Possibly the most beautiful autumn cycling scenes I can ever remember

Photo by Kevin Mayne

Photo by Kevin MayneYesterday I ride from Epsom in Surrey to Wokingham in Berkshire as part of my cycle tour before the Rugby World Cup final. During the ride I had a section of stunning autumnal beauty which will live long in my memory.

To travel along the side of the old Basingstoke Canal from Byfleet to Deepcut was like spending a day inside a series of paintings, or a perfectly designed Japanese garden. The colours of the trees and the undergrowth mirroring on the still waters of the canal were like a series of tableaux coming round each bend until I was almost experiencing sensory overload. This intensity was maintained for nearly 20 kilometres, giving me a period of absolute delight. With many stops for photos and just to breathe in the images I must have been there nearly two hours.

Photo by Kevin Mayne

Photo by Kevin Mayne Photo by Kevin Mayne

I have written in blog posts from Belgium that I find the big wide shipping canals of Europe somewhat featureless, coming back here reminds me of the intimacy of these small British canals that were built for the narrowboats of the 19th century. Having fallen in to redundancy as trade routes their restoration as cycling and walking corridors is an absolute joy.

Photo by Kevin Mayne

If any of my English readers live near enough to nip down there this weekend for a ride or a walk I say take it now, I guess I have been lucky enough to be there just as the autumn colours reach perfection. Oak, silver birch and horse chestnut all make their contribution but the stars of the show are the golden beeches, in some places the leaves have formed such a dense layer on the water that they have formed a magic carpet of orange that could tempt the unwary to take a walk on the surface.

Photo by Kevin Mayne Photo by Kevin Mayne

The camera alone cannot capture it, the temptation is to portray it as an impressionist painter, perhaps Monet would have done it justice.

Basingstoke canal Woking Photo by Kevin Mayne

However if you do go to visit the Basingstoke Canal as it passes close to Woking you might have to look out for another name. Because as it passes through Woking the canal towpath is called the “Saturn Trail”, which gives me a lovely link to the author H.G. Wells whose quote inspires the title of the this blog.

Back in 2008 I was on the board of a group called Cycling England who were advising the government on their cycling strategy. As part of our work the Board selected the town of Woking to get extra funding to become a so called Cycling Town, beating off over 70 other applicants. One of Woking’s main strategies was to create a cycling network and learning from other successful towns they decided to give each of nine trails a name and a colour. Inspired by the H. G. Wells novel “The War of the Worlds” which was written while Wells was living in Woking they chose planets and moons as the theme. Today the cyclists of Woking can navigate by Mars, Pluto, Ceres and Venus as they move around the town.

Photo by Kevin Mayne

At the heart of this planetary story was Saturn. In 2008 the Basingstoke Canal through Woking was a series of muddy tracks and even grassy fields that were only usable by dog walkers in sturdy boots and the occasional mountain biker, probably breaking the rules to ride in places. Resurfacing, widening and clearing the towpath turned it into the flagship route of the network. When I used to meet the Project Manager Paul he would talk about the whole Cycle Woking project with enthusiasm as one might expect, but I could always detect an extra gleam in his eye when talking about the canal restoration, it is an incredible legacy. (Before and after photos can be seen here)

Which is actually why I chose this route for my ride. When my route planner offered me “Via the Saturn Trail” as an option for the ride I could not resist the chance to catch up with the route and the project and of course to pay homage to H.G. Wells. So I also ended up having lunch with a Martian invader, just of the canal in Woking town centre.

Photo by Kevin Mayne

All is not perfect, the surface is not the perfect smoothness of a Dutch cycle path and the heavy leaf fall made some sections of the route a bit slippery, but because it is shared with walkers that is probably a sensible bit of subtle speed management.

Of the 20 kilometres the trail section through Woking is the best maintained part of the path, to the far Western end near Deepcut I think it must be out of the scope of Woking’s project because it was wet and muddy, testing the capabilities of a small wheeled bike after the rains of the last two days. But as that section offered possibly the very best of the views and was absolutely deserted I can say that it was worth every splash and wobble.

Photo by Kevin Mayne

Which makes it time to say thank you. Thank you H. G. Wells, thank you to our Victorian canal builders and especially to Cycle Woking. And to nature’s timing of course. By their efforts and inspiration I was given the finest of cycling hours in an unexpected corner of South East England.

Uplifting. I do not despair.

I do not despair – there is cycling life in Wokingham!

Absolulutely over the moon today.

I heard from the UK that two funding bids I worked on before I left CTC won the money, both of them submitted by the local Council in Wokingham. One was for the borough itself but the other was for my pet project the Chilterns Cycleway.

Cheering at my desk, not something I often get to do!

Wokingham would have been pretty high on a list of “cycling useless” as opposed to cycling friendly local authorities in past years, but their local bid to improve a main transport corridor features a lot of cycling where they will work with CTC so that is great. And they got me out of a hole last year when another authority (who shall remain nameless – “CB”) messed me about on the Chilterns Cycleway bid. So thanks again team, from cabinet member Keith down to Dave and Matt who supported the bid going in, it was a long shot that came up.

Hambleden Mill - Chilterns

Hambleden Mill – Chilterns

The Chilterns Cycleway is quite a personal project. When I was a board member on the Chilterns Conservation Board I suggested it as a way of boosting tourism. Then we got it mapped, then a bit of funding for signs and guide books, a launch and all that good stuff working with some great local partners. I guess we all kind of thought it would go quiet there but I just thought it might fit the Local Sustainable Transport Fund after the Lake District National Park got some money in round 1. I did a load of work to submit the bid in February and now it came through. Wow – I feel a bit sad that I will be in Brussels when all this happens in Wokingham and the Chilterns, I have had to live with the place for 10 years when nothing cycling happened – now its all go.

Go and ride it – just 30 or 40 miles from London there is this stunning range of hills with a 200 mile signposted touring route. You won’t regret it.