Of rides to abandoned villages and ruined abbeys

I wish, if I may, to point you in the direction of Jez’s blog, Novemberfive. This time he and his missus, The Pine Martin [sic] have been out on their bikes exploring some Salisbury Plain abandoned buildings. Lovely and haunting photographs on his blog, and probably a few more he’s kept back for himself.

Photograph by Jez Whitworth - Novemberfive

Photograph by Jez Whitworth - Novemberfive

Coincidently, yesterday I briefly caught up with a friend who gave me an amazing book called “Night Vision: The Art of Urban Exploration,”  by Troy Paiva, a superb photographer. He finds abandoned military bases, hotels, towns and takes astonishing night time shots on really long exposures, so atmospheric. The book is an absolute thing of beauty, Chronicle Books clearly knowing how to present these photographs in the best possible manner. Check out Troy Paiva’s Flickr photostream for a taster of the images within.

All this reawakened a memory, jogging it loose from the silt in my mind and sending it bubbling up through my consciousness. Many years ago I used to ride the Wiltshire Historic Churches Trust annual bike ride. The idea was that one would visit as many churches as possible in one day, an attendant at each building would sign your sponsor form (or you would sign the visitors’ book if there was no one there) to prove you had been there. You would be sponsored an amount per church that you visited. In my latter teenage years I took to riding with Dave Mitchinson and George Knighton, who I worked with on Freegrove farm, hauling bales, herding cattle, clearing ditches and, (God preserve me from ever having to do this again) picking potatoes. One summer we set out on the annual church cycle ride along routes often followed by the members of the Highway Cycle Group. Foxham, Spirt Hill, Sutton Benger, seemingly hill after hill after hill, rolling up and down. For long hours the only signs of life were cows lazily chewing up against the hedges and swallows swooping along scant inches above the scorching tarmac. It was a blazing hot day, the distant hills and patchwork fields were laced with haze, micro-mirages of puddles formed in the road ahead of us, rippling in the air before evaporating before our eyes as we laboured up the slopes of the steepest hills North Wiltshire could throw at us. I think it was Dave, who after guiding us into the tiny church at Bradenstoke, took us on a detour down a farm track dusted with powered white clay-soil to the ruins of Bradenstoke Abbey. Approaching the old farm there, we experienced a frisson of excitement. None of us really knew if we were on a public right of way (we weren’t), the tyres seemed unnaturally loud as we freewheeled over the chippings towards a rotted, wooden five bar gate sagging pathetically on its hinges. We hid the bikes in a tangle of weeds behind a low ruined wall before slinking down an avenue of ancient lime trees to where a doorway stood, or at least the stone arch of what was once a doorway. Then we lowered ourselves into what we assumed were the vaults, choked with brickwork and stone piled in the centre of the room. Dust danced in fierce shafts of sunlight that illuminated the ruins, we hardly dared to speak, tense whispers were all we could manage to raise. Then climbing up the rubble and out the other side, nearly falling down a well hidden in the ivy and ground elder on our way to the tower. Dave, being the smallest, but also the most flexible and speedy climbed quite a way into the tower, owl pellets were scattered at the entrance and up above we could hear the beating of wings. Dave came down, pretty quickly. Here and there a collapsed wall revealed a glassless window where we could peer into the stygian darkness below ground, still, quiet, air, reeking of musty stone, disquieting blackness. Out into the long, dry stalks of grass and wild barley. Chirruping grasshoppers leaping out of our path as we struggled back towards the bikes, sunburn prickling on our arms as we wheeled them past the seemingly deserted farmhouse. Then mounting up and riding away down the dusty track in a rattle of mudguards and loose chains, back towards civilization and the prospect of a ice cold bottle of cola from the stores in Lyneham.

Strangely enough, the abbey was not ruined that long ago. American newspaper baron Randolph Hearst had a thing for British historical buildings. He bought the Abbey and had it taken down brick by brick, either to be shipped to America or his castle in Wales depending on which version you hear. Legend has it that a warehouse somewhere still contains unopened crates of the bricks and stone. I’ve found it quite difficult to track down some images. Since I rode to the abbey that summer, it has changed hands and the present owners are doing a lot of work to restore it. It is not on public view though apparently one can walk past on some public rights of way. I visited a few years back and the owners gave permission for me to have a look round. sadly, but also sensibly, the vaults were boarded up with keep out signs everywhere.

A postcard of the Abbey before it was dismantled by Randolph Hearst

A postcard of the Abbey before it was dismantled by Randolph Hearst

The ruins - showing the rubble

The ruins - showing the rubble

The Tower in 2006

The Tower in 2006 after some extensive refurbishment and cutting back since the time we visited.

The tower can be seen on the ridge at the back of Lyneham and Bradenstoke that faces the M4, the trainline from Bristol to Swindon runs even closer.

“All things human hang by a slender thread; and that which seemed to stand strong suddenly falls and sinks in ruins.” – Ovid

My First ‘Proper’ Bike

My first proper bike, on a beach in France.

Everything about the bike looked heavy, from the metal mudguards and massive deraileur to the steel rack and thick tubing. The too-wide drop handlebars were covered in some strange deteriorating, rubberised red tape with suicide levers hanging limply and ineffectively beneath. Rust-spattered cables slewed off the hoods at awkward angles that spoke of improvised repairs by gradual shortening. Dull black paint-work, flaking decals and a maker’s badge so nondescript that my memory would eventually hold not even the faintest possibility of recalling it’s providence, even to my untrained eye the bike looked somewhat woeful. Yet as I stood watching my father begin his negotiations with the assistant in the secondhand shop, I was holding my breath and crossing my fingers, hoping the bike would shortly be mine. Earlier, having checked the bike over (a shake of the handlebars, a spin of the wheels, a surprisingly smooth run through the five gears followed by a tut as pulling on the brakes had no effect whatsoever), my father had surreptitiously removed the price tag and now, he was slowly screwing the card into a ball behind his back as he spoke, I watched the biro numbers disappear, £15, before he casually slipped it into his back pocket.

“So ten pounds is the asking price, yes” It wasn’t a question, the assistant looked confused.

“Uh, yes”

“But the brakes don’t work so let’s call it five”

Minutes later we were wheeling my ‘new’ bike towards the carpark in Devizes, my hand was almost shaking as it rested on the saddle.

Previous to this bike, I had owned only one bicycle, the one I learned to ride on, my Vindec. This was a sit-up and beg roadster with a nasty white saddle, but a firey red paintjob (this was let down by the mustard-coloured metal mudguards), basically I had killed it before I had outgrown it. This poor machine had been ridden it into not only the ground, but various trees, rocks, hedges and streams. It was the mid-eighties, bicycling for the early teens in the Wiltshire village of Hilmarton had revolved around straight handlebar roadsters with a single sprocket freewheel. One or two of the group had a Sturmey-Archer three gear hub, and one lucky bastard from a well off family had a BMX. Our main pastime was riding these heavy bikes at speed down the bridleway that led out of the village, down a steep, root-infested mud and gravel singletrack and out the other side onto a country lane. We stripped the mudguards off so the wheels wouldn’t jam when clogged with mud and lowered the saddles to keep them out of the way when we stood up to allow our legs to absorb the ruts and bumps on the trail. None of us had seen or heard of a mountainbike and we rarely ventured beyond the confines of the village on our bikes.

My ‘new racer’, as I called it, (though clearly it was an absolutely bottom-end tourer), opened up the surrounding roads to me, suddenly I had five gears, a rear rack, a kickstand and a place to put a pump. Not only that, but, as my father pointed out sternly, this bike would have to be locked up when I went into a local shop. It was that desirable!

This bike, riddled as it was with faults, from its regularly snapping cables, its grinding bottom bracket, to its rattling front mud-guard (ripped off in the end), carried me for a good many years, and hundreds of miles with The Highway Cycling Group. Finally it rusted through, abnout two weeks after I rode it into the English Channel from the French side, blissfully unaware that salt-water will eagerly devour metal.

I last saw the bike as it slid into the pile of rusted, mangled metal on the back of a rag-and-bone man’s lorry. Every three months or so this battered vehicle would slowly crawl through the village with a loud hailer mounted atop the cab, squawking “OldIronAnyol’Iron?OldIronAnyol’Iron?OldIronAnyol’Iron?” in a squealing tone that sounded like metal grinding on metal. Years before, the same lorry had taken away my father’s useless old roadster, prompting him to buy his ten-gear tourer and start The Highway Cycling Group.

The rear wheel of my bike span slowly as it was absorbed into the mass of tangled scrap, the lorry continued on its way, finally disappearing round the corner into Church Road. I stood for sometime on the pavement with my hands in my pockets as the metallic voice, laced with feedback, gradually faded into the warm summer air, absorbed by the distant melancholy sound of reversing propellers from a transport plane taxi-ing on the runway at RAF Lyneham four miles away.

I cannot remember what I was thinking at that moment, only what I saw and heard. Perhaps I felt sorrow, maybe acceptance, it’s possible I was wondering how I would get around without a ride as I can’t even remember if I had my next bike by then.
But I do think it’s true that you never forget your first ‘proper’ bike.

Rust In Peace.

Published in: on March 13, 2008 at 10:45 pm  Leave a Comment  
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