermarket delivery vans, all sorts. But go down that track (pointing to a rough footpath), it'll become a concrete road and through the gate at the end is Yelden."

It was there and so eventually was St Neots. But by now I was tiring; Cambridge was nearly two hours away. Plan Three - train to Stowmarket and stay the night with daughter who lives there - was dissolving too. Instead I would find a hotel in St Neots. Have a shower, watch tv, a nice meal and a beer. Except there were no hotel rooms! The first was full. Somewhere was a Premier Inn but I didn't find it. The town centre had noisy pubs but no hotel rooms. Surely there would be one on the road to Cambridge? My phone was now flat again. It was getting darker. My rear light was flat. Luckily I had a spare. The A428 (yes that road again) was narrow and busy. No place to be in the growing dark. Somewhere in the dark out there was Caxton Gibbet, one noose I hoped to reach. I did. No hotel: McDonalds, Shell garage, kebab van. But there was a basic hotel two minutes up the road. "A room" I begged. "Sorry, we are fully booked". I almost cried. "You could have a room in the staff quarters maybe." I would have slept in the kitchen! It was a room: no tv, no shower, no beer but a bed. I walked back down to McDonalds, ate cold chips, bought a can of beer in the garage and walked back. Tomorrow is another day. And it was.


Fri 16 Sep, 16:04

There was a 'Day Two' to this tale but somehow I deleted it about half way through. Seemed appropriate to write 'Road Closed' and forget it.

I had no more mishaps; I got home.

The End