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Four Counties Tour, Central Southern England

On 8th July 2021 I set off on my first multi-day tour for almost 20 years; kids, work, and life commitments pulling me away from pursuing bike touring. In 2019 I decided it was time to go touring once more, and excitedly planned for a 5 day tour in summer 2020. That was not to be, but after a long period of anticipation, heightened by attending the virtual cycle touring festival earlier this year, the day came to pack the bike and go. I serviced ‘Killick’ (a Dawes 1-Down I purchased new in 2000) and got the panniers, also over 20 years old, out of the loft. First challenge was the panniers had deteriorated somewhat in storage, but oh well, the weather forecast was improving and mostly dry, so a bit of lost weatherproofing wouldn’t matter, would it?

Day 1

Hythe (Hampshire) to Moreton (Dorchester); 60 miles

A mix of excitement and trepidation marked the start of day 1; excited because I was finally setting off on my long planned for trip - trepidation, because with lockdown and working from home I was not commuting to work by bike, so I was concerned my fitness might not match the demands I would put on my legs! The first day saw me heading west from home into the New Forest on NCN Route 2. I’m lucky enough to live less than 5 minutes from the New Forest, so the journey took me straight into wide open heathland.

Familiar paths took me through the gravel lanes of Denny Wood and onwards to Brockenhurst, from where (as far as Route 2 was concerned) NCN2 was terra incognita for me. In Brockenhurst I just about avoided the first ‘dooring’ of my life, only just avoiding the thrown open car door by what must have been a hair’s breadth. Heart beating a little faster, I tried to put it out of my mind and vowed to give parked cars a wider berth in future!

Leaving Brockenhurst, it was a joy to travel slowly and take in the sights and smells of forest and heath, without any particular deadline to meet, other than getting to the campsite later in the day. Coffee and cake at the Old Station Tearooms at Holmsley (very tasty cake anda a bike friendly place) powered me onward. A spot of rain didn’t dampen my enthusiasm and quicker than I expected I was in Christchurch. Although it was early for lunch, I didn’t fancy finding somewhere to eat in the metropolis of Bournemouth, so I stopped at the welcoming Tuckton Tea Gardens. This proved to be a good idea, as Bournemouth itself didn’t inspire me much. Out of season, the whole of the seafront can be ridden by bike, forming a flat route a few miles long right round to Sandbanks, but from July to September-ish it’s closed to bikes except for one short section. To be honest though I think I’d always opt for the alternative road route, which is quite pretty to the west of Bournemouth, and crosses a very impressive suspension bridge over a leafy valley, which was an unexpected discovery.

At Sandbanks I took the ferry across to Studland, and after waiting for the impatient car drivers to clear the road ahead, ambled along until Route 2 struck off on a gravel path westward towards Dorchester. Things got a little trickier here, as sections of Route 2 along this stretch are narrow, rocky and in places very muddy, but Killick and I got through relatively unscathed. Some pleasant trundling through quiet lanes took me to Wool, where the Black Bear Inn provided a nice meal in warm sunshine. I camped at Frome Meadow Campsite near Moreton, and on the way I popped into the graveyard of St Nicholas’ Church to see the grave of T.E. Lawrence.

Here came my first lesson; when my son tells me the tent I was taking is small, I should have believed him! I’d gone with a cheap tent we’d bought a few years ago (£5 in a sale - 80% off), knowing it was cheap, but thinking it would be okay for the dry, warm weather that was forecast when I left. I’d never used it, but my son had done his DofE with it, so it should be OK, right?

Day 2

Moreton (Dorchester) to Taunton; 53 miles

I was meeting my son in Dorchester who joined me for day 2. While waiting for his train to arrive, I decided that the £5 tent wasn’t going to cut it. Not only was it too small even for me, it was soaking wet despite there having been no rain overnight. Two of us were never going to fit, especially as my son is 6’3”! So, a quick trip to a camping shop as soon as it opened and I had a decent tent, one which I hope will do me well on this and future trips.

After the obligatory coffee, my son and I headed north on Route 26, which I’d told my son would be a gentle uphill along the Frome Valley cycleway. A few miles on I had to admit that it was a bit more hilly than I had expected! Still, very pretty, with varied countryside and reasonably surfaced off-road sections, just about acceptable for a loaded touring bike. We actually struggled to find somewhere decent to eat along this route, with options very few on the ground, so I’d recommend taking on food at Dorchester. In the end we snacked all the way to Montecute, where we arrived just before 4pm to find all the pubs had stopped serving food. Happily we were able to top up water bottles, but then had the hard climb to the top of Ham Hill where we found an excellent view and an equally excellent, and very needed, meal at The Prince of Wales pub.

Time was getting on, so on we went, flying down the other side of Ham Hill and weaving our way through small lanes to join Route 33 towards Taunton. The skies were turning grey, and by the time we reached our camping spot near Taunton, rain was falling. This would set the scene for the next 18 hours. Tired but happy, an early night was spent listening to rain pattering on the satisfyingly waterproof flysheet of my new tent.

Day 3

Taunton to Winscombe; 38 miles

I’d planned a short day on day 3 as I was staying the night with family who live close to the Strawberry Line and I wanted to get there for lunch. With sleep a distant memory by 6am, we were up and packed and ready to go by 7. My brother had spent the previous night bikepacking somewhere on route, so I was keen to get on and meet up so we could spend some time catching up as we rode.

First though, some logistics were called for; my son who hadn’t really done much prep for the challenge of cycling all day found he couldn’t even get on his bike! Alternative arrangements were made to get him to Winscombe (thankfully by happy circumstance, much easier than might have been otherwise). I set off alone a little after 7am in pouring rain, wondering if I was going to make my self-imposed deadline.

From Taunton, Route 33 joins the Bridgwater-Taunton canal, which apart from being flat, sports a half decent towpath which I had entirely to myself all the way to Bridgwater. I was particularly keen to do this section, as the canal itself formed part of the Taunton Stop-Line, a World War 2 defence line built in case of German invasion. Many pillboxes and anti-tank defences are still in place beside the towpath every few hundred meters, and some bridges still have the marks where explosive charges were emplaced underneath them to blow them up if invasion did occur. It really is an impressively well preserved relic of the past.

Meeting up with my brother beneath a bridge at Bawdrip, we headed north as the rain stopped and the skies began to brighten. His single-speed bikepack set-up was delightfully minimal and made my four-pannier set-up look like a juggernaut by comparison! A great morning spent cycling across the Somerset levels and on to Cheddar, Axbridge and the Strawberry Line. By 1130 we made it to our destination - much quicker than expected and my legs were telling me so! Thankfully the sun came out and I could dry my kit.

The contents of my panniers felt somewhat damp though. Hmm.

Day 4

Winscombe to Warminster (via Bristol and Bath); 62 miles

The longest day of the tour, and I was feeling a little trepidation again. So far my legs had coped well, but that morning I felt tired. However, with my brother once more accompanying me for a distance towards Bristol, the morning, sunny and warm, passed by pleasantly. Strawberry Line complete, we headed out on back lanes and it was still quite early when I got to Bristol, my brother having peeled off to head for the hills and home. Bristol is an interesting city and it was pleasant to cycle through it, stopping for coffee and a quick photo by the big Sustrans Cycle Network map. The shared paths along the harbour were too busy to cycle at any speed, and it’s actually better to push. There’s plenty to see, so the slow pace was no bother.

I’d been looking forward to this day and the Bristol-Bath cycle lane, which I’d never cycled before. A pleasant hour and a half was spent heading towards Bath, climbing steadily at first and then rolling downhill. The path was interesting with some good history present and old, overgrown stations to explore and it was enjoyable,, but that proved to be just a prelude to the next ex-railway paths; the two tunnels greenway on route 244, and the Colliers Way on route 24. I hadn’t realised until I entered it that one of the tunnels on this particular greenway is the longest walking/cycling tunnel in Britain. At 1.6km, it felt very long indeed, and despite it being a Sunday, for the most part I had the tunnel all to myself, and it was awesome. The tunnels have music piped through them, which was a nice touch. Lunch at the end of the Two Tunnels greenway offered me the opportunity to contemplate the increasingly heavy rain and wonder how that would play out for the rest of the day.

After a short stint along some remote lanes after Wellow and with a few sharp hills, the Colliers Way took me to Frome; another quiet cycleway which with the rain was so green in places it practically made my eyes vibrate.

By the time I reached Frome the rain was falling from a slate grey sky, and I was getting cold. I realised I was soaking wet, despite wearing a supposedly good waterproof, and the damp was beating the insulating properties of my clothing. Lesson 2 and 3 combined quickly; lesson 2 was that good waterproofs only work well if you make sure they are worn correctly; I had the arms done up over my gloves and this had allowed water to wick up my arms to a degree that amazed me. And lesson 3 is that assuming your 20 year old pannier rain covers will still be waterproof when you need them to be after being in the loft for ten years. They won’t!

Frome was, I reckoned, close to my destination for the day, Botany Camping, just the other side of Longleat. I reached Frome at 4pm, and as many shops were closing early for the Euro 2020 final, I stocked up on food to take with me to eat in the tent. The last few miles were through the Longleat estate - a highlight of the day of many highlights, despite the fact I timed my arrival with the park’s closing time. I ended up waiting almost half an hour for all the cars to leave so that the road was quiet once more. What I hadn’t realised was just how much of a climb it would be to reach the campsite! It took me an hour to cover just a few miles, and by the time I reached the campsite at I was beat.

It was also raining hard still, and the campsite almost deserted. I put the tent up quick and got in, swapped wet clothes for dry and spent the evening listening to the rain and, as my phone was complaining about the damp, trying to work out from the distant cheers and shouts whether England had won the match or not. I went to sleep thinking it must have been a win...

Day 5

Warminster to Hythe (Hampshire); 53 miles

Checking my phone (now dry and working) at 0545 I confirmed the rain had stopped, but also that another heavy bout of rain was due to reach me at 6. It’s amazing what you can do when motivated, and before the rain started I was packed and the tent put away. I spent some time sat under a handy awning watching water pour off the canvas, talking to the ducks and feeding friendly birds crumbs from my emergency oat bar.

By 0730 the rain had eased a little and I headed off to Warminster for breakfast at Morrisons cafe, who did a pretty good full english, and waited for the rain to stop. Apparently the rain had other ideas, so at 9 I gave up waiting and started off for home. At times it felt like winter, with lanes completely flooded and water running in small streams down the side of the road. Despite that, route 24 to Salisbury was amazingly scenic, with loads of thatched cottages, ancient churches (1048 I think one of them was), and an interesting variety of bus-stop designs (funny what you notice when you consider every bus stop as potential shelter from the rain).

At Salisbury I saw the first cycle tourists since Dorchester; we waved at each other from across the road but traffic prevented any discourse. However, in Salisbury as I was pushing my bike through the town looking for a good lunch stop, a gent stopped to chat about touring by bicycle and we spent half an hour discussing the merits of slow travel and pros and cons of bikes versus recumbents for comfort and touring.

The last stretch home took me through Downton and Nomansland, through the New Forest once more and home. By then it was hot and sunny but very humid, and within an hour of reaching my front door, the heavens opened and thunder and lightning rent the sky. A raucous end to a fabulous trip!

Link to Photos here - https://photos.app.goo.gl/xFbnYRK1arXeJE5u8

Total mileage: 266

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