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The Oyster Wheel

When the spirits are low, when the day appears dark, when work becomes monotonous, when hope hardly seems worth having, just mount a bicycle and go for a spin down the road, without thought on anything but the ride you are taking.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

I thought I was reasonably lucky to have survived cancer. In my case it was found early by accident, and treated quickly and hopefully successfully. We then were looking forward to the rest of our lives. Then my wife was diagnosed with a more advanced cancer, no realistic cure, just ongoing management and regular weekly all-day chemotherapy. Life seemed unfair, and the future seemed dark and depressing.

I needed something to do on the long days that beckoned in London, so I dusted down the bikes that we used to go out together on and decided that I would do a tour around London, nothing too impossible, something I could do on a one day, once a week basis.

There must be a London orbital ride I thought, however research only revealed single day marathons riding as quickly as possible whilst keeping as close as possible to the M25, so I decided to create one myself. I needed some rules to frame this:

  1. it should be capable of being undertaken by normal cyclists using hybrid bikes.
  2. the route should be accessible easily by public transport from central London for each day, using contactless/Oyster to facilitate passage through the stations.
  3. it should be prioritised to off-road but capable of being ridden by normal touring bikes with 38c tyres
  4. it should use Sustrans routes where available, and other local authority routes such as the Surrey Cycleway when not, using local bridleways and finally roads when these were unavailable.
  5. Each day should be 50-70km in length, so 4-5hrs cycling time
  6. It should finish with a climb of Box Hill

Thus was created the Oyster Loop. Eight contactless/Oyster rail/tube stations between which a cycle route could be created. 500km and 8 individual days over 4 months later, I had completed the Loop, and on the way had discovered some of the most beautiful scenery, cafes and viewpoints that London has to offer.

Then I realised that 7 of the 8 stations had an obvious route back into central London, and that the 8th could be created, so the Loop became a Wheel with its hub at Tower Bridge. This site documents those routes in the hope that others will be inspired to put their cares away and jump on a bike and see the countryside.

If others get peace from this like I have, then that will be wonderful, and if anyone completes it and wishes to show their satisfaction, then please consider donating to Pancreatic Cancer and state it is for the Oyster Wheel.

Touring Jordan Day 6: Wadi Rum

Having spent a comfortable night in the glamping, we got up early for a Jeep ride.

The Jeeps headed off south into the desert, heading into the canyons of Wadi Rum. The cliffs had been shaped by wind and water and despite being made of sandstone gave the appearance of limestone, with holes made by the wind and columns weathered by water.

Wadi Rum cliffs

We stopped first at a cliff wall decorated with ancient art – a mixture of rough sketches of animals and historic languages. We would see another similar site later on the tour with even older text.

Historic wall art

We headed onto a viewpoint over the southern desert – a wide valley stretching into the distance before looping round through more canyons back to the campsite.

Southern Desert

After a quick change, we were out again for the last time on the bikes. After a short ride on the road through a village, we headed off onto the flat mud of what may have originally been a lake bed. It still floods each year in winter, maintaining the surface from turning into sand and provided a great ride.

Cycling on the flats

Passing the local racecourse where camels race of a 4.5km circuit, we headed across the plain before reaching the far side and then turning round to retrace our route, harder in reverse due to the headwind that we hadn’t noticed when it was on our backs.

Outliers of Wadi Rum

Finally, having reached the road we cycled along it past the outliers of the Wadi Rum mountains, before ending our ride at a station on the currently disused Hejaz railway, built by the Ottomans to take pilgrims to Mecca. A steam train and a couple of camels seemed a fitting end to this cycle tour of the beautiful country of Jordan.

Generations of transport

Touring Jordan Day 5: Petra to Wadi Rum

Two days ago we left Petra to head for Wadi Rum.

The coach took us up through the village to reach the ridge above it and along to a viewpoint over the valley and the Petra reserve from where we collected the bikes.

The Petra reserve

Traveling along the traditional line of the Kings Highway, traffic was generally light as we climbed steadily through small villages onto the main spine of the country. Wind farms decorated the hilltops and the terrain was generally arid and rocky.

Reaching a rest stop

A cafe provided a welcome break from the climbing after which there was a short descent to reach the Desert Highway, the main dual-carriage way through Jordan. Full of speeding lorries, it would be too dangerous to cycle so we jumped on the coach for 15 mins whilst the road descended to the desert plain.

Edge of the mountains

Reaching the bottom, we rejoined the bikes for a loop through the desert. The track was rough and eroded and in places covered by shifting sands, but there was an immense sense of place as we pedaled steadily across the plain towards the hills on the far side. No traffic blighted the calm as we enjoyed the crossing heading to a community centre near some 8th century ruins for a delicious lunch.

Crossing the desert

Refreshed we picked up a tarmac road and headed back across the plain to complete the cycling for the day. A short coach ride then took us on to Wadi Rum.

View from Wadi Rum visitor centre

Our overnight accommodation had been upgraded- definitely glamping and we spent the evening discussing the Bedouin people under the light of a full moon.

Sunset at Wadi Rum

Touring Jordan Day 4: Petra and Little Petra

Today was our second day in Petra and we had the morning free for exploration with an afternoon cycle to Little Petra.

Whilst leaving at the same time as yesterday, we soon distanced the crowds who were stopping frequently for the guides, and heading down the Siq almost on our own at times.

The Siq

We soon reached the Treasury which was still lit up by the morning sunshine.

The Treasury

Heading on we took the path up to the Royal Tombs which we had only seen from a distance yesterday. These four impressive edifices and set some way up the valley side and have been carved out from a particularly decorative strata of sandstone. Whilst the colours are stunning, it does weather more easily as can be seen below.

Of particular interest in these tombs are the straight edges and right angled corners that have been carved seemingly perfectly from solid rock.

Inside a Royal tomb

The views from the elevated platforms of the tombs are spectacular, taking in the valley, the Theatre and the distant hills.

Following that we headed back to the town to prepare for the afternoon cycle. This retraced our route of Monday back to Little Petra to see a Nabatean Way Station hidden in a narrow canyon. This secure trade caravan overnight stop contained dining and sleeping rooms (a triclinium), several temples and a pub. It would have been easily defensible with narrow openings at either end.

Nabatean Waystation

Having looked round the sight we retraced our route back to Petra and with stunning views visible over the Petra Park.

Goats in Petra

The evening was then spent enjoying a candlelit walk through Petra back to the Treasury where we were treated to a show from a traditional singer, flautist and storyteller before heading back.

Petra by Night

Another enjoyable day with a longer ride to Wadi Rum tomorrow

Touring Jordan Day 3: Petra

Today was the day I had been waiting for – a full day wandering around the sights of Petra – one of the seven wonders of the modern world. Petra was the capital of the Nabatean tribe and was inhabited from 300BC to about 100AD when it was conquered by the Romans.

Petra map

We set off early and with ticketing formalities completed, headed down the sandy track towards the canyons. The rocks here are soft, easily carved sandstone with harder rings and lines of iron oxides precipitated from the groundwater running freely through them

Sandstone rings

The initial entry point into the canyon or Siq is marked by a channel where the Nabateans diverted the flood waters through a channel where they could be prevented from descending the Siq and instead used for irrigation and drinking.

The canyon itself is in places less than 3m wide with drainage channels to capture and divert rainwater. With the colours of the rocks it is a spectacular sight.

The Siq

Finally the canyon broadens out into the space where the Treasury building is situated. These facades were carved straight from solid rock and not built. As such they reflect the colors and patterns of the surrounding rocks. It was called the Treasury as it was rumored to contain a Pharoah’s treasure.

The Treasury

Further in into the complex, numerous tombs are carved into the rocks as well as a theatre and more temples. Evidence of Roman occupation comes with The Colonnaded Street.

The Colonnaded Street

Finally a track leads up 800 steps to the Monastery- another massive carved monument, from which fine views of surrounding mountains can be seen.

The Monastery

Finally we retraced our steps back to the hotel.

Touring Jordan Day 2: Shobak to Little Petra

So we arrived at the hotel last night in darkness – it was a pleasant surprise this morning to wake up to see the Crusader Castle of Shobak across the valley. It was built by the Crusader king Baldwin I in 1115 and withstood numerous attacks from the armies of Saladin before succumbing in 1189 after an 18-month siege. It is now being restored but even its ruins are impressive.

Shobak Castle

Having enjoyed a coffee brewed with cardamom in the visitor centre we picked up the bikes to set off for Petra. Yesterday we left them on the shores of the Dead Sea at over 400m below sea level, today we were starting at 1400m high in the mountains. Whilst it was sunny, the altitude and cool wind meant that most were wearing a couple of layers.

At first the climbing was steady, rising steadily firstly over tarmac and then a short section of gravel to a viewpoint. This looked out over Wadi Feynan where the first copper mines were operated heralding the end of the Stone Age, as well as Israel beyond that. The limestone plateau was both arid and well strataed with layers of flint creating a well broken view.

Viewpoint over Israel and the copper mines

More roads led southwards across the barren landscape scattered with a few settlements. These mostly gated compounds seemed prosperous with more many under construction. Finally a more major road was reached with a steady gentle climb for several kilometers. Reaching the administrative boundary for Petra, we turned off to climb to the ride’s high point, some 1700m above sea-level where lunch was taken, complete with tea boiled on an open fire.

Lunch at the col

Given that the col was almost the highest point in Jordan, the only way was down. A hairpin road led on dropping some 600m in 10km. As we descended, the air warmed with extra layers discarded and we transitioned into an area of low sandstone hills weathered into wonderous shapes.

Sandstone cliffs

Finally the road leveled out, instead becoming a switchback series of short steep downhills followed by equally steep climbs. Finally we reached Little Petra from where our coach took us on to the hotel.

Overall a great day’s ride with wonderful views. Tomorrow is the much awaited visit to Petra.

Touring Jordan Day 1: Madaba to the Dead Sea

I find myself in Jordan on a cycling tour. Very much a last minute booking – it’s organised by Explore Travel, and a couple of friends from previous trips are on it with me.

The group assembled this morning in the hotel lobby in Madaba, having caught a variety of flights in. Thankfully everyone had navigated the COVID protocols successfully, and queues were minimal at both airports.

This morning we started at the Church of Saint George in Madaba, where there is a beautiful 6th century mosaic floor map of the Holy Land as well as spectacular wall paintings and mosaics.

Madaba mosaic

The weather was dry but a strong wind tempered the conditions to the cool side of pleasant whilst walking round the town.

We then set off on the bikes for a short distance to Mount Nebo, described in the Bible as the place that Moses finally caught sight of the Holy Land before passing away. There is now the remains of a monastery which contains more stunning mosaics as well as its original columns, all protected by a new roof. The views were unfortunately limited by the dust haze in the air, caused by the strong winds.

View from Mount Nebo

Here we were at an altitude of 800m, our destination was the Red Sea at 400m below sea level, so the next 20km involves little pedaling and lots of steady braking. Occasional strong cross winds required care all the same, but the road was generally quiet.

Finally we got to the foot of the Rift Valley and pedaled the short distance to a Holiday Inn resort on the Dead Sea, so called because the water is too salty to sustain any sea life. It is currently losing more water through extraction and evaporation than it gains through the River Jordan, and thus it is losing 1m of depth each year. It is forecast to be dry in 50 years time.

Floating in the Dead Sea

Thankfully there was plenty still left so we were able to float in the water before catching the coach to take us to our overnight hotel.

Dead Sea sunset

All in all an enjoyable first day. Tomorrow is Crusader castles and our first sight of Petra.

Cycling England Day 12: Ambleside to Carlisle

So we’ll rested, the group set off on our last day together with myself heading for Carlisle station and the rest of the group heading for Bonnie Scotland and John O’Groats. The day dawned wet, but by 9am, it was just a drizzle and the waterproofs were packed away after the first climb, not to be seen again. In between, we experienced some of the best touring scenery that the Lakes has to offer.

Day 12

After meeting up in the centre of Ambleside, we headed out on the main road to Rydal, where Rydal Mount was one of Wordsworth’s many homes in the area. Mist still covered the hilltops, giving Rydal Water a mystical air as we cycled past it.

Rydal Water

On to Grasmere, with the lake fleetingly visible through the trees and where Dove Cottage and the associated museum attracts the main Wordsworth aficionados.

The new museum at Dove Cottage

Grasmere village itself is a tourist honeypot with guest houses, hotels, gift shops and the church where William Wordsworth and his wife Dorothy and buried. The church itself was being renovated so we cycled through the village and back out onto the main road towards Keswick, overlooked by the commanding heights of Helm Crag to the west and Seat Sandal to the east.

AA box atop Dunmail Raise

Here the first real climbing of the day started, with a steady drag up to Dunmail Raise. The pass itself is according to local tradition named after Dunmail, the king of Cumbria, who was defeated by the Saxon king in the 970s. A large cairn marks the top of the pass, although the traditional AA box is more noticeable.

Thirlmere reservoir

Heading down from the pass, we reached Thirlmere, a reservoir formed in 1894 by damming the outflow from a pair of smaller lakes in the valley. Over time, the water level has been raised 50 feet and it is capable of supplying 40 million gallons of water a day to Manchester. At the moment, the water level is very low which we were able to observe at close hand as we cycled along the quiet road on the western bank.

View from Thirlmere dam

Reaching the dam, we were able to look back along the length of the lake to Dunmail in the distance, although the top of Helvellyn to the east was still obscured by clouds. Heading onwards, we crossed the main road and followed a short section of gravel to reach the road through St. John in the Vale, another quiet section dominated by fells to both sides and the bulk of Blencathra to the north.

Blencathra

Eventually this came out on the main A66 road which cuts across the northern Lakes, across which another short gravel section took us into the village of Threkeld where the village hall coffee shop serves excellent coffee and cakes. Our route now had to divert around Blencathra, so we followed NCN71 east under its ridges to the village of Scales before turning north again.

The road above Mosedale

The road was a delight, a narrow gated track that wound its way steadily uphill through woods and fields to the village of Mungrisdale before coming out onto the open fellside above Mosedale. The views were spectacular in all directions as we now climbed more steeply, crossing a ford, to reach the high point of the day, before descending to the little village of Hesket Newmarket. Unfortunately the cafe in the post office had closed down, so we purchased a few items from the store and ate a small lunch on its benches.

Here I said goodbye to the group as I had a specific train to catch in Carlisle, leaving them to follow on more leisurely behind me. The final section into Carlisle was less remarkable, a series of short climbs and longer descents that traversed the farmland before reaching Carlisle racecourse on the edge on town.

Carlisle citadel

From here I followed cycle paths into the centre, across a series of bridges before coming out near the citadel, built by King Henry VIII to replace the city gates and subsequently used as a prison and law courts. From here it was a short distance to the station, and the end of my journey.

Carlisle station – the end of my journey

Over the 11 cycling days from Lands End to Carlisle, the group had cycled over 510 miles and climbed a little over 30,000 feet of ascent. We had had 8 punctures (including my 3 in one day) and my broken spoke. Hawthorn thorns were the most common cause of problems.

Whilst overshadowed by the numbers continuing onto John O’Groats (including the rest of my group), the English end-to-end ride is still a significant undertaking, with a wide variety of scenery and terrain. It has the advantage of being more accessible, and having a greater variety of accommodation and I would recommend it to anyone not able to undertake the full LEJOG. And of course there is always the option of doing a Scottish End-to-end next year to complete the full ride.

Cycling England Day 10: Garstang to Ambleside

The hills of Lancashire and Cumbria beckoned, the weather was set fair, so spirits were high as we set off from Garstang on a cool but dry Sunday morning.

Day 10

Our first challenge was to cycle to Scorton to pick up the rest of the party who had stayed there overnight. Reunited, we set off but shortly had to stop to repair the first of three separate punctures, all caused by hawthorn hedge trimmings.

Scorton

Back underway again, we started the long series of climbs that would take us past the Forest of Bowland. These heather-clad summits formed a pretty chain to the east and soon the distant hills of the Lakes were visible on the north-west horizon as well. The road was popular with both road and motor cyclists, with its rolling summits a constant delight, however we did collect our second puncture of the day.

Forest of Bowland

After reaching the Quernmore crossroads the traffic thinned out as they headed east to the Trough of Bowland, whilst we descended to pass the Quernmore church and cross the River Conder before heading onto Caton, where we stopped for coffee.

Quernmore church

Refreshed, it was a short trip down the valley to cross the River Lune at the Crook of Lune, and then climbing again to Over Kellett. Roads led on into Cumbria and the small town of Burton-in-Kendal, before crossing the M6 and dropping down on some pretty, narrow lanes to Heversham. Lunch was needed so we stopped to sit in the sunshine at Levens Hall, whose cafe provided excellent sandwiches.

Levens Hall

We now headed under the main South Lakes dual-carriageway and entered the pretty Lyth Valley. Initially following the flat valley floor, we were soon heading up a series of climbs, each with their own up-ramp and then drop down the other side. Several stops were required to catch breadth after the steepest climbs, as well as the final puncture repair, before we reached Winster and then the curvy descent down to Bowness.

Bowness

After admiring the busy town centre, we headed off towards the town of Windermere, with the final steep climb of the day to a viewpoint overlooking the lake, and the Coniston fells beyond. After a group photo, we continued on towards Ambleside, following the main road and cycleway.

Windermere and the Coniston fells

On reaching Low Wood, we were treated to a fine view of the lake and the Langdale Fells. From here it was a mile or so to Waterhead at the end of the lake and then a similar distance into the centre of the town, overlooked on three sides by the fells of Loughrigg, the Fairfield Horseshoe and Wansfell.

Windermere and the Langdale fells

Overall, it was a great day’s cycle with fine weather, challenging climbs and great views. We now have a welcome rest day in Ambleside before tackling the northern Lakes tomorrow.

Cycling England Day 9: Warrington to Garstang

A day of two parts. The first cutting through the urbanized sprawl of Lancashire before rolling through pastoral fields to reach Garstang.

Day 9

The corridor between Liverpool and Manchester is a mix of dormitory suburbs, older towns and of course major roads and motorways.

The group reformed from their various accommodations on the northern side of Warrington and headed north passing through Newton-le-Willows and Haydock quickly fixing a puncture on one of the bikes (our only mechanical of the day), before reaching the East Lancs Road. A footbridge with a wheeled track for bikes allowed is to cross and we were suddenly free of the sprawl.

Lancashire countryside

On reaching Orwell, a pop-up cafe supporting a children’s club gave us welcome tea and biscuits and we said goodbye to our hosts for the previous day who headed back.

St. Theresa’s Church, Up Holland

After passing through the pretty village of Up Holland, we tackled our only climb of the day – the descent and steep climb to cross the River Douglas and associated Leeds and Liverpool Canal. The latter I used to cycle along at its other end in Yorkshire.

Croston

Beyond here the route flattened out across the plain with the Pennines a distant view to the East. A series of minor roads led us downhill to Croston and lunch at a cafe next to the A59.

Wildflower beds

Cycleways on both pavements and separated on the road led on into the centre of Preston, with at one point a spectacular display of wildflowers alongside. In Preston, we crossed the Ribble and navigated our way out of town which was more challenging than heading in.

Finally we reached the countryside again and continued north by minor lanes with the Forest of Bowland getting closer to the East. Eventually, the A6 was reached where an on-road cycleway took us safely to the edge of Garstang and our overnight hotels.

Overall a gently rolling day, the weather stayed dry, if cloudy, and whilst we had to navigate a number of major roads, there were plenty of cycleways to keep us safe. Next stop Cumbria.

Cycling England Day 8: Market Drayton to Warrington

Day 8

So I thought I’d had my fair share of mechanical issues and was looking forward to a trouble free ride to Ambleside, until just after Market Drayton, there was a loud twang and one of my reflectors flew across the road. A quick inspection revealed that one of my spokes had snapped 🙁

Fortunately we were only 2 miles from Audlem and it’s local bike shop was very happy to replace the spoke, true up the wheel and adjust the brakes, all whilst we had a coffee in the next door cafe. As a result we were on our way again quickly.

Audlem church

Prior to this excitement, we had passed through the town of Market Drayton with a slight drizzle in the air, but by the time we had reached Audlem’s 13th century church, the weather had brightened.

Spoke fixed, we headed off to Nantwich, where we met up with Aidan, our guide for the rest of the day. He led us off onto the quieter backroad to Winsford and we found a nice cafe for lunch,

Trent and Mersey Canal

The Cheshire Plain was broadly flat with occasional dips down to the rivers that cross it. At one such dip we dropped down to the River Weaver, before climbing sharply to reach the Trent and Mersey canal some 50 feet above it.

Anderton Boat Lift

With both the canal and river navigable at this point there was considerable cross-shipping of goods between the rivers, and in 1876 the boat lift was built to provide a hydraulic mechanism to lift boats between the two. Recently restored , it is one of only two working boat lifts in the UK.

Manchester Ship Canal

With the skies clouding over, we pressed on to Warrington, crossing over the Manchester Ship Canal at a lock before reaching our hotel for the night.

Another enjoyable day across the Cheshire Plain.

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