City Escape 2020

The first lockdown brought with it a sense of calm to our life in London. The back garden was serene without the noise and pollution from the main road and our hectic schedules took a back seat. Unable to go places and explore, it also gave us time to reflect on the impact of our quest for adventure. Driving to the mountains to ride, driving to the sea to go kayaking or surfing, driving to the hills to go trail running. I thought we were environmentally conscious, but we hadn’t given enough thought to the cost of our travel when our pursuits felt so wholesome.

Desperate for a break after four months of working flat out at our dining table, when the opportunity for holidays opened up again my husband, Martin, and I wanted to find a way to enjoy ourselves without the need for a car. There was only one real option, a bikepacking trip from our front door.

Martin is a reluctant cyclist. He’d rather spend the day with a paddle in hand, but since he’s discovered gravel he’s become a lot more keen. I set out plotting a five day off-road route that took in loads of the good things the South East has to offer; the Chilterns, the North Wessex Downs, Salisbury Plain, the New Forest, the Isle of Wight, the South Downs and the North Downs. Starting and finishing at home, fueled only by our two legs and a large number of chocolate bars.

The planning started in a heat wave. The riding started in the rain. We’d got about 500m from home when someone stopped us to ask how far we’d come, adding that it looked like a long way. If we already looked that wet and haggard, it didn’t bode well. In fact, if you’re expecting to read about the romance of a bike packing trip; dusty trails in dappled sunlight, fish and chips on the beach or sipping coffee at dawn, you may as well look away now.

Day one took us from home to my parent’s house near Reading. I was keen to avoid the usual paths I’d take to get there, via Windsor, and the route planning platform Komoot had shown up some interesting looking gravel across West London so I decided we’d branch out to places new.

The trouble with gambling, is that you’re always taking a risk, and this gamble on different trails did not pay off. One particular low light was cycling around the perimeter fence of Heathrow airport, in mizzle so thick and low that the aeroplanes faded off into the bleakness. Or riding through a vast industrial estate to find a gate across the bike path had been locked for some vague Covid related reason, requiring significant retracing of steps. A glimmer of hope was a stretch of the Grand Union Canal, swiftly brought back down to earth with the demolition of the bridleway bridge over the M4, a supposed ‘clearly signposted diversion’ blocked by rubble from the roadworks and a battle through the undergrowth to get back to where we’d started over an hour before.

We paused on a wet and slimy bench in Black Park to eat our cheese sandwiches in the drizzle after four and a half hours. A full 20 miles from home. I tried to keep our lack of progress from Martin, it would not have done much for our morale. I think I could probably have run there quicker. Still, we pushed on to Burnham Beeches, somewhere I’d always fancied seeing, and it was pretty nice, except you couldn’t really see through the rain.

At some point we went past a sign for Dorney Lake – 8 miles. 8 miles. I know full well I can ride on the road to Dorney Lake in less than two hours. Martin’s wheels were already falling off and then I started pedalling squares. With rapidly diminishing light, the sensible option was to take to the road and ride the route I knew. I have never felt so glad to reach the 20% climb my parents live on. Martin limped up behind me. It was supposed to have been an easy day to break us in gently. I was so thankful for a hot shower, hot dinner and the friendly faces of my Mum and Dad. We’d planned on sleeping in the back garden but there’s no way they would allow it when they saw the state of us.

Day two dawned grey and damp and we set off to find the Kennet & Avon Canal. The first 35km would be flat along the tow path to Hungerford. Martin was in his element, a chance to recce part of the Devises to Westminster route in reverse, an iconic kayaking race he’s had his eye on. I wish I’d felt so keen. After 30 minutes the canal all felt and looked the same. I was desperate for some variety, but I should have been careful what I wished for. The towpath was closed for repair just outside Newbury so off we went to enjoy the shoddy, loud bike path of the A4. By the time we reached Hungerford, via a maze of housing estates and alleyways as our road was shut for resurfacing, we realised there was a theme.

Lunch was on a drafty, rainy bench by the canal. Even the ducks thought twice about approaching us for crumbs and waddled off when they got too close. A check of the map showed we were wildly off pace. I decided to crop a corner of the route off which would save us about 10 miles. I wish I’d cropped the next part out too. We turned right off the road onto what looked like it was going to be a wide gravel path. I soon felt like I was riding through a lettuce patch and then the mud came. It was faster to get off and push than grind through the claggy mess.

Thankful to find tarmac again we’d barely gone 50m when Martin sombrely declared he had a puncture. It was raining, the bikes were covered in mud and so were we by the end of it. The occupants from the lone house on the road where we’d stopped scurried inside and shut the curtains at the sight of Martin washing his tyre in a puddle at the end of their drive.

On we went, even slower and more cautiously now with a spongy back wheel. Finally, we reached Salisbury Plain. I’d been really looking forward to exploring but once again we’d been beaten. There simply wasn’t enough time, the perimeter road was calling out our names.

Stonehenge was our next landmark. I felt a spiritual connection, but I think it’s more commonly known as relief. We’d lost more time on the Byway getting there which, funnily enough, was closed. We stood for ages at the entrance staring in disbelief at the placards and flags denouncing the decision to shut it. We were both so tired and hungry. A banner flapped about in the wind repeatedly slapping Martin round the face. Neither of us really noticed.

Unable to convince Martin to wild camp, we’d picked out some campsite on the route and I can confirm that Stonehenge campsite is not as near to Stonehenge as I’d like it to be. Three miles on the road somehow translated to nearly two hours off road and a close encounter with a Barn Owl. What the campsite did supply was the unexpected sight of a takeaway pizza oven and the most covid safe operation you could imagine. One-way systems and hand sanitizer aplenty we set up our tarp and bivvies, much to the amusement of everyone else who were lapping up the luxury of campervans and televisions. We had pizza, even though we’d stopped earlier to buy dinner. We ate that too.

It had taken us ten and a half hours to ride the 102km to Stonehenge. Something seemed to be awry. Perhaps it was my optimism. My friend Phoebe and I had ridden 320km fully laden in two days in Scotland over challenging terrain last September. 100km per day for this trip had seemed fairly achievable. It turns out perhaps not.

Woken by the soothing sounds of the army blowing up Salisbury Plain, day three and we were on a bit of a schedule. We’d planned to ride to Lymington to catch the ferry to the Isle of Wight but after placing the booking we were told the route wasn’t currently running and we’d been moved to the ferry from Portsmouth. Portsmouth is a long way when you don’t have a car. Undeterred we opted for the convoluted route of riding through the New Forest to catch the Hythe Ferry across to Southampton to catch the competitor’s vessel to East Cowes.

Over earnest discussions at breakfast, it was clear we weren’t going to be able to make it to Hythe in time for our ferry so some rapid re-planning was required. Most of the gravel was cleared out and replaced by asphalt. I’ve never been more thankful for my time training and racing with the GB mountain bike orienteering team and the ability to retain and recall maps and routes. It’s just a shame I didn’t recall the contours. I lost count of the number of times I told Martin enthusiastically ‘It’s all downhill from here’, when it quite clearly wasn’t. The one section of gravel we kept was glorious. Through fields of poppies stretching out on either side and a woodchip racehorse training loop, a new surface to me which sadly felt a lot like sand, hard work.

Eventually I realised the thing that was really slowing us down was the big red bag that Martin had insisted on bringing with him. As his first bike packing trip I hesitated to query his kit decisions but the eight pairs of socks to my three seemed slight over kill. The bag wasn’t really big either, it was massive, and I ended up carrying it half the time.

Big red bag in tow and embarking on our third ferry of the day from East to West Cowes, at last the sun was out. Riding across to the south coast, our trip finally felt like I’d imagined it. The views were superb, there was barely a cloud in the sky and even the hills couldn’t keep us down. Tired but elated, we rolled into Compton Farm campsite too late to go for fish and chips on the beach, but grateful for the dried pasta we’d been carrying around with us and the blue cheese slices I’d bought at lunch on a whim. Sleeping with our heads peaking out of the tarp, we were treated to a beautiful starlit night every time we roused from slumber. This was the romance I’d been looking for.

Day four started as a leisurely affair, aside from the 1km round trip to the toilet block and back. We’d arranged to meet our friends Phoebe and Scot along with Phoebe’s daughter and parents who were also holidaying on the Island, so set off to pedal to St Helen’s on our ‘rest day’. Riding along the coastal military road was dreamy. We could have been anywhere. Two hours in and I had to rescue Martin from a dark hole with a packet of jelly and half a Mars Bar (I had the other half. In case you thought he wasn’t committed enough). We pedalled along the river Yar on the Red Squirrel trail and eventually made it to the beach and our friends, welcomed with sandwiches, cups of tea and concern that Martin might be about to throw his bike in the sea. I would gladly have thrown the big red bag in there.

After a swim, a drink in the garden at the Mermaid Gin Distillery and steaks on the BBQ, it definitely felt like a holiday. We were so grateful for the Sneddon family hospitality and especially their offer to take the big red bag home with them in the car. It was just a shame we still had the small matter of cycling back from Portsmouth to contend with.

Gravel out and tarmac in, it was 112km from the ferry to home across the South and North Downs, by far our hilliest day yet. I’m not sure if being on familiar territory was a blessing or a hindrance. For a lot of it I knew exactly where we were, which meant I also knew exactly how far we had to go. At the top of the final big climb out of Shere I ate the packet of Reese’s snacks I’d been carrying around with me for just that moment and smiled. We’d pretty much done it. Definitely all downhill from there.

What I’d hoped would be an amazing long-distance gravel route that I could share with other people looking for a responsible escape turned into a strange hybrid affair. Part cycle touring, part off-road, that needs a serious amount of work before I would recommend it to anyone else, but for us it was a perfect escape at the end of lockdown, big red bag and all.

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