Four War Tour Day Five – 11 August 2018

Dunkirk

There was another promisingly bright and sunny day working its way across Iepers market square and around the edges of my hotel room curtains as I awoke at 6.30. I started the day sitting at the table in the chamber writing my diary for the previous day and then calmly got dressed back into the lycra for the final day and gathered my belongings together. (Although not totally hygienic my routine on these 5 day (or thereabouts) tours is to take two full sets of cycling clothing and alternate them each day. On my first tour along the Avenue Verte I tried rinsing my kit out in the overnight hotels. However despite being made of no natural materials what so ever I found that the clothing didn’t fully dry overnight. It was therefore easier on subsequent tours to merely air my kit overnight! That did mean that today, on day five I was putting on this kit for its third outing of the tour!)

As is often the case with my last days on tour, today would be a strange one. In mileage terms I had around only 55 miles to cover today and the going would be virtually flat all the way. However I was booked onto a 4pm sailing out of Dunkirk and whilst I could probably miss it and get the 6pm sailing I wanted to be done and heading home by then. I had more than enough time to get to the ferry and still have a good day of it but I have usually found the last days on tour to be a little stressful when there is a deadline to be met.

Leaving Iepers
Leaving Iepers

After finish writing my diary and packing my kit I was still a little early for breakfast. Whilst I didn’t want to be leaving late I didn’t want to miss a paid up feed so I took my bags down to the hotel’s loading bay where my bike was secured against some sort of water pipe and loaded the panniers onto the rack so that I would ready for the off as soon as I had eaten. I took a wander out onto the streets of the town to the Spar shop around the corner, gathered some supplies for the day and loaded them into the bags on my return. As I wandered back upstairs I found breakfast was just opening. Perfect timing. After the requisite coffee, pastries and yoghurt I was ready for the off.

Final Continental Breakfast of the Trip
Final Continental Breakfast of the Trip

I slowly wound my way around the town square one last time before heading off to the North of the town to meet up with the Ieperlee canal where I joined the tow path on its Western bank. Fortunately I had not gone much farther when I realised that I hadn’t started my GPS tracking for the day so I pulled over and rectified that mistake.

At the end of the Ieperlee
At the end of the Ieperlee

Five easy miles followed along what now is just another lovely easy to ride along canal path. Only very occasionally did I pass any sign or indication that this canalised river had served as a front line at times during the war.

Along the Ieperlee
Along the Ieperlee

Just before Zuidschote I left the canal for a few more miles on quiet country roads. They were all well marked using the excellent Belgian cycle route marking system and I followed that rather than fully studying my maps. Not long after leaving the canal I came across what is now a simple aluminium cross flanked by French and Belgian flags. An original monument here was apparently much more graphic. It was built to mark the attack on 22 April 1915 when 180,000 kilos of Chlorine gas were directed at the French and Belgian troops holding this side of the canal. The monument depicted a French soldier gasping and clutching at his throat as two of his comrades lay on the ground beside him. During the Nazi occupation in 1942 the Germans took offence at this depiction and blew it up. It was therefore replaced in 1954 with the simple aluminium ‘cross of reconciliation’ which stands there now.

From Zuidschote I headed North again using the lovely wide cycle paths to the side of the calm, quiet country roads.

Belgium
Belgium

I passed through Reninge and Lo-Reninge before magically riding into Lo. Lo was something of a treat with some gorgeous buildings surrounding a cobbled square boarded to the North by a church lined with a fountain and sculptures (which I managed to take only rubbish photos of).

Lo Church
Lo Church

At the church the route turned me Westwards for just long enough to leave the town through the remains of its old wall and gatehouse before coming to the next canal which would take me back North again almost to the sea.

However before I could join the canal I had the small matter of having to wait for a small pleasure boat to pass by before the bridge that I needed to cross to reach the tow path on the far bank was closed.

Another lovely but uneventful five miles passed along the canal. There were lots of other groups of cyclists and runners out who were all up for cheery waves and I enjoyed seeing some classic low land canal architecture. The miles flew by.

Before I knew it I was rolling towards the centre of Veurne where a short side branch of the canal led me neatly onto a stretch of town centre roads before beginning the section Westbound parallel to the coast on some quiet country roads. I had now turned around into the wind so the rest of the day would be a bit slower; however I was well in front of the clock at present.

On one short magical stretch of track I had to turn to the North. I knew that I was close to the Franco-Belgian border before suddenly realising just how close I was. This track was it. If I veered from the right hand side of the track to the left I would leave Belgium and enter France. As a child I always though borders were all like the ones I had seen Steve McQueen try to jump over at the end of The Great Escape. But this is 21st century Europe and there is no border.

The France-Belgium Border Path
The France-Belgium Border Path

At the main road at the top of the track the beauty of the open European border became even clearer. In the middle of the main road the former border check post has now been transformed into a coffee and chocolate shop. Ah Europe. Why on earth would we ever want to leave you?!?!

Coffee and Chocolate at the Border Post
Coffee and Chocolate at the Border Post

Perhaps foolishly I decided to forgo the opportunity of coffee and chocolate and instead turned to face the West and so left Belgium for the last time on this trip. Of course that meant that I was also leaving its superb cycle network and entering the slightly less impressive French system. It is still good of course, just not up to Belgian levels. Although the main A19 road runs parallel slightly inland I was now following a busy tourist road along the French coast. I didn’t have to go far though before I swung a right and headed to the beach at Bray Dunes.

Not a Cycle Route Yet
Not a Cycle Route Yet

At low tide along the beach here I understand that it is possible to still see remains of some of the boats that were sunk in the beach evacuation. I didn’t have the time to fully explore and wasn’t’ sure of the exact location of any such remains so I sat on the sea wall looking out over the long stretch of beach and dunes. In late May and early June 1940 the beaches were filled with thousands of men (mostly British but also some of the French and Belgian armies were also evacuated back to Britain). They were waiting patiently here (for the most part) for their turn to board one of the famous flotilla of little ships that would carry them to the larger vessels waiting out to sea.

Bray Dunes
Bray Dunes

Now the beach at Bray is a popular seafront holiday destination much like many similar towns on the English coast opposite. Without seeing any of the remains of the boats and tanks I was left to admire the blue sky and sea and the crisp clean sand covered with families making the most of a lovely summer day. I stopped and had some food and applied sun cream as the day got warmer.

After a false start out of Bray as I attempted to take a short cut I was back on the road towards Dunkirk.

Zuydcoote Station
Zuydcoote Station

On the left next to the road in the small village of Zuydcoote I stopped to look at what would be the last war cemetery I would visit on this tour. It also turned out to be one of the most fascinating. For the larger part it houses men who died in the First World War but is split into three parts. The Western end houses a small, traditional Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery containing a little over 300 graves (including one Belgian). The cemetery was linked to the military hospitals that were housed in the area from 1917. As such the cemetery was unique of the ones that I visited in having most, if not all, of the graves containing identified men. Next to the CWGC cemetery a post armistice cemetery contains the bodies of over 1,000 French soldiers of the war. Between the CWGC graves and the main bulk of the French men were two rows of different grave stones, marking the remains of French Muslims. At the east end an annex contains a further 170 graves, also interred after the armistice, of German soldiers. It is certainly interesting to see all of these graves lined up next to each other with just one single wall surrounding them all. Particularly poignant in the German section were the graves of two soldiers. Most of the German graves have quite a distance between them; more so than is the case in the French and Commonwealth sections. However two graves were set closer together; one a standard German cross; the other a Star of David.

A fourth section of the cemetery to the South of the First World War area houses another large group of French graves. These men all died in the Second World War. These were just some of those who gave their lives defending Dunkirk and the beaches around Bray. These were the men who bought the extra time needed to keep the advancing German Army at bay long enough for Operation Dynamo to evacuate as many troops as it did back to Britain. Without their bravery and sacrifice it is certain that a much smaller contingent of the British Expeditionary Force would have been saved. It was also interesting to note that, unlike the French graves from WWI, in this section the (not inconsiderable number of) French Muslims were buried right in and amongst their colleagues.

Zuydcoote WWII French Cemetery
Zuydcoote WWII French Cemetery

An old train line runs alongside the road into Dunkirk. It looks as though there might be plans to convert it to a cycle/foot path but for now I had to continue along the roads; although perversely the roads seemed to get less busy the closer I got to the town. Before long I was at the entrance to the docks area; marked by a memorial to the allies made from quayside paving stones.

Monument of the Allies
Monument of the Allies

From here I continued along the harbour side before eventually making it to the ‘East Mole’; the harbour arm extension which saw the bulk of the evacuation. Back in 1940 this narrow arm would have been filled with troops lined up to board the ships. The actual site was used by Christopher Nolan in the 2017 film of Dunkirk. He rebuilt the Mole extension at which most of the ships docked. His reconstruction has been removed again but the main harbour wall is still extant. Today the arm was filled with locals fishing from it but I wound my way past them to the far end. It is odd to think that this now serene and small stretch of concrete proved so vital to the war effort. The small ships are the big story of Operation Dynamo, but in reality around 200,00 of the 338,226 men who made it back across the channel boarded ships from this long but narrow limb of concrete.

After a breather and a chance to reflect sitting on the dock of the bay, I headed back in towards the centre of the town. A few other sites and memorials lined the docks. I didn’t have time to visit the Operation Dynamo museum. I really must allow myself more scope to make such stops on these trips but I never learn. I had to get to the ferry. Dunkirk ferry terminal is a good ten miles or so west of the town so whilst I was OK for time I didn’t have enough spare to be hanging around.

Dunkirk
Dunkirk

The cycle paths from the East Mole into the central harbour area had been lovely. Wide and well signposted.

Dunkirk Harbour
Dunkirk Harbour

Now though I had to find my way to the port and both the signs and the cycle ways soon dried up. There were some suggestions that a new cycle route is being built in this very direction. However, despite one sign proclaiming its completion date some 11 months previous, there was little sign of progress. Indeed the limited works seemed to have only served to close the few sections of cycle way that were originally in existence. I ended up joining busier and more polluted main roads as I headed through the western suburbs of the town. I probably wasn’t following these roads for too long but it was nasty, dangerous, and slow going and was threatening to put a damper on a good day and an excellent tour.

Dunkirk Bath House
Dunkirk Bath House

Fortunately at the edge of the town where the road got busier, I finally re-joined one of the old sections of cycle route; at least for a mile or two into the village of Loon-Plage.

Loon Plage!
Loon Plage!

There was another bit of confusion at the northern edge of the village when the cycle path signs ran out and the only directions off a roundabout suggested I had to head onto the motorway. I completed a circuit of the roundabout, headed back towards the village, found a safe spot and consulted my phone GPS mapping. It indicated that I could follow the exit marked to the industrial estate. This did indeed prove to be a much nicer road and before long I was joining the traffic queuing to check in to the ferry. The ride from Dunkirk had not been fun but it had worked out OK and here I was with almost perfect timing.

The End of the Ride
The End of the Ride

I had time to pull into the ferry terminal, finish off my picnic supplies, and get changed out of the Lycra for the final time on this trip. I wasn’t entirely finished in the saddle but to all intents and purposes my tour was now completed. I cleared customs. This went OK despite my having a conversation with the customs officials in which I joked that my panniers contained various body parts. I really must learn that these situations are not the ideal places for jokes but I got away with it. This time.

End of Tour Selfie
End of Tour Selfie

I was one of the first onto the ferry (and at the other end was the very first off). And so it was that my tour was complete. I had the welcome chance to get up onto the main deck and claim one of the prime seats at the rear of the ferry next to the restaurant. One ferry canteen chicken curry (surprisingly hot) later and I could properly relax at the end of a fantastic trip. All that remained at the other end was to navigate my way out of Dover harbour (not an easy feat as it turns out) and get the train the short ride back to Ashford where I could place the bike in the back of my waiting car and drive home.

Heading Home
Heading Home

Stats:

Tour Stats:

  • Distance: 328.52 Miles
  • Ride Time: 27 Hours 42 minutes and 7 seconds
  • Average Speed: 11.8 mph
  • Ascent: 8,821 feet
Four War Tour As Ridden
Four War Tour As Ridden

Final Thoughts

When I came up with the idea of this tour my main focus was always to be the sites of the Somme and Ypres and to be visiting them in the year of the 100th anniversary of the end of the War. The concept of ‘Four War Tour’ was always a little contrived and building Waterloo and Agincourt into the trip potentially felt a little frivolous; whilst they were important historical battles the direct effect on those who fought was so much lesser than the slaughter of the Great War.

As I worked my way from Mons around Cambrai and towards the Somme these concerns were not vanishing. Waterloo had felt like visiting the equivalent of an English Heritage or National Trust site whereas the emotional pain of seeing row after row of graves in cemetery after cemetery was so much more raw.

In the end however I think the tour worked. Taking in Waterloo allowed me to start the tour nicely and build up for the ‘main event’. The trip from Albert to Agincourt gave me a break from the emotion that the stories of the Somme offered and that were to come again as I approached Ypres. I loved visiting the battle field and the Museum at Azincourt – it is off the main tourist route but was well worth the trip (even in the non stop rain).

In fact if any part of the trip felt to be the weak link it is that I should have allowed more time to properly take in the beaches around Bray and Dunkirk and to visit some other World War Two monuments. Were you to take this diary as any incentive to make a similar trip (I would be hugely honoured were that to be the case) then exploring such options would be my suggestion. On the whole though, although being one of my easier tours in terms of physical effort (miles and hills; if not wind, sun and rain), it was so emotionally draining at times that it more than made up for the lack of big hills climbed. This was a great tour and I’d happily recommend it to anyone.

Four War Tour Day Four – 10 August 2018

Ypres and Passchendaele

I awoke to find a brighter, drier looking day with the sunlight pushing through the curtains hinting at the prospect of a much more pleasant day’s riding than yesterday. However, inspection of my kit showed that it was only slightly drier than when I went to bed. I would certainly be putting on some wet shoes and loading equipment into still damp panniers. I was pinning my hopes on riding in the warm in order to get things dry.

The Peacock Room
The Peacock Room

I went downstairs to the breakfast room where Richard had laid out a good spread of continental goodies. I tucked in. Richard joined me for a short while and we chatted briefly. I had made the assumption the evening before (after he had told me that he had come to running the B&B after leaving the British Army) that his problems walking were a result of action. He told me this morning that he was suffering from M.S. and that as a result they were now looking to sell up in France and move back to the U.K. to be closer to family. I was at a loss for the right words but wished him well; he struck me as the sort of person to be able to make the best of situations.

Fully loaded up on pastries I returned up the rickety stairs to the ‘Peacock’ room. I gathered all my soggy kit into my damp bags and carried them and my newspaper filled shoes down to the front door where I squelched my feet in, and gathered and loaded up the bike.

Leaving Huechin
Leaving Huechin

I left Heuchin continuing in the direction I had arrived. That seems like an obvious statement but it’s not always true that you find an overnight spot quite so perfectly on the planned route. The first mile or two can often involve a bit of doubling back to get underway.

For 4 or 5 miles the road climbed slowly up the valley which proved to be a nice warm up of my slightly heavy legs. My planned route had me diverting onto some quiet roads just a mile or two into the start of the day; however the “main” (single carriageway) road I was following was fairly empty. The wind was behind me and I had got a good speed going. I took the snap decision to stay on the good tarmac and keep my legs spinning. I normally regret these decisions quite quickly; but not today.

Saint-Venant (I think)
Saint-Venant (I think)

As I approached the roundabout at the summit of the hill I met a couple of cyclists in full touring setup also approaching the top but from the opposite direction. We exchanged smiles and waves knowing that we had all finished our climbing for a while. Across the roundabout I applied my brakes and pulled over. Laid out in front of me were the last few miles of France. There was a lovely long straight downhill road to make the most of but I wanted to take in the view before I sped down the hill.

The last few miles of France
The last few miles of France

The next few miles shot by. It was 10 miles that were almost entirely downhill and they ticked past quickly. There were a couple of sections where I followed side roads to cut a corner or two but I mostly stayed on the main routes through Isbergues and Saint-Venant until I reached Haverskerque where I met back up with my planned route.

Veg-o-matic
Veg-o-matic

I was not only off the main roads now but before long I was off the roads entirely as I joined a foresters track through the centre of the Forest Nieppe. The going was slower, especially as I found myself steering around large numbers of suicidal game birds. It was quite pleasant to be completely away from traffic for a while none the less. Slightly less pleasant was the short shower that greeted me as I entered the forest but it had finished before I left the woodland.

Fowl in the Forest
Fowl in the Forest

The next few miles were a mix of quiet country lanes with occasional forays onto busier (but not busy) main roads on the way to the pretty border town of Bailleul. It was getting close to lunch hour but the town was looking quite busy and I fancied somewhere quiet to stop.

Bailleul
Bailleul

A mile out of town I chose, as is my wont, a random corner next to a Maize field to hunker down on and have lunch (which I had clearly picked up somewhere on the way but cannot for the life of me now recall where).

Lunch
Lunch

Back underway I soon crossed the border into Belgium. I didn’t know exactly where the border was, but coming into the village of Dranouter I recognised from the road signs that I was no longer in France.

After briefly taking a wrong turn that started to take me up a steep hill I doubled back to the junction at which I had gone in the wrong direction. It was at that point I properly noted and understood the system used in Belgium to mark cycle routes. Rather than a system of numbered routes as is used in the U.K., Belgium numbers its junctions. Each junction is assigned a (seemingly) random number and then direction signs point you in the direction of the next junction numbers. Looking at my maps I realised that they were marked with these numbers and as such I could simply follow them. The system appears to work beautifully. Once I worked it out and could see the numbers I was due to head to it proved easy to follow the network. The steep hill I had started up was one approach up the Kemmelberg. One of the classics of Belgian riding its cobbled track from the village is one of the main cycling climbs of Belgium but I was done with pavé.

As I rode around the side of the Kemmelberg hill the skies darkened and the heavens suddenly opened. It was just as well I had skipped the opportunity to race downhill on the cobbles. My shoes had just about finally dried off after yesterday’s non stop rain so this wasn’t welcome. Fortunately there was still a good stretch of downhill into the village of Kemmel from my approach and straight ahead of me was a church which looked open and welcoming. On entering through the porch I soon realised that the current focus of the church was a display of the story of the Irish Army who had been based in the town. It was a fascinating display and kept me occupied for just a little longer than the downpour lasted outside.

With the skies clearing, though the roads quite wet, I headed North East out of Kemmel and soon came to the first Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery of the day at Kemmel Chateau closely followed by another at Godezonne Farm.

I wasn’t much farther on again when I came to the small Elenzwalle Brasserie Cemetery at a cross roads near Voormezele. Although all of the CWGC cemeteries have been created to a relatively standard set of designs and layouts, everyone has a different story to tell. Notable at Elenzwalle were the graves of men from the British West Indies Regiment; a stark reminder that this was indeed a World War and many men from all of its four corners came to this corner of Europe to fight and die.

West Indian soldiers at Elenzwalle Brasserie
West Indian soldiers at Elenzwalle Brasserie

The other side of Voormezele came Spoilbank and Chester Farm. I came to Spoilbank first. It contains the remains of 520 men (125 unidentified). A further 420 men (all bar 7 of them whom are known) are buried at the next cemetery at Chester Farm. Chester Farm gave another reminder that in the end we are all as one. A handful of German men are buried shoulder to shoulder with those they were fighting. Futility but togetherness at the last.

All one at the end
All one at the end

To give an idea of how close these cemeteries are located I only need to say that they sit in opposite corners of the same farmers field. There really is no escaping the past in Flanders. And nor should there be.

Chester Farm and Spoilbank
Chester Farm and Spoilbank

Spoilbank and Chester Farm were related to fighting at ‘The Bluff‘ in 1916 and it was to that battle field that I was headed next. Using my new found knowledge of the Belgian cycle route signs I decided to follow the numbers rather than the route I had planned in advance on the maps I was carrying on my handlebars. I am glad I did as this alternative route took me through what is now a very peaceful and beautiful country park and open woodland. It is hard to picture the horrors that occurred here 100 years previously. Were it not for the lines on the park marking the locations of the front lines of the fighting it might be possible to never realise the significance of the location. I was taken by how close the battle lines were; the markers were barely 50 yards apart.

The Bluff Trench Lines
The Bluff Trench Lines

Leaving the parkland I saw some more signs to ‘Hill 60’ – I had spotted a few back in Voormezele – and very soon found myself at that location. Hill 60 was the site of fighting between December 1914 and April 1915 when it was claimed by the Germans, and then again through 1917 and 1918. Fighting was severe and at very close quarters. Mines were used to detonate trenches with brutal consequences. The whole hill has been left to nature as a memorial and graveyard.

Hill 60
Hill 60

Whilst I had been struck by the proximity of the trenches at The Bluff, they had nothing on Hill 60. To say that they were less than a stone’s throw apart would be inaccurate. Most people throwing a stone here would send it well beyond the trenches opposite. In the picture below the Allied front line is clearly marked and visible. The German line can be seen marked on the boards of the next, slightly lower, platform.

Hill 60 Trench Lines
Hill 60 Trench Lines

Leaving Hill 60 I had almost a whole two miles before the next memorial I would stop at. A short diversion from the road went to ‘Canadian Hill 62‘ (I didn’t find Hill 61). A monument and memorial, though not a cemetery, the hill is a beautiful and peaceful site. I sat for a while on one of the many benches and ate some food whilst looking over a short few miles to get my first glimpse of the town of Iepers.

Canadian Hill with Iepers in the distance
Canadian Hill with Iepers in the distance

Leaving the sanctuary of Hill 62 I continued on a bumpy concrete farm track before joining the cycle path next to a main road and then heading across a motorway before coming to the monument to The 1st Battalion of the Black Watch at the appropriately named Black Watch Corner. Here on 11th November during the first battle of Ypres, the British Expeditionary Force faced some of the fiercest fighting of the war to that point in their defensive fight back to the coast. On 13 August 1914, 1,062 officers and men of the 1st Battalion Black Watch had set off for France. By the end of the fighting here on 12th November, a mere 91 days later, only 111 were left alive.

Black Watch Corner
Black Watch Corner

Black Watch Corner sits at the South West of Polygon Wood which was to see further fighting during the Third Battle of Ypres in 1917. It was into the Wood that I now headed. The wood itself is now another beautiful and peaceful place, although I did spot the remains of at least one concrete bunker hidden in amongst the trees. I rode along the west side of the wood and then turned east to follow its northern edge.

Almost at the opposite corner of the wood from Black Watch Corner I came across two very differently sized cemeteries opposite each other.

The smaller Polygon Wood Cemetery was created at the time of the fighting. It contains “only” 107 commonwealth graves (plus one German casualty) including 60 men from New Zealand. The graves are laid out in the more haphazard manner of those cemeteries that were started during the actual fighting.

Polygon Wood Cemetery
Polygon Wood Cemetery

Across the road opposite is the larger Buttes New British Cemetery. This cemetery was made after the armistice with graves of men brought from around the area to this single site. 2,108 men are buried here, of whom only 431 have been identified. The neighbouring memorial to the men of the 5th Australian Division built on top of the butte provides a high up view across the whole cemetery. It gives a view not usually afforded in similar cemeteries. The cemetery is solemnly beautiful. The multitude ordered lines of white headstones contrast well with the light green of the grass of the cemetery and the irregular dark greens of Polygon Wood beyond.

Buttes New British Cemetery Panorama
Buttes New British Cemetery Panorama

A short way further on and I rolled downhill into the village of Zonnebeke. The village was one of the main locations of fighting during the 1917 Battle of Passchendaele and was abandoned and destroyed during the war. Some of the battle site has been reopened as a peace park and Museum. I rode into the park and stopped to visit the smaller museum located in an old farm house. However whether it was fatigue, or expectation of what I thought might be here, I was rather underwhelmed. The park has a series of small peace gardens dedicated to the various nations who fought here but they didn’t seem that well thought through or maintained.

With still some miles and sites to cover and a deadline to meet in Iepers, I passed by the Museum. I am told it is very good and maybe one day I shall return, but for now I wanted to push on. I wasn’t far from Iepers but that lay a couple of miles back West from Zonnebeke and I still wanted to complete my pilgrimage by heading another couple of miles East. I found and followed the disused railway line; now a peaceful and lovely footpath and cycleway. Back in the war this was the ‘Road to Passchendaele’. In the mud and mayhem of the trenches and fighting, the railway line was the most reliable way to (and from) the front.

The Road to Passchendaele
The Road to Passchendaele

A short while later, using a combination of the old line and then the main road, and I made to the furthest point of the day and to the village with the beautiful name and its terrible associations. Unsurprisingly perhaps Passchendaele village itself was something of an anti climax. Like so many such villages in the region it was totally destroyed during the war. Whilst the village has been rebuilt and is pretty enough it does, naturally somehow lack the character that a naturally evolving settlement gains and somehow you can tell that there is something missing; something still dead in the cobbled streets.

Opposite the church on the main square a notice board shows the “church” as it was at the end of the war. It was just a pile of rubble. The only indication that this particular pile of bricks and mortar was the church being the sign erected next to it.

Passchendaele Church
Passchendaele Church

I took a final spin around the streets before heading back to the old railway and then on and into Iepers proper. However I still had one more place to visit on the way. It involved only a short deviation from the railway line and up a little rise. I pulled in to the busy car park and locked the bike up; but didn’t feel the need to take my panniers off and secure my kit. Maybe that was foolish but it just didn’t seem required.

A visitor centre on one corner of the site tells the story of the fighting that occurred here and some of the stories of the men buried here now. It seems all part of a scheme to slowly prepare you for what is to come. Leaving the visitor centre a pathway takes you around the North edge of the site. As you walk along looking over the low surrounding wall you slowly get to take in the size of what lies inside. At the North West corner you can get a real feel for the scale and then, halfway along the western wall, is the gateway that provides access to Tyne Cot Cemetery.

Tyne Cot Gate
Tyne Cot Gate

Tyne Cot, or the Tyne Cottage was so named by the Northumberland Fusiliers. The farm was a German defensive position near the railway level crossing. It was captured in 1917 and started to be used as a dressing station and subsequently began its existence as a cemetery.  After the armistice the cemetery was expanded as bodies were brought beck from around Passchendaele and reburied in Tyne Cot.

Tyne Cot
Tyne Cot

In total just under 12.000 men are buried here making it the largest commonwealth cemetery from any war. Only 3,605 of the graves contain identified men.  At the rear of the cemetery the wall forms a memorial for some 35,000 men who’s bodies were never found and identified.

Tyne Cot Wall of the Missing
Tyne Cot Wall of the Missing

The sheer scale of seeing so many burials and so many names should be over whelming but the site is so beautiful and so full of life from the living who were visiting and paying their respects.

Tyne Cot Memorial
Tyne Cot Memorial

As well as the size of the cemetery there are some additional differences that help to tell the tale at Tyne Cot.

Tyne Cot Great Cross
Tyne Cot Great Cross

Three of the concrete German block houses were built into the layout. Two of these are in the Western end of the cemetery surrounded by graves and trees.

Tyne Cot Bunker
Tyne Cot Bunker

The third of the structures was built into the base of the Great Cross at the centre of the site. A small ‘window’ gives a glimpse of the original structure.

Tyne Cot Great Cross showing the Block House
Tyne Cot Great Cross showing the Block House

I spent some time wandering around the cemetery. Reading the names of the known and looking at the long lines of graves of men “Known unto God”. After reading just some of the lists and lists of names of the missing. I found a quiet corner near one of the block houses to rest up for a while and to take it all in before I set off again.

Tyne Cot is so large that it is hard to really grasp. It is only with travelling around the area of the Ypres Salient that you begin to get a fraction of the true impression of the horrors that occurred here.

Tyne Cot Panorama
Tyne Cot Panorama

I returned to my bike and followed the road in to Iepers. The last few miles of the day were largely uneventful. Approaching the town centre from the direction of Passchendaele brings you through the Menin Gate. I stopped beforehand to admire the gate from the outside and to take an ‘arriving at Ypres’ selfie before riding into the town through the iconic structure.

At the Menin Gate
At the Menin Gate

Like the wall at the rear of Tyne Cot and at Thiepval in The Somme, the gate lists the names of those who died with no known grave. Some 54,395 names are inscribed on the Gate’s walls. The names are those who died up to and including 15 August 1917. The 35,000 names at Tyne Cot are those who died on the Ypres Salient with no known grave between that date and the end of the War. Between the Menin Gate and the wall at Tyne Cot are listed roughly as many names as the total population of Hastings where I live.

At the Menin Gate
At the Menin Gate

My hotel for the night was slap bang in the centre of the town and easy to find. The entrance was down a side street from the main square. I checked in, locking my bike safely in the deliveries area, and went to my room to freshen up and get changed. The room was excellent and directly overlooked the main square. For some it may be too close to the centre but I was quite looking forward to that after spending the previous three nights in quiet locations. I showered and polished off the so far uneaten remains of my lunch before heading out.

Hotel O Iepers
Hotel O Iepers

I had a bit of time to spare before the main event of the evening so I went out to explore the town and the funfair setup in the square. With a pocket full of change I put a 50 cent coin into a grab machine and immediately walked away with a little soft toy Seagull. Wipers the gull and I continued walking around taking a look at the town. Although, much as is the case with other such towns in the area (see Passchendaele above) the town was very badly damaged in the war and much of it has been rebuilt, it still manages to maintain a bit more of a sense of place than some other similar towns.

At about 19:15 I made my way back towards the Menin Gate. By a very strange quirk of fate I had discovered that one of my old University friends also happened to be in Ypres on the same day and so we had agreed to meet up near the Gate ready for the nightly Last Post ceremony. The ceremony, which has taken place here every night since 11 November 1929 (with the exception of the years of the Second World War), was incredibly moving. It should undoubtedly be a part of the itinerary of anyone visiting the area of Flanders and The Somme. A number of groups and individuals (some clearly of a military background; others maybe not) laid wreaths at the Gate. Bookending the ceremony the buglers of the Iepers fire brigade service played the Last Post and the Réveille as they have done for almost 90 years now. Long may they continue to do so. I hope that so long as the Gate stands (and hopefully beyond that too) this pure act of daily remembrance continues.

Last Post Ceremony
Last Post Ceremony

After the ceremony Alison and her group invited me to join them for a meal and a beer or two. It was a lovely end to a long and emotional day.

With Alison at Ypres
With Alison at Ypres

As I said goodbye to them at the end of the evening I took one more walk around the square which was now closing down for the night. The lights turned off stall by stall and the hubbub and music of the arcades was carried off in the breeze until a dark calmness was restored. I sat on a bench for a few minutes allowing everything that I had seen today to sink in before retiring to my hotel room.

At the start, and indeed at the planning, of this trip I had wondered of my own motives for visiting here. I am not aware of any family members who fought here in the Great War but I understood now that this was not the reason for my coming. I wanted to get a feel for myself, to whatever level I might be able to do so, of the events and destruction that occurred here 100 years ago. In coming here to Ypres and Passchendaele and also to The Somme I had increased my understanding of how Terrible this war was and was even more assured of how important it is to bury nationalism and secularism and any other such unjustifiable causes of conflict. We are one world. One people. A visit here was really helping to reinforce that. Coming here wasn’t about ‘celebrating Britain’ or any such rubbish. It was about placing a value on living in harmony and understanding. That may be a futile desire of mine but it would be the true legacy of these men, of all flags and nations, who perished in Flanders Fields.

Stats:

Next: Dunkirk

Four War Tour Day Three – 9 August 2018

The Somme (part two) and Agincourt

I woke up at half past six and gathered up most of my belongings ready for the off, then went downstairs for an Ibis continental breakfast. It was much as expected; nothing out of the ordinary but it certainly set me up well for the day ahead. I took my time using the opportunity to write up my diary for the previous day’s ride.  I had been too drained to write it the previous evening. I was fully packed and ready to go by quarter past eight after a chat with the coach tourists from Merthyr Tydfil. I was in a much more open frame of mind and enjoyed discussing our relative methods of touring the battlefields. They were heading for home this morning and though they had enjoyed their trip they looked like they were ready to leave the coach travel behind them.

From the hotel I started heading in towards Albert town centre although I never did ride into the town proper. Just across the first roundabout was a Lidl supermarket. It wasn’t quite yet open but there was a small queue forming so I gathered that it wouldn’t be long before it was.  Although not ideal for small scale provisions I needed some supplies. I was in and out quickly once the doors opened at eight thirty. Loaded up with saucisson, crisps (I had to buy a six pack), cheese, bread and chocolate I was now fully prepared for the day ahead. The day was cloudy but at present the weather seemed to be set fair enough. I was braced for a shower or two but this should be a good day.

I skirted down some side streets and then around towards the River Ancre and the ‘Velodrome’ park (there was no sign of a race track or I might have taken a quick spin).

River Ancre
River Ancre

I followed the valley upstream, winding around either side of the river, slowly and gradually climbing away from Albert. I passed the sign for the evocatively named ‘Blightly Valley’ cemetery at the end of a footpath. I didn’t stop to visit but nodded as I passed. It looked like a lovely peaceful last resting place.  A short way further and the road started to climb out of the valley and ahead of me I could see my first destination of the day calling to me from the top of the hill. Although still some distance away the monument to the missing of The Somme on the hill at Thiepval makes a big first impression.

Approaching Thiepval
Approaching Thiepval

I pulled into Thiepval car park just before nine thirty. After locking my bike up I loitered by the (locked) Museum doors. The nice lady inside took the subtle hint, opened up slightly early, and obligingly offered to look after my panniers whilst I looked around. Visiting the monument is free however there is small charge to enter the Museum. It is definitely worth paying as the Museum is an incredibly well designed space with displays on trench life and artefacts discovered in the area, all surrounded by an amazing drawing representing the fighting on 1st July 1916.  The day was to become the deadliest day in the history of the British Army; within 12 hours over 19,000 men were killed and many more wounded.  One wall in the Museum was very simply composed of photographs of a small proportion of the faces of the missing men from the Battle of the Somme.

After spending about half an hour or so in the Museum I left to head outside and get some air and to head to the monument itself. Bearing the names of 72,337 allied soldiers who died with no known grave the Thiepval Memorial is quite some sight to behold and difficult to take in. Every wall is crammed full of names the whole way up. Just behind the memorial a small joint French and British cemetery contains the same number of graves of men of each nation to show how they died side by side. Its an incredibly beautiful location and an inspiring monument (designed by Edward Lutyens). One of the small showers I was expecting started as I was at the site but it didn’t look like much and it wasn’t enough to put me off hanging around a little while longer.

Eventually I headed back to the museum desk and collected my bags. It was still raining a bit outside so I put on my wet weather gear just in case before heading back to the bike and getting on my way.

Thiepval
Thiepval

Close by the memorial I passed the smaller Connaught and Mill Road cemeteries, and also the Ulster Tower which commemorates the men of that province who fell here throughout the Battle of the Somme.

The rain was still falling; although it was stop start the road was now wet enough that I took care as I descended back down from the ridge into the Ancre Valley and the small hamlet of Hamel before climbing back up onto the next ridge. I was just coming up to the entrance to the Beaumont-Hamel memorial and preserved battle field when suddenly a huge bolt of lightning flashed in front of me. The roar of the thunder was impressive and immediate. The downpour started at the same moment.  I was suddenly directly underneath a storm cloud.

The heavens properly opened. I sped my way towards the site entrance. A nice Canadian lady (this was the site where the men of Newfoundland fought and died) cheerily told me that I couldn’t bring my bike into the site. I understood that but asked if, due to the sudden downpour, I might be able to put my bike in her hut? No that would most certainly not be allowed. I must use the bike rack in the exposed and open car park opposite. Might I then ask if she would look after my panniers to prevent them getting soaked? No. Sadly this was out of her control. French rules about terrorism, you see. Awfully sorry. No one had apparently told any of the French hosts at the various other sites I stopped at about this rule but she was quite insistent. Reluctantly I locked my bike up on the railings and trusted that a) nobody would be stupid enough to be out in this rain to steal my bags, and b) the flimsy water proof outer cover and the various carrier bags inside the panniers would provide enough protection for my clothes and equipment.

The rain and the officiousness did sadly taint my visit.  I believe that the site in its entirety is quite large with lots to see. I explored only a small section but it did give me the best understanding so far of the layout of the trenches. Although left to slowly return to nature the trench lines now appear like the banks and ditches of prehistoric archaeological sites, albeit in a much more haphazard seeming layout (the front line trenches were dug in zig zagged formations to prevent a direct hit from a heavy gun damaging too big a section of trench).

I headed to the Caribou memorial which forms the centrepiece of the site and took a quick look around the remains of the trenches close by. The rain, if anything, got heavier and there was no shelter. I took in the site as best as I could and as quickly as I could. The photos here are not the best pictures I have ever taken. I was trying to prevent my camera phone getting wet although the lens was inevitably damp. This causes some of the blurred effect on the photos; however mostly that is just the rain obscuring the views.

I gave up on plans to explore any further and headed back to the bike. At least if I was going to get soaked I might as well get on the move. Passing the entrance hut the Canadian guard lady had vanished inside and showed no signs of coming out to say goodbye to me. At least with the bags still on the bike (I was correct and nobody had stolen anything) it only took a second or two to get unlocked and moving; heading in a rough North Westerly bearing.

The rain continued although it was good to be moving now. I think the rain might have slightly eased off. However before long there was more thunder and lightning and the rain was back in full flow. Ahead of me I saw the church at Auchonvillers. I could not avoid the rain for long (I still had a whole day’s ride in front of me and a B&B to get to) but there was no point in staying out in this; and surely I wouldn’t need to shelter for too long. I climbed out of the saddle and spun as quickly as possible in order to sprint the last distance to the church. I jumped off the bike, picked it up, and almost ran headlong into the locked church door. There was to be no sanctuary for me here. I found the only vaguely sheltered corner of the outside of the church and pressed my back tightly against the fabric of the building to keep as much of me away from the worst of the rain as possible.

Shelter! Really - I'm enjoying myself!
Shelter! Really – I’m enjoying myself!

I’m not sure how long I stayed there; probably no more than ten minutes; but eventually the weather cleared a little. By which I mean it was now only raining heavily. I might as well carry on. I sploshed my sodden shoes (the overshoes had kept my actual shoes dry for maybe two minutes before they were themselves soaked through) back to the bike and climbed back on. The rain water was pouring in rivers along the road and I gingerly headed off.

Sucrerie
Sucrerie

I saw the Sucrerie cemetery across a field but didn’t turn off to visit. Nor I did I do more than stop at the outside of the Euston Road cemetery that I passed right by.

Euston Road
Euston Road

The rain was persistent but now more varied in its intensity. At some short occasions it was almost light, but for most of the next few miles it was fair to heavy. I rode through Colincamps. It was probably pretty but I didn’t really look. The next village was Sailly-au-Bois. I think this is also quite pretty. It did at least have the distinction of having an open porch to its (locked) church so I pulled in to check the state of my bags (wet but not awful; the waterproofing was trying its hardest to do its job although my paper work was starting to feel the effects) and to slightly reduce the weight of my load by starting on my Lidl picnic.

Bayencourt was little more than 3 or 4 houses and farm buildings at a cross roads. On the approach into Souastre the heavens opened again. Spotting an open fronted farm outbuilding I pulled over and leant my bike against a tractor whilst waiting for the latest burst to pass over. A boy and a cat came out from a neighbouring barn to see who or what I was. I nodded a bonjour but I don’t have conversational French for 7 year olds. I think the cat might have understood a little of my English, but he wasn’t letting on in front of the boy. We stood together awkwardly. They got bored before the rain stopped and headed back to their other barn. Here are a couple of pictures from the shed. They are terrible but I think the blur and haze gives something of an impression of the conditions. One of them also shows the cat.

Saint Amand was the next village. Like the previous settlements I’m sure its pretty but I rode on through it without really taking it in. However before I actually reached it I did come across the mausoleum of the Family Masclef which suddenly appeared around a corner just before the village, slowly being swallowed by the hedge behind it. In the rain and the gloom it was quite a sight, and not a cheery one.

Family Masclef Mausoleum
Family Masclef Mausoleum

Guadiempré and Couturelle came next. I know this as I’m looking back now at the record of my route on Strava. I’ve ‘revisited’ them using Google Street View but I do not recall them at all. All along this area the landscape was open and slightly rolling and undulating.   Just the type of countryside I love and that France does so well. I recall being happy out in the open, even in the rain which was still varying in volume but had largely settled on ‘persistent’. I just don’t recall any specifics of the villages that I passed through. I don’t have any photos so nothing apparently jumped out at me enough to stop and photograph it (and I normally don’t need much excuse to stop to snap a picture).

The next photo that I do have is this one. It’s me just entering the village of Warluzel. I was by now at the stage of tour where I’ve probably been in my own company for too long. I amused myself that this must be the French equivalent of Somerset and that I might soon come across a bunch of old yokels singing “J’ai une nouvelle moissonneuse batteuse”.

A Wurzel in Warluzel
A Wurzel in Warluzel

Sadly that didn’t happen. I just found that I was starting to get hungry, that it was about lunchtime, and that there was a bus shelter that I could keep dry in and rectify the first situation.

Lunch break at Warluzel
Lunch break at Warluzel

I felt refreshed for a decent rest and some food. The rain was still falling but it had settled into a steady rhythm and was much less intense than during the morning. The miles (kilometres) continued to tick over and the villages continued to pass by with little to differentiate them. I was still enjoying the open countryside and the small hamlets that appeared on a regular basis but they didn’t have much excitement to offer. I stopped in Beaudricourt to snap this colourful French war memorial. There are better photos of similar such memorials on the pages for days 2 and 4 of this trip but I included it here as I don’t have many other photos to share with you during this part of the day.

Beaudricourt War Memorial
Beaudricourt War Memorial

Just through Beaudricourt I did get to take the following photo. After the previous 20 miles or thereabouts or being on the largely open and relatively flat plain, I finally had a proper descent into a valley ahead of me and with it an even better view of the immediate miles ahead.

Dropping to La Canche Valley
Dropping to La Canche Valley

I crossed the river La Canche close to Estrée-Wamin and began a nice gentle climb back up onto the next section of open plain and continued on through Houvin-Houvigneul, Moncheaux-les-Frévent and into Buneville where I had the brief excitement of taking a wrong turn at which I had to double back a short way before finding the correct road out of the village.

Buneville
Buneville

The slight undulations continued. Sains, Hautecloque, and Croisette. Excitement before entering Beauvois – a tractor shop! In Beauvois itself, a caged Mary!!

The excitement of the Mary of Beauvois was surpassed a few miles further on along the Rue de la Grotte on the edge of Humieres. For some unknown reason the locals at some time in the past took it upon themselves to build a mini replica of the shrine of Saint Bernadette at Lourdes. Benches laid out around the grotto indicate that it is still in regular use. It is a true piece of French eccentricity and I loved it. Indeed having also been to Lourdes which I found to be a horrible town primarily designed to part the poor and infirm from their weighty currency, I would much rather recommended a pilgrimage to Our Lady of Humieres.

Our Lady of Humieres
Our Lady of Humieres

At Eclimeux I stopped in another bus shelter in order to swap onto the next page of my maps. I could now see that the main aim of my day’s riding was only a few miles further on so tucked in to another bag of crisps to celebrate and avoid another sharper burst of rain.

Glamourous Bus Stop No 2
Glamourous Bus Stop No 2

Another drop down followed into the valley at Blangy-sur-Tenoise. I crossed over the river Ternoise and the railway. The state of the railway tracks suggested a disused line but some signs looked more up to date so I checked and indeed this is apparently a live and operational station. By the river I stopped to talk to some friendly looking cows and then started the climb (the biggest of the day; but by no means big) back onto the plain.

I missed the road I should have taken to head me into Maisoncelle but it was easy enough, despite heading the wrong day a one way road, to take the next turning instead. Here in Maisoncelle I saw the first signs to indicate that I was near to the old battlefield but I ignored them for now and pushed on to the next village, Azincourt itself.

Arrived at Azincourt
Arrived at Azincourt

The rain started heavier again as I rolled in so I rolled up the road and headed to the village museum. Again they were happy to look after my bags (even here in Azincourt they were apparently not overly concerned by the threat of this English terrorist). The museum is a superb curiosity and I spent a great half hour exploring its many nooks and crannies. It conveys some great information about the battle and the ‘age of chivalry’ with a fantastic mix of routine information panels, miniature figures, and soldiers with (broken) TVs in place of their heads. Go visit. You won’t be disappointed.

The museum did also help me to properly get my bearings of the actual site of the battle which occurred here between the English and the French some 603 years previously. The village itself is towards the northern extent of the site and was where the French army were based prior to the battle. To find the English lines I had to head back the way I came to Maisoncelle at the southern extent of the site. In the South East corner a small monument and map give further clues to the layout of the battlefield (although no details are known for certain).

From here I continued along the road that marks the approximate eastern side of the battlefield towards Tramecourt and almost back into Azincourt again. On the road between those two villages a new memorial has been erected to mark the 600th anniversary of the battle. From here you get a better idea of the centre of the battle ground; the heaviest and most defining fighting was understood to have taken place here. I took some blurry wet photos (and yes I did take that selfie!) and then began the final few miles riding towards my overnight accomodation.

My B&B for the evening was still another 7 or 8 miles further on. The going was, much like the rest of the day, easy enough but I naturally now had the fatigue creeping in; I had made it to Agincourt and explored the battle field.  Now I was ready to start thinking about getting out of my sopping wet gear. At least Heuchin, where I was heading, was down in a valley so the final few miles were a nice easy drop into the village. I found the lovely Maison de Plumes at the far end of the settlement. I was rather disappointed to note that the village did not, however, appear to have the restaurant that my maps had hinted at. I knew that there was no food available at the B&B itself so had been hoping to find somewhere to eat in the village. Not to worry – I’d survive.

I rolled up and met Richard, the English owner of the establishment (along with his wife Vanessa, although I never got to meet her). Richard had been in the British Army but had now ‘retired’ (he s not much of any older than myself) to run the Maison du Plumes. Richard showed me where to lock my bike up and then took me inside the amazing old house. After the beige of the Ibis this was something quite different. The house is amazing and immaculately decorated. I almost felt a bit guilty bringing all of my wet gear and my stinking self into the lovely ‘Peacock’ room that was to be my chamber for the night; but Richard did not seem to worry. He didn’t have any drying facilities unfortunately but instead he provided me with a pile of newspaper to stuff into my soaking shoes and a tray on which to place them outside my room.

Climbing the stairs at Maison de Plume
Climbing the stairs at Maison de Plume

I ran a welcome hot and deep bath and whilst doing so unloaded and inspected the contents of my panniers. Everything was just slightly damp but not awful. All of my paperwork (hotel reservation info, ferry ticket, maps and euros) had got paper wet and I ended up covering every available surface with them in order to allow them to dry. I hung up as much of my clothing as I could, had a supper of the remains of my Lidl picnic (all praise the six pack of crisps) and then soaked in the tub and prepared for bed.

Stats:

Next: Ypres and Passchendaele

Queen Anne in Hastings

A tale of royalty, St Pauls Cathedral, an Antiquarian and a horse drawn train

The statue of Queen Anne outside the west entrance of St Paul’s Cathedral in London is one of the city’s more famous public sculptures.  But did you know that it is not the original?

Queen Anne Statue
Queen Anne Statue at St Paul’s Cathedral

The original statue was made by Francis Bird and unveiled in 1712.  However time was not kind.  Weather and vandalism caused damage to Anne and all four of her attendants (Britannia, “Ireland”, “France” and “America”).

By 1885 a decision was made to make a replica of the statue which was erected in the same location as the original in the following year.  But what had happened to the original Anne?

Augustus Hare was a traveller and writer and collector of Antiquities.  He was desperate to discover what happened to Anne and spent two years trying to locate her.  Eventually a friend of his stumbled upon some curious figures in a masons yard near Vauxhall Bridge Road and called for Augustus.  Sure enough it was Anne and her companions.  After negotiations with the City Council and the other owners; the Lord Mayor of London and the Bishops of London and Canterbury, Augustus was able to purchase the statues with a view to re-erecting them in his grounds at Holmhurst St. Mary on the edge of Hastings.

He decided that the plinth was too far gone to be re-used and commissioned a replacement to be made from the materials in his own local quarry.  The five ladies however had to be transported South.  Mr. Hare spoke with the directors of the South East Railway Company who identified an issue:

“It is no use talking about it for the statue of the Queen could not go under any of our tunnels!’ ‘But she could lie down’. ‘No, she cannot lie down, she has too much train”

However, eventually, a plan was contrived by which the Queen leant forward and she eventually arrived at Holmhurst with four trucks, four trollies, sixteen men and twenty-eight horses. Each of the four ladies sat in a separate wagon.  The Queen’s railway ticket was £50.

“A strange procession they made”

Once in place at Hastings the ladies were all patched and repaired.  However even in his own time, as Augustus Hare wrote (I am not sure of the date) they began to suffer again:

“Winters’ storms have worn all the reproductions away and only the original marble remains. The Queen has now lost both her arms; fragments of them, her orb and sceptre, are in the verandah of the house. Ireland is far the best of the statues; she formerly held a harp. The American Colony statue is almost wholly undraped; a little beast of Lizard type creeps from behind her feet which rest upon the gory head of an enemy.”

The statue has continued to sit in ignominy in the grounds of Holmhurst St. Mary.  By the start of the twentieth century the house and grounds were neglected.  It was taken over by a group of nuns and also became a school for girls; finally closing around the turn of this century.

Queen Anne has continued to remain uncared for and left to weather further.  She was listed in 1976 but nothing has happened to improve her circumstances and now she is marked as being as in very bad condition on the Historic England heritage at risk register.

She remains in the grounds of Holmhurst St Mary.  A scaffold and corrugated iron sarcophagus has been placed around the statue to try and limit further deterioration.  And that is how I found her today when, cycling past the site, and having learned of her exact location, I snuck in to take a look.  The casing surrounding her is properly closed off and I didn’t make any attempt to force access.  I was though able to get a look at Anne and (three of) her companions from a gap between two scaffold poles.

So, after such an eventful life, I give you here, in her present state and more than 300 years since she first proudly graced the entrance to St Paul’s Cathedral, a headless Queen Anne and her (also headless) companions:

Queen Anne at Holmhurst St Mary
Queen Anne at Holmhurst St Mary

Sources:

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Statue_of_Queen_Anne,_St_Paul%27s_Churchyard

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anne,_Queen_of_Great_Britain

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Augustus_Hare

historicengland.org.uk/advice/heritage-at-risk/search-register/list-entry/46614

historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1192060

www.publicsculpturesofsussex.co.uk/object?id=113

www.umilta.net/holmhurst1.html

Four War Tour Day Two – 8 August 2018

Mons, Cambrai and The Somme

The rain overnight in Thulin was something special. When I went to bed my room was hot so I had opened the window. I was woken just after 1am by the combined noises of the window rattling and the rain soaking the curtain and falling onto the inside of my window sill. Those noises however paled when compared to the incredible noise and light show of the massive storm that was raging directly overhead. I watched the display out of the bedroom window for a bit before (mostly) closing the window and trying to get back to sleep. I think the storm carried on for a while as when I awoke again in the morning I knew I had had a restless night. It wasn’t just the tired legs feeling that a solid day’s riding can leave give. The room had heated up again after my closing the window and so, feeling hot and stuffy I had a shower and then wrote up my diary for the previous day’s ride (I carry a small notebook with me to record my trips and serve as an aide memoir for writing this blog).

Breakfast was a simple self service continental buffet. An English speaking guest, an elder gentleman who I suspect might be part of the furniture at the hotel, showed me the ropes. A group of workmen alternated between eating bread and cheese on the table opposite and venturing outside for one of a large number of cigarettes they worked their way through over breakfast.

Leaving Thulin
Leaving Thulin

The overnight rain had stopped but the morning was grey and overcast and the temperature was nothing like that of the previous day. After breakfast I finished my preparations, took my bike from the outbuilding that it had spent the night in, and made ready for the off. After a matter of only metres I passed the village store so deviated in to get supplies: some bread rolls and bottles of pop: I still had some crisps, cheese and salami from the shop in Eisengen that I stopped at yesterday.

The first few miles were easy enough going although I was pushing into a small headwind. Just outside of Thulin I passed a field, marked with a number of wind turbines, which my host at the hotel had told me was the site for a part of the Battle of Mons; one of the first battle fields of the First World War. Here in 1914 the British Expeditionary Force had a very early encounter with the German Army. Losses here led to the B.E.F. retreating back to the coast.

Mons Battle Site
Mons Battle Site

A few small villages followed and somewhere around here I passed the border into France. Crespin was the name of the first French village I entered. I had thought that the border might have been the pretty bridge I stopped at on its edge but my maps now tell me I had crossed over about a half a mile beforehand. My stop at the bridge took longer than planned. A quick and pretty photo opportunity became a major frustration as my main phone/camera refused to work. Fortunately I was aware that it was starting to reach the end of its life and had brought an older phone with me to serve as my GPS recorder for the trip. That phone was now going to double up as the camera for the rest of the day. It was whilst cursing my faulty handset that I looked into the village and noticed that the signs were slightly different. That was my first indication that I was indeed now in France. I then realised that all of the car number plates were also now French registered. It’s quite impressive that despite the easy and fluid nature of international travel here that everyone seemed to have the correct license plates.

Entering France?
Entering France?

The first miles in France were fairly uneventful taking me through Vicq and Onnaing and then following the main road towards Valenciennes. The outskirts of the town (twinned with Chatham!) are fairly plain. Rather than trying to navigate around some side streets I stayed on the main road until I came to the inner ring road. The first section proved easy riding as roadworks had closed the carriageway to everyone bar cyclists. Further around the ring road I rejoined the traffic and passed a section of the old town wall. I then had to navigate around a tricky, busy, roundabout, but was soon heading back out of the town again having avoided the town centre. I made my way onto a canal tow path at just the right time to choose to stop for a quick bite to eat.

Valenciennes City Walls
Valenciennes City Walls

I was only to follow the L’Escaut Canalise for a short distance; although it was long enough to find my way blocked by a tree which had, presumably, fallen in the overnight storms. With no easy alternative route I had to push my way through the foliage in order to carry on to the edge of Thiant where I left the towpath and rejoined the local roads.

Upon leaving Thiant I came upon my first proper, and quite unexpected, stretch of Pavé. Unlike the short section outside Waterloo yesterday there was no avoiding these cobbles. I braced myself for the shaking and rattling but did actually find it to be quite good fun. The cobbles lasted the remaining miles into the next village though and by the time I dropped down the bumpy slope into Haspres I was glad to see the end of them. I mentally revised my plans for the day.

Pavé
Pavé

After watching the Tour de France route come near this way during Stage 9 just a few weeks earlier I had planned the next part of my route to take in the first two sections of Pavé that the Tour had taken on its route between Arras and Roubaix on that day. It was easy to add the first section in with only a minor detour, however adding the second section had involved including an additional 5 mile detour.. Having now already completed one good section on the cobbles I therefore made the decision to abandon that detour and include only the first section.

Iwuy
Iwuy

With that in mind I headed stragith on through Avesnes le Sec towards Iwuy. My water bottles were starting to get low now. I rode up and down the main street in Iwuy but there was no shop. Instead I stopped at the village church and had some refreshments. I was going to be riding into Cambrai within a few miles so I was sure that I would find something there. t turned I did not even have to go that far. As soon as I turned the other direction out of Iwuy I came upon a small supermarket and was able to stock up there.

Iwuy Church
Iwuy Church

A very short distance later I hung a right to head into the pretty village of Thun. This was the short diversion required to take me to the section of pavé that I was keeping on my route. I hit the cobbles on the outskirts of the village as they made their way up a slow rise. The Tour riders had come the other direction but I was glad to be slowed by the hill; hitting these at speed must be something else – but the Tour de France riders aren’t carrying panniers and they have easy access to mechanics if required.

Tour de France Pavé
Tour de France Pavé

There had clearly been a large number of Bob Jungles fans here as his name was painted a number of times on the cobbles (his was the only name that I saw). I carried on jolting and bouncing; mostly enjoying the experience but glad that I was only doing a couple of short sections of cobbled riding.

Loaded Pavé
Loaded Pavé

At the end where the cobbles stop someone had painted the words “Are You Ready” on the road. For the Tour de France riders on 15th July this was just the start of 15 sections and over 22km of cobbled roads awaiting them. For me the question was too late. That was my Pavé adventure complete.

Were You Ready
Were You Ready

I rode the short distance into the centre of Cambrai. Cambrai now doesn’t stick in the memory. Passing by I stopped to look at, and have a break at, the main town church but I was soon back on the way and, as seemed to be becoming habit on this ride, left the town by joining a waterside path; this time the towpath of the Canal du Saint Quentin.

Cambrai
Cambrai

There was only a handful of miles alongside the canal before I reached the bridge which marked my turning off point.

Leaving the canal I started a nice gentle climb back up onto open countryside. I crossed over a motorway, and rose up onto an open plateau marked with wind turbines and the occasional roadside chapel/shrine. The wind was still in my face as it had been all day and I felt its effects more on this exposed land. Then, suddenly, right in front of me (well just off to the left in reality) I saw the first of the many, many war cemeteries that I was to encounter along the remainder of the day’s riding.

Flesquieres Hill
Flesquieres Hill

Whilst I was aware that a very large number of graves were spread across a great number of cemeteries I had not realised just how many cemeteries I might be passing and over how large a stretch of the land they covered. In planning my ride I had picked a handful of key sites around the Somme and Ypres to visit. How foolish I was to think that those pre-planned sites would be the main part of the remembrance element to my trip.

Flesquieres Hill
Flesquieres Hill

The cemetery of Flesquieres Hill itself is relatively small; a mere 589 men are buried here! I would come across many larger in the days ahead so in some ways this turned out to be good preparation. The cemetery is raised up above the ground a little and only upon climbing the steps up did the beauty of the site become apparent. The work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, and the various French and Belgian bodies with whom they work to maintain these sites, is truly inspiring.

Flesquieres Panorama
Flesquieres Panorama

Just to the side of the cemetery and built down and into the land on which the cemetery sits, is the new museum, named “Cambrai Tank”. “Deborah” a Mark IV tank, was involved in the fighting here in 1917. Fatally damaged (her crew are all buried in the cemetery) her remains where left buried after the war until 1998 when they were excavated, leading to the building of this amazing museum dedicated to her and the story of the new mechanised beasts of the Battle of Cambrai. I wasn’t originally sure about going in as I knew that I had a lot of riding still to do but I am so glad that I did and cannot recommend the museum highly enough. The building itself is amazing; replicating the concrete bunkers Deborah was attacking and is quite stunningly laid out with a mix of brilliant interactive displays setting the scene, and then the beautifully arranged remains of Deborah herself.

Leaving the museum and bowing my head again to the cemetery I continued heading West across the open countryside.

In Havrincourt, from its gates I looked down to the Chateau de Havrincourt. At first glance the Chateau is typical of many such French buildings, however this one dates only from 1925 when the new building was made to replace the one destroyed by the Germans in 1917 when the Hindenburg line was built straight through the village and the original structure.

Chateau de Havrincourt
Chateau de Havrincourt

Slightly further west again I crossed high over the Canal du Nord which was itself the subject of heavy fighting.

Canal Du Nord
Canal Du Nord

The next site for me to stop at was another cemetery; the small but lovely site of the Beaumetz Cross Roads Cemetery. I was beginning to realise now that there might be more cemeteries around the area than I had anticipated.

Beaumetz Road Panorama
Beaumetz Road Panorama

A couple of villages later I stopped in Villers au Flos. I had only stopped here opposite the church as it was one of the places at which I needed to swap over the pages of mapping in my handlebar map holder. As I was about to set back off I noticed a sign pointing towards a German War Cemetery. I wasn’t sure how far away it might be but looking at the road it was signed down I guessed (correctly) that it wouldn’t involve a long detour so I went to explore.

The smaller cememteries at Flesquieres and Beaumetz had not prepared me for this; my first large scale war cemetery. The German cemetery was as beautifully and peacefully laid out as the CWGC ones. Indeed with many more trees planted around the site, the layout felt even more relaxed and very friendly. Instead of the stone headstones used in the allied cemeteries, the Germans are buried under iron crosses. The effect is to increase the space between the graves which allows you to see more at any one time. There were many, many crosses here and it took my breath away.

I thoroughly despise the jingoistic, nationalistic crap that has enveloped and soured the U.K. since the referendum to leave the E.U. It is the biggest mistake of our generation and here lay the reasons (several thousand of them) why. These men here were as much our brothers as those under the clean white stones of the Commonwealth graves. This whole trip was to be a constant reminder of how we must never allow Europe to be so divided again; and yet here we are in the U.K. architects of the opposite.

Just as this deep sorrow was coming upon me I wandered further into the cemetery and then noticed something that had initially escaped my attention. Beyond the first line of crosses I had encountered next to the main path, all of the other crosses bore not one but two names. There were twice as many dead here as at first appeared. 2449 men are buried here. I did allow myself to cry a little. Not for the last time today.

Villers au Flos German Cemetery
Villers au Flos German Cemetery

Having regained my composure I headed back out of the small gate from the cemetery, mounted the bike and headed off on my way. Outside of the next village, Le Transloy, I came across my first French cemetery. This was mostly the main village cemetery but at its front was a large open area which was apparently the mass grave for several hundred men killed in the war; their names carved on a large stone behind.

Le Transloy
Le Transloy

I only had to pass through one more village to come across the next major cemetery; the CWGC Guards Cemetery at Lesboeufs. This is the final resting place of 3,137 casualties, of which 1,644 remain unidentified. Most of the photos I took here appear to be out of focus; I’ve included the best remaining ones here. I can only assume that I must have been crying again.

At the top of the hill a short ride from the cemetery is the monument to mark where the main fighting that led to the full cemetery I had just left took place. The cross now sits on the edge of a picturesque field; 100 years ago this landscape would have been anything but lovely.

Guards Monument
Guards Monument

From here it was a short ride to Delville Wood.

Delville Wood was the first of the sites that I had actually put as a point on my route plan. The wood was the site of one of the bloodiest engagements of the Somme in 1916. It was almost completely destroyed in the fighting but the trees have since been regrown. Only one tree remains from the original wood. My detours had meant that I had turned up too late to visit the Museum in whose grounds the tree sat but there was more enough memories to take in here. The main feature of the battle site now is the massive monument to all of the fallen of South Africa across the whole of the Great War. The monument is a massive structure that reveals more and more of itself as you get closer.

Delville Wood South African Monument
Delville Wood South African Monument

The original monument did not contain any names but an addition was made to mark the centenary of the battle on which the names of all the South African fallen are recorded. It’s a big list. The photo below shows only a fraction.

Delville Wood South African Monument
Delville Wood South African Monument

I didn’t stray far into the wood as I had left my bike unlocked at the gate; and whilst I didn’t really expect anything to happen to it I didn’t wish to tempt fate. I walked just far enough to ascertain that the marker stones I could see were recording the names of the ‘streets’ that had been made in commemoration of the trench lines: Regent Street, Rotten Row, Princes Street, etc.

Delville Wood

Across the road from the monument and on a direct line with it is the battle field cemetery (for those whose bodies were recovered; for a great many more men the wood remains their final resting place – if resting is the right word). The cemetery, containing the bodies of over 5,500 men, was yet another vast and stark reminder of the huge loss of life here (remembering that only one half of the fighting is represented in this plot). The sun was starting to lower now and the low light made the strange beauty of the cemetery even more powerful. I sat here a while and would have happily stayed longer but I still had a few more miles to ride into Albert so I pulled myself up from the bench I was sitting on, walked along just a few more of the very many lines of the dead, and headed back onto the bike.

At the junction just beyond the cemetery I came across the recently installed memorial to the ‘Footballers Battalions’ – the 17th and 23rd Middlesex – who included in their ranks a number of professional London based footballers (and indeed from other clubs). The monument was added in 2010 by the Football League.

The Footballers Battalions
The Footballers Battalions

The sign to another monument led to me adding an extra mile or two of detour; the monument to the fallen of New Zealand on the top of another hill just to the North of Longueval and Delville Wood.

I headed back in the direction of Albert but again did not go far before coming to another of the massive cemeteries; this time Caterpillar Valley. Another 5,573 men are buried here; 3,798 of whom are unidentified. The names of 1,200 fallen of New Zealand are also recorded here. As at Delville Wood the low, late summer sunlight added to the power of the setting and situation and I sat down and had another little weep.

Another few smaller cemeteries were sited a short way off the road; Thistle Dump. Flatiron Copse. Gordon Dump. I didn’t stop at any of these. I didn’t have the physical or emotional energy left to make the detours. A long day riding into the wind and all the tears were taking their effect now.

I did however make one final turning for the short trip to the final site of the day; the massive hole in the ground known as Lochnagar Crater. The result of tunnelling and exploding underneath German trenches, a hole 330 feet across and 70 feet deep remains as a permanent memorial. The explosion occurred on the first day of the Battle of the Somme; 2 minutes before the main fighting started. Unknown numbers of Germans were killed both in the explosion itself. Thousands more died in the fighting that then occurred in the immediate aftermath. As the British tried to take the ground their advance was scuppered by the massive crater. The new obstacle largely served to leave them brutally exposed to the German guns.

Lochnagar Crater
Lochnagar Crater

By now I was physically and emotionally exhausted. Fortunately my bed for the night was not far away. Albert was the main town at the heart of the Somme region and the Ibis hotel that I was aiming for was on this side of the town. I quietly and reflectively rode the final mile or two and silently glided into the hotel car park.

End of the Day
End of the Day

I checked in, showered, and returned to the bar and restaurant for a rather rubbery steak (but some nice fries) and a beer. Unsurprisingly perhaps the bar was full of a couple of coach loads of other Brits on tours around the battle sites. However I was too in my own thoughts from the day to engage with them and so quietly slipped back upstairs to my room and to my nice comfortable bed.

Stats:

Next: The Somme (part 2) and Agincourt

Four War Tour Day One – 7 August 2018

Waterloo

Prologue

I had first thought about doing a tour around battlefields of Belgium and Northern France a year before I set off on this trip. I hadn’t quite managed to get a good route sorted out and, finding myself running out of time to plan it properly had swapped over to my other plan of riding across the top of Scotland for that summer’s tour instead. So, still wanting to create my own tour that would take me around some World War I battle sites before the end of the 100 years anniversary of the end of that war I started my planning again at the turn of 2018. This time a plan and a route fell into place surprisingly easily. Everything fitted in nicely.  The Eurostar service to get me to the start at Brussels.  Some decent looking accommodation at appropriate locations and reasonable prices.  The ferry back to Dover from the French coast. Over the next few months I made a couple of minor tweaks to the plans but they stayed largely as first conceived. So it was that I was ready to give the world the “Four War Tour” taking in the battles of Agincourt and Waterloo as well as some key sites from both World Wars.

As is usually the case with my tours the dates were chosen to fit in around my other half’s annual two week “busman’s holiday” at the Ness of Brodgar excavations in Orkney. As such my plans settled on a Tuesday start in early August with a return home on the Saturday evening. The Tuesday start was partly chosen with the Eurostar timetable in mind as that gave me the best train to Brussels from my nearest International station at Ashford. There were some logistics to arrange though. The one downside to using Ashford International station is that you are not able to load large luggage, including fully assembled bikes, there. They have to be loaded on at St. Pancras. That might naturally therefore suggested my having to go into London to join service there. However one cannot also carry bicycles on the morning commuter trains into the city. I therefore had to conclude my preparations the day before and on the Monday afternoon I took a special trip into London for the sole purpose of checking my bike in with the Eurostar Dispatch service.

Starting to Pack
Starting to Pack

That all went to plan; however the day before I made that trip I had received a message from Eurostar to inform me that my train was no longer going to be stopping at Ashford and that I would have to get to Ebbsfleet instead. Although only another 30 miles away this was a major headache. I could no longer get the early train from Hastings as I would not be able to get from Ashford to Ebbsfleet in time to check in. Instead I would have to get up stupidly early, drive to Ashford and park the car there for the week, and then get an early train to Ebbsfleet.

Day One

So it was that the Tuesday morning came much earlier than originally planned. My bike was already in London and would hopefully be there to meet me in Brussels. I was out of the house at an unearthly hour (it had a 4 at the start), had a top notch breakfast from the early morning McDonalds Drive Through in Ashford and was soon getting on the fast train to Ebbsfleet – looking a bit odd in all my cycling gear but without a bike. The amended plans, although adding a lot of time and a fair bit of money to the start of my trip (which I’m in the process of trying to claim back), had worked out well and I was soon checked in at Ebbsfleet and taking on more coffee to wake me up.

Just about awake - at Ebbsfleet International
Just about awake – at Ebbsfleet International

The train arrived on time and left ten minutes late; mostly I think due to the quite unprecedented levels of faffing about required by some of the people getting onto the same carriage as me. I’ve never seen such levels of incompetence when it comes to working out how to board a train. Once we were on the way the journey went as smoothly and quickly as one expects from Eurostar and we were soon pulling into Brussels Midi station.

To Belgium
To Belgium

My fears about not meeting up with my bicycle were very quickly alleviated. As I walked down the platform I came across the luggage wagon in the process of being unloaded – with my bike very clearly amongst the items on the train. I showed my paperwork to the staff who were happy to hand it straight over to me without my having to go to the luggage office to collect. Instead I was able to get straight out of the station (having first arranged all my bags and equipment and having filled up my various water bottles) ready to begin my adventure.

Ready to Ride
Ready to Ride

It took a couple of minutes to work out precisely on my maps where I had exited and in which direction I should be heading. Once my GPS had fully kicked in it became clear, I plotted my immediate route, and headed off. I only needed to take a few short sections on road before coming onto the Brussels Canal which would (largely) be my route out of the city. It was nice to be on my way and lovely to be starting out on a canal tow path; so often riding through cities can be an unpleasant experience but this was lovely. The sun was out (I’d already slathered on the factor 50) and the day was hot. After just a couple of miles however it was time to take a small diversion. I’ve done many silly diversions to take in some odd sights on my rides but this was probably the silliest. However if you’re going to start a “Grand Tour” in the home of the grandest tourer of them all then it seems wrong not to pay a little tribute; and this was just such a little tribute.

At the Brussels Canal
At the Brussels Canal

About a mile off the tow path, just up a fairly non-descript road is a building in the central reservation. It’s the above ground entrance to a suburban station on the Brussels Underground. I bought a ticket from the machine outside and, as they seem enlightened enough to allow bikes to be taken on the trains I pushed my bike through the ticket barriers and down the lift onto the platform. At the far end of a fairly dull and slightly dilapidated station was the artefact I was looking for. For this station is named “Eddy Merckx” after the five time Tour De France winner, and there at the far end of the station is a glass case containing the bike that he broke the one hour record (by riding 49.431Km in that time) in 1972.

Tribute completed I returned to the surface and, after a small concern when I couldn’t initially get the bike out of the station, headed back towards the canal and carried on out of the city.

At Lot I left the tow path behind me and headed onto the roads. At Eisengen I stopped at the Okay Supermarket and acquired my lunch for the day; bread rolls, a net bag of babybels, some chocolate, a packet of mini saucisson sticks and a couple of small bottles of a random flavour of Fanta. Around the corner I found a church bench and tucked in. The day was now very hot and the next 15 or so miles were largely uphill – not by much but enough of a constant small drag to notice. Somewhere along the way I passed a pharmacist with an electronic sign claiming the temperature had reached 40 degrees. I’m not sure I quite believed that but it was as hot as any cycling I’ve ever done. My water bottles were beyond warm. My throat was drying out within seconds. I was going to need to keep my water levels topped up throughout the day. The following miles were at least fairly uneventful and before too long I was riding into the town of Waterloo.

Lunchbreak Selfie
Lunchbreak Selfie

Before heading to the battle site first of all I had decided to take a look at the museum based in the building that served as Wellington’s headquarters before and after the battle. I locked the bike up outside and the lovely people on the front desk were happy for me to leave my panniers with them whilst I wandered around. I bought a ticket that also included access to the main museum at the battle field (and some other nearby museums as well) and went in. The museum was a pretty standard local/military museum and quite enjoyable for it. I also found a water fountain which I drank my fill from and returned before leaving to fill up my bottles.

Dear Diary. Today I Beat The French
Dear Diary. Today I Beat The French

I headed South along the main road, over a few busy junctions, and finally, once out of the town, came upon the road junction at which Wellington based himself during the battle itself. At the junction I turned right to head towards the Lion Mound and Panorama Museum. I parked the bike up and wandered down into the bunker that is the new museum and visitors centre. I showed my ticket from the Wellington Museum and threw my paniers into one of the many lockers that were available. The visitor centre is pretty good and quite a lot more than I was anticipating.

Finally Facing My
Finally Facing My

There are lots of waxworks showing the troops of both sides as they march towards battle and depicting them setting themselves up ready; there was a genuine guillotine in one room with a display outlining how France had come to be led by Napoleon; there were all manner of interactive displays and more traditional museum cases; there was an upside down horse (no idea why) and a model hot air balloon (so you can get an ‘aerial view’) of the site. It is a great little museum and I might have liked to spend some more time in there but I was hot, it was already well into the afternoon and I still had 2/3 of the day’s riding in front of me.

Instead I left from the little stairwell that takes you into the old Panorama exhibition where I did have a look at the virtual reality experience that gives you a view around the battle site. This is something that particularly interests me. Back in 1994 at University I gave my final undergraduate lecture on how new technology, most notably this new “Virtual Reality”, might revolutionise the presentation of heritage sites. Here we are 24 years later and its now really starting to happen, though there is still a way to go yet.

The Lion Mound
The Lion Mound

I then made the ascent of the 225 steps up on to the top of the Lion Mound. Built in the immediate years after the battle as a permanent reminder it is quite a site to behold and gives great views out across the battle field helping you to understand how big the site was. The lines of British and Allied troops occupied a long line across one ridge with the French headquarters quite some way off. You always know when watching re-enactment societies that their displays are vey compressed but it is quite something to see the true scale of these great moments in history, Indeed it is quite interesting to see how large the scale of this battle was when then compared to some of the WWI trench sites I would see later on the tour.

I finished my visit with a quick look at the old 360 panorama exhibition in the old, slightly run down, circular display building and then headed back, gathering my bags and got on my way. I headed back to Wellington’s cross road, looked around at some of the various monuments around there (there are an awful lot of monuments around the battlefield; 135 of them apparently). This also helped me to spot the cycle path running south to the side of the main road so I followed that as I headed across to the French positions.

Wellington's Battle HQ Picnic Benches
Wellington’s Battle HQ Picnic Benches

I passed the Victor Hugo column. I’m not sure why he has such a massive column here. He was about 13 at the time of the battle. He wrote about it afterwards but I’m till at loss as to why he seems to get such a prominent monument here. Further away again, probably 2-3 miles from the crosroads, you come across the farm that served as Napoleon’s last headquaters. Shortly afterwards I turned west and off the main road and onto the ‘Chemin du Crucifix’.

Victor Hugo Column
Victor Hugo Column

By now I was very hot. My mouth was almost constantly dry and taking small regular sips of warm (almost hot) water from my bottles wasn’t helping for long. I came across my first taste of Pavé – although it was mostly only covering half of the road so most of the time I was able to avoid it. After the pavé things looked briefly worse as my map took me onto a very rough track. I wasn’t overly happy with this – I could really do without being bounced around on loose tracks and I needed to make up some time which was not going to be easy without tarmac under my tyres.

Pavé Avoidance
Pavé Avoidance

Fortunately it didn’t last long and I was soon back on proper roads and shooting down into the village of Baulers and from there into the outskirts of Nivelle. By this point I was at the stage where I was starting to make mistakes. I was hot, tired, thirsty. I wasn’t looking forward to navigating my way through a town and so followed my instincts. My instincts were hot, tired, thirsty, and wrong. As I veered off to the South (I should have been continuing West) the only thing going for them was that they managed to navigate me past a branch of Lidl. I dived straight in without even stopping to lock my bike (there were a few people collecting for the WWF so I figured the bike was probably OK) and came back out with plenty of water and a can of Coke. I took another bit of bread and cheese washed down with the Coke, refilled my water bottles, and chatted to the charity collectors (they quite wisely had decided that I wasn’t worth attempting to tap up for a regular donation so we didn’t have to have that awkward conversation in broken English and shattered French). I soon felt much better; as much due to the knowledge that I now had all bottles fully laden (with slightly cooler water for the time being) ready to carry me on my way. I checked the maps to ascertain the direction that I should now be heading off in, said goodbye to my new friends, and got back on my way.

I had now to head into the town centre so navigation was easy. I followed the main road in, past the war memorial with the two seals; yes, seals.

War Memorial Seals
War Memorial Seals

Sometimes a wrong turn can work out having positive side effects; and not just finding a supermarket. If I’d followed the planned route I would have skirted around the edge of Nivelles and as such I would have missed seeing the magnificent Collegiate Church of St. Gertrude in the main town square. It is a lovely looking building and I would have liked to have seen inside, however time was against me and I contented myself with the knowledge that if I had more time it would have been due to my not getting lost and then I would not have seen the church at all!

Heading back out of town I found the track I was supposed to have been taking; following a disused railway line. The line was passing above me on a bridge which was in the process of being replaced. However a quick recce showed that I would be able to scramble my way up some half-finished steps and around the works and get on to the old track bed.

The next few miles would be mostly following the train line. As is normally the case in these situations this was lovely riding. It was Largely flat, beautifully tree lined with a well surfaced path and no navigation was required. There was a short but easy to follow diversion through the pretty village of Arquennes. Riding past the remains of the viaduct showed the reason for the diversion but this is a lovely little Belgian village and it was delightful to have ridden through it.

Dismantled Viaduct, Arquennes
Dismantled Viaduct, Arquennes

Back out of the village and I was back onto the railway line. I believe that this route carries on for some way however I left it again just before entering the village of Seneffe, which I skirted around before coming up to a path down to the Canal du Centre. The canal is one of the big modern waterways that still carry large volumes of cargo in this part of the world. It is a long way removed from the small, early canals that crisscross the United Kingdom. I would now be following the canal side for most of the rest of the day – a good 20-25 miles of flat, easy riding. The wind was against me but there wasn’t much of it and I was pleased that I would now be able to make some good steady progress. Lots of people were out making the most of the lovely day; swimming and fishing and sunbathing by the wide waterway.

After a few miles I crossed an impressive aquaduct, had to divert around a canal side industrial estate, and then came upon one of the most impressive modern feats of engineering in the world; one that I’d never previously heard of. Between the villages of Strepy-Bracquegnies and Thieu there is a sudden 200 foot drop. To get the modern large industrial barges up and down the hill a massive boat lift has been built to lift boats of up to 1,350 tonnes a vertical distance of 73.15m. After admiring the view from the top I followed the path to the lower end – this was by far the steepest descent of the day and I raced down the hill. The lift looks even more impressive from the bottom and I watched for a few minutes as a barge was made ready for the ascent.

A short way further on, across the other side of the canal, I could see some evidence of an older industrial past. Sadly I didn’t stop to investigate as what I could see was the first of four older boat lifts that used to take the barges up and down the hill before the new lift was built.  These old lifts are still operational and are now part of a Unesco World Heritage Site.  Maybe one day I’ll get back here and have a day or two to explore by barge.

Canal Action Selfie
Canal Action Selfie

I continued for another ten miles or so along the Canal on its lower section. A sudden shower brought some welcome relief from the earlier heat but it was short lived and the sun was soon out and steaming the rain that had landed on the towpath. A diversion around an old waterfront warehouse indicated to me that I was nearly at the point on my maps when I would leave the canal and head South towards my base for the night.

Cycling under that was a bit scary
Cycling under that was a bit scary – Looked like it could collapse at any second

The final miles passed uneventfully. I stopped for one last fill of water and fizzy pop at a cash and carry in Terre just before it closed for the evening. That was my first real indication that the day was definitely dragging on and that I should get a wiggle on for the last five miles. Indeed as I entered the penultimate village of the day I recevied a phone call from the landlord of the Auberge I was staying at to check that I was still coming. Fortunately by that point I was within five minutes of arriving so I made a quick final effort and rolled up at the “Auberege le XIX eme” just after half past eight. By nine O-Clock I was showered and dressed in order to be downstairs in time to eat. Dinner was a fantastic mixed grill (it was a set menu with one choice – probably on account of my late arrival) with a couple of the local wheat beers – brewed especially for the hotel. And so finished the end of the first day of my tour and I was soon back in bed and sound asleep.

Will Ride for Meat
Will Ride for Meat

Stats:

Next: Mons, Cambrai and The Somme

 

Around West Sussex

 

…with a foray into Surrey…

In between my ride to Portsmouth and my upcoming “grand” summer tour, I had a spare Saturday and was keen for another good day’s touring. The Portsmouth ride had taken it out of me. It had incapacitated me for two days and I was desperate to have a more successful ride before setting off to Belgium on a five day trip. A recent drive across West Sussex on work business had made me realise that I know little of that half of the wider County and so I plotted a horse shoe shaped route design taking in a trip loosely following a large part of the border. The route would start in Shoreham and finish up in Chichester. Having planned my route I duly noted the trains needed to get me to the start point; and then awoke so early on the Saturday morning that I ended up just getting up and getting a train an hour earlier than anticipated. The journey was spent having a pleasant hour of conversation with Trevor; someone I used to commute with before he retired. He was off on one of his days out getting the train down past Southampton and then using his bus pass to travel around the New Forest. He does these sort of trips on a regular basis and they sound great! I left him at Brighton station as I had a different connection than him that would get me to Shoreham. So after a short trip along the Brighton and Hove conurbation I was getting off the train and ready to ride.
Setting off from Shoreham
Setting off from Shoreham
Although I don’t know too much of West Sussex I was starting off along fairly familiar territory. Shoreham station is right on national cycle route NCN2 and I followed it very briefly past the old town centre to the river front. At that point rather than crossing the bridge (which would have sent me back in the direction of Portsmouth) I turned to follow the River Adur upstream. After a bit of winding around to leave Shoreham (the normal cycle path along the river was closed at the town end and I had to follow some roads instead) I was soon on the river bank path/cycle way and following NCN223 a.k.a. The Downslink; so named as it provides a route between the North Downs and the South Downs Ways. From Shoreham north the route follows the river side past the old Shoreham Bridge, the former Cement Works and Quarry, and then crosses the river bound for Steyning. At the point at which the track crosses the river I deviated from the main path and followed the back lanes into Steyning through Annington instead. There is nothing wrong with the path into Steyning; I just fancied trying something different.
Old Shoreham Bridge
Old Shoreham Bridge
At Steyning the Downslink passes near the bottom of Bramber Castle (worth a quick diversion to investigate) and then winds along some rough track before joining the old railway line that forms the basis of most of the Downlink. However from a previous trip along that section I found the track was so rough, and the railway line not much better, that instead I passed through Steyning, shooting through the lovely village centre, and followed the B2135 road for a few miles instead. Whilst there is a moderate amount of traffic on this road I have found it to be much easier going than the official cycle route. Judging by the number of cyclists I saw on the road I’m not the only person to have made that assessment of this part of the Downslink. Just to the South of Partridge Green is where the Downslink and the road re-join briefly. The junction is marked by the presence of the excellent ‘Stan’s Bike Shack‘ – a popular landmark for cyclists in the area. Although I had only done ten miles so far I had deliberately only had the very lightest of breakfasts before setting off; entirely so that I could have an excuse to pull in at Stan’s. Although still fairly early there was already a good array of bikes parked up, but it didn’t take long for a cappuccino and a bacon sandwich to arrive at my table. I was soon done and ready to get some solid miles under my belt. I re-joined the road, but only for a short while as I was going to finally join the old railway line and do the Downslink properly for the next section of my trip. The track here is fairly loose material rather than tarmac but it’s pretty good quality and well compacted. It makes for decent enough riding; though possibly not during damper, muddy seasons.
Approaching West Grinstead
Approaching West Grinstead
The old railway continues mostly northwards (and slightly west). The first landmark is the old West Grinstead station just north of the A272 (which you pass underneath). It still has the old platforms, a working signal (have a go yourself using the handle at the bottom), and an old train carriage used for some sort of nature reserve office. The route carries on through some lovely, easy going miles, very slowly, gradually climbing.
West Grinstead Station
West Grinstead Station
The first main place you enter is Southwater, near Horsham. The old station here has now become a small parade of shops but the route remains easy to follow until you cross the main road. During my trip a new housing estate was being built and the path suddenly entered and crossed a field; not ideal but it wasn’t long before I was back on the old railway line and making good progress once more. The next point of note not too much farther on, comes near Christ’s Hospital School. Here the old line branched off from the still existing main line. The cycle track naturally has to deviate onto a path by the side and along some small roads. The old line continues the other side of the main line however it is not possible to immediately re-join the old track and instead there is a mile or two on some nice country lanes before the old line becomes accessible again. Oddly enough this next section doesn’t actually use the old track bed which is left empty and overgrown; with a new path having been added to the side. It feels a bit unnecessary but I guess it works.
Alongside the Downs Link
Alongside the Downs Link
The route carries on fairly uneventfully past Slinfold towards Rudgwick. A point of interest comes where the line crosses the River Arun. When the line was originally built the bridge was built quite low but this caused there to be too steep a gradient on the line into Rudgwick. As such the line was not allowed to open until the gradient was fixed, which involved raising the bridge by adding a second section on top of the original.
Double Bridge over the Arun
Double Bridge over the Arun
After Rudgwick another “interesting” part appears unannounced. I’m assuming that just past the village the line entered either a tunnel or a deep cutting. Whichever it might have been it is no longer accessible and the path takes a sudden and most unexpected and entirely unwelcome scramble up the side of the cutting. It’s not the nastiest climb in the world but it’s bloody horrible; very steep for a short way and also made of a loose surface material that doesn’t help with the climb. Being clipped into my pedals and not expecting the sudden rise I was forced into going for it up the slope. I managed to drop down through my gears but couldn’t stand up out of the saddle as I would have slipped all over the place on the rough track. It was bad enough as it was. I somehow managed to get to the top of the main incline and, unclipping as I went, threw myself off the bike to get my breath back. What a thoroughly nasty section of an otherwise excellent piece of cycle way. I hope that at some point soon the path gets properly surfaced, and also hopefully reconfigured to go up the slope more easily. For now beware. I don’t think this would be any more fun going downhill; in fact I fear it could be quite dangerous. Still; I was at the top and alive and OK.
Steep Path!
Steep Path!
I had been expecting to be leaving the old railway line around this point anyway, although not quite in that nature. An off road path continued for a small distance before joining a lane near Baynard’s Park. The DownsLink continues the other side of the road but that was me done with that particular route for the day and now I was back onto tarmac. A short ride brought me to a bus shelter at Alfold Crossways where I took a break for some snacks and to get the next page of my maps ready. I was trying out a new map holder for the first time on this ride. It’s fairly small and can only hold a few miles worth of mapping at any one time but it was already proving useful and would continue to do so over the coming miles. I was no longer having to try and remember several miles of route in my head; and indeed it was preventing me having to stop and pull a map out of my bag whenever I, inevitably, forgot the directions.
Nice Cornering
Nice Cornering
Refreshed, ready to go, and with the route ahead of me visible on the handlebars I set off again. A B-Road took me along some twisty lanes around Dunsford Aerodrome. The burnt out remains of a car in the hedge on the corners reminded me to keep a watchful eye out for traffic behaving erratically although I didn’t encounter any particularly high levels of idiocy. At Dunsfold village a turning to the left sent me towards the pretty village green at Chiddingfold, from where the roads started to climb up onto the downs. At Graysfold the climbing got a little steeper and then just past that village a turning up a small lane to the right the road got steeper still as I climbed up a back lane in towards Haslemere. This was the first proper bit of climbing of the day – a decent length at a good but challenging gradient. I actually enjoyed it. From the top I had a small drop into the centre of Haslemere where I stopped at the local Waitrose to buy some bits and pieces for lunch which I ate on a nearby park bench (once I’d removed the large number of cigarette butts discarded on the seat).
Hares!
Hares!
Having eaten and drunk and got ready for the rest of the ride ahead I loaded back up and got on my way. Haslemere was apparently having some sort of Hare festival with lots painted models of said creatures large and small larger all over the town. Managing to avoid being too distracted by them I navigated my way to the turning up Haste Hill and began the next part of the climb. Another good steady piece of riding saw me climbing up onto the National Trust lands on Black Down. Again I found the riding to be steady going and quite enjoyable as I made my way up to the highest point of the trip. There were some good views off to the side, however they were hidden in amongst the trees.
Climbing up to Black Down
Climbing up to Black Down
Having reached the summit of the hill the roads took a turn towards the South and ahead of me was a good five miles of almost entirely downhill riding which would see me drop almost 700 feet, It should have been bliss but, guess what, it was! After crossing the West Sussex Rother at Halfway Bridge it was back to a bit more up and riding for a few miles before joining the busier A385 road close to Duncton.
Rolling Downhill
Rolling Downhill
After passing through that village I knew that I had the toughest climb ahead of me up the escarpment and onto the South Downs. And this was tough. The angle of climb is just that much steeper than the one up Black Down. It wasn’t helped by being on a much busier road with impatient drivers thundering past me. I was hot, tired, sweaty and low on breath. Fortunately about two thirds of the way up the hill someone has conveniently placed a viewing point so I pulled in and made the most of the chance to admire the view (including back towards Black Down), regain my composure, and slaughter a good handful of Jelly Babies. There was still a third of the hill left to climb but the gradient had evened out to something more manageable and the crest was soon behind me. From here I should have had another couple of easier miles as I headed downhill a little. However the road here follows a slight dip in between the higher ground either side and it was causing a wind tunnel blowing into my face just strongly enough to negate at least most of the effect of the slope.
Upwaltham Church
Upwaltham Church
I stopped briefly at Upwaltham to look at the lovely little church situated by the roadside before turning off the main road onto the side one towards East Dean. The wind tunnel down the slope continued, although slightly easier going now, and before too long I was rolling into the village. True to the word on my map there was a pub here and so I rolled in, parked the bike up outside the Star and Garter and dived in to order a refreshing pint of Lager and Lime. I sat in the beer garden taking my time over the drink and chatted for a while with another passing visitor.
Star and Garter Lager and Lime
Star and Garter Lager and Lime
Now I was ready for the final push back up the hills and then down into Chichester. Rather than heading straight up at East Down I carried on to Charlton and then swung left to start the climb. Although now hot and tired this was another lovely climb up on to the glorious hills of Goodwood. The racecourse is indeed in a glorious setting on top the downs and on a day like this it isn’t hard to see how the famous race meeting gets its name. And now it was another downhill to the edge of the City and this time there was no wind tunnel to hold me back. Clearly race goers demand good quality road surfaces and the tarmac down towards the next landmark was smooth and lovely and I was soon shooting along at a touch over 40 miles per hour.
Goodwood Motor Racing
Goodwood Motor Racing
At the bottom of the hill is another famous Goodwood landmark; the Aerodrome-cum-Motor Racing Track. I took a look around the entrance but felt I was maybe a tad too tired now to put in a good lap time. Also the security team turned up and moved me on. Sadly the final few miles were less pleasant; mostly due to the large proportion of boy racing idiots presumably heading to and from the race track. Or maybe presumably not as they clearly hadn’t realised that they were on regular roads and not the high speed circuit. On the edge of the city is the Rolls Royce car factory and then it was in to the station.
Me and my Rolls Royce
Me and my Rolls Royce
Having encountered problems getting home on this train line from Portsmouth on my previous outing I was hoping for a better trip back. However I seemed to have timed my arrival at the station with the entire teenage population of mainland Europe. I was forced to sit squat on the floor (I did just manage to get my bike into the rack) by the out of order toilet. I did however manage to get the guard to allow me in to it so that I could change into something more comfortable for the trip home before resuming my squatting. I started to cramp up somewhere close to Worthing but fortunately enough of the students alighted at that station and I was able to grab a seat and enjoy the rest of the journey home.
Destination Chichester
Destination Chichester
In all this another great day out exploring some new parts of the countryside. West Sussex (and Surrey) I shall be back! Stats:

To Portsmouth

I’ve ridden to Portsmouth once before; quite early on in my return to cycling as a warm up and test before I set off on my first tour along the Avenue Verte. That ride remains one of my longest day rides. I’ve not done many 100+ miles routes since and so, in preparation for another summer tour, I thought I’d give the ride another go.

I had a midweek day booked off work. Fortunately the weather forecast was showing a favourable wind direction (I was prepared to get the train to Portsmouth and start from there if not!) however it was slap bang in the middle of the hottest, driest spell on the South Coast in years.

I got the bike and my kit ready to go the night before – as this was to be a full day ride with return train journey I was carrying a few bits of kit: some light clothes to swap into on the train, some bits of food and fuel, and an extra tube.

Although on a day off I was up at my usual time for work and was on the road at just after half seven; having liberally applied some factor 50 all over before setting off – the day was already warm and the sun up quite high.

Leaving Hastings

The first 10-15 miles were uneventful, following my usual commuting route towards Eastbourne along the Hastings sea front through Bexhill and across the Pevensey Levels.

The familiarity continued beyond then; although mostly in reverse. I have ridden in the direction of Lewes on a couple of previous occasions but it is a route I have ridden many times in the other direction. I passed through Abbotts Wood, around Arlington reservoir, and along the back roads before picking up the cycle path into Lewes from Firle.

Abbots Wood

I stopped for a first break on one of the benches overlooking the River Ouse and the Harvey’s Brewery in the middle of the town. I made the mistake of taking a look at my work email; only to see that the small to medium sized problem we had been dealing with had just become a major crisis. I had a short phone call with one of my colleagues and promised that I’d keep an eye on proceedings in case I was needed. What joy.

Harveys Brewery, Lewes

Out of Lewes the cycle path follows alongside the busy A27. The cycle route is properly and safely segregated but its still a fairly noisy ride and the least appealing part of the whole day’s route. The way towards Brighton is also a surprisingly sized hill and invariably a wind tunnel seems to form; even though the wind was supposed to be behind me. The slog is fairly short lived however and before long you find yourself at the top of the hill in Falmer – an odd mix of a few remaining original village buildings surround on one side by the 1960s (and later) University of Sussex campus, and on the other by the football stadium (“The AMEX”) of Brighton and Hove Albion.

One bonus feature of today’s ride was that for the first time in 3 or 4 attempts I managed to find the correct route from Falmer towards central Brighton. Previously I’d followed some misleading cycle way signs and ended up going in all manner of odd directions. One such adventure led to following an off road trail at the end of which I had to lift the bike (and me) over a barbed wire fence.

For most of the way into the centre Brighton isn’t too bad a city to ride into – cycle and shared cycle/bus lanes get you into the edge of the centre but from there until the seafront it seems that you need to largely just put your head down and follow the traffic along the main road until you get to the Pier and can roll off on to the promenade cycle path. It’s not too much fun but is fairly painless and is over pretty quickly (traffic lights permitting).

Once on to Brighton Prom things take a more steady and sedate pace. The cycle path is great; however due to the large volume of pedestrians on the sea front one definitely does have to “share with care” and be ready to apply bells and brakes. Things get quieter as you head towards Hove and once you are beyond the King Alfred Swimming Pool you will often find that you largely have the ride to yourself (at least that has tended to be my experience).

Brighton West Pier

At the end of Hove seafront the signs seem to take you in an unexpected and improbable route towards the industrial units by Shoreham Harbour. It seems wrong but trust the signs. After initially snaking through some units at the start of the estate the road opens up a bit and follows the shore; albeit a large sea wall prevents you getting a view of the sea. It’s still not the nicest but of riding with the sea wall on one side of you and the building yards on the other but having also tried staying on the main road during a previous ride I can assure you that this is the preferable option.

At the end of the harbour, just as you wonder how you might cross the water that form the harbour entrance, signs divert you in towards the coast where you come to cross the first of the two big lock gates.   After crossing the locks (get off and push as you do!) you re-join the busy A259. However if you get the turning right its not for long. Turn left onto the road and the take the first right opposite the Dudman building yard. There are signs but they are not obvious.

Shoreham Harbour

If you get the turning right, NCN2 takes you through some quiet residential roads before crossing the railway line by Shoreham station, taking a diversion through the surprisingly pretty town centre before coming back to the A259 directly next to the bridge over the River Adur and the leisure half of Shoreham Harbour.

Shoreham Lighthouse

That route is quite nice and I’ve done it before. Today I missed the turning and carried on along the A259. Coming this way you do get to go past Shoreham Lighthouse which is pretty cool; but that’s a small bonus for being stuck on the busy road with the Dudman lorries thundering past you (I dare you to read Nick Cave’s novel “The Death of Bunny Munro” and then not get slightly freaked when they pass close to you).

Shoreham Leisure Harbour

I put my head down though, maintained a good steady line and speed, kept awareness of what was around me and was soon at the bridge where I pulled off the busy road. Immediately I relaxed. Crossing the River Adur here is a markedly more pleasant crossing of Shoreham Harbour with all the pleasure boats laid out on the river below. The bridge itself is a nice structure also and all the more impressive when you get to the opposite bank and find the mechanism that allows for the whole bridge to be rolled back to allow larger vessels to pass underneath.

Shoreham Harbour Bridge

The next few miles has you rolling back along the seafront on the promenade and some quiet residential streets between Shoreham and Worthing. There is a bit of care to be taken along here as the seafront is normally quite busy, but it is pleasant riding and you soon find yourself at Worthing Pier. I stopped here to take another breather, grab a bite to eat and to check in on the work issues. The break and the food was good; the work issue was turning into a full fledged crisis with a high level conference call meeting arranged at 1.30pm. I offered to join in from wherever I might be at the time. I’d rather not have done so but it would be better for me to be able to provide input than to have just carried on.

Worthing Pier

Somewhere in West Worthing the NCN2 signs run out. Instead you seem to be on the ‘South Coast Cycleway’. Once you know this it’s pretty easy to follow, even though there are a few key missing signs between here and Chichester where the NCN2 number boards finally reappear.

Shoreham blends into Goring and then a short break through some open fields brings you to Ferring. It was here, next to a bus stop and opposite the local Co-op, that I found a bench in sufficient treeish shade upon which I parked myself and made ready to join the work Skype conference call. The meeting actually went fairly well with no nasty recriminations and a clear action plan. It had added an element of stress to the day and taken over an hour out of my riding but I was happy now that it was in hand and that I could continue the remainder of my ride without further (work related) incident. I popped over to the Co-op to fill up my water bottles and water bag, had some lunch, and then headed back on the way.

Work Bench

From Ferring the route heads inland where it follows (on a segregated cycle path) the A259 for a short distance before slowly dropping in back towards the sea through Angmering and Rustington. I say slowly as the cycle route does not take you immediately south to the coast but winds a few roads west, one road south, a few more west, and so on and so forth with even one little ‘false North’ before finally joining the promenade at the eastern end of Littlehampton.

Full Speed Ahead

A few more easy going prom ride miles brings you to the main seaside town beach area next to the Arun estuary. On my previous ride this way I recall having become properly hot and frazzled by this point and had to get some water from the very helpful RNLI lifeguards. Despite the ridiculous heat and sun today I was doing OK. The extra water I was carrying was helping. So rather than go all the way to the end of the sea front as I did on that occasion I diverted off by the coach park and joined the main road for a few hundred yards into and through the town; past the station, and to the foot bridge that takes you over the Arun and back onto Ferry Road. The ferry has long vanished from existence and as such this is now a quiet and little used lane.

Littlehampton Harbour

In writing this post I’ve gone back to look at my Strava route from my ride to Portsmouth four years previously as I was sure when riding that I was taking a very different route on this second occasion. I was correct. Previously having passed through Climping I had apparently crossed the main road and headed up to Burndell and Yapton villages before turning back in the direction of Bognor Regis.

As I arrived at the main road however a shiny new (in fact not yet entirely completed) cycle path had appeared following the main road. I played a hunch and decided to follow it.

So often new cycle paths can be a mixed blessing. As was the case with this one they can often be an easy way to follow the most direct route with the payoff being a less enjoyable ride than diverting down winding side lanes. That was the case here but there was a major bonus. Another feature of most modern cycle lanes seems to be the desire to get tarmac laid quickly and to hell with the concept of rolling it flat. So often cycle paths can be so bumpy that it is easy to see why so many road riders will ignore them and stay on the main carriageway.

With that in mind I pass on my huge thanks and Kudos to the engineers of this new cycle path. It is one of the smoothest and most pleasant such track I have ever encountered. It was so relaxing that when I spotted a funeral cortege coming towards me on the main road that I was very comfortable in being able to slow down and remove my helmet as they passed me. I cannot imagine being so confident on the Firle cycleway out of Lewes for one.

Before very long at all I was on the outskirts of Bognor Regis and by the entrance to Butlins. I was not entirely sure how the ride had varied to my previous attempt, but previously I had made the seafront before Butlins; not that it mattered one jot. One thing that I do recall from the previous ride though was getting the wrong road out of Bognor as there was a lack of route signs on the western end of the town. I recalled on that occasion doubling back from the west end of Bognor to find NCN2 and then head off in the direction of Chichester.

Red Hat

This time I missed it again but instead of doubling back, I looked at my maps and selected another route out of town winding along some lanes and headed through Rose Green and Runcton; stopping somewhere around there for another breather. By now the heat was getting to me and I needed a few minutes shelter under a tree and a good solid glug of water.

Bognor Regis Pier

In North Mundham I picked up some NCN2 signs again and was soon following them and turning off onto the towpath of the Chichester Canal; which I will happily admit to having had no prior knowledge of its existence. It made for a pleasant few mils in towards the city centre, although slow at times as there were a lot of families out enjoying the surroundings.

Coming into the basin at the north, city, end of the canal I headed off and decided to trust my instincts to find my way across the southern side of the city to the western road leading out towards Fishbourne. I didn’t choose the nicest road; riding through an industrial estate., but I did head in pretty much the right direction and was soon finding myself coming up to one of the busy A27 roundabouts. I think previously I had followed the proper route and as a result had found a safe and easy way across. Today I just chose to get to the roundabout and go for it. Which turned out to be absolutely fine and soon I was on road west through Fishbourne and pointed in the direction of Emsworth and Havant.

Chichester Canal Basin

From Fishbourne the cycle route gets to be pretty straightforward regulation cycling. I was following the A259 but its not a particularly busy road as all through traffic uses the dual carriageway A27 a hundred yards or so further North. Furthermore most of the route is on shared footbath/cycle paths by the side of the road. Just before Emsworth I turned off up some residential streets as I had an old friend to see and a cup of tea with my name on it. My friend Ali and her husband Ivor were unexpectedly at home after Ivor had managed to break both wrists after falling whilst halfway around a marathon (he got up and finished the race before getting himself sorted out). They were supposed to be on holiday but that had naturally had to be postponed. I therefore had a lovely chance to catch up with them both and have a good break. I was about 75 miles to the good now and the break and the excellent company was very welcome.

With Ali

Refreshed I was ready to get back on for the final push towards Portsmouth. I was shortly passing under the A27 and approaching into Havant. From there I was planning on taking another deviation from my previous ride into Portsmouth. On that occasion I had followed route 22 that runs along the main roads and drops directly into the eastern side of Portsmouth alongside the A2030.

Langstone Harbour

This time however I hung a left just before the centre of Havant and navigated my way onto an old railway line heading directly South out of town. The old railway bridge onto Hayling Island no longer exists but the path moves alongside the road bridge over the estuary and then diverts back off again onto the ‘Shipwrights Way‘again all the way to the south end of the island. As always, these types of cycle way are glorious and lovely flat riding with stunning views across the water to the West. However today I was tired and I just wanted to get to the end of the island. At the southern end a sharp right hand turn takes you to the western end long a road which seemed just a fraction longer than I’m sure it needed to be.

The Ship Wrights Way

At the far end I had enough time before the next sailing of the Hayling Ferry to dive into the Ferryboat Inn to grab a lager and lime and a bag of salted peanuts. Taking another break was good and the drink went down quickly. I was pretty close to done for now but at least I knew I only had a handful of, flat, miles ahead of me around Southsea and into central Portsmouth.

Waiting for the Ferry

There was some good synchronicity between the bottom of my beer glass and the arrival of the ferry so having drunk up and dropped my glass back on the bar, I rolled the bike down the jetty and onto the ferry; a small foot and bike passenger only vessel that plies across Langstone Harbour on a roughly hourly basis. Out to see a few speed boats were messing around but inland in the harbour was a good mix of life at (moderately) low tide and the various remains of second world war defences, such as the large remains of the Mulberry Caisson a few yards inshore from the ferry route.

The ferry landed on the Southsea side of the harbour and I was happy to let the rest of my fellow passengers alight first. I was now in no hurry and just wanted to get finished safely at whatever time I did. The cycle route passes around the side of the Historic England offices at Fort Cumberland; a lovely example of an 18th century fort, but one which you sadly cannot easily visit.

Portsmouth!

The remains of a couple more old sea front fortifications passed by to the right as I rode west along the front towards central Southsea. This stretch of road I mostly know from the 4 times I ran the 10 mile Great South Run around Portsmouth about 5-10 years previously. It was nice to see the landmarks slipping past a bit quicker than they did when having already covered about 8 miles and running quite slowly!

Southsea Towers

I carried on past Southsea Castle and Common, hung a right at the pier and then headed left into historic old Portsmouth; rolling around the city streets past the Cathedral until I came to the end of The Point which I marked to be the nominal end spot for the ride.

View from The Point

And that was me done. I finished the final mile or so to ride back into Portsmouth and Southsea station. I bought a ticket home and, with about half an hour to kill, popped across the road to get a burger from the kebab shop opposite the station before returning to the train.

The journey home felt long and slow. The train was one of the old rackety Southern services that ply their way along the coast without any toilets; I was hoping to at least be able to change into something more comfortable for the journey back. Changing trains at Brighton the final leg did have toilets; they were just all out of order. So it was that I got home feeling a little less refreshed than I hoped.

I’m not sure now whether it was the general strain of 100+ miles on one of the hottest days of the year; or whether it was the burger; or possibly both, but something in the day did for me and I ended up largely holed up in bed for the next two days dehydrated and generally knocked for six. It was a good day’s ride but I certainly felt the strain afterwards. Just how do the grand tour riders do this (and more) for three weeks solid? Still. It was a 101 mile ride done and ticked off!

Stats:

Riding with the Mini Beast

A two week break  from the bike through illness at the end of February had already made me consider curtailing what had been my original plans for a long mid March ride around the Kent coast. I decided on a starting point in Ramsgate rather than in Margate as I had originally targeted, cutting about ten miles off the route. Closer to the day the forecast of a second cold snap of weather with snow and a brisk easterly wind had made me now start considering alternative options for stopping points at the western end.  I made a note of various train station locations and also elected that the corner to Dungeness would most likely be cut.  I was not, however, completely put off and was ready for a St. Patrick’s day ride around the Kent coast.

Wanting to get a good start I was up and out of the house on Saturday morning earlier than I usually am on a work day as I rode down to Hastings station to meet the 06:18 to Ashford.  Despite the weather warnings there were no sign of snow at home, although the wind was picking up.  I passed on breakfast at home in order to save time.  I was aware that I had a half hour connection at Ashford before the Ramsgate train and gambled (successfully) on the station coffee shop being open.  A microwaved sausage sandwich and a half decent cappuccino was a serviceable breakfast.  A second coffee (black Americano) was decanted into my special winter riding SIS Flask that I was carrying with me for its first proper outing, in my second bottle cage.  The weather was still fairly mild as the Ramsgate bound train pulled in to the platform at Ashford.

St Patrick’s Day Train Humour

By the time we had reached Canterbury however the snow had started to fall and, judging by the angle it was coming in at, the wind was picking up as advertised.  The ploughed fields to the west of Canterbury were soon turning white but the roads (and rails) were staying clear.  I’m sure this would be fine.  I have very, very limited experience of riding in the snow; I’ve probably not done so since my teen years.  By the time the train pulled into Ramsgate at the end of the line, the snow was well settled in but I was here; so let’s do this.

Leaving Ramsgate in a flurry of snow

The start of the ride was one of the hardest parts as, in order to head towards the main harbour area, I had to ride across town directly into the wind and I also found an unexpected uphill stretch mid way along. Within seconds of starting out from the station I had to stop.  The snow was hitting into my face so hard that large flakes were dashing directly into my eyes.  I dug out my sunglasses, not due to any glare but just to try and stop the snow stabbing my retinas.  I hit the seafront above the wartime tunnels where a road ramps down from the cliff onto the promenade close to the harbour.  The harbour consists of two parts, with the older half used now for small leisure vessels, whilst next door can be seen the remains of the old cross channel ferry terminal (now seemingly used for unloading of car carrying cargo ships).

Ramsgate Harbour

The historic harbour is quite pretty but it was too cold to stop for long.  Just long enough to notice the sign on the old clock house proudly announcing that it told the time according to Greenwich Mean Time and not Ramsgate time, which is, so it declared, 5 minutes and 41 seconds ahead of GMT.

Ramsgate Mean Time

Past the harbour the cycle route rises back up onto the cliff top and along towards Pegwell from where the it cuts across some open fields a few hundred yards from Pegwell Bay.

Lift to Ramsgate Beach

At Cliffs End the key attraction is the ‘replica’ of Hengest and Horsa’s longship.  The ship was sailed from Denmark in 1949 to celebrate to 1500th anniversary of the first landing of the Anglo Saxons (Note: despite what everyone calls the boat, they weren’t Vikings).

Hengest and Horsa woz ere

After having to fight my way through a park run which was trying to take over the entire width of the path/cycleway the route joins the main road.  The next few miles across to Sandwich are not the most exciting but they pass quite quickly.  Riding next to a set of light industrial units and scrap yards leads to a sewage works and then past the massive ghost of the now largely derelict Pfizer works.

After such sights, the approach into the medieval town of Sandwich is quite lovely.  The route enters the town over a bridge next to one of the city gates.  If you’ve not explored the town it is worth taking some time to have a look around.  I stayed here on a weekend break a couple of years ago and loved it.  However that did give me the excuse to hang a left over the river and head straight out of town having now joined national cycle route NCN1, which I would now be following into Dover.

Out of the town the route crosses the sand dunes which form the Links golf courses of the Royal St Georges and Royal Cinque Ports golf clubs.  A short stretch of toll road (bikes are not charged) through an ‘exclusive’ housing estate ensures that the road across the dunes is largely devoid of traffic.  I had known that this section wouldn’t be the easiest as I was on open and exposed land with a strong cross wind; however it was more tiring than expected and the wind seemed to frequently swirl around into my face.  It certainly wasn’t just heading across me.  Fortunately though these were still the early, fresh, miles and despite the extra effort I still felt good when I came into the centre of Deal.

Deal Pier

In the town I headed back into the wind briefly to make my way onto the promenade, joining it just to the North of the pier.  I hadn’t done enough miles yet to need to stop for sustenance so I didn’t look out for the lovely Route One Cycle Café; however I am led to believe that it has now closed down which is sad news indeed.  I had only visited once (the last time I came this way last year) but had it marked down as a good place to stop.  I did make a brief stop on the front make a phone call; sheltering in the porch of a beach hut as the snow swirled around outside.  The hut was blocking the wind but I didn’t stop for long and soon headed south along the east coast beach cycle path as it heads towards the very south east corner of the country at Kingsdown.

Looning on Deal Seafront

After 17 miles of largely flat riding the cycle route turns inland and starts a slow and steady climb up onto the white cliffs between Kingdsown and St Margaret’s at Cliffe.  The route uphill starts on a quiet private lane past a handful of houses before a gate marks the change onto a quiet, but well surfaced path up the hill.  The snow was increasing now and it was settling on the fields either side; although the track itself was staying largely clear.  The wind was now behind me though and the combination of its support and the cooler air made the climb nice and easy.

Climbing onto the Cliffs

At St Margaret’s the route joins the back road into Dover.  It’s one I’ve ridden a few times now (though always previously in the opposite direction) and its always been nice and quiet.  Today was no exception.  There weren’t many people at all stupid enough to be out in this weather on top of the cliffs.  The road continues to climb towards the coastguard station overlooking the busy ferry harbour but still the wind was behind me and I sailed up, enjoying the ride across the open downs; although the low cloud and continuing snow was severely hampering any views.

At the top of the hill the road was starting to get a bit slushy but it was still fine to ride.  From the top by the turning to the coastguard station, even with the poor visibility I had a good view down to the Castle.  I stopped to take a look before gently beginning the descent down.  The road drops below the castle in the valley between the two hills before climbing back up to the top the fortifications.  I resisted the temptation to race and took the drop slow and calm.  As the road turned to follow the rise up to Edinburgh Hill the wind and the snow was swirling in all directions at once.  Visibility was terrible and without the direct wind assistance that had been with me for the previous climbs it felt quite brutal.  However the climb is short and it was soon over as I came out to join the main road at the top of the castle.

View to Dover Castle

I was even more wary of the steep drop down into the town centre.  I knew that, even having replaced my rear blocks that week, that in the cold and wet conditions my brakes would not be functioning at their best.  This proved to be true but I glided down with enough control to bring myself safely onto the flat at the bottom of the hill.  In the town centre I sheltered under the cover of a shop front canopy and had a good drink of coffee from my flask.  The coffee was still hot despite the flask having been out in the cold weather for a few hours.  A few jelly babies and a sachet of isotonic gel topped up the energy levels.  I didn’t stop for long and was soon headed for the harbour side where the north – south NCN1 route stops and NCN2 starts; heading westwards towards Cornwall and, eventually, Lands End.

Dover is not known as being a pretty town and the main road in that the cycle route follows out of town is horrible.  The cycle route takes you along the pavement by the side of the A20 as it climbs out of the docks.  All the lorries thundering into and out of the docks were splashing through the slush at the side of the roads and sending it cold and muddy straight over me.  This is not a long section but it feels like it.  At a roundabout the cycle route turns off and into an estate on the edge of town following the much quieter old Folkestone road.  At the top of the estate the road runs out where the old and new roads would (but do not) merge and the cycle path takes you across a bridge over the main road and onto the narrow and scant remains of the road; which is now mostly reduced to hardcore and rubble with just occasional patches of tarmac.

Despite the slippery combination of loose ground and slushy conditions the climb back up onto the cliffs between Dover and Folkestone was also fairly smooth  Some disgruntled horses looked at me accusingly from a field in which the wind and snow was being funnelled directly up at them.  They were sheltering behind one of the bits of remains of World War 2 defences but they clearly wanted to be shut up somewhere warm and dry.  Sadly I was not in a position to assist them. I could tell that they thought I should do something for them none the less.  I pedalled away from their stern glares and up onto the top.

The whole section of cliff top between Dover and Folkestone is littered with the remains of old wartime defences.  I’ve ridden this way a few times and normally stop somewhere to explore a new part of them.  Today was not a day for such a deviation.  At the top of the hill the track had become mud.  It wasn’t too deep to ride through; however it was not easy going.  Venturing off the main route across the fields to explore the encampments would be impossible.  And cold(er). And wet(ter).

Up ahead of me I could spot someone even more daft than I.  They were out running.  I caught up with them at a gate which they kindly held open for me.  We spent a few hundred yards running/riding together talking.  Her name was Jodie and she was out training for a 50 mile charity run across the South Downs in a few weeks time.  She was putting in some (very) tough miles across the cliffs.  Despite the conditions she looked to be doing well.  We had a nice conversation. I’m not sure how she was able to talk.  At least she was now headed with the wind behind her.  Jodie said that she had already been out in the other direction into the snow and the wind and had been grateful to turn around. I promised to find her Just Giving page and wishing her well headed on as the rough track joined up with the lanes and roads around Capel-le-Ferne.

From the hill top here it is easy to shoot down into Folkestone following the B2011.  Instead I carried on along NCN2 following the quiet lane along the hill.  Normally there are some magnificent views from here across the Romney Marsh all the way to the cliffs at Fairlight just a few miles from home.  Today I could barely see Folkestone at the base of the hill.  Another hairy ride down from the summit with only marginal brakes was made safer than the drop into Dover on account of being on a quiet track; and more dangerous due to its rougher nature.

The view across Folkstone to Fairlight!

Halfway down the hill you reach the outskirts of Folkestone and from there the cycle route into the town follows some residential streets around the very eastern edge of the town with what should be some more good views back across to Dover.  By now I was in need of some food and so made the executive decision to stop at the first café I came across for lunch.  I guessed that I might find somewhere by the harbour and sure enough right at the bottom of the hill I came across the “Captain’s Table“.  It was busy but I managed to grab a space and settled in; scattering damp clothing (gloves, helmet, balaclava) around me.  I wasn’t able to secure one of the seats next to a radiator but I was able to order some hot food.

Folkestone Harbour

Before long a lovely carb heavy portion of chilli con carne with chips and rice, along with a coffee and a coke were placed down in front of me and I was soon feeling refreshed.  I made the most of the break and took my time over my food.  I found Jodie’s Just Giving page.  As I sat there in the warm and dry I hope that she had managed to finish her run for the day by now and was also getting the chance to get warm and dry and to freshen up.

All the Carbs

Eventually I had to get back on my way.  The balaclava was still damp and soggy and uncomfortable put back on.  I left my gloves off until I had got the bike unlocked. Venturing back outside into the bitter wind my hands were almost instantly freezing.  I unlocked the bike as quickly as I could, loaded my kit back onto the bike and gratefully put my gloves back on.  It would still take a few more miles though before my fingers had actually warmed back up and I could feel the end of my thumbs.

Between Folkestone and Sandgate the cycle route heads through what is, in the summer months, the gorgeous but busy Lower Leas Country Park.  It wasn’t looking anything like so nice today; however at least I wasn’t having to navigate my way around crowds of people.  I did see one man and his dog but that was it.

From Sandgate I followed the seafront along a combination of roads and promenade into Hythe.  From here my original plan (when I was feeling good and before the weather reports had started to make me change my plans) was to continue along the coast to Dungeness and then head back to Hastings via Lydd and Rye.  Now I had another route in mind.

Over lunch I had made the decision that Rye would be the end of the road for me today.  I’d get the train the last few miles into Hastings.  Halfway between those two towns the cycle route rises sharply up on Battery Hill; this would have been by far the toughest climb of the day and I knew already that my legs were done for and I would not get up there without several stops.  I had also now decided that I just wanted to get to Rye by a more direct route and would head across the marsh rather than around the coast.

I deviated away from the cycle route however.  West of Hythe NCN2 follows the military canal path for a few miles.  I had ridden that way before Christmas.  It was muddy and almost impassable in places even then.  I knew that, with an extra couple of months of wet weather, that it was not going to be possible to head that way today without mountain bike tyres.  Instead I plotted a route along the marsh lanes. I headed as straight as I could in the direction of Lydd.  The roads here however do not allow for straight and instead take you on a criss cross route across the flat marsh lands.

Either due to the later time of day, or maybe simply due to being further west, the wind and snow had now eased off.  The riding was no easier for it.  The layout of the lanes meant that I was largely ‘tacking’ across the marsh and I wasn’t getting the wind assistance that I had been hoping for.  My legs were leaden and I was fading fast. My route took my through Botolphs Bridge, Burmarsh, Eastbridge,  Blackmanstone, St Mary in the Marsh, and Old Romney.

All of these places went by in a bit of a (slow) blur.  I normally like to break my journeys to look at churches and the like as I pass; however I rode straight through Burmarsh, ignored the remains of the Eastbridge church (I’ve never passed there without stopping before), didn’t even attempt to look for any signs of the site of Blackmanstone church, and rode straight past the grave of E. Nesbit at St Mary in the Marsh. If you find yourself coming this way for the first time though I do suggest you pay them a visit though as they are beautiful. You can read about the lost churches of Romney Marsh (and the still open ones) here. They are worthy of a small tour all of their own.

I stopped briefly just before Old Romney to have some more water and another energy gel.  I realised now one of the reasons why I was struggling.  Normally on a ride like this I’d have stopped a couple of times by now to refill my water bottles.  Today I’d barely drunk a third of the water I set out with.  No wonder my legs were getting so leaden – dehydration was properly settling in.

Across the Marsh

From Old Romney I just wanted to get on towards Rye so I was straight through and on the road towards Lydd. Another of the lost churches at Midley was visible off to one side but again I ignored it (it involves a walk across some ploughed fields) and pushed on towards the beacon that is the spire of the (still intact) church at Lydd.

Marsh lambs sheltering from the wind

From Lydd I carried straight on along the final push. Along the cycle path to start with past the gravel quarries on the marsh.  Straight past the caravan park that sits directly underneath the electricity pylons. Rejoin the road when the cycle path changes from rough tarmac to rougher gravel. There’s Jury’s Gut and there’s the trig point by the sea defences. Into Camber. Past the oh so amusing village shop “B J s on the Beach” and Pontins. Stay on the road. The cycle path here is too muddy and slow and diverts around the back of the golf club. Push on. Push on. Tired. Almost there. Push on. Turn off onto the track across the field. Its slow but it cuts off a mile of road. There’s Rye across the field. Almost there. Avoid the sheep shit. Through the gates. Rejoin the road. Across the river. And there you have it. Rye! Phew.

Approaching Rye

Relieved I pushed the bike up the steps and dived into the marvel that is Knoops brandishing my now empty flask asking for it to be filled with some sweet white hot chocolate goodness.  I didn’t have time to stop and drink it in the shop.  A check of the timetable showed that I had just enough time to get to the station; else I’d be sitting around in the cold for another hour.  Despite having now felt as though I was done I had to jump back into the saddle for one final push; and that involved some speed riding, if only for a short distance, to just get me to the station in time to get a ticket and jump straight onto the train. Finally I could relax and drink that lovely sweet chocolate.

Pulling into Hastings I was too shattered to contemplate the ride back up the hill to my house.  Instead I locked the bike up and jumped into a taxi!  Only when I had recovered with a long hot bath and was wearing warm dry clothes did I venture back out in the car to recover my bike and then settle in at home for the evening exhausted with cramped legs but satisfied with having finished a great mini adventure.

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To Wales

Back in October I head a two day work conference to attend in Cardiff.  For a short while I did consider if I might be able to ride all the way from home in Sussex, but I soon realised that would be a two day trip and involve lugging a lot of extra luggage on the bike.  Instead I calculated that I could combine a visit to my parent’s in Wiltshire with making a day trip of (a part of) the journey.  I’d still be carrying a lot of clothes and work equipment, but it shouldn’t weigh any more than I might carry on a regular tour.  Having planned the route I did realise that I might not make it all the way to Cardiff in time without having to be completely heads down and without having time to stop and look around at any point.  There was a pre-conference meal to attend which meant I’d need to be there just too early to realistically make the whole distance on the bike; but I was happy with my amended plans which would still see me riding across the border into Wales.

Stourhead House Gatehouse

I headed to my parent’s house the afternoon before the ride and made myself ready for a reasonable start in the morning. I was on my way just after 8am.  I left Mere and started out for a mile or two along the fairly busy B3092, in the general direction of Frome.  However before too long I turned off onto the first of many back lanes from which I could join NCN Route 25 headed for, in the first instance, Longleat House.  That was still a few miles away though and before I could start to think about that I had to pass another stately home, Stourton, or Stourhead, House.  Stourhead is mostly known for its fantastic landscaped gardens, but the house is quite nice too and the official cycle route takes you through the gatehouse and right past the front door.

Stourhead House

The route continues on along some country lanes.  Through Kilmington the fields and many of the roads were packed full of pheasants.  I’m assuming that shooting season was a short while away.  For now they were enjoying some massive pheasant raves in the Wiltshire fields. From Maiden Bradley I turned onto some very familiar lanes heading towards Horningsham.  These lanes I have been down hundreds of times on two wheels (pedal powered and two stroke engine), four (I learned to drive down these roads) and more (on the bus to college in Trowbridge).  It was lovely to be coming back down these roads on a (push) bike again.  I was probably about 6 the first time I came down this way.  I made the most of the nostalgia trip; although now the roads seemed much shorter than they did then and I was soon descending the hill into Horningsham.

Crossing the road by the Bath Arms I ignored the “strictly no entry” signs and rode through the gatehouse at the end of the lovely long drive leading out from Longleat House.  This was always a no entry road; however it was also an unwritten rule that locals were fine to ignore it and carry on regardless.  That did at some stage become harder for cars (although it rarely stopped us) but now the big barrier was even trying to prevent cycles.  I might have been acting the cussed bugger that I can be, but I carried on around the end of the gate.  For one thing this is still the route of NCN25 and as such I was sticking with it.  For another, the tightened restrictions are the result of Viscount Weymouth who now runs the estate.  I went to school with Ceawlin.  He was in the year below me at the local comprehensive school in Warminster.  I couldn’t bring myself to be stopped going the way I’ve always gone by an old school friend (though I can’t claim to have known him that well).

Approaching Longleat down the main drive

One of the things that Ceawlin has brought to Longleat under his stewardship is a rather random festival of lights around Christmas time.  I’ve not actually witnessed it but am aware that the grounds get filled up with all manner of paper based creations shipped over from China.  Work was just starting on preparing the display for the upcoming season.  Christmas was still two months away but this is a big operation.  A pirate ship was being assembled on the other side of one of the lakes.  Outside the main house a bunch of massive ducklings were engaged in a stand off with the  resident lion.  A herd of deer were getting lost in a maze just around the corner Around the back of Oscar’s Nightclub (in these parts of the world we had to go to the safari park for the night life) yet more animals were still packaged up.

Leaving Longleat I swapped onto cycle route NCN24 and headed along the roads out of the estate towards Frome. The riding was good.  The weather was behaving very nicely for October and I was making good progress.  I came into the edge of Frome.  An odd town is Frome.  Growing up in Wiltshire but living close to the border, the neighbouring Somerset town was always something of ‘the enemy’.  It was also always pretty run down.  The only thing it had going for it then was the Westway cinema, where I watched everything from Watership Down to Jurassic Park.  The cinema is still going.  It’s one of the small independent cinemas that survived through the multiplex years.  This makes me very happy.  In recent years Frome has become an up market trendy town.  I’m still not sure how that happened and I can’t quite believe it.  Foo Fighters played there recently. I can’t get my head around that.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s always been quite a pretty town with its tight cobbled streets and medieval and Georgian shops and houses.  But there was never anything to really do there.  Now it’s (I find it hard to bring myself to say this) quite nice.

Mendips Traffic Jam

The cycle route however only skirts around the town and not into the centre so you’ll either have to take my word for the above, or take a diversion if you want to see for yourself.  Leaving Frome I started to head into the Mendip hills.  The Mendips are less well known than other areas such as the Cotswolds but are equally as pretty and despite the increase in hills I was enjoying the riding.  After getting stuck in a cow based traffic jam I dropped down into Great Elm past a lovely river valley and up a steep climb the other side.

Great Elm

Just past Great Elm NCN24 takes a long(ish) but, presumably largely flat, diversion along some abandoned railway lines towards Radstock before turning through 90 degrees towards Bath.  I chose however to ignore the easy way and instead took the direct, but hilly route cross country and up the steep climb into Buckland Dinham instead.  On the approach into the village I saw someone coming the other direction who was too busy looking at their phone.  They had not noticed me at all and were veering across the road straight towards me.  Fortunately they were driving one of the fancy self driving vehicles that they use in these parts.  By which I mean that the horse saw me and moved back to the side of the road allowing us to pass each other safely.

The day was still early but I wanted to head through Falkland and visit, even if only from the outside, Tuckers Grave Inn.  One of only a handful of proper cider houses left in the U.K. Tuckers Grave is a true piece of history.  At the time I was visiting its future was uncertain with landlady Glenda looking to finally call last orders and sell up.  It is over 20 years since I was last here but the very fond memories remain strong.  Being in a very remote location one always needed a designated driver.  Or of course you could get there; throw your coat in one of the tatty tents out the back; get drunk and then crash out in the field with a belly full of rough cider.  I was indeed there too early this morning to catch a sneaky half of cider, but I am pleased to report that since I passed by the pub has been saved.  If you find yourself vaguely in the area then do pay a visit.  There are even plans to reopen the camping field.

Tuckers Grave

After passing Tuckers Grave I continued along more Mendip back roads before dropping down into Wellow.  A sharp downhill to the ford over the Wellow Brook was immediately followed by an equally sharp climb into the village.  That was the Mendips done with though, as just outside the village I finally joined the track bed of the disused Bath to Radstock railway line.

Wellow Brook

Time for some nice easy miles.  I particularly enjoyed riding over the viaduct at Midford; In all my childhood years heading into Bath I’d always been interested in the two disused railway lines that cross over the road here. Until today I’d never had the chance to travel along them and had never seen the old village station.

Next up after Midford is the even more impressive Tucking Mill Viaduct – a fantastic piece of railway architecture.  I took a few minutes to walk down the path at the South end of the viaduct into the valley to admire it properly from below before continuing on my way.

Tucking Mill Viaduct

Shortly after the viaduct the track goes from being above the land to venturing deeply into it as the track here is part of the ‘Two Tunnels‘ route.  The first tunnel, underneath Coombe Down, is over a mile long and is now the U.K.s longest cycle and footpath tunnel.  It’s a fantastic experience to ride through.  The tunnel seems to go on for ever but is beautifully lit and there are various sound and light installations hidden along it length.

Inside Coombe Down Tunnel

A second tunnel follows quickly afterwards before eventually emerging to the west of Bath city centre, close to the site of a fatal rail crash. Neither tunnel has ventilation shafts and in 1929 a heavily laden goods train was travelling too slowly from Midford; the driver and footman passed out due to the ensuing fumes causing the train to race downhill out of control out of the tunnel where it crashed into the goods yard killing the driver and two railway workers.

Entrance to Coombe Down Tunnel

Around the Twerton area of Bath a short distance of riding along a handful of side roads is required to link from the Two Tunnels route to join the Bristol to Bath Railway Path on the other side of the River Avon. This is another long stretch of traffic free cycling down the Avon Valley.  The riding is lovely and easy and the next few miles flew by.  The path crosses the river at Saltford.  The bridge is a notable part of UK cycling history as it was the restoration of this bridge, and its transformation for cycle and pedestrian use, that was the first project run by the organisation which was to become ‘Sustrans’; the charity behind the National Cycle Network.

Saltford Bridge

A little further on a small railway halt in the middle of a field marks the start of a stretch where the path is shared with the restored Avon Valley Steam Railway; further on again at Bitton the railway proper starts at the line’s headquarters station.  By now it was just gone half past twelve and the railway station café looked to be a great place to stop. I parked the bike up and made my way into the station buildings.

Bitton Station

The café is clearly a favourite place for many of the locals as the staff knew most of the customers. There was a lovely friendly atmosphere throughout.  To me there’s nothing more homely than good west country accents talking random nonsense and there was plenty of that here.  I picked up a bag of ‘posh’ crisps and a small bottle of ‘posh’ pop and headed to the counter:

     “Oh. That looks nice and posh. Very sophisticated”

     “Absolutely. And can I have a sausage sandwich as well”

     “Well you’ve gone and blown that sophistication now my love”

     “Marvellous. I’m glad to hear it”

Shunter

The food hit the spot and I was soon refreshed and ready to go.  There were no trains running along the railway on that day but I was allowed to have a good wander along the platform and had a good nose around.  Back under way the cycle path skirts around the railway sheds, and then alongside and over the track next to a long train of railway repair vehicles; all good stuff for the amateur train geek.

Railway Works

The train line only runs for a few miles of restored tracks before the cycle way and footpath have full use of the track bed again.  The cycle path continues along a nice easy journey past some sculptures and more old stations before being forced to divert onto a number of other cycle paths where modern main roads have cut across the railway line.

After navigating across the roads, the cycle path re-joins the track bed close to the former Mangotsfield station.  The station was a junction of two lines and as such the remains of two sets of sweeping platforms with a large central island remain.  As well as the remains of the platforms the shells of some of the buildings also survive and trees have planted at the former locations of the platform canopy pillars.  The effect is quite mesmerising.

From Mangotsfield cycle route NCN4 continues on into the centre of Bristol but this was the end of that particular line for me. Instead I doubled back onto the other old line to follow the ‘Dramway’ route out towards the old Bristol coalfields and towards Gloucestershire. The route is further disturbed by modern ring roads but before long it is back on good, clear, straight and flat former railway lines.  The track passes right by the remains of former Brandy Bottom coal mine and a short way further on again a broken pit wheel forms a new sculpture either side of the cycle path.

However, shortly afterwards I came to the end of the old railway line; at least so far as the cycle path is concerned, and was back onto country lanes.  Some largely uneventful miles followed as I cycled through the triangle of villages between the M4 and M5 motorways, crossing the M5 close to its junction with the M4 at Alconbury.  A few more miles on quiet roads had me following largely parallel with the M4 and M48 headed towards Aust at the English side of the (original) Severn Bridge.

Across the M5

I might not have been planning on making it all the way to Cardiff on this trip but the plan was very much to cycle across the Severn. This is nice and easy to do, weather permitting.  Unlike the M25 Dartford Crossing on my previous big day ride outing, the Severn Bridge has a separate foot and cycle path (also used for bridge maintenance vehicles) on the outside of the road deck.  The wind on the bridge was strong.  Although the rest of the riding had been quite clam the wind had picked up and it was easy to see why this bridge is so often closed.  The riding was quite tough as a result but exhilarating and the bridge certainly gives a proper sense of crossing over from England into Wales, giving quite a feeling of achievement.

Having made it to Wales it might have made some sense to just head for Chepstow station which is quite close by on this side of the Severn; I had the Severn Tunnel Junction station in mind instead as my final destination.  Leaving the Severn behind I started with a slow drag up the hill on a cycle path alongside a busy dual carriage way into the wind.  This was certainly the worst section of the whole trip but at the top I hung a left and turned back off onto quiet lanes again.  The riding here was the hilliest section since leaving the Mendips behind and I was getting tired now, but I merrily carried on regardless.

Croeso i Gymru

The merriment was slightly diminished by the level of traffic on these narrow lanes.  A few fields across I could see solid lines of non-moving traffic on the main road.  A number of vehicles, including trucks far too big for these lanes, had decided to try and cut across country.  My travel was therefore stop start for the next few miles. I couldn’t be sure that I wouldn’t be coming face to face with a large truck (over)filling the entire road around any upcoming corner.

The Back Lanes of Wales

It didn’t last too long though and soon I came, unexpectedly, up to the remains of the Roman fort at Caerwent. I wasn’t aware of the site and certainly wasn’t anticipating riding past such great remains,.  I stopped to take a look.

From Caerwent the final miles were easy riding on the flat through Caldicot, along the railway line, and then into Rogiet, aka the Home of Severn Tunnel Junction station and the end of my ride.  I had three quarters of an hour before the next train to Cardiff so I went off on a short but hopeless search for somewhere to get some water. My bottles had now run dry and whilst I had finished my day’s riding I needed to rehydrate.  There were no shops anywhere in the village however, so I ended up asking a builder working outside a house in the village to fill my water bottle for me which he kindly did.  Back at the station I finished off my last few snacks washed down with my fresh water before just about managing to squeeze my way onto the very crowded train to Cardiff; contorting myself into a very uncomfortable position unbecoming for a man of my age and size.  Unravelling myself at Cardiff I made my way to hotel (just a few yards from the station) and had just enough time to properly freshen up and get myself ready for the pre-conference meal.  This might not be the traditional way to make your way to a conference but I can highly recommend it.

The Picturesque Finish Point at Severn Tunnel Station

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