Tuesday, 28 February 2012

A Radstock Reprise

I was annoyed at missing out on Stoney Littleton long barrow last time. I know it's not everyone's idea of an exciting venue but I like this sort of thing. Maybe I'm just a bit sad, as my daughter frequently points out. Anyway I decided there was nothing for it but to head back down to the badlands of Radstock and Midsomer Norton. I decided to fool Mick by heading off on the Avon circular to Chew Valley lake, planning then to execute a crafty left turn and swing across the A37, dash through Paulton and pick up the Norton Radstock Greenway. By the time he realised what was going on it would be too late. Luckily Mick takes no interest in pre-ride route planning and is happy just to follow my directions. 'I'm food and maintenance,' he says. Which means he gets to make the sandwiches and carry the pump while I get to obsess over a map and be very bossy.

So we set off merrily down the lane to Compton Dando and the Avon Cycleway. The route follows rural lanes through sleepy villages until we arrived at Pensford. It's a shame that the fast A37 races through the middle of the village. At various times Pensford has produced high quality cloth, copper, brass and coal; now it's a commuter village for Bristol and Bath. It is dominated by the glorious Pensford Viaduct. Built in1873 to carry the Bristol and North Somerset Railway across the Chew Valley, it finally closed after the '68 floods when it was declared to be unsafe although I can't help but wonder whether this was a rather convenient excuse. British Rail once tried to sell the viaduct for £1.00  but had no takers so it remains part of BRB (Residuary). It would make a brilliant cycle-path...
More country lanes to Chew Valley Lake and time for a cup of tea. As we sat enjoying our break and looking out over the lake, Mick pensively said: 'You know, I've always had a regret that I never became..'
'Became what?' I wondered. 'A brain surgeon? A father? A duck?'
'...a thief,' he continued.
'What?' I said, non-plussed. 'What do you mean, a thief?'
'I could have been rich,' he said. 'Look at all the money to be made out of ripping people off. Being honest is for fools.'
I looked at him aghast. 'Yes we're skint, I protested. But at least we can sleep at night!'
'Well, that's it,' he said dolefully. 'I don't sleep. I have insomnia. So I might as well have become a thief.'

Water level in Chew Valley Lake

Leaving the lake we cycled through Bishop Sutton then turned left and started the climb up onto Mendip. Mick started to get all excited. 'We're going to Priddy!' he exclaimed. 'Brilliant! A pint of Roger's Butcombe and a cauli cheese in the Hunters!'
'No, calm down. We are not going to Hunter's today.'
'Owwwww, why not?'
'Because I have other plans. We'll go to Roger's another day.'

I turned off before Mick spotted the Ring o Bells at Hinton Blewett where I knew I would have another rebellion on my hands. Instead we coasted down to the A37 at Temple Cloud, and cycled on through Hallatrow and Paulton to Midsomer Norton. Mick did have a point, this end of Mendip is the poorer, hardier end, and there was nothing very attractive about these places. Certainly no-where we felt like stopping. At Midsomer Norton, Mick swore as realisation dawned. 'We're going to fucking Radstock! Again!' He was incredulous at my nerve. To be honest I was now feeling a bit sheepish. I had been a bit of a cow, refusing any pub stops and disappointing him with a pointless ride up hills and down again. 'I wanted to see the Neolithic long barrow,' I mumbled.
Mick snorted. 'Well we're here now, come on then. Where is it anyway?'
'Stoney Littleton.'
'Where's that?'
'Other side of Radstock. By Wellow.'
'It had better be good.'

We headed along the Collier's Way first on railway line and then country lanes. This time I was ready for it, and spotted the signpost for the long barrow. 'Where is it?' asked Mick.
'Up there,' I said pointing to the top of the hill beyond the stile.'
'Oh. Do we really want to go up there?'
'Yes we do. We've missed a lunchtime pint for this.'
So we tied our bikes to a gate and set off up the hill and across two fields. When we reached the long barrow Mick was impressed. 'It is amazing,' he agreed, conquering his claustrophobia to come and have a poke about inside. It's possible to go a long way inside - with side chambers coming off the main passage where the bodies would have been laid out.
'Lie in one, like a corpse' I suggested.
'YOU lie in one. I'm not!'
Outside I announced my intention to circumnavigate the site. 'Yeah, you would,' said Mick. 'Anyone else would just walk round it.'

We agreed on the walk back to the bikes that it had been jolly impressive though, and worth the effort. We headed up the hill to Wellow where we were unable to resist a quick nose down Railway Lane. Sure enough, just down the road was the remains of the old level crossing gates. The signal house had been converted to a dwelling as had the station, which for ten years was the residence of the artist Peter Blake. Even I, art philistine that I am, recognise some of this guy's work:

We slogged up Hinton Hill and crossed the A36, after which we enjoyed the long coast down to Iford Manor. Nestling at the bottom of the hill, Iford is a stunning Elizabethan manor house with Grade 1 listed Italiante gardens which have been described as one of the best in the country. They were designed by Harold Peto, architect and landscape gardener who lived here from 1899 to 1933 although sadly they were not open at this time of year. The River Frome which runs on front of the manor house (the Somerset Frome, and pronounced Froom not Froam) forms the boundary so whilst the Manor is in Wiltshire, the Bridge outside is in Bath and North East Somerset. Perched on the top - looking slightly incongruous and like she might want to jump at any minute - is Britannia, also a Peto addition.

We cycled into Freshford, past the closed Inn and through Limpley Stoke, past the closed Hop Pole. Well it was Tuesday afternoon so hardly surprising. By the time we had cycled back to Bath along the Kennet and Avon towpath we had a proper thirst on.

'Ah, back to civilisation,' said Mick with satisfaction. 'The pubs will be open here.' Sure enough the Royal Oak at Twerton, one of our favourites, was open so we spent a very pleasant couple of hours here before the last push home.
Plain Innocence
Neath Ales Dewi Sant

Ceiling of the Royal Oak

Mick having fun turning in front of petty 'no turning' sign
Aside from the beer desert, a very successful ride & I had finally got to see the long barrow. After two visits to Radstock in a week though, I don't think it'll be on our route for quite some time. I fear if I suggest a third trip there Mick may resort to physical violence.

Our route is here

Friday, 24 February 2012

A Radstock Ring

It's only a few weeks until End-to-End Ireland. Number of training rides this year so far - one. This will not do. I have been pottering about on my bike as usual but I need to get a few more longer rides under my belt  if we are not going to have a repeat of Lejog (lots of tears and fears). Plus I have somehow managed to acquire another fourteen pounds (weight not money) since that trip. There is definitely a need for some serious training.

Mick turned up on his Cannondale and, easing us into the ride gently, we set off along the Bristol-Bath cycle path. (Sustrans Route 4) which sugueways nicely into the towpath alongside the River Avon. Along the bank, large numbers of people in yellow high viz jackets were doing a fine job, litter picking and repainting benches. I stopped to chat to one of them, mindful of the current hoo-hah about people on benefit being forced to carry out unpaid labour. 'You're not on one of those schemes are you?' I asked.
He shook his head. 'No, it's all voluntary. The council advertised at the universities and colleges.'
"Well you're doing a fine job.'
'Yes,' he replied, 'only thing is, there's so many of us, we're running out of litter.'
Mick kindly offered to throw his gum wrapper on the floor to help out, but his offer was politely declined, and we went on our way.

In Bath I briefly led us onto a busy road before realising both lanes were for carrying traffic in the other direction. 'Oops,' I said, heading for the pavement. 'It's more than oops,' said Mick. 'I'll lead, you'll get us killed.' He led us to the bottom of Widcombe flight, and a brief respite from the traffic before we rejoined it again on Bathwick Hill. For speed we cycled to Bathampton on the busy A36, and I was relieved when the turning for the village came up on the left. I waited at the top of the hill for Mick who was a little way behind for a change.
'Ah, were you stood there waiting for me?' he asked.
"Yes,' I said, expecting him to thank me.
'I used to have a dog that did that,' he said.

In Bathampton the cafe, on a little boat on the canal was open. 'For that comment, you can buy me a coffee,' I told him.

After coffee we cycled along to Dundas aqueduct and the start of the Somersetshire Coal Canal. This is also the start of the Colliers Way, a newish Sustrans route, number 24. (Pdf of the Sustrans leaflet here).

We weaved though Monkton Combe, on a similar route to the one I had walked with Yvonne the previous week, passing the home of William Smith at Tucking Mill, the guy who is credited with producing the first geological map of Britain.

At Midford we joined the line of the old Somerset and Dorset Railway. The path started well with a tarmaced section through a short tunnel and past the old Midford Station. This is where the Two Tunnels  Greenway is planned to intersect with the Colliers Way, which will provide a brilliant circular route once finished. The New Somerset and Dorset Railway are working to reopen the old railway route, aiming to provide a much needed rail link for local communities. They have plans to rebuild the station in 50's/60's style and provide a cafe/info point etc. There are no immediate plans to lay track, although presumably it would be possible for the cycle path to run alongside, as it does in Bitton and in Okehampton. I think it's a long term project so no need to worry about it just yet.

Sadly the tarmac soon disappeared and the path got rather muddy. It looks like it's been scraped though so maybe there are plans to tarmac it soon. We passed one of Sustrans' art installations, 'Stone Column' by Jerrry Ortmans.

This piece is formed by seven stacked boulders reflecting the geological strata of the area (Chalk Cretaceous, Forest Marble, Great Oolite, Inferior Oolite, Blue Lias, White Lias, Pennant) to commemorate the pioneering work of William Smith, the 'father of geology' who once lived at nearby Tucking Mill and who worked as a surveyor constructing the canal system in the area.
(Sustrans website)

I rather liked it but Mick was not impressed. 'It's just a pile of rocks,' he said incredulously. 'Bloody hell, everything's "art" these days!' Sorry Mr Ortmans.

Rejoining a quiet road, we climbed up the hill to Wellow and forked off left down through a quiet lane. where we saw not one, but three green woodpeckers in the trees on our right.  At the bottom of the hill we had a choice and took the left turn up to Faulkland. It was a steep climb but I hoped it would be worth it, as Faulkland is where the wonderful Tucker's Grave pub is. We toiled up the hill and then down the road to the pub. Which was shut.

Instead we called into the Faulkland Inn. It's a bit restauranty, in fact the landlady straightaway reached for menus when we walked in. 'We'll just have a drink,' we said, although after half an hour Mick was unable to resist ordering a bowl of delicious, chunky chips. The beer was That Gold Devil from Devilfish Brewery situated just behind the village, and was a nice golden, hoppy beer. I did find it amusing though, when a rep from the brewery called into the pub and ordered half a lager whilst he was waiting for the Landlord.
Whilst we were supping on our drinks I said to Mick I would get the map out to plan the journey home. 'You mean this is planned?' he said. 'I thought we were lost.'
He asked to have a look at the map but I refused. 'I'm planning the route,' I said.
'That's the trouble with you short people,' he replied. 'You're dictatorial.'

It was cold, misty and drizzling up here on the edge of the eastern Mendips. Mick pointed out that this made it more realistic as a training ride as Ireland was likely to be cold, misty and drizzling as well.

The home route was rather hilly, down to Radstock, up to Clandown, steep down to Radford Mill, climb up to Timsbury. Mick decided the litter strewn lay-by outside a sewage works would be a good place to stop.
'I'm not eating here!' I exclaimed. 'It's disgusting.'
'It's not that bad,' he retorted. 'You've obviously never been to Bolivia.' Bolivia, according to Mick, is one vast rubbish tip. His description didn't fill me with an urge to visit.
As it was, we stopped at Timsbury churchyard to eat our sandwiches. 'Your place isn't any better,' he grumbled. 'It's full of dead people.'
'Well I'd rather eat with dead people than with used condoms and litter.'

From here it was a scary whizz along the dual carriageway of the A39 before joining the more peaceful lanes back to Saltford and home. Recovering with a cuppa I looked again at the map.
'Bollocks!' I shouted.
'What now?' said Mick, wearily.
'I've just realised we passed within yards of Stoney Littleton Long Barrow. We missed it! We're going to have to do the ride again.'
I ducked just in time. Mick had thrown his last cheese roll at me.

Our route is here

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Walking the Bath Beat Route

I was lazing in bed sipping a cup of tea when I had a text from my friend Yvonne asking me if I fancied going for a walk. 'Sure, when?' I texted back. 'Now.' Crikey. Ok. Forty five minutes later I was at Combe Down, lacing up my boots and pulling on my gloves. Yvonne was right though, it was a lovely day, and too good to waste.

'I've brought an OS map,' I said, mindful of previous walking disasters when we had ventured out together. 'And I've brought two headlights this time.'
'Oh, we won't need those,' Yvonne said confidently. I know this route really well, I walk it all the time.'
The route we were taking was part of the shortest route of the Bath Beat, an annual walk/running event around the Limpley Stoke valley. I decided to err on the side of caution and put them in my rucksack anyway, and we set off.

Two minutes later we were staring down the very steep path which led down the hill to the village of Monkton Combe. Very steep and very, very icy. 'Don't fancy that,' I said. Yvonne agreed. Only Alfie seemed keen, but he obediently turned around with us and trudged up to the road.We were already 'off route' and unsure where we were. Great. A chance to use my beloved map. I reached in my bag to get it.
'Oh, don't worry, I've got us pinpointed,' said Yvonne, waving her iphone4S. Sure enough a pulsating red circle was throbbing on the map on the screen. Holding it in front like a dowsing stick we traced our way down the road until we joined up with our original route.

***Warning: using a phone to navigate may be ok in Bath. But not on top of Scafall Pike. See here***

We followed the bed of the old Somerset Coal Canal to Midford. Authorised by Act of Parliament in 1794 the canal was built to carry coal from the Somersetshire coalfields up to the Kennet and Avon and thence to Bath and beyond. By the 1820's the canal was carrying over 100,000 tons per year. By the end of the century the seams were becoming worked out and the railways had taken over the freight trade. It was closed in 1898 and sold a few years later to the Great Western Railway who promptly built a railway over much of the route. There is lots of information here and here about the SCC. (The former is now the 'unoffical' website but I think it is the better one of the two.)
Partway along we found a tyre hanging from a tree and despite the fact that we have a combined age of nearly 100, the tempation was too much. We took it in turns having a swing, and then spinning eachother around until we were so giddy we fell over in the mud. It was great fun.

Eventually we dragged ourselves away and soon reached the main road at Midford, used it to cross the brook and then turned off immediately onto Midford Lane and then plunged back across fields and woodland.

From here there was a fine view of Midford Castle, a castle folly built in 1775 for Henry Disney Roebuck. I can't find anything much about him except he was from a wealthy family and liked a bit of gambling. For decades the house was owned by writer Isabel Colegate (author of the Shooting Party) and her husband Michael Briggs. In 2007 they sold it to Nicholas Cage, who apparently was very taken with Bath and the local area. (He also bought a place in the Circus in Bath.) He sold it just two years later, apparently to help him deal with an enormous tax bill.

At Monkton Combe there is an annoying climb up the hill and then back down again to circumnavigate the playing fields and swimming pool of the
  posh Monkton Combe public school. Still, it gave us a chance to look at the old lock up dating from around 1776. Having skirted the playing fields we headed back down the hill and then turned left along the road. We were now walking the course of the old Bristol and North Somerset Railway which had superceded the canal in the nineteenth century, until the railway, in its turn, became uneconomical to run and was closed. Monkton Station, sadly now long gone, became Titfield Station for the wonderful 1953 Ealing Comedy The Titfield Thunderbolt

From derelict canals and defunct railways we headed onto a functioning canal, the Kennet and Avon. Alfie was complaining that he was hungry, Yvonne said it served him right as he hadn't eaten his breakfast, but after some truly pitiful looks from him she relented and we stopped at the Angel Cafe for some tea and biscuits. (I know, I know I said I wouldn't come here again, but hey, I never claimed to be consistent. And actually I got a smile from one of the staff today.)

The boats were pretty solidly iced in and nothing was moving. But just after crossing the Dundas aquaduct we came across a narrowboat having a go at icebreaking. It was doing a fine job of ripping all the blacking off its bow, so I assume wherever the crew was trying to get to must have been really important. Or maybe they were just a couple of dickheads, I don't know. There are a lot of them at this end of the K&A. They managed to crash the boat along for about fifty yards before coming to a complete stop in the middle of the canal.

We stood gongoozling and gawping for a while, but then Yvonne suddenly panicked, as she realised that we were short of time to get to the cafe before they stopped serving food so we left the boaters to it. We power-walked the last three miles to Avoncliffe; by the time we got there I thought I was going to throw up on the counter. but we had made it with two and a half minutes to spare and ordered some food.

After we'd eaten and I'd stopped wanting to vomit we set off across the fields to Freshford, passing through Tess's Gate.

 At least at this time of year there were no cows for us to run away from. The New Inn at Freshford looked delightful and I was very pleased when Yvonne made a bee line for it. Oh. Apparently she was just heading for the toilet. Never mind.  It's owned by the Box Steam Brewery and I made a mental note to come back soon to sample the beer. Maybe I could work it into a bike ride.

We passed Freshford Mill, a large and controversial housing development. Progress at the site seems to be at about the pace of an arthritic tortoise, it seems the developers may have gone bust. The final loop took us over the hill near Limpley Stoke. Next to one of the farms was a collection of huts and an old petrol pump, presumably a relic from World War Two.
We only had one more challenge - the very steep descent and ascent of Monkton Combe Valley. Alfie was getting weary. He kept lying down, evidently hoping one of us would relent and carry him, but we remained hard hearted. The path was slippery and we found a couple of stout sticks to aid the descent.

On reaching the car I turned to Yvonne. 'This doesn't seem right,' I said.
'No crawling through barbed wire. No running away from cows. No staggering around in the dark. It was, as our walks go, pretty uneventful.'
'You're right,' she said. 'Maybe we're getting better at this.'
Possibly. Or maybe it was just a fluke. We'll find out next time.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Expert Photography on the Somerset Levels

My friend Mick is a photographer. Well he's trying to be. He decided he wanted some shots of the sun rising at Glastonbury Tor and asked if I wanted to go along.
'Ok' I said blithely before realising the bleedin' obvious - in order to get a photo of sunrise we would have to get up Very Early.

'I'll swing by yours and pick you up at five am,' he said.
'F*ck off.'
'Six is too late.'
(Sulkily) 'Ok, half-five then.'
By some miracle I was ready to go at half-five. The temperature was minus five outside so I was fully kitted out in three layers on the bottom half and five layers top half plus hat, gloves etc. I sat and waited by the window. At five-to-six Mick's campervan rolled around the corner.
'You're late,' I said grumpily.

We headed down the A39 through Wells to Glastonbury without bothering to look at the atlas or plug in the satnav. Mick hates looking at maps, he thinks it's cheating. At Glastonbury we got lost and headed off towards Frome, at which point I insisted we pull over so I could dig out the atlas. In the end we did a massive loop around the bottom of the Levels before finally finding them hidden away on our right. By the time we had found a view of the Tor, dawn was upon us. We were on a race against time.

Mick screeched to a halt on the side of the road, grabbed his camera and tripod and legged it over a stile. Layered up as I was, I could only waddle after him like a Tellytubby. By the time I caught up with him, he was set up and snapping away.

We had just made it. Soon the orange sun appeared on the horizon, rolling up behind the green fields. I stared at it in awe - what a beautiful sight. Suddenly I had dancing spots in front of my eyes and remembered it is not a good idea to stare directly at the sun.
'My eyes, my eyes!' I cried. 'I'm blinded! Look away!'
'Don't stare at it then,' said Mick unsympathetically.
After a few moments my eyesight returned to normal and we headed back to the van to make a hot drink. 'Fancy a bit of breakfast?' said Mick.

We headed up the road to the Peat Moors centre. The centre has closed but there is a craft centre, next to which was a chuck wagon selling 'eco bites.' Eco bites apparently means no bacon and egg rolls, just falafels and flapjacks. This wasn't what we had in mind. We decided to press on with our walk and get something to eat at the pub. We were heading for The Sheppey Inn at Lower Godney which we had passed before but never been in.

We were immediately thrown by the route apparently taking us through a peat farmer's yard. Three big dogs came bounding out, barking furiously, and we were about to run away when we saw the farmer beckoning us. 'They won't hurt 'ee,' he shouted. 'come on through.' Sure enough the dogs were only curious and rather friendly. We made our way past old tractors through the barn - another example of the great British tradition that, when it comes to footpaths, 'we shall not be moved'. You can steal our pensions, trash our public transport and dismantle our health service and we won't make a sound. But don't - just don't - fuck with our footpaths.

My route took us across Meare Heath before crossing the B3151 and striking out across the fields to Lower Godney. There were some issues however. Firstly, despite the map indicating we were on a footpath there were no markers whatsoever; the rhynes(water channels) which criss crossed the fields meant we sometimes were taking massive detours; and there were no stiles, only farm type gates which wouldn't open. We had to climb each one and as they were spaced only twenty yards apart I began to feel like I was attempting a steeplechase rather than a country walk. Eventually we found ourselves at the back of someones garden and had to walk through a pigpen to get onto the lane into Godney. By this time we were both salivating at the thought of a pint. 'Maybe we could squeeze in two,' said Mick hopefully.

Fat chance. When we got there we discovered that the pub only opens in the evenings. 'Oh, that's a shame,' said Mick. (He said it a bit more forcefully than that but that was the general gist.)
'I can hear voices,' he said desperately, pressing his ear to the door. 'Bang on the door, see if they'll serve us.'
'Don't be silly,' I said.

So we trudged disconsolately back. On the way back we detoured into Meare as the OS map indicated a blue jug in the village. The path took us past the Manor Farmhouse, fourteenth century summer residence of
Manor Farmhouse, Meare
the Abbot of Glastonbury. The pub, however , was not only closed, it had been turned into a private residence. The pint of beer receded even farther into the distance. We gave up trying to find a pub and headed back to the carpark where the camper was parked.

Pub at Meare
Swan - Ice Breaking
Back at base we ate out of tins we had stored in the van and had another cup of tea, before donning multi-
layers once more. Mick wanted to get some photographs of Starling Murmurations. Despite the Levels being only thirty miles away, neither of us had seen them before. It was now half-four and the temperature had dropped significantly. We walked along the path (which also forms part of Sustrans Route 3) to Ham Wall. There was quite a gathering of humans there, stamping their feet and rubbing their hands as defences against the cold. 'Quite a gathering,' said Mick. 'Maybe the starlings come here to look at us not the other way around?'

'Look over there,' someone said suddenly, pointing to the southern horizon. A cloud of black was rising from the hillside.
'That's smoke,' someone else said and everyone laughed.
Soon birds were heading towards us in groups from all directions, forming fantastic shapes in the sky. Mick, I noticed, had his camera still trained on the plume of smoke. 'Don't you want some pictures of the birds?' I asked.
'That's what I'm doing,' he said.
'But that's smoke,'
'No it's birds'
'It's smoke. I heard someone say so.'
To be fair, it was an easy mistake to make: it did look like a flock of starlings in the distance and every now and again a group of them would apparently emerge from the smoke, like phoenix from the ashes.
'Bollocks,' said Mick.
Suddenly the starlings dropped like stones as they settled down to roost.
When the sky was empty we started back along the path.
'Ok?' I asked.
'Think I'll stick to photographing flowers in future,' said Mick. 'At least I know what a snowdrop looks like.'

We decided to stop at the Railway Inn for a pint which turned out to be a mistake. The beer, Tawny Owl from Cotleigh, was as tired as the decor, probably as the few locals in there were all drinking cider. The ladies toilet may have been pink once but it was entirely coated in black mould. There was at least a warm fire in the grate, so we defrosted ourselves and then made our exit and walked the mile or so back to the van.

The day, we agreed, had been like the curate's egg, good in parts. Unlike the egg, however, it was not entirely spoiled. After all, Mick had some fantastic photos of smoke signals from Bridgewater. Why he wouldn't share them with me for this blog I just don't know...

Freshwater mussel - the fields are strewn with these