Monday 15 August 2016

Nostalgia in The Chilterns, or Where It All Began (C#31)
Sunday 14 August, 108 Miles

To mark the start of the second half of this 60 Centuries Series I thought I would go back to the beginning. For a long time now I have wanted to do a ride in the Chilterns where I grew up and where I started to ride seriously. My first century ride started from our house in Prestwood and I have many happy memories of rides around the Chilterns lanes. Of course this was all nearly 40 years ago so I’m guessing that there is probably a gap between my memories and the reality. But whatever, it must have been good because I haven’t stopped riding since.

Using Chris Sidwells book as a starting point I mapped out a route that took in a lot of the places I used to visit. The route was a sort of circle, starting and finishing in Prestwood. It included a mix of lanes through the Chiltern Hills towards the Thames Valley and then turned northwards eventually reaching the Vale of Aylesbury before finally heading back south to Prestwood.

An early morning alarm call had me rising at 5:30am and following a quick breakfast I was in my car and quickly off for the two-hour drive to Prestwood. After parking up and unloading my bike I was soon ready for the off. It was interesting riding along the High Street and noticing the many changes that have occurred, notably round the shopping parade. But it was also interesting to see what hadn’t changed and I passed quite a few houses where I used to visit school friends back in the day.

Heading out of Prestwood I gradually became aware that my recollection of distances was a bit off the mark. Places that I thought were quite close together turned out to be further away than I remembered. But no matter, the constant succession of landmarks, some remembered but many forgotten were making this a really interesting ride.

After a few ups and downs I was soon speeding down Whiteleaf Hill, a famous climb in the area and the place where I learnt to hill start when my Dad was teaching me to drive. It is so steep and narrow that I could hardly believe my father would have taken me here. But it must have worked because even though I say so myself, I’m a competent hill starter. And I’m a passable hill climber.

Talking of which, after about 15 miles it was time to tackle the first main climb of the day – Kingston Hill (Warren #122). This starts with a long gentle drag before gradually ramping up through a series of bends at a maximum of 17% before finally levelling out after about three quarters of a mile. I filmed the climb as I rode it, but the video is probably of no interest to anyone else! Much more entertaining were the red kites that I saw and heard on the first part of the climb. These magnificent birds were soaring gracefully on what I guess were thermals rising from the escarpment. It’s incredible that these birds which were once hunted as vermin to near extinction have made such a comeback – five birds were released into the wild in 1989. Now they are a common sight and their distinctive shrill calls make it easy to know that they are about.

It's not what you think!
After recovering my breath from the Kingston Hill ascent it I enjoyed a great ride along the crest of the Chilterns with occasional views westwards towards Oxford. By now I was not alone and at times it seemed as if every cyclist in the Home Counties was out riding. Maybe they were? A left turn a long steady descent took me through Pishill. As a teenager, Pishill was one of those place names that was always good for a joke. The name derives from Old English – Hill where peas grow – and not what you might have first thought!

The next few miles showed me why I used to so enjoy coming here. I rode along undulating lanes through a succession of hidden valleys and coombes. This is great unspoilt countryside which must have looked pretty similar for hundreds, if not thousands of years. And amazing too, to think that London lies less than 30 miles to the east.

Former home and the start point for numerous rides
Skirting the edge of High Wycombe, I headed back towards Prestwood to complete the first half of the ride. I spent a bit of time riding round revisiting old haunts. I also stopped outside the house we used to live in and where I would have set out from on my first ever century ride – in about 1973. And many more after that. Riding away from the house I followed the route that I used to ride on each day to get to school – only about 3 miles each way but 5 days a week in all weathers. My first ride was on 8 September 1970 and after making allowances for days when I either got a lift, walked (yes I did occasionally) or didn’t go in, I reckon that I rode around 5,000 miles by the time I left. So clearly the bug had bitten.

Leaving Prestwood I head over towards Chesham and Tring before descending out of the Chilterns for a circuit round the north of Aylesbury. I have quite good memories of riding out here from home – which at the time seemed like heading into a different country. I guess this reflected the pronounced contrast between the Chiltern Hills and the near plan flat Vale of Aylesbury.

Theresa May was out so I couldn't blag a cuppa!
All to soon it was time to turn south past Waddesdon Manor, once home of the Rothschild’s and now owned by The National Trust. This is a rather splendid pile stuffed full of fabulous and valuable works of art. Gradually the Chiltern escarpment got closer and closer before I reached Ellesborough and passed by Chequers, weekend retreat for Prime Ministers. As I stopped to take a picture of the main gate there was a quiet whirring sound as the CCTV cameras took an interest in me! Then it was a fast blast back to Great Missenden with a short detour to see the old school. I then retraced most of my school ride back to Prestwood and the end of the ride.

Impressions and highlights? Far too many really. But to pick a few which stand out. The countryside is a delight to ride so it’s no wonder that I’ve developed a love affair with cycling. The roads are much, much busier – cars and cyclists. The hills haven’t got any easier; quite the opposite in fact! And the sights and sound of those red kites has greatly enriched my enjoyment of being out and about in the Chilterns.

Will I ride here again? I do hope so. For sure!

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