If you read my plan for this trip you’ll know that I was excited but also completely terrified. I have friends who have done much bigger things than a few days of cycling but i’m a believer of finding one’s own level of adventure. For me this is a huge thing (for now) but I hope that it will be another step towards bigger and more ambitious things in the future.
The Tour de Turret would (hopefully) take me 200(ish) miles from Nottingham, via twelve castles, to London. I reckoned on this taking four days with about 50 miles a day and bivvying out the nights in between. I had no exact plan on where I was going to stay, it was going to be ad-hoc microadventure/stealth camp style.
Things started with a bit more excitement than I’d wanted with realising a bit late that I wouldn’t be able to get the tube to St.Pancras (or even into central London) as it was still rush hour. I wanted to conserve my legs but ended up hammering it into town – let’s not start by missing my train!
Day 1 – Nottingham to Tamworth
Despite doing quite a bit of public speaking for my job, I feel very uncomfortable filming myself. Feel lucky that i’ve posted this!
Nottingham Castle didn’t actually have much ‘castle’ left after it was razed during the civil war and a previous house was burnt down. The gateway looked alright though! I really felt that if I was going to have any chance of completing this adventure then I needed to get my quota in today and that meant reaching at least Tamworth, 43 miles (70km) away which is on top of the 17km that I cycled to St. Pancras this morning. It was a tall order (but i’m taller).
The first leg of my journey took me through Nottingham and soon out into a bit of countryside. A feature of this trip is going to be canals and like many things in life, sometimes they are my friend and sometimes my enemy. Today though, canals were mostly my friend and Google maps (cycle) took me across or down a few so as to avoid roads.
Before long I’d arrived at Castle No.2 – Elvaston Castle. ‘But its a house’ I hear you cry! Yes it is, BUT it has castle in its name and look at the crenelations! Plus if you’re going to be picky about this one, there is worse to come I assure you. I, at least, was very happy to have stopped by here.
Feeling the pressure of time and the limited daylight hours I pressed on to my next target, the brilliantly named ‘Ashby de-la-Zouche Castle‘ (No.3). Another feature of this trip and another ‘sometimes my friend and sometimes my enemy’ is Google maps (cycle). On the whole it seems to be my friend on the open road but it gives me the right old run-around in any built up area. In Ashby it led me around three sides of the castle including a back alley instead of the short, direct route. I’ll leave further ranting about google maps for later!
After Ashby, I started to get a bit tired but promised myself a good meal in Tamworth. This section was mostly an internal argument about whether I wanted a curry or fish and chips or maybe a pizza. Plus where was I going to leave my bike where it wasn’t going to get nicked (I only brought a light flimsy lock).
I made it to Tamworth (and its castle) just after five’o’clock and in the end I had a superb curry and a beer and it went a long way towards re-energizing my batteries! By the time I was finished it was dark and I had the small matter of finding somewhere to bed down for the night. No formal campsites for me, I was out to stealth camp!
I had ear-marked some lakes south of Tamworth as having good potential for a bivvy out but getting to them was harder than it seemed. Firstly it was now dark and secondly good’ol google maps sent me down the canal which was narrow and muddy. I ended up walking my bike for at least 2-3 km. Finding a campout spot in the dark is always tricky but even more so when you need to hide a bike as well. Especially when the bike is covered in reflective stickers especially made to be seen in the dark.
After a bit of anguished searching I found what I thought was the perfect spot – a fisherman’s seat/place/hide [not sure what you call them] that was not obvious from the path and would give me a great view of the sunrise in the morning. I unpacked and bedded down for the night only to be woken about an hour later by a couple of guys (fishing wardens I think) who were apparently looking for poachers. Despite not having any means to catch fish (plus I WAS ASLEEP) they insisted that I move on to be on the safe side. For the record this is the first time I’ve ever been moved on! Apparently they caught the reflections of my bike from across the lake.
No one likes being woken up and I had the hassle of packing my gear and then finding somewhere else. About a mile away I found a place set in from the path and hidden by trees that looked ok. It was a lot damper here and as a wildlife bonus I was pooped on by (i think) a bird above me. It was pretty sizable and the thud on my bivvy bag actually woke me up.
Day 2 – Tamworth (kind of) to Broughton Castle
At least the night hadn’t been all that cold. That is about as positive as I can make it. The morning was all foggy and dark (no ace sunrise) and after brewing up some coffee and a small bowl of porridge I was actually grateful to be getting on my way.
My first castle of the day (No.5 overall) was the privately owned fortified mansion of Maxstoke. With the scary signs in the drive plus some actual people in the gatehouse lodge I didn’t go in. You can (just about) make out a tiny bit of the castle from at the end of the drive.
It was a grey, cold cycle and I was more than a bit grateful when I reached Meriden (it claims to be the centre of England) and more specifically a cafe where I was able to get a fry-up and a coffee. On this trip I always ensured that I had enough to eat in my panniers but also took every opportunity to get a proper meal (and get my waterbottles refilled). At the table next to mine was a fabulous couple of old guys having a chat. They seemed so happy and cheerful, even on such a grey morning. Cheered me up a bit too!
Back on the road, it wasn’t long before I got to castle no.6 the fabulous looking Kenilworth Castle. Unlike yesterday I actually had a lot more time today to actually look around if I wanted, however, when it came to it I preferred to get some miles clocked while I was still feeling good.
A short eight miles further down the road I was in the lovely town of Warwick with what might be one of the best castles on my trip (No. 7 Warwick Castle). I was slightly pre-prepared for the fact that the castle is now more of a theme park than an historical building and I can’t say I was very tempted to go in (not least because of the ‘premium’ cost). I settled instead for an old world looking teashop and a lovely cream tea.
Refreshed by coffee and clotted cream I was on my way again. Not far from Warwick I found myself in a suburb of Leamington Spa called Heathcote, which also happens to be my mum’s family name. Is this where my ancestors are from?
The countryside for the rest of the day was distinctly more undulating than i’d been used to so far and the hills started to take their toll a bit. At one point near the village of Avon Dassett I saw what looked like an iron age hill-top fort. Bonus ‘castle’ here I reckoned.
Although not a fort it did turn out to be excavations from mine workings and they are now a nice looking country park. From this point onwards I was looking out for potential campout sites. I felt that unlike the previous night I wanted to be settled before dark this time.
It was a gorgeous late afternoon and castle no. 8 – Broughton Castle (another fortified manor house) looked good in this light. After this my radar was set exclusively to ‘bivvy site’ and I spent an anxious 45 minutes looking for somewhere that was a) near my route, b) hidden from the road and any houses and c) would give me a good view of the sunrise.
I still enjoyed the sunset of course! I found a good place in a field, behind a hedgerow. Once dark I unpacked and got in my sleeping bag, even though it was only 1830. It got cold quite quickly but it didn’t matter as I was snug and reading my kindle. I think I was asleep by eight-thirty!
Day 3 – Broughton Castle to The Tower of London
After carefully ensuring that I would wake up facing east I was a tad disappointed to find it was grey and cold again. No sunrise for Jason [sad face emoticon].
Sunrise disappointment aside, I’d slept a lot better last night (I did have almost eleven hours). Usual coffee and porridge and I was away. With bivvying there is at least not a lot of faff in the mornings. After a short few miles I was in the twee village of Deddington where I was lucky to see a sign for ‘cafe’ and ‘coffee and breakfast inside’. I wandered into what turned out to be a posh Inn. The staff may have spotted something of the fact that I’d been wearing the same clothes for two days and nights and that i’d literally slept in a hedge. They put me well away from the other normal, I assume sweet smelling, guests. I didn’t care too much and just enjoyed my belgian waffle and bacon.
There was not a lot of suffering on the food front on this trip I can assure you! My time filling up on coffee and brekkie also gave the day time to perk up a bit and by the time I got to (Castle no.9) Deddington Castle there was even a bit of sun.
From the picture i imagine you’re thinking ‘sure, nice field but where is the castle?’. Well, it got knocked down ok and we only have the earth wall and ditch left. I did warn you earlier that it would get worse. I promise they get better from here on!
From here I had a pleasant morning cycling in the chill sunshine, the highlight being to briefly overtake a group of cyclists in lycra (and definitely no panniers). To be fair I think they were going slow waiting for someone to catch up. Or am I just really fast? It is the first one. I caught up on some provisions outside Bicester at a military base before reaching Castle no.10 Boarstall Tower.
I knew the tower was closed to visitors and in any case I wasn’t that worried about going in. I was just eating a snack outside, however, when a car comes up the drive and an incredibly posh woman winds down her window to tell me the place is closed. She sounded quite annoyed as folk apparently don’t read the sign and just knock on the door. It turns out that she lived there and its a house when it isn’t an English Heritage tourist trap. I told her about my trip and interest in castles and she softened considerably and said I was welcome to look round the gardens. I think she was on the cusp of inviting me in for tea when I said I had to leave.
Following a caffeine top-up in Thame I joined the wonderful Phoenix Trail (and old railway line) where I saw a deer (a mountjac), one of several I saw during the day. The end of this trail brought me to Princes Risborough and the Chilterns.
The thing is I’d vaguely planned to camp somewhere in the chilterns and end my day here. The problem was that it was only 3 o’clock and I was feeling pretty fresh. Well, whilst not quite ‘fresh’ I felt that I could carry on ok. Once past the hills I knew it would be tougher to find somewhere to bivvy so I felt I had to either stop or really go for broke.
Every now and again I want to see if I can really push it and this seemed a good time. Time to put the hammer down and just keep going.
I came unstuck almost immediately by a killer of a hill outside of High Wycombe. It defeated me in that I had to push my bike up most of it. Slough was tough in a different way in that google maps directed me down the major roads which were a nightmare. I never thought I’d be glad to see Eton.
It felt really amazing to get to Windsor Castle (a real proper castle!). I was a bit tired now but determined to finish. My initial thought was to get something to eat in Windsor but the place was rammed with tourists and it occurred to me that I should carry on while it was still light.
Crossing back over to Eton I did have a wee in the school sport grounds (out of sight I may add). It’s about as subversive a thing as I can imagine. From here I suffered a number of miles on the bumpy towpath of the Grand Union canal (curse you google maps). I did stop in Chiswick for a sourdough pizza and [cough] a small glass of wine.
The last miles were pretty tough as I had to have my ‘city cycling’ wits about me and I was pretty pooped. I was pretty damn chuffed with myself when the Tower of London finally rolled into view.
I think I might have clocked up 90-95 miles. Bloody hell that’s a lot! A decent four day cycle in three days! I treated myself to the train home from central London.
This definitely ranks as one of my proudest moments in a while. Beforehand I was incredibly nervous about doing the distance. I also did find it a bit stressful bivvying with the bike, something that I don’t think would have worried me if i’d been walking.
After my epic third day of cycling I was a total zombie and good for nothing the day after. It has made me think though, that if I’d stuck to the 50 miles a day I feel I could have carried that on for some time. Something similar or longer now feels quite doable and I’m already eyeing up ‘Tour de Turret 2’ amongst other projects.
It’s been emotional.