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* * *

Salisbury bike lanes, a study

As I had yet again left it too late to get my car tax done in time, I decided to ride my Brompton into Trowbridge and take the train to Salisbury. The morning was wreathed in mist as I hurtled down the A361, surrounded by the terrifying thunder of huge trucks squeezing past me. It barely took me any time at all to reach Southwick, but I came up short against the big dip in the road. I still arrived at the station with ten minutes to spare, enough time to note that the price of a ticket had gone up by 30% again.

On arrival at Salisbury, rather than shoot up Fisherton Street I took some of the little bike lanes on the Avon Cycleway, come let us ride them together:

I like this bit with the complex sluice and weir, that chap is about to ride over the little bridge

I like this bit with the complex sluice and weir, that chap is about to ride over the little bridge

I'm still following him, now we weave right.

We're still following him, now we weave right.

They've generously carved out some of the carpark for us here.

They've generously carved out some of the carpark for us here. Nice to see the double yellow lines

Now we're being taken out to Castle Street, the lane gets smaller and there are cars sharing the road

Now we're being taken out to Castle Street, the lane gets smaller and there are cars sharing the road with us. Careful.

Oh a nice orange shopper on Scots Lane! Check out those whitewall tyres

Oh, let us stop to admire a nice orange shopper on Scots Lane! Check out those whitewall tyres

Ah this is more like it, later on, heading down the nice stretch by Waitrose, the river on the right.

Ah this is more like it, later on, heading down the nice stretch by Waitrose, the river on the right.

Not really the sort of riding that builds up the strength in preparation for the continental ride.

France and Belgium 4-7 April

we’ll be setting off at 0530 in the morning. We’re driving to Dover in the scout minibus. Loading the bikes onto the ferry to Dunkirk. We’re riding from Dunkirk to Ypres, then next day we’re going to head down into France towards The Somme. We’ve no idea how far we’ll get, but on Monday evening we need to be in Amiens to catch a train to Boulogne Sur Mer. Tuesday morning will see us riding along the coast to Callais and the ferry to Dover.

Oh yeah, and we’re camping!

I might try and do bits of bloggin while I’m over there if I can find some wifi. Otherwise, if you are so inclined, please keep updated with my Twitterfeed http://twitter.com/ghostorchid though again, I’m not sure how much tweeting I’ll be doing.

Wish me luck!

Published in: on April 3, 2009 at 11:10 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Brompton through Bristol

Sorry for the prolonged absence. More work. I now have a new office which has made me more efficient during the day, leaving my evenings free for blogging and other activities, and hopefully giving me more time to cycle.

That last post about cycling in Bristol? I’m pleased to say that the Brompton handled beautifully despite the sheer weight of the animation cel boxes I was carrying in the front bag. The hardest part of the journey was manhandling bike and bag up the steps of Bristol Temple Meads station. The ride to Tom’s house was easy, he lives only just off the Bristol/Bath cycle path. I was waylaid en route when I discovered the pasty emporium ensconced in the archway of a railway bridge, but soon I was weaving my way through the construction traffic towards the bike path. This is a weird area, gleaming new apartments sit amongst decaying scrap yards and builders yards. Here and there are forgotten scrublands, even a lost orchard which in the autumn spilled urban apples onto the pavement. Cobbles give way to tarmac, old tramlines and back again to cobbles sometimes in the space of a few meters. Freestanding walls were once knaves of churches or red brick warehouses, now standing stark against the sky, a facade on a movie-set for a film never to be made.

Into Easton where we were filming. The streets are a mishmash of cultures, East meets West; bollards and houses painted in vibrant colours, the local pub rubs shoulders with sikh temples and fish markets.

When I rode back to the station, dusk was falling fast. Cycling over Temple Quay Bridge was a brief but magical experience as it was lit up from underneath. It hung in the gloaming, floating like an apparition amidst the deprivation and grime-caked hoardings,  a bridge between old and new Bristol.

As it then led me to the station, it was a fitting end to the ride.

bristol bridge temple quay

Published in: on February 18, 2009 at 10:48 pm  Comments (3)  
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Live blogging on the way to Bristol

Blogging this live on my way to Bristol for a days filming with Tom Stubbs. I’m afraid I drove the five miles to the station as it will be dark when I come home and I have no lights for the Brompton. I’m going to be using a little bit of the Bristol to bath cycle path and I’m carrying two boxes of animation cell for Tom to deal with as he sees fit. Handling may well be compromised.

The day looks fine, though it is bitterly cold and we’re filming outside. I’m just enjoying the view as the train wends its way through the valley and into Bath.

Published in: on January 31, 2009 at 12:07 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Of railway cats, cycle paths, ancient mariners, cancelled trains, films and rock n roll

Way way back in October I rode to Bristol for a great evenings entertainment courtesy of the Cube Cinema and my chum Tom Stubbs. I advertised the Rime of the Ancient Mariner (on bicycle) event a while back, but I didn’t mention that I was going to cycle there. I thought it would be poetic to arrive at a showing of a bicycle film by bike. Having set off a little later than planned, I realised that I would have to cycle considerably quickly to get to Bristol on time. Not a problem, despite barely cycling at all recently, I made good time on the road between the village and Bradford on Avon, before turning onto the canal path. It’s difficult to get speed up on the towpath, not least because of the danger to pedestrians, other cyclists and wildlife. There’s no reason to go fast on a towpath anyway and I knew I could make time up on the Bath/Bristol cycle path, so I just spun the cranks at a nice even pace and enjoyed the ride. Particularly pleasing was the scent of woodsmoke from the various barges and narrowboats. I was on the Lemond Etape, which provided a none too smooth ride over the various surfaces, cobbles, gravel, dirt, broken tarmac. Suffice to say that on arrival in Bath town centre I was wishing I’d decided to wear padded shorts. I had a change of clothes in my panniers (and a change of shoes), but had elected to leave the padding at home. Bath town centre proved easy to navigate, mainly because the cycle route is so clearly and regularly signposted. Quicker than I expected I was riding along the smooth tarmac of the Bristol to Path cycle way. For a long time this was (and may well still be) the jewel in the crown of Sustrans, a beautiful route following one of the old railway lines, dipping through meadows, woodland, over valleys and rivers, very picturesque in any season. The weather was good and the riding very pleasant. Leaves lay in drifts over the path and crunched pleasingly beneath the tyres. Here are two cats I saw en route:

100_8132dsc00967

All the way along, the route was busy with cyclists and walkers. As I arrived at Staple Hill Tunnel, a postman slotted in behind me and began drafting close on my wheel. I yanked out my cronky ol’ camera, which was giving up the ghost the screen had malfunctioned, and took a bit of poor-quality video footage:

Music provided by My Two Toms, who I was to see playing later on that very evening.

I approached Bristol deep in the gloaming, necessitating the use of my lights. Many, many cyclists were using the path and in places it became quite congested, but unlike being in a car, it felt great. Everyone was all smiles and ‘after you’ ‘no after you’. Hipsters with messenger bags mixed with grannies on Pashleys.

It took me a while to understand Tom’s directions, but soon I was ensconced in The Cube cinema, enjoying some terrific films, chatting to people about cycling and listening to some splendid tunes courtesy of My Two Toms and Bucky. The film maker and artist Michael Smith stole the show with his introduction to the film he and Tom made, and also his drawing along live to My Two Toms music. It was a great evening, and nice to find out afterwards that a Highway Cycling Group reader, Mair had turned up and enjoyed herself.

Back at Tom and Katherine’s, we stayed up until three, drinking and talking. During an attempt to take a picture of Tom and Katherine’s bikes I dropped my ailing camera on the stone floor and destroyed it. Ah well, goodbye old friend. A few hours sleep, then we were out on a visit to the famous Bristol Sweetmart, then on to Tom’s studio. Finally, I cycled to the station envisioning a nice sit down on the train, only to find trains on that line were cancelled due to engineering works. Buses were supplied but they wouldn’t let my Lemond Etape on. Wearily I cycled the thirty two miles home. A great weekend.

Why, here are some pictures:

Great Pultney Street, Bath

Great Pultney Street, Bath

Cafe Kino Bristol

Cafe Kino Bristol

Tom and Michael Smith introduce their film

Tom and Michael Smith introduce their film

Bucky Unplugged - Joff wearing my Walz Cycling Cap

Bucky Unplugged - Joff wearing my Walz Cycling Cap

Tom with bikes my smashed camera in his hand

Tom with bikes, my smashed camera in his hand

Street scene - Bristol

Street scene - Bristol

The menu at the old station halt cafe

The menu at the old station halt cafe

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”.

On the trains again

On Wednesday, I cycled to Trowbridge, caught the train to Salisbury then rode to the office.

The Brompton on the platform

The journey there was pretty uneventful, except for the sheer pleasure of riding my bike. I didn’t even have to rush as I had plenty time to spare. On the return trip a chap at the station, a fellow Brompton rider, asked me about my Brompton bag, he’d been trying to track one down for a while.

At Warminster, a girl, probably in her mid-teens, got on the train with a bright red bmx. It was a nice bike, with a 360 gyro, and she backed it into the corridor and sat on the saddle for the whole journey. Earphones in, she lent forward over the handlebars and adjusted the front brake a little. On arrival at Trowbridge, I was impressed to see that she didn’t dismount at any point, she freewheeled the bmx off the train and pushed herself along the platform with her feet, in clear defiance of the no cycling on the platform rule. I thought she might be headed for the new bmx and skate park right next to the station, it was packed out with kids having a great time, pushing hard to create new stunts and tricks, grinding wheels and pegs off bars, attempting ludicrous jumps and flips, failing, sliding down quarterpipes on their knees before trying again and again. It was a joyous sight and one in the eye for the nay-sayers who claim kids don’t want to exercise or play outside anymore. The girl was in front of me as I headed past the hurtling bikes and boards, but she turned into town, accelerating over the bridge as I rode the other way and headed down the A361 for home.

Published in: on June 28, 2008 at 10:14 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Simple Pleasures of a bike-train-bike commute

I woke too late to bike commute the whole way into Salisbury, so I hauled myself into the shower, got into some trousers so enormous it was like wearing a tent, and prepared the Brompton for a sprint down the A361 to Trowbridge station. Still yawning, I wove up the hill, crested, and put the bikes hubs to the test on a fast descent down the other side. The Brompton is a skittish ride at the best of times, at 30+ mph downhill it’s a study in terror, yet somehow I made it to the junction in one piece. Then it was simply a case of pointing the front of the bike down the road and turning the pedals. On arrival at the station (terrific skid up the ramp and onto the platform – no mean feat with brompton brakes), I discovered I’d missed one train and had forty minutes to wait for the next one. The bike took me into the town centre and located a coffee shop for me. Soon I was ensconced at an outside table drinking a latte and reading a book. This seemed mighty civilized, and it was a great shame to have to knock back the coffee and zip back to the station.

I thought that with the current high fuel prices it would be more economical to go the 31 miles by train, but no, I discovered that the price of the journey had gone up 33% in the last seven months, incredible!

The beauty of the journey soon erased the price from my memory, this is the same route I cycled when I rode to Salisbury a couple of weeks ago. The road crosses and dives under the track all the way to Wilton, sometimes mere feet from the track, other times it moves away, dipping behind an embankment or veering off to visit a lonely farm before rejoining its symbiotic partner, the railway track. I sat back and imagined my doppelganger riding at a speeded up pace level with the train. All those little milestones on the journey compressed into a blur of memories, the train moving too quickly to allow the mind to dwell on things like the toad crossing sign, the concrete bridge, the post office, the ox-eye daisies in the hedges, the constant pedal freewheel pedal freewheel rhythm of the rolling lanes. Train journeys seem to be a kind of time travel, you sit down, there is constant noise, but the feeling of motion is barely perceived. Very quickly (hopefully) you arrive at your destination. Strange, yet completely normal.

Cycling through Salisbury was a joy, apart from the fool who stopped on the bikes only bit at the traffic lights on Fisherton Street.

The Bicycles of London

Tight fit, even for a Brompton

I had a meeting in London today, afterwards I chose to walk to the station. On the way I started snapping bikes and cyclists on my phone, with an idea that I would surreptitiously try to photograph every bike I saw. It didn’t quite work out that way as cyclists were coming left right and center, but I got 114 pictures. Here is the edited down selection.

Published in: on June 12, 2008 at 11:52 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Bristol to Rode by Brompton part II; The Ecstasy

A mural by Bristol Temple Meads

I was hugely relieved to arrive at Bradford-on-Avon train station, I bought my ticket, folded the Brompton and hauled it over the footbridge to the opposite platform. The ride to the station had left me feeling very down, it was the first ride for ages where I had just not enjoyed myself at all, not even the sight of some pretty nice looking cruisers in the bike racks on the other platform could cheer me up. There was plenty of room on the train so I kept the Brompton next to my seat, it sat there folded up like a sleeping pet dog, resting against the bag. On arrival at Bristol Temple Meads I carried the bike down into the underpass and through the ticket barrier to the front of the station. There in the shadow of this epic temple to Brunel’s mighty railway, I woke the Brompton, unfolding it and launching myself onto the cobbled road.

Turning right, I headed towards Old Market via the gargantuan new developments towering over the road and dwarfing the remains of the old Victorian buildings. It started off well, nice clear mixed use pathways with bike symbols, bike lights added to the crossings, but then suddenly I wasn’t sure if I was on a pavement or a bike lane, it just ran out or something. At Old Market I got off and pushed the bike up the pavement past drifts of paper and litter until I found the studio. Once inside I was able to use the bike racks. As the studio director is a cyclist (Rapha kit and a Condor bike) cyclists are very well catered for.

I worked until gone three, then the director drew me a map of how to reach the station via the back route. I set off again through a maze of building works and half completed flats, dodging cranes, front loaders and works vans until I reached the station, only to find I had just missed a train and there wasn’t another for an hour.

strange drifts of litter how to get to the station by bike racing past the building sites on my brompton

I had seen signs to The Bristol to Bath Railway Path on the way to the station and noted that it was fifteen miles to Bath. No, that it was only fifteen miles to Bath.

Now obviously if I waited for the next train it would be an hour, then half an hour on the train, then twenty minutes on the road, a grand total of one hour fifty of traveling time. If I rode the thirty miles back to the village it was going to be two and a bit hours if I was lucky. Plus there was a distinct headwind and it was a bit squally, with showers racing in. Putting logic aside, as I often do, it was obvious that I was going to ride home by Brompton. If nothing else, I needed a cathartic ride to remove the memory of the mornings slog to Bradford on Avon (see previous post). So I set off for Bath, it took a little bit of time to find the entrance to the railway path, I ran out of signs quite quickly, but realised that the number 4 I was seeing on lamposts denoted cycle route 4, the Bristol to Bath Railway Path. For those not in the know, this is considered to be the flagship cycle path created by Sustrans, and, another reason why I wanted to ride it as soon as possible, it’s under threat. The West of England Partnership plan to install a Bus Rapid Transit along this green corridor, to send hybrid diesel buses down the path next to walkers and cyclists. This smacks of what I like to call SAHOGI (Someone At Head Office’s Good Idea) – it will be a colossal waste of money and time and severely degrade the experiences of walkers and cyclists. It will carve up some fantastic wildlife areas not to mention push pollution and noise down this path. What’s interesting is that Bristol is a hotbed of radical activity, so the communities had claimed the cycle path as their own. The protests and petitions were immediate and pretty effective.

So what’s it like to ride? Very nice, no slope too steep, the tarmac is in pretty good condition and public artworks pop up all down the path. The area is rich with wildlife and greenery, and there’s not much litter, not compared to the road anyway. The path was pretty busy with walkers and cyclists despite the cold wind and sudden showers, I lost count of the number of times I exchanged nods with cyclists going the other way.

The tunnel - great fun

One of my favourite stretches was the tunnel, this is lit for most of the day and it’s great fun to ride through. I could also mention the station halt that has been converted to a cafe so you can sit with your feet over the edge of the platform while you chew a bacon roll – I see I have just mentioned it, great. For steam railway fans there is a stretch of track with steam trains and rolling stock in various states of repair (and disrepair). Rust, charred wood, steam, the smell of bacon from the ‘buffet car’, a carriage with an internal light on and what looks like a home made office in it. A splendidly chaotic place that I feel much be explored fully in the future.

Then through some bluebell woods as I neared Bath, all too soon I was spat out into a residential area and industrial estate at the back end of the city. I followed the cycle network signs through the city centre then puffed up the hill to the beginning of the tow path for the next stage of the journey, the Bath to Bradford-on-Avon canal path. The Brompton is not really designed for this kind of rough cycling and to begin with it was like riding the cobbles of the Paris-Roubaix – my arms were jarred so much that I had visions of them suddenly popping out of the sockets. Luckily the path became smoother.

Ah the canal path – often when you see imagery of canal life you’ll see pictures of retired couples or families laughing gaily as they ease their pristine narrowboat through the lock, or wandering lightheartedly down the towpath, net in hand, big healthy grins. Thus:

The reality is often more radical – this stretch of the Kennet and Avon Canal is a hotbed of alternative lifestyles, from the the filthy-faced smiling old man in a santa had pulling a squeaking trolley of wood, to this boat here:

narrow boat on the Kennet and Avon canal

Look at that figurehead! Check out the doors, the tarp, the trike parked next to the craft! You don’t see that in the Canal Holiday’s brochures do you?

I continued onwards, fewer people on the towpath than on the Bristol to Bath stretch, but a few brave souls were out on bikes. There was also a lot of wood chopping going on next to the boats. On and on I went, by now my shoulderblades were aching a bit from the pummeling. The magnificent Aquaduct at Dundas was a pleasure to ride over, breathtaking views. Round the corner, a heron had had just been disturbed by a passing boat and was flying down the river at eye level. I matched it’s speed and for a good fifty or so meters we kept pace with each other before the heron headed for the left bank and stood looking for fish. Now the Aquaduct at Avoncliff, this one is quite exciting as there is a steep hill to go down and another to go up, right by the Cross Guns pub. Now on the final stretch of the towpath, and soon I could see the twinkling lights of the Lock Inn. Unfortunately there was no time for an epic Boatman’s Breakfast or the Captain Pugwash (smoked mackerel and eggs) as I had to hit the open road.

So there I was, on the final five to six mile stretch, possibly the most dangerous section of the ride in traffic. But now, strangely, going home, drivers seemed less willing to try dangerous overtaking, seemingly content to wait until the road was clear. I guess it must have just been bad luck on my ride in earlier that morning.

And so, purged of the memory and bad feeling from the morning’s ride I arrived home, tired but happy having ridden around twenty eight to thirty miles on the Brompton.