Sheer limestone walls towered over a hundred meters above, cut by a million years of melt water. As I squeeze the throttle the guttural rumble of the 40-year-old V8 reverberates like a million murmurs over the cold rock face. Kicking down, the three-speed gearbox lazily engages a lower gear and the British racing green Triumph Stag lurches forward with a bark from the twin exhausts, a whir from the carburettors and a smell of petrol on the air.
I was driving the B3153, an iconic road cutting through the Mendip Hills in Somerset deep in the south of the UK. Iconic as the narrow road would finally wind through the dramatic Cheddar Gorge, a 3 km long, 137 m deep slash of limestone and Black Rock slate. The plan was to visit this gorge on the Whyte Wessex road bike stashed safely on the rear leather seats, but I had a little time to burn and could not resist a quick detour through the steep walls in the 1975 Triumph Stag on the way to the meeting point.
The 3.0 litre V8 grumbled menacingly, spitting golden beach leaves in its wake like flecks of fire. Inside the cabin, the sun danced lazily over the chrome dials recessed in the cracked wooden dash. This was a car from another time, a time before airbags and traction control, the driving sensation was visceral with heavy steering and brakes that needed a firm push and a sense of humour. My destination was the medieval town of Wells, but the sun was shining and the Triumph was running sweet, so I buried the throttle and prepared to take the longer way.
Rumbling around the one-way system in Wells I was reminded of the cars past life, drawing admiring glances from pensioners as they strolled the pavements. Wells is a beautiful city, but also tiny, renown to be Britain’s smallest, with a skyline punctuated by the impressive Cathedral. This would be the jump off point for our ride, we would travel through the undulating Mendip Hills and the Somerset levels, a contrast between short brutal climbs and an endless flat expanse crisscrossed with arteries of drains and pump houses to keep floods at bay. It was a classic ride through cider country, where industrial strength scrumpy could be brought in unmarked bottles that would really test your character.
Leaving the town, we powered on up Old Bristol Road, cold legs slowly warming up in the November air. This was a stretch made famous as the sprinters opened up in the Tour Of Britain. Almost in no time, the hubbub of the city was lost behind our wheels and the busy suburbs and noisy traffic gave way to dry stone walls and open farmland. The Mendips hills are not mountains, there are no towering peaks or long drawn out assaults, but they punch hard with undulating climbs and we began the game of constantly dropping through the gears on a climb or slipstreaming a decent.
Autumn is the most spectacular time of year in Somerset, the golden explosion by the roadside reminded me of the Albert Camus quote “Autumn is a second spring where every leaf is a flower”. The muscular Whyte Wessex I was riding cut effortlessly over the smooth tarmac, the comfortable 30c tires sliced easily through the fallen leaves that littered the road, like the Triumph Stag it was an affordable sports car for the people, crisp lines with a powerful heart. With the winter sun falling lower in the sky we buried our heads against the undulations, working as a team against the wind, heading for the Gorge.
Almost imperceptibly the fields and cows gave way to rocky crags and a ‘danger falling rocks’ sign, we were about to drop into the scar of the Gorge. Now a playground for climbers and serving as a tourist attraction for hordes in the summer, buses and cars parade through the Gorge, faces pressed against the windows. But this late on a November day, we had the place to ourselves, letting us open out a little on the corners and carve a smoother line. Only the brief passing of a couple of big motorbikes, dropping through the gears as they passed and sending a bellow of barks ricocheting off the walls, joined our two-wheeled processions. In reverse, the Gorge is a 3.8 km 178 m category 3 climb, legendary and lit up like a Christmas tree on Strava, but we were descending and cutting fast through the turns.
We flew past caves and outcrops where cannibals used to hunt, Gough’s Cave passed in an instant but is marked in history as the location where Britain’s oldest man was discovered. The Cheddar Man, dated back to 7150 BC after succumbing to a violent death in the cavern. A petrified witch is also said to haunt the natural whirlpools, caverns and catacombs of the nearby Wookey Holes. Hitting the final stretch of the Gorge, freehubs buzzing, we roll into the tourist trap that marks the entrance. In stark contrast to the beauty of the Gorge itself, it was clear that when faced with the choice of classy or tacky, this tourist hotspot had put both feet firmly in the ‘Kiss-me-quick’ school. After dodging errant tourists who in holiday mode had forgotten the highway code, we made our way to the most interesting village of Cheddar.
As the sun carved it’s low arc in the sky we sensed that daylight was now a premium and so settled into the return leg of the journey. The conversation gave way to teamwork as we pushed the speed higher taking turns against the wind. Enjoying the smooth quiet roads, gears snicked up and down the cassette as we charged over the undulating terrain. Loading the bike carefully back into the leather back seats it had been a day of classics in the most beautiful time of the year, but we now had a new mission, cider was calling and it was time to seek out a different type of gold.
Riding Cheddar Gorge
The best starting point for a ride through Cheddar Gorge and the surrounding area is the City of Wells, located 45 minutes drive from Bristol. Burrington Combe is also well worth linking into a big ride. If you’re looking for post ride refreshments, be sure to pop into the delightful ‘Strangers With Coffee’ cafe, tucked away by St Cuthbert’s church for the intimate atmosphere and caffeine fix.
The Triumph Stag
The Triumph Stag is an iconic British made sports car made between 1970 and 1978 by the Triumph Motor Company, styled by Italian designer Giovanni Michelotti. Targeted as a rival to the Mercedes-Benz SL the four-seater convertible featured a Triumph designed OHC 3.0L V8, pushing out a powerful (at the time) 145 bhp. The Stag had it’s moment of fame when James Bond famously stole one from a diamond smuggler in the film Diamonds Are Forever
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Words: Photos: Cathrine Smith