“Haven’t seen one of them folding bikes for a while.”
The shop-man spoke in the worzelly tone typical of Wessex, rolling the latter word reflectively around his mouth like a sweet. “Must be handy on the bus.”
“Actually, I’ve come by train;” I said, “from Yorkshire.”
Otherwise everything was quiet. It was Sunday afternoon in Frome, and the peaceful Georgian streets were surprisingly empty. Somerset and its adjoining county Wiltshire are both relatively wild and unpopulated: the perfect place to begin an adventure. Over three days I would ride my folding Brompton bicycle almost 100 miles into Hampshire, wild camping alone in the downs and pausing beside all the rivers I crossed.
My southern watery travels were inspired by two books: Rob Fryer’s Wild Swimming Guide and The South Country by Edward Thomas. Unable to bring both volumes on the bike, I’d photographed Fryer onto my phone but carried Thomas in my handlebar bag, which somehow seemed a more fitting place to keep a war poet. In the years before his death in the Great War, Thomas wandered extensively in southern England, writing both of common things and the rarities only seen at the margins of day and place. Fryer too had explored widely, providing directions to exclusively-named riverside spots like Tisbury Row and Teffont Evias. With Fryer to guide me in geography, and Thomas in spirit, I hoped to make my own watery discoveries in the region Thomas Hardy called ‘Mid-Wessex’.
With my shopping rattling on the rear rack, I cycled out of town and was soon in Wiltshire. On the narrow roads the traffic was sparse and the humid air drizzly with flies. The reedy verges smelled of marshland and great laddered oaks climbed into the sky. I was heading for the Wylye valley and the high downlands above Kingston Deverill, one of six small villages collectively known as the Deverills. Besides the occasional farm, they are the only settlements in a blank wedge of land of perhaps forty square miles, which may be one of the remotest areas in the south. Their historical value is immense; on Court Hill Alfred the Great was said to have gathered his men before battle, and on Whitecliff Down, where I would camp, was once a Romano-Celtic temple and ancient village, now buried beneath the thistles and the flints.
I made camp on the spine of the ridge, in a patch of yellow buttercups where fewer thistles grew and the ground was soft. Twelve miles away The Who was playing at Glastonbury, their thudding bass reduced to smothered vocals and discordant vibrations by the faint west wind, like a guitar behind a brick wall. Thousands of revellers would soon be crammed into tents beside inebriated neighbours, while mine were the hooting owls and a fox barking ferociously in the wood above the coombe. I read Thomas until the words ran with the blackening sky and taller grasses swayed above their peers, girls on the shoulders of a crowd, beneath threadbare clouds tinged with pink.
At midnight I was still awake, disturbed by little gusts of wind scurrying through the grass and something large blundering past – which might well have been an escaped lion from the nearby safari park at Longleat. Then, out of the dewy darkness of the valley a white star rose, prickly and silent at first, growing in magnitude and sound as it drifted closer, growling lazily like a dying wasp. It was joined by another identical light, both seeming to change direction and colour at will, becoming green, red and dazzling white as they advanced. Sitting up on my elbow, I felt like a fugitive being hunted down by some omnipotent force. Although this was clearly a military night-flying exercise, I could understand why some people are convinced UFOs not only exist, but are oddly drawn to Wiltshire. In the 1960s, sightings of a luminous phenomenon called ‘The Warminster Thing’ generated huge local excitement, and nearby Cley Hill became world renowned for UFO spotting. When no explanation was ever found, a furore steadily grew. Desperate to find proof of alien life, ragtag bands of ufologists and ‘truthseekers’ garbed in faded jeans and earrings still try to break into the hidden tunnels near Bath, which lead to a secretive bunker they call ‘Britain’s Area 51’.
By midday on Monday I was halfway across Wiltshire and, thankfully, still on Earth. I’d woken to a cold, misty morning, to the birds singing on the clouds above my head and cattle grazing the slopes above the river. After the futuristic night the weak light of dawn washed the country with age, and as I pushed my bike along the bumpy track I almost believed it was the 19th century and one of Hardy’s characters would come shuffling over the hilltop ahead. Instead I met a man in a cowboy hat and, following Fryer’s directions, sped away through the Nadder valley: past archaic ploughs rusting in the fields; over bridges where the river was candid and showy; along gritty little lanes swaddled in hedgerows; to dead ends where shy streams whispered behind the trees. I climbed a dark holloway to the top of Wiltshire’s ‘Great Ridge’ before descending – my little wheels buzzing like grasshoppers – back to the Wylye valley at Hanging Langford, where I once bathed in the little green pool beneath the willow tree. Hot after miles of cycling, I swam several widths, the chilly water again polarising my thoughts, numbing out the non-priorities and petty concerns that just aren’t important when you’re in a river. This is physical stress of an unusual kind – but like riding a bike, it only serves to nurture and relax the mind.
Afterwards I laid my dew-drenched camping gear to dry in the sun and watched the dragonflies, and people coming and going with dogs and fishing rods; then I packed up and cycled out of Wiltshire towards the New Forest and the next of Fryer’s rivers: the Hampshire Test.