When I offered my teen son a weekend away of his choice I didn’t expect him to request a cycling holiday. I’d had visions of us seeing the sights in a European city. But I couldn’t go back on my promise so after much deliberation we settled on a cycle ride around the Isle of Wight.
Last year my son and I had a very wet ride at Uptonogood, our local mountain bike event. This year the event followed on from one of the hottest days of the year. The organisers bravely sent an email stating the weather gods were smiling on us.
You can guess what happened. Overnight we had the most spectacular thunderstorm I’ve seen in years accompanied by the type of torrential rain you only ever see in films. The previously dry ground turned into puddle fest.
The rain had stopped by early morning but I did wonder whether the day had been jinxed as our son’s bike had sprung a puncture overnight. A quick tyre swap and we were ready to battle the puddles.
Our arrival at Uptonogood coincided with the departure of the 25 mile route riders. I’d loved to have taken a before and after photo because the next time we saw them they were all caked in mud.
We’d signed up for the 12 mile family ride. After registering we stopped to listen to some rousing tunes from the local brass band before lining up for the mass start at 10.30am. It’s not a timed race so we lingered at the back to avoid getting caught up in the scrum of handlebars and wheels.
I was glad to see a lead vehicle holding up all the traffic on the main road for us to cross; it was rather enjoyable to ride down the middle of a usually busy road. Thereafter the family route was almost all off road, apart from a few short stretches on quiet lanes.
The first part of the course is an uphill stony track. There was a bit of a bottleneck with riders stopping for a breather and a few people wobbling into others. However, I was impressed by some of the youngest kids who pedalled all the way up.
Despite my worries the course wasn’t too wet. Some stretches were muddy, and there were large puddles to negotiate but I had expected worse. My son gained great pleasure from riding through the middle of them so he did end up with a wet and muddy back.
It took us a mile or two to thin out from everyone else. The course initially follows bridleways and a Sustrans route that we often ride along. After a while though it headed into new family cycling territory. This involved an uphill stretch at which point most family riders got off and walked. The fit 25 milers briefly joined us here and they all whizzed up the hill without a breather.
It wasn’t happy families the whole way round. Eldest daughter has an old heavy bike which meant she hard to work harder to keep up. This resulted in a bit of a strop, which was compounded when she somehow managed to fall off it too. I had to suppress an incredulous ‘how did you manage to fall off there’ comment, even though it was going through my head at the time!
My favourite part of the course was the stretch along the Ridgeway. It’s made from fast draining chalk so the ground was pretty dry and easy to cycle along. We passed several groups of teenagers who looked like they were undertaking their Duke of Edinburgh award, it always amazes me how heavy their rucksacks are. The views here were predominately rural apart from the landmarks of Didcot Power Station and the Diamond Light Source. We could see for miles!
Heading off the Ridgeway the rest of our route was fast and downhill. The clouds were becoming ever more ominous and a few heavy drops fell but we were only a mile from the finish at this point so it wasn’t too bad.
There was plenty of cheering from the onlookers as we cycled back into the village recreation ground. The kids got a certificate, badge and lollipop at the finish tent. Hats off to the organisers, from our perspective everything ran smoothly and I’m hoping all participants had a good ride.
So what was the best bit? I’m sorry but it wasn’t the ride. It was the cake afterwards! I sent the kids into the hall with £1 each and wondered why they took so long. Turns out they couldn’t make a decision between the sheer variety of baked goodies on offer. Fruit cake, brownies, flapjacks, cupcakes, lemon drizzle, how to choose from so many options?
We stayed a little longer as there was live music and a BBQ. I resisted the lure of a (third) visit to the cake stand but even now as I write this I’m wondering what cake I’d have gone for……
- Uptonogood is a mountain bike event that takes place in Upton, Oxfordshire each June. It’s a family friendly day out with 5 and 12 mile rides for the kids and 25 or 45 mile rides for the more serious adult cyclists. Keep an eye on their website for details of next years event.
Looking for a flat family friendly cycle route in Berkshire? Then why not cycle from Newbury to Reading along the Kennet and Avon cycle route. This is part of Sustrans route 4, and for most of the way follows the canal towpath. It’s a 19 mile stretch but easily shortened if you prefer a shorter ride.
Our journey started with a couple of train rides to reach Newbury. It was a little stressful getting four bikes on the trains, as despite it being a Sunday, they were packed with shoppers and there was no dedicated bike storage. On the second train we were blessed with a helpful conductor who helped us organise a place for our bikes and find seating.
Once in Newbury we followed the signs to the Wharf to pick up the cycle trail. We’d managed to coincide our ride with a waterways festival, so the first mile out of Newbury had plenty of walkers and families out for the afternoon.
After a couple of miles the Sustrans route leaves the canal towpath and takes you through Thatcham. Whilst you are still on a dedicated cycle path it is initially next to a very busy road, past houses and industrial units. Not the scenic and relaxing ride that I had in mind! An alternative is to stay on the towpath and walk (as it turns into a footpath only), or perhaps start the route from Thatcham railway station where it picks up the canal path again.
After rejoining the towpath you once again feel like you’re back in the countryside. We stopped for a belated picnic, and hastily ate our sandwiches as it was already approaching mid-afternoon.
Back onto our bikes again, and a quiet stretch of the canal. It was a windy day so I was glad of the decision to ride west to east as it wouldn’t have been much fun cycling into the wind. We saw quite a few birds, including grebes, coots and Canada geese but I didn’t spot the hoped for blue streak of a kingfisher at any point.
Some parts of the towpath lead directly onto roads, albeit quiet country ones. It was easy to tell when road access was getting near as the number of people we’d see would increase. A particularly busy spot was near a pub garden that backed onto the canal. I would have liked to stop there for a refreshment break but we were already pushed for time so it was not to be. Fortunately we had our water bottles with us.
Near Reading the track temporarily diverts away from the canal, past some fishing lakes, and then alongside the M4. You return once again to the towpath, with plenty of permanently moored houseboats lining the canal.
Arriving into the busy city of Reading is a shock, but the towpath held one last surprise. Along the opposite side of the bank are houses with gardens leading directly onto the canal. Every other house has a kayak or small boat ready for canal exploration. It’s great to think that a row of suburban houses has a secret canal hidden behind them.
We felt a little out of place walking back through Reading centre, amongst all of the weekend shoppers. Nethertheless I was happy to have spent my afternoon cycling rather than stuck in shops!
If you fancy a walk instead you might be interested in a Cold War Greenham Common walk, a windmill walk at Bedwyn or viewing the Caen Hill locks. All of them include various stretches of the Kennet and Avon canal.
- Sustrans map of the route: http://www.sustrans.org.uk/ncn/map/route/kennet-and-avon-cycle-route
- The route is flat so suitable for family cycling. The obvious danger is the canal itself, as in places it would be very easy to cycle off the towpath and into the canal!
- We cycle regularly so the route length wasn’t an issue. If you’re not used to cycling you could easily shorten the route by doing an out and back cycle ride.
I’m not a fan of heavy rain. After running Reading Half Marathon in atrocious conditions earlier this year I’m firmly of the opinion that my enjoyment of outdoor activities is weather dependent.
When the other half decided to enter a local mountain biking event, Uptonogood, I held off making a decision until the day beforehand so I could check the weather forecast first. Despite very windy conditions there was no rain predicted so I signed up too.