The Bath–Bristol Weekend (1)
[Many more photos on Flickr – if you don’t know where that is just click one of the photos below]
Angela, Anne, Fred, Joyce, Leon, Mick, and myself met up at the Real Italian Pizza Co in Bath for Friday dinner, having travelled by various means and various routes. Missing was Amanda, who had been scheduled to join us but had to cancel due to ill health. The next morning, after a rather noisy night (the fracas having apparently been caused by a drunken guest trying to get into someone else’s room), the five “hostellers” met the two “hotellers” at the station and, after a few adjustments to Angela’s bike, Joyce led us off along the river and onto the Bath–Bristol cycle path.
This path was one of the earliest dedicated cycle paths (pre-dating even Sustrans, who later took it on) and follows the route of the old London Midland railway linking Bath with Bristol and (via a junction at Mangotsfield) the north. It was also linked to the much-loved Somerset and Dorset railway (immortalised in the TV documentary “Return to Evercreech Junction”) which linked Bournemouth with such places as Blandford, Wincanton, Glastonbury and, of course, Bath (www.sdjr.net). In fact the rather tempting off-road path that some of us looked longingly at on the Sunday ride, until ordered by me to “carry on up the hill”, was part of it. The whole lot was closed by Beeching in 1966. Part of the line has reopened as the Avon Valley Railway, with the cycle path running alongside it, and at Bitton station there were coaches labelled “The Pines Express – Bournemouth to Manchester”.
Further on another train passed us and we were delighted to see that one of the coaches was called Angela (but sadly no Anne or Joyce). At Warmley station we were glad of a hot cuppa as the heavens opened and we found what shelter we could – some of us, thanks to the kindness of the staff, in the kitchen of the little station cafe. The rails have not yet been restored to Warmley but the platforms are intact, and metal statue people await the return of the train.
Most of the stations are still recognisable, and at Mangotsfield Sustrans have even planted trees in the positions of the original canopy columns. Later the path passed through a fairly long section of tunnel – the second tunnel on a Clarion ride in less than a week!
The history of the line, and of the places it passed through, is told on noticeboards along the route. There is also graffiti, but mainly of the “intelligent” sort – particularly on one bridge where I saw not only art, political and religious slogans, but also (a “first” for me) mathematical equations!
Other art works included a sort of “wayside shrine” made of old bits of car engines, with a quote from Ben Okri.
Eventually, with 19 miles on the clock, we arrived in Bristol at the official end (or start) of the path with its beautiful sculptured archway made of iron girders growing into branches and leaves.
Then disaster struck; Joyce got a puncture – a complicated one, with an old wheel alignment problem resurfacing. Leon went to help her and gave us instructions for a rendezvous, but by the time the puncture was fixed and the wheel correctly aligned, Joyce and Leon had decided to cycle back to Bath. Most of the rest of us had decided to go back by train, to give us more time to experience Bristol. We had lunch at the Arnolfini Gallery, where we found a copy of Fred’s book “How to Design Websites” in the bookshop!
After a brief look round the gallery, Mick cycled back to Bath – catching up with Leon and a newly “re-cycled” Joyce at the Warmley station cafe – while Fred and I took a ride on a steam train (where the ticket collector turned out to be the son of Clarion members from Bolton!). Then Fred was joined by Anne and Angela while I visited the SS Great Britain, Brunel’s great steamship. Then the four of us got the train back to Bath and, after much “cat-herding”, Joyce managed to corral us all into the Salathai restaurant for a lovely Thai meal.
Thanks, Joyce, for introducing us to this fascinating cycle route, and for a lovely weekend.
The Bath–Bristol Weekend (2)
Day 2: Sunday; along the Kennet & Avon Canal and back to Bath a rather hilly way!
We assembled at breakfast, after a much better night at the YHA when three of us actually managed to have an uninterrupted sleep, unlike the previous night when no one did. Leon and Jim were not quite so fortunate, with noisy Norwegians and sickly orientals disturbing the peace. Down to the station at a gentler pace than yesterday, when I had descended gingerly, while the leading four hurtled ahead on the steep descent. It was a chilly morning after a wet night and we were lucky to have a volunteer photographer from the public. An American couple looked curiously at our group and made us the offer we couldn’t refuse. He joked that he’d only charge £5 and Mick countered that we usually charged the paparazzi £10 for that privilege. A Clarion visiting card was given instead, so internationalism was reinforced.
Jim then led us down to the water, the bridges, the locks, ducks and ducklings of the Kennet and Avon Canal. As Joyce had warned us, Bath is a very hilly town and it needed six locks, including the UK’s second deepest one, the imaginatively named Deep Lock at 19.5ft, to lower the many barges down to the town. Dozens were lined up for the transit and we were all entranced with the process, the quacking, begging ducks, colourful barges and watery ways.
Jim had to chivvy us on along the sometimes puddley banks to reach his coffee stop. This was a barge with a tea garden on the bank and superb array of healthy but delicious cakes inside. Joyce and I both succumbed to the carrot cake, only after Jim had almost finished his coffee, but there was a bench and some sun, with constant cyclists and passing barges to watch. We did outpace the barges, but had to dismount a few times to pass under the bridges as we didn’t want to slip into the canal. It was so peaceful away from any motorised traffic, just the birdsong, ducks quacking and happy chatter or singing (maybe that was just me) from passing cyclists of all ages and a few runners and strollers.
Next stop was the Claverton Pumping Station, which a sign pronounced to be open for visitors and 500 metres down a lane. Fred said he’d guard the bikes while the rest of us trailed down, then quickly over the railway lines, to the pumping station built between 1810 and 1813. Mick describes it as a highlight of the trip, so I’ll let him do that bit*, as I bought some postcards from the dear volunteers and went to rejoin Fred, telling him of the others’ guided tour, then enjoying the passing ducks.
Back to the canal bank for another mile or so when we reached the Dundas Aqueduct, which carries the canal over the river Avon and the railway line.
Here we had to leave the canal banks and take the NCN24 path to Monkton Combe. The village seemed mostly to consist of the public school, motto ‘Learners today, Leaders tomorrow’, but fortunately there was a pub. What a pub it was too, garlanded with recommendations from Michelin, Alistair Sawday, the Independent etc. Not only that, but it was 1 pm and starting to rain. Initially rejected as they were completely booked up inside, we then decided that we would rather sit outside in the rain under the large umbrella than cycle on in the rain. Nearly everyone had tomato and beetroot soup with chunky bread and it arrived quickly, decorated with parmesan. There was sometimes sunshine and sometimes rain but the food was excellent.
Setting off again we started to climb slowly out of the village, but as we approached Jim’s noted memorial to William Smith – aka the father of English geology – rain returned. Angela spotted a dense fir tree which was dry underneath and so we two sheltered beneath it. Jim came back to find us and to point out the memorial to us, which the others had cycled swiftly by, due to the rain. There remained a few more hills to climb. Mick climbed them on his bike, most of the rest of us walked up, panting. On the very last Jim kindly came back down again to push Fred’s bike up the final stretch. The views then were spectacular, although so were they for the rest of the ride too. Zooming down into Bath was a chance to recover from the climbs, though somewhat twisting.
We regrouped at the end of Entry Hill and discussed dinner arrangements on the traffic island, until moving onto the pavement. Mick suggested we do a self-catering meal at the YHA and he, Joyce and Leon rode off to the supermarket to buy supplies and cart them back up the huge hill to the listed, Italianate mansion, standing in its small park of mature trees (complete with owls and blackbirds) that is Bath YHA. I went with Angela and Fred to visit the Roman Spa, which turned out to be a vibrant modern museum on the ancient site, well appointed with excellent audiophones, with Bill Bryson, Dr Alice Roberts, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen and others explaining the various artefacts and living roman characters for avid photographers or curious children to interrogate.
We completed our tour with some tea in the eighteenth-century Pump Room restaurant, as frequented by previous mentioned notables. A trio of musicians played for us on the stage and Fred had a hot Bath bun.
I had three home-made biscuits, as I was fretting about the huge climb back to the hostel, but I decided to risk going the off-road way that Jim had shown me the previous day, hoping that I did not end up on top of the wrong hill! At the longest set of steps, leading up to the canal path, I was lucky to have a young gentleman of Bath come down the steps and offer to carry my bike up the flight for me. This was the second offer one couldn’t refuse that day, and after that I so enjoyed the rest of the push up Bathwick Hill beside the National Trust fields and behind the expensive, listed houses and their gorgeous springtime gardens.
I arrived, pretty exhausted, in the spacious lounge where Mick, Leon and Joyce were recovering from their day and awaiting Jim’s arrival. He had been to visit the Herschel Museum of Astronomy, dedicated to William Herschel who discovered Uranus in 1781 and doubled the size of the known universe at the time. Jim arrived, soon followed by Angela, who had taken the bus up the hill, then finally Fred, and the cooks went to the kitchen and prepared us all a fine meal to eat in the beautiful wide window of the YHA self-catering dining room.
Very great thanks are due to Joyce who organised our super trip, and to Leon and Jim, who helped her organise and plan the rides. When the rains came down torrentially on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday etc., we realised how lucky we had been to have enjoyed such a delightful weekend.
*PS Mention should be made of the group, encountered at Warmley on the first day, even more ancient than ourselves, from the Veteran Cycling Club, some with veteran bikes. One of them was a former member of the Gosport Clarion. The pumping station was indeed fascinating even to the mechanically illiterate (is that possible?) such as me. We had an excellent volunteer guide and even two of our number, Leon and Jim, who seemed to understand what he was explaining. Even without the physics one could marvel at the beauty and the power of the design and the dedication of the volunteers who had restored the machinery.
(PPS my first ever Clarion report!)
[Many more photos on Flickr – if you don’t know where that is just click one of the photos above]