Finding new local rides is not always as easy as it might seem, with the benefit of hindsight this was an obvious ride to do but did not seem so at the time. I was looking for a short cycle camping trip to introduce Mrs G to the pleasures of touring, as well as the issues. It was not about mileage, rather the experience: day-after-day mileage in all weathers, dragging the additional weight over all terrains, living and eating whilst living in a small tent, navigating problems, logistics and using public transport, learning to enjoy the chance events and encounters along the way, just getting from A to B under your own steam, engaging with the world in a new / slower way, discovering new places in a way that only riding a bike does etc.
In my opinion it is a simple but exciting pleasure, go where you want when you want, the flexibility can be intoxicating – slogging up a nasty hill in poor weather only to find you’re in the wrong place requires a certain mind-set. Mrs G was starting to enjoy local cycling more and more but this touring malarky, particularly the hard way with a tent, is a whole new ball game and might be a step too far – there was only one way to find out, as the Nike strap line says: Just Do It!
The Thames Valley ride is one of the classic short tours in the south of England. I myself had visited many of the places before, usually by car, though as a teenager I had undertaken a short tour that touched on some of these parts on my bike, including Oxford when I stayed at the YHA. The basic premise was to follow the River Thames wherever possible, riding from central London to the centre of Oxford. This often means using the towpath but it is also necessary to deviate onto local roads and tracks from time-to-time. The standard way is determined by two NCR routes: NCR 4 which eventually ends up in Fishguard via Bristol, and NCR 5 which deviates north from the former near Reading to Oxford, eventually ending up in Holyhead, Wales. These routes are well marked on the Ordnance Survey 1/50,000 maps as well as a special Sustrans’ map, which provides more local detail that when combined with the OS maps gives a very good picture of where you should be going, where you don’t want to go and what the alternatives are; I rarely just follow a route but with the aid of good maps and some prior research I like to ad lib along the way – keeping an eye on topography, interesting places and the shortest direction.
Having already become a born again cycle tourist I was kitted up but Mrs G needed a sleeping bag and mat, otherwise we had it all. Why ride in the rain? Well that was our thought, so we waited and tried to choose a period when the weather forecast looked less forbidding than usual – with mixed success. Notwithstanding the trip was a success and Mrs G is also now hooked on cycle touring, as long as there are nice meals along the way, none of this dehydrated stuff – well I can’t blame her!
Day-1 Redhill-London-Chertsey: 35 Miles
Early on Saturday 12th May 2012 we stepped out into a cool but sunny morning with, like all tours, a sense of anxiety and anticipation, which we were soon to leave behind. I could tell that Mrs G was horrified by the weight of her bike and genuinely concerned if it was possible to ride such a bike for so far. Even when you are used to touring, I always have the same sense and find handling a bit skittish for a few miles but then it all seems OK.
It seemed right that we should start in central London and, as I had worked at No1 London Bridge for nine years, it seemed the natural place to begin, it was also convenient to get to directly by train from home. And so about 45 minutes later we were standing by the Thames on a beautiful day, no commuters and the prospect of an interesting ride along the always interesting River Thames for three days ahead. What’s not to like?
In addition to the OS and Sustrans maps I had some free London Transport maps, which purport to help cyclists ride though London. As a Londoner and having worked there for more than 25 years I know the city well, however, things are always changing: there are unforeseen one-way roads and changes, narrow paths, short cuts, paths that are temporarily blocked access for some reason, all of which means that the ride was circuitous and slow but nonetheless interesting and fun. As a Londoner I am of course biased and as a cyclist I generally much prefer to be on quiet country roads but this is LONDON and passing by so many iconic locations and buildings on a bike by the Thames is really interesting. Past Chelsea and Fulham things slowly start to get a bit too suburban but this would change, though not today.
Wherever possible I wanted to use the Caravan and Camping Club campsites, as they are usually of a good standard. However, this would only be possible on the first and last nights on this trip. So on the first night we headed for Chertsey which, I think, is the main Club campsite in the UK, open 52 weeks of the year. In fact, it is quite a small site next to the River Thames, nothing special but OK and with an excellent pub by the river where Mrs G was able to have a very nice evening meal (I went as well!).
Day-2 Chertsey to Henley-on Thames: 38 miles
Considering the campsite is in quite close proximity to residential housing, the M25, M4 and Heathrow Airport, I think we had a good night’s sleep and set off along the Thames towpath on another fine day. I thought the section immediately beyond Chertsey along the Thames was very attractive, and was somewhat jealous of the many very nice houses overlooking the river. However, I would assume that from time-to-time many of these properties would be vulnerable to flooding, so perhaps it wasn’t all as bucolic as it appeared to be that morning and emphasized the advantages of living on a hill – as I do.
All was well whilst we stayed on the towpath but eventually the route takes you back on the road and through Windsor Great Park to Windsor itself, which like the curates egg was good in some parts and bad in others. After some initially unpleasant parts the route climbed up a rough, steep off-road track before entering an area that was demonstrably very, very wealthy. Soon thereafter we entered Windsor Park and from here into Windsor the ride was very attractive; I can see why the Queen likes it here and, in fact, as we exited the park came across a royal entourage out for a spin in their very royal looking country vehicles! Unknown to us there was a major river pageant on the Thames that weekend, which I believe the Queen was attending, and we rode right into the middle of it. Fortunately on a bike it’s not too difficult to weave through the crowds and traffic jams and we were soon exiting the town and on our way upstream.
After a pleasant but tricky to navigate section we unexpectedly came across the new Dorney Lake venue, site of the soon to be held London Olympic Games and therefore stopped to watch a schools regatta which was being held presumably to try out the facilities before the main show arrived a few weeks later. Soon afterwards we passed through Bray a pleasant but otherwise undistinguished village except for one thing, this is the location of Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck restaurant. It was in fact very difficult to find the restaurant being quite ‘normal in appearance and, though we might have been tempted to have a meal, (a) we were certainly not dressed appropriately, and (b) at +£200 a person it was going to have to be something more affordable that evening. Another day? I doubt it at those prices!
At this point the Thames takes a large sweep north, then west then south to Reading. We took a complicated route through Cookham, Marlow and Bisham until we reached our overnight stop at the Swiss Farm campsite, just outside Henley-on-Thames.
Day-3 Henley-on Thames to Oxford: 40 miles
We had a pleasant evening in Henley but awoke to a grey wet day the next morning. With touring there’s no choice but to get going, so we packed and went into Henley to treat ourselves to a decent cooked breakfast before setting off. In order to avoid the Reading traffic, we decided to head over the Chilterns, re-joining the Thames at Wallingford before heading northwards to Oxford.
It was a steep and damp climb out of Henley but despite the wet and windy weather, the Chilterns were a very pleasant ride; make a note to go back when the sun is shining. Although by now the rain had stopped, the section past Wallingford by the Didcot power station can only be described as grim, made worse by an unpleasant headwind. As ever it is a case of mind-over-matter and an hour or so later we were approaching the outskirts of Oxford when, about quarter of a mile or less from the campsite, I got a rear wheel puncture! Sod’s law was operating but nonetheless, I was able to wheel the bike into the site, check-in, erect the tent and then mend the puncture, so that by early evening we were back on the Thames towpath heading into town for a curry = result.
Oxford is notorious for its traffic problems and cycling is without doubt the best method of transport here, not just for students. The pleasant ride along the towpath was made all the more enjoyable watching numerous Oxford University rowing clubs training on the river. Once in town we had a spin around this magnificent city – which the wonderful University buildings, students and general buzz combine to create an attractive and exciting ambiance.
Day-4 Oxford to Redhill (Home): 7 miles
Essentially the ride finished in Oxford and all that remained was to get to the railway station and take the train home via Reading; once again Redhill’s rail links paying off. The short ride to Oxford railway station was quite uncomfortable as we cycled into a very cold wind but two trains and one change later and we were home in just over 90 minutes.
All-in-all the ride was good fun and despite the poor weather between Henley and Oxford, Mrs G seemed to enjoy cycle touring. On that basis alone it was a success which, as a result, has led to many other subsequent tours.
STATS – MAPS – STUFF
Total Mileage: 120 miles
Maps (1:50,000 unless otherwise indicated):
Sustrans Thames Valley (London to Oxford) – 1:100,000 & 1:50,000
OS 176 – West London + Transport for London Area Maps 9 & 13
OS 175 – Reading & Windsor
OS 164 – Oxford or
OS Explorer map series (2.5” to 1 mile)
No 170 Abingdon, Wantage & Vale of White Horse
No 171 Chiltern Hills West (Henley & Wallibngford)
No 180 (Oxford)