The Journey Home
5 July 2023 – Diss to Arlesey
It hadn’t ended. The rain that is. Peering out the window through a sheet of pure grey my idea of leaving at first light faded and instead I turned to the kettle and made tea and biscuits. An extra half an hour or so in the dry, pottering around re-packing the bike with some inane drivel on the TV droning away in the background seemed infinitely preferable to a soggy, first light start to the day. Eventually of course, there was nothing more I could usefully do than get dressed and wheel the bike along the narrow, low corridor and undertake the somewhat precarious descent down the winding stairs. However many times you’ve checked and rechecked your kit, that moment when the unattended hotel door clicks shut behind you is always a nervvy one. The nagging thought that the key now left inside was your only means back in to retrieve something essential until reception staff arrive hours later. But, as with so many times in the past, I knew I hadn’t. It was just an irrational fear, mixed in perhaps with a little reluctance to ride out alone into the watery dawn.
After a handful of meters the crunching gravel of the hotel drive gave way to the sloshing puddles of the B road beyond. It was barely raining by this point, but it also wasn’t completely not raining. For the handful of miles into the main street of Diss itself, occasional large wet drops fell half heartedly from the sky, mingling in with a more persistent spray from the road – mostly from my own wheels, but occasionally from passing traffic. Regardless of it’s origin, the water was slowly finding it’s way onto my legs, into my socks, and dribbling down my neck. I knew it wouldn’t last long – the forecast was for a mostly dry day. But that was where the good weather news ended. The current edge of the rain front might soon give way to a brighter, clearer day, but what was pushing that in was a gradually building wind from the West. And of course, most of the next 140km of solo riding to my cousin in Bedfordshire would be directly into it’s path. Having enjoyed some blissfully calm riding in great company for the last few days it was a rude awakening.
Alternating between riding on the main road, and swapping either side when there was a worthwhile bike path, the centre of Diss soon came and went in damp, but otherwise unremarkable fashion. The usual urban sights of workmen in white vans on their first call, delivery trucks, and an occasional car pulling in to take advantage of an early supermarket opening to get supplies. It came and went as I rolled through. Somewhere around this point it would be fair to say that really, I was leaving the Rebellion Way. Although for the next 30km or so I would run largely parallel to it, my route would slowly track southwards, where the guys would wiggle northwards out of Diss and through a chain of parkland and woodland trails back to Thetford. I knew somewhere on their path, a few hours behind me, they’d hit the biggest ford of the whole trip and wondered if any of them would brave the watery crossing given how much new rain had fallen. It wasn’t as if my own route was dry. Although technically I was still purely on road, one long stretch under a railway bridge had me lifting my feet to keep them dry as my wheels descended to axle depth in the newly flooded stretches. On more than one occasion I found myself holding my breath for fear of hitting some unseen pothole and pitching a full body dive into the exhuberant waters, temporarily freed from the constrainst of their usual banks.
Damp, and slogging into the growing breeze, it was not easy riding. I knew though, that only a small part of that was the actual conditions. The greater part was the massive shift of mind into riding alone – a shift which I had not fully, or willingly, settled into. The road rose up onto a lovely, if wet, patch of lightly wooded heathland. To my left a lady was unloading a lively pack of dogs from an SUV. Bounding around excitedly, loving the outdoor smells, they could not have been more immune to my human sensibilities of grotty weather. I managed half a smile and a hello as we passed, but the joy wasn’t there. Yet.
My mood did improve of course, albeit it slowly. The route after Diss was moderately lumpy – hillier than I expected, a succession of rises and dips around villages, fields and copses. None of it was especially memorable – the lanes shared common features: narrow; strewn with twigs and branches from the storm; deep puddles; and often muddy. As the clouds rolled back though, it wasn’t at all unpleasant ambling along the countryside, with very little in the way of traffic. Crossing a small stream and rounding one corner I was greeted with the sight of a pair of deer (mother and fawn) bounding across the lane and into the neighbouring field, pausing briefly to check my passage before disappearing into the undergrowth. I was already starting to re-learn the joy of solo touring when my route swung right and then left around a small woodland. I could see the climb ahead led up to a main road and knew that meant breakfast was minutes away. In a rare fit of planning ahead, I’d scanned for a stop around the 40km mark into the morning and stumbled upon what looked like an absolute gem. Tucked away in an unlikely location at the back of a light industrial estate in Fornham All Saints. For a change the way to it was exactly as shown on Google Maps – a small opening in a wall at the roundabout and then a left and right around the various business units, and there it was: the aptly name Coffee House. Even better, it was open and the staff could not have been more welcoming to a slightly damp and hungry cyclist. I’ll let the photo do the talking at this point about just how spot on tyeh breakfast was.
Yep – that is pancakes with bananas, gnutella, and bacon – plus of course awesome coffee, two cups of which were needed. If Holt had given us the best coffee on the Rebel Way, I had a nagging suspicion that within the first couple of hours I’d found a stop that would not be surpassed on the journey home. It wasn’t – not even close.
Kitting up to leave the cafe I shed a few layers – warmer now, and the rain seemingly passed, I deemed it safe to stash my jacket and ditch my base layer. After a few kilometres I joined a long stretch of dead straight road I recognised from planning – the Icknield Way (the path of an ancient roman road). On one of the early iterations I’d intended to travel back with the guys to Thetford and complete the official route. But that not only meant reaching my cousin much later in the day, it also presented some awkward initial routing to avoid main roads. This point, the Icknield Way on the lead in to Newmarket was where my final route met those earlier versions. I was on the last climb up to the ridge, just beyond the village of Molton where the post breakfast sugar crash happened. All those carbs and caffeine on an empty stomach – the legs and energy just sank. I pulled off onto the verge and propped the bike on the gate into the nearby field. Rummaging through my top tube bag I decide a double hit might be needed, so I downed an energy gel and ate half of a muesli bar, keeping the other half easily accessible if it wasn’t enough. But it was – cresting the top of the ridge, the wonderful view and the additional calories hit my system at the same time and the mental and physical slump was past.
The veiw itself was intriguing too. Of course I was aware Newmarket was a major horse racing town but I hadn’t quite expected it to be so equine oriented. The training paddocks, with neat white railings around them started on the ridge before the town proper came fully into view. At one point I was surrounded by horses. One group was crossing the road in front, myself and the traffic waiting for them. And in paddocks both left and right, other groups were jogging, trotting, cantering or whatever the right term is for their steady but not racing progress down towards the town. Only due to the gradient of the hill was I pushing ahead of them. On a flat road they’d have been leaving me behind.
I barely seemed to have left Newmarket before the signs started appearing that I was heading into Cambridge. Somehow my mind hadn’t connected from maps just how close they are together. Although two of the pretty little villages I passed through (Swaffham Prior, Swaffham Bulbeck) clearly had some common heritage, at least in name, from our first overnight stop of the Rebel Way tour. I managed to avoid main roads on the run into the city, atlhough often the cycle paths alongside them or dogleg routes through streets of terraced houses weren’t especially memorable from a sightseeing perspective. Eventually the route deposited me alongside a broad expanse of railway lines, with Cambridge Station on the far side. A covered walk/cycle way led across the tracks – judging by it’s form, likely a product of 70s design and now in need of uplift, which as it turned out seemed to be in progress to some degree as a central section was cordoned off with workmen busy at repairs of some kind. At the far side the path swung back on itself, ducking back under the bridge, past the station itself and on into the city centre itself. It was busy – cafes and shops bustling with life and literally hundreds of bikes propped in the numerous racks across the largely pedestrianised square. Had it been a little quieter it would have made an ideal stopping place for lunch. But the chances of a table anywhere in sight of my bike seemed remote so I rolled on.
Beyond the station the path continued alonside the railway for a short way, but when the tracks branched left the path followed an entirely novel form of trail (for me at least). I was riding alongside Cambridge Bus-Way – a pair of concrete tracks presumably the exact width of a local bus, with a low wall on each outside edge. Here and there various obstructions were present presumably to inflict maximum damage to any car which dared to try using it. The cycle path alongside was wonderfully smooth and with it’s own built in lighting. I’d actually read about this section from one of the more recent route variations for LEL a few years back, although I forget now if the lights were solar or kinetic energy powered. Either way it was a fun and distractig section, although with few actual buses – maybe one in the entire time I was riding along. What there was no shortage of was, presumably student, low rise accomodation – blocky, functional but not entirely ugly high density “villages” strung out along the length of the bus track. I pulled into one of the small centres in search of a possible cafe, but only saw a supermarket, a pharmacy and a couple of other random small shops. I was beginning to get a tad hungry, but a muesli bar would have to do for now.
The end of the bus path cycleway wasn’t much further, and presented a few moments of puzzling. The only initial way forward which didn’t seem to be main road was down onto the busway itself, which an array of no entry signs made evident was not a popular or safe option. I very nearly ignored them and went anyway before deciding to investigate the main road in more detail. Sure enough, partly hidden by bushes there was a cycle path alongside. I’d barely got rolling along here until another conundrum presented itself – my route disappered into the middle of a building site. In broken english with a possible hint of Polish or Czech accent, the workmen eating lunch in one of the nearby vans pointed me back around the fence to a narrow, gravelly path that had been left open down the side. A kilometre or so further along I recognised where I was. I’d engineered this little cyclepath detour to avoid a busy roundabout and carry me around to the cyclepath alongside the A10 – not a road you would wish to mix with traffic on, but fine to ride alongside on a path. I’d barely started along this stretch before lunch presented itself in the form of a BP Garage with a Costa Coffee attached and, crucially, an open table outside but under the cover of the forecourt canopy. Even if the dark grey clouds overhead broke with more rain I could eat lunch and drink coffee in piece.
As bike packing garage stops go, this one was up there with the best. There was a steadily revolving view of cars and vans filling up to people watch and guess at their journeys and destinations as I ate. At least two, arriving in fancier cars and dressed in suits with cravats I was sure must be lecturers from the University itself. A more immediate aspect of the stop was my company on the other end of the bench. Technically it was “his” bench since I had barged my way on, but he didn’t mind sharing. Although in his car today he was a keen cyclist and we talked at length about the tour, where I’d been and where I was headed today. As usual, there was more than a hint of surprise when he learnt that not only was my target for today just shy of 100 miles, but that eventually I was heading back to Devon. It’s a little humbling how my mediocre cycling skills are exaggerated in the minds of far better riders purely by the fact that I sit doing it long enough to cover fairly large distances. In the minutes between the chap leaving and me grabbing an extra coffee I swapped messages with my cousin about my likely arrival time. She was amused to see me “taking the direct route” along the A10, although clearly knew I wouldn’t be on such as busy road without a cyclepath.
Another reason for lingering at the garage, apart from enjoying time off the bike, was to allow the dark clouds to roll over. Which they did, sort of, but not fully. Eventually I decide to just ride out and suffer whatever storm arrived – I could see clouds all around as I rode on, but none were directly overhead and I was dry for now. At Shepreth I left the A10 path and followed parallel through a series of small villages. My cousin lives in village that is on the way into the heart of the Chiltern Hills, and I could feel now the route was rising steadily out of the flat vale of Cambridgeshire up towards this higher ground. My progress was halted briefly though when the storm broke in major fashion. With almost perfect timing, as the first heavy drops began to fell I had just passed an ideal “bike and person” sized divet in the edge of a hedgerow. I swung back and rapidly buried myself into the little arch of this natural umbrella. It was such a perfect fit that even as the rain pelted down barely a drop got through. I had the luxury to careful unpack my jacket from the bike bag and kit up without getting remotely damp as I did so. In the 20 or so minutes I sheltered there several very damp and miserable cyclists splooshed past, looking bedraggled and miserable at the sudden ferocity of the downpour. I was so well hidden, tucked away in the hedge, that I’m not sure any even noticed me. They’d have had to fight me for a place though – as charitable as I can be, this was not a time where I felt like sharing. OK – I probably would have if any had stopped, but luckily I wasn’t tested.
From this point on, the distance for the day was largely done. And as if to celebrate, the weather turned distinctly brighter. With absolutely no need or reason to rush, I meandered easily through a succession of villages, each more ludicrously quaint than the last. The occasional steepish ramps weren’t even a bother – with all the time in the world, and plenty of gears to spin it was a pleasure to just plod up them. Eventually, faced with an impossibly cute main street, I gave in and pulled over at a cafe in the village of Ashwell for a pot of tea. The lady owner’s surprise that anyone could be riding from here to Devon was echoed a second time to another customer as I sat outside enjoying the view and the cake.
“That bloke outside … yeah … Devon … I know right, that’s what I said”
The chap she had been serving immediately came out for a chat. Another keen cyclist it turned out, and not unfamiliar to long distances himself it turned out. We spent some time chatting about my rig and the ride before his sister pulled past (also cycling) and he headed off. I was literally two villages away from Bron’s by this stage. A short ramp out of the village, followed by a nervvy crossing of the busy A1 and I was on familiar roads in towards her village. The path I had plotted didn’t seem to actually exist, but having driven around here many times it was no issue just taking a different road around. Letting myself in at the back gate ignited a defensive fury of barking from her dogs until they realised it was a familiar face, which happened almost at the same time which Bron herself arrived her. Leg 1 of the journey home done.
6 July 2023 – Arlesey to nearby Arlesey
The logic of leaving a family stay late afternoon for a short hop to a village pub not that far away might not make much immediate sense, and in truth it took a while to occur to me when planning. The problem this part of the journey presented me was that it was either two long legs, needing early starts, or three short legs leaving me sat in a hotel in the mid afternoon. But taking one very short evening leg gave me a whole day to chill with my cousin, and then a quick ride and pub meal, and an early-ish start the next day without waking her up on the way out – and two remaining legs which were easily manageable in daylight. My own family were off to South Africa for 2 weeks the day after I got back too – this way I got a bonus afternoon with them by not arriving home too late. But all that was ahead, the immediate task was the just under 40km across commuter traffic to my bed for the night. I should add, in clean and fresh smelling cycle gear thanks to my cousin’s kind offer of sticking my laundry in her machine whilst we caught up.
On the plus side, it was a glorious evening to be riding – sunny, blue, and not overly warm. The traffic though was ugly, and often impatient and inconsiderate of a slowish cyclist. Luckily I was mentally prepared – I used to live in this corridor of commuter hell, and I knew exactly what trying to ride across the many arterial routes of mentally exahuasted staff taking out the frustration of their day on their cars and everyone around them. It wasn’t just me they were honking, swearing, and waving fists at. Everyone seemed angry with everyone else. I lost count of the number of perilous close fly bys – but not the cars which performed them. All of them were gleaming, new, and either an SUV, bakkie (pick up), BMW, Merc, and occasionally that bastion of youth self expression, a souped up Corsa. It was pointless getting angry or scared by it – plus I knew it would die down as the clock rolled on and they all get home to their couches, TVs, and the gin cabinet.
The knowledge of what was coming allowed more than just mentally preparing myself. I’d also plotted to avoid it where I could with off road shortcuts to avoid cars altogether. The first of these was through the grounds of the lovely Wrest Park. A mixed gravel and tar route took me past the front door itself, in delightfully stress free riding. The next “quiet” section came after an especially nasty section of hillier road where a procession of cars vented their frustrations at me in the usual ways. But the gates of Woburn Park put an end to that. The few that followed the same route seemed to become different people – perhaps calmed by the green, the trees, and the deer. Waiting patiently behind me, and passing with care and a jolly wave or two. What a difference some nature makes. And it was lovely – so much so I paused for a few shots at the top of the ridge before rolling down into the village of Woburn Sands below.
Leaving that pretty little village was almost the end of the carnage – not only was the time heading beyond the full tide of commuters, but I was beginning to nudge out of the Western edge of this particular bit of commuter land. And I wouldn’t be straying into the next one (Oxfordshire) until tomorrow. For tonight, my stopping place was the little pub in Heath & Reach that I pulled into at the bottom of a lovely long downhill. The Heath Inn was exactly what a lone bike packer needs – a comfortable room that the friendly staff had no issue with me parking my now, not totally clean, bike in. A pint. And a large plate of fish and chips. Nothing more to say really. The breakfast chef the next day may have been a no show, but really the lack of bacon or sausages could be forgiven – they made up for it with plenty of juice, coffee, muesli and endless toast. I did not wheel my bike out of the car park hungry.
7 July 2023 – Heath & Reach to Melksham
The day ahead was forecast to be hot – unusually hot by UK standards. But at 8am as I rolled along the short stretch of lane and then swung off onto my first offroad stretch of the day it was bright but still cool. Pedalling easily along the Grand Union canal towpath was blissful – no one about except me, and the occasional narrow boat dweller popping their heads out or pottering preparing breakfast. One chap had a full on outside kitchen, with a heavenly waft of frying bacon reaching my nose as I ambled past. Sadly it was just a short stretch to connect me through to back lanes, avoiding a busier road, which I crossed shortly after leaving the canal. A succession of lanes with short punchy climbs followed. Eventually, around the village of Drayton Parslow I reached the top, the far edge of the Chilterns. Beyond me lay I could see a broad swathe of lower country through Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire. Much of the morning and early afternoon would be easy riding across the flatter plain until I reached the hills of Salisbury Plain far beyond, and not even close to in view yet.
It’s hard to remember a lot of details from the earlier parts of the day – a lot of it was very similar. As the heat of the day gradually built, one lane between open fields became much like another. I do remember a lot of flies, of varying sizes. Open farmland, on a hot largely windless days seemed to have every manner and size of flying creature hatching and swarming in droves. At times my mostly white riding jersey and UV sleeves were covered in them, and there was a perpetual risk of an unwanted meal or two of the little buggers. It was difficult to judge whether I was eating more of them than they were of me. I paused briefly at a little village shop in Islip on the edge of the community cricket club and playing fields. I was desperate for water and a snack of some kind, and with the help of a local I got directions to the tiny shop. The small cricket hut which the shop was part of cast a thin scrap of shadow which I sheltered in whilst scoffing a hasty pork pie, peanuts and a lucozade sport. It wasn’t a lot, but it was enough for my immediate needs.
Somewhere soon after I ran smack into the extensive roadworks and excavations for the new HS2 (High Speed) link. I nearly scuppered my chance of a free pass to cycle along their closed route by swearing at an impatiently driven flatbed truck which turned out to be heading to the works. Luckily they arrived just ahead of me and made no comment to the foreman who moments later somewhat begrudgingly allowed me to pass onto their site – at my own risk of course. Aside from a couple of patches of gravel, it was some of the most marvellously smooth tar and empty riding of the whole tour. And it went on for a few miles too – before I exited at a point where a large junction and possibly a station was being built. The scale of the engineering was enormous – although still not as large as the political stupidity at cancelling the most valuable parts of it, or the huge cost overruns that had been allowed to build up and scupper any realistic chance of finishing it anyway. Unable to deal with bad PR, modern British politicians it seems no longer have the stomach or managerial skills for ambitious national rail engineering projects. Which kind of leaves you wondering what they are useful for.
One version of my route had me riding through Oxford itself and staying there for the night. But on this version, I was navigating around. And although I was barely aware of it, my impromptu village shop break I was almost directly North of the city. Beyond, I crossed the M40 and headed down to somewhat familiar territory as I made it into and across the Thames Valley. The village of Eynsham had an especially familiar ring to it – from river boating with a buddy and his family as a teenager. Lunch came in the form of a truly delightful pub in the village of Fernham. I’d already pass a few places that didn’t look open or promising, but as soon as I turned into the car park at the rear of The Woodmand I knew I had struck gold. A walled garden at the back with tables in the shade of a large canopy, and people eating. There were even a couple of touring bikes already propped outside – a handy confirmation “our kind” were welcome. At least two shandies went down along with a large tasty plate of chicken caesar salad – an extremely rare order for me, but somehow it spoke to me, so I went with it. It turned out the chef was something of a local celeb, he and his family sat behind me were greeted by a number of customers who passed through. The food and vibe was good, and along with the friendly conversation of the other tourers it was hard to pull myself away out into the now cauldron liek heat of the afternoon. In the stifling heat, the rest of the day was not going to be easy.
A few sections of the route before and after lunch were on B roads, and turned out to be considerably busier than I’d have liked. As I left the lower ground of the Thames Valley behind though, the lanes became quieter albeit more uphill. Just beyond the village of Shrivenham my track swung left to head directly up the low range of hills I had been tracking for some time. According to the map, I was rising up into the North Wessex Downs – but as I pedalled along, in my head this was the start of the climbing up and over Salisbury Plain. In a sense, I guess both of us could be said to have been right, since the area of Salisbury Plain is not well defined, but probably is a little more to the south of where I was. Somewhat confusingly, where the lane levelled out and I turned right again at the top “The Ridgeway” which I joined turned out to be a country lane. As a child I had walked sections of this long distance trail with my father, and had assumed all of it was offroad track. It wasn’t long though before I did get offroad – in Chiseldon, I crossed the busy A346 and turned onto an old railway path which ran parallel to the main road. Just a few meters from the busy traffic, I pedalled along easily and with the shade of a low arch of trees shielding the worst of the now extremely hot afternoon. It was blissful riding despite the temperature.
It was a surprise how far the rail path ran – for a while I’d been riding with a view of Marlborough to my right but I didn’t really expect the path to take me right into the middle of town. In total it was around 12km of wonderful traffic free riding. Another short stretch of cyclepath followed the other side of the town, along the River Kennet. A little taster of the proper Kennet & Avon cycle route to come, although the small matter of another climb up over the downs near Bornham was needed before then. Cars were parked left and right at the viewpoint on top of the ridge, but I pushed on, preferring to let the wheels run free and catch some cooling breeze on the run down. The right turn at Alton Priors marked the start of my run in towards Devizes and the canal path – which I could see a little lower to my right. Back up the ridge to my left a huge white scar on the hillside marked the ancient carving of the Alton Barnes White Horse. The chalky hillsides seemed a popular canvas for ancient britons to create their enormous stoneage works of art.
It was a relief to turn left off the Horton Road and into the housing estate which I knew led to the start of my the canal path. The traffic was building up and it was great to get onto what would now be almost completely offroad riding to my overnight stop. Although it took a few wrong turns around the new build estates before I landed on the towpath itself. Aside from the occasional places where the towpath switched sides and I needed to climb up and over on a bridge to the opposite side, all I needed to do from here was follow the canal until I reached Melksham. Although I’d mentally marked a waterside pub that looked a great spot for dinner along the way.
I was far from the only bicyclist enjoying the late afternoon riding – I passed a steady processing of touring riders, day riders, and the occasional canal boat resident pedalling alongside the canal. One aspect I had not expected though was the massive staircase of locks at Caen Hill. I lost count of how many locks it took to climb the small hill I was rolling down, but looking now at the balancing ponds it seems to be at least 15. Obviously a time consuming transit for boat traffic, which was noted on a large sign at the bottom where I stopped to take photos. A strict note of the first and last transit times were displayed prominently. It was a marvel of Victorian engineering – and a stark contrast to the dismal failure of the HS2 works that I had passed earlier in the day.
The Barge Inn was much further along than I had expected – so much so, I began to wonder if I’d missed it somehow. But eventually I spotted it on the other, lit up in the orange late afternoon light. It looked mobbed, but I was hungry and the reviews had been good. So I wound my way up the path and over the small stone bridge. As busy as it was, there were a couple of open tables, with shady umbrelllas. I grabbed one in view of my bike, propped up against the pub wall besides the dog bowl water station. It was such a relief to be out of the heat, with food and drink on hand, that I did not hurry. I’m wracking my memory as to what I ordered – but I have a memory of a massive plate of loaded Nachos, washed down with a couple of pints of lager shandy. So let’s go with that. I sat for a while too, that much I do remember. My overnight stop was barely any distance away, and it was such a wonderful spot to linger in the warmth of one of the few proper summer days of the year.
It was even less riding than I expected before the towpath rose up onto a small bridge and a sign pointed right to Melksham. The first couple of hundred meters were closed road and bus route, eventually ending at a roundabout which would have led to my originally planned overnight Travelodge stop. But on a later session studying the route I’d spotted a delightful looking B&B a bit further along in the town itself. The owners of The Conigre proved just as friendly and helpful in the flesh as they had been over messages swapped during my booking. A locked shed was available for my bike, for which I was given a key to make an early departure easy. And an assortment of cereals, juice and pastries had kindly been left in the small kitchen of the room since I would be gone before the main breakfast service started. It really was a perfect choice of bikepacking stop, and the big soft bed had me asleep before I’d even thought about putting on the TV.
8 July 2023 – Melksham to Home
Although I’d roughly divided the final two days into equal distances, today had significantly more climbing than any other day of the tour, and with a forecast that looked certain to bring rain at some stage there were already plenty of reasons to want to get underway early. But a more significant reason was wanting to get done with a short but unavoidable section of main A road early before too much traffic built up. After checking both the storage shed and room twice, I dropped the keys through the letter box and wound my way back to where I’d left the canal towpath the previous evening.
Maybe it was a result of not being fully awake, but this short remaining section of canal side riding seemed to demand way more attention than the rest. The path was narrow, single track at best, and combined with branches poking across from the hedge to my right, and moorings from barges on my left, it made for precarious riding. Add in the frequent potholes and I rode for 5km or so in constant apprehension of pitching over the edge and taking an early bath. Luckily, this section was short and just beyond a mooring bason with an especially picturesque bridge, I swung left across the canal and followed a railside path into the middle of Trowbridge, still mostly asleep. The last bit of path was almost a tunnel between grafiti clad hoardings, a section which smelt strongly of human waste – presumably whatever redevelopment had halted here providing temporary shelter for the homeless.
Twisting through back streets heading out of town I picked up the first section of main road – 6km of Frome Road (the A361). As I’d hoped, the early hour meant it was almost devoid of traffic though. After Beckington I dropped down into a pretty river valley briefly, on quiet lanes again, but it wasn’t long before the landscape became more jagged, short punchy hills which had a distinct feeling of being the h’ors derves for bigger inclines to come. If there was any doubt which of the day’s ridges I was climbing the village name of Leigh upon Mendip dispelled them. This was the haul through the Mendip Hills – the town of Stoke St Michael seeming to mark the top, of this climb at least. At some point around here I remember donning my raincoat as the first drops started to fall – possibly just past the top as I remember riding down through steadily falling rain. And I definitely recall a very wet transit through Shepton Mallet, which included a short path section through a town park. And also no likely breakfast spots, having intentionally avoided the town centre I also manage to bypass any coffee shops. I did look briefly at the Tesco where I emerged from the park but decided I’d push on for something better. Which never arrived – villages and country lanes make for lovely riding but few cafes on my route. Instead I resorted to grabbing a bar at a pull in by a telecom mast – the only positive of which was that my taking a pee almost certainly went unnoticed given the amount of other trash strewn around. It was not a stop to linger over, so I ate the rest of the muesli bar as I rode on.
The lane I’d stopped on was very appropriately named Ridge Lane – even in the damp, misty morning, I could clearly see far across the countryside below. And the sequence of lanes which followed presented a long, near continuous descent out of the hills – most of the time tracking the A361, but occasionally crossing it or riding along short stretches between junctions. At one point, Glastonbury Tor emerged from the mists across the fields in front of me. Partly for Yoli, but also because I thought it might be a worthy entry in the “Crap views of Glastonbury Tor” facebook page, I stopped and took a terrible photo.
From here, the riding seemed to dodge along the very edge of the weather front – alternating between showers and sunny, blue skies. I had a feeling the showers were winning the day slowly though. In the village of Baltonsborough I pulled over to ask a lady who was weeding the village flower beds whether they had a shop or cafe. There was more than a hint of sadness as she explained that their shop and several others in neighbouring villages had closed during Covid. She rattled off the names of a couple of places which still had them but none really stuck in my head – until quite by chance, I rolled into Kenton Mandeville and recognised the name at almost the same moment I spotted the village store. It was small, but had everything I needed – sandwiches, crisps, bars, and coffee. I vaguely recall a Costa machine, but went for a sugar loaded cold coffee of some make or other instead. Stood outside, the rain held off just long enough for me to enjoy my roadside breakfast, using the top of the nearby bin (or maybe it was a post box) as a temporary table. With less than 100km to go, I figured this might just last me until home – perhaps with a coffee stop if one presented itself.
Although I recognised many of the villages (Somerton, Huish Episcopi, Muchelney), my route through them wasn’t exactly the same as previous rides. So the climbs, and descents were pleasantly unfamiliar. Technically on the edge of the Blackdown Hills, the run into and past Ilminster was still far from flat, a regular series of short punchy inclines. Eventually though I dropped into the valley and along the familiar cycle path of the Slow Line (National Route 33). Just above Chard the heavens opened fully and I sheltered under a tree at the entrance to a driveway for a full 20 minutes. Swapping messages with Yoli I mentioned I was waiting out the storm, but her reply indicated it was likely to rain all afternoon. She offered to come collect me but, even with the rain, I was enjoying these last kilometres too much so I pushed on to Axminster where I paused for coffee. In some ways, the little cafe I chose wasn’t the best option for a coffee lover (the lady owners machine was broken, so it was instant). But on such a dreary day, empty of other custom she seemed so grateful for the business that I accepted what she could offer and the Pasty that I ordered with it was more than recompense. I enjoyed it enormously, stood outside under the narrow parapet sheltering from the rain as miserable looking shoppers trudged past.
Realising there would be no respite, and having turned down a second offer of a lift I rode out into the rain – I was properly soaked even before leaving the town. I was nearly home, and I did not want my GPS track or the journey to end too soon despite the conditions. I knew the final stretches involved some steep hills – the first couple lead up and over into Colyton, and the long, lovely drag up from there over to Branscombe. On my TCR prep rides the previous year I’d been caught out by the earlier gradients and ended up walking some short sections. The bike now was just as heavily loaded but the legs or spirit must have been better as I crested each of them with energy to spare. Finally, just beyond it’s famous Donkey Sanctuary, my wheels ran free and I enjoyed the last long descent to Sidmouth, arriving home throroughly soaked but smiling at an excellent tour.
And finally, the full track for both parts of the tour: