"Each step forward has a sacred meaning of its own" Sri Chinmoy
Longleat 115k - Somerset & Wiltshire - March 2021
My plan of stepping up the distances each week aiming for 140k by May and the full 180 (iron distance) by June meant I was looking for someting around 100k as the last weekend in March loomed on the horizon. I found a route of 105k called "Frome for Froome" on RWGPS and saw that it led through the grounds of Longleat - then again there were online news reports about the estate roads being closed and it wasn't clear how up to date they were. Regardless, I set off to do the distance not knowing if I would encounter some diversions and improvisations on the way. It was an opportunity to head out in a different direction - not the Cotswolds, Coast or Mendips for once!
The route started in Bedminster so my first thought was to roll down Gloucester Road and through the city centre, seeing as I haven't had any reason to head through Bristol itself for a while now. Living out on the periphery and working from home through Lockdown I do miss breathing the air of the city (full of particulates though it may be) and seeing how the mood and consciousness of the place are shaping up. If the soul of Bristol is to be found anywhere, it's not out in the suburbs but definitely somewhere down there in the city's heart, by the docks, the fountains, the cathedral, the streets of the old town. The night before had seen more rioting against Priti Patel's attempt to make trespass more criminal and protest more constrained - something the radical elements of Bristol are not going to take lying down. I was expecting to see the centre taped off as a crime scene but when I came out of Castle Park and headed down Baldwin Street I could see it was all business as usual. I rolled into the centre and took the paved cycleway that winds around the fountains and the steps down to the docks, with hardly another soul in sight.
Once over the Princes Street Bridge and into Bedminster I found the red line on my phone quite hard to follow. It was pretty circuitous and seemed to divert in some strange places in Whitchurch - later I realised it must have been a couple of friends meeting up for a ride, with the route swinging by someone's house to pick them up. As usuall I was riding solo - just me and my bike under a blue sky with the cold night air slowly warming into a pleasant Spring day.
It felt good to be heading out of the city on new and different roads - the cycle route took me due south at first and then began to wind its way parallel to the A37, passing Publow and Woollard - beautiful villages - with no traffic to speak of and enough climbs to tire me out early on in the ride. As I finished one long and gruelling uphill drag I emerged out of thick woodland on to a lane along a ridge - I could see for miles in all directions over the rolling landscape south of Bristol and west of Bath - the horizons were clear and there were smooth, green hills scuplted from the limestone, making the landscape sublime. I stood on the pedals and rolled on a gentle downgrade just breathing in the chilly air and feeling grateful to be alive, to be fit to ride, to be out there on such a delicious day.
I lost the line on the map every so often - Bike GPX is a great free app but on my screen, in bright sunshine, that skinny red route line is hard to follow at times. That meant I missed the Roman Road on the edge of Radstock and descended on a busy A road instead, but I didn't lose any time. Once I had fathomed the route around the town centre I rode into a housing estate which proved to be the access point for a narrow cycleway that ran down the back of the houses. It didn't look promising at first but soon it widened out and became the Colliers' Way, a gem of a sustrans path that climbed from the deep valley of a silver stream through dense woods and out into the open countryside between Radstock and Frome. It was a long, straight and easy ride, popular with runners and the occasional cyclist, so I ate up quite a few miles with minimal effort before it spilled me out in the middle of nowhere on skinny lanes caked with muck which I had to negotiate slowly. There were steep descents and potholed climbs as the lanes traversed a number of tiny valleys - I paused in one to take a picture on the brige then pushed on to Frome. By this point I realised it was going to take me 6 hours to nail this 110-120k so I texted Kokila to let her know I was going to be a while.
Frome is the kind of place you would usually stop for a major cafe experience but in lockdown the takeaway options looked pretty sparse and I was, officially, aiming to practice continuous riding and regular feeding without stops. I munched a bar every hour and looked forward to a day later in the summer when I could lean the bike against a cafe garden wall and have a leisurely flat white.
After Frome came another succession of hills and drags - nothing you would call a climb as such, but nothing flat either - and then I found myself on the edge of Longleat wondering if the road was open or closed. The signs all seemed ambiguous - they said it was closed on the main panel but had cycle signs in the corners that implied bikes could go through. One sign was clearly capable of being rotated so it could be either open or closed but it was cunningly positioned at 45 degrees so it was a 50/50 call if I could go in or not. I just kept riding until I came to a rising barrier with an intercom - I could have just squeezed past it as there was a foot of tarmac either side of the riser, but I hit the button and asked if I could come in on a bike. No point riding miles only to get nicked for some covid infringement or be turned back by someone officious in a landrover, I thought. The polite guy on the intercom said I was welcome to ride through so long as I stuck to the road and didn't stop, so it was worth asking after all. He even droppped the riser for me so I could roll over the cattle grid (or is it a buffalo grid?) and enter the park.
I saw two other riders at the front of Longleat House grabbing a selfie by the huge lion statue, but otherwise the grounds were deserted. I wondered if I would see any of the animals - but of course the main enclosure is not accessible by bike (well hidden behind a high lion-proof fence) and anyway, offering myself as a snack for the lions would not have been smart. I looked over at the lake as I passed but there was no sign of the hippos in the water or gorillas who live on the island. I climbed slowly up the lane towards the exit and just as I was leaving I did get a sighting of some wildlife - a field full of grazing zebra - and as a bonus, a ring-tailed lemur looking out at me through a wire-mesh covered window. Having agreed not to stop, I didn't pause for photos.
Coming out of Longleat the route hit the Wiltshire Cycleway and there was a succession of idyllic villages strung out along the hilly lanes. My legs were holding up well - feeling emptied out on every ascent then recovering just in time for the next one. Around Norton and Hinton I recognised stretches I had ridden on my way to Germany back in 2018. Finally I came into Midford and picked up the Two Tunnels Greenway, which at least meant no more serious climbing and hopefully no more losing the route.
The path was filled with riders, runners and walkers so I weaved between them as they soaked up the sun - I got the impression everyone else was taking it easy, and by that point I was feeling pretty drained. I came to the Combe Down Tunnel and had a shock as I rode in as I could hardly see a thing - my lights were on, so had they run out of charge? Within half a minute things had improved and I realised it was my reactions lenses - without having seen much sunlight for a while they were very slow to adjust from light to darkness. Even when they cleared and I adjusted my lights to give a decent pool of visibility up ahead, it was still a strange experience in the tunnel - almost trance-like. figures approached and zipped past on the narrow roadway - runners with headlights, cyclists, e-bikers - walkers and stealth cyclists with no lights at all. The tunnel seemed to on forever like a strange, twilit dream. There was something oddly compelling about riding through that darkness in the middle of a sunny day. I was left with the impression I had witnessed one of the wonders of the sustrans world.
After that long, dark tunnel came a brief interval of daylight then the second, much shorter, tunnel then a weave through parties of walkers relaxing in Linear Park. Once on the familiar Bristol and Bath section I was overtaken by two road bikers doing steady 29kph so I hung on behind them and tried to match the pace. I managed it for a few minutes, lost them when I slowed to eat the last bar of the day then caught them again at Bitton. I couldn't face the monotony of the Ring Road so I diverted through Staple Hill, welcoming the brief rest that came with each stop at the lights, then rolled down the hill to Frenchay's old, stone bridge and tackled the last real climb of the day out of the Frome Valley. When I finally finished my time was 5.55 and I'd managed a good, testing session without any rest stops and with plenty of practice fuelling in the saddle. It had been a dream of a ride too.
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