Alright so it’s not exactly Mont Ventoux, which the Tour de France boys were tackling on Sunday. But it was enough for me….
Over three days, from Friday to Sunday, 5-7 July, my friend Jon and I got on our bikes and cycled along the Kennet-Avon canal from Reading to Bath. In distance, nothing too arduous: about 100 miles in three days. But, as we found out, it was a bit tougher than we thought it would be.
It was brilliant experience. So much natural beauty, the sense of liberation on your bike, the challenge of the difficult bits, the overnight stays in Hungerford and Devizes, the friendliness of everyone you meet along the canal, and one superb rock’n’roll moment.
Some narrative and photos on the way…
Day One. Cruising to Hungerford.
We started our journey on the train from Ealing Broadway at about ten o’clock. We’d anticipated it would be a pretty empty train. Wrong! It was completely packed with people on their way to Henley Regatta. The men in bright jackets and chinos, the women in their summer dresses. A group of them drinking from cans of Pimms and Gin and Tonics. Starting as they meant to go on. Excellent! My only worry was that one of the women would catch her delicate dress on my newly-oiled bike chain.
I think we avoided that and they all piled off at Twyford, for the short journey on a shuttle to Henley. A lot of people though. Hope the train services put on a decent number of trains. Experience (Royal Ascot, for example) tells me they might not have done…
We got off at Reading and walked the short distance to the Thames. A little run along that until we met the spot where it flows into the Kennet. That was our route for the next three days, Kennet-Avon. Sometimes the river, mostly the canal.
We cycled for about 45 minutes until we came upon a rather nice looking pub called The Cunning Man. What the hell, let’s stop for a lager. Took a while to get served as we came in just after a big party of blokes all ordering meals. But the garden was lovely and we got talking to a few people – all women as it happened – who were also doing the canal run. One, possibly in her sixties, had ridden all over the world: Cambodia, Route 66 in the USA amongst her travels. Pretty amazing.
That wasn’t lunch though: we stopped at another pub, called The Rowbarge, in an idyllic spot by the canal in Woolhampton. Really lovely in the blazing sun, willows along the canal edge. Good food – I had a tomato and chorizo bruschetta which was very good – and a great selection of beers. I had a pint of something called Gold Muddler. A nice, light, hoppy beer. Thinking about the journey ahead!
Then it was through some lovely countryside to Newbury. I spent a few days working there years ago. It was before the controversial A34 bypass was constructed and the main street was horribly congested. Now it’s pedestrianised and at about 4pm on a Friday it was thronging with shoppers, schoolkids, and a few buskers. Relaxed and vibrant at the same time. All thanks to the banishing of the cars.
Photo of me just before we came on to the main street on the bridge ahead.
Then it was a long run in to Hungerford. The recommended cycle way would have taken us away for the canal a bit near the end. It was clear why: the towpath became rutted, bumpy and even just grass at times. It was hard work and in bad weather it might have been close to impassable on my road bike. But in perfect weather it was OK. The saddles were very sore by the end though!
A couple of scenes on the way…
Hungerford was pretty quiet on Friday night, but we had a few beers and a good meal in the Plume of Feathers pub, and the hotel, The Three Swans, was welcoming and pleasant.
A couple of photos of Hungerford taken on the Saturday.
Day Two. Dreaming of Devizes
Saturday started with the Lions’ third test against Australia, which we watched in the Borough arms. See the report here. I was determined only to have one pint. So I started with a coke. A Guinness at half time. Then the match went so far in the Lions’ favour, we had to have another pint. The occasion required it. Only the two.
We’d decided we’d follow the British cycleway instructions out of Hungerford, which meant diverting off the canal onto the country roads. Bad call! We were in Wiltshire and that meant hills. Up and down. Oh, that second Guinness – I could feel it in the legs on the ascents. Why oh why? But it went after about twenty minutes, and for a while I felt pretty good going up and down. Good job, really.
But after a while it started to get hard again. Really hard. It was the slopes, the heat and maybe the aftermath of the Lions game. We decided to get back onto the canal, even though it was still bumpy and rutted.
The journey was hard, and I was always worried about getting a puncture, but we progressed. The compensation, always, was the scenery. So beautiful. The heart of England.
Me and Jon above. Kindly taken by someone we met on the way.
We were pretty knackered at this point and needed a watering hole. A pub, to refuel. In time one appeared. On Pewsey Wharf. As we approached, the sound of music greeted us. The sound of T.Rex, joyfully rendered in West Country accents. ” “I Love To Boogie”, “Ride A White Swan”. It was an “Apocalypse Now” moment. Struggling along the river, suddenly you come across a show so unexpected, bizarre. Except there were no rioting soldiers here, just people enjoying the music. Dancing to the music, on a summer’s day.
It was brilliant. we stopped, and got some cans of Coke and Snickers – didn’t dare have beer at this point – and watched the band. Two middle aged blokes, with a great self-deprecating humour, playing rock’n’roll classics: T.Rex, Rolling Stones, Chuck Berry and more. Oh yes, and more. They warned us: “You might not like this one, but don’t worry, there’s always the next one”. And launched into a prog classic, Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb”. And then “Hotel California” by the Eagles.
Oh, wow, I just loved it all. A band in a gazebo, on the Kennet-Avon canal, playing classic rock”n’roll and a bit of prog. On a sunny Saturday afternoon. In front of the grannies and the kids. A few of the mums dancing. The Dads drinking. I think it was a rugby club do. There were all sorts of interesting barrels of beer and cider, which we couldn’t try given the remaining miles to Devizes. (So sad!). The Waterfront Inn.
I choked a couple of times with the love. I gladly shook the hand of the purple faced man in front of us who had been most taken with the Stones song, “It’s All Over Now”. She used to love me….
Really, I sat there, slightly euphoric, thinking, this is what makes England great.
Really, I’m so proud of my country and its people. My people.
It was a long run from the Waterfront Inn to Devizes. The countryside was inspiring.
This bridge was a screen for the dappled light reflecting from the water. It was quite extraordinary. One of those lovely quirks of nature.
Ah, but it was so hard!. The bumps and the bangs. Where was Devizes? I was was dreaming of Devizes! How glad will I be when we get there. My bum was aching with the impact, my legs totally drained.
Near the end I wasn’t so much dreaming of Devizes, as saying to myself, with every bend in the canal, where the f*** is Devizes? I need Devizes.
Eventually it arrived. We cycled off the canal and took the roads to the centre of town. To the Castle Hotel.
The relief was extraordinary. I hadn’t felt that physically tired since… I don’t know when. Lying on the bed was a pleasure beyond words.
Blimey, what do those Tour de France boys feel every night? I’d only done thirty miles, albeit on some bumpy towpaths. A different world.
A couple of beers a bit later and I was feeling fine. Not the cure for the Tour rider though!
Day Three. A stroll from Devizes to Bath
The journey from Devizes to Bath was a doddle compared with the first two days. All along well constructed towpaths. Some stunning scenery. And some feats of engineering which took the breath away.
The first of those engineering feats was just outside Devizes. Downhill for us. Uphill for the canal, and therefore a need for locks. Lots of locks! Fifteen in swift succession on one hill, Caen Hill. I wonder how long it takes to get a barge through all of those. I did also wonder why they din’t build the canal around the bottom of the hill. Maybe they couldn’t. These photos only begin to capture the sight available to the human eye.
This scene a few miles further along was just lovely. So tranquil.
We then made our way through Trowbridge and onto Bradford on Avon. A lovely town. Just before the New Year we walked from Bath to Bradford along the canal and river. Around 8-9 miles. It was grey, windswept and magnificent. There was flooding everywhere. I never got around to posting any photos. Maybe I will sometime. here’s a taster.
This time Bradford was woozy in the summer heat. We stopped at a pub called the Barge Inn (not an unusual name for a pub by a canal!) and sat in the garden along the canal, watching the barges go by. It was pretty congested. Not that many venture onto the Caen Hill locks, I guess, so the stretch from there to Bath gets a lot of traffic.
The stretch between Bradford and Bath is spectacular and includes two amazing aqueducts, which take the canal from one side of the River Avon to the other.
As we moved closer to Bath, houses sprung up along the canal. I like this one.
And then we were in Bath. A magnificent Georgian city. I didn’t get to take the tourist shots this time. But here’s where we ended up for refreshments before going down to the station for the journey back to London. A nice cafe with a good vibe: Same, Same But Different.
And goodbye to Bath.
A great weekend. Sometimes an endurance test, but full of memorable moments, and with a backdrop of beautiful scenery in the heart of England.
Great pics! I would have wiped out 1/4 way.
It’s amazing that you did this! _Resa
I’m sure you could do it!
Beautiful, both words and pictures!
BTW, what bike were you riding?
Thanks. The scenes inspired the words. The bike is a Ridgeback Velocity. It’s a great bike – really light, and while not designed for this canal ride, it handled it well. If it had been muddy I might have had a problem. I have promised myself a mountain bike for any further jaunts!
The Velocity seems like a hybrid and should normally do the job even on reasonable off-road paths. The mountain bike will be awesome to ride and easy on the butt but will take quite a bit out of your legs. I have a Trek 7100 hybrid with a front shock absorber which helps a lot protecting the arms and shoulders on long and fairly rough rides
Sorry about the unsolicited ‘advice’ but I do get a little excited when the topic involves bicycles 🙂
Advice gratefully received!
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John – as ever, I’m late to arrive, but just wanted to say that I enjoyed this piece hugely.
As you say, the heart of England in the heat of this sizzling summer makes for a pretty amazing combination, and both your text and your images do full justice to the experience. With nine years in Marlborough and Hungerford, it’s a stretch I know well, and I love it. Wiltshire especially is a beautiful, but oddly under-appreciated, county. But I quite like it that way – keeps tourism to a manageable level…..
I was amused by your constant beer v. exercise dilemma. It is, of course, almost impossible to stop at a beguiling country pub and NOT quaff a pint or two, but that always has its consequences. I recall a massive hike in the Lake District where I stopped for a late lunch on Wast Water, knocked back three pints of Old Peculier, rested my head on a grassy mound….and slept for two hours. Felt pretty rotten when I awoke, too, and rather humiliatingly took a taxi back to my hotel…
I’m especially grateful because you’ve just given me a plan for what might be a late-summer excursion – the canal on foot, maybe fifty miles over three or four days? I’m sure I can find the pubs to put me up!
Thanks again for a lovely piece.
Newbury to Bath for the ramble?
Yep, nice idea. Reading to Newbury is nice, but not quite knock-out nice like the Wiltshire stretch.
And definitely don’t expect Devizes too soon!
If you’re aiming for about fifty miles then it would have to be Reading to Newbury that goes, but it was a lovely stretch too. With that great pub in Woolhampton. As for the approach to Devizes, it will be less painful on foot I should think.
really enjoyed reading this especially as I am planning on a similar route. Myself and two middle age chums are expecting to ride from Kings Langley (Herts) along the Grand Union down to the Thames and then Kennent and Avon canal ending up at Bristol. We have booked layovers for two nights and expect to do in three days – just hope those pubs arnt as welcoming in April?
Thanks John, hope you enjoy it. Your trip sounds a bit more ambitious than ours; though the weather may be more of an issue!
I want to do this….but I need some brave soul to do it with me: any one up for a cycling challenge next June/July? louise schweitzer
Hi John. Really enjoyed. reading this as we will be cycling Reading to Bath in a couple of weeks. How did you get on with bikes on the train?
Thanks Mike F
We were OK getting on at Ealing Broadway after the commuter rush, and that took us to Reading. But as it happened, we encountered a load of people travelling to Henley for the boat races and we were a bit worried that some of the women’s white dresses might get sullied by our bike chains. I think we got away with it!
Going to attempt this on Friday, we are planning to do this in one go as we need to be installed in a pub for the World Cup QF on Sat @ 1500… Fingers crosed and will let you know how it goes