Bike rides: The Wells Loop and the Great Western ride
PUBLISHED: 16:30 14 July 2016 | UPDATED: 17:08 14 July 2016
In the first in a series of cycle rides, Giles Belbin explores cathedrals, caves and kings on this 30 mile route, starting and finishing in Somerset’s wonderful small city
Faster than walking, more peaceful than driving, for me cycling is the perfect way to travel. Winding your way through constantly changing countryside perched atop a bicycle made for one really immerses you in your surroundings. The sights, smells and sounds that hit your senses resonate so much more when you are on two wheels and using only your legs and lungs to power you along. Of course, it can be tough going at times, but then that makes your obligatory end-of-ride-treat, be it a cake or a pint, that much sweeter doesn’t it? So, in celebration of pedal power, here is the first in a short series of bike rides exploring a little of the wonderful county of Somerset.
1) Wells. The smallest city in England. The 13th century cathedral is basking in mid-spring sunshine as I ready my bicycle in its shadow. Ahead of me, after a winter where my trusty bike has barely made it out of the garage, is a circular ride heading up into the Mendips before descending towards the Avalon marshes. I’m prepared for the early part of the ride to be hilly. It turns out I have no idea. With water bottle full and saddlebag packed with spare inner tubes, tyre levers and an adjustable spanner, (you really don’t want to be stranded thanks to a puncture) I follow signs to Wookey Hole. The rolling road takes me though the home of the famous Witch of Wookey, into the Mendip Hills Area of Outstanding Beauty, and past a sign warning the road I’m about to follow isn’t suitable for Charabancs. I don’t know about vintage sight-seeing coaches but 20 minutes later I’m questioning this road’s suitability for an unfit 40-something cyclist.
I’m not going to pretend the climb from Wookey Hole, past Ebbor Gorge to the small village of Priddy doesn’t hurt. It does. A lot. My legs burn and my chest heaves as my lungs gasp for air. My winter off the bike is making itself known. More than once I am grateful for an excuse to stop (these photos don’t take themselves you know) as the drivers of the few cars that pass me look at me with pitying eyes. Still, the reward for all that effort is a spectacular view of the Somerset countryside, with Glastonbury Tor standing resplendent in a landscape dotted with hills and villages.
2) When, at length, I finally roll into Priddy it is sleepily quiet. I cycle beside fields separated by stone walls. A tractor passes by towing a trailer laden with wood but there are few other signs of life. It must different in July when the village hosts its annual folk festival. I stop at the Green and spend a diverting five minutes or so looking at the reconstructed Hurdle stack, stored under a water-reed thatched roof, before heading on my way, passing the wonderfully named Priddy Good Farm Shop.
You know you’re high up when you pass a sign for a gliding club, which is exactly what I do soon after turning towards Cheddar. The wind is getting up and clouds are gathering. A chill falls. What goes up must come down though and the other reward for all that uphill cycling is a frankly glorious descent down through Cheddar Gorge.
Climbers are clambering up the limestone cliffs and tourists are making their way towards the caves as I sweep down through the gorge feeling quite dwarfed by the towering rock faces on either side. It is steep here and care must be taken but as I freewheel down I allow myself a wry smile at all the cyclists coming towards me, toiling their way up the vertiginous road.
3) Passing the entrances to the famous caves I proceed down into the town searching for the B3151. All the serious hills are behind me now as I meander towards the Isle of Wedmore. Perched on the Somerset Levels, with the Mendips providing a dramatic backdrop, Wedmore is an attractive town with a rich history, literally – 200 Saxon silver coins were unearthed in the churchyard here in 1853. Further back, in 878 after Alfred the Great defeated the Vikings at the battle of Edington, Alfred brought the Viking leader to his Wedmore estate after he had been baptised as part of the surrender agreement. There the peace agreement was celebrated and the Vikings withdrew. The events became known as the Treaty of Wedmore.
Wedmore bustles with activity as I pass through. It is nearing lunchtime and The Swan pub is casting its spell. The temptation to call in for some liquid refreshment almost overwhelms me but I press on, passing the galleries and shops as I head out on to the Avalon Marshes towards Westhay.
This is bird reserve country. I’ve been here many times to watch the wonderful starling murmurations but today I pass by the signs to the reserves. The legs are tiring and I fear a prolonged stop will make starting again that much harder. At Meare I pause briefly to visit the Fish House. Dating from the 1330s and owned by Glastonbury Abbey, it was built to exploit the fishing available in the nearby lake owned by the Abbey. It is apparently the only monastic fishery building left in England.
4) I’m riding towards Glastonbury now. The Tor is right in front of me, giving me a target. Shortly before I hit the outskirts of the town I turn left to Godney. A kestrel hovers over a field, its head perfectly still, hunting for food, and I follow a family of ducks waddling down the quiet lane before the hum of the A39 reaches my ears as I near Polsham.
For the final couple of miles of my ride I follow this busyish main road as I return to my starting point tired but happy. The legs may be weary but cycling always restores the soul a little. The first ride of the year has been challenging but hugely enjoyable. And I have a good excuse for some liquid, amber refreshment.
The ride brief
Start/finish/parking: I started and finished my ride outside the Waitrose supermarket in Wells.
Distance: 30 miles
Terrain: This ride features 475m of vertical climbin (mostly Wells to Cheddar) and one hill out of Wedmore. Roads are mainly quiet apart from the final two miles back into Wells.
Beware: The climb from Wookey Hole towards Priddy is extremely hard going. Be prepared to stop, rest, walk and push. Do not over exert yourself.
Alternatives: To avoid the toughest hills take the A371 to Cheddar from Wells instead of going via Wookey Hole and Priddy. You’ll miss the descent into Cheddar but your legs will be thankful. You can also cut mileage by taking the B3139 at Wedmore back to Wells without going via Westhay and Meare.
Attractions en-route: Wookey Hole Caves, Ebbor Gorge and the Mendip Hills , Cheddar Gorge, Avalon Marshes, Meare Fish House .
Refreshments: Options include: The Fountain Inn, The Good Earth (Wells), Priddy Good Farm Shop, Queen Vic Pub (Priddy), Bath Arms (Cheddar) The Cider Barn (Draycott), The George Inn and The Swan (Wedmore).
The Great Western ride
The Great Weston Ride is a spectacular city-to-coast challenge bike ride that takes place each Summer in Somerset and this year’s event is taking place on 17 July.
Increasingly popular, it is on course to attract a record number of entries for the seventh year running.
Around 1,200 people are expected to tackle the 56-mile route which starts in Bristol and then takes riders through some stunning countryside and picturesque Somerset villages on its way through the Mendips and across the Somerset Levels to its final destination on the seafront in Weston-super-Mare.
Riders can in fact choose from eight route and distance options as part of the event, and the most adventurous will find themselves faced with the challenge of ascending both Burrington Combe and Cheddar Gorge as they traverse the Mendips.
The Great Weston Ride aims to offer something for everyone and consequently attracts all sorts of cyclists, from the very experienced right through to complete novices, and participants’ post-event comments confirm that it is well worth a visit to the West Country to take on this rewarding cycling challenge.
The GWR also has a major fundraising dimension and to date it has helped to raise over £130,000 for Prostate Cancer UK (£200,000 in total across a range of charities).
Further information, and details on how to enter can be found at greatwestonride.com