Day 1 -- London to Staines

Route for day 1

Elevation profile for day 1

(Note: elevation profiles each day have different scales, so for example this one only goes up about 110 feet.)

I awoke early to the bright sun and deep blue cloudless sky of Madrid. My business conference was finished, and this was to be the complicated start to our bike trip in England. Len and I had originally thought about cycling in Spain, but the combination of extreme heat, tough hills, and apparent lack of cycling roads and amenities convinced us to go elsewhere. The last few days in Madrid had confirmed this decision as wise. Indeed, in the awesome heat of the late July afternoons there I learned the wisdom of the siesta.

The trip to London was uneventful and it was a little after 11:00am when we walked out of the airport into the cool, cloudy weather of England. We planned first to go to that night's hotel in Staines, which was only about three miles from Heathrow, then to go to London, get the bikes, take a train to the starting point of our journey in Putney, and from there to cycle back to our hotel in Staines.

We hopped into a waiting taxi to go the three miles to Staines. I was a little apprehensive, since I knew that the taxi driver would have been waiting in line for quite a while, hoping for a big fare. We settled into the back seat, and the driver opened the back door to talk to us. "We have two options," he said. "The fare is 25 pounds, or you can get a round trip for 40 pounds."

For three miles we would be paying about $40! We hopped quickly out of the taxi. There had to be another way to get to Staines. We found a bus station across the walkway, and were told that bus number 441 went to Staines, and would leave in about a half hour. We waited, and when the bus pulled in, we started our journey.

Does this bus go to Staines?

The bus took a complex route around endless construction sites that ringed Heathrow. The three miles to Staines were going to take a half hour before we alighted at the downtown bus station there. Len and I are techies, and as the bus weaved its route, we fired up our GPSs for the first time in England. I was happy to see that the GPS knew I was in England -- it was a start. On the GPS display I could confirm my intuition that the bus wasn't getting anywhere. So near, and yet so far. The Heathrow runways stayed on the screen as we circled numerous roundabouts before finally arriving at the Staines downtown bus station.

I looked around at the Kentucky Fried Chicken, Burger King, and other familiar and terrible American exports that surrounded me. We knew that our hotel was on the other side of the Thames. Since I had preloaded all the routes in the GPS, I had researched the location of each of our hotels. But where was the Thames? We asked someone if there was a river around somewhere, and they waved us down the street. Presently we walked across a bridge, where we could see our hotel waiting on the other side.

Our hotel awaits across the Thames

We checked into the Anne Boleyn hotel and hurriedly changed clothes. The weather, as you can see, was iffy. We wore rain pants and carried our jackets and our precious handlebar bags. It was already 1:00pm when we left the hotel to walk to the local train station, wherever that was. We were actually within a block of the station a little later when we asked two local women walking babies where the station was. The two of them disagreed about the location, for some inexplicable reason.

The train was pulling into the station as we walked up, and soon I was eating one of my four emergency nutribars in lieu of lunch as we sped towards London. The bars were pretty heavy anyway, and this would lighten the load on my bike. A half hour later we were in Waterloo station in London and walking eastwards along the Thames looking for Gabriel's Wharf, where the pre-arranged bikes should be waiting.

As we were walking, Len was saying how London Bicycles should be a pretty big establishment, based on his dealings on the Internet with the owner. I cautioned him, saying that being big on the Internet didn't mean a big store physically. We soon found that to be true. London Bicycles was a small cubbyhole in a little mall located alongside the walk along the south side of the Thames. At least they did have a lot of bicycles arrayed in front of their cubbyhole. Where did these bikes go to sleep, I wondered?

London Bicycles (the small yellow circle on the left)

It's one of those small moments of truth on a trip like this -- do they have your bikes or not? The young man behind the counter in the store hadn't heard of us and didn't know about our reservation. But this got straightened out and soon he was pulling out a couple of hybrid bikes from the pile of bikes out front. They looked ok to me, but I was pretty uncritical, just being glad to get anything with two wheels.

"Try a ride around the circle here," he said to me as he handed me my bike. I got up on it awkwardly and almost ran over a pedestrian as I weaved out of control among the various obstacles. I felt like a complete jerk. The guy must be wondering who he's renting these things to, I was thinking.

I felt better when Len did his trial ride. He was even worse, and I had doubts that he would even survive. Were these bikes that bad? Had we lost all biking skills?

We picked out the best of a sorry-looking lot of panniers, got a couple of heavy U-locks, one pump, and two spare tubes. However, there were no cages for our water bottles, and we were told that we would have to go around a couple of blocks to their shop to get cages. There was a complication, though. When we asked about the train to Putney from Waterloo, the man looked at his watch. He said that they only allowed bikes on the train until 3:00pm. It was now ten minutes before that time. Hurriedly, the man sped off on a bike, saying that we should follow. Len was close on his heels as we sped out onto the London streets. I was further behind, being timid about the traffic and this wrong-side-of-the-street stuff. I almost lost them at two intersections as they cut in front of buses and taxis.

Quickly, though, we grabbed the two water bottle cages and biked towards Waterloo Station. Seven minutes to go. We had been told that in the eastern entrance of that station there was an escalator where it would be easier to take the bikes to the upper level. On the escalator I had this sudden fear that I would lose control of my awkward bike and it would roll down the stairs, maiming all the people behind me. It didn't happen, though.

Len raced to a ticket counter. Three minutes to go and Len is behind someone who is having some problem with a ticket. One minute to go and Len is speaking to the clerk. He hands over a bill and the man holds it up to the light with a frown on his face. He studies Len's 20-pound bill for awhile and then deserts his post to go to a back room. Now we're late, and something seems to be wrong. After what seems an interminable time he comes back and tells Len that his banknote has expired! I never heard of anything like this. Money expires? We give him another note, mystified, and race to track 15, where the train waits. We push our bikes on board and stand there sweating as the few passengers eye us warily.

Taking the train with our bikes to Putney

I was afraid that a conductor would come along and tell us that since it was after 3:00pm, we would have to get off with our bikes. However, no one came and no one even asked for our tickets. It was the honor system, I guess. In about 15 minutes we were carrying our bikes awkwardly up two flights of stairs at the Putney station. Out front of the station the traffic seemed even worse than in central London. There were double-decker buses everywhere and throngs of people. What a start to the biking trip!

We walked our bikes down the sidewalk heading for what was obviously the Thames at the bottom of the street. We soon passed a McDonalds, and I succombed. I needed a cheeseburger bad. Len had lot more self-control and settled for water. But now the pressure was off; we had the bikes, we were within sight of the starting point, and it was only 4:00pm. We had 27 miles to bike, and our hotel rooms were already secure. Darkness would come at about 9:30pm, so there was enough time. No sweat. Or so I thought then.

Off and on during the months of planning I had imagined what Putney Bridge would look like. That is the starting point of the Thames Valley cycle path. For once my imagination had been reasonably accurate. There was heavy traffic on the bridge itself, but down below there was a quiet path alongside the water. Here we took up shop to install the equipment on our bikes -- the handlebar bags and the GPSs.

Len trying to mount his handlebar bag at Putney Bridge

So far the day had gone relatively without hitches, but our period of grace now expired. I got my bike set up ok, but Len was making a lot of frustrated noises over his. He had dropped one of the screws that held the mount for his bag and couldn't find it. We both crouched over the sidewalk looking for it. There's something about screws, bolts, and nuts. I don't know what it is, but whenever you drop one, you can never find it. We sure couldn't find this one. Len had a theory that it had hopped through the fence and fallen into the sand below. I couldn't believe this was possible. The thing had simply disappeared.

Len finally improvised his mount precariously with one screw and we finally started off fitfully. Then he decided to go down to the river and paw through the sand for the missing screw. I waited patiently, enjoying the view towards the bridge of the path that we would soon follow.

The start of the Thames Valley Path at Putney Bridge

Len came up empty-handed, as I had expected. But now he spotted a boat-supply store across the street from this picture. Maybe they would have the right screw. He was in there for awhile, and he came out with something that might or might not work. The woman in the store had told him, "We do boats, not bikes." It was now 5:15pm, and I was starting to get a little concerned about making the hotel before dark. We hadn't even started the bike trip and it was already dinner time. I don't think the new screw worked, but soon we were off.

The beginning of the path

It was exhilirating to begin the path along this stretch, but I knew from the map and my GPS that we would only be going a mile before turning away from the Thames. Soon we were on some city streets and cutting through a few small parks. The GPS tracks were leading us beautifully. I don't think I could have navigated otherwise. But soon we were on a busy street with much rush hour traffic. I was very uncomfortable, and even Len was saying that this was bad. Would the whole trip be like this? Surely we would be killed before long.

After a mile or so we came around a long bend and entered Richmond Park. Just as we did so, we saw a large stag contemplating the traffic circling furiously around the entrance.

A stag waits at the entrance to Richmond Park

The only significant hill of the day was here at the beginning of the park. It wasn't a bad hill and as we came over the top we saw a strange sight. We weren't even sure what it was. We got off our bikes and peered. Is this what we think it is?

A convention of stags

Wow! Ok, this was shaping up as a neat trip. Would it all be this good? Shortly thereafter we reached the other side of the park and at the gate we pondered the directions. We were slightly off the GPS tracks, which had necessarily been approximate through the park. I got out the Sustrans map and pointed where I thought we were. Len thought somewhere else. Time was awasting. We decided to navigate towards the GPS track as we groped our way forward across Ham Commons.

From here the path turned into a series of hard dirt trails along the Thames. We passed by many swans, geese, boats, river locks, and people rowing racing shells. It was quite beautiful, and a shame that night was falling and we were increasingly pushing to reach the hotel.

Typical path along the Thames

Presently we passed along the backside of Hampton Court Palace, where I stared through the locked gates. So this is how the other side lived, I thought.

The backside of Hampton Court Palace, facing the Thames

After the palace we walked our bikes across a busy bridge, and I waited while Len reseated his chain, which had come off the chainring while he had shifted. This was the first of many such occasions, and Len carried a rag to use while handling the chain. Time was now becoming short, and I kept calculating how far we had to go and how much daylight was left. It was going to be a close call. I was thinking that if we could get within a few miles when it got dark, we could even walk the bikes for that remaining distance.

Now we were on real roads for the first time in many miles, and we cycled on sidewalk paths along the gently rolling hills.The odometer on my GPS, which I kept on the display, said we were almost there. Suddenly, Len let out a cheer, and there was the turn to our hotel. We arrived at 9:20pm, beating darkness by about ten minutes.


We arrive back at the hotel, just beating darkness

The clerk at the hotel showed us where we could lock the bikes in an unused dining room. Len was still frustrated about his handlebar bag and wanted to work on it before dinner. Meanwhile, I took a shower and waited. We had originally planned to walk into town to check out the restaurants, but it seemed now they had all closed. The only alternative was the Chinese restaurant in our own hotel. I got a table, some wine, and waited for Len. He was still frustrated.

I was well after 10:00pm when we ate our fragrant duck. It had been a long day. Len was still frustrated about his handlebar bag.


Proceed to next day's cycling, Staines to Reading

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