I recently acquired an unexpected opportunity to do a week's work based in Newbury, Berkshire. This pleasant home counties market town is host to the corporate headquarters of one of the UK's largest mobile phone companies. Commuting from my home in time for an early shift starting at 7am meant the only viable transport option was by car. Outside rush hour, the 75 miles can be covered in a shade over an hour and a quarter.
By contrast to my regular work, a lot of time would be spent in the car and the rest sat behind a desk. With that prospect I would soon be getting stale and needed to find myself some exercise before I seized up or got any fatter. Once again the RetroBike Forum came to my aide, I received suggestions for routes and found myself a ride companion in the shape of Gordon, aka Secret Squirrel, who had recently joined me on Urban RetroBike #3.
Leaving work on the dot of 3pm I headed for the company car park and with what modesty I could muster, changed from sober business clothes into gear more appropriate to trail riding fun. I don't know if I was spotted on CCTV, but if so, it must have given the security team a good laugh. Transformation completed, I mounted the wheels, tweaked the brakes and headed towards the centre of town.
Having consumed breakfast some hours previously, I hoped there might be time to grab a quick snack on the go, but the phone rang and Gordon was already just moments away at the train station, oh well, I wanted to shift a few pounds from my mid-rift. We met on the tow path as it runs through Victoria Park, a pleasant area complete with; band stand, early season sunbathers and the ubiquitous ice cream van.
Following the National Cycle Network Route 4 along the Kennet and Avon canal you pass through the town's industrial area, but the presence of so many canal barges, trees and wildlife makes for a bucolic ambiance. In spite of recent rain, the trail was dry and hard packed, which made for easy and rapid progress. There were some rooty sections plus the odd dip and bump to keep you on your toes, the trail also switches from bank to bank, so there is plenty to maintain interest.
At Thatcham you have to cross a busy road and it was not obvious where the trail continued, after a small detour, we got back on track and were riding on what was to be the best section of the route. It was smooth and well manicured, but empty, we both had some mad moments, forcing up the pace and getting a good thirst on for a swift half at the Rowbarge Pub by the swing bridge in Woolhampton.
I could have sat and shot the breeze for longer, but Gordon was on a mission, there were kids to be collected at 6 and there were still 12 country miles to go. The next section around Aldermaston Wharf was quite rough in places, according to the signs it had been deliberately left for the grass to grow and promote the diversity of fauna and flora, etc. Furthermore, the presence of quite a few gates to negotiate made for quite a tiring leg of the journey.
At Theale we passed under the M4 motorway and soon began to sense our proximity to an urban centre. There was a notably boring slog alongside the motorway, as you skirt the Theale Waterskiing & Wakeboarding club lake, with little to please the eye and the relentless drone of drivers speeding along the M4 above.
Close to Reading, the trail rejoins the canal tow path and after passing under the A33 there are much prettier sections at Waterloo Meadows heading into the centre of town. Arriving just minutes before Gordon's 6pm deadline, there was no time for lengthy farewells, as he zoomed off to carry out paternal duties.
I was faced with a conundrum, should I grab some late "lunch" and take the train back to Newbury or turn around and head back up the Kennet and Avon canal ? My legs were already tired and this was only half way and just a couple of hours to go before nightfall descended. But there's nothing like a race against the clock to motivate you when you are running out of puff. There was a bit of a headwind to contend with and in theory you are heading slightly uphill, in consequence the ride back felt slower, but I was back at my car by 8pm, so time wise there can't have been much in it.
By my reckoning the distance traveled was 18 miles each way. Allowing 30 minutes of stoppages, I was riding for 4 hours, which makes for an average speed of 9 miles per hour, not bad considering it is only a fraction slower than the speed I make cycling in to London.
I can highly recommend National Cycle Network Route 4 along the Kennet and Avon canal, it would be nice to do again, maybe at a more leisurely pace though, or just in the one direction. I would be keen to see the continuation of the route too, which runs all the way to Bath. Interestingly by following the linked Bristol and Bath Railway Path, you can make it to Bristol too, should the mood take you.