IN THE MENDIPS: BRISTOL TO BATH THE LONG WAY
It is easy to forget how hilly parts of Somerset are, but memories of rolling along Mendip lanes will never be forgotten …. even if they were not always the lanes Stephen Dyster expected to be rolling along.
Despite having a reservation for my bike on the Bristol-bound nine-o’clock service, the guard decided that there was no space. Arriving an hour late annoyed me - I prefer to do mileage in the morning. As it was, I arrived at the Friday night B&B bleeding and bruised, following a misjudgment after being cut-up by a motorist on the main road to Shepton Mallett. The owner of the B&B was not phased and I tried, successfully, not to bleed on his furniture. I’d put that down in part to the wipes given to me by a driver who witnessed my dive onto the gravelly verge, and turned back at the next opportunity to check that I was ok.
Sitting on the bed, I set aside the frustrating initial and inelegant final moments of the day and reflected on what had actually been a rather jolly, unexpectedly challenging ride in beautiful scenery.
Whatever one may say about cycling infrastructure, there are benefits to being a city where investment has been significant and continuous. Bristol is, officially, a cycling city. Much of its infrastructure was familiar, but NCR3, joined at the end off the approach to Temple Meads station. This route certainly works; with just a lone sign-post vagary, it enabled rapid exit from the city centre alongside a creek and a climb out through park, wood and suburb.
Signs from the centre had aimed me toward Whitchurch. NCR3 duly popped out into the countryside of north Somerset amidst glorious sunshine and corrugated hills flanked by pasture and forest.
By the time the height gained had been largely lost by freewheeling into Chew Magna, the bustle of Bristol could barely have been further behind. The almost inescapable scarecrow festival was underway, with a nice take on the Muppets gaining the Seven Day Cyclist first prize.
Small, but packed with facilities, Chew Magna seemed to be having a late morning rush hour. Being wary of the traffic on the narrow, car-lined high street, the bustle of the village was soon escaped. A good place to refuel and refresh on NCR3 and NCR410.
On Chew Valley Lake the boats of anglers appeared in the mist sitting silently on the still waters. Calm made tangible. Induced into a supine state by the mystical haze, I followed NCR410 and missed the sign for NCR3.
There is something to say for getting a little lost, and this was one such occasion when climbing Upper Pagan’s Hill with the views spreading to north and east. Never having been a boy scout, one may be surprised that I noticed that the sun was in the wrong place. Correctly located in the sky, it was on the left and not ahead. Strange that in the age of SATNAV there are primitive dodgers around who still navigate by the sun.
The called-for left turn appeared. any annoyance evaporated with the mist. The sign pointed to Nempnett Thrubwell. What English person of any spirit could be dejected that, though off course and unsure of the exact route ahead, he, or indeed she, was heading for such a place. Keeping the sun ahead and the general directions from the map in mind, I plunged into the maze of lanes that connect farms with hamlets and tiny villages hereabouts. Through tunnels flanked by banks with an arch of boughs, hitting patches of surface that seems to herald farmyard rather than road, and ever onward and down to Ubley; a village with more prizes than a tombola stall. The pretty village centre lay timeless in the murk that still-filled the valleys.
Fortunately, there is little chance of staying cold for too long around here, even when the sun absented itself. Before long, and back on track I trickled up the scarp of the high plateau of Mendip, through he admirably named Wrangle.
The great thing about reaching a summit is that one can anticipate a freewheel. Shortly after reaching the top, one of the best runs-down commences; gently at first and ever faster as the cliffs of Cheddar gorge soar above. Don’t get distracted by pondering how particular groups of climber possibly got where they were - they climbed. Leave it at that and concentrate on the road. Try not to smile at cyclists labouring up, and be prepared for entering the tourist trap that is Cheddar at a remarkable speed. Not all the tourists milling round are likely to be so awake as you.
Once out of Bristol, this ride is very much in B road, small town England. Most of the market towns and larger villages have cafes and pubs, as well as shops. Even in the countryside, cafes crop up pretty frequently. Bike shops are less in evidence, so be prepared as you would for any rural ride.
From Cheddar it was lumpy ride to Huish Episcopi, where the pub was on my list for visiting. Crossing a man-made landscape claimed from the water, climbing onto what were once spurs or islands amidst the fen, this is a unique landscape. An historic one, too. Wedmore saw the agreement that divided England between Saxon and Viking and the conversion of Sweyn Forkbeard to christianity at the insistence of Alfred the Great; Glastonbury, the remarkable Tor standing above one of England’s most powerful monasteries with its debatable epics of Arthur and Joseph of Arimathea.
Between the lumps at Wedmore, Shapwick and High Ham, lie lengthy pancake flat roads, easy or hard depending on the wind. A little rush hour traffic using the back lanes as rat-runs or to go home to a village did little to disturb the peace, or diminish the beauty.
Langport, a pleasant market town, was choked by traffic. One could only wish it good luck in its campaign to have its railway station re-opened. However, just around the corner was the Rose and Crown, Huish Episcopi, another pub with no serving bar. Beersandf pork pie and tick it off the list; time was pressing on and I did not relish navigating too many miles of unfamiliar back lanes in darkness.
So, I raced round Somerton on the B3153, desultory commuters occasionally buzzing past, to pick up lanes to Barton St. David, Ham Street (an unusual culinary crossroads with Teapot or Worms Lane), East Pennard and Pylle. By East Pennard I had lights for and aft and blinkies flashing. The evening air was fresh and clear and the glimpsed views of Pylle Manor House and the occasional view through the trees really demanded daylight to do them justice. There was none and the pot-hole spectre was walking the roads.
Two hundred yards from the B&B at Whitecroft, I had a spill; but that was not the fault of a pothole.
The next days objective had not been selected. With sore knees and inconvenient bruises, I rolled through Evercreech, turning north to head for Canmore via Chesterblade. Taking time to check directions against contradictory signs, losing a sense of direction is unusual for me, but a painful knee demanded not cycling further than necessary.
The vast Mereshead Quarry gives the climb to Downhead a feeling of the spectacular. the run down to Mells and Great Elm is wonderful, a long freewheel slanting down the valleyside. Mells wears it s long history along its downs and streets; from pre-Roman villas onward, it shows the story of English architecture in this neck of the woods. Even on a day when the mist seemed destined never to clear, a very beautiful place, with an award winning cafe.
Looking at a map over a cuppa and a cake can be disheartening, but the hills round here have a bark worse than their bite. In any case a bit of hard-work keeps out the chill. Silent lanes strewn with washed-out soil and gravel, rolled away and then up to Tucker’s Grave and the Inn of that name. Described as a real Somerset cider house - yep, with no serving counter - and standing at an isolated crossroads on the main road between Trowbridge and Radstock - it was closed. My fault, too speedy, for once. Tucker was a suicide, banished from consecrated ground.
As far a Wellow no human form came into sight. At the ford a possee of equestrians caused a halt with the steep climb up the other side begging for a clear run. Never mind, a pause was in order in Wellow.
NCR24 has a well-surfaced traffic-free section - open most of the year - and an on-road alternative which did not look too busy and was the choice of a group of road-racers decked out in team kit whom I gave way to. At the start off the traffic-free section is a cafe.
The former railway line runs along the charming valley of the Wellow Brook, eventually emerging at Midford. A little further on the route split. Ahead lay the way to Bradford-on-Avon and the countryside beyond. I’d thought of getting to Pewsey or another station on the railway between Bath and London.
The alternative was to ride through the two tunnels into Bath. Whether it was the prospect of taking in a classic touring route into a city or a knee that was complaining which tipped the scales in favour of the tunnels, I really am not sure.
The southern of the two tunnels is by far the longer of the two. Shared, of course with pedestrians and their dogs, it is well-lit, with music in he central section. A lovely ride in the dark. I put on lights to go through, though some other cyclists did not. These tunnels and viaducts give access nearly to the centre of Bath. Signage at the end of the traffic-free route was not perfect, but a glance at a map and following road signs brought me amongst the tourists.
What does one do in Bath? Take the water? Not likely. Done that before. try the beer instead. And of course, catch a train. The express trains to London and Bristol had plenty of space, though I know from previous experience that some other services can be overcrowded and definitely require reservation if you desire to travel on a particular train.
I stretched my leg out and took onboard some locally-brewed knee-oil. Isn’t cycling wonderful.
For the National Cycle Network see www.sustrans.org.uk
For interesting pubs see http://www.heritagepubs.org.uk/home/home.asp
PUBLISHED MAY 2016