Looking back before we set off

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Highway Common - late summer 2007

Highway Common - late summer 2007

Published in: on January 8, 2009 at 8:55 pm  Comments (3)  
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The Dark Beneath The World

Inside Rear Chamber looking back down the creepway, Stoney Littleton Long Barrow

Inside Rear Chamber looking back down the creepway, Stoney Littleton Long Barrow

27th of September, a solid Autumn day, still wreathed in mists by ten in the morning. I rode out once more in the direction of Laverton, Faulkland and Stoney Littleton past fields covered in a thick grey, foggy shroud. Tiny beads of moisture gathered on the creases of my hoodie and crusted like rime as I cut through the damp air on the Lemond Etape. Still clean, and fully lubricated, the bike seamlessly moved through the mists, parting the air which flowed around me and reformed in my wake as though I had never disturbed it. I was a spectre, speeding over the landscape on empty ghost-roads. The world seemed to be in another, much earlier time – indeed I was on the trail of the antediluvian that day – the long barrow at Stoney Littleton.

I had recently felt its call; first when riding these lanes in the darkness, pursued by farm dogs, transformed into the Cŵn Annwn, scucca, or shuiks. There was no moon that night, just a feeble silver ley where the beam from my front lamp fell onto the mangled tarmac. The dark that can be found in the heart of the ancient barrows had seemingly seeped out into the evening. A sepulchral darkness that comes when the human spirit is at its weakest, the long hour before dawn, the last hour; the longest mile. And again when I rode out last with John, I saw the barrow on the skyline, silhouetted against the last embers of the daylight. Then it seemed to hold a more gentle darkness, the Long Sleep, the rest that waits for us all; the quiet dead.

Now I was riding in the direction of the ancient mound, rolling over the Somerset hills on roads devoid of traffic, where only the muffled caws of rooks and the croaking of solitary crows disturbed the quiet of the day. Entering the deep valley that cups Wellow Brook in its folds I almost came off the bike when I hit the bottom of the hill. Water had torn the road to pieces as it rushed across from verge to grassy verge.

The landscape bucked and heaved me up and over another rise, Spinning the cranks on the drop down the hill I almost missed the turn off to the right. The sound of hammering accompanied me past a house with a man on the roof intently working on the slates. He didn’t see me as I freewheeled down the road. A world war two pillbox had been absorbed into the hedge and fence of his garden, guarding the entrance to an extremely narrow lane. If a car chose to take this road as I rode down it, I would have to dismount, haul the bike onto the tiny grass verge and push myself back against the barbed wire to avoid being clipped. But no engine disturbed the air, and no one was on the lane save me. Small clumps of Japanese knotweed sprung out from the grass, only a few years old, but already voraciously making their way along the edges of the field and into the ditch. The bike glided softly over a crumbling red brick bridge and along the lane until I saw the layby where one must cross the brook. The tyres crunched over the gravel for a couple of yards then I stepped off and wheeled the Lemond over the thin wooden footbridge. On the other bank I turned left guided by the musical brook and a metal sign pointing towards the ‘Ancient Monument’. The bike was used as a steadying post as I forded an overflowing channel of water before scrambling over a stile. Then up the hill, following the ruts in the path before swinging left into a field with closely grazed grass. Along the contours of the hill then, until another stile appeared on the skyline above me and I walked the bike upwards again.

Heaving the bike over into a small enclosure of long grass I could finally see the barrow. From the side it is an unassuming grassy mound seemingly sitting on a drystone wall. I approached it widdershins (against the sun, anti-clockwise), only on rounding the final curve to the front of the barrow is its true nature revealed. Here the flat stones guard the portal, two shaped mounds flank the entrance on either side, and the way in is small and dropped below the level of the surrounding ground. The grass gives way to a bare patch of earth at the threshold. On the right hand side is a piece of Victorian lettering, now barely visible explaining with typical bluster and arrogance of the time how fantastic the excavations were and how accurate the restoration was.

On the left hand ‘doorpost’ is the familiar spiral of a giant ammonite fossil, beautifully preserved in the stone, every detail of it’s shell picked out perfectly. Surely this had significance to the mound builders, leading them to ensconce it here at the threshold between states.

The Ammonite at the gate

The Ammonite at the gateway

Leaving the bike propped up covering the Victorian boasting plaque, I crawled into the creepway and shuffled along the stony floor of the barrow. This was a low creep, unlike at West Kennet long barrow, where one can walk in, stand in the chamber and still have room above ones head, Stoney Littleton long barrow requires that you humble yourself and approach the chambers with bended knee. The effect was extraordinary, I felt like I was no longer a tourist, I was a participant in an age old drama. I shuffled further forward, if outside the world was silenced by the mist, inside was beyond silence. My every breath seemed loud and unnatural, the rattling of stones as I crawled in was absorbed by the darkness. I stopped at the first junction, once again my bike light became my illumination, this time into the side chambers.

Now it felt wrong. I could go no further in, though I wanted to, I could not make my legs propel me onwards. The imagined weight of the stones and of their long history crushed me into immobility. What they might have meant to the mound-makers, what they meant to the generations who brought their dead here, what they meant when the great stone had been placed across the entrance excluding all light and sound and leaving the dead to their sleep. This was too much, I eased my way out, almost afraid to turn my back on the rear chamber. I had got not even a quarter of the way in before backing out again.

Now I wanted to leave the barrow and the hill. I picked up the bike and started to walk towards the stile. I had gone no further than four meters when I stopped again, and stood, frozen to the spot. I cannot remember what I thought then, I only remember that the cold and wet from the long grass was seeping into my feet through a process of osmosis. The slow chug of a tractor engine drifted over from somewhere on the opposing side of the valley and the odd whistling of a wood pigeon’s wings cut through the mist from somewhere behind me. The cold crawling up my ankles from my soaking feet was somehow pleasant. I knew then I was about to turn around and go back in the barrow.

Quickly I wheeled the bike over to the entrance and this time I laid it down on the grass, unclipping the front light in one movement as I strode to the entrance and, without stopping, ducked across the threshold and dropped to my knees again. I easily passed the junction where the fear had overtaken me not ten minutes before and continued down the creepway. The ceiling of massive stone slabs got lower as I pushed forward and the walls became closer.

At the final junction of the barrow creepway, about to enter the back chamber

At the final junction of the barrow creepway, about to enter the back chamber

Then I was in the back chamber and sitting quietly in the cthonic stillness. I switched off the torch and looked back down the creepway. The light from the entrance leaked some way into the barrow, and I could see my bike lying on the grass just beyond the threshold. I leaned back against the stones, slowed my breathing, closed my eyes and let my mind wander.

Evidence from other barrows suggest that these mounds were opened up and used again and again, over many years, even many generations, becoming a repository for the ancestors. The builders of these barrows and the megalithic remains scattered over the countryside hereabouts lived in a time that was further from the birth of Christ than we are now. Their life expectancy was short, and death was ever stalking them. Those amongst them that outlived a generation became revered and loved, even beyond the point of their deaths and interments in these mounds. What was the purpose of burying them here? What was expected? A resurrection? The stone to roll away? The importance of those ancestors to the mound builders, and the hopes and knowledge they carried perhaps cannot be overstated. In these Ur-times, they maybe kept faith with them, talking to them long after their demise, understanding perhaps greater than we do the importance of keeping their memories alive.

This led me to think of how little I know of my great grandfather beyond a sepia photograph and a name written in a gigantic welsh bible. Above his name are further names about which we know nothing at all, and below are the names of my grandparents, then my own father, then my name, then the names of my children. There is plenty of space below their names as the book is a massive thing, impossible to throw away, lose or destroy. It’s very fabric and solidity gives rise to a comforting illusion of permanence. Yet my own children have never heard my father’s voice, he died when I was 21, years before they were born, he is as remote to them as my great grandfather is to me. So I keep my father’s memory alive, not least with this blog, because he was the man who started the Highway Cycling Group, but also by carrying a simulacra of him in my skull. A ghost, an invocation that allows me to converse with him as if he were still alive. I think of what his ancestors meant to him. Not just the names in that bible, but how in the hours before his death from cancer, he reached out from his bed and looked through me with eyes clouded from morphine, but unexpectedly filled with surprise and joy and said;

“Dad, you are here!”.

This surely is the resurrection we truly long for. Not our own, torn from the sleep of death, but those who have gone before us, the ones we shall never see again, the ones who’s continued absolute absence leaves us crushed and desolate.

In that moment, in his room, I felt the weight of my ancestry pressed around me, as I felt it now within the barrow. In my minds eye I imagined them filling the chambers and the creepway of the ancient mound, back through time and generations, beyond the names scratched in the delicate, dip-pen script of the family bible, beyond the birth records, beyond writing, beyond speech, beyond the trauma of what it is to be human, further back. So far back now that I realise there is only one person there. There only ever was and only ever will be one person.

Dad, you are here.

Dad, I am here.

Then I felt the peace. Blinking, I opened my eyes, startled by the light flooding in through the entrance of the mound. Crawling out along the creepway, I could see the mist had lifted somewhat. The bike seemed lighter as I picked it up and wheeled it down the hill.

The way seemed shorter on the way back. But then it always does.