The Dark Beneath The World

Inside Rear Chamber looking back down the creepway, Stoney Littleton Long Barrow

Inside Rear Chamber looking back down the creepway, Stoney Littleton Long Barrow

27th of September, a solid Autumn day, still wreathed in mists by ten in the morning. I rode out once more in the direction of Laverton, Faulkland and Stoney Littleton past fields covered in a thick grey, foggy shroud. Tiny beads of moisture gathered on the creases of my hoodie and crusted like rime as I cut through the damp air on the Lemond Etape. Still clean, and fully lubricated, the bike seamlessly moved through the mists, parting the air which flowed around me and reformed in my wake as though I had never disturbed it. I was a spectre, speeding over the landscape on empty ghost-roads. The world seemed to be in another, much earlier time – indeed I was on the trail of the antediluvian that day – the long barrow at Stoney Littleton.

I had recently felt its call; first when riding these lanes in the darkness, pursued by farm dogs, transformed into the Cŵn Annwn, scucca, or shuiks. There was no moon that night, just a feeble silver ley where the beam from my front lamp fell onto the mangled tarmac. The dark that can be found in the heart of the ancient barrows had seemingly seeped out into the evening. A sepulchral darkness that comes when the human spirit is at its weakest, the long hour before dawn, the last hour; the longest mile. And again when I rode out last with John, I saw the barrow on the skyline, silhouetted against the last embers of the daylight. Then it seemed to hold a more gentle darkness, the Long Sleep, the rest that waits for us all; the quiet dead.

Now I was riding in the direction of the ancient mound, rolling over the Somerset hills on roads devoid of traffic, where only the muffled caws of rooks and the croaking of solitary crows disturbed the quiet of the day. Entering the deep valley that cups Wellow Brook in its folds I almost came off the bike when I hit the bottom of the hill. Water had torn the road to pieces as it rushed across from verge to grassy verge.

The landscape bucked and heaved me up and over another rise, Spinning the cranks on the drop down the hill I almost missed the turn off to the right. The sound of hammering accompanied me past a house with a man on the roof intently working on the slates. He didn’t see me as I freewheeled down the road. A world war two pillbox had been absorbed into the hedge and fence of his garden, guarding the entrance to an extremely narrow lane. If a car chose to take this road as I rode down it, I would have to dismount, haul the bike onto the tiny grass verge and push myself back against the barbed wire to avoid being clipped. But no engine disturbed the air, and no one was on the lane save me. Small clumps of Japanese knotweed sprung out from the grass, only a few years old, but already voraciously making their way along the edges of the field and into the ditch. The bike glided softly over a crumbling red brick bridge and along the lane until I saw the layby where one must cross the brook. The tyres crunched over the gravel for a couple of yards then I stepped off and wheeled the Lemond over the thin wooden footbridge. On the other bank I turned left guided by the musical brook and a metal sign pointing towards the ‘Ancient Monument’. The bike was used as a steadying post as I forded an overflowing channel of water before scrambling over a stile. Then up the hill, following the ruts in the path before swinging left into a field with closely grazed grass. Along the contours of the hill then, until another stile appeared on the skyline above me and I walked the bike upwards again.

Heaving the bike over into a small enclosure of long grass I could finally see the barrow. From the side it is an unassuming grassy mound seemingly sitting on a drystone wall. I approached it widdershins (against the sun, anti-clockwise), only on rounding the final curve to the front of the barrow is its true nature revealed. Here the flat stones guard the portal, two shaped mounds flank the entrance on either side, and the way in is small and dropped below the level of the surrounding ground. The grass gives way to a bare patch of earth at the threshold. On the right hand side is a piece of Victorian lettering, now barely visible explaining with typical bluster and arrogance of the time how fantastic the excavations were and how accurate the restoration was.

On the left hand ‘doorpost’ is the familiar spiral of a giant ammonite fossil, beautifully preserved in the stone, every detail of it’s shell picked out perfectly. Surely this had significance to the mound builders, leading them to ensconce it here at the threshold between states.

The Ammonite at the gate

The Ammonite at the gateway

Leaving the bike propped up covering the Victorian boasting plaque, I crawled into the creepway and shuffled along the stony floor of the barrow. This was a low creep, unlike at West Kennet long barrow, where one can walk in, stand in the chamber and still have room above ones head, Stoney Littleton long barrow requires that you humble yourself and approach the chambers with bended knee. The effect was extraordinary, I felt like I was no longer a tourist, I was a participant in an age old drama. I shuffled further forward, if outside the world was silenced by the mist, inside was beyond silence. My every breath seemed loud and unnatural, the rattling of stones as I crawled in was absorbed by the darkness. I stopped at the first junction, once again my bike light became my illumination, this time into the side chambers.

Now it felt wrong. I could go no further in, though I wanted to, I could not make my legs propel me onwards. The imagined weight of the stones and of their long history crushed me into immobility. What they might have meant to the mound-makers, what they meant to the generations who brought their dead here, what they meant when the great stone had been placed across the entrance excluding all light and sound and leaving the dead to their sleep. This was too much, I eased my way out, almost afraid to turn my back on the rear chamber. I had got not even a quarter of the way in before backing out again.

Now I wanted to leave the barrow and the hill. I picked up the bike and started to walk towards the stile. I had gone no further than four meters when I stopped again, and stood, frozen to the spot. I cannot remember what I thought then, I only remember that the cold and wet from the long grass was seeping into my feet through a process of osmosis. The slow chug of a tractor engine drifted over from somewhere on the opposing side of the valley and the odd whistling of a wood pigeon’s wings cut through the mist from somewhere behind me. The cold crawling up my ankles from my soaking feet was somehow pleasant. I knew then I was about to turn around and go back in the barrow.

Quickly I wheeled the bike over to the entrance and this time I laid it down on the grass, unclipping the front light in one movement as I strode to the entrance and, without stopping, ducked across the threshold and dropped to my knees again. I easily passed the junction where the fear had overtaken me not ten minutes before and continued down the creepway. The ceiling of massive stone slabs got lower as I pushed forward and the walls became closer.

At the final junction of the barrow creepway, about to enter the back chamber

At the final junction of the barrow creepway, about to enter the back chamber

Then I was in the back chamber and sitting quietly in the cthonic stillness. I switched off the torch and looked back down the creepway. The light from the entrance leaked some way into the barrow, and I could see my bike lying on the grass just beyond the threshold. I leaned back against the stones, slowed my breathing, closed my eyes and let my mind wander.

Evidence from other barrows suggest that these mounds were opened up and used again and again, over many years, even many generations, becoming a repository for the ancestors. The builders of these barrows and the megalithic remains scattered over the countryside hereabouts lived in a time that was further from the birth of Christ than we are now. Their life expectancy was short, and death was ever stalking them. Those amongst them that outlived a generation became revered and loved, even beyond the point of their deaths and interments in these mounds. What was the purpose of burying them here? What was expected? A resurrection? The stone to roll away? The importance of those ancestors to the mound builders, and the hopes and knowledge they carried perhaps cannot be overstated. In these Ur-times, they maybe kept faith with them, talking to them long after their demise, understanding perhaps greater than we do the importance of keeping their memories alive.

This led me to think of how little I know of my great grandfather beyond a sepia photograph and a name written in a gigantic welsh bible. Above his name are further names about which we know nothing at all, and below are the names of my grandparents, then my own father, then my name, then the names of my children. There is plenty of space below their names as the book is a massive thing, impossible to throw away, lose or destroy. It’s very fabric and solidity gives rise to a comforting illusion of permanence. Yet my own children have never heard my father’s voice, he died when I was 21, years before they were born, he is as remote to them as my great grandfather is to me. So I keep my father’s memory alive, not least with this blog, because he was the man who started the Highway Cycling Group, but also by carrying a simulacra of him in my skull. A ghost, an invocation that allows me to converse with him as if he were still alive. I think of what his ancestors meant to him. Not just the names in that bible, but how in the hours before his death from cancer, he reached out from his bed and looked through me with eyes clouded from morphine, but unexpectedly filled with surprise and joy and said;

“Dad, you are here!”.

This surely is the resurrection we truly long for. Not our own, torn from the sleep of death, but those who have gone before us, the ones we shall never see again, the ones who’s continued absolute absence leaves us crushed and desolate.

In that moment, in his room, I felt the weight of my ancestry pressed around me, as I felt it now within the barrow. In my minds eye I imagined them filling the chambers and the creepway of the ancient mound, back through time and generations, beyond the names scratched in the delicate, dip-pen script of the family bible, beyond the birth records, beyond writing, beyond speech, beyond the trauma of what it is to be human, further back. So far back now that I realise there is only one person there. There only ever was and only ever will be one person.

Dad, you are here.

Dad, I am here.

Then I felt the peace. Blinking, I opened my eyes, startled by the light flooding in through the entrance of the mound. Crawling out along the creepway, I could see the mist had lifted somewhat. The bike seemed lighter as I picked it up and wheeled it down the hill.

The way seemed shorter on the way back. But then it always does.

Hellhound On My Trail


It was already dark as my bike and I hissed along the wet country road, though the sun was not due to dip below the distant hills for another half hour. A thin blanket of leaden cloud had clotted on the horizon, diminishing fingers of golden light dripped damply down from the smothered orb suffocating in the greyness. I rode lost in the lanes through this premature, sodden dusk, the day was choking in its final hour, an undignified ending. Barely six miles from home, but turned around by these tracks that weave around each other through the landscape, I had no idea which direction I was facing or what the next village might be. The next village did not appear from around the next bend or crossroads, nor from the junction after that. These were bad, bad choices of direction, the remains of rusted signposts were no help, one of them peppered with holes from a shotgun blast, the names of the villages lay in heap at the side of the road pointing mockingly into the centre of a muddy field. The rain came down, as did the blackness, and soon I rode along a line of silver in the road. This reflection from my lamp on the slick tarmac was my only source of illumination.

A farm on the corner, as I near, a coal-black shape detaches itself from the darkness of the hedge and runs towards me. A dog. Its barking is thunderously loud in the quiet of the evening, jaws hanging open, teeth bared, matching my increasingly panicked pace for twenty metres before I get enough speed up to leave it behind. But then at the next house, another loose dog, huge, angry. The bike is almost in the hedge on the right of the road as I accelerate past the careering hound, it slips in the mud allowing me time to get away.

At the next unmarked crossroads I unknowingly make another bad decision, moving further and further away from any villages. The road goes up and up, I know this can’t be right:

I am in blood
Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o’er;
– Macbeth

Cresting the horizon, the rain works its way into my clothing and a farm sits on the switchback. This time I sense the dogs before I see them and am already going at speed before they come hurtling, barking out of the open gate. The wheels slip on the mud, my guiding silver trail is gone, I ignore two turnings off to the right, because to cross the road would mean slowing enough that the dogs would catch me. Suddenly the road drops away and I am sucked down a hill and into the inky blackness of a wooded, steep-banked track. I let the bike go for a while as the dogs disappear into the distance behind me, but then I can see or sense nothing. All light ceases save for the weak smudge of silver given out by my front lamp. It falls into blackness, useless. Down, down, always down, the poor bike rides over and through the potholed and water-damaged lane, and I hold on, as a mariner might grip the shattered stub of a mainmast and pray to ride out the storm that hammers his ship. Now the wheels are locked and I am sliding down the hill, mud, leaves, shit… SHIT! I nearly overcook a corner and hurtle over a staggered junction with no time to make an informed choice of road, always down.

Until the bike is at rest, sitting on the raised ford at Wellow with the waters lapping at my feet.

A long walk up the other side of the hill, I turn right, hoping that I am heading for Norton St Philip, and not deeper into Somerset. Under a viaduct, and up a long boring hill, grinding out each metre as the bike fails to find the granny ring. At the top I am in Hinton Charterhouse and heading in the right direction. Tired and hungry the rest of the ride is a blur, clipping the curve at Woolverton, back tyre deflating as I pull into the village. A mere seventeen miles on the clock for two hours or so of riding. Exhaustion.

And the day keeps on worring’ me, there’s a hell-hound on my trail,
Hell-hound on my trail, hell-hound on my trail.

Robert Johnson

Published in: on October 2, 2008 at 11:17 pm  Comments (3)  
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Wylye Valley Siren Song

Last Thursday, the 29th, I set off to cycle to work in Salisbury. My last commute along this route had been fine on the way there, agony on the way back. I put this down to carrying everything in my dad’s old mountain rucksack. So with that in mind, I loaded up the panniers and set off. There were a couple of initial stops while I worked out the best position for the panniers so they didn’t bang my heels, but generally speaking it was a good clear ride. Standing up out of the saddle tended to alter the balance and the bike would literally throw a wobbly, a slightly nervous prospect on Black Dog Hill. Once I was safely enveloped by the utopian riding offered by the Wylye Valley the bike settled down and relaxed into the road. Either that or I had become used to the new balance.

Ah but it was a glorious ride, sun-dappled lanes and the piccolo song of the blackbird accompanied me as I cruised the route. As I neared the fifteen mile mark, I was overcome by a most curious sensation. I didn’t want to go above fourteen miles an hour, though I was not tired, sore or out of breath. Then, as I rode alongside a crystal clear brook which decanted musically over a miniature sluice gate into a larger pool, I was struck with the notion that I must remove my helmet. There was an odd feeling in my head, I sensed the instruction clearly, so clearly that it seemed as though a voice was on the edge of pushing itself into my consciousness. I drifted to the soft verge, where willows trailed into the cold, playful water, and to my surprise found that I was smiling. As the bike carried on under its own momentum, the feeling faded until I experienced a ‘snapping out of it’, a drawing back, and I started pedaling again. I didn’t actually take my helmet off. Passing the farm shop, not yet open, I surmised that perhaps I had encountered a kind of siren, some sort of psychic manifestation of the Wylye Valley route itself. What would have happened had I given in and removed my helmet? Would I then have been compelled to abandon my bike? Perhaps enter the water and slip below its icy surface into the world below? Only the bike would have been left, panniers full “..They say the back wheel was still spinning when it was found by the side of the stream. And no trace of him were ever found”. Perhaps the strangest thing, to my mind anyway, was the sense of immediacy; this was very much the present, not some longed for nostalgia that the ride had evoked. Oh for sure the ride is reminiscent of long summer cycles with the original Highway Cycling Group. Days when the verges were vibrating with the sound of crickets, echoed back by ticking of a freewheel. Days when we would cycle along a forgotten ghost road on the downs while lapwings flocked about us, five hundered wings beating in unison. Squinting into the sun to look for a skylark, a tiny dot producing such glorious melodies; waiting outside a sleepy post office, guarding the bikes against no one while my father bought the drinks and the cakes. Yet this was not a longing for a return of those days, this was a new song, the sheer pleasure of being alive, in this place, in this time, and on my bike.

The experience coloured my whole day, and the rest of the ride bought further richness. A stag headed oak, majestic in the center of a field of ripening corn. Another corn field, this one laced with blood-red poppies, revealed by every puff of the tiny breeze tipping the corn ears down, exposing the flowers hidden amongst the stalks. Even the traffic heavy final dash into Salisbury could not diminish the power of the Wylye’s siren song.

On the way back, I stopped off at the farm shop, specifically to buy some more lime curd. They remembered me from last time and knew I would come back for more. A quick apple juice and stretch of the legs and I was away again.

At the farm shop

It didn’t matter at all when I passed the spot again and nothing mysterious happened. Deeply happy, I pedaled for home.

Eat More Chips – Deeper into the Wylye

15

After a hard day’s graft at the coalface/keyboard, I managed to get out for an evening ride. It had been a pretty dreary day weatherwise, but as I hurtled towards Warminster the sun was coming out, having dipped down below the cloud line, a golden orb regally bestowing it’s glory upon the A36. Still, there was the threat of rain in the air as I trundled up Black Dog Hill. I paused in the car park of the Little Chef just outside Warminster to sort out the lights, lorry drivers were getting ready to bed down for the night, staring out from their cabins as I wove the bike in between the wheeled leviathans. Evening radio poured out from the opened windows, mingling with the smell of strong coffee. Then, oh joy, I finally got the chance to take a picture of a lorry that I have seen rolling up and down these roads for a good few months, but have never managed to get the camera out in time. But there it was, sitting ready for me to take a pic of the legend branded on its flank.

“Eat More Chips”

the fabled Eat More Chips lorry

Oft have I spoken of this splendid vehicle, and oft have people exclaimed that I am making it up. But here and now I present proof that the Eat More Chips lorry is real.

In great spirits I continued on through Warminster town center and out the other side. I crossed the Wylye and went through Bishopstrow and Sutton Veny. This time I headed for Corton. These roads are splendid, country lanes, but wide, very wide. I think this must be because there is a quarry or something here abouts and the lorries need to get into it. As I came out of Tytherington (after admiring the village’s ancient church as I rode past) I broke free of a tunnel of trees lining a hill, and there was the Wylye Valley unfolded ahead of me. It was glorious, a fairweather English Eden stretching out before me as far as the eye could see. Not only was the road smooth and beautifully wide, it was near devoid of traffic so I took my hands off the brakes and allowed the benign road to carry me down to the next village, Corton. In a field to the left a small heard of Llamas stood and watched me pedal past. The shadows were lengthening rapidly, the sun had dulled to a brass colour, veiled by inky clouds on the horizon. I pushed on a little further until the computer gave me fifteen miles, then I reluctantly turned back and headed the way I had come. It was hard pedaling all the way back, for the dusk was hard on my back and the sharp chap chap of a blackbird alarm call told me that the witching hour was about to begin. Often this is my favourite time to ride, the air is cool and fresh, sound is exaggerated and enhanced, fewer cars on the road – all of them able to see my tron-like reflective gear so they give me a wide berth. In the gathering darkness, it seems that hills are easier and the miles go quicker. There is also the chance that I might see an owl, a badger or a hare.

I arrived back at the house with no wildlife spotted, but 31 miles clocked up for the evening’s ride.

Into the Valley of The Wylye

t shirt one t shirt two

Many years ago, while I worked for Ottakar’s books, all the staff took part in a company wide effort to raise money for the children of Deogarh in India. One of things I did was a sixty mile cycle ride to our head office in Salisbury from Trowbridge, and back again. Considering how unfit I was at the time, it was an epic undertaking. John (who I still ride with on the Wednesday rides) was our guide, taking us into Salisbury via the beautiful Wylye Valley, rather than the hell that would have been the A36. At the top of this post you can see the front and rear of the T-shirt I made for the ride. I made one for everyone with the rider’s name on the back and their number, 1-4 on the front and sleeve. Below are some more pics from the ride.

warminster-no-casualtieshalfway-point-carefully-arranged-shot-of-spire-ruined-by-claridgeheroic-cyclists-at-head-officestart-of-phase-2-james-sees-the-troops-off

On Saturday I took a ride out from the village and ended up retracing some of the route we took on the sponsored cycle ride. We had been promised foul weather, but although it was very gusty, there was no rain in the air. I headed for Dilton Marsh, then took the road up The Hollow. This was the steep hill that saw one member of the group simply exclaim “Oh F*** off!” and dismounting to walk up as soon as he saw the gradient. I remember cycling up behind John, but being unable to breathe at the top as we waited for the other two to walk it. This time I took it with ease, crossed over the road and headed for Upton Scudamore. On the way I passed the layby and bridge where in April I had seen a seriously filthy amount of flytipped rubbish. I’m happy to say that someone has tidied it up. here’s a before and after for you:

Rubbish! Little or no rubbish!

Through Upton and over the main road to another ghost road. A fragmented old stretch of tarmac overgrown and crow-haunted, it deposited me almost by the Warminster sign, next to a crab apple tree by the side of the road. The back roads of Warminster saw me wondering if I was taking the right route. It seemed to me that in retrospect, the sponsored riders appeared to have stopped off at every grocery shop on the way. I crossed Imber Road and sped down long stretches of tarmac dotted with speed bumps, still not 100% sure of where I was going, sat up in the saddle with one hand on the handlebars I drifted towards Bishopstrow with the vague recollection that we had at some point crossed the A36 via a bridge. The only way that could have happened was if we had gone over the Warminster bypass. So I headed that way, tacking my back a little like a sail to allow the tail wind to push me through Bishopstrow village and, yes, over the A36. There was little traffic on the road and I crossed the bubbling Wylye river in peace. Here on the backroads I simply turned the cranks and enjoyed bicycling, cow parsley brushed my shins as I rode close to the verge. A myriad range of birds, swallows, buntings, finches and sparrows, dipped and sped across the road at head height. Sometimes they stalled into the wind, flapping wildly but unable to make headway as the gusts rose and fell. Across the tall grass in the field, the wind blew in eddies and currents; where the evening sun struck the seedheads the ripples of light moved over the surface of the field, tracking the path of the zephyrs like waves on water.

Rather like when fishing, cycling connects you intimately to the movements of the breeze. On the banks of a pool or lake, with the bait in the water, you notice that the wind rarely moves in one direction. You will see your float drift one way, then another. After a while you learn the subtle changes that signal a change of wind direction. So it is on the bike, the wind is moving around you all the time, a gust will almost stop you in your tracks, but then as it dies it creates a sort of patch of pressure where the wind seems to be sucked back the other way, suddenly driving you forwards. On such days it can feel as though you are being pushed and pulled along, you can ride on the drops when the wind is against you, but sit up tall to take advantage of a sudden tailwind. When the sun is out, it can be quite enjoyable, so much more than sheer, baking heat and still air.

At Sutton Veny I decided I had gone far enough and turned towards the Warminster bypass roundabout. It was a brief ride into the wind, then left, leaving the wind mainly on my right. By the time I got to the lead up to the crest of Black Dog Hill, I was glad of the lorries and using them to draft up the gradient. I arrived back at the house having notched up twenty six miles. Leaving me only twenty to thirty miles in order to rack up 1000 miles on the Lemond Etape since Feb 2007.

From tiny seeds do mighty giants grow

Bank Holiday delivered me the opportunity to ride in the evening, the sun was still hazy in the sky, and the roads were damp from earlier half-hearted showers. Meandering out of the village I breathed in the scent of dank roadside foliage; cow parsley, oilseed and dandelion combined to create a rich heady fug, redolent of late Spring. Easing the racing bike onto the thrumming tarmac of the main road, I felt relaxed and at ease, content to turn the cranks and let the bike take me where it wanted. So pleasing was the atmosphere, that I was not daunted when the bike decided we should climb Black Dog Hill again, even the cars seemed somehow laconic in the evening warmth, unhurried as they overtook me on the slopes. At the top I turned left towards a sign for bedding plants, and found another ghost road leading to a farm. This was the old main road, with dandelions growing where once cats-eyes kept motorists in the right lane.

Ghost Road - Dead Maids

Back at the junction, a huge rat lay smashed across the tarmac after an ill-timed sortie onto the road. I headed for Warminster, then swung right at through drifts of dandelion seed onto the bypass. Not much traffic around, so I was easily able to get into the right hand lane at Cley Hill roundabout and start the depressing faux-plat that leads to Longleat, it wasn’t too bad this time, and pretty soon I was heading up the hill towards Longleat Forest. Last time I was here, I found the atmosphere quite oppressive, but here on the left hand side of the road the woods were much more open. This was the Center Parcs side. Mixed woodland, dominated by evergreens and pines, but opened out, laced with beech and carpeted with green. There was a hint of the cycling utopia inside Center Parcs’ chainlink fence here, a little track into the forest that I took. Parallel with the road, but much more pleasant, weaving in and out of the trees before depositing me at the gate to Longleat.

Me and the Redwood, Longleat Forest

A little way into Longleat’s grounds stands a mighty redwood, regular readers of my blog will note that this is probably my favourite type of tree, though they are of course not native to Britain. I pulled the bike up next to the, very tall but still a relative baby, tree and took a quick snap. I’m not sure why it is that I love these trees so much. I have been captivated by them since reading Simon Schama’s Landscape and Memory- which has a long chapter dedicated to them. Over in this country they are but saplings compared to their American brethren, and often councils will chop them down, citing disease and the danger of falling branches for their reasons. I think they are daunted by the sheer size of these titans. Most in this country are around a century or so old, yet they tower over most other trees in their vicinity, indeed here in the village there is a grove of them, visible for miles around, even from the Wingfield straight. Recently a council on Trowbridge cut down two in a residential area, much to the disappointment of the residents, who demanded that replacements be planted. Center Parcs has a grove of quite old ones surrounded by a boardwalk. When my youngest was a mere babe, I woke early and top him with me to visit them before anyone else was up and about. It was one of my most favourite moments from that holiday, the forest alive with early morning birdsong, my son, awed by the majesty of these trees.

Redwood cones

Back to now, I gathered up a pocket full of redwood cones and head back to the house. On arriving home I had gone twenty one miles, not too shabby. Later on as my eldest son watched from his bedroom (instead of going to sleep), I shook out the tiny seeds from the cone and planted them in a seed tray. I understand it’s very hard to get redwoods to germinate, so we’ll see what happens, but at the moment I have fantasies of pots of redwoods being grown on in my garden…

Duskriding: Of turnpikes, the Gnashermakers, dead badgers and being out of bounds

Daguerreotype of Lemond Etape Racing Bike

Monday evening stayed dry and bright, there had been a fair few smatterings of rain around, and as I pointed the Lemond towards Warminster I could see the dark sheets of a downpour hanging below distant black clouds on Salisbury Plain. A side wind was blowing them towards Shrewton, I felt little concern at the prospect of being rained on as I gently eased the bike up Black Dog Hill. At the top I took the time to examine two posts next to the flyover bridge at Dead Maids Junction. The smallest post was a milestone, similar to others in the area, carefully crafted, smooth and carved with great skill. The larger post turned out to have three small holes, perhaps for bars, and the words ‘Warminster’ and ‘Bath’ in a beautiful 18th century script. I think this must have been the post for the tollgate on the turnpike.

I traveled on towards Warminster, pausing at the garage on the outskirts to replace the batteries in my front light, although the sun was still up, it was slowly heading for the horizon, dipping into low lying clouds and setting them on fire. I went through the centre of Warminster itself, noting some thick redwood trees around the area of the church. These will have to be investigated at a later date. Two shops stood out in the town, both on the Salisbury side of the town centre, the first was the superbly named ‘Gnashermakers’ home of the Warminster Dental Laboratory. What kind of crazy dental maverick runs this place?

the sign of the gnashermakers

For a photo of the lab front click here.

The other shop was called simply ‘Ripoff’ and seemingly deals with bankrupt stock, catalogue clearance and Lord only know what else. The windows were blocked out, perhaps the shop has closed down but I rather suspect that the occluded views hint at nefarious goings on out of the public gaze. The layby in front of the shop was packed with motorbikes, mopeds and trailers. See picture here.

Much cheered by these unexpected shops, I pedaled out of Warminster towards the A36. Still no sign of that rain and the light was still good. As usual for evening rides I had my reflective vest on and my customised helmet stickers which make me look like I am from TRON. There’s a nice bit of open field on the lead out from Warminster, I was drawn off the road onto a chalky track up to an old red-brick railway bridge. The way across the bridge was barred by steel poles, the ground around the structure was crumbling and the whole thing looked very precarious. Now the sun was going right down, the fire on the horizon was spreading, already in the East I could see darkness and stars, the moon was almost half full and high in the sky. Back on the road, I elected to go a little further, here the tarmac was wet and slick from a recent shower, the tyres hissed over the surface, the road-smell after the rain. Left at the roundabout onto the A36, now I was entering the deathzone. Crashes abound on this road, crystals of shattered windscreen piled up in small drifts, tinkling beneath the wheels, here and there a wing mirror, a hubcap, a section of bumper, testament to speed beyond the capability of the driver. Hard against the verge, inside the white line almost 3ft across I hammered the road while the cars screamed past at excessive speed. Black skid marks, the scent of burnt rubber still lingering in the air though the incident had happened earlier in the day, etched into the road , a memory of sudden panic. All too happy to take the left at Knook camp where the road goes off over the plain. Here I decided was the turn back point of the ride, the corpse of a badger served as a warning, its mouth bore the remains of a snarl though I could see no other damage on its body. Fur slicked with rain, eyes almost completely closed, a melancholy sight. Behind me on the side road I had freewheeled down, there was a simple circular sign ‘out of bounds’. I took a photo of the long shadows drawn out over the landscape, mindful of the last half hour of the day’s light. There was no activity in view at the camp, only the hum of the main road behind the trees broke the stillness of the evening. I turned back, crossing the A36 as the dusk overtook me. Now I was cycling through the magic hour, everything seems faster in the gathering darkness. With the sun just out of reach, the air cooled rapidly making me glad I had long sleeves on. With the traffic thinned out, it was easier to ride home, even the artic lorries were a help, pulling me along with their slipstreams, the welcome warmth of a passing diesel engine running hot as it guns the gears to take the roundabout, the glowing-coal red of the tail lights I am chasing. Back on the country lanes, blackbird alarm calls, a single staccato note repeated over and over as I pass Yew Tree Farm. Then into Warminster itself, queues in the chip shop and the chinese, smokers standing outside the doors of the pubs, sharing their exile, Marlboro Country. Out the other side of the town, labouring up the hill under the sulphur yellow light of the street lamps. Now the slow gentle gradient up to the top of Black Dog, then down, down, down. Hands on drops, tucked in, mouth practically on the bars to achieve 41mph. I sat up at the end, opening my arms to slow myself down, for some reason I felt the need to shout “AIRBRAKE!” as I did it, there was no one around to hear me.

Lorries pulling over into laybys, bedding in for the evening, some with curtains already drawn. Then into the village, cycling alongside Cousin Philippa on her way back from her mum’s (age 93), she doesn’t recognise me at first, taking me for a friendly chatty cyclist. Then she laughs as she realises who I am. We amble into the village talking about bikes. She rides her hybrid in wellies, it’s served her well for years and she racks up the miles going to her mum’s every day. We bid each other a cheery goodnight at the top of Lower Street and soon I am back at the house. 26.5 miles.

After the Snows of April

The weekend had come with a curious blend of weather, veering wildly between the glorious sun of Spring and, well, quite frankly, a blizzard. With snow on the ground on Monday morning, the boys were out in the garden making a tiny snowman, but by the afternoon all that remained was a small puddle with two stones, a carrot and a couple of sticks sitting forlornly in the middle. Inside the greenhouse the sweetcorn, lettuce and spinach were pushing green shoots out of the compost, the washing was on the line and the air was warming nicely. After a hard day’s slog at the computer, it was time to get out on the bike. I selected the Lemond Etape again.

The roads were slick with melting slush, I didn’t fancy going up the Black Dog again so I headed through Rudge, easing down the winding Scotland Lane to look for the end of that byway on the way. Sure enough, there was a signpost pointing over a bumpy field towards a copse of trees. I made a note to return soon with the Mountain Bike and tackle it from the other end. Down Rudge Hill I plummeted, executing a rather splendid skid to take the corner towards Brokerswood. Near the country park I found myself needing to view the plough, so I lent the bike against a mossy pole and took to the ditch to answer the urgent call of nature. Soon I was back on the road, one hand on the handlebars, no urgency to my riding.

I’ve recently taken up running, which seems to have freed me up from the need to go ridiculously fast everywhere on the bike, or at least to push myself too hard, not yet anyway, I’ll save that for later in the year.

On towards Dilton, up and over the little railway bridges again, the landscape laid out in golden evening light. Beyond Warminster I could see the snow clouds slowly heading off over the plain, above me clear blue sky. It seems to me that it’s hard to fix in my memory just how brilliantly blue the sky is, it’s like seeing a kingfisher, the blue is always so startling and vivid. Perhaps I just think in muted tones.

At Dilton I decided to take a back route and ended up going up a very steep climb called Tower Hill. Suddenly I was beset by cars, growling and revving behind me as I inched up the twisty wooded lane. At the crest I swung left heading down a very narrow country road, about forty yards down, two gleaming 4x4s had arrived at a literal impasse and now sat head to head while the drivers, both dressed in quilted bodywarmers, motioned each other to go back. I squeezed past and left them to it, approaching a switchback I heard a crunch of gears and the whine of a Shogun reversing at speed so I took the first turning I saw. Immediately I needed another wee-wee. Perhaps it was the close attention of the cars, inducing nerves and anxiety, or maybe it was the six cups of tea I had drank during the day as I worked. No matter, much relieved I continued up the hill. The road was arched by trees, a squirrel bounced from branch to branch overhead as I trickled onwards. Birdsong flooded out from the greening undergrowth, enriching the air with clear, jewel-like tones. I’ve noticed that one of the digital radio stations has stopped broadcasting and been replaced with a loop of birdsong, apparently this has doubled the amount of listeners the previous station had. I like to listen to the channel when I’m washing up. Looking at the ukdigitalradio website I noticed it says:

“Please note that the line up of birds featured in the cast may change without warning due to illness, weather and migration.”

There was a blackbird alarm call and then a weird continuous ringing tone started up, getting louder and louder. It turned into a roar and suddenly a train rushed past on the track that I hadn’t noticed was right next to the road. A little way further up I came to a small bridge and a layby absolutely smothered with bin bags and flytipped rubbish. Paintpots, a skateboard, pizza boxes, dirty nappies, cans, someone had also decided to set fire to half of it at some point. It was a depressing sight and I quickly hurried past after taking a picture.

Reluctantly I headed back to the A36 and hurtled down Black Dog Hill, getting up to 42mph. Rather than take on the dual carriageway I turned into Beckington and pottered through the village, before skipping over the A36 and heading home.

A mere 16.5 miles, but proper bicycling none-the-less. More pictures at my Flickr page (including the flytipping).

Bicycling in the Spring

Before I get started on this one, it’s been pointed out that I’ve spelled Tellisford incorrectly, continuously. I really can’t be bothered to go back and change it all yet, but rest assured that when I say Telisford, I mean Tellisford.

Now the ride I am about to blog about was actually completed on Thursday the 27th March. However, I’ve just had so much work to do that every time I’ve turned on the computer I’ve ended up working instead. I’ve actually ridden out again since then, but let’s concentrate on 27th March first.

It felt to me as though it was the first proper Spring bicycle ride of the year, as I pedaled out of the village I surmised that perhaps I didn’t need my merino top, the air was warm. Plunging into the arched avenue of trees on the lead out quickly disabused me of that notion, in the shadows it was still very cold. My next door neighbour had just come back from her cycle ride (this is a very bikey street) and warned me to take my glasses, in the sun, the air was thick with freshly hatched flying insects and she had got an eyeful, several times. I felt like a bit of a meander so I headed over to the local farm shop, searching for a way through to the village that didn’t involve tackling the A36 or a roundabout. Past the farm shop is a no through road, in fact it’s the old main road, it still has the cats eyes.

The surface of the road is starting to break up, a few layers of tarmac have gone from the top leaving a tiny canyon landscape, spattered with microboulders. The centre of the road surface had split open and sprouted grass and mosses and at the edges the verge had blurred into a mat of creeping green and drifting twigs. I wondered how long it would take before the road is absorbed into the woods, ten? Fifteen? Twenty years. A few days after this ride I met a man in the village shop looking for Chapmanslade, he had lived here twenty-five years ago, but the roads had changed so much that he had started down the A36, hit the dual carriageway and had a sudden mental crisis, he had no idea where he was. None of the tunrings off the roundabout looked familiar to him and he had turned the car around, crawled back into the village and stumbled into the post office looking for some sort of directions. I showed him Chapmanslade on the map and he said “I know where it is, but the roads aren’t right anymore!”. I told him, up the Black Dog Hill and off at the top, it’s signposted. All he had to do was hold his nerve for four and a half miles. Perhaps this here was the road he remembered. Now it’s lost, there is nothing at the end of it,  it fades into a field of sheep becoming a mere footpath. How the sounds of the traffic screaming down the new road scant yards away must mock it, or maybe not. Maybe the road has served its time and is now content to fold back into nature, be sucked into the green oblivion, recorded only on ordnance survey maps from the 80s, a tarmac ghost whispering its fragmented memories of journeys to the steel phonemast at its terminus.

I found it impossible to believe that there could be no bridalway around there so I traced my way back towards the farm shop. Sure enough, right next to the pig pens a lichen streaked wooden sign pointed down an overgrown path. A public byway.  A glance down the track revealed a very overgrown pathway, with a little cutting back and care, it could be used for bikes. But where did it come out? It was too muddy down there to find out, especially since I was riding the Lemond Etape. This looks like a job for The Highway Cycling Group Expeditionary Force (who I’ve just invented). The HCGEF will take a Mountainbike and some branch lopperrs down there and see if they can find a way through. By my calculations the other end of the track could well be Scotland Lane in Rudge, if it is then it could be the passage through to the farm shop that the timid of the village have been longing for. No, they shall not have to brave the A36, nor shall they have to hang a right on the very busy roundabout at Beckington, for I shall blaze a trail through the overgrown byway for them! Can you see how I’m setting myself up for a fall here?

The location of the track duly noted, I set off again, once more with no idea where I should go. I took Black Dog Hill at speed, well 12mph anyway, searing my lungs in the process and electing to swing off at Dead Maids Junction. I passed a derelict garden centre, it still had its ‘open’ sign out.

This was another A road, though not as wide as the A36,cars were passing me pretty closely. I stopped to take a work call by a field scattered about with majestic redwoods, their glorious crowns towering above every other tree in the area. I skimmed down the incredibly steep Hollow at Dilton Marsh and hung a left at the railway bridge which tipped me into Penleigh. A range of goat breeds watched me drift past the house, their chewing was the only sound save for the soft whirr of my chain and the gentle hiss of rubber on tarmac. Over the delightful pair of railway bridges, set on an ‘s’ shaped road so that a rider can see the other bridge hove onto view as the first bridge is crested. Somewhere in the distance there is another two span arch bridge, but I guess it must be on a private farm track, it’ll take some courage to find it, another day perhaps.

Back into Rudge a little lost now, not used to coming this way. Passing old hand-painted lettering on the sides of decommissioned trucks. Here in the valley the air has a sharp chill where the Spring sun has not yet penetrated. Rudge Hill throws me over the road, left to right and back again, out of the saddle pushing hard on the cranks. Then a sharp descent back towards the village, rolling in past the post office standing on the pedals before a final sprint up the hill.

In total, 17.5 miles. Not bad for an hour or so of pleasant bicycling.

In the Pines, in the Pines where the Sun don’t ever shine

A curious mixture of weather this evening. Rich golden light from the setting sun and ink-black clouds, their edges ragged and torn unloading a shower as I set out up the A36 towards Warminster. A tremendous slap up feed on Sunday was still sitting a little heavily on me so I just span gently up Black Dog Hill, not really sure where I was going to decide to ride to. There was plenty of spray coming off the road onto my legs, but the high cadence kept me warm. By the time I reached the beginning of the Warminster bypass I had decided to go to the little roundabout by Cley Hill and go left, up the hill past Center Parcs and onto the Longleat Forest road. The bypass itself was not pleasant in the rain, particularly the last part up to Cley Hill Roundabout (It’s one of John Hayes’ least favourite stretches of road), the road betweeen Cley Hill roundabout and the safari park turn off is even worse, a nasty Faux Plat and not that much room for cars to pass safely. Up past the entrance to Center Parcs and beyond the timber merchants the road disappears upwards into the dense pine forest. Sounds became close and sharp as the trees closed in tightly to the road. There was an expectant stillness, a quiet broken only by the clicking of my freewheel, a sound made abnormally loud by the looming forest. Though the rain had stopped, huge droplets of water showered down sporadically from the dank branches to spatter heavily on the road ahead and behind as I passed. A glance to the right revealed deep golden sunlight reaching out over the horizon in the distance, visible through the regimented rows of trees though it could not throw any illumination onto the shadows crowding the forest floor and the moss-edged road. The forest seemed older than its five score years, towering, oppressive even, redolent of pine resin, rich tar oozing from the ends of logs piled up, stacked where they had been cut down. It brought to my mind the eerie Leadbelly song Where Did You Sleep Last night.

My girl, my girl, don’t lie to me,
tell me where did you sleep last night?
In the pines, in the pines,
Where the sun don’t ever shine,
I will shiver the whole night through.

My girl, my girl, where will you go,
I’m going where the cold wind blows.
In the pines, in the pines,
Where the sun don’t ever shine,
I will shiver the whole night through.

Yet on the turn of the hill as it began to drop away towards Horningsham there was a sudden flare of light as I rode past the entrance to a forest track. Cycling back up the hill a little way I could see the track running straight to a field in the middle of the forest and the setting sun could throw its rays all the way to the road. I eased the bike past the padlocked rusty barrier and wheeled it over the chippings to the end of the track where the forest opened out into the grassy field. A woodpecker called loudly somewhere nearby, and across the glebe a crow was cawing in the last minutes of glorious sunlight. This was a beautiful moment, made all the more lovely as it contrasted with the man-made forest with its trees planted so close that nothing grows on the forest floor save a pile of decaying pine needles from the dying lower branches of each tree. I savoured the remaining warmth as the sun set, then prepared for the descent. I followed a little Fiat down the hill at 36mph, keeping contact with it up to the roundabout, then I was away from the forest and back onto the A36. Black Dog Hill took my last remaining warmth from me on the descent, but in return it gave up 43mph of speed. All was going well, rows of artic lorries were pulling me along in their irresistible slipstreams, but then I reached the dual carriageway by Beckington. The sunlight was all but gone and I ran over something hard and metal, there was a bang, a hiss of escaping air and the sudden realisation that I had punctured badly a mile and a half from the village. It was a long walk down the A36 to the garage. I hoped to be able to effect a repair under the light of the canopy. I was a little concerned as the tyre in question was a slime tube, so if it was a small puncture it should have fixed itself. My fears were confirmed when I took the wheel off and levered the tube out. Green slime everywhere and a huge double snakebite rip in the tube. The wheel wasn’t looking too happy itself. The walk back to the village was long and dark down lanes teeming with rats, they scuttled in and out of the hedge, over the road in front and behind the bike, I could barely see them, a flicker of a tail in the bike light, a twitch of whiskers. Around my head flew many bats, coming so close I could feel the rush of air as they passed. It was an eerie walk back, but apart from nearly stepping on a pheasant’s tail and the resulting near heart attack it induced as it flew up squawking into the air in front of me, it was an easy walk back to the lamplight of the village.

That’s a trip to the bike shop tomorrow then… any excuse.

Published in: on August 7, 2007 at 12:19 am  Comments (1)