The calm before the storm
What's the perfect first tour for someone new to biking? It could be this one. Short, sweet and very rewarding – it's an ideal introduction to touring. It was better than I could have hoped. Which was good, as I planned it as a gift.
With the Big Stupid Trip of a Lifetime looming, it was important to pause the preparations. Not just to stop my head exploding, but also – much more importantly – to pay attention to the stuff that really matters. By which I really mean my amazing, supportive, forgiving girlfriend. I told her when we met that I was planning to disappear to Australia and that didn't put her off. Indeed – she's done nothing but encourage and support me.
So this weekend, it was important to stop running around thinking of me and my trip – and focus on her, and giving her a trip. After all, so far we've done plenty of short rides on the bike but no real touring. She wanted to go away on the bike and I wanted to take her on a trip that would confirm how great motorcycling is – not put her off...
My friends Kevin and Lorraine recently took over a B&B in Somerset, just up the road from the excellent Haynes Museum. A great destination - an easy day's ride from our base in Newmarket. The first challenge, of course, was the packing. I arrived and presented her with the liner bag for the Kawasaki Z1000SX. She looked at it. "It's a matchbox," was the verdict. But still, it was packed – with room to spare, without complaint – and we were ready to go when I'd said we needed to leave. She's a keeper...
We set off on bigger roads at first: A14, A428 and A421 past Bedford, stopping for fuel and a stretch after an hour. We crossed the M1 and threaded our way across Milton Keynes, continuing to Buckingham. We stopped there for an ice cream at the excellent Gelateria Gazzeria in the pedestrian arcade. The way to any novice tourist's heart is through the stomach, after all...
There was a final spurt of dual carriageway from Buckingham, but then the riding improved as we headed into the Cotswolds. This is the kind of riding the SX is built for: rolling into corners and howling down straights – but carefully and considerately... not upsetting the passenger. It takes a bit more thought from the rider to be smooth enough: any rushed changes or snatching at brakes or throttle can produce a nod from the pillion. No clash of helmets… but only because I had the foresight to get a short girlfriend. Even so, I took extra care to make sure she didn't headbutt me on the shoulders.
Lunch was in the tourist hotspot of Burford – but it's a great place to introduce someone to the Cotswolds. Quaint stone buildings, nice shops, the occasional classic car rumbling down the high street. Mind you, at least one tourist stopped to take a picture of the SX as it glowered in the hazy sunshine of the high street. All that modern, angular styling stands out against the honey stone and olde-worlde charm.
We rolled south to Somerset, racing the weather. I'd planned for us to take a stroll around the stones at Avebury, but as well as the massed hordes of sightseers already exploring (how dare they?!), dark clouds were massing on the horizon. After a quick stretch, we were on our way again.
Sadly, as quick as the bike is, it's not faster than the weather and the rain caught us about 20 miles from our destination. I'd got my girlfriend kitted out in excellent Held 4-Touring kit and I had my favourite Held Imola Flash jacket… but leather trousers and summer boots. Luckily, it was that kind of skinny, evaporating rain that hits but is dried off by the airflow, so I didn't get wet. The bike's new Bridgestone T31 tyres gripped perfectly.
We settled in for a brilliant evening at MidKnowle Farm. The work Kevin and Lorraine have done to modernise the three cottages is astonishing – clean, comfy, quiet, well equipped (even with a hot tub!). And they're great people. We had a wonderful evening of catching up, talking bikes and nonsense. It was the first time they'd met my girlfriend, but they made her so welcome. It had been a few years since I'd seen them and so much had changed - but one thing was still the same and before long we were comparing notes on which passes they should ride on their holiday and so on. Next morning, we made a slightly later start than planned…
Actually, the late start was a good thing, as it meant Kevin and Lorraine could come with us for part of the ride back. Kevin's an awesome rider and Lorraine never believes how good she is – though I'd used her as a test rider and she rode with me on the ten-day, 4000-mile shoot for the first Guide to France back in 2013. It's always a pleasure to ride with them: every time I looked in the mirror, they were there in perfect staggered formation. Smooth, quick, safe – it's great to share the ride.
We headed up to Cheddar Gorge and Burrington Combe, then back into the Cotswolds. It was a humid, close afternoon – not sunny but bright. We stopped in Bibury, getting more ice creams (from the trout farm). The late start was hurting us now and I was itching to get going. Kevin and Lorraine had to get back too, so we said our farewells here.
I should have taken the fastest route back. I know that. But I couldn't bring myself to go past the Charlbury TT without riding it. The B4437 is one of those roads that just seems to have been designed to make you smile - all rolling turns and cheeky crests. I'd never ridden it with a passenger before – and I have to say, never ridden it that steadily before – but it was still exhilarating for me as the rider. As I rolled off and coasted into the 30mph limit at Charlbury, I had the moment of guilty fear that I'd had too much fun and that was it – I'd have put my girlfriend off biking. "That was a fun bit of road. Can we do it again?" she shouted. Yup. She's a keeper…
We couldn't do it again, though. We had to get back. That meant getting back to Deddington and retracing our steps: Buckingham, Milton Keynes, Bedford, home… We filled up in the Cotswolds and stopped for a drink at Bedford, and both times my girlfriend jumped gratefully off the bike - giving the seat an resentful glance. It's not the most comfortable pillion seat in the world, apparently. And the pegs are a bit too high for comfort. Is that enough to put her off it? Oh no. This trip still confirmed how great motorcycling is – she loved it. And that's what the trip was all about, after all.
Do it yourself
This is an easy and very enjoyable trip to do yourself, so I've put the links on the Routes page so they can be downloaded. If you're not coming from Newmarket (why would you be?) it's easy to adapt the route, picking it up from the A14/A428 at Cambridge, the A421/A1 at the Black Cat Roundabout near Sandy, or from the M1/A421 at Milton Keynes. You can book a stay at Kevin and Lorraine's holiday cottages here