A Tale of Two Tunnels

It was possibly the last decent day of the summer & by jimney, I was going to enjoy it. With the kids safely deposited at school, I hot footed it to Tilehurst railway station ready for a day of bicycle shenanigans around the historic city of Bath.

As anyone who uses the railways in the UK will agree that the pricing of the tickets is tantamount to daylight robbery.  Whilst I stood at the front of the queue in the ticket office, the man behind the desk put on his face mask, whipped out his National Rail issue pistol & shouted ‘stand & deliver! That will be £45.70 for a return ticket’.  I pleaded clemency & negotiated a fare from Tilehurst to Didcot for £6 & then another from Didcot to Bath for £19.70 – saving myself 20 British beer tokens.

(BTW always worthwhile checking out ‘Seat 61.com’ for rail advice on journey splitting & other fare saving ideas).

Boarding one of the new GWR Electrostars, I was then whisked-off effortlessly through the resplendent autumnal tree-lined Thames valley & into the freshly harvested fields of South Oxfordshire.  Alighting at Didcot, I had an hour to wait, so without wasting any of my precious time, I found the nearest seat in the sun & watched the world pass by.  At exactly 1152 the bullet-nosed Hitachi Intercity electro-diesel job pulled in & once I clambered on board, it rattled me at high-speed down Brunels’ original GWR route,  westwards through Wiltshire & into Somerset.  After about forty minutes, the train emerged from Box Tunnel & before I knew it, I was stood standing on the curved, Victorian Bath Spa platform with Brompton in hand, ready for an afternoons’ adventure.

Although I had pedalled through Bath many years before, it took me a while to get my bearings.  The National Cycle Route number 4 passes right through the city centre & is identifiable by little blue signs/stickers, displaying an arrow with the number 4.  While I paused momentarily against the stone balustrade of the Grand Parade, I eventually managed to spot a blue sticker attached to a street sign in the pedestrianized shopping area & dinging my extremely manly Brompton bell, I weaved my way through the lunchtime crowds, into the quiet back streets beyond.  Eventually the NCR 4 stickers lured me onto a path next to the River Avon, which was just near perfect to peddle along – so much so, that I completely missed a signpost telling me to cross the river.  Two miles later, following a swift consultation of the Sustrans website, I doubled back.  It was then that I encountered a smirker on a mountain bike, who was leading a bunch of riders on a guided cycle tour of the area.

In a few of my posts, I have made reference to smirkers & I am sure, anyone who has a Brompton, or even ever ridden one, will understand exactly what I am talking about.  A  smirker is a person who, when they spot someone on or with a Brompton, will automatically develop a rather conceited ‘smirk’ on their face.  But instead of taking offence at this, I do enjoy engaging with them – such as saying ‘good morning’ in rather a loud voice, or waving frantically at them, à la Forrest Gump style.

Finally crossing over the Avon next to an enormous Lidl supermarket, I made a mental note to be more observant in future (for signposts & smirkers) & once over the busy road behind the store, I plodded uphill, towards a series of wooden bollards.  This signified an entrance to the Two Tunnels Greenway (NCR 244) – the former route of the Somerset & Dorset railway.

The Two Tunnels Greenway opened officially in 2013, following extensive restoration by Sustrans, with the help of a substantial lottery grant.  As I began my adventure along the old line, I was quite surprised how undulating it was, passing up & down through tree-covered cuttings that were interspersed with various bridges.  After a mile or so, the first star of the route came into view & following an obligatory selfie, I raced into the gloom of the 500 metre long Devonshire tunnel.  For a few minutes of chilly, near darkness, I coasted along, enjoying the quiet whir of my gears.  Back into the sunshine & with barely enough time to warm up again, I entered the second tunnel & at 1,672 metres long, the Combe Down tunnel is alleged to be the longest cycle/pedestrian tunnel in Europe.  The gradient inside was in my favour & as I whizzed along, through patches of light & dark, I kept hearing strange sounds & voices.  Unbeknown to me, part of the tunnel experience is a motion detection audio system that provides travellers with snippets of noise along its mile route, but as I didn’t know about this, I spent most of the journey looking around, convinced ‘I was not alone’.  I must say though, that riding through the tunnel was just an awesome experience & one I am bound to repeat.  If you suffer with bladder control issues, a nervous disposition or are a bit claustrophobic, then I would probably give it a miss.

Exiting the tunnel at speed, I soon discovered that I was now in the countryside. This was lovely except for one thing – hornets.  Due to the heat of the summer, the UK was experiencing an increase in the number of these critters & being a man with an excessive phobia of anything that bites or stings me, I managed to set a new land speed record for a fat bloke from Reading on a Brompton.

As I raced in front of the old Midford platform, I stopped to catch my breath on the top of a viaduct & checked the route on my phone.  I couldn’t believe it – in my haste, I had once again sailed straight past my turning.   Contemplating the fact that I may have to mix it again with the hornets, I overheard a woman talking about how ‘sociable’ the hornets were.  Now I am no David Attenborough, but I would of thought that on the human-animal sociability spectrum, hornets rank alongside great white sharks & funnel web spiders, for their interpersonal skills.

Thankfully, as it turned out, I didn’t have to that far to turn back too & soon I was following the NCR 24 downhill towards the safety of Combe Monkton village & through the grounds of a large independent school, beyond.  As I meandered along, I spied signs for The Angelfish cafe which overlooked the Dundas canal.  I was in serious need of sustenance, so I pulled in & parked up.  The sausage baguette & bottle of Bath Gem ale, certainly hit the spot, but it was the waitress that literally got my full attention, with a voice that could put many sergeant majors’ to shame.

Without a care in the world, well except for any marauding hornets, I had a slow race with a narrowboat over the impressive Dundas aqueduct, while a train snaked along the valley floor, some way below.  Now back on the NCR 4, I followed the towpath west,  casually passing a procession of moored narrowboats which lined the Kennet & Avon, virtually into the centre of Bath.  All the craft were different in colour & possessed varying states of worthiness & in true voyeuristic fashion (& with a touch of dawdlers envy), I peered in shamelessly through the open cockpits & round windows, into the lives of the boat people within.

It was here that I spied a familiar face coming towards me.  Yes, it was the friendly tour guide from earlier.  As he approached, I spied his smirk developing, but this time I was ready for him.  In a pre-emptive strike, I stared at him straight in the eye & raised my nostril, like a child inspecting something nasty on their shoe.  His smirk disappeared in an instant.  Shove that in your Go-pro camera, mountain bike boy…

Leaving the tow path behind, I rejoined the Bath traffic & proceeded downhill, over Pulteney Bridge & around into Grand Parade once more.  It seemed a real shame to leave so soon, so I spent one final hour just bimbling around the outside of the Roman baths & Bath abbey, absorbing some of the ‘cultcha’, as they say in Reading.

Summary

Bath is a great city for Bromtouring, combining miles of great quality cycle paths with plenty to see.  Without a doubt, the two tunnels were definitely the highlight of my trip – chapeau Sustrans….

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