Monday, May 29

Wiltshire/Hampshire mini bike tour

I had been thinking lately that it was high time I had a bike trip, so as sewing jobs were up to date and the weather forecast for the week was good, I had a look online at which youth hostels were within a day's ride and were also offering good rates. I picked Cholderton Youth Hostel near Amesbury, which was about 50 miles away. The plan was to cycle down there on Thursday, have a pootle round the next day, including maybe a trip on cycle routes into Salisbury, and then cycle home a different way on Saturday.

Let me just say at this point that on my return second daughter said something like "Your bike trips always seem to go wrong........"  Which might give you a clue that something went wrong with this one too.... Still if everything went according to plan wouldn't life be boring!!

So here's what happened.

I booked, online, what I thought was a single en-suite room for two nights for £47. I would have rung to check that this was what I was actually going to get, as it did sound a bit too good to be true price wise, but it was all a bit last minute, and the hostel wasn't open for telephone enquiries at the time of day I booked, so I just went ahead and booked it. I then spent the rest of the day packing and working out the route, which was to take me from here in Oxfordshire across the North Wessex Downs and over Salisbury Plain, which included cycling on NCN routes 254, 4, 20 and 45 as far as Bulford north of Amesbury. Husband had looked on Google Earth and worked out a point at which I should be able to then cross the major A303 and carry on to Cholderton.

The next day I got up at 5 am and set off at 7.10, along the B4507, a narrow and winding minor road which a lot of people use to get to Swindon. Many of said people would no doubt prefer to get there without any cyclists getting in their way, so they overtake at stupid places, causing oncoming drivers to have to slow down sharply....... I was glad when I turned off this road towards Foxhill. Then it was on down to Aldbourne and on to Ramsbury, which was my planned coffee stop, being a reasonable 17 miles into the journey. I'd already stopped for a snack and water.  One thing I have learnt from previous trips is -


If I'm careful in this respect I can avoid the bonking that I have experienced in the past from not eating the right stuff at the right time.

I had the choice, as far as I could see, of a cafe adjoining a pub, or, advertised on an A- board in the town centre, a coffee morning at the local Methodist church. Well, I'll go for the latter, I thought - more sociable - and asked in a nearby gallery where it was. This is where me and Husband differ - he would have got out his smart phone and used that to find out where it was. I like to talk to a real person! I think it makes life much more interesting.

I joined several ladies and one man in the church for coffee and a biscuit, and had a nice chat, including to one lady who had done a lot of cycling in the past, and several others, all trying to lose weight. They all weighed themselves to see if they'd lost any but didn't seem to have had much success!!  And they filled my water bottle too. All this for 50p!!!! I gave them £2, and they told me that coffee at the pub cafe would have been £2.50. Admittedly the coffee wasn't the best (I'm quite fussy about my coffee and even more so about tea) but still, nebs mind, as my mum used to say.

I should add that Helpful Husband  had loaded my route onto my Garmin (this really was VERY helpful) so that I could just look down at that and see where I needed to go, which meant I didn't have to stop and consult the map frequently. Normally, even when I've memorised a few turnings I still often find myself checking at junctions that I'm going the right way. Mind you I do have to remember not to just gaily cycle on but to look down at the thing and go where it's telling me! But a problem arose when I veered very slightly off course to look at these lovely gardens near the A4 (my photos don't do them justice) -

Well the builder's sack isn't lovely but the garden and the bike sign were! And I love seeing front doors open on sunny days.

Don't you just want to wander up this path and into the cottage?

I then looked at my Garmin and thought - er, which way is it now...... I thought I knew, but when I set off in that direction the Garmin was telling me I was off course, so I turned round and looked at the Sustrans signs, but they didn't help (they're not always very clear). After a lady had offered me advice, I spotted another cyclist paused at the bottom of the hill I had previously started to go up, and thought - ah, he looks like someone who'll know, so I said -

"Are you lost too?"

He then pointed to his watch and said very little. It turned out it was 11 am and he was pausing to remember those who died in the Manchester attack, so I carried on up the hill anyway. He later caught me up and said he hadn't meant to be rude (by not speaking) but that the attack had affected him a lot. He had come from Witney, north of me, and was on his way to a memorial service at Tidcombe, and would probably do a century by the time he returned home. We chatted and pushed on up the hill a bit and he told me that Garmins sometimes do this thing of indicating you are off course when you are amongst hills and that it would probably right itself later, which it did.

Just after Collingbourne Ducis I came off the downs and onto Salisbury Plain. I have to say here that I wouldn't do this part of the route again if I had the choice. I had driven this bit of road last year, so it was vaguely familiar, but in a car it's a very different kettle of fish to on a bike. It's not the best cycling countryside in my opinion, especially on a very hot day when the lack of shade reminded of a passage in a Josie Dew (my cycling hero) book when she's cycling across a desert in the USA and just had to put her head down and pedal and forget about the long road ahead before the desert ends.

There were plenty of tank warning signs but I didn't see any tanks - that might have made it more interesting!

In the heat I too felt like I might explode if touched.

I was reminded too of a passage from a book I am reading, called The Green Road into the Trees, by Hugh Thomson, in which he walks the Icknield Way. He walks across Salisbury Plain and meets a London lady walking, who tells him that she often goes there to walk precisely because she knows it's one place she can walk without meeting anybody! I didn't see many people either, or even much traffic. I came to Netheravon, a military base - it's weird travelling through these places as one feels one shouldn't be there - and then paused further down the river at Figheldean, somewhere else that Hugh Thomson mentions, on the river Avon, and this was my next real stop.

First I went inside the cool church there, and then outside I heard the first cuckoo I've heard for years! It went on and on. I also filled my water bottle; this is something else that Hugh Thomson mentions - that churches usually have taps outside (and so do cemeteries, for watering the grave flowers I presume), something I had noticed too and which is very handy for cyclists and walkers.  I assume that the water comes from the mains and is therefore drinkable...... must be I suppose if a much published author drinks it....

So far the ride hadn't been, to be honest, all that enjoyable, although - and hear this - even the most unenjoyable of bike rides still has a lot going for it! But by now I was well on the way to my destination and thought I'd got plenty of time (little did I know what was to come!) to at last pause and enjoy the surroundings, which at this point was the river Avon. I never knew it ran all the way down to Bournemouth. I diverted off my route to get down to the river, and I was so glad I did as this proved to be the best part of the day. I discovered an absolute gem of a mill pond where people were swimming, including a pregnant lady! It was just so lovely to see people enjoying themselves in this way on a very hot day. I'd be tempted to go back there another day and swim; I'm not much of a swimmer and hate indoor pools full of chlorine, but in my childhood I did swim in rivers a couple of times and would love to do so again. I stayed there a while and paddled in the water to cool down my feet. It was so hot that they dried almost instantly afterwards.

There's my handlebar!

Swimmers in the mill pond

After Figheldean I cycled on to, and through, another military base at Bulford Camp and made sure I found the path that Helpful Husband had said I should go down to get across the A303 to Cholderton. To give him his due (the bit where the trip goes wrong is coming....)  he had looked on Google Earth to establish that I would be able to get across the road there. He had seen a bit in the middle where cars turn right, and thought I should be able to get across to that and then over the other side, and when you look at Google Earth that is perfectly feasible, as there is hardly any traffic on the road!!! In reality when I got there there was nothing BUT traffic, and all going very fast! The Google people must have been there on a day when the world and his wife were indoors watching a royal wedding or something....... I waited a few minutes but knew I'd have to go back and find another place to cross.

Fortunately another bit of technology I had with me was Helpful Husband's old smartphone with OS maps on, so I was able to work out a route, but this meant going back in the opposite direction towards Bulford itself (not the Camp I'd just come through) and on into Amesbury, where there was a bridlepath which crossed the A303. I followed the road and found a Tesco's, which I was told had a cafe - I was rather in need of a cup of tea not having found ANYWHERE to have one all afternoon, and I do love my cup of tea in the afternoon on bike trips - but by then the cafe was shut. So on I had to go without tea. Communication with HH followed, and we agreed on my route, initially via bridlepaths, to Cholderton. Why bridlepaths, given that I wasn't on a mountain bike and you never quite know how rideable a bridlepath is going to be? Well, the only alternative was to go a long way round by road, and it was getting late and I was getting tired.......

So off I went, this time round the back of MoD Boscombe Down, past some travellers and their dogs, and along a very narrow path that follows the perimeter fencing. I part walked part cycled this, and then came out onto a really good track, and just as I was consulting my OS maps again, in the middle of nowhere, I got asked directions to Amesbury by a Liverpudlian driver. I moved the map a bit on the screen and told him and got a very nice Liverpudlian thank you. I have no idea really, why I then chose to travel on more bridlepaths rather than going a much shorter way by road but I'm sure that I had my reasons at the time..... or maybe I was just too knackered to think straight. But once again mistakes aren't always bad - these paths were eminently rideable (must tell HH about them, I thought - he would love to ride them on his mountain bike)  and it was lovely riding through the woods, although I have to admit I was pedalling as fast as I could now as I desperately wanted a cup of tea, a shower, and bed.

I came out, eventually, as the evening was drawing in, to something called the Hampshire Gap, right on the Hampshire/Wiltshire border. Back to the book! Hugh Thomson travelled through something called the Dorset gap, which, he informs the reader, is a place where old drovers' roads meet, and this Hampshire Gap seemed to be just that as well. So I learnt something through my silly choice of route!

Four gents were walking on the road as I emerged from the trees, and I asked them directions to the hostel. Thinks: Why didn't I look on the map before I left home and find out where the hostel actually was? Or why didn't I look at the map on the smartphone earlier and look for the red triangle that signifies a hostel?  Again I could have saved myself some mileage if I had done......I think I just assumed that it would spring out at me as I got into Cholderton. The kind gents said "Down to the roundabout, straight over, then up the hill (OH PLEASE NOT ANOTHER HILL)  about a mile and it's on your left".

Finally, at 7.50, I arrived. And then what happens? There am I thinking of that room to myself, that cup of tea, that shower, that fresh clean bed, and they tell me -

"Oh no, there are no single rooms here. You're booked into a dorm with 6 other people!"

Now, before I left, HH had said -

"What would you do if you got there and found you'd made a mistake and you had to share a room with other people?"

"I wouldn't like it but I would share a room if I had to."

Oh yes?

Now, had it not been so late,  and had I not been hot, sweaty, tired and in dire need of that cup of tea, I might have done just that, but I was all those things and I did not want to share! I thought of going and finding a B and B...... But the couple running the hostel were very kind and offered me a three bedded room to myself, and said I could have the neighbouring two bedded room the next night, although I'd have to pay double...... I hesitated about the second night, but then said yes. I brought my bike in and was given my key to a room at the top of the house. It was fine, and was clean and so was the shower room, but when I tried to push the already open window open wider it wouldn't go - Health and Safety reasons perhaps - and the evening was HOT, and even in the depths of winter I hate sleeping with the window shut, so this was BAD NEWS! I can't do this for another night I thought!

I spoke, after a shower, to HH on the phone, and we discussed me cycling to Devizes the next day, 25 - 30 miles, and meeting him there with the car and bike rack. There's a pub that does food he likes and he promised me lunch there, which is not to be sniffed at, as HH is not an eating out sort of person. It takes a lot to impress him on the restaurant/pub/cafe front!

I should add here that HH has been off work for some time with an injured ankle - not broken but probably ligament damage - and has been doing a lot of RICEing, as well as some cycling, which seemed to actually help the ankle. Maybe all the help Wife had to give him (fetching ice packs/coffee/letting him off jobs) made him think - "I'd better help her out cos I might need her in the future again as nursemaid".

We agreed to talk again in the morning, by which time I had decided that cycling to Devizes wasn't a good idea, as I wouldn't have had time to recover much, I couldn't face half the journey being the same route as I'd just taken and I hadn't had time to wash out my padded underwear let alone give it time to dry, and it was going to be even hotter tomorrow....... So the next morning I cancelled my second night, and agreed with Husband that I would cycle to Stockbridge, about 15 miles away (can cope without padding for that distance) and he would pick me up there.

I hadn't spoken to any other guests at the hostel when I arrived, and indeed it had seemed very quiet. But before I left I had a long chat with an Australian nurse who had come over to join her travelling daughter for 6 weeks. They had been to Holland and Belgium and she told me about how good things were for cyclists in Holland. What is interesting is that everybody tends to think that it's always been that way in Holland, but it hasn't. It was only in the 1970s that things really changed in favour of the cyclist. Here's a good article about it .

They had hired a car but had folding bikes too. I wished I'd arrived earlier the previous day and then I think I might have more of these interesting conversations. I can see that staying in youth hostels is probably a great way to meet people. And they're not just for "youth", despite the name - many older people (ha ha, like me!) stay in them too.

Last year after a disastrous night's camping, I found I just couldn't stomach much breakfast, and now, after a bad night's sleep, the same happened again. I had a packet of dried oatmeal and raspberries with me which you just mixed hot water with, and was actually very tasty but I could only manage a few spoonfuls, along with a mug of black tea (I hadn't got any milk) so I set off about 8.15 on rather an empty stomach. My route took me along some nice quiet leafy lanes through Quarley and then Grately, where I spotted this extension to a house converted from an old silo. If you google such things there are an awful lot of them.

The rest of the route was on roads which were not that busy but they were wide and the traffic sped past me, which is not pleasant. Someone please tell me why cars which have a wide and open road ahead, nothing coming in the opposite direction, have to overtake a cyclist giving them hardly any space..... But maybe one day things will change - here's another interesting article  on the subject of educating drivers on giving cyclists enough room.

Not having had much breakfast, I stopped twice to eat snacks and drink water. If you are familiar with Nakd bars, which are an excellent snack for cyclists, with good natural ingredients, you might like to try Aldi's versions, which are much cheaper and have very similar, if not identical, ingredients. But by now I was beginning to dream of a cooked breakfast, and after arriving in Stockbridge (famous for the fishing on the river Test. I realized I was truly in wealthy Hampshire when I spotted a Range Rover with a number plate that almost spelt "trout") Husband and I went to look for somewhere where I could get one.

He wasn't hungry, and would just have coffee and maybe cake.  Now here's the thing - if I hadn't been with Husband but had been on my own, then although I don't particularly like eating a meal in a cafe or whatever on my own, when I get like that - hungry, tired and dreaming of certain foods  - I couldn't give a toss about that sort of thing and would have happily sat on my own scoffing a breakfast. Something must happen in one's brain at times like that to change how you think. Anyway, I can heartily recommend the breakfast I had in Thyme and Tides!! In fact as I write I almost wish I had another one in front of me. I had local sausage, hash brown, two rashers of bacon, black pudding, two poached eggs, local tomatoes, mushroom and toast, for £9.50 if I remember rightly. Not cheap, but excellent fodder for a hungry cyclist. And what would have finished it off nicely would have been a cup of coffee, but, before my breakfast had arrived, Husband had felt his pockets and said

"Where's my phone?"        

Oh dear.

He'd lost it, and to say that put the damper on things and meant no chance of me having a cup of coffee, is an understatement. He went off to retrace his steps to look for it (no luck) and used my phone to ring it, but no-one answered. He was pretty much beside himself ! So much on a smartphone to lose.

I kept ringing it as we set off towards the A34 and just as we were approaching it we got a call to tell us that it was safely in a restaurant in Stockbridge. It was one we'd been to but hadn't stayed in, and the phone must have slipped out of Husband's pocket when we sat down and got up again. Oh the relief for Husband.... and back we drove to get it!

And then home, finally.

Thinking again about daughter's remark about "something always goes wrong on your bike trips" I thought - actually, I've learnt some valuable lessons from those things. One trip was nearly off completely because I had a puncture before I'd even set off - lesson learned was very old tyres (at least 18 years old!) are likely to result in punctures! Tyre later blew out on a local trip! Also learned how to mend a puncture, though I still dread it happening!

Camping - you can easily get cold in a tent in August in England if you don't have the right gear..... lesson learned, get the right equipment.

I've also learned, as I said at the beginning, about what to eat, when to eat, and how much to eat.

Sometimes the best way to learn is by making mistakes. I've no doubt I'll keep making them! And even though I feel I've cheated when I have to make a call of shame and get rescued by Husband, I remind myself that even my hero Josie Dew got rescued, by her mum, once.....

Mileage on first day - a tad under 60.
Mileage on second day - an easy 15.

And when I got home, my first thought, despite things going wrong, was - "When can I go again?"

Happy cycling!



  1. Thank you Lizzie, for sharing your journey with your readers. My cycling trips, fortunately, generally go as planned, but an important thing I've learned is to slow down and "smell the roses" - something you are naturally very good at. I'm happy you are always looking to future adventures.

    1. Thank you Annie! I'm going to make sure that on my next trip I don't have to make a call of shame.....

    2. hi Lizzie, I am just back from the Cycle Touring festival in clitheroe. Such a shame its a long way for you. One thing they did do was compare on the road coffee makers. Not drinking tea or coffee , I didn't go along but will try to find the info for you. The ride through the dales is lovely but daunting with the 25 % hills so we hopped a train part way back, so don't call it " the call of shame". Its the call of "being sensible now we are of a certain age".

    3. I very nearly booked to go but it would have cost a lot for me what with getting there by train.

      I've got a small stove but haven't tried it out properly yet.

      Thank you for your encouragement re the "call of shame"!

  2. Please do try to book for next year. Some people lift share to get there so it would be worth asking if anyone is coming form the south up north. sometimes i know someone who gets rail tickets to London for £10 because he books well in advance. Try making your coffee on a trip out - 1. gets you used to the satove and 2 saves money from the cost of cafe's.

  3. I need to try using the stove down the garden first!


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