Red and Gold
60’s English folk revival band Fairport Convention play a song called Red and Gold all about the Civil War battle of Cropredy Bridge, Oxfordshire, in 1644. For the last two hours of riding I’d had it rattling around my head.
I wasn’t even in Oxfordshire. I was in deepest Hampshire, somewhere just to the north of the South Downs Way near the village of Cheriton. And yet, there it was, tumbling over and over in my head. Aside from anything else, I was stunned I could remember the words: I hadn’t heard it for about twenty years.
So why was it in my head? Actually, there are a few things that need to be cleared up first.
Ovington and out
That’s right: I’ve got a whole blog post of rotten Ovington puns, so stay with me.
This ride was a recce for a ride I’m planning to lead later in the summer. The plan for the rides is simple: good rides that start and finish at good local pubs. The Bush in Ovington is a perfect candidate. It’s got loads of parking, it’s right by the Itchen, it’s got a fantastic garden, good food and, importantly, serves food. All it needed was a good ride to go with it.
A little while ago I spotted a bridleway that, on paper, had the potential to be a top-notch descent. It started off in a wood and then ran down a track almost to the back door of the pub. It looked as though it had a nice gradient and the makings of a good’un but, until ridden, it would remain Schrodinger’s descent. It could be either excellent or awful and, until the probabilities collapsed it would be both.
Linking it up into a ride from home had proven frustrating, until I realised that it would work much better as the final descent of a ride that finished at the pub. Thus, the plan was hatched. A loop that started and finished at the pub and finished with this Schrodinger’s descent.
There’s something very odd about arriving at a pub long before it opens. There I was, in the car park unpacking the car while the Wadworth’s delivery man looked on, perplexed. I was on my own. I find it’s best on a recce: that way, if it’s awful no-one else has to endure it.
So, at about half nine I rolled off along the road towards Alresford. Some rides bode well from the off, and this was one of those. It was gloriously sunny and the “quiet back road” seemed to be exactly that. I was smiling as I rode along, remembering that this was “the office” for the morning. It really doesn’t get much better.
Expect the unexpected
Sometimes, the most innocuous-looking bits of bridleway turn out to be brilliant. The bar for this was set high very early when a piece of linking path between two roads turned out to be a steep, wooded tunnel of a trail. It was maybe 200 metres but it was enough to get the “singletrack grin” out. This was looking up already.
Then there was a ford. Not a little, dribble of water across the road, bit of a splash, ford. No, this was a full on, the river crosses the road, you’re going to get wet feet if you pedal, and you’ll have pedal to get across, ford. Fortunately, I spotted a wee footbridge just before I took the plunge. And then I turned around and rode back through it, just to see if I got wet feet. Thirty seconds later, with sopping feet, I decided to use the footbridge to get back. Having said that, the temperature was already in the high 20s so there are worse things than wet feet.
The next bit of the ride pootled alongside watercress beds and couldn’t have been more idyllic. Then there was a golf course to cross. Paths that cross golf courses are always something of an enigma. They might be lovely, the might be awful, they might be fenced off and surfaced to death. Following the theme of things coming up roses, this one was lovely, a little path that snaked round the back of a couple of tees before disappearing into the woods. I did get a couple of odd looks as well as cheerful waves from the ladies on the course. I suspect there were equal levels of bafflement on both parts.
The Battle of Cheriton
One of the difficulties about route planning is choosing between a plethora of options with no obvious “right answer”. Does this bit of path justify the road detour? Is this track just a farm track or something more interesting? Is that track going to be an impassable wall of vegetation? Sometimes, the only way to find out is by trial and, often, error.
It was on one of these speculative detours to see if a trail was worth it that I happened upon a war memorial. It didn’t look anything special but, as I rode past, it turned out to be a memorial for a Civil War battle fought here in 1644. In fact, it was part of a trail of interpretation panels that told the story of the Battle of Cheriton. Serendipitously, my ride would take me past virtually all of those trail panels.
Which takes me back to Red and Gold a song about another battle in 1644.
The view wasn’t bad either, especially from the bench with a musket carved into the seat.
Historical curiosity sated, it was time to ride again.
Civil war memorials aside, this detour seemed to be coming up roses. I was riding along a field edge path, congratulating myself on having found a “really good” field edge path when the nettles suddenly got a lot bigger. I was concentrating so much on not getting stung or having the bars ripped out of my hand by the cow parsley that I completely failed to notice the bloody-great hole in the ground.
Fortunately for me it turned out to be a heavily vegetated bomb-hole but I was forced to just suck up the nettle stings to ride it out. It was better than the alternative. You know what they say about pride…The actual field edge seemed greatly preferable after all.
Lost and found
I spotted a trio of walkers coming towards me and braved myself for the usual “checks” that I was where I should be. Instead, they really wanted to have a go on the bike. “Is that some kind of suspension on the back then?” “How heavy is it?” “Is it made of carbon?” “Can I have a go?” “Those tyres are quite chunky, aren’t they?” we then swapped advice on the trail ahead before heading on our way.
Later, I met another pair of ramblers who, armed with a bad printout of the 1:50k map, had set out to walk the wayfarer’s way and, consequently, weren’t really sure where they were. So, out came the map and some hasty retooling of their route commenced. “Are you watching the tour?” asked one of them. “I’ve only started recently, but it’s fascinating, isn’t it?” It seemed that I was destined to meet only people who were cycling enthusiasts.
Still, good Samaritan work done, I had a ride to get on with it.
Green for go
Hampshire is famous for its green lanes, a series of tracks that criss-cross certain parts of the county. They are now variously BOATs, restricted byways, bridleways and footpaths but what they all have in common is that you can discern virtually nothing of them from a map. You might get more of a clue from an aerial photo but you really never know what you might find (remind me at some point to tell you about the night ride where we discovered that some gypsies had decided to use one as a corral for their horses!) on the ground. This ride was taking in a fair number of them, so it was time to press the button on the trail lottery machine. I plummeted down one that was pleasant enough without being enough to write home about (umm, what are you doing now?) and turned into another at the end.
This one turned out to be quite overgrown and a little stingy. I was having concerns about it when suddenly it opened up. For reasons unknown, persons unknown had decided to mow this bit of lane to a width of about 2 metres. It was like a lawn, and down the middle snaked a sinew of singletrack. That never happens. Never. And yet, there I was cruising along without a care in the world. It really doesn’t get much better than this.
At this point the folly of riding through the ford made itself clear. As well as getting my feet wet, I seemed to have washed every drop of lube off my chain, so very pedal stroke was accompanied by a slightly agonised graunch noise from the chain. It wasn’t awful but it was loud enough to come as a surprise after any period of freewheeling.
Probably the oddest sight of the day was when I surprised a teenager who had clearly thought he was well hidden, lying down on his garden wall, having a fly smoke! “Morning!” He nearly fell off the wall. Maybe he shouldn’t have had his headphones in: he’d definitely have heard my chain coming.
A detour through a wood brought another glorious surprise, this time one to save for later. Whilst swinging in and out of the beech trees (definitely not imagining that scene from Return of the Jedi) I realised that the ground was entirely covered with the remains of bluebells. It’s a completely anonymous bit of woodland on the edge of a field but, in April it will be a wall-to-wall carpet of blue. That’s going down in the “bluebell rides” calendar for next year.
Before I got all distracted by the Civil War, the “object” of coming down here was to ride past the source of the Itchen. The same river as runs through the pub garden and the ford in Alresford as well as through the middle of Winchester. It seemed like a nice theme to tie through the ride. I thought it would be a nice place to have a sit down too.
Unfortunately, in the height of summer, the source of the Itchen is basically a patch of mud in wood. It’s a very pleasant wee bit of trail that rolls by it through.
It was time for a banana: all that exploring the byways of Cheriton and stopping to chat to ramblers had put me about forty minutes behind schedule and I was beginning to feel hungry. I was also uncomfortably aware that one of the highest points of the ride now lay between me and the pub.
Time to roll on. I could feel a pint and lunch calling me. Cheriton is chocolate-box in a way that only the chalk valleys of the South Downs can manage. Right down to the crystal-clear Itchen, now an actual stream, babbling through the middle of the village green. It was definitely making a babbling noise: I could even hear it above the sound of my chain rattling. I ignored the looks of the roadies at said rattling chain as they passed me.
I suppose that the name “Hill Houses” should have been a clue, still the 35 metres of climbing in half a kilometre was a rude treat. This was the first time I could feel the miles in the legs.
The lack of shade meant that I was beginning to feel the burn on the back of my neck as much as in my legs. I knew that there would be precious little shade between here and the finish. My target was the South Downs Way, the elephant in the room of Hampshire trails. Whenever you mention you ride mountain bikes the first question you get asked is “have you ridden the South Downs Way?” Telling them it’s not actually that interesting for significant chunks and that you’d rather be riding singletrack in the woods is a recipe for confusion.
Either way, it’s a good way of covering ground and was the best way to get to that descent I was looking forward to. So, head down and get on with it. There was the brief distraction of passing the crews building the course for an international motocross event, but I was now focussed on getting to that descent and, thence, to the pub. And ignoring the increasingly oppressive heat.
It was all going so well
I should have known it couldn’t all go well.
There are some farms that just exude the feeling that they would rather people didn’t use this particular right of way. The gate into the farm at the beginning of the bridleway had two separate latches. And, in spite of being quite clean, it smelled atrocious. Still, the lane away was easy to find and not too overgrown. The gate at the end was falling apart and barely peered out from the nettles. In fact, I had to stand in the nettles to close it again. They really didn’t want people going down here.
Rolling through the woods wasn’t too bad. The path wasn’t particularly lovely and the frequent “private wood: keep out” signs didn’t add to the sense of welcome. A left turn took me off the traverse and into the descent.
Or, at least, it should have. That turn brought me face to face with a wall of nettles and cow parsley. There might have been a small cleft to indicate where the path went but I was going to get stung. A lot. Sure enough, the next kilometre was an exercise in forbearance. The highlight being the bramble that wrapped itself around my chest and brought me to a halt. At least I didn’t fall off into the nettles and brambles.
Eventually, the gradient began to dip down and I began to pick up some speed. The wood was dark enough to keep the nettles down as the sides of the path closed in to form a hollow way. Suddenly the wood was left behind and I was plummeting down the bottom of a dark cleft in the hillside. This was more like it.
Maybe I should have smelled trouble when I saw that the Strava segment was called “Temple of Doom”. Hampshire doesn’t really do committing, technical descents. Sinuous, yes. Twisty, yes. Even steep. But not really committing.
That’s what I thought anyway. The bottom of the path became increasingly rooty. With no lateral options, the only choice was what speed to hit them at. Then the hollow narrowed to a cleft and was clogged with leaves so those roots became invisible. I was taking a battering. That cleft suddenly became a washed-out ravine, a couple of feet deep and only just wider than my feet. I felt, rather than saw, the lattice of roots passing at warp speed. A part of my brain not concentrating on staying on the bike was glad I wasn’t on the hardtail.
Clearly, this path becomes a torrent when it rains, the power of the water turning roots into square-edged hits that neither rider nor suspension could react to quickly enough. It was a case of plough on and tough it out over and over again. A deepening of the ravine meant that I had to bail up the sides of the path onto a narrow terrace, hoping that I wouldn’t lose traction. The gradient shallowed and eventually the battering came to the end as I popped out onto the quiet back road relieved that it was all over. That meant that everything calmed down enough to notice the glow of multiple nettle stings up my arms and legs.
Was it really that bad? It was certainly a rutted, rooty horror show and the woods at the top need someone to go in with a strimmer. Maybe it was just the contrast with how amazing the rest of the ride had been.
And so, to the pub
The good news was that I was now a matter of a few hundred yards from the pub.
The pub, which had been deserted when I left, was now rammed. Virtually every table was busy as I sloped in, dirty, sweaty and tired but I managed to get a table in the shade and also managed to procure beer.
All is right with the world again.
The moral of the tale?
Expect the unexpected. Hope for good trails where there don’t appear to be any, and don’t pin all your hopes for a ride on a single bit of trail about which you don’t really know anything.
Since getting back, I have, unsurprisingly, been on Strava again. It seems all the good times on “Temple of Doom” were set before 2016. I wonder if the condition of the trail has changed.
However, the real moral of the story is that there are some fabulous trails out there in the most unassuming of places.
Ovington you: A call to action
It’s lovely that I get to sneak out on a week day and go for a ride like this, but that’s not the real reason.
The real reason is that I want to show you this ride for yourselves. So keep an eye on the calendar and you can have your very own taste of Ovington.