The hoopla of the Tour de France Grand Depart in Yorkshire, England last summer has reminded me of my unforgettable cycling journey in rural England. It didn’t involve the speed or the distance of the Tour de France, but it opened my eyes to rural England’s peaceful countryside, and afforded me the luxury of travelling at a leisurely pace, with plenty of time to explore on and off the saddle.
History on Your Handlebars is a self-guided cycling tour company based in the historic county of Wiltshire, only 70 minutes south west of London. Wiltshire is home to the world-renowned Georgian city of Bath, the world heritage town of Avebury, known for its ancient mystic stone circles, and the medieval National Trust village of Lacock, location for the films, Pride and Prejudice, Emma and Moll Flanders. Lacock’s 16th century medieval Abbey was founded as a nunnery and later became home to William Henry Fox Talbot, the inventor of photography. In 1944, the Abbey, along with the 13th century village of Lacock, was given to the National Trust. The Abbey, now a photographic museum, was featured in the first two Harry Potter films. The stable courtyard includes a clock house, brewery, and bake house, and outdoor enthusiasts will appreciate the summerhouse with Victorian rose garden and nearby botanic garden.
Wiltshire is known as the Downs because about two thirds of the county lies on chalk. Salisbury Plain, a 300-square mile chalk plateau, has the largest area of chalk and boasts the Wiltshire White Horses, eight horse drawings carved into the chalk hillsides. Stonehenge sits on the Plain and is a popular cycling destination with History on Your Handlebars.
Before departing for my cycling expedition in the English countryside, I indulged in theatre tea at the elegant Fairmont Savoy in London, scored a cheap first-row seat to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Lady in White, and cheered on a pack of cyclists in Brighton Beach, who were swooshing in from London to raise money for the British Heart Foundation.
Once I had squeezed in my evenings of theatre hopping, tube rides to Hampstead Heath and punting on the River Cam in Cambridge, it was time to cap my frenzied bright nights and city lights of London with an overnight sojourn in the country. Here, cows and horses were my neighbours, sunsets were magical, and the sweet smell of fresh air was intoxicating. Cycling in the Cotswolds was a fairytale come true.
It was quick and easy to arrive at my destination. I took the train from London’s Paddingon station, heading southwest to Wiltshire County. Only 70 minutes later I arrived at the quaint Chippenham railroad station. As I walked along the platform I soon spotted a handsome man sporting a white carnation pinned to his shirt. It was Derek, the owner of History on Your Handlebars, just as he had described he would be.
My two-day cycling adventure was nothing short of ideal. Derek personally took me on a two-day tour of the countryside, covering approximately 30 kilometers of easy riding each day. And, it didn’t take long for me to adjust to cycling on the left side of the road! The trips are self-guided with an array of routes. I did this before Google maps and iphone bike mounts arrived on the scene, which certainly would be an advantage for any one of the self-guided tours. It’s a family-run business, and Derek has built cottages on his property for rental accommodation. Ask about babysitting services, too.
My cycling route started in the market town of Chippenham, enroute to the Roman city of Bath. I rode along the Wiltshire and Berkshire Canal, spotting bits of bridges, locks and other buildings that used to be the Pewsham Locks. The canal was an important means of transportation of coal and other goods in the late 18th and 19th century. As you leave the path of the canal the countryside opens up to delightful views of the meadows beyond the River Avon. It’s not uncommon to spot pheasants, buzzards, foxes, hares and deer on this stretch of trail. I saw a herd of lambs. It was such a liberating feeling to actually ride my bike into the city of Bath; 11 years earlier I had visited Bath for the first time, but on a Contiki bus tour. This time I had a brush with celebrity. On the way to Bath, in the village of Reybridge, I stopped and stood on a stone fence to glimpse a view of Camilla Parker Bowles’ country home.
When cycling in rural England, it’s only a matter of time before you’ll happen upon the local watering hole. I made the mandatory pit stop for some bitter ale at The George, a quintessential British pub that dates back to the 15th century when it was originally a monastery. The George is located alongside the canal in the village of Bathhampton, between the River Avon and the Kennet and Avon Canal. With my renewed thirst to hop back on my bike, I rode into the village of Castle Combe, “the prettiest village in England” and setting for the Dr. Doolittle film. Here, storybook thatched roof cottages dot the backcountry road landscape. I visited The Manor House Hotel and Golf Club, an elegant destination. Situated on 365 acres, including an 18-hole course, Italian gardens and orchard, this stunning getaway is suitable for royalty (and whoever is lucky enough to afford it).
While riding along a stretch of country road in the village of Sevingon, I stopped to take a picture of what I thought to be a stone church. The sign out front read, “Sevington School”. We decided to investigate and knocked on the door. To my surprise, a woman dressed in period clothing opened the door. Two former school teachers create 19th century Victorian times for primary school student visits. On this afternoon the students had come and gone by the time I strolled by on my bike, enchanted by the schoolhouse. Luckily, we were offered a tour.
My accommodation for the night was at the Church Farm Bed & Breakfast, a charming farmhouse situated between the village of Biddestone and the small town of Corsham (about 8 miles from Bath). Picture the idyllic scene from the movie, The Holiday when Cameron Diaz arrives at the English cottage in Surrey. Only instead of heels and cashmere, I wore sweaty running shoes and a helmet. A short spin along the bike lane in front of the farm, past the horses, was a quaint church and more storybook cottages surrounded by aromatic gardens, poppy and garlic fields. I even had a rock star living nearby. Pink Floyd drummer, Nick Mason’s home was down the lane from where I was staying.
I slept in a cozy converted barn called the “Garden Room”. In a basket next to my bed was an assortment of chocolate chip shortbread from the Marshfield Bakery in the nearby town of Marshfield, as well as several varieties of tea, including orange, mango and cinnamon, and lemon and ginger. Indulging in buttery shortbread and hot tea was the ideal way to conclude my cycling adventure, before resting my tired legs and counting fluffy sheep. I would need my sleep for the next day’s journey.