This tale originally appeared in the Club Magazine of the Northwood Wheelers in 1953.
by Tom Simpson
During the month of March it is reputed that hares have fits of madness and perform many strange antics. Not being an authority on hares I cannot vouch for the truth of this statement. I can however say without fear of contradiction that the group of members of the Northwood Wheelers who left for Cheddar Gorge one Friday night in March last with half a gale blowing about their ears were definitely out of their minds.
We were due to depart from Nell's café at 9.00pm, but it was almost 9.40pm when five scarecrows garbed in vast windbreakers, woollens and other impedimenta eventually mounted their bicycles and set off into the night (remember, this is MARCH!!!, Ed.). Those who witnessed the departure of the mad five saw, two minutes later, this same five leaping into the "Clifton", emerging some seconds later each clutching lovingly a small phial of elixir, to wit: RUM.
I will not attempt to describe the next few hours only to say they were a mixture of coldness, good humour, tiredness and seemingly endless miles of dark roads. We were accompanied the whole time with a shrieking howling wind, fortunately it was behind us, and we made tremendous progress. We partook of sausage sandwiches and the inevitable "char" at Mac's Café some ten miles west of Reading, and thus refreshed we once more ventured into the night. If I were able I should like to describe the scene as we left Mac's at 1 o'clock in the morning. But it is impossible so I will have to be content with saying that the wind, if anything, had risen in fury.
On through Newbury, up the notorious Speen Hill known so well to all racing men, past the historic 64th milestone, then over the River Kennet into Hungerford. We bowled through the sleeping village at a prodigious speed (Presumably still a taily then! Ed.) and I thought enviously of the local inhabitants warmly snug in bed. It must have been this thought that prompted us, soon after leaving Hungerford to decide unanimously that a bit of shut-eye would not come amiss.
A couple of likely looking haystacks were soon located and we endeavoured to make ourselves comfortable. About those few hours under the haystacks the least said the better. The howling wind, the biting cold and on ground which could hardly be described as a feather bed, made things rather uncomfortable. It was at this time that we became truly grateful to the comfort provided by the contents of those precious bottles of liquid sunshine obtained from the "Clifton". I slept on and off disturbed by the occasional mutterings of my companions and thinking what prize chums we were. By 5 o'clock we could stick it no longer so, stretching our cramped limbs, made preparations to move on. It was then that we missed Boff. At first it was thought that he had blown away, such was the fury of the wind. Bob even suggested that we would probably find him in Cheddar when we arrived. However, deep snores from the bowels of the haystack soon disclosed him curled up like a field mouse, oblivious to everything. He expressed some annoyance at being roused, in no uncertain terms. No doubt he would still be there had not Roy and Alan sat him up on his bike. I have proof that Boff can sleep under water, but that is another story.
We were too cold to attempt to cook any breakfast so we pushed on through Savernake Forest in the cold, grey dawn. All of us hoped that a meal would be forthcoming in Marlborough but we were very disappointed. Thinking back, it is not very likely that you will find a café open in a country town at 6 o'clock in the morning.
Devizes was out next port of call and we twiddled furiously out of Marlborough with the exception of Boff who was riding with change-speed gear and was using the freewheel part of it to the greatest advantage in the wind still following us. Upon the Marlborough Downs it was bleak and cold and apart from a few ribald remarks from Bob, who was the only one amongst us who appeared to be lapping it up, we suffered in silence. Devizes was a s devoid of catering facilities as was Marlborough and we tempted to use the precious Primus stoves and fuel to cook up the food we had brought with us, but having another two days to go, it was decided to push on, fortified from the contents of those priceless little bottles of 70 proof now unfortunately so low.
Trowbridge was the next place of any importance on our route. Here, at last, we found solid sustenance. On entering the town, Alan spotted a café which, although not actually open, displayed signs of life, and on enquiry the good lady in charge promised to get us something if we waited a little while. The bacon and eggs she eventually served up was delicious. Little wonder as it was our first hot meal since early the previous day. Thus regaled we made a fresh start, full of confidence. Snow now added itself to our difficulties. Just a light powdery sprinkling at first, which gave us no cause for alarm. Soon, however, the flakes got bigger and the wind began to build the snow up into little drifts against the road-side. We should have seen the red light then, but with full stomachs brimming over with confidence, our goal seemed in sight. Strangely enough no-one really mentioned how we might get back, though the thought must have occurred to each of us. Frome, Shepton Mallett and Wells were now behind us and it was then our troubles really started.
On leaving Wells we changed direction quite suddenly. We had been travelling practically due west but now we were heading almost due north and the wind came at us from the right quarter, blowing straight off the Malvern Hills. The eight miles or so into Cheddar were a nightmare. It was almost impossible to ride without leaning over to the right into the wind. Indeed both Bob and Boff were blown into a hedge on one occasion. Fortunately the language which, no doubt was very potent was borne away on the shrieking wind. Though the village of Cheddar possesses numerous places of interest we were anxious to push on up the gorge to a small disused cave where we intended to cook a meal. We were now driving head on into the wind and we taxed our strength to the limit in our efforts to push our bikes up the steep, twisting road. The grandeur of the gorge is probably well known to many who have visited it on fine days, but hemmed in by those gigantic cliffs, their tops lost in a mist of whirling snow, it was awe inspiring. The cave we were making for is some 20 to 30 feet above the road level and the mouth of it is reached by clambering up a steep path and then dropping over a lip of rock into the cave itself. Once inside Alan got the two Primus stoves roaring and a brew of tea was soon underway. In a short while, bacon sausages and beans were sizzling in the pan. It was not possible to sit down owing to the dampness of the walls and floor but we made a good meal nonetheless. We lingered awhile over the final cup of tea, watching the snow swirl past the cave entrance. We felt strangely detached from everything, almost in another world. it was now almost midday and after Alan had hopefully taken a couple of photographs, which, incidentally, turned out quite well, we scrambled down the steep path to our bikes now almost covered with snow. the journey down the gorge was as difficult as the ascent. The road was covered with a thick layer of icy snow and it as impossible to ride or even walk properly. We zigzagged down the gorge, slipping and slithering in our efforts to remain upright. It was indeed a nightmare journey. However we did eventually reach level ground and we mounted our bikes gingerly and began the battle back to Wells. I cannot recollect having as tough a ride as this turned out to be. Each of us took a turn up in front but the wind was more to our sides and the man in front of you gave practically no shelter. Progress was painfully slow and it was round about 1 o'clock by the time we reached the road leading to the village of Wookey.
My next recollection was waking up in a hospital bed at 10 o'clock that same evening. How this came about will be related in the next episode...
From the club magazine, February 1953
G. M. (Boff) Empson
Readers will remember that in a previous instalment of this story “March Hares” we had left Tom Simpson lying unconscious. Gordon Empson now takes up the story (Editor).
To correct Tom, the time was nearer three-thirty than one o’clock when we left Wells, on the Wookey road. The snow had eased slightly, thus improving visibility, not that we could see much anyway, with our faces almost covered by our scarves, comforters, etc. But that wind!! How it blew!! It came at us, roaring and screaming like a Meteor at full speed, changing direction as quickly as a woman changes her mind, creating such havoc that we all had to fight to hold our machines upright, not daring to relax for even one second, because that would have been fatal.
But now that Cheddar was behind us, we were beginning to feel more cheerful, although the lack of sleep was making itself felt. Perhaps I should not include myself in that remark, as I slept soundly during our too short stay in that glorious haystack, and always can, as I proved on the Stonehenge run – once again another story. (Ed, “I hope”). So we came to the top of a nice hill, and with a sigh of relief from all directions, we proceeded to swoop down it in typical Wheelers fashion.
Suddenly there was an enormous bang, like a sharp crack of thunder, just over our heads. I looked up and, to my horror, saw a massive elm branch descending on us with ever-increasing speed; nearer and nearer! I thought to myself, “This is it”, jammed on both anchors and jerked my machine round just hoping for the best. The monster branch hit the road with a resounding crash about two feet in front of me, and as I stopped I caught a glimpse of Tom flying through the air head first in one direction, and his machine hurtling in another.
Hurriedly I threw my cycle to the side of the road, then fearfully scrambled my way through the debris to reach that prostrated form lying awkwardly, so still and quiet. By this time the rest of the lads were with me, and a hurried consultation ensued. We realised that any traffic coming down the hill would not be able to stop in time, so Bob and Roy decided to watch out for any vehicles and tell the drivers to stop, whilst Alan went sprinting down the hill to contact a Doctor or a hospital. I then had a look at Tom and was almost sick, for he was lying face down, and from his forehead there was a steady stream of blood, forming a pool, which was getting larger and larger.
I will not go into the gory details of what happened until the ambulance arrived; for we were all dazed and shaken by the accident and it is hard to recall exactly what happened. However, we had another talk when Tom was in the ambulance and, leaving Bob and Alan to look after the machines and await the arrival of the police, Roy and myself got in with Tom and drove to hospital. Tom had come to by this time and was asking us what had happened; at the same time he said that his face was hurting him, and I noticed that he was rubbing his hand all over his battered face, feeling for the cuts and bruises. By the time we arrived at the hospital all that I could see of Tom’s once beautiful countenance was a nose projecting from a mass of battered flesh and drying blood.
Once inside the hospital, we were thrust into an empty room and told to wait, leaving the medicos and sisters to tend to our comrade’s wounds. After what seemed a long time, but was actually only about twenty minutes, a doctor appeared, asked us a few questions and then disappeared again, to leave us once more alone in that room to our worried thoughts and frantic puffing of cigarettes.
The re-appearance of the doctor, however, soon took place and she assured us that Tom would be alright but would have to stay in hospital for at least a week, due to danger of concussion. Bob and Alan turned up shortly afterwards and, by general agreement, we decided to stay in Wells overnight and see how Tom was in the morning, before leaving for home.
So eventually we stood before a massive door, waiting for an answer to our knock. After a few seconds the door was opened by an old lady of about seventy-five, who had a kind, benevolent face. What she must have thought of the four scarecrows standing before her I do not know; but she made us welcome and, after stabling our bicycles, she led us to the bathroom. Once the bathroom door was closed there was immediate action; wet clothes flew in all directions and in a matter of seconds we were all stripped down to the waist and soaking ourselves in beautiful hot water. I just cannot describe the ecstasy with which we applied that soft soothing lotion to our dry, sore, wind-beaten faces. The four of us were sharing one hand basin as not one of us would wait to let any of the others finish and, as you can imagine, the floor was soon a mess of dirty wet clothes, vast quantities of water and soap suds. We were simply revelling in our task, chattering away like a bunch of school kids on holiday, when suddenly the door opened and our hostess appeared, bearing forth a large tray of buns and cups of steaming hot tea. We thought, a real Ken Dopson turnout, and tucked in. Later on we decided to venture forth into the town for supper and to see if the police had got Tom’s mangled machine in safe keeping. We stopped a man to enquire the way to the home of those responsible for the keeping of law and order and his answer was “What, have you got to report in?”. He was last seen sprinting along the Cheddar road, hotly pursued by two of our gallant band. Never again will he be seen in Wells.
The police Inspector was a genial, soft spoken man; he told us that everything was under control and all went well until that Harvey fellow spilled a whole box of matches all over the floor. Trust him to do something like that. However, things soon quietened down and off we went in search of supper. After a good meal, we returned to our digs to retire for the night, the time about nine o’clock.
Roy and Alan had both been put in single bedrooms, Bob and myself were in another room with twin beds, and after saying goodnight to the other two, we prepared for our entry into the land of slumber, where our aches and pains could be forgotten, and our tired bodies could regain the strength to carry us through yet another day. It did not take me long to get ready for bed; I turned round to say goodnight to our beloved Press Secretary and was greeted with a snore. So, without more ado, I switched off the lights and gently slid down between those cold, but soft and inviting sheets. For a few seconds I was floating on the clouds; and then oblivion!
The following morning our intrepid clubmen found the roads severely affected with snow. They made their way to Bath and then came home by train. Tom came home several days later and soon recovered from his ordeal. Several years later, just before Tom and Sheila (Johns) were married and emigrated to Canada, they took a boating holiday on the Thames. In the middle of the night a tree fell on the boat, sending it to the bottom ….. This is how Tom gained the appropriate nick-name of “Wooden-head Simpson”.