A quick ride around Highway on a borrowed bike

After work today, I took my youngest son over to my sister and brother-in-law’s new house in Hilmarton. During the course of the afternoon, my brother-in-law opened up his shed and pulled out a couple of mountain bikes. One of them, a Trek full suspension, was a bit of a frankenbike, with Alivo shifters and XT rear mech. Manitou front forks and v-brakes where there had once been discs. The cranks were mismatched and the cogs worn down, but the frame looked good. The other bike was a blue Claud Butler. Everything looked pretty new on it, in fact it had only been ridden a few times in the two years since it was bought. This was clearly a crime. I asked if I could take it for a quick spin, and promptly rode the three miles to Highway, the spiritual home of the Highway Cycling Group.

This tiny linear hamlet in North Wiltshire is where the genesis of the group took place. My father lived in a semi-detached 1930s cottage here in the eighties, and as he was the founder member of the Highway Cycling Group (or Cycle Group, it changed almost daily)  it was from here that we struck out on many club outings. Not much had changed in the hamlet, apart from there being more cars parked on verges, I guess nowadays the two or three car family is a normal thing. There were still daffodils lining the road by the farm, the old barn had rusted further and seemed to contain more holes. The farm track next to it that leads up to the ridge looked the same. Taking that track will lead you six miles to Avebury stone circle without touching a road.

After the barn the road turns left and then the rider is on Highway Common. This supremely straight stretch of road was a joy to cycle, it still is. The Highway Cycle Group would ride side by side or strung out chatting. very rarely did any cars appear, but they could be spotted over a mile away and evasive action could be taken with ease. In the summer this road is heavy with chalky dust from the dried up mud on the verges, as teenagers the boys in the Highway Cycle Group would hold sprint races here, and great clouds of dust would follow in our wake. Ideally, a rider would pull such a terrific skid that the dust would obscure him from view for a few seconds, only to reveal the rider posed heroically with one foot down and a defiant look on his face. More often than not the dust would clear to reveal the rider sitting on the road next to his crashed bike, wheels still turning.

This road is the antithesis of the typical winding, steep banked, occluded country lane. On Highway Common one can see uninterrupted for maybe a mile or more.  A real treat, was to ride this stretch by the light of a full moon, when the dust seemed to glow and sparkle. Long shadows would reach across the fields, and perhaps, if a rider was lucky, he or she might see a barn owl or a hare.

I saw a hare today, some twenty feet into the field, it crouched down low to the soil when it saw me, ears flattened against its back. I had my compact camera with me and took some video footage as I rode through the hamlet and along the common. The result is posted below.

Then I was back onto the Bushton road. It was much busier than the golden years of the Highway Cycling Group, and I lost count of the cars that flashed past me in both directions. Where Highway seemed to have been in a state of stasis for the last twenty four years, the Bushton Road had been reworked and promoted. New signposts were dotted everywhere and the fields had been rearranged, hedges grubbed out and replanted, ditches drained and fences reset, only the route itself remained the same, the route and its memories..

Published in: on March 21, 2009 at 12:55 am  Comments (2)  
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Of Occult Cyclewear, Slayer, RPGs and Cycling

Last night I came across the website of a cycle inspired clothing company. If you think you may have a penchant for cycling tinged with elements of the occult (Laura), I’m talking Process Church of the Final Judgment reliance on neat graphics, then you have to get your dammned self over to http://www.everybodylies.net/ and see the fantastic t-shirts, caps and patches on offer. It appears to be a one man operation – rooted hard and fast in the SF courier/fixie scene. Here’s a photo displaying Lies’ influences:

Lies clothing influences

More than a sniff of Freemasonary and hey! Slayer’s first full album Show No Mercy. Often derided as ‘immature’ and even ‘laughable’ I have a massive soft spot for this album, I own it on cassette and as far as I’m concerned it’s all killer and no filler, in fact I’ve just realised it’s the only cassette I still play. I even like Metal Storm/Face The Slayer.

“You see me lift the axe and it plunges through your shield…”

and my favourite line…

“Now, I can freeze your burning eyes!”

The song, about a warrior who is trapped in some sort of twilight world, locked in combat with a demonic being that prowls through a mist-filled maze, reminded me of Role-Playing Games.

Bear with me here, this is only a slight digression from cycling as you’ll see in a minute. I wish to salute the late Gary Gygax. Gygax was the co-inventor of Dungeons and Dragons – if that interests you at all, then read this brilliant article about his passing from the NY Times that futurist and publisher Betageek sent me. I’m not going to write an obit or anything, partially because I didn’t get on with D&D, I was strictly Warhammer and Call of Cthulhu, but I acknowledge that he pretty much created the fantasy roleplaying game and as such is worthy of great praise from me. RPGs had a huge effect on my life, but in order to play them with any regularlity I had to get from Hilmarton to Calne, where our gamesmaster lived.

At the age of fourteen, hammering down the Swindon Road was pretty much out of the question, there were regular accidents on that fast and in places narrow main road. So the way to get to Calne by bike was via Compton Bassett. The rider would have a pleasant pedal through gentle country lanes, finally to be spat out onto the Marlborough road just as it hit Calne at the start of the 30 mph zone, relative safety, but it did make the journey about five miles instead of three, and put in a pretty serious hill to the equation. As I got bolder, and my player character (a psychotic dwarf called Mad Morgan Khazias) entered deeper and deeper into the fiendish campaign poured out from the mind of our gamesmaster (Mark Johnson), I began taking my life in my hands along the main road. Many’s the time an artic lorry would scream past me having just emerged from behind a bend, so close that I could have reached out and run my hands down its side. I had no helmet, the only protection my head had was provided by a cushioning of imaginings; orcs, elves, dragons, daemons so that I cycled along blissfully and didn’t consider the perils of the road. The too fast traffic, the blind corners, the massive, clanking lorries that seemed almost out of control as they hurtled along.

The way back was the old route via Compton, a slow meander home, time to think on the day’s adventuring. The rattle of D10s across Mark’s mum’s kitchen table, the acidic taste of cheap lemonade, banter with friends, battles won and lost, fat purses of gold pieces. My mum wasn’t too keen on the RPGs, there were numerous scare stories in the media about kids commiting suicide or murder as a result of playing them. So my mum thought they were dangerous. Ironically she thought I was going for three to four hour rides on my own on Sunday afternoons, an activity much more dangerous to a 14 year old (pre mobile phone) than sitting down with my mates in Mark’s kitchen, battling through a fantasy world using the power of our collective imagination, a rulebook and some many-sided dice.

Me: I draw my sword and point it to the heavens, I lean back and shout to the sky “Gary Gygax I salute you!”

GM: [rolls two d10, consults rulebook and notes] hmmm, the tiny readership of your blog has no idea what you’re talking about.

My First ‘Proper’ Bike

My first proper bike, on a beach in France.

Everything about the bike looked heavy, from the metal mudguards and massive deraileur to the steel rack and thick tubing. The too-wide drop handlebars were covered in some strange deteriorating, rubberised red tape with suicide levers hanging limply and ineffectively beneath. Rust-spattered cables slewed off the hoods at awkward angles that spoke of improvised repairs by gradual shortening. Dull black paint-work, flaking decals and a maker’s badge so nondescript that my memory would eventually hold not even the faintest possibility of recalling it’s providence, even to my untrained eye the bike looked somewhat woeful. Yet as I stood watching my father begin his negotiations with the assistant in the secondhand shop, I was holding my breath and crossing my fingers, hoping the bike would shortly be mine. Earlier, having checked the bike over (a shake of the handlebars, a spin of the wheels, a surprisingly smooth run through the five gears followed by a tut as pulling on the brakes had no effect whatsoever), my father had surreptitiously removed the price tag and now, he was slowly screwing the card into a ball behind his back as he spoke, I watched the biro numbers disappear, £15, before he casually slipped it into his back pocket.

“So ten pounds is the asking price, yes” It wasn’t a question, the assistant looked confused.

“Uh, yes”

“But the brakes don’t work so let’s call it five”

Minutes later we were wheeling my ‘new’ bike towards the carpark in Devizes, my hand was almost shaking as it rested on the saddle.

Previous to this bike, I had owned only one bicycle, the one I learned to ride on, my Vindec. This was a sit-up and beg roadster with a nasty white saddle, but a firey red paintjob (this was let down by the mustard-coloured metal mudguards), basically I had killed it before I had outgrown it. This poor machine had been ridden it into not only the ground, but various trees, rocks, hedges and streams. It was the mid-eighties, bicycling for the early teens in the Wiltshire village of Hilmarton had revolved around straight handlebar roadsters with a single sprocket freewheel. One or two of the group had a Sturmey-Archer three gear hub, and one lucky bastard from a well off family had a BMX. Our main pastime was riding these heavy bikes at speed down the bridleway that led out of the village, down a steep, root-infested mud and gravel singletrack and out the other side onto a country lane. We stripped the mudguards off so the wheels wouldn’t jam when clogged with mud and lowered the saddles to keep them out of the way when we stood up to allow our legs to absorb the ruts and bumps on the trail. None of us had seen or heard of a mountainbike and we rarely ventured beyond the confines of the village on our bikes.

My ‘new racer’, as I called it, (though clearly it was an absolutely bottom-end tourer), opened up the surrounding roads to me, suddenly I had five gears, a rear rack, a kickstand and a place to put a pump. Not only that, but, as my father pointed out sternly, this bike would have to be locked up when I went into a local shop. It was that desirable!

This bike, riddled as it was with faults, from its regularly snapping cables, its grinding bottom bracket, to its rattling front mud-guard (ripped off in the end), carried me for a good many years, and hundreds of miles with The Highway Cycling Group. Finally it rusted through, abnout two weeks after I rode it into the English Channel from the French side, blissfully unaware that salt-water will eagerly devour metal.

I last saw the bike as it slid into the pile of rusted, mangled metal on the back of a rag-and-bone man’s lorry. Every three months or so this battered vehicle would slowly crawl through the village with a loud hailer mounted atop the cab, squawking “OldIronAnyol’Iron?OldIronAnyol’Iron?OldIronAnyol’Iron?” in a squealing tone that sounded like metal grinding on metal. Years before, the same lorry had taken away my father’s useless old roadster, prompting him to buy his ten-gear tourer and start The Highway Cycling Group.

The rear wheel of my bike span slowly as it was absorbed into the mass of tangled scrap, the lorry continued on its way, finally disappearing round the corner into Church Road. I stood for sometime on the pavement with my hands in my pockets as the metallic voice, laced with feedback, gradually faded into the warm summer air, absorbed by the distant melancholy sound of reversing propellers from a transport plane taxi-ing on the runway at RAF Lyneham four miles away.

I cannot remember what I was thinking at that moment, only what I saw and heard. Perhaps I felt sorrow, maybe acceptance, it’s possible I was wondering how I would get around without a ride as I can’t even remember if I had my next bike by then.
But I do think it’s true that you never forget your first ‘proper’ bike.

Rust In Peace.

Published in: on March 13, 2008 at 10:45 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Highway, the spiritual home of The Highway Cycling Group

I took the Brompton in the car when we visited my mother today, she still lives in Hilmarton where I was brought up. My father moved to nearby Highway not long after my parents split up and it was from his rented house in the tiny hamlet of Highway that he created The Highway Cycling Group. My father died in 1995, and it would have been his 62nd birthday on the 10th of August. I didn’t plan to ride to Highway when I put the Brompton in the boot, but it made perfect sense to do so once I’d saddled up.

Even on the Brompton it took only five minutes to reach the turning to Highway, pausing briefly to take a picture of the signpost with my bike. This massively informative and somewhat overdone sign is in the middle of nowhere, but fittingly it has two cycleway signs attached to it. Pleasing to see that the route to Wooton Bassett goes through Highway.

Brompton with Signpost, Highway

Highway itself is small, maybe five houses one of which is a converted church, one farm and a rusting old barn, it’s so small a place that I don’t think it even has a ‘name’ sign telling you that you have entered or left the hamlet. My father’s old place was the first building as you enter from the Compton Bassett side, his was 2 Coronation Cottages, number 1 being the first half of the semi-detached, pebbledashed house. He lived there with his housemate, a fantastic fellow called Francis. Francis got around on a battered old racer from the seventies, I think it was a Peugeot. Often he would wobble back from a meeting of the Compton Bassett Cricket Club somewhat worse for wear having enjoyed too much Wadworth’s 6X. Watching him crashing into the dustbins and falling off the bike it was unclear how he made it back in one piece. He staggered upstairs collapsed into the cane sofa in my father’s study and waved his hand toward my sister and my father’s partner “Send the women away” he exclaimed wearily “they musn’t see me like this” and promptly fell asleep. The old neglected racer was left lying on the pathway, rear wheel spinning slowly, it looked as inebriated as its snoring rider.

This house was an ideal base to ride from, hardly any traffic passed down this road and one could get to Calne, Lyneham, Bushton, Spirthill or Hilmarton and back with ease. An old brick shed out the back housed my father’s road bike, and many’s the time it was wheeled out on such a day as this, bright, hot and filled with the sound of crickets in the verges. The road shimmered in the heat-haze as I rounded the corner onto Highway Common. In the gateway of a field a couple were resting having ridden there from somewhere, the woman was on a roadbike, the man sitting in a recumbant, I tinged my bell and they waved as I passed by.

The common itself is now fenced into fields, no longer common land, but the long straight stretch remains. This is pure joy to cycle down, no cars, a beautiful narrow lane with lovely views either side and a wildflower covered verge teeming with chirruping grasshoppers and crickets. To the right, sheep grazing contendedly while swallows swoop over their backs, to the left a field of stubble, crows rising as I wheel past. My digital camera has a poor quality video function and I fancied capturing a little of the moment. I got about 30 seconds before the card filled up and later I posted a lo-res version to Youtube. A long time ago I raced a hare down this road by the light of a full moon. Many Highway Cycling Group outings started, or ended with a ride down this lovely stretch of road.

Over the staggered junction, past Whitcomb farm and down to the crossroads below Snow Hill. This beacon, so mighty to me when I was young appeared now to be only marginally steeper than Black Dog Hill, and certainly shorter. I was almost tempted to take it on the Brompton, I waited at the junction and watched two roadies take it with reasonable ease, they smiled and nodded as they passed me, everyone likes to see a Brompton out and about.

For more photos from the ride, go to my Flickr page.

Published in: on August 12, 2007 at 12:17 am  Leave a Comment  

Country Roiding [sic] Memories of Snow Hill

Having been out on the Brompton earlier on to pick up some vital supplies from the garage, I was in the mood for an evening amble over to Dilton Marsh to pick up a curry with rice from the Full House take-away. That’s BOILED rice, not fried.

me, Dilton Marsh Road

What amazing weather, it was as Summer should be, warm air given off from the road as it cooled, a gentle breeze barely stirring the roadside grass. The few clouds that could be seen were tiny, puffy and white, an unconcerned scattered flock grazing peacefully at the edges of the azure blue sky. Choosing the senic route was a good idea, low gears and an unhurried cadence meant I could hear every cricket’s chirrup as I sauntered down the lanes. New mown hay is one of my favourite smells and it was hanging heavy in the air. Through hedges and gateways I glimpsed cut fields, golden light raking across the hay drying in rows reminding me of happy hours bale-hauling in my teens.

Ah, bale-hauling for the Mitchinsons. I used to cycle to Freegrove Farm, about three miles from Hilmarton. The farm itself is old enough to be mentioned by name in the Domesday Book, and the layout of the fields suggests that not much has changed since the survey was compiled and pressed into King William’s eager hands. Although the route to work was short, it included Snow Hill, a legendary slope in the minds of the children of Hilmarton and Goatacre. If it snowed enough, the school bus couldn’t go up or down it so we would have the day off. To a teenage cyclist it was an imposing slope and riders would take a route round it, climbing up a much gentler gradient by Catcomb that leads through a hamlet with the improbable name of New Zealand, but adding another three quarters of a mile or so onto the journey. Amongst my peers, I was the first to cycle up Snow Hill, fed up of turning left at the bottom I carried straight on up with my friends behind me shouting that I would have to walk up and it would take me ages. I cycled solo all the way up, the gears going down lower and lower, every few pedal strokes; ‘Clunk! Whirrr! Clunk!’ no bidon in those days, no helmet either and probably a pair of cotton trousers or jeans. It seemed to take ages, but when I reached the turning for New Zealand none of my chums were there. It was a good five minutes before they arrived, having sprinted hell for leather round the long route with a mind to reaching the top of the hill and laughing at me as I walked up. It was heroic stuff, especially for me who excelled in no sport of note save a reasonable record when bowling in cricket and an inexplicable ability to do more sit ups in a minute than anyone else in my peer group. I remember well kids coming up to me and saying “‘Ere Ev, Rudder reckons you coicled up Snow Hill without walkin’. That true?’ and I had to repeat the feat with Andrew Wright posted half way up to make sure I wasn’t walking it as I went out of sight from the bottom. Even after I cycled up regularly, very few of my friends made it up. Strange because when I go back, it just doesn’t seem that bad, not that I’ve ridden it for about ten years or so. I’d love to give it another go now.

a diagram of the defeat of snow hill

Bale hauling was damn hard work, I was one of the few to stick it out for more than a week, in fact the only other people who stuck it out were a) the farmer, b) his son. The young master Mitchinson went on to be an accomplished cross-country runner, competing at national level, so you can see the sort of person who had the stamina to haul bales. I was very glad that it was mostly downhill all the way home, except for the hill up to Hilmarton itself. Luckily it was a short gradient, it certainly wasn’t sweet.

Straight off the bike and into the bath, soaking in hot water as the straw and dust floated to the surface. Three quid an hour, a reasonable amount to a teenager in need of new tyres and brake blocks from Ducks cycle shop.

Back in the present day, a splendid ride was made slightly longer by the fact that I had to cyle to Westbury Leigh to get some cash out before taking charge of the delicious takeaway. In Dilton I passed a pierced goth-girl and her beau, both dressed to the nines in black and chains, faces plastered with corpse-paint make up, most impressive considering this is a tiny Wiltshire village. It wasn’t long before I was pootling home, this time with a backpack instead of my trusty Hi-Viz vest to carry the tuck. Got the nod from a couple of roadies on full carbon steeds coming the other way. Just on the Wiltshire Somerset border a tabby cat darted across the road with what looked like a weasel dangling from its mouth, someone else with a slap up nosh for a Friday evening.

By the time I arrived back at the house I had completed another fourteen miles making my full tally for the week 136 miles. I felt I deserved that takeaway, and again may I say that the rice was boiled, NOT fried.

My Bike is My Horse

I saw this very funny column in the Sunday Times on err.. well, Sunday.


The fact is, when I got my first bike (a red Vindec roadster with rattling metal mudguards, I’ve tried to trace one like it online, no luck) I was seven, and I used to imagine my bike was a horse too.

I had that bike until I was eleven or twelve. I used to love riding round in a sort of hunched up cowboyish position with one hand by my side and the fingertips of the other hand just lightly touching the handlebars by the stem. The bike was guiding itself, picking the best route down the bridal path to Cowage Brook in Hilmarton. Then a little rest and a sharp, muddy climb up the other side of the little valley, emerging filthy and gasping onto the road by Whitcomb Farm. Dodging the Nelson’s dogs running all over the road, past the decaying farmhouse of Parrot’s Farm with it’s collapsing roof and crumbling walled garden (all now fully renovated and sold on), right at the crossroads by Highway Common and mosey on back to the ranch down lanes where it was a surprise to see anything other than a tractor.

Published in: on July 16, 2007 at 10:58 pm  Leave a Comment  

Seeking E-lec-tricity.

The cover of my favourite book on Electricity

I slipped over to Dilton Marsh to pick up a take-away. It was merely some stir-fried vegetables for my wife, and a curry for myself, no chips this time, just a portion of boiled rice, we were being good. the ride was a nice pootle, waves of showery rain were sweeping in but I had my Millets camo mac on and I was feeling pretty comfortable. Turning off the main road towards Dilton I heard a tremendously loud buzzing and thought maybe a bee had got into the hood of my coat. I pulled over and was amazed to find that the buzzing and fizzing was coming from a nearby pylon. The rain was reacting strangely with the electricity, having stopped I could smell something weird and metallic on the air, a bit ozone-ish. Oblivious to the pitter-patter of fat raindrops on my helmet, I stood astride my bike in the layby and my mind drifted back eleven years to another ride I made regularly between Chippenham and Hilmarton. I used to cycle home via Lyneham and Dauntsey on the winding back roads. One rainy day I was pushing the cranks into a mild headwind, my eyes fixed on a point on the rolling tarmac two metres ahead of my front wheel as the misty rain permeated the air. All of a sudden I felt an intense physical pressure on the top of my head, as if someone had pushed my head down. The air was making that crackling, fizzing sound redolent with the whiff of ozone. Looking up I realised I had just ridden under a powercable hanging over the road. I spent the next five minutes riding under it again and again, repeatedly feeling the strange pressure on my head before I became a bit wary of what it might be doing to my personal electromagnetic field. I continued on my journey and very soon the looming problem of the narrow, hairpin climb into Bradenstoke over subsiding tarmac pushed the recent eltromagnetic bath out of my mind. I’ve ridden under a fair few powercables since in all kinds of weather but have never again felt that curious pressure. Hearing that fizzing today brought it all back. Those are pretty powerful forces in those wires, especially when it rains. Back to the present day, that line of pylons runs parallel to the road to Dilton, as I rode beside the line it was apparent that it was just that one Pylon making the noise.

By the time I was on the return journey, my Hi-Viz vest stuffed with leaking plastic tubs of tuck, the rain had stopped and so had the fizzing.

Apparently my first word as a baby was ‘Pylon’, this was because as my dad drove me through the Cumbrian countryside, he would intone ‘pylon, pylon, pylon, pylon’ as we passed each steel-framed colossus. I’ve always been fascinated by them, I don’t know what it is, the size, the fact that they don’t blend in at all, all that negative space…

Post title from Electricity by Captain Beefheart.

Singin through you to me
Thunderbolts caught easily
Shouts the truth peacefully

High voltage man kisses night to bring the light to those who need to hide their shadow deed
Go into bright find the light and know that friends don’t mind just how you grow

Midnight cowboy stained in black reads dark roads without a map
To free-seeking electricity (repeat) (Repeat both lines)

Lighthouse beacon straight ahead straight ahead across black seas to bring
Seeking electricity

High voltage man kisses night to bring the light to those who need to hide their shadow-deed hide their shadow-deed (repeat)
Seek electricity………..

I like it, it’s a travelling song and it uses a theramin.

Published in: on June 21, 2007 at 9:24 pm  Leave a Comment