Kennet & Avon Canal Cycle Route Overnighter: part 1

Pulteney BridgeLast Saturday, my loaded touring bike and I caught an 0813 train to Reading, from whence we continued on a fast 1 hour trip to Bath in Wiltshire. I waited outside the station for my GPS to get a signal, and then I took off into the Saturday morning traffic in this busy tourist town. My goal was to complete the entire Kennet & Avon Canal Cycle Route, which ended 85 miles later, on the other side of a ridge, in Reading, Berkshire. The route crossed the 1773 Pulteney Bridge, which is lined with shops. After about 10 minutes of cycling, and only one wrong turn, I crossed a short bridge, and turned onto the canal tow path. From here to Devises I’d be following a fairly wide and level path, for the most part smooth and well-graded.

Bradford Tithe BarnIt was a beautiful, sunny morning, and I stopped to take off my jacket. After a very pleasant 25 minutes of easy riding through the lovely Wiltshire countryside, I reached my first stop, the Claverton Pumping Station (described in an upcoming blog entry). What I expected to be a rather short visit turned into an almost 1 hour stay. Noticing that the sky was darkening, I begged off the video portion of the tour, unlocked my bike, and pedaled up a steep hill back to the canal level.  During the next several miles, I crossed two very spectacular aqueducts, the Dundas Aqueduct, which was next to a wharf with small crane, and the Avoncliff Aqueduct.  I continued on to Bradford, where I stopped briefly at the early 14th century tithe barn.

Caen Hill Locks In a 2-mile stretch between Foxhanger and Devises, the canal rises 237 feet, for a 1 in 44 gradient. Chief Engineer John Rennie dealt with the steep rise at Caen Hill by building a set of 16 locks in a row. This is considered one of the most significant engineering achievements on the entire British canal system, and in contrast to the Ratty & Mole ambience of much of the waterway, it makes for a dramatic feature.  It requires a lot of water to fill up a lock. In order to ensure enough water for this aquatic staircase, Rennie excavated large basins extending sideways (to the left in the photo above) in front of 15 of the Caen Hill locks.  I rode up the steep hill, passing several bikers who decided to walk, stopped to take a few more pictures of the ponds and narrow boats in the lockes, and then headed into Devises.  It was almost 2pm, it was starting to drizzle, so I asked for directions to a pub. Riding into the center of town, I stopped at The Castle Hotel for a lunch of cottage pie and a pint.  The proprietor of this 18th century pub let me park my bike indoors.

After lunch, I wound through town looking for the Cycle Route. After 10 minutes of what seemed like endless wandering through housing estates, I was suddenly confronted with a steep hill leading down to the canal and its narrow tow path. I walked down. After less than a mile, a sign for the Cycle Route pointed up a steep incline away from the canal. I decided to tough it out, and ride up. It was going fine until I reached the top and had to immediately stop. Fortunately, there was a bed of stinging nettles to catch me.

Ascent in EtchilhamptonDevises is nearly at the top of the canal, and after 22 miles, I naively thought that I was done climbing for the day. The reality was that I would spend the next 24 miles zig-zagging from one side of the Vale of Pewsey to the other, crossing the canal and railroad multiple times.  I climbed to the top of a ridge, where I had a fantastic 360 view of the mostly harvested fields and the ridge far to my north, which included one of Wiltshire’s famous white horses.

After Pewsey, the terrain become a bit more closed in again, with increasingly narrower roads, usually surrounded by hedge rows. Outside of Oare, the road chosen for the cycle route was barely a car width, and it had a light median of grass and gravel. It was also closed to traffic. A road closed sign is either a biker’s dream, or nightmare. I chose the former, and it turned out OK, leading me between beautiful farms with thatched roof houses, usually built on a timber frame several hundred years ago.

Especially after a hard climb to the summit, there is something thrilling about coasting down a long, windy, steep hill, hedgerows full of bramble and barbed wire whistling past your ears as you enjoy the sensation of speed and wind, and idly wonder just what you are going to do if the next turn confronts you with a fully loaded farm vehicle, or just an especially slippery patch of gravel.   I ended up taking a similar opportunity descending a steep road into the terminally charming village of Wootton Rivers.  In this case, it was actually only a Volvo, but given the deeply eroded ditch at the side of the road, it was more than big enough to test the emergency stopping abilities of the Kool-Stop brake shoes. They worked, and everyone came through the event intact. I had to prematurely terminate more than one long coast just in order to follow the bike route.

Climbing Cuckoo's KnobAfter a hard climb, I stopped on the other side of Wootton Rivers to admire the downhill before giving the Kool-Stops another workout. A couple of bikers appeared coming up hill, so I let them pose for a shot before I continued on. What wasn’t apparent was that after this nice and relatively wide open descent, I’d have to make another steep climb with my loaded touring bike.

At the top of the hill, I had a choice of taking a dirt byway that used to be considered the trail (according to one of my maps), or continuing down another slope, to be followed by another climb a mile later. I decided it’d be fun to do some off road exploring. It turned out to be a heavily rutted path, maybe one that was used for test driving Range Rovers or something, and I quickly regretted this short cut. The only thing that made it worthwhile was pack of about a dozen mountain bikers who popped up out the gloom ahead of me.  We exchanged laughs, and I let them ride past.

By this time, I was about ready to hit the barn, although I decided to take one more brief tourist diversion down the A346 to see a crane that was supposed to be different from the one at Dundas. It was being renovated, so turned around, heading back up a steep hill towards Burbage on the A road (not part of the cycle route).  Burbage turned out to be a nice little village and I passed the Three Horseshoes, where I had reservations for dinner later that night.

Three Horseshoes Pub

Just before 5:30PM, 46 miles from my 10am start, I pulled up in the front drive of the Upper Westcourt B&B. Innkeepers Peter & Carolyn Hill made me feel right at home, tucking my Bianchi into a garden shed next to the berry patch, and giving me some tea and biscuits in the drawing room, where I sat in front of the fire writing letters and petting their dog.  It was a 15 minute walk back into Burbage for dinner, and I turned out the light at about 1030, waking up 9 hours later for a relaxed breakfast of kippers and the Sunday paper.

Upper Westcourt B&B

More photos can be found in my photo gallery.  You can see the route of my first days trip below (yes, there is a blank spot in the middle of the route due to some sort of GPS glitch, but you can extrapolate from both ends–its clear which route I took).

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