Thursday 15 September 2011

Tour of Britain - Stage 6 Guide

Cheddar Gorge
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In our ever-ongoing attempts to enlighten the general public to the wonder that is professional cycling, we've been singing the praises of the Tour of Britain down the pub. One common reaction - other than "blimey, are you still banging on about that?" - is "isn't that a bit boring? I mean, we haven't really got the mountains here, have we?"

Taunton's parish church, rising high
over the County Cricket Ground
They'll think again if they watch today's Stage 6, however. We may not have the high Alps or Alto de l'Angliru, but the two Cat 1 climbs in the latter half of the race are as challenging as anything the Tour has to offer - they just don't last as long, that's all, topping out at a little bit shy of 300m. The first one, at Cheddar Gorge, is a virtual wall for the first part, slackening only slightly halfway up; the second at Bristol Hill is a killer all the way up. And what's more, the teams need to ride more than 80km of the 146km total just to get there.

The race starts in Taunton, a village in Iron Age times and later a city of some importance during the Saxon era when it had its own mint and, from 710 CE, a castle (though it was destroyed just 12 years later to prevent it being taken over during a rebellion). It became the County Town of Somerset in the 15th Century, just in time to play an important role in the War of the Roses and the Cornish Uprising - it was here 1497 that the Cornish army surrendered, their leader Perkin Warbeck having panicked and fled when he heard the King's soldiers were on their way to the town. Many were executed as an example to others of what fate awaited those who dared oppose the monarch - perhaps giving rise to the various ghosts allegedly seen around the buildings.

Taunton Castle
There are traces of Saxon buildings at the present castle, though the 8th Century castle is believed to have been elsewhere, but the site wasn't fortified until the Normans built a stone fortress following the Conquest. In time, this was much altered and became a bishop's palace; then in 1138, Bishop of Winchester Henry of Blois began converting it back,, developing and adding to it until it became a mighty and important castle. Many more additions were made by his successors with the most newly-built structure in the complex being a schoolhouse dated to 1520. By 1600, the castle was a decaying ruin but it gained a new lease of life during the Civil War, being renovated and put back into use to become the only Parliamentarian stronghold in the South-West of England. The keep was demolished after the war, its sturdy base remaining today to give some idea of its imposing scale.

Today, Taunton enjoys Strategically Important Town or City status, permitting it to apply for large-scale funding to pay for regeneration and improvement projects. Part of this includes efforts to support sustainable living and transport, hence the new cycle paths granting off-road access to virtually all parts of the town. The Taunton Freeriders, a community mountain bike project, are working alongside the Forestry Commission to build world-class downhill and North Shore-style facilities nearby; a project that, going on the record of various similar projects around the country, will bring considerable income to the area.

As ever, the stage begins with a neutral zone to ensure all riders are rolling and ready to start racing without the mass pile-ups and carnage that tend to ensue if the entire peloton set off from a standing start. It begins on East Street near the County Walk shopping centre, right in the heart of town and near the corner with North Street (51° 0'51.97"N 3° 6'2.10"W), which the riders will travel up and over the bridge before turning right onto Station Road. They'll then turn right again and cross back over the river on Priory Bridge Road and head past the first roundabout to take the first exit at the next onto the Obridge Viaduct. When they reach the roundabout on Priorswood Road, they'll turn right and ride along the A3259 through Prior's Wood and Minkton Heathfield to the A38; then move onto the A361 towards the bridge over the M5 motorway. The racing begins 200m past the entrance to Durston Elms garage (51° 2'53.06"N  3° 1'26.47"W), having covered precisely 8km since East Street.

Gargoyle, North Curry (© Celiakozlowski CC3.0)
The first section of the race into West Lyng is unremarkable, being straight and flat on a wide modern road - the sort of place where nobody wants to try to start a breakaway attempt because it's just too easy for the peloton to catch them. After turning right onto New Road nothing much changes, though the road narrows slightly as it passes over a bridge 0.52km along the road and again 0.22km after the crossroads before the race arrives at North Curry - established by the Saxons, a royal manor in the 11th Century and a market village since the 13th, North Curry is a little-known beauty spot that boasts no fewer than 68 buildings listed for their architectural or historical significance.

The roadbook seems to take a little departure from reality at this point, instructing us to turn right at the T-junction on the A358 0.8km after North Curry. The only problem is, the A358 comes no closer than 3.86km - this, obviously, confuses matters somewhat. We think that the route planners arrived at the T-junction in the village and saw a sign directing traffic along Windmill Hill towards the A358. It then instructs us to turn left at a junction 100m ahead onto a road called Greenway, which proves entirely possible, and stating that we should arrive at a T-junction with the A378 2.3km later for a left turn towards Langport - this also turns out to be possible, so it looks as though we're on the right route.

Burton Pynsent Monument
(© Pam Goodey CC2.0)
Once on the A378, it's just 0.96km to the start of the stage's first climb, a Category 3 starting as the peloton pass a white building on the left of the road after 9.4km (51° 0'21.63"N 2°57'33.10"W) and finishes 1.6km later at the Green Shutters Nurseries (51° 0'14.09"N 2°56'13.76"W) just outside Fivehead having climbed approximately 50m. The race then enters what would have been a rather boring 4.2km transitional section were it not for the presence of Burton Pynsent House. T large and very grand stately home was built in 1765 for William Pitt, the leader of the British Government during the Seven Years' War and a highly unusual politician for his day (and our day, come to think of it) in that he secured his place in Parliament and political success not through familial connections but through hard work and his own skills. Remarkably, the current House is just one wing of the older original, the rest having been demolished in 1805. Nearby is the 43m tall Burton Pynsent Monument, designed by Capability Brown under the employment of Pitt as a monument to Sir William Pynsent. It cost the vast sum of £2000 to build in 1757.

The Hanging Chapel, Langport (© Pam Goodey CC2.0)
After 15.2km, the race arrives at Curry Rivel, taking the road straight through the town and on towards Langport, a small town that appears home to far more than 1100 people at first glance due to being formed of two parts which together give the impression of a far larger, sprawling place. The lower half, situated along the banks of the river, was the port; once a busy place in the days when Somerset's most navigable river was the preferred way to carry goods into the heart of the county. The tilting houses of Bow Street, their unusual angles cause by subsidence, are the highlight of the lower town. The upper half exists purely because of the topography's strategic value, being easily defended from attack.

The village has been settled and of some importance for a very long time, as made evident by the numerous Roman villas found nearby and the value placed upon it in the Domesday Book, which estimated the total worth of the village, manor and property to be a hefty £70, 10 shillings and sevenpence. Langport is famous as the site of an eponymous Battle in 1645, one of the most decisive of the Civil War as it saw the destruction of the last effective remnants of the Royalist army who attempted to escape by setting fire to the lower town, thus preventing the Parliamentarians from following. Visitors who appreciate ancient architecture should not miss the Hanging Chapel, built on the site of a gateway through the defensive earthworks in the days when Langport was a Saxon village. The present building was constructed at some point during the 13th Century. Having falled out of use as a chapel, it later housed a grammar school, then a Sunday school, then a museum, then an armoury and, since 1891, a masonic hall. The deep gouges in the stonework were caused by a truck in 1998.

Having entered the via Bow Bridge, the riders start the first of the day's sprint sections as they pass between a clock on the left and Langport Travel on the right (51° 2'15.37"N), the keep left to follow the road up into the town and around to the right until they arrive at the junction with the A372. The first 0.95km of the road as it passes through town is straight and unchallenging, but the very tight 90 degree bend at the end could prove hazardous especially during or after rain. There are two more difficult bends, a medium right after 0.9km and a medium-tight left 0.16km later on the way into Huish Episcopi (yes, a great name - one of our favourites) and Pibsbury before the road continues past Long Sutton and Catsgore. After 31.3km, just south of Kingsdon, the Tour arrives at a junction with the B3151 and turns a tight left to head along the road which is much narrower, thus potentially causing problems when the peloton have to slow and take turns finding a place in the new longer, thinner peloton that will be necessary to continue. There's another right bend, medium tightness, 0.64km after the race emerges from the woodland a short way on.

Somerton (© Liz Martin CC2.0)
After 34.4km, the race reaches Somerton, a small town with a name believed to be derived from either the Old English saemere tun or the Saxon sumer-tūn; both meaning "summer town" and suggesting, perhaps, a place known as a summer stopping point for earlier nomadic people. In time, the entire country became known as Sumortūnsǣte, "the people who live at and depend upon Sumortun" which eventually, having been Somersæte in 845, became Somerset. And we're sure you'll agree, there's no other cycling website where you learn things such as that.

The race keeps left as it passes the town, soon arriving at Littleton and then Compton Dundon. Reaching a five-way crossroads 1.9km later, the peloton take the second left onto Cockrod Road which will no doubt amuse some riders and fans. The remainder of the road stretches for 4.8km until it arrives at the A39 when the race turns left, passing south-west of Ashcott and arriving at a turn on the right after 2.3km leading onto Shapwick Hill. The drinks station begins 1km later.

4.2km ahead, a left turn leads onto Burtle Road and into Burtle. The road kinks slightly to the right, becoming Mark Road which remains almost perfectly straight for the following 1.44km, then turns a medium left before running straight for another 0.44km to a medium right. 0.25km later it enters a tighter right followed immediately by a narrow bridge - another potential hazard if riders pile up at the entrance.

St. Michael's, Blackford: the perfect English village church?
(© Dave Lowther CC2.0)
The route turns left onto Southwick Road 2.2km later, passing straight through a crossroads and coming to a narrow section 2km later. At a T-junction 0.5km later, it turns right onto the B3139 and passes through Mark Causeway, past a truck depot on the left - diesel spills here are less likely to cause crashes than usual due to straight road - before arriving at Mark 67.9km from the start of the race. There are two tight bends, a left with a right 0.13km later, just as the riders enter the village. After 70.8km, at the sign for Blackford, the feeding station starts.

At the centre of the village, the road bends sharply to the right and becomes New Road for 0.25km, then changes name again to Sexey's Road. Yes, really. 0.7km later, at the crossroads, the feeding station ends and the peloton continue straight ahead towards Wedmore, once home to Britain's first mental hospital; established by Doctor John Westover in the 17th Century. It appears that Dr. Westover had remarkable beliefs for his time as to how the mentally ill should be treated, dealing with them compassionately rather than condemning them to the harsh punishments and squalor found in asylums of the day. He also kept careful record of changes in their condition and illnesses suffered by the people in the village, a system that may well have allowed him to make valuable insights and perhaps achieve far more success in improving his patient's lives than other hospitals which were frequently little more than prisons.

Having followed Pilcorn Street through the town, the riders arrive at Church Street and pass by the grand Church of St. Mary where a hoard of 200 Saxon silver coins were discovered in 1853, arriving presently at a T-junction with the B3151 where they turn left onto Cheddar Road. They keep right as they pass through Cocklake (stop sniggering please, this isn't even nearly the funniest name so far on this stage) then arrive at the A371 after riding 80.8km since the start. Turning right, they pass into Cheddar and after 0.2km arrive at a left-turn leading onto another section of B3151 and take the second exit at the roundabout a short way ahead.

Real Cheddar cheese, maturing deep in a cave at the Gorge
(© Gary Bembridge CC2.0)
Somewhat surprisingly given its large geographic size and population of a little over 5000 people, Cheddar remains officially a village. It has been inhabited continuously since the Neolithic period, the skeleton of a Neolithic villager - Britain's oldest complete skeleton - having been discovered here in 1903. Remarkably, DNA analysis of a Neolithic skeleton from the area a few years ago was able to discover a direct descendent among the modern population. Palaeolithic remains, dated to 13,000 before the present, have also been discovered nearby.

The village is famous for its cheese which, often in sadly reduced and flavourless form, has become the most popular cheese in Britain. People who have not experienced the real Cheddar cheese, however, will be surprised by the powerful, earthy, nutty flavour of the real Cheddar which is still made here by the Cheddar Gorge Cheese Company who age their product deep in caves along the Gorge.

Cheddar Gorge
Of course, it's the Gorge itself that made the village famous. By far the largest example of its kind in Britain and 137m from bottom to top at the deepest point, it was listed among the Four Wonders of Britain as long ago as 1130 and won second place behind the Dan yr Ogof caves in Wales in a poll to find the Seven Wonders of Britain in 2005. Formed over 1.2 million years by the actions of water on limestones, there are extensive caves leading away from the Gorge - Gough's Cave, discovered in 1903, extends for 400m while the smaller Cox's Cave has many very impressive geological features. One smaller cave houses a popular children's educational attraction called Crystal Quest, others are home to colonies of rare Greater and Lesser Horse-Shoe bats.

The stage's second sprint begins outside the Cox Mill Hotel on Cliff Street at the 81.9km point and leading immediately into the first categorised climb - Cat 1 Cheddar Gorge. Immediately upon entering the Gorge, 70m past the tea shops and cafes at the south-western end, the road negotiates the first hairpin. It's a right-hander, not too tight or steep and leads into a twisty 0.6km section to the next hairpin, another right and also not tight but considerably steeper. The remainder twists and turns, though no bends are particularly hazardous due in part to the slow speeds because of the climb, to the climb's end 5.1km later at a lay-by near a junction.

The following 15.3km are straightforward, remaining on the same road as it heads through various crossroads and past some villages with fantastical names - Priddy (look for the nine round barrows, ancient burial mounds, in a field to the right of the route just past Nine Barrows Lane and the three mysterious round earthworks in a row in the field on the other side of the road), Red Quar (which sounds strangely like the name of a piece of music to Aphex Twin fans) and Green Ore - before reaching a crossroads at the A37 by a pub called The Olde Mendip Inn; at which point the riders have completed 102.3km from the start. Here, they turn right and then pass straight through more crossroads 1.7km later before arriving at Shepton Mallet 1.5km later.

The Anglo-Bavarian Brewery (© David Ward CC3.0)
Shepton Mallet is the rather surprising home of the Anglo-Bavarian Brewery established in 1864 - it got its name when the owners employed Bavarian brewers to set up lager production here, and in doing so became the very first brewery in Britain to brew lager. It went out of business in 1920 and the grand building now sits amid an industrial estate, seemingly condemned to dilapidation despite its Grade II Listed status and inclusion on the Heritage at Risk Register. Also boasting Grade II status is Her Majesty's Prison Shepton Mallet, the oldest prison still in use in the United Kingdom having been opened in 1625. Like all prisons, it has much darkness in its history - the grounds contain the unmarked graves of at least seven people, but the number of executions carried out here before 1889 is unknown. It was closed in 1930, briefly being used to store important and secret documents until becoming an American military prison for two years until the end of the Second World War and seeing the executions of eighteen servicemen for various crimes. It became a British military prison after the war, then a civilian prison again in 1966. The gallows were removed in 1967, the room that housed them is now the library.

The roadbook says that the route follows the B3156 Waterloo Road through the town to the A371; but this is another error because Waterloo Road is actually the B3136. When the race arrives at the A371, riders take the third exit from the roundabout for Commercial Road and head into Croscombe (incorrectly spelled Crosscombe in the roadbook) 2.5km further on and staying left as the pass by Dulcote a short way ahead.

Wells Cathedral (© seier+seier CC2.0)
After 114.8km, the Tour reaches Wells, England's second smallest city with a population of around 10,500 people (St. David's, in Wales, is the smallest in Britain with just 1797 inhabitants). However, it has one of the grandest cathedrals in Europe, the seat of the Bishop of Bath and Wells. Construction began here in 1175 on the site of an earlier cathedral dating to 704. It was dedicated just over 60 years after work began in 1239, but the building was not completed for another two and half centuries until 1490.

The bishop's palace is almost the equal to the cathedral's grandeur - it was begun in 1210. The current bishop, now that priests are expected to be men (and women, in the more forward-thinking religions) of spirituality rather than wealth and power, inhabits only a small part of the Palace with much of the rest being open to the public. One of the most popular of the Palace's many attractions are the swans which live on the moat and have learned to ring a bell when they wish to be fed.

Upon entering the city, the peloton arrive at a roundabout and take the third exit onto Priory Road and cross what will become the finish line 300m later, beginning another sprint as they do so. Once it's over, the road becomes Broad Street for a short while, then changes once again to High Street before a left turn takes the race onto Market Place and Sadler Street. Turning right at the end leads onto New Street.

According to the roadbook, the riders need to turn right at traffic lights on New Street. This seems to be another error that should have been deleted prior to finalisation - firstly, a right turn leads away from the correct direction and makes the subsequent directions impossible to follow and secondly, it says that the traffic lights come 113.5km from the start whereas the feature before and after are at 116.3km and 116.7km. The latter is the left turn onto Old Bristol Road, and the final climb - Cat 1 Bristol Hill - begins right where Ash Lane joins from the right.

Unfortunately, the route doesn't include Vicar's Close in
Wells. Dating from the mid-14th Century, it's the oldest
residential street in Europe. No other buildings have been
added since it was first constructed. (© Clive Barry CC2.0)
The climb ends after 3km by a gate near Dursdon Grove (51°14'16.26"N 2°38'34.20"W), at which point the riders keep going towards a crossroads 1.3km ahead, passing straight through to another one 2.4km away and climbing still further along the way. The landscape may look familiar here - we're immediately right of the field with the nine barrows again. Having turned right, the race passes back along the B3135 and follows the same route as before  into Shepton Mallet.

Turning right at the junction with the A361 leads the race onto Commercial Road, becoming Pike Hill before continuing into Croscombe and onward back along the A371 to Wells. At the roundabout, they once again take the third exit to pass onto Priory Road and into the final straight 300m to the finish line, 146km from the start.

Predictions: While we think Geraint will do well again, we don't think he'll try to win this stage - it's too late in the race and he'll be concentrating on putting in good rides towards a hoped-for overall GC triumph. So, who will? It's very hard to predict because none of the teams have fielded any really mountain-munching grimpeurs, so it's down to the not-so-well-knowns. Of course, it might not be a climber at all. Once Bristol Hill's done and dusted, the rest of the parcours is downhill all the way and that's an ideal opportunity for Cav to recharge his batteries before Highroad lead him into that final sprint; a finish that will suit him perfectly.

Weather: It looks like we're in for another perfect September day - temperatures between 15 and 18C, light cloud permitting plenty of sunshine. The wind may be a little stronger than the last couple of days with average speeds predicted to be around 19kmh, gusting up to 37kph - so echelons are a distinct possibility. Once again, we should escape rain.

More Stage Guides: click here


  1. There are some fantastic places to explore in Bristol, and by bike is a great way.

    This is a great run down of the route, many thanks for this.

  2. Thanks! Have you got a link to a site about biking in Bristol for anybody who might want to know more?