Howard’s way

Your author about to make an unfortunate wrong turn

Your author facing the wrong way, halfway down the wrong hill after an unfortunate wrong turn

A ride had been arranged for early Sunday morning, until it became apparent that it was of course Mothering Sunday and lie-ins would, quite rightly, be expected. So the ride was re-arranged for Saturday. At 07:45 I rode down the gravel track at the farm to meet with Mike. It was freezing; there had been an unexpected (by me anyway) frost in the night and cold hung in the air, numbing my fingers as I rode downhill. Seconds after my arrival, Group Scout Leader, Howard arrived on his hybrid. He had sensibly put a coat on and had full finger gloves and long trousers. Mike was immediately out through the door, zipping up his bright jacket and putting on his helmet, deciding on the route as he mounted up. Up the track and left over the mill bridge, then we were out of the village and heading for Colliers Way and Radstock. We followed the same route I took last Sunday, albeit at a slightly quicker pace than my meandering speed. Howard was going to take us through the middle part of the ride as he knew the route well. Howard is a keen cyclist, often to be seen riding the Tellisford-Farleigh Hungerford hills just for fun, he has a great level of fitness and an observer taking note of our riding from a distance would be hard pressed to place his date of birth in the 1950s. Mike was riding at his usual pace off the front, a nice steady 15-17mph, I’ve heard Mike described as a Mountain Goat by more than one other person. I flitted between them both, sometimes riding up with Mike, sometimes dropping back to chat to Howard.

Pleasingly I can feel my level of fitness improving after just a couple of long rides. This time I was not dropped on the hills and could actually take the lead on some of the steeper efforts. It just goes to show that you can quickly return to form (or something like form) after a short time off the bike, even if, like me, you are carrying two stone more than you should be.

The cold was starting to evaporate in the morning sun. Even so, there was a haze on the horizon that the sun had not yet climbed out of, and the shadows still sparkled with a light frost. There was no wind save the chill we created when pushing through the air on the way downhill. There was little traffic around save the odd tractor here and there, easing out of farm gates or chugging gently along the narrow lanes. The Buzzards were out in force, finding pockets of warm air and spiraling up high above the trees, calling to each other across the landscape. By the time we reached the Colliers Way cycle path it was really warming up. This is a short but really pleasant stretch of railway path, oddly with much of the railway track still left behind. Howard, a bit of a railway buff, told us it was because the quarry railway is still in operation at the terminus. Apparently, the plan was to open the railway line alongside the cycle track and have it as a tourist attraction, but it never happened. Now trees have pushed their way through the sleepers and brambles have crawled over the tracks.

On the railway path

We stopped at the top of a rise where the path departed from the tracks and mused on the navvies and men who had physically built the line. In the days of great engineering feats, behind every great man, there were thousands of other blokes who did the actual work.

We followed the path into Radstock, then Howard led us over and round the roads until we pulled into what seemed to be a carpark, but at the last minute it turned into a tiny route through to a main road. A few yards on the tarmac then a sharp right and we were suddenly on a lovely straight lane in the quiet of the countryside again.

All went well, until we came to a crossroads where the cycle route was clearly marked as straight ahead. Howard insisted that our path lay down the hill to the right, and it was a steep hill. Upon our, quite reasonable questioning of the navigation, Howard explained that he was 100% certain it was down the hill. Mike and Howard then launched themselves down the slope, followed by a fat barking dog lolloping down the hill in a garden parallel to their descent. I was yet to be convinced that this was the correct route so I hung back a little, knowing full well that what goes down, in the event of a mis-navigation, would have to come up again, probably in the granny gear. I dropped gently down to the next crossroads, in time to gaze down the awful slope and see that Mike and Howard were turning around on the bridge at the bottom. Slowly, they climbed the hill back towards me, standing up out of the saddle and wrestling the reluctant bikes so that the handlebars pointed up the dreadful slope. I took the opportunity to have a break and swig from the water bottle. I took a picture of my reflection in a handy convex mirror used by residents to check the road is clear before pulling out, then leant over the handlebars to watch Mike and Howard draw level. I let them puff past me, before ambling up in their decidedly slow-motion wake. The lardy hound was still in the garden bouncing around and barking with what seemed like delight, but in retrospect could easily have been apoplectic rage.

Howard explained his mistake, it was of course the next turning right, and indeed that’s exactly where the cycle route sign was pointing when we arrived at the correct junction. Luckily we saw the funny side. Actually, no we didn’t, at least not until we had our breath back.

A few more wiggles of the road, and to Mike’s and my surprise we emerged right next to the house by Stoney Littleton Long Barrow with the pillbox in the garden. Howard pointed out that pillboxes are usually in pairs, and sure enough there was another one on the horizon that Mike and I had missed last time we rode through. We rode into Wellow and I raised my head to see if I could detect a whiff of bacon, for I had a craving for its heavenly taste. Just as I thought I had perhaps caught the faintest hint of frying procine goodness, Mike peeled off to the right and downhill to the ford. This time we took the left fork and avoided the endless grind of Baggin Hill, electing instead to cruise to Norton St Philip. The road was beautiful and free of traffic. Winding uphill through some woods, I saw a photocopy of a map on the ground and stopped to scoop it up. It was for the exact area we were riding through, which makes perfect sense really.

There was a final hill up to the main street in Norton. It was unexpected and painful. Even my bike seemed to be protesting as I weaved back and forth across the narrow steep lane behind Mike the mountain goat and Howard. Finally we headed for Tellisford. As we passed an enormous pile of brown stuff in a field to the left,there was a horrific miasma, a foul and noiseome acrid stench that tore the breath from our lungs. Mike explained it was poo, human poo from the sewage works that would be spread on the tilled ground as fertiliser. The fug seemed to stay with us so we upped the pace and attempted to finish the ride at great speed. Down the hill we sped, first a weasel darted over the road in front of us, and as we neared the village, a blur of movement exploded from the hedge and crossed the lane mere feet before Mike’s front wheel. Persistence of vision had imprinted the tell-tale shape of a running hare on my eyes.

Mike slipped to the post office to pick up a paper (and no doubt a free cup of coffee and cookie for that’s what you get if you go to the post office on a Saturday morning) while Howard and I sped on ahead to his house to ready the all important finale of the ride, the coup de grace, the dénouement.

Mike joined us just at the hallowed point when the bacon was coming out of the grill and onto the bread, the perfect end to a great ride.

In Rome you long for the countryside; in the country you sing to the stars of the distant city.

Recently I have been reading so much about urban riding, mainly on Copenhagen Cycle Chic, that I have been feeling that I’m missing out by cycling in the countryside. I have been longing to put on a suit and ride a classic roadster, or swing down to the coffee shop and pick up a latte, perhaps meeting a friend, also on a bike. Walking a bike over a zebra crossing, signaling to rejoin the traffic, waving at a van who’d let me in. Maybe I would have a newspaper rolled up under my arm, or I would be balancing the coffee or doing something equally urbane and sophisticated.

But today all that went away in one ride through some arcadian country lanes. I had worked hard all day and was feeling drained and lethargic by the time the evening came, so much so that I couldn’t be bothered to change into my cyclewear, and just clipped up my jeans – slapped on a hi-viz vest (the sky was bruised and dark) – and put on a cycle cap. The helmet sat on the rack of the bike while I decided which way to go, in fact I forgot about it and it sat there for the whole ride. Leaving the village I headed over the mill bridge towards Bath, but turned left when I hit the A36. Almost immediately I turned right where a small sign indicated ‘Laverton’. and I was off the main road and into narrow country lanes. As I rode down the rough tarmac the sound of the A36 diminished then disappeared completely, to be replaced by the sound of the wind in the oak trees and the sweet singing of blackbirds, sparrows and finches. The hedges closed in and the banks rose up, more old roads, older than maps and carved deeply into the hills over generations. Massive oaks, stag-headed, leaned over me as I wended my way along what seemed more track than road. At every crossroad and junction I guessed my way as there were few signposts to guide me. It felt wonderful, the few signs pointed towards villages that I had not heard of, and I was only four miles from home. The hum of machinery from the open door of a farm building, the smell of a dairy, something I remember from my youth, cows, straw and sweet milk – mingled into a cascade of scent and memory. The road continued through farmyards, disappearing under mud and gravel, stones washed away from the banks in a flood and left high and dry in the centre of the track, here and there water seamed to be bursting from holes in the road where springs had worked their way up through the tarmac, memories of rivers, streams born again after the rains.

Every now and again, the road opened up at a corner and the verge disappeared into a morass of cow hoofprints where the animals had stopped to drink at a roadside spring on their way between field and dairy. These were drovers roads once, before the days of the cattle trucks animals were funneled down these steep banks and high hedges to market, even today the air was thick with their bovine-stink, surprisingly a not altogether unpleasant smell.

Cornfields near Lullington

Cornfields near Lullington

I worked out that I must be headed toward Frome, and the roads opened out a little, now meandering past golden fields of standing corn, or the green fuzz of maize. I saw a hare with black-tipped ears nibbling at the base of the plants, unconcerned as I watched from a gateway. Then down a hill, the road crumbling and eroded by water until suddenly I was in Lullington and passing what looked like a castle. The old village pump still stands, protected by a wooden shelter. This village seemed ancient, as old as the roads that lead the rider into its boundaries. The foundations of its buildings were laid long before even the mightiest of the mighty oaks that stood amongst the houses was a sapling or even an acorn. The clouds swept overhead in the strong winds, dappling the streets with occasional flashes of sun, giving the impression of time moving fast, speeding up while the village remained constant and unchanging. The bike carried me through it all, my own time machine descending toward the river. Then suddenly a huge modern dairy, all sheet metal, pipes and carpark, loomed up from around a corner. Cars flashed past at the end of the junction, the main road to Frome.

I knew where I was now, back in the 21st Century. On the way home I reflected back on the ride and realised that I am lucky to live out in the countryside.

“Romae rus optas; absentem rusticus urbem tollis ad astra levis.”

In Rome you long for the countryside; in the country you sing to the stars of the distant city.*

*Translation taken from the site Sweet Juniper

Eat More Chips – Deeper into the Wylye

15

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

“Eat More Chips”

the fabled Eat More Chips lorry

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

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

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

Rudge Pootle

Gate Incident
Above, gate incident, I don’t know what the incident was, but there most certainly was an incident of some sort.

With the weather widget on my laptop telling me that the current report from the Frome weather-centre says it’s belting down with rain, I set off in the dry on an evening pootle round the lanes. No goals, no speed just forty minutes or so of riding round country roads. So I ambled through Rudge and onto Brokerswood where I saw this magnificent tin-tabernacle by the side of the road where the Great Wiltshire Cycleway turns towards Dilton.
tin tabernacle
The air was close, humid and laced with the scent of summer roadside vegetation, astringent cow-parsley mixed with sweet, creeping buttercup and ox-eye daisies. I saw more bikes than cars, four roadbikes and two mountainbikers all going in the opposite direction, everyone enjoying themselves and ready with a cheery hello and even a salute. I sort of knew where I was by following the pylon line as it crossed the road, imagining where it intersected with the mainroad by the railway bridge at the bottom of the boring gradient that leads up to the Beckington roundabout. Cranking it up a little I headed down unsignposted lanes towards where I guessed Dilton Marsh to be.

the cranksthe view from the cockpit again

Past an old farmer feeding a huge pig with scraps thrown from a yellow bucket. Through Dilton Marsh, beating a Mazda past the speed bumps and roadworks and out of the village, on towards the main road. High above me a buzzard was dropping down from riding the thermals, its dive following the path of the road. Standing on the pedals I kept pace on the straight until the bird wheeled right and started climbing again. A memory surfaced, racing a hare in the moonlight on Highway Common on my old Alpine 10; my massive Ever-ready bike light throwing out a feeble beam as I sprinted down the deserted straight track barely two feet to the left of the fleet-footed animal. No computer then, but we must have been pushing 20mph (about the maximum I could manage on the Alpine 10 on the flat). That must have been fifteen years ago.

Right onto the mainroad, the junction off the A36 into the Dilton Marsh road strewn with tiny shards of glass from the innumerable smashes that have happened here (I’ve seen two happen myself), always a worry with thin tyres. Then onto that god-awful boring gradient and home. Eleven miles, very happy indeed.