Where is the best place in the world to find both quality riding and stunning archaeology? I may just have the answer to that.
I am sitting on the massive embankments of Oldbury Castle in Wiltshire, gazing out at the landscape laid out before me to the south west.
Two things are apparent. The first is that this landscape is full to bursting point with archaeology and the relics of thousands of years of human occupation. The second thing is that the landscape is rapidly disappearing under the curtain of an advancing, and heavy looking downpour.
What makes this moment ironic is that part of this route was inspired by the work of Tom Hutton, famous mountain bike routes expert. In his article about the route, he describes sitting in almost precisely the same spot, watching the rain come in and experiencing that complete lack of friction that wet chalk brings to a ride.
I thought briefly about describing this irony to Mel, but erred in favour of diving into my bag to fetch out my waterproof and suggesting we get on before everything became too slippery to ride.
Cider: the ideal preparation for archaeology
The route has been percolating in my head for a while, but Avebury is just far enough from home that I had to really want to go there. The excuse presented itself in a friend’s birthday party in deepest Herefordshire from which Avebury was only a very short diversion on the way home.
In hindsight, staying up until four in the morning drinking rhubarb cider and gin (not in the same glass) might not have been the most sensible preparation. Fortunately, I was not due to drive so we were safe.
That part of Herefordshire, near Ross on Wye, has a landscape that just screams to the mountain biker that there is some seriously good singletrack to be had in the woods and on the scarps. On any other day, we might have allowed ourselves to be swayed from our path and gone exploring red sandstone paths instead of chalk tracks. But not today.
A date with history
Apparently, we weren’t the only ones. One day, I shall go to Avebury and the car park will not be rammed. This was not that day. We arrived twenty minutes before the campers were due to vacate the overflow car park, so it was bedlam. Somehow, we managed to grab a space that had somewhere to unload the bikes. We received some properly peculiar looks from the people there to see the stones as we unpacked and saddled up. It seems that many people regarded the couple of hundred yards to the henge as exercise enough and only the half-crazed would do any more.
Crossing the people line
There is a line, at most attractions, beyond which most people do not go. One moment you are tripping over the world and his dog, the next you are in blissful solitude. We found the people line by pushing our bikes through the other gate out of the village church yard. From bank holiday Sunday to midweek morning in about two yards.
Now it was safe to do so, we saddled up and went for a ride. First up, a gentle roll round the back of people’s gardens on a National Cycle Route that seemed to have less traffic than our cul-de-sac at home.
Crossing a small bridge over a dry river bed, I looked left and was greeted by the best view of Silbury Hill I’ve seen in a very long time. One of the hardest questions to answer in archaeology is “why?” Why did people in the past build the incredible things they did? Sometimes they leave helpful evidence, sometimes we can make an educated guess, but sometimes, we have to admit that we really don’t have a clue.
Silbury falls, squarely, into this latter group. It’s a honking great artificial hill that served, as far as we can tell, no actual purpose. Archaeologists have been prodding it for hundreds of years trying to get it to give up its secrets. The hill stays resolutely taciturn. I love the sheer bizarreness of it. So we stopped and stared again, hoping for inspiration.
However, it was not the only archaeology of the day, so our bemusement gave way to pedalling.
Messing about in BOATs
Speaking of enigmas, BOATs (Byways Open to All Traffic) are tricky from a route planning perspective. Those fat green crosses on a 1:25k map can hide a multitude of evils on the ground. Some of them are completely overgrown jungle clearance exercises. Others are 4×4 chewed swampy morasses that can eat bike and rider without pause for thought. Other still, are wide gravel tracks. There is simply no way of knowing until you get there.
Our first piece of off-roading for the day was along one such path. Admittedly, I could have paid more attention to the “Voluntary closure” sign. Instead, I ploughed on to see what there was. What there was, was a pair of tractor swallowing ruts, with a narrow ridge in between. This narrow ridge had an even narrower rut running down the middle. This path was overgrown by tall grass, which hid the bombhole-like depressions every few yards or so. It managed to combine a feeling of claustrophobia with one of exposure. Later in the day, with our eyes in, it would probably have been a lot of fun to pump through these hollows. Fifteen minutes into the ride, it conspired to throw us off our game and require total concentration. It was only a few hundred yards long, but we both breathed a sigh of relief when we got to the end of it. It was, fortunately, not a sign of things to come.
The long and the short of it
However, this fun had to come to an end. The trail turned left and stopped skirting the issue to point straight at the Iron Age ramparts on the hilltop. Conversation stopped and we dug in to getting to the top. The only pause was where one of us was surprised by a cow. Don’t ask. I cursed my non-wide-range 1×10 setup when I ran out of gears early on, forced to stand up and pound the pedals to get to the top. Mel, meanwhile, spun away on her “old school” 3×9 drivetrain. I needed more gears, bigger lungs or better legs rather than relying on belligerence where finesse was the required approach.
My Eyes! My Eyes!
It was worth it though. On arrival at the summit we slumped on the ground and gorged on eccles cakes, while we took in the view.
It went on for miles. Everywhere we looked there was more and more archaeology. Yes, Avebury is jaw-droppingly impressive. But there is a lot more to this landscape, and this view nailed that home. We could see for miles. Listing them doesn’t do it justice, but any one of the many monuments we could see would have been remarkable anywhere else. Here there was just layer upon layer of occupation from the Neolithic to the Second World War. There were lines of Bronze Age Barrows, next to Saxon ramparts. There were medieval lynchets next to a wartime radar station.
There was also a ribbon of white running down from our feet to the plateau below. It swept down the hill between two banks in a particularly inviting way. It would have been rude not to. So down we plunged, sweeping back and forth as the track swung left and right. I rounded one corner fast enough that stopping for the gate was not entirely under control, but got it open in time to let Mel plough through at full tilt.
When we regrouped at the bottom, I asked how it was. All I got in response was a grin. I’m guessing that was a vote of approval. I know I was grinning. I’m very much looking forward to showing off that particular gem.
The Orange wash of deception
Some climbs, you see from a long way away, getting closer, and closer until you have to just get on with it. This one appeared, almost literally, out of the blue. It’s almost impossible to see contour lines under the orange border wash of access land. The Bridleway I had identified as our route south was nowhere to be seen as we rolled along. There was only a vertiginous scarp edge and an ephemeral path through a gate heading straight up. Oh. We stopped to check the map while a group of urchins swung on the gate and asked us about our bikes. I looked at the map, looked at the near vertical impression of a path and back at the map again. Bugger.
“Do you think you can ride up that?” asked one of the gate-swinging comedians.
“I bet he can’t” was the reply from his little sister.
“I’ll hold the gate open for you mister.” Said the smallest.
“Let’s see, shall we?” I said, clipping in and heading off towards certain embarrassment.
Straight away, I was uncomfortably aware of the puny size of my 36 tooth cassette. Uncomfortably aware, and resolutely using it, occasionally vainly trying to downshift. Within fifty yards I was out of the saddle, desperately trying to balance the opposing needs to keep the front wheel on the ground, the back wheel gripping and the pedals turning. There as grunting. There was probably swearing (albeit quietly so the children didn’t hear). My vision narrowed to a tunnel, focussed on the gate at the top of the hill.
A scant handful of yards from the top, crossing a small track, my back wheel began to give up its grip. “You can properly do one!” (Or possibly something much less polite) I shouted at it, willing the knobs to find something to grip. Amazingly, they did and I powered my way to the gate, sufficiently pleased with myself that I thought about hoisting the bike above my head á la sand people on Tatooine.
Then I put everything down and turned around to see Mel pushing up the hill. It was only fair to go back and offer to help. And to help the lost parents of the gate-dwelling urchins find their way back to the car.
Why is this dyke cross?
I’d spotted the Wansdyke on the map. More as an interesting-looking section of trail than as a feature of archaeological interest. Approaching it now, all thoughts of the trail were forgotten. It is a massive bank and ditch cutting across the landscape for mile after mile. When I say massive it is, even now, big enough that I can’t see out of the ditch. We traced it over a series of ridges to the southeast, like a giant millipede that had fallen asleep. It seems to be a Saxon boundary marker, though no one is quite sure what boundary it marks as it runs squarely through the middle of Wessex from Berkshire, through Wiltshire and to points west. It’s such colossal thing that, once you’ve spotted it, it’s impossible not to see both on the ground and on the map.
There is, though, only so long you can spend standing, stupefied by the works of your forebears. Especially when there are bikes to be ridden. In this case, the bridleway runs along the bottom of the ditch for a while, like a grassy Death Star trench with echoes of the old Jump Gully at Swinley Forest. We whooped our way down the ditch, boosting off lips and pumping through depressions until, all of a sudden, the path popped out onto the lip and the outside world was restored.
The trail was transformed from enclosed to airy as it clung to the edge of the ditch and snaked its way down from the hilltop. If anyone says there is no singletrack in the Downs, this mile or so of trail will blow that perception out of the water. Grins all round were short lived as we flowed straight into a rather rude section of climbing and trials obstacles through a shelter belt to get onto the track that would start us on our journey home.
What goes down
Remember that descent from Oldbury Castle? The one that was steep and swoopy?
Well, that lay between us and home. I can assure you that it is just as steep going up as it is going down. We hunkered down and got on with it Mel spinning with finesse while I vowed to buy a wide-range cassette the moment I got home. Some climbs are harder than expected, others are much easier. This one was precisely as horrible as I was expecting. It went on for almost exactly as long as I thought it would and I felt just as battered as I feared when I reached the top.
Which leads us to sitting on the ramparts, inhaling another Eccles cake, watching the rain come in.
The first big dods of rain smacked into our bags and we looked at each other. One the one hand, there was a chunk of the ride still to do, which may contain brilliant riding like we had experienced already. On the other hand it was about to be a slippery as a bar of soap in the bath. Oh, and it may well turn into that special type of clay mud that is the reason Downs riders use mud tyres all winter.
I don’t recall much discussion before we set off directly for home, down the path we climbed up from Avebury. There was a certain hint of time trial about the return leg, going as quickly as felt safe to reach the fun bits before they became like a greased ice rink.
The drop from the fort may well be a cart track but, send it at speed and it’s a hoot. Mind out for the gate though, especially if grip is at a premium. I managed to use the gate to stop rather than as a launch pad for a re-creation of Danny Mac’s front flip. Just.
Right turn around yet another Bronze Age barrow and pile into that pump track section. By now the rain had settled in for the afternoon and the prevailing wind was blowing the rain directly into my ear hole! It was deeply distracting from the matter at hand.
The we dropped into that shelter belt of trees we had lamented not riding down earlier. It turned out to be just as much of a giggle as it had looked. A roller coaster of roots rollers and kickers was taken in at breakneck speed. It was over too soon and we both popped out into the wind and the rain.
Heads down for the short section along the A4, we had the scent of the car, the pub and dry clothes in our nostrils now. That’s not to say that we didn’t stop on the Kennet bridge to take in the view of Silbury one last time.
The car park was much less busy when we got back and dumped wet gear on the grass behind the car. For all the helter-skelter nature of the run home, it had been a cracking afternoon’s riding. Never too hard, never too steep but always engaging. When the trail did not require full attention, the scenery did. There are few places you can ride anywhere in the world where the sheer depth of human habitation in the landscape is so obvious, where the marks of generations and generations are so many.
Either alone would have made it a top day out. Both together? Now that’s a little bit of magic.