The Varsity Way: Cambridge to Oxford (Part One)

18/05/2019 – 22/05/2019

Map (s) used: Sustrans NCN The Varsity Way

Total distance: 205km

This stage: 60km

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Image description: Abi riding a fully loaded touring bike along the smooth, wide guided busway path which stretches into the distance.

Abi: Two weeks into our grand cycle tour (from Scotland to Greece) we found ourselves grounded in Cambridge. Lili needed time to recover from an emergency dentist appointment in Carlisle were we’d had to say goodbye to one of their molars forever and all we wanted was some home comforts. This gave us time to finish the first edit of our book (!) but also left us feeling anxious and lost as the weeks ticked by. After a month we were prepared to leave, with a new itinerary in hand.

We chose ‘The Varsity Way’ in order to bypass London and get South towards the ferries to France. After Oxford, the plan was to head down through Reading, Winchester and eventually Portsmouth. We left with a sustrans map and a burning desire to put some miles between us and Cambridge and finally get back on the road!

DAY ONE: Cambridge to St Neots

The obvious way to Oxford from Cambridge is to head due west along the A428 towards Bedford, which Lili did once in a mad moment one summer when they were 18, but A roads are horrible and we do not enjoy fast traffic. Instead the route shot us north towards Huntingdon where we enjoyed the pure bliss of the guided busway: a continuous, smooth, flat, off road cycle path which runs from Trumpington in south Cambridge to St Ives for a whole 21km

Even a sudden torrential downpour couldn’t hamper our enjoyment. We stripped to our shorts and rode through the dense rain, which caused a small flash flood across the path and meant that water splashed up off our back wheels and onto the dry bags with our sleeping bags and tent in.

In the pretty town of St.Ives, the signing (blue signs with a red route number on them) wasn’t so clear and we took a wrong turn, circling back around to cross the small pedestrianised bridge out of town. In a small village, we looked up at the dark grey clouds and settled on a small covered bus shelter for lunch.

The first half an hour riding after lunch is always hard. With full bellies and heavy legs we ploughed on to Huntingdon. We got off our bikes to walk across the bridge, back on, and then back off again to try and figure our way out of town. The signing was not clear and at several points we needed to double check things on our phones. Unfortunately, the map was not detailed enough for most of the navigation decisions we faced. It seemed odd that the map gave equal space to the very straightforward aspects of the route, and more confusing town centres/junctions. It would have been more useful to have these in detail, and it was frustrating that even signage and map in combination wasn’t enough to navigate the route at points.

On the other side of Huntingdon we headed for Grafham Water and the promise of more off road cycling. This powered us along narrow roads where cars passed too quickly and too closely. We’d developed a game for riding on roads where, to distract from the unpleasantness, we grade drivers out of 10 for their passing and we took great pleasure in happily shouting ’10’s ACROSS THE BOARD’ at those exceptional drivers who passed slowly, carefully, in safe places and with consideration to us as fellow road users.

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Image description: Abi riding along a woodland path which stretches into the distance.

At Grafham Water we stopped for a drink and to use the public toilet at the Visitors Centre (the first public toilets we’d spotted all day). We followed the route around the water, and then a sign pointed us left, apparently across grass. This was not a good omen. We followed it and crossed a busy road. A sustrans sign informed us that this was an active farm road, which we’d kindly been given permission to ride through, and to watch for farm traffic. We were glad that a landowner had given permission for us to travel through, because often cycle routes snake endlessly around fields/farms/private land, adding many km to your journey.

The path started as two paved strips. It deteriorated rapidly into gravel and stones that left us pushing our bikes along it. Then it became a farm track – two grooves cut by tractors into muddy ground that swept downhill. With a mountain bike, it would have been an active but manageable ride. It would be challenging on a road bike or dutch bike or similar. With fully loaded touring bikes, it was impossible.

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Image description: A farmer’s track littered with larger stones heads straight through fields.

I hit a large stone, veered slighty too far into the verge and flew off of my bike into the ditch. Shaken, but not badly hurt, I pulled myself up to see Lili hurrying over to me. Falling off is horribly jolting and ten minutes later, after dusting myself off, convincing Lili I was fine and continuing along the path, I burst into tears.

The route turned off the farmers track and back onto minor roads which were easier to ride, though I took the downhills particularly slowly after my fall. As we came into St. Neots, a car whizzed down the narrow path towards us and without slowing it almost clipped both Lili and me. By this point my nerves were shredded and I was not enjoying the route at all, which was a shame, as the majority of the ride had been quiet and off-road.

The campsite at St Neots is next to the bike path and has excellent facilities. They also seemed fairly used to bike tourers which is unusual in England. Our pitch was along the ‘Backpackers Corridor’ and was perfectly situated next to the showers. It was also grassy, shaded and quiet and we didn’t feel overwhelmed by caravans. We’d paid in advance but on arriving we were given a refund because we were on bikes. I think we ended up spending around £12 for one night which was v. good for a UK campsite. We’d give it a 10/10.

We sat and unwrapped the leftover papa johns Lili’s mum had insisted we take with us, and hungrily devoured it. After a shower, I made a chickpea and mushroom curry. Taking my cycle gloves off, my wooden wedding ring came with them. It had broken into two pieces during my fall. Hopefully not a sign of things to come!

tldr: route starts brilliantly on busway but you need to be confident navigating countryside traffic for the last 20km. Some hairy off road riding on muddy paths. Stays relatively flat and doesn’t require huge amount of fitness. Would recommend secondary map/ gps/ google maps. Campsite in St.Neots is worth a stay.

Next we head to Milton Keynes!

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