The plan was to go to Reading and cycle towards Bristol following Sustrans cycle route 4 along the Kennet and Avon canal. I was going to meet up with Pete whom I had last seen in September and we would make a week-end out of it. Only, Pete wasn’t feeling too well and I missed my train to Reading and found myself in Windsor instead.
I could still have followed cycle route 4 but decided instead to head north and meet with the Grand Union Canal. I knew this would bring me at the edge of London but it didn’t matter. I could still have a good day ride and ditch the wild camping plan if necessary.
I pedalled out of Windsor in search of route 61 and met up with it at the outskirt of the town. For a while I meandered between fields and railway lines before penetrating Slough and Langley and their tangles of residential streets. Sustrans signs became scarce and barely visible as they transformed into stickers placed on random posts. I tried to follow them, guessing which turning was meant by the crooked arrow and more often than not got lost. I circled in a residential estate for an hour, occasionally taking a foray on long countryside B roads before giving up by Langley train station. I was sure I was going in the right direction but the signs had run dry at the T junction. I cycled up and down the road, trying to spot the familiar blue logo in vain and decided in was time to give up on Sustrans. There was a canal by the station and if I was lucky it would be Grand Union Canal and I could join route 6 later on.
The path was a mix of mud and ice and I found it difficult to judge if my wheels would crunch over the many tracks from previous cyclists or if they would just sink in. I trudged along, content to have the canal to myself apart from the occasional runner. A few hours went by in this fashion before I realised I was approaching London. There was an increasing amount of litter on the path and in the distance I could hear the never-ending roar of the M25 traffic. I cycled under it, pedalling away from its noise as fast as I could and stumbled upon a sign that declared I was now in the London Borough of Hillingdon. I had not seen any traces of Sustrans since leaving Langley but by that time my mind had drifted to other matters. My plan to wild camp was scratched off and I was looking forward to cycle from north to south London and make my way back home in the evening. It had been a long time since I’d criss-crossed the capital on a bike and I’d missed it. City cycling is never my top choice but there is something exhilarating about flying through the streets of London while buses, cabs, and cars are stuck in traffic and you are free on your bike, seeing all the major landmarks around you.
Cycling on, I happened upon a T junction at the canal and spotted the familiar blue and yellow map telling me where I was in London. I found out that I had been cycling along the Slough Arm of the Grand Union Canal and was now faced with two other directions, the names of which didn’t ring any bells. On a whim I decided to follow the many runners all heading the same way. I accompanied them for a while before I spotted one wearing a tag identifying him as a runner in the Country to Capital run. I had never heard of it but judging by the number of people in running shoes many other had.
I meandered behind, letting them take the lead until they noticed a bike behind them and apologised for not having letting me pass before, which I hadn’t minded at all. I wasn’t on a bike to go fast. I stopped at a bench for lunch and watched coots skid over water and runners puffing and panting past me.
Warmed up from a large pot of instant noodles, I mounted back on the saddle and joined the runners once again in their race to the capital. But soon we lost sight of each other. They veered left and away from the canal while I continued on along the water’s edge. I whizzed past a sign that informed me I had reached Ealing. I stopped the bike and backtracked to it to double-check. I had not mis-read it. I was now in Ealing. I laughed. I had not meant to cycle in the direction of home so soon but here I was, not far away from the Thames and my flat.
Grand Union Canal slowly lost its wildness and became gentrified, the paths well-maintained and even occasionally tarmaced. Large fancy barges made their appearance and a few people were busy working at locks until I reached a new T junction and the familiar nut appeared on a post to let me know I was joining the Thames Path. I couldn’t see or hear the mighty river though and for a while I cycled along busy roads and narrow streets until it ended and the murky waters of the Thames expanded wherever I looked.
I parked the bike next to a row of cars, sat on the edge of a wall, and smiled as geese and rowers passed by under the cold golden light of winter. When I got back on the bike, it was a matter of minutes before the scenery became familiar and I navigated my way out of habit, losing sight of the river after Richmond Bridge, the flow of water being replaced by the flow of cars that carried me all the way back home.