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Craig's Musings

A Weekend In Wantage (nearly)

wantage

Despite being seven months away from my grand departure (pretty much to the day), I am very aware of the need to get my body into some sort of shape to cycle 1600km. No more so now than having just had a dry run (which turned into a bit of a wet run) of a two-day cycle up to East Hanney, just north of Wantage in Oxfordshire and back. (It turns out that location details are essential, but more of that in a bit).

Luckily, my partner is just as much of a nerd as me, so Saturday morning saw us packing our matching touring bikes (affectionately named Terry & June), preparing for the day’s 72km cycle up through Pangbourne to Wallingford and across to Wantage. Yes, the scene did look like it sounds and wouldn’t be out of place in an 80s sitcom; if only we could think of a name for one.

Much of the first part of the route is familiar to me, having often ventured in my youthful 40s to the infamous Streatley Hill, near Goring, to show it who was the king of overweight climbers. The 1.2km climb, with an average gradient of 9.4%, all but twice put me well and truly in my place. The thing is, once you stop on Streatley Hill, it’s so steep that it’s nigh on impossible to get back on and start again. It’s also just as hard to have to finish the final section slipping on cleats, pushing your bike up the hill, trying not to make noises like Darth Vader trying to blow up a balloon.

With everything packed, including my new combination padlock (five numbers for extra security, I’ll have you know), we spent the final five minutes before off trying to attach the pannier bags to the racks. Now, I’m pretty new to touring bikes, so like all middle-aged men, I went for style over practicality with the Altura Dryline bags, two for the front and two for the back. The only issue is it’s like the Krypton Factor trying to get them on. They just don’t fit well. Put it this way: if I were in some sort of Touring Bike triathlon, I’d lose at least ten minutes in the transition stage trying to fix the bloody things on, watching the top pop off as the bottom clip is attached and vice versa. I’d like to hear Gabby Logan commentating on that.

So, off we went, starting in the wrong gear, which is obligatory, hurriedly crunching through the cogs to be able to peddle and get the journey underway. Two hundred metres later, we had to stop for me to explore the issues with my partner’s bike, following a detailed explanation that, ‘Craig, it’s making a noise again!” Mudguard wiggled, off we set. Another 600 metres and another stop as my Garmin bike computer suddenly lost the route map. This £500 device had recently decided that the power button needed to fall off, so I was busy trying to open my bag to get out a screwdriver to poke the power switch off and on. At this rate, we might reach our destination by midnight! Would it be okay to admit defeat now, turn around and go home? No, Craig, that’s not the attitude. Tantrum (just about) diverted; we started again. Take three.

The first few kilometres out of Chineham and up to Bramley are quite flat, as was the ride through Silchester, past the Roman ruins and down and up a dip into Mortimer. Our first, albeit very short, hill.

Hills are going to play a big part in my journey to Benidorm. In fact, the Pyrenees are very big. So I was keen to see how I’d cope with the bags on the back on this giant of a climb at the northern tip of Hampshire. The Garmin proudly told me some parts of the hill were 11%.

I made it. I was relieved, even though the hill was no more than 200 metres long. Bring on the Col du Tourmalet.

A few kilometres later, having traversed the A4 northwards, I knew we’d be hitting a ridge. I’d come over this way a few times at various points across the A4, so I was mentally prepared for the challenge and raring to go with my newfound hill confidence. Forget 11%, we got to 16% at some points, according to the computer, climbing 38 metres over just 400 metres. “Has someone moved Streatley?” I wheezed as Carol Vorderman whispered in my head, “Tell them that’s an average of 9.5% Craig; make yourself sound like Chris Froome”. Feeling more like Chris Biggins, I trundled on.

We had intended to take a break at Pangbourne, as I’d planned this part of the route on the east side of the Thames heading north. I’d not ridden this before but wanted to avoid the sometimes busy A329 to Wallingford, which I’d cycled on before.

Having made the decision to crack on to Goring before stopping for a coffee, we passed over a small toll bridge just past Pangbourne next to a lovely green by the river. It’s the sort of spot that you can imagine would be lovely for a picnic and a dip on a summer’s day. Right next to the Thames, with people enjoying themselves and relaxing. Right before you realise it’s no longer the 1950s and start picturing loud stereos, annoying kids and dogs with no manners, before deciding it’s much safer to stay in the comfort of your own garden with a paddling pool.

Whitchurch-On-Thames, on the other side of the river, decided the going was far too flat, so chucked in a cheeky hill. Luckily, as the traffic backed up behind us, we were taking the track north, parallel to the river, so we turned off just as we rounded another corner to be welcomed with yet more climbing. Nothing is more delicious than realising you don’t have to cycle up the huge hill you see in front of you.

Now, this is where things got interesting, because I’d planned the route on Strava. It’s a website and app for cycling and running geeks who love telling the world how much exercise they do. Even after all these years of using it, I still fell into the trap of not checking the route properly.

And so it was, about 1km into this part of the journey, that the lovely cycle path down by the river’s edge I’d envisaged turned out to be a hiking path, not designed for bikes; especially Terry and June, ladened with bags.

We spent the next 2.5 km getting off bikes, pushing them up hills, getting on bikes, pushing them down hills, with brakes full-on so they didn’t run away, getting snagged by bushes, bumping over roots and generally having a miserable time, all the while passing people smiling through gritted teeth as we got in the way.

off road near Goring

It was fitting that we finally made it to the end of our little off-road adventure – welcoming concrete and painted lines like a long-lost friend – to be confronted by a group of very middle-class people on a small paddock to the side of the road, guiding their dogs through some sort of showing jumping arena. Welcome to Oxfordshire and Middle-England.

Never mind, I said, we’ll soon be scoffing cake and supping a nice latte in the lovely village of Goring-On-Thames. I say lovely because why wouldn’t it be? A village by the Thames.

It was very forgettable. Very. As was the lukewarm, weak coffee that took about 20 minutes to make and the dry piece of lemon drizzle cake that would be able to compete with the Sahara in terms of being arid. (Less than 24 hours later, this cake would well and truly be put in its place by the wrapped muffin I would steal from the breakfast buffet for the homeward journey.)

Back on the bikes and a relatively flat ride up the A4009 saw us trundle into Wallingford. We agreed, as we came out the other side, that we’d like to return for the day. “There must be something there”, my girlfriend shouted, “I saw someone sitting on a bench with a bronze statue having their photo taken”.

I answered with my usual response, “I can’t hear you; you’re facing the other way again, talking into the wind!”

It turns out the statue is brand new and is of Agatha Christie, who lived relatively anonymously in the town for forty years – a fact made slightly weirder by my having seen the story on the news just the previous week and that my girlfriend is a huge Agatha Christie fan. This episode really did make me realise that I must stop and look at stuff on my trip rather than point my nose to the tarmac to reach my destination as quickly as possible before googling things at the end of the day with regrets for not having taken five minutes to stop and stare.

After several rather busy A roads, we found ourselves on some quieter, flat B roads heading quickly towards our destination of Wantage. The distance remaining kept coming down as my legs, bum and hands started to complain in unison like the bass section of an orchestra. By now, Terry and June were about 50 metres apart on the road. However, this didn’t stop my girlfriend from thinking this was still chatting distance. I kept hearing what sounded like Rob Brydon’s Man In A Box from my rear. “Are you sure we’re going the right way, Craigee? Wantage is miles away!”

Slowing down and asking her to repeat herself approximately five hundred times because of the wind, I tersely replied, “Yes!”

“I planned this route, and it takes us right to the door”, I said defensively, the seeds of doubt well and truly planted, and my mind starting to worry about how it didn’t look very urban up ahead.

Just as I was planning to pull over to where I thought we should be to check the map and quieten down the voice in my head telling me how I’d “mucked it up” and “why can’t I do anything right?” I saw the entrance sign for our destination.

La Fontana had the dubious distinction of being an Italian Restaurant AND overnight accommodation. I couldn’t help thinking they’d be poor at both, especially with a price tag of £145 for an overnight stay, breakfast and £70 towards an evening meal, but we were here.

Obviously, I gloated as June trundled in carrying my confused partner. “Ye of little faith”, I announced in a relieved tone. Probably more to myself than her, to be honest.

It turns out we were in East Hanney, about 6km north of Wantage. I’d just been saying Wantage, as it was the closest town.

After checking in and being shown to the courtyard, where Terry and June would snuggle up overnight, albeit chained to a garden bench, I set about my new padlock, explaining to my partner that the combination is my name but how I can’t remember some of the letters yet.

“C is three, and A is one, they are the easy ones. Now R is, hang on…”, starting to count the alphabet through on my fingers. We joked about the sight of a middle-aged bloke standing next to a locked-up bike, counting on his fingers all the way through towns in France and Spain.

The room was lovely. I was a little confused about the price. The meal was also good; more confusion. Maybe, just maybe, it was excellent value, we argued.

There were only five tables of people in the large restaurant, so it was quiet, and the ambience was only spoiled twice, both by the same person, with a mobile phone ringing loud enough to give someone an earache in the back row of the O2.

It must be a prerequisite that when you turn sixty, you have to have your phone on full volume in public spaces. Perhaps in mobile phone shops, the assistants are told to upsell to anyone with grey hair, “Would you like the ear-splitting volume app loaded, sir? While I’m at it, I can change the font on the screen for you so that it’s the size of the top line of an eye test.”

In the morning, after a restless night despite a comfortable bed, breakfast wasn’t going to be served until half past eight. So, at 8 o’clock, I announced I’d go downstairs, get the bikes ready and give them a little TLC. June’s lights weren’t working, and today’s weather was looking dark with thunder and rain forecast. Off I went, feeling all ‘mechanicky’ with my new multitool.

A few minutes later, and there I was, counting out I and G on my fingers, ready for the lock to spring open. Nothing happened. That’s a bit odd, I thought, panicking quicker than it would take me to count to A.

It didn’t matter how many times I set it to exactly the same number; nothing happened. All sorts of scenarios played out, including me having to test 9,999 different combinations. Sheepishly, I went back to the room and uttered the only words I could muster, “Funny, but not funny, you’ll never guess what!”

After five minutes of me getting more and more frustrated, with my girlfriend seeing the signs and doing what she does best by letting me throw my toys out of the pram for a few minutes, I decided that the only course of action was to try to cut through the cable with my new tool, which had a knife, and some pliers with snips. Being a man, I didn’t even think to ask for any help, as my girlfriend started looking up local fire stations.

“There’s one three miles away, but I can’t seem to find a number for it!”, she announced.

“Yes, people tend to phone 9-9-9 for them in an emergency!” I replied in a joyful tone. I say joyful; it may have been a tad more arsey than that.

I wanted to wallow in my own stupidity. I needed to. Or was it the lock? Did I knock something in it that changed the number? I should have photographed it before I locked it.

As I continued to mope and look back at my error, frantically trying to cut through the thick plastic coating with my penknife, my girlfriend was, what I like to call, infinitely more practical, and went to ask the reception if they had any tools, explaining the situation as if it was a funny film she was watching on TV. Whereas I tend to see and magnify the negative in such situations, she sees the adventure and the storytelling potential for a future pub visit. “Remember that time we cycled to that place nowhere near Wantage, and you forgot your padlock code, and we had to cut the lock off. It was so funny!”.

Meanwhile, I was eventually hitting metal cable with my blade, watching the morning slip away in front of my eyes. That’s when the chef walked out with some old wire snippers.

“I’ll give it a go”, I said in the least positive way I knew how, reluctantly accepting another man’s help.

Three snips later, and we were free. Part of me was elated – back in the game! The other part started to wonder how much of an easy target this lock was for anyone looking to take Terry off my hands in a European campsite.

During breakfast, and with my mood lifting quicker than a balloon drifting away from a crying toddler, we sat discussing the route. Today we would be cycling south through Wantage, across the north of Newbury, and Thatcham, back over the A4 to Aldermaston and then home. “Oh brilliant”, my girlfriend excitedly chirped, “We can see the Agatha Christie statue.”

“We could,” I said, “except that’s in Wallingford, not Wantage.”

Despite her doubts about my routing prowess the day before, I sat smugly; hands wrapped around my warm coffee, a wrapped-up muffin nestled on lap out of the prying eyes of the waitress and ready to nab, glad I had organised the route, and not her. Otherwise, we may have ended up in Basildon instead of Basingstoke.

After listening to another incoming phone call to our friend at the next table that made my mind go straight to the skits of Dom Jolly, we set off. A shorter route this time – 61 kilometres, but hilly in the first 10k. The road outside the hotel, which less than half an hour previously I had commented on being so quiet, now resembled the M25.

Anyone who has cycled on the road knows that while people in their one-tonne metal machines want you cycling right next to the kerb line, the state of British roads doesn’t really allow for that, and you spend half the time dodging drains and potholes.

While some drivers are very patient, others would rather see you die.

(These same people would obviously post about your death on social media later looking for attention, “‘So sad about the old fat guy who died on his bike today 😢. I think I passed him. Why are people so mean to cyclists? #bekind.” This would no doubt be followed five minutes later by “Anyone else watching Master Chef and think Karen’s a total twat?????”)

Luckily, a dedicated cycle path appeared around 2K north of Wantage. This helped in terms of not having a Ford Wankstain right behind me, the high-revving engine screaming away as the driver waits for the smallest gap possible before screeching down yet another gear to pass me with about two feet to spare, before finally cutting back across inches in front, only to be stuck behind the car a few feet in front stuck in traffic. #befuckingkindifuckingsaid

But, the cycle path, like so many we are encouraged to use in this country, was a little bumpy. “HOLE!” I shouted a little too late as I heard June take a terrible donk right behind me – the sort of noise that makes you wonder how bad a puncture it’s going to be.

Luckily, she survived – shaken but not stirred – and we continued into the town.

Now, it just so happened that I had driven this way from an event the previous month, so I recognised the roads as the cycle path finished, and June went off ahead of me, dodging the potholes into the centre of the town. It was only then – ten minutes past donk o’clock and now in front of me – that I noticed one of the pannier bags was missing from her rear. This day was really going well!

Tracing back the route, I powered back down and eventually found the bag sitting next to the “HOLE!” Just what I needed, though, an extra 3k on my day and expensive pannier bags itching to make an escape from the bike frame at any opportunity.

Back and out of Wantage, we turned South onto Chain Hill. My girlfriend’s bike computer started chirping, almost in joy, at the hills ahead. It might as well have been saying, “Ooo, this one’s gonna hurt, but not as much as the next one”.

After a couple of ups and downs and 169m of climbing over 5k, we got to the top of the hill and then coasted down the other side. Being a man of certain weight, physics is on my side in these circumstances, and I managed to not turn a pedal for the next 2.5km.

Our route then turned southeast as we headed towards Chieveley. Who knew it was actually a pretty little village and not just a service station on the M4? We enjoyed some quiet cycling a little further on, as the road was closed to cars for the Newbury Show. As we passed and I stared over into the arena, I pondered how it seemed pretty quiet. Perhaps other people had also seen the forecast of rain and thunder, which had yet to appear despite the overbearing blanket of dark cloud.

By now, both of us were feeling a little jaded but had decided to trundle on through with no coffee shop stop. Instead, we took a quick break for a machine coffee in Upper Buckleberry, along with a packet of Haribo for the inevitable need for sugar, and I finally got to enjoy my moist breakfast muffin.

I was getting my bearings back by now, on more recognisable roads. Home was in sight. This meant another short, sharp hill back off the ridge down onto the A4 Bath Road, which had me gripping Terry’s handlebars for dear life.

This is when I started to feel a few drops of rain. We lasted another 2k before it was time to stop and get our coats on, a spectacle enjoyed by a man driving by as my girlfriend stripped down to her bra top. His non-threatening, Terry Thomas style nod, out of the window made me laugh out loud. I told her what had happened. She laughed. We both carried on peeling coats onto wet clothes, wistfully thinking about a film never made called, “Carry On Cycling”.

As we headed past the beautiful village of Aldermaston, it’s hard to imagine that the huge campus of AWE is just around the corner, busily working on warheads for trident missiles. I remember asking my Dad back in the 1980s, when we seemed to always be on the brink of nuclear war, was he scared about the possibility? His reply, typical of his laid-back approach to life, was, “Nah, we’d be the first to go. We’re right near AWE, Greenham Common and RAF Odiham.” Just the answer every teenager needs to hear for reassurance from a parent.

Around the campus and back through Mortimer West End and Silchester, by the time we had slogged through to Bramley it was tipping down, a good test of conditions with only 9 km to go. I had to take my cycling glasses off due to the rain, which meant I couldn’t really see my GPS. Being so close to home, I knew the route, but it’s something I need to plan for.

Every kilometre now was aching – feet and hands, but also bum and shoulders. The rain was teaming, leaving wide, shallow lakes of water across the road, drenching my feet, hiding the potholes and leaving me counting down hills, bends and kilometres.

Despite being the middle of the day, it was also getting darker. So it was just as well I had managed to fix June’s lights after the lock-gate episode earlier in the day.

The final part of the journey was not fun and quite hairy in parts and eventually we turned onto my road. The final slope done, and coasting the last 200 metres, I finally sidled onto my driveway. We’d made it.

Although I’ve done similar rides, I learned a lot this weekend. There are some tweaks to make, some issues to sort, and the realisation that I’d be cycling at least 30km than this each day for nearly three weeks.

Although I’ve dropped 6 kilos in the past three months, I want to drop more. I’ve still not braved working out the extra weight of all my cargo for next year, but I can’t rely on the physics of being good downhill, especially when I’ve got a mountain to climb in April.

But it was a lovely weekend, a good challenge, and at least I’ve got a target to lock on to now, as long as that lock is not reliant on a combination!

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