I was due to fly to Argentina in four days and I had lots of preparation to do in Oxford but I decided that instead of taking the bus there I would cycle all the way from London to Oxford to get in shape for some ambitious long distance cycling I have planned for my time in Argentina.
After some farewell drinks with my friend Shama in Southwark I cruised up to the south bank of the Thames and made my way upriver. It was a mild night of about six Celsius with no wind; the riverside is always beautiful on nights like this. The area around Waterloo Bridge was very busy with a Christmas fayre, and there were all kinds of delicious foods on sale.
I wanted to make good progress before bedding down for the night, to ensure that I would make it to Oxford by the end of the next day – I didn’t want to leave myself with a marathon of 70 miles to go. I planned to go up the Thames to Brentford and join the Grand Union Canal, to follow the quiet, scenic towpath with no traffic or traffic lights, my usual route out of West London. But instead of taking the Slough Arm and the Thames Valley Cycle Route as I have done several times in the past, I wanted to try a new route: continue up the Grand Union towards Watford, turn off at Rickmansworth then up over the Chiltern Hills through Buckinghamshire. There the towns of Amersham, Prestwood, and Princes Risborough lead the way down onto the Oxfordshire clay, the section known as National Cycle Route 57.
At the Christmas fayre on the Southbank curiosity got the better of me and I tried an ostrich burger for the first time in my life, which was nice, it tasted just like a bland beef burger really. Then I couldn’t resist spending six pounds on a hog roast served with roast potatoes. They must have been getting rid of the last cuts before closing because the big woman cheerfully piled on a mountain of roast pork and potatoes. It was one of the most delicious meals of that year and I finished it all while gazing down at the surface of the river, and standing next to some street dancers who were busking to Michael Jackson classics. This was plenty of fuel to keep me pedalling for a few hours.
I made it to West Drayton late that night, near Heathrow Airport, and was glad to have already knocked 20 miles off the total distance to Oxford. There was a good reason why I had pushed on along the muddy canal in the dark to reach this little suburb: Granny Satchwills, the excellent family bakers on Station Road which opens at 06:00 on weekdays, where I planned to buy the very reasonably priced ‘Satchwills Special’ breakfast baguette which is stuffed with bacon, sausage and egg, and make a very early start up the canal because rain was forecast for the afternoon.
I had no idea where I would sleep though, which is par for the course in my lifestyle. Opposite the bakers I spotted a beer garden with the gate left open. It belonged to a blues bar that would surely remain deserted until long after I planned to leave in the morning. It had a nice big sofa so I went to sleep there.
The sofa was an excellent insulator and the marquee sheltered me from any breeze so I didn’t even bother unpacking my sleeping mat or bivvy bag, I just took my shoes off and put and extra pair of socks on. It was about six or seven degrees Celsius. I woke up once with cold feet, but wrapped them in my pair of shorts and cycle jersey and they quickly warmed up. It was a bit too comfortable really, I overslept and went across to the bakers at 08:30.
After serving me the delicious Satchwills Special and four cups of tea they knew all about my planned cycle ride, so they made me a generously filled cheese & pickle sandwich for the road with their freshly baked bread, on the house!
I renamed one of the delicacies they had on sale: “The Global Warming Biscuit”.
The canal towpath looked very different in the Winter, but was still as calm and peaceful as ever. The wood burners of the narrow boats always add a nice aroma to the Winter morning air.
The path is much better than some overgrown, muddy towpaths you can find in the more remote countryside. It’s mostly gravel, with some muddy bits, I recommend the path for any bike with tyres more than 30 mm diameter, ridden at lower pressure to cushion the bumps. It’s not necessary to have a mountain bike, although that would also be very comfortable. My hybrid was right at home with it’s 40 mm tyres at about 50 psi, bearing in mind I still had a lot of tarmac riding ahead of me.
The path might be categorised as ‘single-track’ but it’s easy to overtake on the grassy verges. The rules are to be gentle and give way to pedestrians, ringing a bell to let them know well in advance if you’re approaching from behind. But there was almost nobody there. I slowed down a bit by the moored boats out of respect. It was a pleasant ride.
As I left the canal and went up through the commuter town of Rickmansworth it started to rain.
Looking at the radar, I began to wonder if I would make it to Oxford by nightfall. The red dot marks London, the blue dot my position. The weather was coming in from a westerly direction. Red is heavy rain, yellow: light rain.
A girl and her grandmother were stood in the sheltered entrance to an estate agent eating fish and chips. I joined them to enjoy the Satchwills cheese & pickle sandwich. We made conversation.
“This is a convenient place to eat, don’t you think?”
“Yeh; this is what estate agents are for, isn’t it?”
When the rain stopped I eagerly pressed on to Amersham which is where my father’s family lived for many years. I remember visiting my granny’s house there many times before she passed away about ten years ago. She was a strong woman who had been through a lot and remained lucid and independent right to the end.
In the Second World War she was in the Women’s Royal Naval Service translating decoded German messages, and she lost her best friend to an air raid by the Luftwaffe. In retirement she was a committed Oxfam volunteer. If I have any table manners left in me they can all be traced back to her: one stern glare over her glasses was always enough to make us sit up straight and be quiet.
I often regret that I didn’t spend more time with her as a young adult. She left at a time when I had just run away from my immediate family and their religion, which she did not share, and if she had lived five years longer I’m sure she would have become a very important mentor to me. But alas, time waits for no-one…
I took a small detour to see her house for the first time since her passing, and was dismayed to see that the nice old pub that I used to see from the bedroom window where I used to stay…
…has now been knocked down and will shortly be replaced by a block of flats.
Things only got worse when I turned around and looked at her house – it had bright banners all over it, it had become a radio station!
But on closer inspection I read “Radio Christmas, the charity radio station.” Intrigued, I quickly punched the web address into my mobile browser. It turns out that Radio Christmas uses 100% of its profits to help street kids in Latin America! I stood outside granny’s house and browsed the charity’s website, reading the sad and very shocking stories of the kids they’re trying to help in Guatemala and Honduras. I remembered everything my gran stood for and worked for until her eighty-sixth year. With a couple of tears rolling down my face I got back on my bike and murmured “Granny would be proud to host you… you can have granny’s house.” And so I cycled off along that familiar road called Chestnut Lane.
Not long after I reached Prestwood, where it got dark and started raining heavily. I sprinted straight towards the little blue beer mug that was marked on the Ordnance Survey map on my phone – it turned out to be a nice cosy pub called The Green Man, on Green Lane. I warmed up and dried off by the wood burner and shared a few jokes with the friendly locals.
When the rain stopped again I sped down the hill to Princes Risborough and along a busy B road to junction six of the M40 where I put my bike on the Oxford bus. I was in no mood to cycle the last twenty miles in the dark, cold rain when I ought to be packing for my trip to South America.
I was pleased to have cycled a total of fifty miles and I still felt like there was a lot left in my legs. I’m convinced the new rigid SPD shoes I’ve got area huge improvement to cycling on regular flat pedals – I feel really solid on the bike. It wasn’t 50 miles all in one go – it was 20 at night and 30 the following morning, but I actually felt more satisfied for this, because this is the kind of freedom I’m working towards.
Classic club riders will easily do fifty miles in a day but they won’t sleep outdoors and carry on the next day – they’ll normally go home, or to a hotel, or a camp site, and this severely limits where they can go touring. I’ve broken through this limitation now: when I feel tired I can just crash and carry on when I awake, regardless where I happen to be – a park bench, the porch of a sports pavilion a roof top, a friend’s house, or a sofa in a beer garden – it really doesn’t matter.
It was kind of like an adventure race, but much easier. Adventure racers run or cycle for a couple of days and can sleep and eat wherever they see fit along the way. However they normally travel from their homes across the country to the starting line, and then back again from the finish line, often in a motor car, sometimes even in an aeroplane for really famous races abroad. But I’ve found a way to have just as much fun on my way to work or to visit friends and family.
Speaking of which, my dad hired a pub for the official Roberts Pianos Christmas party and it was a real blast! I no longer do much work for Dad so it was very generous of him to invite me, along with my brothers and all the families of the employees.
At the beginning of every Roberts Pianos Christmas party Dad announces the rules: nobody’s allowed to say the word ‘piano’, if they do they have to do a forfeit. The word ‘sausage’ can be substituted for the unspeakable word – this makes any conversation about piano work quickly turn into laughter.
“So how long have you been working at Roberts Sausages now?”
“Oh about two years. I was mostly just moving sausages around but now I’m learning to repair sausages too.”
“Oh really? Have you tried tuning a sausage yet? I heard you’ve got a really good ear…”
“Nah, I’ll tune a guitar alright, but sausages are really complicated…”
I forgot the rule and ran up a tab of thirteen forfeits, compared to my brother who had just one. After we had all had a little wine the forfeit was announced: stand up and sing the verses of a Christmas carol of your choice, solo, with everyone else joining in for the chorus. I chose ‘Ding Dong Merrily on High’ to which several of us randomly stood up and sat down repeatedly for no particular reason; after which my brother stood up and managed to hold his voice steady for a choirboy folceto rendition of ‘In the Bleak Mid-Winter’ that had everyone in stitches. A good time was had by all.
I’m still too busy. The imminent journey to Argentina put me under pressure and made me rush around a bit. I look forward to coming back to England, after the last flight in my life, and settling in to a lifestyle where I never need to sprint to a bus stop on my bike just to make it to a destination in good time. Next time rain stops play somewhere up on the Chiltern Hills, I want to have the freedom to have a couple more pints at the pub and just bed down for the night in the nearest dry shelter, to continue my leisurely bike ride on a dry, bright morning…