Sunday, January 26, 2014

Whitchurch, Watership Down & Basingstoke loops: Hampshire Off Road Cycle Trails

Looking for somewhere else close to home to string a big off-road loop together, I happened across the Hampshire County Council's page dedicated to off-cycle trails.  Almost two years ago (my last ride before shoulder surgery) I did the Whitchurch loop & so had some idea of the terrain involved & what I would be getting myself in for - nothing horrific.  I also remembered that some of the loops connected to each other.  So with a bit of printing, I was ready to hit the Whitchurch, Watership Down & Basingstoke loops - I hoped that this would give me about eighty to ninety kilometres of mostly off-road riding through some nice villages & with a few more hills than last week's New Forest ride.

Being the least distance to drive to the loop (a shade under forty miles), I parked in the free car park in Whitchurch (Bell St, just west of the main junction in the village). The day was the pick of the weekend's forecast weather, so I was hoping to get around before the late-afternoon rain turned up. After all the recent rain, everything was sodden but it wasn't too hard going to start with. It was odd riding through villages & farms that I bothered to stop to take photos of two years ago. There wasn't the need this time.

The long downhill to cross the A34 was very tricky as it was extremely muddy, rutted & slippery. The trail actually crosses the busy dual-carriageway here - but there is a permissive bridleway along the edge of a field to an underpass. I thought this was a good idea until halfway through the puddle in the underpass. By the time I got off my bike, I realised it wasn't so much a puddle as a pond & I was standing in rather cold water up to my waist. Quickly hoisting my bike (large tyres sure help with buoyancy) out of the water I reassessed & ducked around to the right of the end of the tunnel & clambered up to the edge of the road through too much blackberry. End result was I had to ride the wrong way along the edge of the road, & my shorts were soaked. None of this was a problem - the largest inconvenience being that the maps in my pocket were now soaked; they were still readable, but required a little more care in folding & unfolding. My advice whatever the weather - see if you can cross A34 through the traffic - there is a gap in the median barrier; it'll save a tedious detour & perhaps getting very wet.

Soon I was climbing up to Watership Down & new trails. At marked point 11, I continued straight on Wayfarers Walk (instead of turning left on Meadham Lane) as this provided more bridleway & less road. It was muddy & slow. I was about halfway through the ride a little way into the Basingstoke loop, this is graded as moderate (not strenuous) so there's a bit more road & it was nice to get away from the mud for a while & the path crossed the Test and railway numerous times. Rejoining the Watership Down trail at Ibworth, the next section after Bailey Hall Farm was truly horrendous energy-sapping claggy mud for a mile and a half. Not much fun, but all ridable.

Stopping in the village of Kingsclere I had a few energy sweets (I ate very little on this whole ride, which is rather unusual) before heading off on the road towards Sydmonton & to finish the Watership Down loop & rejoining the Whitchurch one. I turned left before Sydmonton to miss out points three to seven on the map - because I don't like repeating bits if I don't have to & the wind was really picking up & a big black cloud was making its way ominously from the south east. Up on the ridge, the wind was rather extreme - I'm never a big fan of having to pedal downhill. Turning on to the Caesar's Belt of the Portway (part of the old Roman road that used to run from London to Weymouth - so it's dead straight), I turned in to the wind & it was a hard slog. Thankfully the rain that fell was only a light drizzle for a few minutes - not enough to put a jacket on.

There was a few miles of road back in to Whitchurch where I could load up the car & get out of the rather muddy clothes. A good day ride with plenty of mud to burn a bit of extra energy - and at eighty-five kilometres, my estimation proved correct.

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