Sometime in the dark
time before dawn I turned over and woke with my hand on something
cold and gooey. My slow brain gradually worked out that it was a
slug, Ugh! I picked it off my groundsheet and threw it as far as I
could, then found several more and gave them the same treatment
before dozing off again.
I returned to
consciousness as the first light of day eased itself through a thick
layer of cloud. The wind had not abated but its chill was no longer
tempered by sunshine. Slugs were everywhere. I was reluctant to get
out of my sleeping bag and lay there drinking my coffee and dreading
making my first move. With my coffee finished I had no more excuse,
so I got up, pulled my trousers and boots on then quickly loaded my
bike. I rode slowly along the grassy path whence I had arrived, the
grass dotted with more little black slugs than I’ve ever seen in
I descended a bank
to rejoin the main track, which had become a tractor rutted chalk
road. I tried different ruts to ride in, and the grassy mound in the
middle, but all were difficult for cycling. After about a quarter
mile I reached a main road and followed it for a short distance
before turning into the lane to Yatesbury. After a fairly level and
straight ride I passed an old aircraft hangar on my left, and the
remains of a second one. This was one of the earliest military
airfields, opening in 1916, mainly for training purposes. After some
civilian use in the 1930s it once again became a training centre for
the RAF in 1939 and finally closed in 1960. The hangars, including
some from the first world war, are now listed buildings.
I made a 90 degree
turn towards the village and had a decision to make. My line went
across fields from here and my copy of the Ordnance Survey map showed
footpaths travelling quite close to it. However, there was a gap
between bits of OS map and my smaller scale map that linked them up
only showed roads. My alternative route was to cross the fields to
Winterbourne Monkton then follow the A361 most of the way into
Swindon. Memories of the footpaths to nowhere in the Windrush valley
and the fact that I had already felt the odd drop of rain caused me
to choose the latter course.
I passed through
part of the village known as Little London and was surprised to see a
bus shelter with timetable. This tiny village of 150 inhabitants
actually has a bus service.
My route across the
fields was another rutted track that was difficult to ride on. A low
hill to my right, Windmill Hill, bore Monkton Camp, presumably an
iron age hill fort but I can find no information on it anywhere. It
seems to me that this area must have been pretty violent in ancient
times for it to have been necessary to fortify so many places, at
enormous cost in time diverted from growing food etc.
Monkton I dropped into a valley, passed a derelict farm and stopped
at a concrete bridge over a dry river. The name Winterbourne means a
stream that only runs in winter. The chalk rock here is porous so
rain tends to soak into the ground. Only in winter is there enough
rainfall for the rivers to run.
I used up the last
of my hot water for cocoa and ate my morning muesli. A rope was
rigged from a tree where children had been enjoying swinging out over
the empty river bed.Thus refreshed, I moved on to the A road. This
wound up and down through a wide rolling hillscape of mainly arable,
the golden crops awaiting the combine alternating with fields already
I almost missed my
left turn, signposted Saithrop, simply the name of a farm on my map.
The road zig zagged up a gentle slope among corn fields, horse fields
and little bits of woodland, then suddenly plunged down the escarpment
that had done for so many of the parliamentary cavalry back in the
seventeenth century. In the valley the road flattened and
straightened with wooded borders. I reached the route of my old
friend the Wilts & Berks canal. A right turn took me parallel to
it and soon I was able to pick out a towpath hedge and ditch
following the contours to my right.
Where the canal
crossed the road my planned route took me along a public right of way
straight along my line, but a big notice saying “Private Road
Locked Gates” put me off. I elected instead to continue along the
road, past Wharf Farm, then turn left over the M4. I found that new
roads had been built to access a Waitrose supermarket. I turned past
the front of the new shop and found, to my amazement, a stretch of
re-opened canal with a little trip boat. There was no way down to the
towpath but a friendly cyclist, who I met coming out of Waitrose,
advised me of a route. This took me over the hump backed bridge that
I could see.
The next bridge was that of the old Midland & South
Western Junction Railway, now a cyclepath. I very nearly got the
classic photograph of a heron perched on a No Fishing notice, but the
bird was camera shy and flew off as I aimed my lens.
The restored canal
petered out at a road junction, but it’s route was clear further
on, even to the extent of having left a gap for it in a multi storey
There was no sign of the North Wilts however, which used to
drop away down a flight of locks to my left.
The canal route led
me into a pedestrianised shopping area. I was feeling peckish again
so I looked around for a fast food outlet. I noticed “Swindon
Tented Market” so I thought I’d look in there as I like markets
and I’d rather buy from a local trader than a multinational chain.
The market is not really a tent, it’s a building that is made to
look like one. Inside was a sad sight with more empty stalls than
active ones. I found a food stall called Eggilicious and was welcomed
by its proprietor who was sitting outside reading a paper whilst
someone prepared food inside the stall. He persuaded me to have a
minted lamb wrap. His name was Ash Mistry and he had relatives in
Ashton, in fact, his brother in law lives on the next street to me.
He told me the story of the market. It used to be run by the council
but, being good neo liberals, they had leased it to a property
company. The property company submitted redevelopment plans to
replace the downmarket market with upmarket coffee shops etc. The
plans were rejected, but most of the traders had moved out and now,
though the company is at least pretending to try to get stallholders
back, uncertainty and high rents are persuading them otherwise. At
some point the management will of course claim that there is no demand
for market stalls.
The wrap was
surprisingly substantial and very very delicious.
driving me to get on a train and, as my ticket as far as Cheltenham
was for any train, I thought I would go there and explore a bit. I
found Swindon station and presented my ticket at the barrier. It was
accepted and I pushed my bike through and lifted it up the steps to
the platform. Soon an HST for Cheltenham arrived. The announcement
said that bicycle space was at the front of the train, but as I
turned to head that way the announcer, probably robotic, added that
only pre booked bicycles could travel on that train.
I headed back
towards the barrier and asked the ticket collector, “what’s all
this about having to pre book bikes”? He said that it had been
Great Western (them again) policy since May, like it was obvious and
everybody must know. I pointed out that as I had come from Greater
Manchester (yes there are places beyond the reach of the Great
Western) it was unreasonable to expect me to know. The implied but
unspoken question was ‘why the hell didn’t you tell me when you
checked my ticket’? I went to the ticket office to book my bike but
the booking clerk said that as the next train was a unit not an HST I
wouldn’t need to book. “Check with the guard” she added. Back
on the platform I headed for the bay where a diesel multiple unit for
Cheltenham was waiting. The platform display bore the details of the
journey, headed by the dire word “Cancelled”. The guard was on
her ‘phone. When she had finished her call I explained my
situation. She told me that because of a points failure the HST which
had been waiting for ages in the opposite platform had to be
diverted. Its driver didn’t know the diversionary route, but her
driver did. They had cancelled her train so that her driver could
take the more important train to South Wales. Very helpfully she went
off to make arrangements for my bike to travel on the next Cheltenham
train, another HST. When it arrived, after an hour sitting watching
trains and people and typing up an account of the first part of my
trip, I found it had six bike spaces, only two of which were taken
by my bike and one other.
Back in the bad old
pre nationalisation days of British Rail there was a single national
policy for bikes on trains. It wasn’t always perfect but at least
you knew what the rules were wherever you went. Now with myriad
different franchises running the trains, and tickets booked in
advance to save money but not necessarily knowing which company’s
trains you will be travelling on, there’s all kinds of scope for
getting stuck somewhere because they won’t take your bike. Clearly
travelling with bikes was getting popular on Great Western so, rather
than making more bicycle space, they slapped on restrictions. A very
British solution. Of course, increasing bike space might reduce
passenger space for no extra revenue which, as the railways are run
for profit rather than to serve the public, could not be allowed.
The run to
Cheltenham was uneventful. I enjoyed the ride from Sapperton tunnel
through the Golden Valley with brief glimpses of the Thames &
was busy. I negotiated the crowded footbridge to reach the booking
office as I wanted to be sure of room for my bike for the rest of my
journey. This was to be on a Cross Country Voyager such as I had
travelled on from Manchester to Birmingham on Monday. On that
occasion I had noted that Cross Country’s bicycle policy was to
take just one booked bike and one unbooked bike on each train. I had
been lucky, there was a space, but I wanted to be sure for the return
trip. With my bike booked I headed out into Cheltenham.
A Voyager at Cheltenham.
My first port of
call was a cafe, as it was early afternoon and hunger was creeping up
on me. Some of the Cheltenham ladies in the cafe found my bike
amusing. After an unremarkable ciabatta I went to explore the former
Great Western route, now a cycleway through the centre of the town.
Once this was an alternative main line to the midlands, reaching
Birmingham via Stratford on Avon. According to Dr Beeching it was a
duplicate route, a waste of money, and so it had to close. Much of
the route now is used for running steam trains.
I went off cycling
down the roads to explore a bit. Realising that my ‘phone was low
on battery power I thought I would sample a pub and charge it up. I
chose the first one I came to, the Kings Arms. It was not really my
sort of place with continuous sport on a big screen and not much in
the way of real ale, but I enjoyed my pint of bitter and was enjoying
With some charge in my ‘phone I went back to the
station and sat on the platform writing and enjoying watching trains
come and go.
A Train for Maesteg, South Wales, at Cheltenham.
When my train
arrived I loaded my bike into its pre booked space, on Voyagers you
hang your bike by the front wheel to save space, then found my pre
booked seat. I became a little conscious of the fact that I hadn’t
really washed for a week. I wondered if that was why the rather posh
and fragrant lady sitting next to me moved to another seat.
At Birmingham New
Street my bay in the carriage filled up. Opposite to me sat a retired
couple returning from a holiday in Penzance to their home in Glossop.
Beside me was a Wiganer who reminded me a little of Alf Hall, the
stereotypical simple Lancashire man. He had been to visit an elderly
aunt in Worcester. A conversation was carried on between the three of
them in which everthing that the Glossop couple said they’d done
the Wigan man said he’d like to do, then asked all kinds of daft
questions about it. This would be followed by an explanation of his
bad knees and speculation as to how much they would restrict him. I
imagine that the couple were retired teachers as they seemed to have
a shallow smattering of knowledge about almost everything. I was
tempted to join in when they came round to talking about canals, but
decided that I would get irritated by the banality of it and returned
to studying the passing countryside.
Suddenly my muscles
painfully locked up in my right leg causing me to exclaim “owwwww”
and ask to be let out of my seat. I marched up and down the corridor
until the pain went away and my leg would work properly again. I
regained my seat with apologies, explaining that I had been cycling
for 5 days. The Wiganer, of course, wanted to know all about it, then
began speculating about whether he could do the same. He started
listing all that he would need to carry with him, which would require
a support vehicle, to carry it all. He wondered how his knees would
stand up to it. I suggested that he start with really short bike
rides and gradually build up. The teachers nodded sagely. They were
concerned about me camping on private property without permission,
very bourgeoise. I explained that I left no mess, though I now regret
not explaining to them my rather anarchistic view of land ownership.
“I think”, said
the Wiganer, “you must be at least ten years younger than me to
cycle all that way”. “I don’t know” I said, “I’m 63”.
“Oh bloody ell” he exclaimed “yer older”.
I thought I might be
tired after my travels so I had booked a ticket all the way to Ashton
rather than cycle up the towpath. They routed me via Stalybridge so,
at Picadilly I rushed to the distant platform 13 to catch a Trans
pennine train which whizzed me past Portland Basin. At Stalybridge I
sat enjoying the cooling evening air as I waited for the local train,
until a bunch of noisy smoking swearing pop music playing teenagers, lads and lasses,
arrived to spoil the atmosphere. When my train arrived I headed for
the opposite end of it for my short one stop ride to Ashton. A brief
bikeride from the station and I reached home, where Em had a tasty
curry ready for me.
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