We're headed back to Bath for a few days in a few weeks and I for one, will insist on exploring on two feet rather than two wheels. The only way I'd say that biking in Bath is at the top of my list of must-dos would be if you took that lengthy list, turned it upside down,shook it hard and jumped on it a few times. Anyone foolish enough to insist on biking the Bath Skyline Trail should note that the updated (shorter single loop) version has little levels in the map key indicating steepness of terrain. They're not kidding.
Looking Backwards 2002: Somerset, July
Fortunate are those who find the rental company early (the one hidden behind the railway station) hire a shiny new two wheeler and pedal down the very flat and pleasant Kennet and Avon tow path. Less fortunate are we who take our time and saunter in to find the choice of hire is down to two bicycles which look suspiciously like the ancient three speeds tossed in the basement back home twenty years ago. Solidly made of heavy steel , squeaky brakes, squeaky gears, we "adjust" our hard little euro- seats and pedal in the opposite direction.
Tom, as always, has a map. The National Trust suggests we take the Six Mile Bath Skyline Circular Walk. I point out that map says walk, see it's in the title. Tom says bike. First stop, straight uphill. The map itself (50 p back then) is quite pretty. Folded into an easy eight quadrants, the front shows a bucolic view over the city, three quadrants describe Features of Interest and ask us to keep in mind that the paths may be muddy so stout shoes are advisable.
The map itself is shades of green with the darker bits the lilting woods (Rainbow, Bathwick, Smallcombe, Bushey Norwood and the Fairy Wood). Prior Landscape Gardens is on our route. The map, decorated with butterflies and birds, is flat and there is no indication that the walk-- is not.
The next five hours are spent pedaling bike, braking bike, viewing Features of Interest, pushing bike, throwing bike (hard) and self (gently)on ground at regular intervals, and wobbling through the middle of cow pastures, contemplating the challenge of stile-biking. My stout shoes are more than muddy.
Prior Park, delightful as it is, with its gorgeous Palladian Bridge view of Bath, is on a serious gradient not mentioned on the map. Walking down to the Bridge is a good idea. Biking is not.
Rainbow Wood Fields is described on the map as offering budding Dog's Mercury, Wild Garlic and Hart's Tongue Fern for the walker's enjoyment. Enticing Features of Interest include birds. There are those of us who will recall Donovan singing sweetly about Chiff Chaffs, and there are few who would not be willing to pedal down a summery meadow path in hope of sighting a Willow Warbler or a Green Woodpecker. While we do find the Wild Garlic (not difficult even with eyes closed), the map is mum to what makes a Chiff Chaff.
There comes the moment (as it always does) when, glaring down at the map, I point out, with some expository description, that what might be a lovely walk, does not make a lovely bike ride. My bike refuses to a: lose weight or b: do any of the work itself. Only one of the forward gears works and the brakes are the kind that require the rider to drag her stout shoes on the ground to avoid hitting things. I suspect that once again, just as in that first ride many years ago over the dunes from Herring Cove to Race Point Beach, Tom, on his "men's bike" has the sleeker ride. Mine is clearly designed for being gently ridden side saddle down level village lanes. No one in America would attempt this vertiginous ride unless suitably mounted on a high- tech 22 speed mountain bike with five brakes and wide gel seat which cost more than a Volkswagen.
Having now cycled through most of the nonsensical loops of the map's dotted red line along Skyline Walk, we race down the long hill to the Fairy Wood, up the steep climb to the University and pant for breath. Pushing the bike through hummocks and bovine deposits on bovine pastures affords a view over the city of Bath--not bad. View of extremely annoyed charging mother of darling baby calf--not good.
Circuiting Bushey Norwood (early Iron Age hill-fort guarded by cows left undisturbed and unseen by us) around the golf course (more cow pastures), and Bathwick Wood, past the Golf Club (toilets closed to non-members)we stop for a breather under the arch of Sham Castle. Finally coasting down, down, down, feet gently slowing the descent as we head for the lowlands, we glide along flat lanes to the Bathampton Cricket Grounds ("friendly"game in progress) and head for The George.
No place finer than The George on a Sunday afternoon. Sited right on the canal, its lazy courtyard is full of Sunday diners, so we take our drinks up to the canal bank and watch the cricket on the other side. The great thing about cricket is that you can look at other things for a while (narrow boats, walkers, cyclers, Willow Warblers) or leave altogether to go get another drink or a sandwich or walk to London and back, and you've missed little.
By the time we lazily pedal back along the canal towards Bath, the sun has shifted towards evening and I wish the day would never end. Tom laughs so hard at this that he falls off his bike, pretending that he meant to. The bike ride, I agree, now we're on flat land, was exhilarating. We idly watch a few couples headed towards incipient divorce trying to navigate their holiday hire narrow boats through the canal locks.
"Maybe", I say, later on, after we have wheeled our way through Stanley Gardens, returned the bikes, eaten enchiladas at Las Iguana's and are sitting outside the Hobgoblin in the suprisingly dark city night, "we should try that next time." "Try what?" asks Tom, happily halfway through his pint of Wizard's Staff.
"You know, narrow boating."