Biking From Bristol to London

Much nicer than the M4. But much harder work.

AW day 2 woodsWho would have guessed that passers-by become less friendly as you cycle east across southern England, despite the massive increase in signs telling people to be courteous? That was just one conclusion that 33 year-old architect William Usher-Smith (right, below) and I came to whilst cycling from Bristol to London in three days. We followed Route Four – a clever itinerary winding mostly off-road along waterways for 160 miles, devised and maintained by Sustrans – “the UK’s leading sustainable transport charity”.


Saturday: Bristol to Honeystreet, Wiltshire. 48 miles

bathtobristolThe Bristol to Bath section is Sustrans’ flagship track, 15 miles along the old railway on car-free, easy-to-cycle tarmac. As we pedalled the gentle, leafy hill leading out of Bristol on that sunny morning, everyone – from hoodied teen to eastern European girl walking seven dogs – greeted us cheerily. Accustomed to London’s don’t-meet-anyone’s-eyes hostility, we wondered what they were after.
However, after passing though the 515 yard (471m) Staple Hill Tunnel, cheered perhaps that the engineering marvel of 1834 should be maintained just for cyclists, our London-inspired crusts of belligerence cracked, and we began to get “hellos!” in first.

awinbathGreeting all fellow path-users, we zoomed past a steam train graveyard, whizzed along the River Avon, wound through Bath’s Georgian streets, then crunched along the sun-dappled Kennet and Avon canal towpath. Holidaymakers on barges waved, mother geese with goslings hissed, and strollers stepped obligingly aside. In deep countryside, dreadlocked barge-dwellers returned our salaams enthusiastically. Children played, rabbits hopped, hawks hovered, and the valley shone green under pleasant summer sun. kennetandavon“These three days are going to be more memorable than a year in the office!” Will declared. “For good reasons, I hope…” He added.

We sizzled along at a cracking canal-side pace into Wiltshire. Canals are intrinsically un-hilly, and we layman cyclists don’t like hills, so the broad, firm canal towpath was the bee’s knees. Disaster almost struck when a large fallen tree blocked the path, but we managed to lug our bikes and their colossally heavy panniers through the tangle of branches.treebattle

On we sped along the towpath, a brief pause in embarrassingly picturesque Bradford-On-Twee Bradord on AvonAvon (where every view would make a great jigsaw) (left, click it to see proprerly), through ugly but functional Trowbridge (where the towpath narrowed and we nearly knocked several agricultural-faced locals into the canal), sweatily upwards past the 29 Caen Hill Locks (ten minutes on a bike, six hours in a barge) (below) and into the ancient market town of Devises, where we stopped for tea.

050Route Four takes to country lanes after Devises, but we decided to stay on the towpath – 063more direct and prettier, we figured. The path narrowed, and plunging front wheel-first into the murky canal soon seemed inevitable. We crashed though nettles and brambles. I developed mega hay-fever, then got a puncture. After an unpleasant half an hour replacing my inner tube with eyes aflame and nose pouring snot, we returned to Sustrans’ road route.

Will US Pewsey ValeSoon we were soaring along rolling downs flanking the Vale of Pewsey, past pre-Roman fortifications and tombs, and a relatively unimpressive white horse. It was vastly more enjoyable than the canal, despite the farmhands whooshing by in souped-up hatchbacks. Tired as unfit men should be after nine hours exercise, we arrived in Honeystreet – the capital of crop circles.Pewsey Vale

Sunday, Honeystreet to Henley, Oxfordshire. 58 miles

074Fuelled by a majestic fry-up in our creepy B&B (all B&B’s are creepy), we set off, following the Sustrans road route past the villages of Clench and Cuckoo’s knob. Hooning down sunny Wiltshire lanes was a delight, but climbing them was dreary. So, carelessly discarding lessons learnt the previous day, we ignored the official route and rejoined the towpath.

080Labradors lolled by longboats, fish plooped on the surface of the silent canal, trees dipped languid branches into still water, and baby animals appeared everywhere: parades of ducklings, gaggles of goslings and tiny rabbits (‘kits’, apparently). We felt like teenagers in the summer holiday, riding leisurely for miles through jungles of fresh green foliage. An adder slinked across the path, then a water rat – two animals I’d never seen. In Newbury (below right) we had a glimpse of modern Britain, when we left the canal for 10 seconds Newbury, prettier than you thinkto flash across a wide, shop-stuffed high street, heaving with more people than we’d seen in a day of towpath.

East of Newbury, mildly freaked by how little ground we’d covered, we rejoined the official country lane route. We rode side by side on car-less roads, chatting away and eating up miles.

Back to the canal, under the noisome M4, and who would have thought that Suburban Reading was pretty092, with gardens backing onto the broad waterway? Who knew Reading had an attractive restaurant-flanked waterfront? And who might have fancied that Reading’s Thames-side meadows were perfect for picnicking on a sunny Sunday (below)? Not me, I told an uninterested Will on the final slog to Henley. We were exhausted, passers-by were becoming unfriendly (“Whatever” replied one man to my ‘Afternoon!”), so we both had mild sulks. Meeting two old friends in Henley’s Angel pub soon cleared those up.095

Monday, Henley to London. 58 miles

We cycled south on empty, overcast lanes to rejoin Route Four. Through my shades it looked post-apocalyptically bleak. “Do you think everyone’s dead?” I asked Will. “No.” He replied. “They’re at work.”098

I changed into my yellow night-cycling glasses and everything brightened. The path descended though a wood, then slinked around Maidenhead’s suburbs along alleys that only a cycle AW struggles through anti motorbike barriermad teen could know. As with every town en route, it felt like Sustrans was running a Resistance underground railroad, secretly spiriting bikers from Bristol to London avoiding human contact as much as possible.

Then came the odd dusting of rain. The Eton fields were drab. Windsor Great Park (below, click for high res, like all of the pics) felt flat in the gloom, and we could always hear the hum of traffic and planes. Will US WindsorRejoining the Thames for the last 20 miles was a partial joy – some impressive houses, a broad towpath – but it was different from the west. At Walton-on-Thames, a group of teens with asymmetric hairstyles blocked our way, coolly ignoring our ‘excuse-me’s’. Signposts ordered the obvious (‘Cyclists Give Way To Pedestrians!’ – Golly, you think? Surely it’s better just to ram them?). At Sunbury a life-jacket wearing lock-keeper told us to dismount and walk past his lock on the broad, empty towpath. At the hundred other locks we’d passed, holiday-makers 105had worked the gates themselves and hallooed cheerily as we cycled by, aided neither by self-important lock-keepers nor buoyancy aids.

The final stretch was blissful with journey-completed satisfaction, but it seemed that the happy, laissez-faire English summer I remembered from childhood didn’t stretch further east that Reading. Nevertheless, I’m glad we completed our mission and I’d recommend the track, or sections of it, to everyone from keen cyclists to families. Sustrans have created a safe and interesting route for anyone with a degree of nous (perhaps eight year-olds and up), and I expect that all 10,000 miles of their National Cycle Network are as well thought out. If you want a truly great ride though, steer clear of London (us at Hampton Court below. note little sign trying to ruin it all – welcome to London!).Nearly finished, Hampton Court

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Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007 / Copyright on pictures Angus Watson 2007