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I hadn't travelled
as far as I intended on Wednesday so I decided to stick mostly to
main roads on the Thursday. The road towards Purton was busy with
morning commuters as I pedalled along.
I turned off to go
through Purton the back way, through an industrial estate, over a
level crossing then up a steady hill on a narrow lane past hobby
farms of miniature goats, rare breeds and ponies. I came across a
horse all done up like it was ready to go jousting. It was busy
scratching its bottom on a fence post until it saw me and enquired if
I had any carrots.
I waited at the level crossing for a London bound HST to pass.
It was an easy
undulating ride along main roads to the next town, Wooton Bassett. Famous for its townsfolks all too frequent spontaneous tributes to
dead soldiers returning from Afghanistan, this town has a lovely old
wide main street, probably a former market place. I was tempted by
the town museum, located in the old Town Hall, but great magnets
were drawing me on towards the end of my line.
I did stop briefly
at the railway bridges for Wooton Bassett junction, to have a drink
and look at the junction where the direct route to South Wales via
the Severn tunnel diverges from Brunel's original London to Bath and
Bristol railway. One way traffic was being imposed on the road as
preparations were being made to rebuild the bridges ready to
electrify the railway. I took a picture of an HST from Wales, still
in front line service after 30+ years but soon to be replaced by
Japanese trains which actually go no faster.
Up to the 1980s
Britain led the world on high speed train technology, then government
indifference ( Margaret Thatcher was known to hate railways) and
slavish adherance to a free market ideology largely destroyed our
train building industry.
There was nowhere to
get away from the parade of growling lorries and impatient motorists
so, after quenching my growing thirst, I remounted and went in search
of the Wilts & Berks canal, which also ran this way. I found it
down a lane, deep in a wooded cutting at the back of someone.s
Lyneham was next on
my itinerary, mostly famous for it's RAF base, where the sad cargoes
from the Afghan war were landed. The airfield might have been
interesting if I could see any aircraft. It turns out that it is no longer an airfield, just a maze of grey buildings and high security fences. I plodded on
At a field used for weekend
car boot sales there was a huge sculpture of a motorbike made
entirely from scaffolding.
Calne seemed a nice
busy old town. My map showed a branch of the canal terminating near
the river bridge, so I went to have a look. The terminal basin has
been built on with modern flats called, unsurprisingly,
Wharf”. A new gate into a park on the canal route depicts a modern
steel pleasure narrow boat. Perhaps one day such craft will be able
to navigate to the town.
After Calne I had
decided to diverge slightly from the main road, partly to move nearer
to my line but largely because I wanted a break from the traffic. I
turned down a pleasant lane towards the farming settlement of Broads
Green, then on through the nicely unpretentious Heddington Wick and
on to a place where my only route was along an alleged public
footpath. There was no signpost but there was a very overgrown stile
to show where the path should go. I lifted my bike over the gate and
followed the field edge to an electric fence, near to which a herd of
big cows was gathered.
They were clearly
surprised to see me limbo under the wire then drag my bike after me,
forming a defensive circle to face me. To say that I was scared of
cows would be an exaggeration, but I am uneasy in a field full of
them. One nightmare that I still remember from childhood was of being
in a field full of cattle that were running about madly and kicking
their back legs in the air. Suddenly all went black and I woke up
very frightened. As I walked towards the herd it broke it's defensive
line and the cattle began to behave just like the ones in my dream
before once more forming a circle, this time all round me, shoulder
to shoulder. The herd was treating me as a predator. As I walked forward the ones ahead of me shrank back and
the ones behind advanced, so the circle moved across the field
until, as I approached the far gate they melted away and went back to
the serious business of grazing and filling their udders with milk.
Beyond the gate a
narrow strip of woodland ran off to the left. Beside the first trees
was a pen of young game birds, being raised to be released then shot
for expensive fun. To the right was a mayhem of felled and uprooted
trees, trunks and wrenched off limbs lying higgledy piggledy like
corpses on a battlefield. Ahead was Bromham House Farm, where I could
hear tractors manouevering. According to the map the footpath went to
the left of the farm buildings, but there was no way through there. I
had to pick my way between grey concrete buildings and slurry pits
before finding the driveway out on to the A342. The farm workers
either studiously ignored me or stared like I had just landed from
A turn at the
village of Rowde brought me on to a straight fairly level minor road
to my destination, Caen Hill Locks. They looked very neat with mown
lawns and recently painted balance beams. I had joined the locks at
the bottom of the spectacular straight line of locks that is so often
photographed. I stopped at the first of these to enjoy the last of my
rations, aiming to buy more food in Devizes.
Two steel boats were
working down the locks and I fell into conversation with the
lockwheeler. She was a woman in her fifties, stylishly dressed with a
red hat. She had a grumble about lack of maintenance because the full
lock had partly emptied and she had to let some water in so that we
could open the gates. I told her she should try the Ashton Canal. She
was not happy about the way that the Canal and Rivers Trust (CRT)
run the canals, particularly the office based culture that is
ignorant of the waterways and their people and will bully mercilessly
those who cannot move on because of illness or other unforseen
circumstances. There are some good people working for CRT but
unfortunately this is the kind of story I am hearing a lot of and
experiencing myself to some extent. There is a disconnect between the
lovely being nice to everyone and everything surface gloss and the
heartless reality on the ground.
We talked about
historic boats. It turned out that her son had just bought an 1890
iron butty. She took a leaflet and we went our ways. My way was
uphill on the neat towpath, the, leaving the canal, into the centre
It was market day
and the town was busy. I had promised myself a meal in a cafe when I
reached Devizes, so I locked my bike on the market place and ordered
baked sweet potato and vegetable chilli in a cafe' next to a
vegetable stall, I sat outside, watching the people and listening to
the, often unintelligible, calls of the stallholders.
One call that I did
understand was “Five creamy avocado pears for just one pound”. I
thought that wasa good deal so I purchased some. I explored the busy
town centre and did some more shopping so that I could cook myself a
meal. Feeling the need I followed the signs to the public toilets and
though it cost 20p I was amazed to find such clean and pleasant
facilities with an attendant. I took the opportunity to have a good
wash. Such facilities in towns around my area were closed years ago
because of spending cuts, but here there seems to be no austerity.
I’d even noticed that some villages have public libraries while
we’re struggling to hold on to our main libraries.
It was time to move
on. My new line to Banbury I would follow as far as Swindon. The first
part would involve gaining altitude by following the bridle paths up
Roundway hill. The first part was so straight and even in its slope
that I thought it must be an old inclined plane. I can find no record
of such though. The chalk quarries on the hill were presumably
disused well before the coming of the canal as they were used to bury
the dead from the battle of Roundway in 1643. A strong parliamentary
force was unfortunately routed by a smaller royalist army. The
parliamentary cavalry ran away, many of them perishing as, in their panic, they plunged headlong down an escarpment. The poor bloody infantry got left on the hill. They in turn tried to retreat but ended up being massacred.
The hill was steep
and I had to push my bike most of the way up, stopping on the seat
above the Millennium White Horse to enjoy the view and use the last
of my flask with its foul tasting water for cocoa. I ate the first of
the avacados. Camper vans were discreetly parked beside the wooded
old quarries. I set off along a white chalk road through arable
fields, travelling mostly down a gentle hill with the site of the
slaughter to my left. A combine harvester trailing dust rose
gradually above the hilltop like a ship breasting the horizon in a
dry sea of wheat.
After crossing a
main road my route lay along a bridle path through a golf course. I’m
wary of golfers. I know a place where golfers (who pay a lot of money
to be there you know) regularly attempt to intimidate walkers on the
public footpath across their course. I was pleased to see a clear
sign for the path, skirting the edge of the course. I followed it up
the hill and searched for a gate. The golfers were not hostile, but
not helpful either. I eventually found a stile, bridle paths should
have gates for horses to go through, and carried my possessions over
in several vourneys.
The field I had
entered was one of unkempt rough grass which I will not dignify with
the title of hay. The only way out seemed to be through a gate to my
right into a sheep field. From this I had to scale a steel gate into
a wheatfield atop Morgans Hill. I crossed this, keeping to the
tramlines left by tractors to avoid damaging the crop, then lifted my
bike over a fence and a gate in quick succession to find myself at
the ancient Wansdyke which follows the contours of the hills.
I consulted the map
to regain my bearings. To my left were two pylons, to my right Furze
Knoll, toped by trees and grazed by black beefy cattle. I should have
gone the other side of the pylons but it didnt matter, I was on a
footpath again and if I follwed ot I would hit the old Roman road
that I needed to traverse. All around me was history and prehistory
etched into the landscape.
The Roman road was
nicely surfaced in fine chalk.
I rode confidently along it for about
a mile, then turned off up another bridleway towards Cherhill Down,
topped by a great needle of a monument. A combine harvester was making the most
of of the dry weather to work late into the evening gathering the
I began to push my
laden cycle up the steep path on to Cherhill Down. This is a National
trust site and the grass is varied and speckled with wild flowers.
The monument was passed some distance to my left and I headed for
woodland where my map marks Tumulus in gothic script. A family were
out enjoying he hills, calling to a daughter who wanted to go a
Evening was drawing
on and I wanted to eat, but fires were to be “avoided” on this
land and there were lots of walkers and runners about who I thought
might grass me up. I found a nice spot between two mounds, which I
think were ancient burial mounds, parked my bike against a tree and
sat looking out at the amazing view. I soon went to get my coat as,
despite the sunshine, there was a constant cold North westerly wind. I
ate a couple more avacados as I was getting peckish, then the cold
wind forced me to take shelter behind a mound and did some typing.
When I got bored
with typing I climbed the fence into the wood and collected dry
sticks. In the middle of the wood was a concrete surface that could
have been the top of a water tank. I carefully laid out the things
that I would need to cook a meal. By about 7 PM the hill was devoid
of people, so I scrumpled up some paper, covered it with sticks and
set light to it. In order to do minimum environmental damage I
positioned the fire on a small area anready trodden bare by animals.
Soon I had a good
blaze going and I began cooking. When my meal was ready I braved the
wind to go and sit looking at the wonderful view. A whistling roar to
my right drew my attention and I watched in amazement as the RAF Red
Arrows aerial display team flew past in formation, barely higher than
my hilltop perch.
By the time I had
tidied up and put things away it was getting dark, so I laid my
tarpaulin in the gap between the mounds, rolled out my sleeping bag,
rolled up my coat as a pillow and wriggled my way into the warm soft
envelope of my sleeping bag.
I didn’t know it
was the night for the Perseids meteor shower. I woke in the middle
of the night and opened my eyes to a wonderful panorama of stars,
then one moved. As I watched, pinpricks of light would flash across
the fly, the heavens putting on a free firework display for me. I
watched for a while then dozed off again.