As I strapped bags to my bike at 7am in the morning I felt strangely apprehensive. Never before had I attempted to haul bike, human and camping luggage over such a distance. 130 miles from Devon to Reading over two days with all of my camping gear attached. This was a training ride for the Lands End to John O'Groats adventure. A test of kit and maybe more importantly, a test of me. As the sun rose on what promised to be a glorious day I clipped into my pedals, took a deep breath, and set off. I knew where the destination was: that was easy. I also knew the route: the SatNav was bursting with waypoints. I just felt decidedly naive about the journey.
The first ten miles or so were pretty familiar territory. The Blackdown Hills is my stomping ground. My own back yard. Climbing out of Stockland, Longbridge Hill gives the old calf muscles an early test as 600ft gained in a pretty sharp two miles. The reward, other than an overdose of lactic acid, is a few downhill miles of beautiful West Country lanes. Devon is left and Somerset is entered via steeply hedged strips of tarmac, the heady scent of wild garlic and cow shit alternating in my nostrils. Skirting around the north of Chard is Wadeford. A tiny unspoilt village right on the edge of the Blackdowns and right on the edge of my familiarity. Keeping to the south of Illminster, the villages of Moolham and Kingstone were rolled through before a gentle climb into the villages of Seavington St Michael and Seavington St Mary - two immovable lovers staring at each other across a mile or two of rolling fields and woodland.
I stopped on the bridge over the A303 and watched the traffic thunder along beneath me. This is a road I am overly familiar with. I know every one of her twists and turns. I know exactly when she broadens, where her eyes are to catch the unwary. I know her historical charms and her hidden beauties. And here I was, so very close to that routine, just a few feet above her in fact. And yet it felt more than a hundred miles away. My smile widened. The apprehension felt only an hour or two before no more than a distant memory.
South Petherton has a strangely Cotswoldy feel with it's hamstone buildings. The rolling Somerset countryside made for a swift spin to Martock, another predominantly hamstone village. The church of All Saints was particularly resplendent - the second largest in Somerset by all accounts. A quick food and water stop marked twenty miles. I was feeling good. No scrub that. I was feeling great. Hot - yes - the sun had risen and was furiously showing everyone what it was capable of. But a gentle headwind was keeping me just the right side of heatstroke and slatherings of sunscreen was keeping me just the right side of lobster.
Somerton was the first town that I encountered. Beautiful as it was, with a delicate market square, the smutty bugger in me will only remember it for Tom Tits Lane. Who was Tom? What is his mammary association? Why was this association immortalised in a street sign? Questions that fuelled the next few miles.
Crossing over the busy A37 a nine mile meander alongside the River Brue beckoned. Passing to the north of Castle Cary, this little self contained valley quickly drove me to Bruton. There was an abbey here. Bruton Abbey surprisingly enough. After the dissolution it was sold and eventually dismantled. Remnants remain however, popping up throughout the town like a fossilised skeleton.
At North Brewton I stopped for lunch, a delicious ploughman's (cheddar of course) in sight of King Alfred's Tower, a magnificent folly on the Stourhead Estate. The Old Red Lion was a peculiar mix of old and new but there was a bar billiards table in the bar and that makes it instantly good in my books.
Refuelled and with only fifteen miles or so to go I left with a veritable spring in my step. I was abruptly bought crashing back to earth by Druley Hill, my gateway to the county of Wiltshire. This final slog saw me crawling up to 824 feet above sea level, the highest point of the trip. With predominantly rolling agriculture and native woodlands, the last few miles past Maiden Bradley, alongside Shearwater and edging the Longleat Estate were gone in a flash, barely even time to remember them, before I found myself turning into the appointed campsite, a mile or so south of Warminster.
Botany Camping had all of the facilities you could hope for (ie clean showers and bogs) except perhaps for a touch more shade. For it was early afternoon. The sun was just bloody showing off now, and I needed a nap before heading into Warminster for my tea.
After a sort of doze in the lengthening shadow of my tiny little tent, I left an empty camping field and wandered into town. Warminster is an odd place. Not really easy to put your finger on why but odd nonetheless. I don't think it was because it was the UFO Sighting capital in the sixties. Nor is it because it feels inadequate at being labelled the smallest town in Wiltshire. There is definitely something else. On the face of it it is nice enough. A mixture of chains and independents pepper the high street. A pleasing mix of old and new arranged haphazardly in a loose fitting town centre. But there was an undercurrent. Early on a Friday night there was a sense of disquiet. Not quite malevolence but it still seemed so incongruent that this should be felt in such a unassuming town.
The Snooty Fox sat rather strangely on the outskirts. No doubt a traditional boozer twenty years ago it was now dragging itself up the ladder towards gastro. On a beautiful sunny evening though, with a ice cold beer, great food and a mix of conversations to eavesdrop on, this was my idea of heaven.
Returning the campsite I was met with very much NOT my idea of heaven. In the few hours I had been away groups of families had descended creating little community spaces with their tents. These communities had then merged into some sprawling canvas village. Marquees had been erected, BBQs lit and tables laid, and to my eternal pleasure (please sense the dripping sarcasm here) hordes of kids screaming and having a good time. The pervading odour of most of my previous camping experiences was the scent of sweaty walkers, not the aroma of pulled pork which was currently arresting my nostrils. This was proper middle class roughing it. Wheelbarrow load after wheelbarrow load dragged creature comforts from the BMW into these nylon hotels as a countryside Chiswick was being built right in front of my eyes. Nothing for it. I plugged into my headphones, descended into my tiny green fortress of solitude and zipped away the outside world.
Day 1 done. Goodnight y'all.
Distance - 57 miles
Ascent - 3603 ft