Riding into Spring

Spring can be a messy time of year

Spring can be a messy time of year

I had a ride planned with local smallholder, home-brewer, engineer and cyclist Mike, however as the hours ticked down the evening before I suddenly realised that my Lemond Etape was locked in the shed at my in-laws, and they were away. As the ride was scheduled to begin at 0745 on Sunday morning, this meant I would be trying to pull my mountainbike out from under the accumulated junk in our storage shed at 0700. Before going to bed I looked at the weather forecast, absolutely filthy. Rain, wind, cold and more rain. Nothing was going to stop me from getting in the first ride of Spring, (not even a sore knee) so I sorted out my waterproofs before calling it an evening, leaving a choice of cape or light rainjacket on the chair along with my cycling plus-fours and merino wool top.

On waking I was amazed to see sunlight streaming in through the window. Stepping outside to retrieve the mtb provided further amazement as the sky was colouring up a lovely shade of blue with not a cloud in sight. I began the task of attempting to find my mtb in the storage shed, this turned out to be a bit of an archeological dig as I uncovered a veritable strata of garden tools, cardboard, ladders, planks of wood and children’s toys, beneath which lay my mountain bike. In common with an archeological artifact it was still caked in the mud from the time of its burial. As my road helmet was locked up with my road bike, I was relieved to see my trusty old mtb helmet amongst the associated grave-goods. Once the tyres were pumped up, the mud scraped off and the chain cleaned and re-oiled, the bike looked half decent.

I saddled up and rode down to Mike’s farm, passing the tall grove of bamboo by the driveway which was now beginning to sway and rustle gently in the light breeze, the morning calm was immediately shattered by Mike’s dog running out and barking in greeting. Mike just had to feed the chickens and chuck some oil over the chain of his Dawes Supergalaxy and we were away.

I took us past the redwoods at the manor development and towards Woolverton. There we crossed the A36 and headed into the empty back lanes. Speckling the hedgerows were tiny buds, a promise of Spring that presented a subtle, barely perceived green fuzz as we rode gently along the meandering lanes. It was still stark enough that a chaffinch flittering amongst the scrub created a riotous blaze of colour that stood out like a flashing beacon amidst the branches. The landscape pulled us into steep hollows, giving us enough momentum to be catapulted effortlessly up the hills, until gradually we were pitched up to a point were the view in all directions seemed endless. Far in the distance there was nothing but whitish haze where the horizon should have been, it might as well have delineated the edge of the world. We turned the bikes toward the sun, and hit the high gears. Chains thrummed, driving us along a rare stretch of straight and level road. The lane switched suddenly right, and the ground to our left fell away. Now we were riding on the highest ridge of a lopsided valley with the breeze behind us and the countryside laid out below in patchwork to one side. Gathering speed, we pedalled in bursts as the road surface became sketchy. Water had eaten away at the edges and dumped gravel everywhere. Mike’s bike skittered about a little, but my shirehorse of an mtb ploughed through it all with ease. The velociraptor tyres spat mud, water and stones in all directions including up my back as we turned right again and sped into Faulkland and past the derelict Faulkland inn, one of many pubs to have shut down recently in the county. Our tyres barely touched the main road before we were off into the lanes again. Now the road began to undulate heavily, before flinging us down in to the valley. With the confidence that a heavy bike and fat tyres can give I let the brakes off and hurtled down the hill, it was about the only time that I was in front of Mike for the whole ride. At the bottom I waited where the stream had torn the tarmac into shreds, gouging a channel of water into the road.

A stream across the road

Mike rode up and carefully picked his way over the ruined road surface and impromptu stream. Away from the flood damage the road pitched briefly upwards before throwing us down again, but this time I took us right before the bottom of the hill, pulling the bike into a skid to make the turning. The lanes became narrower as we passsed Stoney Littleton long barrow, climbing up Littleton Lane which suddenly deposited us into the top of Wellow. We found ourselves entering the village in the slipstream behind a huge, red front-loader, its engine gunning noisily as it took the gradient. We peeled off from it’s fumes and hot engine air and dropped down into the valley again, this time down to the Wellow ford. Mercifully it was not flooded this time. Unmercifully we now had to climb Baggridge Hill, a long, long slope, much given to drifting about and becoming narrow here and there where the fancy takes it. Mike was way, way off the front and I was puffing away in the granny gear. It probably would have been quicker to walk it, but with such low gearing there’s no excuse to put a foot down or dismount in shame. I wheezed my way to the top where Mike was just pouring out a couple of cups of coffee from a flask he had secreted in his single pannier.

We stood there for a while and talked about that elation a cyclist feels when, towards the end of climbing a long and infernally steep hill, the cranks spin faster and the gears start to move up again. That feeling of having made it, of getting up the hill, the light at the end of the tunnel.

We were off again, turning into the wind. Wind? Yes, the horizon had cleared and was being troubled by clouds, the breeze was becoming insistent. It mattered not to us, for above us was deep, calm blue and ahead of us, flat road, for the next two miles at least. We crossed the A366 at Tucker’s Grave Inn. The site of the interment of a suicide from 1747, one Edward or Edwin Tucker. As usual with folklore the facts are not easy to come by. If indeed there is a grave here though, it is safe to say that Tucker died in some abnormal way, as crossroads burial was certainly not the norm, and was said to be a way of pinning down or confusing the doomed soul that could not find rest in heaven.

With the clock counting down, we left morbidity behind trapped at the crossroads and shot towards Lullington, the next node on our ride. There was hardly any mishap en route, save the boulder in the road we both managed to miss, and my failure not to throw the chain, though that’s what happens when you try to get from the big ring to the little one without touching the middle one. We skimmed the A36, frantically spinning the cranks to get off the main road and away from the hurtling cars. Then back into the village, where Mike paused briefly to engage in the well-known Somerset practice of gate-leaning and striking a deal with a farmer.

Striking a deal with the farmer.

Striking a deal with a farmer.

Clouds had gathered and the wind was starting to rage as I arrived back at the house. By the time I had finished having a shower the rain was hammering down. The last gasp of winter, but Spring cannot be stopped now, here’s to warmer weather and more rides.

Wylye Valley Siren Song

Last Thursday, the 29th, I set off to cycle to work in Salisbury. My last commute along this route had been fine on the way there, agony on the way back. I put this down to carrying everything in my dad’s old mountain rucksack. So with that in mind, I loaded up the panniers and set off. There were a couple of initial stops while I worked out the best position for the panniers so they didn’t bang my heels, but generally speaking it was a good clear ride. Standing up out of the saddle tended to alter the balance and the bike would literally throw a wobbly, a slightly nervous prospect on Black Dog Hill. Once I was safely enveloped by the utopian riding offered by the Wylye Valley the bike settled down and relaxed into the road. Either that or I had become used to the new balance.

Ah but it was a glorious ride, sun-dappled lanes and the piccolo song of the blackbird accompanied me as I cruised the route. As I neared the fifteen mile mark, I was overcome by a most curious sensation. I didn’t want to go above fourteen miles an hour, though I was not tired, sore or out of breath. Then, as I rode alongside a crystal clear brook which decanted musically over a miniature sluice gate into a larger pool, I was struck with the notion that I must remove my helmet. There was an odd feeling in my head, I sensed the instruction clearly, so clearly that it seemed as though a voice was on the edge of pushing itself into my consciousness. I drifted to the soft verge, where willows trailed into the cold, playful water, and to my surprise found that I was smiling. As the bike carried on under its own momentum, the feeling faded until I experienced a ‘snapping out of it’, a drawing back, and I started pedaling again. I didn’t actually take my helmet off. Passing the farm shop, not yet open, I surmised that perhaps I had encountered a kind of siren, some sort of psychic manifestation of the Wylye Valley route itself. What would have happened had I given in and removed my helmet? Would I then have been compelled to abandon my bike? Perhaps enter the water and slip below its icy surface into the world below? Only the bike would have been left, panniers full “..They say the back wheel was still spinning when it was found by the side of the stream. And no trace of him were ever found”. Perhaps the strangest thing, to my mind anyway, was the sense of immediacy; this was very much the present, not some longed for nostalgia that the ride had evoked. Oh for sure the ride is reminiscent of long summer cycles with the original Highway Cycling Group. Days when the verges were vibrating with the sound of crickets, echoed back by ticking of a freewheel. Days when we would cycle along a forgotten ghost road on the downs while lapwings flocked about us, five hundered wings beating in unison. Squinting into the sun to look for a skylark, a tiny dot producing such glorious melodies; waiting outside a sleepy post office, guarding the bikes against no one while my father bought the drinks and the cakes. Yet this was not a longing for a return of those days, this was a new song, the sheer pleasure of being alive, in this place, in this time, and on my bike.

The experience coloured my whole day, and the rest of the ride bought further richness. A stag headed oak, majestic in the center of a field of ripening corn. Another corn field, this one laced with blood-red poppies, revealed by every puff of the tiny breeze tipping the corn ears down, exposing the flowers hidden amongst the stalks. Even the traffic heavy final dash into Salisbury could not diminish the power of the Wylye’s siren song.

On the way back, I stopped off at the farm shop, specifically to buy some more lime curd. They remembered me from last time and knew I would come back for more. A quick apple juice and stretch of the legs and I was away again.

At the farm shop

It didn’t matter at all when I passed the spot again and nothing mysterious happened. Deeply happy, I pedaled for home.