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?
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Slightly further west again I crossed high over the Canal du Nord which was itself the subject of heavy fighting.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Delvile Wood Panorama
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 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.
Caterpillar Valley Panorama
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.
Thistle Dump and the High Wood
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Eddy Merckx 1 Hour Record Bike
The Shrine at Eddy Merckx Station
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.
Canalside Action Shot
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.
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.
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.
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.
Heading to Battle
Upside Down Horse!
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.
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.
Lion Mound – Looking Up
Waterloo Battle Field Panorama
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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!
Collegiate Church of St. Gertrude, Nivelles
Collegiate Church of St. Gertrude, Nivelles
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.
Well they haven’t entirely blocked it off…
On the Old Railway Line
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.
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.
The Canal Du Centre
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.
The Strepy-Thieu Boat Lift
Looking Up at the Strepy-Thieu Boat Lift
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Downs Link
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Climbing up to Haslemere
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).
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.
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.
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.
Duncton Hill Viewpoint
Looking back on Black Down
Duncton Hill Panorama
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.
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.
East Dean – I don’t think this is of interest at all!
East Dean Pond
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.
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.
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.
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.
In all this another great day out exploring some new parts of the countryside. West Sussex (and Surrey) I shall be back!
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Leaving the Ferry Port
On the Hayling Ferry
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
World War II Remains
Sound Mirror in the Snow
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.
On the Cliffs above Folkestone
Above Folkestone [Jodie just visible at the top of the hill]
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
Plastic Pirate Ship
The Ducklings of Longleat
Ducklings vs Lions
Shrink Wrapped Animals
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”
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.
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.
Bristol to Bath Cycle Path
Bristol to Bath Cycle Path
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.
Brandy Bottom Coal Mine
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.
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.
On the Bridge
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.
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.
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.
About a month after getting back from my ‘All Points North‘ ride around the Highlands and to Orkney I was ready to get back out for a solid day trip on the bike. I’d done a few commuting rides since but was itching for something a bit longer. It had turned out that riding across the North of Scotland with full kit clearly did some good as I’d got home and promptly smashed my best time up the hill that I live on the top of. I didn’t want to let that all go to waste so I took a Wednesday off work at the tail end of September and prepared for a day out.
Living on the south coast has many advantages; choice of direction in which to set out for a ride is not one of them though. Most of my rides have ventured either west (across the Weald or along the South Coast past Brighton) or east towards, and into, Kent. Oddly, I had rarely ventured straight North. I was also aware of some adventurous river crossings I wanted to take; so it was that after a light breakfast I was on my way by eight thirty a.m. First up was probably the sharpest climb of the day, Elphinstone Road in Hastings. One of those nasty hills that starts off sharp and gets continuously steeper as it goes up. It’s not long but I wasn’t ready, was not warmed up, and I had to stop a few times on the way. Not a great start but I knew that, though not flat, I didn’t have anything as tough again until just before Maidstone.
From on top of ‘The Ridge’ that marks the northern edge of Hastings I headed out of town on the small lane towards Westfield. This lane can be a bit of a rat run with cars heading down it at unnecessary speeds, but today it was fine. The other side of the village and across the main A28 I discovered that the next road to Sedlescombe had been recently resurfaced; This was another pretty country lane to another pretty country village. and I made the most of the fresh tarmac. The Sedlescombe Geese were already out and about doing their regular duties looking pretty on the village green as I rode past.
Leaving Sedlescombe the road rises steadily for a couple of miles past Cripps Corner up to a high point in Staplecross village. The road to this point is relatively busy but nice and wide and open and I was still riding happily. At Staplecross the busier road bears east towards Rye but I carried on Northwards heading downhill into the picture perfect Rother Valley at Bodiam.
There are few more bucolic English villages than Bodiam on a glorious summers day. Sitting in the beer garden of the Castle Inn eating good food and drinking good beer watching the birds flutter around the houses is relaxing enough. Add in a game of cricket in the field behind the beer garden. Now look behind you to the right and admire the lines of vines heading up the south facing slopes of the valley. Now over your left shoulder admire again the Castle that the pub is named for; one of the most famous Castles in the country. Then your attention is drawn back in front of you again; over the river to the other side of the valley. The source of the whistle that attracted your attention is clearly visible at the base of the cloud of steam left behind by the train coming into the Bodiam station terminus of the Kent and East Sussex Railway.
Today however was a Wednesday at the tail end of September; autumn was well on its way and I was too early for a beer. Indeed I was too early for a visit to the Castle which was not due to open for half an hour but, despite some quizzical looks from the staff, nobody stopped me as I rode in anyway. I had a quick glance at the castle from besides the moat; making the most of a rare chance to admire it without other visitors, and then headed back on my way; I was still early on my day’s riding and needed to tick some more miles off.
From Bodiam I put my head down and rode north again. The riding was lovely across this part of the Weald but other than keeping an eye on my maps to keep me on my planned route I carried straight on without stopping. The ride South of Bodiam was all on roads that I know well (sadly mostly from driving) but I was now into less well chartered territory. I knew a lot of the villages in the next part of the countryside but was heading down lanes that I knew only vaguely, if at all. At Cranbrook, which was a convenient 20 miles into the ride, I took a very brief detour to park my bike and have a quick break at the Union Mill. I’ve not yet been ever able to visit inside the mill. I wasn’t expecting to do so today either but it was still a lovely place for a short break.
From Cranbrook the Weald continues for only a few more miles. South of Staplehurst (which I skirted around the western side of) the Weald comes to an end with a view over the (mostly) flat and low lying lands which make up the next five miles before the sharp rise of the Greensand Ridge immediately South of Maidstone. Dropping off from the Weald I was amused and delighted to now spot one of the most lovely examples of a Wealden Hall at Rabbits Cross Farm – I was in full flow as I passed but I had to hit the brakes and turn back to admire it.
I made the most of the flatter miles in preparation for the climb up onto the Greensand Ridge. The hill was much as I expected. It was pretty damn tough and with a few false summits before eventually coming to the top of the hill at Chart Sutton. At the top of the ridge a left turn along the top for a short way gave me a chance to get my breath back before preparing to cross onto some back roads into the edge of Maidstone. I got a little lost trying to take some short cuts through the estates of the town and eventually had to double back and make my way onto the main road and drop the most direct way into the town centre.
Maidstone gives some hints that there could be a lovely town hiding in there somewhere. There are some lovely medieval buildings to spot but they are sadly hidden amongst post war developments and the god awful road system makes getting to them nigh on impossible. As a result the town is extremely horrible to visit on a bike. I stopped briefly for a quick bite to eat and to put on my coat as the Gods of Maidstone had decided to compound the misery of the town with a nasty sharp shower. I then began to navigate my way out. I’ve tried this a few times before and have still to be successful in this endeavour. As is often the way in towns, the cycle path signs are intermittent and often appear only when the route is obvious; leaving just a big enough space between them when they might be at their most useful. As every interruption in the cycle route involved navigating my way around the dual carriageway ring road system I cannot say that I was having much fun. I did eventually locate the track I was after; a narrow shared cycle and foot path alongside the main road out of town to the North. Some more confusion had me checking and double checking my progress as I came past the junction with the M20, but I was soon back on another path next to the dual carriageway climbing out of the town towards the Pilgrim’s Way.
This climb is almost twice the height of the earlier Geeensand Ridge, but much less steep and more drawn out. It might have actually been quite fun were it not for the roaring traffic on the main road right next to me. I kept my head down. Even on a short section where the cycle way follows a side road for a few hundred yards there was no relief; indeed this might have been worse as I was now directly sharing the road with some of the big lorries that were thundering around using this piece of road as somewhere to park up for a break. Looking back at the maps now to check my route I’m disappointed to see that I must have passed the Neolithic sites of Kits Coty and Little Kits Coty right by the road. I must have missed any signs as I was too occupied just keeping on up the hill and watching out for traffic. I shall have to come back to visit. I might use the car.
At the top of Blue Bell Hill I could finally turn off away from the traffic. A building site at the road junction had curious signs insisting on no filming and photography should be undertaken. I would not have made any consideration of taking any pictures of a fenced off building plot had I not been told that it was prohibited; so I stopped to take a few pictures as obviously as possible before heading on my way along the ridge of the hill.
The cycle path from here turns at ninety degrees from the main road and follows the ridge of the hill for a short while. A few yards along the ridge I turned into the small car park that allows visitors to enjoy a walk along the hill. The rain had stopped again now so I took my coat back off and stopped for a sandwich and to rest my legs whilst admiring the view back down over the Medway Valley. Even on a fairly cloudy day like this its quite a lovely view, so long as you squint and avoid looking at Maidstone. Leaving the car park I stopped to pay respects at the memorial to the crew of the Kent Air Ambulance that lost their lives when they crashed into the hillside here in 1998.
Back on my way the cycle path follows the ridge only a short distance before turning into some woodland to follow forest tracks back down the hill in the vague direction of Rochester. In a few more weeks this track might have become a bit too wet and tricky to ride; indeed it might have already been too awkward to ride up on my bike; but downhill was OK. I enjoyed it, although I had to be a bit wary of some big protruding tree roots and some muddier sections. Before long I was at the bottom on a small track/access road alongside the channel tunnel rail link.
Riding Through the Woods
Channel Tunnel Rail Link
A couple of easy miles followed heading towards the river at Borstal (home of the original young offenders institute) and then following the east bank of the Medway into Rochester. I was amused to learn of the existence of Rochester ‘Pier’ and so rode along to the end of it from which at least one can get a nice view back to the Castle and Cathedral. Then it was across the Medway to the west bank, past the Soviet submarine (yes you read that correctly), and up the short sharp hill past Frindsbury Church and the out of the town for a couple of quiet miles on country lanes before coming into the edge of Gravesend.
A Notice to the Residents
Rochester Castle from the ‘Pier’
The Soviet Sub
You come into Gravesend alongside the Thames and Medway canal. On the opposite bank of the canal I could see the unmistakable signs of the Gravesend Water Sewage Treatment Works; the location of probably the most grim archaeological site I ever worked on. Many things from my days in archaeology will always stay with me. Sadly they include The Skip of Unpleasant Things™, the particular texture of the ground as the digger opened the trench, the discussions as to whether we should be placing toilet roll and condoms into a finds bag, and finishing off the last trench late into the evening by the light of the methane flame in order to avoid having to come back the next day.
From the sewage farm, the route passes into Gravesend through a series of industrial estates that have the air of being the perfect location for a 21st century set Dickens film adaptation. Tightly packed warehouses with cobbled narrow alleys between them eventually give way to a canal basin marina that opens directly onto the Thames Estuary.
From the marina I came onto the sea/river front. A group of artists were all out painting the now disused Tilbury Power Station on the opposite bank of the Thames. Later that week the chimneys were blown up removing another one of the area’s tall landmarks. Last time I rode along the North Kent Coast I did so just a few days before the even larger chimney at the Isle of Grain power station was destroyed; I seem to be a jinx for power stations along this stretch of coast.
Although I had made it to the north Kent coast I was not done for the day. I had a river to cross but I still had about half an hour to spare so I took a (very) quick look at the 18/19 century New Tavern artillery fort and then dashed over to St Georges Church. Somewhere in the church yard is the last resting place of Pocahontas. Her short life came to an inglorious end when she died after being taken ill shortly after leaving London; hoping to return to her family in North America. She was buried in the church here, however that was destroyed by fire in 1727. The church was rebuilt but the exact site of her burial became lost and now she is marked by a statue placed in the middle of the (mostly ‘cleared’) graveyard.
I returned to the waterfront and the Town Pier ready for the next stage of the day’s adventure. From here a foot ferry takes passengers and bicycles for a short ride across the Thames over to Tilbury. So it was that I dragged the bike onto the boat and left Kent behind me, bound for Essex.
The Tilbury end of the ferry shows how things have changed here in recent years. The docks are still busy as freight container ships load and unload here; but in previous times the foot ferry was part of a complex of travel that also included the old Tilbury Riverside railway station. Next door to that is the Art Deco Cruise Terminal Building. As well as being the start and end points of many cruise holidays (which it still is to this day) new lives were often forged here; many Brits left to emigrate to Australia from here and it was also the landing port for boats such as the Empire Windrush, bringing with it the first group of West Indian immigrants.
Crossing the Thames
Tilbury Flood Gates
For me however the main attraction at Tilbury was in the opposite direction to the Cruise Terminal and container port. To the east lies the largely still extant remains of Tilbury Fort. Originally built by Henry VIII and used in the defences against the Spanish Armada, the fort continued to see use and was rebuilt during the civil war, the Napoleonic wars and still continued to play a (small) roll in both World Wars. If you want to know more take look at the Wiki link above or why not go and visit; it’s an English Heritage owned site now. Instead I’ll just leave you with some pictures…
View from the Fort
Inside the Fort
Tilbury Fort Artillery
Guns at the Fort
After a good look around, and still with some miles to tick off, I got back into the saddle and promptly got lost around the estates of Tilbury. If you’re reading this from that town, or have some affection for it, then I’m sorry; but it’s an absolute hole and I found myself pedalling as quickly as I could to try and find my way out of the estates without incident. Put it this way, there was no way that I felt safe to get a map out of my pocket; I made sure I rode quickly, trying to give off the air of someone local who was totally au fait with my direction of travel. Eventually I found myself on the edge of Tilbury and, breathing a sigh of relief, afforded myself a quick stop and a surreptitious glance at my map to check where I had come out of town and where to head next.
From Tilbury I carried on through Grays and into Thurrock. There really isn’t much to say of this part of my ride. It was all pretty ghastly. These two towns are a slight improvement on Tilbury, but that’s all relative. I managed to take a couple of wrong turns but eventually found myself close to the northern side of the M25 Dartford Crossing*. Now I just had to find the special bike hut.
*Hey pedantic fact fans; its not the M25. Did you know that the M25 is not a complete circuit? The Dartford crossing is actually the A282!
It took me a few goes checking various locations. I was hunting for ‘Essex Point’, aka 859 London Road. I had thought that this might be an office for the bridge and tunnel operations but eventually realised that I would most likely have to follow the little cycle path I had spotted heading up onto the motorway sliproad. I was a bit wary but everything turned out fine.
When the QEII Bridge was opened in 1991, unlike many other bridges such as the Humber or the original Severn Bridge, there was no provision made for pedestrians or cyclists (for more on the Severn Bridge, stay tuned for a future blog post). Instead the operators run a free shuttle service to ferry cyclists across the river. You just have to turn up at either end, and use the provided telephone to request passage. Having now found the correct point next to the motorway on the Essex side I rang through my request and waited.
Phone for Transport
Waiting for the Van
Preparing to cross the QEII Bridge
After 5-10 minutes a van pulled up and the driver hopped out and loaded my bike into the back. We were just about to set off when another cyclist pulled up. The driver and he cheerily said hello. This gentleman uses the service daily to commute between his work in Essex and his home in Kent. The driver told me that there are quite a large number of people who do the same. He had actually assumed that my call for service was actually being made by the other gentleman.
Within minutes we were over the bridge and across to the other side at ‘Kent Point’ We unloaded, I gathered my stuff and checked my map, and then headed on for the final few miles. I was onto NCN Route 1 now and managed to fill in a few more miles of that route I had not previously ridden. I’ve now done most of the route through Kent, with the exception of a couple of miles between Rochester and Rainham and between Ebbsfleet and Gravesend.
Looking back at the Dartford Crossing
Back on NCN Route 1
From here I crossed back over the motorway, taking a look back over the bridge and the entrance to the (north bound) tunnels and then made my way to meet the old Roman road, Watling Street. From here a straight few miles riding was pointing me back in the direction of Gravesend, although I wasn’t heading quite that far. Unfortunately I only had the one pannier with me and it was fairly full. I’d therefore have to pass up the offer of a cheap kitten from a farm by the side of the road.
Finally the turning I was looking for was ahead of me and I bore North around the large, empty car parks and up to the white elephant station at Ebbsfleet International from where I had planned to get a train back home. I rolled into the station forecourt and cheerily dismounted for the final time. Despite having had what felt like a long day in the saddle, I was still here too early to board a train straight away; bikes are prohibited on the outbound trains during the evening rush hour. So it was that I had just under an hour to explore the many delights of the station. By which I mean I made a coffee and a slice of Millionaires Shortbread from Marks and Spencer last for 45 minutes. An odd way to finish a day’s ride, but there you go!
I was awake by 6.00 am. I laid in bed trying to get a bit more rest before giving up and getting my bags ready for the off. I went through to Breakfast at 7.30. It was just me and Gordon, the B&B owner. Gordon is a lovely man and a marvellous host but he has a funny idea of a continental breakfast. I guess that here in John O’Groats is about as far from the continent as one can get in the mainland U.K, so that might be to be expected. So it was that I was soon polishing off my breakfast of Cheerios, yoghurt (with some fruit to be fair) and white toast.
If my bum didn’t want to get on to the saddle the previous morning, then today was even worse. It wasn’t helped by knowing that I would be having a stop start morning on and off the saddle. At least the first part of the day was easy. I gingerly swung my leg over the bar and climbed aboard. All I had to do was point the bike northwards, get it moving a bit, and then allow the gradual slope down to the coast to glide me to the harbour.
I got my ferry ticket and joined the queue waiting to board. There wasn’t long to wait but there were a lot of people on board the 8.45 am sailing. They were mostly coach groups who were clearly being passed over by their regular coach tour drivers into the hands of some Orkney drivers for the day instead.
Once aboard, the ferry trip across the Pentland Firth was quite straightforward. It was a calm morning and though there was some swell in the very middle of the crossing, it passed uneventfully. Sadly there was no sign of any sealife but it was lovely to be on the open water and watch the Orkney islands coming into view. I also enjoyed chatting to some ladies looking forward to their visit to the Islands.
Leaving John O’Groats
On Open Waters
Burwick Ferry Terminal
We came into the harbour at Burwick and quickly disembarked. Although I was one of the first off I parked myself up at the waiting room and made use of the facilities. I waited until all of the other passengers had been ushered onto the waiting coaches and had headed off away from the harbour. There was, after all, no point in getting myself in front and then having a line of coaches waiting to get past me. Better to let them go and then have the road to myself.
The original plan for today was that I would have the whole day to spend ambling around the islands before meeting my other half in Kirkwall at the end of the day. She was working at the Ness of Brodgar excavations however due to a change in schedule earlier in the week they now had the day off. Instead the plan was that I would just meet her in Kirkwall; although there was some confusion (entirely on my part) as to when.
There was no confusion as to the first part of the ride though. First up was the cycle across South Ronaldsay towards the Orkney mainland. After passing the welcome to Orkney sign the road starts to climb gently along some rolling hills leading upwards towards a viewpoint over the islands. Just as I was coming to the top of the hill my phone rang. Stopping to answer it was my other half asking how much longer I was going to be as she was waiting for me in Kirkwall. Therefore the ride was now a case of getting a wiggle on and making this as quick a dash as possible into town.
I set off at a better pace and made the next mile or two into St Margarets Hope on the north side of South Ronaldsay. I took a detour from the main road and dropped down into the village. We have friends living here and this is where my partner had been staying during her two weeks here. We’d be coming back here later on today before heading for the ferry back to Aberdeen. I therefore had the opportunity to drop off anything that I wouldn’t be needing for the rest of day. I was soon heading back on my way with only one, much lighter, pannier and without the spare tyre and extra water bag I had been carrying until now.
After the briefest of turn arounds I was back on the bike. The first thing I noticed was when picking it up to turn it back to face the road; I could suddenly lift it with almost no effort. Getting back into the saddle things felt even better. I flew up the short slope out of St Margaret’s Hope and re-joined the main road at flying speed.
I was very quickly upon the first of the four Churchill Barriers. The barriers were built during World War II in order to protect Scapa Flow from enemy ships. The barriers were not actually finished before the end of the war and now serve as causeways linking the southern islands to the mainland. They are named, rather imaginatively, Barriers 1 – 4; numbered from North to South.
Barrier 4 leads from South Ronaldsay to Burray. Whereas the other barriers still cross open waters, the eastern side of Barrier 4 has become a beach meaning the this barrier has a different feel to the others. Burray village is a small hamlet of a handful of houses nestled against a bay on the South side of the island. The slightest of rises leads you to a view over a small bay that feels like, but is not, another of the barriers. Instead after that false start another rise onto the Northern slopes of Burray leads to a view down over Barrier 3 and onto the tiny island of Glimps Holm.
Barrier 3 is the first of the proper causeways; the road surface sits on top of a pile of concrete blocks. To the side of the causeway the remains of some Block Ships were visible above the water line. These were part of an earlier; mostly WWI attempt to protect the naval base of Scapa Flow using scuttled ships to prevent access. By the time of WWII they were already falling apart and an invading German U Boat managed to sneak its way into the flow and sank the HMS Royal Oak with the loss of 834 men. It was this that led to the building of the barriers.
Glimps Holm and the next island, Lambs Holm are tiny; they are linked by Barrier 2 and I flew over them in no time. For anyone with time to spare, Lambs Holm is home to the famous Italian PoW Chapel. Italian Prisoners of War were (probably illegally) used to build the barriers and whilst doing so they were allowed to build their own chapel here. I’ve visited on a previous trip to Orkney. The photo below is from that trip. Today I was flying past, but the chapel is certainly one of Orkney’s must see sights.
From Lambs Holm, Barrier Number 1 brought me onto the Orkney mainland. In order to get to Kirkwall as quickly as possible I ignored the NCN1 signs turning off to the right and stayed instead on the A961 to follow the most direct route. The road was not busy and, unlike many of the A roads of the previous four days, this is a decent and wide road so any passing vehicles did have plenty of space to pass me.
The dual villages of Holm and St Marys (the names seem to be interchangeable) are another set of pretty houses set against a small fishing harbour. At the end of the village by the said harbour the road swings North and a long, continual climb begins. The hill is not sharp and, with so much weight removed from the bike, I was still flying and loving the ride. However there is undoubtedly a sadist working for the Highways department here. At the top of the slope a ‘Blind Summit’ warning sign indicates that you have hit the top of the hill. However within 50 yards of reaching the ‘summit’ the hill starts to climb again before another Blind Summit sign lulls you again into thinking that the climb is done.
In all I counted four of the blind fake summits before hitting the eventual top of the island; about 100m above sea level. At the top I also came across a couple of ‘Sheep Pigs’ in a field by the road. A curious sight these turned out to be Mangalitsa pigs; certainly pigs albeit with a wooly coat like a sheep.
Across the road from the sheep pigs I also spotted another amazing wildlife sight. I had by now ridden roughly 300 miles across the Scottish Highlands and had not seen a single Highland Cow anywhere. I was beginning to doubt their existence. Finally now, on the Orkney Islands and just 5 miles from my destination I found some in a field opposite the pigs. Although I was in a hurry I had to stop to say hello to both sets of animals.
Looking ahead I could very shortly get my glimpse of Kirkwall and the end of my ride. I got my head down and pedalled hard down the hill into the town. I shot in and around the edge heading for the ferry terminal. The ferry leaves from a new pier on the outskirts of the town. I was aware of this but was still a little surprised at just how far out of the centre it is. Having finally got there I locked my bike up by the terminal building; picked up my remaining kit, and started the brisk walk back into the town where I eventually found my other half tapping her feet and looking at her watch. And so it was that my ride was done.
What a fantastic adventure. It might not be a properly documented route unlike my previous trips; but this was still a great journey and one I can heartily recommend.
Upon meeting up in Kirkwall we headed to the excellent Old Library where we had some lunch – a truly fantastic posh Fish Finger Sandwich (by far the best food of the trip) and a celebratory glass of Irn Bru.
After that, still in my cycling gear, we got a bus to Stromness; Orkney’s second biggest town at the western side of the mainland and which I’d not visited on my previous trip here. As we headed over, the heavens started to open with rain of almost biblical proportions. It eased slightly, to being merely torrential by the time we arrived at the end of the bus ride. In Stromness we had a quick walk through town visiting the lovely Pier Arts Centre gallery to see an exhibition related to the excavations at the Ness of Brodgar. With the rain still coming down we headed to get the bus back. The bus terminal is next to the Stromness Ferry Port. We sat in the ferry terminal building for a few minutes; however the Ferry back to Scrabster (by Thurso) was leaving and as it did so we got kicked out of the warm and dry to wait for the bus outdoors. Fortunately we didn’t have too long to wait and were soon back on the move.
The rain was back to biblical again. I was glad now that today’s ride had been cut short. I would not have much fancied cycling in this. Especially as my original plans would have brought me to this end of the island and some of the roads were starting to become impassably flooded. On the bus to Stromness we had met some of the other half’s work colleagues. They were heading the island of Hoy to hike across to an isolated bothy on that remote island. We didn’t fancy much of the prospect of the trek across the island in that weather.
We stayed on the bus at Kirkwall as it carried on back to St Margaret’s Hope and so we were now shooting back along the way that I had come this morning. Hello again Coos; hello again Sheep Pigs. Over the barriers, in numerical order this time; 1, 2, 3 and 4 and back onto South Ronaldsay. We got off the bus at the top of St Margret’s Hope and walked down the hill to our friends house. They were still out at the time but that gave us both a chance to shower and sort our bags for the journey home. Our friends arrived and I got to say hello to them for a couple of hours before they kindly ventured back out in the rain to take us back to the ferry terminal in their car.
The sailing back to Aberdeen was due to leave just before midnight. After a bit of a delay whilst the lovely ferry staff dealt with an aggressive customer, I was soon wheeling the bike onto the ferry to begin the homeward journey. We slept in one of the ferry’s ‘Sleeping Pods’ each; a surprisingly comfortable arrangement and before long we were disembarking in Aberdeen. The train journey home was not as simple as it should have been as useless Virgin trains decided to cancel our train (one of the only direct Aberdeen to London trains) at York. A stressful time at one of my favourite stations followed but I managed to get the bike onto the replacement train. We had to stand the rest of the way home but at least we were headed back and after a few more uneventful hours and two further trains we were back on the South Coast and home.
After a restful night’s sleep, breakfast in the Bettyhill Hotel set me up nicely for the day. Although the coffee was frankly disgusting, the breakfast itself was very good.
There were a few small clouds in the sky but it was bright and sunny and promising to be a glorious day. I was starting to feel the effects of three full days in the saddle coupled with a Babybel, bread, and fudge diet. I wasn’t particularly looking forward to putting my bum back into the saddle but once I was on my way I soon got back into the swing.
After popping into the village shop to stock up on Babybel, bread and fudge, I started off by heading back down to the harbour that I walked down to at the end of the day yesterday. I wanted to see in proper daylight the fishing canning factory and ice house. It was also another point or two on the Strathnaver Trail to mark as having visited. I had a quick chat with some fishermen and a couple who were camping next to their sports car by the old harbour jetty. Everyone seemed to be enjoying the lovely morning.
Leaving the village you drop down from the hill of Betty into the valley past the Clachan Burn where an old church has been converted into the Strathnaver Museum; the people behind the Strathnaver Trail. The museum itself is another one of the items on the trail but sadly I was too early to visit and with a long day ahead I couldn’t hang around until opening time. I did have a wander around the graveyard to find the Farr Stone; an 8th century Pictish stone now housed in the middle of the graveyard.
The Farr Stone
After leaving Bettyhill the road starts to climb back up onto the hills of Sutherland. I took the climb slow and steady as my legs warmed up for the day. I knew I had a few hills ahead so there was no point in pushing things too hard too early. Indeed the rest of Sutherland would prove to be hilly with some lovely ups and downs out of the various valleys running from the highlands into the sea.
At the top of the first hill there is a viewing point where I could stop, get a breather, and look back West at the hills behind me. It has a handy board pointing out their names. From the viewing point there was a lovely fast ride downhill into the next valley at Armadale Bay.
On the next hill back out of the valley I was overtaken by a couple of guys that I had seen in the Bettyhill Hotel bar the previous evening. They were heading up the hill much more easily than I and so I was happy to let them go past. I soon met them again at the summit where I stopped at the same car park come view point as them to get my breath back and, more importantly, take in my first view of Orkney which was visible for the first time on the horizon. I hung around long enough for the other two to set off before me. I was relaxed with the idea that they were quicker than I, but I didn’t feel the need to be reminded. A minute or two after them I set off back on my way; only to find that they had stopped again a few hundred yards up the road. I rode past them and sure enough a minute or two later they shot past me again.
More up and downs followed; through the valley at Srathy then up again before dropping past another corrugated iron church at Melvich and down over the Halladale River past the excellently named ‘Big House’.
At some point around here I had crossed from Sutherland into Caithness (there was a sign; but I can’t recall exactly at which point it was). After Big House and one smaller climb the next view ahead of me included the dominating appearance of the (disused) Dounreay nuclear power plant. I wasn’t going to be going past Dounreay itself but I did stop for a break on a bench next to a cemetery in Reay village for a quick Babybel, bread and fudge break. The residents of the cemetery are clearly well read as the mobile library was also parked up here as well. I wonder what they were reading? A bit of Wilkie Collins perhaps?
From Reay I turned off from the main road, though still following cycle route NCN1, onto a back road into Thurso. The road should have been quite nice but, as it takes a shorter distance into Thurso when compared to the A836, it was quite heavily used. The road is also very straight for a few long periods so a high percentage of the passing cars were travelling at some considerable speed. Despite this I was soon on the outskirts of Thurso and dropped down into the town. A couple of Cycling Tourist Club (of which I am a member in its current guise of ‘Cycling UK‘) ‘Winged Wheel’ badges on the older hotels in the town suggested that I was in a very popular cycling touring area! I did consider finding a café for a fuller lunch but instead found myself by a nice bench on the sea front so opted for more of the usual food stuffs instead. Babybel was starting to get a bit tiring by now; but the fudge is still excellent.
Winged Wheel 1, Thurso
Winged Wheel 2, Thurso
I stopped at a Co-op on the edge of the Thurso to stock up my water supplies for the rest of the day; I still had about half of the day’s riding ahead of me so needed to ensure I was staying hydrated
Old St Peters Church, Thurso
Incomplete Gravestone, Old St Peter’s Church, Thurso
Heading East from Thurso the cycle route diverts again from the main road for a few miles. I wish that maybe it didn’t. The main road follows the coast and looking on the Ordnance Survey maps appears to travel quite flat and takes the more direct route to Castlehill. The cycle route on the other hand diverts off the direct path in order to find another long drag for a couple of miles. The day was quite warm now and I was glad of the water. There was at least a nice enough view back over Thurso and after a couple of miles the route took a turn to the left and then dropped back down nicely into Castlehill.
I was considering abandoning the official route now and sticking to the main road. I was going to be diverting away from NCN1 for a few miles anyway; but at the crossroads in Castlehill something made me choose to continue to follow the route 1 signs straight over rather than turn right onto the A836. I’m glad I did. Had I not carried on I would have missed the ruins of the Castlehill flagstone factory. In the 19th century the area here was one of the major producers of flagstones in the country (Regent Street in London was paved with Castlehill flags). Production has long halted but there is a lovely wild trail in and amongst the mills and factory buildings, down to the harbour built to send the finished product off around the country by ship. I should have been continuing my progress but was entranced by the site. The accompanying Museum and Heritage Centre was closed today, but none the less I can highly recommend taking some time to explore here.
I was soon back on the A836 and from here I turned away from cycle route 1 and onto the main road. A short way along the road next to Dunnet Bay I first discovered one of the mildly embarrassing side effects of cycling in this area (particularly with a loaded bike). Another cyclist was heading in the other direction, also on a well laden bike. “Go on. You’re almost there. Well done”. Almost there? Almost where? Never mind; I’ll just carry on my way.
At the end of the bay (which wasn’t visible behind the sand dunes) at Dunnet village I left the main road again in order to head for, well, the head. A couple of miles rising up the hill later and I was pulling into the car park at the top of the cliffs.
There were about half a dozen other cars parked up but within a few minutes I found myself next to the lighthouse all by myself. With no one around to witness the scene, I set my phone onto a mini tripod and took a picture of me celebrating being the most northerly person on the British mainland. After the disappointment of Cape Wrath I had made it properly to one of the ‘Points’ on my ‘All Points North’ ride.
I had a good explore around the headland. The lighthouse itself is off limits but higher up behind it next to some old World War Two defences there is an excellent lookout spot to get a full view of the road both behind and ahead.
Dunnets Head across to Orkney
The North Coast at Dunnets Head
Back in the saddle I glided back down the hill, cutting a corner across through the small settlement of Ham with its old pier and mill buildings, aiming to re-join the A836 a mile or two east of Dunnet village. Just before the main road junction I checked my phone and noticed some erratic behaviour on my GPS. Up at the head it had gone totally haywire and was showing readings all over the shop. I don’t know what there is hiding up at Dunnets Head but I reckon that there must be some sort of strange government test facility that was interfering with the GPS! I had to restart my phone to get it working again.
On the main road a couple of cars coming the other direction beeped their horn,s flashed their lights and waved at me. Confused I stopped and gave my bike a once over. I couldn’t see anything wrong. I still had the best part of another ten miles until John O Groats and really didn’t want to start having any mechanical issues now.
The remaining miles went smoothly by. The landscape has a few hills still but it was all quite calm riding and before I knew it I could see the end in sight. The A836 comes to an abrupt halt where it meets the main north-south A99 road about half a mile South of the famous village centre. Turning onto the road and heading North for the final stretch, some more people cheered and waved at me. That’s when I realised that everyone had just assumed that I had started my ride, not from Inverness, but from Land’s End. I was embarrassed, but glad to have realised why people had been saluting me over the last ten to fifteen miles.
I glided down into the centre of John O’Groats and up to the famous signpost. A couple of people were already stood by the sign taking photos but again they applauded me as I got off the saddle. Sheepishly, once the current people had taken their photos, I set up my mini tripod and took some selfies of me against the sign. As I moved away a father with his son (somewhere about 7 years old) told the boy to congratulate me which he did very nicely. By now I had decided that the best course of action was just to go with it so I thanked him very much, feeling only a bit of a fraud!
I wasn’t quite done for the day yet but I needed some food and a rest so I popped into the Storehouse Café for a sandwich and a coffee. Refreshed I started on the final push. John O’Groats might just be the end of the road; however it is not the farthest point. A few miles along a small side road, and winding up and down some hills that I frankly could have done without, I came to Duncansby Head. Pulling up to the lighthouse at the end of the road I had now made my way to the most North Westerly point on the mainland, and ticked off the second ‘Point’ of my ‘All Points North’ for the day.
At Duncansby Head
Duncansby Trig Point
I spent a bit of time watching the bird life living on the cliffs and admiring the Duncansby Stacks from the hills above. The end of the day was in sight however, and I still had to wind back down and up the hills in order to find my B and B for the night.
As I rolled into the Hamnavoe guest house the landlord, Gordon, met me. He was about to head off for a rare night out but quickly showed me to my room, telling me that I would be best off storing my bike in there. As he was about to leave the guest house I looked around and, finding something missing, asked Gordon if he had given me the keys. “Oh there are no keys. You don’t need them. There is no crime here. Not like Inverness”.
I took a long and much needed shower before walking back down to the harbour. I spent some time watching the sun set over the very north of Britain. The sunset was glorious and this was a beautiful way to end a long but rewarding day. As the sun finally dropped I made my way back, stopping en route at the Seaview Hotel. I was officially too late to order food but they kindly did me a burger and chips which I washed down with a pint of Best from the John o Groats brewery located less than 100 yards up the road. The food wasn’t great but was much needed. Having finished, I made the final short walk back to the guest house and fell almost instantly asleep.