Great Rides: Cycling from Reading to Manchester
If I had ordered the weather before setting off, it couldn't have been more gorgeous - perfect, bright spring sunshine after what had seemed like a particularly long, dark, grey winter. Leaving Reading station early one chilly Sunday morning in late March with my husband Roland (Rol), we - as is fairly typical for us - immediately went wrong.
There were no clear signs to NCN 5 that we could see and I had not had time to upload the route to the Garmin - big mistake! Nevertheless, we were soon wending our way out of the metropolis and into pretty suburbs and villages like Stoke Row and Kidmore End beyond.
There's nothing like the feeling of freedom of finally setting off on a long-distance expedition, especially in fantastic weather, knowing that all you have to think about for the next few days is keeping the pedals turning, preferably in the right direction, and stocking up on tasty food supplies.
Sitting in Wallingford market square sipping an oatmilk latte and nibbling a banana sandwich, all the stress of getting packed up (the most difficult part of cycle touring for me is deciding which clothes to leave behind and which to bring) seemed a distant memory.
The road ahead beckoned with the excitement of discovering new sights, sounds and smells around every corner. One of the reasons I wanted to ride this route was that it would take me to places I had never cycled before and cover a wide range of scenery from industrial wastelands of the Midlands to the chocolate box villages of the Cotswolds. It would also include some places where I could get BCQ points, for example Knutsford and Sandbach in Cheshire, which most people only know as motorway services.
An unwelcome detour to Didcot
Setting off again, it seemed like we had all the time in the world to cover the 15 miles or so to Oxford, where we had planned to have lunch and go our separate ways, Rol heading for home and me continuing on to the first night's stop at Stratford on Avon Youth Hostel Association (YHA). As the sun rose higher, the day became ever warmer and the sandstone Oxfordshire villages flew by. The NCN signs were mostly pretty easy to follow and all seemed well in the world.
But you can never rest on your laurels for long when you're touring. You're never too far away from some minor disaster that can turn pleasure to pain in a blink of an eye. Studiously following the NCN, we headed towards Didcot, where we promptly got lost again and realised we'd made a totally unnecessary loop around the busy traffic-choked town.
You wouldn't think you could mislay a massive power station would you? But unfortunately, we had totally forgotten that the three famous cooling towers had been demolished in 2014 so no wonder we couldn't locate them. To make matters worse, we didn't even have to go into Dicot at all, which we only realised when we later picked up the correct route by using a combination of busy lanes and very rough, rutted farm tracks, as we could, in fact, have cut the corner off near the village of Little Wittenham.
So with an hour wasted, we were on our way again but beginning to realise that the sun was slowly sinking a little bit lower and there was still an awfully long way to go. At this point, very mild panic starts to set in and you realise that there is literally no time for dawdling whatsoever. So we steamed on into Oxford passing lots of people out soaking up the sunshine, including lots and lots of cyclists.
No time even to get the BCQ clue in Oxford, I rode off in what I thought was the right direction after giving Rol a quick peck. trying not to think about the 45 miles I had to go until Stratford. Now on my own, it was easier to keep pushing the pedals around without stopping so frequently and the route was straightforward as it followed the course of the A44 all the way to Woodstock, unfortunately.
However, by the time you get to Woodstock, the route heads into the beautiful countryside of Clarkson country proper (or the Cotswolds, as it used to be known before the former presenter of Top Gear opened his Diddly Squat farmshop nearby). I knew I was close when a woman (Victoria B? Kate M?) in a smart white 4x4 took the time to overtake, then stop dead in front of me to shout something I couldn't quite hear out of her window as I momentarily hesitated over following what appeared to be a very narrow farm track, but was in fact the correct route.
As she sped off, I thought how much richer I was than her in enjoyment and the feeling of freedom that cycling brought me on that glorious afternoon. When a few miles later I passed the turning to Soho Farmhouse, a famous rural retreat for city people who don't really like mud, brambles and dirt, I realised exactly why there were so many speeding super-cars around. Their loss, I thought, as I felt the wind in my hair and the first faint smells of wild garlic wafted into my nostrils.
A warm welcome in Hook Norton
It was early Sunday evening when I rode up the hill to the lovely village of Hook Norton, having finally abandoned the signs that were pulling me towards Banbury, which seemed to be a bit off-course. Like a mirage, the village shop appeared and was actually open so felt I had no choice but to actually stop there (never pass up the opportunity to buy food when on the road!).
The super-friendly assistant seemed completely amazed that I had cycled all the way from Reading as I paid for my machine coffee and discounted ginger cake. So impressed was she, that she offered me a second coffee for free, which I politely declined as I really didn't have time for another one.
Another kindly but concerned local wanted to point me in the direction of a nearby campsite, while a third villager, clutching a bottle of chilled rosé, seemed astonished that I was hoping to continue 20 miles further on to Stratford that night. "Rather you than me", he said. Thanking him for his confidence in my abilities, I decided I'd better crack on, after cramming as much of the ginger cake into my mouth as possible.
The fast setting sun was really alarming me now as I put my lights on and an extra layer of clothing, but the golden hour is also a wonderful time to be out cycling, and the lanes from here on were literally deserted until I hit the A29 at Tredington. Crossing over onto another network of deserted lanes, I watched as the sky became an inky black and stars started appearing. I was finally starting to feel a bit spent, having been riding for coming up 12 hours by now.
I could tell from the map that Stratford wasn't far away but the route seemed to curve away from the bright lights on the horizon. Finally, I hit the outskirts, before remembering from when I stayed here before that the YHA is actually not in Stratford but a few miles along a busy road out of town.
But at least I had made it and finished the day having covered around 80 miles after 12 hours on the road in total. However, I was really exhausted and also hadn't eaten enough, which meant that my stomach couldn't digest any dinner so I had to just shower and go to bed rather than eating the slap-up meal I'd been looking forward to all day.
Next morning, feeling a little refreshed, I went off in search of Anne Hathaway's cottage, which is a mile or two from the town centre. Far from being a quaint little 'cottage', the former home of Shakespeare's wife is in fact a 12-roomed farmhouse with three chimneys set in extensive gardens. It was still closed for the winter so I took a picture of it for the BCQ points and carried on.
One of the fascinating things about completing a long-distance tour in the UK is watching the slow change in the vernacular architecture from county to county. The stark black and white Tudor beams and thatched roofs of Warwickshire are very different to the simple, mellow honey-coloured limestone used in the Cotswolds.
But my route from here on would not be passing through many more picturesque villages as I began to ride towards the Worcestershire town of Redditch and then onto Birmingham. NCN 5 swings left from Redditch to take in Bromsgrove but I opted for the more direct NCN 55 to King's Norton.
This route passes through gorgeous bucolic countryside either side of the M42 before a steep climb, where I had to get off and push my heavily-laden bike, then a sweeping descent into King's Norton and the first signs of being on the approach to Britain's second city, with graffiti and the remains of industrial buildings lining the canal towpath.
Birmingham's cycling jewel
Thinking this would take me directly into the city centre, I was surprised when the route then diverted away from the canal and into one of Birmingham's cycling jewels, the peaceful Cannon Hill Park, where many of Cycling UK's community cycle clubs meet. Here, I had coffee and a sickly sweet slice of carrot cake, my first refreshments since leaving Stratford a few hours earlier.
When I momentarily stopped to check the Garmin and take a photo in the city centre (I had managed to upload the routes finally), a kindly cyclist insisted on showing me the way, despite my protestations that I was fine following the signs, as he seemed to have never heard of NCN 5; this is one of the hazards of cycle touring - well-meaning but time-consuming locals giving you endless directions or taking you out of your way in a misguided attempt to be helpful. Thanking him profusely, I sped off before he could delay me any further.
NCN 5 does in fact rejoin a canal towpath as it heads out of the city towards Wolverhampton. But the feeling of flying effortlessly along didn't last long as suddenly I was pushing up a very steep cobbled slope as NCN5 heads through the suburbs to Walsall, passing alongside the M5 and under the M6.
Again, I felt I was going to run out of time and daylight if I kept to my prepared route through Lichfield so, I decided to head directly to Cannock on the main roads. It was by now rush hour so not particularly pleasant but I have found that, perhaps not coincidentally since the Highway Code changes recently, nearly all drivers gave me plenty of room and even priority at junctions, which was very refreshing.
In fact, in over 200 miles of cycling, there was only one other incident of road rage, which was on an isolated empty single carriageway lane in Cheshire when a white van man objected to me riding away from the rutted and broken roadside.
The road signs through Cannock Chase AONB in Staffordshire repeatedly remind you it is a high danger area due to deer but that didn't stop me enjoying a speedy descent, whilst carefully covering my brakes of course, and soon I was whizzing through Stafford and reaching the sanctuary of my hotel in Stone - albeit a room at the back in an ugly annexe next to a major gyratory, rather than in the smart 18th century inn shown in the photos. But at least they let me keep the bike in the ground floor room, which was reassuring.
Finally back on a canal towpath the next morning, the Trent and Mersey this time, all was right with the world again. Friendly boaters waved cheerily, ducks quacked gently and bright yellow daffodils were nodding in the continuing amazing sunshine. By now, it was actually balmy even quite early in the morning so I removed most of my outer layers.
Reaching Stoke on Trent, instead of keeping to my plan to stay on the canal, for some reason I decided to pay a quick visit to the city centre - and then wasted a lot of time trying to work my way back to the NCN 55 through the back streets and building sites of Stoke. Most annoyingly, I passed a lovely canal-side café at the Middleport pottery where I could have taken my morning coffee instead of at the Greggs in the city centre. Next time...
The subtle vowel shifts from the south to the Midlands to the north of England become more pronounced once you cross into Cheshire. I could have taken the more direct NCN55 towards Biddulph and Macclesfield but instead I headed towards Sandbach, where I knew I could pick up another BCQ clue answer.
Crossing the busy M6, it was strange to think how often i'd travelled down it after visiting places like the Lake District and visited the famous services but had never thought about the actual town they were named after. And that is one of the benefits of undertaking BCQ - it encourages you to discover locations by bike that you may never have done otherwise. Sandbach is an historic market town and the answer to the clue is to be found on the ninth century Saxon crosses in the main square.
The next few miles were spent on a network of delightful lanes populated mainly by groups of cyclists. NCN5 heads west towards North Wales so I'm now navigating using my OS maps as the Garmin has decided it's had enough for one day. Fortunately, there are useful landmarks like the spooky-looking Jodrell Bank Observatory to help. I'm feeling confident that I will be able to make my final destination of Manchester by dusk so take time to stop for some photographs and enjoy the rural scenery.
The Golden Triangle of Cheshire
Spring is in full bloom and dazzling blossom is everywhere but there are very few places to stop for a coffee or a snack so I crack on to Knutsford before finally having a break for a late lunch around 3pm. The cars jamming up the narrow main street are all very flashy and nearly all have personalised number plates, a sign that I am near Cheshire's Golden Triangle of footballers' houses and wealthy residents.
The last leg
Leaving the town, I spot a sign for Tatton Park, an enormous historic parkland and country estate. I visited here in March 2020 just before lockdown and remembered seeing groups of cyclists. Maybe I could get away from the traffic by cutting through here? The sign says the parkland closes at 5pm so I just have time to get through. What a piece of luck! A near empty road and a fast descent past a large herd of deer was an amazing bonus and brought me closer to my final destination.
But there was still quite a long way to go before I could finally hang up my panniers so I studied my map carefully to try and find the most direct route into the city centre. It seemed like there might be a good signed route in from Manchester Airport area but it proved difficult to follow on the ground so I finally resorted to using my phone and Google maps. The route was pretty direct but followed badly-maintained cycle paths full of glass and other rubbish next to very busy rush-hour dual carriageways so was far from pleasant cycling but at least it was mostly traffic-free.
It was a massive relief to arrive at the tranquil oasis of Manchester YHA, which is located down a quiet side street next to the Bridgewater Canal, before dark. I ordered a vegetarian pizza and cold beer to celebrate completing over 200 miles of varied and interesting riding in three days, and, after a good night's sleep, I felt invigorated and ready to take part in the #BikeBackBetter conference. On arrival, I was treated a little bit like a returning hero but really, when I heard about some of the nightmare train journeys of my colleagues, I felt like I'd had the easiest - and certainly the best - option!