Sunday, 24 August 2008

Touring & Trancing

Gotta admit peeps this was gonna be a pretty depressing article about the shittiness of England and how nothing has really changed since the Dark Ages and our country is still occupied in the majority by a minority of rich land-owners with their 'No Trespassing' signs BUT...

Planet Bananaworld has been invaded by Planet Perfecto! There's not a lot that gets me going more than bouncing around the flat like a fool with some seriously loud popular trance banging out of the system! Woop woop! I'm talking cheeeeeese like ATB, Tiesto, Sash!, & even Camisra (which I love even more having just seen the 'Spaced' episode featuring the classic track).

So why was I going to write about England being rubbish? On Thursday afternoon I loaded up my trusty steed ('Kring', like the sword) and struck out West, hopefully to Wales. I didn't quite make Wales, but it was border country and I did get a pretty long way from home.

Day 1, Thursday 21st August 2008
I set off at around 1400 after procrastinating and pissing about for most of the day. I probably should have left earlier but decided to do stuff like shopping and cleaning the plughole in the sink instead. After finally planning my route and getting my panniers packed I headed out of London and into the wilds of Berks & Bucks. I did about 65km that day and what nice riding it was! It was great to gradually leave London behind, cross the M25, skirt carefully around Slough, skim some Thamesey towns and villages and head up into the Chilterns. Actually climbing up the hills wasn't too bad and as the day drew to a close I spotted a likely looking wood (having marked suitable woods on the GPS beforehand using maps and Google Earth). A little further along the road revealed a massive bit of common land where I settled down to cook and eat.Kring (my wondrous Thorn Raven Nomad) taking a breather.


... & eating! I really love my Jetboil.

And then it was time to find somewhere to sleep. I'd spied the woods I intended to camp in and headed back that way... to be confronted with a muddy-ass bridleway and overgrown, nettle-strewn woods. I hadn't intended to do anything in the way of mountain biking this trip (but this was just the start of it, as I discovered the next day) so it was kinda nice to get off road. The bike was a little bit of a handful, having not a lot of tread on the tyres and the gods only know how much kit piled on the back. I scrambled through and found a suitably discreet space.

Blimey, it was pretty scary! I left it pretty late and it was getting dark fast. I didn't want to use any torches in case I drew attention to myself and I'd only put up my hammock once before (lesson learned!). Whenever a large shape moved through the undergrowth I froze, but the deer involved was always far more scared than me eventually. This all slowed things down but it all came together in the end and I slumped in to sleep.
The Hennessy Explorer in situ...

Well, sleep was attempted. Then the pheasants & foxes started. Holy crap those animals can scream. I did sleep in the end and only awoke oh, maybe five or six times to screeches that sounded like babies being boiled in canola.

Day 2, Friday 22nd August 2008
It was a true relief to wake up and it be light again. The hammock was a delight to sleep in: it was the first time in ages that I've got up and not had even a hint of back pain- hoorah!

I shoved all my crap back in the random selection of Ortliebs I have and then it was back on the road.

My first priority was water and I attempted to use my water filter to extract some from a village pond in Russell's Water. It wasn't all that successful as there were a few nosey locals around so I plugged on. Since found out that this pond was driven into in the film 'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang' so maybe taking the villagers' holy water is a sin or something.

A blinding descent down off the Chilterns presented Wallingford with its associated luxuries of drinking water and a nice spot to breakfast by the Thames.

It was fairly easy-going for a while, pootling along the Thames plain and White Horse Vale... until the road ran out:

Riding on grassy potholes...

A little note about my navigational technique is probably in order. I've found in the past that the quickest way to get around is to figure out a route on the computer and then stick it into my pretty basic, but ever-faithful GPS gizmo. Yeah yeah yeah, I should probably have a compass and map and sextant and all the rest but it's just so much quicker to follow a little line on a screen in front of your face. Quick it may be, but the major disadvantage is you have your programmed route and no way of finding a way around should a slightly impassable obstacle present itself. When I found that my route was down this never-used bridleway I had no choice but to plod on through. Heck, what's the point of a touring mountain bike if it's only gonna do roads?

Made it! And only nearly fell on my face once.

Then came the Cotswolds. They were up. I thought I would die.

I had intended to get as far as Gloucester but when the Cotswolds presented their terrible upness I doubted my ability to get there. BUT, for every up there is a down and the 160m drop into the Slad Valley was fast as feck.

Or was for half the way and then my genius route planning came into force and I was directed (by the me who was sat at home cosy in front of his computer) onto a bridleway that was dark and scary and secluded and had someone living in a caravan in the middle of the woods. I took a couple of wrong turns, proceeded to go down steeply down hill, and panicked a bit as I couldn't see where I was going. Then I took off my sunglasses and found I could see in the dark! Yay!

... unfortunately what I could see was that the path was the gnarliest downhill I've ever done: slippery loose Cotswold Stone rocks, drops and a babbling brook actually part of the path. I had a Zaphod Beeblebrox moment and put my sunglasses back on.

Bless the maker for having me put a disc brake on the back of my bike. My laden bike and I bumped and dropped down the rocks and eventually I had to get off and slide me and bike down the path until I could ride again. I need to go back there with an unladen bike and show dem rocks who's the boss, yo!

That was off-road '1' on the map:

(I was heading East to West, or at least, attempting to)

Then came the slog up the other side of the valley. Bastard valleys, why do they have to give and take in such equal measure???

This led me up along a 'Byway' which on the map looked simply like a track, rather than a path so I thought it would be easy going. Take note people: 'Byway' translates as 'No way' (possibly with a silent 'mo fo' in there too). The climb was ok but then came the downhill ('2' on the map) .

Looks nice huh?

That's what I thought too when I took this photo at the top, very glad to have found a pleasant route away from roads. Then it all went a bit more vertical and I plunged... but I was able to keep riding this time as it was drier and not as dark, though the bastard rocks still tumbled around and left plenty of drops. As I clattered down the 'path', a couple walking their dog on the road at the bottom of the path gave my expression of consternation and dust cloud quite a concerned look.

I survived, though I wish I'd perhaps not as all I then had to look forward to was another climb out of a valley. I had to stop at least every 20m to hang my head and pant and drool on to my bike a bit and check to see if I definitely didn't have any lower gears (didn't). Thought I was going to die. The shitty road climb up to the A4173 was particularly vicious, but the views from the top might well have taken my breath away if I hadn't already had to leave it about 50m vertically further back.

I was on the very 'Edge' of giving up but this road rescued me: a few kilometres at over 50kph does wonders for the soul. I deserved that descent. Did feel a bit sorry for a girl coming the other way on a road bike. She was probably doing less than 1/10th my speed and her "Hello" was weirdly dopplered as my weighty steed & I gave up our hard-won (curse you, inertia) potential energy.

And that crazy coast was when I knew I would make it to the 'campsite' I'd picked out just beyond Gloucester. I entered Gloucester through, what I guess was, the nasty end, but did pop into a handy Lidl to touch base with true civilisation.

I won't say exactly where I camped as it was perhaps even less legal than the night before, but I did have to duck into the undergrowth a few times in what I thought was a very secluded wood as a gamekeeper drove past. Note: when wild camping, if you spot a pheasant enclosure anywhere nearby, just go somewhere else. Those idiots who enjoy their 'game' employ some pretty protective people to ensure the safety of their birds.

I collapsed into the hammock that night, satisfied at having crossed the Thames, the Cotswolds and the Severn, but feeling a bit achey...

Day 3, Saturday 23rd August 2008
I slept ok, despite the very disturbing noises coming from the other end of the wood (I think it was just kids getting loaded), but woke up very cold sometimes and couldn't feel my feet in the morning.

Then the karaoke started. There I was trying to be all stealthy and pack quickly and quietly and a bunch of kids with a PA were drowsily, but enthusiastically, singing along to 'Love Shack'. It was very surreal, especially as all I could see when looking in their direction was very dense scrubby woodland. I did some investigation when I got home, and, at the risk of giving away where I was, feel I just need to pause to both curse and salute (for making me laugh) the students of GAM.

Anyway, they shut up as I finished packing (with plenty of swearing at my old nemesis, Crataegus monogyna) and I went to make my exit from the private land (oops!) I was on. The gamekeeper had come back that morning, presumably to check no quick brown foxes had jumped into the lazy pheasant pen, and I'd seen him drive down the hill the enclosure, but not back up. I did a little recce on foot and couldn't see him so wrestled my bike through the evil brambles and back out onto the track and headed for the road... only to find the gamekeeper on the track at the top of the hill, inflating his 4x4's tyre. Bugger. Oh well, if in doubt, or caught trespassing, lie.

"Hi there!" (wave, ignore his incredulous look and question about what was I doing there) "Is this the Gloucestershire Way?"

Genius I thought: act the lost fool. He was very skeptical to begin with and questioned me about where I'd come from, how I'd got onto the private land, were the bike tracks the previous night mine (shit!). I managed to blag my way out of it all and he ended up giving me directions! I pedalled away gratefully and apologetically at first but as soon as he was out of sight I legged it: sooner or later he would either match my tyre prints to the other ones from last night, which he did bloody well to spot, or work out that my lie about coming from Stroud that day was utter cobblers (I told him I hadn't crossed the railway when he asked me how I got across it, but he somehow failed to realise that there was a massive great river in the way. I was a lucky bastard!)
Anyway, he was a nice and reasonable guy and he did provide me with directions for a pleasant ride away from the main road back over the Severn and into Gloucester.

There was no way I was gonna be able to get laden Kring back up those bastard byways and I was a bit sick of the stress of wild camping and had cycled 130km the previous day so popped into Sainsbury's, ate bread & houmous at Gloucester station and waited for the railed beast to take me home. I even went to the effort of changing at Reading so I could get a train to Ealing and not have to cycle home from Paddington!

In conclusion, I'm a lazy git :-)

Very quick rant: wild camping should not be stressful. When will the whole of this country realise what Scotland has done and see that there's millions of hectares of pretty much unused land that people should have access to. But as it's all the property of someone (evil feudal-throwback landowners take note!) we are currently denied anything that is not a RoW or Access Land. That's why this was all going to be a rant about the shittiness of England.

Woah woah woah! Hold it right there George! Get your glad rags on:
...put on some banging electro house and get down.