45 Minute Escape

Croxteth Country Park is my favourite destination for a quick escape

A few days ago I had one of those sublime, snatched-from-nowhere rides. I had an hour to spare before the children returned from school and college and the evening ritual of food, TV, baths and chores began. Time for a ride.

The day had been cold (1 degree Celsius) and magically dry and clear so I head out towards Croxteth Country Park to see how the woodland trails were. I had a hunch that the season and the weather conditions would work some magic. And I was right.

My favourite local trails are usually difficult to ride for most of the year. In the summer, they’re usually overgrown with brambles, nettles and suchlike. During the autumn and winter, they’re usually too muddy to ride without having to clean the bike for an hour after every ride (which sort of defeats the purpose of a quick ride).

However, today was perfect. The ground in most parts was frozen solid and the vegetation had died back for the winter. So wrapped up in three layers and thick gloves, I swept around the trails as if it were a dry dusty summer’s day, only taking care for glassy areas of sheet ice. It’s been a year since I rode some of these paths, but it’s amazing how their every root, dip, rise and sketchy section gets imprinted in the memory.

Late afternoon, winter sun, not a soul about.

I came home refreshed and later on, read Chris ‘Pondero’ Johnson’s wonderfully inspiring piece on the Micro Tour – a chance to snatch some of the pleasures of touring in just a few hours (like an S240 but without the sleepover!). I think next time I escape, with a little more time to spare, I’ll pack the coffee flask (or maybe the Esbit stove and Billy-can) and a snack, find a stump and brew up.

My S240

Above: The bike, sporting a Rivendell inspired basket, laden with dew on a cold, clear September morning. 

A couple of weeks ago, on what was possibly the last fine weekend of 2008 I finally go around to doing my S240 camp. Can’t believe it took me so long to get around to it, and just how easy it was to do, even with a full time job and a family to work around. 

I chose a camping destination that was around 30 miles away from home and set out a few hours before sunset, so I got to the campsite just as the sun was setting over the fields. Beautiful. Even the bunch of skateboarders on tour in the camping field who sang songs around the fire until 2am didn’t get me down (until one of them tripped over my tent, that is). Great experience. I detailed the trip in full on my site but here it is repeated here. 
Many cyclists dream of loading up their bike with a tent, sleeping bag, stove and mess-kit and heading off into the great blue yonder on a cycle tour, no doubt inspired by the stories of travel writers, or older cycling relatives who remembered cycle touring in the golden age of cycling – the 1950s. But when you say ‘touring’ to most cyclists, they’ll think of month-long epics across continents, or at the very least, taking a week out to explore a new part of the country.

However, this doesn’t always fit neatly into life, especially if you’ve got a full time job and a family to consider. “Erm, kids, darling, I’m off on a fortnight’s tour of Brittany, bye” doesn’t go down too well in most families, so what do you do? We’ll how about experiencing the joys of self sufficiency, freedom and relaxation that unsupported touring gives you, but in a bitesized package where you wave goodbye to the folks in the afternoon and are back to share your adventures with them over lunch? Welcome to microtouring.

The concept is very simple. Pick a campsite that you can get to within 2 to 3 hours – at fully laden touring pace this means around 30 miles unless you’re an Olympic medallist. Pack up your bike with the bare essentials that you’ll need to be comfortable overnight. Head out to your camping spot, have your alfresco dinner, watch the sun go down, snug down in your sleeping bag with a good book, wake up with the morning light, pack up and pedal home. You’ll get back home full of stories feeling like you’ve somehow squeezed an extra day out of your weekend, and your family will hardly have noticed that you’d gone. 

It’s not a new concept by any means, and one that’s been heavily championed by Rivendell’s Grant Petersen. Petersen coined the term S24O (Sub 24hr Overnight) to describe this distilled form of cycle camping. Reading their exploits on the website, it seemed idyllic, especially when they’ve got the San Franscisco bay area as their camping playground, and the stunning peak of Mt Diablo within striking distance of their Walnut Creek HQ. I’ve long been inspired by the idea but wondered long and hard about how it would translate to the UK, and in my case Liverpool. 

Some cities are easier to escape from than others and Liverpool is blessed with some great scenery and tranquil spots within easy microtouring range. I chose the Vale Royal of Cheshire as my target and the area around Delamere Forest. I found a campsite on the great www.ukcampsites.co.uk and all of a sudden, the micro tour was on. 

Loading the bike was pretty straightforward. I had a front and rear rack and managed to get everything into a saddlebag and two 30 litre waterproof drybags, one of which was strapped to the rear rack, the other in a basket (shamelessly Rivendell style) on the front. In hindsight, for my next microtour I’ll just use a rear rack with maybe two panniers for the heavier stuff and a single drybag strapped to the rack, making for more nimble handling – I found a lot of weight up front made for interesting handling on the gravel tracks I encountered. 

Picking a decent route was key – if you’re escaping from a city and you’ve only got 2-3 hours in the saddle, you don’t want to spend the first of these braving the misery of congested arterial roads out of the city. So I chose a Sustrans path as my escape route, which took me south out of the city, crossing the Mersey at Runcorn, where the route climbed over a quiet road in Weston, overlooking the Mersey Basin and the sandstone ridge of Mersey View and Helsby hill, which concealed the Vale Royal of Cheshire behind. Despite the area being heavily industrialised, the distance and the hazy sunshine made beautiful the contrast of natural and man-made landscape. From here the route dropped down down down, crossing the Bridgewater Canal and the River Weaver at the market town of Frodsham , before climbing the long testing ramp out of Frodsham and towards Delamere and Norley, with fantastic views of the Cheshire plain on your left and the steep flanks of Mersey View on your right – classic cycling country, as any dyed-in-the-wool Liverpool roadie will tell you. From then on in, I headed toward Delamere forest, turning left at the peacful pool of Hatchmere and heading into the charming village Norley, finally arriving at the campsite along an ancient, high hedged , twisting singletrack road. My destination was the Forest View Inn (http://www.ukcampsites.co.uk/sites/details.asp?revid=5686), a charming red brick coaching inn with its own campsite, cask ales, great food, a log fire and even a hound basking by the fire. Behind the inn is a wonderful site on the side of a wooded vale. 

Setting off at 3:30 in mid September meant that I arrived at 6pm, with the campsite basking in early evening sunshine. I pitched up and unloaded my gear which didn’t take long because I’d only brought what I needed for one night. Nothing beats eating a hard earned meal watching the sun go down, listening to birdsong and watching the rabbits jump in the field at the edge of a wood. After my meal and cup of tea, I headed over the the pub and grabbed myself a seat in the corner and a pint of Directors, and listened to the chatter of the locals and the spitting of the wood fire in the hearth. It was dark outside when I returned to the tent, brewed up and watched the stars while the water boiled, after which I zipped up and read a book by headlight until the eyelids started to drop, which is pretty quickly when the effects of a bike ride, fresh air and a good pint (or three) take their toll! 

I awoke with the light (about 7am) and waited until the sun warmed things up a little before I got up. The night was cold because of a clear starry sky but now the fields were dew laden and beautiful in the low morning sun, as I brewed up and began to pack my stuff away – which took no time at all. I was off on the road by 8:30, enjoying the quiet roads and morning sun as I headed back to Liverpool. I arrived back to find the household doing their normal Sunday morning stuff, grabbed a bath and bite to eat before spending the day shopping with the family, feeling very smug indeed that I’d crammed in a guilt free mini tour, which had all the essence of the real thing. 

What I took (over and above normal commuting tools, spares, waterproofs, etc)

  • Lightweight backpacking tent – about 1.5kg – mine is a single layer tent which pitches in about 5 minutes and weights next to nothing
  • Sleeping bag and mat – don’t skimp on the warmth of your bag – being cold in the night is not fun

  • Camping stove – again light and simple is best

  • Aluminium pan with lid – lid is important for a fast boil – pan doubles as an eating vessel

  • Penknife style knife, fork and spoon set

  • Enamel billy can with cup – for the essential brew

  • Head torch – for reading/finding stuff in your tent/navigating the site after dark

  • Spare jersey, baselayer, socks

  • Food – instant noodles, flavoured couscous, cereal bars – the key here is lightweight, simple to cook and carb laden

  • Drink – green tea (no milk required)

  • Small digital camera

  • Wallet

  • Mobile Phone

I wore clothes that were as much ‘pub specific’ as they were ‘cycling specific’. That way I didn’t have to change after the ride. For me this meant ¾ pants, and two merino t-shirts, (wonderful if you don’t want to stink the pub out after hauling your heavy bike all the way to the site). I also wore normal trainers and used flat pedals, but you could easily use casual SPDs and clipless pedals if you think they make a difference.

All of this stuff should add up to less than 20lbs and fit easily on a bike with a rear rack. I’ve been more heavily loaded coming back from Tesco, so its no big deal. What are you waiting for?