WHO NEEDS SUNSHINE?
A SHORT CYCLE TOUR IN AN ENGLISH WINTER
Italy south of Naples, bathed by the sun and washed by the Med; Andalucian valleys scented by orange groves beneath snow-topped peaks; who needs winter sunshine? Crossing the frost-line, steaming like a rugby scrum on a December afternoon, Steve Dyster headed across the Midlands to the Welsh Marches.
An Andalucian orange proffered by a passing motorist would have been most welcome, though there were no passing motorists. In any case the real enticement to push upward and onward was the prospect of hot soup in Hay-on-Wye. That town of books, rising above the wide river, against a backdrop of the Black Mountains, a substitute for Granada and the sun-drenched wastelands of Almeria? The unflinchingly leaden cloud that blotted out the view, the numbing icy air on the flying descent to Clyro and the condensation on the spectacles when entering the Granary Café, beg one question: why go cycle touring in Britain in January?
Well one can only say that one must take one’s chances when they come along and that there was reason behind apparent folly. Quite truthfully, there were benefits aplenty. The afternoon before, starting from Hereford, the ride through some of the black and white villages had been much more peaceful than it could ever be in summer. Hereford always seems to be blighted by more motor vehicles than should be expected, yet once away from the city, country lanes take the cyclist towards enticing steeply wooded hills. Dark bands of trees above the red furrows where the plough had been and the green pastures where it had not. All rather stark as little details departed into a hazy dimness.
The black and white villages, as they appear in summer postcards, are not the same as the January reality. Weobley, with all things a touring cyclist needs, has a variety of old timber-framed buildings. One, by the turning to Dilwyn, had an upper-storey that was particularly awry. There could, no doubt, be a competition for the title of the least perpendicular. Of these villages only Weobley, Dilwyn and Eardisland lay on my route. The mass of tiny lanes would make this an area worthy of deeper exploration. Where a grassy strip marks the road’s centre are many miles of good cycling. However, the villages are the set pieces, with Eardisland gloriously picturesque. Following the muck cart may not have been the ideal introduction to the houses gathered around the River Arrow at its confluence with a lesser brook, but such is the countryside in winter. The bridges over the two streams stand by a spectacular Georgian Dovecote, which houses an exhibition of local history. There are also pubs and a café.
For a few miles the route was flat, along the valley of the River Arrow. There was a real feeling of moving from English meadows towards the hazy Welsh hills that loomed ahead. Offa’s Dyke crosses the Arrow east of Kington – an English town. The earthworks of long abandoned castles that dot the Marches hereabouts are testimony to border struggles and fluctuations in fortunes. At Staunton-on-Arrow the motte stands by the Church on a spur above the river. Looking back from the Churchyard, there was little to see of the way from whence I had ridden.
Kington and Presteigne both make good bases to explore from and to return to. Kington was the choice this time. On the Offa’s Dyke path and surrounded by magnificent countryside, the plan was to spend a day exploring the area from New Radnor to Hay-on-Wye and then spend two days cycling back to Northamptonshire on a round about sort of route through “market town England”. The exploration day would be largely in Wales.
The gargantuan breakfast served at the B&B combined with the general upward trend of the road, kept the cold at bay. The weather had not changed. No winter sunshine to make the landscape shimmer: but no rain – a real blessing with the temperature so low. Before Presteigne, the route headed west along a tiny lane and then onto a bridleway, signed as a cycle route. One of the pleasures of this area, one that I had noted the day before, were the beautiful old farm buildings that one suddenly came across as one rounded a bend or came over a hill. Passing another such group, the track eventually emerged to cross a ford and join the B4362 at Knill.
Soon the border was crossed and lanes followed through Evenjobb to the B4372 that eventually plunges into New Radnor. New in the sense that it was new in the middle-ages, usurping Old Radnor, which stands atop a goodly hill, a few miles to the east. There are a few earthworks marking the line of the town wall near the Church and the earthworks of the castle nearby. In the shop a friendly lady said that the car thermometer read minus three.
Old Radnor hill took away any chill I was feeling. Then commenced a wild roller-coaster through Gladestry and Newchurch, causing alternate freezing and steaming. The hillsides became rougher. Trees standing on green had branches covered by frost. The blackthorn hedges lining the road bore sparkling white tips extending down the lee-side of each twig. Entering into this wintry world from the grey valley brought two thoughts to mind: the little details were much more prominent than in the summer months and was this not the realm of the Ice Queen. Not really, but someone old enough to know better should surely have been sitting somewhere warmer.
Thence to Hay, via Clyro, for pea and ham soup; plenty of it, too; with a very large roll. Welcome, very.
The Wye was re-crossed on the old toll bridge at Whitney – free for cycles. Then quiet lanes towards the misleadingly named Brilley Mountain. It is not a mountain. However, suffice it to say that near the top of this grinding climb, a lady, standing at the door of her isolated house and chatting to the coalman, pointed exclaiming, “Good Lord, look at that! Would you like a glass of whisky to keep you going?” “No ice, thank you,” I replied.
At the top, a fine ridge road made the ride back to Kington rapid and pleasurable. So quick was it, that there was time to look round the Church and town before, almost imperceptibly darkness overcame the faint daylight. A self-sufficient place: the unspectacular buildings making an attractive whole with the main street barely wide enough for two cars to pass.
The homeward journey began by following lanes along the River Arrow to Leominster. Leominster is busy compared to Kington, making for a culture shock, all things being relative. The increasing flow of traffic in the town centre was a trend in most towns the further east I went. Leominster has a useful cycle track that can be picked up near the station, carrying one out of town, avoiding a potentially busy roundabout and a short section of the A44. Sadly the cycle lane disappeared as the main road began a short corkscrew up the valley side. Fortunately, there was little traffic and soon lanes rose and dipped across Hegdon Hill and on to Bromyard.
One remarkable thing about Bromyard, a small town, was that the downhill approach to the centre seemed marvellously disproportionate to the size of the town. Ignoring the town centre signs I was taken along a winding one-way street past small, brick warehouses and granaries that spoke of the agricultural prosperity that must have made Bromyard prosperous for so many years. The cramped market square provided the café on the corner that is so important at this time of year. One of the reasons for taking in lots of small towns is that, when touristy places are closed, these remain fully functional.
Next objective, Ledbury: a much larger town down the valley of the little River Leadon. “Down the valley” should not be misunderstood. It does not mean downhill. Herefordshire and for that matter Worcestershire are likely to lull the unfamiliar cyclist into a daydream of lazy apple orchards and hop fields. The lanes swept up and down until I decided to follow a lane to Frome Hill. The cold had clearly frozen my faculties. I should have picked up the obvious hint and used my knowledge of this neck of the woods. Crawling past the aptly named “Snail Bank” with granny gear long engaged, Frome Hill was well underway. The view to the right would, doubtless, have been spectacular. A few lanes later the attractive village of Bosbury was reached: the tower stood separate from the Church, with a timber-framed inn opposite.
Ledbury has many fine buildings and whilst it is a busy town, the main roads soon carry away the traffic and the cyclist can pursue more peaceful routes. The busy high street has attractive buildings amongst the shops and there are side streets full of timber-framed houses.
The B road to Newent carried little traffic, but that which it did often moved uncomfortably quickly. The presence of the M50 and associated junctions seems to make some of the lesser roads in this area unexpectedly busy: not all B roads are quieter than nearby A roads. Newent, reached shortly after passing a vineyard, is a small market town. Its old market hall looking like a scaled down version of that at Ledbury to fit the proportions of the towns.
The big question for those heading east from the borders is where to cross the River Severn. From Newent my choice was Tewkesbury. It is strange for a place some seventeen miles distant to be signposted along country lanes, but Tewkesbury is from Newent.
There are still plenty of undulations, but their gentler gradients presage the Severn Valley. Wide areas of green along either side of the road around Corse Lawn, have the feel of the New Forest without the trees. Then a brief bit of main road went across the river and into the old town of Tewkesbury, famous for its Abbey and a battle in the Wars of the Roses. It is a busy place, with quiet corners. The traffic through the town and out towards Evesham and the M5 can be heavy. Heading in the direction of Pershore and then onto lanes, around Bredon Hill, avoided the worst of it. Bredon Hill, an outlier of the Cotswolds, encircled by quiet lanes, has villages of mellow stone sitting on its flanks. It is an organised, neat landscape with a touch of refinement about it. From there, amidst the gathering gloom of a January afternoon, it seemed a long haul to Broadway, at the foot of the Cotswold escarpment, but, as usual, the pedals turned and the destination crept up eventually.
The last day started as cold as the others, colder if the icy puddles were any measure. Strangely, though the temperature had rarely got above three degrees and had been much lower overnight, there had been no ice on the roads: thank Heaven. There was, however, a smattering of grain-sized snow flakes as I stood under the market hall in Chipping Campden. Impossibly picturesque and full of coach parties in summer, it is hard to think of this town as the product of industrial decay following the decline of the wool and cloth industries. On this wintry day, cars lined the main street, but the people were tucked up indoors.
Heading east from Chipping Campden, it is but a few miles into Warwickshire and the small market town of Shipston-on-Stour. It was bustling without being really busy. The tearoom had an empty table and it was cold, very cold, so the inevitable happened.
From Shipston onward this was much more familiar territory. Leaving the Cotswolds behind, the gentle hills of this part of Warwickshire that saw so much action during the Civil War and never so much since, are a pleasure for cyclists: Idlicote, Whatcote, Oxhill, and a host of villages well off the track generally beaten. Kineton has some interesting corners and was once a more significant town. It lies close to Edgehill, site of the first major pitched battle of the Civil War.
Beyond it the roads became busier, with the B road to Southam fairly unpleasant at times as thoughtless vans and four-by-fours ignore the warning signs. Southam is another small town, now by-passed, that was of greater significance in the past.
From Southam, country lanes can be followed all the way to Towcester. Typical rolling Midland England: for every up a down and never either for too long. Towcester has a long and impressive history, though you have to search it out amongst the housing estates and the traffic on the A5. Like the other small towns it has most things a cyclist could want, though the busy A5 and A43 would not be amongst them. And here, in the heart of Midland England, my winter tour came to an end with just a few miles to ride home.
Dull sky, not one glimpse of the sun, gloved and wrapped warmly throughout, sometimes on familiar territory, sometimes on new, touring in winter brought out the little details of the countryside and showed small towns, especially those on the tourist trail, in a new light. As always, it had been a pleasure to be out. Not least amongst those pleasures was getting home, having a hot bath, sitting by the fireside with a nice warm beer, planning next year’s winter trip. Now, Sicilly or Puglia, or perhaps start at Banbury and head for Chipping Norton and Moreton-in-Marsh …..
PUBLISHED NOVEMBER 2020