Boats, Bath, Bristol and Bridge – A Bikepacking Trip

It’s been hot lately. Like, really hot. Not quite lay-on-the-cold-floor-in-your-pants-hot, but almost. It’s been dry and sunny. It’s been glorious. Perfect slow riding weather. So of course, it decides to rain on our long planned bikepacking trip to the South West.

Not just a little bit of rain either, non-stop for 40 of the first day’s 60 miles. But something about a bikepacking trip makes getting soaking wet seem less of an issue. We stated that “It’s all part of the adventure” to each other on more than one occasion. The really torrential downpours were, thankfully, reserved for the car journey home on Sunday.

We had planned the trip back in March, back when James hadn’t got much in the way of lightweight camping gear. The plan was for a there-and-back-again cycle with a YHA hostel stop in the middle. Fast forward to early August and the YHA had unfortunately had to cancel our booking. Thankfully James has done some investing in gear. So instead,we found a campsite and loaded bikes with tents and sleeping bags. We made the choice to find restaurants or cafés for food, lightening the load just a little.

James, clean, dry. Two things that did not describe him later in the day.

The Kennet and Avon

Our route was borne out of searching for more rail trails around the country to explore. We know they make for a pleasant day’s bikepacking away from traffic, having bikepacked some in the Peak District and Norfolk recently. However, whilst the Bristol and Bath Railway Path ticks the box of being traffic free, it is a bit short at only 13 miles. A suitable extension was found, continuing the line of Sustrans Route 4, in the form of the Kennet and Avon canal towards Reading.

Not just long boats on the Kennet and Avon Canal

The canal proper starts at the River Kennet at Newbury and runs across rolling countryside to the River Avon at Bath. But, by using the Rivers Thames, Kennet and Avon, it provides a link from London to the Bristol channel. At the time of it’s construction at the turn of the 19th Century, this provided a profitable cargo transport route; cheaper than by road and safer than the long voyage around the English channel.

As steam and rail took over, cargo traffic on the canal and tow path declined. These days tourists relax at stern and bow of hired long boats, peacefully meandering their way across the countryside. Cyclists and walkers replace the horses that the tow paths were originally constructed for.

Our starting point would be just East of Devizes on the Kennet and Avon canal. At this point the canal tow path is technically not on National Cycle Route 4. As such the surface is more of a bumpy grassy track, until the two converge again at Devizes. From Devizes to Bath the path is more defined, mostly well surfaced gravel but with a few sections of tarmac or cobble thrown in too.

Locked and Loaded
One of 29 locks at Caen Hill

Water below, water above

Cycling the canal is similar in many ways to cycling a rail trail. Easy navigation and lack of climbs make for a gentle ride that can really be savoured with a steady pace. Observing the water traffic just below providing plenty to occupy the mind. The only real climb of our trip along the canal is at Caen Hill, a flight of 29 locks rising 237 feet in 2 miles when travelling Eastward. Signs asking cyclists to slow down when travelling Westward and down. The locks take 5-6 hours to navigate by boat. The descent by bike took far less and the climb back the next day took around 6 minutes, though dodging walkers no doubt added to that total.

James’ near endless supply of Wine Gums

The rain started at our lunch stop at Bradford on Avon and carried on steadily for the rest of the afternoon. Cycling along the gravelled canal tow path became a game of dodge the puddle. Slowing our progress, but not spoiling our enjoyment. By the time we got as far as Bath we had a) got wetter and muddier than we had hoped and b) realised we had been taking it, maybe, a bit too steady.

Making a crossing of the Dundas Aqueduct
The Canal emerges from a tunnel in Bath

The Bristol and Bath

Into Bath and we planned to follow the Sustrans Route 4 signs to cross the city and find the Bristol and Bath Railway Path. Though we quickly realised that Sustrans signs can be easily missed, so ended up consulting maps at various points in order to find our way. A bikepacking trip is not complete without some hike-a-bike and this trip duly obliged. We found the cycle path we wanted, but were on a bridge above it, steps found, bikes carried, progress continues. Eventually, we once again found signs pointing us in the right direction, carefully making sure we didn’t miss any more.

The Bristol and Bath Railway Path is unlike many other Rail Trails. No gravel to be seen here, instead a wide strip of tarmac has been laid. Even zebra-crossings and SLOW markings have been included, mainly around crossing points near schools from what I could tell. Aside from the usual families on ancient mountain bikes, so typical of rail trails, you also see a few roadies out, the surface being similar to any road.

Heritage Railway Rolling Stock – This one at Bristol Harbourside

The railway path passes the heritage railway of the Avon Valley Railway group, where steam and diesel locomotives pull tourists up and down a three mile stretch. They sat staring out of the steamy windows at the cyclists rolling by, warm and dry within the carriages. Who was having more fun though? They would probably think themselves, I’m not so sure.

As with many Rail Trails in a city environment, you don’t realise you are nearing the city centre until the path ends abruptly at an industrial estate. Once again we are left routing our way with cycle way signs, only a few wrong turns are made.

Goals

Our goal in Bristol was two-fold. Firstly, to see the Clifton Suspension Bridge. Secondly, to find some dinner. In attempting the first, we spotted many suitable locations for the second. However, once again, following cycle path signage failed us and it took a couple of map-check-stops to find our way. Eventually we rounded a corner to see the bridge in the distance, but it still took a while to find the right vantage point.

One bank of the Avon a pretty-enough park with gravel cycle-way. The other, an ugly busy main road. Guess which side we ended up on first. Having eventually satisifed our desire to see the famous bridge, we rolled slowly along the harbour quays to find a spot for food. Stopping to see Banksy’s “Girl with the Pearl Earring”, recently modified as a tribute to the mask-wearing coronavirus times.

Goal 1 Achieved: Clifton Suspension Bridge
Goal 2 Achieved: A well earned beer

From here on the ride was a case of retracing our steps. With the rain still falling we trundled back to the railway path and made our way back towards our campsite. James had a small packable rucksack that we filled with beers at a nearby shop, before pitching our tents and chatting to each other from respective porches. Still both in good spirits, despite the fact that we were not sat enjoying the beers in the evening sun.

Pack up and move out

The next morning light grey clouds hung low in the sky. A fine mist kept us cool as we packed up our tents and refilled water bottles. This fine mist, plus not staying for breakfast meant tents went away wet. We were in two minds whether jackets were required as we continued retracing our steps back East.

James and his Kona Private Jake
Me and my Thompson R9300 ready to go

In Bath our plan was to find any cheap greasy spoon style cafe for breakfast that we could. We failed in this task. However, for once, we managed to stay following the Sustrans signage through the city streets. Stopping to admire the distinctive Bath architecture and making a detour to the Royal Crescent.

After circling the city centre, we eventually found a café, the lovely Good Day Café was perfect for coffee and breakfast. The weather had perked up in those first 5 miles and we sat with the sun warming our faces at a bench in one of the many alleys criss-crossing the roman spa town.

Last minute refills
Café, sun, bikes. A perfect Sunday morning.

With better weather we could have taken our time to enjoy the ride on Sunday more, however plans at home in the evening meant we kept pedals turning. Still slow enough to enjoy the views, but maybe a few less photo stops. With the better weather the canal path was noticeably busier. Having to dodge in-and-around the many people walking along the waters edge. At some points this is easy, with a plenty wide enough path that only loose dogs could spoil. At others one must stop and shuffle past on the narrow sections beside the water.

Retracing our steps along the canal
The Kennet and Avon Canal

Follow our route

To follow our route, look up National Cycle Route 4, though be sure to follow the signs closely in the two cities. Aside from the cities, navigation is exceedingly easy, we didn’t bother with GPX files or maps, Any bike is suitable for the railway path, though some sections of the canal tow path may be a bit uncomfortable on narrow road tyres.

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