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Cheddar Gorge: Big Ride

James Spender
2 Jun 2016

Surrounded by druids and guarded by rangers, Somerset's Cheddar Gorge shows it got a lot more to offer than cider and cheese.

Our ride starts in Wells, which, depending on who you speak to, is either a town or the smallest city in England. Wells has a cathedral, St Andrew’s, and so for some people it fulfils the criteria for city status, yet it has a population of just 11,343. 

We’re sitting in a courtyard overlooking Wells Cathedral and I feel the need to debate the definition of a city. My riding partner for the day, James (better known as Shell), demonstrates his interest in the subject by staring off into the distance.

The 1.12 square-mile City of London boasts a cathedral of its own, St Paul’s, and with just 7,375 residents it could give Wells a run for its money in the smallest city stakes, although that might depend on whether you feel it can be separated from the vast metropolis of Greater London that surrounds it. I look to Shell for his input on the topic, but he seems to have become preoccupied by a mark on his shoe. I take this as a sign that he is keen to learn more about our current locale.

‘The cathedral,’ I tell him, ‘apart from being nothing short of stunning in its gothic clothes and rolling lawns, is home to one of the oldest mechanical clocks in the world. In fact, just like Wells’ claim to being the smallest city in England, it may well be the oldest clock in the world, were it not for objections from the parish of Salisbury, who reckon their 1386 timepiece…’ 

Before I can continue, Shell cuts me short. ‘Are we going on this ride or not?’ he asks irritably. 

‘But I haven’t got to the bit about Vicar’s Close, the oldest medieval street in Europe, which is just down there,’ I say. ‘Or Operation Mincemeat...’ 

As a Navy man, Shell’s interest is momentarily piqued at the mention of British espionage, and I’m granted a brief reprieve.

‘Well, in 1942 the Allies were poised to launch an attack in the Mediterranean that could spark the beginning of the end for the Germans. However, the necessary pathway through Sicily was an all-too obvious choice, so the Allies knew the Germans would be ready. They needed a decoy. Cue MI5 agent Charles Cholmondeley’s audacious plan to trick the Germans into intercepting the dead body of an Allied soldier on which would be planted top secret war plans.

‘After months of work, the scene was set. An unfortunate Welsh lad had been plucked from the grave, dressed as an army major and had his briefcase stuffed with bogus information pertaining to proposed attacks through Sardinia, Libya and Egypt, but, crucially, not Sicily. “Major William Martin” was then thrown overboard from a submarine several miles off the coast of Spain, whereupon he drifted onto the beach in Huelva to be picked up by a fisherman. The fisherman diligently took the body to the Germans, they read the papers and fell for it hook, line and sinker. And the rest is history,’ I finish triumphantly.

‘What’s that got to do with Wells?’ asks Shell.

‘Charles Cholmondeley retired here, see,’ I say. ‘Little did anyone at the time know that the tall bloke with the moustache wandering around town pretty much saved them from the Nazis. They just knew him as a lawnmower salesman. Imagine that!’

‘Can we go now?’ Shell says.

There’s something about Blighty

Full of eggs from this morning’s breakfast, and laden down with a few snatched patisseries from the hotel buffet, we set off through Wells’ narrow cobbled streets to the nine o’clock chimes of the cathedral clock (did I mention the clock is now electronically wound after its last custodian retired in 2010?). Like all good rural counties, it doesn’t take more than a few minutes for the early morning bustle of the town (city?) centre to segue into neat rows of cottages and quiet country roads. 

Our first hill of the day is up the Old Bristol Road, which featured in stage 6 of the 2011 Tour of Britain. That day a resurgent Lars Boom of Dutch team Rabobank (article first published in May 2014) took the win into Wells, leaving British Sky rider Geraint Thomas’s GC hopes dashed as he finished 1m 24s down after a crash (Boom would later go on to win the gold jersey). Today we’re tackling this first category climb from the other side, and I quickly realise how Boom et al managed to clock over 100kmh as they plunged down from the opposite direction into Wells. Although this side averages at around 6%, it manages to kick up to 16% in places, and our legs begin to complain about the effort so early in the ride. But soon we manage to find some semblance of rhythm, albeit a slow one, and it’s not long before my heart rate steadies and can take in the view. 

Having been lucky enough to ride in various scenic corners of the globe for Cyclist I’ve been treated to some quite distinguished panoramas, but no matter where I’ve been, there’s an unmatched quality to Britain’s green and pleasant countryside. Dry stone walls encircle forests of ash, while the occasional rabbit skips in and out of the hedgerows. When the sun is shining and there’s nothing to do but ride, there’s no place like home.

The Old Bristol Road goes onwards into the Mendip Hills, but we’re eager to get to Cheddar Gorge, so as the tarmac plateaus we turn off onto the B road that snakes its way through the gorge towards Weston-super-Mare. 

Into the abyss

Even before we get there it’s clear what’s coming. Signs indicating bends in the road, decreeing slow speed and warning against falling rocks dot the verge as the scenery makes an abrupt change from Watership Down to Lord Of The Rings country.

The gorge itself was created over the course of 1.2 million years, thanks to a series of periglacial periods (as you may have noticed, I'm in full fascinating fact mode during this ride). Although an extensive network of caves sits deep below the earth, the extreme cold meant that they became blocked with frozen debris and ice. Thus, when the brief summers came, the surface ice would melt but, having nowhere to drain to, it would form a river on top of the hillside that eventually carved deep into the limestone. The warmer interglacial periods that followed cleared out the caves, allowing the river to drain away to reveal the deep, rugged scar that exists today.

Although it’s early on a Tuesday morning the road is getting steadily busier; a reminder of not just how many tourists Cheddar Gorge attracts, but also of just what one should expect when riding in such places: there’s only one road in and one road out.

Aside from the cars, a sightseeing bus service ferries would-be explorers and tea drinkers up and down the Gorge’s main 3km stretch to the caves and the cafes in its trough. It’s not long before a double-decker has indignantly tooted us. But coming from the rough and tumble of the city commute we think nothing of it, and continue on our merry way to the bottom of the gorge through the twists and curves, beneath the towering rock walls.

Knowing that the Tour of Britain rode through Cheddar Gorge in the opposite direction we feel it would be churlish to not give the other side of the gorge a bash, so as the road reaches its lowest point we turn tail to tackle the first category climb towards the gorge’s eastern entrance. Things are going well – the sheer, shrub-pocked limestone cliffs ebb away as we put vertical metre after vertical metre into it, but before we can get too complacent, we round a tight hairpin two-abreast only to encounter the same bus again. 

We receive our second grumble of the day from the bus driver who glares at us from his glass capsule. We smile back and pull over in a lay-by to refuel, only for our contemplative gel-sucking to be rudely interrupted by a patrolling ranger. Unlike Tolkein’s Rangers, this one travels in a Land Rover and has been charged with guarding the Gorge. 

We’re not sure whether his arrival is the result of some sixth sense honed over years to detect potential trouble on his patch, or whether he’s been summoned by the bus driver on his crackling CB radio, but he seems none too impressed with us. 

The ranger strides over to us. ‘Nice bikes,’ he says, reaching out a large hand to pick one up. ‘Hmm, it’s light,’ he says with a worrying smile. ‘Shame if anything were to happen to it.’

We hurriedly attempt to explain that we are conducting a photo shoot and that we are really sorry if we have caused any inconvenience, and it really is a lovely gorge and, gosh look at the time, we must be leaving..

Redefining the world

Just like the quintessential Somerset countryside, Weston-super-Mare still manages to retain a quaint seaside air. At one point the home of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, whose Bristol and Exeter Railway saw the town’s popularity soar, Weston-super-Mare boasts not one but two piers. In true post-Victorian seaside fashion, one of them, Birnbeck Pier, is now closed and the other, the Grand Pier, suffered the fate that seems to befall all seafront prostheses eventually: fire. Since then the Grand Pier has been rebuilt, and as we drag our way through the crosswinds whipping off the sea, it stands as a shining example of our dogged Britishness. You can sink into the proverbial swamp as many times as you want, but we'll never give up on you, piers. Unless your surname is Morgan.

Swinging back inland the road is flat and the ensuing kilometres easy, but no sooner do we start to relax into our rhythm than the road ramps. Decent tarmac is replaced by mud-strewn country lanes, which take us on a winding route past Blagdon Lake and towards one of the most endearingly named places in the whole country.

You might not be able to rely on the weather during a ride in the British countryside, but one thing you can be sure of is that at some point you will arrive in a village with a brilliantly ridiculous name. Whether it be Piddletrenthide in Dorset, Wetwang in Yorkshire, Wormelow Tump in Herefordshire or just plain old Cockfosters, the names we give our places are second to none, and coming to a crossroads, deep in the Mendips, we’re treated to the king of them all: Nempnett Thrubwell. 

With a name that sounds like a character from Dickens or an embarrassing medical condition (‘This, madam, is the worst case of Nempnett Thrubwell I’ve seen in years’), Nempnett Thrubwell is a small village that has punched well above its weight in popular culture, taking centre stage in The Wurzels’ song Down In Nempnett Thrubwell and making an appearance in Douglas Adams and John Lloyd’s book of alternative place definitions, The Meaning Of Liff, in which Nempnett Thrubwell is described as ‘the feeling experienced when driving off for the first time on a brand new motorbike’. (Incidentally, Wormelow Tump is defined as ‘any 17-year-old who doesn’t know anything about anything at all in the world except for bicycle gears’.) 

Distracted with such chat we make a wrong turn, only for the eccentricities to continue when we stumble across the delightfully titled Awkward Hill. As the name implies, we’re soon left wishing we’d paid less attention to funny place names and more attention to our maps.

Back at the ranch

The final leg of our journey takes us back down into Wells via a spiky 15km road that has the photographer, Juan, pulling his hair out at the fact that it’s impossible to see anything over the endless hedgerows. The final drag back into town/city is a flat-to-downhill hill stretch that provides a welcome last boost to our weary legs, and as we roll slowly through the streets, we eventually find ourselves back in the same spot we departed from this morning. 

The sun is going down over Wells Cathedral, and Shell seems too tired to object to my stories.

‘So,’ I begin, ‘Wells and the whole World War decoy thing doesn’t stop with Cholmondeley. Back at the height of the Luftwaffe raids they built a whole decoy town up at Black Down in the Mendips. It was built by a local film studio and they positioned ignited hay bales everywhere to trick the Germans, and...’

But Shell has wandered off back to the hotel.

Do it yourself

Getting there

The easiest way to get to Wells is by car, which is about a three-hour drive from London or a two-hour drive from Birmingham. Unfortunately there are no direct trains to Wells, however Castle Cary train station is only 15 miles away (but check timetables first as trains are infrequent). Or, get the train to Weston-super-Mare and start the route a third of the way round.

Accommodation

There are plenty of B&Bs and hotels in Wells. We stayed right by the cathedral at the very comfortable Best Western Plus Swan Hotel, with prices from £120 for a twin room and excellent breakfast (swanhotelwells.co.uk). Holidays By Cycle will take the faff and the guesswork out of finding bike-friendly accommodation in the area, as well as bike hire, local guides and routes. It has a large database of free bicycling info for both the UK and Europe on its website, which can be collated and tailored to your desires in a few mouse clicks (holidaysbycycle.com).

Thanks

As always, none of this would have happened without the help of some very generous and understanding people.
Tom Edwards of Holidays By Cycle put up with our incessant stop-starts and redirections as he drove, navigated and joked his way around our route, while Natalie Mingho-West kindly helped us out with accommodation at the Swan Hotel in Wells.

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