I-Spy Jubilee Britain

A couple of roads (and any number of bridleways) across Salisbury Plain are often closed by Army training exercises. Perhaps the most (in)famous of these is the road through Imber village – whose entire civilian population was evacuated in 1943 to provide a training area for troops preparing for the invasion of Europe. Since then, the village has remained in military hands and civilians are only allowed in for a few days each year. The Jubilee weekend provided one of those rare opportunities.

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The road proved far better than the sign suggests!

A break in the Jubilee downpour allowed me to escape the four walls slowly closing in around me at home. My plan was to ride across the Imber road to Warminster, then through Gillingham to Shaftesbury, before returning along two river valleys – down the Nadder valley to Wilton before a stiff up and over into the Avon valley and the last few miles home. Not only was this a great 73-mile ride, it also turned into an 'I-Spy book of British images'.

The first few miles riding out through Larkhill were cold and full finger gloves would have helped. However a glance south provided a distant view of Stonehenge (Ancient monument: score 10 points), although it was marred by several coaches already at the visitor centre by 9am. Establishing a good cadence warmed me up and I turned off onto the Tilshead road that skirts Westdown military camp – my first road 'less travelled' due to army closures. In the five miles to Tilshead, I saw no cars and only one other cyclist – virtually my own private road. At Tilshead I joined the A350 for a quick thrash to Gore Cross and the left turn to Imber.

There are many signs at the start of the road warning the public not to venture further if red flags are flying, and not to venture off the carriageway due to unexploded military debris. Despite these warnings, the road is fantastic for cycling and rises gently onto the top of the Plain. Approaching Imber village is quite surreal – it nestles down in a hollow, it's presence first given away by the church tower, but what really hits you is how quiet it is – the lack of man-made noise seemingly amplifying the birdsong. Most of the buildings are modern shells used by the army for live firing urban-fighting training. The church is now the only intact original building and it remains a consecrated church, opening on special occasions such as this weekend. Refreshments were being served and although early I succumbed...(Cream tea: score 10 points. For church funds: bonus 5 points).

But I wasn't the only one taking advantage of the Plain roads being open. Once a year, a bus service runs through the village using vintage Routemaster buses (the iconic red London bus). Bizzarely bikeroutetoaster.com et al actually show the village bus stop on their maps! So at 10:10am, four Routemasters arrived along with the prototype new London bus (the 'Boris bus'), operating out of London for the first time ever apparently Red London bus: score 10 points. New 'Boris bus': bonus 5 points).

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You wait 69 years for a bus to turn up.....and then five turn up together....

The ride onwards towards Warminster was enlivened by bus racing, rusting tanks and bizarrely a busking bagpiper about a mile from the nearest habitation although his playing may explain that distance Bagpipes: score 10 points)..

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The height gained gradually since Imber is lost suddenly on the long, steep Sack Hill into Warminster – my speedy descent was interrupted and somewhat enlivened by the realisation that there were speed bumps at the Army check point halfway down. I cycled through the pretty town centre and out across the by-pass onto the A350 for an encounter with the Deverills – four villages set along the River Wylye – all picture-postcard villages with thatched cottages (score: 5 points), red phone boxes (score: 5 points) and an old AA sign (score: 10 points). Adding to the iconic British imagery was a black cab (score: 5 points) in Brixton Deverill (not sure he should have been south of the river at that time of day!) and a village fete (score: 5 points) in Kingston Deverill.

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Lots of points on offer here....

Beyond the Deverills, a stiff climb out of the valley gave me the opportunity to watch gliders being winched into the air on the hillside opposite. The weather was improving and for once I was climbing well, which got me humming Jerusalem...
...O clouds, unfold. Bring me my chariot of fire. I will not cease from mental fight...

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To further mis-quote from Jerusalem...
'And was the holy Lamb of God on England's pleasant pastures seen?'
Well yes actually! (score: 5 points)

Then a dive downhill into Mere, where they appeared to be celebrating the Jubilee with as many Scottish Saltire as Union Flags. The town square is classic England – clock tower opened by the Prince of Wales in 1868 (score: 5 points), war memorial (score: 5 points) and half-timbered Inn once used by Royalty (Charles II, 1651) (score: 10 points), although unfortunately (score: -5 points) as the building is actually stone built and had it's mock tudor facade added in the 1920s!

Highlights of my route through Gillingham and on towards Shaftesbury were distinctly automotive – three classic Rolls Royces in convoy (score: 5 points), a Morris Minor (score: 5 points) and unfortunately those icons of Modern Britain – white van man passing horribly close to cyclist (score -5 points) and fast food litter on the roadside (score: -5 points).

The roadside sign welcoming you to Shaftesbury announces itself as 'a Saxon hill-top town' – it wasn't joking, the hill into town went on and on steadily upwards. The sign also indicated that the town was originally twinned with a W.German town, although the 'W.' had been painted over. Poignant to think that I started the day in a village evacuated so the army could prepare to fight the Germans, and now I was seeing a sign reflecting the post-war division of Germany, the re-growth of links between our two countries and latterly Germany's reunification.

Back to the I-Spy and the reason for riding to Shaftesbury – perhaps one of the most iconic views in Britain. Gold Hill was immortalised in the famous Hovis bread advert (Score: 15 points). It gains 24 metres in height over a length of about 150 metres and I wanted to cycle up it. Largest sprocket selected and up I went.... The climb is wickedly steep and enlivened by three things – (1) it is cobbled, which makes picking a line interesting, (2) tourists have a nasty habit of stopping to take photos, unaware that some idiot may be cycling up the hill towards them unable to steer normally due to the aforementioned cobbles, and (3) you have a ready-made audience sitting outside the cafe at the top – but at least they gave me a round of applause when I made it! The jelly legs took ten minutes to wear off!

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I made it up! (Score: bonus 5 points)

Leaving Shaftesbury behind, I quickly regained the country lanes along the Nadder valley past Teffont Manor and Wardour Castle towards Tisbury. Looking over one of the many bridges, I could see trout in the chalk stream below (score: 5 points). A little further on, a green woodpecker raced me along the road for a short length before diving back into the surrounding woodland. However the village of Dinton provided the biggest 'I-Spy' catch of the day – Royalty! Firstly, the Queen (score: 50 points) – well OK – a young girl on her way to a street party dressed up as HRH – but she did at least give me a Royal wave, much to the amusement of her mum. And then the Queen and Prince Phillip (score: 50 points) – well OK – the balcony scene at Buckingham Palace re-created behind a Juliet balcony on a modern house.

After many miles of quiet cycling, Wilton seemed a virtual metropolis with traffic lights, tourist coaches and the very British image of smokers spilling out of the pubs into the 'fresh' air (score: -5 points). The bowls club was busy with white-clad bowlers in action (score: 5 points) and the Wilton Carpet factory shop and the garden centre appeared busy. Judging by the car park, Wilton House was proving popular too.

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Wilton House marks the Jubilee. Stately Home (score: 10 points)

The big climb out of Wilton gained sufficient height for a distant view of Salisbury Cathedral, (Cathedral, score: 5 points). before a switchback descent into the Woodford valley and then the steady climb up the valley towards Amesbury and then home. My final I-Spy entry of the day? Once home, feet up with a very British mug of tea and digestive biscuits (Score: 5 points!).

6 comments on “I-Spy Jubilee Britain”

  1. sm wrote:

    Now that's a lovely ride. Very nice.

  2. Patrick wrote:

    Great Post Tim. Maximum points, almost – a Spitfire and Lancaster Bomber would have clinched it. Spitfire pilots, of course, were allowed to smoke in pubs.

    The Jubilee Beacon we went to see on Monday night receives null points, stifled, as it was, by risk assessment and the dead hand of health & safety in modern Britain. A local Council gas appliance that could barely be seen 100 yards away.

    Speaking of appliances – and this is positive – we called an ambulance the other day (all is well) and were told by 999 to expect the First Response by a man on a bicycle. This was the first I've heard of Bicycle Ambulances and it made me quite proudly British in a London Blitz sort of way, until I discovered that it's a world-wide phenomenon from Namibia to Nepal!

  3. Kern wrote:

    Full points indeed.

    unexploded military debris

    Talk about the danger of a blowout :) .

  4. Hilary wrote:

    That was definitely an interesting ride. I'd forgotten all about I-Spy books – do they still publish them?

    Well done for getting up that hill at Shaftesbury. I've seen it, its a brute!

  5. Chris wrote:

    Spiffing stuff, Tim. I think you were a bit hard on yourself with only 5 points for both visiting and cycling up the 'Hovis' hill. There was quite a bit of bunting out on my ride home on Tuesday. I probably should have stopped to snap Hutton Rudby as it looked like a very patriotic village indeed.

    [edit: just re-read and I see there were a total of 20 points for 'Hovis' hill 😳 that's more like it.]

    PS I think the Boris Bus should be worth minus five points, actually 😉

  6. Ken wrote:

    Yes Hilary, I-Spy Books are still published – by Michelin! In colour and still exciting! 😀
    Great blog, Tim!

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