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Total distance: 153 miles (244.8 kilometres)
This CircumCycle was one of the best and the worst we’ve done. There were mixed feelings all around, because for a variety of reasons we’d decided it would be the last one we’d do as the remnants of the BOTTOM team. Sam and Leo had moved to Cumbria, Barney and Lori had other commitments in the pipeline - something to do with sailing around the world - and several of us had begun to creak more than our bikes did on long rides.
So B, T and M from the original crew, plus two of their other halves set off from Barney and Lori’s house in Bracknell on Saturday 14th of September. (Sam had decided she was so unfit that she would prefer to drive support, so she was with us at the overnights and the lunches, but she intended to shop rather than cycle.)
Day 1 - Bracknell to Gatwick - 64 miles
Setting off from a team member’s house rather than from a hotel or B&B is always a little more relaxed. There’s no checking out to do, no packing up the night before, and this year there was less pressure than normal because Sam was driving support. We didn’t need to carry overnight kit or too many spares - just the maps, enough snacks for the day and some tools and tubes in case of punctures.
We set off at the crack of 0835. Well, Barney did. Graham suddenly remembered he needed to put some lube on his chain, so we tried to call Barney back because he had the garage key.
Not a chance.
So the rest of us set off 5 minutes later, caught Barney up near the Peacock Meadows roundabout, and then set off again, roughly together, heading for Sandhurst. Wending our way through Sandhurst, which is surprisingly pretty on a sunny Saturday, there was more traffic than the normal amount for a CircumCycle route, but this has to be expected when we are in the populous South East. Most of the car drivers are exceptionally good to cyclists. Some, however, aren’t. Just a couple deserve a special mention over the course of the weekend, the first being Mr. Jaguar in Sandhurst turning right out of a side road directly in front of Leo, then overtaking Stella at a narrow point and nearly forcing her into the gutter. He gets the git of the morning award.
Getting to Blackwater allowed us to get off the road and onto a surprisingly familiar cycle path. Apparently we had done this one on the Hampshire ride eight years ago. Winding our way on a cycle path through wooded glades, beside a river, crossing bridges and dodging nettles and dogwalkers brought it all flooding back.
Except for the bit where Barney got lost. He didn’t do that last time, or at least not quite so obviously. This time we spent half an hour wandering up and down a residential street looking for a pathway, and then getting on the wrong side of the Blackwater river for a short while.
It all worked out OK in the end though and we passed an amusingly graffiti-adorned water tower very obviously giving the finger to North Camp, which we may not have seen without the detour.
Heading on past Lakeside and Aldershot we still managed to avoid the worst of the roads for much of the time. Barney is quite clever with the routes he sets; judging a line that keeps close to the edge of the county without being on main roads is not an easy task. We’d never tell him, but he does it quite well. Except when we got lost again trying to cross the A231 into Tongham.
We were over fifteen miles in now, and Leo was looking for a rest stop, so was quite happy when we got to Runfold recreation park. He had a banana, Barney called Sam and gave her directions to the oil in the garage, and she promised to meet us at lunch to lube Graham.
After a protracted discussion on what to name the beer being brewed specially for Graham and Stella’s daughter’s wedding - a “Pint of No Return” was heading the vote, closely followed by “Hoppily Ever After” - we set off again, heading for Tilford, Millbridge, Frensham and Churt.
The weather was gorgeously sunny, the miles were passing, the hills were not too bad yet, and Damn, have we got to cycle on the A3?
Yes, but only for 30 metres, and then we pull across three lanes of traffic and turn right towards Amesbury School. OK then.
Once across this obstacle, and all still alive, Graham remarked to me after a short hill that he hadn’t had to use granny gear yet. He should have kept quiet, because directly across the next junction was the first categorised climb of the ride. Literally 15 seconds after he said it, he was in granny gear.
Once at the top we then had an extremely steep down in the woods past the school, one of those that gets you moving so far back in the saddle that you’re almost off it. We all made it down safely onto the flatter roads again, skirting Shottermill and turning East towards Haslemere. We decided to head for Plaistow for lunch at around 40 miles, so rang Sam at the next stop, and she promised to head there and check out the eating arrangements.
Still sunny, still mostly together, we cycled through the well-tamed greenery of the home counties roads in Surrey, thinking that England isn’t that bad a place to live, but that it needed more eating establishments.
This was underlined when we arrived in Plaistow, which turned out to be a one-pub village where the pub didn’t sell food. Lori was all for going to the cafe, which apparently had Brie and Cranberry paninis, but no beer. On to Loxwood for lunch we went. Another four miles up the road and the time was approaching 1400, a point at which in the past we’ve found that several pubs stop serving food. Brie and Panini was starting to sound better, but when we got there, the pub in Loxwood was pleasant, beside the canal, still serving food, and it also had beer and Sam, so everyone was happy.
Leaving the pub at 1530 after a couple of beers, some good food, and a nice gob of 3-in-1 oil on Graham’s chain we had roughly 20 miles to go for the afternoon, which was good as Leo’s legs were starting to become less interested in pushing pedals, especially as there suddenly seemed to be a lot more ups than downs in the route.
An hour and several increases in altitude later, we’d done only 10 of those miles, and Leo needed another banana, so we stopped at the Punchbowl Inn at Oakwoodhill for a break. The sun was still out, and most of the others seemed to be enjoying themselves, even Graham now that his chain was nicely oiled.
We eventually arrived at Russ Hill Hotel after a total of 65 miles for the day, having slowed down a lot in the later afternoon. The hotel is close to Gatwick airport, and seems to get most of its custom by acting as a long term car park. It used to be grand, but is fairly run down now, and the food isn’t incredible. It had beds though, and we were allowed to wheel our bikes through the foyer into an enclosed courtyard near the back of the hotel, and that was all we really needed after a long day.
Day 2 - Gatwick to Ewell - 55 miles
The following morning we were all up reasonably early, with all of us having had a less than perfect night. The reasons were several - sagging mattresses, noisy neighbours, rooms too hot - even though the airport doesn’t operate 24/7 the planes had started again quite early in the morning.
Breakfast was interesting. The juice machine only gave out water, the coffee machine likewise, the toaster gave you warm bread unless you ran it through three times, but there was bacon so it wasn’t all bad.
We left just after 0800, being waved off by Sam, and headed East towards Charlwood and Gatwick airport, where Barney realised he had packed one of the maps we needed in his ‘finished with’ bag rather than the ‘still need it’ one. A quick phone call to Sam seemed to be on the cards, but waiting isn’t Barney’s strong suit, so he decided to press on since the section that was missing was only short and could probably be fudged with Google maps and his phone. There was a bit of a communication problem at this point, since some of the team thought we needed the map, so we finished up spreading out over what seemed like half of Crawley, some of us looking for Sam arriving with a missing map, some of us wanting to get on, and some of us stuck half way between, trying to keep track of both ends of the group. Eventually we cancelled the call to Sam after she’d spent around 20 minutes trying and failing to find us, regrouped near Pound Hill, and headed off towards East Grinstead.
The name of East Grinstead to me has always conjured images of some sort of industrial woollen mills, with grimy, soot-stained brick factories and little to recommend it. The reality is far more picturesque. Tudor whitewashed and timber-framed houses around a pleasant high street with not too much traffic early on a Sunday morning. Altogether a pleasant surprise. It also marks the beginning of several miles of ex-railway path on a gentle downhill slope, which took us to the lower right hand corner of the route.
We took a banana break on the path in the middle of the woods, with the cycle computer showing 81 miles so we were over the half way point of the ride. We had been warned that today would be the most difficult, with seven out of the whole weekend’s eight categorised climbs coming between the 80 and 120 mile markers. Sure enough, straight after the stop we turned off the rail track and pretty much cycled up a thickly wooded embankment, on what looked like a little used and deeply rutted track.
Stella went first, and got a pedal stuck in a rut on a steep section. The rest of the group got off in a slightly less precipitous fashion and we all pushed our bikes up the bank. This was apparently the better way to get to the top since the alternative was a long detour further down before going up again.
Eventually at the top, and back on a proper road again, we set off in a mostly Northwards up and down direction, all getting tired, mostly getting hungry, with lunch beckoning in around 18 miles.
We eventually found ourselves on a road called Clackett Lane, and crossed a bridge over the M25. It was a pleasant mental box tick to see the motorway services below us and see that the reason they are called Clackett Lane services is because they are on Clackett Lane.
Pleasant box ticking aside, immediately after the bridge we started up a hill, and the road was quiet, narrow, sunken and had tall hedges. We usually spread out in situations like this; partly to allow cars past without obstructing them too much, but mostly due to the differing speeds at which we go up hills. Graham and I were at the back, and a car came up behind us. The road was too narrow to pass, so we kept on going. A couple of hundred metres further on there was a wider section and both Graham and I pulled in to let the patiently pootling car past. He raced off up the hill and disappeared around the corner and we were just about to set off again when another car also pushed past us. We started off again, waiting to see what happened when the two cars met the rest of the group further up the hill.
A car horn hooted in the distance, and some angry sounding shouts were heard. More hoots, more shouts, and then silence.
When we got to the top all was made clear. Lori had been the next person the cars met. She had seen the first, but not the second, stealth car just behind it, much the same as Graham and me. The second car had hooted to let her know he was there, but she was so surprised by this she swore at the driver in Canadian. Apparently Canadian swear words translate into English fairly well, because the stealth driver got slightly upset. More shouting ensued, much of it apologetic, and everyone went on their way again.
We eventually got on to the B269 heading towards Warlingham just as the cycle computer clicked over to 100.0 miles, and tried to find a lunch spot. Botley Hill Pub beckoned, as it seemed to be doing for many other people that sunny day. No tables available for a while, so we had a beer first, and hovered around the beer garden looking for people vacating their tables. The food, when we got it, was good and plentiful, if a little disorganised, but the view out over the valley towards Woldingham was stunning.
Back on the bikes again at 1445, almost immediately we hit some more hills. Halliloo Valley, Caterham Hill, Hill Croft, Farthing Downs - these places were all named by people who thought we needed reminding that the English countryside is “rolling”. They need not have worried. We all know.
Tired legs, day two, more hills means the average speed drops quite significantly. The first 10 miles after lunch took us until 1600. There were unscheduled stops for breath catching, and several people were opting to get off and push their bikes up some of the longer upward sections. Leo was determined to keep pedalling, but was slightly demoralised when he realised that Lori pushing her bike was walking up the hill at the same rate he was cycling it. It took him about two minutes to get past her.
Reaching East Ewell at long last we just had to turn off the road and cycle across a field to a place called Nonsuch Park. Getting in to the park involved chucking the bikes over a locked gate and climbing over ourselves, but our Bed and Breakfast for the night was right outside the park on the other side, waiting to welcome us in just after 1700 with 119 miles on the computer.
That night was the last CircumCycle supper, so it was decided to splash out a bit and go posh to a place called the Grumpy Mole. This was a good decision. The food was excellent, the service friendly, the staff were interested. There was beer, wine, stories, reminiscences, wild exaggerations, accusations and laughter. A good time was had.
Day 3 - Ewell to Bracknell - 35 miles
The final day of the final ride dawned grey and overcast. Rain was forecast. The good news was that all the categorised hills had now been done, and much of today was supposedly on the Thames towpath, so should be relatively flat. Also, the route said that there were only around 35 miles to go.
We set off just after 0830, immediately running into rush hour traffic, and then avoiding it entirely by heading for Hogsmill Riverside Open Space, a gently rolling place of rough cinder tracks, fields, woods and hundreds of kids on their way to school. This went on for what seemed like miles, but we eventually got away from the kids and rejoined the main road heading towards Kingston, where we now had to negotiate with school buses and more cars than Leo had seen in a year living in Cumbria.
Cycling through Surbiton we reached the Thames’ South side just by Kingston Town End Pier, went for a short detour North to cross the river and cycle along the towpath towards Hampton Court Palace.
Wonderfully flat, our average speed would have risen dramatically if Leo’s legs hadn’t been so tired. He decided to pootle at his own pace, and everyone would have to wait where necessary. Any rise in speed would mean he wouldn’t make it to the end of the ride. Insisting on stops every 10 miles rather than the “Barney 15” - which sometimes means 17 ish - also meant that he had his final banana right by the back gates to Hampton Court Palace.
Crossing the river again via the bridge at Hampton Court, we continued on the towpath on the other side of the river. This section is less well paved, but still mostly flat which makes for pleasant cycling. Carrying on to Sunbury lock we met an elderly gentleman on a bike with three dogs in a basket on the front. We were vastly encouraged when he said we may make it to Bracknell today.
Crossing Walton bridge we headed on into Shepperton on the main roads again, through Laleham and into Staines. Bang on 20 miles we stopped again in Runnymede just before the final push. The fact that the stop was right by a busy roundabout didn’t matter. We needed to stop. 14 miles to go, legs like rubber, no bananas left. We went on after a few minutes rest, and entered Windsor Great Park via Bishops Gate. In case you didn’t know the houses get a bit posh around this bit. There are still some hills though, so speed was single digits.
Bypassing Ascot race track we stayed on the A329 heading straight West to Bullbrook, passing 150 miles on the clock without even noticing. The end was in mind, if not in sight yet. Local knowledge helped Barney navigate the cycle paths and industrial estates rather than using the main roads through Bracknell town centre, so we didn’t see many traffic lights at all. There’s no way I could tell you what route we took to get to the Peacock Inn though.
We stopped there for lunch at 1234, with 154.5 miles on the clock, even though it’s only a few yards to Barney and Lori’s house, the idea being that we wanted food before showers. Sam came out to join us, and it had stopped raining enough for us to sit outside, so we did. Lunch was good, even though there were still no Brie and Cranberry paninis for Lori, and then we wended our weary way back to the house, loaded the bikes into various cars and garages, took a quick shower, said our goodbyes and headed home.
The fact that the weekend chosen to do this, the final ride by the CircumCycle team, sixteen years to the day from the first one has not been overlooked. We have achieved a lot in the intervening time; not just the cycling several thousand miles around various counties - though that is not to be sneezed at - there have been marriages, career changes, meeting new people and sadly saying goodbye to others.
I often stop for a moment and think about Francesca. She would have celebrated her 26th birthday the week before this ride had she lived. I often think about what she would have done with those 16 years since our first ride in 2003 had she been given the chance to live them.
Then I look at the people she would have grown up with, and the support network of friends and family she would have had, and I think she would have done OK.
So, Francesca, thank you for your good luck wish. Yes, we did have fun.