October 19, 2013

Heatwave bike ride chill out in UK's Devonshire tunnel

by Graeme Willingham

Outside, in the UK’s July heatwave, it was a breathless steamy 29. “Close” in the old language. Inside, it was a refreshing misty cool 13. After cycling up from the charming Roman city of Bath in Somerset, the pathway at hilltop Bear Flat slips us into the first of two former train tunnels on our quest for a late afternoon pint of best local bitter in the Hope and Anchor pub in the village of Midford.

Twenty metres inside the Devonshire tunnel we welcome the chilled air. It is 407m long, lit every 25m with low-glow globes on both sides, producing enough light to identify path edge white lines and traffic ahead – fellow leisure cyclists, fast-pedalling lycra-ites, joggers, walkers and potentially dangerous ambling families. The sealed path was damp with condensation.

We switch on our cycle lights, not so much to show the way but to alert approaching traffic of our tentative presence.

After just two minutes, the outside hot air and bright sunlight hits us as we re-emerge to a high-up view of stunningly-lush English countryside, complete with a picturesque wooded lake immediately below where two anglers were lazing in the sun.

It was so slightly uphill and cool in the tunnel we didn’t need to pull over for a breather. We stop though to absorb the postcard aspect.

Onwards through beech trees that form overhead a sun-filtering tunnel of their own. That cover clears and we are in the midst of fields of yellow-white grain crops on the right and the deep green walls of the Avon River valley to our left. On the brow to our right is 1770s folly Midford Castle, once owned by Hollywood actor Nicolas Cage, but the story goes Cage never actually lived there.

We’re hot again so welcome the second tunnel. This is the 1.7km Combe Down tunnel which adds theatre to the cycling sensation. Midway, where thin mist hovers, we’re treated to motion-sensing instrumental music, composed specially for the route by British recording artist Mira Calix. The blue illuminated speakers are positioned in the regular alcoves constructed in the olden days to shelter rail gangers from passing trains.

This is a weird cycling experience ... deep underground, fine fog, moody music from coloured speakers, near darkness, out-of-nowhere flash-by cyclists, very cold air!

At times, we are alone in our visible section of tunnel so the atmosphere becomes enchantingly spooky.

We appreciate the ambience, so dawdle our way towards the natural light somewhere ahead.

This is now the longest cycle tunnel in Europe and belongs to the Two Tunnels Greenway recreational shared-use city-to-countryside pathway which was opened in April this year.

It runs under Combe Down, the high ground immediately south of Bath and was created as a short cut link to the Bath canal path to form a 20km circuit. It also joins UK’s national cycle network. The pathway’s $3million restoration was funded via the enviro charity group Sustrans.

After sidling past the defunct Midford platform, the destination pub provides the essential electrolyte replacement therapy for us athletes. This pub has been re-invigorated as a direct result of the pathway’s launch. Big seller on a substantial menu is the salmon fish cakes we are told by Georgia, the bar manager. We pose with our pints for the been-there-done-that photo under the big framed trout. Given its prominent archway display, this piece of scaly silver was caught locally, we assumed, but it seems it was hooked in Norway.

The tunnels were such a buzz we decide to return via the same route. Our options were to continue on for another taster at the Fox and Badger in Wellow, or take the downhill track to Tucking Mill and Monkton Combe to reach the canal tow path and so complete the circuit back to Bath. The scenery along the canal is peppered with brightly colourful tethered or cruising canal boats (a few are in state of neglect) so would have been an appropriate contrast to the muted tones in the tunnels.

Not that we were physically extended by the pathway’s slight incline to reach our pub destination, but the free-wheeling downhill coasting back to Bath was a real breeze, in more ways than one.

The tunnels provided us with reviving refrigeration, but come England’s winter and its plunging temperatures, their constant temperature might just be a comparative hothouse.

Bicycles can be hired in Bath from around $10 for the first hour and $2 per extra hour.

See. www.twotunnels.org.uk

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