Chilterns Cycleway Adventure 13th and 14th August 2016
by Jon Dean
Rouleurs of Berkhamsted, Wendover, Henley and Harpenden may have noticed on their local rides brown signs proclaiming ‘Chilterns Cycleway’. Many seem only partially aware of what it is; a 170 mile circular cycling route through the Chilterns, mainly on-road but with some mild off-road sections. There is nothing particularly amazing about it; it is just a well thought through scenic route, keeping largely off busy roads, passing through well-trimmed villages and taking in some of the tastiest climbs in the home counties. Pedaleurs of Honour will have used various stretches of it many times, perhaps without realising it.
‘Circular’ is a misleading term too because the Chilterns are long and narrow so the route is actually a wiggly ‘sausage’ shape stretching from Henley and Wallingford in the south west to Barton Le Clay and Hitchin in the north-east. Berkhamsted is in the middle and the eastern side of the sausage passes right through the town, down New Road and along the canal, the western leg passes through Wigginton and Aldbury. Berko is ideally placed to launch day trips (albeit long ones) around either the northern or southern sections.
Because I like a sense of purpose to my rides I have made it a mission to explore it, and I have traversed the Southern section a few times, mostly solo, but famously on one occasion on vintage bikes accompanied by a certain Mr. Bensusan. Happily we are now once more good friends. But my latest scheme was to see if the whole route, north and south, could be done in a weekend, and with this aim I invited my Stelvio Pass friends and any Pedal of Honour regulars (or irregulars) who were interested. In the event we were affected by holidays, injuries and other excuses and the elite group, at least for day 1 was, Anthony, Niall, Mark and Jon. We had the welcome back up of Jane Keenan who had various spares and tools in her car, acting as International Rescue and if needed a broom wagon!
Day 1 – Southern section
Day 1 was to be the more testing day on the southern loop from Berkhamsted at just over 100 miles and, depending on how Garmin is feeling, about 7500’ of climbing, to be traversed clockwise (in fact I have only ever used the route in a clockwise direction, my feeling is that the uphills are steeper but the downhills more whizzy this way).
We made an earlyish start at 7:30 in fine weather. The morning passed without adverse incident. A detour is necessary after Latimer to avoid an off-road section (a section we used positively in the first PoH Classic) which enforces a stiff climb of Holloway Hill up to Chesham Bois. We stopped for coffee at Speen and Henley and met Jane at the pub (King William IV at Ipsden) for lunch where the track-pump in her car came in handy inflating Mark’s tyre after a puncture) and worked our way back northward at a leisurely pace.
The most testing part of the day is the last stretch from Princes Risborough into Berkhamsted taking in Kop Hill, Dunsmore Hill, and following the obligatory stop at No. 2 Pound Street the dreaded Hale Lane. We got back to the Rising Sun in Berkhamsted well into the evening, mostly because of the numerous stops. If you set a brisker pace you might expect to finish mid-afternoon. The fragrant Miss Keenan had provided bowls of pasta for us which she brought to the pub and we ate outside.
This was Anthony’s first 100 miler, and a real Baptism of fire with over 7000’ of climbing. Well done Ant!
Coffee and lunch stops for the southern section, on or near the route:
Speen stores (a village store serving tea and coffee with picnic tables outside)
The Strawberry Grove (Lane End) – posh café with indoor seating
Henley on Thames – various cafes including Patisserie Valerie, Starbucks etc.
The King William IV at Ipsden – well known walker’s pub, signposted from the route
The Butcher’s Arms Sonning Common (Baguettes and Sandwiches)
Flemings Bakery in Sonning common if you just want a pie and a coke, tables and chairs outside. (A slight detour from the route is needed for Sonning Common)
Earl afternoon Break
The Fox and Hounds, Christmas Common
The Crown, Radnage
Late afternoon break
No 2 Pound St Wendover (or various other tea rooms in Wendover)
Day 2 – Northern Section
Day 2 promised to be less difficult and shorter at around 75 miles and less steep hills, but still hard enough after the previous day. Unsurprisingly Ant was burned and tactically withdrew, but we had the bonus that we were joined by Ed for the day. A slightly more leisurely start was agreed of 8:00am.
The Northern section keeps a tactical distance from Luton going through Markyate, Breachwood Green, Sundon to Barton-Le-Clay. Be aware – there seem to be no cafes whatsoever on this stretch; surely a business opportunity! We eventually found one in a garden centre north of Barton which was in a bizarre sort of Disneyesque shopping village.
In beautiful sunny weather, we made a detour around a section of Bridleway heading South from Pirton, but then joined a section of extremely rough road to take us to Offley. Mark was worried about his expensive wheels and shoes, and ended up riding his Colnago through a corn-field in preference to the road!
Lunch was in the Green Man at Offley as recommended by Ed. There is a stunning view from the back of the pub which we only noticed as we were leaving. The afternoon was a fairly gentle cruise with just one or two short, steepish hills. A fairly long section of the route from Harpenden is alongside a river and then a disused railway line, so again an alternative road route was plotted through Southdown, south of Harpenden.
We took afternoon tea at the Hub in Redbourn with nice big slices of cake. Mark read the Rouleur TdF special. After refreshments Ed peeled off for home. Niall was relieved that we were nearly finished, though our return was delayed when he had a puncture through poor peloton communication (stone in the road) shortly after. Piper’s Hill was a bit of a sting in the tail, but we got to the Riser early evening, quite tired but pleased with another Grand Day Out.
Coffee and lunch stops for the northern section, on or near the route:
The Olde Watermill Shopping Centre, Barton Le Clay
The Green Man, Great Offley
The Red Lion, Great Offley
Various cafés in Harpenden
The Hub, Redbourn
It’s another challenge ticked off the list. The route is definitely do-able as we have shown and you don’t have to be an elite athlete, but you do have to like hills! The southern section would make a good rehearsal for Eroica Britannia – a similar profile of climbs and descents, but with slightly gentler scenery.
It was a really great weekend – all those who participated, Ant, Niall, Mark and Ed were really good company, positive and cheerful.
If anyone is up for it, probably next year now, as the nights are drawing in, let me know. I am becoming a kind of Chilterns Cycleway guru and I have lost no enthusiasm for the route. Maybe next year I’ll try it anti-clockwise!