Swifty on and off track

Published: 26 Aug 2011 09:30

Having done many of the nice low-incline bike rides in the Slough and Windsor area, Mike Swift, Berkshire Media Group's chief photographer, decided it was time to re-start his regular 'Mike on a Bike' feature in the Reading Chronicle and Bracknell News. In retrospect, an un-researched route and a January morning did not make the ideal opener to a new cycle of cycling articles, but resilient Swifty, in his inimitable fashion, came out smiling. Just.

My dad, John Swift, is a member of the Kennet and Avon Canal trust and I asked him how far it was to ride the canal towpath from Newbury to Reading. About 10 miles or so, he said. It was 22 and having not ridden any serious distance for six months, and after doing the ride I was walking like John Wayne for a couple of days afterwards.

What a fantastic trip though. I caught the train from Reading West, near the Chronicle offices, to Newbury at lunchtime and rode from Newbury station to the canal.

Feeling a bit peckish, I felt I deserved a quick char and a sarni before I started the '10 mile' ride. The Kennett and Avon canal trust shop and tea shop (decked out like an old Lyons tea room, for those that remember them), by the canal, is a marvellous place and I had the best sausage and egg sandwich I have had in awhile there.

And so it was that the epic ride started, with my Coleman's mustard enhanced breath making a fog in the cold mid-January air as I rode east towards the mighty metropolis that is Reading.

The ride switches frequently from the north to the south side of the canal bank and you have to cross the road bridge to the north side to start the journey.

Near Newbury there were a good number of pedestrians and cyclists using the towpath but the further you travel from the town the more tranquil it becomes. The ride was punctuated by the frequent sighting of river birds, with only occasional splosh of water against the banks and sounds from within or around moored canal boats, breaking the silence.

Some of the tow paths were quite sticky from the rain and quite hard to ride through but the drier bits were very smooth. Near Thatcham you pass the Thatcham Reed Bed Nature Reserve and in better weather that would definitely be worth stopping off at. After Thatcham the towpath becomes inundated with tree roots which, if you ride over at speed, will definitely put a head on a can of lunchtime Guinness, something that all cyclists (over the permitted age) should carry in their panniers, for medicinal purposes of course, as it is, I am told, a good source of iron!

Thatcham Station is a four mile marker and the whole journey runs close to and parallel with the Great Western Railway line running from London to the West Country. The line runs to the north side of the Kennet and Avon canal and the same distance to the north of the railway line runs the main A4 between Newbury and Reading.

For cyclists there are various hazards to negotiate. At certain points, the towpath is less than eight inches wide and if you go too fast you could come a cropper. There are some fields to cross that run alongside the canal and these too are hard work especially when wet. I ride a road/mountain bike cross but, in winter, I think this route would be more suitable to an off road mountain bike.

At Padworth I stopped off at the Kennet and Avon Canal Trust shop and cafe run by Lesley and Wayne Sangwell. My dad lives in Theale and is a member of the Trust. He drove down and met me there and we had a cup of tea and a chat with the franchise owners and also had a look at some of the boats under repair at the Reading Marine Company including the Trusts own tour boat 'The Rose of Hungerford'.

The direction I took was cycle route four which diverts off the towpath near to Theale. My advice is to take the diversion as it comes back onto the towpath about three quarters of a mile downstream.

The consequence of doing this in January was having to walk through three fields ankle deep in mud and of cow dung with my bike over my shoulder. Not the most fun bit of the trip. I was so tired at this point that I decided to pack up and get the train back to Reading from Theale. I didn't even have the energy to crack that time bomb can of Guinness in my pannier.

Unfortunately I missed the turn and by the time I realised it, I was nearer to Reading than to Theale and so I ploughed on. By the time I arrived at The Oracle it was getting dark and although utterly exhausted and walking like I had just had the 'man op', I was thrilled to have completed the ride. I would not recommend the ride for families with young children but in the summer I think it would be a fun day out if you fancy a 22 mile (not a 10 mile) bike ride. The moral of this story is, once you have become an adult, DO NOT LISTEN TO YOUR PARENTS! Mike Swift

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