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.

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.