It all started with me moving to the reasonably cycle-friendly city of Milton Keynes. Then it was riding to and from work now and again. Then it was commuting by bike every day. And then I would read about cyclists on multi-day or multi-month cycle tours across Europe or the United States. And it would make me think: I want to give that a go… But in a bite-sized chunk first.
And then I discovered some blogs with names like Bike Overnights, and others discussing things called ‘microadventures’. And I would lap up these accounts of simply bugging out by bike for 24 hours or less.
Not a lot of planning.
Just packing the bike up, picking a point on the map, and riding there to spend the night under canvas. And then just riding home the next morning, feeling slightly more at peace with the world.
By chance, my bike kind of resembles a touring bike, and it came with a pretty decent pannier rack and bag. So I’ve always thought it would be quite easy to fill the bags with only the gear I’d need for an overnight trip and just head off and do it. Seeing accounts of other people doing the same – their tips, their photographs, their almost universal agreement on the satisfaction such trips bring – it just brought it all into focus. So, last Friday, I went on my own overnight microadventure by bike.
Milton Keynes, the city that showed me I could rely on a bike to get myself around, is blessed with a few hundred kilometres of cycle paths. Other cities aren’t so lucky, but rural England also has its fair share of designated cycle routes which follow quiet country lanes and disused tracks. I picked National Cycle Route 51, partly as it goes right through Milton Keynes, and partly as it heads exactly in the direction I was hoping to go – towards Bicester and Oxford.
I used the ever-reliable UK Campsite to find a suitable site in that area, and then I packed my bags up for a night’s camping before heading to work as normal on Friday morning. Having picked up some snacks and an up to date OS Landranger map (sheet 165) for the route at lunchtime, by ten past five I was ready to leave.
I was blessed with perfect weather and a long mid-summer evening. The sun was still fairly high in the evening sky when I left, and the threat of some long-overdue summer storms was way off into the next afternoon.
I’d packed light, the only extras on top of my usual commute being a small tent and a few more snacks and water. My daily habit of taking lunch and a change of clothes had made that weight a fair standard to build upon for an overnight microadventure. I still felt slightly sluggish, the bike feeling slightly heavier, but the route I took was smooth and fairly flat.
It wasn’t long before I’d made it out of Milton Keynes and Bletchley and was following an old farm track, Weasel Lane, with the beautiful Buckinghamshire countryside unfolding around me. It was a nice reminder that it’s always there, just a few minutes away, whenever I need it. The secluded track took me past Weasel’s Lodge, a beautiful and remote house recently destroyed by fire.
Gentle undulations in the route gave me one last glimpse of the gleaming city of Milton Keynes as a dot on the horizon. The rough track became a paved farm access road, but I rarely passed anyone, and didn’t see any cars until two occasions when my path crossed some minor roads.
The first town I reached came as a bit of a shock. The quiet farm road merged with a main road, although mercifully it had a dedicated, separate cycle path, and before long I was off the main road again, following a bike path through a residential area towards the centre of Winslow. Suddenly I was spat out onto the high street at something like 6 o’clock and had to navigate my way through a few hundred metres of fairly busy traffic, before I was safely on another quiet residential road and away once more.
I hadn’t left Route 51, but it was a relief to see one of the fish-tail signposts, which can be found along these routes dotted every 10km or so apart. The next part of the route was along country lanes, but I saw so little motor traffic that I virtually had the roads to myself. I rolled through the pretty villages of Verney Junction, Sandhill and Middle Claydon, only occasionally lifting myself out of the saddle to power myself up small hills.
I was then greeted by Steeple Claydon’s tall namesake and treated to a nice fast roll downhill – the kind which you quietly dread when you know you’re returning by the same route the next day.
There was much to distract me around this section of the route. A small bunny hopped close to my wheels when I pulled over to inspect a tiny, pretty chapel at Middle Claydon. Soaring Red Kites, so common to this area in recent years, were a wonderful sight – but nothing compared to finally seeing one on a branch of a tree. In the ten years or more I have adored these birds and seen them all over this area, I have never seen one that wasn’t in flight. It looked majestic.
The disused railway linking Bletchley and Oxford, and which runs closely along Route 51 here, also showed itself in small clearings and even a level crossing.
I had to stop and marvel at lovely Swanbourne station, which last saw a train in 1968.
The rails continue all along the route, but have mostly been reclaimed by vegetation, except for a small stretch alongside Swanbourne so pristine that you expect the next train shortly.
I had dawdled long enough. I had lost some time, and although the sun was still a reassuring couple of hours from setting, I still had a third of so of my trip to ride. Although it was still very hot, the roads were wonderful. Smooth, quiet and gently winding with only a few long, shallow hills to contend with.
I whizzed through Twyford and Poundon, noting that the former had a nice-looking pub or two. I rose up alongside rolling fields towards Stratton Audley Park, finding myself distracted once again by the poignant remoteness of a vast stableyard and hall, both several hundred years old – a small reminder of the importance of villages and manors like this in the past as staging posts on the ride to and from London.
From here, a long, slow rise led me towards a crossing of the A4421, the busiest section of my route, and a cause of some concern. As a result of my dawdling, I was crossing this main road at almost 8pm on a Friday evening and, as such, it was a breeze and I didn’t have to wait to cross.
I then found myself unexpectedly in the pretty village of Fringford, having taken a turn too early. I was unperturbed, however, as I knew my destination was just on the outskirts of the village, and I would soon arrive.
Glebe Leisure campsite and caravan park is a large site, with decent, modern facilities. I rode in and parked up in the ‘Rally Field’, passing an elaborate stone monument featuring not only a statue of a child at play but also a sort of windvane construction on top.
Although I was a bit later than I’d planned, I still had plenty of light to set up camp, with the sun just slowly setting at one end of the field. I rang the hosts to get the access code for the toilet/shower block, and was told to leave my payment in an envelope in a safe. There’s something very nice and hands-off about accommodation when you never have to meet the hosts. I’m not ready to go wild-camping on my own just yet, so this felt independent enough, thanks.
The sun set as I sat rather proudly by my tent and bicycle reading and enjoying a roll. I’d only ridden about 40km, but it felt like I was in another world. The route had been so fascinating and enjoyable that I was thrilled to be heading back the same way the next day.
As the sky dimmed and vapour trails provided the only cloud cover, I looked up from my Kindle now and then to see one star appear after another.
It was a mild evening, despite the clear skies, and I slept fairly well, not waking till 8am. I might invest in a bike-friendly sleeping mat, but I didn’t miss much else. After a quiet breakfast and a short woodland stroll, I was packed up and on my way home, keen to take a closer look at some of the fascinating locations I’d spotted on my way.