The thought receptacle

Stephen's mental dustbin

Sun, 20 Mar 2011

The long road home... from Swindon

On my return from a trip way out west (meaning Wales), I decided to pass on the delights of Didcot and instead cycle home from Swindon.

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I was a bit unconvinced when starting this trip. I was somewhat underslept and hungover, and it was already approaching 3pm when I got going. I was travelling without a spare tube, unusually, and although I had earlier reckoned that this was a “safe” ride because you're never more than five miles from a railway, I had been forgetting that there are (since 1964) no intermediate stations between Swindon and Didcot, making the railway of no use.

I shouldn't have feared. It took me what seemed like an age to get out of Swindon, but once I did, this became easily the best ride of the year so far. The roads were miraculously quiet, and the villages unfailingly picturesque. It helped of course that the weather was gloriously sunny, wind-free and, owing to the later start time, blessed with that warm late-afternoon light.

Quite a bit of the route is on B-roads, but these were all no busier than a quiet unclassified road (that is, not busy at all), at least on this one Sunday afternoon. The route cris-crosses the A420 in two places---on near Watchfield nearer Swindon, the other near Pusey nearer Oxford---and the difference in traffic level was remarkable. I romped straight across the first time, with almost no traffic in sight, whereas the second time I was waiting for over a minute (along with two cars) at the T-junction for a gap in a neverending stream of traffic heading towards Oxford. Clearly, the residents of Oxford like to spend their weekends, erm, somewhere in the Oxfordshire--Wiltshire borders.

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Varsity mashup

Last weekend I travelled from Oxford to Cambridge by what I call “train--bike mash-up”. This means getting the train from Oxford to Bicester, cycling from Bicester to Bletchley, getting the train from Bletchley to Bedford (alighting at St Johns station, not Midland, of course) and cycling to Sandy, from where you can get the train to Cambridge (via Hitchin), as I did, or cycle the extra 21 miles to Cambridge if you're feeling keen. Feasibility depends on the combination of timetables and your cycling speed. Right now the timing, on Saturdays at least, works nicely for not-so-fast cyclists such as me. I got the 9.27 train out of Oxford, the 12.01 from Bletchley and the 13.48 from Sandy, arriving in Cambridge a little before 3pm. In each case I had a comfortable wait for the train (10--15 minutes) on arriving at the station. Here's the map of the cycling.

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Predictably, this route is great when it's on roads (most of the way), and terrible when it's on NCN-endorsed tracks (the stretch between Winslow and Bletchley). The last bit before joining the road into Bletchley is particularly annoying---bumpy, rutted, and plain uncycleable in many sections. The large detour to avoid this section would be worth it if I repeat the journey. Annoyingly however, the NCN route alternates between these annoying tracks and some really excellent paved (i.e. on-road) sections.

The ride from Bedford to Sandy is short, and I've blogged about it before. Getting onto it from St Johns station involves negotiating two fairly busy roundabouts, taking Rope Walk at the first one (second exit, although the traffic was fast enough that I wimpishly chose to cross pedestrian style, before realising that pedestrians were not catered for at all) and the car park exit thingy at the second, from where it's easy enough to find the riverside path which joins the former railway path a little further east.

This route covers the two chunks of rail service remanining from the Oxford--Cambridge “Varsity Line”. (I'm always slightly dubious about that name, or at least curious about whether anybody actually called it that while it was still running.) The Bicester--Bletchley cycling route crosses the line at several places, and is directly alongside it for one long stretch. The track is still in place for almost the entire of this section, with modern level crossings and similarly modern signage. Like the Cambridge--St Ives railway, the route was kept in intermittent use until the early 1990s. We can only hope that a better fate awaits this line than being turned into a guided busway. Meanwhile, the Bedford--Cambridge track is long gone but the alignment has found benign use as a piece of the NCN as far as Sandy, with a few annoying diversions. From Sandy, there is no way to follow the line particularly closely. The train takes you away from the former railway route, going via Hitchin instead. I have cycled through both Potton and Gamlingay, the two main towns on the old line from Sandy to Cambridge, but there's no nice cycle route that takes you particularly near the railway route in that area, although nearer Cambridge, the B1046 crosses the route a couple of times.

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