Saturday 24 June 2023

Somerset circle

Bristol Cheddar Gorge Wells route

Another cycling adventure completed; a six day trip, my longest so far. A journey of two parts: the first Bristol and back, the second following a WillCycle route guide starting and finishing in Bristol. 

Over half is traffic-free, comprising national cycle routes, quiet lanes and cycle paths. Will has investigated and written many. His blog posts talk about a wide range of cycle touring subjects. He likes to sleep in a tent; give me a B&B or hotel anyday. No tent means a lighter bike, which suits me. I went through a similar routine as I did last year. Pack, unpack and remove stuff, then add some bits, pack and then unpack to check I hadn't forgotten anything. In the end I stopped filling the bags and just laid it out in piles. As I left the house I was still anxious that I'd left something important behind.

I rode my mountain bike because some sections of the loop were noted as not suitable for a road bike like mine. A touring or gravel bike would have been fine.

Getting to the start took two days with a stop in Hungerford at the Three Swans Hotel. 

The ride was largely uninspiring. It started okay, crossing the Thames at Shepperton.

the first of many river and canal crossings

Virginia Water
Roman remains at Virginia Water

⁩Royal Ascot was on, but there was little evidence of what was to come as I went past the racecourse.

For 55 miles I rode from one "M4 corridor" town to the next. I had thought there would be countryside after Chertsey. Instead it was urban until I left Theale. I didn't stopped for lunch until I got to Bradfield Southend because I wanted a country pub. The weather was hot but not oppressive, the constant traffic was. The Queen's Head served an all day vegan breakfast.

The country views lasted until Thatcham.

country views at last
country views at last

Then I turned off the main road again and peace returned.

avon and somerset canal

avon and somerset canal
avon and somerset canal

It was a little too early to check in so cake and coffee was consumed. A sign of things to come.

coffee and cake at Coffee 1
coffee and cake at Coffee 1

It was then a seat by the canal to call everyone with an arrival update.

I had an unexpected companion at the hotel.

Next day was much better, country lanes all the way.

river kennett

river kennett
river kennett

Occasionally it looked like it might rain, but all that happened was it either became more humid or cooler.

Village pubs seem to not open on a Monday. Which meant I was stuck for somewhere to eat. A small shop was ready to serve me. Unfortunately they rarely stock vegan sandwiches etc. But they do sell savouries and bread. With onion rings and rolls stuffed down the front of my jersey I went looking for a bench.


A church yard is nearly always close by.

lunch venue

In Bristol my overnighter was the Washington Guest House. Just a half mile to go and there was a steep climb.

the picture doesn't convey the gradient

A picture with the  bridge was required before I checked in.

Clifton Suspension Bridge
Clifton Suspension Bridge
I had a huge dinner so went walking to ease digestion. For a university city I was surprised to see this.

Some views from the bridge.

view from the clifton suspension bridge

view from the clifton suspension bridge

view from the clifton suspension bridge

view up to the clifton suspension bridge
view up to the clifton suspension bridge

I hadn't realised how deep the gorge was; a just about walkable zig zag path took me very quickly to the bottom. A sign for the SS Great Britain had me extend my route. A harbourside path lead past a few busy pubs to the yard where it's docked. But it provided only a glimpse of the masts. I was too tired to walk back and then around the other side of the harbour.  

The real adventure started on day three; Will's cycle route through Somerset to Wells.

It starts from Bristol station; I joined it at the river. 

It had rained heavily overnight; as it had on Sunday evening. The path along the river was a little muddy in places.

Once out into the sun the going was dry.

This section was busy with other riders, walkers and joggers. It was unfortunate that there was also litter. I picked up a few sweet wrappers as I went along.

Some interesting artwork.

Many parts of the tour used old railway lines.

I was starting to think about lunch, and then I arrived at Yatton station. And the Strawberry line cafe.

I sat under the cover of a parasol on a bench next to Rog, a member of the Somer Valley cycling club.

We chatted about bikes, clubs and how good riding is for mental and physical health. He was surprised at my choice of bike. I agreed a gravel/touring bike would have been better. Anything with wider tyres than my road bike, with some tread would have been ideal. But I only have two bikes. I think we talked for nearly an hour. Eventually it was time for him to head home and me to Wells.

A tunnel; it got much better than this later in the trip.

The Sustrans paths have barriers that could have been painful. They are similar to this.

The first few I came across were wide enough for me to ride straight through. Then they got narrower; my handlebars are just over 600mm wide and they either brushed the sides or were too wide. Had I attempted to pass through without stopping it would have resulted in a crash.

cheddar reservoir

When I returned to the lanes it got a little hillier, a tough one was out of Wedmore. Strava says it peaks at 19%. It's very short so don't worry too much. 

On the whole the paths were well maintained and wide, except for a short section after this climb. The sign said it was a dead end, but Will knew better. Bare arms and legs combined with tall stinging nettles isn't great. I managed to get through without pain though.

A very steep, fast descent followed. It was then flat for a few miles, with no wind. I flew along at close to 20 mph with very little effort. 

I entered Wells ahead of schedule so had some food opposite the hotel.

At the centre of the town is the Crown at Wells near the Bishop's Palace.

After dinner I went for a walk.

The bishop must have had either a lot of enemies or been very paranoid. The palace looks like a castle, complete with moat.

Wells Cathedral

It rained overnight again, but this time the bike was under cover.

a view of the cathedral from my window at sunrise

It had been stored in the breakfast area. So for once I didn't sit alone as I ate my toast.

Day four started a little chilly, but soon warmed up. Rain looked a possibility but never happened.

The first ten miles was mostly climbing. 

overcast and chilly start to the day

Then it's rolling, predominantly down hill for twenty miles. I was on the old railway line again.

The tracks would appear out of the undergrowth from time to time.

Then my thoughts turned to lunch. 

Once again a cafe appeared right on time at Wellow. The Rider's Rest cafe at the livery stables.

No food for my dietary choice so they made me a one-off pesto salad bap. Very tasty. They also filled my water bottles; something they had heard wasn't always done at some locations. I've never had a problem with this at anywhere I have stopped.

A few miles later was one of the highlights of this trip.

The Combe Down Tunnel

At just over one mile long it's the UK's longest cycling and walking tunnel. There are lights that show the line of the path, but they don't illuminate well enough to see by. You'll need a proper light. I was going for a long time when I thought I saw the light at the other end. It was actually an approaching cyclist. It was chilly; music played as I travelled. I emerged and the hot, humid weather hit me. 
Then I did it again, this time for a shorter distance without music.

devonshire tunnel

Some of the line is still in use.

A great path, it took me right into the centre of the city. 

This time I made sure I was in the right place to get a picture of the SS Great Britain.

SS Great Britain

I awoke on Thursday with the trip home in front of me. The forecast said it would be very hot. So I had an early breakfast and left Bristol before nine. 

fish sculpture bristol
the sign didn't explain this sculpture

A brief ride through the commuter traffic and then it was back onto the path I'd used the previous day.

onion rings and bread rolls
onion rings and bread rolls

I bought lunch as I had on Monday from a village store opposite the pub that had been closed on that occasion. This time I sat on the gate under a tree instead of the church yard.

In the afternoon it really got hot.

I had to climb up to the ridgeway during the hottest part of the day. I don't mind admitting I used the lowest of the 27 gears available.

When I got to the top I was out of water and hungry. It was fairly flat and I soon saw a sign for Marlborough. A shaded table outside a cafe was just what I needed.

coffi lab Marlborough
The coffi lab Marlborough

They filled my bottles and after eating my cakes and finishing the coffee I sat to watch the world go by. I awoke about twenty minutes later. I don't know what people had thought if they'd noticed a tired, sweaty cyclist sleeping.

I did feel much better and it was only about 10 miles to Hungerford.

On arrival I found a bench under a tree near the canal as I had done on Sunday. And dozed off again.

The Three Swans was just up the road, I checked in and went looking for dinner. The hotel only had one vegan meal on the menu. So it was the Bear public house that got my patronage.

Only one day to go, and it was going to be another hot one. So again I left early. I knew what the route was going to be like so I had called in to Tescos after dinner the night before. I bought a box of Belvita soft bakes. They are good, value for money snacks. I intended not to stop at cafes etc on my way home.

In Reading I took shelter in a church yard.

Ascot was packed, the horse racing had caused almost total gridlock around the course. This did not help mood. 

Being so hot made the boring ride worse, and eventually I had a coffee at a cafe. A nondescript place attached to a petrol station and car wash. 

But it was becoming very slow going. I sat under a tree just outside Claygate for quite some time.

Hook was just up the road so I continued hoping for some food and drink. On the parade was a Gregs. I stood in the air conditioned store and ate two vegan sausage rolls and drank the same number of Oasis drinks. Marcia choose this perfect time to call me. 

The rest of the ride was a bit of a blur; it was with great relief that I saw a sign for Banstead; Chipstead and Coulsdon were next. Only one more hill, Marlpit Lane, up to Old Coulsdon. 

A final couple of miles and I was home.


The Three Swans Hotel

I recommend this one. It's interior is moden, the outside looked every bit the original country pub. Very friendly, helpful staff. The only improvements would be a more varied dinner menu and a covered area to secure my bike. It was safe, but open to the elements.

Washington Guest house

The standard guest house as you'd expect. Good value considering the central location. Get down early for breakfast if you don't want to wait for a table. The single rooms are small. Secure, covered storage for the bike.

The most expensive place of the trip. I guess because of its location. Super helpful staff. I'm not sure how they'd cope with multiple bike storage. More vegan choices on the menu would have been great. What I had was very nice.

I bought this plan. And it was worth it. Much of the loop is made up of the Sustrans national cycle network. What Will has achieved is joining them together in a way I'd find very hard. He had ridden and refined the route, and it shows. The Sustran signs can be difficult to see, it'd be easy to miss them and get lost. So again being able to just follow the instructions downloaded to my cycle computer relieved a lot of pressure. He has created others, and I'd expect them to be equally excellent. 

Final thoughts:

Don't try to do too much. I have in the past; the distances this time were about right for me. I didn't have to rush to complete it at a reasonable time.

Wear sunscreen. I use SPF 50 that is recommended for children. It meant I rode all day without getting sun damage. I can't imagine how bad it would have been to head out for another hot day already burnt.

Eat and drink more than you think you need or want. Don't leave it until you are thirsty or hungry. Your appetite will diminish quickly when it gets hot.

Take a break. Don't slog on regardless. I find not being stationary for very long is a good plan though. Your legs will stiffen and it's surprising how easy time can slip by.

The first ten miles will feel tough, your legs will need to loosen up. And the last ten miles will seem to take an age; time will slow down.

You will feel down and unmotivated sometimes, but it will pass.

Don't let not having the "right" bike stop you having an adventure. In 2011 some friends and I rode to Paris. We only had mountain bikes, the Kona, in my case. So that's what we took.

My next adventure in July involves a ferry. You'll have to keep an eye on the blog to read all about it.