Oh Mr Claud Butler how I have missed you. Whilst your body may be rather battered and showing the ravages of age and many miles, who am I to judge!
Actually, despite a bit of rust and a few scuffs Claud the bike is running extremely well for his age and the minimum care I’ve subjected him to over the years.
Not bad considering I’ve crossed continents with him. But, since returning back to the UK, Claud has been enjoying a retirement of sorts as my shopping and beach bike with only the occasional foray back into touring.
I hadn’t realised just how long it’s been since I last went cycle touring on the road and on my own. Looking back my last trip was to Guernsey nearly 4 years ago, how did that happen?
Having done quite a lot of off-road bike packing in the last couple of years I’ve recently been itching to get Claud back on the tarmac and, whilst I’ve enjoyed the company of others, there’s nothing quite like the excitement of going it alone.
So, bags packed, chain cleaned and route planned I eagerly await my imminent departure for a 3 day nostalgia trip. The weather however has other ideas.
You’d think the middle of August and UK summer-time would be perfect for cycling and camping, long sunny days and dry roads. However, it seems we’re experiencing the wettest August on record, with my departure day set to expect 60 mile an hour winds and torrential rain and the country on storm alert. I do briefly still consider going but sanity (and strict orders from family) prevails.
Not wanting to be beaten though I spot a potential weather window a few days hence and, after some ninja-like planning, and half an hour with a credit card I’ve rearranged and re-routed my trip. What could go wrong?!
All sorted, I set out a few days later on a surprisingly sunny Sunday morning. There’s a lovely feeling about just shutting my front gate and pedalling off down the road. No need for stressful trips to the airport in the wee small hours, just me and Claud and a small mountain of luggage. Even short trips it seems necessitate bringing as much stuff for 3 days as you’d need for 3 months. That’s the joy of camping I suppose.
It is lovely though, riding out on familiar roads, which also helps me settle. After a temperamental start the Garmin 810 that I’ve borrowed grumbles into life and she’s now directing me along lanes both familiar and new. It’s the first time I’m not using a paper map and I’m slightly nervous. If the Garmin packs up I’ll be stranded, or at least I would be if my phone and second GPS device also fail (last minute panic bringing 2).
And that’s it, I’m underway! It feels both scary and wonderful to be going solo again. The wheels soon find their rhythm and my legs grudgingly get used to the once-familiar load they need to pedal.
The plan is for a 3 day tour from my home town to Newport in Wales, just over 120 miles away. I’ll cycle this over 2 days, 60 miles (100km) a day, with the final day spent taking the train part way back, before catching a ferry and finally disembarking to cycle the final 35ish miles home. Simple.
When searching for GPS files online I came across a wonderful mapping site called cycle.travel . This nifty tool allows you to plan either road or a mix of road and gravel routes anywhere in the world. In the UK it uses the National Cycle Route Network where possible and shows handy things such as elevation, mileage and even camping/accommodation. After you’ve plotted your route it can then be saved in a variety of electronic formats for use on GPS devices. I was like a child with a new toy.
So now, as I pedal, my plotted route is unfurling and I’m being sent down the first of a series of former railways lines which have been turned into cycle paths. Since Dr Beeching’s much hated closure of hundreds of branch lines and stations in the 1960’s a goodly proportion of our railway routes have been gravelled and given over to cycle and walking trails. The railway’s loss is our gain it seems. This first is a fine example even boasting old platforms and at one point a working steam locomotive driven by older gentlemen sporting oil stained overalls and big child-like grins.
It’s familiar territory but not. On my road bike I don’t venture down these paths and on my mountain bike they’re usually too tame. For Claud however they are perfect.
The day continues sunny and delightful as I wind my way out of familiar territory and along tiny country lanes filled with fields of corn and sunflowers, hedgerows, bees and at one point a herd of deer.
I’m so lost in my own thoughts and reverie that I nearly miss Garmin-lady’s directions into the drive of a big stately home. I obediently swerve across the road but thinking surely not, this doesn’t look right? But it is and, with some trepidation, I follow the cycle route signs through the middle of Stourhead country estate right past the front door of the mansion itself and exiting via a private wood.
And the surprises don’t stop there. Not much further down the road I round a sharp turn to find myself starting through the magnificent gatehouse arch towards none other than the magnificent Longleat House itself.
I wait nervously, expecting at any moment to be shouted at by security guards or arrested for trespassing, but nothing happens. Tentatively, I start pedalling, coasting down the quarter mile of ceremonial and deserted main approach towards the magnificent house. I will also admit to pretending I was the owner, arriving home to be greeted by my household staff….
The fantasy is blown as I intersect with the car-driving public as they wind their way towards the safari park and the famous drive through the lion enclosure. Everyone is jostling for space and, whilst still in shock at my grand arrival, I’m also slightly scared of the prospect of ending up in with the lions. Luckily the road peels off again just before the safari drive. Unluckily, the huge and ominous black cloud towards which I’ve been riding now decides to make its presence felt.
It disgorges its contents in spectacular style including thunder, lightning and biblical rain. I try to wait it out for a while but it’s cold and damp under the trees so, with a deep breath I take the plunge. Oh and it was a plunge, within minutes I’m beyond drenched. Water bubbles up through my shoes with every down-stroke of the pedals as it streams past us above the rims of Claud’s wheels. It coming down so hard that I can’t see the GPS, I can only hear the particular, smug beep it makes when you go off course. The tiny map is unreadable in the downpour so I blindly go up and down roads listening to the off-course trill and retracing my steps. Soaked, cold and lost I spot salvation in the shape of a ‘smoking shelter’ (a 3 sided shed structure) in the grounds of what looks like a nursing home. Beyond caring I make a bee-line for it and sit shivering in its semi-shelter watching the rain lash down. At one point someone comes out, gets in a car, waves at me and drives off. I don’t think they had the heart to move me on (or to get wet trying).
Finding a lessening in the deluge I grimly push Claud back out to the road and plough on. It’s sod’s law that I’m in the only big town I ride through today where directions are coming at me thick and fast but after much swearing and misdirecting I finally find the trail out of town. The campsite is now only 5 miles away but they are cold squishy ones, although the rain is at least easing as I pull onto site.
The wonderful owners of the aptly named Pitch Perfect couldn’t have been kinder and solicitously let me drip dry in their reception whilst bringing me a cup of tea and a refund (apparently I’d overpaid, they charge less for cyclists). Restored somewhat, a shower and a good meal in the local pub go a long way towards humanness and even if it is still raining un-forecast rain, as I curl up in my tent I am feeling, happy. Day one survived and, despite the soaking, enjoyed.
More un-forecast rain wakes me on day 2 but it’s dry and cosy in the tent and I really don’t want to get up.
Only the promise of a cooked breakfast supplied by a sweet little on-site catering van drags me out. The hot food and coffee instantly perks me up. Normally, on a longer tour I would be cooking most of my own food but just being away for a few days I’ve decided to indulge myself by mostly eating out.
Thankfully the drizzle is now waning as I pack up and say a fond farewell to a lovely campsite. Back on the road and the hot breakfast isn’t seeming such a great idea as I head straight into the first big hill of the day, after which the hills keep on coming, much steeper than yesterday’s mostly undulating terrain. Somerset keeps throwing lumpy tarmac at me. I’m still heading along very quiet back roads however, wonderfully, mostly traffic free but in decidedly poor shape, slews of mud, gravel and cow-dung drifting around huge potholes meaning I have to keep my eyes on the road for hazards.
The miles are going slowly today, bogged down by the hills, but at least the sun is out. Ten miles or so in I join what soon becomes a fantastic run of dedicated off-road cycleway, gravel and tarmac paths exclusively for bikes and pedestrians and skirting round or right through the bigger towns.
I’m soon riding through the city of Bath on some wonderful cycle path when ahead of me looms a tunnel mouth. I’m hesitating uncertainly when some cyclists shoot past me and disappear into the gloom. Nothing to do but switch on my lights and follow. Wow, it’s dark. Small recessed lights vaguely illuminate the walls but not the floor so you are nearly riding blind. It’s eerily quiet too, apart from the sound of water dripping and my own breathing. Occasionally a group of cyclists or walkers will appear suddenly out of the murk heading towards me and be swallowed up equally quickly. But the really strange thing is the tunnel just goes on, and on, and on and….. Just when it feels like I’ve entered some strange twilight zone I finally emerge the other side very grateful to see daylight.
Having never been a fan of confined spaces I’m glad at least it’s over until….. rounding the next bed there’s another tunnel mouth. Fortunately this one is far shorter than its sister. At the exit a handy sign now informs me that the first, Coombe down tunnel is actually just over a mile long and the longest cycling/walking tunnel in the UK. This, combined with the second, shorter Devonshire Tunnel was originally part of the Somerset & Dorset Railway which closed in 1966. Apparently there’s even an audio visual installation which plays music although I don’t recall hearing this but maybe it was drowned out by the sound of rampant claustrophobia!
After the tunnels the dreamy, traffic free tarmac bike path continues. Stretching for miles through the city and beyond it runs prettily past a canal and through woodland, all the time following the line of the old railway. At one point there’s another old station, this time converted into a café complete with maintenance tools and a bike pump. I think I’m in heaven.
Rested and refreshed after my station stop Claud and I are preparing to head onward when I get chatting to some other cyclists. According to them it sounded like, from now on, I’d be following a dedicated cycle path all the way to my next big marker, the Severn bridge across to Wales. Now, whether I misunderstood or I went wrong I’m not sure but sadly, soon after the café, Garmin-lady directs me away from the lovely bike lane and back on to the local roads.
The traffic begins to build now the nearer that I get to the bridge until at one point I wonder if I’ve somehow wandered on to the start of the motorway. Just as I’m about to be directed on to a horrendously busy multi-lane roundabout the ‘off course’ beep sounds.
With relief I turn back and find the only other option, an underpass. Twenty metres in and the ‘off course’ beep sounds again. I retrace my steps and pick my original direction which leads to more beeping. The only option now left is to cross the exit slip of the busy roundabout. As traffic zooms by I take a deep breath, spot a gap and dart across the lanes. Heart pounding Garmin-lady emits a final disgruntled ‘off course’ beep and freezes.
After much swearing I manage to restart her and find, thankfully that I’m back on track. Until, that is, a few metres later when the road she wants me to take sports a big – ‘Closed for Maintenance’ sign. I can see the bridge at this point; I’m practically on top of it I just can’t get there. It takes several more hairy roundabout exit crossings before I finally pick up an alternative bike route one which thankfully does lead onto the bridge.
Despite the stress of getting there I’m childishly excited about riding over the bridge, one that will also deposit me in a new country as it marks the border between England and Wales.
Since 1966 the Severn motorway suspension bridge (Pont Hafren in Welsh) has enabled traffic to cross the vast river Severn between Aust (England) and Chepstow (Wales). Whilst a newer, larger bridge was constructed some years later to ease traffic congestion and offer a more direct route for those travelling from the south, the original structure remains the best route for cyclists and hence our presence.
It’s a windy ride to the apex but I enjoy looking at the wide expanse of the river Severn and the beautiful shape of the new Severn Bridge a few miles down-river. The bike lane is well-separated from the main traffic and allows for a more relaxed crossing, despite the traffic fumes and it feels wonderful to arrive in Wales on the great downhill swoop from the top of the arch. Crossing complete and the very urban tarmac gives way surprisingly soon to country lanes again. Unlike yesterday the sun is shining and I can relax a bit and enjoy the rural surroundings.
These continue, with the route winding in and out of quiet roads and unpaved gravel tracks. The headwind unfortunately is the only annoyance. I’m starting to get tired now too but push on, eager to cover the last few miles.
The ride in to Newport city centre to find my campsite is, as expected. Everyone I’d talked to had helpfully pointed out what an un-lovely industrial city Newport is. But, for all that, the bike lanes were well marked with some nice routes through urban common land as I wound my way across the sprawling expanse, past docks, warehouses, industrial units and back out into suburbia.
The very welcome Camping and Caravan Club site (the closest to the city centre I could find) is situated in the grounds of a stately home and parkland, a strange find indeed on the outskirts of the city. I nearly had a major meltdown when asking directions to the campsite at the house’s gift shop and the sales adviser said it was caravans only! Fortunately my booking confirmation and the site staff said otherwise as I very gratefully checked in after a long 63 miles. At least it wasn’t raining……
Seems I spoke too soon as I lay in my tent listening to more un-forecast rain that evening and throughout the night. Fortunately however the next morning dawned bright and clear, if not a little cold. At just a few degrees Celsius my breath was misting the air as I rushed through packing up my tent, hurrying in an effort to keep warm.
I wanted to leave plenty of time too to find the main Newport station and, riding in to the city centre, I was extremely glad it was still early, the traffic being light and pedestrians few. I love cities in the early morning, when it feels like the streets belong to you and you can make much needed u-turns across the road when you go wrong. Several times!
Due to the lack of time I had left I’d opted to catch a train most, but not all of the way home to Southampton, the nearest stopping point. Given this opportunity there was definitely one thing I wanted to tick off my ‘to do’ list. Catching the Hythe Ferry.
Even though I’ve lived locally for a number of years I’d never been on it, until now.
The ferry service is one of the oldest in England and runs between Southampton and Hythe in the New Forest. According to the historians it’s been doing so in some form since 1293 when it was discovered that Hythe provides a natural gravel bank forming both a sheltered bay and a good place for landings. It also significantly cuts the travel time between the city and the New Forest (and my route home).
Disembarking the train at Southampton after a very relaxing 2 hour journey I pedal the short distance, only a mile, past the ancient city walls (and not so ancient shopping malls) to the Town Quay. After a short wait Claud and I proudly lead the queue of passengers aboard and who luckily help give him a shove around a particularly tight corner.
The 20 minute journey across the water goes by all too quickly as I wave at the other shipping and wonder at the enormous cruise ships which also dock nearby.
On landing I discovered that Hythe also seems to boast the UK’s oldest pier train which runs along one of the world’s longest piers. Unfortunately for me this historical train doesn’t allow bikes and I’m also not allowed to cycle along the pier, according to the many signs. Nothing else for it and Claud and I begin the long walk back to dry land, all 640 metres of it.
From here on in I’m in mostly familiar territory although the joy of my new planning tool means that Claud and I get directed on to some fantastic new trails as well as the familiar favourites. My final 25 miles are through the stunning ancient woodland known as the New Forest National Park, famous for its herds of roaming native ponies which stoically wander along the roads blocking the traffic. It’s also known for its ancient Oak forest, with trees that are centuries old. Reputedly Henry the VIII hunted here and, at times, away from the tarmac it doesn’t take much imagination to conjure up a Tudor hunting party or two.
There’s not too much time for daydreaming though as I push on a bit. Mostly due to a large black rain cloud which paces me less than a mile to my west. I can actually see the rain coming down but, despite a few errant drops, amazingly I remain dry as I navigate the final few miles and arrive once again at my front gate.
It’s less than 3 whole days since I departed but it feels like I’ve packed in weeks of happenings.
All told, 1 train ride , 1 boat ride, 2 nights of camping, 2 countries, 151 miles of cycling, over 6,200 feet of climbing, 1 drenching and an unquantifiable amount of enjoyment. Cycle-touring rocks.
Now, to begin unpacking.