I've just got back from a week long holiday. I didn't go anywhere or do anything special. It was one of those last minute decisions and I simply wanted to take it easy for a week. Getting up late, eating cereal for lunch, updating MythTV, the kind of things I never normally have the time for. I did keep an eye on the weather though, as I really wanted to get out on my mountain bike. I'd not managed to since late November, when a friend and I took our bikes to Mike 'kernel' Saunders country (the hills of Cumbria). The good thing about Cumbria is that the mud (and there's always going to be mud!) is of the peaty variety. It doesn't stay on your bike for long, and doesn't really impede progress. Nice clumps of prehistoric fern don't bare any grudges.
The same can't be said for Wiltshire mud, which is more like clay. Last Thursday was a fantastic day. Clear blue skies and the temperature barely got above freezing. Perfect for a ride out onto the Marlborough Downs, I thought. Perfect that is, until you have to contend with Wiltshire mud. I got up early, planned a 20 mile route, and set off on the first leg - a 250 metre ascent to an Iron Age hill fort called Oldbury Castle. This went well, as the ground was frozen. My problems started on the way down.
It wasn't muddy, but I started to notice the tread on my tyres disappearing under a thin sheen of grey. When I got up some speed, this mud trickled off the wheels as if it were liquid. It would then solidify when I stopped the bike. The bike soon became impossible to control. The wheels were now covered in several inches of Wiltshire mud. They wouldn't turn any more, and my bike weighed a ton. I couldn't even change gear because the mud had totally encased the forward and rear mechs. I had to get off. That was bad enough, but I had to get off and push in front of a couple of farmers tending to their fields. John Aubrey, a seventeenth-century English antiquarian, described farmers from these parts as "melancholy, contemplative and malicious". I think Aubrey was mistaken, it was just the mud. I ended up pushing the bike two miles to the nearest road, stopping every 5 metres to scrape bucket loads of mud off the tyres. Perfect for Wattle and Daub, not good for bikes. I did get back, eventually, and spent the rest of the day cleaning the bike. Next time, I'm driving to Wales.