London to Newbury
I didn’t sleep brilliantly. There is a lot of noise in Londinium. In an attempt to mute it I had shut the windows, so it was also too hot. The heat and noise, combined with an underlying anxiety about getting to Hampton Court had me up and out of bed by 6:00am. Ordinarily the positive spin would have been that I could get a correspondingly early start on the road but with the earliest possible breakfast being 8:00 that wasn’t going to happen.
To pass the time I phaffed around with packing and re-packing everything, making sure this time that I had all the equipment lined up. I then made a half-hearted attempt at locating the tick on the bike but couldn’t think of anything I hadn’t already checked that I had the tools with me to tighten.
I tried to distract myself with early morning TV but getting to Hampton Court was playing on my mind. I just wanted to get on with it and was tempted to fight the bike out of the hotel and do just that. The thing holding me back was that I didn’t think I would pass anywhere to buy anything for breakfast on the move. I hadn’t passed any food shops since Harlow! Anyway, I had already waited out most of the time. It would be better to set off a little later but full than risk running out of energy before finding a shop.
I reassured myself that my Garmin could get me to Hampton Court, either by searching for it as a destination or by loading in the next part of the route that started there and getting directions to the beginning. The problem was that, despite being a cycling specific satellite navigation device, it tended to route along the most direct route even if that included major roads.
It would help to be able to see the route and try to memorise some of it before setting off. I had created the route using Google Maps so there was a copy out there in the cloud somewhere. I just needed Wi-Fi connection. Perhaps I would get some Wi-Fi connection in the dining room, next to the reception where the hub was most likely to be. I dug the tablet back out of my bag and finally headed out, though the double airlock doors and down the stairs to the basement.
Placing my order, Full English of course, I helped myself to a huge bowl of muesli and sat at the table nearest the reception. Flipping open the case to the tablet I tried the internet and – tah dah! – I had a connection. Spooning muesli in with one hand I tapped away with the other and called up the Google Map I had created for the route to Hampton Court. I spent some time studying it and making notes of the key points on the way. In particular I had to cross the Thames twice, once at Putney Bridge, where after I had to traverse Richmond Park, and again in Kingston upon Thames. From there it was easy; I just had to follow the path along the Thames to Hampton Court.
When the cooked breakfast arrived I put the tablet away and tucked in, but not before making a quick pencil sketch of the rough route to check against the map on the Garmin as I went along. Feeling less anxious I attacked the Full English with gusto, pleased with myself that I hadn’t snuck away earlier just to gain an extra 20 minutes on the road. Fully fortified I would be able to survive for at least a couple of hours before needing to find a shop.
Wrestling the bike out of my room, down the stairs and out onto the pavement, I was careful not to mark the walls or carpets, not wishing to get Laura into trouble with the owner for letting me bring the bike in. I scooted down the pavement towards Battersea Bridge, knowing that the route ran along the main road by the Thames.
The main road was busy, very busy, so I kept to the pavement. It was also uncomfortably noisy and I tried to blot the cacophony out as I switched on my Garmin, hoping that with less buildings around the bloody thing wouldn’t freeze again. Thankfully it sparked into life and I loaded up my route from Hampton Court to Newbury. Ping, there was the line. Great! But it looked a little strange. The background was just white with a few lines networked on it. It would also not let me navigate to the start, stating it had no navigable map! That would explain the funny looking screen: the factory reset had wiped out my map and left me with the completely useless base map. How could it do that? The map was on an SD card and not even part of the Garmin software!
Frantically I removed the SD card and re-inserted it, hoping it would ask me to choose between the map on the card and the base map, like it had when I first loaded it. It did not recognise the SD card! Somehow the factory reset had corrupted the card!!
The background noise of beeping traffic faded away and my mind temporarily whited out as panic took hold. The troll was delighted, “Ha! I knew this trip was doomed. Doomed! You should never have started. It was bad enough losing the routes but how are you going to get to St David’s without a map! Ha ha!”
Anger at the troll’s tone brought the world back into focus. “I’ll follow the signs for Route 4,” I declared.
“Good for you,” commended a total stranger walking by. I flushed, not realising I had spoken aloud.
“Pah!” exclaimed the troll. “You tried that last night trying to get to the hotel and kept getting lost. Just give up and go home.”
I have to admit that it was a very tempting prospect. It seemed that the trip was destined to be problematic and I really didn’t feel fit enough for the trip. This was my last ‘flat’ day and also the last one of only about 100 miles. Due to a cock up in planning, the days in Wales were not only going to be hillier but also longer. After today I had to contend with 115, then 137 miles, followed by 3 more days of about 110 miles on the way home. Perhaps I should just cycle home instead? I could get to tonight’s B&B then head to Cheddar where I had booked the B&B for the final night; if I phoned ahead perhaps I could re-arrange the date. I could be home in three days. Three relatively easy days.
It was tempting but not possible. Without a map on the Garmin I couldn’t navigate.
Wait! The line had appeared on the base map, it just wasn’t navigable. Wasn’t that the same as the problem with day 1? True, then I had a map but essentially I was just following the line. If I zoomed in enough and used the real world as the map it could still work, I could still get to St David’s. All I had to do was get to Hampton Court to pick up the line. For that I could follow Route 4 signs. If I became lost I still had the start of the next route at Hampton Court on the screen and I could just head in that general direction.
Feeling that at least I had a plan I set off along the pavement in the vague direction of Hampton Court.
I was not at all happy cycling through London. In theory the Sustrans route was taking me the quietest way possible. If that was true I would have hated to have been on the busiest route. It probably didn’t help that I lost the route several times only to pick it up later.
I was reassured to cross Putney Bridge; I was on course. Now all I had to do was find Richmond Park, cut almost straight across it and then cycle on until I hit the Thames. If I followed that south and took the crossing in Kingston upon Thames I was as good as there.
It seemed simple but I lost the route again and ended up entering Richmond Park from the north rather than the east. The knock on was that when I traversed the park I came out on the south not the west and was pointing in entirely the wrong direction.
The park itself was magnificent, made all the more impressive by its complete contrast to the hustle and bustle all around it. I escaped from car clogged streets seemingly straight into the countryside. After nearly an hour of stress, battling the traffic and the troll, the sight of a herd of deer was a weird but wonderful juxtaposition.
But the deer couldn’t help me when I exited the park at the wrong gate. All unsuspecting I crossed the very busy road and headed straight on, along a cycle path towards the Thames. Except I wasn’t heading towards the Thames. If I had carried on straight, the first major body of water I would have hit would have been the English Channel at Brighton. Fortunately I realised something was wrong quite soon. It was clear I was not heading toward the start point of the next route anymore.
Backtracking I was aghast to see that the road that appeared to be heading in the right direction was the very busy A3 dual carriageway. I doubted that Sustrans would have routed along the A3 but it did have a very rough cycle path on the pavement. None of the signs were for Kingston upon Thames though.
After a short distance the road turned south. I pedalled on, waiting to see it would veer back westward but it was determined to continue south. Giving up on it I decided to just take any road heading west so I continued until I came to a pedestrian bridge over the road and crossed to the opposite side. Taking the first available westerly road I headed off towards my destination.
A good idea, expect that the residential street I headed down was a dead end. I backed up and tried another which led me in a horseshoe back around to the A3. In desperation I got the tablet out and scooted about trying to find a Wi-Fi hotspot to consult Google Maps again, to no avail. Finally I backtracked to Richmond Park and took the A308. It was crazy busy but was at least heading in the right direction.
After a tense few minutes I arrived in Kingston upon Thames and was thankful to quickly locate the crossing to the far bank of the Thames and its quiet and broad path.
When I got home I compared the planned route with my actual track and decided that I hadn’t done too badly after all, my off route elements marked with a dotted line on the map below. However, whilst it was simple to see where I had gone wrong with the map, on the ground, in the heat of the moment, it was easy to convince myself that I was hopelessly lost, especially with a troll whispering in my ear.
Whilst quiet and broad, the path along the Thames, skirting Hampton Court Park, was rough and bumpy, necessitating rising out of the saddle frequently to relieve my growing saddle sores. It dragged on for some time, shaking my bones and rattling everything on the bike. It rattled so hard that shortly before the entrance to Hampton Court my saddlebag came loose and swung around into the back of my thigh, the weight shift causing me to veer to the right. Frowning, I cruised to a stop and propped the bike against a bench. Wiping the bag off the bike I dug out my multi tool and tightened the bolts that held the mounting bracket to the seat post.
Having stopped I took the opportunity to transfer a few cereal bars to my jersey’s back pockets and then set off to follow the pink line of the route from Hampton Court that I had now reached on my Garmin screen. This proved disconcerting at first, having no visual clues other than the line but I soon became used to it. After a while I even decided that it was better than having a map because there were no distractions. In fact, the most annoying thing was that the base map did show some roads but only the most major ones and it showed them in the wrong places, which was off putting.
Crossing the Hampton Court Bridge I immediately turned right onto a path besides the river. To begin with this was pleasant, especially after the trial of getting to Hampton Court, but the path was rough and busy with other cyclists and walkers, many with uncontrolled dogs. It wasn’t too long before my backside was crying out for tarmac.
When I found tarmac it was either on narrow footpaths with obstacles or fast, busy roads with large roundabouts. I was soon wishing for the river path. But when that reappeared it was slow and painful. Tarmac please!
The pattern continued for 15 miles as I passed through West Molesey, Walton-on-Thames, Weybridge, Chertsey, Egham Hythe and Staines-upon-Thames until I hit the busiest road yet, the dual carriage way A30 Egham Bypass. There was a cycle path on the side but as I followed it I could see that the route would reach a very large roundabout ahead and then came back down on the opposite carriage way to disappear up a small lane. I did not wish to negotiate the roundabout so dismounted and, waiting for a suitable gap in the traffic, walked across first one and then the other carriage way.
At last, I was on a paved lane, not a manic road or a rough and bumpy dirt track. Heaven.
Mmmm? Maybe not. The lane turned into a dirt track almost immediately. A very, very steep dirt track. Going up. It might have been pointing in the right direction but it was not heavenly. In fact it was so bad that I took the first excuse to stop and got off to take a picture of some rampant tree roots. From there I decided that it was too steep to get going again so walked to the top.
On the way up the saddlebag swung into my backside and slid down onto the back wheel: it had come loose again. I plodded on to the top where the track broadened to a tarmacked lane and stopped to dig out my multi tool once more to tighten the bracket. Parked at the top was a battered caravan with a large sign stuck to it with the words, ‘Stop and talk to us!’ on it. I was not tempted. It had all the welcoming qualities of a, ‘I’d love to have you for dinner!’ sign outside a bear’s cave.
Just as I was stowing the multi tool back in the bag a police woman appeared at the top of the climb, pushing like me. Climbing back into my saddle I nodded a greeting whilst she headed towards the caravan looking grim faced and determined. Pushing away I heard her knocking on the door saying, “I’d like to talk to you!” If there was anyone in, they didn’t answer. Probably not the sort of person they were hoping to entice in.
As I moved away the tick took up its irregular accompaniment. It was really starting to get to me now. If anything all my fiddling over the last couple of days had made it worse. The bike now had more ticks than an A* students maths paper. I was becoming convinced that something was about to fail, not helped by all the rough dirt tracks I was cycling along.
Fortunately, from the top of the hill the route improved, with tarmacked lanes and roads leading me through a sleepy residential area with some very expensive properties set in their own mini estates. It was an area for the super-rich, attested by my soon turning into Great Windsor Park.
It was. Great that is. Vast areas of open meadows, filled with wild flowers. It made for excellent cycling with its wide but empty roads, rolling gently through the park. At one point I glanced right and could see Windsor Castle way in the distance. I thought it was several miles away but later discovered it was less than 3. I’m sort of glad I didn’t know that at the time because it would have given me a very visual idea of just how far 100 miles is.
One curiosity I couldn’t work out was the speed limit in the park – 38 mph. I wondered whether it was one of those metric/imperial things and the speed limit was actually 60 km/h but that would have worked out as 37 mph (37.2823). I googled it when I got home and discovered that it was indeed the case. In 1973, in anticipation of metrification, the park changed its limit to 60 km/ph. However, it then fell foul of UK legislation that states that all road signage must be stated in miles and mph to avoid confusion (apart from those that are in metres obviously). If it was me I would have put up signs stating 37.2823 mph just to make a point but I suppose, being a Royal Park, they had to show some reserve.
My reserve snapped as I descended a hill out of the park. There was a loud ping and the saddle bag slid down onto my back wheel, slowing me to a stop. Wheeling the bike to a flat area I leant it against a fence and removed the bag. The mount was hanging loosely away from the seat post.
“Well, you’re buggered now!” sniggered the troll. “You can’t fit the bag to the bike without the mount and without the bag you’ve no way of carrying everything.”
“I could get another mount,” I retorted.
“Where from? You haven’t passed a shop all day, let alone a cycling shop. Without a map on your sat nav you’ll never find one. Look around, you’re in the middle of the countryside, miles from anywhere.”
“Not really,” I muttered defiantly. “I’m at Great Windsor Park so Windsor can’t be far away. They must have a bike shop.”
The troll wrinkled its nose in disappointment. Then he brightened and throw at me, “They won’t have a compatible mount. You had to order that one online. You’ll have to pay for a whole new bag system. It will cost a fortune!”
Refusing to rise to the troll I removed the seat post from the frame and slid the mount off. The top one of the two metal bands that clamped the mount to the seat post had sheared through where the bolt tightened it. Perhaps if I could bash the twisted piece back into shape I could get it to work again. If I swapped the two bands over and had the unbroken one at the top, taking most of the strain, it would hold together.
What followed was half an hour of swearing and cursing as I hammered at the band with a rock, using the fence post as an anvil, followed by countless attempts to catch the bolt in the newly (mis)shaped band so that it would tighten. Eventually I felt the thread catch and gingerly tightened the band. I refrain from using too much torque in case the thing pinged again.
Remounting the saddle bag I held my breath as I gave it a few experimental twists. I cast a triumphant look at the troll. He grimaced and grumbled, “We’ll see what a few miles of dirt track do to it.”
Climbing back on the bike I was feeling so pleased with myself that I even wondered if the mount might have been the cause of the tick and that would also be cured. The answer to that came soon enough: no.
The dirt track test came immediately and the mount held out for the mile to the next road. There followed residential roads north towards the Thames where I turned back eastward through Alexandra Park in Windsor to cross the river on a road bridge into Eton. I then cycled along lanes westward before joining some excellent quality grit track along the Thames and past Eton College’s Dorney Rowing Lake. The whole area was beautifully landscapes with avenues of perfectly shaped and identically sized trees, displaying an abundance of wealth. I was more than happy to enjoy it along with the fast track, needing to make up for lost time.
The track had to come to an end eventually and I was back to residential back streets and footpaths to cut through the outskirts of Maidenhead. This urban excursion was brightened by meeting a very rare sight; a Corgi with a tail. It reminded me so much of our sadly departed Bronwyn, who also sported a full bushy, fox-like tail.
Shortly after Maidenhead I hit the second steep dirt track climb of the day. This seemed to be becoming a habit. Miles and miles of flat and then when the steep hill comes let’s make it a dirt track. You can see the two climbs very clearly on the otherwise flat elevation profile for the section from Hampton Court to the B&B at the end of the chapter (ok, overall the day seems to go uphill but if you look at the scales you will see that it is a 100 metre rise in 130 km or 80 miles – not too taxing).
I enjoyed the descent though, which was on a quiet tarmacked road. At the bottom was the small town of Wargrave, which was awash with a flood of school children escaping from the local school. That meant it must have been about 15:30 and I still had 40 miles to go. Still, if I could manage 10 mph I would get in at 19:30.
Outside the town I joined the A321. It had an excellently surfaced cycle path/pavement counter flowing the carriageway. Actually, the surface might have been merely good but it felt excellent; silky smooth after all those dirt tracks. I knew the final chunk of the day was along the Kennet and Avon canal and I was hoping that its towpaths would be tarmacked, or at least of good level grit/cinder. That would be very well received for the last stretch.
There were a lot of students streaming along the path in their very smart, private school looking uniform and I soon passed their source, the Piggott CE School. They were all very well behaved, sticking to their side of the path and refraining from swearing at the cyclist like most school children do. Very civilised. I carried on passing them for a long way down the path before joining the A4 and continuing onward into the outskirts of Reading.
My wish came true, for a little while: when I joined the Kennet and Avon Canal in Reading the path was tarmacked. It lead me through Reading easily and quickly but then changed to a dirt track. And that was pretty much the story for the next 30 miles.
The condition of the dirt track varied, from good to terrible. In places it was a strip about 3 tyres wide, needing more concentration than I could muster and in the odd place there was no track at all, I seemed to be merely cycling through tufty fields next to the canal. I questioned whether I was on the route at all several times but would always come to a sign confirming I was.
To keep things interesting the canal authority had put in the odd gate which required me to not only stop but to dismount and lift the bike over it. It was not just an obstacle to me but also to anyone with a pushchair. There was also some variety when the route passed through civilisation at Thatcham and Newbury where I was treated to a little tarmac and some cobbles but overall the paths were rough, tough and tiring. I alternated between enjoying myself immensely and wishing I was finished as my energy levels wavered up and down close to the exhaustion line, depending on when I had last stuffed down a cereal bar. It always amazes me how you can almost feel the energy flowing from your stomach to your muscles when you are right on the limit and shows how important it is to maintain a steady flow of food intake.
Despite the condition of the path I always enjoy being on a canal towpath but I think the real highlight was meeting a shire horse coming the other way, using the tow path for the job it was originally intended. I have been on many canals, both as narrow boating holidays and as routes on my cycle rides but this was the first time I had seen a barge being towed in the traditional manner.
With 10 miles to go the track deteriorated and I was spending a lot of time out of the saddle because it was far too rough for my battered butt. It was very tiring on the legs and I was being forced to set a rhythm of pump, pump, cruise just to keep moving. So, when the route took me onto roads for the last five miles I was ecstatic. I have to admit that if it had been another 5 miles of appalling track I may have been reduced to walking, which would have taken a couple of hours rather than the 20 minutes it did. My text home at the end is a succinct summary of the day: 20:03 – I’ve made it! Bloody hard day.
My reward for all of that was the best B&B of the trip. In fact probably the best I have stayed in on any trip. It was a shame to mar the room with all my kit but I needed to go through my now familiar routines, setting out everything for the next day and washing both myself and my clothes in the shower.
I skyped home, laying all my worries about the extra miles the next day and all the hills to come on my wife’s shoulders and posted my blog for the day:
The day did not start brilliantly. After losing the routes I managed to download them all apart from the first few miles to Hampton Court. No problem, I could just get the sat nav to route me. Good plan. Except the factory reset seemed to have wiped out the map! Even though it was on a micro SD so should not have been reset the sat nav would not recognise it. With no map, no routing
I tried to follow the signs for Route 4, which in theory should take me all the way to St David’s, but either I kept missing signs or they just were not there. I loaded up the next bit of the route, from Hampton court to Newbury, which gave me a triangle to show where I was and the start of the pink line with a lot of white space in between. I took roads that headed in the right general direction and followed Route 4 every time I found it. Needless to say I got there. I then had to just follow the line, literally, just a pink line on a white screen. Weird but it worked really well. Maybe better than with the map – less distractions.
There was a lot of non-tarmac today. Some of the paths were rough and would have been very tough in the wet. In particular the canal paths along the Kennet and Avon were hard work on a road bike. By the end the bikes ticks had escalated.
One of the brackets holding the mount for the saddlebag to the seat post broke after 35 miles. The bag started swinging around and dropping down onto the back wheel. After 45 minutes with a stone as a hammer and a fence post as an anvil I somehow managed to fix it and it has stood up to the many miles of rattling on the canal paths. On the positive side it went in Great Windsor Park, so the scenery was excellent.
The day was virtually pan flat apart from two long, steep climbs. In typical Sustrans fashion they were both dirt tracks! I thought it would be an easy day – 97 miles of flat. Turns out it was incredibly tough. So much stopping and starting and rough terrain. My average speed was right down to 9 mph, although 45 minutes fixing the saddlebag didn’t help.
Tomorrow is 116 miles, which means an hour and a half longer. Tonight’s hosts have kindly offered to make breakfast for 7am, so that should give me one hour over today. Hopefully there will be more tarmac to make up the rest. I was certainly cycling 2-3 mph faster on the tarmac than the dirt track (the good dirt track).
So, early start tomorrow – better get some sleep…
Day 3 Statistics
Distance: 100 miles
Av speed: 11.4 mph
Time cycling: 8:46
Time overall: 11:11
Av heart rate: 128 bpm
Calories burnt: 4892
Total ascent: 695 m
Max speed: 35 mph
Day 3 Elevation Profile
Note: Very little climbing today with less than 700 metres. In fact if you take out the two obvious hills it is more like 500 metres.