Gorge to gorge ride
Since I made Bristol my home almost a year ago I’ve been keen to ride out to Cheddar Gorge, that tourist attraction and cyclists’ mecca. I have a vague notion that I visited as a child, but the gorges and caves of Britain fade after a while into one blurred memory of long coach journeys, memorabilia shops and dark, dripping underground passageways. Lying 20 miles to the south of Bristol, across the Mendips, it would be a beautiful ride. Then the Top of the Gorge festival came onto my radar, a weekend celebration of adventure run by the National Trust. This would be the perfect opportunity to visit. With panniers packed and tent strapped to my rear rack, off I went.
The landscape surrounding Bristol is hilly – not surprising, given that Bristol spills out from the Avon valley, its western limits perching above the Avon gorge. To journey to Cheddar from Bristol by road I must pass over Dundry beacon, the legendary hill that each year hosts the ‘Dundry Drubber’, a challenge that takes riders up each of the four Dundry ascents: 3000 feet of climbing with top gradients of 1:4. This was the occasion for such a challenge, to experience the hills that epitomise this landscape, to earn the views that they offer and to enjoy the freewheeling reward. The main A road would be flatter, but it would be busy and noisy and full of Friday night workers, and where’s the fun in that?
The beacon appeared as a wall beyond Bristol’s southern suburbs, with grass and woodland draped like a tablecloth over its apex. The ascent began with an optimistic attack, but soon I had clicked to my lowest gear and settled into the slow pedal-spin that would take me round each hairpin. Each one, I thought, would be the last, but each turn in the road revealed yet more. Almost at the top of the hill, I looked back to see Bristol spread below like a toy town. The high rise buildings stood distant and miniature, the famous Clifton suspension bridge so perfect and small that I felt as though I could reach down and pluck it from its rocky holding. Higher still, the view was of the Severn bridges, clearly visible though almost 20 miles away. Then the road flattened and there was no more hill to climb, instead, a remarkable view to the south of the shimmering expanse of Chew Valley Lake, which made me audibly gasp. With the slope now to my advantage, the miles whizzed easily beneath my wheels and I smiled at approaching cyclists as they fought the incline, nodding to them in acknowledgment of what I had already endured and what they were about to enjoy.
Ahead lay the Mendips, where a heavily wooded ridge seemed to stretch to the ends of the earth. That would be another biting climb, I thought, and it was, the effort to reach the peak causing my front wheel to lift momentarily from the ground. Hills are never over soon, but they are over eventually, and I emerged onto the farmland at the crest, rolling easily towards the Top of the Gorge festival, arriving to a site buzzing with tents, teepees, a music stage, food vans and people. A hot air balloon rose above the crevice of the gorge into the cloudless sky. As the evening wore on the clear blue became pastel, and pinks and oranges stained the horizon. Sun down, tent up. The light lingered long after the sun had dropped below the ridge, and sleep came soon.
I awoke to more hot air balloons and a warm, bright morning sun flooding over a gorge thick with trees. The return journey would be longer in terms of mileage but easier in terms of elevation: I would take the Strawberry Line, a disused railway that runs from Cheddar to Yatton, then return to Bristol following the bed of another railway.
It was a long, slow, winding descent from the top of the gorge to the valley floor, gently weaving round corners, the rock growing ever more towering as the road cut deeper into the gorge, twisting and turning to the village below. The exposed rock faces appeared to grow higher than seemed possible as the road sank from the heights.
Arriving in the village of Cheddar I picked up the route of the old Cheddar Valley line. Once a thriving passage of trade, it became known as the ‘Strawberry Line’ for the volume of strawberries it carried to the London markets. It is now managed by Sustrans as a leisure route for walkers and cyclists – just one of the many disused railway lines that have been converted in this way since the motor car boom of the 1960s caused many branch lines to shut. Along the sun-drenched dusty path I rode, passing between old station platforms and through a tunnel, the clatter of the railway wagons and the echo of the steam train’s whistle long gone.
From there it was an easy return to Bristol along another Sustrans route, where, from Ashton Court, a turn in the path revealed the iconic Clifton suspension bridge reaching from cliff face to cliff face. I’d last seen it from the top of Dundry beacon, where it had seemed so small, and now, from beneath, it appeared impossibly high. From gorge to gorge: a terrific ride.