The explosion echoed round the hedgerows, causing us to jump, cringe, or duck, according to experience. Howard was certain of its provenance: "It's a crow scarer. Must be gas-powered." Others among us thought it more likely we were in the shotgun sights of an irate farmer, having unwittingly strayed off the route and on to his land. But as Henry emerged from the track into the road, his rueful expression and front wheel held in the air told the story. A blow-out.
The first of the trip, and a sensational one at that. The tyre was intact, but the inner tube had split around its seam, and the pink slime of Halford's Tube Seal – "rapidly seals punctures as they happen" – was oozing out like spilled innards. The situation looked even grimmer when, five minutes later, the replacement tube went the same way during a scary descent. But we changed the tyre for a better-fitting one and it didn't happen again. Henry's confidence in Mr Dunlop's great invention gradually returned. You have to trust your machine and its component parts for the Ridgeway, because you are going to go at fair speed down some steep slopes over many stones, ruts and bumps. Even the many uphill stretches can be hazardous – my chain snapped during a stiff climb. It's certainly not for the faint-hearted.
The Ridgeway National Trail is an ancient "green road" across southern England, from Overton Hill in Wiltshire north-east to Ivinghoe Beacon in Buckinghamshire, passing through Oxfordshire, Berkshire and a bit of Hertfordshire on the way. Some 85 miles in length, its scenery varies from exposed chalk upland to leafy lanes; the terrain from wide grass track to narrow footpath. You visit the Marlborough Downs and the Chilterns, and trek alongside the Thames and through the edges of towns.
The views encompass rolling farmland with undulating seas of wheat, and spectacular views from high up across miles and miles of countryside. Iron-Age hill forts and ancient burial mounds abound. A crimson carpet of poppies above Streatley necessitated a stop, and the perspective from above of the "original" White Horse and the glacial basin of The Manger took my breath away.
There seems to be a little bit of everything, along the Ridgeway, and it neatly embodies that vision of "English countryside" that we assume to have been virtually wiped out by the combination of motorway building and large-scale farming.
Eighty-five miles sounds quite feasible for two days on bikes. We planned to start in the east, and finish by visiting Avebury stone circle, camping overnight along the way. The first blow came when we realised that the extreme eastern section of about 15 miles was mainly footpath – not suitable for bikes – and we had to abandon that part. Then came the logistical problem of getting people and cycles to the start, and back from the finish. We began at Princes Risborough, which has trains from London and Birmingham. But we soon realised that, despite running right across prosperous southern England, the Ridgeway, along its western arm in particular, manages to remain quite isolated from civilisation. We would have to cycle on another six miles from Avebury to Pewsey station, and take several and various trains to get back to where we began.
It's bliss to be removed from the rumble of roads and dropped into the peace of the countryside. Even the traffic on the M40 had the decency to be stationary as we passed underneath. High on the chalk escarpment you have fabulous views looking north across Oxfordshire.
Even Didcot power station possesses a strange beauty, although, frankly, it's visible for far too much of the way: you think you're making little progress, whereas in fact you've done a giant loop around it and travelled some 40 miles. But, unless you carry everything with you, food and water included, you'll need to deviate from the path every so often. To find a pub for lunch, or to stay overnight, you have to go at least three miles off route, descending the steep slope, with the prospect of having to do all that climbing again to get back to where you were.
A better way to appreciate this trail is to plan a circular one-day walk or ride, with the possibility of driving to the start/finish point. Six such are suggested in Neil Curtis's excellent National Trail Guide: The Ridgeway. In this book you'll also find details of the landscape, flora and fauna, and the interesting history of this trading route, which has seen travellers and armies pass through during its long life. The guide carries maps for the whole route in sections; the main difficulty for us being the inadvisability of reading while riding.
We lost the trail two or three times, and we had to deviate from the route in several places to avoid footpaths. Even if you're happy to push your bike along short sections, the misery of lugging fully laden cycles over stiles and through kissing gates every 100 yards soon becomes too much.
The track itself varies considerably. Some of it is like a grassy motorway, and there are gallops nearby where horses are brought to train. But over much of the length you'll be riding in someone else's tyre rut. (The whole western section is open to off-road vehicles, although we only saw one motorcycle.) You have to concentrate so much on where your front wheel is heading, that even to glance around to check companions' progress or to brush away an insect is to risk hitting a lump and going flying.
You toil up a long ascent, and then bucket down the other side, luggage bouncing about madly, wanting to benefit from your climb by hitting the maximum velocity, but always fearful of clouting something unyielding. The brake blocks have some hard work to do on the way down.
Charles's slow puncture had to be mended downwind of an unpleasant fire on farmland near West Ilsley. We tried not to speculate too hard about what might be burning, although the fences erected along that section to keep Ridgeway ramblers at a distance from the field of pigs nearby reminded us of the difficulties faced by farmers this year.
We'd seemed to make reasonable progress, but the goal of Avebury was looking less realistic. We'd stopped overnight at Goring, and that wasn't far enough along the route. As the weather began to close in we marvelled at the character of the English autumn, which had baked us in sun the day before, and now chilled us to the bone with freezing rain. The path became more and more slippery, the ruts turned into water courses, and the chalky sludge flying up off our tyres caked us and our brakes and gears so thickly that even the driving rain couldn't wash it free. Andy's derailleur was forced apart by the accumulation of mud and stones. On a ride like this you don't mind getting soaked, but how can it get so cold in southern England?
We left the trail near Wanborough, some 15 miles short of our goal, and straggled into Swindon: it took two trains and a further freezing cycle ride to get back to my car. And then half-an-hour's drive to pick up the other car at Risborough. Next time, with better planning and weather we'll make Avebury stone circle. And we'll hire a nice warm bus to bring us back.
The Court Hill Ridgeway Centre, Court Hill, Letcombe Regis, Wantage, Oxfordshire (01235 760253) is about halfway along the route and offers accommodation and a field-studies centre (and DIY tea/coffee and biscuits if you drop in during the day)
'The Ridgeway', by Neil Curtis, is an official National Trail Guide, and is published by Arum Press, 25 Bedford Avenue, London, WC1B 3AT at £10.99Reuse content