My ankle was still swollen and I had a marathon coming up. It was time to get the mountain bike out for a long ride. I think the furthest I had ever cycled was 58 miles with my friend Lawrence around the Isle of Wight for a his birthday a couple of years ago. My god, that was hilly!
I had some routes in mind. Cycling some of the South downs way or possibly a route to Newbury and back using some of the Testway. After speaking to Mike Mattingly though I was convinced that Wylye would be better. Although, I thought, why not make it 100 miles at a leisurely pace to Warminster and back. I could probably cycle 100 miles right?
I studied the National cycle Network website and found the route I needed. Route 24 would almost take me the whole way there. I had made tuna sandwiches and added a couple of go ahead low calories biscuits for some reason. They are quite sugary and sweet :) I also packed a rain mac, spare t-shirt, socks and deodorant. I left just after 6.30 in the morning and headed out towards Romsey via Lee lane. I would soon reach my first 5 miles and then head to Timsbury where I would hit the National cycle route 24. It was then left into Mottisfont where I stopped and watched a Grey wagtail bobbing up and down on a log over the River Test. The sun wasn't out but it was still a beautiful and peaceful morning here.
I was a bit worried about getting my bike stolen even it was only a £300 one from Halfords. I didn't want to lose it and hated the fact that it still looked so sparkly and new. I thought that if I put a few Gary Glitter stickers on it, it might deter any potential bike thieves. After all, I didn't want to walk back to Southampton and I was bound to want a cake at some point. I also had no puncture repair kit and no bike pump. I was praying for a puncture free day but also knew that there are train stations at Romsey, Dean, Salisbury and Warminster so I would only have to walk 20 miles at the most with my bike ;)
I got lost for the first time in Mottisfont. I was so used to following the Testway that I had missed the turning just past the abbey. I had also nearly cycled into two deer whose hooves were frantically sliding on the concrete as they tried to make a dash for the hedges. They were so big that I thought they were horses at first glance. It was still early by the way! I turned around and found the right road to Dunbridge and knew where I was again as I cycled towards Lockerley, East Dean and West Dean. A nice quiet road with no traffic, just the birds singing and the sound of my bike running smoothly on the lovely road. This was as far as I had cycled on route 24 though. I was soon to be an explorer going into unknown territory and I loved the thought of this. I love checking out new places and just before I got to East Grimstead, I saw some lovely poppy fields and could see for miles around and the A36 was visible but far away so I couldn't hear the cars or barely see them. This road would now run parallel to the A36 for many miles. There were stunning views and wildlife and no smelly motorists polluting the lovely countryside near me.
This road would continue to East Grimstead and then I got a bit lost again which meant that I cycled through a place named Farley but it was a pleasant route, although a bit eerie. It was quite dark and misty as both sides of the road were lined with overhanging trees like an avenue and it was silent and I could really feel the isolation out here. Should I panic and phone the police now?
It wasn't long before I had come into Alderbury though and it was now raining but not heavily. I had decided to stop in a bus shelter and take off the long sleeved t-shirt that was under my short sleeved t-shirt. I was getting very warm despite the rain but was going to put my rain mac on. I wasn't expecting to see anyone as it was still only about 8.30 but then felt eyes upon me in my half naked and vulnerable state. There was a man watching me change from across the road and he appeared to be quite grumpy. He stopped and shouted over "Getting quite warm are you?" He laughed and carried on walking with his morning papers under his arm.
I was then thinking... was it possible to watch parkrun in Salisbury. If I cycled a bit faster and put some effort in I might just get there in time and maybe there would be some familiar faces there from my running club. I followed the cycle route through Milford which seemed to take an exaggerated route into Salisbury via train tunnels, tracks and an industrial estate but then it came out at Churchill gardens. I managed to chat to a few of the marshals at parkrun who were stood out on the course as I also got to cycle a loop of the course before the runners had started. A great winding route with nice variety. I was tempted to run it, but saw sense.
I went over and listened to the race briefing and at the same time scanned the crowds for recognisable faces but saw none. Then I was startled from a hello followed by a handshake. It was superstar athlete Ben Pitman from our running club. Not only did I witness him win this parkrun by a long way but he also got the course record!
I sat by the meadows and ate one of my tuna sandwiches and drank some water. I was a bit worried about the next part of the route and finding my way out of Salisbury. I knew I had to head to the Cathedral and then search for a place called Bemerton. It turned out to be a lot easier than I had imagined with the cycle signs clearly marking the way. I then noticed that Bemerton, Quidhampton and Wilton were all part of the Salisbury 54321 course. I had run the 50K route twice, so it brought back a few painful memories of the summer heat and tiredness that comes at the end of a 50K race in August.
I remember seeing some complaints about Quidhampton on the National Cycle Network website. The cycle route runs out here and doesn't start again until Wilton. Not sure what the fuss was about though as it was a simple route and if I can find my way around it must be simple!
The route then went to South Newton and then there was a slight climb up to Great Wishford. This was a fairly flat route to be honest. Nothing was too challenging, even on my crappy mountain bike. There were lots of lovely looking villages to follow. Little Langford, Hanging Langford and then Mike's suggested destination of choice - Wylye. And I could see why he had suggested this route to me. It was pretty much traffic free. There were proper cyclists out who were all passing me but all were very friendly. Some would cycle beside and chat for a while or just say hello and smile. Cyclists can be nice people despite all that lycra and stuff.
I also saw my first Male Siskin. I just saw a flash of yellow as I cycled past. I hit the brakes and turned around to watch the yellow throat and headed bird singing as loud as he possibly could. Not far down the road I also spotted a white throat. Later I was to see some buzzards hovering overhead and a Kestrel hunting in a nearby field. I only learnt this on Saturday but did you know that Kestrels are the only bird to see in UV light? They can track a mice by the trail of their urine.
Then followed a series of little places with nothing really there apart from fields and hedgerow. I was ticking them off on my list that I had written down. This was to make sure I was heading the right way for most of the time. Next up was Bampton, next Stockton, Sherrington, Boyton, Corton, Tytherington and then Sutton Veny. Sutton Veny appeared different though, they didn't have one of those little white signs with the black writing on it. They had a great big colourful sign with a picture on it. Although I can't remember what the picture was of now. I was expecting great things as I cycled into this place. Had I reached civilisation again?
There were quite a few little houses and it was very clean here and there was union jack bunting/flags high in the air, stretching from one telegraph pole to another. This gave the place a great sense of community. Everyone I saw smiled and said hello and the children even waved at me. Aww, it was lovely but a bit surreal maybe.
I wish I had taken more photos but was a bit concerned about the battery life on my phone. It wasn't long before I had reached my destination of Warminster and it was exactly 50 miles. I had previously thought about my good friend SJ in Bath though and decided to text her to see if she wanted to meet up for food and a drink. After all, Bath was only 62 miles away wasn't it? I had already done 50 so by my calculations I only had another 12 miles to cycle each way. Surely I could cycle 124 miles in one day right? Was I losing the plot here a bit?
SJ text back and it was on. I told her I was 12 miles away and would be there in less than 2 hours. I got a slice of overpriced pizza and a bottle of water from a local bakery and google mapsed Bath. Another 20 miles? That can't be right. Anyway, I'll just get going...
The problem I had now was that I was relying on google maps on my phone and the battery life that I had was now at 20%. I just followed the road signs for "All other routes" and followed the smelly motorists for a while until I saw a sign for Frome. I had worked out that this was in the right direction but couldn't use the A36 obviously. The Route 24 signs magically reappeared but some of them were a bit confusing and they were offering choices of direction and a route 246 or something like that. I saw a sign for Longleat and decided to ignore it as I didn't really have the time to go on a Safari right now. I had no bike lights and I was hoping to see SJ and go for food and a couple of ciders before it got dark at least.
I went through some nice wooded trails. I think it was called Buckler's wood. I come out of the woods and on to a main road with a big sign standing in front of me. The sign reads "Longleat". I definitely got lost again and did some sort of detour I guess. So, I get a pic and cycle into Longleat. This is the right way isn't it? Did I read the sign properly?. This is weird. I cycle where cars are queuing to pay at a kiosk. I stop there wondering what to do and in the end I just cycle on the grass and pass all the cars and kiosks. Am I trespassing? I was starting to get a bit nervous now as I cycled over 30 mph down a massive hill thinking that I might get chased by a lion or a giraffe pretty soon.
I went past a big house and took some pics and still no sign of a cycle route 24 sign. There was a sign that read "Safari park" as I closed the gate behind me on a cattle grid. Now I was really nervous. Am I on one of those safari places where the animals roam free but you're okay if you're in a car? I was eyeing the trees nervously for monkeys and the heads of giraffes. And then I managed to relax when I saw a cycle sign. I must have cycled 2 miles inside the Longleat grounds. I then had to lift my bike over two locked gates until I was back in some more woodland called East woodlands. I then got to Feltham and eventually Frome.
Frome was another place where I kind of went the long way round to get back onto the cycle route as it had disappeared again for a while. Frome was hilly! In fact, it was here that I walked up my first hill with the bike. It really wasn't worth the effort. I kept on looking at my phone now and trying to work out my route to Bath. Great elm was my next milestone and I went through Egford to get there. The hardest part of this cycle was trying to get to Radstock. I walked up massive hills with my bike and saw plenty of signs. Radstock, 7 miles. 2 miles later... Radstock, 9 miles. I got my phone out and discovered I was in a place called Buckland Dinham.
I stopped at the pub and asked the barmaid for directions to Radstock. She said it was quite far. I glanced at my watch and told her that I had already covered 65 miles anyway. She gave me two choices. The way I had come and got lost down a big hill or the main road with lots of busy traffic which she said was the more direct route. I was past caring now, so chose the latter.
It sure was busy with cars constantly whizzing past me. It can be pretty scary when they're really close to you.
Anyway, 7-8 miles later and I finally reach Radstock.
After Radstock, it's just lots of small places with more hills in the middle of nowehere. Lovely out here but my relaxed nature of spotting wildlife and taking in the views had now passed me by. It was all about getting to Bath before my phone battery died and working out how I was getting home.
I then headed to Shoscombe, Stoney Littleton, Wellow (another massive hill) Combe hay, which looked really nice and the sun was now out. It was now hot and I was dripping with sweat and my white t-shirt was just plastered with dead flies. I decided to walk for a bit and try and eat again as it had been 35 miles since my last snack. I wasn't feeling the other tuna sandwich right now, so ate my low calorie biscuits instead as I walked up another hill gasping for breath and trying to eat at the same time.
There was a weird little shop here that sold ice creams but it was just kind of someone's shed in their front garden. I couldn't be bothered to call them out though and carried on up the unforgiving hills. I was almost there after all! I hit a main road again and came into Bath. Once in Bath it should be easy right? I didn't bother looking at the map now. I was in Bath. Again, another detour ensued as I cycled through Odd down and Englishcombe. But I got there. It was all big downhills to the city now.
After 82 miles I had made it to Bath city centre and was sat on the floor like a homeless person changing my socks, t-shirt and spraying myself with deodorant while I waited for SJ to arrive.
We went to a nice pub for food and cider and chatted and caught up on things and then she gave me a lovely tour of Bath. My legs were fine but I knew I didn't have enough daylight to cycle home, plus I didn't fancy cycling up some of those hills that I had cycled down to get here! The options were a hotel or a train home. It turns out a train would only cost me £25. I thought it would be closer to £50 so was well happy with that. We went to another pub after the walk where I had the thirst for more cider now and then headed home on the train. I had such a lovely day and would love to do it again. It got me thinking that I would like to go further. Maybe Cardiff or even Dylan Thomas' boathouse in Laugharne and after I had learnt the route from cycling there. Maybe next year I could run it as a challenge and to raise money for Cancer research.
(SJ trying to ride my bike in busy streets of Bath)
(Bath to Bristol cycle path)
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