This is my first post of 2021… so “Happy New Year one and all!” Much as I am loathed to drone on about how awful 2020 was (and it was), I want to start this year with what I hope is an inspirational post for anyone considering their first cycle tour in 2021.
With Miami, Italy, Croatia and all other places off the menu last year, my sister and her girlfriend got creative when organising a trip to celebrate my sister’s 50th birthday in September. With a window of opportunity, Covid-wise, they embarked on an adventure that had previously been a wisp of a long-held dream… to cycle to the beautiful city of Bath where my sister spent the heady days of her twenties.
My 50th birthday was in the post…my dream of going on a speedboat-taxi from Venice airport to Venice shelved due to lockdown. What to do?
For many years at fantasised about riding the Kennet and Avon Canal towpath from Reading to Bath, my old home of 12 years. Having such a beautiful end-point was a big motivator. My partner bought panniers for my birthday and, to my surprise, when I repeated aloud my bike-based fantasy she said, “Let’s do it!”
We’d been riding our bikes in the local parks, woods and cycleways throughout lockdown and it had been an amazing experience: fabulous weather and almost deserted locations. We went to nearby Bracknell Forest, usually awash with mountain bikes, now virtually empty save the occasional local walking the dog.
We were by no means experienced cyclists and had two inexpensive bikes: “Walter” (Raleigh) and “George” (Dawes). The former was a hybrid yearling with chunky mountain bike tires and front suspension, the latter a 15-year-old hybrid that had done me proud. I had George serviced, although I could tolerate the squeaking noise the handlebars made for short trips, the thought of hearing it over 82 miles was unbearable.
We had been inspired to do the tour by my sister Ruth, a keen amateur cyclist who has toured in France. She visited in the summer (in a period where we were allowed to “bubble” with family). We went cycling in the forest on our bikes and my sister and her kids hired mountain bikes. She was quite taken with our bikes and declared them “fit for touring” which surprised me as I thought you needed expensive kit to do that.
So… we decided to do it! A bit mad with no training, but we were going to take it easy and do it in three days. The best bit about cycling along canal routes is… it’s flat! Our preparation was quite basic. I studied the Sustrans route and my partner downloaded it on her phone, agreeing that Hungerford and Devizes would be good points to break up the journey.
We booked our hotels “last minute” and wrote a list of what we need to take. Staying in hotels is a really great way to tour and I can hardly imagine the amount of stuff we had would’ve had to take for camping! It was the end of September so the weather was also part of the equation that was unknown. Luckily, we had three sunny blue-sky days with hardly any wind.
The Kennet and Avon Canal starts in Reading. It was built between 1794 and 1810 to provide a safe and efficient travel between London and Bath. Getting to the starting point was really straightforward – we cycled a short distance to our nearest train station and caught a local south-west train to Reading. This is the “official” start of the canal but there isn’t much to say that other than a simple signpost declaring, “Welcome to the Kennet and Avon Waterway.”
We followed the route back towards the town and followed the gravel trail through the wetlands surrounding Reading, past a very tempting old pub and onwards. The first time I dismounted, I’d forgotten about the extra weight added by the panniers and the weight of the bike tipped me over bum first into a bank of nettles: lesson learned! A bit further on, near Thatcham, we left the canal briefly. The route does this sometimes, I guess because of the tow paths that are not well-maintained? We passed a quaint pub unimaginatively named, “The Swan.” Onwards, the canal cut through gorgeous undulating ploughed fields and tree-crowned hills. We found a less quaint pub, also called “The Swan” for a pint and some chips. There seems to be a bit of a proliferation of pubs and Inns with the same name on this canal!
We cycled briefly through Newbury and back onto the canal. From here the canal cut through gorgeous undulating ploughed fields and tree-crowned hills. This part of the canal seems quieter with not many narrowboats and the odd grass-covered bridge running across it.
At this point in the ride, we had done about half the route around 40 miles and had only seen one group of ladies doing the same. Then, a lone cyclist passed us on the back roads with a fluorescent jacket and her name, “Davina” on the back and the charity that she was riding for. We stopped as we saw her approach and I took some photographs of the surrounding scenery as we waited for her to pass on a gentle hill. We were near Silbury Hill and the Alton Barnes White Horse in an area famed for mystical goings on, crop circles and ancient monuments.
Finally, we arrived in Hungerford, a little saddle-sore and knees beginning to creak. We made our way the short distance to our hotel for the night, The Three Swans! It was an old coaching inn on the High Street. We stayed in an annexe next to the main building. The room was adequate but there were no real facilities to keep the bikes and breakfast was farcical. That evening we had difficulties finding somewhere to eat: everywhere was either fully-booked or closed due to Covid. We ended up having a pie in The Bear, which also used to be a coaching inn with some interesting old pictures on the wall.
The next morning, we set off along the back roads through slightly hilly terrain. The road had trees on either side and felt quite French. It was another crisp sunny day we passed through chocolate-box villages with thatched cottages. The route passes the Crofton Pumping Station and we were lured in by the exceptionally chatty lady on the front gate. It’s definitely somewhere worth stopping. We didn’t take the official tour as we were beginning our day. Next time! The pumping station is pre-Victorian, built in 1808, with an impressively huge brick chimney. It stands at a junction where the railway canal and river Avon converge.
We had planned to stop at a pub called The Barge Inn. I had found it on the Internet and it was famous for its alternative clientele: hippies, druids and travellers. The pub didn’t disappoint and had amazing murals on the inside illustrating Celtic myths, The Green Man and nearby monuments. There was a huge standing stone in the garden and an alternative campsite attached. We sat outside in the Sun and had a tasty plate of fish and chips. After leaving the pub, the canal suddenly became more inhabited with boats moored up in what looks like quite permanent states. There were all sorts of boats brightly painted and eclectically furnished with a mixture of practical and ornamental objects wind turbines, solar panels, plants and reclaimed antiques.
We reached Devizes. Our home for the night was The Black Swan Inn which had a lock-up barn for bikes and a good busting breakfast. We really liked Devizes (it’s actually quite close to Bath but I’d only been there once before). It has a lost-in-time feel about it. The hotel overlooks the Market Square which came alive at night with locals trying to make the most of drinking time before the Covid curfew at 10 pm. There is a lot of interesting architecture and a brewery.
The next day was the final push and it should have been easy. We started our day by descending the locks at Devizes. The council locks are 29 in total and rise 237 feet over 2 miles. Luckily for us we were going down them! Just past the locks, disaster struck and I got a puncture in my back tire. We had hoped that this wouldn’t happen as we didn’t possess the skills or replacement inner tubes. It was a gamble we took knowing that we had no formal commitment to complete the ride, (also with the backup plan that the route is never impossibly far from a town with a railway).
Lisa helped me to pump it up at every stop as the valve had bent into a weird angle. The rest of the route was completed in this fashion. A bit of a shame because I probably would’ve taken more pictures and enjoy the ride as it was the shortest distance to travel and I knew the end of the route.
The closer we got to Bath the more boats we saw moving on the canal. We made it to Bradford on Avon and stopped at another Barge Inn with rustic Bath stone walls and a tranquil garden. I considered getting the train from here but we decided to push on. We had 10 miles left at this point but I didn’t really fancy walking 10 miles pushing the bike so we carried on with the pump-and-sprint method, (where we would inflate the tire and I would cycle like a bat out of hell until it went down again).
Between Bradford and Bath there are lots of narrowboats of all descriptions. There is quite a community of canal dwellers. The towpath widens and starts to resemble a festival with tarp shelters, wood burners and the smell of incense wafting across the path. Here and there people gathered in small groups drinking cans of beer, smoking, chatting over a game of chess. I felt impolite, as if I was riding across the dinner table, but I couldn’t stop or slow down too much as my tire was deflating fast.
Now I was in familiar territory. We were approaching Bath near the Avoncliffe aqueduct where the canal passes over the river Avon and the railway. The aqueduct was completed in 1805 and is an impressive feat of engineering. It’s over 100m long and 18m wide built with bath stone and edged with balustrades. The closer we got to Bath, the busier the towpath became. I had one more waypoint to check off my Wish List, The George pub at Bathampton. It’s a charming country pub that has a big garden overlooking the canal. I visited often when I lived in Bath, it’s only a few miles out from the city a good short ride. We weren’t able to get a pint as they were only accepting pre-booked customers because of lockdown. Using the toilets was a palaver as we had to register with an NHS app.
Feeling somewhat deflated, we sat on a bench and sit except the last dregs from our water bottles. We had a full view of the canal and the bridge that crosses it and there was a boat moored up directly in front of us. We noticed a lady who lived the lady that was who lived on the boat was sitting in the bow and watching us furtively. Just before we got up to leave Lisa gave me a kiss to cheer me up. The woman’s face lit up with something. She stepped off the boat and started towards us.
“This is going to sound strange but…” she said and then I saw it was someone I’ve known from the early 90s.
We both laughed!
It was so lovely to see her and we had a proper catch-up chat. She told us a little of her adventures on the boat and I gave her news of our mutual friends. It was a heart-warming moment and I felt like I had to come “home”. She even offered to take us and our bikes on the boat back into Bath. We declined her kind offer, (because we were so close to the end now, I wouldn’t even mind pushing Walter the last bit). We said our “goodbyes” and inflated the tyre for a final push, me peddling like a woman possessed and Lisa following a little way behind. I was going so fast that she lost sight of me and we exited the route at different times as she followed the directions on her phone and I took a shortcut down memory lane.
Re-uniting in front of Bath Abbey, I knelt down and kissed the ancient paving. Lisa took a picture of me in front of the doors. If you look carefully at the picture you can see my back tyre is deflated but I am really not!