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…

Tuesday Ride X: of stupidly fast descents, chasing mopeds and a stately home

Tuesday evening came round quickly this week, not least because I had spent much of the week suffering the effects of a debilitating illness, the details of which I will spare my reader, save to say that I lost nearly 4lbs over four days. Considering how awful this summer has been, the weather had remained uncharacteristicly dry so at seven-thirty in the evening I met with John and Bradley at the Bell Inn. The Lemond is starting to play up a little, the rear tyre had gone slightly flat and the bottom bracket was still knocking with every turn of the cranks. This matched Brad’s steed, his bottom bracket was squeaking with each revolution, John’s bike of course was fighting fit. We elected to go towards Longleat with some notion about climbing a hill or descending, I wasn’t sure which. Black Dog Hill had become a bit boring (neither John nor myself fancied watching Brad demolish us on the climb again) so we decided to go via Chapmanslade. There was no way we were going to get away without a climb of some sort, the first major one came just as we were overtaken by a moped. I was on point as it pulled past me, with Brad in hot pursuit. Pretty soon Brad was on his back wheel and the guy was looking behind in panic, trying to shake Brad off to no avail. It wasn’t until we got halfway up the first hill that the stricken scooter managed to pull away and Brad gave up with a laugh. Without the hill I’m convinced Brad could have sat one foot behind him for miles, it gave some indication of Brad’s fitness that the scooter engine was straining so much to put out the same amount of power Brad’s legs were generating as he churned the cranks in the big ring.

The road to Cley Hill was undulating with several short, sharp, shock hills splitting the riders up and giving our legs a going over. I’m finding the hills easier now, I can ride them faster with Brad off the front giving me something to aim at, even when he vanishes round a corner. Soon the mighty slopes of Cley Hill were rising to our left and the shadows were fading into the fast approaching night. We rode on past tiny turnings that promised to lead to places with names like ‘Longhedge’ and ‘Temple’, roads pointing up and roads dropping down. We stuck to the road we knew and took the roundabout up towards Center Parcs, the air filled up with the sharp scent of pine tar and freshly sawn timber as we climbed yet another hill. Soon we were turning into the barrier-controlled entrance to Longleat Safari Park. Now we were in cycle utopia, no cars, tarmac roads, beautiful trees and an amazing view. The distant lights of Frome burned hazily in the last embers of dusk, far to the West we could see the orange glow of Shepton Mallet.

Past a green, weed covered pond that looked like it might contain pike as big as coffins and twice as deep down, either that or some monster carp rolling lazily beneath the surface. My fishy reverie was disturbed by John shouting back “Check your maximum speed now!” before droppping off down the hill. The air accelerated past me with a deafening roar, Brad and John were way out in front but I could barely see through the water streaming from my eyes in the wind. Trying not to lock my arms was difficult as the speed sucked the warmth from my limbs, but the super-smooth tarmac kept the wheels running true, there was no vibration and the speed was incredible. Too late I saw the sharp right and just about managed to scrub some speed off before I shot onto the grass. Now I was riding for two hundred yards in a field as I struggled to point my errant steed back towards the tarmac, thank goodness there were no fences. Back on the road with the speed up, a cattle grid registered as a brief thrumming metallic chord beneath the tyres. The others were waiting in front of Longleat House and we compared maximum speeds. I had managed 46.5mph before coming off the road.

Longleat House at dusk, three cyclists in front

There then followed ten minutes of cycling round carparks, sporadic tannoy announcements that may or may not have been directed at us, and wondering if John actually knew were he was leading us. Past the adventure castle, the minature railway, the butterly house and the famous maze, onto a clearly defined track and yes John did know where he was going thank you very much, this was the way out of the park. More climbing, more descents, winding our way out of the valley and into the next one. Aroma of pub food mingles with stagnant water, orange glow of streetlights. The roads are busy, cars coming too close for comfort, not noticing three cyclists, time to stop and pull on the Hi-Viz Tron jacket in order to go nightwatchman at the back. Now the cars are slowing down, pulling wide as they see me. Onto the frome bypass, John’s rear light is fading but in his backpack he has spare batteries. As soon as he is recharged we head back onto the main road, now Bradley takes off but we don’t worry, we know he’ll wait at The Bell. Five minutes later we’re all grouped together, it’s the end of my ride but John and Brad have to cycle back to Trowbridge.

Next week, Bradley chooses the route – imagine the carnage!

Published in: on August 29, 2007 at 11:47 pm  Leave a Comment  

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)  

Cley Hill to Dead Maids Junction – Edge of Dusk

Sunday saw me striking out down the A36, I had left it pretty late and already dewy dusk was settling over the landscape. The air was thinner and the temperature cool and pleasant affording me an easy ascent of Black Dog Hill. Dead Maids Junction seemed almost welcoming, evening sunlight raking the long grass on the kerb, butterflies flitting to drink one last proboscisfull of nectar before the warm golden light vanished behind the horizon. I gently rode round the bypass, following the A36 and oblivious to the traffic, a good solid session of just ‘cycling around’. On a whim I decided to head to Cley Hill.

Julian Cope in his Modern Antiquarian (Thorsons, Hapercollins, London) suggests that Cley Hill is a Recumbent Goddess figure, the swollen belly being the main hill, but Powells Folklore notes from South West Wilts (1901) has this origin story recounted by a local:

“The folk of Devizes had offended the devil, who swore he would serve them out. So he went “down the country” (ie into Somerset), and found a big “hump” and put it on his back, to carry it and fling it at them. On his journey back he met a man and asked the way to Devizes. The man replied,
That’s just what I want to know myself. I started for Devizes when my beard was black, and now it’s grey, and I haven’t got there yet.
The devil replied, “If that’s how it is, I won’t carry this thing no further, so here goes, ” and he flung the “girt (great) hump” off his shoulder, and there it is”.

I have also heard a story that the pile of earth was made by the people of Wiltshire who “had to wipe the Wiltshire earth off their feet before being allowed to step into Somerset”

Whatever the origin of this remarkable hill, there is a bastard of a Faux Plat as you come off the A36 and head for the Longleat roundabout. It looks flat from that direction, but on the return trip it’s apparent that it’s actually a pretty nasty gradient. The carpark is a mean potholey place with huge sharp chippings. Certainly not the place to leave one’s racing velocipede, so I walked up to the hill wheeling the bicycle with me. The clouds turned a beautiful shade of pink as the sun began to draw in the last of its rays. There was a gentle breeze, but with the sun gone, it got quite suddenly very cold, not the best time of day to cycle in three-quarter shorts and a short-sleeve cycle vest. The moon made a graceful ascent into the sky, marvellously full and glowing brightly. Easing back onto the A36 I found that the traffic had all but died away save for the nightfreight. I don’t mind lorries even they do swing a little too close as they pull back in after overtaking, the slipstream is wonderful. I was almost pulled up the slight gradient to Dead Maids Junction.

Dead Maids Junction

It didn’t look so welcoming now, as another huge truck rolled past me, something alive and fluttering hit me in the chest. It felt pretty big, perhaps a bat or a particularly heavy moth? No idea how fast I went down Black Dog Hill, there was no way of reading the display and I forgot to check the top speed on my computer before I cleared it. The Hi-Viz vest and helmet stickers seemed to be working as cars from behind were giving me a very wide berth. In the layby next to the Beckington roundabout artic lorries were bedding in for the night, orange glows from the cabins, glimpses of tired-looking men with newspapers and coffee, or perhaps cocoa. The scent of diesel, tyre rubber and cigarette smoke; waves of heat from the cooling engines offering brief respite from the cold generated by my speed. In the fields farm-workers took advantage of the dry day, tractors and combines working through the night, distant shouts, blazing headlights tracking across the corn, even at that distance I could see the moths dancing in the fierce white beams before the machines.

Waited for an age for the headlights behind me to pass so I could move into the right hand lane on the roundabout, only when I realised I couldn’t hear an engine did I look round to discover I had been fooled by the light of the full moon.

Back to the house, warm shower bringing life back to cold, aching limbs. A good ride.

Published in: on July 30, 2007 at 11:17 pm  Leave a Comment