This week, I became a bikepacker. I’d been intrigued by the idea of bikepacking – the lovechild of a union between cycle touring and backpacking.
I’d been dreaming about this adventure for ages. I’d read about bikepacking and loved the idea of a self-sufficient mini camping tour. Think of it as a modest mid life crisis – a chance to live a different life for under 24 hours. Last spring, I started buying bikepacking kit, including a small tent, stove and sleeping bag. Originally I planned a trip with my son Owen, 13, to the campsite at Cookham Lock on the Thames (see Jack Thurston’s original Lost Lanes, Southern England, book) but that has been closed for months. So I took the plunge with a prompt from Komoot’s #RideCampRide campaign.
This was my first trip with a laden bike for over eight years. I was impressed by the way my Apidura bikepacking bags didn’t affect the bike’s handling at all. While the bike was obviously much heavier, it was only when I got out of the saddle for extra oomph that I had a reminder that I needed to ride differently. It was nice to forget average speeds and simply enjoy the journey.
I’ve always liked the idea of cycling to Oxford. It’s just 40 miles from home, making it a realistic adventure. Yet until yesterday I’d never made the journey, despite enjoying the annual Bike Oxford sportive.
It nearly didn’t happen. The forecast was ominous – I was going to get wet. But after a lazy day in the sunshine on Saturday, I shrugged off the easy option, packed a rain jacket and headed to the city of the dreaming spires.
I’d barely gone seven miles before I felt raindrops. I confess I briefly considered cutting the ride short. But today was a day for determination in the face of precipitation. If I’d been riding the London-Wales-London audax (whose route I was largely following to Oxford) I’d have had no choice. So I donned the rain jacket by the Two Hoots sign above between Amersham and Hyde Heath and continued. I was glad I did as the rain wasn’t that heavy, and didn’t last long.
Costa may not be everyone’s cup of tea – or coffee – but we were pleased when the recently closed Crown pub in Chalfont St Giles became a Costa in 2014. In the months before lockdown Owen, 12, enjoyed meeting his friends there for a frappuccino.
However, the branch has become a victim of coronavirus, closing permanently. The familiar Costa signs are gone, and the interior stripped bare.
Perhaps this was inevitable. Since the branch opened, Costa opened a bigger cafe in neighbouring Chalfont St Peter. If it has to be Costa, you can visit branches in nearby Gerrards Cross, Amersham and Beaconsfield. Since getting a Nespresso machine for Christmas, I’ve made my own latte and flat white rather then popping into Costa before my day’s work begins. Even better, we have the thriving Deli in St Giles, which has flourished despite Costa’s arrival. It does ‘proper’ food, rather than Costa’s microwaved panini. In recent months, we’ve enjoyed the Deli’s excellent Friday takeaway dinners.
There’s a history to the building. It starred as Captain Mainwaring’s bank in the 1971 film version of Dad’s Army, the comedy about the Home Guard in the second world war. We had lunch here in the Crown pub the Sunday after the September 11 terrorist atrocities, still in shock at those appalling events. Later, we enjoyed birthday and anniversary dinners at the Crown.
I’ll end on a poignant note. Just after Costa opened in St Giles, we bumped into Owen’s grandmother Aline there – you can see they were delighted to see each other. Sadly, Aline died just five months later. Some losses are much greater than the closure of a coffee shop or pub.
At the end of the 19th century, a photographer called SWA Newton documented a unique event: the creation of a new mainline railway from Sheffield to London. The Great Central Railway tore through the medieval heart of Leicester and Nottingham, and as a student in 1980s Leicester I was fascinated to find Newton’s photos of familiar sights being built just over 80 years earlier. Sadly, almost all that magnificent line was closed in the 1960s.
The Great Central was the creation of Sir Edward Watkin, who dreamed of a high speed railway linking the north of England with France through a channel tunnel. Ironically, the politicians who pushed HS2 scrapped a link between HS2 and HS1 – the channel tunnel rail link – to save money. How desperately short sighted.
I thought of SWA Newton and the birth of the Great Central in 2010 when I learned that the new High Speed 2 (HS2) railway would pass through our village. As you’d expect, there are few supporters of the line here. That’s partly because of the disruption that the construction will cause (though for me that’s been minimal so far) but also because people in Buckinghamshire won’t get any benefit from the line. It will still be quicker for us to get to Birmingham via the Chiltern line than going to London to get a train on HS2.
The line will pass through our village in a 10 mile long tunnel. That will spare the Misbourne valley although part of me thinks it’s a shame that travellers won’t be able to enjoy the beauty of the southern Chilterns. Railways blend in to the landscape unlike airports or 12-lane motorways.
I’ll never be a 21st century SWA Newton, but I do want to witness and record the work being carried out on HS2 around our village. So over the past couple of weekends, I’ve been to see the two main sites: ventilation shafts for the Chiltern tunnel.
To get to the Chalfont St Giles site, I cycled down a lane for the first time, even though it’s barely a mile from our front door. I wouldn’t like to drive down Bottom House Farm Lane in a big car (it’s very narrow and badly potholed) but it was wonderful on a mountain bike. In the photo above, you can see spoil from the works. I was captivated by the forgotten valley, with its handsome farm buildings and classic Chiltern rounded hills and woodland – and with now ubiquitous red kites circling overhead.
HS2 has published a lot of information about the project and its impacts on its website. See HS2 in Bucks and Oxon. Ironically, some of the places mentioned such as Calvert, Twyford, Finmere and Brackley were on the route of the Great Central Railway. I blogged about this irony in 2012 here.
The contractors are building an access road alongside Bottom House Farm lane to take the construction lorries to the site of the shaft. You can see that it’s like a dual carriageway alongside the narrow country lane, although it will be restored to nature after work is finished.
I had no idea that this tiny lane and valley were so picturesque. This is a few hundred metres from the main London to Amersham road.
As I said earlier, the HS2 route passes under the heart of our village, Chalfont St Giles. This is the Misbourne in the centre of the village; the tunnel passes under here.
This is the other major site near our village. The HS2 contractors have built an access road for construction traffic to the the Chalfont St Peter tunnel shaft.
Closer to London, HS2 is forcing the closure of Hillingdon Outdoor Activity Centre (HOAC). Our son Owen has just enjoyed a wonderful summer water sports course at HOAC, and previously camped at HOAC with Chalfont St Giles Scouts. Owen and Karen were distressed to see the destruction that HS2 is causing at HOAC. We hope HOAC will move to a new site, as seems to be the case. Meanwhile, this is what the HS2 viaduct in the area will look like.
Back to where I began. The remaining parts of the Great Central (and the Great Central and Great Western Joint line through Beaconsfield and High Wycombe) blend beautifully into the countryside. Admittedly, electric lines with their overhead wires aren’t quite so unobtrusive. But I recall my view of the West Coast Mainline in the fells of northern England last year, contrasting with the eyesore of the parallel M6. True, it was better looking in the days of steam, but I knew which I preferred.
I’ll end as I began, with a couple of wonderful SWA Newton images from the birth of the older high speed rail line, the Great Central and associated joint line with the Great Western. Those construction workers – navvies as they were called in the past, recalling the men who built the canals – were photographed at Wilton Park, Beaconsfield.
I respect the protests of those who object to HS2. (Do read the comment below from Janey, who lives on Bottom House Farm Lane, about the impact the work is having on her family and other residents.) And the claims that this is Britain’s new railway are strained – it will do nothing for Wales. But I think it’s time that the country that invented railways moved beyond the Georgian and Victorian network that shaped and the constrained the nation. It’s almost 60 years since Japan introduced the Shinkansen bullet train, and 40 years since France began TGV services. Great Britain is catching up.
Cliveden is one of my favourite local places. I missed my regular bike rides here for tea and cake during lockdown. It felt strange cycling past those closed gates. Happily, the National Trust reopened Cliveden although you need to book tickets online in advance. (The house itself is a luxury hotel.)
We visited today with my niece Siân, and spent several hours exploring the estate. Cliveden is famous as the main stage of the Profumo scandal – as I blogged in The Shadow of Profumo in 2016. But the estate has better kept secrets; it was the site of a Canadian Red Cross military hospital in the Great War, which treated 24,000 people.
The hospital saw service during both world wars, and became part of the NHS in 1948. It closed in 1985.
There is to this day a moving and tranquil war memorial to the small number of men and one female nurse who died at the hospital. Many of those buried here were from Canada, although there are a few from Great Britain, Ireland and Australia. I certainly didn’t expect to find a Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery at Cliveden.
Cliveden today is a tranquil place with wonderful views over the Thames towards Cookham and Maidenhead. It’s well worth a visit. And your visit is unlikely to shatter your career, in contrast to John Profumo’s.
I loved my childhood go-kart. It was such fun racing down the hill near my Cardiff home in the 1970s.
I’ve had an echo of that childhood excitement today, riding my ICE Adventure trike to Maidenhead. This is one of my favourite rides, crossing the Thames at Cookham and following the river to the riverside town.
I admit I had a craving for speed today. Not overall – I’ll never be as fast on the trike as on my road bike. But I was pining for speed on the swoop downhill to Wooburn Green, and knew it would be safer on three wheels than two. So it proved: 37mph!
It’s always fun crossing the Thames at Cookham, and it was no exception today on the trike. The trike was faster than I expected on the exposed road over Widbrook Common. Two years ago, I saw a herd of cows here cooling in the water from the heatwave!
I always think of my late in-laws Aline and Terry as I pass Boulters Lock. This was one of their favourite places. We celebrated their golden wedding here in 2011, and had a happy breakfast at Boulters just two months before Aline died in 2015. The famous broadcaster Richard Dimbleby lived on the island, and there’s a blue plaque on the bridge to commemorate him.
I pressed on to the park overlooking Maidenhead’s historic bridge. Usually I’m looking out for a bench, but that wasn’t necessary today – I’d brought my own, on the trike!
I loved the 18mph swoop round the roundabout on the Buckinghamshire side of the bridge. The ICE Adventure was geared to cope with the climb through Taplow towards Cliveden. A cyclist on a mountain bike overtook me but I caught up with him at Cliveden. I’m looking forward to my first visit to the National Trust gardens at Cliveden on Tuesday – my first since the COVID-19 lockdown.
You notice more on a trike. I’ve never noticed how striking the Beaconsfield church of St Michael and All Saints (see above) is before.
I am starting to think of my next cycling challenge. Last year’s Land’s End to John O’Groats ride was unforgettable. I’m dreaming of even crazier adventures, such as London-Edinburgh-London and London-Wales-London. A trike would be so much more comfortable, but would it be too slow? Decisions, decisions….
I recently discovered the Lost Lanes series of cycling books by Jack Thurston. They’re an inspiration, with evocative 1930s style covers, gorgeous photos and intriguing touring routes. I can’t wait to explore Rye and Romney Marsh, an area that has intrigued me since reading Malcolm Saville’s Lone Pine mysteries set there when I was a child. And those lovely Welsh border roads.
In the meantime, I’m exploring my local lost lanes. Tonight I cycled up to Hodgemoor Wood above Chalfont St Giles on my mountain bike – and promptly got lost. It is uncanny how easily I lose all sense of direction in this small woodland area.
Classic Chilterns: the view from Mumfords Lane
The real object of this evening’s ride was Mumfords Lane, a narrow lane that links the A40 between Beaconsfield and Gerrards Cross with Layter’s Green near Chalfont St Peter. I’d never cycled it before but it was a perfect opportunity to widen my route repertoire. There was climb from the main road but my mountain bike’s low gearing made it easy. The view from the top was gorgeous – one I had never seen before, even though it’s barely three miles from home. I’ll be cycling this lost lane again.
I was lucky to dodge a heavy June shower. I sheltered under a tree as I pulled on a rain jacket. This was the scene as the sun came out as the rain eased over the A40. This was once the main route from West Wales and Oxford to London before the M4 and M40 were built in the 1960s and 1970s.
I’ve really missed cafe stops on my lockdown bike rides. Especially the longer ones, where a coffee and cake adds to the pleasure. A week ago, I decided to do something about it. I can’t reopen cafes, but I can take my own tea or coffee, thanks to my new Klean Kanteen insulated water bottle. I enjoyed my tea and snack overlooking Maidenhead’s historic road bridge this lunchtime. I even brought my Costa collapsible mug!
I’ll end on a Lost Lanes note. As a proud Welshman, I smiled when I saw Jack’s note on my copy of Lost Lanes Wales. Cymru am byth – Wales for ever! Thank you, Jack.
They called 1940 ‘the Spitfire summer’. It was one of the finest summers of the 20th century. The endless dry, sunny days and azure skies provided a vivid backdrop to the Battle of Britain. Some seasons in history provide a stark contrast between nature and reality.
Spring 2020 is proving similarly contrasting. The coronavirus lockdown is taking place during possibly the most vivid British spring of the 21st century.
I have relished this extraordinary spring during my lockdown bike rides from home in Buckinghamshire. Today, I marvelled at the glorious birdsong as I made my way to Burnham Beeches, including the call of the majestic red kite. As I skirted the beeches, one red kite swooped down barely 10 feet away from me. He landed on a tree by the side of the road, thought better of it and flew off, those immense wings giving him lift. Burnham Beeches is a historic area of Buckinghamshire woodland owned by the Corporation of London. It’s the closest I’ll get to London for some time…
Yesterday, I was thrilled as confetti-like blossom blew in the warm wind across the country lane in my path. These natural delights soften the pain of lockdown, and give an intense taste of life renewing as well as fading; a high note of joy to lift us from the daily tragedies of the COVID-19 pandemic.
No one’s London-bound: the M40/M25 junction
The lockdown has emptied our fume-fuelled motorways and roads. Today, I cycled past the M40/M25 junction, above. How many times have I waited patiently in the rush hour on the slip road on the left to join the M25? Today, Easter Saturday, it was deserted. No one was hurrying to Heathrow or London. Birdsong ruled.
A silent Good Friday, Cliveden, Bucks
On my Good Friday bike ride yesterday, I paused to reflect on this stunning explosion of blossom at the pub opposite the entrance to the National Trust’s Cliveden estate. I love my rides to Cliveden for tea and cake on a weekend afternoon; that pleasure will have to wait. It is sad to see so many fine town and country pubs closed and quiet. Let us hope that they will reopen when the pandemic is under control.
Camper vans: a home from home
Karen and I both saw Volkswagen camper vans on our respective exercise sessions today. These classic campers inspire an idea of freedom and the open road. For now, that idea is just a dream. The campers are on the drive, rather than the upland roads and sun-kissed beaches of Great Britain and beyond. Their moment – our moment – will return. For now, let us enjoy this spring san pareil. It’s our equivalent of that Spitfire summer as history is made as nature unfolds.
These are the strangest of times. Our lives have changed almost overnight. Those carefree evenings out, family get-togethers and shopping trips are fading memories. (Although it’s a relief we no longer face that scramble to find a meeting room.)
Yet in Britain, for now, we can still go out for exercise. It has become a precious escape for me – a time away from the laptop screen, getting a physical challenge as a change from the intellectual challenge of communications work in the time of coronavirus.
It helps that the first week of Britain’s lockdown has been gloriously sunny. (Although that may have forced the lockdown, as crowds were gathering in London and people were flocking to Snowdonia and other national parks.) I revelled in the sunshine as I enjoyed my regular bike rides in Buckinghamshire, snatching an hour a time from work.
Don’t underestimate the importance of these daily escapes. These strange times are tough on us all. (Although obviously those at the front line in the NHS, care homes and serving the public face to face have a far greater challenge.) Getting out for some decent exercise is good for body and soul. You may experience a high that will get you through the loss of all those activities that you can’t enjoy at present.
Let’s make the most of these days of cycling and running while we can.
We’ve all seen the images of empty supermarket shelves. No loo paper for love nor money. Yet Britain’s supermarkets are doing a great job adapting to demand, and the need to let people shop while keeping apart, based on my experience at Tesco, Gerrards Cross.
I had a short wait getting into the store, as staff regulated the numbers in the shop. We were offered sanitiser at the entrance, which I used to wipe the trolley handle and my hands.
Once inside, I found everything I needed apart from liquid soap. It was a strangely calm shopping experience with fewer people in the shop. I did feel I needed to get it down quickly to allow others in.
There’s been a lot of talk of stockpiling – and I referred to this in my post last weekend about the British government’s communications response to COVID-19. We may have been too quick to judge: according to Kantar, the empty shelves reflect the fact we’re all adding a few more items to our baskets and making more shopping trips, rather than stockpiling.
PS: this unremarkable Tesco store has an unusual history. It was built over the Chiltern railway line and the tunnel collapsed on the tracks just after my train passed through in 2005.