Ride, ride against the dying of the light

One thing the Rode and District Nocturnal Velo Club cannot be accused of is “going gentle into that good night”. The Wednesday after the wildly succesful Rode Village Festival – the committee met in The Cross Keys pub to have a post-fest meeting. This being done, and the libations and rituals of preparation being completed (i.e. no small amount of ale, lager and spirits consumed), the ride could take place. This time we had the Rev Philip Hawthorn, curate of Hardington Vale with us. It always pays to have a man of the cloth around when riding the darkened lanes of Somerset and Wiltshire in the gloaming. For these are old roads, and it is an old darkness we ride through. No matter what armour to superstition and fear your sensibilities and beliefs have provided in the warm glow of the day, it all turns to rust when riding beneath the pale ghostlight of a waxing moon.

Anyway, Phil rides a rather splendid Specialized, a large frame as he is long of leg, and a keen cyclist to boot.

At 23:30 the last embers of the sun had long burnt out beyond the horizon. Only the dull orange glows of nearby towns tinted the furthest reaches of the sky. We headed out of the village via crooked lane, drifting briefly from the old sideroad across the A36 and onto the road to Rudge, as a lost spirit might materialise from a wall covering a long forgotten passageway and glide across a landing before vanishing into the opposite wall.

With four lights blazing we shot down the hill at Rudge, hung a left at the bottom and continued toward Brokerswood, turning right at the tin tabernacle and headed for the railway bridges. We took turns at the front, and as we approached Old Dilton, Mike made clear his intent to go up… The Hollow. In truth, there was nothing we could do, Mike had spoken what we all surely felt, this malevolent slope was sucking us in like a black hole, its gravity was too strong to ignore this far past dusk. We crossed the double roundabouts by the church. The only mercy was that night had mercifully becloaked the upward gradient in its mantle – that we would not be overawed at the hills severity. The pools of light cast forth from our bikes darted about the tarmac and the banks as the slope took hold. Spotlit glimpses of branches, thorns, earth and asphalt flashed about us as we wobbled our way up. Every now and again we caught sight of one of our companions in the bikelights, an afterimage of a rictus grin of grim determination burnt onto the retina when the light fell away to crazily dart around the banks as we struggled to maintain our upward course.

Then, against all odds, the ground leveled out – not only had we taken The Hollow at speed, it seemed incredibly short compared to the other times we have ridden it. Too numbed to change up gear, we spun the cranks crazily fast on the flat and hungrily gulped down great lungfuls of air as if we had emerged, crazed with the bends, from exploring the crushing darkness of an oceanic abyss.

Turning right at the top proved to be an alarming choice as more than one car shot past us with seeming scant regard for our safety. The noise of their passing all the more alarming given the quiet country lanes we had emerged from.

Rode and District Nocturnal Velo Club

We crossed the A36 and disappeared into the cthonic darkness of the lanes around Frome. Mike led out on the descent towards the town, Marcus pumping his legs like mad at the back to keep up on his mountain bike with its smaller wheels and heavier tread. The streets of Frome were near deserted and we had the sulphur glow of the streetlamps to ourselves, our shadows flickering about us as we passed from one pool of light to the next. Taking up the whole road we freewheeled together, the nocturnal peleton (or nocaton as Phil called it) shot through the narrow streets and into the town centre with incredible speed. Another hill up out of the town, past Iron Mill Lane and then left towards Lullington. The Creamery was lit up as milk was churned into the small hours. Up the hill we rode, a skeleton oak stood stark on the horizon, a warning of the hill we were approaching. Marcus and I rode far off the front racing each other down the final dip, a foolish act of faith as we rode faster than the eye could take in the tiny spotlit area ahead of us. We waited at a crossroad to take the picture below:

Rode and District Nocturnal Velo Club

Rode and District Nocturnal Velo Club

Finally we wheeled our way back into the village via The Mill, Mike peeling off down his farm track before Marcus and I said goodbye to Phil who powered off up Nutts Lane.

Around 20 miles accomplished, a good workout and a magical ride.

If you are local and you wish to join us on a Nocturnal ride – leave a comment below and we’ll try and arrange something.

To Ride a White Horse

Bratton Camp, Westbury

Bratton Camp, Westbury

Sunday last, and of course the clocks here in the UK leapt forwards an hour, making the the 0745 start for the ride all the more painful. Mike fancied heading out towards Westbury, but he needed to be in Frome for a football match by 10:30. This certainly meant we would be riding at least 25 miles. I had thought that in preparation for our Belgian/French cycle ride, we would be riding with full panniers, so I stacked mine to the maximum and even carried the track pump. Mike of course had completely forgotten, so he just had a single pannier with a flask of coffee in.

We rode out through Rudge, turning left at the Full Moon pub, then passing the Kicking Donkey. Even with the full panniers I was able to ride at a pretty reasonable pace. We shot through Westbury Leigh then headed for Bratton, passing underneath the mighty Westbury White Horse. This is one of the oldest of the white horses cut into the hillsides of Wiltshire. We don’t really know what the original horse looked like, but we do know that in 1778 someone called George Gee decided that it didn’t really look like a horse so he had it recut and reshaped until he was satisfied that it did. Towards the end of the 18th century it was recut again, then in the 20th century someone thought it would be a hell of a lot less work if the thing was concreted over and painted white. So what you are seeing as you take the road beneath Westbury Hill, is not a horse made of chalk, like say Cherhill or Uffington, but a load of painted concrete. The concrete horse drifted out of sight behind us as we continued along the road. The tarmac was beautifully smooth and there was barely a vehicle about. As we entered Bratton, we swung hard right up the promisingly named Castle Road. This turned out to be a very long hill. Mike switched on his legs and pulled far in front, leaving me wobbling up with my now extremely heavy panniers. I passed some other cyclists on MTBs, they had dismounted and were walking up. I was barely going much faster than them, and I was relieved to see that Mike had stopped at the summit and was sittting on the ramparts of the Iron Age hill fort Bratton Camp. I propped the bike up against a fence and wheezed over a gate to join Mike. As we sat and surveyed the counryside a skylark drifted past trilling and warbling it’s beautiful liquid song. The sky had clouded over, but a strong shaft of sunlight struck a yellow freight train causing it to glow as if alight. It was the most glorious and luminescent colour.

At the summit of the camp, the car park was full of vehicles brought up here by people who were now walking their dogs. Electing not to go past the red flag denoting that the army was shooting stuff on Warminster plain, we instead dived down the hill next to the White Horse and found ourselves catapulted into Westbury at speed. We now needed to get to Frome, so we took the road to Dilton Marsh then carried on to the A36. Thankfully we were only on that hellish road for a couple of hundred yards before we turned off onto a ghost road that led to Frome. For the first mile or so it still had the worn out cats eyes that told of its glory days as a main route. Now it was reduced to carrying tractors and us. It didn’t take us long to reach Frome, we struggled up the main hill in the town centre and thought about getting some bacon in the cafe at the top, but Mike was going to be late for his son’s football match so we passed up the porcine goodness.

By the time I got back to the house I had completed just over thirty miles with full panniers. Great training for Belgium, I hope.

Published in: on April 3, 2009 at 10:37 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Cycling into some Headspace

Sometimes all I need is a really small ride to sort my head out. I’ve been really busy for the last few months and up until now, I’d managed to convince myself that I had no time to cycle, telling myself that time spent riding would be time wasted. How wrong I was. My work suffers greatly if I just leap right in and do the first thing that comes into my head. I am one of those unlucky people who’s first idea is rarely the best. Working to a brief or series of briefs, as I do, can feel like very reactionary work. It’s easy to slip into a mindset of just working through one thing after another, to get things done. This will often involve a state of stress, a feeling of time slipping away, and a mind not fully in the moment, but worrying about what’s going to come next.

By taking a short bike ride, I get the oxygen flowing, I move into a rhythm, and more importantly I am restricted from acting on the first idea I come up with. In a twenty minute bike ride I will have come up with five or six different ways of dealing with a brief, and probably a strategy or an angle for how I will execute the work. This means that I am able to make decisons based on ideals rather than anxieties (something I think politicians should consider).

So on Friday, though the weather was looking a little uncertain of what it might do, I pulled out the Brompton from the workshop and rode to the local garage for a passable latte. I say passable, but this is rural Somerset so what’s passable out here would be considered a travesty in the city. I cycled extra gently out of the village as the rear tyre was feeling a little soft and Mike still had my pump. The wind was making a great show of gusting about, throwing casual lumps of freezing air this way and that. As I eased up the old forgotten coach road into Beckington a fresh newspaper skittered past me and down the hill, smacking into a skeletal dead elm where it flapped manically and loudly against the sky.

The Ghost Road up to Beckington

The Ghost Road up to Beckington

At the garage I folded the bike and left it in front of the kindling wood while I went inside for the coffee. Two workmen in what were once bright yellow jackets stood at the machine stamping the cold out of their boots. As they picked the paper cups from the nozzle, they cupped them in their grimy frozen hands and hunched themselves over the steaming beverages as if to pull the heat from the coffees. One of them had lost the skin on the knuckles of his left hand, whether from the skin splitting in the cold or an unfortunate shovel accident I couldn’t say.

I lidded the coffee and paid up, storing the cup upright in one of the compartments of my Brompton bag that could have been tailor made for slipping in a tall latte and transfering to a chosen destination with minimal spillage.

The wind was behind me now and the road home was easy riding. freewheeling through the semi-flooded lanes, I had plenty of ideas as to how I was going to tackle the brief. In fact I became slightly too euphoric and was in danger of stretching the ride out further. But no, I had work to do so I resisted, then cycled for home and within five minutes I was at my desk working and sipping away.

I think I’ve made a convincing case as to why I should be riding during the working day, I therefore rest my case.

Published in: on January 26, 2009 at 11:13 pm  Comments (2)  
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My Final Ride of 2008

Perhaps it was unwise, given the predicted drop in temperature, to arrange to meet local smallholder Mike at 9am for a ride. I wrapped up warm, and pedalled down to Mike’s farm. After a slight delay in which Mike fed the chickens and I supplied a trackpump to get our tyres up to the regulation 80+psi, we quickly left the village and headed out down crooked lane. Frost crusted the grass on the verge, and muddy ice was scattered across the tarmac. The air was still and dry, and it seemed as if the cold was drifting down and settling on us from the sky. The orb of the sun hung limp and weak amid the grey, a perfect dull circle, devoid of heat and ferocity, that could not even leave an after-image burnt into the retina.

We were in good spirits, riding in the knowledge that this winter was slowly on the wain, but the cold was already nipping at our fingers and toes, forcing our pace up a little. Mike is a fit chap, and he could maintain an even cadence on hills and straight alike. Before we arrived at Dilton Marsh, I was already struggling a little and decided that I would walk up the hill of The Hollow. However, when it came to it, I found the hill to be less steep in real life than it had appeared in my head, and I was able to ride up all the way. Over the crossroads at the top and into the back of Warminster via a ghost road. Out of Warminster at Bishopstrow, and into Sutton Veny. By now, my toes were aching, my lips were cracked and my fingertips had gone numb. We had thoughts of a cup of tea at the farm shop in Boyton, and possibly, dare we imagine, a slice of cake.

We continued along the beautiful Wylye Valley in the direction of Salisbury, and a slight breeze built up, sucking the warmth from our faces. Passing a stream, Mike paused to work out the drop on a weir, he is obsessed with the idea of hydroelectric power and takes every opportunity to investigate a weir or mill race. As we discussed the pros and cons of increasing the height of wier on his farm by 25cm, we rounded the final corner, elated to see a sandwich board outside the farm shop that clearly said “we are open”. Joy turned to disbelief as we appraoched the entrance and discovered that the sentence continued “…Wednesday to Friday”. As it was a Monday, it left us with freezing cold toes and no prospect of a cuppa. We hopped around to try and warm ourselves up, and I cracked open the Jelly Belly energy beans I had found in my stocking on Christmas morning, thus fortified with sugary goodness and a minimum of warmth we remounted and set off for Warminster, swearing that we would locate a purveyor of cake and coffee to ease our malaise.

We followed the road into Warminster and crawled into the town centre, it was pretty busy and there was no small risk involved in drifting acorss the road after the central traffic lights to arrive at the Cafe des Journaux. Mike had his pannier and a lock so we tied up the bikes to the nearest lampost before walking inside the tiny coffee shop and taking a seat, right next to the heater.

The heater
Mike did the honours, and within minutes we had coffees and cakes (and I had managed to knock a bowl of sugar packets onto the floor). Mike even located a copy of The Times and we spent a restful few minutes sipping coffee, eating cake and commenting on various news stories in the pleasant shop.

coffee and cake

When we left the cafe, it suddenly seemed considerably colder, I never thought I’d say this, but thank goodness for that hill out of Warminster town centre, it warmed us up nicely. As Mike was going to be late home, we decided it would be best to take the A36. Although this was quicker, it turned out to be a bit of a grind, the windchill and the traffic made it an unpleasant experience. My lack of recent exercise began to take its toll, and I fell far behind as Mike raced to the farm shop to pick up some shopping. I caught up with him as he was locking his bike up. I decided that I’d better stay outside, not least because I needed to find a convenient location to ‘view the plough’ and ease the pressure on my bladder that had been building up for the last four miles, but because I didn’t want to warm up in the shop only to step outside into the chill again. I ate some more energy beans.

energy bean

We saddled up for the last time and headed back to the village. A good, if cold ride to finish the year, clocking up 35 miles in total.

See you in 2009!

Hellhound On My Trail


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Johnson

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

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

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

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

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

At the farm shop

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

Quick Night Ride

Beneath the lamp

Took the Lemond out to the garage, I used my wife’s art bag, an over the shoulder canvas bag for carrying paints and brushes when out landscape painting, and rode off into the gathering darkness. The lane out of the village was haunted by moths, they whirred and fluttered through the inky twilight, heading for the roadworks checkpoint. A huge floodlight acted as a surrogate moon and the moths danced in it’s fierce radience, keeping time to the chug of a diesel generator. I paused beneath the lamp for a photo, the workmen in the background never turned round, their conversation fell about me, broken up into random words by the thump of the generator and the buzzing of the lamp. On to the garage, bread, drinks, crisps, stuffed into the bag and then I was away. Down the ghost road, a galloping shape in the middle of the lane bouncing over the blinded sockets of the catseyes. A young badger, as I approached it made itself larger and huffed loudly, but lost its nerve and dived for the hedge as I whispered past.

There’s something special about riding at night, other worlds seem close, memories push through the membrane of forgetfulness making their way to the front of the brain and standing revealed like a long lost relative. The air is sharper and the roads faster. I love riding the magic hour, just beyond dusk but not quite into night. One day I would love to just ride through the night, arriving home in time for the first rays of dawn.

Friday Ride – bike troubles

Folly LaneI don’t know what it is about John, every time he says “Do you mind if I bring a mate along?” it turns out to be a super-fit individual who leaves us puffing and panting in his wake. Friday 6th was no exception, John’s friend Andy joined the illustrious list of riders who have helped up our average speed. We met at the pub on the A361 then headed out towards Rudge and Dilton. Almost immediately Andy was complaining of a knocking from the pedal area which seemed to be going through his foot, but it was John who forced the first stop of the day in a routine that is becoming a regular on our rides, his spokes pinged out. Actually, Andy didn’t really drive us too hard, it had been a while since he and John had met up so we ambled along the lanes at a reasonable, though not stupid pace. As we headed past the trout farm by Dilton Marsh, we saw a weasel dart out in front of us, I say we, John missed it, he was looking at a dead squirrel.

The glorious sound of three chainsets working in unison was rather ruined by some creaking from the front end of my bike. Having just come up the Hollow (me at the back) the bike was protesting alarmingly. John suggested tightening the handlebars – which seemed to do the trick. We took the ghost road from Upton Scudamore to the outskirts of Warminster, effectively shaving off a corner of B-road and also saving us some pretty nasty traffic interaction. Zipping round the outskirts of Warminster, I had to stop when a client phoned, the others waited up ahead. Business taken care of we set off again, this time for the Wylye Valley. As Andy and John used to work in the same bike shop, they regaled and entertained me with various stories and bits of bike wisdom during the ride. It wasn’t long before we swung a ride into Five Ash Lane. Ah, now this was bicycling! This quiet wooded road was alive with bird song and festooned with gorgeous wildflowers. The forest perhaps once was a solid commercial venture, a plantation, but careful forestry work and management have broken the monotony of lines of timber trees. This woodland was alive in every sense, plenty of undergrowth, a variety of trees, airy space. Huge, lush green ferns and flowering rhododendrons lined the verge and the sun sparkled off the myriad leaves and dappled the tarmac with shade as we rode down the lane. Then suddenly the road dropped away and we were hurtling downwards, just missing some seriously bad potholes, we were disgorged onto a main road. A plan to head back via Chapmanslade was ruined by John puncturing. As we stopped at Folly Lane, I took the now standard picture of John repairing his wheel. Note also Andy examining his pedals.

Andy adjusts his pedals, John repairs his wheel and tyre - as usual

With time now very much of the essence (I needed to get back to the village to pick up the children) we abandoned the Chapmanslade plan and headed for the A36. The stretch towards the beginning of the Warminster bypass was dealt with quickly and at speed, we caned up to 28mph and that was going slightly uphill! Next, Black Dog and some pretty serious downward hurtling. Finally, the long, slow drag up to Beckington, and this was were I very much came off the back. Staying up all night on Wednesday to launch The Prince’s Rainforests Project website suddenly caught up with me, as did the lack of quality nutrition and energy in my garage bought lunch. I just slipped into a lower gear and pedaled through it. Andy had gone on way ahead and I didn’t see him until I finally caught up with John and we arrived back at the pub carpark we had set out from. For me it was 24 miles and a good ending to what had been a massively mixed week. We pledged to make this a regular thing of a Friday and parted ways, the others heading back to Trowbridge and me to pick up the kids, crucially, on time.

Out to the garage to buy supplies

I enjoy my little rides to the 24 Hour garage, it’s about a mile there down narrow country lanes and up the old coach road into Beckington. Here are some pics of a recent grocery run.

Published in: on June 7, 2008 at 11:22 pm  Comments (1)