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.
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
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 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
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.
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 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