My Final Ride of 2008

Perhaps it was unwise, given the predicted drop in temperature, to arrange to meet local smallholder Mike at 9am for a ride. I wrapped up warm, and pedalled down to Mike’s farm. After a slight delay in which Mike fed the chickens and I supplied a trackpump to get our tyres up to the regulation 80+psi, we quickly left the village and headed out down crooked lane. Frost crusted the grass on the verge, and muddy ice was scattered across the tarmac. The air was still and dry, and it seemed as if the cold was drifting down and settling on us from the sky. The orb of the sun hung limp and weak amid the grey, a perfect dull circle, devoid of heat and ferocity, that could not even leave an after-image burnt into the retina.

We were in good spirits, riding in the knowledge that this winter was slowly on the wain, but the cold was already nipping at our fingers and toes, forcing our pace up a little. Mike is a fit chap, and he could maintain an even cadence on hills and straight alike. Before we arrived at Dilton Marsh, I was already struggling a little and decided that I would walk up the hill of The Hollow. However, when it came to it, I found the hill to be less steep in real life than it had appeared in my head, and I was able to ride up all the way. Over the crossroads at the top and into the back of Warminster via a ghost road. Out of Warminster at Bishopstrow, and into Sutton Veny. By now, my toes were aching, my lips were cracked and my fingertips had gone numb. We had thoughts of a cup of tea at the farm shop in Boyton, and possibly, dare we imagine, a slice of cake.

We continued along the beautiful Wylye Valley in the direction of Salisbury, and a slight breeze built up, sucking the warmth from our faces. Passing a stream, Mike paused to work out the drop on a weir, he is obsessed with the idea of hydroelectric power and takes every opportunity to investigate a weir or mill race. As we discussed the pros and cons of increasing the height of wier on his farm by 25cm, we rounded the final corner, elated to see a sandwich board outside the farm shop that clearly said “we are open”. Joy turned to disbelief as we appraoched the entrance and discovered that the sentence continued “…Wednesday to Friday”. As it was a Monday, it left us with freezing cold toes and no prospect of a cuppa. We hopped around to try and warm ourselves up, and I cracked open the Jelly Belly energy beans I had found in my stocking on Christmas morning, thus fortified with sugary goodness and a minimum of warmth we remounted and set off for Warminster, swearing that we would locate a purveyor of cake and coffee to ease our malaise.

We followed the road into Warminster and crawled into the town centre, it was pretty busy and there was no small risk involved in drifting acorss the road after the central traffic lights to arrive at the Cafe des Journaux. Mike had his pannier and a lock so we tied up the bikes to the nearest lampost before walking inside the tiny coffee shop and taking a seat, right next to the heater.

The heater
Mike did the honours, and within minutes we had coffees and cakes (and I had managed to knock a bowl of sugar packets onto the floor). Mike even located a copy of The Times and we spent a restful few minutes sipping coffee, eating cake and commenting on various news stories in the pleasant shop.

coffee and cake

When we left the cafe, it suddenly seemed considerably colder, I never thought I’d say this, but thank goodness for that hill out of Warminster town centre, it warmed us up nicely. As Mike was going to be late home, we decided it would be best to take the A36. Although this was quicker, it turned out to be a bit of a grind, the windchill and the traffic made it an unpleasant experience. My lack of recent exercise began to take its toll, and I fell far behind as Mike raced to the farm shop to pick up some shopping. I caught up with him as he was locking his bike up. I decided that I’d better stay outside, not least because I needed to find a convenient location to ‘view the plough’ and ease the pressure on my bladder that had been building up for the last four miles, but because I didn’t want to warm up in the shop only to step outside into the chill again. I ate some more energy beans.

energy bean

We saddled up for the last time and headed back to the village. A good, if cold ride to finish the year, clocking up 35 miles in total.

See you in 2009!

The House by the Railroad

The day after John and I pootled/sprinted our way to a cup of tea I rode to work in Salisbury and back. The first time I did that, I thought it was an epic ride, this was the third time I’ve done it this year and it’s incredible how quickly it has become just another journey, absorbed into the day-to-day riding. That’s not to suggest that the ride itself is in any way ordinary and unremarkable, I would be hard-pressed to find a more picturesque and pleasant ride of that distance locally, it’s just that to me it no longer seems epic. I am making the journey to Salisbury in about one hour fifty minutes now, and the return journey in two hours to two hours fifteen. I was once told that the top of the spire on Salisbury Cathedral is level with the bottom step of Warminster town hall. I’m sure this is a Wiltshire old wives’ tale as that would imply an incredible rate of climbing over twenty four miles, 404 feet to be reasonably precise. In any case, it is significantly harder on the way back compared to the way there.

En-route, I have come to recognise and anticipate certain landmarks, one of which is a house in Wylye village which fascinates me. I call it The House by The Railroad, as, although it looks nothing like Hopper’s famous painting with that title, it has a sort of melancholy feel to it that I associate with Hopper’s paintings. And of course it is actually by the railway line. A while back someone posted a comment on this blog that led me to an article about Hopper’s love of cycling and particularly track racing, so there is a little bit of synergy here. Anyway, here is the House by the Railroad:

The train track runs scant feet behind the back of the building. I like the fact that it’s on a hill and has a lot of steps up to the front door. Although there are other houses around it, it seems somewhat isolated from them, having an aura of its own, indeed I cannot recall what the houses around it look like, so unremarkable are they to my mind. For some reason I would love to live there. Both my wife and I find the clattering of trains in the night to be a soothing sound, on this line the trains must sound their horns as they pass the myriad crossings that are scattered throughout these villages in the Wylye Valley. It has a faint whiff of the gothic about it, from the artlessly scattered chippings the mound seems to rise from, to the pillar supported porch and the open window, not to mention the cat lurking on the driveway. The house is small and set back a little from the road, yet its presence is huge and it demands, and commands, my attention every time I ride past.

A serious house, on serious earth – as it says in the graphic novel Arkham Asylum by Grant Morrison. Interestingly, this subtitle in turn is taken from the poem Church Going by Philip Larkin, which also contains the words:

” …Hatless, I take off
My cycle-clips in awkward reverence, ”

My view of the house lasts all of ten seconds, yet I am ready for it a good mile in either direction or so from where the house stands.

Published in: on July 29, 2008 at 10:01 pm  Comments (2)  
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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.

31 mile commute

I decided to ride to work in Salisbury today, I estimated it would be a journey of 30 miles and it would take me about two hours. The route was through the Wylye Valley though I started off on the A36, it was just before seven in the morning and there was not much traffic on the road. I reckoned I would be out of Warminster and going through Sutton Veny by the time the traffic on the main roads started hotting up. The weather was beautiful, already at the early hour the day was warming up nicely, having said that, there was still a morning chill, not that I suffered, for I was wearing my Swobo merino wool jersey – cool in the heat, warm in the cold.

national cycle route 24 sign

Arriving at Sutton Veny I was locked right into National Cycle Network route 24, and a splendid route it is, wide roads and next to no traffic. Every car with any sense is on the A36 which runs near enough parallel to this route. The road weaves around, over and under the railway line like a tarmac double helix, the only thing to look out for are farm trucks, tractors, diggers and local buses. There even appears to be a weird deficit of 4x4s on the road. I made it door to door in exactly two hours, it was thirty one miles.

The return journey was into a nasty headwind which had sprung up at about 2pm, it had clouded over as well. I hadn’t eaten enough for lunch so by the time I reached Wylie I was suffering. The rucksack – my father’s mountaineering backpack from the 60s was damn heavy, to top it all off, the post office was shut for half day closing. I limped into Boyton and slewed into the farm shop there. Immediately I was accosted by an assistant urging me to try some lime curd. Of course, in my starved, low blood sugar state – the taste was as though heaven had flooded into the fibre of my very being, as the subtle flavour exploded over my palette I practically had a religious experience and immediately added it to the pile of cheese, meats and flap jacks I had already hungrily picked up. I rode down the road with my purchases, stomach gurgling and legs hardly able to spin the cranks. Collapsing into a grassed gateway I clawed open the bag of tuck and began to devour everything bar the lime curd. Ten minutes later I was sated and back on the bike. It was still heavy going but at least I had some energy. I cut through Heytsbury and into Warminster that way thinking it was a shortcut, but in the end it added another 1.5 miles to the total. I knew Lucy and her mother were at the curves gym in Warminster at some point in the evening, so I meandered hopefully into the carpark to find they had just arrived. Thankfully they were able to take the incredibly heavy backpack leaving me much lighter for the final six miles back to the village. I arrived at the boy’s grandparents’ house 2hours and 40 mins after setting off from Salisbury – a huge difference from the journey there. Total 64 miles.

Some pics from the ride:

Friday Ride – bike troubles

Folly LaneI don’t know what it is about John, every time he says “Do you mind if I bring a mate along?” it turns out to be a super-fit individual who leaves us puffing and panting in his wake. Friday 6th was no exception, John’s friend Andy joined the illustrious list of riders who have helped up our average speed. We met at the pub on the A361 then headed out towards Rudge and Dilton. Almost immediately Andy was complaining of a knocking from the pedal area which seemed to be going through his foot, but it was John who forced the first stop of the day in a routine that is becoming a regular on our rides, his spokes pinged out. Actually, Andy didn’t really drive us too hard, it had been a while since he and John had met up so we ambled along the lanes at a reasonable, though not stupid pace. As we headed past the trout farm by Dilton Marsh, we saw a weasel dart out in front of us, I say we, John missed it, he was looking at a dead squirrel.

The glorious sound of three chainsets working in unison was rather ruined by some creaking from the front end of my bike. Having just come up the Hollow (me at the back) the bike was protesting alarmingly. John suggested tightening the handlebars – which seemed to do the trick. We took the ghost road from Upton Scudamore to the outskirts of Warminster, effectively shaving off a corner of B-road and also saving us some pretty nasty traffic interaction. Zipping round the outskirts of Warminster, I had to stop when a client phoned, the others waited up ahead. Business taken care of we set off again, this time for the Wylye Valley. As Andy and John used to work in the same bike shop, they regaled and entertained me with various stories and bits of bike wisdom during the ride. It wasn’t long before we swung a ride into Five Ash Lane. Ah, now this was bicycling! This quiet wooded road was alive with bird song and festooned with gorgeous wildflowers. The forest perhaps once was a solid commercial venture, a plantation, but careful forestry work and management have broken the monotony of lines of timber trees. This woodland was alive in every sense, plenty of undergrowth, a variety of trees, airy space. Huge, lush green ferns and flowering rhododendrons lined the verge and the sun sparkled off the myriad leaves and dappled the tarmac with shade as we rode down the lane. Then suddenly the road dropped away and we were hurtling downwards, just missing some seriously bad potholes, we were disgorged onto a main road. A plan to head back via Chapmanslade was ruined by John puncturing. As we stopped at Folly Lane, I took the now standard picture of John repairing his wheel. Note also Andy examining his pedals.

Andy adjusts his pedals, John repairs his wheel and tyre - as usual

With time now very much of the essence (I needed to get back to the village to pick up the children) we abandoned the Chapmanslade plan and headed for the A36. The stretch towards the beginning of the Warminster bypass was dealt with quickly and at speed, we caned up to 28mph and that was going slightly uphill! Next, Black Dog and some pretty serious downward hurtling. Finally, the long, slow drag up to Beckington, and this was were I very much came off the back. Staying up all night on Wednesday to launch The Prince’s Rainforests Project website suddenly caught up with me, as did the lack of quality nutrition and energy in my garage bought lunch. I just slipped into a lower gear and pedaled through it. Andy had gone on way ahead and I didn’t see him until I finally caught up with John and we arrived back at the pub carpark we had set out from. For me it was 24 miles and a good ending to what had been a massively mixed week. We pledged to make this a regular thing of a Friday and parted ways, the others heading back to Trowbridge and me to pick up the kids, crucially, on time.

Eat More Chips – Deeper into the Wylye

15

After a hard day’s graft at the coalface/keyboard, I managed to get out for an evening ride. It had been a pretty dreary day weatherwise, but as I hurtled towards Warminster the sun was coming out, having dipped down below the cloud line, a golden orb regally bestowing it’s glory upon the A36. Still, there was the threat of rain in the air as I trundled up Black Dog Hill. I paused in the car park of the Little Chef just outside Warminster to sort out the lights, lorry drivers were getting ready to bed down for the night, staring out from their cabins as I wove the bike in between the wheeled leviathans. Evening radio poured out from the opened windows, mingling with the smell of strong coffee. Then, oh joy, I finally got the chance to take a picture of a lorry that I have seen rolling up and down these roads for a good few months, but have never managed to get the camera out in time. But there it was, sitting ready for me to take a pic of the legend branded on its flank.

“Eat More Chips”

the fabled Eat More Chips lorry

Oft have I spoken of this splendid vehicle, and oft have people exclaimed that I am making it up. But here and now I present proof that the Eat More Chips lorry is real.

In great spirits I continued on through Warminster town center and out the other side. I crossed the Wylye and went through Bishopstrow and Sutton Veny. This time I headed for Corton. These roads are splendid, country lanes, but wide, very wide. I think this must be because there is a quarry or something here abouts and the lorries need to get into it. As I came out of Tytherington (after admiring the village’s ancient church as I rode past) I broke free of a tunnel of trees lining a hill, and there was the Wylye Valley unfolded ahead of me. It was glorious, a fairweather English Eden stretching out before me as far as the eye could see. Not only was the road smooth and beautifully wide, it was near devoid of traffic so I took my hands off the brakes and allowed the benign road to carry me down to the next village, Corton. In a field to the left a small heard of Llamas stood and watched me pedal past. The shadows were lengthening rapidly, the sun had dulled to a brass colour, veiled by inky clouds on the horizon. I pushed on a little further until the computer gave me fifteen miles, then I reluctantly turned back and headed the way I had come. It was hard pedaling all the way back, for the dusk was hard on my back and the sharp chap chap of a blackbird alarm call told me that the witching hour was about to begin. Often this is my favourite time to ride, the air is cool and fresh, sound is exaggerated and enhanced, fewer cars on the road – all of them able to see my tron-like reflective gear so they give me a wide berth. In the gathering darkness, it seems that hills are easier and the miles go quicker. There is also the chance that I might see an owl, a badger or a hare.

I arrived back at the house with no wildlife spotted, but 31 miles clocked up for the evening’s ride.

Into the Valley of The Wylye

t shirt one t shirt two

Many years ago, while I worked for Ottakar’s books, all the staff took part in a company wide effort to raise money for the children of Deogarh in India. One of things I did was a sixty mile cycle ride to our head office in Salisbury from Trowbridge, and back again. Considering how unfit I was at the time, it was an epic undertaking. John (who I still ride with on the Wednesday rides) was our guide, taking us into Salisbury via the beautiful Wylye Valley, rather than the hell that would have been the A36. At the top of this post you can see the front and rear of the T-shirt I made for the ride. I made one for everyone with the rider’s name on the back and their number, 1-4 on the front and sleeve. Below are some more pics from the ride.

warminster-no-casualtieshalfway-point-carefully-arranged-shot-of-spire-ruined-by-claridgeheroic-cyclists-at-head-officestart-of-phase-2-james-sees-the-troops-off

On Saturday I took a ride out from the village and ended up retracing some of the route we took on the sponsored cycle ride. We had been promised foul weather, but although it was very gusty, there was no rain in the air. I headed for Dilton Marsh, then took the road up The Hollow. This was the steep hill that saw one member of the group simply exclaim “Oh F*** off!” and dismounting to walk up as soon as he saw the gradient. I remember cycling up behind John, but being unable to breathe at the top as we waited for the other two to walk it. This time I took it with ease, crossed over the road and headed for Upton Scudamore. On the way I passed the layby and bridge where in April I had seen a seriously filthy amount of flytipped rubbish. I’m happy to say that someone has tidied it up. here’s a before and after for you:

Rubbish! Little or no rubbish!

Through Upton and over the main road to another ghost road. A fragmented old stretch of tarmac overgrown and crow-haunted, it deposited me almost by the Warminster sign, next to a crab apple tree by the side of the road. The back roads of Warminster saw me wondering if I was taking the right route. It seemed to me that in retrospect, the sponsored riders appeared to have stopped off at every grocery shop on the way. I crossed Imber Road and sped down long stretches of tarmac dotted with speed bumps, still not 100% sure of where I was going, sat up in the saddle with one hand on the handlebars I drifted towards Bishopstrow with the vague recollection that we had at some point crossed the A36 via a bridge. The only way that could have happened was if we had gone over the Warminster bypass. So I headed that way, tacking my back a little like a sail to allow the tail wind to push me through Bishopstrow village and, yes, over the A36. There was little traffic on the road and I crossed the bubbling Wylye river in peace. Here on the backroads I simply turned the cranks and enjoyed bicycling, cow parsley brushed my shins as I rode close to the verge. A myriad range of birds, swallows, buntings, finches and sparrows, dipped and sped across the road at head height. Sometimes they stalled into the wind, flapping wildly but unable to make headway as the gusts rose and fell. Across the tall grass in the field, the wind blew in eddies and currents; where the evening sun struck the seedheads the ripples of light moved over the surface of the field, tracking the path of the zephyrs like waves on water.

Rather like when fishing, cycling connects you intimately to the movements of the breeze. On the banks of a pool or lake, with the bait in the water, you notice that the wind rarely moves in one direction. You will see your float drift one way, then another. After a while you learn the subtle changes that signal a change of wind direction. So it is on the bike, the wind is moving around you all the time, a gust will almost stop you in your tracks, but then as it dies it creates a sort of patch of pressure where the wind seems to be sucked back the other way, suddenly driving you forwards. On such days it can feel as though you are being pushed and pulled along, you can ride on the drops when the wind is against you, but sit up tall to take advantage of a sudden tailwind. When the sun is out, it can be quite enjoyable, so much more than sheer, baking heat and still air.

At Sutton Veny I decided I had gone far enough and turned towards the Warminster bypass roundabout. It was a brief ride into the wind, then left, leaving the wind mainly on my right. By the time I got to the lead up to the crest of Black Dog Hill, I was glad of the lorries and using them to draft up the gradient. I arrived back at the house having notched up twenty six miles. Leaving me only twenty to thirty miles in order to rack up 1000 miles on the Lemond Etape since Feb 2007.