The thought receptacle

Stephen's mental dustbin

Mon, 04 Oct 2010

Cambridge to St Albans the hard way

Here's the cycle route I took from Cambridge to St Albans on Saturday. It took me 4h08m to cover the 75.8km (about 47mi), of which 3h35m was moving time. As usual I merrily plotted a straight-line backroads route with concern for only the most obvious of gradients; the elevation gain over the route is a fairly strenous 854m (or put more usefully, about 11m for every kilometer travelled).

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Except for the wonderful Chapel Hill between Haslingfield and Barrington, it's fairly flat until Royston. The Old North Road into Royston was a bit unpleasantly busy, but navigating Royston, beginning with the A505 roundabout, turned out to be quite straightforward. After this is where things get interesting. The straight-line climb to Therfield turns into winding narrow rural roads around Kelshall, Sandon and Rushden before popping out on the A507 briefly. I then went out of my way into Cottered, climbing a giant hill which I could have avoided if I hadn't missed my turn towards Cromer (signposted only for Luffenhall). Back on the intended route, the B-road through Cromer and Walkern is surprisingly pleasant---not too busy, and being narrow, it has a country lane feeling.

The route to the east of Stevenage, hugging the hillside before crossing into Aston, is quite pleasant also. After that, things change a bit: most of the rest of the route is on narrow single-track roads which are often bumpy, pot-holed, slippery from treefall, and flooded or near-flooded in places following the wet weather preceding my trip. Following Bragbury End and Woolmer Green, there is perhaps the muddiest and roughest-surfaced stretch along Danesbury Park Road (a wooded backroad seemingly undergoing residential development), before a brief respite through the comfortable home-counties feel of Welwyn town centre. It's then more of the same winding muddy single-tracks through Ayot St Peter and Coleman Green into Sandridge. I passed a Ford sign around Ayot St Peter, but was relieved when no ford emerged. Some of the downhills in that area felt like a mountain biking experience, and on a different bike might have been exhilarating rather than bone-shaking. The ford game levelled on Coleman Green Lane when a completely flooded section appeared unannounced. I let the car behind me go ahead so I could judge the depth and bumpiness. Luckily I then made it across none the wetter.

In hindsight, the uppy-downiness and hair-raising surfaces of the single-track roads would make me rethink my route a little for next time: probably I'd take a more northerly route between Stevenage and Sandridge, through Knebworth, Codicote and Wheathampstead. Those roads are mostly wider (“generally more than four metres wide” to use the Ordnance Survey language) but I am only guessing that they would be any better in practice. I might also be tempted to avoid Royston and the hilly, twisty Therfield area by taking the B1368 to (hilly, less twisty) Barkway and then sidling over to Buntingford, backpedaling north slightly before crossing the A10 onto the unclassified road towards Cottered.

For the return journey, I took the Alban Way from St Albans to Hatfield, from where I got the train back to Cambridge. I wanted to call this the “easy way”... after all, it's six miles' cycling on a tarmac surface, and ex-railway paths will surely be devoid of hills. Sadly it's not so easy: the surface, although technically tarmac, is abominably bumpy and rutted, and of course there are several places where the path leaves the railway earthwork, in a hilly fashion, either to duck around some private property or to route around a now-disappeared bridge over some road. It really annoys me that this sort of path, while no doubt trumpeted by many a councillor or other transport spokesperson as a boon for cyclists, is actually far less usable than a road would be. I really want to knock some sense into whoever pays for such a half-hearted job to be done on these cycle routes, or fails to maintain them to a decent standard, since a bad job is worse than no job at all. Anyone who decided to use the path as a trying-out route for getting into cycling could easily be discouraged for a long time.

You may notice that the map shows a proper GPS-generated track rather than my previous approximate Google Maps efforts. It was generated by Google's My Tracks application running on my (fairly) new HTC Wildfire. The app is fairly good, if a bit slow.

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