Using Sustrans routes for the first time – Barnet to St Albans via Hatfield

It was only in the last week or so of July that I really felt as though my bike legs were beginning to really come back after my 18 month post-accident layoff.  While I’ve focused on building up my strength for commuting, there’s definitely more to life than ploughing up and down, to and from central London every weekday, and besides, I’ve always had a hankering for trying some longer distance cycling to places that I’d never see otherwise.

With the additional incentive of a couple of books of bike routes that I was given on my birthday, a small binge in the Sustrans online shop, and checking out some of the longer distance routes like the Coast to Coast, I felt ready to take on…bits of south Hertfordshire.  Well you’ve got to start somewhere!

This weekend I decided to stretch my legs somewhat by undertaking my longest ever ride going from my home in Barnet to St Albans via Hatfield and back again largely using Sustrans routes.

The plan had been to set off early on Saturday morning, but with an unexpected visitor on Friday and a consquent late night… I also wondered if I was being a little ambitious given that I’d cycled 25 miles to and from work the day before, but I still had the words of Graham Obree ringing in my ears from the Cycling Show when asked about the secret of success.

“Don’t do what you think you can do –
do more than you think you can do”

As I don’t recall ever having done a ride of more than about 25 miles, this journey which was about 38 miles was definitely more.

In the end I got away and quickly faced my first challenge – the High Road up to High Barnet. I’d never cycled up there on Bob before, not least as the first time I tried, shortly after acquiring Bob, I was exhausted just by the approach.  Also, given that this was the very beginning of my longest ever ride I decided to take it easy and just hop off and walk if I felt it was getting a bit much. What I discovered is how much a few weeks have changed things as I pedalled straight up the hill, past the station and on to the lights at Barnet Church at the top. As my starter for the ride it couldn’t really get any better!

After that it was nice and flat for a bit as I made my way out of Barnet, past the Common and into Hadley Highstone before turning left onto Kitts End Road where the  houses soon vanished to be replaced by a view of open fields stretching out northwards.  After that it was left into Dancers Hill Road and then right into Dancers Lane where I had well and truly joined Route 12 of the Sustrans National Cycle Network.

Until this point I’d only experienced Sustrans at a distance, reading about it, seeing the website, getting some stuff from the shop.  This was about using part of the National Cycle Network to get from A to B and the next couple of miles gave me a good taste of what to expect. What I found was a route which was largely traffic free – and where I was sharing the road with vehicles it was on very quiet roads.  Only a small part of the journey wasn’t on  tarmac – a section in the run up towards the services at South Mimms, and I wouldn’t care to do that bit after rain!  Of course the quality of the tarmac varied somewhat and some sections were definitely better than others, but being traffic free… It’s amazing the difference it makes being able to cycle along without having to constantly look over your shoulder to check on motor vehicles coming up behind you – so much more relaxing, and the ride consequently much more enjoyable.

The signposting of the route also made a big difference.  Most of the way it was great with the vast majority of junctions clearly signposted, so finding my way over large stretches of the route was simple. Not having to stop on a regular basis to check my map was a real pleasure.  Only a couple of times around Hatfield did I have any problems, otherwise it was pretty much straight pedalling all the way.

After my worries about how I’d find the ride after my commuting the day before I was pleased to find myself still feeling very fresh after 10 miles when I was in Hatfield. I have a suspicion that the Sustrans route took the long way through / around Hatfield, but I have to say it was quiet.  As ever I met somebody who was interested in Bob.  She was wheeling a mountain bike along which she’d just bought from a friend for £40.  Given that it looked something of a state and didn’t have a front brake, I think she may have paid too much for it!

Apart from the conversation the Highlights of Hatfield on this journey included an amazing bridge was straightforward to cycle up on one side, but then on the other it was like going down a helter skelter as the bike path spiralled round and down on what seemed to be an endless loop.  It was fun cycling back up there later on the way back too!  Old Hatfield was nice too, although unfortunately at one point the Sustrans signposting sort of vanished and I had recourse to the map – with better luch on the way out to St Albans than on my way back later when I really did go a bit awol in a couple of places. Still, the old town really was… quite old and picturesque.

The Eight Bells Pub in old Hatfield

The Eight Bells Pub in old Hatfield

However there was also a downside to the route for me.  At a couple of points there were gates designed to admit pedestrians and cyclists to a playing field / playground area.  Unfortunately the gates only admitted conventionally shaped bikes – ie, not Bob.  At the first one there was a ladygate arrangement which enabled me to get Bob through by putting him up on his back wheel and manoevering him around.  At the exit however I wasn’t so lucky and there was no option but to lift him over the fence.  If there’s one thing that can be said about Bob… he’s not  lightweight.  Nor is he designed for easy lifting – after all, why would anybody want to lift a bike, it’s got wheels on!  At least there weren’t any similar obstacles for the remainder of the journey.

Going from Hatfield to St Albans was simplicity itself once I switched onto Sustrans Route 61.  The section between the two towns is known as the Albanway and runs on the route of a disused railway line.

Old railway platform on the Albanway

Old railway platform on the Albanway

It has to be said that some parts of the route had a better surface than others, so thank goodness Bob has good suspension.  What made it particularly worthwhile however was how quiet and beautiful it was.  After all these years the trees growing up alongside have arched over the path creating almost 6 miles of a green tunnel with the occasional beautiful view coming into view.

View from the Albanway

View from the Albanway

Eventually we reached St Albans and I made my way into town to take care of the essentials – in this instance, lunch!  I found some reasonably sound looking railings to secure Bob and while he rested I went off for lunch in the Cathedral Cafe.

Bob outside the Cathedral in St Albans

Bob outside the Cathedral in St Albans

As I’d cycled so far I decided to take my time over lunch and have a look around the Cathedral before setting out back on what was becoming an increasingly hot day.  Eventually we did set off back, taking a little more time to appreciate some of the public artwork that can be found on the Albanway.

Public art on the Albanway

Public art on the Albanway

On the way back I got a little lost again – first in Hatfield, and then coming through Welham Green where the Sustrans sign was concealed by road works.  Now having the Sustrans app on my phone was great – I put it onto GPs lock and it showed me exactly where I was.  Unfortunately it didn’t seem to indicate quite what direction I was facing  and so, after leaping to the wrong conclusion I proceeded to cycle the wrong way.  After a couple of minutes I realised that this wasn’t working and recalled that I’d got my compass packed in my bag. Thank goodness for that as I soon found that I’d read the map while facing in the wrong direction. Once that was rectified we were quickly on our way.  Given that by this stage the battery on my phone was running low I have two lessons for the future.

  1. Make sure I always have a paper copy of the route I’m using
  2. and a compass to point me in the right direction

Once again my time in the orienteering club at Liverpool Polytechnic in the 1980’s proved its worth!

Eventually I got home after taking in plenty of beautiful scenery on a 38.5 mile ride – something of an improvement on my previous longest ride of about 25 miles.

Field near Water End about to be harvested

Field near Water End about to be harvested

 like something of a spreading of wings.  I’ve had the experience of two Sustrans routes, the joy of cycling, the pleasure of seeing places I’d not have done otherwise – and here I’m thinking more of the views en route rather than the destinations.  In fact that sums it up nicely in a way – the point was the journey rather than the destination.  Yes I enjoyed the cathedral in St Albans… and I enjoyed the journey and the exploration even more.

Naturally my mind is skipping onto to other, possibly longer rides in the future.  Having a target to work towards?  I’d love to to the Coast to Coast (C2C) route from Morcombe to Bridlington – next year maybe?  Let’s see.

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