A ride through Cheshire and Shropshire to Wilderhope Manor on Wenlock Edge and back
“…so long as a man rides his Hobby-Horse peaceably and quietly along the King’s highway, and neither compels you or me to get up behind him,–pray, Sir, what have either you or I to do with it?”
Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman
Navigating the fiendishly complex lanes through the oceans of Cheshire and Shropshire would try the patience of a saint, and we sadly couldn’t interest any of them in coming on the Centreville trip from Knutsford to Wilderhope YHA. Like iron filings drawn to a magnet the scabrous crew of eleven under Captain Holmes gathered; some, like Dan, John and Joe had got some extra miles in, arriving by bike with nerry a bead of sweat in sight. The usual faffing ensued, stowing kit, checking lashings and holding a wet finger up to assess the wind: tacking into a head wind for a day out of port, then a tail wind back, all in warm air being blown north from off Africa by Hurricane Ophelia. Anchors aweigh! Oh, wait a minute, Dan has gone off to get a coffee, now we can go. Except someone else has gone to the loo…then there is the tricky business of finding your way out of the car park.
Nick had worked hard on a great route, kindly taking on the responsibility even though this was his first time in planning and navigating for a group, no easy task in unknown territory. The devil was in the detail, and unlike relatively simpler hilly areas, flatlands are a mesh of lanes not necessarily going where you want to go for long, like an unruly ball of string. Command is a lonely position, and after a few miles the unruly rabble of a crew were already chipping in with ‘helpful’ suggestions to fill in the gaps in Nick’s turn by turn list. We had local knowledge from Nigel, who had trained with Paul Sherwen and other pros here for three years in his youth, Mark offering to “Put it in his Garmin,” and I favoured my 40 year-old map which helpfully says “Here be dragons” anywhere an estate or new road has been built in the modern era. Ken, a usurper from Bury Clarion reckoned keeping the sun on our left was best, and I also pointed out that with the Pennines on our left and the Welsh hills on our right the lie of the land was a safety net. So in all we had six methods competing for credibility -what could possibly go wrong? Suffice it to say that if our wee boat with white blue and green sails had been adrift in the Pacific, cannibalism would eventually have ensued. Tristram would have been first to go, being young and tender.
At least our confusion was happening on great roads, so all was well, as that was what we were there for. Off-road sections of bridleway led to the gravel Weaver way which meanders higgledy piggley along the river with vast piles of rock salt beneath the winding gear of a still-working mine. Old salts on both side of the river then, with Mark and Pauline’s tandem proving tricky to sail over the numerous kissing gates. By hook, crook and assorted nav techniques, we finally got down to Audlem for lunch, Tristram breathing a sigh of relief – he’d seen people considering cooking methods. Human flesh tastes like chicken, apparently. Three bells and all was well, with half the group opting for the pub and the others for a local café, built in 1564, the year of Shakespeare’s birth, where the veggie breakfasts were enhanced with a local delicacy, the Staffordshire Oatcake, in this case filled with melted cheese – a first for me and beating wormy ship’s biscuits any time.
Heading south, and in the words of the great Del Shannon we were “Searching, searching, follow the sun,” through hamlets whose names were forgotten seconds after passing them, with the exception of Great Bolas. Clearly, survivors of the Spanish Armada had made their way here, and after visiting goucho relatives in Aregntina their descendants had introduced the bolas method of capturing running cattle to Shropshire. Their rock and roll single of 1964 was unfortunately overshadowed by Gerry Lee Lewis’s song, otherwise we would now be singing “Great Bolas of Fire” instead. It would be late into the second day’s ride before our members would suffer the same condition, but that is jumping ahead.
The afternoon wore on, and tempers wore out, with full-blown mutiny brewing below decks as we imagined our hammocks swinging empty, our evening rations uneaten and our grog unswilled. No navigation method was proving fault-free, and the Garmin was not taking us on roads as quite and narrow as planned. A seventh method then emerged, the smartphone with Poodle maps, and the record was ours! Each method had it’s faction of devotees, and a split was becoming inevitable.
The elastic snapped as Nick flew off with half the group Saturday run style, following the Garmin, leaving others of us following the map shouting, cast adrift behind. Chaos stalked the decks of HMS Centreville. With 12 miles to go each group pressed on their different path. Tristram, like the poor cabin boy, was metaphorically if not literally eaten, as after turning back to find the others he missed them and was left chasing back on, unbeknownst to us, until he appeared bobbing on the waves behind, not waving but drowning. By the time he reached us he was on a right royal bonk. At the tender age of 24 it was his first ride of this length and he hadn’t eaten enough. I stopped with him for 10 minutes and walked him up the next climb so the blood sugar could come through while he found an impressive number of adjectives to describe his state.
Wilderhope YHA, buit in the 1580’s, was finally gained after around 136km (84 miles )of riding since Knutsford, the last hilly section of which was the most beautiful. As the light bled out of the sky and veils of purple night drifted in, somehow Tristram didn’t seem to appreciate the poetry and grandeur of the fading day. The antiquated building made me want to enquire “Tristram, shandy?” at the bar, but he was looking a bit Sterne, so I left it, fitting though the setting was. All rifts were healed and all ranks made up over solid and liquid refreshment in the baronial setting of the dining hall, which sported what appeared to be a giant iron wheel hung from the ceiling. The rack on the wall must therefore have been for large leather bicycle pumps from the time of the Civil War, when the royalist owner had reputedly fled his roundhead captors on a solid wheeled Rudge and escaped by riding over a cliff on Wenlock Edge known to this day as Major’s leap. Was Ken, with his period beard and booming voice perchance the reincarnation of that very Major?
We were blessed with Mandy and Craig’s company, they’d been unable to ride but had turned up anyway. Craig surprisingly managed not to affront any families with small children, and thankfully his threat of snoring all night proved empty, and after a good night’s sleep under the massive oak roof beams at the top of a spiral staircase Sunday looked set fair for a tailwind all the way home. Hoorah! Raise the mainsail! A.E. Houseman’s poem seemed written for us:
On Wenlock Edge the wood’s in trouble;
His forest fleece the Wrekin heaves;
The gale, it plies the saplings double,
And thick on Severn snow the leaves.
Unfortunately for him the average cyclist’s idea of poetry is a tire spec sheet. A fast road along Wenlock Edge did indeed lead us over the Severn to the Wrekin. Nick’s excellent choice was to go via pretty Ironbridge, over the first cast iron bridge in the world. Iniated by “Iron-mad” John Wilkinson who designed the first accurate cylinder boring machine (that’s nothing, I’ve invented the first reader-boring machine) and was buried in an iron coffin; and built by Abraham Darby III in 1781, the bridge now points at a prominent pie shop which acted like catnip for Andy, he was in there like a shot. Andy was also doing his longest ever rides, and back to back at that, and was going well.
We all scoffed something, before another split was averted after Nick again sprinted off taking a few with him the wrong way – but then all the roads are the right way if they as nice as the ones around the Wrekin. We had turned tragedy into comedy, with John riding into a ploughed field shouting “It’s definiteley this way!” My how the moles laughed, just before he squashed their heads. I personally led the group on what might have seemed to the uninitiated a pointless loop through a village and back to where we started, but they wouldn’t have forgiven me for missing out on the fascinating vernacular architecture.
It all seemed to flow more smoothly on the way back, we had accepted the shape and rythmn of the ride and the quaintness of our flaws (to err is human, to forgive divine), and it was a happy ship that flowed along the pan-flat land between hedgerows beneath an English sun, the wind at our backs. Nigel found us an unmade road marked Private, No Entry, which gave Joe a Roubaix-like puncture. Only the absentee landlord seemed concerned about privacy, the guys on the passing tractors gave us merry waves. Through Howle and Child’s Ercall we skirted the gouchos and decided on Market Drayton for lunch. We sadly ended up in a Witherspoons after two different locals told us there were no local cafés open – only to see a proper caff immediately on setting off (in the wrong direction of course, my bad.) A compass, by god, of course that is what I needed, that would have put the record out of sight at eight simultaneous navigation methods!
Joe and John gave each other the eye, got on the front and upped the pace until we were flying like a tea clipper along the long quiet lane north from Audlem at a tasty 40kmph. The hammer was down but everybody stayed on fine – that’s the beauty of flat roads which enable a wider span of abilities to ride together, and we were looking after each other now, no more separate boats. By now we were riffing on eachother’s catchphrases for the weekend: Nick’s was “It’s just down here, then it’s dead straightforward.” Mine was “Past the river, then turn left,” which on the map it uncannily often was. Mark’s was “The Garmin says it’s this way.” Once we got back into Nigel’s old stamping ground in north Cheshire he added a cracker: “Let’s get on the main road and get it done.” Before promptly choosing the wrong main road and reverting to nice lanes, which were, to be fair, a real pleasure, taking us past a millionaires’ row “Probably all massively in debt,” onto a woodland path on the opposite side of the river Weaver to that we’d ridden the day before.
HMS Centreville sailed proudly back into dock after a 142km (88 miles) day only slightly the worse for wear, a few cannon holes in the side, a bit low on rations but with the tattered green, white and blue pennants still fluttering in the last rays of sunlight. Home is the sailor, home from the sea – except for Dan, Joe, John and Ken, who had a few miles yet to their respective homes, the poor buggers. Ken fixed a puncture, John finished off my biscuits, and Dan, despite a strong 12 hour TT under his belt this year narrowly averted the weekend’s second bonk. Hands were shaken, food was exchanged, and our record-breaking trip was over. Our hobby-horses had been well ridden and no-one was compelled to get up behind us. No-one got eaten.
Many thanks for organising it all, Captain Nick much appreciated!
Why not join Centreville and race or just ride with us – especially if you have a photographic memory of every junction of every lane in Cheshire, Shropshire and Mid-Wales….anyone…please, anyone?