By Eddie Smyth
The journey according to Google maps would cover 130 miles and take me around 2 and a half hours. But that entails all but 30 of those miles to be on the M5. I had arranged to visit an old friend in Somerset that I had not seen for almost 10 years. Very remiss of me, now that I live much closer these days since I moved to the Midlands from Scotland a decade ago.
The plan was for me to arrive around lunch time so setting off at the same time as those heading for work was not necessary. I could wait until after the rush hour.
I didn’t. I set off before the roads got busy. Pure biking weather; clear skies cool start and little wind. It would have been sacrilegious to have missed a morning like this to begin the journey and complete heresy if I took the motorway route.
I made my way to Worcester and found the A38 which runs almost parallel to the M5 all the way down. That is if you can keep your eye out for the multiple interchanges and silly roundabouts that will have you spinning off in any direction except the one you want. I must have traveled the A38 a hundred times when I was a schoolboy working with livestock haulage firms instead of doing my homework. That was before the M5 appeared and carved its way through some of the loveliest countryside in the whole of Southern England. Battering along the motorway, when sudden traffic jams, road works and multiple pile ups take all the pleasure out of travelling, is not the way to get a taste of the south and west. ‘A’ roads still exist and often are void of heavy traffic, at least between towns.
The A38 from Worcester snakes you seamlessly to Tewkesbury. A vintage town lined with Tudor buildings and ‘coat of arms’ banners. More tea rooms than London has Starbucks and less parking spaces than Brighton Pier. But at 08:00 in the morning it is a pleasure to ride through. On the other side of the town the same road unravels at fun restricting speed due
to the random limits imposed by money grabbing police forces but you have two advantages to outweigh the frustration. The road is all but empty of other vehicles and the scenery alternates from pleasant to highly pleasant regularly. The hardest part so far though is getting through Gloucester without: (A) being sent to Ross on Wye and Chepstow, since a Sat Nav will continually attempt to divert you that way, or (B) You lose sight of the A38 and you are forced through the city centre and the quayside district, where countless sets of traffic lights keep you stationary for longer than a life sentence. I know this because I got spirited through the centre of Gloucester on both my outward and return journey and due to my curiosity to let my new gadget of a wired up sat nav on the bike to predict the route, it seemed obsessed with directing me through Wales and subsequently over the Severn Bridge. In fact, for most of the journey it had no idea what to do with itself. If I were not familiar with the area all the way down I could have been forced through any number of random routes. It was just as well I was merely checking out the gadget to see if the thing would charge as I rode along.
From Gloucester to Alveston and Bedminster
However, if you stick to your instincts as you bumble through Gloucester and keep heading south you are soon re-introduced to the A38. It’s not long before you are back to an all but empty road which is doubly reassuring as you continue to run parallel with the choked up M5 for virtually the whole way to Thornbury and Alveston. Several small villages are passed through to keep you amused and there are one or two stretches of dual carriageway and roundabouts where you can gain a few yards over any slow moving vehicles that stray into your path.
Once passed Alveston, however, the road clogs as the bigger junctions of the M5 come into play, offering routes to Wales and London as well as the south west. Heading into Somerset offers up two options. A quick spurt on the M5 to get yourself south of Bristol because heading through that city by attempting to follow the A38’s true course will send you down more meandering routes than the Amazon Delta. The second option is to work your way through Avonmouth and then to Bedminster but we are back to the Amazon Delta complex again. It’s a horrible route, with HGV’s heading for the docks and cluttering up the lanes like all the reds on a snooker table trying to fit into one pocket.
The best bet is to chance the M5, by joining at junction 17 and coming off at junction 20. The road planners in this part of ‘Avon’ and Somerset put all their eggs in the M5 basket which is a travesty because this section was notorious for accidents and blockages for decades until they added more lanes up and over the high pass and into Somerset proper and the juiciest part of this whole trip. I should point out at this juncture that here never was any such county as Avon, it was a piece of meddling, bureaucratic nonsense.
Heading to Taunton towards Mendip
Continuing through Wrington you meet the A38 once more which allows you to head on towards Taunton and beyond but I had plenty of time still and took a road named Ashley Lane which heads up into the Mendip Hills that are right before your eyes. Burrington Combe has a great café cum restaurant halfway up the hill. The road is grin achingly fun to ride. The café, a perfect resting and refreshment place. Farther up the hill you pass steep inclines on either side that are thick with trees with sudden gashes of bare rock on various bends. The road snakes perfectly to provide the edges of your tyres with some exercise. There’s even a few discreet acceleration points up here, especially when you reach the top and arrow straight roads appear across open moorland.
Cleeve Hill Road
It is 20 miles from here to Wells. Although you will meet options for sticking to the direct route or cutting across towards Blagdon Lake and the A368 Cleeve Hill road for some more stunning scenery. If you choose the A368 you can take a right at Chewton Mendip for another lovely road to Wells.
In Wells I took a detour towards the cathedral and around some old haunts of mine. I had hardly left school when I last came here. The desire to visit then had a lot to do with the Wells Blue School and some long forgotten infatuation with one of their pupils. I still had time to kill and Shepton Mallet was next up. 10 minutes along the A 371 and then a right turn and a bit of a blast along the A37 which takes you towards Yeovil but my own destination would lead me to Somerton, once the capitol of Wessex. It’s a delightful town with creamy stone walled buildings and the famous Butter Cross which is a stone marquee, now a great place to rest a while and cool off from the blazing sunshine. Somerton has all the rustic charm of centuries old buildings that have been kept in top condition. The pubs and cafés here are too enticing to mention. You would be advised to ignore any urgent deadlines. Everybody else in this place seem to.
I then took the road to Langport and ended my journey in Curry Rivel just 15 minutes later. Taunton is merely 15 minutes farther down this road and I could have made the journey via the M5 junction east of the county town, all the way from the Midlands in less than half the time I took this morning. But when I removed my crash helmet for the last time for the day my smile betrayed the pure pleasure of exploring some of the most beautiful countryside in the whole of England and not just the West Country. Most folk will never have any idea what they are missing as they sit in that 50 mile long caterpillar on the M5 heading for a dollop of Devonshire clotted cream in Torquay or a Cornish pasty and chips in Looe.
I enjoyed my brief visit and had a lovely evening meal in a great pub called the Halfway House, just north of Langport. I felt quite at home. Well I should do. I was born in this county and travelled so many of its narrow roads as a kid helping to collect or deliver cattle, sheep and pigs for market I never needed a map. The name of so many towns are unique, queer and even intriguing. It’s almost like being in the Shires of a Tolkienian tale and in many respects it is just as magical.
Any visitors arriving by chance in the county will easily find places to stay. I spotted many B&B signs along the way and more great looking pubs than a shepherd could wave his crook at. Somerset attracts lots of visitors but most travelers are passing through to the more commercially hyped up towns in Devon and Cornwall: which suits me fine.
On my way back home I stuck more closely to the A38 from Highbridge (the narrow roads through Middlezoy and across to Sedgemore offers awesome back roads but watch out for sudden humped back bridges, to junction 20 and the M5. The motorway was all but gridlocked both ways so filtering was essential if I want to retain any sanity I might still possess and it was a great relief to get off at junction 17 and head back through to Gloucester via the A roads. At this point I headed towards the Malverns and took several back roads all the way home, just because I had the time and the inclination to make the most of this awesome weather and see the South West of England with its best summer frock on. My, she’s so pretty.
I think I covered about 300 miles in all.