Cycle tour to Warsash and Staines

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At the weekend I went on a cycle tour to Warsash and back:

Click the photos for larger versions.

Key to photos (anticlockwise from top left):

  1. A foggy morning on the A603 in Cambridgeshire. It was cool and damp at 05:30 and a light fog blanketed the fields.
  2. The Greyhound pub on the B656 near St Ippollytts in Hertfordshire. It was open at 07:30 on Friday for breakfast, and with a sign offering a “cyclist special”, how could I resist? Coffee and waffles were just what I needed. (I took the photo on the way back, which is why it is sunny. Sadly the pub was closed at 14:30 when I passed on Monday, so I can’t comment on its lunches.)
  3. Eversley Cross in Hampshire with a view of the downs.
  4. Scrubbs Lane near Bishop’s Sutton in Hampshire, with the prospect of yet another hill.
  5. An awkward junction in the South Downs, Hampshire. On Sunday afternoon I got quite lost in this little maze of lanes southwest of Empshott. The sign points to Froxfield, Petersfield, and Privett. I did not come from any of these places, nor was I going to any of these places. And the fourth arm of the crossroads was missing from my map, but very present on the ground. I ended up going the correct way, but I was quite certain I had gone wrong.
  6. Another awkward junction in the same maze of lanes. The sign points to Froxfield, Priors Dean, and Hawkley. I wasn’t going to any of these places either. This area is very beautiful and would reward exploring with a better map or more accurate directions!
  7. Empshott Green, Hampshire. At last, I had escaped from the maze.
  8. A lake by Thursley Road a few kilometres south of Elstead in Surrey.
  9. Puttenham Church, Surrey.
  10. Crossing the Thames in Staines on the A308.
  11. Heathrow Airport from the A3044.
  12. Whitwell, Hertfordshire.
  13. Wimpole Hall from the A603 in Cambridgeshire.
  14. The first view of Cambridge from the A603. A big relief: from here there’s less than 15 kilometres to go.

Colin Bell asked, “Do you have any good resources for planning long-distance rides? Some friends are wanting to do Cambridge–Chepstow…” So here’s more than you might ever want to know about how I planned the trip. Bear in mind that this is the first multi-day cycle tour I’ve done, so I’m probably not a good fount of knowledge here. For advice from experienced cycle tourists, you probably want to try the Touring & Expedition section of the CTC forums.

I planned the trip using the “Get Directions” feature of Google Maps. With mode set to “Walking”, it does a pretty good job of generating cycling routes. (Perhaps that’s because it doesn’t yet know about very many footpaths; when it does, the “Walking” directions will be less useful to cyclists … but maybe Google can add a “Cycling” mode which avoids trunk roads as well as footpaths. If any Googlers are reading this, please suggest this to the maps team.) I also tried doing my own planning using paper maps, but basically Google did a better job. The trouble with doing my own long-distance route planning is that I can’t hold all the alternative routes in my head, so I end up committing to an initial section of route and then trying to find good routes forward from there instead of backtracking to consider alternatives. In particular, I don’t think I would have found the very nice route through the Chilterns via Flaunden on my own.

I looked at the journey planner at cyclestreets.net but that limits you to journeys of 30 km or less. OK for commuters, not so good for tourists. (But I quite understand why they have this limit—route planning is computationally intensive. They are doing fantastic work on very little in the way of funding.)

I also looked at Sustrans, but their routes generally link centres of population, whereas the touring cyclist wants to avoid these places. They had almost nothing going my way, and what they had I was slightly suspicious of. I could have taken the Colne Valley Trail from Uxbridge to Rickmansworth (avoiding Harefield), part of route 61, but on the Ordnance Survey 1:50,000 sheet 176 this route is marked as a footpath, not a bridleway or cycle path. So I decided not to risk it. Sustrans also show a cycle route passing under the M4 northwest of Harmondsworth (see right), which I did take a chance on. This turned out to be a bad idea. The route petered out into a maze of recreational bridleways and footpaths filling the area bounded by the M4, M25, and a Harmondsworth industrial estate. After much searching, I found the path I wanted, but it’s a footpath, not a bridleway or cycle path, and moreover, it’s closed. So I had to backtrack and go through Harmondsworth after all. A mistake that cost me at least 10 kilometres.

Where Google Maps suggested a route that involved long sections of trunk road, I looked for nearby quieter roads, and added additional destinations accordingly. You can see these additional destinations in the pins on the map above:

  1. Cambridge.
  2. Steeple Morden. This avoids a long section of the A10 and A505. (Although I have cycled the A10 to Royston, and sections of the A505, these are not enjoyable roads.)
  3. Bedmond. The small lanes though Bedmond in several directions are the nicest way to avoid the confluence of the M1, M10 and M25.
  4. Golden Pot. This steers the route to the west, staying outside the M25 and passing through a lovely section of the Chiltern Hills around Flaunden. (But actually going through Golden Pot was a bit of a mistake; see below.)
  5. Medstead. Avoids a busy section of the A32.
  6. Warsash.
  7. Basing Dean, and …
  8. Empshott. Without these two, Google Maps directs you along the A32 and A31. With them, the route goes east into a pleasant section of rolling hills around Froxfield.
  9. Elstead. Otherwise Google prefers the A325 and A323. Even via Elstead, there’s still a section of the A324, but I couldn’t see any way to avoid this without going several kilometres out of the way, for example, via Ash Vale.
  10. Staines.
  11. Harefield. I wanted to find a different route back to Cambridge, for example through Hertford and Braughing, but getting from Staines to Hertford involved seemingly endless kilometres of northwest London, or else a big diversion. So I settled for going back on the same route I came out.

Big A roads are not always bad. I had been dreading this bit of A40 and A335 (see right) which seemed to be the only sensible place I could get across the M40, but in fact it was fine, with enormous lanes giving plenty of room for even the biggest of juggernauts to safely pass a cyclist.

By contrast, the worst road on the whole trip was this section of the B3349 from Odiham to Golden Pot. It looked innocuous enough when I was planning, but it was horrible: very busy, and too narrow for two lanes of traffic plus a cyclist, so queues of motor vehicles would build up behind me, and there was no shoulder or verge I could pull onto to let them past. Had I known I would have gone on one of the slightly longer alternatives, through Herriard to the west, or Long Sutton to the east.

Having got a route planned, I checked it against my Ordnance Survey maps to make sure it wasn’t directing me down footpaths or the wrong way down one-way streets. The result was a series of instructions, of which this is a typical extract:

170.2  L@ Village St              0.5
170.7  1x Holt End Ln             2.0
172.7  C- Trinity Rd              0.6
173.3  C- Trinity Hill            0.8
       MEDSTEAD
174.1  C- Church Ln               0.1
174.2  R@ Wield Rd                0.3
174.5  L@ Common Hill             1.0
175.5  Slight R@ Bighton Rd       1.2
       BIGHTON
176.7  C- Chalky Hill             2.5
179.2  Slight R@ Bighton Dean Ln  0.5
179.7  L@ Bighton Ln              2.9

(I think that a better format would be distance since previous instructioninstructiontotal distance since it’s the first of these that actually ended up being important. The distance shown on the cycle computer quickly diverged from that on the route sheet because errors in navigation quickly amounted to several kilometres, rendering the total distance column useless.)

I carried these instructions in my pocket and consulted them as I was riding along, so that I only had to stop to look at the map when I was confused or unsure or when the instructions didn’t seem to match the actual junction layout. The map I carried on the bike was the OS 1:250,000 South East England which conveniently covered the whole of the trip and generally had just enough detail to correct any navigational errors. But if I were doing it again, I’d use the 1:100,000 series maps, although I would have needed to take four of them.

This all seems like a lot of work, but that’s because with 220 km to cycle in a day, time spent on navigation becomes really significant. There were about 200 junctions on the first day’s route, and even if I had only spent half a minute reading the map at each junction, that would have been getting on for two hours! So preparing directions that I could read and follow while riding the bike was important.

In the CTC forum, commenter thirdcrank points out that long-distance cycle touring has become more difficult over the years: “the problem nowadays is often that the main roads are simply unpleasant for cycling. When Britain’s road network was still unmodernised—up to the late 1960s, say, the A roads took the easiest route through the hills and as most freight went by train and there were many fewer cars, the journey from Manchester to Cambridge [250 km] would have been a doddle. You would simply have followed the signs for Nottingham, Peterborough, then Cambridge.”

So there are two sources of increased difficulty: switching to minor roads and avoiding population centres (with their big roads) means that you have to make more navigational decisions, and more difficult ones, because the minor roads are more poorly signed, and signed for only local destinations. It also means that you have to tackle more severe gradients. This brings up one of the disadvantages of using Google Maps for cycling directions: it doesn’t know about elevation (or if it does, it doesn’t take it into account). So it will happily direct you straight over the top of a hill in order to save a short horizontal distance. For some journeys this won’t matter much because there aren’t many hills, but on my ride there were lots; see for example the road names in the extract from the directions above; in this 10 km stretch there are three: Trinity Hill, Common Hill, Chalky Hill. The total ascent for the first day was about 1,200 m, even though I never went more than 200 m above sea level. This is the kind of touring I like, but it makes for very slow going: I averaged only 16 km/hour on the trip. If you dislike hills, or need to make faster progress than I did, then you need to pay attention to the gradients.

A hand-held GPS device might be a good alternative to printed directions. I don’t have any experience with such a thing, but if it’s reliable and you can keep it from getting rained on, it’s probably a better solution because it can tell you when you make a mistake, and it won’t get confused by networks of nameless roads in the way that I did around Froxfield.

If you’re doing shorter distances, say 80–100 km a day, you can easily afford to figure out your route as you go along. As commenter pq says in the CTC forum, “Just remember that all you’re doing is riding a bike around in your own country. It’s not a big deal and there’s no need to mount a military style operation to accomplish it.”