Duskriding: Of turnpikes, the Gnashermakers, dead badgers and being out of bounds

Daguerreotype of Lemond Etape Racing Bike

Monday evening stayed dry and bright, there had been a fair few smatterings of rain around, and as I pointed the Lemond towards Warminster I could see the dark sheets of a downpour hanging below distant black clouds on Salisbury Plain. A side wind was blowing them towards Shrewton, I felt little concern at the prospect of being rained on as I gently eased the bike up Black Dog Hill. At the top I took the time to examine two posts next to the flyover bridge at Dead Maids Junction. The smallest post was a milestone, similar to others in the area, carefully crafted, smooth and carved with great skill. The larger post turned out to have three small holes, perhaps for bars, and the words ‘Warminster’ and ‘Bath’ in a beautiful 18th century script. I think this must have been the post for the tollgate on the turnpike.

I traveled on towards Warminster, pausing at the garage on the outskirts to replace the batteries in my front light, although the sun was still up, it was slowly heading for the horizon, dipping into low lying clouds and setting them on fire. I went through the centre of Warminster itself, noting some thick redwood trees around the area of the church. These will have to be investigated at a later date. Two shops stood out in the town, both on the Salisbury side of the town centre, the first was the superbly named ‘Gnashermakers’ home of the Warminster Dental Laboratory. What kind of crazy dental maverick runs this place?

the sign of the gnashermakers

For a photo of the lab front click here.

The other shop was called simply ‘Ripoff’ and seemingly deals with bankrupt stock, catalogue clearance and Lord only know what else. The windows were blocked out, perhaps the shop has closed down but I rather suspect that the occluded views hint at nefarious goings on out of the public gaze. The layby in front of the shop was packed with motorbikes, mopeds and trailers. See picture here.

Much cheered by these unexpected shops, I pedaled out of Warminster towards the A36. Still no sign of that rain and the light was still good. As usual for evening rides I had my reflective vest on and my customised helmet stickers which make me look like I am from TRON. There’s a nice bit of open field on the lead out from Warminster, I was drawn off the road onto a chalky track up to an old red-brick railway bridge. The way across the bridge was barred by steel poles, the ground around the structure was crumbling and the whole thing looked very precarious. Now the sun was going right down, the fire on the horizon was spreading, already in the East I could see darkness and stars, the moon was almost half full and high in the sky. Back on the road, I elected to go a little further, here the tarmac was wet and slick from a recent shower, the tyres hissed over the surface, the road-smell after the rain. Left at the roundabout onto the A36, now I was entering the deathzone. Crashes abound on this road, crystals of shattered windscreen piled up in small drifts, tinkling beneath the wheels, here and there a wing mirror, a hubcap, a section of bumper, testament to speed beyond the capability of the driver. Hard against the verge, inside the white line almost 3ft across I hammered the road while the cars screamed past at excessive speed. Black skid marks, the scent of burnt rubber still lingering in the air though the incident had happened earlier in the day, etched into the road , a memory of sudden panic. All too happy to take the left at Knook camp where the road goes off over the plain. Here I decided was the turn back point of the ride, the corpse of a badger served as a warning, its mouth bore the remains of a snarl though I could see no other damage on its body. Fur slicked with rain, eyes almost completely closed, a melancholy sight. Behind me on the side road I had freewheeled down, there was a simple circular sign ‘out of bounds’. I took a photo of the long shadows drawn out over the landscape, mindful of the last half hour of the day’s light. There was no activity in view at the camp, only the hum of the main road behind the trees broke the stillness of the evening. I turned back, crossing the A36 as the dusk overtook me. Now I was cycling through the magic hour, everything seems faster in the gathering darkness. With the sun just out of reach, the air cooled rapidly making me glad I had long sleeves on. With the traffic thinned out, it was easier to ride home, even the artic lorries were a help, pulling me along with their slipstreams, the welcome warmth of a passing diesel engine running hot as it guns the gears to take the roundabout, the glowing-coal red of the tail lights I am chasing. Back on the country lanes, blackbird alarm calls, a single staccato note repeated over and over as I pass Yew Tree Farm. Then into Warminster itself, queues in the chip shop and the chinese, smokers standing outside the doors of the pubs, sharing their exile, Marlboro Country. Out the other side of the town, labouring up the hill under the sulphur yellow light of the street lamps. Now the slow gentle gradient up to the top of Black Dog, then down, down, down. Hands on drops, tucked in, mouth practically on the bars to achieve 41mph. I sat up at the end, opening my arms to slow myself down, for some reason I felt the need to shout “AIRBRAKE!” as I did it, there was no one around to hear me.

Lorries pulling over into laybys, bedding in for the evening, some with curtains already drawn. Then into the village, cycling alongside Cousin Philippa on her way back from her mum’s (age 93), she doesn’t recognise me at first, taking me for a friendly chatty cyclist. Then she laughs as she realises who I am. We amble into the village talking about bikes. She rides her hybrid in wellies, it’s served her well for years and she racks up the miles going to her mum’s every day. We bid each other a cheery goodnight at the top of Lower Street and soon I am back at the house. 26.5 miles.

Tuesday Ride VI: of energy bars, super-fit riding companions and Brooks Saddles

Hooray, the Tuesday Rides are back on. John was almost recovered from his illness, so at 1930 I was waiting on the kerb by the Bell Inn, hoping my food had gone down enough to allow me to ride without chucking it all back up. John turned up with one of his neighbours, Bradley. Bradley claimed to be unfit, but he was dressed in some pretty sporty gear, his legs looked strong and his bike was silky, a slightly under-sized black aluminium Cannondale with carbon forks and some tasty looking wheels. He looked like a pro, and actually it turns out he’s an excellent mountain biker. John was already on the Asthma inhaler and hadn’t ridden for two weeks, but as usual he was game and up for the ride. I started off at the front, pulling through the crosswind as we hit the A36, we took it easy to begin with, chatting, enjoying the dry weather and the bright evening. I pulled us to Black Dog Hill and started up at what I thought was a reasonable pace, then Bradley just flew past me. I was completely dropped by Black Dog Farm and I could only watch as he powered up the hill. I kept him in view, but it was little consolation. Looking behind I couldn’t see John at all. Then, oh the the shame, Bradley stopped and waited for us at the bridge. I slowed right down so I wouldn’t be wheezing as I arrived at the crest, as it happens I was only panting and not much good for conversation. John wasn’t too far behind, he’d taken it at a sensible pace, sensible chap. I don’t think John saw me get dropped, but I’m sure it would have looked impressive, it was an excellent burst of acceleration from Bradley and I had nothing to answer it with.

John cycles up

I pulled through the headwind to the Warminster roundabout that starts the bypass, I considered that I had therefore done my work for a few miles so was quite happy to sit on the others’ wheels for a while. Having three people riding was great, drafting in third place meant I was putting in around 40% less effort than whoever was in front at the time. It was going well until we slowed down and started chatting, I clipped John’s back wheel, luckily only at seven miles an hour, but it was embarrassing none-the-less.

Then as we passed Cley Hill Roundabout with me at the back, I realised a Range Rover had slowed right down and was driving at the same speed I was riding. It was a little worrying, especially as the window started to wind down. Then a guy lent out and handed me an energy bar! Apparently these guys were working for, or ran, the company, Mule Bar that produces them and wanted us to try them. They drove on and passed a bar each to John and Bradley too. Cool! I got the opportunity to try mine a little further up the road when John’s new Brooks saddle (unbroken in and bashing his buttocks about like a meat tenderiser) worked lose when he hit a pothole. We pulled into a layby so John could affect an immediate repair, and I tried the bar, Hunza Nut flavour. It was very tasty, more so than the normal energy bars you get. Pleasingly the bars are also Fairtrade, full of natural ingredients and a logo proclaims that 1% of the company’s sales goes to environmental work. It was quite moist too so I didn’t have to drain my bidon to rehydrate as you do with some very dry bars. Nice! Visit the Mule Bar website here for more details of their products. I don’t know if those guys were actively out looking for cyclists to hand the bars to, or if they just happened to be passing us and thought “hey those guys look like top racing athletes, let’s give ’em some bars” or more likely “that guy on the Lemond etape at the back looks a bit fat and sickly let’s have mercy on him and give him a bar, also that chap coughing who’s obviously recovering from being ill. That bloke with the ponytail isn’t having any trouble but let’s give him a bar so he doesn’t get jealous”. Whatever the reason it was a pretty cool thing to happen.

When we set off again I thought I might try a sneaky breakaway by shooting down the left of the others on a layby, I powered out ahead of them, chuckling to myself, but on hearing some gears changing up, I looked over my shoulder there was Bradley, he said “left at the roundabout?” then he was away again. As John and I approached the roundabout he cycled back down the road to see where we’d gone, drat!

Thereafter we picked up the pace around Warminster, maybe it was the energy bars, or maybe it was the tailwind, but either way John was fully warmed up and his cadence was high, although he hadn’t ridden for two weeeks his recovery time was excellent. Out of Warminster up the hill towards Westbury. A beep from a twat in a car because we were riding in the dominant position, Bradley gave him the time-honoured signal for “there is plenty of room here good sir” (a hand held out to the right). Westbury was fast, damn fast! We entered the back pushing 40mph off the hill, then kept the speed high all the way through, leaning into the corners and pushing hard out of the bends. Riding in a group of three really increases the confidence, it’s like a mini-crtical mass in traffic and it was easier to control the road and keep things safe, fewer cars tried to squeeze past, knowing they’d have to get beyond all three of us at 26-28mph before moving back over. There was a bit too much chat for my liking on the approach to Yarnbrook, I like to be going about 23-26mph on that bit of road so I took to the front and on seeing me move off, the others didn’t hang around either. As we came up to the traffic lights they hit amber, Bradley urged me on and John, slightly behind us, raced across the garage forecourt and over the closed junction to avoid the lights all together. A nice move, well executed.

Again, maybe it was the energy bar, but I had plenty of legs left so I followed the chaps into Trowbridge itself, stupidly taking the bike lane. What a rubbish surface! Honestly! I quickly got back onto the road, shouted bye, and headed back for the village. Rode Hill was no trouble and by the time I put the bike away I saw I had put thirty miles on the clock, that makes 111 miles so far this week. I think I’ll have a day off from riding tomorrow.

The next time Someone tells John they are unfit I think he should ask for a BMI reading and a heart-rate! Having said that it was excellent having Brad along, he varied the pace, showed how far I have to go to get fit and wow it made the drafting easier. Basically it was harder work with someone pushing the pace higher, but there was more opportunity for resting by riding third in the group every now and again. I hope he wasn’t too bored with having to go easy on us and wait for us all the time as it would be great if he came out with us next week. Maybe we can work on becoming a proper chain gang, we may have to, John is threatening to bring some serious roadies along soon!

The Old Roads are the Best

My Saturday evening ride started early at five in the afternoon with the threat of rain. I was in the mood for some meandering, so halfway up Black Dog Hill I turned left onto a hitherto unnoticed, tiny, but steep track. It climbed up swiftly into dank old growth forest, the banks encroaching on the decaying road surface. There were regular bumps in the centre of the track, I suddenly realised that they were the indentions left from torn out cats eyes. Clearly I was cycling up the old Black Dog Hill Road, the winding, narrow route that the coaches had to crawl up, the drivers fearfully scanning the banks for the ruthless highwayman and his evil black hound. Standing on the pedals and crawling up the slope, it was easy to imagine the huge ghost dog slinking through the undergrowth. The shattered crumbling tarmac swung up and right until the way was blocked by a padlocked gate with a sign warning that my number plate had been noted. Beyond the gate a mobile phone mast now stood in the centre of the road. Stand and deliver.

the Old Black Dog Road

There was another road cut into the bank, this one was chippings, I cycled a little way up, but it seemed to turn into a farm’s driveway. I turned back and dropped down the hill, bouncing around on the mangled asphalt until I had to grab handfuls of brake to stop before being spat onto the A36, made a note to myself to get those brakes sorted. Back on the Black Dog Hill, I climbed up to Dead Maids Junction as the first fat drops of rain started to fall. A brief shower passed leaving steam rising from the warm tarmac and the distinctive smell of the road after rainfall. My legs felt strong so I just cycled round every little back-road I could find, Upton Scudamore, the road bridge over the A36, the edge of Westbury, the outskirts of Warminster. I didn’t turn back until I reached the roundabout at the Salisbury end of the Warminster Bypass. There I found more old road, the brambles were crawling all the way across, huge concrete blocks painted white stopped cars from going down. I took the bike a little way along, but it seemed to turn into undergrowth pretty quickly:

the Old Roads are the best

How long since the roundabout had caused this road to die? Ten years? Twenty? I suspect nature takes roads back surprisingly quickly. 43mph down Black Dog Hill, I was back home by seven, 34 miles, one whole bidon of water.

Published in: on July 30, 2007 at 10:21 pm  Leave a Comment  

Tuesday Ride V: of fast ascents, black dogs, buckled wheels, punctures and a cup of tea

the Black Dog

Temples throbbing, sides aching with a double stitch and the effort of trying to suck enough air into my lungs to keep me going, I could only watch as John shot past me on the way up the short but awful Black Dog Hill. Damn! barely five minutes earlier I had set a cracking pace into a headwind, pushing against the evening zephyrs at 18-20mph. Turning onto the A36 the lactic acid was seeping into the muscles of my torso and I was preparing for a slow and leisurely ascent of Black Dog, I really didn’t think John was going to put the drop on me. Cursing his name under my fast evaporating breath I dug in and prepared to chase him, ascending the base at 16mph, then a long stretch at 14mph. Hey this was impressive, normally we’re below 10mph by the time we pass the turn off for Black Dog Farm. My head felt so hot I had half a mind to tear off my helmet and fling it onto the bank to lie among the plastic wrappers, remains of the floral tributes laid to the many crash victims Black Dog has claimed as its own. With my front wheel now turning directly behind John’s back wheel I tried to find the miracle gear and cadence that would take me easily up the hill at this speed, and as usual on steep hills my mind wandered…

Black Dog Hill. It’s evil reputation is not just the result of the multitude of horrific crashes witnessed by its steep, treelined banks. This used to be Prickett Wood, or so it appears in an eighteenth century map, until a violent series of events took place here. There are two stories, one that a maid had two suitors who fought until one killed the other and the dead man’s black hound savaged its master’s killer to death. The maid (supposedly from Brokeway, now Black Dog, Farm) killed herself when she found their bodies. As a suicide she was interred at the crossroads to stop her spirit wandering, this became Dead Maid’s Junction at the top of Black Dog Woods. The other story is that a Highwayman lay in wait here, using the tortuous bends that were a feature of the road before it was ‘improved’ as ambush points. He had a huge black hound which would leap at the hapless coachdrivers, tearing them down from their exposed position on the coach while the Highwayman robbed the terrified occupants. A coachman got his blunderbuss up in time and shot the beast, its master was hung in chains at the crossroads, and the corpse of his hound strung up next to him. The upshot of the story is the same, the hound haunts the woods, prowling through the half-light in the witching hour, its eyes glowing ember red, its panting the sound of a death rattle, lead shot-punctured lungs wheezing as it eases its massive bulk out of the sodden earth. Look into its eyes and you will die within a year. In a curious epilogue to the tale, this area has developed a reputation for sightings of so-called Alien Big Cats, not big cats from space, but alien in the sense that pumas and panthers are not normally native to the west country. The Big Black Dog has morphed into a Big Black Cat, such is the way with folklore.

Back on the hill, I could feel the hound’s baleful gaze on the back of my head, I knew it was padding up the hill behind me at an easy gait, in my mind the spectral voices of the beast’s victims spoke as one compelling me to turn and look into its eyes, to give up, slow to a crawl and put my foot down, let John go ahead, to continue was folly. I ignored them, then I could hear nothing but hideous wheezing, but thankfully it was coming from me and the hill was levelling out. Lungs seared, legs shot we had arrived at Dead Maid’s Junction. We stayed in lower gears, spinning the cranks gently we searched the air for enough breath to talk about the fast ascent. Had we really stayed above 10mph all the way up? It was only five weeks ago that would have been unthinkable for us. We recovered as we rode round Warminster by-pass, the A36 offering various qualities of tarmac from dead smooth to enfer-du-nord shabby where every turn of the cranks sent the wheels bouncing and skitting over cracks and stones. Through the back of Warminster, ascending the hill on the way to Westbury at 18mph then a fast descent and, uh-oh, a sudden wobbly back wheel from John.

He had a puncture and riding on the deflated tyre had knocked his wheel out of true.

Luckily we were very near Rob and Lou’s house and were able to drop in for a well-timed cup of tea and a choccy biscuit.

John and I have a cup of tea

While Lou took me up the scaffolding to show me the pointing, John set about replacing his innertube and straightening his buckled wheel. Not only did we get a cup of tea, but we persuaded Rob to come out with us again next Thursday on the mountainbike.

After the kind of highbrow, literary conversation that happens when four people who’ve all worked in books get together (we talked about baldness, flies, ghosts, drinking and roofing) John and I headed out into the dusk for home. There was a chilly breeze and without sleeves I was getting very cold. John and I parted ways at the Rising Sun in North Bradley, vowing to meet again next Tuesday.

I turned onto the A361 and pedalled hard, spinning the cranks fast with previously hidden reserves of energy. Head down so that I could not look into the gaze of the modern Black Dogs now trailing me. Their eyes were headlights growing from behind blurring into tail lights in front of me, reek of diesel and exhaust, the growl of every motor that passed me dopplered and faded into the distance, exorcised by the clean night air until all that remained with me for the remainder of the ride was my cadence, and the road.

John cycles through the dusk

Bike-Train-Bike

brompton on the trainbrompton on the train part twoWes and daisy and my brompton

I had to go to Salisbury for work purposes today. Just to make it interesting, my car is due its MOT and is therefore off the road, so I had to bike from the village to Trowbridge to catch the train. The ride of choice was of course the Brompton. Unlike the good old days of the ‘guards van’, most rail operators in the UK won’t let you take your bike onboard the train without a reservation, even then it’s not certain you will get on the train with your bike, the conductor may still turn you away for any number of reasons. It’s a major bone of contention with cyclists, and a symptom of extreme short-sightedness in the rail operators (and indeed transport policy-makers). It would be fantastic to just get on the train with your bike without any hassle and head on to South Wales, The Cotswalds, Scotland, where-ever. I’d love to just load the bike onto the guard’s van, meeting up with other cyclists as they come and go from the train. It’s not some weird cycling utopian dream (like ‘why can’t everywhere be like Centre Parcs’), it’s how it used to be. I have fond memories of being in the guard’s van with my dad on the way to London. There was always a cat in a cage, a massive trunk, two tea chests and at least four cyclists at any one time. The floors were wooden and well-worn, planks moving about as the train bogies swung round the corners, alarming creaks and rattles coming from everywhere, great fun. Well those days are over, the idea of having to reserve a space for your bike, or not take it on certain services during certain peak times of day, seems to me to be the antithesis of what cycling represents; freedom and spontaneity in travel. So what can you do if you want to turn up unannounced on the train with your bike and still be allowed to take it on board? The answer is buy a folding bicycle. As far as I am aware all train operators allow them on board fully folded. In theory the bike should also be covered, but in the few years I’ve been taking the Brompton on trains I’ve never had any bother with my bike being uncovered, though I know others have.
Anyway, got up late, missed the first train, caught the second, had to wait at Westbury station for ages. On the Southampton train I stored the bike in the luggage/disabled area (I would have given the space up if anyone needed it) and relaxed for the 20 mins into Salisbury. Relaxed a bit too much, fell asleep, arrived grumpy and befuddled. Still Zoe, one of my colleagues in espace solutions LLP (websites:design:consultancy), soon cheered me up, firstly by giving me her dogs to look after while she dropped her girls off at nursery, and secondly by handing me a much needed cup of tea. I changed out of my enormous trousers into more suitable work attire, did a job of work, then after a nice little ride through town I caught the train back. I noticed that the clip holding the handlebars to the wheel when the bike is folded is starting to fail, leading to the handlebars unfolding when I pick it up. I know it’s possible to get a custom made clip so I’ll need to look into that, either that or make my own.

I decided to get off at Warminster and cycle back that way. Not sure why, I think I just prefer the A36 to the A361, not that there’s much in it really. Also, from warminster there was more downhill. It was spitting with rain, thankfully I’d just missed a downpour (about 0.25 inch of rain) and the ride back was pretty easy. I think that constitutes the longest single ride I’ve done on the Brompton, a mere eight or so miles. However, I did have the front bag loaded up with a laptop, my filofax, my notebook and a complete change of clothes.