The Kennet – Avon Canal

Sunday 21st May. Near Reading to Thatcham. 30.7 km.

Apart from being discovered by a couple of mildly-interested dogs out for an early morning walk with their owners, no-one appeared to notice my overnight stay. Easy riding along the river to Sonning Lock, where the Thames was left behind, for good this time. For the next while, NCN4 (National Cycle Network 4, the route I’ve been following) follows the Kennet and Avon Canal. Grey clouds were replaced by little fluffy white clouds in increasingly blue skies. The towpath lead through the surprisingly attractive centre of Reading (my previous experience of Reading being limited to late-night walks along deserted roads, temporarily stranded on my end-of-weekend hitch-hike back to London after a couple of days climbing at the Avon Gorge in Bristol) where I stopped for a late breakfast.

A relaxing day was in store along the canal. I’d watch narrow boats working their way through locks, or just sit and enjoy the beauty of the area. I lived in England until the late 70s, and my focus had been limited to getting to the hills – and it was rock-climbing that filled most of my thoughts. I had no appreciation for the beautiful areas of Britain devoid of climbing attractions. This part of the country, the part that I was now enjoying so much, was then simply an inconvenient stretch of motorway to be dispensed with as quickly as possible.

Stinging nettles everywhere!

As the shadows lengthened, I phoned ahead to The Swan in Thatcham; yes, they had a room available. A few beers, a meal and a bed tonight! A short, lazy, lovely day.

Monday 22nd May. Thatcham – Hungerford, 29.4 km.

Another short day but still beautiful countryside and weather. I caught the sun, too – might have to go with long sleeves tomorrow. The bike developed a slight mechanical problem: strange crunching noises under load that seem to be coming from the bottom bracket. Coincidentally,  I met a cyclist, on a road-bike, checking his bottom bracket out because he too had a strange crunching noise under load. He did tell me that the hill I’d just ridden up was unnecessary and the best (flatter) way to Hungerford was to go left at the bottom of the hill. Along this flatter road, I got a flat tire and had to push for a while until there was room at the side of the road to work on it. It was one of those difficult punctures, close to the valve stem where it’s hard to get a patch to seal the tube.

I continued on to Hungerford and, while enjoying the view from the crest of the bridge across the canal, the tyre deflated again. There was a nice grassy area by the canal with a picnic table so I settled down there to try again with the tyre. Progress was slow for the nicest of reasons; I asked an elderly gent (90) where he had bought the ice-cream he was enjoying. First on the right, back across the bridge. He happily agreed to keep an eye on my upended bike while I went for an ice-cream. When I returned his wife (82) was pouring coffee out of a flask. For the next hour, they entertained me with stories, and coffee. If I go through Pewsley, they said, I can stop for a shower!.

They drove away, narrowly avoiding the cars parked in front and behind them, and I returned to my repairs. The problem was my first patch, not properly sealed. I replaced it with a bigger patch. No good. Added another to the edge that was leaking. Still no good so I got out my spare tube – this time the wheel had to come off. By then, it was after seven and the sun was getting lower. A pub room only four km away seemed a sensible option. Even after this short (but very good) day, I felt ready for bed. Only two pints tonight! At the Pelican Inn. (Not quite as nice as the Swan, but still very pleasant.)

Tuesday 23rd May. Hungerford to Fyfield Down. 33.9 km.

After a full breakfast at the Pelican, I took the Little Bedwyn road and then rode on to Great Bedwyn. I  stopped at the Three Guns for a couple of shandies before noon. No one was talking about the previous night’s bombing in Manchester. Then route continued towards Marlborough on a track through nice forest. I missed a turn off, further into the forest, and unfortunately had to do some extra miles on the A4 where traffic passed me more quickly and closely than I liked. I rejoined the NCN4 unscathed and dropped down a steep path into Marlborough and wasted some time unsuccessfully trying to find a bike shop for a new tube, a bell and, possibly, a new bottom bracket. I gave up when I saw a new NCN4 sign – it must be in the right direction, I reasoned, since I hadn’t been at this point before. After some steep uphill, there was a nicely graded railway trail, not dissimilar to a trail I had ridden earlier that day.

I found one sign hidden away in the bushes, followed it for a few metres, and found myself staring at a house, with a distinctive dovecote outside, that I’d passed earlier on my way into Marlborough. I’d managed to do a large circle through and around Marlborough. I repeated my route back into town on the familiar disused railway trail. This time, on my entrance to town, I stopped at Costa for a large coffee, before finding a different (correct) route out off town and climbed into some nice countryside in the evening sun. 

The town was soon left behind and I was in open countryside. Signs warned me to be wary of training racehorses crossing the road. I was on Fyfield Down, a few miles from the stone circle at Avebury. The road, more a jeep track, went through a field with cows, then a field dotted with gorse bushes. I wandered around and found a nice place to spend the night. A cyclist, out for an evening ride, came by. I asked him about the legality of camping. Farmers wouldn’t shoot me, he said, and they weren’t allowed to set their dogs on you, so it probably wasn’t an issue. (Somewhat) reassured, I wheeled my bike to a nice piece of level grass hidden by gorse bushes. There was no rain in the forecast so I didn’t bother with the tent. I just went to sleep watching the stars.



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