Into the Cotswolds

After eating my tea and tidying up I decided to ride down the towpath to the “Cape of Good Hope” pub beside Cape 2 locks in Warwick. I bought a pint of very pleasant Wye Valley ale and put my 'phone on charge.

My last visit to the Cape of Good Hope was, I think, in 1987 on "Lilith"s first busking tour for Green Deserts.

We were being towed by a Warwickshire Fly Boats motor boat and chanced upon my old friend Rod North.

There was some kind of party going on, but it wasn't really my scene. Why do people get so excited about singing "Delilah", a song about a man making excuses for murdering his girlfriend?

This time I quietly enjoyed the scene, and enjoyed eavesdropping on two women discussing friends and family, not because I was interested in what they were saying but because I liked to hear my native accent being spoken. A large bird landed on the top of the telegraph pole across the canal, sillhouetted against the sunset. I cycled back up to my tent in the gathering dusk and turned in for the night.

I slept like a young log, but woke fairly early. I made my strange early morning drink of camp coffee mixed with cocoa. It was pleasant but I had forgotten that the camp mixture is sweetened. I'm not sure if I'll get any more.

Parallel with Hatton locks is the Hatton bank, a 1 in 70 incline on the London to Birmingham route of the old Great Western. As it grew light I listened to trains working hard to get up the gradient. An approaching deep throated roar from the railway prompted me to open the flap and look out. I saw a pair of class 20s, locomotives of 1950s design, dragging a rake of London Underground stock up the bank, with another two class 20s at the back being hauled dead.

Eventually I got up and started packing. My back tyre had been rather soft so I got out the pump and started to blow it up,then noticed with alarm that there was a developing split in the tyre and the tube was sticking out. It was only a matter of time and miles before it would blow. I toyed with the idea of risking carrying on the Stratford, but caution got the better of me and I loaded up then pedalled back down the towpath to Warwick.

Enquiries about a bike shop got me directed to Halfords on a retail park near Leamington. I got there at 8.30, but, as they didn't open until 9, I got myself a second breakfast of scotch eggs from Sainsburys.

I could either get them to fit the tyre or buy the tools to do it. In fact the fitting charge of £9 was probably less than the tools would have cost and, as the man said it would be done in 20 minutes , I left him to it.

He didn't do a brilliant job as I soon noticed a bumping, indicating that the tyre wasn't quite seated all round. This was exacerbated by the fact that he'd blown it up to about 3000psi! Nevertheless, I was mobile. I cycled back up the towpath to resume my route. Leaving the canal I headed towards Hampton on the Hill, noting that the lane I was on was called “Ugly Bridge Lane”. Presumably this is related to the concrete bridge built when the waterway was widened in the 1930s. From Hampton I went on to Sherbourne, then opted to deviate along the Avon valley rather than follow the busy A46.

This was a pleasant ride if a bit up and down. My initial problems with puffing and blowing on the slightest hill seemed to have subsided as my heart and lungs have got into their stride, but I was carrying a lot of weight and hills were a bit challenging.

Hampton Lucy is a delightful village. Like every settlement around here it oozes affluence.

I made a mistake in choosing to ride in a westerly direction parrallell to the river. My line went through the village of Alveston on the South side of the river. The map appeared to show footpaths approaching the river from opposite sides and I surmised that there must be a footbridge there. I descended the steep river banks to an overgrown smallholding but could find neither footpaths or bridge. Disappointed, I rode back to Hampton Lucy, passing for a second time the decomposing corpse of a fox. I crossed the river to Charlecote and passed Charlecote Park, where young Will Shakespeare once, allegedly, got caught poaching deer.

Charlecote Mill,

I was moving into the lands where the rich people live. A land of private. Private drives, private fishing, private property, private ownership, private schools, private tax arrangements and so on. After the successful re-instatement of navigation on the Avon from Tewkesbury to Stratford (allowed to fall into disrepair by the Great Western Railway), there was a scheme to open up the Higher Avon to navigation, from Stratford to Warwick, where a flight of locks would connect to the Grand Union Canal. This was stymied by private interests who don't want the riff raff on their river.

I had deviated a little from my line, partly to avoid the busy road and partly to find a river crossing. I was also interested in finding the remnants of the Stratford & Moreton Tramway which went near but not quite on my line. This horse drawn line connected with the canal in Stratford and ran to Moreton in the Marsh with a branch to Shipston on Stour. Built in the 1820s it was part of an ambitious plan to connect with the Thames at Oxford, then carry on with a railway to London. Alas, these extensions were never built and the line remained a rural backwater. Overtaken by time and technology it was bought up by the Oxford Worcester & Wolverhampton Railway which reached Moreton in the 1850s. They built their own branch to Stratford from Honeybourne, presumably the old route was too bendy for their trains. The Moreton to Shipston section was eventually converted to a steam railway and the whole lot came under the omnipresent aegis of the Great Western, who took over the OW&W. The remaining route through to Stratford continued in use to serve limeworks around Newbold using horsepower to the end, which came in 1880. The track remained in place until a wartime scrap drive in 1916, but it was still technically still open until 1926!

Shipston on Stour became relatively less important over time and its railway was just a meandering rural branch. In 1929 the Great Western substituted a bus service for the passenger trains, but occassional goods trains lingered on until closure in 1960. I remember visiting Shipston station with my brother in about 1962. The track was still in place, red rusty, and all was derelict.

I had noticed a lot of light aircraft flying about and guessed there must be an airfield nearby. My route took me past it and, as there was a plane taxi-ing out to the runway, I decided to stop and watch it take off, which it did, its wings wobbling unsteadily in the strong crosswind. Several flying schools seemed to be based here. I noticed a Vulcan bomber parked at the far end of the airfield. I doubt if they give flying lessons in that.

There was a stiff climb out of the Avon valley to the village of Loxley, and an even stiffer climb through the village. I asked a postman if I was on the right road as I find it very distressing to labour up a hill then find I've gone the wrong way. My route was correct and soon I was on relatively flat ground approaching the main Stratford to Banbury road, which I had to travel along a short way. Here the road used to do a dog leg for a bridge over the old SMJ railway, now straightened out and the cutting filled in.

Onward and Southward. A hectic plunge into the Stour valley brought me to Alderminster and the A 34 road. I was low on water so I entered the grounds of the delightful church to find the tap provided for people to water flowers. Topped up i carried on along the main road, looking out for traces of the old tramway, for I knew it followed this road to Newbold. I was looking between the road and the river, then I realised that the road had an extremely wide verge on one side. This was probably the tramway route. Approaching Newbold I diverged down a little road to get supplies from a farm shop. Using another lane to rejoin the A34 I came across what was obviously the tramway crossing. On one side the trackbed had clearly been used as an allotment, now derelict, on the other was a big back garden for a house that could well have served the local wharf (the term goods yard was still unknown when this line was built).

I took a good if juddery bridle path from Newbold towards a long thin woodland marked on the map that I suspected to be the old tram route. Indeed it was. I found an embankment and the abutments of a bridge.

After following the route for ¼ mile or so its route became unclear and I followed paths across the field (which might have been the tramway route), towards Ilmington, then whizzed downhill along a road signposted to Shipston. A signpost to “Wharf Farm” was another sign of the old way and an angle gateway suggested the site of a level crossing. To follow the old line I knew I had to take a right turn, but I turned too early up a road that was marked on my map only as an unmade track. I faced a stiff climb and passed another likely crossing site before turning South, almost on my line.

A left turn took me on to unmade roads again. An area of field was growing a crop of blue flowers, woad?

At Scorpion Manor Farm a remote controlled electric gate blocked my way. I checked the map then noticed the bridleway gate and waymarkers alongside it. A smartly dressed woman came out of the house to ask if I needed directions. Through the gate I crunched across the gravel then had to control my speed as I headed downhill on the bone shattering stone driveway. After another electronic gate I emerged on to the road to Paxford.

In this area nearly every junction has a signpost to some Business Centre or other, usually located in former farmyards. The roads are busy with vans and small lorries servicing their transport needs. Though apparently rural, this is in fact a highly industrial area. The B road to Paxford was up and down, then a steep descent into the village. I turned left following a signpost to Aston Magna, but then I ignored an unmarked left turn that looked like it went nowhere and followed the road most travelled, which brought me on to a bigger road. I didn't realise until I reached a level crossing where there should have been a bridge over the railway that I had in fact rejoined the B4479.

I stopped at the level crossing. It was 4.30, there was a long climb ahead and my calf muscles were telling me it was time to stop. The problem was, where to camp. There seemed to be no cover anywhere and the last thing I wanted was for a raging farmer to turn up shouting “Oi git orf my land” halfway through cooking my dinner. Between the road and the railway I noticed a meadow infested with ragwort. This is deadly to many animals so I surmised that the land couldn't be being managed. A closer look revealed that the access gate hadn't been opened this year and the corrugated iron buildings, obviously shelters for animals, were in disrepair.

I unloaded my bike and lifted it over the gate, ranging my belongings against the overgrown hedge that hid me from the road. There was little dry wood in this field, but a foray into the wheatfield next door procured more than enough fuel for my fire. Whilst I was busy with this task a twin rotor army helicopter flew directly over me at treetop height

When wild camping the most dangerous time for attracting unwanted attention is when you make a fire. In a dry summer it's also important to take care not to ignite your surroundings. I picked an area where the grass was too moist to burn and, with a bit of paper, dry grass from elsewhere and dead sticks, I soon had a useful blaze going. My routine is to cook my meal, in an old wok rescued from the scrap, then boil a kettle to fill a flask for the morning. Surplus water is used to make a post meal brew, then the fire is allowed to go out.

It hadn't rained all day and the sky was clear so I elected not to unfurl the tent but to sleep in the open. Next to the field ran the Oxford to Worcester railway which carried a boring succession of diesel multiple units. On the other side was Blockley Brickworks, where the activity died down as the day shift left at 5 pm but whose chimneys seemed to get smokier after dark.

Resuming at Tile Hill

Every now and then I take to my bike and ride as near as I can along a line drawn on the map. At night I sleep out at whatever discreet spot I can find. My last trip, 5 years ago, ended at Tile Hill near Coventry. Recently I resumed the trip, following the line previously drawn to Caen Hill locks near Devizes in Wiltshire.

My train wasn't until 12.07 from Piccadilly, so I spent the morning with the usual running about making sure everything was in place for me to go, then went home to say goodbye to Em. She's been quite poorly lately so she was in bed communicating electronically with friends around the world. I left most of my keys at home lest I should lose them, but took keys to the boats as there were a couple of things to pick up there on my way. What I forgot was that it was Monday, so the museum wasn't open and, without the gate key, I couldn't get in. I had to ring the bell on the museum door and ask one of the staff to let me through on to the wharf.  A couple of them came and they said they enjoyed the fresh air.

On my way at last, I pedalled off down the towpath with an hour to my train. I immediately began to wonder if this trip ws a good idea. A gusty North Westerly wind was impeding my progress and I was already finding it hard going despite the recently tarmacked towpath. My museum friends had remarked on the amount of stuff I was carrying and my rucksack was feeling mightily uncomfortable. Things got easier as I descended the locks and gained more shelter from the buildings, but I was still wondering what it would be like to pedal through the Cotswolds with all this weight as I arrived at Piccadilly with 20 minutes to spare.

My train was the 12.07 Cross Country to Exeter St Davids, a four car Voyager set.    It was already in the platform so I found the bike rack and hung my bike in it, then got stuck behind 2 old ladies faffing about with their luggage while I sought my reserved seat. The train was uncomfortably crammed, in fact one young passenger nearly got off again as she was suffering from claustrophobia.

The Voyagers are very fast and futuristic looking diesel trains. They can go faster round bends than traditional trains as they lean over like a motorbike. The drawback of this is that to allow for tilting within the restricted British loading gauge demands a very narrow body profile. Coupled with a commercial imperative to insert as many farepayers as you can into as few carriages as possible and you have a recipe for sardines.

Shortly after sitting down, the guard announced that “an item has been found”. I looked for and failed to find my camera. This was worrying as, though the camera isn't worth much, the SD card contains important photographs. I made my way to the end of the train and, after some carefully chosen security questions, the guard handed me my camera.

I had booked my ticket through Raileasy, which has the clever option of finding savings by booking your journey in several chunks rather than as a single trip. My tickets were separately Manchester to Stoke, Stoke to Birmingham and Birmingham to Tile Hill. I didn't have to get off at Stoke on Trent but my reservation from there to Brum was in a different carriage, so I said goodbye to the family I had been sitting with and moved to Coach F. Here another luggage drama took place. It was announced that we should all check our luggage as someone had left the train with the wrong bag. A middle aged punk lady started to panic when she couldn't find her suitcase and went to get the guard, only to have the embarrassment of discovering that she'd stowed it at the other end of the coach.

From a crowded New Street I got the London Midland local train and alighted at Tile Hill.    

Before setting out I adjusted my rucksack straps which made it much more comfortable, but my previous concerns returned as I struggled up the incline over the railway bridge.

My map, though old, was clear. I needed to take the second left, immediately before Burton Green and immediately after the abandoned Berkswell to Kenilworth railway. The second turn left was just before the sign announcing Burton Green, but i could see no sign of the old railway. As it was at the top of a hill I shrugged and turned. Perhaps the railway had tunnelled under. Sweating like a pig, I stopped to remove my coat and roll it up on the handlebars, then enjoyed some nice downhill freewheeling.

After a while I found myself in Warwick University, which is in Coventry (!?).

The road that I should have taken should have turned right, so I took the next available right tun and, once clear of the university, went through a pleasant undulating country of oak woods and fields. I came to a crossroads that shouldn't have been there. I realised that I was on completely the wrong road, but one direction was signposted to Kenilworth, so I went that way.

The Kenilworth that I first entered was unlike the place that I have been to before.          

It was ancient and quaint but horribly overwhelmed with upmarket tweeness. Over the brow of the hill I came to Kenilworth Castle. I recall being unimpressed by this monument on a childhood visit and had no wish to repeat the experience. It was indeed one of the ruins that Cromwell knocked about a bit.

Another dip and rise brought me to a different Kenilworth, a high street of normal shops and cafes selling stuff at normal prices. I stopped to buy vegetables. I needed coffee but I didn't want a jar that was heavy and might break. A refill pack would be better, but vulnerable to damp. When I was a kid coffee was unknown in our house. One day, probably prompted by my older siblings, mum brought home some coffee. It was Camp Coffee in a bottle. Sainsbury's still have it, still with the same colonial label but in a lightweight plastic bottle. I decided to buy some as I am camping. I don't know how much of a caffiene hit I'll get from it as it is mostly chicory.

Leaving Kenilworth, I soon found the little turning towards the village of Beausale, then kept an eye out for the track leading to the delightfully named Goodrest Farm. This turned out to be a good concrete road. From the farm a footpath is marked towards Hatton. I was pleased to find that this is a good well used and waymarked path through woods and wheatfields. Lovely Warwickshire as I remember it from my childhood. As I rode along a hawk hovered ahead of me, then suddenly dropped on some hapless mouse or vole, which it carried away in its claws as it flew off to enjoy its meal.

I grew up not 20 miles from here. All I knew about Hatton then was that it was the local "loonybin". Any strange behaviour would prompt a remark like 'you'll end up in Hatton if you're not careful'. One of the little jobs carried out by number one boaters was to deliver coal to Hatton for the asylum boilers. The footpath headed straight for the asylum but was marked as turning right to Turkey Farm. I could see some of the old buildings and wondered if it was still in use as a hospital. When I got there I found that the footpath led straight into a new estate of upmarket housing. At least one of the old buildings is still standing, though this turns out to be the Chest Hospital and appears to be being converted.

The old mental asylums had their drawbacks. There were some very bad practices in them which led to a movement to get them closed down, spurred on by films like “One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest”. Margaret Thatcher's government seemed to be doing something progressive when they brought in “Care in the Community”. In many ways it seemed a better idea, but the resources deployed are totally inadequate. The problem with the old asylums was not that the idea of asylum is inherently bad. In fact a lot of people need asylum, if only on a temporary basis. The problem was partly the moralistic attitudes of the time, but mainly the lack of resources and the perception that it was a cinderella service. Thatcher and her pals seized on the care in the community option as a way of saving money and as a result many mentally unwell people find themselves living in cardboard boxes or prisons.

Partway up the Hatton 21 lock flight my route crosses the Warwick and Birmingham canal.

I stopped here and found a camping site in the bushes beside a lock. There's plenty of dry brittle wood here so I lit a fire, cooked my tea, boiled a kettle to make a flask for the morning, then sat, leaning against a bollard to type this.

I've had a few funny looks from dogwalkers and a brief shower prompted me to put up my pop up tent, then it went sunny again. Shortly I'll be riding down the locks for a pint at the Cape of Good Hope in Warwick.

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