Sleeping under canvas is very nearly a spiritual thing. There are only a few millimeters of fabric between you and the outside world, between you and the darkness. There are the smells of grass, of fresh air, of your own gear. There is the moisture, the condensation. And there are the noises. Every puff of wind causes rustles, every creak and whistle amplified. This is all lovely. All fine and all dandy. All getting closer to myself. A spiritual uplift. A deepening connection to my soul. Until there is the mother of all thunderstorms. A fcuking spectacular tear in the fabric of time and space. You can then sod your spirituality. I would trade every ounce of that in an instant for a warm bed under a proper roof. Every few seconds the inside of the tent lit up. An incessant noise of torrential rain mere inches above my head, punctuated by rolling claps of apocalyptic thunder. Not conducive to a good nights sleep. Not conducive in fact to bloody anything other than a comprehensive field test of my camping gear.
Still at 6am I am up and by 7am I am packed, showered and ready to go. I stayed dry and although I am an hour or two down on my ideal sleep pattern I am cheered by the thoughts of sleep deprived kids running their middle class parents ragged in the morning. I am such a cheerful bunny!
When I planned the route I noticed an 'unnecessary' detour around the north of Warminster. There was a little village called Imber that seemed a far more direct route. Without really giving it a second thought I replanned the route and left it at that. Those with any sort of Military background will instantly have spotted my mistake but let me continue for those uneducated souls like myself.
Leaving Warminster via my new route took me past the Warminster Garrison. Static tanks lined the road like terrifying sentries. It should have come as no surprise to me then that a mile or so down the road my way was blocked by an imposing barrier. The sign, in no uncertain terms, forbade me from going further. This was the the Military Training Ground at Salisbury Plain. Cursing my route planning I looked for an alternative route to Imber still believing that it stood on the other side of these military shenanigans. Grumbling about a possible 5 mile detour I set off on my new route only to be confronted by another impenetrable barrier. Double knobs. However, at this particular barrer were a couple getting out their car, preparing for their Saturday morning dog walk.
"Can I get through to Imber this way?", I enquired, praying for a positive answer.
"Of course, don't worry", the man replied. "Straight ahead."
"So this barrier? No unauthorised civilians. Do I need to worry about that?", said I.
"Noooo", he was so convincing. "They don't use this part of the range anymore."
So with a fond farewell I set off, passing the barrier on well kept concrete roads, Imber tantalisingly in the distance. There were some worrying signs in the bleakness of the plain I won't lie to you. Signs warning me to stay on the carriageway due to unexploded ordinance should maybe have rung more alarm bells than they did. I also saw no-one at all. Not a person, not a thing for over five miles. Just rolling grassland punctuated by track marks that might have been made by tanks, but that wouldn't be right would it? They don't use this part of the range anymore, remember?
I then reached Imber. Not the quaint Wiltshire village I was expecting but an entirely uninhabited arrangement of buildings used to train troops in urban warfare. There it sat - a whole heap of emptiness in the middle of the bleakest place on Earth. The village was evacuated on 47 days notice in 1943 to provide an exercise area for Operation Overlord. They were told they could return on the cessation of hostilities but that was never realised. Desolation hung over this place like a cloud, pulling out colours and life. Had I expected it I might have had time to prepare. But appearing on the horizon, unexpected as it was, left me no option but to carry on as quickly as I could. This was really no fun at all and I wanted to rejoin civilisation. On the road out I was passed by two troop carriers trundling along in the opposite direction. I moved off the carriageway praying for a bomb free verge. No eye contact was made with the drivers but I felt sure that they weighing up the effort of detaining me versus the speed at which I would be out of their hair. Thankfully, and I mean this most genuinely, they chose the later and I spun my way out of the plain and back towards roads and houses and people and cars and normality. Not my finest morning.
Gore Cross was met then with an audible sigh of relief and never have I been more pleased to cycle on an A road. The road in question, the A360, took me through the Lavingtons (Market and West) before more welcoming B roads rolled me through Urchfont and on towards Pewsey. Pewsey has a fond place in my heart. Hours of mine were spent on Platform 5 of Reading Station awaiting my overcrowded tin tube to drag me to Paddington and another day of dreariness. The more glamorous people were on the opposite platform, awaiting trains to whisk them west for surfing and beaches and BBQs under the stars. Pewsey was one of the mythical stations on that route, from Reading to Taunton and beyond. It's name was announced to me on a daily basis as I was awaiting my day of drudgery. Pewsey, along with all of the other stations on the western route, promised something different, an escape maybe. And here I was, drinking water and munching chocolate opposite that very station. It was a delightful town. Prosperous, bustling and full of vigour. The entire male population seemed to be boarding trains, rugby scarves resplendent, and clutching all the canned beer the town could muster. I didn't know the occasion but I sincerely hoped for a positive result. This previously unvisited town had always held a dear place in my heart, promising much from a wet railway platform in Reading, and now delivering on all of this, on this special day in May.
Gentle climbs took me past Wilton Windmill, still making flour nearly two hundred years after it was first built. Shalbourne marks the point where Wiltshire passes into Berkshire and the villages take on a different feel. Hamstone buildings are replaced by brick and flint. Village greens and ponds start popping up. Being an Oxfordshire boy this all starts feeling familiar. It starts resembling the villages of my childhood, nestling in the Chilterns. With nothing other than gentle hills I am quickly onto the A4 and dodging major traffic, Newbury is brought swiftly into view.
The Cock Inn (appropriately named) in Newbury should just be bloody ashamed of itself. Offering food on the board outside, I was abruptly informed that none was being served this lunchtime. A soulless coke and crisps were munched in a more soulless weed infested garden. Leaving was a pleasure, as I rose gently above Newbury, through Hermitage and over the M4. This was all starting to look familiar now as I entered the home stretch. These were villages I knew, through Yattendon and Ashampstead Common, climbing gently to the top of Pangbourne Hill. Then a glorious plunge into the heart of Pangbourne, over Whitchurch Bridge spanning Old Father Thames and crossing into the final county of the trip. Forever my home county. Oxfordshire. She is a beauty, Oxfordshire, with many delights nestling within her borders. But she is also a harsh mistress and via this route, not too welcoming to new visitors. Those wanting to enjoy her pleasures must first negotiate Whitchurch Hill, rising like the proverbial sting in the tail. 250ft climbed in just over half a mile at a gradient that my poor old legs couldn't keep up with. I am ashamed to say that at just over 70 miles travelled , I stopped for a breather. Ten minutes to calm the beating heart and burning lungs that were threatening to burst through my ribcage.
But that was the last challenge. From here a lovely five mile amble took me through Cane End, Gallowstree Common, Peppard and finally the bottom of my Mum and Dad's drive in Sonning Common. My childhood home. My destination. The end.
With a cup of tea in hand I was able to reflect a little, not just on this day but on the adventure as a whole. Everything seemed to work. Not just the gear, the bike, the planning, but me. Physically I managed it. I was tired, obviously, but not to the point where I could have carried on the next day if required. The trip was something special. Through five counties - Devon, Somerset, Wiltshire, Berkshire and finally Oxfordshire, my very thin slice cut through an ever-changing view of rural England. It might not all have been roses, but it was an adventure. And one that gives me enormous confidence in the wider adventure to come.
Distance - 75.8 miles
Ascent - 3703 ft