Old Chalk Way: Following The Greater Ridgeway Coast-to-Coast (29/09/22-04/10/22)

A pattern has emerged in the last few years. 

I get to around September, see the first leaves start to fall and panic that I haven’t squeezed in enough adventures over the summer months. Forgetting that the British weather does actually start to become quite dodgy by autumn, I then book in one last escapade for October/ November. Usually by the time it comes around a month or two later, I’m quite happy with how much I’ve managed to explore over summer and slightly regret committing to camp out now the night time temperatures are beginning to resemble winter. Last year it was the Deeside Trail, but the Lakeland 200 was no different.

This year it was the Old Chalk Way, with my friend and former colleague Josh. When he proposed the trip, I was more excited about the company than the route itself. I’ve toured large sections of the OCW, but I’ve never gone on a trip with Josh.

I started a new job as an e-cargo bike courier at the end of summer when I returned to London, but when Josh invited me I hadn’t really realised how exhausting the shifts would be. Some days I was covering up to 100km, delivering everything from lunches to offices, helping people move furniture, or bringing fresh fish to restaurants around town. When you ride for a living Mon-Fri, often the last thing you want to do at the weekend is pedal more. And besides, I was skint. I needed to take 3 days off work to ride the OCW, and I needed the cash from those shifts.

Still, I was excited about the prospect of one final spin for the summer. I finished my shift on Thursday, dashed home, grabbed my Dawes and met Josh at Waterloo. I was in the process of moving house (which only added to my stress), and the previous day I’d collected the Dawes from my dad’s house and transported it back on my cargo bike. It was quite a sight, as you can see below...

In typical timing, I was getting ill. There was no way I could pretend otherwise, sniffling on the commuter train heading out of London towards the West Country. The weather forecast was looking truly horrendous, and I was feeling nervous about riding 600km in the next 5 days.

We rode out into the darkness from Axminster station in East Devon, to the only local campsite that was still open and would let us arrive late, and I crawled into my tent grateful that I’d packed the winter sleeping bag.

In the morning we rode down to the coast at Lyme Regis where the route begins. The OCW is a bikepacking route along Britain’s oldest highway. It follows a chalk spine from Dorset to Norfolk, loosely following the Greater Ridgeway. This general route has been long established, but it’s focused around footpaths for walkers, and this version is fully rideable and designed with gravel bikes in mind. It roughly connects the Wessex Ridgeway, The Ridgeway, The Icknield Way and The Peddars Way. I’ve cycled the middle section already – having pedalled the Ridgeway and the King Alfred’s Way – but the start and end were unfamiliar. As a bonus, The Peddars Way had been on my ‘to ride’ list for some time, so that was a section I was particularly looking forward to. 

From the coast at Lyme Regis, you’re straight into the hills and there’s no respite from them. I loaded up on painkillers and hoped for the best, but by lunch the weather had already started to turn. The ominous weather forecast proved to be accurate, and it rained the entire day. Thanks to a few punctures thrown in for good measure, we made slow progress, and were a long way off our target of 100 km+.

We were soaked through and freezing cold. Eventually we accepted defeat, and opened up Booking.com in search of a room. Camping in this would have been a disaster, and although a hotel night was not in the budget, I’d have paid a lot to shake my cold. We arrived drenched, leaving a trail of puddles between the entrance and the room, and within minutes our new abode was covered in our every possession. Tents draped across curtain rails, shoes stuffed with newspaper and wedged under the radiator, and muddy trousers hanging over the shower door. While everything dried, we drank Guinness in the pub downstairs, reminiscing about the most miserable days we’ve had on a bike. This one was probably up there.

Josh and I have had slightly parallel cycling lives over the last few years. In 2015, Josh left the UK and cycled to China – the same year that I also rode the Silk Road to Asia. We pedalled fairly similar routes, but never crossed paths. In the end we met in London in 2018 while working at Apidura. That year Josh had his second attempt at the TCR (finishing 5th!) and the following year I too took a crack at the race. But despite all the huge rides, we are both more than happy riding closer to home at a more leisurely pace, with time to enjoy the campsites.

But our backgrounds in cycling couldn’t possibly be more different. Josh was on the road to becoming a professional road cyclist, and spent a few years in Belgium training with teams. When he rode to China, he was a proper athlete, whereas I had only acquired my bike two weeks prior to leaving.

The second day on the OCW was better. We rendezvoused with Josh’ friend Rob, in Shaftesbury (home to the Hovis advert road) and wasted a large chunk of the morning trying to buy new tyres. Josh had had a handful of punctures the previous day, and I’d slashed my tyre on some flint. I was riding on my slick 47mm Horizons (only because I couldn’t be bothered to change them since my trip to Ireland), and they were woefully inadequate on the slippery mud. Sadly the town bike shop didn’t have any tyres in our size, but they had some tyre boots so I popped a couple of those in and hoped for the best.

After some stunning riding across the Salisbury Plains, we called it a day after 103km once we’d found a campsite. Once again, progress had been a lot slower than anticipated.

On the third day we tackled the Ridgeway, back onto familiar trails for me, but the first time I’d ridden much of it heading East! Rob joined us until the late afternoon, where he diverted in search of a train station home. The weather forecast was looking foul again for Monday, so there was little incentive for him to take the day off work. I’d been feeling so ill, but finally after 3 days it seemed I may have been turning a corner. I’d considered bailing myself, but there were nationwide train strikes all weekend, so it seemed like it would be more difficult to get back to London than simply continue cycling.

We’d finally sourced new tyres, and although we somehow kept getting punctures, it was nice not to worry about the sidewall splitting open. It also gave us a little more confidence about the daily mileage, so we decided to make a really big push on the 4th day and catch up on some time.

The landscape became easier once we left the Icknield way. More tarmac, and less climbing. It was less interesting, too, but the Luton to Dunstable busway (built on a disused railway line) was quite something. We found a campsite so that we had somewhere to aim for in the dark, loaded up with sweets, and settled into an impromptu night shift. With 160km in the bag that day, it suddenly seemed realistic that we’d finish the following afternoon.

The last day was fun riding, with plenty of tarmac and a nice tailwind helping us towards the coast. The Peddars Way lacked rhythm, with lots of switches between asphalt and then rough bridleway, but the landscape in Norfolk was strikingly different.

In the end, we arrived in King’s Lynn early in the afternoon. I’d finally recovered from the illness (it seemed that riding all day in the cold and rain may have cured it), but two back-to-back 100 mile days had taken it out of me. I was grateful to be finishing, and getting the train back to London. Couldn’t wait to get back on my cargo bike at 7am the next day and continue riding…

Sometimes it’s good to have a little nudge from a friend. I wasn’t desperate to get out for this trip, certainly not with the weather forecast and illness, but I’m glad Josh persuaded me to join for the ride. I’ve done a lot of cycling by myself this summer, and it was nice to share at least one of the two-wheeled trips. It’s not often I get to reminisce about extended tours with someone who’s done the same thing, and I think we were both many days away from running out of anecdotes to compare from far-flung countries we’ve cycled in.

And the good news is that I received a job offer the following day, an expected email that was weighing heavily on my mind throughout the weekend. I’ve loved my second stint as a courier again in London, but I’m not desperate to do it through winter. Besides, I’d like to have some more energy for trips when the spring season starts next year.

I’ll tell you about the job when I next update this site next year, but there’s a clue in my last couple of posts if you look at the route overview. Until next time – enjoy what’s left of 2022!

PS. You’ll notice that the photos are a little different (/worse) this time around. I thought it would be fun to take a film camera, so I borrowed Bella’s analogue. I wasn’t sure if the results would be any good, and it turns out they’re disastrous, but there’s something quite fun about them regardless. I suspect I’ll stick to digital next year…

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