Tuesday Ride V: of fast ascents, black dogs, buckled wheels, punctures and a cup of tea

the Black Dog

Temples throbbing, sides aching with a double stitch and the effort of trying to suck enough air into my lungs to keep me going, I could only watch as John shot past me on the way up the short but awful Black Dog Hill. Damn! barely five minutes earlier I had set a cracking pace into a headwind, pushing against the evening zephyrs at 18-20mph. Turning onto the A36 the lactic acid was seeping into the muscles of my torso and I was preparing for a slow and leisurely ascent of Black Dog, I really didn’t think John was going to put the drop on me. Cursing his name under my fast evaporating breath I dug in and prepared to chase him, ascending the base at 16mph, then a long stretch at 14mph. Hey this was impressive, normally we’re below 10mph by the time we pass the turn off for Black Dog Farm. My head felt so hot I had half a mind to tear off my helmet and fling it onto the bank to lie among the plastic wrappers, remains of the floral tributes laid to the many crash victims Black Dog has claimed as its own. With my front wheel now turning directly behind John’s back wheel I tried to find the miracle gear and cadence that would take me easily up the hill at this speed, and as usual on steep hills my mind wandered…

Black Dog Hill. It’s evil reputation is not just the result of the multitude of horrific crashes witnessed by its steep, treelined banks. This used to be Prickett Wood, or so it appears in an eighteenth century map, until a violent series of events took place here. There are two stories, one that a maid had two suitors who fought until one killed the other and the dead man’s black hound savaged its master’s killer to death. The maid (supposedly from Brokeway, now Black Dog, Farm) killed herself when she found their bodies. As a suicide she was interred at the crossroads to stop her spirit wandering, this became Dead Maid’s Junction at the top of Black Dog Woods. The other story is that a Highwayman lay in wait here, using the tortuous bends that were a feature of the road before it was ‘improved’ as ambush points. He had a huge black hound which would leap at the hapless coachdrivers, tearing them down from their exposed position on the coach while the Highwayman robbed the terrified occupants. A coachman got his blunderbuss up in time and shot the beast, its master was hung in chains at the crossroads, and the corpse of his hound strung up next to him. The upshot of the story is the same, the hound haunts the woods, prowling through the half-light in the witching hour, its eyes glowing ember red, its panting the sound of a death rattle, lead shot-punctured lungs wheezing as it eases its massive bulk out of the sodden earth. Look into its eyes and you will die within a year. In a curious epilogue to the tale, this area has developed a reputation for sightings of so-called Alien Big Cats, not big cats from space, but alien in the sense that pumas and panthers are not normally native to the west country. The Big Black Dog has morphed into a Big Black Cat, such is the way with folklore.

Back on the hill, I could feel the hound’s baleful gaze on the back of my head, I knew it was padding up the hill behind me at an easy gait, in my mind the spectral voices of the beast’s victims spoke as one compelling me to turn and look into its eyes, to give up, slow to a crawl and put my foot down, let John go ahead, to continue was folly. I ignored them, then I could hear nothing but hideous wheezing, but thankfully it was coming from me and the hill was levelling out. Lungs seared, legs shot we had arrived at Dead Maid’s Junction. We stayed in lower gears, spinning the cranks gently we searched the air for enough breath to talk about the fast ascent. Had we really stayed above 10mph all the way up? It was only five weeks ago that would have been unthinkable for us. We recovered as we rode round Warminster by-pass, the A36 offering various qualities of tarmac from dead smooth to enfer-du-nord shabby where every turn of the cranks sent the wheels bouncing and skitting over cracks and stones. Through the back of Warminster, ascending the hill on the way to Westbury at 18mph then a fast descent and, uh-oh, a sudden wobbly back wheel from John.

He had a puncture and riding on the deflated tyre had knocked his wheel out of true.

Luckily we were very near Rob and Lou’s house and were able to drop in for a well-timed cup of tea and a choccy biscuit.

John and I have a cup of tea

While Lou took me up the scaffolding to show me the pointing, John set about replacing his innertube and straightening his buckled wheel. Not only did we get a cup of tea, but we persuaded Rob to come out with us again next Thursday on the mountainbike.

After the kind of highbrow, literary conversation that happens when four people who’ve all worked in books get together (we talked about baldness, flies, ghosts, drinking and roofing) John and I headed out into the dusk for home. There was a chilly breeze and without sleeves I was getting very cold. John and I parted ways at the Rising Sun in North Bradley, vowing to meet again next Tuesday.

I turned onto the A361 and pedalled hard, spinning the cranks fast with previously hidden reserves of energy. Head down so that I could not look into the gaze of the modern Black Dogs now trailing me. Their eyes were headlights growing from behind blurring into tail lights in front of me, reek of diesel and exhaust, the growl of every motor that passed me dopplered and faded into the distance, exorcised by the clean night air until all that remained with me for the remainder of the ride was my cadence, and the road.

John cycles through the dusk

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