April 2023 – Our first bike tour together in England

Author: Mr A

Locations: Bradford on Tone to Marlow and back (225km cycled/140 miles)

Canals…they fascinate me. Is it something about their faded glory? A mode of transport that spread across the UK, and then as the railways provided faster and more cost efficient options, the canals were mostly left to decay. Thankfully some have remained open thanks to local communities refusing to give in to the British Water Board, who seemed happy to let them be consigned to the history books. Now many provide a thriving green corridor for wildlife, and recreational opportunities for boating, walking and in our case… cycling.

I had promised to go and meet a mate in Marlow, a small town perched on the banks of the River Thames. Taking a good look at my favourite website showing the cycling routes around the UK, I noticed that the Kennet and Avon canal ran from Bristol to Reading, a stone’s throw from Marlow. So I thought… ‘Why not ride to our local station at Taunton, take the train to Bristol (thereby saving a day’s riding, most of which I’d done before) and then cycle to Marlow, spend the weekend there, and then take a train back to Taunton from Reading (close to Marlow) and ride home?’ Well as soon as I had started researching the feasibility, Mrs A got interested as well, and an invite was formally issued. Our first UK bike tour together was mapped out, cat sitter booked, accomodation sorted and route planned. What could possibly go wrong?

Leaving home all wrapped up warm against the icy wind, and wondering what happened to the heatwave that had been forecast….!

Well… mostly it didn’t. We set off for Taunton on a breezy Wednesday afternoon, comfortable in the knowledge that we were entrusting our little Tassie to a wonderful lady (Kate) thanks to the service we use (Trusted Housesitters). Panniers were bulging with warm clothes. Spring hadn’t exactly sprung. We soon warmed up though and Taunton station was reached, bikes loaded and secured easily onto their own special carriage. All very civilised.

Two bikes and four nights’ luggage for 2 people

We didn’t leave Bristol until mid afternoon, but the rail trail that links it with Bath made for a quick trip, despite a headwind that was going to be our companion all the next day as well.

The Bristol-Bath Rail Trail – heading through a tunnel
The rail trail unsurprisingly mostly follows the railway
Some stunning scenery en-route to Bath

This trip was to be a watery themed one, from our home on a “broad ford” (the origin of our village’s name, Bradford) on the river Tone, past remnants of the Great Western Canal that once ran alongside it from Tiverton to Taunton, then along a short section of the Taunton to Wellington Canal (restored and navigable), then onto the Avon River, that joins the Kennet and Avon Canal. Then we would ride along parts of the canalised Kennet river, before finally riding along the banks of the Thames!

As we left Bath we joined the Kennet and Avon Canal, with the sun finally making an appearance. It was just magnificent cycling. Traffic free, a new view round every bend in the canal, and bird song everywhere. Cycle touring at its very best. We loved it, and reminded ourselves this was one of the reasons we decided to come back and live in England, for moments like this. Somewhere deep down in our DNA it was triggering those memories that are making us feel like we “belong” in this country.

Idyllic scenery
A sparkling spring afternoon
A canal on a bridge
Blossom lined pathways and sunshine

The Kennet and Avon Canal is a magnificent piece of engineering. Built to join the two great ports of England, Bristol and London, with the 110 locks that it takes to cross the downs that stretch across the middle. It was quickly outmoded though by the railway, and now is maintained by the hard work of the Canal and River Trust and plenty of volunteer blood sweat and tears. I couldn’t believe the number of narrow boats moored like one long “barge park” all along its banks from Bath almost all the way to our destination for for the night, Bradford on Avon. Many looked like they were “live aboards”, the pandemic has certainly triggered a change in lifestyle for many. Why not live on a barge?

Our day 1 adventure (minus the train ride)

Bradford on Avon was in our sights by early evening, with some lovely accomodation right next to a pub on a marina. Dinner was nothing to wax lyrical about, as opposed to the breakfast. Smoked haddock… and lots of extras… what a way to start the riding day! And we were going to need plenty of fuel for our legs, even with the “pedal assist” tech we had on the e-bikes.

One of many nesting Mute Swans alongside the canal towpath
What happens when the canal goes uphill? A lot of locks!
The River Kennett below us as we cross another bridge

The headwind was wicked. We bowed our heads and put in the miles. There was more stunning riding along the canal tow path, before we were forced to leave it due to how deteriorated and slippery it had become. After Catherine had nearly made a very close acquaintance with the canal bottom, it was time to find some other options.

We were out on the very exposed Marlborough Downs. Just when we thought the head wind couldn’t get any stronger it blasted us even harder. Our brilliant e-bikes lapped it up though, still a very good work out, but the help from the battery turned what would have been (for us) an unrideable day on a manual bike into a hard but fun ride.

The Crofton Pumping Station with its magnificent chimney dating back to the early 1800s
Strava missed out 15km of winding on this map of day 2’s ride

Unfortunately our accommodation for that evening was less than pleasant, but we had looked carefully at our options, and that’s all there was. A pub on a busy road. But it wasn’t the traffic noise that kept us awake, but instead the screaming from the kitchen below us, which included the phrase “lets get some more drugs”. We left early the next morning.

Before the wet, a still and serene morning’s ride

Our final leg into Marlow was easier than expected. The head wind was no more, replaced by drizzle, early spring in England keeps you guessing. Then our rural idyll unwound…Catherine had a small mishap…finding herself in the wrong gear on a hill she stopped and the bike toppled over. A badly bruised leg, sore knee and damaged pride. She dusted herself down, gritted her teeth, and set off determined to ride on in usual Catherine fashion!

Rain, rain and more rain!

We reached our fourth river of the trip, the Thames, earlier than expected and set off along the Thames Path, only to find it gated.

The River Thames – some of it has a cycleway alongside, but in the main it seems designed for pedestrians

So our final leg was along some busy A roads, not so nice, but reminding us of just how quiet our ride had been all the way from Bristol so far. Two and a half days of almost no traffic. So after a few hair raising kilometres we finally arrived at our destination, the National Sports Centre just outside Marlow, and our accomodation for two nights. It was our only option that would store our bikes.

Our biggest day’s riding

Anyway, we caught up with friends (Martin and Ruth) had a great night out with them.

Super evening with Thai food and fine wine and company
Our second night in Marlow – pre dinner drinks at Grape Expectations

On Sunday we made the journey home, with a bit of a change of plan given Catherine’s bruises. A short ride to Maidenhead , then we had to face the dreaded intercity bike storage on the Reading to Taunton line, the subject I had read of much cyclist angst. When Great Western Railways bought their new rolling stock in 2011, right at the height of the “lets get on our bikes” movement, they decided in their wisdom to spec it with tiny spaces for bikes that have to be hung by their front wheels! Gee… good thinking guys. It wasn’t much fun, in fact it was bit of nightmare. It involved me juggling 30 kilograms of bike around a narrow corridor, standing upright then attempting to lift it onto its back wheel! The other passengers trying to get seated were mostly understanding while I manoeuvred. Well noone actually started screaming at me, plenty of tut tut and deep sighs with averted rolling eyes, in that special way only the British manage without changing their facial expression. Finally they were in, well as in as they were going to go.

It seemed only me moments later (it was actually 90 minutes!) and I was trying to persuade all the passengers with no seats (of course there was one less carriage than there should have been!) who had clustered round our bikes to move away so I could reverse engineer the whole process. The eye rolls returned and intensified. I had to ask one young gentleman three times, who was actually using my bike as a prop, to shift. The third request wasn’t terribly polite and did the trick. Or was the bike spanner I had in my hand at that point? We de-trained, more of a cascade of bikes and bags, then rode home. arriving with some relief.

An Elizabeth Line train to Reading from Maidenhead was nice and easy
A stressful feat of manipulation getting our bikes onto the intercity bike storage section! Train from Reading to Taunton
A very short ride to conclude our trip

England has some incredible bike paths, thanks in large part to organisations like Sustrans who are based in Bristol and are responsible for the National Cycle Network, bless them. Their little blue signs are a joy to behold, and we live just two kilometres from one of their paths from which we can cycle all over the UK, and beyond. Many miles await us, without the whole intercity train bit!

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