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.

Heavy Spillage on the Birthday Ride

Bear with me, for I’m still blogging about September, now we’re up to the 21st. One of my eldest son’s friends was so proud of his new bike that he wanted to have a ride with his chums to celebrate his birthday. His father being the avid cyclist that he is, was naturally delighted with that idea, and when he explained the idea to me I volunteered to help out with haste – even though I had not been asked. My eldest son, is by a long way the youngest child in his year – in fact his pal who’s birthday it was is almost a full year older than him. You may recall that he had only learned to ride a few weeks ago, and at that time was not yet tall, or confident enough to ride his BMX. Consequently I found myself helping load his bike onto the top of the minibus and suddenly realising his wheels were half the size of his peer-group’s.

We drove down narrow country lanes – heading out towards radstock to join up with the Collier’s Way. This is an old railway line that has been given over to a cycle and walking path. The minibus duly crushed as far into the hedge as we could get it, we unloaded kids and bikes and set about the perilous task of managing a group of overexcited 5-7 year olds as they prepared to race off into the distance. It was a truly lovely day weatherwise, unseasonably warm, blissful after the wet and windy summer the U.K. has endured.

It quickly became apparent that all three adults were needed as the group became strung out. Like the old drovers or a group of cowboys, we needed one at the back to round up the stragglers, one in the middle with the bulk of the group, and one off the front with the young steers who have broken away from the herd. Within minutes one lad was off his bike, a black BMX, and in tears by the side of the path. He was more shocked than injured and he quickly recovered. My son rode at the rear, his tiny wheels held him back and it was rapidly made clear to him that his helmet was cool, but his bike, most certainly was not, at least not in the eyes of his contemporaries. I remembered how delighted he was with the bike when he got it for his birthday two years ago, but now I could sense his frustration and dismay as the others waited for him to catch up. I felt bad that his confidence was being knocked so hard.

We rode on at a gentle pace, stopping briefly for juice and biscuits. One little chap slipped off the saddle and onto the crossbar – as he put it ‘squashing my woodpeckers!’ in the process. More tears, and a much slower pace. In the meantime, my son had realised that if he pedaled twice as hard as the others he could keep up with them, and soon he was making his way up the field.

3.5 miles in, we turned around and headed back for the mini-bus and the prospect of a roast chicken dinner. Now many members of the group started to tire, especially the little chap with the squashed woodpeckers. My son was pedaling so fast he looked like he was on fast-forward. We stopped again, this time for blackberries and the remainder of the jaffa cakes. The three adults gathered round the thermos and supped tea tinged with plastic. With everyone rested and stained with blackberry juice we set off again. Even though he was keeping up, some of the other boys continued to make mock of my son’s bike. This spurred him on into ever more bouts of furious crank-spinning, hunched over the bars he gave it a Merckx-esque effort, drawing from something deep inside inside of him. I was impressed by his stamina and his sheer determination. He barely noticed the derelict guard’s van on the rusted tracks as we passed it, he overtook leisure cyclists – tinging the tiny bell. I let him go a little way ahead with the others in his wake, wondering when he was going to tire and have to fall back, It didn’t happen. Our breakaway group of five (including myself) raced on ahead, taking turns on the front, knowing nothing of drafting, but each of them would force his way to the front then get a few cranks ahead before the others increased the pace and reeled him back in. The sprint, when it came was brief and difficult, being as how it was up the ramp to the road. My son was pleased with his second place, and as the lads stood astride their machines, panting, it was clear we had managed to ride a long way ahead of everyone else.

But then, disaster!

My son decided he would ride down the path and see if he could see them coming. Before I could react or turn my bike round he had launched himself down the ramp and cranked the bike up to a ridiculous speed down the steep hill. I could see the tiny wheels skittering around, see the speed wobble, and got my mouth open and the breath ready to shout “brakes!” when the bike just fell to the ground underneath him with appalling suddenness, catapulting him over the handlebars. He flew through the air and landed horizontally, skidding down the tarmac with the bike following him, until they both came to rest a good three meters ahead of the actual crash site.

There was a moments silence, and I was acutely aware that my heart had stopped beating. I threw my own bike down and ran down the path. His right hand came up feebly and a high keening wail came out of him. I chucked the bike off him and looked him over. A big scratch on the mouth guard of his full-face helmet, a scrape on his elbow, but he seemed ok. I stood him up, got him to wiggle his feet and his fingers as I held his skinny body. He wrapped his spidery arms round my neck and cried that his side hurt. Gently I lifted up his t-shirt to reveal a huge, angry, red patch of missing skin. As I lifted him he collapsed his whole body into me and held on as he cried his eyes out. The others arrived, and soon I was surrounded by concerned children. Luckily the birthday boy’s mum works for the NHS, so my son, happy with her qualifications, let her see the injury. The first aid kit didn’t have a big enough plaster, so he ended up with his shirt off, and a bandage wrapped round his middle holding on a pad. The others were all on the bus as he was bandaged up, and between sobs he said:

“It’s been the worst day, first everyone laughed at my bike and then I fell off and hurt myself!”

My heart felt heavy, and I felt so sad for him. I had spent a lot of my childhood feeling like I was less than my friends, knowing that my toys and clothes were secondhand, or second-rate compared to theirs. Feeling that everything went wrong for me, or that even the most wonderful experience had the potential to turn sour in a moment. This wasn’t what I wanted for him, it wasn’t how wanted him to feel.

I took a deep breath, and told him that he had proved himself as good as or better than the others because he had smaller wheels, he had had to pedal twice as hard. Imagine what he could do when he got on his BMX! And the reason he was hurting, was because he had rode so hard, and without fear, that the crash was enormous! No one else had dared to ride like that today! No one else would have tried to ride down the ramp that fast! No way!

He looked down, no longer crying, but his breath came in shudders.

“No” he said “It all went wrong, it’s the worst day”.

We got on the bus, immediately his friends were wide-eyed asking him questions, now that he could speak again.

“How fast do you reckon you were going?”

“How much did it hurt?”

“Can I see the injury!”

“Woah look at the bandage, awesome!”

“How did you get your bike to go so fast”

It suddenly dawned on him that he was the centre of attention, and he was getting some serious respect and concern from his friends. By the time we arrived back in the village, he was beaming from ear to ear and enjoying his new found status as the daredevil speedmeister of the group.

That roast dinner tasted pretty good.

A few days later he learned to ride the BMX, now at last he has a bike that looks like it’s the right size.

daredevil speedmeister

Daredevil speedmeister

Published in: on October 16, 2008 at 8:43 pm  Comments (3)  
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Crepuscular Riding

John turned up bang on six thirty as he said he would. I was, however, not ready. Astute and regular readers may remember that I flatted the rear tyre of my Lemond Etape at the end of my last ride. I did not remember so I was still waiting for the glue on a patch on the tube to set when John arrived. First thing he did was admonish me over the state of my bike. It’s true that it had not been cleaned for a long time, not only that but instead of maintaining the chain properly, I had simply been adding more oil. Mud caked the stays and saddle, the protective sticker on the rear stay had been smothered under a film of oil and the whole machine looked dull and sad. John was eager to get on, so he gave me a spare tube, then showed me an incredible way of putting the tyre and tube back on that I have never read in any book, or seen anywhere else. It was so easy! I will film him giving a demonstration in the near future and post it here.

With the bike roadworthy again we were soon riding at an insistent, but by no means taxing pace towards the main road. I elected to take us down the lanes I had got lost and chased by dogs along a few weeks back. The evening was yet young, but we knew we would be returning under cover of darkness. This time I took a map, and as we ambled along it afforded an occasional stop to get our bearings, with John hardly breaking his narrative stride while he filled me in with the details of his still new job at Moulton Cycles. There was a hint of cloud though the air was reasonably warm considering this was mid-September (yes I am that far behind in my blogging), and we hardly noticed the dusk slipping quietly around us as we made our way through Faulkland. As we headed towards Stony Littleton we put our lights on, John’s was on his helmet and incredibly bright, throwing my shadow to the grey blur of the road as I rode in front. The ground dropped away and shot us down a steep hill – this was the same valley I had been sucked into when I cycled road-shocked into Wellow, on this pleasant early Autumn evening it seemed less threatening. Certainly the omission of slavering farm dogs snapping at the pedals made for a much more pleasant ride. At the bottom of the hill John exclaimed ‘We’ve got to get up this slope somehow in order to get home!’. I ignored him, too busy trying to control the bike as it skittered over water-damaged tarmac – an impromptu and recent ford, not mentioned on my map. The slope bore us up again, past recently harvested fields of stubble and the road surface became ghostly smooth in comparison to the tarmac we had just ridden down. Now I was eager to see the long-barrow at Stony, so I coaxed John onto a rutted farm track. Now it was really getting dark, and as I dragged John grumbling over a field, we could see the ancient burial mound hugging the horizon.

John checks the map - Long-barrow on the skyline

John checks the map - Long-barrow on the skyline

The map was no longer any help, and we found our way to a wooden footbridge and crossed the small but fast flowing river. Having been dragged over a sodden field, John was in no mood to continue looking for a way up to the monument, he was already going to be later home than he said he would be. So I snapped a picture of this alarming sign here and we powered up the hill.

We were soon in Wellow, a picturesque village, seemingly deserted as we saw not a single soul. Out of the village underneath a viaduct that John tells me carries a cycle path to Limply Stoke, then, o Lord, up that hellish hill. One of those gradients that seems to go on forever. Where every horizon reveals a further horizon, unfolding like some fiendish trap or puzzle, first the lungs and then the legs (though for others I know it’s the other way round, jelly-legs then gasping for breath). John’s fitness has improved much in the last year that we have been riding, and he was able to pull way ahead, I’m pretty sure he was pushing bigger gears too. At the top we headed for Hinton Charterhouse and then on to Norton St Philip. The darkness had well and truly settled in now, the witching hour was over and we were in evening and heading for night time. On the main road, I hit a bump and lost my back light, which shattered as it hit the ground with a horrible plastic skittering sound. I spent a few minutes gathering all the pieces up and shoving them tinkling into my pockets. Luckily we were mere minutes away from my home, so by riding in front of John I kept up the illusion of law-abiding safety. Thank goodness for my hi-viz vest, which I imagine is visible from space when illuminated by headlights. A cheery farewell to John, who still had a five or six mile ride home to go and I was back at the house. We didn’t put in a huge amount of miles, but we did get a good workout on the hills. Crucially though, I had exorcised the shattering ride along the same lanes of a week or so before.

A couple of days later, I took the Lemond apart and carefully washed the whole bike, tyres and all, and vowed never again to let it get into such a poor and muddy state.

Hellhound On My Trail


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Johnson

Published in: on October 2, 2008 at 11:17 pm  Comments (3)  
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Cheesy Riders: In which we meet dogs that hated John, are shadowed by a mystery rider, eat two full english breakfasts and ride a three mile climb out of a gorge

On Sunday the 17th of August I joined John and Andy on a ride to Cheddar. John had the map, Andy had some sort of electronic mapping device/speedometer/cadence/heartrate doo-dad, and I had an enormous flask of tea. In a fit of actually attempting to be a proper cyclist, I had mixed up a ‘sports drink’ and was taking regular sips. Needless to say it was absolutely revolting, but oddly compelling and as I didn’t feel tired on the ride, I guess it must have worked. We paused briefly at Farleigh Castle for a departure photograph.

Rarely has there been a more mismatched group of cyclists

The Cheesy Riders: Rarely has there been a more mismatched group of cyclists

A chap slowly overtook us on his bike as we prepared to set off again, we were to see him again and again throughout the ride seemingly defying all laws of physics and logic as he continuously appeared in front and behind of us, emerging from side junctions or turning off the road we were on.

We settled into a pace of sorts, well below Andy’s expectations for average apeed, he was off the front for a lot of the way waiting for us to catch him up. Every now and again John would stop to get the map out or I would call for a photograph, affording us a nice break. The weather looked moody and unpredictable with the threat of a soaking ever present, a ying yang sky, half black clouds, half deep azure blue. A few miles in and I’m sure we saw the chap on the bike turn off left some way ahead of us on one of the straights.

We rode through Faulkland, past the enigmatic standing stones that were probably once part of a circle. Past the Lavender Farm, but the heavy bovine stench of muck-spreading quickly masked and canceled out the faintly perfumed air before we could get a good lung full. There was plenty of up and down, giving some cause for concern as to how I would get back up the hill after forty or fifty miles of riding.

Some of the ups - John crests a Somerset hill

Some of the ups - John crests a Somerset hill

At a crossroads on the main road we stopped to consider whether we should continue on the main road (very busy) or turn left towards Priddy along a much quieter, but longer route. John took the map out again, some dogs in the garden of a house at the crossroads were going berserk, throwing themselves at the fence, barking furiously. I snapped a pic of the chaps considering the route, and didn’t notice until later that the mysterious rider was in there.

The mystery rider about to hang a left as the chaps look the other way

The mystery rider about to hang a right as the chaps look the other way

John rode a little way back the way we came in order to check that the sign pointed to Priddy, immediately the dogs ceased their cacophony. Andy and I moved forward, they could see us, but just panted and stared. The rabid barking started again, announcing John’s return. Curious.

We turned left towards Priddy along open heath while buzzards called and circled overhead. To the East we could see rain clouds brewing up so we upped the pace a little. At Priddy itself, there was some sort of sheep fair being set up, hazel hurdles were being unloaded from the backs of farm trailers, and sheep dogs skulked panting in the shadows of landrovers. We passed them all and rejoined the main road, but not before we saw the mystery rider appear from a junction ahead of us.

Flood waters, Priddy

Flood waters, Priddy

Now we began the long descent into Cheddar Gorge, it went by so quickly. Everywhere there were cyclists coming up the hill, walkers on the steep sides, buses labouring up, engines straining. We shot into the gorge itself, the steep sides and rocky outcrops were awe-inspiring. John and Andy shot on ahead, with John nearly ending up on the bonnet of an ascending car after he swung out a little wide on one of the switchbacks. Down, down, down we went, and all the way one thought stayed with me… “How the hell will I climb out of this?”. The spectacular scenery gave way to the worst kind of tourist tat as we hit Cheddar itself. garish shop fronts, tacky souvenirs, cheese, ‘authentic olde english’ cafes, the very worst that British tourism could produce, lining the narrow streets as we glided in looking for safe haven.

We parked up outside a wasp-struck tearoom, replete with white plastic garden furniture and laminated menus. Ensconced safely by the congested road, but with the calm of the river to our side, we set about ordering our victuals. Andy elected merely to have a coffee, but John and I decided on the full English breakfast, with extra toast and jam. It was too much for Andy, combined with the enormous flask of tea in my panniers and John’s musings on where to purchase the best souvenir cheese, it overloaded his senses. It was not cycling as he understood it, he could only watch in dismay as two full Englishes arrived and an unholy display of consumption took place.

At this juncture, I must point out that like Andy, my body is a temple. However whereas his temple is tended by enlightened priests of restraint and quiet contemplation that ensures a body at the height of its power is kept in fine fettle, my temple is an atavistic bloodbath where constant animal sacrifice is the norm. Behold the libations!

A full english breakfast about to be sacrificed to my cavernous maw. Andy can't watch.

A full english breakfast about to be sacrificed to my cavernous maw.

Quite appalling. Andy had to get back to his wife, who it transpired was not well, so with a hearty farewell he eased up the road slipping in behind a tourist double decker bus. There was little doubt in our minds that he would be home before John and I had wheezed our way out of the gorge.

It was a long time and a lot of toast before John and I decided to make a move, wheeling the bikes 500 yds up the hill to a purveyor of cheeses to buy three different types of cheddar (saving the cave aged one for myself), then we wearily turned the bikes up the hill and headed out of the gorge. John led out and I’ll spare you the lung-searing details of the switchbacks, save to say that we miraculously found time for a photo opportunity on the way out:

The author pauses to admire the gorge (catch his breath)

The author pauses to 'admire the gorge' (catch his breath lest he perish)

It was deemed to early in the return trip for a cup of tea (having only gone about a mile of the thirty ahead of us) which meant I had to lug the full flask up the hill. Away from the switchbacks it wasn’t too bad, it was just long, I would say that the main hill was about 3.5 miles, if you take the full gradient it was probably five, but once the switchbacks were out of the way it made everything else feel like a gentle slope. That said, we were dropped on the way up by a woman wearing jeans and crocs and riding a mountain bike. We kept her in sight though, much to the distress of our stomachs, struggling with the full english breakfasts. She turned around at the top and went back down again… local.

At the top of the hill we stayed on the main road, passing a large temporary gypsy camp. Old 4x4s mingled with traditional caravans and groups of horses stood chewing grass, many of them untethered, content to wander the verge.

In the distance, could I see a solitary rider ahead of us, could it be..?

On we rode, up and down the rolling landscape, back the way we came earlier in the day. We paused only briefly to drink the tea and lighten the flask, I am sure John only did this as he felt sorry for me hauling the full flask four fifty miles, before continuing on our way. Strangely the hills didn’t seem as bad as we thought they might on the way back. At Farleigh Hungerford we said goodbye, I rode back through Tellisford, three hills to deal with and then I was home, sharing the cave-aged cheddar with the family.

John later told me that the mystery rider was last seen at the Wingfield crossroads drafting in his slipstream…

Andy’s electronic doo-dad recorded the route, here it is:

The route according to Andy's electronic thingamajig

The route according to Andy

Two rides with John – ‘Eight Snorkers and a Naughty Ferret on the way to Heaven’s Gate’ And ‘How we took the canal path home despite John’s grumblings’

I really am appallingly behind with this blog, weeks behind in fact. So much has happened in that time, Team GB dominated Olympic Cycling – with riders from all the corners of this sceptred isle winning medals; I went to Wales and smuggled my Brompton over the border to sneak in a dusk ride on a deserted mountain road; John, Andy and I rode to Cheddar and back, including about a three mile climb out of the gorge on a full English breakfast with 1.5 litres of tea in my panniers and a slab of cave matured cheddar cheese.

But, friends, let us start with a couple of rides I went on with John. the first was a Tuesday ride. Unfortunately, my father in law had fed me from his barbeque that evening. In my lust for nosh, I had consumed no less than eight sausages of fine pedigree. As I eased onto the tarmac with the bike I knew this was a mistake. John took us round the back of the Longleat estate, and didn’t need much persuading to make a short detour to The Bath Arms and a pint of Naughty Ferret. Then we slipped into the Longleat house grounds and took a right to tackle Heaven’s Gate Hill. In the gathering dusk I struggled up in John’s wake, my ribs were near bursting with agony and those eight snorkers(1) were banging about in my stomach. Somehow, I made it to the top where John stood looking out over the landscape. Here are some pictures of that ride:

Naughty Ferret and a Guinness Please

Naughty Ferret and a Guinness Please

Riding towards Longleat House

Riding towards Longleat House

The view from the top

The view from the top

On the way out of Longleat

On the way out of Longleat

The next ride was, I believe, a Friday ride. We took to the lanes around Melksham – and were bullied into the verges by endless streams of fast traffic. So fed up did I become of cars screaming past too close, or overtaking on blind corners, that I persuaded John to ride back to his house along the canal path. He was not happy about this at all. Worries about puncturing proved unfounded and we were soon safely ensconced at the table back at his garden. To my great surprise and delight, he pulled out the tea set and some biscuits. Cue endless jokes from John about proper strength tea.(2)

Manor house

Manor house

By the MOT Centre - Outskirts of Melksham

By the MOT Centre - Outskirts of Melksham

Proper Tea (3)

Proper Tea (3)

Footnotes

(1) My use of the word Snorkers when referring to sausages can be traced back to this article in Fortean Times about the Wild Man of Sutton, known locally as Bark Foot:

“Patrick Sheehy told how his cousin Oliver was jogging through the 2,400-acre (970-ha) nature reserve one morning last May and was cutting through one of the holly groves when he collided with a man crouching over a pan full of sausages as he put out a fire. The man’s breakfast went flying. Oliver apologised and quickly departed as a gravelly voice shouted: “My snorkers are ruined!”

(2) Note that, as we shall see in later posts, John returns time and again to the issue of proper strength tea. One feels that he may be unable to move on from the whole ‘tea not strong enough’ incident. Had I known it would have scarred his psyche so deeply, I would certainly have checked the tea strength before pouring.

(3) Why did Chairman Mao and Karl Marx drink herbal teas? – Because all proper tea is theft.

To the Railway Bridges

Do you know that feeling, when you just ‘have to ride’ ? Perhaps it begins with a restlessness, maybe repeated glances at the window, agitation, sighing, even a little heart-ache. This is the urge to ride, a demanding physical need to spin the cranks, to be moving through the air, to feel the road thrumming beneath the tyres, to bring endless horizons towards you, rolling on, and on, and on.

On Friday I couldn’t get out to join John and Andy on their afternoon ride, but when the chance came to take just half an hour, I had to ride, my bike of choice was the Brompton. The destination was the two railway bridges between Brokerswood and Dilton Marsh. One of riveted iron, straight and wide, the other of brick, arching gently out of the ground. Only a hundred yards or so apart, they span different stretches of track and the junction where the lines part can be seen in the distance from the brick bridge. Maybe a mile or two further in that direction sits another, larger bridge, off the beaten track. No road seems to lead to its grand arch, it will be the subject of another cycle quest another time.

I made another cycle film of the journey- this one is epic by my standards – nearly six and a half minutes long. It’s filmed entirely on my little compact digital camera so the quality leaves a lot to be desired, I would like to think that it has a charming sort of super8 feel to it, but that is very much wishful thinking. The film contains variously, a farm cat, lots of shots of power and telephone lines and pylons, the long hill at Rudge (road technically closed, you can see it’s all dug up) the tin tabernacle at Brokerswood, wheat fields, hedges, verges, the two railway bridges (the iron one only briefly because I could hear a train heading for the other bridge so I turned back and headed for the brick bridge to film it), a train and a feather. The music is by John Cage.

Power and phone lines fascinate me, I think partially because we do such a good job of editing them from our vision and memory. They are so ubiquitous yet it seems to be possible to view a landscape without seeing them at all. A photograph can be startling when it restores these invisible towers and poles that we have edited out of our memories of the landscape.

Pylons viewed from the road between Frome and Standerwick

Pylons viewed from the back road that runs between Frome and Standerwick

For some reason that I cannot articulate, or even fully understand, I find pylons and telephone lines beautiful. I particularly like to see pylons striding out across fields, or better still, a skewed line of telephone poles lining a country road.

Telephone poles on the road to Dilton

Telephone poles on the road to Dilton

This fascination of mine extends only to wires and lines, it does not include phone masts, I’m not sure if it includes radio masts. I would very much like to see a map with all the above ground powerlines added.

Apparently one of my first words was “Pylon”.

The House by the Railroad

The day after John and I pootled/sprinted our way to a cup of tea I rode to work in Salisbury and back. The first time I did that, I thought it was an epic ride, this was the third time I’ve done it this year and it’s incredible how quickly it has become just another journey, absorbed into the day-to-day riding. That’s not to suggest that the ride itself is in any way ordinary and unremarkable, I would be hard-pressed to find a more picturesque and pleasant ride of that distance locally, it’s just that to me it no longer seems epic. I am making the journey to Salisbury in about one hour fifty minutes now, and the return journey in two hours to two hours fifteen. I was once told that the top of the spire on Salisbury Cathedral is level with the bottom step of Warminster town hall. I’m sure this is a Wiltshire old wives’ tale as that would imply an incredible rate of climbing over twenty four miles, 404 feet to be reasonably precise. In any case, it is significantly harder on the way back compared to the way there.

En-route, I have come to recognise and anticipate certain landmarks, one of which is a house in Wylye village which fascinates me. I call it The House by The Railroad, as, although it looks nothing like Hopper’s famous painting with that title, it has a sort of melancholy feel to it that I associate with Hopper’s paintings. And of course it is actually by the railway line. A while back someone posted a comment on this blog that led me to an article about Hopper’s love of cycling and particularly track racing, so there is a little bit of synergy here. Anyway, here is the House by the Railroad:

The train track runs scant feet behind the back of the building. I like the fact that it’s on a hill and has a lot of steps up to the front door. Although there are other houses around it, it seems somewhat isolated from them, having an aura of its own, indeed I cannot recall what the houses around it look like, so unremarkable are they to my mind. For some reason I would love to live there. Both my wife and I find the clattering of trains in the night to be a soothing sound, on this line the trains must sound their horns as they pass the myriad crossings that are scattered throughout these villages in the Wylye Valley. It has a faint whiff of the gothic about it, from the artlessly scattered chippings the mound seems to rise from, to the pillar supported porch and the open window, not to mention the cat lurking on the driveway. The house is small and set back a little from the road, yet its presence is huge and it demands, and commands, my attention every time I ride past.

A serious house, on serious earth – as it says in the graphic novel Arkham Asylum by Grant Morrison. Interestingly, this subtitle in turn is taken from the poem Church Going by Philip Larkin, which also contains the words:

” …Hatless, I take off
My cycle-clips in awkward reverence, ”

My view of the house lasts all of ten seconds, yet I am ready for it a good mile in either direction or so from where the house stands.

Published in: on July 29, 2008 at 10:01 pm  Comments (2)  
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Will sprint for tea

Signs

Crossing the A36 was a matter of cycling twenty yards and signaling right in front of a near blind corner, John almost came a cropper when a barely in control Range Rover hurtled round the bend while he was side on to the traffic. It was close, too close, and cycling up the tiny lane towards Laverton we hastily made small talk about mountain biking on order to quickly forget the near miss. Ten minutes beforehand, John, fresh back from mountain biking in North Wales, had turned up at the gate early that Tuesday evening, I was eager to show him the roads out towards Lullington so we ambled out of the village towards Woolverton and took that nasty right turn. We needn’t have bothered with the blase chit-chat, the leafy lanes themselves soothed us and drew us gently into the comfort of the Somerset countryside. The roads were so quiet that when we were set upon by a couple of over excited farm dogs, their noisome barking and yelping seemed explosively loud in the calm of the evening. We were in no danger, but we hastened away, standing up to put in some acceleration up the hill until the dogs receded into the distance, last seen standing in the middle of the road yapping madly. We dropped down into Lullington, cycling at a gentle enough pace to talk Tour de France, North Wales and a blow by blow account of John’s holiday. A gentle pace became a snails pace, then we stopped for a spot of photography:

Trundling slowly past the dairy, John took over the navigation as we crossed into what looked like someone’s drive, but turned out to be a tiny lane pointing towards Standerwick. We eased ourselves up the hill as the road became thinner and thinner. We were in lanes even John had not visited in his extensive bicycle travels. Over a small bridge and… we were suddenly confronted by what was without doubt one of the most appalling cases of fly-tipping I had ever seen:

This had clearly been hastily thrown off the back of a van. Big plastic crates with ‘corrosive!’ written all over them, stacked full of junk, old trackies, soggy books, plastic toys. It looked like the aftermath of a terrorist attack on a village jumble sale.

Over the A36 again, with a considerably better line of vision to get across safely. Then we trickled amicably towards Rudge, having only gone about seven miles and wondering if perhaps we ought to think about doing some proper cycling. In an attempt to scupper that particular train of thought, I suggested ringing our friends Lou and Rob and seeing if they might put the kettle on. John did the honours and, yes, the kettle would be switched on for when we arrived. Unfortunately this had the opposite effect from what I expected. John suddenly turned into Eddy Merckx and started sprinting. Right, if he’s Eddy Merckx, then Je Suis Bernard Hinault et tant que je respire j’attaque! (as it says on my t-shirt).

So we dueled through the lanes until we reached Westbury, opting to take the old road. We arrived dripping with sweat, which was altogether pretty unpleasant for Lou who greeted us at the door and guided us round the back of the house, and through to Rob who handed us a steaming beverage each. Later on, having had a tour of the the work going on in the house and garden, we set off for home. Having had a nice combination of gentle bicycling and hell for leather cycling. Here is a short poor quality film from the pootling bit – sorry for the abrupt cut off, still getting used to the iMovie/youtube crossover. The music is Wind Forest from one of my favourite films, My Neighbor Totoro – but played by Grooploop – who I know nothing about.

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