Saturday 20 April 2013

An excursion to Milton Keynes

I took a trip to Milton Keynes during the week – well, in fact, to Horwood House, an hotel/conference facility a few miles to the south-west of MK proper.

As always with such trips, I scouted in advance to see if it would be feasible for me to get there by train and bike.  (In some cases it is, in others frankly it would be too hard, or too suicidal.)  I took a good look at Google Maps, with satellite view and with streetview, to work out and assess a route.  This time I was lucky – 5 ¾ miles most of which was on car-free cycle tracks or quiet lanes.  I then make a comparison with the OrdnanceSurvey “Getamap” tool as this adds an overlay of contours and total climb/descent.   I saved the route and you can see it below (Google).

View Bletchley - Horwood House in a larger map

In fact, as you can see, I opted to take the train to Bletchley and ride from there.  MK was a little further than I needed to go, and I remember it well enough to know that it is pretty confusing to find your way around, and that is in a car, let alone a bicycle.

The route I selected comes out of Bletchley town centre on a B road – shouldn’t be too bad, I thought, for a Borisonian “wits about you” kinda guy like me.  That takes you about 2 miles out of the centre, and about half of that, from the junction with the road to Newton Longville, has a serviceable (not fantastic) off-road cycle track.  Then you turn on to a byway, marked on Google as “51”.  What Google doesn’t tell you is that this is a Restricted Byway (ie it is an offence for motors to use it – so how did Google Streetview get to travel it, as you will see below) and that it is National Cycle Network Route 51.  This takes you almost all the way to Horwood House – just a short stretch of country lane and you are there.

You can get the measure of NCN 51 from the Streetview image below.

View Bletchley - Horwood House in a larger map

Most of the route is hard-packed earth, relatively smooth – my Brompton managed it without too much protest – and when I travelled it, totally dry, although you can see here that this is not always so.  In one or two places the route passes along a proper asphalt lane which connects a handful of houses and farms with the main roads.

Well, things didn’t go entirely according to plan.  When I arrived (by bike) at Euston for the start of my train journey, my heart sank – the entire concourse was packed with people staring at the departure boards.  The boards just showed a long line of “Cancelled” or “Departure Delayed”.  High winds apparently had brought down power lines near Watford Junction. I was beginning to doubt I would get there at all.

Then there was an announcement:  the Virgin service to Liverpool Lime Street was about to depart – nice of them to warn us – and as it was slated to first stop at MK, I decided that the bike route was toast, I should run for this train.  I made it with a minute to spare, and it left substantially empty.

Barely half an hour later I got off the train at MK and thought:  well, what do I do now?  I decided to go for it – no map, nor any real clue where to go – and off I set, only to decide quite quickly that the roads were among the nastiest I have ever experienced in my life.  I returned to the station with my tail between my legs, to get a taxi. 

Had I had enough cash for the trip without finding a cash machine, that would have been that, but I didn’t, so it wasn’t.   I had another try, this time finding a pedestrian/cycle bridge across the rail tracks, on the other side of which what should I see but “ á National Cycle Network – Route 51”.

The cycle paths around this side of MK – west of the railway line so not really MK proper – weren’t too bad.  They wiggled a bit, and they could have been better signposted, but the surfaces were good, and they were around 2.5 metres wide.  They weren’t exactly heavily used, in fact I only saw two other cyclists – a middle aged couple together on e-bikes – on my entire trip.  Plenty of bloggers have commented before on why MK's cycle paths are not well used - they could certainly take a great deal more traffic than they currently get - and I recall that the main reaosn is probably, as in Stevenage, because making cycling attractive was not married up to disincentives to using the car.  MK really is Motown, though not in the musical sense.

Then the signing ran out, and I was lost again.  I fumbled my way in a rough SW direction, briefly flirting with the A421 dual carriageway before terror got the better of me and I turned off it again, to encounter a street sign for “Whaddon Way” – a name I had seen on an information map at MK station as a street which would take me back to more or less the point where I had originally planned to join the byway.  (It runs SW through the "ch" of "Bletchley" on the Google map image above).
Whaddon Way was a residential street with a bus route, and every couple of hundred metres a pinch point – too narrow for more than one vehicle to pass, and with that arrangement of red arrow/white arrow telling you if you, or the other way, has priority.  Somewhat to my surprise, every motorist I encountered, including the bus driver who I continually leapfrogged as he moved from stop to stop, treated me with exaggerated courtesy, allowed me through the gates ahead of them, and left me buckets of room.  Had I teleported into the Netherlands without noticing?

Had I avoided the various false starts and zig-zagging the trip would have been a little over 9 miles, and this would have been about the same had I found signing for NCN 51 to keep me on it all the way, or a decent map of the cycle routes.  As it was, I must have added at least a mile, maybe two, and the trip took me an hour - plus time to shower and change before I started my presentation, which certainly wasn't in the script!

The trip back was much more straightforward.  I followed my original route back to Bletchley, knowing where I was going this time.  5 ¾ miles in about 35 minutes, on a Brompton on a dirt track most of the way, and without working up a sweat.  Result!  (the fact that, unlike the outbound trip, I wasn't riding head-on into a Force 7 probably helped)

What with the ride from the office in Fleet St to Euston, then the ride from Euston to Waterloo on Friday evening on the return journey, I covered probably 21-22 cycle miles “on business” in two days.  I could claim 14p a mile for that – about £3, but the main benefit, apart from the exercise, is the smug feeling it has left me with.

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