24/05/2019 – 26/05/2019
Map (s) used: Sustrans NCN The Varsity Way
Total distance: 205km
This stage: 90km
TLDR: getting out of Milton Keynes is a bit confusing, overall route straightforward, don’t go down the sinister track at Bicester village (the sign is lying to you).
DAY FOUR AND FIVE: MILTON KEYNES TO OXFORD
After our rest day in Milton Keynes, we were keen to finally reach Oxford. Our plan was to stay in a campsite just north of Oxford and then head to another in Didcot, because campsites close to the city seemed stupidly expensive. However, after being refunded £11 from the online price at our first campsite, we realised that the online cost of the camping and caravanning club bookings was much more than you actually have to pay as 2 people, 1 tent and 2 bikes. We ended up booking a campsite just south of oxford centre on the phone so we could explore the city. It would be very doable to ride the entire route to Oxford from Milton Keynes in one day (if you are comfortable with riding 90km) but this split it into two much more manageable chunks.
We left the campsite and wound our way through the park and up the hill to the centre of MK and onto the route which ran down the main thoroughfare past the large shopping centres. The signing wasn’t clear – it seemed the route continued along the bus lane, which was also a cycle lane, but neither of us fancied this in the busy rush hour traffic. It seemed odd, given that the city was full of beautiful cycle paths. We wound along the car parks the ran parallel to the road until the train station, where the signage totally disappeared.
We intuited the route from the map, and after crossing the train lines ended up riding on greenway through park and then onto the small roads which characterised the route to Bicester. We measured our progress in hills and at the top of the biggest (after 30km) and still feeling good we delayed lunch.
When you don’t need to stop, you’re inundated with benches. When you want one, none appear for km after km. We finally found one, relatively in shade, and watched as buzzards cut huge circles overhead, whilst we munched on houmous and bugle (a delicious conical crisp) sandwiches.
We made our way through the small town of Bicester, and towards Bicester village which is a strange outlet shopping park. We followed a sign at a roundabout down a narrow path, along the side of the shopping centre. Don’t do this. The brambles thickened, and I dodged nettles which brushed past my pannier bags. About 100m in the path deteriorated past a point that even Sustrans would deem ‘cyclable’. We retraced our steps, and attempted a different route (crossing over the roundabout) and found the route signs again, heading along a smaller road made defunct by the building of a busier one.
We arrived at the campsite in Bletchingdon about 3pm; a slight detour from the route down a minor road (which we retraced the next day towards Oxford rather than ride on the busier road.) We pitched tent and immediately made use of the cool of the outdoor swimming pool to ease off our legs.
The 30km the next day was straightforward. The sun was already hot as we retraced our steps to the route. It was a short climb and then an easy ride towards Oxford. The city’s outskirts felt like they went on forever, until the houses began to look increasingly familiar, and we spotted the hints of colleges and increasingly numbers of students. Then… BOOM, we hit the bustle of Oxford city centre. We hunkered down in the courtyard of the Ashmolean for coffee (great free space, with ramps to take the bikes up.) We then followed the route across the river, and down small residential streets to a campsite, conveniently located for an outdoor swimming pool, and some epic Vegan Junk Food….
The Varsity Way in Conclusion: We enjoyed the Varsity Way, as it joined up a lot of geography that was otherwise discrete points on a map for us, and it had a decent amount of off road riding. The roads felt safe and low in traffic except on the first day where the narrow-ness of the roads relied on car drivers treating us as legitimate road users, with consideration and respect, which is apparently a big ask… Our only complaints were the distinct lack of indication on the map about the quality of path (which is vital when you’re making decisions about where to take a fully loaded touring bike), the occasionally inconsistent signing, and the way that in combination the signs and the sustrans produced map sometimes weren’t enough to navigate by. If you wanted to try out cycle touring, it would be a great small starter route – joining up two iconic places with plenty of bike shops, with decent campsites in between.