Posted by: Emily | November 13, 2010

Cycling to Derby (day two, three, four & five)

It’s been two weeks since I returned from my trip to Derby. Unlike my previous cycling holiday in the South West, which was fantastic in every way, this was a very mixed experience with highs and lows.

The first day, which I’ve already written about, was very enjoyable with over 100 miles of cycling in some really beautiful surroundings. Day two started off very well with a lovely 30 mile ride from Oxford to Banbury. Having completed the Thames Valley route on the first day, I was now following the West Midlands Cycle Route (National Cycle Network route 5) which would take me from Oxford all the way to Derby. On the ride to Banbury there were a number of off-road sections and once again my Van Nicholas Yukon proved to be a great bike, coping well with every terrain (and a lot of mud!). The route was, on the whole, easy to follow and included some really beautifully designed signs. They were so nice that it took me a while to realise what they were as having developed an almost Pavlovian response to the trademark blue, white and red National Cycle Network signs, I tended to ignore all others.

NCN sign

 

After stopping for a cup of tea in Banbury I headed for Stratford via the lovely Shipston-on-Stour where I had lunch. The weather was a little overcast, but the cycling was great and I was covering the miles at a good pace. From Stratford, where I stopped for a quick Starbucks, the plan was to cycle to Bromsgrove where I’d be spending my second night. As I approached Redditch it was getting dark and although I had lights, I didn’t relish the off-road sections that I knew lay ahead so decided to instead take a couple of B roads for the last 10 miles to Bromsgrove. The B roads were completely unlit and I managed not only to follow the wrong road for about three miles, but to also get a puncture with less than two miles to go. Having done a roadside inner tube change the day before I wasn’t immediately too concerned, until I realised that doing it in complete darkness was not going to be easy and without a real pavement was also somewhat dangerous. I’d been on the road for about 12 hours at this point and was tired and very hungry, but decided the best plan was to walk the final two miles and do the puncture repair in the morning. I’d only been walking for about 10 minutes when I was suddenly greeted with both street lighting and a pavement. I didn’t hesitate to get the Pedros out and it wasn’t long before I was cycling the last mile to Bromsgrove.

I spent my second night at the Wellington Lodge – an absolutely wonderful B&B. The room was very comfortable with a great shower, huge bed and lots of lovely little touches. Breakfast in the morning was extremely plentiful and the Yukon got to spend the night safely locked up in a garage. By 9am I was on the road again and heading for Birmingham. I quickly found a sign for the route, but didn’t realise that I was going the wrong way and heading back towards Redditch. Luckily I had only ridden about two miles when I realised my error and although it was annoying, it was hardly a huge disaster. Unfortunately, taking the wrong route was to become the theme of the day.

I’d been cycling for almost three hours and was close, I believed, to reaching Birmingham, when I saw a house that seemed very familiar. Day three was another big one in terms of miles and in an effort to spend more time riding and less time stopping to check the map, I’d relied solely on the official signs and had resisted the urge to keep checking my location on Google Maps. Fearing the worst, however, it was back to Google Maps and as I watched the little blue pin reveal my true location my heart sank when I realised I must have been cycling in a complete circle for the last hour and was far closer to Bromsgrove than Birmingham. There was nothing I could do but retrace my steps and try to work out where I’d gone wrong the first time and avoid doing it again.

I eventually made it to Birmingham, but was so far behind schedule that I didn’t have time to stop and instead carried on straight to Walsall. The first part of the route was along the canal and it was here that I had another puncture. I was becoming quite a puncture expert by now and it didn’t take long to change the inner tube. The route from Birmingham to Walsall was 14 miles, but seemed far longer. It didn’t help that a lot of the signs had been either removed or so badly vandalised that I couldn’t tell which which direction they were supposed to be pointing. This resulted in frequent stops to check the map. By the time I reached Walsall it was close to 3pm. I’d hardly eaten anything since Bromsgrove and in the back of my mind was the knowledge that I still had 45 miles to go until Derby with only a few hours of daylight. Cycling 45 miles when you know the route can easily be done in three hours. Cycling 45 miles when you don’t know the route, and really need to stop to get something to eat first, is an entirely different thing.

After some much-needed food and a lot of deliberation I realised I had two choices. Either I change my route and spend my third night somewhere closer to Walsall or I get the train to Derby and hope for a better fourth day. Although getting the train felt like I was cheating, it wasn’t a very hard decision to make. Under different circumstances I may have enjoyed the ride to Walsall more than I did, but from what I’d seen of the surrounding areas and the town itself, I wasn’t desperate to spend any longer there than I had to. It was certainly a very far cry from the beautiful towns and villages I visited when cycling in Somerset, Devon and Cornwall. For the bargain price of just £12 I got a train from Walsall back to Birmingham and then from Birmingham to Derby.

I reached Derby as it was getting dark and although I was feeling a bit sad that I’d not actually got there by bike, as had been the point of the “Cycling to Derby” trip, I knew getting the train had been the best decision and was looking forward to having a relaxing evening. As I started looking at the route for the next day, I realised that with the clocks going back an hour overnight, I was going to be a struggle to reach Northampton before it got dark. Having covered a lot of miles each day on my last trip, I’d been very ambitious with the daily mileage when planning this holiday and I’d not taken into account the fact that I had far fewer hours of daylight this time. Whilst I had really enjoyed the beautiful scenery and route when cycling in the South West, if I was being entirely honest, since I’d left Stratford the route of this trip had been neither scenic nor particularly interesting and having to contend with all the vandalised signs I was feeling quite disheartened and actually looking forward to being back home. It was then that I decided a complete change of plan was necessary. This was supposed to be a holiday and holidays are supposed to be fun. It’s one thing to plan something badly, it’s quite another to stick to a bad plan – especially if you’re on your own and therefore free to do whatever you like. Using TheTrainLine app, I saw I could get a train from Derby in the morning and be at Banbury by midday. I could then cycle from there to Reading, via Oxford, and then the following day cycle back to London along the lovely Thames Valley route. My trip would be five days instead of six, with considerably less miles, but the cycling would be far more enjoyable.

As the train pulled into Banbury it started raining gently and by the time the Yukon and I were ready to hit the road it had turned into a full downpour. I was nonetheless very happy to be in Banbury and having not cycled since the previous afternoon, was very much looking forward to getting back on the bike. I had a great ride from Banbury to Oxford. Having done the route in reverse just a few days previously made a huge difference and although I wasn’t going at a record-breaking speed the fact that I knew, roughly, that I was going in the right direction meant I didn’t need to keep checking the map. When I reached Oxford I stopped for a Starbucks and planned the next leg of my ride. The sun was already very low in the sky and I did briefly consider spending the night in Oxford, but I really wanted to get to Reading. I’d decided to ignore the official National Cycle Network route and instead follow two B roads that would take me all the way there. I didn’t really know how many miles the journey was, but I thought it was likely to be around 20. The first 10 miles were extremely fast and very enjoyable. By the time I’d done 20 miles I realised I’d completely misjudged the distance and not only was I nowhere near Reading, but it was completely dark and I was once again on a road with no lighting. I’ve made my fair share of bad choices whilst cycling, but the journey from this point to Reading was probably one of the more stupid things I’ve done. I was cycling in pitch darkness and although I had lights on my bike, so was visible to other road users, the road was empty a lot of time and it was so dark, that at times I felt as if I was cycling with my eyes closed. Every now and then a car would appear and the headlights would completely blind me for a moment and then I’d be plunged back into darkness. I kept hoping I’d pass through somewhere with a B&B where I could stop, but most of the villages didn’t have as much as a pub or a shop. When I finally reached Reading I was so happy I almost cried (well actually I did cry). It felt like I’d been cycling for hours in the darkness, but in total the journey from Oxford to Reading was only just over 30 miles and 20 of those were done in daylight.

The final day of my trip was just 60 miles and as I’d already done much of the route before, I knew I’d be back home by the afternoon. Cycling from Reading to Windsor was great and the roads were quiet. This was my third visit to Windsor in as many weeks and once again I paid a visit to the local Starbucks, leaving the Yukon to admire Windsor Castle.

Windsor

 

The ride from Windsor back to London wasn’t particularly fast, but it was enjoyable and lovely to be following the Thames again. The sun came out as I stopped for lunch at Kingston and the final 18 miles back through Richmond Park were fantastic. My trip wasn’t quite what I’d planned, but it was nonetheless a great experience and included some very enjoyable cycling. There’s a wonderful Swedish proverb “Borta bra men hemma bäst” which translated means “Away is good but home is best” or, as Dorothy said, “There’s no place like home”.

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