We all carry with us those most precious childhood memories, be them winning the Under 14s cup final, going to Disney World, or causing chaos with your siblings. For me it’s cycle touring – or more accurately cycle touring with my dad. From the age of about 10, until the endless summer after sitting my GCSEs when I was 16, we would head off on our bikes usually in the direction of mid-Wales. Unfortunately in the 19 years since we last loaded up our bikes and disappeared over the horizon together most of the memories have merged into one trip or a series of snap shots, but a few memories still remain as fresh as ever – making hot chocolate on a train station platform using a brass methylated spirits burner, a night spent sleeping in a bracken patch in a wood, a misjudged moment to ask to stop to put on more clothes to protect my modestly before getting home (a word from the wise; NEVER ask to stop to add more clothes – even if to hide horrendous multi coloured cycling shorts – at the top of a bloody great hill, you won’t be allowed to forget it), the name given to our first trip – ‘Operation Church Stretton’. These memories truly are some of my most treasured possessions.
That is what made this weekend so incredibly exciting for me. Not only was I going to be able to have a nostalgia laden mini tour with my dad, but my son was coming too. There were no grand ambitions of going to mid-Wales or the like – my son is only 6 – merely a night in the wild, with bikes – but more significantly, for me, a test run for what might be possible later this summer and beyond.
The loose plan was, and in my family its only ever loose plans due to the poorest of poor time keeping (much to the despair of my mum), was to head over to a local campsite and set up a basecamp from where we would head out. We ended up getting to the campsite a bit later than I think was initially intended, and after a bit of faffing, loading the bikes and a bit more faffing we are finally ready to leave. Before setting off we had our dinner (it was about half five by this point) and headed out at about the boy’s usual bed time.
We head off along a bridle path which runs along the top of the campsite with a general idea of where we are headed, this didn’t mean we didn’t have to stop to check the map to find our way back to the woods we intended to camp in. With plenty of daylight left we explored woods, passed fields of cattle and followed gravel tracks with sweeping switchbacks before cutting back onto out original track and retracing our tracks a bit to set up our satellite camp for the night.
With a favourable forecast our sleeping arrangement comprised of a den kit (tarp) that my son had for Christmas – this was a bit of a highlight for him as he’d been itching to use it since he got it, complete with a great bit mallet lathed down from a tree branch which had to come too. Once an ideal spot had been found and cleared we set about erecting the tarp, sorry the den kit, and lit a small fire to cook some sardines, make Ovaltine and roast marshmallows – just because we are in a wood doesn’t mean standards have to slip. At about 11pm we turned in.
I was the first to wake properly at about half five to the birds in full voice, this is a much nicer way to be woken rather than the horrible noise my phone makes. Once we are all awake we make our first round of breakfast – a somewhat dirty sounding combination of two Ready Brek sachets (not even real porridge) and chocolate custard sounds so wrong but tasted so right – and a brew. Once done we take down our nights’ accommodation and set about insuring there is no evidence of our visit – cover fire, sweep our sleeping area to get rid of the flattened patch and put our seating area back as it was. Leave only footprints – and not even that if you can help it.
With our camp cleared we head back to the bridal path and on to base camp. The boy has obviously enjoyed his night under the tarp – the near constant “why haven’t we done this before?” and “when can we go again?” are clues – but he is also going up every gradient we hit with the vigour of an excited antelope (I assume excited antelope have some vigour), this is stemmed somewhat when we get to the field of cattle. A herd of 20 or so bullocks are about 15 metres from the gate we are about to go through, and slowly approaching. I will admit at this point that I find cattle a bit intimidating, granted they aren’t the sharpest tools in the shed but they are big buggers. We quickly get through the gate while we can and slowly walk towards them, at this point; predictably, they turn and head off in the other direction. Slightly annoyingly they go along our path so we have to get off and walk again after they stop in another pinch point. Once past this, they run off into the field and we are free to get cycling again. Once across the cattle grid that’s on the far side of their field we stop again remove the deposits of fresh cow pats from our legs – when I say ‘our legs’ I mean my boy’s as he has managed to cover the backs of his legs via his pedals.
Once Cow-gate is dealt with it’s simply a case of retracing our tracks along the bridle path – apart from a planned detour to show me the shelter they built when up here the week before. We get back to basecamp just in time for second breakfast – this time a far more acceptable combination of proper porridge and fresh fruit – and a cup of coffee, which was very welcome. l
So, when are we going again? Soon, very soon hopefully. The summer holidays aren’t all that far away and with Dartmoor on my doorstep and mid-Wales on my parents’ doorstep the possibilities are abundant. Luckily I have plenty of room where I keep my treasured memories, because I’m hoping for a lot more.