Beds to Bucks - Tour displacement therapy - CycleBlaze

Beds to Bucks

A big loop around Bedford

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The sunny weather just kept on coming - this is a highly unusual state of affairs for England in April, when periodic rain is about the only weather you can rely upon. After my long trip down through the relatively populated regions of North Hertfordshire, I thought I would make a more concerted effort to head out into the sticks, with the added benefit of seeking out tracts of the countryside that I hasn't visited before. 

A very very mild wind was forecast blowing to the west - that was as much encouragement as I needed, and I plotted out a course out into West Bedfordshire, right up to snipping off the corner of Buckinghamshire. Bucks is a typical rolling example of a home county, and with its large new towns (Milton Keynes) and prosperous commuter satellites such as Aylesbury, is rather similar in character to Hertfordshire. West Bedfordshire, in comparison, is only dotted with villages outside of the county town of Bedford. A tantalisingly long stretch of the border was covered by the off-road Three Counties way - and I figured I would have both good and isolated riding by heading for it.

Awaking on Saturday morning I found that the forecast had got it a bit wrong, and it was thoroughly overcast outside (a possible interesting cause of this is apparently due to the pandemic: with far fewer flights, far less meteorological data is being collected and this is affecting the accuracy of weather forecasts). Never mind: it was predicted to brighten up, and it should reduce the number of people about on my initial route to the edge of Bedford along the old Sandy-Bedford rail trail and via Danish Camp. 

I've described this route a few times now, and indeed I sped through these first 20km as fast(-ish) as I could - so not too many photographs.

Leaving Potton along the bridleways, it was thoroughly overcast. For the first time in weeks I was really rather cold, and glad I'd taken some extra layers.
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Deep green woods around Deepdale. Lots of horses pass this way, as is evident.
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Picking up the great cycleway to Bedford along the route of the old Sandy-Bedford railway
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A sequel to the exasperated sign on the gate - they've started chalking messages on the pavement
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Comical ornamental chickens at Danish Camp. Behind is the actual Viking moated site and harbour, though it's hard to recognise it as such from this shot.
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This has been here a long time, I think
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This always makes me smile, as it suggests there's a whole avant-garde community in Bedford which I'd never otherwise dreamed of
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Leaving the main cycleway, we can follow a spur to cross under the main Bedford-Cambridge road. It's a mess of tracks and rights-of-way, but it doesn't really matter which one you use
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Crossing the Great Ouse at the weir
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I crossed over the main road into Bedford, and took the municipal cyclepath around the perimeter of the large housing estates that comprise the east side of the town. After a couple of miles I could peel off over the fields towards Salph End, from which I could continue along the country roads to Ravensden. Normally, I'd be cutting up to/heading down from the north, and I'd work my way up to the disused Thurliegh airfield from here (as I did in my Kimbolton loop) - but usually I was going further west at this point, so was aiming to cut through the countryside to Bletsoe via Yarl's Wood.

I was pleased to get out of the built-up surroundings around Bedford: it almost immediately started to brighten up, I was no longer cold and took my outer layer off.

The useful, if not particularly inspiring, cycleway around the perimeter of the suburbs of Bedford
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The Polhill Arms in Salph End looks like a really nice pub
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Sadly closed. I like the insistence that they've removed all the toilet paper (as well as cash and stock) for security reasons.
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An impressive row of thatched cottages near Ravensden
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A slightly threadbare thatched hare is on top of this one
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Lots of signs expressing support for the NHS, even in out the way places
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It soon brightened up considerably. Visible on the left is a memorial to a motorcyclist, presumably killed on this stretch
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I eschewed a bridleway that would take me directly across a field (little did I know what the afternoon had in store for me) and instead followed the road around to where I could pick up the good track through Outfields farm. This is one of these excellent routes that is very well maintained and signed - kudos. But leaving the Outfields lands the route became increasingly scrappy, and I found myself referring to the GPS quite a bit (and frankly ignoring some no-right-of-way signs which looked incorrect).

I suspected part of the degeneration of access routes around here was due to the proximity of what I was about to pass. Yarl's Wood is not just the small woodland a few miles off the back road to Riseley - it is also the location and name of the notorious immigration "detention centre", incongruously isolated in a light industrial estate in the middle of the countryside.

After passing a pig farm I picked up a clearer route over a rough surfaced field. It was not always easy to find the way, but then I found a route leading alongside the perimeter fence (all of this is a public right of way)

Nice countryside and wrought-iron gate at Outfields farm, which also does holiday lets (unfortunately this hasn't come out too well)
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This is more like it!
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After a little confusion, I ended up on this track - I'm still not sure if it was the bridleway, but they did a very good job of hiding the official route if it isn't, so I have regrets
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Reaching the perimeter of Twinwoods industrial estate, this is (I think) a polystyrene factory. Apparently part of it spectacularly burnt down in an accident last year: I can't see much evidence of the damage, though
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This is the very narrow and little-used access track around the perimeter fence
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Yarl's Wood. As I rounded the "detention centre" itself, the site became walled with a double fence and high walls and essentially looks like a prison. Note the cameras point inwards, not out. This place has a very bad vibe.
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On the edge of the site is a big power station of some sort. I think it's a separate establishment.
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I was pretty glad to leave Yarl's Wood behind and regain the road. This part of the route is pretty familiar to me from previous trips up towards Sharnbrook. This is quite an isolated village surrounded by some of the emptiest countryside in Bedfordshire, which I'd taken advantage of on some of my shake-down overnight trips to test my tent. It's also, incongruously, the home of a very large research centre for an enormous international consumer goods conglomerate. There are a surprising number of these high-tech corporate corporate outposts dotted around the band of countryside between Oxford and Cambridge - it's much cheaper than operating in London, and a qualified workforce lives nearby.

A strange section of dual carriageway on the tiny and little used road to Thurliegh. I have no idea why this is here, but it can be a pain to bike through, as cars can't get past you!
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Pretty church coming into Bletsoe. The contrast of the prosperous and attractive village with the pseudo-prison nearby is striking.
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I cross the main Bedford - Kettering road, the A6, at an easy roundabout
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I'm not sure it's asparagus season, but the farm shops were still operating
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Coming into Sharnbrook, there is an old farm with a remarkable combination of uses: some suburban houses, some light industry - and the local theatre
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Sharnbrook is a very prosperous large village
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I always misread this as the "Swan with two Necks" (and indeed there are quite a few pubs where the name has slowly mutated to this). Apparently the "nicks" refer to notches cut in swans' bills to denote ownership in the middle ages. Given how lairy swans can be, I really wouldn't want to volunteer for cutting notches in their bills, which I imagine they'd object to. The ownership of swans has always been peculiar in England - technically, all wild swans still belong to the Queen.
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Impressive spire of church of St. Peter in Sharnbrook. Particularly good gargoyles.
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This is the park entrance of Colworth hall, the huge manor and estate which Unilever has taken over as a research centre.
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Following an unsigned and dead-end road, you eventually come to this entrance, which is marked as the way into the golf club. You might be surprised to see you need to go through a security barrier to enter...
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...and that's because this is also an entrance to Unilever's facility, denoted only by this tiny sign!
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Near the entrance I could peel off onto Yelnow lane, the long byway that heads to due west through the extensive, and remarkably road-less, woods and hills between Sharnbrook and the Northamptonshire border. I often find that county border regions, while really being nominally no more than administrative divisions, are often strangely undeveloped and hence good targets for off-road riding. 

I also often find that byways can be hit-and-miss in terms of rideability - see the Kettering trip for a particularly dreadful experience involving a couple of miles of deep mud. I'd last visited Sharnbrook over a year ago and remembered the surface being fine - a bit bumpy and challenging, but essentially (slowly) rideable. Signs at the entrance indicated it was closed to "motorised vehicles", as there had been problems with the surface disintegrating - but it's clearly recovering quite well, as it was (with a couple of challenges) quite passable.

The entrance to the Yelnow lane byway, a long green lane that will take me over 5km all the way to the Northants. border. It's always quite funny seeing proper public highway signs (like "national speed limit") on these green lanes - the "road closed" applies only to motorised transport.
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The green lane was a bit rough in places, but generally dried out and rideable
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I soon got near to the secluded little woodland, Pearson's Spinney, accessible only via the green lane which I had camped in a couple of years ago. This seemed like an equally good spot to break for lunch.

Entrance to the woods at Pearson's Spinney. The sign has been like that for a very long time, I think.
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Lunch in the woods
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I continued on the green lanes in idyllic conditions, the sun out and the day still. I was pleased to say I didn't see a soul the whole way - after my relatively crowded experiences in Hertfordshire it was good to get off the grid once again.

The green lane goes on and on. I was the only one on it.
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Past bluebell woods and fields
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Some evidently recent graffiti commemorating (?) the virus
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A nice original sign, now quite worn (and hidden in the hedge). You can just about make out "Sharnbrook" and "Yelnow Lane".
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I emerged near a wide open area containing a windfarm. The turbines were almost still today
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Cutting across the open fields towards the border. This area used to be an airstrip, as well
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Reaching the end of the lane, I could now pick up the next long off-road section: the Three Shires way, which follows the border for over 10km and will take us into Buckinghamshire. While notably a walking route nearly all of it is a bridleway so promised a long and tranquil ride away from the traffic. 

The sun was really strong now, which made some of the shadows quite intense (and evidently too intense for my camera). The gates are a bit of a pain to lift the bikes over, but as they're intended to stop motorcross bikes coming down and churning up the surfaces I'm all in favour.
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Idyllic, if slow going, riding
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Popping out to briefly cross the backroad near Bozeat
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One downside of such rural riding at this time of year is you do often pass truly enormous dung-heaps like this. They smell surprisingly inoffensive, even on a hot day like today.
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Just miles and miles of this. I did see a couple of people out walking, and a family out cycling, so it wasn't totally deserted - but still pretty quiet
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The spire in Bozeat off in the distance
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Over fields...
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...and through woodland
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Emerging after 10km or so near Lavendon, this is a fallow field full of last-year's sunflowers
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I emerged out onto the main Bedford - Northampton road, the A428, and quickly crossed it to cut through increasingly tiny paths through grand farms on the outskirts of Warrington.

The Three Shires Way continues this way. To the untrained eye it looks like it's been gated off - but there is in fact a clear way to get around the side of the gate.
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The path became very narrow and rather tricky to pass down at times
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Emerging near this grand old house. The tall pine trees were full of rooks which cawed continuously as I passed by
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More helpful signs in this nice secluded place
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I knew this would take me to the Olney road, which runs parallel to the river Ouse as it flows from Northampton towards Bedford. This was one of the points of the route I was a little uncertain about: I needed to cross the Great Ouse to get to the south, and if I wanted to avoid a major detour on the main road I would need to try to cross it here. The trail did seem to pass over the river, but the map was rather ambiguous on whether there was actually a bridge, and street/view satellite were not entirely encouraging - there was something there, but it looked rather more like a weir. It would not be the first time that a right of way simply dives across a wide river, and there was no way (this time) I was going to wade it.

The route down to the putative crossing passes through a farm, and has this unconventional bridleway sign that's easy to miss
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After accidentally going down someone's drive (and being kindly pointed in the right direction) I quickly spotted the crossing proper, at Lyvenden Mill. This is right at the bottom of the garden of a house with an amazing riverfront location. They didn't seem to mind that this crossing gets quite busy on sunny days.
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After crossing the Ouse it was a short hack across country to the village of Clifton Reynes, in the corner of Buckinghamshire. From there would end my second long off-road section - I could take back lanes to Newton Blossomville and back into Bedfordshire. While competition is stiff, I think on average Buckinghamshire has the strangest village names in the home counties, or at least the ones that sound most like the names of American newsreaders.

Crossing the defunct Northampton - Bedford railway over an old birdge, now used in this section as a big manure store. It seems amazing that lines between major regional centres such as Northampton were shut down in the 60s, but there you go.
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Clifton Reynes is a nice little village
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The Robin Hood pub (though we're quite a way from Nottinghamshire)
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Taking the deserted back lanes, I was passed by a number of cyclists and even passed one myself
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Coming into Newton Blossomville
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I like the diagonal tractor marks on the near and far hills
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This is a pretty good backroad. No traffic at all.
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After crossing back into Bedfordshire, I could peel off for a third long off-road section - this one by far the least well-defined and clear on the map. My aim was to get back into the vicinity of Marston Mortaine to cut around south of Bedford, and the best way to do this (indeed the only way, given there are not even back roads heading in this direction) was to follow a network of apparently almost unused rights of way. A fun navigational challenge!

The cut down to the Newport Pagnell road started off quite well marked
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This pheasant played dead in the low stubble of the field, as I got closer and closer, somehow imagining I couldn't see it. When I got within a few metres it skittered into the air, crying continuously. As I've mentioned before, they're not the smartest birds.
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A very yellow landscape with barely a sign of village or road
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But the path soon degenerated, until I was pretty much inventing my own way across the fields. There wasn't anyone around to mind, though.
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Finally, I pick up what looks like the official route
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It was fun, if quite uneven, riding across the fields like this
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I briefly picked up a backroad before plunging back onto the tracks
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Pass the last farm, and continue on. I love these rights of way, as nobody ever stops you exploring these kinds of tracks
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The route became very ill-defined at this point, and I worked my way along the sides of the fields. Pylons marching into the distance.
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Somewhere here is an official bridleway, but it's anyone's guess where it begins and ends - it's not even marked on the OS map. Needless to say, I didn't see a soul. The surface was *quite rough* going down here, with the major hazard being holes made by horses' hooves in the loose, powdery soil.
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A tough climb on loose earth along the way, marked only by these tractor tracks
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Coming up the top, I could see where I was headed: the Marston Vale, with the enormous chimneys of the old brickworks, and the Greensand ridge behind
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Something burning over in the woods
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Spring lambs
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Rural Crime #4! Sheep worrying is a serious concern of farmers - though I think it's rather rare for them to shoot dogs. After a fun descent into the vale, finally emerging from the bridleway at the farm. Note the separate little gate specially installed for access to the bridleway - farmers deserve real credit for this sort of thing.
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My plan now was to cross the Marston Vale, past the old brickworks, main Milton Keynes road and the big flooded gravel pits that are strung out along the vale. This would allow me to bypass Bedford by climbing up the Greensand to the south, picking up the route back towards Biggleswade that I was familiar with from my (usually annual) Cambridge-Oxford cycle.

Very neat thatched cottage in Shelton, in the vale. The good transport links to Bedford and MK, and the pretty setting, make this a very prosperous village.
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Barn of a Methodist church in Marston Mortaine
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I elected to take the easy underpass under the MK road - and only realised as I was going down into it that it was the other end of the "cartoon" subway I visited before. They're very well done, really.
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I was getting pretty tired now, and was pleased to see that I could pick up a local cycleway around the perimeter of the big flooded gravel pit (technically: Stewartby Lake) and avoid the roads. It wasn't the most obvious to find, but I was pleased I sought it out.

The cycleway (the same route 51 that leaves Sandy) is signed through this apparent cul-de-sac in a suburban estate
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The big chimneys of the Stewartby brickworks. At one time this was the biggest brickworks in England, and contained the biggest single kiln in the world.
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View over Stewartby Lake. Not much wind today.
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After leaving the lake, I passed right by the enormous site of the old brickworks. It was only closed back in the 90s, incredibly. There is currently some controversy over whether to demolish the chimneys, which are a protected monument but have become increasingly unstable.
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Stewartby itself is a very prim village indeed. It's solidly working class, but you can see how much prosperity the brick works brought to the area when they were operating.
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I was back on the roads again now, and turned myself to the east and into the light breeze. With 80km on the clock, I was starting to feel the fatigue now as I headed towards the village of Haughton Conquest and the 75m climb beyond up to the Greensand. I'm finding the exhaustion is coming later and later in the ride, which is good, but it did hit me hard enough that I had to stop twice on this stretch to eat more chocolate biscuits.

14th century church of All Saints in H. Conquest
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Haughton Conquest actually needs an extra-long Bedfordshire sign to accommodate its (preposterous) name
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Hauling myself up onto the Greensand towards Haynes. Stopped at the top here to admire the views, where the chimneys are still just about visible, and eat some chocolate biscuits. It was pretty hot now too.
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The extra calories made me rally though, and I picked up speed as I headed towards Haynes. I crossed the Luton road A6 once again without mishap, and headed into the very pretty and rather populated wedge of land between Bedford and Chicksands.

The impressive manor of Haynes Park...
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...is now the mysterious UK headquarters of "Science of the Soul", run by the Radha Soami Satsang Beas organisation, described by wikipedia as a "sect". They don't seem quite as cult-like as this might suggest, but the top hit on Googling them is a BBC report about them covering up a workman's death, so it's not all plain sailing.
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Pretty houses in Haynes
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As the sun lowered behind me and the light became golden, I passed 90km and got a real second wind, starting to make good progress again. I crossed the Shefford road and headed towards the extensive estates of Old Warden, where I could pick up the familiar route home.

Lovely golden light made the landscape glow
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Riding east into my shadow the whole way
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Underneath another old rail bridge
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A hobbit's cottage
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On the Southill road I turned back north to cut off a section off-road, and enter Old Warden.

Back to sandy and easy-going surfaces
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A curious ornamental plough, apparently left in the middle of nowhere
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Past the private chopper on the Shuttleworth estate
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It was then the familiar route back through old Warden and into Biggleswade. This involves riding the bike under the A1 via the wide drainage channels - an unconventional (and unofficial) but by far the most pleasant way to cross the road.

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Rounding the old flooded quarries near Biggleswade. Until recently, there was no proper fence around the lake; apparently, the biggest problem was people illicitly swimming in it
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Corduroy-like ploughed fields under the low sun
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These are the drainage passages under the A1. It's not exactly an official way to cross, but there's nothing precisely prohibiting it either...
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I ride the bike all through this, keeping my head well down (at least I've got a helmet). It being Biggleswade, the worst thing under here are sweet wrappers from the local kids.
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The now conventional shot of the low sun over Biggleswade common
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Back to Potton past the topiary nursery
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Returning via Deepdale - a nice way to come home
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Today's ride: 111 km (69 miles)
Total: 998 km (620 miles)

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Kathleen JonesI am fangirling all over this journal, Jon. It's taking me hours of joy to follow the maps and google street view and your photos and commentary. I'm loving every minute of it.

You're doing the kind of riding I loved doing when I was in England in 1985-86 and haven't been able to do much of since. Back then I spent some time in the Reading area visiting my sister who was at the uni there for a year. That's where I learned about ordnance maps and public paths. On one particular ride I learned to figure out the difference between walking paths and bridle paths or just paths when I ended up on a walking path with plenty of stiles. Luckily I fell into step with Sir Francis Drake who was kind enough to help me lift my bike over the stiles. Well, he wasn't really Drake but he was playing him in a play performing nearby. But I still claim bragging rights that I met him. I had some wonderful day rides there and had very interesting conversations with people I came across who were tickled to talk to a Yank in the middle of nowhere.

After that I did a big circle from Reading out to Salisbury and back through Winchester and to London, then out to Dover and the continent. One lane I came across was an approach from the north to Stonehenge. It was the best view of the place I could possibly have gotten, with all the roads not visible but the stones visible right on top of the horizon.

So thanks so much for taking me down memory lane, as it were.
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2 months ago
Kathleen JonesDo you know Jack Thurston's Lost Lanes books? He seems to be a kindred spirit but his southern England routes are tamer than yours.
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2 months ago
Jon AylingTo Kathleen JonesThanks Kathleen, really glad you're enjoying them (and apologies there haven't been any updates for a couple of weeks - I've been doing the rides, but getting roped into virus-related stuff at work which has eaten into my time to write them up!).

We've certainly had a pretty amazing few weeks in terms of weather and conditions - four weeks of nearly continuous sunshine, no rain, and it's nearly empty - so it's definitely showing the countryside at its best. It's a bit bleaker if you get stuck out in the flats fens on an overcast day with a headwind!

Yeah, the public rights of way are one of those weird things we kind of take for granted (and many Brits aren't 100% sure of the rules themselves) but are a huge benefit. One problem is I've become less and less keen on riding with any sort of traffic anymore: a few years back I'd happily ride A roads and even the odd separated highway, but it just doesn't seem fun anymore.

That sounds like a great trip, and a classic encounter with Francis Drake - and probably the best way to approach Stonehenge. My mother grew up in Wiltshire and in the 60s would sometimes go for picnics sitting on the stones, which then were completely unrestricted - it's a bit harder to get that close to them now!

Ah, so those are new to me - I'll have to check them out!
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1 month ago