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Tour De England

  1. The Route
  2. The Setup
  3. Day One: Farnham
  4. Day Two: Oxford
  5. Day Three: Stratford-Upon-Avon
  6. Day Four: Ashby-De-La-Zouch
  7. Day Five: Stanton Lees
  8. Day Six: The Peak District
  9. Day Seven: The Journey Home

In the first week of August, I’m going to cycle 200 255 miles to the Peak District. This will be the first holiday I’ve had since 2003.

The Route

Map of route from the south to the middle of England
A: Worthing, B: Farnham, C: Oxford, D: Stratford-Upon-Avon, E: Ashby-de-la-Zouch, F: The Peak District

Each day consists of a 40–50 mile cycle of approximately 5 hours. I cycle 20–25 miles a day as normal, so I don’t think this is outside my capability, however this is an all new experience to me.

The Setup

What I was most surprised about planning this trip was how easy technology has made traveling, and by extension how dependent businesses are on a presence on the Internet. Google Maps has managed to do practically everything I required. I typed in the start and the finish, typed in “B&B”, and bingo! All I needed to do was phone around and find lodgings in my stop off towns. Without Google Maps I would have had to go out and buy a B&B guide which would have far less listings and without public reviews.

What’s scary is that a modern smart phone will have GPS and an Internet connection making it almost impossible to get lost. In fact, a modern smart phone has so much tech available it hardly makes it a challenge. I can only think how much more difficult, and risky, it would be to do a journey like this before we had mobile phones and the Internet.

I'll be armed with my mobile phone, which whilst having GPS, is not a smart phone and I am not paying the absurd data rates to use the navigation on the phone. It will be just a camera and a phone in this journey, and I will navigate using the advanced technology of paper.

There is no map I can buy that fits in a pocket and covers the distance of 200 miles at a resolution useful to a cyclist. I have instead simply taken screenshots of the route in Google Maps, printing out two screenshots per page and then cutting the pages into an A5 landscape booklet, like so.

Paper maps
My low-tech GPS

I'll be taking my 3G netbook with me and hopefully updating this blog after each day. I don’t know what I'll be expecting exactly, but I will likely be taking many photographs along the way. This update is a test of my online blog-update system which I wrote last year and only now rushed to finish ready for this trip :P. You know how it is with deadlines.

I don’t cycle for sport, it’s purely the best form of transport for getting about for me. I enjoy cycling as it’s a break from being in front of the computer and gives me the space and freedom to really think clearly. This is my bike below. Nothing special but it has been comfortable and has lasted the thousands of miles it’s already traveled. I had to get a rack fitted specially for this journey.

My bicycle

The costs have far exceeded what I was expecting, but I have not done this journey before and many costs associated with the bike are once offs that I can use again (such as the rack). Here’s a break down of the expenses involved:

Accommodation (£240)
Including the train home. I spent no more than £40 per day.
Bicycle (£253)
Bike rack and bag, new mud guards, toolset, two spare inner-tubes, bottle + holder, trip computer (odometer). A new cable lock that will stretch further than my old small D-Lock, and as part of the service I have on the bike twice a year anyway, a new front tyre and chain. £50 labour for the service and to fit all that junk! A lot of this is one-off purchases that should make future trips much cheaper!

Day One: Farnham

It’s been the hottest summer here in England for 80 years; uninterrupted sun for almost a month now. I get awoken by a constant rushing sound. It’s raining, and not just raining put pouring. This throws a spanner in a lot of works. Thankfully, it clears up in half an hour and all seems quiet. I had packed yesterday and just needed to fit everything to the bike. The bike was insanely heavy in a way I am not used to. I was eager to get past the first ten miles to take me outside the usual area I travel locally and practically rode on autopilot.

A ploughed field and equally churned sky
A ploughed field and equally churned sky

However, I was not used to a bike this heavy and it was a real challenge just to make it to Arundel, I thought this was going to make doing 40 miles even more tortuous.

View of Arundel castle
View of Arundel castle

From there I entered the unknown. The actually interesting bit.

A castle-like house in the middle of a field
Path through a field with lines of trees either side

North of Arundel is Bury Hill, a famous very steep road around this area. I managed to clock 35+ mph down the hill. This is where it is obvious that disc brakes would be an advantage. V-breaks are like trying to stop using a wet sponge. From here I split off the main road and start cutting through the countryside where I encounter various old cottages.

Traditional wattle and daub house
An old stone house with lead crossed windows and red door

This sort of thing is completely common along small roads in England, I could have taken photos all day long, but I had a long distance to cover.

After about 20 miles I was really getting into the swing of it and riding was becoming easy. On my way to Haslemere I went the wrong way somewhere and ended up massively off course which added another 8 miles to the journey! On this route I went past a speed sign that lit up to say I was going over 30 :P.

A Victorian post-box in Haslemere
A Victorian post-box in Haslemere. Modern ones are usually red and round.

I had made it to Haslemere by 12:00 PM, way sooner than I had expected, with only about 12 miles left.

An old red racing style car in Haslmere

The last 12 miles were far more difficult with lots of hills and by this time I was getting quite tired. When I did arrive, the journey had taken a total of 4 hours, and 48 miles. A really surprising time for me! This was far faster than expected and besides the first and last 10 miles it was too difficult. This gives me more confidence for the days ahead, but I don’t know how the landscape will change yet. The dull weather had helped a lot, it was warm enough to ride without a jacket but without the burning sun to make things uncomfortable.

I thought I would have done a lot more thinking on this journey, as I usually do when I'm cycling locally, but I found myself largely distracted with keeping myself on course using my printed map booklet. England is beautiful in ways that can’t be communicated just in photos or my writing, and I enjoy being in the middle of nowhere seeing quirky old things.

Once I had arrived and showered, I went to explore the local town and a nearby castle. Farnham is a reasonably modern and busy town with lots of shops (which I find boring). I passed through the town to get visit local landmark Farnham Castle. Parts of England are very old; you see a lot of this outside the main cities. Market towns with houses 400, or even 600 years old are not uncommon and there are still structures standing that are a thousand years old. I might like modernism on the web but I like the real world old and uneven.

Outside wall of Farnham castle keep
Entrance to the castle
Gateway to the keep
Castle gatehouse reverse
The well
The well
View from the top
A window
Another window
Looking over the wall
Looking over the wall
Looking down the well
Looking down the well

I have a ton more photographs but this is proving too time consuming to resize upload and include them all. I'll likely publish many more at the end of the week when I have time.

After visiting the castle I went on an impromptu ride in a random direction to explore. I'm not good with visiting places. I don’t have the patience and am always just itching to be back on the bike again. Despite having cycled almost 50 miles already today I added another 10 to the count. It is the unbridled freedom of being under one’s own steam and beholden to no one that I enjoy. When I am cycling, I am free from outside influence about what I may think about what and I can be constantly inspired by new sights. I don’t like traveling in familiar territory; if I could visit every path in Britain, then I would be happy. There are so many paths and roads that go in odd and interesting directions that I am always wondering “where does that go”, but I have to stick to the route to be able to make it to my destination.

Odometer reads: 48.5 mi, average speed: 12 mph

Day Two: Oxford

The B&B I stayed at overnight was excellent. There was homemade marmalade and jams for toast and a good cooked breakfast. The hostess knew people all over the world from her travels and her husbands time in the military. Surprisingly she has friends in Derbyshire just 5 miles from where I'm staying up there! If they’re in I may give them a visit. Will be a surprise to hear from someone who cycled from Farnham to pass on her love!

The first ten miles was a bit of a slog. This appears to be an emerging pattern. You get into it by the 20 mile mark. There’s not much to photograph, per-se, although all of it is beautiful and nice to look at. It’s very much just small roads with either bushes and fields either side or forests. I could have taken 10× as many pictures but I'm not sure what statement they would really make. Traveling England like this is actually much like how the rally games in the late ’90s. Small roads, trees and fields dotted with ancient houses.

Country road
A tiny house sandwiched between too large houses
A Scottish thistle in bloom

After 30 miles I entered Reading. I don’t like modern urbanised areas as they’re boring but Reading was awesome. There’s the canal going through the middle and tons of high, modern and clean styled buildings.

Reading canal with overlooking buildings
Reading canal with large willow tree and a barge passing under a bridge
Three grey swans in the canal
Birds at the side of the canal, including a curious pigeon
Blue and red barge sailing by
A very modern glass highrise peeking between two older concrete buildings as a mother and child walk past
Five ducks in a row
Barges parked up along the canal wall
A view that combines the five ducks and the barges

Near Wattlington there was a nice 10% hill that when on for a long distance. I managed to get up to a hair raising 40 mph. After that there’s a tiny village called Cuxham with a stream down one side of the road.

A stream, some white railings and a red phone box
See this location in Google Maps Street View

Just before you get into Chalgrove I came across some beautiful fields and stopped to take a few photographs.

A collage of a hedge, field of corn, a big sky and two sets of crossing phone cables
Golden colour cornfield and sky
Another view of golden cornfield with a couple of distant oak trees
The road going off to an angle and the hedges and cornfield beyond
Rusty curved tin roofs of farm buildings hidden behind large bushes
The road going into the distance with 'slow' written on the opposite lane

By this time I had done 50 miles and was still not at my destination. I stopped for a pint in a pub in Stadhampton and then did the remaining 10 miles, which was hard, also a reoccurring theme.

I should have noticed on the Internet beforehand but the guest house I'm staying at is not very pleasant. It’s a large three floor hotel-of-sorts that is more prison than it is accommodation. The room is small, ugly and thought out as bout as well as a punch to the face. I have a kettle and lamp on the desk, but there are no plug sockets on this side, so neither are plugged in, just sitting there gormless like “it’s the thought that counts”. The kettle is a tiny, cheap plastic thing the size of a tall coffee cup and has a cable that is just short enough that it can’t stand on the table at the end of the bed (where there are plugs) so instead I have to boil the kettle on the floor. Both of the bed-side lights don’t work. It is clear that nobody who works here actually stays here. The hotelier had no idea where to put my bike and suggested putting it out of sight behind a car until I insisted it be locked somewhere. This is Oxford, where every tenth car is a bike, where there are cyclists and bikes chained to things everywhere, and he doesn’t have anywhere to put a bike. In the end I chained it to his bike in a private area around the back. I can only hope it’s still there tomorrow.

By now it was late and I was not best pleased with the location. I would have taken some photos of Oxford but I didn’t have my bike and had to walk about and I wasn’t in the mood for sightseeing. Anyway, the journey is the holiday, not the destinations. I hope tomorrow’s breakfast isn’t a square meal.

Odometer reads: 105.3 mi, distance today: 56.7 mi, average speed: 11.8 mph

Day Three: Stratford-Upon-Avon

Best. Day. Ever. The start was a bit rough; I didn’t sleep well at all. At least the breakfast wasn’t terrible, like the rest of the building. My room might have been crap, but at the dining table, I was equal. The dining room was well laid out, restaurant style, with waiters and waitresses. The food was distinctly average, but far better than I was expecting, which I count as a bonus.

Oxford is famous for bicycles. With a large student population, it is the quickest and cheapest method to get around and there are cycle routes and places to lock bicycles at every corner. I managed to speed north out of Oxford at an incredible rate of knots thanks to cycle paths all the way. I turned off onto the B4027 past Kidlington, where began the most amazing 40 miles of cycle journey I've ever experienced. From there to Stratford-upon-Avon I didn’t pass a single urbanised area. Just hamlets and tiny villages all the way. If you ever get the chance to do this route, do. It was really easy to navigate, safe, quicker than any of the other journey’s I've done so far, and was mostly down hill with small short uphill sections that were managed without getting off. I got up to 40 mph at one point and was doing 30 around the corners on Epwell Road.

Winding road disappearing over a crest with bushes either side and a grass verge on the left
This is from early on in the trip
A stone wall that rises up to fit a blue wooden door, the whole ensemble gripped by leafy vines
Curious blue door, what are you for?

The village of Sanford St. Martin was achingly beautiful, everything made from a local yellow stone. It is worth the trip alone to see this place.

A small stone house with one green door on the right, and another door the same in the centre of the second floor
A house with a row of three windows sticking out from the roof
A house partially covered by leafs with 3 windows across the top and 2 windows downstairs, the door in between

Getting towards Great Tew there is a dry stone wall (held up by only by gravity) that goes for a quarter of a mile or more. The wall was partially collapsed in parts and work was underway to rebuild it all, stone by stone.

A yellow dry stone wall collapsed in parts
A little brick house with dry-stone wall around the side door
A farm with surrounding farms
A golden colour field stretching in all directions to the horizon
A black and white striped sign post with perpendicular signs
A more standard road sign, left to Oxhill, right to Epwell
An L-shaped house
A couple of houses with uneven roofs
The unevenness of these buildings didn’t come out as strongly on camera

I arrived at Stratford-upon-Avon around 1:30, way ahead of time, giving me enough time to explore the town. I saw this curious arrangement in somebody’s garden.

A neat lawn with a tiny black sheep model on the left with white sheep a distance apart in a semi-circle around

The town is full of old buildings and there’s more to see than I could fit in in less than half a day.

A long terrace old wood beam house aside a church
A big wood and cast iron riveted door
A WH Smith shop front under a black and white painted wattle and daub building
A busker playing a violin and a little boy bending down to put change into the violin case
Looking up at two sides of an old wood beam house
A canal barge at the waterside
A long wattle and daub house with very wonky beams

I like how even the kebab shops are rustic.

A wattle and daub kebab shop!

This house is the birthplace of William Shakespeare.

Front of Shakespeare’s house

There’s a special tour where you can go inside and look around. Unfortunately no photography is allowed inside, so I can only share photos from the garden out the back.

Rear of Shakespeare’s house

I have more, but not enough time right now. I also visited Anne Hathaway’s cottage (the wife of William Shakespeare), also no photography allowed inside, so you’ll have to visit yourself.

Two people sit on a bench outside the garden of a thatch-roofed cottage
A blue circular thistle with bumble bee crawling over it in front of thatch-roof cottage
Closer view of thatch-roofed cottage

The place I'm staying at is so much better than the place yesterday. It’s absolutely immaculate and the owner was immensely helpful in directing me where to visit and where to eat which saved me enough time to fit everything in. Tomorrow, on to Ashby-de-la-Zouch!

Odometer reads: 148.8 mi, distance today: 43.5 mi, average speed: 12.5 mph

Day Four: Ashby-De-La-Zouch

Why are the good days followed by the bad ones? The journey today was slow and trying; after three days (four now) in a row of cycling 40–50 miles a day my legs are getting tired and seizing up a bit. I had no will left in my legs to push so I could only travel as fast as gravity allowed, putting me down to 10 mph on the flat straights because I could only manage to keep the momentum of the pedals going rather than inputting any actual additional energy. For whatever reason, I didn’t get into the swing of things until 47 miles in when I managed to get above 15 mph on my own power. It was also a wet day with rain in the morning and then continued cold and damp until mid day which—along with the difficult cycling—meant that I took very few photos on the journey.

This one has this bloom effect because the phone lens was getting steamed up.

A slightly blurry photo of a narrow road with big trees bushes close either side
A stone wall with small lead-piped window with a clever tilting diamond section in the middle
A yellow painted house on the corner of a road with stormy sky above
A really run-down wooden hut / shed, overgrown with tall weeds
Road with signpost to the left reading ‘Sheepy Magna’
This is a good village name. It has a neighbouring village called Sheepy Parva

I have cycled 200 miles to see this sign. Ashby-de-la-Zouch is a personal in-joke because for a town with such a strange name, it keeps cropping up unexpectedly. I looked on the back of a packet of Hula Hoops and found that their factory is located in Ashby-de-la-Zouch, of all places. So I had to visit.

Signpost of ‘ASHBY DE LA ZOUCH’

The town itself is very interesting. It has a good variety of shops and plenty of quirkiness.

An old red phone box with large mirror on top and soil-filled toilet inside
Two buildings facing each other on a passageway
A passage way with iron gate closed on one half

I have been searching for a shot like this for months. Because my phone camera is wide angle it’s fine for taking photos of anything up to 1 metre away, but anything further and the picture looks really far away and much smaller than it actually is. Without an optical zoom, I've not been able to get a usable photo on numerous occasions. I finally managed to get a usable picture here, and I call this piece:

A very busy intersection at the rear of two or three buildings
A Cornucopia of Corners

I could have stood there all day looking for the perfect angle for this.

Odometer reads: 205.1 mi, distance today: 56.1 mi, average speed: 11.3 mph

Day Five: Stanton Lees

Where as so far the landscape has been largely of the same toolbox, arranged in different order, when I got past a certain point North things changed radically. However, the difficulty has been since the beginning that my camera doesn’t have the quality or lens to even begin to capture the spectacle of the journey. All I can suggest is that you come and visit yourself. Also, I could have taken so many more, more interesting photos of not just roads, but I had to keep travelling and stopping to take photos all the time slows me down. I'm doing this ride for me, not for you dear readers—sorry :P.

These first few shots are from the initial part of the journey before I entered the peak district.

A yellow field and opposing blue-grey sky
Pylons connecting into the distance over fields
A stone arched bridge over a river
A cattle grid at the top of a hill descending into a vast valley

Today’s route took me through Derby, a very major town. Sorry people from Derby, but your town is ugly and a nightmare to navigate for cyclists. I got lost for half an hour because of the major motorways circling everywhere.

A four-way footpath crossing over a roundabout
Old industrial buildings backing onto a railway line
Boarded up tin-roofed apartments
In front of these were gabion cubes, it looks as if these had been abandoned for use as flood defences

Once I'd left Derby completely the map got thin and sparse. I stopped at a pub called The Black Horse in Hullard Ward where I had a delicious rabbit hot-pot. After that it started getting hilly, and then really hilly. The town of Brassington was unlike anything I had seen yet, very “North” in style, with dry stone walls everywhere to divide the fields up for livestock.

Looking down a hill with dry-stone walls going off in various directions

I stopped to ask a gentleman if Brassington had a cash machine and he laughed and joked “You’re having a giraffe, we’ve only just got currency!” Everything up here is made of local stone or wood, there is no plastic. Even the grit boxes are stone.

A stone box with a hole in the top and a hole in the front at the bottom

There’s lots of quarries here, both old and new and everywhere is either at the top of a steep hill, or at the bottom of one.

A road bending off to the left with a gate on the right overlooking a valley
Looking over a dry stone wall into the valley and hills beyond
A narrow road with walls either side disappearing over a crest

The last couple of miles were real slow going, obviously, and I stopped to take so many photographs that my average speed was just 10 mph at the end of journey. Finally, I arrived after five days cycling.

Close up of my bike’s odometer reading 255.10 miles
Photo of my bike leant against a stone wall and hills in the background

Odometer reads: 255.1 mi, distance today: 42.2 mi, average speed: 10.0 mph

Using a standard, amateur bike (it’s not even a road bike), wearing my regular clothes, carrying not much more than clothes and toiletries, and using maps printed off of Google (no GPS or SatNav!) I've surprised myself by cycling 250 miles in five days with relative ease. I don’t know quite what to make of that, but it’s late and I'll have to think about it tomorrow. I leave you with this final shot.

Telephone pole with lamp attached (off) in silhouette against the sky and hills

Day Six: The Peak District

With the planned journey complete, today was all about exploration rather than a schedule. The weather was very grey and murky and this limits the photos a little.

A road going downhill, and a forest path going uphill, two large boulders block car access uphill
A look straight down at a river and flora, with small stone bridge over river
A large heather-covered stone outcrop besides the road
A wide view of the same stone outcrop
A river running next to the road
Two roads crossing each other in the middle of sparse moorland
A very long road stretching across sparse moorland
The same junction viewed from further up the hill (backwards from previous shot)
A heather-covered outcrop with public footpath signpost
A large stone outcrop atop a hill with distant view behind
A misty view down into the valley
Pink flowering grasses in a field
Another view of the previous
A disused old street of three terrace stone houses on the side of a hill

Tomorrow I leave the peak district and take a train home. The train goes to London St. Pancras station, I have to then cycle 4 miles over London and then get the train home at London Victoria station. Cycling through London is going to be more nerve-wracking and more of a challenge than the ride up here.

Odometer reads: 297.8 miles, distance today: 37.3, average speed: 10.6 mph

Day Seven: The Journey Home

The journey home proved to be more intense a challenge than riding the 250 miles to get there! I had to cycle from Stanton Lees 15 miles to Chesterfield station. I went the wrong direction from the off, which is why I went all the way up to Rowsley first. Sydnope Hill is a very long 20% hill that took an age to get up. I didn’t get many pictures of the journey today as I was so pressed for time.

Peeking down a grass hill to a large house in front of a tree covered hill beyond

From there it’s across moorlands.

A very long road with fields either side

Further down the road I finally got some compensation for the mile long steep hill I had to go up, a nice long downhill section where I managed to reach the fastest speed I’ve done in the journey, 43 mph. I could have gone faster but my bike only has 21 gears so by the time I get to 35 mph I have no traction in the chain anymore and can’t accelerate, it’s down to just gravity there on.

I made it to the train just as it was pulling up to the platform, seconds to spare. It was pretty intense given the distance I had travelled and the hills I had gone up and the mad rush in the last 10 minutes to make it in time. The train would stop at London St. Pancras International Station at 1:34 pm where I would have to cycle over the top of London to London Victoria Station for 2:17 pm, just 43 minutes to travel 5 miles over London. This was the planned route, but as I travelled the main road bore almost no resemblance to the map, I decided to take a shortcut through the only place in London I’ve been before: Oxford Circus / Regent Street (where the Apple store is :P). Here’s the route I actually took, I accidentally took a wrong turning and ended up going past Buckingham Palace so took the opportunity to take a quick snap whilst waiting at some lights.

Buckingham Palace

Cycling through London was insane, the road never just went in one direction. Lanes merged and split everywhere, there were lights every few hundred yards, the traffic was crazy. It is not a place I ever recommend anyone drive in or cycle through. I arrived at Victoria with a few minutes to spare. Thankfully I’ve been in Victoria before and managed to find the right platform quickly enough, but it was still too close for comfort given that the tickets I had purchased were for specific trains on specific times and there was no room for error. I got home some time before 4 pm; what took me five days on bicycle I did in 5 hours, but there’s simply no comparison. Going by train, and through London, was unpleasant and stressful and I would have preferred to cycle back but didn’t have enough luggage room or money to add the extra days.

Odometer reads: 320.9 miles