Coda - In Search of Alfred - CycleBlaze

May 7, 2017

Coda

In Search of Arthur...

I had a rematch booked with the Wansdyke, but first I wanted to look at something south of where I live. After a 14 hour work shift the day before, my customary early start was never going to happen. Pottering around in the morning, I finally set off about midday, stitching together a route broadly based on NCR 26 through into the county of Dorset. Minor roads free of traffic took me through absurdly pretty villages.

Converted mill house.
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My destination was the village of South Cadbury and its adjacent hillfort. You get a sense of the size of these earthworks when looking back from the onward route.

Cadbury Castle - perhaps better known as Camelot...
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The castle is a prominent hill surrounded by ditches, with an obvious defensive perimeter. Trees and scrub now cover the slopes, but would probably have been cleared when it was an active defensive position. Archaeological excavation has yielded evidence of Bronze and Iron Age habitation going back to 3000BC, but it starts getting really interesting from AD43 onwards, when it seems the fort was captured by the Romans during their invasion of Britain. It was inhabited periodically over the following centuries, including a large community in the late Fifth and Sixth Centuries, and shortly after the time of King Alfred in the Tenth and early Eleventh Centuries.

Riding the defensive perimeter of the Camelot earthworks. My onward route followed rough tracks over the hills in the background.
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Also known as Camelot, the hillfort is considered one of the more likely sites of the court of King Arthur....

At this point, you need to put aside any idea of knights riding round in medieval plate armour, looking for the Holy Grail. The legend of Arthur is obfuscated by so many layers of myth and romance that it's almost impossible to determine any underlying truth. However, if he did exist, it was as a military leader in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Roman Empire. You'd have to imagine a scenario where, following centuries of stability, society was falling apart under both internal pressures and external attack. You could probably throw in a whole bunch of religious angst as well: repent sinners, the end is nigh...

Arthur would have been a remnant of the old order, desperately trying to engender hope and hold things together. In a world of bandits, brigands and attacking Germanic tribes, it would have made sense to re-purpose strong defensive sites such as Cadbury Castle, using them as administrative bases. It seems ironic to me that this legendary British King, Arthur, was fighting off Germanic Angles and Saxons, who later came to personify what it means to be English. We'll come back to that later, but meanwhile I had a train to catch. Carrying on along bridleways, rough unclassified roads and country lanes, I dropped into Yeovil in time to catch the 16:58 to Bradford-on-Avon in Wiltshire.

This is the kind of road riding I like: sunken lanes dropping me into Yeovil.
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Hitting Bradford-on-Avon by 18:00, I set out along the Kennet & Avon Canal towpath, part of Sustrans NCR4. On a pleasant evening it's a lovely ride past the houseboats, although I wouldn't want to be on it earlier in the day when it'd be too crowded for stress-free cycling. Sustrans have done great work with their signposted cycle-ways, although I tend to avoid the railway conversions, which have been adopted by dog walkers principally as places to take their pets for a shit. The suggested road routes, marked up on Landranger maps, are always worth following if you're looking for a quiet A-B connection that avoids motorised traffic.

Peeling off from the canal before hitting Devizes, I stopped for a quick pint then winched my way up onto a hillfort for the sunset and an overnight bivi.

Waking to the dawn chorus; the woods in the background were alive with birdsong.
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The hillfort is fenced off so livestock can't get in and graze the scrappy grass clinging to the dry, calcareous chalk soil. As a result, at this time of year the ground is covered in wildflowers.

Cowslips and orchids.
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After a couple of cereal bars and a large mug of coffee, I was away by 06:45, riding rough tracks through to the Wansdyke. The name is a contraction of 'Woden's Dyke,' reflecting the fact it was constructed in the late Fifth or early Sixth Century (again, the immediate post-Roman period). It consists of a large linear earth mound with a ditch on its north side, stretching for 35 miles across the rolling Wiltshire countryside.

Riding the Wansdyke.
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It's believed it was built by native Britons as a border defence against Angles and Saxons invading from the north and east. The timing is interesting; as with South Cadbury castle (Camelot) it's been specifically linked to King Arthur and his greatest military victory, the Battle of Mons Badonicus, in which he dealt the Saxons a resounding defeat (although they subsequently supplanted the Britons, driving them west into what became the Celtic margins of the British Isles).

Today, the dyke is a grassy mound covered in wildflowers, with hawthorn trees growing on the more sheltered spots. It's breached in places, tracks and gravel roads passing through it as it climbs and falls over the landscape. Despite a nagging NE wind I had a fast, flowy ride over Tan Hill; early morning dew, no people, and a surprisingly entertaining bridleway descent taking me into Pewsey for a pastry breakfast...

Then it was just a case of making my way back to Bradford-on-Avon along a route based around NCR4: minor roads, bridleways, gravel roads and the K&A towpath.

Bluebell woods along Sustrans NCR4.
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Sidestepping the dubious delights of Devizes, I dropped down next to the remarkable Caen Hill Locks, a system of stepped chambers designed to permit the canal to climb up/drop down from the Wiltshire uplands onto the plains of the River Avon.

Gates on the Caen Hill Locks uplift, Kennet and Avon Canal.
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A quick blast along the towpath back into Bradford-on-Avon, a pint in a canalside pub then home on the midday train.

I enjoyed this little voyage back into Arthurian legend, linked in with the King Alfred trip. All this history slots in together, and it's hard not to draw comparisons with contemporary events: nation states building walls to keep out unwanted visitors, ethnic groups trying to stem the flow of inward migration by alien insurgents...

But what goes around comes around, and a week earlier I'd been riding along Offa's Dyke, a long ditch-and-wall defence built by the Anglo-Saxons a century before the time of Alfred – to keep out the Celts (i.e. the pre-existing native Britons) they'd driven west into Wales!

Isolationism and wall building don't work. There is an inexorable tide of history that washes over this kind of thinking. The Great Wall of China did nothing to stop invasion by the Mongols and Manchu Qing; they simply got absorbed and assimilated into the Han Chinese dream, appropriated by the people and culture they ostensibly conquered. The same thing happened in the UK, waves of incoming invaders who subsequently became 'British' themselves, redefining what it means to be a native of the British Isles. Maybe one day it'll happen in the US, too...

Today's ride: 180 km (112 miles)
Total: 460 km (286 miles)

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