THE PILGRIMAGE - PART 2

Part two of the Pilgrimage following the Pilgrim's Way from the East coast to the West coast of the UK...

Having ridden for 17 hours and 250 miles in just one day to make Stonehenge, our intrepid pilgrims still have a long ride ahead to reach the abbey at Strata Florida… And then the Welsh coast beyond. Will they make it?

Whenever I’m tired I fall into a deep sleep and begin to dream… In this one I was standing next to the remarkable Victoria Falls in sunny Zimbabwe. The spray from the falls as it thundered over its precipitous drop was gently wetting my face - cooling it down from the unforgiving sun. As it ran down my cheeks and settled on my lips, I licked my lips involuntarily. ‘What the….’ My lips were actually wet!

Oh to wake up to the sound of rain falling on your tent. Oh to wake up at 5am to find your tent is leaking and rain is dripping on your head! Hmm, you’d think exhaustion and deep sleep would go together, but it appears not. I didn’t even feel a sense of detachment or bewilderment. I knew exactly where I was: on a soggy campsite next to Stonehenge, one long and wearying day into a four-day adventure to the Welsh coast, taking a route that was using as many byways as possible.

I’d had all of four hours sleep after a mammoth 19-hour day in the saddle. And it had not even been comfortable sleep - my camping mat was fine but I’d forgotten to pack any kind of pillow and clearly a wet adventure jacket just doesn’t quite substitute. You feel your age at times like this, they sit heavy on you. Happily I had no mirror, no reflective surfaces, to confirm just how haggard I looked. But I could guess.

Age seems to demand you can’t just lie there of a morning, either. No, nowadays I must answer the call of nature. Fellow pilgrim John Vanuffell - TRF good-guy - is clearly younger than I and he was evidently still cosy within the warm embrace of slumber, or doing some unexpected woodwork project, such were the sawing sounds coming from his tepee. For my part I was engaging in that wonderful wrestle into full wet gear within the confines of a one-man ridge tent. Deep joy!

Actually, I was all for staying in my kit for the rest of the journey, then jumping in the sea when I got to Wales before attempting to chisel it off me. But JV full of sage advice had this to say: ‘try to start each day as clean as you can, you’ll feel better for it’. And he was right.  

A decent shower and sock drying session with the electric hand driers had a remarkably rejuvenating effect. The rain abated at that point too, so I was not only able to pack the tent in moderate comfort but also attend to the Honda CRF250L’s chain, which after a fair bit of mud riding the previous day had tightened up considerably. A half turn off each adjuster and it was good to go again. And because of that feel-good-effect you get from bike maintenance - like you’ve done your bit - I had a spring in my step.

JV took the feel-good-factor up another notch by offering a hot, milky - and sugary - coffee in his folding cup. I’d gone to sleep noting his Bear Grylls attitude to camping and this morning there was plenty to investigate as he revealed all manner of camping utensils, all of which appeared to fold needlessly in half. As if accommodating a small teaspoon might be impossible unless it could be bent 180-degrees. Talking of folding stuff, the campsite took a fair clip of notes off us for the night’s stay but given the after-midnight disturbance, the excellent shower and kitchen facilities, we weren’t really complaining.

Chalk Dust!

True to form JV had us back on green lanes within half a mile. There was a mizzle of rain in the air but it was warm enough. I was awake enough too, after an early skid-scare on wet chalk. I’d not recognised it under a sprinkle of pine needles, but the feeling of the front sliding out was familiar. Yep, you need to stay alert on the trail.

We passed by Stonehenge and it struck me how terribly sad it is that English Heritage has reduced this incredible 4000-year-old monument into a tacky tourist trap. What with the ridiculous ‘land train’ and the turnstiles, the souvenir shop and of course the marshaled hordes, any sense of spirituality is dashed to rank commercialism as much as to the wind. If this is their sense of preservation I think we’d be better off leaving the stones to the druids and hippies. I’m sure they’d do a far more appropriate job of stewardship.

Of course it’s the nature of these isles that you can in one minute be considering prehistoric forebears and then minutes later be brought right back to the here-and-now, and entering the adjoining Army ranges that was the case. With red flags flying the message was that the army was on the move. The weather was on the move too, and given the far-ranging views across the Salisbury Plain we could see heavy rains coming, at quite a pace. We then found a couple of tanks, from the Royal Engineers by the looks of the kit attached, and assuming they were abandoned I was in full-tourist mode photographing bike-tank juxtaposes before a hatch popped to reveal full crews in both. Ahem. Sorry lads!

The rain had swept in by now and despite full-wet gear we retreated to a burger van. Yes, it seemed a bit odd, to be in the middle of nowhere, in the emptiness of the ranges and with only dirt roads in all directions, but there it was, this wee van doing good business selling breakfasts to the army boys. You kind of wondered whether the van went on ops with them too, flipping patties on the roadside in Helmand Province?

Crossing the ranges was a matter of obeying some ‘Keep Out’ signs and then ignoring others. I’m not sure I understood the rationale, but I didn’t notice any live rounds whistling past my ears so JV must have known what he was doing. There were still go-arounds brought on by the military activities and eventually that forced us onto a road-based detour that took too long, and was made longer by British Rail closing half the roads in Hampshire.

Fab Fosse

Eventually we hooked onto the historic Fosse Way. Another route that is centuries old (it dates back to at least Roman times - probably earlier) but seemingly well cared for today, with sections almost manicured it’s that well maintained. It was a pleasant track, despite the driving rain, for it seemed to point west in the most direct no-nonsense manner and you got that feeling of once again making progress. Nice one Centurion!

There was a decent river crossing along its path, deep enough to warrant requesting JV make repeated passes for the camera. Laying my camera bag in the hedge I noticed a lot of litter; I looked up and down and saw more. Clearly the river-crossing is a spot for some entertainment, but I’m always depressed by the mindlessness of those who’ll desecrate the countryside. The propensity of the British to litter and fly-tip any lane of tranquility always saddens and annoys me. Especially when we motorcyclists are challenged over our right to pass, for fear of damage, yet the litterers and fly-tippers do far more to spoil the countryside than a pair of wheels.

All the same, the Fosse Way was a delightful ride, in many places something of an avenue of trees, with fine views across vast fields and given the trail’s excellent grading meant you could take lingering looks at the countryside, only slightly wishing it wasn’t cast, by the incessant rain, into such dark hues of grey and brown.

Of course change has to come and as we pressed on westwards the lanes took on a new nature. I think submerged is the word. The rain kept falling but the water table was clearly rising. Mostly it was about four-inches above ground level, but here and there, where vehicle passage had worn deep hollows, it got deeper still. We got into overgrown trails too, still submerged, bringing down the speed and needing the odd duck under the lower branches. And again we found the way blocked by fallen trees. Not small trees, but huge ones, like oaks. Getting around these required sizable clay banks to be scaled and descended - good fun in a Boy Scout kind of way.

The terrain changed again and started to rise and fall - we’d arrived in the Cotswolds. Rocks started appearing above the surface of the lanes making the ride that little bit more technical. Nothing we couldn’t manage, but requiring a lot more concentration, especially given that everything was wet and slippery. The rain had been falling for hours by now and so our riding kit was starting to suffer. Gloves were saturated, goggles struggled to resist misting but worse, the waters had got into my boots. The left boot seriously and I could feel the water running back and forth. My open-face helmet meant stinging rain pelted my face when the speed picked up, but I suspect it also meant less misting of the goggles, so a fair compromise.

The last green lane of the day was called ‘Greenway’ at Shurdington which was an excellent technical rocky descent… fairly long too. You need the odd challenge on a ride like this and nearing the end of a long wet ride it was certainly a bit of fun.

When we reached our campsite for the night - now completely saturated - we gave in and asked for suggestions of B&B accommodation, but there were none at the pub, the next was a fair way away. Maybe we could stay in a caravan? None available.

We were left with the option of camping in torrential rain, in a soaking field, with risk of flood, or a seven-mile ride to the nearest Travelodge. Maybe it says something about the attractiveness (or otherwise) of Britain’s best-loved motel chain that we chose to camp in the field. Or rather JV did. I spotted the campsite kitchen, which while open on three sides did at least have a roof and a dry floor. It wasn’t exactly spacious but somehow I got my tent and the Honda in there - not that the campsite manager was too impressed. ‘Your friend is going to have to move’, he told JV. I moved - about an inch.

Bring Me Sunshine

The campsite manager was kind-of-heart nonetheless and made sure the radiators were hot in the toilet block for what turned into an epic drying session. JV was making Bear Grylls look like an amateur such was his set-up out in the camping field, while for my professional-standards of kit drying I’d have made the front cover of Good Housekeeping.

After a decent night’s kip (aided by a fairly hefty supper and a few sherbets at the campsite pub) the morning dawned bright and warm and I was able to convert my kitchen-come-tent-pitch into a proper drying room, and with strong sun I was back into a world of full dryness and warmth in barely half an hour. JV sauntered over with his folding kitchen range and rustled up tinned hotdogs(!) and more folding-cup coffee.

The little Honda even looked like it had been given a decent wash and brush-up such had been the previous day’s rain. With me being a bit vague on these things, JV gave an update on our whereabouts. We were on the edge of Cheltenham apparently. It felt like the middle of nowhere.

The day started agreeably on dry back roads - and with a little life-saving by JV. We’d been rolling into the Wye Valley when he rode into a scene straight from Nature Watch. From 50m back all I could see was JV laying on the brakes then apparently sprouting huge brown feathery wings. And I saw that it was in fact a bird of prey obviously lifting off from the road as JV skidded underneath him. The bird dropped what it was carrying (a small bunny) in order to gain altitude rapidly. It cost the bird its breakfast but the bunny scampered off into the hedgerow.

We were now entering Wales and our virtual guide swapped from being the TRF’s Richard Simpson to Christian James (who had prepared our digital routemap for us). And while Richard’s trails had been well-worn and well maintained, almost orderly, there was a sense of devil in Christian’s (the irony of his name was not lost on me). To begin with the lanes were sunken, barely handlebar width and seriously overgrown. Where they didn’t match that description they were seriously muddy and rocky. And if that wasn’t enough then delightfully steep and rocky too. And here, JV was riding as blind as I was - these were new to him, too.

Which would account for his most spectacular get-off on one severe climb in some woods. The mighty 690 had been spitting rocks all the way up (I’d wisely held back) and finally on one gnarly rock step had kicked fully sideways and sent JV sprawling. This, of course, is all part of the adventure. Albeit, it feels slightly less manly when a mother and child walk casually past while two grown men are trying to restore what now felt to be a seriously too-heavy and too-tall motorcycle back onto its wheels. I was able to give the CRF250L full credit for dispatching the same climb with barely so much as a slip of the clutch. Smaller, lower, and less powerful, it actually rides technical climbs like this so much easier than a full-on bike like JV’s 690. 

This was in fact to be a day of tests for JV with both navigation and the terrain becoming increasingly technical. His patience would be tested too as his riding companion (me), was morphing into something of an annoying brat; stopping over and over to snap away at yet more landscapes. But in my defense, Wales was putting on one hell of a display. It would’ve been rude not to...

We were heading for Brecon and somewhere along the way we found open hillside. We also found what seemed rather a lot like the modern Wild West. Trails were blocked by concrete barriers with dire police warnings of confiscations and criminal records. Unnerving to begin with, but as we came across kids riding small motocrossers, and guys powering jetskis over reservoirs (both of which we were pretty sure were illegal), we got to understand the signs weren’t really aimed at us.

For their part the locals were friendly, helpful and dismissive of the legal threats. This was clearly their country, had been for centuries and they lived by their rules, not those foisted upon them by faceless cheerless bureaucrats. And given that those authority figures had (a century before) seen fit to rip through these hills with utter abandon, tearing down whole landscapes in the search for precious minerals, then really what are a few tyre tracks on what remains? Though if you’re local and drink the water from the nearby reservoir, now you know why it has a slight whiff of petrol about it…

Christian had certainly sorted some fantastic trails for us to use. Not all of which were easy to follow (on open hillside it can be damned hard to determine what is a sheep track and what is a byway), but the views were impressive.

Time slipped by and at 7pm we were still riding byways when we should have been making camp. And we were due to be meeting Christian himself at the evening camp, so we had an appointment to keep. But I have to say I was impressed by JV’s dedication to the route. I’d started picking up signs for Brecon via the A40 and it would have been easy to divert for the final few miles to the campsite, but like a true pilgrim JV accepted the burden and rode the route of the virtuous.

The campsite that night was fantastic. Set in a small, wooded and steep-sided valley and with a river cutting along one boundary we camped on the bank and even had a log fire going in a brazier. It was damp, though, and it needed some of JV’s 90% proof rum to get the flames licking.

Christian’s Honda XR650 had announced his arrival a few minutes ahead of his appearance. Christian was both very Welsh and very likable. His XR boasted a Dakar-spec tank with Baja-spec twin headlights plus acres of Dyfed-spec duct tape; while Christian himself rode resplendent in Barry-spec denim jeans and faded car boot riding jacket. And while JV’s 690 sported serious Giant Loop bags and my CRF some natty Kriega Overlanders, Christian again outshone us with his no-brand sports bag bungy-ed to the pillion.

Christian must have mis-read our request for last-day routing as he immediately outlined a planned five-day adventure right through Wales. It sounded fantastic, but of course we were only intending to ride one more day in our final push for the Irish Sea (or the Welsh Sea, as Christian corrected us). So we’ll have to come back another time for Christian’s Grand Tour.

Abbey Road

The next morning started with a leisurely full-Welsh cooked breakfast and then a small tour of (impoverished) Welsh farmyards, before Christian found his stride (or rather his bearings) and we rode yet more live Army ranges (I figured they wouldn’t shoot where the sheep were grazing, at least) before hitting some cracking forest trails. With Christian’s XR being kick-start only - and not quite the one-kick machine Christian suggested - my photo-stops took on an extra dimension.

It was great to see JV getting to enjoy the ride too. For three days he’d been pathfinder and I could only imagine just what this meant in terms of mental stress. But now, like me, he was able to adopt the mantle of a regular carefree swivel-head, taking in the full majesty of the Welsh countryside. And it was majestic.

It was fascinating to eventually fall upon the rocky trail to Strata Florida. The river crossings weren’t too bad - the levels there rise and fall quickly after rains - instead it was the deep muddy puddles along the trail, which don’t drain away, that really tested the waterproofing on the bikes. It felt touch and go at times, but we crossed all without undue excitement or delay.

And then just a few hundred yards from finishing the section I picked up a puncture. It was the rear wheel, and caused by an empty rifle shell... It was a beast to extract, but JV did a sterling job on patching the tube and - having at last relinquished the camera - I got to refit the rear wheel in easy style too. Christian clearly had a few preconceptions on the trail-worthiness of us English, based purely on our living within such close proximity to London.

So we made the Abbey and like all true pilgrims, we were welcomed with open arms? Er… nope. We were turned away. This is Britain in the 21st century and without prior written authorisation (in triplicate no doubt) we weren’t able to push our bikes under the one remaining arch of the abbey for a final photo call. Nonetheless, Julie - not a nun, but the on-site Welsh Assembly representative - was tickled by our tale of pilgrimage, and while discussing the history of uprisings, murders and assassinations (historic, not recent) I got the distinct feeling we’d arrived… we’d completed our mission, our pilgrimage.

And our reward was the Holy Grail of green-laning in the beautiful British Isles. We’d seen parts of England and Wales in a manner that is utterly unique, and (to me) so very new and fresh. We do, indeed, live in a spectacularly attractive country and we do still enjoy fantastic privileges in terms of (relative) wealth, leisure and access to our countryside.

And what followed - reward for our pilgrimage, perhaps - certainly had all the hallmarks of entry to the Kingdom of Heaven. For we rode from the Abbey into the stunning Elan Valley. Here we rode a trail that travelled for miles, hours, uninterrupted, and after riding over mountain tops, we rode alongside a stunning marine-blue lake that was actually a reservoir, and then followed stream crossing after stream crossing. We agreed the setting had been so fabulous, the ride so perfect that we couldn’t help but enjoy a true sense of elation.

Of course, as some of the more worldly among you might have recognised, we’d had to ride eastwards to enjoy that Elan Valley ride so, after a pitstop at the ever-accommodating ET James in Rhayader, we made the final westward push for the sea. And after Machynlleth, Christian had in store for us a final brilliant ride over the southern-most reaches of the Snowdonia National Park. We had planned to ride up to Barmouth, but after the spectacular seascapes viewed as we descended into Aberdovey this was as spiritual an end to the journey as we could imagine.

And there was a wee prologue there too. For as we parked our three bikes on the slipway of the Dovey Yacht Club and snapped-away a few end-of-ride shots, a couple of members came down to see what we were celebrating. And that led to an introduction to another member of the yacht club, Stuart Nelson, who was also - would you believe - a trail rider and TRF member. And Stuart just so happened to have a caravan park up the coast, after the links golf course.

So we pitched at Stuart’s that night - in high winds with a storm looking ready to break - and savoured the sense of accomplishment. In the morning we would admire Stuart’s immaculate KTM 990 Adventure, not to mention his collection of classic grass track bikes, before setting off for home. And oh yes, that was quite some journey too. But altogether another story...

FOSSE WAY & THE WEST COUNTRY ROUTES

with Richard Simpson

Here’s our west-country route planner putting a little meat on the bones of JB’s west country descriptions:

‘Fosse means ditch... and you can trace it on a modern-day map from Lincoln in a diagonal line down to the South Dorset coast near Weymouth. Some of it is main road, some minor road, and, as John and JB discovered, some is BOAT.

‘The Fosse (ditch) dates back at least to Roman times, it originally marked the end of Roman law and the start of the still unconquered territories of Wales and the west (although there is a theory that the route itself is far older and like the Ridgeway it actually dates back to prehistoric times). Then when the conquest of England and Wales was complete the Romans turned the former border marker into a first-class military road. The very high standard of its alignment is certainly more Roman than the random meanderings you'd get on an old walking path/trade route.

‘Quite a lot of traded goods from the Med were landed on England's south-west coast then transported overland... so the Fosse would have rapidly become more than a military route.

‘It is diverted around what is now called Cotswold Airport but was once RAF Kemble, and was a one-time home of the Red Arrows. If you've ever wondered what happens to old Jumbo jets, you can see them being sliced up for scrap at Kemble.

‘Parts of the Fosse have been sadly abused by 4x4s in recent years: fortunately so far the route has been repaired rather than subject to closure. You probably noticed some to the repaired sections, and bollards etc that have been erected to protect the route.

‘The high routes on the top of the Cotswold hills are old stagecoach and wagon routes. In early days they were routed like that because they were less attractive for highwaymen, and they remained in use until the arrival of the railways because they had better resistance to wet weather than lower routes in the valleys which were really only suitable for use on foot or horseback rather than wheeled vehicles because of the mud.

‘By the early years of the 19th century roadbuilding techniques had improved sufficiently for major routes to pass along the valley bottoms, and the threat from highwaymen had diminished so the old high routes gradually fell out of use, with the arrival of the railway finishing them off.

‘One of the routes used was the Greenway at Shurdington, which drops down steeply off the side of the Cotswolds. This dates back to the 8th Century, and was originally used to move sheep between grazing grounds owned by St Peter's Abbey in Gloucester.

‘The infamous Gloucester Cheese Rolling event - now outlawed thanks to health & safety concerns - takes place nearby.’

THE TBM COAST-TO-COAST BYWAY CHALLENGE

What is it? Jon Bentman (Honda CRF250L) and TRF man John Vannuffel (KTM 690R) rode from Pett Level on the South Coast to Aberdovey on the Welsh Coast using as many green lanes as possible

When and how long? They did it the first week in June. It took them four days and covered 625 miles

Why? To prove that firstly there’s still plenty of green lanes to enjoy all over the UK. And secondly, to show you can have a real off-road adventure right here in the UK - you don’t have to travel to far away overseas locations

A FEW NUMBERS

Total distance: Pett Level to Aberdovey: 625 miles

Honda CRF fuel consumption: 85mpg

Number of ramblers seen on byways: 0

Number of other trail riders seen on byways: 0

Punctures: 2

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