Cycling the Great Western Way from Bristol to London

My bike next to the River Thames, somewhere near Chertsey, on the Great Western Way

Last month I fulfilled a long-held ambition by cycling from Bristol to London using (mostly) the Great Western Way. As I couldn’t find many first hand posts about other people doing this, I thought I’d write one.

Warning: This post has no Excel or finance content whatsoever.

Preparation

I had never done a multi-day bike ride before this one. I read about it somewhere and thought that I’d like to have a go one day but never got any further than that.

I’m not entirely sure what made me decide that 2023 was the year, but I blocked out four days in the calendar and started to think about how to break up the 160 mile route.

Simple maths made me realise I’d need to be able to cycle 40-60 miles a day, and at the time I started training (3 months before hand) I was comfortable doing 10. My training programme was pretty simple – go out on the bike as much as possible, and at the weekends add 5 miles to the last biggest distance cycled.

It was actually pretty easy to build up the distance – unlike running, where I have really struggled to make a lot of progress.

I planned to do this on my normal riding-around-town heavy bike. I experimented with some padded shorts / trousers but in the end decided I was more comfortable in a skirt / thin shorts combination. I did splash out on some Ortlieb panniers.

I also stayed at B&Bs – I’m not quite ready for the camping out stage of cycle touring yet!

Day 1: Bristol to Pewsey, 51 miles / 82 km approx

The first 25 miles of this route was pretty familiar to me as it’s where I’ve been training.

The route starts with the legendary Bristol to Bath railway path, one of the first major off-road paths in the UK. It’s so easy for me to take this for granted as I ride on it at least once a week on average. But it’s a truly great ride in its own right, and if you live in either Bristol or Bath and have access to a bicycle you should give some or all of it a go.

It’s flat, it’s mostly tree lined, it takes you from inner city landscapes out to rolling hills and riverscapes. And you might get to see a steam train.

A steam train at Bitton, on the Bristol to Bath railway path.

Cutting through Bath, I picked up the Kennet and Avon canal path. I had my first pitstop at Bathampton, and when I got up to leave I realised my back tyre was completely flat. I also at that point realised that although I had a spare inner tube, tyre levers and a puncture repair kit, I didn’t actually have a bicycle pump.

After my initial despair I thought I would at least get started on the bike repair and hope that someone passing might have a spare pump. It is a popular route, after all. I got lucky and someone not only had a spare pump but was very good with bikes generally and got me up and running pretty quickly.

The leg between Bath and Bradford-on-Avon passes over a couple of spectacular aquaducts, but I sped over them in my rush to get to a bike shop en route to buy a pump in case it happened again.

The stretch between Bradford on Avon and Devizes is a slightly narrower, wilder bit of towpath, less travelled than the first bit. As I’m used to the more popular bits of the path, it was initially a little eerie, but also magical.

Shortly before Devizes is the Caen Hill locks, a set of locks that goes up a massive hill. Half way up it – flat tyre again. I started to try to fix it and once again was blessed with help from strangers. They also helped me to check the tyre more carefully for obstacles in case it was the same cause for both punctures, finding a thorn in the process.

I had planned to stop in Devizes for a break but instead was on the hunt for another bike shop to get more replacement inner tubes and to get the bike properly looked at. Unfortunately, the bike shop had closed earlier than advertised, but I found inner tubes at a hardware store.

I then had a dilemma as to whether to continue to Pewsey or stop where there was public transport. I was paranoid that the cause of the punctures was not a thorn but was something to do with the replacement back wheel I had earlier that week.

I decided to go on, but my enjoyment of the last bit was overshadowed by worrying about my back wheel.

The route between Devizes and Pewsey leaves the canal, so for the first time I was on open road in unfamiliar territory. I went astray a few times, despite the signage. However, despite this and worries about the back wheel, it is a really nice route, very quiet, not too hilly. At several points I was completely surrounded by cornfields, and I thought to myself – yes, this is why I’m doing this.

Day 2: Pewsey to Reading – should have been 39 miles, actually 47 (77k)

This was supposed to be the easy stretch – a mere 39 miles according to map, mostly along the canal.

However, I struggled to find the right route out of Pewsey, and decided to solve this by heading for the canal early (the first part to Hungerford is not along the canal), which Google seemed to think was doable.

It wasn’t really – very overgrown, so after a couple of miles I came off and hunted for the official route again, which I eventually found. It also started to rain at this point. I paused at Hungerford for coffee and a snack, on the assumption that I’d be in Newbury (9 miles away) in an hour or so for lunch. Oops.

Between Hungerford and Newbury, there’s a bit of quiet road (but some hills) and then you join the canal path at Kintbury. Unfortunately, this path was in no state for cycling. The path was narrow to start with and very overgrown. There were also a couple of fallen trees at points. (I had never thought about how I might get a fully loaded bike over a fallen tree. Take the panniers off is the answer). I ended up walking most of this stretch, all the while the rain was getting harder and harder, trying not to fall into the canal.

The path was narrower and more overgrown in places than this picture shows

I got to Newbury over two hours later, completely sodden, with stinging legs (nettles and brambles), and very hungry. I was seriously considering giving up at this point. However, I treated myself to a hot shakshuka in a warm cafe and improvised a cycling outfit from the dry clothes in the panniers. I came out to discover the sun was out, and decided to continue, at least for a bit. After all, the path follows the railway line at this point, so I could abandon earlier than Reading if it was as bad as the Kintbury-Newbury stretch.

Fortunately it wasn’t as bad – a couple of hairy places but mostly passable.

Reading turns out to be rather interesting when you approach it along the canal. For a start, there are a lot of waterways. There are also lots of very ordinary looking suburban houses backing onto them with small jetties and canoes moored up. I’d like to explore it more in future.

Day 3: Reading to London (62 miles / 101 km)

I started the day apprehensive about whether I would finish today. I had got another day off so I did have that option. I was also wondering whether on balance I was enjoying myself. I hadn’t slept well (thunderstorms overnight) and more rain was forecast for the morning, and yesterday’s clothes had not dried out.

However, as with yesterday, I got going with the thought that I could always abandon at the next station.

I’m glad I did as this was the best day, even though it was the longest.

There was a real variety in terrain, for starters, from riverside paths to a bridle track through a wood. The official route to Maidenhead takes you right off the beaten track: even though you’re in prime commuter territory for London, you feel like you’re miles away. It was also very well-sign posted, with the exception of a stretch around Windsor.

I didn’t quite follow the official path once I got past Maidenhead. This is partly because there are choices of routes, and also because I wanted to see if I could finish in the day so needed to make up a bit of time. So I took a slightly shorter cut including the A308 to Windsor, and went through Runnymede to get to Staines.

It’s easy to think when you cross the M25 at Staines that you’re almost there, and if you just sped up the A30 you would be. I went back to the Great Western Way and opted for a glorious but long cycle ride along the Thames, finally reaching Hampton Court about 2.5 hours after Staines.

Thames Path in the outskirts of London

Conclusions and lessons learned

Firstly, I need to get more confident with bike maintenance (and bring ALL the kit!). I was lucky that both punctures happened in places with a lot of people and I had help both times. Even though this is in theory a popular route going through lots of towns, there are still large chunks where you are on your own and isolated

Secondly, I didn’t take account of how much time I would spend navigating. I didn’t take all that many wrong turns, but it still takes time to stop and check a map, or to slow down so you can look for signs. I tried to load the route to my OS maps app but couldn’t. With hindsight I wish I’d spent the time trying to get this to work! It meant that whereas I thought I could cover 50 miles in about six hours (with rest stops) as that was what I’d done in training on familiar roads, in reality it was more like 7-8 hours.

Thirdly, I was not expecting the terrain to be difficult at all. I think I will be more cautious about trying to find out what the terrain is like before embarking on a trip, and being particularly cautious about canal paths. Someone recommended OpenStreetMap, which I used on the third day as a triangulation point between Sustrans and Google.

Fourth, by happy chance rather than planning I had a complete change of clothes that I could cycle in. This probably made the difference between my continuing on day 2 and abandoning in despair.

Finally, (which I learned on day one) – always have food with you, even if you’ve got lots of towns on the way and the budget for lunch / snacks in all of them. You never know when you might get stuck a long way from civilisation. Eating and drinking little and often seems to be the key for a comfortable ride.

But I’m definitely hooked, and planning a new challenge for spring.

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