… and so it begins

Our dear friends Emily and Ben are to tie the knot at St Michael’s Church in Enmore tomorrow. Nicky and I are fortunate enough to have been invited as guests of the wedding and the subsequent reception at Halswell House in Goathurst. This fits in rather well with my sailing from Plymouth on Sunday, so rather than offer myself to the demons of motorway traffic before the wedding I choose to ride to Somerset a day early and try my luck in finding accommodation. More of that later.

The ride, a straight line from West London to Bridgwater, typified everything there is about a true British Bank Holiday. Black clouds loomed in all directions as soon as I ended the first and only spell of motorway riding that I hope to endure on this trip; a 22 mile M4 yawn culminating on the exit to the A4 just past Reading. A word about my riding gear. I wear Cordura and Gore-Tex in favour over leather these days, because it is comfortable over a much larger temperature range, because it’s waterproof yet breathable, and because it dries much faster. The only drawback is that even though you are dry underneath, your clothes themselves remain sodden on the outside until they’re dried naturally – hanging them over a radiator or in front of a fire is forbidden for Gore-Tex. This is all well and good, but a bulky jacket and trousers make for uncomfortable bedfellows if you’re staying in a tent small enough to be carried easily on a bike.

Not that I was planning on camping tonight; a wet night or morning don’t make for a speedy campsite getaway, and I do have a wedding to go to the next day, but I was very much aware that it’s the late summer (hah!) Bank Holiday and ad-hoc budget accommodation would be in short supply. The weather, ever unsympathetic to my plans, took a turn for the worse and the strong winds we’ve enjoyed for the past day or so were joined by rains of truly biblical proportions. I stopped at a petrol station just as things kicked off in earnest and donned my trusty all-in-one plastic romper suit. Even if I have to sleep in a tent tonight, I’ll only have one item of wet clothing and that can spend the night in a plastic bag for all I care.

On I ploughed, a cross between the Michelin Man and some crazy S&M Tellytubby, through water that at times stood high enough on the road to hide the kerbstones both sides. As I travelled west it occurred to me that whomever rents out temporary traffic lights and plastic cones must give local authorities a special discount on public holidays – there is no other explanation. I did feel sorry for the drivers of mile after mile of stationary metal as I sloshed past with my hazards on.

A horse stands in front of an etching of a horse in the hillside

Newbury gave way to Devizes, Trowbridge to Wells, Street to Horsey, until after about 3 hours of leaving home I squelched into Bridgwater, and started looking for the Admiral Blake, a local guest house I had earmarked on the strength of the one review that was to be found of any Bridgwater guest accommodation, or at least as far as Google Maps was concerned. Naturally I didn’t want to spoil the spontaneity and romance of my trip by actually phoning first and enquiring as to the availability of rooms – if all 14 advertised bedrooms were ultimately occupied prior to my arrival then I’d simply whip out the phone and try the nearest B&B – this is Somerset after all. But spontaneity and romance will only get you so far if you’re standing with your finger on the bell of a guest house in a town that looks as though most of its inhabitants have not long had their own shoes. I’m sorry; I try not to be judgemental of a place until I’ve spent some time there, but wow! No parking at all, the front door meeting pavement head-on for fear of falling knocker-first onto a dual carriageway, and a B&B sign whose bottom line almost pleadingly proclaims that contractors are welcome, though failing to make clear whether this would be as guests or as renovators. To be fair I doubt that even I would answer the door to a damp skinhead with a motorbike, so after the fourth ring I gave up and turned again to Google Maps on the trusty mobile, which so far had resisted all of my attempts to drown it. I called 6 B&Bs. All went to voicemail. Reasoning that I have a tent and good spirits I decided to ride to the nearest one and try my luck – if they’re full then perhaps they’d let me camp in their field.

As it turns out they were full, and there wouldn’t have been room in the “field” for my tent and my bike, but I could try asking at the Post Office on the Spaxton Road as they also have rooms. In any event there were further guest houses along the same road, so I should be able to find something. The Post Office was, predictably, full and didn’t even have a field (can’t think why) so I carried on in the hope of finding something before having to resort to calling the Premier Inn. I stopped to ask directions of a sweet old lady, who was out for a walk in the rain, and pointed me in the direction I had just come, informing me that it’s “the house after the white one on the right”. I duly turned around, and passed about 400 yards of alternating white and brick houses with no distinguishing features other than the lack of Bed and Breakfast signs. Oh well. I pulled over and consulted the insofar useless Google Maps again, picking at random the nearby Blackmore Farm B&B. This time I would phone. “You have a room? 45 pounds? I’ll be there in about 10 minutes” (The Premier Inn – shame on me – starts at 59 pounds midweek, and would in all likelihood be double that on a Bank Holiday weekend)

A large wooden dining room table in a hall with a big fireplace and an ancient suit of armour Setting sun illuminates the side of a stone farm building

Blackmore Farm turned out to be the treat that made the whole day worthwhile. The 15th century grade 1 listed manor house stands atop an impressive driveway, with views across miles of rich pasture. Wisteria and other assorted creepers cover the walls either side of a thick oak door, which Rachel opened directly onto a dining room containing a single long table and 16 chairs. The stuffed head of a stag hangs at one end, flanked on either side by Cromwellian helmets and breast plates. Another fine example of taxidermy crowns a fireplace big enough to swallow my bike, while a complete suit of armour points suggestively at a bowl of fruit on the table in front of it. The two walls devoid of mounted forna are covered in tapestries. I’m still trying to catch my breath as I’m shown to my room; a generous double atop a fairytale staircase, with its own single bed annex and en-suite bathroom. The obligatory Russell Hobbs is joined on the antique dresser by fine bone china cups and saucers for two, a carafe of fresh water, a bottle of squash, brimming fruit bowl and plate of chocolates. An abandoned pair of brogues pine for their owner in the antique wardrobe, with only a bath robe and additional blankets for company. Bliss.

Wooden doorway and window in a stone wall

Moments later Ann brings me fresh towels and the breakfast menu, which I am to complete and leave on the table downstairs at my leisure. I opt for Somerset Smokies (toasted muffin with scrambled egg and smoked salmon), fresh grapefruit and croissants. After unloading the bare minimum of luggage from the bike parked under my window, I adjourn to the Malt Shovel Inn on Ann’s recommendation, just a short walk up the lane.

Low ceilings and tasteful traditional pub décor greet the weary traveler at the Malt Shovel, where Helen pulls me a pint of Butcombe Bitter, silver medal winner at the 2009 Great British Beer Festival. I’m early, and take a table in a cosy corner of the bar just as the heavens open again outside. Chicken liver pate and farmhouse toast arrives as Billie Holiday notes the stormy weather, as does a second pint of Butcombe. A row of earthenware jugs wait patiently for their owners on hooks in a beam above the bar; Tim, Don, Jon, MG, IGG, RQ, BT, Shirley, Monkey Man and Monkey Man’s Missus.

A white Morris Minor car parked outside The Maltshovel pub

A cricket trophy comprising of a ball nailed to a plaque and surrounded by engraved silver shields hints at happy summer afternoons and the sound of leather on wood. Brymore claimed victory of the inaugural match of 1983, with the trophy going back and forth between theirs and the Malt Shovel XI’s year after year until 1993, the most recent shield and one bearing Brymore’s name. Yet the trophy rests at the Malt Shovel.

I want to ask what happened to Brymore but am distracted by the arrival of fresh Marlin steak on mixed leaf salad. The locals start trickling in. A middle-aged couple argue unenthusiastically at the bar (why can’t she ever make a decision?) before they’re joined by friends who steer the conversation to football – surely safe ground – and the merits of Chelsea versus Fulham. Outside it rains horizontally.

A plate of food and a pint of Butcombe beer stand on a pub table