Earlier this year I saw that The Orielles were going to be on tour in February. No Brighton show but there was one in Bristol on a Sunday night. Hmm, I thought, there are plans for later in the year that require long distance training, I’ve ridden to Bristol a few times before, I have friends there, take a day’s holiday from work, ride over on Saturday, ride back Monday. Sort of made sense. Five minutes later I had a ticket booked. A few weeks later I discovered that James Yorkston was doing an in-store at Rough Trade Bristol earlier the same evening as it would be launch weekend for the new album. Having heard some of the new songs at a show in London in December this was not to be missed. Excellent, bonus gig. Time to get route plotting…
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I leave early, before sunrise, in order to cover the early kilometres on known roads in the dark and avoid riding too many of the narrow lanes I don’t know across the Cotswolds in the dark. It’s going to be an all day ride and because it’s only February daylight hours are still relatively short. Having said that the forecast is ridiculous for the time of year, sunny all day and high temps. In long sleeves and legs and gilet I suspect I’m over dressed but at dawn there is still the sharpness of winter in the air. [I have totally lucked out, when this was all planned – and I’m using the word planned in a very loose sense – I was well aware it could be snowing. Train timetables had been checked just in case.]
I’ve decided to use the suburban roads along the coast as far as Littlehampton before cutting inland to Chichester. Usually I’d avoid this whole area, mostly because of traffic, partly because it’s suburban and dull. Why ride through housing estates when the South Downs are just a few miles north? However it’s also flat as a pancake and being early the roads will be empty. Factor in the tailwind that is forecast it will also be quick. Any time made up now will help when the inevitably steep bits of the Cotswolds hit my tiring legs later. Sunrise happens as I pass Ferring Beach, the low tide far out across the mud and shingle. Before I know it I’m in the flatlands between the coast and Chichester. Around 8am I stop for a coffee and bacon sarnie at a caff in Barnham.
My previous experience of Chichester is all dual carriageways, ring roads, and roundabouts. It’s an awful place to get across or around on a bike so getting through here before the shoppers wake up is another good reason for having set off pre-dawn. Out past Chichester I’m on the road up and over Harting Down. I’m into the pretty stuff now. The boring functional bit out of the way the bike ride proper has started…and the weather is flaming glorious. Briefly. Over Harting Down I sink into fog trapped between the hills. I find I’m suitably dressed again. The cold damp mist lingers for a good few miles before thinning and disappearing somewhere in the Meon Valley. The warmth returns. I realise all the times I’ve ridden west I’ve not passed through the valley before, usually I’m up on one of the ridges either side. I must remember this flat option between Petersfield and Winchester. It doesn’t last forever, and I soon find myself climbing over Wheely Down on familiar roads.
The raked winter light is beautiful, sunshine falling slanted, shadows stretching long across the land even at midday. There’s a diluted look to everything as if painted in watercolour. The saturation of summer is still a way off, a reminder that’s it’s still not quite spring despite the rolled up sleeves and unzipped jersey.
What is less pleasant is the amount of rubbish on the side of the roads. With hedgerows and verges not overgrown before spring growth it is so apparent how much junk gets thrown out of car windows. Drinks cans (and who the hell needs all these energy drinks simply to sit on their arse), Macdonald’s cartons (one downside of having an instantly recognisable logo is we can see how much of your needless packaging ends up not in a bin), plastic water bottles, crisp bags and fag packets. It’s a dismal state of affairs and absolutely fucking depressing.
Past Winchester, across A roads and a motorway, follow a river through softly curving hills, the undulations of Salisbury Plain dragging on the legs. Old Sarum Castle. A bright yellow butterfly floats by. In the Wylye Valley I realise it’s been a while since I’ve eaten and I’m not going to find any shops for a while. An emergency fruit juice and bag of crisps from a pub about to close. That gets me to a petrol station for a sarnie and a coffee so bad it’s poured down a drain. Lanes through Longleat Estate, which is part of Wiltshire Cycleway but feels like trespassing (and those lions are behind a fence somewhere aren’t they?) An industrial estate on the edge of Frome. Into the Cotswolds.
I’m glad those first forty kilometres were flat because the next forty are going to corkscrew in and out of tight valleys. The sun drops as the hills ramp up. Run out of water just as I spot a chippy down a sidestreet in Radstock. Water bottle filled I climb out of the town as the sky glows pink for a moment and then it’s twilight. Two or three more climbs, the final one, the steepest, done in the dark. I remember I’m not on the normal bike I use for this sort of ride, the gears don’t go as low as my knees would like. A bat flitters past my head. At the summit I see the outskirts of Bristol sparkle in the distance. With the end in sight and the hills finished speed increases.
The sodium glow of arterial roads and the neon lights of fast food joints. Roadworks around Temple Meeds confuse me so I give up, hop off the bike, follow “Pedestrians this way” signs until I find a cyclepath I think heads the right way. At ten to seven, 240 kilometres and twelve and half hours after leaving home, I pull up in Bristol city centre.
I did also ride back but was so tired I bailed after 165km and jumped on a train at Petersfield. With Normandicat and Transcontinental No.7 there is plenty of stupidity to come. I don’t need to be ruining myself this early in the year.
James Yorkston was as bloody brilliant as always and talked with humour and eloquence about songwriting and the art of making records. The Orielles were gloriously joyous. Looking forward to seeing both again in the spring (London and I’ll get the train).
Thanks El and Liam for the recovery ride on Sunday, cooking dinner, and letting me crash at theirs on Sunday night.