#33 Monsters and minnows

Swinton Bike Insurance are offering a prize-draw:

Swinton prize drawHere’s my entry:

Exmoor – monsters and minnows

A sudden bout of vomiting (my partner’s son’s) meant our planned tour of Southern Ireland was scuppered, so we sulked for a few days before settling on Exmoor. We decided to spoil ourselves to make up for the disappointment and booked this place:

https://www.airbnb.co.uk/rooms/960222

I had to learn a polka for a friend’s wedding in a few days, so I had to pack my accordion. The VFR had little trouble, but we were pretty cosy with two side-panniers, a top-box, the accordion bungied in front of the top-box, J- my partner- and me. Tight!

All I’d known of Exmoor before then was Butlins. This time, there were no yellow-coats, just seething fields of heavy corn, ancient woods and hidden valleys. The VFR is a heavy bike but, as we joined the B3188, it plunged easily into the sinuous, tree-tunnelled fringes of Exmoor.

We stayed at Yarde, soon discovering the landscape is dense with holloways, high hills and quick-running streams. Owls accompanied our later-than-planned pub walk to Stogumber with their plaintive calls.

I had been nervous about taking the VFR, J and myself up Porlock Hill. Wikipedia states that it is `a very steep hill with gradients of up to 1 in 4 and hairpin bends.’ It is the steepest A-road in the country. I’d asked several locals if motorbikes went up- they all seemed confident that they did. Thing is, I’m not tall (5’7″) and the combination of heavy bike, pillion, 1:4 gradient and hairpin bends seemed challenging. There is a get-out, a toll road for less intrepid travellers. That decided it.

There is an ominous sign replete with dire warnings at the beginning of the hill.

porhillsign1

We cruised past, it mattered not. J and I don’t use a motorbike intercom system, so I doubt whether she was aware of how psyched I was. Every sensory nerve was firing, a steady mantra of `low gear… use clutch… perfect line…’ looped in my head. The gradient suddenly tilted upward and we were committed, there was no way I could even attempt a U-turn now. The V-four engine pulled smoothly in 2nd as the first hairpin scrolled toward us. Then, somehow, it disappeared behind us with barely a conscious manoeuvre. Following the racing line (though not at racing speed) with a deep lean to the left, the second hairpin passed without incident. Unseen, inside my helmet, I gave a slight `woop’ and grinned, then pulled back on the throttle.

We parked further on at County Gate, a National Trust car-park with massive views

SONY DSC

trekked along the coast there and did some painting. On the way back, as the sunset gave way to a chilly evening, we decided to hook a right off the A39 onto the New Road which flows smoothly down into the Doone Valley.

We were both gradually overwhelmed by the weathered, simple beauty of what the road revealed. It is not easy biking- tiny lanes, loose gravel and blind bridges- but it was a valley of unceasing allure. The Oare Water ambles darkly along the valley floor under stone arch bridges, fish darting into shadow. Faded, Georgian manor houses hide just beyond sight amid rambling gardens of rhododendron. A fox and his vixen froze at our passing, then padded away in opposite directions. We parked up and stood by the river, breathing deeply and feeling like we had stumbled backward in time. Apart from the cooling motorbike, there was no outward sign of modern technology for miles.

Reluctantly, we left. It was late twilight, we were hungry. The road wound its way back toward the A39, then perversely morphed into a far more challenging series of hairpins amid steepness than Porlock Hill. Somehow, despite my tiredness, I managed to ride us safely upward but there was no avoiding riding up the wrong side of this capricious lane.

Our getaway on Exmoor ended too soon. We had come here to soothe the regret of missing Ireland yet, we hadn’t spoken of Ireland once. The polka was learned, stresses purged, new roads embedded deep in our memories and pledges made to return on the motorbike to this happily underpopulated corner of Somerset.

SONY DSC

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#23 Redventures

I sold my motorbike- Reddi-  on Monday. Here she is, or was:Image

It had not been quite a year that I had her, but we have had some memorable times:

  • never-ending waterfalls above Talybont reservoir
  • the after-work trip to Tintern last summer, sitting amongst the beeches above the Wye painting in the fading light, jumping the wall of the abbey, roaming the silent ruins in the dark, roaring back up the sinuous road to Chepstow, and across the Severn Bridge
  • Dymock woods, via the Wye valley- working the jaw of a badger skull , ceps,  yellow stagshorn fungi

Image

  • finding the Somerset floods- parking by Ivy Thorn Way on Cockrod, above Street, gazing out across the ruined fields shimmering in late afternoon sun, then skipping around puddles
  • coffee and breakfast in Bradford on Avon, then to Devizes and up Roundway Hill, cat and mouse with deer, sliding down the deep, fleshy folds of the landscape on our arses, water-colour painting side by side

IMG_2073 gliding partridge, a few hares.

Last Wednesday, I dismissed my class a minute earlier and was the first out the school gates; I had a taxi waiting there. We drove to my daughter’s school, collected her and then headed into Bristol to the Colston Hall. We met my daughter’s mum, who took my daughter home with her while I caught the 4:35 Megabus to Leeds, 207 miles away. Barry met me at Leeds bus station and drove us to his place near the A1, and I bought his motorbike:

8It was a long way to go, and it had only been a one-way ticket, but I had talked with Barry for quite a while during several long  phone conversations. What particularly encouraged me was that his voice was almost exactly the same combination of Yorkshire straightforwardness and gentle kindness of a previous Head of Department. Strange to perceive so much of a personality through a voice. He gave me several cups of tea and a cheese and tomato sandwich. His house was traditionally furnished, some oil paintings of sailing ships and a grandfather clock. He offered me a spare bed for the night but, as I needed to collect my daughter and go to work in the morning, I declined. I set off from Leeds on the new bike at around midnight.

I took it slowly at first, getting accustomed to the torque-y engine, then leaned forward and flew down along the misty carriageway. I got lost. I should have found my way to the M1 and shot south towards Birmingham. I somehow stayed on the older A1 and was soon penetrating the borders of alien territories: Rutland, Sherwood Forest, Cambridgeshire. The bike is quick, so by the time the recognition that I was far off-course fully dawned on me, I was in deep.

The truck stop at Stibbington was a welcome sight, I think I pulled in around 1:15am. The man working in the empty cafe sorted me out with directions to Leicester, black coffee and a snickers. The chairs were all up, the light seemed jaundiced and faded. I was glad to share a little time, small talk and company before stepping out into the void. Apparently, he’d never had the co-ordination for bikes- liked them, but would have killed himself.

His directions sent me on the A47, a much more involving road of plunging corners, rippled straights and unexpected, sleeping villages that scrolled past like silent narratives.

When I slipped into surburban Leicester at around 2:15am, I was quite tired. I pulled in to the Shell garage at the junction of Uppingham and Coleman Road to refuel. I asked a young asian lad getting out of a Golf GTI for directions toward Birmingham. He wasn’t sure, so he asked his mate who was pissing against the wall of the garage. When he’d finished, he offered to escort me to the M42. And so it was, that these two hospitable ambassadors of Leicester lead me through the intricate,  empty city. I left them at Enderby with a salute of thanks and began the penultimate stage.

I stopped in the Waitrose/Petrol station at Hopwood Park on the M42. I had another black coffee and texted J at 3:18am. I bought deep red tulips, which I locked into the top-box and set off. I arrived in Keynsham around 4:30. I took my bike cover off Reddi and, after it’d cooled, placed it onto my new bike. I got changed and drove to J’s.

There was a candle for me in the hallway. The pre-dawn chorus was beginning. I got a glass of water from the kitchen, blew out the candle and went upstairs, my mind still racing.

The motorbike journey had taken 4 1/2 hours from the witching hour until dawn.

281 miles

4 hours journey time

Average: 70 mph