Exploring around the Midlands

2 Days Exploring Enigma and Eleanor

Just a few days after my visit to Dante’s Inferno and I was looking at adding a few more miles to my September itinerary. My other half was attending a conference at Cranfield University, a few miles east of Milton Keyes, and I was going up as well to sneak into her room in the evenings, and explore a different bit of the country.

After driving up, meeting her at Bedford station, and driving us over to the University (which is located in a village in the middle of open countryside and not easily accessible without a car) I unloaded the bike from the boot of the car and got ready for a first trip.

Today would a fairly easy ride. I looped around the airfield which sits at the centre of the campus and then headed South for a mile or two into Salford, a pretty village with a lovely church with some excellent bells in a fantastic wooden frame on one end.

Salford Church
Salford Church

The church itself was shut so I was soon back on my way and didn’t get far before coming upon an old sign village dating to the 1951 Festival of Britain. I do love coming across bits and pieces that still hang around from the Festival, so this was a very welcome and unexpected treat that got me very excited!

Festival of Britain sign, Salford
Festival of Britain sign, Salford

I headed on, over the M1, and entered Milton Keynes at Wavendon in its south east corner. As I suspected might be the case, Milton Keynes turned out to be mostly a pleasant cycling experience. Its famous grid road layout with roundabout after roundabout was a great example of road planning of its time. Another characteristic of those times was the provision alongside the roads of a good layout for cyclists and walkers.

Milton Keynes Cycling
Milton Keynes Cycling

The riding was a bit stop-start at the various junctions (although most of the bigger roundabouts had good underpasses for cycling across) but before long I had ridden to Bletchley and was pulling up and parking my bike in one of the old bike sheds built for the code breakers at Bletchley Park in World War II.

Parking up at Bletchley
Parking up at Bletchley

The site and museum was my targeted destination for this outing and I spent a couple of fascinating hours exploring this wonderful site.  I really cannot recommend a visit here strongly enough and would happily have spent longer here.  I would also have liked to have been able to visit the neighbouring National Museum of Computing as well however it was not open on the day of my visit; I shall have to come back!

I did need to get back to Cranfield though, so eventually I headed back to the bike shed and rode off again.

Rather than heading straight back I planned to complete a loop. I had to double back a short way but then headed North when I reached the River Ouzel and later, The Grand Union Canal. It was quite interesting to see another side of Milton Keynes available from this route. Between the River and the Canal I came across signs of some of the old settlements that pre-date the New Town such as Simpson village with a lovely selection of medieval buildings hiding here in the middle of this most modern of towns.

By the Grand Union Canal
By the Grand Union Canal

I continued along the Canal until getting close to the southern edge of Newport Pagnell at which point I headed Eastwards again and rode across the low rolling hills through North Crawley and back to Cranfield to complete what was a rather nice ‘warm up’ ride in advance of the next day.

The following morning my other half woke and went for breakfast and then off to her conference. As I wasn’t officially staying there I couldn’t get any food at the hotel so instead just got ready for a day’s riding. There was a Spar shop on the campus so I’d pop in there. However when I got to the shop there was nothing for me (the hot sandwiches counter was empty and the coffee machine broken). I got back to the bike and for the first few miles headed back in the opposite direction to the one I had used to return to base the previous afternoon; through North Crawley and back towards Newport Pagnell.

Today I headed into the town centre where a handy bakery in the rather attractive high street provided me my missed breakfast.  I ate at a table on the pavement as the day started to warm up and was now starting to feel more relaxed and ready for the day.

I headed North West out of the town along a B road. There was a bit of traffic around but on the whole this was pleasant riding. The road was climbing up most of the way but it was nothing more than a nice warm up. I left the road at Salcey Forest which marked the summit of that set of climbs and I subsequently began the drop back down as I rode towards the southern edge of Northampton.

I had no intention of riding through the middle of this busy town, however one of my main ‘objectives’ for the day was to be found a very short distance on the main road into the town.  So rather than immediately following the cycle ring road, I initially followed the main roads until there, by the right hand side of the carriageway, was the Hardingstone Eleanor Cross.

The sorry state of Hardington Cross
The sorry state of Hardington Cross

The Hardingstone cross in one of just three of the original twelve Eleanor Crosses that still survive. The crosses were placed to mark the locations at which the body of Eleanor of Castile, the wife of King Edward I, had rested on its return to Westminster Abbey following her death near Lincoln in 1290.

Selfie with Eleanor
Selfie with Eleanor

Despite having survived this long the cross is currently in very poor repair and at the time of my visit was fenced off. It was a huge shame to see such a beautiful and important national monument in such a sorry state of disrepair. I understand that Northampton Borough Council are now commencing works to restore the monument. I do hope that this is indeed the case and that it can be restored and have access to it improved so that it regain the status which it so deserves.

Save Hardington Cross
Save Hardington Cross

I headed back on my way, back through some underpasses under the busy main roads, and rejoined the cycle route around the town’s edge.

Northampton
Northampton

The route took me through Hardingstone village (pretty) and then alongside the A45 (less so but still some decent riding well segregated from the dual carriageway). The cycle route jumps between the roadside and bank of the River Nene and progress was fairly slow; but pleasant.

Nene Valley
Nene Valley

Eventually at the South East corner of the town I diverted onto some small country lanes and headed back out to the countryside from the village of Ecton.

Though the cycle paths around the edge of Northampton had been fine it was nice to be back onto open roads, even though they also coincided with the next set of hills. A drop and a climb around Sywell Reservoir got the legs back into action after the slow urban cycle paths. Mears Ashby is a pretty village and I took 5 minutes to rest on a bench and read some signs detailing the sad account of the crash of two American Bombers during World War II.

Meet the Lieutenant
Meet the Lieutenant

A few more lovely open miles led me across to Little Harrowden and then dropped down towards the railway line by the old Finedon station on my way into that village, passing an old windmill/house conversion on the way.

Finedon Windmill
Finedon Windmill

Riding into Finedon I noticed the church was having a summer fete so I leant by bike against a tree in the graveyard, then went in to look around the church and to partake of some tea and cake. There was unfortunately, no sign of the vicar, one Rev. Richard Coles, but its a lovely church and the villagers were friendly so I’ll forgive him.

The tea and cake was great but I still needed to drop into the Co-op to get some more water (and a sneaky Calippo) before heading back off Northwards.

Finedon Obelisk
Finedon Obelisk

I followed the A6 for a few miles but it was easy going; it was not busy and the surface was nice and fast. It wasn’t long before I peeled off into Burton Latimer and rode through Barton Seagrove; which is a sentence that sounds more like it should be in the salacious memoirs of a 1950s Hollywood Starlet.

Somewhere just to the west of me was Kettering but I couldn’t see any sign of it and instead was continuing along some lovely country roads across a pretty bridge over the River Ise at Warkton, and up the hill into the picture postcard pretty Weekley.

The Old Post Office, Weekley
The Old Post Office, Weekley

Next up just off to the right was Boughton House – a rather amazing looking stately home in some classic landscaped parklands with herds of deer running free.

Boughton Park and House
Boughton Park and House

From Boughton I dropped back down to the Ise valley at Geddington; my target destination for the day.  I rolled across the 13th Century bridge back over the River Ise and into the centre of the village.

Geddington Bridge
Geddington Bridge

Geddington is the home of another of the surviving, indeed the best surviving, of the Eleanor Crosses. Compared to Hardingstone the cross here is much better cared for and I spent a good few minutes walking around admiring the various statues and carvings on its faces.

I then took a wander into the churchyard where I was ‘accosted’ by the villages resident historian, Kam. I had been planning on a quick wander around the church but instead I got a very full and thorough tour around the church. I wasn’t totally convinced of all of the stories that Kam was telling me (this is the most interesting church in England apparently) but he is certainly a captivating guide and the church does have a lot of great features including some lovely old tombs and monuments.

I thanked Kam and left him as he was starting the tour again with another couple who had wandered in.  I headed back to my bike. At the outset of the trip I had considered making this a round circuit back to Cranfield but I was hot and tired and the day was now a bit later than planned so instead I carried on a few miles further North into Corby, found the station, and climbed onto a train that was heading back down to Bedford.

Taking the easy way back to Bedford
Taking the easy way back to Bedford

The journey was relaxing and allowed me to get refreshed enough to make the ten and a bit mile trip back to the University. The journey back was quite straightforward and pleasant.  Leaving the city was a little slow but I was soon on open roads on my way back to Cranfield. The main highlight of this little extra warm down ride was rounding off the two days in the saddle by finding another piece of Festival of Britain history in the form of The Festival pub in Upper Shelton.  Happy Days.

The Exhibition, Festival of Britain Pub
The Exhibition, Festival of Britain Pub

Overall Stats:

Dante’s Inferno…

…and Deal

A few weeks after coming back from my ‘Four War Tour‘ in Belgium and France and I was ready to tackle my next big day ride.  I wasn’t planning on anything too adventurous and nothing that would take me far from some of regular riding routes.  The aim for the day would be to explore the old coal mining area of Kent; I’d been close before on the previous trips to that part of the county, but I was less aware then of the geographical details of Kent’s coalfield locations and had skirted past some of the key sites.

I was up fairly early and on the road from home at about 8.30am.  Leaving Hastings by climbing out of town on the main road at rush hour is never ideal but I’m used to it now and I don’t have to go too far before turning off onto the quiet lane to Pett village.  I’ve used this route for a couple of years now as my default way out East.  When I first started riding around here 5 or 6 years ago I would follow NCN Route 2 out of town and down Battery Hill through Fairlight.  However the road surface on that big steep hill is now so awful I don’t feel safe on it.  Although that is the higher class road and the one used by bus service to Rye, it remains dangerous whilst the quiet country lane through Pett has been recently resurfaced and is a joy to ride along; joining the main road on the flat by the Western end of the Royal Military Canal at Pett Level.

The wind was nicely behind me as I headed along the sea front; firstly behind the sea wall between Pett and Winchelsea Beach and then on the edge of the beach itself through to Rye Harbour.  Up, into, and through Rye. Join the Royal Military Road next to the Canal, still with wind assistance, and then continue on the flat through to Appledore.

After the flat of the canal I hung a left through the village centre and up into the low rolling hills on this North East corner of the Weald through Woodchurch (its church is made of stone).  On the climb out of there I stopped to remove my base layer; the day was warm now and I wasn’t going to be needing it now.  That gave enough time for a small club ride to come up past me and having stripped, redressed, and got back under way I slotted in at the rear of their group for a mile or two towards Shadoxhurst where I swung off towards Ashford.

Ashford is a town that I greatly admire for its provision of cycle paths.  It’s not the prettiest town but it has an excellent network with only one minor issue; on an all too regular basis the cycle paths and foot paths swap sides.  One minute you’re cycling on the left; next you turn a corner and you’re supposed to be on the right.  However it wasn’t that confusion that led to me riding into a bollard.  I was looking out to see if I was right in thinking that there was a shop nearby where I could get some more water.  There was but I was looking around so much that I didn’t notice the great big chunk of metal in the middle of the path.  It was a very slow speed impact and I think I got away without anyone noticing.  It didn’t stop my riding for the day.  In fact it wasn’t until another couple of weeks later when I tried to remove my front wheel to load the bike into the car that I realised that I had bent the central pin.  I managed about another 1,000 miles before I finally got it fixed just last week; I just had to put a wrench into my saddle bag to make sure I could remove the wheel in case of punctures.

Ashford Park
Ashford Park

The mishap was at least of value though as I spotted the Tesco Metro I was looking around for and topped up on water and snacks and then headed back out of Ashford through the Northern side of the town in the direction of Wye.

Wye left to rot
Wye left to rot

The cycle route North East out of Ashford is one I’ve ridden a few times and very much enjoy. Either side of Wye some quiet and pretty back roads help the miles to tick nicely by. Wye itself is a pretty village with some good cafes.  I didn’t stop at any of them today though, I still had too many miles planned left to ride.

Tree Knots
Tree Knots

The cycle path continues following the roads for a few miles until they run out and the cycle route continues on a dedicated track along the side of the hill roughly following the route of the train line.  After rising above the tracks, a small opening in the trees indicates that you have reached the lovely viewing spot at Catha’s Seat.  The seat, with built in bike rack storage (not being used by me in the picture below!) is a memorial to Catharine Keegan who was involved in the setup of this cycle route from Ashford to Keegan.  I did not know Catha and have no connection to her but always like to rest here and raise a water bottle in her honour; the bench is a lovely spot on a great little cycle path.

Catha's Seat
Catha’s Seat

The path now starts to drop back down to the valley and into and through Chartham where you join the riverside path next to the Great Stour.  The next couple of miles must be (on a good day; and I’ve only experienced good riding here) amongst the most bucolic on the National Cycle Network as it winds next to the lovely clear waters through the water meadows.

The Great Stour River Meadows
The Great Stour River Meadows

On the approach into Canterbury I turned back and headed out along a narrow and quiet lane back alongside the railway lines.  I was aware of a special treat for rail nerds along this lane but, until today, I had never investigated it.  What is it?  Well – just watch my lovely video!

Having played on the railway tracks long enough I headed back into Canterbury.  Today, other than pausing briefly to bemoan the continuing deterioration of the state of the Castle, I rode straight through the city, heading out South Eastwards having joined cycle route number 16 which crosses the North Kent Downs in the direction of Dover.  I wasn’t planning on following that route too far however.

Canterbury Castle
Canterbury Castle

I followed it across the open land to Patrixbourne and then on towards Aylesham.  However rather than following the route which skirts around the latter village I headed in to explore it as this was one of the places that I had come to see.  Aylesham was developed in the 1920s to accommodate workers coming into work at the new coal mines that were being opened in Kent around that time.  It was associated with the nearby Snowdown Colliery.  It was planned to grow to hold around 30,000 people but only about 1,000 houses were ever built for the colliery as the Kent seams never proved as profitable as hoped.

Water Tower on the Kent Downs
Water Tower on the Kent Downs

I rode into the village, stopping to get some supplies for lunch at the One Stop on the way, and then rode into the small park in the centre of the village.  I sat on one of a number of benches that commemorated the mining community.

Aylesham Mining Benches
Aylesham Mining Benches

A part of the pit workings in the park with some notice boards tell the story of the mine and the village.  Having seen me looking at the boards a gentleman came out to speak to me ask ask what I knew of the village.  I told him that I was (fairly recently) aware of the Kent Coalmines and Snowdown in particular and had wanted to come and get an understanding of what remained of the pits and the village that had been left behind.  He had been a miner here up until its closure in 1987 (he was still wearing an old miners T-Shirt).  He didn’t want to tell me any stories of his own but wanted to make sure that I was aware of the legacy and the story of the village.  He also pointed me in the direction of the miners memorial garden in the village council offices on the edge of the village.  I was pleased to hear what he would tell me and could have happily sat and heard his stories for longer had he been willing to share more.

Snowdown Pit Wheel
Snowdown Pit Wheel

Instead he headed back to the cafe he had been sitting in and I finished my lunch and loaded the remains back into my pannier.

I was very glad to have received his advice about the memorial garden.  Had I not been made aware I would have passed it by unseen.  The garden is only small but contains a new memorial to the lives of 57 men and boys who died during the 80 years that the colliery was active.

From the memorial garden I headed across the next valley and up the hill to Snowdown station and then came to the gates of the old colliery.  Despite having been closed for 30 years now the majority of the above ground mine buildings (except for the pit head winding gear towers) remain intact.   The mine shafts have been capped off and the compound surrounded with razor wire but you can still get an impression of the site; though not the conditions for the workers.

At over 3,000 feet at its maximum depth Snowdown was the deepest mine in Kent.  It was also the hottest and most humid.  Conditions were so awful that the miners often worked naked as clothes became too uncomfortable.  Miners could get through 24 pints of water in an 8 hour shift and there were frequent cases of heatstroke.  Snowdown was regarded by many to be the worst to work in throughout Britain and as a result of its heat and humidity gained the name amongst its workers of “Dante’s Inferno”.

After briefly considering an attempt at jumping over the fence to take a good look around (from some concrete bollards I could likely have jumped into the compound; but I wasn’t then going to easily make my way back out) I headed back on my way.  I understand that there might finally be some plans to develop the land into something new; I hope that someone might look to run some tours around the site beforehand.  I would love to see around inside.

Snowdown Colliery
Snowdown Colliery

From here rather than continuing towards Dover I turned East along the country lanes across the hills through Nonington and Northbourne before dropping down to the coast at Deal.

Hidden Cycle Path
Hidden Cycle Path

I have ridden through Deal many times, but before today I had never visited the Castle. I had made sure that I got here in plenty of time to rectify that today.

I rolled into the car park, locked the bike up and went in.  The staff there were happy to look after my helmet and pannier whilst I wandered around.  Deal Castle is probably the best surviving of Henry VIII’s coastal forts and as such is quite different from the classic view of what a medieval castle might look like.  It was an entirely functional building with its petal layout designed to ensure that it had a complete 360 degree line of fire.

As well as never having visited the Castle I’d also never been onto the Pier in the town either.  The English Heritage staff agreed to look after my kit for a bit longer and I made the short walk onto and along to the end of the pier.

The current pier is Deal’s third and was built with a concrete structure in the 1950s.  Its been in decline lately and I found out afterwards that the main pier had only just re-opened before my visit.  There was still much work to be done but progress looks to be getting made and I hope to revisit again soon and be able to get a coffee from the (at the time of my visit) closed cafe at the end and to be able to wander down to the lower deck (also closed).

Deal Beach
Deal Beach

After a walk around I made by way back to the Castle.  Coming back I noticed the gap in the railing and then the car sitting in the bottom of the moat.  Back into the castle the staff told me that the crash had occurred the previous Saturday just as the castle was about to close.  Miraculously the driver had walked out of the car with only superficial injuries.  I gathered my kit and returned to my bike for the very short ride to Deal Station where I ended my ride and waited for a train home.  My legs were tired and I was feeling the effort.  I certainly hadn’t been working in Dante’s Inferno though.

Oops!
Oops!

Stats: