It was the last Bank Holiday in May. We had promised each other time to call our own. No phones, long drives or allotment duties, just a few days riding our bikes in the open air. Dan hadn’t put his bum on his Brooks since our Valentine’s trip to the Isle of Wight and I’d only been on short rides alone. Our goal was to ride to Lyme Regis in Dorset from Salisbury, Wiltshire, slowly along the Wessex Ridgeway. We’d have two nights in the tent, then catch the train back to the city.
A GPX of the route we actually rode is here, which you can download.
We drove to Salisbury, left the car in a Park and Ride car park, rode a few minutes up the road, turned onto a track and aside from two miles of busy road, we enjoyed nineteen miles of ancient highways, byways and quiet lanes.
Sections of Ox Drove were so overgrown they had to be ridden as single track and limbo dancing moves were deployed. Portions of the paths were wet and muddy, yet I felt happy. Nobody was about even though it was a warm weekend.
Wild garlic flourished in the woods and shaded ditches, the smell lingering long after we’d passed by. Golden swathes of oilseed rape imparted a sweet sickly honey scent as we freewheeled along a rutted field. We watched Paragliders soar on afternoon thermals as we munched on cheese rolls. For me, this was what bikepacking was about.
Descending into Tollard Royal, the route brought out the Evel Knievel in me. My front wheel hit a concrete pipe that traversed the path and I went airborne, when I saw the next ‘ramp’, I went for it, then again and again. I felt like I was nine years old again – fired up and invincible.At the bottom, we found thatched cottages and a pond but nowhere to take tea, in fact there were no shops at all. Instead, we got water from a lady who lived in the house that used to be the post office. She gave us the once over and advised that the local pub was rather smart. I took that to mean that scruffs would not be welcome especially a couple of strangers spattered in mud.
‘Something is stinging my arms,’ she said, in an American accent. ‘I don’t know what it is but I got a picture of it.’
‘Is this it?’ I asked, pointing to the stinging nettles lining both sides of the path.
‘Yeah! Sure is. What is it?’
‘Stinging nettles,’ I told her.
Just as I mounted the bike, I called back to her. ‘There is a remedy. You probably think it’s a quack idea,’ I said, offering a dock leaf to rub on her arms.
I already had stings on top of stings and no longer cared. My solution to get through the worst patches was to cycle as fast as I could. I found that as long as I didn’t rub or touch the affected skin, the pain mellowed to discomfort. Long trousers and sleeves would have been a wiser choice than t-shirt and shorts.
‘Who cares if it’s quack,’ she said, rubbing her forearms frantically. ‘Quack works. Amazing. The poison and the potion growing together.’ Until that moment, I thought everyone could identify nettles and that they sting.
We heard a cuckoo call as we crossed a flint field planted with wheat.
By the time we got to Iwerne Courtney (also known as Shroton), I was gasping for a drink of something other than water, so we whittled away the evening in the beer garden at The Cricketers sipping cold shandy and warm cider. I had the cider, two if I’m honest and we shared a bowl of chips.
One man walked towards our bikes. He was smiling in admiration. I felt quite pleased with my bike setup and proud of the way I looked; mud on my face and droplets of blood coagulated in stripes all over my legs from brushes with brambles. I looked every bit the part of an outdoorsy girl. Did he look at me? No. He oohed and aahed over Dan’s bike and the two of them fell into a discussion about Rohloff gears, even though they were both running Alfines. Here we go, I thought, that old it’ll-do-for-now routine and I marched off to the loo to clean my face and hands.
Soon it was time to continue and climb to the Neolithic camp on the hill to wait for nightfall.
The sky was orange. Cows that had been grazing quietly in a hollow near Hambledon Hill were now standing in a line on the crest, ink black silhouettes against the setting sun, their mournful lows solemnising the moment.
I zipped up my jacket and stuffed my hands in my pockets as the sun melted into the Dorset countryside. All my senses had been awakened. No tweets, no Instagram images, no Facebook posts and no words. A few minutes of harmonising with nature. A lone skylark flew overhead, its unmistakable, never ending song punctuated by a whoo whoo of a whistle.
‘Sounds like a steam train,’ I said.
‘Hmm,’ said Dan, concentrating on boiling water for tea and supper.
‘Can you remember seeing one on the map?’
Dan couldn’t and neither could I. We tucked ourselves into the tent, me being tucked in tighter due to a slope that caused Dan to roll onto me. I woke up in a sweat, unzipped the bag at the feet end, kicked off my socks and yanked off my top.
‘Move over,’ I said, giving Dan a shove.
The tent flap was tied open and cool air began to circulate again. I slept until sunrise.
Mist shrouded the morning landscape. The sun appeared and dew soaked dandelion pompoms glistened in the early light.
We packed and made towards Shillingstone to replenish our water and possibly have second breakfast. The man clearing up at the back of The Old Ox Inn was the pub landlord. He happily filled our bottles but told us the only place we could get food at that time of the morning was at the petrol station. He asked if we had seen May Bugs when we camped on the hill, though when he described them I was glad I hadn’t. We were sitting on a grass verge drinking coffee and eating muffins when the landlord drove past. He told us that he’d been catering for a wedding the day before for a party of steam engine enthusiasts.
‘You should go and have a look,’ he said. ‘No one will mind.’
With that, we rode into the gardens and found five steam driven machines. The mystery of the steam whistle was solved. Several wedding guests who had camped in the grounds were milling about, with eyes bleary.
‘The bride drove that one,’ said a woman, casting her eyes to the haulage truck.
‘The groom drove this,’ added a young lad, no older than ten, pointing to a steam roller. ‘They’re over there in their living trailer now.’
‘That was an unusual wedding,’ I said, imagining writing a spread for a bridal magazine.
With that, we journeyed on, making a few wrong turns along the way so decided to stop for lunch at the Fox Inn at Ansty.
There were mountain bikes and cross bikes everywhere. I’d forgotten that The Dorset Gravel Dash 100 was running. Dozens of guys and a few women rolled by. Some stopped to eat and stretch out their hamstrings. We checked our course and pedalled off into the unknown once more.
A small sign on a gate warned us that a bull, cows and calves were in a field we needed to enter. I checked out the under-hangings of every beast I saw and assured Dan, that all the animals were cows or bullocks.
‘Stay close to me,’ I said. ‘You’ll be fine.’
It was cooler by then and the sky looked grim. The map was unfolded and refolded umpteen times and the pace slow. By late afternoon we found ourselves in Cerne Abbas. I was cold and damp from the mizzle that had turned to rain as we flew downhill at speeds up to 55kmh. I might not have gone quite as fast as the GPS would indicate, but I wasn’t holding back. The first time I visited the village, I rode a loop, found the naked giant and took a terrible tumble.
Once we’d finished our hot drinks and cake at Abbot’s Tea rooms, both Dan and I felt our energy slip away. Outside, the rain fell heavier and my enthusiasm waned. We spread the map across the table discussed progress and decided that although we could cover the ground we needed to reach Lyme Regis the following day, we were both tired and the B&B sign in the window was particularly pleasing. A deal was done, bikes locked away and a powerful hot shower enjoyed. The sun appeared, the clouds cleared and I lay naked between crisp white sheets in a super king sized bed. I dozed off, my hair still wrapped in a fluffy white towel.
‘Wouldn’t it be great if you could rent rooms for an hour or two?’ I said, with a giggle. ‘I feel great now and I’m ravishing. I mean ravenous.’
‘Let’s eat,’ said Dan, with a grin.
Next morning, after a cooked breakfast, we pedalled off with no fixed plan on where our trip would end. We rode up into the downs, where alpine strawberries bloomed and blackcurrant bushes grew thickly along lanes edged by tangled trees. We collected wild garlic, stuffing enough into my new Wildcat frame bag for dinner later.
‘If we go to Maiden Newton, we could get an early train and be home in time to make wild garlic pesto.’ I said. ‘It might wilt if we wait too long. Anyway, it’ll be far too busy down at Lyme Regis, full of day trippers eating ice-cream. ’
‘Marvellous idea, darling. Marvellous.’
With that, we bounced down the hill and over the ridge to catch the train from the village. A passenger gave us a sideways glance as if we’d let off a sneaky fart. Then, a faint whiff of garlic drifted through the carriage.
An interactive and downloadable map, and other information about Bikepacking Wessex Ridgeway route can be found here.
And if you fancy heading out into the wild for a night, here’s my guide to wildcamping for the first timer.