Tag Archives: national cycle network

Full Circle

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This summer Sam and I rode the Wiltshire Cycleway, a delightful 160-mile circular route beginning and ending in Bradford-on-Avon, just a few miles outside of Bath. The ride packed 5,000 years of history and 16 pubs into five days (two new personal bests), and featured a nostalgic return to a 1970s children’s TV classic, as well as some rather odd smells…

The picture postcard Bradford which sits on the Avon is prettier and more genteel than its better known, brassier West Yorkshire cousin (though the latter doubtless has much better curries). From the 13th century stone bridge which straddles the gurgling river, there are good views of the steep hill dotted with old weavers’ cottages perched high above the town. Everything is built from the same honey-coloured limestone which gives Bradford, along with Bath and many other places around here, a sheen of elegance and soft harmony. It’s mid-afternoon and we mark the start of our ride with tea, vanilla milkshake and biscuits at one of the many tea shops in the town centre. Ready to go, we pick up the first section of the route from the Lock Inn Café on the banks of the Kennet & Avon Canal, heading in the direction of Dilton Marsh.

Just outside the village of Westwood we cycle past a field of blue and white striped tents, catching the sweet scent of wood smoke on the breeze. A group of adults and children  hold hands and dance round in a circle singing. It looks like a fey, more new-agey version of the Woodcraft Folk. I suddenly recall my father claiming he knew how to start a fire by rubbing two boy scouts together. I’m not sure that joke is still possible in the post-Savile era though. ‘I expect it’s some form of ritual sacrifice’, I shout cheerfully to Sam as we pass by. As I speak, a man looms in front of us, shaven-headed and piratical with a red and white checked headband, gold hoop earrings and silver bangles. He is walking very deliberately down the middle of the road straight towards us with an intense, magnetic stare, forcing me to brake hard. The thought flashes through my head that he might be an escapee from the high security wing of some local institution, hidden deep in the countryside.

‘Yes’ he says, in a deep, Hammer Horror voice, ‘You have guessed our secret – human sacrifice! And you have arrived just in time. We’re looking for our next victims!’

He strides right up to my handlebars without hesitation as if he is going to walk right through me like a ghost, his eyes boring into mine. But he veers away at the very last second and walks past, then turns and says a bit huffily, ‘Cos obviously we’re into black magic and Satan and all that stuff aren’t we?’

I feel embarrassed. ‘Sorry, it was just a daft joke’ I say. ‘Who are you by the way?’

‘We’re the Unicorns,’ he shouts, as he enters the tented field. ‘You sound like a horny bunch’, I’m tempted to reply, but think better of it.

Later in the afternoon we stop to look around Farleigh Hungerford Castle. It was ‘built by Sir Thomas Hungerford’ in the late 1300s (yeah right, I’m sure he laid every stone), and remained in the Hungerford family for three centuries. The castle is now largely in ruins but all the more evocative for its crumbling walls which enclose a history of scandal. Agnes, the wife of Sir Edward Hungerford, was hanged for throttling her first husband (Sir Edward’s steward) and burning his body in the kitchen furnace. Later, Sir Walter Hungerford III imprisoned his wife Elizabeth in the castle for four years and tried several times to poison her, but she survived by eating food smuggled in by local women and drinking her own piss. Walter also managed to get himself appointed as the local agent of the powerful Thomas Cromwell who made him into a Lord, but he was later convicted of treason, witchcraft and buggery (they say good things come in threes), and hanged next to his gaffer by order of Henry Eighth in 1540.

The crypt underneath the chapel also boasts eight very creepy-looking, ‘anthropoid’ lead coffins. Anthropoid coffins are shaped like the human bodies they contain, with faces moulded from death masks taken from the corpses. These ones hold the embalmed remains of various 17th century members of the Hungerford family who have been pickled in alcohol. By the 1830s the coffins had become a bizarre tourist attraction, with holes drilled into the lead and samples of the corpse-infused liquor offered to visitors to taste as a kind of macabre dare.

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Back on the route, we turn into Longleat Safari Park and cycle alongside a fence where ominous signs warn ‘Danger keep out – wild animals!’ When it opened in 1966 Longleat was the first drive-through safari park outside Africa. The park has become famous over the years for images of big cats snarling through car windows and chattering monkeys scampering over bonnets, terrifying the shit out of families on day trips. Hopefully we’re not actually going to be cycling through any animal enclosures today. Longleat is now home to over 500 creatures including African pygmy goats, warthogs, blue wildebeest, eastern bongos, white-faced whistling ducks, southern white rhinos, Canadian timber wolves, red-necked wallabies, amur tigers, cheetahs, two prides of African lions and Anne the Asian elephant. As per usual on our bike trips we fail to see any of the promised wildlife. On this occasion it’s probably for the best.

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The only creatures in evidence are a bunch of frisky fallow deer skittering around near the edge of the woods, probably kept on their toes by the scent of so many apex predators drifting on the wind. A passing walker tells us to listen out for the cry of the lions at dusk, and as we are leaving the park there is indeed a strange, mournful sound coming from just beyond the trees. This could have been the African lions, or it could have been the plaintive cry of the inmates of nearby Longleat Center Parcs, desperate to be spared another 25 quid round of mini-golf and begging to be released back into the wild.

The route continues past Longleat House and its lovely grounds, landscaped in the 18th century by Capability Brown. (The contract had originally been awarded to his rival Bloody Useless Robinson, but for some reason there was a change of plan). We cycle towards the exit along the long, perfectly straight driveway which seems to go on for ever and ever up a slight but spirit-sapping incline. Sam is suddenly struggling, ravenously hungry and dangerously close to ‘bonking’ (that moment long-distance cyclists dread when your body runs out of sugar and your stomach starts eating itself in an act of wanton self-cannibalism). I hadn’t thought to bring any snacks along on this first afternoon of the trip, and not for the first time I feel like a bit of a slack dad. Luckily he manages to make the last two miles to our night stop at the Somerset Arms in the village of Maiden Bradley, where pie & chips and a side order of battered onion rings the size of plump doughnuts soon sort him out.

The next day is a relaxed 40 mile canter, crisscrossing the South Wiltshire-North Dorset border, the route gently rising and sinking, but fairly untaxing with ample time to enjoy the scenery and stop for vittles along the way. One of the joys of a cycle trip is the rediscovery of those happy opportunities for supplementary refreshment between main meals, long-forgotten interludes in the day such as elevenses and tea-time.

During the morning we pass Stourhead House, one of many stately homes on the Wiltshire Cycleway, home to 16 Baron Stourtons over a period of three centuries (including one,  the 8th Baron Stourton, who was hanged for murder). In 1714 it was sold to the Hoare banking family who replaced the old house with the Palladian mansion that still stands today, a miniature replica of which was used as Lady Penelope’s mansion in Thunderbirds. The house and gardens also featured in Stanley Kubrick’s brilliant, eccentric 1975 period epic Barry Lyndon, based on a Thackeray novel. (Its unhurried, painterly style and three hour running time was not to everyone’s taste. Stephen Spielberg described the experience of watching Barry Lyndon as a bit like ‘going through the Prado without lunch.’)

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Our own lunch is taken at the Bennet Arms in Semley, and while Sam piles into a full platter of Wiltshire ham, eggs and chips, I feel I ought to choose something a bit more salady. I’ve always been blessed with a rather svelte, not to say skinny, frame, but I can’t help but notice of late that a certain inflation has been taking place around the old midriff. Following my bike trip last year in the West Country, which involved over 250 miles pedalling and a total elevation equivalent to climbing Snowdon and Ben Nevis, when I got on the bathroom scales back home I discovered that I had somehow acquired five surplus pounds. I have no idea where they can have come from.

So with my expanding girth in mind I opt for a ploughman’s lunch which comes with a large hunk of crusty bread and a thick slice of butter, and a generous wodge of creamy Dorset blue cheese, as well as those little ramekin pots of pickle and coleslaw, crisps and slices of apple that English ploughmen have traditionally eaten throughout the centuries. (Or at least since the 1960s when it was invented by the Milk Marketing Board). And for once I settle for a single lunchtime pint (Ringwood Best). Though I end up having the second anyway, mainly to keep Sam company.

We spend the afternoon drifting from one sleepy hamlet to another at approximately Barry Lyndon pace: Donhead St Mary, Alvediston, Berwick St John, Bishopstone…Passing a number of farms along the way we are growing accustomed to the characteristic fragrance of Wiltshire wafting towards us on the headwind. It’s a bit like breathing into a ripe, full nappy while riding behind a flatulent donkey.

Arriving in Salisbury we check into the King’s Head, the large Wetherspoon’s pub on the riverside. Unusually, they have no secure place to store bikes but will let us keep them all night in our bedroom. I do know one or two cyclists who seem to like this kind of arrangement, in some cases even relishing the opportunity to spend the night with their beloved machines, though I have always felt it best not to probe. Personally I’m not at all keen as I always end up clattering into the handlebars or bashing my shins against the pedals on the way to the toilet in the dark.

Salisbury is one of those delightfully quaint medieval towns full of narrow cobbled streets and oak-beamed pubs. We spend some time wandering around, soaking up the atmosphere and admiring the cathedral with its stupendous spire, the tallest in England, before retiring to the Wig & Quill for dinner. Afterwards we call in at the Haunch of Venison, which claims to be the oldest alehouse in Salisbury (which is saying something), originally dating from 1320 and first used as a hostel for workers building the cathedral spire. It’s certainly one of the quirkiest inns you could find anywhere, and appears on a popular online listing as one of the ’25 pubs you must drink in before you die’. It’s not clear whether you’re meant to drink in all 25 in a single session (over a long weekend say) and then die, or whether this task is meant to be spread over a whole lifetime. I assume the latter, in which case (at the time of writing) I’ve now drunk in six of them but am not dead, so very much a work in progress. Among the Haunch of Venison’s many curiosities is an old bread oven under the fireplace which contains the mummified hand of a ‘demented 18th century whist player’.

Next morning is our pilgrimage by bicycle to Stonehenge. Leaving Salisbury we cycle through the villages of Woodford and Lake, the crystalline waters of the Avon glimpsed at intervals through the trees on our left. At Wilsford we push the bikes along an old, winding footpath that leads us up onto a wild and open plain, the earth scored as far as the eye can see with a mysterious pattern of bulges and saucer-shapes. This is Normanton Down, a Neolithic and Bronze Age burial complex of three long barrows and 40 round barrows. Stonehenge soon appears tantalisingly in the distance separated from us by the insanely busy A303. We approach and wait ages for a gap in the traffic, then hurry our bikes across the road and through a gate. We find ourselves in The Avenue, a pair of parallel grassy banks with outer ditches dating from about 4,000 years ago. This is thought to be a processional path, built to commemorate the route taken to the site by the famous bluestones from the banks of the River Avon (where they had been off-loaded after their long journey from the Preseli hills in Pembrokeshire).

We lean the bikes against a fence and duck underneath a thin strip of official-looking yellow tape which forms an unconvincing barrier across the path. This is the way our ancestors once approached the site before we developed the more advanced method of sitting in a traffic queue for an hour and a half and paying 17 quid a head. The path slopes upwards and at the crest of the hill the stones suddenly loom in front of us, breathtaking in  scale, the giant sarsens perfectly framing the white of the sky. It’s such an iconic sight, though unfortunately the image that most comes to mind is Spinal Tap’s stage set for the song ‘Stonehenge’, when they have mistakenly ordered stones 18 inches high instead of 18 feet.

In front of us on a wooden walkway a huge crowd of visitors are trudging around the stones which are roped off 20 yards away; an endless circular crocodile of parents followed by bored looking children checking their social media feeds and posing for the occasional selfie. What would our Neolithic ancestors have made of these strange 21st century rituals? An officious man with an English Heritage badge scuttles across to tell us we are not supposed to be standing where we are standing, forcing us to climb over a barbed wire fence into an adjacent field carpeted in sheep droppings. For good measure he ticks Sam off for smoking a roll-up.

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When we have seen all there is to see from this rather limited vantage point, we retrieve our bikes and repair for lunch to the nearby town of Amesbury. This is the home of the Amesbury Archer, an early Bronze Age fellow whose skeleton was discovered in 2002, immediately dubbed the ‘King of Stonehenge’ by the media. Whatever his true identity he was evidently some kind of local Charlie Big Potatoes, judging by the unprecedented amount of grave goods found alongside him, including gold hair tresses, the earliest gold objects ever found in England.

Carbon dating shows that the Amesbury Archer lived around the actual time that some of the stones at Stonehenge were being erected, and archaeologists have speculated that he may have played an important role in the site’s construction. Tests also show that he originally came from the Alpine region in central Europe, the area of modern-day Switzerland, Germany or Austria, This offers further proof of the widespread inter-continental trading networks and free movement of people that are now known to have existed as long as 4,000 years ago. And it just goes to show, if you want a proper job doing you can’t beat imported European labour. Historians now believe that if we’d had to use only Ancient British builders, what with the tea breaks and the knocking off early, Stonehenge wouldn’t have been finished till the middle of the 14th century.

We settle on The New Inn in Amesbury High Street for lunch despite my fears that its boast of providing ‘The best karaoke in Wiltshire’ may not bespeak the finest dining experience. Happily my appalling snobbery proves unfounded. The New Inn is a friendly, unpretentious pub serving a top class sausage & mash, with succulent herby, local porkers and a generous slick of rich onion gravy, helped on its way by a couple of pints of Butcombe, a lovely ale brewed in Bristol. And it’s all refreshingly free of gastro-pub bollocks (‘I’ll have the pan-fried cod with hand-cut chips, drizzled in oil of Olay and topped with a grass-fed llama turd please’ ).

The afternoon brings the longest and prettiest river stretch of the journey, staying close to the Avon and passing through a series of ancient villages including Figheldean (‘valley of a man called Fygla’,  Old English), Fittleton (‘farmstead of a man called Fitela’, Old English), and Everleigh (‘wood frequented by wild boars’, ditto), before climbing once more onto the expanse of Salisbury Plain where the route crosses MoD land. Notices on either side warn us disconcertingly of ‘Danger from unexploded shells and mortar bombs’. There are also frequent road signs indicating tank crossing points. (In case this crops up unexpectedly in your driving test, or there’s a Highway Code round on Pointless, it’s a red triangle enclosing a symbol of a tank with a very long gun barrel).

Late afternoon thirst kicks in and our water bottles are empty, but there is little in the way of refreshment facilities around these parts. The village of Collingbourne Ducis (‘stream of the family of a man named Cola’, Old English) sounds promising (and if we’re lucky his brother Pepsi may also be at home). But when I call out to a man pottering in his front garden, ‘Are there any shops open in the village?’ he laughs and replies ‘Not since about 1978’.

By the time we arrive at Great Bedwyn we’re spitting feathers. The entrance to the village is marked by a ‘Welcome’ sign and a wooden picket fence decorated in a pretty tangle of pink, cream and powder blue cottage garden flowers. As beguiling as this is it cannot disguise the fact that Great Bedwyn in August is the shittiest-smelling village in England. Even by Wiltshire standards, a county where the olfactory bar is set high, the whole place is ripe with the stink of rotting poo. It would not surprise me in the least to discover that Great Bedwyn derives from the old English Gratte Bedwinder meaning ‘great pile of steaming horse plop’. However it seems that its residents are either no longer aware of the smell or have decided to ignore it and hope it goes away. A white-whiskered old chap, dapper in a green linen waistcoat and maroon cravat, out walking his spaniel, bids us a cheery ‘Good afternoon’.

‘It’s a lovely village we have here isn’t it?’ he enthuses, full of local pride.

‘Yes, lovely’ I gasp, almost choking as I inhale another fruity blast of silage.

‘You should try the pub – the Three Tuns, it’s absolutely lovely’ he says, pointing down the high street.

We follow his advice. The Three Tuns is indeed a lovely country pub and full of lovely, charming, well-spoken people who are all doing their best not to mention the elephant in the room (not to mention what the elephant appears to have left behind in the room). If anything the pong seems to be even worse inside the pub than out in the street.

We down a pint as quickly as possible and leave Great Bedwyn, able to breathe easily again on the final glorious stretch through the ancient Forest of Savernake. This was a favourite royal hunting ground for centuries from the time of William the Conqueror onwards. In 1535 Henry Eighth went cross-bowing for deer through these woods at the invitation of the owner of the estate Sir John Seymour, taking a shine to his foxy daughter Jane at nearby Wolf Hall. Savernake is also home to the Big Belly Oak, one of the most famous trees in Britain, and certainly one of the fattest, with an ample girth of more than 36 feet, almost as plump as Henry and possibly me too if the present rate of expansion continues.

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On the other side of Savernake Forest lies Marlborough, a handsome old market town, where we find our night stop the Castle & Ball Inn situated in the middle of the second widest High Street in Britain (the widest is Stockton-on-Tees!) This may also be the second most boring fact in Britain. After we’ve gorged on fancy fish & chips Sam confesses to feeling a tad Neolithic in the legs and goes up for an early night. I, on the other hand, appear to have quaffed at the fountain of eternal youth, and stay down in the bar to a late hour supping Old Hooky, a fine old ale from the Oxfordshire town of Hook Norton.

The last full day of this trip may be one of the best days spent on any of my bike rides so far. When I’m in my dotage and my legs have finally let me down; when my cycling recollections will be like ‘memories ripening in the sunlight of a walled garden’ (in the words of RS Thomas), this day will be one of those I will most want to revisit. How nice it will be many years from now to look back on a day like this,  unwrap its pleasures and savour it one more time, like the last dregs of port and slice of Christmas cake guzzled on a drizzly afternoon in mid-January. If there was to be a Groundhog Day of cycling then I would be hard-pressed to find a better one to repeat endlessly. (I probably wouldn’t get this day though. I’d probably get that day when I had stomach cramps all the way from London to Brighton after eating a bunch of bananas for breakfast and shat myself behind a bush outside Hassocks).

We leave Marlborough, passing the famous public school whose alumni include Kate Middleton, Sam Cam and Otis Ferry, resisting the temptation to cycle over the flower beds, and follow a quiet road hugging the River Kennet. The bulge of Silbury Hill soon appears in front of us, the largest man-made mound in Europe, almost seeming to quiver like a giant green jelly in the still morning air. It has an eerie sci-fi quality, like an upturned crater ready to burst as if the earth itself is about to give birth. It was clearly of huge importance to its creators but its original meaning and purpose have been lost for thousands of years.

We lock our bikes to the fence and follow a track half a mile across a field to the ancient burial site of West Kennet Long Barrow, built around 3,600 BC (several hundred years older than Stonehenge). Excavations have found the remains of around 50 people, men, women and children all buried within a space of 30 years, although the tomb remained open for a thousand years before being blocked off. We clamber over the top of the barrow then wander around inside the burial chamber below. Within the hollowed out crevices in the stone walls previous visitors have left simple offerings, touching in their sincerity: strings of beads, sea shells or little piles of pebbles, a sprig of grasses tied with a red ribbon or a single mauve flower in a tiny jar. Standing at the back of the chamber looking towards the entrance, dazzling light pours through the opening in the rocks and floods the treacle blackness of the interior. I take pictures of Sam, silhouetted and mysterious in the doorway. There isn’t really any more to see, but the sense of presence in the place holds us for a while longer, until it suddenly feels like it’s time to leave.

We retrieve our bikes and cycle down a minor road curling towards Avebury village, meeting the West Kennet Avenue on our left; a long winding path straddled by pairs of standing stones (around 100 originally), that forms a link between Avebury and the Sanctuary, once the site of another ancient circle on nearby Overton Hill. We get off and push our bikes through the long parade of stones and down into the village.

I’ve never been to Avebury before but everything about the place is instantly familiar, as it must be for many people my age who rushed home from school on seven chilly Monday afternoons in early 1977 to watch the TV series Children of the Stones. The story is a heady blend of occult paganism, astrophysics and archaeology. It concerns widowed scientist Adam Brake (played by Gareth Thomas, later of Blake’s 7 fame) who arrives in Avebury (re-named Milbury in the series) with his teenage son Matthew to conduct a research project into magnetic fields and stone circles. They quickly realise that most of the villagers are really odd, wandering round looking blissed out and greeting everyone with ‘Happy Day’ and a strange saintly smile. They form an alliance with two of the few normal people left, Margaret, the glamorous, flame-haired curator of the Milbury museum (conveniently also widowed) and her daughter Sandra. Other British character actors of the period include Ian Cuthbertson who plays the affably menacing lord of the manor Hendrick, and Freddie Jones (still an Emmerdale stalwart at the age of 90), playing the ‘harbinger of doom’ character Dai the poacher (‘Leaving? What do you mean you’re leaving boy? No-one ever leaves the stones. No-one ever will…’).

We lean our bikes against a wall in the centre of the village and explore the stones. There are plenty of other visitors but it’s nowhere near as jam-packed as Stonehenge, plus it’s free and there are no daft restrictions on where you can and can’t walk. Sam (just graduated and starting work in archaeology) wanders about with his Time Team hat on, looking for traces of Mesolithic dandruff in the topsoil or something or other.

I approach one of the largest, most twisty sarsens, close my eyes and place my hands on its cold hard surface, half expecting to be hurled through the air by some powerful magnetic impulse like Adam Brake in the first episode. I hear weird, discordant voices in my head. Considering it was going out in the ITV kid’s slot at quarter to five in the afternoon, Children of the Stones was extraordinarily creepy. Its atmosphere was heightened by the theme music, sung by The Ambrosian Singers like a Gregorian choir on mushrooms performing a black mass. It begins with a sinister breathing which flows into a beseeching chant and an atonal wailing which climaxes in a crescendo of terrifying babble as the camera zooms and jerks violently between the jagged and contorted standing stones. It has been described as ‘the most inappropriate theme music ever used for a children’s TV series’.

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As I wander around I also recall how much the 14 year-old me had identified with Matthew, the outsider in a community where the pressure to conform is great. I also remember the crush of adolescent longing that confused 14 year old me (definitely not one of the ‘happy ones’) had felt for the pretty, dark-haired Sandra, and the painful realisation (spoiler alert) that her burgeoning friendship with Matthew was not going to end well. All of this stuff is swirling around inside as we walk through Avebury. I feel connected to this place, not by the ley lines that formed an element of the outlandish story, but by the power cables of memory. Avebury is Milbury and I can only process the village through this fictional prism.

Later, I even wonder how much Children of the Stones, along with its obvious influences – classics of the folk horror genre like The Wicker Man (made four years earlier), and the 1960s sci-fi film Village of the Damned (which always seemed to be on TV in my childhood) – have coloured my responses to many of the old villages passed through on my rides through Britain. I love the feeling that there might be something hidden, something strange and sacred and dark about these rural places. Dai the Poacher was right, maybe I will never leave the stones.

We spend an hour or so looking round then go to the Red Lion in the middle of the village, said to be the only pub in the world located inside a stone circle. After lunch we do in fact manage to leave the stones, via a lane out of the back of the village winding high up onto the hillside where it joins the 90-mile Ridgeway. This is one of the oldest pathways in the country, part of the longer Icknield Way which runs from Maiden Castle in Dorset all the way to the Norfolk coast. It’s the M1 of ancient England, once the principal long-distance thoroughfare used by traders and drovers in a country whose roads had yet to become London-centrified by the Romans, now mostly empty save for occasional walkers, mountain bikers and horse riders.

The track we have taken up from Avebury crosses the Ridgeway and continues on the other side through an empty expanse of farmland. A sign on the gate says ‘Bull In Field’ accompanied by a picture of a cartoonish black creature with sharp-pointed horns and a ring through its nose. A guerrilla cyclist or militant equestrian has scrawled ‘Illegal on bridleways, remove sign or face prosecution!’ in black marker pen over the sign, and above it, more hopefully, ‘This sign has been here for two years. Is the bull dead?’ With no sign of the mythical beast we turn left onto the Ridgeway itself, but lacking proper mountain bikes we have to get off and push for at least half of the rocky three mile stretch that eventually rejoins the main Wiltshire Cycleway.

But despite the rough surface we are reluctant to come down off the hills too soon. It’s so peaceful up here high on this ancient path, weaving its way through open down land with the gait of an amiable old drunk. There’s just the rustle of a light breeze in the trees, the warmth of the mid-afternoon sun on our backs, both of us a good lunch and a couple of ales to the good. We sit for a while and I smoke a cigar, letting time unspool with the wispy blue smoke. It could be a lazy summer afternoon from any time in the past 5,000 years. Finally we whizz down a long B road to the valley below, feeling the smooth reassurance of 20th century tarmac. At the bottom only a handful of cars and the odd tractor scurry about their business, but it’s enough to break the spell and make us feel we have fast forwarded through the ages.

And the rest of the afternoon is just a quintessential English bike ride. One of those gentle meanders through rolling countryside in soft caramel light, passing through villages with Hansel and Gretel cottages and names like Clyffe Pypard and Tockenham, where shadows grow long on cricket pitches and old maids with hat pins and names like Mrs Honeyman still cycle to Evensong. We stop off for an early evening pint of warm beer in the town of Malmesbury, a place which looks as soothing and tranquil as it sounds. As dusk approaches we reach  the village of Grittleton, the last night stop of our trip, where we are greeted by a deafening clang from the top of the church tower, signifying either that an ancient royal has just kicked the bucket, or more likely that there is sod all else to do on a Thursday night apart from bloody bell-ringing.

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The Neeld Arms in the High Street provides pretty much the perfect end to a pretty much perfect day’s ride. Chicken & tarragon pie/pork medallions with apple and calvados sauce, and several pints of Stonehenge Pigswill are followed by end-of-ride celebratory malts and a smoke outside the front of the pub. ‘I’m really disappointed in you two’, says the landlord Charlie, as he comes outside to collect the glasses. ‘I had you down as fitness types. You’ve really let me down’.

Next morning we have an easy 20 mile stretch back to Bradford Avon. We spiral down the steep road from the top of the town, past the honey-coloured cottages to the 13th century stone bridge which straddles the gurgling river at the bottom. At the same tea shop where we set out four days earlier, we order the same tea, the same vanilla milk shake and the same biscuits. The circle is finally complete.

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Homage To Caledonia

Two years ago my son Sam and I cycled Lochs & Glens North from Glasgow up to Inverness. This summer we decided to retrace that journey but this time taking an entirely different route, incorporating the Caledonian Way (Route 78 of the National Cycle Network, newly launched by Sustrans in 2016) which starts in Campbeltown on the Kintyre peninsula.

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Sitting on my bike in Campbeltown harbour I swear I can hear the faint sound of Macca’s ghostly bagpipers floating on the breeze as I gaze wistfully towards the Mull of Kintyre. Mist is rolling in from the sea. My desire, as you can probably guess, is always to be here. I can’t though – we’ve got 240 miles to cycle and we have to be in Inverness six days from now. Besides, mist isn’t really rolling in from the sea anyway. It’s pissing down with rain and we’re getting a bit goose-pimply. I’m not entirely convinced Macca has ever been here to be honest.

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Our epic trip got off to a good start yesterday with a nice, mostly flat 40 miles in warm sunshine following NCN Route 7 south out of Glasgow, along the Clyde and down the Ayrshire coast to the port of Ardrossan where we caught the evening ferry over to Kintyre. The three hour crossing felt like an adventure in itself, with stunning views of the mountains of Arran silhouetted dark blue against the silvery light as we settled back in the lounge of the CalMac ferry, swigging bottles of beer from the Isle of Arran Brewery (motto ‘Guid ale keeps my heart aboon’).

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Kintyre is a peninsular though it feels as cut off as an island: long, thin and straggly, ten miles wide, dangling down into the North Channel of the Irish Sea between Arran to the east and Islay to the west. Its southern tip (the famous Mull of K) is a mere caber’s toss from the coast of County Antrim in Ulster.

Campbeltown, 15 miles north of the Mull, is the region’s main town and it’s a long, convoluted trip by car from Glasgow, which means the peninsula has found itself cast adrift from the Scottish ‘mainland’ over the years. The ferry service, fully launched only in 2016, has now offered a new lifeline to this wild west fringe of Scotland, as well as opening up the region to cycle tourers like ourselves.

Campbeltown retains traces of past glory in the faded elegance of its grand hotels around the harbour and it once claimed with some justification to be the ‘the whisky capital of the world’ with 34 distilleries (which helped to fuel the illegal smuggling routes into Prohibition America in the 1920s). Today though there are only three active ones left and it was named in 2012 as one of the two most economically vulnerable towns in rural Scotland. The B&B where we’re staying in the town centre displays a defiant nationalism with SNP posters and leftover Yes stickers still blue-tacked to the windows nearly two years after the referendum on independence. Maybe they’ve just been left there for the next one.

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Route 78 starts in the harbour and goes up the eastern side of Kintyre with several very steep hills made even more challenging by the driving rain and thick cloud, so low at times on the summits that we are can hardly see the road ahead. Occasionally the clouds break up enough to unveil tantalising views of Arran over to our right. A sound like the distant baying of a hound percolates through the porridgy gloom, adding to the romantic and very Scottish feeling of the lonely landscape. There are few places to stop on this section of the route but a restaurant on the way into Carradale village provides brief respite from the rain along with welcome cheese toasties and coffee.

Now there are some people who claim that when you get caught in heavy rain, after a while you just can’t get any wetter. Those people are fools who should be rapped on the head with a small bicycle tool. It is in fact possible to get very wet and then to get much wetter still, and then to carry on getting wetter until the rain has soaked not only through your clothes and the contents of your panniers but has seeped into your pores and inundated your very soul. This is the level of wetness we are to experience over the next few days on the Kintyre Peninsula.

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Luckily I have been reading Robert McFarlane’s book Landmarks, a powerful manifesto for the reclamation of the disappearing language of landscape. McFarlane believes that an ability to describe the richness of our natural world can help us to value and protect it more. As a result I have acquired a glossary of regional terms to describe the many types of rain across the British Isles, a good number of which are, unsurprisingly, Scottish or Gaelic dialect words. I suspect this list of rain words is going to come in pretty handy this week.

Arriving at our night stop, the coastal town of Tarbert, we find our B&B has been double-booked by mistake and we have been gazumped by a party of Dutch people doing a whiskey tour of the islands. We sit in the kitchen thawing out from the day’s plypes (sudden heavy showers, Scots) and sipping hot tea as the owner frantically rings round trying to find us an alternative bed for the night. Eventually he finds us a willing host, Andrew who runs The Moorings, a guesthouse with fine views of the harbour front who is already full but offers to put us up in his spare room in the attic.

The Moorings is a comfortable and quirky place, the front garden like a fairy tale grotto stuffed with a menagerie of ornamental creatures: monkeys, bears, big cats, snakes, turtles and exotic birds peeking out from behind plant pots or camouflaged by thick green foliage. Andrew ushers us inside, a stocky bearded Scot, very kind if slightly bossy. ‘I’m afraid I’ll have ter ask yers not to smoke anywhere in the hoose’ he says, rather unnecessarily as I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many no smoking signs gathered together in one place, pinned to every available wall space and door. The house is also festooned in multi-coloured lights that wink on and off as you approach them, including some floor-level bulbs around the toilet in our room that unexpectedly bathe my legs in a disconcerting purple glow as I’m taking a dump later that evening.

Andrew offers to run the sodden contents of our panniers through his washing machine and tumble drier. It’s amazing how many B&Bs do this but I suppose they must be used to bedraggled, miserable looking cyclists down to their last pair of dry pants. On our way out for the evening he beckons me over, looking very grave. He’s spotted Sam sneaking a crafty fag across the road. ‘I can’t believe the young man smokes!’ he says. ‘And him a cyclist!’ ‘I gave up 15 years ago. And I never touch a drop ‘o booze’, though you’d never believe it’ he says, gesturing around at shelves piled high with bottles of spirits from around the world. ‘Me only addiction is me telly’, he says. ‘I’m off to watch Emmerdale…’

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Tarbert is a pleasing fishing village with a pretty harbour full of colourful boats. King Magnus Barefoot of Norway sailed here in 1098 and claimed Kintyre as part of the Viking Kingdom of the Sudereys (Southern Hebrides). High on a hill overlooking the town is the picturesque ruined castle mostly built by Robert The Bruce, the Scottish king who after a famous encounter with a spider in a cave decided to abandon his previous devo-max position and form the SNP back in the early 14th century, a crown more recently held by his descendants, the fishermen Alex The Salmon and Nicola the Sturgeon (Did you check all these facts? Ed).

As well as facing seawards Tarbert is also located on the shore of Loch Fyne where the restaurant chain of that name originated. The whole area is famed for its seafood. The Starfish in town has a high foodie reputation but you need to book in advance to have any chance of getting a table. We settle instead for The Anchorage, a cosy harbour-side bistro where we dine as handsomely as no doubt King Magnus Barefoot once did on local produce including fish chowder, smoked salmon and venison sausages. We go on for a couple of beers in the bright green painted Corner House pub next door where old men in kilts are playing pool and the TV is showing a feisty Friday night Scottish League Cup tie between Arbroath and Dundee. It all feels nicely authentic in a low key sort of way so we decide to round things off properly with a ten year old Isle of Arran malt. I judge it to be pleasantly peaty, although I have no idea what that means. It just sounds like the sort of thing you might say when tasting a ten year old malt.

Next morning we are joined at breakfast by two other cyclists, a nice German couple from Konstanz who are thankfully too polite to bring up the embarrassment of Brexit. They are doing the iconic Lands End to John O’Groats route or Das LEJOG as it is probably known in Deutschland. It’s not entirely clear how they managed to end up this far west. They set off from Cornwall about two weeks ago. ‘The weather was good at first’, says the man, ‘but as soon as we entered Scotland it became not so good. And this –  this is not a holiday!’, he says gazing mournfully out of the rain-spattered window and looking a little tearful. His wife squeezes his hand and we all agree that cycling is still brilliant even when it’s raining, if only because it makes you appreciate the good days even more. We swap stories of our past campaigns completely forgetting about the bowls of strawberries in front of us until Andrew comes in, looking rather peeved. ‘Are yous all not eating yer froot then?’ he wants to know. Bike chatter is instantly replaced by the clatter of spoons.

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From Tarbert the route turns across the peninsula towards the west coast, through the lush if totally unpronounceable Forest of Achaglachgach, memorably described in Richard Guise’s cycling book From the Mull to the Cape:

“The lochside stretch I was rolling through formed the trickily named Achaglachgach Forest, where I panted up and down Glen Achaglachgach, past Achaglachgach House and through Achaglachgach village, which was totally deserted. Maybe they’d all choked to death trying to say ‘Achaglachgach’.”

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At this point Kintyre becomes the Knapdale peninsula and the minor road up the west coast offers lovely views of the island of Jura (where George Orwell stayed when he wrote 1984), but today its hazy outline is filtered through the steady ciuran (drizzle, Gaelic). Whatever the weather though, there’s a deep sense of stillness and spaciousness about this landscape which calms the spirit and declutters the mind – ‘fabulous nothing’ as the poet Kathleen Jamie described Jura.

The Kilberry Inn is one of the few places to stop for refreshment round here and has excellent gastronomic credentials, but we are still stuffed from Andrew’s full Scottish this morning and just settle for a bottle of IPA from Colonsay, apparently the smallest island in the world with its own brewery.

Turning inland the route continues along the Crinan Canal towpath and across the raised peat bogs and mossy hummocks of the Mhoine Mhor nature reserve before we encounter the first of many stone circles, standing stones and burial cairns of Kilmartin Glen. This area contains one of the most important Neolithic sites in Scotland dating from around 4,000 BC with around 150 prehistoric monuments crammed into a radius of six miles. Nearby is Dunadd, an Iron Age fort said to be the home of the first Kings of Scotland.

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Climbing up into Kilmartin village we reach our night stop the Kilmartin Inn, its slate roof and stark white walls nestling beneath the green slopes that tower above a small cluster of houses, a museum and a village church which contains an impressive collection of medieval gravestones dating back to the 13th century. Carnasserie Castle on the far edge of the village is also worth exploring, an evocative ruined 16th century tower house on a hill overlooking the Glen.

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Surrounded by so many reminders of the ancient past and enclosed by the brooding grey sky, rain blattering (heavily and noisily, Galloway) on the pub windows, Kilmartin is an atmospheric location to stay the night, a perfect blend of time and place. Pies and pints are followed by the already established ritual of the nightcap local malt (Isle of Jura). It proves to be pleasantly peaty, though perhaps not quite as peaty as last night’s. But it’s hard to be sure so we have another one just to check.

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Before turning in for the night we switch on the TV and find the weatherman beaming with glad tidings. After a few days of widespread rain tomorrow’s forecast shows a ridge of high pressure drifting in from across the Atlantic, bathing Britain in a pool of warm sunshine. There are bright yellow symbols punctuated with fluffy white pillows dotted everywhere across the map. Well almost everywhere. On that long, thin, straggly bit that dangles off the west coast of Scotland there are menacing black clouds leaking diagonal lines of doom. The only bit of the UK, it would appear, where there is any chance of precipitation tomorrow. Even Northern Ireland has little golden orbs of happiness which seems meteorologically unfeasible. Oh and apparently there’s going to be a heatwave in John O’Fucking Groats…

So next morning the rain (somewhere between a dreich and a mi-chailear with a fair amount of bleeterie and a number of heavy flists since you ask) is already set in for the day as we follow Route 78 past the village of Ford and alongside Loch Awe on a 20 mile rollercoaster of a road through thick forest.

After a shivery lunch in a roadside cabin where we dribble pools of water across the floor we cycle across the lovely Glen Nant, Glen Lonan and Glen Hoddle (are you sure about the last one? Ed). Again the challenging, hilly terrain is matched by the stunning beauty of the scenery but it’s too wet to stop and drink it all in as much as we’d really like. One day it would be wonderful to re-visit this whole stretch up from Campbeltown in more serene conditions. However just outside our next night stop in Oban we do at least manage to take advantage of a brief pause in the rain to explore the 13th century Dunstaffnage Castle in the village of Dunbeg, perched formidably on a huge rock overlooking the Firth of Lorn, and like most Scottish castles boasting a long history soaked in blood and passion.

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I’ve been to Oban before about 25 years ago when my wife and I stayed here for a few days, taking trips from the harbour to the islands of Mull, Iona and, best of all, the wonderfully bleak Staffa, an outcrop of wave-lashed rock famous for Fingal’s Cave, inhabited only by screeching birds and reachable by a thrillingly wave-tossed ride in a small boat. It rained during our entire stay back then and needless to say it’s started raining again as we arrive now. It would not surprise me in the least to hear that it has not stopped raining in Oban for the past quarter of a century. Despite this it’s a delightful town to stay in. We tuck into top notch fish and chips in one of the many restaurants that line the seafront and then retire to the cosy Lorne Bar for a few pints of Kilt Lifter brewed locally by the Oban Bay company, topped off with the inevitable Oban 12 year old malt. When in Oban etc…

The next day is the fourth consecutive day of rain. A full-on Glibbeid (mix of rain, sleet and hail, Gaelic) is even forecast at one point. For the first time since leaving Campbeltown there is the possibility of catching a train to our next night stop in Fort William. I’ve never skipped a whole day of any bike tour so far and am reluctant to set a dangerous precedent. If I was on my own I’d probably just put on an extra hair shirt under my waterproof jacket and shove another roll of barbed wire down my Lycra shorts and get on with it, but I sense an air of weather fatigue about my companion and fear he may have reached peak precipitation.

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Maybe it’s time for common sense to prevail  – sod it, we’re on holiday! So a decent morning lie-in and the train it is. Highlights of the Oban-Fort William stretch of Route 78 would have included the impossibly photogenic medieval Castle Stalker, floating on a small islet on Loch Laich (which played the part of The Castle of Aaargh! in Monty Python and the Holy Grail), as well as two more ferry crossings at either end of Loch Linnhe. Oh well, maybe another time…

Our final day is by far the longest with a 66 mile stretch from Fort William to Inverness, but the Scottish weather gods are on our side at last as we wake up to warmer temperatures and even some hazy sunshine beginning to seep through thin white streaks of cloud. We follow quiet roads out of town to join the towpath of the Caledonian Canal, soon reaching the series of eight locks known as Neptune’s Staircase and the unmistakeable hulk of Ben Nevis, the top shrouded in cloud as it generally is for around 300 days every year.

Following the Great Glen Way walking trail, Route 78 continues to Gairlochy where it leaves the canal and runs through the forest along the edge of Loch Lochy (they must have run out of names for lochs by the time they got to this one). This section feels wild and remote and the off-road trail is rocky and slow-going in places, but the sun is now pouring through the forest canopy and there is pure pleasure in our ride at last.

At Laggan Locks, where the route re-joins the canal, we clamber on board the Eagle, a Dutch barge once used as a troop carrier in the Second World War and now converted into a restaurant of real character. Basking on the top deck in the lunchtime heat we stuff our faces with bowls of chilli washed down with Red McGregor ale brewed in Orkney. Sam plumps for the extra hot sauce option with his chilli and I make a mental note not to be cycling in his tailwind this afternoon.

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Fortified we continue off-road with more sections of towpath and a well-surfaced cycle track running alongside Loch Oich, then on to Fort Augustus which is exactly half way to Inverness, and a kind of lower key version of Fort William with a few tourist coaches and a smattering of tea shops. A cake stop comes in handy here because as soon as we leave the town we hit the gruelling five mile climb up to Carn an t-Suidhe, the highest point of the Caledonian Way at almost 400 metres, our reward being wonderful sweeping views at the top and a long joyous freewheel down to the village of Whitebridge. Here the route forks left and runs along the long southern shore of Loch Ness for the last, easy 20 miles to Inverness.

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As we pootle alongside Scotland’s most famous Loch, the late afternoon sun sinks low, throwing mysterious shadows on the glassy surface. On the edge of my vision something flickers, the hint of a dark shape moving beneath the water. Having had so many slightly disappointing wildlife-watching experiences on holidays over the years (no-show dolphins, mythical puffins, strangely introverted lions), what an irony it would be if I suddenly caught a glimpse of ‘the big one’!

Apparently there have been 1,081 recorded sightings of Britain’s most celebrated monster including half a dozen this year alone and the creature is worth an estimated £60 million to the Scottish economy. If any American or Japanese tourists are reading this they may also be interested to hear of The Leytonstone Lizard, a marvellous giant beast reputed to live at the bottom of my garden in East London (or Jack the Ripper’s East London to give it it’s official name), just behind the pop-up tea room and luxury gift shop.

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Actually they did find a 30 foot serpent in Loch Ness a few months ago but it turned out to be a prop from The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, a 1970 Billy Wilder film starring Christopher Lee. Still you never know. After all it was possible at the beginning of the 2015/16 football season to get shorter odds on the Loch Ness Monster being discovered than on Leicester City winning the Premier League, so miracles do occasionally happen. Nevertheless I feel confident in saying that ‘Nessie’ will never be found and hereby go on public record and pledge that if proved wrong, I will cycle from Land’s End to John O’Groats wearing nothing but a pair of underpants decorated with the Scottish flag.

Meanwhile we finally reach the end of the Caledonian Way beneath the castle walls in Inverness. There’s goat curry, there’s Yellowhammer ale from the Black Isle Brewery and there’s a final toast with a 14 year old Auchentoshan malt – a toast to cycling, to good company, and to the glorious Scottish landscape, to its people and even to its godawful weather. Today has been pretty much the perfect day’s bike ride and we feel we’ve earned it.

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