“You’re not riding to work with all that stuff, are you?”
With bags strapped to the saddle, handlebars and forks, my bike is turning heads in London. If you’re one of the thousands who have saddled up for the first time during or post-lockdown, fear not – this isn’t your average commuting kit.
I’m on my way to catch a train to Lyme Regis, the starting point of a coast-to-coast bikepacking trip (basically, cycling and carrying your camping kit) via four of England’s oldest trails. Known collectively as the Greater Ridgeway, the 362-mile mixed-terrain route has neolithic roots and is a favourite with hikers. Departing from Dorset’s dramatic Jurassic Coast, it meanders along the Wessex Ridgeway, the Ridgeway, the Icknield Way and Peddars Way to Holme-next-the-Sea in Norfolk. OS Maps suggest there’s a corresponding cycle route, with bike-friendly diversions along the way, making it a (seemingly) ideal route for a bikepacking expedition.
Although not a new phenomenon, bikepacking is a growing trend. Panniers and racks are out; the preferred option is now specialist luggage attached to the bike by Velcro and straps in a streamlined set up. “We’ve seen an increase in sales and new customers,” says George Huxford of bag maker Apidura, confirming that, as with the rest of the cycling industry, Covid has had a positive impact on business.
While a hedge and a waterproof bivvy bag are the preferred choice of sleeping quarters for hardcore enthusiasts, most bikepackers opt for a bothy or official campsite. This makes bikepacking bang on trend, combining camping with a more enjoyable method of arriving at your pitch than sitting in a car or taking public transport. Cycling UK is a valuable resource, starting with advice on how to plan a simple weekend ride and camp miles from your doorstep.
What I’m attempting is certainly on the more extreme side (minus the hedges). An experienced cyclist with a number of 100-mile sportives under my belt, I’m looking to cover the Greater Ridgeway in four days – those looking for a more leisurely ride could choose a shorter section over more time. Four hours in, though, I’m questioning the plans I’d made from the comfort of my front room.
Boulder-packed descents, loose gravel climbs and impassable sections of path that look like they haven’t been walked on, let alone ridden, since the stone age mean it’s slow going over Dorset’s undulating countryside. When I find myself 42 miles short of my campsite in Sixpenny Handley with only three hours of daylight left, I need to find a more direct route. Unlike the druids before me, I have the benefit of switching to smooth asphalt roads.
I arrive at Church Farm Caravan and Camping Park (pitches from £11.50) as the sun is setting, the tougher travails of the day softened by my catching a glimpse of the Cerne Giant while descending into the village of Cerne Abbas. Hastily assembling my tarp – a sheet that provides the shelter of a tent for a fraction of the weight – in the light of a friendly neighbour’s car headlights, I conclude that I need a plan B. My routes will have to change, allowing me to reach my remaining campsites in daylight, see some more sights and average 90 miles a day. I will cut out some of the winding, time-consuming tracks and trails in favour of the streets of Newbury, Cambridge and Thetford.
New routes plotted, I find the riding improves immediately. I have time for a leisurely pit stop at The Bridge Inn, Upper Woodford, north of Salisbury, for coffee and a thick slice of carrot cake, and continue across the Salisbury Plain military training ground (there are various routes, but the clearly marked danger zones should, obviously, be avoided). The views across the hills are breathtaking and I even spy muntjac, hares and pheasants.
This was the bikepacking experience I’d hoped for: Wilton Windmill appearing on the hillside from a quiet country lane; waving to barges on the canalside paths of the Kennet; and tackling the Ridgeway’s woodland trails with hearty helpings of calories every few hours. Reaching White Mark Farm campsite in Watlington (pitches from £8) ahead of schedule, I down a well-earned pint and devour a pizza in the Spire & Spoke’s sunny beer garden before I tend to my tarp, queue for my socially distanced shower and bed down for the night as red kites circle above.
A 5.30am wakeup call courtesy of that distinctive screech doesn’t dampen my spirits, and I’m soon back in the saddle – a 110-mile epic standing between me and the Kings Forest Caravan Park (adults only, pitches from £15) on the Norfolk/Suffolk border. It starts with a rollercoaster ride past Chequers, and by lunchtime I’m grateful to have swapped the punchy peaks of the Chilterns for the pan-flat Fens. The addition of luggage makes the climbs rather harder (an off-piste ascent on Aldbury Common sticks in the mind), but the trick is to embrace bikepacking’s slower nature. The environment then takes on a new vividness, making for a much more rewarding experience.
I rise with the sun, the scent of the pine forests lingering while I pack up for the last time. There’s just 50 miles to go and the waves of Norfolk’s coast are pulling me towards the end – even a ford, ripe for a spot of wild swimming in Castle Acre, can’t break their magnetic spell. I grin when I spy the Wash and don’t stop smiling until I reach the sandy beach of Holme-next-the-Sea.
After a train ride from King’s Lynn, I’m back grinding through traffic on London’s streets. While my expedition may have got off to a choppy start, I’ve been bitten by the bikepacking bug. I’m plotting my next escape from the city before I even reach my front door.
• Charlie Allenby is the author of Bike London (Spring 2021, ACC Art Books). His bike was provided by Mason Cycles, bags by Apidura, camping equipment by Alpkit and clothing by Rapha. Train tickets courtesy of South Western Railway and Great Northern.