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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 garden.
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 towards Calne.
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,
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 another planet.
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 of Devizes.
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.