By Harry Mottram: Rain, rain and more rain this summer. And then Carol Kirkwood on BBC’s Breakfast programme announced there would be a few days of sunny weather in August – roughly from Wednesday to the weekend. I had thought about cycling to London from Axbridge along the canal and cycle paths – first the Strawberry Line and then the Avon and Kennet and finally the Grand Union Canal from Slough to London. On paper – and looking at various online videos – it all looked rather easy – or so it seemed.

Much of the canal paths were wonderful to cycle along – this is near Woolhampton

First stop was to camp in the garden of my niece Rosies’s home in Newbury which looked about half-way between Finchley in North London where I had booked into a Travelodge. So, with a tent, sleeping bag, ground sheet and several changes of clothes, books and a packet of nuts (and gin) I set off on Wednesday morning with high hopes of arriving for a G&T at Rosie’s at 5pm. Realising I’d left my keys behind I turned back as they would be needed to lock the bike up in London. Take two and off I went again – except the chain came off as soon as I got to the cycle path. And once I’d fixed it the bike inextricably became entangled in a bramble. Back on the path and my tent fell off so I had to adjust the luggage with twangers (as I call them). By now I realised I was not going to catch the train from Yatton to Bath and save myself 20 miles, several hills and four hours of peddling. A mad ten mile dash ensued to Yatton – only to discover the train was late.

Bath to Bradford-on-Avon

Outside Bath Spa Station I took a selfie confident I’d make Rosie’s by 4pm. The weather was sunny, there was no head wind and I felt refreshed after a sandwich and a drink. And the first few miles were a joy. To Bathampton and onto Bradford-on-Avon the path was smooth and easy to ride along with dappled sunlight warming my face and clean fresh August summer air to breath – it was perfect. Until my front pannier began to fall off. A nut had come out of the metal rack making it impossible to continue. I walked back looking for the nut but to no avail – so I took off one of the nuts holding the chain guard on and used an old piece of wire to secure the guard and off I went again – feeling pretty pleased with myself as I’m not very practical.

A selfie at Newbury Marina

Several times I stopped to admire the views, the aqueducts and the sheer engineering skills of the architect John Rennie and his colleagues in 1810 who constructed the so called ‘bit in the middle’ of the canals and rivers that connected Bath to London. At times the canal was cut into the side of steep hills with the River Avon and the railway far below, at others it crossed the valley on aqueducts as at the magnificent one at Dundas and at Avoncliff. So much to see – England on a summer’s day is just wonderful.

One of the joys of the journey was to have a nose at the narrow boats moored alongside the banks – with few stretches on the 80 or so miles of canal without at least a few moored under the trees. Some housed entire families with pot plants, washing lines and bicycles securely tied to the roof or a nearby tree. Others looked more like holiday homes with those essentials – a table and chairs on the bank complete with wine and glasses and the easy body language of those folk enjoying a break. I probably shouldn’t say this but most of those who had hired a narrow boat for a holiday looked as though they needed to be cycling instead of sitting on board with a beer in one hand and a burger in the other. While those who live permanently on the narrow boats in contrast seemed to my eyes to be rather more svelte – which I put down to them having to cycle or walk miles to the nearest shops.

I was forced to have the odd liquid stop – as cycling is very hot

Stinging nettles and a chance meeting

After Bradford-on-Avon the path became narrower and in places hemmed in by stinking nettles and brambles and I’m sure it was here I was stung by a mysterious insect that would lead to my eventually abandoning the return trip as planned and taking the train home. It seemed little more than a nettle sting but by Friday it was clearly more than that as my hand became swollen and the colour of a Coop Fair Trade Merlot.

This was near Newbury – but there were several stinging nettle kingdoms to get through so no wonder I got stung more than once including insect bites

I had planned to take the canal path all the way to Newbury but several cyclists coming in the opposite direction taking one look at my old school sit up and beg bike cautioned me to leave the path at Devizes and use the lanes instead. Mud and undergrowth they said made it treacherous. I wish I had ignored them as the roads from Devizes on the National Cycle Route 4 appeared to have been chosen for their steepness and constant changes of direction. As I was cycling near Pewsey a car pulled up and out jumped one of the photographers from the Wiltshire Times where I used to work – Siobhan had seen my post of Facebook about setting off and basically wanted to say hello. Moments like that make life worth living.

Caen Hill – not the best photo I know – but it shows the pools in between each lock. Nice cafe at the top.

Caen Hill with its 14 locks was technically a hill but even I could cycle up it and gaze (along with the many day trippers) at the struggling novices on their narrow boat holidays as they argued and fell out over who was to operate the loch gates. The wives appeared in most cases to have drawn the short straw and were seen sweating and heaving the gates open and shut while the husbands, shouted instructions from behind the wheel of the boats as they sipped a beer and vaped.

Fly tipper Harry

After the road sections and as the day began to fade I rejoined the canal and began to close in on Newbury only to suffer a puncture a mile or so from the town. The path at this point was very stony and partly overgrown and I decided to push Saxon Warrior III (as I call my bike) to Rosies’ house. Except it was now growing dark, my energy levels were fading and the bike with all its kit and a flat tyre was difficult to push. A call to Rosie from a pathetic Harry – and her partner Jonny said he’d meet me a few yards up the path at Bonemill Lane by Guyer’s Lock in his car. It was a relief as just as I finished the call I dropped the bottle of Coop Chardonnay I’d bought which then poured over my back pack permeating my clothes with the aroma of the Argentinian Fair Trade plonk. As for the smashed and cracked bottle I did what all fly tippers do in a tight spot – I threw it into the middle of the canal where it joined the bones of long drowned horses and dead herons. And hoped nobody saw me do it.

This was puncture number two – when my pump broke and I had a long walk to Halfords

Revived by a night in a bed – Rosie forbid me to put up my tent in the dark as I had at least two G&Ts and looked close to death – I was ready to start for London. In the morning I replaced the inner tube and with hope in my heart set off for London from Newbury Marina. About four miles or so along a very bumpy canal path and I had a second puncture. By now I was confident I could replace it with the spare inner tube – but as I began pumping up the new tube the pump broke in half. Shit. That meant a long walk back to Newbury to Halfords to buy a new one and more inner tubes. By the time I had completed this task it was almost the middle of the day and so I decided to take the train from Reading to Paddington as time was running out.

Naked teenagers

Thankfully the section from Newbury to Reading was a pleasure – no more punctures – and a couple of quick stops for beer at very busy but attractive canal side pubs along the way saw me there at tea time. And on the way there was much to see including the way the River Kennet joined and rejoined in places the canal or linking up with large lakes and wharfs or it trailed through woodlands where I saw deer and even a fox at one stage. Turning a bend in a forested path near Burchfield Sailing Club on the banks of what looked like an inland sea there were a group of teenagers striped to their birthday suits skinny dipping. Not a sight you see every day. I just wish I was as thin as them.

It struck me how many people and families must live on the boats in what is in effect a long strung out housing estate crossing the country. Thousands surely – from teenagers sunbathing on the roof of smart family sized narrow boats, to aged hippies with boards advertising tarot card reading to enterprising bike mechanics with a boat filled with bicycles to be fixed and boat owners who sell coffee and cakes from their craft.

In London I used three locks to secure my highly expensive sit up and beg bike known as Saxon Warrior III that cost me £350 new. Some e-cyclists told me that wouldn’t be enough to stop thieves stealing it. They were wrong – but they didn’t understand my bike does not have an electric motor. In fact e-bikers seem to be a bit dense as they basically are riding electric powered mopeds and don’t need to peddle up hills very much – in my opinion of course

Reading was a revelation – it was more like part of London with its new railhead terminus for the Elizabeth Line – and the streets were so busy with shoppers – so in contrast to the canal path just yards away. A train trip to Paddington and finally a cycle ride through North London to Finchley and a bed at the Travelodge and sleep – disturbed by the insect bite on my hand that had begun to swell and itch.

Couples arguing

After breakfast – the first time I had paid for a hotel breakfast – a full English mind you and I had as much as I could fit on my plate – £7.99 should you ask – I left the hotel in Finchley and made for the nearest Chemist to buy some antihistamine cream. After applying this in Finchley Road to my ever growing poisoned hand (caused by the insect bite) I thought that would be that and cycled (by a ridiculously circuitous route directed by Google Maps) to Regent’s Park Zoo. I had never been, and it was a desire to see my favourite animal – the elephant – that was my motivation.

Our closest relatives at London Zoo gave us the cold shoulder – I don’t blame them as they are prisoners

Elephants are intelligent, magnificent and very, very, very big – they seem to me to be a relic of the Neolithic mega fauna era that have somehow survived despite our best attempts to wipe them out. My next favourite is a donkey as they are brainy and then parrots in third place due to their association with pirates, their colourful feathers and their foul language.

London Zoo as it is really called is during the school holidays filled with far more children and families than there are animals. And observing the few animals viewing the humans was fascinating as human behaviour is at once predictable and also entertaining. I wasn’t let down with a few bust ups between partners – the usual – one wanted to go to see the penguins first and the other to see the tigers. There was the family photo scene where some one in the group keeps making a face or turning away – annoying the photographer who wants a perfect shot. And the parents who insist on educating their children by explaining about the natural habitat of the creatures hiding somewhere in the cage while their children are trying to pinch each other or are yawning.

Although giraffes are not elephants (elephants are my favourite animals) they did come out and have a chat in a very giraffe sort of way

Elephants there were none, although the penguins did do their best to entertain and swim around a lot – and fair play to the giraffes who came out to look at me and one other person – at least you can see them as they are well… very, very, very tall. The Zoo is designed to get people around in well designed paths with lots of signs, lots of toilets and lots of places to buy ice creams. If you see an animal – that’s a bonus. But no elephants. I’ll give the tigers a team point for at least being visible and the monkeys and apes for giving us humans – their nearest relatives – the cold shoulder or simply giving us pitiful looks as we tried hard to talk to them. They didn’t converse – and I suppose I don’t blame them since they are in effect prisoners.

The Scottish Play

Time flashed by and I was soon back on Saxon Warrior III (my sit up and beg old school bike) and heading to Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre on the South Bank. With three chains securing the bicycle outside the reconstructed Tudor theatre I did what all true theatre critics do – headed for the pub next door.

The play was Macbeth – it runs to the 28th October – so there’s plenty of time to catch it. Directed by Abigail Graham this is a grungy, modern, urban production where the columns of the theatre are draped in grey cloth and black is the themed colour. I don’t mind modern dress productions but personally this felt a bit two dimensional with the three witches being played by men and Duncan transformed to Queen Duncan (Helena Lymbery). Max Bennett as Macbeth and Matti Houghton as Lady Macbeth didn’t for me seem like a close and conspiratorial couple – but that might just be me. I was a groundling and stood at one side of the stage and it was noticeable that the cast didn’t connect with the whole audience – they mainly engaged with those directly at the front. I did see several people around me get bored as so much of the action was out of sight. Having said that the use of body bags and a silvery branch of a tree that rose and fell from the heavens were effective and the diction and projection of those famous lines was excellent. It was in effect a really good radio production from where I stood.

You are not allowed to take photos of a performance so this is the scene before the play began

Its strengths included the inclusion of children into the cast – they gave a vulnerability to those caught up in the turbulent time – Cam’ron Joseph as Macduff’s Child and Elijah Sholanke as Fleance, played their part – while the murder of a pregnant Lady Macduff (Eleanor Wyld) was suitably shocking. Fode Simbo as Banquo was excellent – dressed in combat fatigues – in contrast to Macbeth’s King Charles type ostentatious coronation robes – at least it made a statement about the flashy house of Windsor who are not touched by the Cost of Living Crisis – along with the death of Queen Duncan – perhaps a political pointer to the downfall of a certain Scottish First Minister earlier this year.

Damn’d hand

Just as Lady Macbeth was trying to wipe away that ‘damn’d spot’ I noticed the insect bite spot on my hand had become alarmingly red and swollen – and very, very, very painful. Lady Macbeth I feel your pain. I had to do something, so I left early and headed for another chemist and some stronger antihistamines in tablet form along with the usual pain killers. I toyed with the idea of going to the local A&E but with a junior doctors’ strike on that day I thought it might be a long wait so unlocked Saxon Warrior III and started the long cycle ride back to Finchley through the London traffic and an early night.

This heritage steam train followed my train down from Paddington – it had too many carriages to count – and was packed showing the various Governments should never have ended the age of steam power

As I lay awake that night with my hand looking like a false plastic hand you’d buy in a joke shop for Hallowe’en I decided cycling back from London would take too long. And so in the morning I cycled to Paddington and caught an early train to Newbury – picked up my stuff from Rosie’s house – and took the train to Yatton. This meant a change at Taunton – which seemed odd but that’s railways for you. The last time I had been to Taunton Station was in the 1970s and it has changed – very busy with a Starbucks and lifts for my bike – modern facilities and helpful staff. Not the desolate place I recall as an art student in an era when there was serious talk in Government of closing the railways west of Bristol. As a signal to how the authorities got it so wrong about railways in the past (and still do) there was a very, very, very long heritage train that followed my train journey from Paddington to Taunton pulled by a steam engine. It was packed – and clearly very popular.

London is very safe for cycling these days with cycle lanes in the central areas – despite petrol heads decrying their presence – so a lot of people now cycle. OK this is a rubbish photo in making that point!

Back to Yatton – another chemist and another antihistamine cream which had no effect and a cycle home and a visit to Weston A&E, penicillin prescribed, and the expedition was over – as finally the weather window predicted by Carol Kirkwood on the BBC ended and the heavens opened.


Macbeth runs at Shakespeare’s Globe, London, until 28 October 2023. Tickets at

Taunton Station was very busy – note the heritage train over the way – and below the station in the 1970s with Linda – and how I remember it then – empty and desolate – but also romantic of course

Rapscallion Magazine is an online publication edited by Harry Mottram

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