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.

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.

Tuesday Ride VI: of energy bars, super-fit riding companions and Brooks Saddles

Hooray, the Tuesday Rides are back on. John was almost recovered from his illness, so at 1930 I was waiting on the kerb by the Bell Inn, hoping my food had gone down enough to allow me to ride without chucking it all back up. John turned up with one of his neighbours, Bradley. Bradley claimed to be unfit, but he was dressed in some pretty sporty gear, his legs looked strong and his bike was silky, a slightly under-sized black aluminium Cannondale with carbon forks and some tasty looking wheels. He looked like a pro, and actually it turns out he’s an excellent mountain biker. John was already on the Asthma inhaler and hadn’t ridden for two weeks, but as usual he was game and up for the ride. I started off at the front, pulling through the crosswind as we hit the A36, we took it easy to begin with, chatting, enjoying the dry weather and the bright evening. I pulled us to Black Dog Hill and started up at what I thought was a reasonable pace, then Bradley just flew past me. I was completely dropped by Black Dog Farm and I could only watch as he powered up the hill. I kept him in view, but it was little consolation. Looking behind I couldn’t see John at all. Then, oh the the shame, Bradley stopped and waited for us at the bridge. I slowed right down so I wouldn’t be wheezing as I arrived at the crest, as it happens I was only panting and not much good for conversation. John wasn’t too far behind, he’d taken it at a sensible pace, sensible chap. I don’t think John saw me get dropped, but I’m sure it would have looked impressive, it was an excellent burst of acceleration from Bradley and I had nothing to answer it with.

John cycles up

I pulled through the headwind to the Warminster roundabout that starts the bypass, I considered that I had therefore done my work for a few miles so was quite happy to sit on the others’ wheels for a while. Having three people riding was great, drafting in third place meant I was putting in around 40% less effort than whoever was in front at the time. It was going well until we slowed down and started chatting, I clipped John’s back wheel, luckily only at seven miles an hour, but it was embarrassing none-the-less.

Then as we passed Cley Hill Roundabout with me at the back, I realised a Range Rover had slowed right down and was driving at the same speed I was riding. It was a little worrying, especially as the window started to wind down. Then a guy lent out and handed me an energy bar! Apparently these guys were working for, or ran, the company, Mule Bar that produces them and wanted us to try them. They drove on and passed a bar each to John and Bradley too. Cool! I got the opportunity to try mine a little further up the road when John’s new Brooks saddle (unbroken in and bashing his buttocks about like a meat tenderiser) worked lose when he hit a pothole. We pulled into a layby so John could affect an immediate repair, and I tried the bar, Hunza Nut flavour. It was very tasty, more so than the normal energy bars you get. Pleasingly the bars are also Fairtrade, full of natural ingredients and a logo proclaims that 1% of the company’s sales goes to environmental work. It was quite moist too so I didn’t have to drain my bidon to rehydrate as you do with some very dry bars. Nice! Visit the Mule Bar website here for more details of their products. I don’t know if those guys were actively out looking for cyclists to hand the bars to, or if they just happened to be passing us and thought “hey those guys look like top racing athletes, let’s give ’em some bars” or more likely “that guy on the Lemond etape at the back looks a bit fat and sickly let’s have mercy on him and give him a bar, also that chap coughing who’s obviously recovering from being ill. That bloke with the ponytail isn’t having any trouble but let’s give him a bar so he doesn’t get jealous”. Whatever the reason it was a pretty cool thing to happen.

When we set off again I thought I might try a sneaky breakaway by shooting down the left of the others on a layby, I powered out ahead of them, chuckling to myself, but on hearing some gears changing up, I looked over my shoulder there was Bradley, he said “left at the roundabout?” then he was away again. As John and I approached the roundabout he cycled back down the road to see where we’d gone, drat!

Thereafter we picked up the pace around Warminster, maybe it was the energy bars, or maybe it was the tailwind, but either way John was fully warmed up and his cadence was high, although he hadn’t ridden for two weeeks his recovery time was excellent. Out of Warminster up the hill towards Westbury. A beep from a twat in a car because we were riding in the dominant position, Bradley gave him the time-honoured signal for “there is plenty of room here good sir” (a hand held out to the right). Westbury was fast, damn fast! We entered the back pushing 40mph off the hill, then kept the speed high all the way through, leaning into the corners and pushing hard out of the bends. Riding in a group of three really increases the confidence, it’s like a mini-crtical mass in traffic and it was easier to control the road and keep things safe, fewer cars tried to squeeze past, knowing they’d have to get beyond all three of us at 26-28mph before moving back over. There was a bit too much chat for my liking on the approach to Yarnbrook, I like to be going about 23-26mph on that bit of road so I took to the front and on seeing me move off, the others didn’t hang around either. As we came up to the traffic lights they hit amber, Bradley urged me on and John, slightly behind us, raced across the garage forecourt and over the closed junction to avoid the lights all together. A nice move, well executed.

Again, maybe it was the energy bar, but I had plenty of legs left so I followed the chaps into Trowbridge itself, stupidly taking the bike lane. What a rubbish surface! Honestly! I quickly got back onto the road, shouted bye, and headed back for the village. Rode Hill was no trouble and by the time I put the bike away I saw I had put thirty miles on the clock, that makes 111 miles so far this week. I think I’ll have a day off from riding tomorrow.

The next time Someone tells John they are unfit I think he should ask for a BMI reading and a heart-rate! Having said that it was excellent having Brad along, he varied the pace, showed how far I have to go to get fit and wow it made the drafting easier. Basically it was harder work with someone pushing the pace higher, but there was more opportunity for resting by riding third in the group every now and again. I hope he wasn’t too bored with having to go easy on us and wait for us all the time as it would be great if he came out with us next week. Maybe we can work on becoming a proper chain gang, we may have to, John is threatening to bring some serious roadies along soon!

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  

The Old Roads are the Best

My Saturday evening ride started early at five in the afternoon with the threat of rain. I was in the mood for some meandering, so halfway up Black Dog Hill I turned left onto a hitherto unnoticed, tiny, but steep track. It climbed up swiftly into dank old growth forest, the banks encroaching on the decaying road surface. There were regular bumps in the centre of the track, I suddenly realised that they were the indentions left from torn out cats eyes. Clearly I was cycling up the old Black Dog Hill Road, the winding, narrow route that the coaches had to crawl up, the drivers fearfully scanning the banks for the ruthless highwayman and his evil black hound. Standing on the pedals and crawling up the slope, it was easy to imagine the huge ghost dog slinking through the undergrowth. The shattered crumbling tarmac swung up and right until the way was blocked by a padlocked gate with a sign warning that my number plate had been noted. Beyond the gate a mobile phone mast now stood in the centre of the road. Stand and deliver.

the Old Black Dog Road

There was another road cut into the bank, this one was chippings, I cycled a little way up, but it seemed to turn into a farm’s driveway. I turned back and dropped down the hill, bouncing around on the mangled asphalt until I had to grab handfuls of brake to stop before being spat onto the A36, made a note to myself to get those brakes sorted. Back on the Black Dog Hill, I climbed up to Dead Maids Junction as the first fat drops of rain started to fall. A brief shower passed leaving steam rising from the warm tarmac and the distinctive smell of the road after rainfall. My legs felt strong so I just cycled round every little back-road I could find, Upton Scudamore, the road bridge over the A36, the edge of Westbury, the outskirts of Warminster. I didn’t turn back until I reached the roundabout at the Salisbury end of the Warminster Bypass. There I found more old road, the brambles were crawling all the way across, huge concrete blocks painted white stopped cars from going down. I took the bike a little way along, but it seemed to turn into undergrowth pretty quickly:

the Old Roads are the best

How long since the roundabout had caused this road to die? Ten years? Twenty? I suspect nature takes roads back surprisingly quickly. 43mph down Black Dog Hill, I was back home by seven, 34 miles, one whole bidon of water.

Published in: on July 30, 2007 at 10:21 pm  Leave a Comment  

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

Tuesday Ride

In the afternoon I cycled into Trowbridge on the Brompton in order to gauge how long it would take me to get to the train station, 16 mins was the answer. As I don’t have a cycle computer on the Brompton I had to input the distance and the time into a distance calculator to find out how fast I went, I’m pleased to say that I did it at 15.5mph average speed even with a pair of enormous trousers on (though I was clipped up so I looked like a cossack). I nipped into Waterstone’s (Ottakar’s that was) to see my old chum John Hayes, a man so deeply into bicycles that he has pedals instead of feet. It transpired that:

a) Waterstone’s are starting a Tour-de-France promotion after the weekend

and

b) He would be passing the village at seven twenty in the evening so we arranged for me to tag along on the ride.

John didn’t do much cycling over the winter so by his own admission he’s carrying some extra weight, same as me really. I’ve been pushing some higher average speeds than him, but I suspect that he hasn’t really been cranking it, also he goes out mountain-biking on Thursdays and always ends up at the pub, whacking the calories he’s just burnt back on again.

The sprogs were playing up at bedtime, this in combination with the fact that it’s my wife’s mother’s final delivery day for her art degree and all the helping this entailed, meant that it was a close run thing. I sprinted through the village and found that thankfully he was still waiting for me by the pub.

We decided to head Warminster way. John led, but we found that with the extra wide margin on the A36 we could cycle side by side without getting in the way of the traffic. The going was easy and we could chat with no problem, that was until we hit Black Dog Hill. I took it at 12mph in a display of bravado and nearly killed myself. I freewheeled at the top by Dead Maid’s Junction, which gave time for me to stop wheezing as John caught up. Pretty soon we were on the Warminster bypass and enjoying the freshly laid tarmac. We got some respectable speeds going and I was even able to take a couple of snaps.

John and I on the A36, incredible speeds

We turned back into Warminster at the other end of the bypass, and John took me out along the industrial estates in towards Westbury. With a bugger of a headwind we took turns drafting, it’s amazing how much less effort you need when you are cycling on someone else’s wheel. I pulled away again on the hill into Westbury, but John hung back then snuck up at speed as I slowed for a roundabout, leaving me in his wake and having to put double the effort in to catch him on the uphill. I finally caught him in the centre of town, Westbury has a pretty fast flow of traffic and some quite nifty chevron covered corners, ideal for bikes going at speed. Back out along the A350, John’s bike is steel so he felt the mini Hell of the North that is the stretch by the cement works much less than I did. I took my turn at the front in the headwind and pulled us up the hill, then it was a fast gradient into Yarnbrook. John turned for home at The Rising Sun pub, with similar distances to go to finish the ride at our respective houses, we each put in 27.5 miles at an average speed of 16.6mph though John probably made it 30 by cycling out to meet me. We’re hoping to make this a regular Tuesday ride and maybe get a few others along as well. Cheers John.

Up early tomorrow to cycle to Trowbridge in order to catch the train.

Rider in the Storm

True to my word, I went for a ride on the LeMond today, though it was raining heavily. Actually, I don’t mind cycling in the rain, but I hate cycling when it’s windy. One look at our homemade windsock (the Windfish) lying perpendicular, told me that although it was pouring, there was thankfully no wind. Saddling up at 0915 I headed out to the A36 wearing my ancient waterproof coat (which as it turns out, is no longer waterproof) and my hiking boots (normally I wear IPath Bigfoots for cycling, but I didn’t want them to get wet). Immediately, I was soaked and the main reason was my lack of mudguards so I pulled down the waterproof over the saddle as best I could and dug in to the ride. To begin with it was freezing, numb fingers and saturated leggings had me feeling pretty miserable, but before I’d made it to the main road, the effort of cycling had warmed me up. It’s often the way when I start in bad weather, the first five minutes are spent thinking “What the hell am I doing?”, then on the sixth minute the sheer joy of being on a bike kicks in.

There was a fair amount of traffic on the road, still it was easy going right up to the base of Black Dog Hill. No heroics there, I slipped into the middle ring and just took it in a sensible gear. The Black Dog is not massively steep, but it does go on a bit, here and there on the steep banks are the remains of plastic wrappers from bouquets of flowers, reminders that Black Dog is an accident blackspot. The combination of a seemingly straight road and an extra lane that both directions of traffic can use occasionaly tempts a driver to try something stupid in traffic already going over 60mph. There’s a hidden dip before Dead Maid’s Junction, visibilty from the top and bottom is not as good as it appears and the gap between oncoming traffic in both directions closes at over 120mph. Add in an impatient driver and you have the recipe for one of the Wiltshire Times’ regular ‘Horror Smash’ headlines.

Anyway, cresting Black Dog and flying past Dead Maid’s I thought I saw a flash or two of lightning, but I could well have been hallucinating as by that time cats, dogs and pitchforks were coming out of the sky and my cycling goggles had filled with water. So straight on into Warminster. I’d never cycled into the town before and it’s funny, but you just don’t notice gradients until you actually cycle a road, rather than driving. The gradient up from the Little Chef roundabout had never registered with me before, I remembered it as all downhill into town, but that came a quarter mile uphill later.

Out the other side of town, some wag had spraypainted the road…
Fast
I was just about managing 20mph at this point, my average for the ride was sitting on 17.3mph, which is what I normally average on a ten mile ride (pretty rubbish I know). Onto the roundabout, strangely devoid of traffic and into Heytesbury. Having cycled to the end of the village, I dismounted and as it had finally stopped raining, tried to take a picture using the self-timer that didn’t make me look stupid. This appeared to be impossible and the one below was sadly the best of the bunch.
me in the rain
Supping water and having a leg stretch felt pretty good, but I rapidly started to get cold so it was time to set off back again. On my way out of the village I passed an all-woman cycle group heading in. I’m one of those cyclists who always acknowledges a fellow rider, (usually it’s only serious-looking blokes on roadbikes who fail to reciprocate) and the female peloton waved back, some even adding a breezy “hello there!” or “alright?” as they shot past. Unfortunately the wind was starting to get up and pretty soon I was putting a lot of effort into keeping the average speed above 15mph. Luckily going down Black Dog as fast as I dared at 34.6mph got me up to 16.8mph in time for my least favourite part of the ride; the long grind from the Dilton Marsh turn-off to the Beckington roundabout. Picking through the miserable looking traffic queuing to get into a washed out car boot sale, I struggled to keep above 13mph. However, pulling my sodden bum off the saddle I put in a herculean effort (well herculean by my unfit standards) to sprint down the dual carriageway.

Back home I checked the computer and tallied up the ride, 26 miles, max speed 34.6mph, average speed 16.3mph. Reasonable, and a lot of fun despite the rain. Time for a hot shower.