Category Archives: Britain

Time to get cycling again

It has, as they say, “been a long time between drinks” on this blog site. The last post was just over a year ago. This has not been due to any tardiness, simply that the events of life took over and this blog had to be temporarily put on ice.

I hope to now reverse this situation and get regular posts going again. There is so much to tell, and so many questions to ask of you cycling fraternity out there, it is difficult to know where to start 🙂

Perhaps it is appropriate to have a quick review of where our cycling adventures have taken us, the things we have learned and what we would like to try next. We have completed 3 major biking tours and have learnt so much from each of them. Each one has been remarkably different in some way.

Waiting for a train in with our loaded bikes. Let our French adventures begin!

Waiting for a train in with our loaded bikes. Let our French adventures begin!

For our first, somewhat timid foray into cycle-touring, we booked ourselves into B and Bs along the beautiful Loire Valley in France, and then rode avidly from one to the next for 4 weeks. It was a superb trip, but on reflection, we spent far too much time in the saddle, trying to cover as much distance as we could.

All things wonderfully French!

All things wonderfully French!

There was not enough time to explore unexpectedly lovely spots, and not enough rest days. And we went too late in the season and got cold. Frosty cold! But at least the rain stayed away, and we had fine weather for almost the entire month.

The take home message for this trip was not to be in such a hurry to “get there”.

Our second trip took place in the  UK. It was a cyclo-tour with a family history flavour in that we tried to visit a number of the places where our ancestors had lived.

Having learnt not to pack too many kilometres into each day, we took a bit longer to cover the same distances, but then got the train, so moved around the countryside very quickly, while still being able to do a lot of cycling. This plan worked very well, and we were able to ride in the lovely Cotswolds, the Scottish borders and highlands, around Bath and London, and along the south coast of England. Accommodation was a lot easier (and cheaper) because we stayed at Youth Hostels in most locations.

Cycling in the lovely green English countryside.

Cycling in the lovely green English countryside.

The weather was a bit more of a problem on this trip and we got drenched a number of times (there is nowhere for cyclists to get out of the rain in the UK!). One particular evening stands out in this regard: it was pouring rain (and had been for most of the afternoon) and we arrived at our destination absolutely soaked. Once we were dry, there was no way we were going to voluntarily go back out into the wet to find a meal!

Our third trip took us back to France.

One of our Hubba Hubba tents which were a breeze to carry, erect and pack.

One of our Hubba Hubba tents which were a breeze to carry, erect and pack.

We had enjoyed ourselves so much the first time, and loved all things French, especially the people. This time we packed two tents and enough camping equipment to give us some basic comforts and headed to the Rhône Valley to see what this area had to offer.

We wisely started in the north and cycled southwards, so had the Mistral (wind) helping us most of the way. The area had some amazing surprises for us, with Nîmes and the Pont du Gard being the highlights. A train trip later and we entered the Albi area which also had a few surprises in store. The highlight for me was the incredible Millau Bridge and the fun times riding through inky black tunnels on our bikes.

The amazing, 4 lane Millau Bridge, France.

The amazing, 4 lane Millau Bridge, France.

Admiring the spectacular Millau Bridge from a distance.

Admiring the spectacular Millau Bridge from a distance.

The camping lost its appeal when the weather turned wet, but it was not a problem when things were fine (I am not fond of mud!). We did find that many of the campsites where we stayed were quite expensive, and a more comfortable (dry) bed could often be found at a local three star hotel or F1 hotel.

What you can see when you cycle through one of the tunnels between Millau and Albi.

What you can see when you cycle through one of the tunnels between Millau and Albi – it was bright daylight outside!

So what is next? We think a hybrid trip, using busses and trains to go longer distances (since this worked well on both the last two trips). But getting bikes on and off trains can be rather nightmarish, and some buses refuse to carry them altogether. So we are planning to take two Brompton folding bikes, which pack down so nicely into compact bundles with wheels. The tents will probably be left behind and a greater reliance placed on finding reasonably priced hotel accommodation. Such are our tentative plans.

A Brompton folding bike can be carried on and off trains and easily  put on a bus.

A Brompton folding bike can be carried on and off trains and easily put on a bus.

The challenge now is to figure out how to get a folded bike and all my gear into a single bag or suitcase. Ideally, the case needs to have wheels and be “inversible” When the bike is airborne, it needs to be inside the bag, but when the bike is unpacked, its bag needs to be able to fold up somehow so that it can travel on the bike racks i.e. “invertible”. 🙂  Does anyone have any helpful suggestions?

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Bicycles, culture and tradition

Over the past few years, I have been mulling over what it is about the countries I have visited in Europe that really appeals to me. It may be the weather in the summer which is lovely. It definitely is not the winter weather – far too cold for a sunshine worshipper like me.

Paved areas are for pedestrians, sealed zone is for cyclists.

Paved areas are for pedestrians, sealed zone is for cyclists. (Braunschweig, Germany)

During my recent trip to Germany (which you can read about here if you are interested), I thought about this a bit more. Because this trip was during the German winter – the days were short, it was snowy and cold. Yet that “European appeal” was as strong as ever.

I have decided that it comes down to the cycling culture and tradition of these countries. While European cyclists enjoy dedicated biking zones, and a happy tolerance and acceptance of bicycles as a means of transport, we in Australia have a long way to go.

It is often a battle to convince the general public that cycling zones are even worth having (probably because so few people here ride a bike). Rarely, there is a cyclist track available, and these are fabulous. But most often, cyclists are forced to mix it with the trucks, cars and busses in the general traffic.

Sadly, many motorists in this country dislike cyclists with a passion and feel that they have no place being on the road. A few motorists even go so far as displaying aggressive behaviour towards cyclists that is simply dangerous. It is illegal to intimidate other road users, but, they have to be caught to be prosecuted. Fortunately, these incidents are not too common, but in my opinion, the general motoring public still has a long way to go with respect to learning about being courteous towards cyclists.

A wide sidewalk with clearly demarcated cycling and pedestrian areas. (Braunschweig, Germany)

A wide sidewalk with clearly demarcated cycling and pedestrian areas. (Braunschweig, Germany)

The above photos were taken on my most recent trip to Germany. I was amazed and very impressed with the designated  cycleways that are found on all the main roads in Braunschweig, where I stayed for a while. I was even reminded on a few occasions that I was ‘walking in the cycling zone’ and this was not acceptable 🙂

Even late on a cold night, cyclists are out and about.

Even late on a cold night, cyclists are out and about.

Comparing the density of population/traffic between this German city and the one where I live, I can only surmise that many of the inner city inhabitants of Braunschweig must own a bike and use it as a primary means of transport. Even late on a winter evening, people were out using the cycleways provided.

Oxford. Bikes are an integral part of the culture.

Oxford. Bikes are an integral part of the culture.

I have only cycled in two European countries so far – the UK and France. Each country is different, but both exhibit the same cycling acceptance to that I found in Germany. In Oxford, for example, bikes are so much a part of the university city culture, it would simply not be the same without them.

Where I come from, a ‘large’ public bicycle parking area may be able to accommodate a dozen bikes perhaps. Certainly nothing like what is found in Oxford or Paris.

Bike parking near a major French railway station.

Bike parking near a major French railway station.

French and German trains have allocated space for bikes.

French and German trains have allocated space for bikes.

But this is what different cultures are about. The countries of the European continent have had bicycles as part of their cultures and traditions for many centuries. In Australia, we do not have this experience to draw on. But as petrol gets more expensive and finally runs out, we may have to change our attitudes and learn a few things from the Europeans.

This biking culture is what appeals to me so much about these countries. It is a magnet that will bring me back to enjoy this environment time and time again. I can’t wait for the day when we have it as part of our culture here too.

A picture tells a funny tale!

Sometimes, all it takes is a photo to bring a funny story to mind. This photo is one of those which never fails to bring a smile to my face!

Those who are familiar with the posties (postmen and postwomen) in the UK will know that they often have red pannier bags on their bicycles. I did not really pay much attention at the time, but they probably also wear high visibility jackets.

We were happily exploring a lovely cobbled area during our last cyclo-tour and I was snapping away with the camera. I had just got KJ to pose with his loaded Trance – against a perfect backdrop of castle ramparts and sunny blue skies when he was approached by two strangers.

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KJ looks every bit the knowledgeable postman as he gives directions!

I was puzzled when he started giving directions and pointing back the way we had come, and joined them to find out what was going on.

These lovely folks had mistaken him for a postman and were asking directions! The irony is that they were from New Zealand, which is not far from Australia and we were just as much in the dark about where everything was as they were!

We chatted for a while and when they left us, everyone still laughing about the circumstances of our meeting.

Have you any photos that repeatedly bring back a good memory of something that happened while you were out riding?

Chalky white horses

It was day 16 of our cycling tour of the UK. The weather was overcast and pleasantly mild as we rode across to Devizes (Wiltshire) from Hungerford. The day’s ride was not very long (47km) and we had plenty of time to appreciate the countryside.

Map of the day's ride from Hungerford to Devizes

Map of the day’s ride from Hungerford to Devizes (Tracked using the Cyclemeter app and opened into Google Earth)

We were  approaching the village of Alton Barnes when KJ casually asked if I knew about the horses.

I glanced around. There was no traffic, the roads completely deserted – if there were people about riding horses, they would have been quite obvious. But no riders, and no horses. I was a bit stymied.

But he was referring to the White Horses which are located on various hills around Devizes and are quite famous. After getting this explanation, I proceeded to scour the local hills, but could not see anything remotely resembling a horse!

The Alton Barnes White Horse on a hill in the distance

The Alton Barnes White Horse on a hill in the distance

But as we got closer to the village of Alton Barnes, I saw one of the horses on the far hill. The image above is what we could see from the road, and the image from Google Maps (below) shows what it looks like from above.

Google maps overhead view of Alton Barnes White Horse (Credit: GoogleMaps)

Google Maps overhead view of Alton Barnes White Horse (Credit: Google Maps)

Using the zoom on the camera, we were able to see the horse in greater detail. It  is made of white chalk which is placed on an area which has been cleared of vegetation. This horse was commissioned in 1812 by Robert Pile who lived in Alton Barnes at a place called Manor Farm.

The chalky horses require regular attention to keep them in good condition. The chalk washes away and weeds and other vegetation have to be kept off the cleared areas.

The Alton Barnes White Horse

The Alton Barnes White Horse

This horse is located in a nature reserve and has no direct road access. It has been re-chalked recently in recognition of the fact that it is now 200 years old. 150 tons of chalk was delivered by helicopter for this task (Source: MailOnline).

Apparently, each winter solstice, there is a traditional lantern parade where the locals position lights around the edge of the feature making it visible in the dark.

Google maps overhead view of Devizes Millennium White Horse

Google Maps overhead view of Devizes Millennium White Horse (Credit: Google Maps)

Further along on our route, we also saw another horse, this one was immediately north of Devizes. It faces the other direction to the Alton Barnes image (it is one of only four that face this way in the UK). Unfortunately we could not get a good photo of it but it is visible in the Google Maps image above. This horse was created in 1999 to mark the advent of the 3rd millennium.

These horses were something that I had not expected and I really enjoyed seeing them. It was by pure chance that our cycling route took us past such good vantage points.

Background information used in this post is from the Wikipedia website. Further information on both these and a number of other white horses in the UK is also published on this website.

(Follow this link for details on our overall UK cyclo-touring route).

Under a very big, old arch

A surprise was in store for us as we cycled the 57km from Brigstock to Thurlby! We were cycling in a number of districts in the England as part of our cyclotour in 2010 and had neglected to do some background research on our proposed route for the day. Well, that is to say, we had looked at the terrain, calculated our projected daylength and planned where to stop for breaks! But we had forgotten to check out the items of interest along the way 😦

It looked big as we approached!

It looked pretty big as we approached!

It was therefore with great surprise and delight that we came upon one of the most remarkable feats of railway construction in the UK! Cycling gives one a lot of time to appreciate the scenery and it was immediately apparent that the viaduct we had come across was certainly very long! The road approaching this amazing construction winds around a bit, giving tantalising glimpses of the viaduct, but nothing gives away the overall size! It is not until one cycles below and stops to gaze up into one of the arches that the full implication of the size becomes staggering.

The cyclist puts a scale into the image - it is a BIG arch!

The cyclist puts a scale into the image – it is a BIG arch! Imagine being the bricklayer on this section!

Going north, there is a long, steep climb out of the valley before you get the chance to get a photo of the viaduct in its entirety. Well, the bits you can see, anyway.

View of the viaduct from a distance as we rode out of the valley

View of the viaduct from a distance as we rode out of the valley

As soon a we could, I did some research to find out some more about the viaduct. It was built in the Victorian era and must have cost an extraordinary amount, because it is truly immense and was built with simple tools: picks and shovels, wheelbarrows and horse power. The Midland railway runs between Manton Junction and Glendon South Junction. It is a complex section of railway which has (amongst other things) four tunnels and five viaducts. The viaduct which we had come across was one of the latter – the Harringworth Viaduct (now known as Welland or Seaton Viaduct) .

The section visible from the road is deceiving

The section visible from the road is deceiving

The construction is 3825 feet or 1.159km in length and is the longest viaduct construction in the British rail network. It has 82 arches with the highest of these measuring 21.2 metres (70ft) – the average height is 17.2m (57ft).

The construction was started in March 1876 and completed by July 1878. It was fascinating and I was very pleased we rode under it! It is certainly BIG and as such is an excellent take on the WordPress challenge: Big.

Important note: All the statistics and details about this lovely viaduct came from a very informative website – The Heritage Trail. Further statistics (quoted from this website for those who are interested in construction) are as follows:

To appreciate the sheer scale of this structure it really needs to be viewed ‘in the flesh’ but, for those that are unable to, the following statistics may help give some idea of the enormity of the task facing the 400 navvies and their 120 horses that built it.

The Harringworth Viaduct crosses the River Welland on the Rutland and Northamptonshire border, and is a grade II listed structure. It comprises 82 arches, each with a 42ft (12.7m) span. 71 of the supporting piers are 6ft (1.8m) thick, with a further 10 being double thickness and spaced evenly along its length. Each of these can be indentified by a pilaster on its face and were designed to isolate the arches into ‘sets’, preventing any under-strain from being continued indefinitely from arch to arch. The average height of the arches is 57ft (17.2m), but the highest is 70ft (21.2m). The viaduct is constructed from some 30,000,000 bricks, all manufactured on site, with Derbyshire Gritstone springers, string courses and coping. As well as the bricks, construction required some 20,000 cubic yards of concrete, 19,000 cubic yards of stone, 37,543 cubic yards of lime mortar, and 5,876 cubic yards of cement.The Heritage Trail.

My thanks to the creators of this website for making this information available on the web.

(Follow this link for details on the overall UK tour route)

Planning the UK trip (Part 2: Overnight stops)

This is part 2 of a of Planning the UK trip. Read part 1

HOW FAR TO RIDE?

Working out where to stop each day was limited by our desire to ride an average of about 60km (37 miles) a day. Any more than this, and there was not enough time to stop and appreciate the scenery and interesting things along the way. We averaged 59km/cycling day, so this was quite close to our desired target.

It is possible to work out ideal overnight destinations using a map and a bit of string which is what I did with the French tour. However, with the UK trip, I got a bit more technical and used the RoutePad app I have described on the Using Technology post. This gave me a good idea of the degree of difficulty we could expect in each day’s travel as well as the distance.

No planning can factor in/out 'interesting' weather

No amount of planning can factor in/out ‘interesting’ weather (Scottish Highland sunshowers)

BREAKING THE CYCLING WITH RAIL TRIPS

We had learnt from our French cyclo-tour that we needed breaks from riding every few days. These breaks allowed for some relief from the weather (particularly when it was cold and wet every day) and gave us time to catch up on correspondence, journals etc. It was also good to just relax for a day every now and again!

We planned to take the train on these ‘rest’ days. This would give us greater coverage of the country and open up new areas for exploration. But taking the train is not so easy when you are taking a bike along as well, so we had to choose our routes accordingly.

We purchased a BritRail Pass which gave us 8 days of (non urban) rail travel over a 2 month period. This was excellent value and was ideal to cover each section of the country travel we required. All we had to do each time we wanted to catch a train was to check that there were seats for us and then book the bikes on as well. This was easily done, and usually just required a visit to the embarkation station within a day or so of our intended travel. (BritRail passes need to be purchased before travelling to the UK).

The bikes usually travel in the guard’s compartment or at the end of the train. You will need to know exactly where they need to go and be waiting at the appropriate section of the platform 🙂 (Sometimes you will also need to check out how to get your bike across to the correct platform – this can be a challenge at some country stations!)

We found the railway booking staff to be very helpful when it came to finding out all this information. We had no problems getting the bikes boarded as well as ourselves and our gear at any of the stations we used.

Carbisdale Castle - an amazing Youth Hostel in Scotland

Carbisdale Castle – an amazing Youth Hostel in Scotland

Accommodation

England and Scotland have very many wonderful Youth Hostels, most of which accommodate bike riders with no problems. We stayed at these hostels wherever possible. Booking was simple, we just joined the local Australian Youth Hostel Association and then booked our overseas destinations (with ease) on the internet. Some hostels are very popular and need to be booked early. Others close for the winter, so also check availability.

In most places, we were able to get a private room, but some hostels only had shared male or female dormitories. But the rates were very reasonable and most of the hostels have kitchens, laundries and a sitting room where you can relax if you so desire. Some of the bigger ones also have a restaurant, although the quality of the food/service varies considerably.

Three Swans Hotel - with bicycle accommodation!

Three Swans Hotel – with bicycle accommodation! We really enjoyed our stay here – we were on the ground floor (no steep, narrow staircases!)

Where there were no hostels, we used the internet to search for a B&B or a local hotel. It was necessary to check with every place to ensure that there was somewhere secure to park the bikes overnight. But we had little trouble finding somewhere suitable at each of our proposed destinations. B&Bs and hotels can be booked easily using the internet.

NIGHT MEALS

One thing to watch when you are reliant on a bicycle for transport is to make sure you have sufficient food with you (if you are staying at a hostel where you intend to cater for yourself). If you intend to eat at a pub or restaurant, then make sure that your accommodation is sufficiently close to the latter to enable you to get there! While it may seem logical to just hop on the bike and ride to the nearest food outlet, at the end of a day when you have been on the bike for a number of hours/all day, this ride may not be a fun outing!

Watching a passing train while watching the bikes

Grocery stop – watching a passing train while looking after the bikes

It is also not a bad idea to keep a supply of non perishable, nutritious food in case you get stuck and have to rely on this for an unexpected meal! We were caught in persistent heavy rain one afternoon and having made it to the B&B and finally got ourselves dry, there was no way were going out again into the pouring rain to get dinner!

The muesli bars in our ‘just in case’ food stash were very welcome that night!

(Follow this link for details on the overall UK tour route)

Planning the UK trip (Part 1: Choosing the route)

Some people really enjoy planning their cycling trips. I am not in this category yet, as I find them plain hard work! But the more I do, the quicker I get and so one day I might enjoy the process! While it is possible to cycle with a tour company, and they will do the planning for you (for a fee), this is not our preferred way of touring – we like the freedom to go where we please and change our plans at will. The UK trip was our second major tour and we had learnt a lot from the first one (in France).

Mountain bikes travel by train

Mountain bikes travel by train, hung up by the front wheel

One thing is for sure – the more effort that goes into the planning, the better the outcome will be, and the less worry you will have while on tour.

WHERE TO GO?

One of the most difficult things to do when planning a trip is deciding where to go. While traditional tours whisk the tourist around a number of destinations in quick succession, this will not be possible when you are relying on pedal power! Even something as simple as being able to get to a grocery store or restaurant for dinner may become quite a challenge!

So the routes must be chosen with care, so that there is plenty to see, do and experience even though the actual territory covered may be quite small. The trick to this, we discovered, is to use cycle friendly public transport to move to different places, then to cycle for a while in the new location before moving on again.

Pretending to be in France - fun on a deserted lane

Pretending to be in France – fun on a deserted lane

When planning our tour to the UK, we had some destinations that we really wanted to visit, but mostly we were happy to go pretty well anywhere. The ‘must see’ places were Edinburgh, the Scottish Highlands, Culloden, the west coast of Scotland, and Canterbury. I had also previously been to the Cotswolds area and liked it a lot, so we decided to include that area as well. The canal towpaths had been most enjoyable in France, so if there were any that fitted with our route, we wanted to ride along those too.

It worked out that if we started in London and went north, then explored Scotland, we could then return to the southern areas and work our way across from west to east. So this was our rough plan – we would see quite a bit of the UK and fit in a lot of cycling.

FINE TUNING THE ROUTE

I purchased the only book I could find on cycling in the UK. It was a Lonely Planet guide and was excellent. I spent a good while reading and researching the various rides that had been suggested by the authors. Some were easy to include (plenty of accommodation at the end of each day’s riding), while others were perplexing since there was nowhere suitable to overnight – perhaps they were intended for locals who could go home at the end of the day. Some were just too short.

An encouraging sign for cyclists

An encouraging sign for cyclists (“Allez, allez, well done!”). The sign was at the top of the steep Cleeve Hill climb!

There were a few that really sounded good, fitted with our rough plan and just needed minor tweaking to be included.

I used the internet to search for information on interesting routes that were being promoted by local councils. Some had excellent material and I downloaded and used their maps and fliers both while planning and also when riding through these areas.

Google maps was invaluable for finding addresses of places to stay (it matters a lot when a B&B is 20km the away from your desired destination – that is a long way extra to ride at the end of the day!)  It was also good to be able to have a look at the photo of the hotel or B&B and see whether they were likely to have secure overnight accommodation for the bikes.

We knew we would have access to Google maps on our iPad, which made the map management of the trip a totally different situation to what we had had in France. During our French tour, we had to rely on paper maps instead. The latter were excellent in the countryside, but hopeless in the cities. I would not tour without an iPad now – they are happy in the city or the country and their zooming power makes navigation simple.

This is part 1 of a of Planning the UK trip. Part 2 can be found here!

(Follow this link for details on the overall UK tour route).