ADVENTURE OF THE MONTH JUNEJULYAUGUST, 2006
Have you heard about Britains National Cycle Network? Over the last eleven years a
comprehensive system approaching 10,000 route miles has been identified, developed, signed
and mapped across Britain and Northern Ireland. Most of the miles are on low-traffic
byways and motor-traffic free bike paths, many of these reclaimed abandoned railways and
improved towpaths tracing 19th century canals and other waterways that crisscross the UK
with low profiles.
Use this informationthe article is complete with where to rent bikes, where to plan a picnic, and where to stop for food and drinksto plan a great two-wheeled adventure for the whole family as part of your next Home at First vacation in the Cotswolds.
All great journeys begin with a first step. Our first step was climbing out of bed early on Sunday morning, and it was the most difficult step of the day. Saturday night had gone from supper at the pub to drinks at the pub, then a walk under the stars back to our little cottage, where we crawled beneath thick comforters sometime after 11PM.
It was June in the Cotswolds, and the weather had been superb sunny, cool days followed by starlit, cooler nights. We hadnt seen much rain this trip, just a couple of showers on the evening of arrival day. Although we love poking around the backwater villages of England, this time we wouldnt be doing so much traveling by car. We had decided we would test the National Cycle Network to see if we could combine two loves, poking and cycling.
Oh yeah who are we? Im a 56-year-old Yank taking a week off in the middle of Little League season (Ive been coaching 13 & 14 year old boys for the last 18+ years) to join my 31-year-old son, Jess, whos finishing up his MBA year at Oxford by fitting in a week with me between final classes and final exams. Our wives had kindly encouraged us to spend the week together, knowing, of course, that their independent travel adventures would come later that summer.
Tea and toast was all we had time for. We had a train to catch shortly after 8AM, and we
had a 4-mile ride to the station. We each carried a backpack with clothes for three days,
first aid supplies, water and high-energy food (mostly chocolate and nuts), a few bike
tools, and, importantly, maps of our planned route and a guidebook for the region. We used
back roads to get to the station. It was rush hour and the main roads were jammed with
traffic little interested in making room for cyclists.
Why were we taking the train? The
Cotswolds are about as lovely as England gets, but, with their constant hills and dales,
most cycling there requires constant climbing and descending on narrow, winding roads
often heavily traveled. The National Cycle Network has ambitions for the Cotswolds, but
these trails have not yet been developed. But, along the relatively flat borders of the
Cotswolds the Network has developed numerous bike routes using lightly traveled back roads
and off-road cycle paths along converted canal towpaths and abandoned railway lines. Our
route National Cycle Route 41 begins on the western edge of the Cotswolds,
in the heart of the historic city of Gloucester, and more-or-less follows the River Severn
south to the city of Bristol on the River Avon. Along the way, the route follows mostly
paved secondary roads, but also traces some unpaved sections of canal towpath.
Edna St. Vincent Millay was writing about me when she wrote, "There isnt a
train I wouldnt take, no matter where its going." Even a short journey
across England raises my spirits. Its not the train, although I admit to being a
railfan. No, its the sense of impending adventure, of being thrust into someplace
new only with imagined possibilities, knowing that the memories will likely be entirely
different than the imagined experiences. And out the window those pastoral scenes gliding
by are nothing less than a slide show by John Constable.
Gloucester! When the Romans founded what they named Glevum in 97AD they had in mind
protecting the southernmost crossing of the River Severn from the wild Welsh tribes who
lived in the hills across the river to the west. Those same Welsh hills would form our
western horizon most of this day.
To the right off Westgate Street, College Court led us away from the noisy crush of
shoppers to the quiet, cobbled square and lawns surrounding Gloucester Cathedral, one of
Englands great Gothic cathedrals, now over 900 years old. We were only the most
recent of visitors, and certainly far from the most significant. One king of England was
crowned here: the 9-year-old Henry III in 1216. And, 111 years later his grandson, King
Edward II, was buried here, the body coming from Berkeley Castlewhich we shall pass
later today on our bikeswhere the king had been murdered by the supporters of his
estranged wife, Queen Isabella of Aquitaine. When, later, a cult of sainthood grew up
around the murdered Edward II, the medieval pilgrimage to Gloucester became the
towns first tourism.
In the cathedrals forecourt we found the first of the days route markers for National Route 41. If this convenient placement were to be an indication, finding our way to Bristol would be childs play.
We left Gloucester Cathedral via cobbled College Street and re-entered the pedestrians-only Westgate shopping quarter. A Route 41 marker appeared, directing us down Berkeley Street and on to Gloucesters Historic Docks. Here several spic n span brick warehouses straddle the northern terminus of the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal, which has brought shipping inland from the deepwater Severn to the port of Gloucester for 180 years. Its 16-mile route required 30 years to build, finally connecting Sharpness Point on the Severn with Gloucester city under the direction of the great British engineer Thomas Telford in 1827. Todays canal traffic is mostly pleasure craft, including canal boats, cabin cruisers, and heritage vessels. The old brick warehouses wear a sunny sandblasted orange coat and no longer play their dreary traditional roles supplying the metal industry, eel market, and agri-business of Gloucester. Today, the warehouses include the Antiques Centre (in the Lock Warehouse) with 70 shops of antiques and collectables filling its five stories, and Britains National Waterways Museum (Llanthony Warehouse), which chronicles the inland navigation system of the nation. The docks also quarter a shopping center (Merchants Quay), and a canal boat excursion operation (Queen Boadicea II Boat Trips). Our own canal excursion was about to begin, as National Route 41 follows the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal south out of Gloucester for the first part of the ride to Bristol.
END OF PART I
TOTAL BIKING SO FAR: 5 MILES!
*NOTE: Bikes are not carried on London trains during critical rush hours. For current rules, download the National Rail Guide pamphlet "Cycling by Train", available from National Rail as a .pdf file on-line at: http://www.nationalrail.co.uk/system/galleries/download/misc/cycling-2006.pdf
**NOTE: Bikes may be rented at the following locations
NOTE: Gloucester Cathedral is open most days from 7AM6PM, with tours of the cathedral available from 10:30AM4PM MoSa and from 122:30PM Su. Admission is free, but donations of £3/person are encouraged to be put toward the building maintenance fund. Tower tours are normally available We-Fr at 2:30PM & Sa at 1:30PM & 2:30PM; entry fee: £3/adult, £1/child.
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