Day 27 Monday 13 June
Oh, the joy of flat. But first I had to pedal alongside the Caen Locks, the longest flight of locks in the country. There are 29 of them and they move boats up (or down) 237 feet – not a huge ascent for a bike, but hard work for people on a boat. I remember visiting Devizes in the seventies and gazing at muddy, grass-covered river beds, sagging gates and derelict locks. Now it’s immaculate, with black-and-white gates, gravelled towpaths and hardly a weed in sight.
I asked someone about the best route through Devizes to the cycleroute. “You can cycle all the way to Reading on the towpath if you want,” he said. “It’s a bit rough in places, and narrow, but a friend of mine did it last month on a racer.”
So off I went alongside this narrow tree-lined band of history. Easy to imagine horses plodding patiently where my tyres fell, barge-children playing on boat roofs, the crew ‘legging it’ through the occasional tunnels. And now all was peaceful, with kingfishers, herons, canoes, occasional slow-moving boats, geese and ducks.
The towpath narrowed and weeds grew high as I pedalled further into the countryside.
Several times the weeds were taller than me and I had to slow right down or even stop to walk through them.
I fell off three times, luckily not into nettles. But it didn’t matter. I wasn’t in a rush and spent time deciding on my favourite barge name. Definitely Relativity: travelling at the speed of life. I decided on my name for a barge – Sloe Gin.
Most barges were obviously lived in, with wood, chairs and general clutter on banks and roofs. But even barge owners need to work, so they were securely locked up. The only regular users of the path seemed to be dog-walkers and a few adventurous souls walking from Reading to Bath, the length of the canal.
Then I reached the Bruce Tunnel.
I had taken Milly under bridges and through short tunnels before, but this one was different. A railway ran over it. So the steps up, along and over were a huge obstacle.
I had to remove all Milly’s luggage and carry her, then the panniers in two loads, up around 70 steps.
No photo could convey the horror…
I carried on, grateful once again for flat. But, where to sleep? Round 4pm I checked my campsite book. Nothing.
“If you’re stuck, you can shake down with us,” a woman with two young children offered, but it was early and, besides, I was sure she had no room for another person on her very small boat.
At 5pm I looked up hotels/B&Bs on my mobile. Nothing within 10 miles and they cost a packet.
At 6pm I met a couple getting off their barge. “Pitch on a lock,” they said. “The grass is mown and no one will trouble you.”
“I don’t like to. I promised my sons that I wouldn’t wild camp.”
“It’s not wild camping, not if the lock owner doesn’t mind. Pretend I’m the lock owner and I’ll give you permission.”
I was unsure about the morality of this so carried on pedalling.
The clouds gathered, huge and purple-black behind me, decorated with occasional flashes. Where to stop? A full-blown thunderstorm would do my tent no good at all. I needed somewhere more solid to shelter.
I found the perfect place – a remote bridge with flat ground right next to it. It was weed-covered but did that matter? I’d soon flatten them.
A teenager came walking along the path, chewing and wearing headphones. Where on earth had she come from? There were no houses or roads for miles.
Glumly, I got on Milly again. I couldn’t possibly camp with any chance that people would pass by – and of course they would. So on I pedalled, often looking over my shoulder. Those clouds weren’t going away, and large raindrops plopped on to my jacket, accompanied by distant rolls of thunder.
Then I had an adventure on top of my adventure.
I reached a lock with neatly mown grass, a small cottage with boarded-up windows and a large red tent in front of it.
If the owner allowed camping, then surely this was my place. Even better, clouds of smoke came from a large fire near by.
“Excuse me…” I shouted, and a tall, thin man appeared. “Do you mind if I pitch my tent on your lock?”
“No, of course I don’t,” he said. “But it’s going to pour any minute now. Would you like to sleep inside? It’s not much but it’ll save you pitching in the rain.”
He showed me inside. In the dim light which filtered through boarded-up windows I saw floors littered with plaster, bricks, planking and nails.
The ceilings had mostly fallen in and the stairway had treads missing. “It’s a bit better in here,” he said, leading me to another room.
I couldn’t quite see why, but he and his partner were kindness itself, finding me drinking water and setting up electricity so I had light and the use of his kettle.
“We don’t sleep here,” he said. “The tent’s only to store stuff. Need to be at work early tomorrow, in Reading. I sleep in a barn over the way. So you’re very welcome.” He told me that he was born in the area and had often visited the lock – Cobbler’s Lock – and the keeper would weigh the fish he caught. Since the man died the cottage had been left and he had been fighting for 10 years to buy it. “Trouble is, there’s very limited road access,” he said. “Any materials for renovation will have to be brought in by boat along the canal. It all adds to the costs.”
He left me on my own and I crouched in the doorway watching rain stipple the lock water. As darkness thickened the rain stopped and I added more wood to the fire. Inside, I carefully spread my groundsheet over the least covered part of the floor and settled down.
The thunder, lightning and heavy rain continued for much of the night, but I slept well, though the floor was hard and I discovered a large stone under my back. I saw no ghosties and heard no thumps in the night. Thank goodness.
Day 28 Tuesday 14 June
I woke early and appeared at the open doorway, much to the surprise of a dog-walker who, with typical English reserve, managed a frosty smile and walked on. That early morning cuppa was delicious and the world was sparkling with raindrops in the early morning sun.
I stopped to chat to a fisherman. “What’s the best time of day for you?”
“Now,” he said. “It’s all so peaceful and the day’s just beginning. You see and hear birds and the dawn choruses are magnificent. I like autumn best of all, when the mists over the water slowly clear as the sun rises. It’s so still you can almost hear the blood move in your veins.”
The woodland was peaceful but “civilisation” was intruding. I passed a group of people waiting for a horse-drawn barge – memories of times long gone.
Less pleasant memories – a line of pillboxes, built as a last-ditch effort to stop invasions.
Trains raced past on the other side of trees and there must have been a motorway near by as traffic noise steadily rose then died away. No more weed-covered towpaths.
Newbury was pleasant with a swanny canalside walk
but the woodland had shrunk, revealing open fields, a quarry, the M4 and a railway line. It started to rain once more.
Barriers across the towpath, designed to keep out motorbikes, were almost impossible to get through with a fully laden Milly, but other cyclists helped.
Days of cycling along muddy towpaths had left Milly filthy and panniers damp inside.
I’d wanted to reach the end of the Kennet and Avon Canal then cycle as far as I could along the Thames, turning south to home when I’d had enough.
“You can’t,” someone told me. “There are a few stretches of towpath but it’s mostly only a footpath and the diversions are long.”
I asked about campsites. “There’s one near Windsor,” he said. “About 20 miles away.”
I thanked him and moved on. It was getting late. It was raining. My planned cycle route wouldn’t work as I wanted. The campsite was at least two hours away. The canal ended at Reading and the station had a direct line home. My bed was waiting for me…
An hour later I reached the end of the canal and the end of Phase 2 of my little bike ride then caught the train home. I’ve no idea how far I cycled – perhaps 800 miles around all the back roads – but that didn’t matter. I had survived!
Phase 3 starts on 5 July. I’ll return in early October if I last that long. I plan to cycle through Sussex, Kent, East Anglia, Flamborough Head, York, Chepstow – via canals as far as I can – Wales, Liverpool. Then I’ll take a train to Edinburgh and cycle on to Glasgow, Carlisle, Hadrian’s Wall, Newcastle, Middlesborough. Train to Blackpool, then finish off in the Lake District and catch the train home.
During that time I’ll attend a festival in Chepstow, the Edinburgh Festival and an archaeology weekend, visit friends and generally avoid hills as much as is humanly possible.
Wish me luck!