Quick catch up time

It’s appalling I know. I blog briefly then disappear for ages, necessitating one of these picture heavy catch up pieces. So what have I been up to bikewise?

The first thing was the Endura Lionheart, which was a choice of 100 miles or 100 kilometres. Naturally I chose the 100km (60 miles), even so that was a stupid undertaken given my expanding girth and lack of fitness.

Not only that, because I don’t have a car, I had to cycle to the start from my house anyway – which was 11 miles.

As I lined up at the start in a sea of brand names and tens of thousands of pounds worth of bikes, I felt conspicuous due to my lack of lycra. It was amazingly fun though. Highlights included a horrific blowout 8 miles in that shredded my tyre, marmite sandwiches at the feed station, Fay thrashing me as my legs cramped, walking two of the hills and hitting the finishing straight at 38mph. A brilliant day, well organised AND medals for everyone!

Then I went with the Explorer Scouts to France and we cycled from St Malo to Cherbourg over four days. A wonderful camping and cycling trip with 165 miles covered, it’s going to be the subject of another post.


Then my car finally got taken away for scrap. I’ve been using public transport to get to my business partner’s house every week, it takes me 3 hours and costs me £32.00. So I’ve started cycling there – (or sometimes part of the way there and then the rest by train) – it takes me 2.5 hours and costs me not as much. The route has some lovely views and interesting things to see. I lost my wallet on the test ride to Gingergeek‘s but amazingly found it on the A36 the next day; hooray! then my spoke broke, meaning I had to walk back seven miles; booooo!



There’s much more cycling to come! Perhaps too much. I’ve committed myself to 470 miles over 4 days for charity – I’m going to need some sponsorship. More on that anon.

Published in: on May 16, 2011 at 8:51 pm  Comments (3)  
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The rest of 2010

Sorry for the lack of updates – rest assured I have been cycling since the Cobble Wobble. It’s been tricky finding time to blog about the rides.

My car exploded in summer 2010 (you know it’s bad when the AA man says “Wow, do you mind if I take a photo of the engine to show my colleagues?”) so I have been using public transport, bicycles and shank’s pony to get around. My experiences of public transport are a subject for another post – suffice to say that we have a hell of a long way to go in this country before we can start calling public transport a remotely viable alternative to car ownership – at least in this area.

Mostly I’ve been riding the Brompton – though a shredded tube has recently put it out of action (and there appears to be a shortage of Brompton size tubes – though I’ve got one now), with a little bit of the old MTB for rides to Trowbridge station.

Here are some of the Highway Cycling Group’s doings in the latter part of last year.

Fog bound ride home - Frome

A foggy ride home in the early hours of the morning, deserted roads, piercing cold...

Riding a bike in Frome

Following Matt on his Charge Plug around the industrial estates of Frome - lunchtime blast!

Nice bike

Not sure where I saw this - but I found it pleasing to look at.

Brompton and Phone box

Another early morning ride home

Riding the fire escape on a bike

Ndrw Dnhm contemplates a descent of the fire escape on his bike!

Crazy trike

Crazy trike with stilts and dog!

Matt lines up a shot

Matt lines up a shot of a still life for his Illustration for The Ride Journal, which illustrates a piece by Andrew Denham

Frome 10:10 mass bike ride

The Frome 10:10 mass bike ride

Mixed Grill

The machines ridden in this blog were powered mainly by mixed grill

Published in: on January 17, 2011 at 8:41 pm  Comments (2)  
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Guest Blogger – Yalda Davis: Cycling round Suffolk

In an historic first for The Highway Cycling Group blog, we have a guest blogger. Regular readers will be familiar with Yalda’s vintage Raleigh bicycle, but now Yalda has provided a splendid write up of her recent few days cycling round Suffolk, and supplied some terrific photographs that will have you longing to get on your bike and explore the countryside.

Rattlesden church

Rattlesden Church - Suffolk

Having been desperate to get out of London for several weeks, I finally booked my tickets to go to Suffolk with my bike for a couple of days, regardless of the weather – but hoping I would be lucky! Which indeed I was. But first things first – the 6.5 miles from the train station in Stowmarket to my parents’ house (where we always spent holidays when I was a child) I always found a particularly punishing ride – I defy anyone to tell me East Anglia is flat after doing that journey! On a one-gear bike at least…. Well, this time I had a pleasant surprise as it didn’t seem nearly so bad as before – all those 16 mile round trips to work and back with the long hill up to Manor House (London) along the side of Finsbury Park must’ve done the trick! Even the not-so-nice B1115 felt like a treat with the vast expanses of green on either side, and my rats must’ve liked the country air as they slept soundly in my bike basket (in a box of course!) all the way home despite the odd bumpy patch!
The following morning I set off for Punchard’s Farm, otherwise known in our family as the Jersey cows (for obvious reasons) – a favourite place of mine ever since I can remember. On the way I passed the brilliantly named (but only recently signposted) Louse Lane.

Louse Lane on the way to Punchard's Farm

Louse Lane on the way to Punchard's Farm

I was hoping to see some babies of one sort or another, it being the right time of year, and I wasn’t disappointed – a foal about 6 weeks old, and 6 fluffy kittens about 3 weeks old in the barn, in the cosiest little den I’ve ever seen, made of straw bales.

foalkittens

After that I carried on northwards to Rattlesden, a village with a lovely church and pretty thatched cottages. I then had to turn around to head southwest towards Lavenham, intending to take a narrow turn off on the same road as the farm I had just come from, as it is my favourite road in Suffolk (so far anyway!) However I managed to take a different route back for most of it, which satisfied my rather over-zealous determination never to return by the same road where possible!

A favourite lane

A favourite lane

Anyway this particular narrow country lane is my favourite for various reasons – first, it’s so narrow it has grass growing down the middle; secondly, recently I discovered that a farm from my (vague!) childhood memories (which I’d many times decided must’ve been either from a fairy tale, a dream, or else existed somewhere far away that I’d never remember the name of or revisit in my lifetime) was down this road: the low stone walls of the farm on one side of the road, and a pond full of ducks on the other. Nothing more supernatural about it than that, though still it retains that fairytale-like quality that it had in my mind for so many years. Thirdly, along this road is one of the most beautiful old houses that I’ve ever seen – which I now know is called Hill Farm! My fourth and equally satisfying discovery about this road was that there is a poppy field along it – and having not seen a poppy field for a long time, that was an extra special discovery.

Poppy Field

Poppy Field

After the delights of this road, I concentrated again on actually getting somewhere – Lavenham – in time for lunch. For anyone who doesn’t know Lavenham (plenty, I’m sure), it is an old wool town, with lots of crooked old beamed houses from the 17th century and earlier no doubt. It is popular with tourists, and being Sunday, with a French market on in the square, I probably could have picked a far better place to find a quiet country pub with a garden to eat in… Nevertheless, I found a table under a weeping willow, which though rather shady, created relatively successfully the illusion of peacefulness!

Afterwards I cycled the 6 miles back home, stopping at a stream on the way (my eternal quest to find nice rivers and streams in central Suffolk…), to complete a ride of 23 miles – rather longer than I anticipated!
The following day I decided on a less ambitious ride down through Kettlebaston (yet another of the strangely named villages round there….) – where, so the story goes (I wasn’t around to witness it!) my brother once cycled full pelt down the hill, didn’t manage to turn the 90 degree corner at the bottom and went flying into a hawthorn hedge – ouch! Then on to Chelsworth and Monks Eleigh. Chelsworth must be one of the most beautiful villages I know – it’s only minus point is that it lies on that infamous B1115 road where cars whizz past horribly fast. I visited its little church, tucked back behind a house, dating back to the 13th Century or possibly older. Here I did find a river to my satisfaction – I can’t believe I’ve never noticed it before – and I spent a while standing on a little bridge admiring it, reluctant to leave. Sadly all the riverbank seemed to be on private property so I couldn’t laze by it. In Monks Eleigh I enjoyed an icecream in the churchyard at the top of a hill and had a chat with the lady who had come to lock up the church – she seemed to find it odd that I was out cycling on my own!

The River at Chelsworth

The River at Chelsworth

This ride still came to 14 miles, which again was further than I thought this particular round trip would come to.

So – I was having such a wonderful time that I ditched my reserved ticket back to London and bought a new one for the following day – with the determination that I would definitely go there more often this summer!

Oh and on the way back to the train station I hit my record speed down a steep hill – 28mph, very satisfying!

Yalda Davis is a London cycle commuter, a fan of rats, and is Communications Officer for The Prince’s Rainforests Project: Add your voice to the call to stop tropical deforestation before it’s too late at www.rainforestSOS.org

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.

SDC16618

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.

IMG_0531

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.

SDC16619

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.

Uncle John’s Bike

Uncle John rides a mountainbike round the Devon lanes now, but a few decades ago he was one of the legendary Corsham Roadmen, time-trialing around the Wiltshire countryside early on a Sunday morning before the world was properly awake. Now his racer hangs from the ceiling, yet I feel it still seems to retain a certain power, a pent up energy perhaps suggested by the tension in the retaining straps, or maybe it’s the stripped down cleanliness of its lines, it just looks ‘ready to go’.

The Falcon hangs from the ceiling

The Falcon hangs from the ceiling

Steel clips and leather straps

Steel clips and leather straps

The well worn Brooks leather saddle show damage from Uncle John's Really Bad Accident

The well worn Brooks leather saddle shows damage from Uncle John's Really Bad Accident

Uncle John is a very busy man, every time we come to visit he’s hosting a family event, shifting something round, or sorting something out. One day soon I will talk to him at length about his days as a Corsham Roadman, and if he is willing, post about it here.

That bike has stories that must be told.

Published in: on May 1, 2009 at 10:30 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Will you go to Flanders: Days two to four

Day Two

The next morning came not with a bang but a whimper, a foggy, cold and damp whimper. We packed down the sopping wet tents, chugged down the horrific, thick porridge and rolled out of the campsite into the mist. The Menin gate was just down the road, there was barely a soul there. The sleeping town was silent as we found the name of our missing soldier, took the wreath and solemnly placed it inside the left arch with the many other tributes. To see the gate is humbling, it is a huge structure, yet every vertical surface is covered in the names of the commonwealth dead whose bodies were never identified. Walking through the archways gives no respite from the procession of names, for the stairway is lined with them, as is the reverse of the monument. And there was still not enough room for all the missing soldiers to be represented. It is harrowing and moving. The pithy notion that ‘war is the continuation of politics by other means’ is here revealed as the nonsense it truly is, war is the complete and utter failure of politics.

Menin Gate Ypres

Howard explained to the explorers how the troops had been made to go ‘over the top’ in repeated waves, only to be mowed down in the machine gun fire, how this went on and on and on… at the end of his explanation he muttered the well known phrase “Lions led by donkeys”.

Disquieted, we left the gate and rode the short distance along the cobbles into the town. We locked the bikes up in the main square and partook of waffles and pastries. Our hunger sated we then went into the Flanders Fields museum which is in the restored cloth hall. The museum itself is incredible, really well put together and filled with sound clips, art, dioramas and artifacts. For me the most compelling part was the audio reading of Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et decorum est.

…Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! –  An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues…

The exhibition was more than a military museum, here we learned of the impact on the townspeople, the families back home, the german soldiers. Individual stories were told and, as with the Menin Gate, the soldiers and civilians ceased to be casualty numbers, and became once again names, distinct and unique souls whose lives ended brutally in Ypres.

Away from the Cloth Hall, we rode out of the town through the Menin Gate and turned towards the Somme. We followed the route out of the town taken by the allied soldiers and rode paralell to the famous ridge. Here and there, we passed the cemetaries, white grave stones beneath the shadow of a tall cross. Memories rode with us on the quiet straight roads, but they did not belong to us. Ninety or so years had not removed the war to end all wars from Flanders, it leached out of shrapnel spattered walls and into the fog that surrounded us.

Slowly and surely the ground started to rise a little, as we crested the first hill of the ride that day, the fog eased off. Above us the skylarks sang, and Mike remembered John McCrae’s poem…

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep,
though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

What is curious about this poem is that the last verse, which is often left out due to its seemingly war-like rhetoric, could be read as an entreaty to the living to never forget the dead soldiers. The poem was written upon a scrap of paper upon the back of a medical field ambulance, just after the death, and burial of McCrae’s friend, Lieutenant Alex Helmer.

We took a short stop in a field by a motorway. and Mike was seriously considering taking some purple sprouting broccoli to cook up later. Thankfully I convinced him that this would not be a good idea…

Mike considers the broccoli

We passed into France, the sun was blazing down and we were achieving some great speeds, 19-20mph on some stretches. Mike and I overtook a man on a racer in full racing gear, thrashing him into the town. We pulled onto the pavement to wait for the others, and four minutes later racer man was at the junction waiting for the lights, he refused to acknowledge our bonjours, whether it was because we had thrashed his lycra-clad ass while carrying tents and full panniers, we couldn’t say.

We boiled up some soup beneath the shadow of another war memorial in a sleepy town where nothing was open and ate it on the green. Continuing on, we quickly realised that we were going to not be where we wanted to be when night fell, we’d dallied too long in Ypres and lost a mornings ride. So we stopped off at Lillers, pitched camp in daylight to allow the tents to dry off and headed into town for some nosebag. Our peloton was briefly joined by a teenage couple sharing a bike, the girl was sittting on the handlebars as her young man pedalled hard to keep up with us. We attempted a conversation, but got nowhere apart from a lot of laughter. Gradually we pulled away as he was barely in control of the bike and had to keep putting his foot down. They waved “Goodbye English”…

Day Three

The morning of day three was clear and sharp, and pretty warm. Once more we saddled up and rode out of town. Unfortunately we quickly found ourselves back in town as Mike took us in a circle. This quickly established the style of the day, ride a mile or so, look at the map, try to fix someone’s ailing bike, repeat. It was slow going, and one hour in we were frustratingly nowhere near where we should have been. We seemed to be getting slower and slower, this did not bode well, because we had to be in Amiens to catch the train by 18:20. To make matters worse, the ground was not behaving; long rolling hills started rising out of the french earth. The ups were so much longer than the downs. It got hotter, and we were getting through a lot of water.

Howard musters the troops

Howard musters the troops

A market stall provided us with roast chicken and herbed potatos. We jammed two sticks of bread onto Howard’s rack and tried to find our way. In the end we had to rely on some local knowledge:

Mike and Howard pretend to understand directions

Mike and Howard pretend to understand directions

There then followed a pastoral idyll as we sat by the roadside on a half forgotten lane and consumed bread, chicken and potatoes. In amidst the bucollic haze and chirruping of crickets, we sat and worked out that we still had a pretty good chance of making it to Amiens as long as we rode like the wind. With but the merest hint of further ado, we climbed back into the saddles and prepared for an epic ride…

Your author, checking his watch and about to saddle up - dynamic!

Your author, checking his watch and about to saddle up - dynamic!

…or at least that was the plan. We started off well, with the explorers grasping the concept of drafting and taking turns on the front we started making good headway. Two things counted against us, we were riding into a headwind and it was so drying and hot, we kept running out of water. Then Howard got a puncture. About mile forty I was starting to wonder if we’d make it, we perhaps shouldn’t have stopped cycling so early the day before, we still had a long, long way to go. It was apparent that riding on the big main roads would be suicidal, so we needed to get across country to a slower road. We pulled hard into a valley, riding with the wind at our side and making excellent time by drafting each other. But when we turned onto the road, it was more of those undulating hills, and the youngest explorers were feeling the pace and the heat, often being reduced to walking the hills. At mile sixty we still had a chance of making it, but we couldn’t continue the pace and at mile sixty five we found ourselves lying on a verge in a village looking up at swallows in the sky for twenty minutes. Mike, Howard and I pulled as hard as we could, and we made good time on the level and descents, but two of the explorers were walking every hill. The eldest explorer and myself scouted out the only bar that seemed to be open and got the cokes lined up for when the others arrived. The Tv was showing a history of the Paris-Roubaix bike race and a dog loped lazilly around between the table. To us it was a paradise.

Roadside bar oasis

The youngest explorer downed five Oranginas. We raced off with a new sense of purpose, gliding downhills and hurtling uphills. It was going so well, until one of the explorers came off. He was ok, bar a knocked arm and some scrapes, but his helmet was smashed, so we had to get him into a hospital to be on the safe side. We rode slowly towards Amiens, then suddenly, out of nothing, the city appeared, no suburbs, just straight into the big residential flats. We made it to the centre, looked for a hotel as our injured explorer couldn’t spend a night under canvas and transferred our train tickets to the morning. The hotel manager called us a paramedic and the explorer went off to the hospital with Mike for check up. Howard and I went with the remaining two explorers for a meal before heading back to the hotel. Mike got back not long after midnight, the explorer was fine, though we wouldn’t be cycling tomorrow.

Day Four

It was raining in Amiens as we wheeled the bikes down to the train station. There were no lifts down to the platform, so we had to use the ramps that were running down the stairs. This was a little hairy to say the least. Getting the bikes on the train was a bit of a nightmare too, it would have been fine if we didn’t have so much stuff. Eventually we managed it with about thirty seconds to spare, and my bike left forlornly in the corridor.

sdc16502
We had eight minutes to change trains at Boulonge Sur Mer, we did it in four. By the time we got to Callais we were experts at getting the bikes up the steep ramps. We wheeled our way to a likely looking cafe and sat down for some lunch. Finally we got on the ferry and headed back to the UK. In all we had completed 156 miles, with 74 of those done on day three. A memorable and eventful trip.

Your author on Belgian Cobbles - Ypres

Your author on Belgian Cobbles - Ypres

* * *Fin* * *

* * *Fin* * *

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.

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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Looking back before we set off

smallbadge1It’s the start of a New Year, a time for looking forward, but as all cyclists know, one must take a careful look backwards before we set off. With that in mind here’s the article I wrote on the origins of The Highway Cycling Group for The Ride Journal issue one in 2008. As that Journal is out of stock now I thought it would be a good time to publish it on the web. This is the unedited version, I think a few words were changed for the journal.

The Highway Cycling Group pedaled gently into existence almost as soon as my mother had given my father’s decrepit 1960s sit-up-and-beg roadster to a passing rag and bone man. Many of his other possessions, left behind when he moved out, had met a similar fate over the years, garnering no reaction from my father, but the death of the useless roadster was the excuse he needed to get himself a new bike. In the mid nineteen-eighties, it was drop handlebars or nothing and the brilliant-white, ten-speed tourer he took back to his house, rapidly became his pride and joy. My own steed was a black, heavy, five-speed ‘racer’ bought from a secondhand shop in Devizes after my father had bamboozled the assistant into parting with it for a third of the asking price. I cannot recall the maker’s name, but the word ‘ELITE’ was displayed optimistically on the down and seat tubes. With its nylon panniers, nasty red-rubber bar tape, kickstand and white plastic pump it lacked the grace of my father’s ride, but I loved it greatly.

Soon regular rides with family and friends struck out from his house in the tiny North Wiltshire hamlet of Highway. Down the long straight track of Highway Common, over the staggered junction crossing the Bushton Road, perhaps picking up more riders from nearby Hilmarton or Spirthill, so that a ride might start with two people, and end with seven or eight. Always a circular route, if there was no pub stop, there would be sandwiches in the panniers, or a stocking up at the Spar in Broad Hinton. Sometimes we would ride only three miles, sometimes thirty or more.

The roads were quiet and convoluted, weaving over the chalky landscape, five miles as the crow flies could be drawn out to twelve by the meandering lanes and switchback turns. The hills we attempted defined many of the rides; Charlcutt Hill, Snow Hill, walking up the steep monstrosity at Broad Town, the slow winding climb up to Bradenstoke; the exhilaration of hurtling down to Witcomb Mill, squinting into the rushing air, grabbing handfuls of brake, or even dragging feet along the road when the suicide levers couldn’t cope with the descent.

Gradually things became slightly more organised. The Highway Cycling Group official shirt was adopted for group rides, blue and white stripes edged with green, bought in bulk from C&A  in Swindon. A set of badges appeared, handmade by my father at a local school fete. And ultimately, at the pinnacle of the Highway Cycling Group’s ambitions, we started cycling abroad. Glorious holidays riding through France, Holland and Belgium, the ubiquitous stick of French Bread slung horizontally across the rear rack of my father’s bike.

There is one ride I remember well, not long before he left Highway, I rode the three miles from Hilmarton to see my father, and we headed out for the Marlborough Downs. The insistent whirr of the chains powering the hubs mingled with the continuous drone from the propellers of the transport planes flying out of RAF Lyneham. Up the awful hill at Clyffe Pypard, weaving over the road in an effort not to stall the bikes, out of the saddle, artlessly pushing the pedals because we had no straps or clips. At the top I felt lightheaded from the effort, my father riding next to me handed over his water bottle.  The roads were almost empty as we headed up towards The Ridgeway. As we crossed the prehistoric track, where it intersects with the Marlborough road we were at the highest point for miles, there seemed to be nothing but startling blue sky. Wordlessly we turned the cranks, pulling the horizon towards us.
My father’s move to Swindon effectively called a halt to the regular rides. His bike remained in his shed and in 1994 he became very ill with prostate cancer, dying at home in 1995 not long after his fiftieth birthday. It was over ten years before his wife Helen extracted the now rusted, white, ten speed from the shed and sadly took it on its final journey to the recycling centre.

Now, I find it nearly impossible to remember whole rides with The Highway Cycling Group, but occasionally, when I am out riding, a memory will rush forward, triggered by a feeling, or a sound: Riding alongside a train-track, the chirping of crickets, the ticking freewheel of a bike left on it’s side in the grass verge or the call of a buzzard circling ahead will send me back to the time of The Highway Cycling Group. A time when I had no concern about clipless pedals, average speeds, sports drinks, lycra, carbon fibre or fitness. When it was enough just to ride. I still enjoy group rides, meandering, pootling down country lanes in good company looking for a shop in the middle of nowhere, exploring the verge while someone checks the map or fixes a flat. But sometimes, all I want is to ride on my own, with just the cadence, the drone of the chain, and the feeling that there might be someone else riding next to me, matching my pace, ready to hand me his water bottle when I feel lightheaded.

Highway Common - late summer 2007

Highway Common - late summer 2007

Published in: on January 8, 2009 at 8:55 pm  Comments (3)  
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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.