Highway Cycling Group and The Bike Show

18:30 Monday 29th June, listen to the Bike Show on resonance FM to hear what happened when Jack Thurston of the Bike Show rode through The Highway Cycling Group’s patch on day two of his epic ride from London to Bristol. Listen in as we visit The Hackpen Clumps where the HCG founder’s ashes are scattered, and look out over the Wiltshire landscape.

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Find out what happens if you take a Lemond Etape with a cheap back tyre at speed down Green Lane, the rutted, flint-strewn, chalk scar that drops from the Ridgeway to Avebury.

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Walk with us as we make a circuit of the stone circle and speculate wildly on its origins. Join us as we drink in the pastoral scene of two highland cows enjoying the shade of a horse chestnut tree.

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And gasp in amazement as Jack interviews me whilst riding along a recently restored canal path between Chippenham and Lacock. Throughout, I invite you to smirk at my funny sounding voice and my wheezing as I try to keep up with Jack.

Finally, don’t forget to donate to Resonance FM to help keep the Bike Show on the air.

If you missed the show, you can download the podcast or listen at the Bike Show web page

Thank you very much to Jack Thurston for inviting me to be his guide through the Wiltshire landscape, and for an absolutely splendid day, including, but not limited to, lunch at the Red Lion – Avebury, a dip in the river at Lacock*, and some speedy puncture repair.

Jack Thurston prepares to take a dip in the river, Lacock, Wiltsire

Jack Thurston prepares to take a dip in the river, Lacock, Wiltsire

* Where we were joined by Daniel Start, author of Wild Swimming and Wild Swimming Coast two books I most heartily recommend if you fancy a dip in the river or sea.

Night Riding to the Thankful Village

It’s not long until we go on a cycling camping trip to Belgium and France. I remain woefully out of shape, carrying at least a stone and a half too much weight, the majority of which seems to be round my middle forcing an inadvertant ‘whuff!’ noise to escape from my mouth whenever I bend down to pick anything up. With a barely suppressed sense of mounting panic, I decided that I’d better get another ride in before we go. So I arranged a weekend pedal once again with Mike.

The night before, I made an adjustment to the rack on the bike. I like to have my panniers quite far back so my heels don’t clip as I spin the pedals. Unfortunately this has the unwanted side-effect of obscuring any light attached to the rack. Also, with a tent slung over the panniers, a light on the saddle bag would be covered. So I fashioned an extension bracket out of an aluminum strip. In order to keep it flush to the rack I used my tap and die set to cut some threads into the metal, ensuring a nice snug fit with no wobbling. Using a hacksaw, I carved off a bracket from an old plastic light set and bolted it onto the metal. It worked perfectly, pulling the light out from under the pannier and, as it’s box shaped, remaining strong. I then added the HYmini wind charger to the handlebars, choosing to sling it underneath to keep the top clear of clutter.

As Earth Hour kicked off, I took the bike out for an eerie spin through the country lanes. The Bike Hut Ultrabright front light was certainly bright enough to ride with at speed and confidence in the dark, but it was a little leaky, throwing some of the powerful beams up into my face and ruining my night vision somewhat. However, this did seem to have the effect of underlighting my face in a demonic manner, which is always good. I spent the best part of an hour shooting around the roads, trying to make the rear light fall out of its new location and also testing out the speed I needed to be going to get the HYmini wind charger turning in order to create charge.

I stopped the bike at Tellisford crossroads and propped it up against a five-bar gate. I walked twenty or so yards away down the road and turned back to look at the light arrangement, trying to imagine the right eye-level to get a driver’s eye view of what my bike would look like in the dark. I was pretty pleased with the result. In combination with the Hi-Viz vest, and the stickers on my helmet I should be visible from space.

Away from the comforting pool of the bike lights, the darkness enveloped me. Thick cloud smeared the sky above the horizon cutting out the starlight and I suddenly felt very vulnerable and exposed. This crossroads and these lanes were old and filled with the weight of unspoken and unrecorded events. Mere yards away, the red LEDs on the rear of the bike blinked out an organic rhythm, moving in a line from left to right and back again. For some reason I enjoyed the frailty I felt then, the smell of damp turned earth, the way the searing white light from the front of the bike picked out freshly-exposed flints in the field beyond the gate, the silhouette of the tower of All Saints church.

Arthur Mee's King's England: SomersetTellisford was dark, perhaps because this was still Earth Hour, or maybe the owners of these big houses had retreated into some inner sanctum, unviewable from the outside. As we are going to be visiting some WW1 battlefields in France and Belgium on this ride, I recalled that Tellisford is one of the initial so-called ‘Thankful Villages’; thirty-two villages in England and Wales which lost no soldiers in World War One, all those who left to fight came home again. The writer Arthur Mee popularised the phrase in the 1930s when he wrote ‘Enchanted Land’, the first volume of the The King’s England series of guides. It is sobering to remember how so many communities lost so many people in that first ‘great’ war, what a huge vacuum the loss of so many young men must have created in a village. In WW1, villagers often enlisted as a group, and were kept together in the regiments. They trained, barracked, traveled, fought, and so often, died together. Tellisford truly had much to be thankful for in the return of all her young men from those killing fields.

Arthur Mee wrote especially of Tellisford “We do not remember a more charming place in all our journeyings”. So with that in mind, I remounted my bike and pointed it back through the darkness to my own village.

Riding into Spring

Spring can be a messy time of year

Spring can be a messy time of year

I had a ride planned with local smallholder, home-brewer, engineer and cyclist Mike, however as the hours ticked down the evening before I suddenly realised that my Lemond Etape was locked in the shed at my in-laws, and they were away. As the ride was scheduled to begin at 0745 on Sunday morning, this meant I would be trying to pull my mountainbike out from under the accumulated junk in our storage shed at 0700. Before going to bed I looked at the weather forecast, absolutely filthy. Rain, wind, cold and more rain. Nothing was going to stop me from getting in the first ride of Spring, (not even a sore knee) so I sorted out my waterproofs before calling it an evening, leaving a choice of cape or light rainjacket on the chair along with my cycling plus-fours and merino wool top.

On waking I was amazed to see sunlight streaming in through the window. Stepping outside to retrieve the mtb provided further amazement as the sky was colouring up a lovely shade of blue with not a cloud in sight. I began the task of attempting to find my mtb in the storage shed, this turned out to be a bit of an archeological dig as I uncovered a veritable strata of garden tools, cardboard, ladders, planks of wood and children’s toys, beneath which lay my mountain bike. In common with an archeological artifact it was still caked in the mud from the time of its burial. As my road helmet was locked up with my road bike, I was relieved to see my trusty old mtb helmet amongst the associated grave-goods. Once the tyres were pumped up, the mud scraped off and the chain cleaned and re-oiled, the bike looked half decent.

I saddled up and rode down to Mike’s farm, passing the tall grove of bamboo by the driveway which was now beginning to sway and rustle gently in the light breeze, the morning calm was immediately shattered by Mike’s dog running out and barking in greeting. Mike just had to feed the chickens and chuck some oil over the chain of his Dawes Supergalaxy and we were away.

I took us past the redwoods at the manor development and towards Woolverton. There we crossed the A36 and headed into the empty back lanes. Speckling the hedgerows were tiny buds, a promise of Spring that presented a subtle, barely perceived green fuzz as we rode gently along the meandering lanes. It was still stark enough that a chaffinch flittering amongst the scrub created a riotous blaze of colour that stood out like a flashing beacon amidst the branches. The landscape pulled us into steep hollows, giving us enough momentum to be catapulted effortlessly up the hills, until gradually we were pitched up to a point were the view in all directions seemed endless. Far in the distance there was nothing but whitish haze where the horizon should have been, it might as well have delineated the edge of the world. We turned the bikes toward the sun, and hit the high gears. Chains thrummed, driving us along a rare stretch of straight and level road. The lane switched suddenly right, and the ground to our left fell away. Now we were riding on the highest ridge of a lopsided valley with the breeze behind us and the countryside laid out below in patchwork to one side. Gathering speed, we pedalled in bursts as the road surface became sketchy. Water had eaten away at the edges and dumped gravel everywhere. Mike’s bike skittered about a little, but my shirehorse of an mtb ploughed through it all with ease. The velociraptor tyres spat mud, water and stones in all directions including up my back as we turned right again and sped into Faulkland and past the derelict Faulkland inn, one of many pubs to have shut down recently in the county. Our tyres barely touched the main road before we were off into the lanes again. Now the road began to undulate heavily, before flinging us down in to the valley. With the confidence that a heavy bike and fat tyres can give I let the brakes off and hurtled down the hill, it was about the only time that I was in front of Mike for the whole ride. At the bottom I waited where the stream had torn the tarmac into shreds, gouging a channel of water into the road.

A stream across the road

Mike rode up and carefully picked his way over the ruined road surface and impromptu stream. Away from the flood damage the road pitched briefly upwards before throwing us down again, but this time I took us right before the bottom of the hill, pulling the bike into a skid to make the turning. The lanes became narrower as we passsed Stoney Littleton long barrow, climbing up Littleton Lane which suddenly deposited us into the top of Wellow. We found ourselves entering the village in the slipstream behind a huge, red front-loader, its engine gunning noisily as it took the gradient. We peeled off from it’s fumes and hot engine air and dropped down into the valley again, this time down to the Wellow ford. Mercifully it was not flooded this time. Unmercifully we now had to climb Baggridge Hill, a long, long slope, much given to drifting about and becoming narrow here and there where the fancy takes it. Mike was way, way off the front and I was puffing away in the granny gear. It probably would have been quicker to walk it, but with such low gearing there’s no excuse to put a foot down or dismount in shame. I wheezed my way to the top where Mike was just pouring out a couple of cups of coffee from a flask he had secreted in his single pannier.

We stood there for a while and talked about that elation a cyclist feels when, towards the end of climbing a long and infernally steep hill, the cranks spin faster and the gears start to move up again. That feeling of having made it, of getting up the hill, the light at the end of the tunnel.

We were off again, turning into the wind. Wind? Yes, the horizon had cleared and was being troubled by clouds, the breeze was becoming insistent. It mattered not to us, for above us was deep, calm blue and ahead of us, flat road, for the next two miles at least. We crossed the A366 at Tucker’s Grave Inn. The site of the interment of a suicide from 1747, one Edward or Edwin Tucker. As usual with folklore the facts are not easy to come by. If indeed there is a grave here though, it is safe to say that Tucker died in some abnormal way, as crossroads burial was certainly not the norm, and was said to be a way of pinning down or confusing the doomed soul that could not find rest in heaven.

With the clock counting down, we left morbidity behind trapped at the crossroads and shot towards Lullington, the next node on our ride. There was hardly any mishap en route, save the boulder in the road we both managed to miss, and my failure not to throw the chain, though that’s what happens when you try to get from the big ring to the little one without touching the middle one. We skimmed the A36, frantically spinning the cranks to get off the main road and away from the hurtling cars. Then back into the village, where Mike paused briefly to engage in the well-known Somerset practice of gate-leaning and striking a deal with a farmer.

Striking a deal with the farmer.

Striking a deal with a farmer.

Clouds had gathered and the wind was starting to rage as I arrived back at the house. By the time I had finished having a shower the rain was hammering down. The last gasp of winter, but Spring cannot be stopped now, here’s to warmer weather and more rides.

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.

To the Maen Mawr and Cerrig Duon; Dusk riding a deserted valley road in South Wales

I made this ride at the beginning of August when we went to South Wales, but it has taken me this long to put it together and load it up. I smuggled the Brompton in under the luggage in the boot of the car, and one evening I walked it up the steep stone chipping track of the cottage where we stayed, out of the farm gates and turned the bike up-valley on a deserted unclassified road. The dusk was slowly gathering over the mountainside as the sun dipped beyond the horizon. The river Tawe, freshly sprung from the mountain and not yet the torrent that rages over the rocks two miles seaward, rushed past playing sweet, watery music as it danced from pool to pool, this was the only sound in the valley. Sheep moved slowly out of the way as I eased the Brompton over the crest of the hill. At a small gravel layby I folded the bike up then carried it down to the water’s edge, following the river toward its source, looking for a safe and easy place to cross. Eventually I elected to wade through where it widened slightly, the current was not too strong, but the water was freezing, a shock to the system as it numbed me from my feet to the knees. I scrambled up the bank, immediately my sodden trousers and trainers felt incredibly warm in contrast to the chill of the river. As I followed the tracks of a sheep trail I could see the standing stone known as the Maen Mawr appearing on the horizon ahead of me. When I reached the plateau on which the stone stands, I put down the Brompton and walked round the attendant circle, Cerrig Duon. This is a small circle, the largest stone being only about two foot in height, curiously it’s not actually a circle, more of an egg shape. What most people don’t realise about this site, is that there is an avenue of small stones nearby with the flat sides of the stones all aligned in one direction. With the flat plateau, the large stone, the circle and the avenue, it’s actually a significant complex, carefully aligned north to south (or south to north) and set up for processional ritual. The view down the valley toward Dan yr Orgof and Craig Y Nos was spectacular, a few lights glowed gently, marking out the country park buildings. Back the other way the sun had solidly set, but strangely left two areas of glowing golden light on the horizon due to the nature of the mountain, the effect in the sky was quite magical. I wondered if this was significant to the builders of the complex?

As the darkness raced silently over the mountain, the dew settled gently on the spiky grass and the sound of the river became clearer and sharper. A soft mist appeared above the river, even in the 21st century, the atmosphere became liminal, other worlds felt close by, within easy reach.

This was not at all unpleasant or eerie, I felt very comfortable there, but with the light disappearing I thought it best to wade back over the river and head for the road. By the time I reached the track there was no light to guide me in save starlight, and the warm glow of the cottage windows where the moths battered softly against the panes, the whisper of their wings audible against the ubiquitous piping music of water over stone.

Published in: on August 31, 2008 at 11:29 pm  Comments (4)  
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Of rides to abandoned villages and ruined abbeys

I wish, if I may, to point you in the direction of Jez’s blog, Novemberfive. This time he and his missus, The Pine Martin [sic] have been out on their bikes exploring some Salisbury Plain abandoned buildings. Lovely and haunting photographs on his blog, and probably a few more he’s kept back for himself.

Photograph by Jez Whitworth - Novemberfive

Photograph by Jez Whitworth - Novemberfive

Coincidently, yesterday I briefly caught up with a friend who gave me an amazing book called “Night Vision: The Art of Urban Exploration,”  by Troy Paiva, a superb photographer. He finds abandoned military bases, hotels, towns and takes astonishing night time shots on really long exposures, so atmospheric. The book is an absolute thing of beauty, Chronicle Books clearly knowing how to present these photographs in the best possible manner. Check out Troy Paiva’s Flickr photostream for a taster of the images within.

All this reawakened a memory, jogging it loose from the silt in my mind and sending it bubbling up through my consciousness. Many years ago I used to ride the Wiltshire Historic Churches Trust annual bike ride. The idea was that one would visit as many churches as possible in one day, an attendant at each building would sign your sponsor form (or you would sign the visitors’ book if there was no one there) to prove you had been there. You would be sponsored an amount per church that you visited. In my latter teenage years I took to riding with Dave Mitchinson and George Knighton, who I worked with on Freegrove farm, hauling bales, herding cattle, clearing ditches and, (God preserve me from ever having to do this again) picking potatoes. One summer we set out on the annual church cycle ride along routes often followed by the members of the Highway Cycle Group. Foxham, Spirt Hill, Sutton Benger, seemingly hill after hill after hill, rolling up and down. For long hours the only signs of life were cows lazily chewing up against the hedges and swallows swooping along scant inches above the scorching tarmac. It was a blazing hot day, the distant hills and patchwork fields were laced with haze, micro-mirages of puddles formed in the road ahead of us, rippling in the air before evaporating before our eyes as we laboured up the slopes of the steepest hills North Wiltshire could throw at us. I think it was Dave, who after guiding us into the tiny church at Bradenstoke, took us on a detour down a farm track dusted with powered white clay-soil to the ruins of Bradenstoke Abbey. Approaching the old farm there, we experienced a frisson of excitement. None of us really knew if we were on a public right of way (we weren’t), the tyres seemed unnaturally loud as we freewheeled over the chippings towards a rotted, wooden five bar gate sagging pathetically on its hinges. We hid the bikes in a tangle of weeds behind a low ruined wall before slinking down an avenue of ancient lime trees to where a doorway stood, or at least the stone arch of what was once a doorway. Then we lowered ourselves into what we assumed were the vaults, choked with brickwork and stone piled in the centre of the room. Dust danced in fierce shafts of sunlight that illuminated the ruins, we hardly dared to speak, tense whispers were all we could manage to raise. Then climbing up the rubble and out the other side, nearly falling down a well hidden in the ivy and ground elder on our way to the tower. Dave, being the smallest, but also the most flexible and speedy climbed quite a way into the tower, owl pellets were scattered at the entrance and up above we could hear the beating of wings. Dave came down, pretty quickly. Here and there a collapsed wall revealed a glassless window where we could peer into the stygian darkness below ground, still, quiet, air, reeking of musty stone, disquieting blackness. Out into the long, dry stalks of grass and wild barley. Chirruping grasshoppers leaping out of our path as we struggled back towards the bikes, sunburn prickling on our arms as we wheeled them past the seemingly deserted farmhouse. Then mounting up and riding away down the dusty track in a rattle of mudguards and loose chains, back towards civilization and the prospect of a ice cold bottle of cola from the stores in Lyneham.

Strangely enough, the abbey was not ruined that long ago. American newspaper baron Randolph Hearst had a thing for British historical buildings. He bought the Abbey and had it taken down brick by brick, either to be shipped to America or his castle in Wales depending on which version you hear. Legend has it that a warehouse somewhere still contains unopened crates of the bricks and stone. I’ve found it quite difficult to track down some images. Since I rode to the abbey that summer, it has changed hands and the present owners are doing a lot of work to restore it. It is not on public view though apparently one can walk past on some public rights of way. I visited a few years back and the owners gave permission for me to have a look round. sadly, but also sensibly, the vaults were boarded up with keep out signs everywhere.

A postcard of the Abbey before it was dismantled by Randolph Hearst

A postcard of the Abbey before it was dismantled by Randolph Hearst

The ruins - showing the rubble

The ruins - showing the rubble

The Tower in 2006

The Tower in 2006 after some extensive refurbishment and cutting back since the time we visited.

The tower can be seen on the ridge at the back of Lyneham and Bradenstoke that faces the M4, the trainline from Bristol to Swindon runs even closer.

“All things human hang by a slender thread; and that which seemed to stand strong suddenly falls and sinks in ruins.” – Ovid

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.

Aspice Christophorum et Tutus Viam Carpe – ding ding!


I was in Salisbury yesterday, for work purposes, and had to go to Waitrose on the way home to pick up some chow for tea. As regular readers of The Highway Cycling Group will know, I like to take photos of bikes that are chained up outside shops. I struck some gold this time. I saw an old lady, dressed in a big coat and a woolly hat locking up her bike, which looked like quite a nice traditional style roadster of the sit up and beg variety. As she wondered into the store I took a closer look at her steed. It was laced with rust, the cables, once white, were discoloured, and much of the protective paint had come off the basket. In time honoured tradition of old lady’s bikes, the tatty old seat was covered in classic style with a plastic carrier bag. However, the handlebars had a beautiful shiny bell mounted on them. It was quite large, and as I moved in close, I could see it had a St Christopher on there, surrounded by the words “Aspice Christophorum et Tutus Viam Carpe” – which I guess means something like “Look at St Christopher and travel on safely“. St Christopher of course being the patron saint of travellers, but he’s also revered by athletes; mariners; ferrymen; people who carry things; archers; automobile drivers; bachelors; boatmen; bookbinders; epilepsy; floods; fruit dealers; fullers; gardeners; lorry drivers; mariners; market carriers; porters; sailors; surfers; and transportation workers.

Fabulous! A search showed that these bells, often made in Germany, come up from time to time on ebay, fetching around USD 20 or so. Nice. This one was so shiny in comparison to the rest of the bike, it looked like maybe it was a gift for the old lady. I hope it was.

Published in: on March 20, 2008 at 9:07 pm  Comments (8)  
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Tuesday Ride VIII – Solo fifty miles, pouring rain, raging winds, Silbury Hill

John texted to say he couldn’t make the Tuesday Ride, so I decided to go it alone. I made up my mind to ride twenty five miles in one direction and then ride back again, giving me a fifty mile ride. The weather was foul, revolting, wind, rain, luckily it wasn’t too cold. I packed my backpack with a warm top, my cycle hat and a waterproof and set off at one pm. Thankfully there was some respite from the weather and as I rode out of the village towards Trowbridge and Melksham it was almost calm. electing to go through Trowbridge rather than the West Ashton bypass was a good idea, the buildings sheltered me from the rain and I got to ride on the cycles and buses only link road between Holt and Semington. I hit the bypass for the last stretch, beautiful new tarmac offering a fast ride into the outskirts of Melksham, thereafter I turned towards Devizes and into the wind. It was stronger than I thought and quite gusty, every now and again the skies opened up and the air was filled with rain, even so, the hedges offered some protection. I took it steady up the steep dual carriageway into Devizes itself, over the humpback bridge that jumps the canal and past the red-brick Wadworth brewery, homeplace of that most marvellous of Wiltshire brews, Wadworth’s 6X. The road through the town was fast and I was able to get past ranks of stationary traffic to Moonraker Pond. As I like to give you a little folklore from my rides, here’s the origin of Moonraker Pond’s name and also the reason why Wiltshirefolk are known as Moonrakers.

Lit by a beaming full moon, a group of Wiltshire smugglers were transporting some casks of contraband past the pond. Suddenly, the donkey carrying the casks was startled and the smuggled goods slipped into the pond.

The smugglers grabbed some hay rakes they found nearby and tried to hook them onto the casks underneath the water to retrieve the valuable goods. An excise man passing by on his horse saw them raking the pond, with the full moon reflected in the water. When he questioned them about their strange behaviour, their quick-witted riposte was that they were raking out the cheese they could see in the water. The exciseman laughed himself silly and told everybody about the stupid countryfolk – but he never knew that, in fact, they were the ones who had fooled him.

I stopped a little further down the road to report my progress to base. I had done just over 17 miles and my average was on 18mph. I needed to go another eight miles. I could feel the calling of the earthworks just outside Avebury, the monumental dod Silbury Hill was reaching out across the Marlborough Downs and I knew the direction I would take. Ride out of Devizes up a pretty steep hill and you are suddenly on the Marlborough Downs, huge fields, rolling hills dotted with burial mounds, clumps of trees hugging the skyline. This is an old landscape. The road seems incongruously straight, and perhaps this was indeed the old pilgrim route that took the Old Gods’ followers into the mighty Avebury complex and the heart of their faith. Now I was being tested, the Sky God, furious that I would seek to visit the Earth Goddess had torn open the air and filled it with piercing rain. The wind roared and blew at my back pushing me up to 31mph on the straight, but gusts came from all angles and it seemed to me that I was riding on a land-locked squalling sea throwing wave after wave over my bows. I held my nerve and arrived at Beckhampton roundabout swinging right and riding across the front of the Waggon and Horses inn. On turning the corner, the mighty mound of Silbury Hill heaved into view. This is the largest Man Made mound in Europe, its very existence calls into doubt the accepted view of Neolithic tribal life being nasty, brutish and short, punctuated with wars, raids and endless hunger. Only a settled society could build so remarkable a monument, when it is viewed in relation to the surrounding associated ritual landscape, the scope of our ancestors’ vision becomes all the more breathtaking. Who tended these places? How were the rituals overseen? Landscapes such as these light up the imagination, the lack of true knowledge about the time and people who built and lived amongst these incredible structures four to five thousand years ago, leaves a tremendous gap in our collective spiritual history. Was this place built in terror to appease some malign force, or in thankfulness for the bounty of the downs, or both?

The ancients couldn’t have foreseen that one day the hill would have a carpark, but there I stopped. Work is currently being carried out to stabilise the hill which has suffered serious erosion from previous archeological excavations but also from a constant troupe of visitors scrambling to the summit. The workforce caravans were powered by a diesel generator, it was giving off a huge amount of hot air so I stood next to it and dried out very quickly. On with the sweatshirt, waterproof and cycle cap, it was time to set off to West Kennet Longbarrow. In the layby to the barrow the odometer tipped over to twenty five miles, so I took the computer off in preparation for the walk up to the barrow. The Kennet was in full flow, pouring out from the ground at Swallowhead, fertile and swollen with the recent rains, the Sky God’s issue transformed in the belly of the Earth Goddess, now charged by the charms tied to the swaying willows by her followers, they whisper their desires and incantations to the flowing waters. Rolling the bike up the hill I met a hippy gentlemen on his way down, he tried to take my photo with my camera “Yeah man epic with the hill behind, don’t look at me, look into the distance”, the flash going off before he was ready. I took the next portrait myself with the self-timer, they will go up in my Flickr later.

West Kennet Long Barrow, Silbury Hill in the distance

Inside the barrow, corn rigs had been left and a freshly lit candle threw gentle, flickering shadows from an alcove, This had to be from the press-ganged photographer I had just met. A group of Americans looked round the inside speaking in whispered reverent tones. There is something about the barrow that makes one whisper. Back outside, the air was warm but ready to fill with rain again. I hastened down the hill and gave a quick phone call to say I was on my way back before easing out into the traffic.

The eight miles into Devizes were the hardest, the wind was seriously against me and all I could manage was a paltry 12-15mph along that stretch, there was no shelter and no relent from the wind. It took me over half an hour to reach the down hill stretch into the town, even on that descent the wind was so strong I only reached 24mph and was being blown all over the place. Devizes itself was mercifully calm weatherwise, although heaving with traffic as it was just after five in the afternoon. I picked my way through the cars until I was heading downhill out of the wind towards Melksham. Now I was feeling tired, but strangely the length of the journey made the journey back to the village seem much, much shorter. The last ten miles flew by timewise, that’s not to say I wasn’t hurting, I don’t think I made it past 18mph on the final two miles, however, Rode Hill was no bother whatsoever. The Odometer flicked over to fifty halfway up the gradient so I arrived back at the house feeling jubilant, if somewhat knacked.

In total I was riding for three hours four minutes giving me an average speed of around 16.5 mph, not bad considering that headwind on the way back, it’s a good thing I took advantage of it when it was a tailwind. A great ride, not the furthest I’ve cycled in one day, but it still felt good none-the-less.

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