The Cheddar Expedition

Last weekend I took advantage of a confluence of events: sunny weather and no parental obligations, to go for a quick ride down to Cheddar and back.

Plan: southwest via Long Ashton/Festival Way to Backwell; meander on to Yatton. From there, the Strawberry Line; a traffic free cycle route along a disused railwayline to Axbridge Cheddar. A curved approach, but a flat one -my left knee is still recovering from something I did to it in January. Cheddar is the other side of the Mendip hills; a minor 300 metre summit, but with most of the roads having sustained 15-25% gradients, it's not easy.

The old railwaypath would get me over on a flat and quiet road, then a single climb up the spectacular Cheddar Gorge, down the other side and then a fairly undulating route home along country lanes.

Departure time: 12:30. Expected return time: 17:00-17:30, "before it gets dark"

Actual return time: 18:30, "an hour after sunset"

To be fair, I did get to see a very dramatic sunset.
Mendips sunset

It's just that I had same feeling you get if you are up some cliff or mountain when the sun goes down and you hadn't intended to be there at that time.

Sunset can mean you are in trouble. It's why sunrise is somewhat a nicer thing to see in the mountains, though as it means that the avalanche, serac collapse and other ice-melt-triggered objective hazards are becoming more likely, even that can be unwelcome. That's in the Alps though. Here sunset is the one to worry about, as it means you have a lot of work in darkness to get home.

Why did I come in an hour late? Route closures.

The first problem was that the Strawberry Line's tunnel through the crest of Mendips was closed. There was no advance signage of this until I got to the path closure, followed a sign through some "farm mud" track, and was the dumped on the A38 road. Of all the routes over the Mendips that you can cycle, this has to be the one marked "least pleasant". At the summit I turned off and got onto a bridlepath, so could get off the main road. Of course, being just a track in the woods, it was fairly muddy, so not having tyres with tread on them meant the descent was fairly slow.

Eventually I did get the bike down, and then continued on to Cheddar, coming in about half an hour late.

When I get to Cheddar though, there are lots of signs "Cheddar Gorge shops still open". That's a warning sign. You only get signs staying "still open" if it was considered likely that you thought they'd be closed -which left me to wondering "why would they be closed".

The reason people may have thought they were closed, as it turned out, were that the gorge road had been shut since November due to flooding. The whole of Mendips is a limestome massif, with all drainage in the southern watershed being underground. There'd been enough rain that the caves flooded and blocked up; the water surfaced in the gorge, and caused lots of problems. Which were now my problems.

At this point it's 3pm, 2-2.5 hours to go, and I'm on the wrong side of the hills with the route I came out of play, and the route I'd planned to take back also closed. This is not ideal. I have some on-road options, but either it's back on the main roads or carry on down to Wells and up, which is pretty time consuming.

Immediate action: cafe for hot chocolate, chocolate of some other form and wifi for the phone to download some high-res OpenStreetMap datasets.

It'd have been straightforward if I'd been a bike set up for the conditions, meaning tyres that had traction or control in mud. I didn't
Cheddar Gorge Bridleway

For the uphill I could just get off and push -at least my shoes had good traction- but the undulations and descents were hard, not least because you don't want to lose control a short distance away from a 200 metre cliff edge:

Cheddar Gorge Bridleway

I didn't get off this bridleway until about 16:30, which then fed forward to the schedule for the rest of the ride. Sunset before I'd got past the airport, darkness from there to home.

Anyway: two route closures and a bicycle not set up for off-road alternative options resulted in me getting home well after dark. That's when you are glad that modern bike lights are so good.

And to be fair, I did get some great views, not just the sunset, but the late sun over the Somerset Levels, here with Glastonbury Tor, sometimes known by its more fanciful name "Isle of Avalon"

The gorge itself is good from up here, though you only see the top half. It cuts right down to sea level, a geological feature from the last ice age.

Cheddar Gorge Bridleway

In 1903 Britain's oldest complete human skeleton was found here: a 9000 year old stone-age era inhabitant of the area.

In 1997 mitochondrial DNA sampling of the town found someone who was a direct descendant on the maternal side.

That's fascinating on it's own: some of the people living in the town are descendants of the same people that lived their nine thousand years earlier. Whatever changes happened in the UK: romans, saxons, vikings, whatever, they just lived through it all. And they came up with what can be -if done properly- a most excellent cheese.

Footnote: cavers cleared out the blocked sinkholes earlier this week and the road is now intermittently open.

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