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One of the delights
of sleeping in the open is to wake up in the middle of the night and
open your eyes to the stars. That night they put on a particularly
good show. At 6 am prompt the activity at the brickworks moved up a
gear, then a London bound HST rattled by. It was time to breakfast,
pack up and get moving. I was away by 8, over the level crossing and
starting the long slow climb through Blockley. I had re-arranged my
belongings to reduce the weight in my rucksack, which made for
Blockley is a lovely
cotswold stone village. Above it the gradient eased, then started to
allow me some bits of downhill. I am always wary of places with the
'on The Hill' suffix, and my next target was Bourton on the Hill.
Just before the village I joined briefly a main road. A handy garage
cum corner shop invited me to stop and stock up on nibbles. I
noticed that there were many Indian foods on sale and I was served
by a pleasant young Indian woman who took an interest in my journey.
I asked for water and she directed me to a tap by the carwash. Thus
provisioned I carried on. I didn't actually go through Bourton on the
Hill, it is on the side of the hill and my route took me along the
ridge, gradually trending downhill. I passed a driveway marked Sezincote
Indian house and garden, so I wonder if there is an Indian
community here, hence the spicy foodstuffs at the garage.
A short run along an
A road brough me to the turning for Lower Slaughter. This was an
exciting plunge down a steep road. I was glad I had fixed my back
brake. The village itself is lovely, with the river running
beside the main street as at Bourton on the Water. Unlike Bourton
however, this place does not set out to attract plebian trippers. It
oozes wealth and upmarket cars are constantly passing to and from the
There was a bridle
path following the stream signpsted to Bourton on the Water, soI thought I'd follow it. In fact it soon left the river and made its
way through boring horse fields. Part of the route was being surfaced
with road planings by a gang of elderly people puffing hard with
loaded barrows. I entered Bourton through a housing estate and missed
the pretty bit. I've seen it before and visited its tourist traps.
In my childhood
Bourton on the Water was a favourite destination for a day out,
either in a bus from school or in our old Austin A30 with my parents.
We would traipse around the same old attractions time after time. The
most memorable one for me was the Witchcraft Museum, now gone. My mum
particularly liked Birdland, where you could see all kinds of
brightly coloured birds, including the amazing insect sized humming
birds. When she had raised an abandoned thrush nestling to the flying
stage we took it to Birdland for release, figuring that a tame thrush
would do better there than amongst the rough birds of our village.
In fact I should
have gone through the pretty bits. I carelessly took the wrong road,
past the Model Village and Birdland,. Eventually I realised that I
had taken the wrong road, but I had gone quite a long way and didn't
fancy riding back. I spotted a public footpath going in the direction
of the correct road and I thought I'd follow it. Bad mistake! I
struggled through very narrow bits and forced the bike through prickly
bits. The path crossed the Windrush, that was good, but then it
followed the river downstream. I came to a kissing gate and had to
unload everything, lift the bike over, then load up again. There were
about 5 of these, then the path crossed back over the river, not
good, and skirted a lake. It crossed the river again and doubled back
on itself, then became a farm track. A sinposted bridle path looked
like it was going the right way, so I took that route, only to find
it deteriorating into rutted field crossings. A herd of bullocks
followed me across one field, then stopped at the gate mooing to the
herd in the next field, who took little interest in me but engaged in
a mooing match with the first herd.
In the next field the main track seemed to turn left, so I followed it, only to find it doubled back on itself towards a farm. I struggled
across rough ground to another corner of the field but found no way
out, having to traverse a third side before finding a gateway on to a
tarmacked road. I thought this must be the road I was supposed to be
on, so I turned left and was surprised to cross the river again. I
asked a man out walking his dog where it went. He said Great
Rissington, the village I was trying to avoid. He asked where I
wanted to go but I couldn't remember the name of the village. He
suggested Sherborne (the second one of the trip). Yes, I said. “Go
back the other way and turn left at the top of the hill” he said
“mind, it's a bit of a steep bank”! He was right, it was.
Eventually I was rewarded for my troubles by a lovely long steady
descent to Sherborne. I like it when descents are steady. I can just
freewheel at a nice speed. On steep descents I have to use my brakes
and I hate wasting all that energy. If I go too fast my hat flies off
and I have to stop to recover it. The trick is to keep my head down slightly so
that the wind hitting the brim forces it down rather than giving it
Sherborne turned out
to be a pleasant little row of cottages, most of which actually
looked like they might be inhabited by working people rather than the
elite. In fact, as I headed South through the cotswolds the area
seemed to get more properly rural and less of a suburban idyll. A
short sharp uphill stretch brought me to the main A40. I leaned my
bike against a stone wall and got out my flask to make a brew with
the last of the hot water. As I sat on the wall a weasel darted
across the road straight towards my bike. It stopped on nthe tarmac,
stood on it's hind legs, waggled its head a bit then darted back to
the opposite verge. I had clearly blocked its regular path for I saw
it cross further down the road and start searching for a way through
to the woodland beyond.
I only had to ride a
short way along the A40, mercifully, before taking another lane. I
seemed to be on a bit of a plateau and I fair whizzed through the
countryside. There were plenty of lorries about, serving the local
agriculture which is pactised on a large scale with big machines
here. The air was full of the fruity odours of the countryside and
everywhere you could hear the distant hum of combine harvesters
making the most of the sunshine to gather in the golden grains.
The valley of the
river Leach cuts into the plateau and my speed picked up as I started
to plunge downhill, only to screech to a halt as the slipstream of a
passing artic had kindly removed my hat.
cluster together, Coln St Aldwyns, Hatherop and Quenington. In
Quenington I came across a co-operative village shop/cafe, run by
volunteers from the local community. I stopped to buy supplies. It
was all a bit upmarket, but I suppose that's what people want there.
It seems ironic that the co-operative system, which began in working
class Rochdale, is now seemingly thriving in the wealthier areas but
doing very little in the Northern mill towns of its cradle. I noticed
as I travelled about that the Co-op itself seems to be thriving in
this part of the country, whereas around Ashton it is rapidly selling
out to the likes of Asda and Rajah Brothers. Part of the key to
community co-operatives is having enough willing, capable people with
time on their hands, something that we tend to lack around Tameside.
I got the
co-operatoors to fill my kettle and water bottle. It was the foulest
tasting water of my trip. I hope they don't make tea with it. Outside
I got talking to a customer who nearly knocked my bike over with her
car door. She explained how the co-op was set up and was interested
in my journey and the boats. As we talked a huge low loader, laden with what looked like heavy concrete blocks, stopped to ask directions. The lady explained the route and the driver said he was glad he needed to turn right as he wasn't sure he'd get round to the left.
This is racehorse country and I passed a considerable stable block.
Inow had the scent of the end of my route in my nostrils, but, after all the frustrating meandering about in the Windrush footpaths it seemed unlikely that I would reach Devizes today. I looked at my map for likely campsites in the Wooton Rivers area. My route brought me to what used to be the A419, now bypassed. Across the way my map suggested, lay the route of the Thames & Severn Canal. I went down a lane to have a look. I found a big lake with a burned out Range Rover and a bridge over a dual carriageway, but no sign of the canal.
It was a straight
level run towards Cricklade, but before I got there I came across one
of the most cycle unfriendly road layouts ever. There was a
roundabout and Cricklade was signposted down a sliproad on to the
dual carriageway. I checked and double checked the signs to ensure
that it was not a motorway, but with juggernauts hurtling along and
no cycle reservation I really didn't fancy it. As I rode down the
sliproad I was hooted at by a bus and a lorry, which made me think I
shouldn't be there. There was a footpath indicated over stiles across
overgrown fields but no cycle route. I went back and followed the
pavement over the bridge for traffic from the other direction to see
if there was a path on the other side. The path doubled back along
the dual carriageway in the wrong direction. There was nothing for it
but to brave the speeding motor molochs and set off along the A419.
Luckily it was less than a mile to the Cricklade sliproad.
Somewhere in the
middle of all this should have been the junction between the Thames &
Severn and North Wilts canals, but I could find no sign of either.
Cricklade claims to
be the first town on the Thames. It has a good shopping street, where
I topped up on supplies and on my way out of town I passed the
proposed Northern terminus of the Swindon & Cricklade railway.
This is a preservationist project along the abandoned trackbed of the
erstwhile Midland & South Western Junction Railway. This
meandering country route provided a way for trains to go from the
Midland Railway to the London & South Western railway without too
much interference from the Great Western ( you may have picked up by
now that I'm not a huge Great western fan. )
I left Cricklade
Southbound on a B road, looking out for signs of the old canal.
At Dance Common I found what looked like a filled in channel, though it may actually have been the remains of Saxon ramparts.
A little further on a sign announced the site of the canal.
The river Key aqueduct has been restored
with lottery money but is still bone dry on top. I stopped to have a
look and decided to stay. There was a pile of ash from a previous fire
so i didn't even have to scorch any grass to cook my tea!
As the map shows,
there was once quite a network of canals in this area. Only one is
fully navigable, the Kennett & Avon, whose Caen Hill lock flight
was my destination. That this waterway survived and was eventually
restored was down to the perseverance of one John Gould. I visited
him once when I was working on the British Waterways Bill in 1990. He
told me never to trust British Waterways, for they promise you one
thing then do another. I think the same can be said of any large
organisation, private or state owned.
The Kennett &
Avon fell into deep decline after it fell into the hands of, you
guessed it, the Great Western. They couldn't, by law, close it or
forbid traffic, so they knobbled the remaining carriers by malicious
regulations, like no cabin fires on a Sunday.
The Thames &
Severn was another broad canal which struggled to compete with the
railway. This was partly because it was poorly engineered with a
chronic lack of water, leaky pounds and a constantly collapsing
tunnel. In the early 20th century the county council took
it over and paid out a small fortune in repairs, but to no avail. My
dad remembered visiting Cirencester in the 1930s and being surprised
to see a canal derelict. His local waterway, the Coventry canal,
was then thriving. An active restoration project is working on
re-opening the route, currently concentrating on the stretch from the
Severn up to Stroud.
The Wilts &
Berks and North Wilts were narrow canals built, surprisingly, to
carry coal. The Somerset Coal Canal was a narrow branch off the
Kennett & Avon to tap the Somerset coalfield. It was converted to
a railway (Great Western of course) in the 1870s but an amazing lock
flight can still be found at Coombe Hay. The railway was just a rural
branch but achieved fame after closure as the location for filming
the “Titfield Thunderbolt”.
The idea of the Wilts & Berks and
North Wilts was as a distribution network for the black gold of
Somerset. With the loss of this traffic the routes faded away. The
last pit in Somerset was served by the Somerset & Dorset Railway
(not Great Western) but closed in the 1960s.
It looked like rain,
so I unleashed my pop up tent and planted it on what would have been
the outside edge of the aqueduct. It did rain, but I was snug and dry
and woke up to a bright morning.