I’ve always cycled to some extent, I’m always thinking about cycling and whenever I have to go somewhere I wonder whether it’s possible on a bike. On long motorway journeys I look at those small rural roads that crisscross below and imagine being there instead. I’m also very fond of maps and was lucky enough recently to get a massive pile of old maps from an old chap on freecycle. He’d done a lot of hiking and cycling with his wife in his younger days and was more than happy for me to have them.
I try to squeeze in as much riding as I can manage between a full time job and family time. This means a lot of commuting, some evening rides and the odd weekend adventures and I’ve found that if I keep eating and drinking and keep turning my legs around I can manage some quite surprising distances.
Anyway, I was hoping to visit my two adult daughters, one who lives in a small village near Yeovil and the other in a farming hamlet near Westbury on Severn and as I have already cycled from Worthing to Bristol and back a few times this seemed like a feasible idea. It would also give me the opportunity to cross the old Severn crossing if I planned a circular route, something I’ve wanted to do for a while now.
So using my newly acquired maps I started making plans. There were some maps missing but I figured I could work out these parts with some torn out pages from an old road atlas and some help from the cyclestreets website journey planner. I decided on a weekend and once I was satisfied with the weather forecast, I booked off a Friday and Monday to give myself plenty of time.
Day 1. Worthing to Yeovil.
There was a westerly headwind blowing but not so strong as the ones we usually have in Worthing and by the time it picked up later in the day I hoped to be tucked into the Dorset hills and not affected by it too badly. I left the house at 6.30 and headed out towards Chichester via Littlehampton and the Bognor Regis road, all pretty uneventful and good progress. From Chichester the road takes you via Emsworth to Havant where I stopped for a break at the supermarket before tackling the job of getting around Portsmouth and Southampton. The infrastructure is not great for cycling here and at Havant you have two choices. Go over Portsdown hill past all the naval and military sites avoiding a lot of complicated road systems but doing a bit of climbing, or head down and plough on through the built up outskirts of Portsmouth. I chose the latter to save my legs for Dorset and Somerset later in the day. It was a huge relief to finally pass Southampton and take the A road into the New Forest where I stopped at a pub outside Lyndhurst for lunch. It’s a pub that I usually stop at on the way to Bristol, an established waypoint from previous rides. A bit of food, a beer, reshuffle my maps and then off towards Ringwood. I turned off the main road onto smaller roads and immediately the ride became more relaxing and less stressful. Ponies and Cows were wandering around in the road, the scenery improved and everything seemed to slow down a bit. There were a few more major roads around Ringwood but most of the rest of the ride was on very small lanes with very little traffic. It was fairly straightforward to find Blandford Forum but then I was dependant on my torn out road atlas pages for the end of the journey. After a very long climb up to Bulbarrow hill I got a bit lost! Dorset is a real network of tiny lanes and missing or ambiguous sign posts but I had no time pressure and if I wanted to stop and sit in a field with my maps it was no problem. It’s quite a nice feeling to be a little bit lost, a pleasant contrast to the routine of a working week and structured time and anyway, I’d always emerge onto a main road at some point and get my bearings, even if it was heading in the wrong direction. Eventually, after a few extra miles and hills I was back in charted territory and heading into Somerset. A bit behind schedule but keeping the legs turning and shoving a fig roll or some Jelly Babies into my mouth now and then. I came to an area of incredible, sheer sided Holloways close to the massive iron age hill fort at Ham Hill. Nearly there, an exhilarating descent and I was among the sandy coloured cottages of Stoke sub Hamden where a hot meal and a cold cider were waiting for me. 138 miles.
Day 2. Yeovil to Westbury on Severn
The second day was to be a lot less climbing than the first. Heading north from Stoke sub Hamden would take me across the Yeo valley towards the Somerset levels. Again I tried to keep to tiny roads and again the road signs were of little use. In addition many of the villages and hamlets had no place name signs on the outskirts. It was second guessing that you were following the right route. Often the lanes would go through a farmyard and be so covered in muck from the cow’s daily comings and goings that it wasn’t clear if it was still a public road at all. I got a little lost but nothing too drastic. Heading steadily north with Glastonbury Tor visible in the distance to my right I eventually intersected the Strawberry Line, (sustrans route 26) near to Axbridge. This is a long distance path that is very much still in development and the section I was taking had a diversion on the access point taking me along a muddy woodland footpath strewn with bark chippings. I had the wrong bike and I was soon removing the wheels to remove all the accumulated crud from my mudguards. I needed to go back on the road for a bit but soon picked up the cycle route again where the surface was much better. This took me north to Yatton and then on small lanes to Clevedon where route 410, the Avon cycleway would take me almost to the Severn crossing and route 4. The lane leaving Clevedon was very pleasant with views out across the Severn estuary and very little traffic. The M5 ran parallel and at Gordano I passed beneath it and after a bit of a diversion, found the continuation of the route in and out of the industrialised areas of Avonmouth, a path of broken glass, litter and Buddleia bushes. The Avon cycleway route headed towards Bristol and I left it and took route 41 towards Gloucester, via Aust where I stopped at the services for some food, water and a little lie down on the grass. Next came the highlight of the day and one to tick off my bucket list, crossing the old Severn bridge to Chepstow in Wales. The views were amazing and gave a real sense of the shape of the countryside I had been cycling across. I had cycled from Sussex to Wales in two days! I was at the edge of the Forest of Dean and psychologically near my destination. I took the A48 from Chepstow to Gloucester which is a fairly busy road and I had forgotten from living in the Forest of Dean, just how hilly it is! A lot of climbing and descending eventually had me cruising down the picturesque high street of Newnham on Severn, knowing that all the significant hills were behind me. A short while later I turned off the A48 at Westbury on Severn down a lane to the little hamlet of Rodley with it’s cows and orchards. I was at my daughter’s farm. 98 miles.
Day 3. Westbury on Severn to Worthing
I was fortunate to get a day’s rest at Rodley and recharge my batteries. I knew this next stretch was to be the big one, further than I had cycled before in a day but I figured that if I got up early enough and scheduled in plenty of breaks, I should be fine. The forecast was ok. No rain which was good but a rather fresh southerly wind which wasn’t ideal given the direction I was heading. So up at 5.00 for a strong coffee and a bowl of cereal and I was out of the door by 5.45. Even the cows were still asleep! I wanted to save my legs even if it meant a few extra miles so I took sustrans route 45 which runs along the Gloucester – Sharpness shipping canal before heading in land, skirting the south of the Cotswolds. By the time I was passing Stroud it had been raining heavily for a while, never trust a weather forecast! My jacket was letting in water and I was very reluctant to take out paper maps. The route was a little tricky to follow and a lot hillier than expected. The little blue cycle route signs were very widely spread out. Sometimes I would doubt I was still on the right road, having not seen a sign for a few miles and one would pop up and reassure me. The countryside and villages were very beautiful but a little hard to appreciate in the rain. I was very wet. Should I bail and find a train station?
I decided to plod on, I could always give up later but it was still early and I had a day at my disposal and no time pressure to get back. At some point I had to turn south towards Malmesbury and pick up the Wiltshire cycleway. I missed my turning and did a few extra miles and hills until a well sign posted A road sent me off in the right direction. A garage stop at Malmesbury to have something to eat and stock up on sweets and water and then on to the Wiltshire cycleway (route 254). This would take me south to Marlborough on fairly quiet roads. The rain had finally stopped but the southerly wind had picked up bang on cue for my change of direction. The undulations in the road gradually got bigger and bigger and the wind was making me a bit moany. The inevitable Wiltshire Downs were looming ahead of me and before I knew it I was struggling up the escarpment at Clyffe Pypard closely followed by the climb up Hackpen hill past the carving of a White Horse in the chalk. I crossed the ridgeway and I was on top of the Downs with Marlborough and a proper rest within striking distance. The fields gave way to golf courses and I was rolling downhill to Marlborough. My big eyes and hungry belly went a little crazy in the supermarket, I’m amazed how much I can eat on a long ride. Two large Almond croissants and a free coffee went down very easily (guess the supermarket, clue, it is in Marlborough!) a nice change from cold garage pies.
After the climbing of Wiltshire I was looking forward to the flatter river valleys and chalk streams of Hampshire. After a bit of a climb out of Marlborough I skirted Savernake forest and was soon on quiet roads with a gentler gradient and making good progress following my break. Winchester was my next significant destination and passing Andover I could see the land starting to rise again. There were fields to the sides of the road owned by the MOD and warning signs about explosives. Close to Winchester I had to leave the quiet roads and take the A272. This is an old Roman road, arrow straight, fast traffic and the verges littered with roadkill and broken wing mirrors. Not a nice road to ride on and I was very relieved to roll into Winchester where I headed for the green space by the cathedral for a break. More to eat, more studying my maps and there seemed to be a direct route across the South Downs to Havant. This was tricky to get on to. The road junctions were not so bike friendly and it was rush hour. Although the route was fairly direct, it was very busy with rush hour commuters keen to get home and endless ups and downs. I persevered for a while but then found an alternative route on smaller lanes. By now I was getting pretty tired and looking forward to Havant and the end of the hills. A big climb brought me up to the top of Portsdown hill and that was it, a lovely long downhill to Havant and no more climbing. I was back in familiar territory, I could do this, but wouldn’t it be lovely to sit on a train? I passed Havant station and on to Chichester where again I was almost tempted by the proximity of the station. Nope, I’d come this far and had to finish it. It was easy riding now, but dark. The battery ran out on my Garmin near Bognor. I saved the ride, and turned on my phone to record the rest. Bognor to Littlehampton seemed to go on forever, I can hardly remember which route I took through Littlehampton and Rustington. East Preston, Ferring, Goring by sea, home! I’d done it. 168 miles
What I find nice is the intimacy of the changing countryside as you travel across it by bike. The little changes, the walls and hedgerows, the flowers on the verges, the streams and rivers, the different types of stone used to build the cottages. You can do the journey much quicker in a car but you miss these details. A long bike ride opens your eyes to these things, you are very much in the landscape.
For those interested in kit, I travelled on a steel framed Genesis Equilibrium with an Ortlieb pannier to keep things dry. A Brooks cambium saddle and Howies 3⁄4 bib tights kept me the right side of uncomfortable and Jelly Babies, Fig rolls and Haribo were on a constant drip to keep me rolling.
Time to plan the next one, maybe with a touring Garmin, or would that take the fun out of it?
Words and photos by Jeremy Sharp. You can follow Jeremy on Instagram on @velo_jay