Riding the Two Tunnels

I really needed to get more exercise. A selection of friends, medical practitioners & other interested parties had been pointing out that I was overweight and they'd started to use scary expressions like visceral fat and the like. I'd been working on my diet, mostly through vigorously policing what went into my shopping basket on visits to the monstromart, but apparently that wasn't the problem - my food intake was good, it was my overly indolent lifestyle that was letting the fat build up. So something needed to be done.

Cycling was my main source of (somewhat) strenuous exercise. I'm not a good jogger (shin splints & quickly aching feet) and although I used to regularly rack up the laps swimming when I lived in Scotland I hadn't managed to find slots that suited me in the local pool. I've done gym circuits in the past but the nearest centre was a train journey away which was somehow always a bit too much hassle. All feeble excuses I know but the end result was that I only broke a sweat when on two wheels.

In theory I was cycling into work through the week but that was becoming intermittent. Back at the end of last year I'd negotiated to work from home two days a week and for the past few months I'd been on secondment to a client, going to their site every Tuesday. This still left two days when I'd ride in but even that suffered when the weather was bad - I had waterproofs but there were no cyclist-friendly facilities at my workplace so I could end up damp & sweaty through the day, not much fun for me or my workmates.

A friend had mentioned that there was a new cycling route that had opened recently extending South out of Bath. It used a repurposed railway line and featured two tunnels, one of which was the longest cycling tunnel in Britain. Sounded interesting. When a Saturday started off cool & grey it seemed like a perfect opportunity to try it out and after some quick Googling I found that I could get to the other end (to Bath) by using the canal towpath and wouldn't need to take a train or cycle on busy roads. I slipped into my lycra, popped a bottle of water into my panniers and took to the road.

The first stage was alongside the Avon and then up onto the Kennet and Avon canal towpath. Both of these are usually well filled with pedestrians, dog walkers & other cyclists but today they were remarkably clear, presumably due to the greyish weather and the lure of retail opportunities. I passed a few fellow travellers and the inevitable group of charity walkers in matching t-shirts but otherwise it was me, the canal and a soft late summer morn.

At Dundas Aqueduct I left the canal and headed off to find the Two Tunnels. This had looked fairly straightforward from my online maps and I'd assumed that there would be some signage to lead cyclists from one popular track to another. However I hadn't allowed for my wayward & somewhat stubborn sense of direction - when I reached one of the Cycle Route signs I felt sure that my destination was along another road and headed up & up an increasingly steep hill before asking for directions and being sent all the way back down again. Still, it was fun zooming down the slope and, after all, my intention was to get some exercise.

Eventually I found the track and despite starting off in the wrong direction I soon found myself en route for the eponymous tunnels. The path was smooth & clear with a slight rising incline, passing through fields and woods with no sight or sound of traffic or other mosern-day activities. It wasn't quite a journey into Past Times as the other cyclists & runners I passed were clad in bright, techno-styled clothes & (particularly) shoes and were often iPodded or plugged into their mobiles, if anything it was more a vision of a future of leisure time & connectivity. And none the worse for that. As a home-working iPhone programmer this was my world and it was nice to see it doing so well for so many.

Although the track was clear enough to be able to cycle freely there were a good number of other users along the way. A good spread of ages too, from elderly walkers to family groups of cyclists, some towing child pods, several shepherding clusters of children on dayglo bikes of all sizes. There were a few groups of adult cyclists, some being obviously led on a set tour (I passed one group being given a 'points of interest' talk) while others seemed to be just out for a ride together. (On my way back I discovered that the trail ended at a rather nice looking gastro-pub which could also have been a factor).

I had noticed a few disapproving looks from other cyclists along the way and I suspect this was due to my riding without a helmet. Normally I always wear a 'lid' when I'm out on the bike - a legacy of years of urban cycling - but as I was only going to be on pathways or very quiet roads I decided to forego it for today. Was this being socially irresponsible? Was it giving a bad example to impressionable young cyclists? I was vastly outnumbered by properly helmeted riders and as a crusty oldster I wasn't exactly an example of Rebel Cool but it did make me think - how much responsibility did I have for establishing social norms? As a perennial outsider it posed an interesting question.

Eventually I arrived at the first of the tunnels. The gateway was undramatic, a dark brickwork wall with a red brick layer above it nestled between the sharply rising cutting embankments swathed in greenery. The oddly cupcake shaped entrance (with its white lintel giving a curious impression of iced topping) was flanked with sturdy municipal fencing and a sensible set of instructions - keep left, don't speed - and inside a set of lights could just be made out, slowly curving out of sight. A dense cluster of cyclists were grouped around what looked like a public information sign so I wove my way through them and entered the tunnel unenlightened.

The transition to inside the tunnel was dramatic and totally unexpected. The outside light quickly faded and I found myself in a strange environment & atmosphere - I was riding along just as before but everything else had changed. The lighting was low, widely spaced and downward focussed, as my eyes acclimatised to the dimness I saw the path stretching onwards, slicked with moisture, with roughly hewn rock and dark brickwork on either side. The ceiling was lost in the blackness overhead which somehow made the whole thing much less claustrophobic, it seemed as if the space reached up into an unseen vastness. The air felt much cooler than outside but after the initial shock it didn't seem to get any colder, remaining just a few degrees or so below my own temperature without seeming to drain the heat out of me.

I seemed to have the tunnel to myself, the only sound was the noise of tyres on tarmac and the quiet clankings of the pedals & chain. There was a slight sense of echo from my own noise but a deadening of anything further away - I knew from the number of other people on the trail that I wasn't actually alone in here but my senses were convinced that I had left them all behind. Onward I went, into the void.

After a while the path straightened and I could see far, far ahead along an uninterrupted ruler-straight line. This provided yet another conundrum for my confused senses - I could see I was moving past the walls on either side but I didn't seem to be making any progress towards the distant vanishing point ahead. It was a sort of Red Queen's race where my forward motion was in some strange way just fast enough for me to stay in the same place. As I carried on this sense of timelessness grew, to the extent that I felt transported into some sort of parallel world, tenuously connected to the one I'd been in before but unbounded by considerations of time & space. This might sound a bit overblown but it really was an amazing experience - more like an art installation than a simple cycle track.

And there were more surprises in store. As I was riding along I started to hear what sounded like faint violin music in the distance. It slowly grew in volume (without getting what could be called loud) and then suddenly there was a glimpse of a circular coloured light set into the wall before I was past it and the music slowly faded behind me. Very strange. This repeated five or six times through the central part of the tunnel with a different snatch of music each time. I stopped to investigate at one of them and found a circular light with a ringed light around it, pulsating with the music which was playing from an invisible speaker.

These splashes of fiddle provided yet another unearthly element to this increasingly mysterious journey. At cycling speed - I was observing the 'keep slow' guideline and was riding at a very moderate pace - there wasn't enough time to make sense of a tune being played (if indeed there was one) and each conjunction felt like a fragmentary glimpse into something that couldn't quite be resolved. It was like a partially overhead conversation coming from an opened door, cut off by its closing before you could make sense of it. The snatches of music were discernibly different but too short and unmemorable to weave into some greater whole, giving another impression of passing between places without fully visiting them.

Along the way I started to pass other travellers, both cyclists and pedestrians. I was fairly apprehensive at first as the lighting was very low and there were several family groups with very young children on an assortment of bikes & scooters - the potential for accidental collision seemed dangerously high. But in practice these meetings passed very gracefully, it was as if the darkness had increased everyone's sensitivity and virtually all the people I met smoothly moved over to the side as I approached.

Slowly the tunnel began to curve to the left and the mesmeric quality of the seemingly endless path began to fade. A brighter light appeared up ahead which quickly grew and resolved itself into an entranceway, through which I returned into the greenery of a country path. Another fast transition but an easier one this time, returning to the familiar rather than plunging into the unknown. The cool, stillness & hush of the tunnel was replaced with the colour, sounds & smells of a bright summer's day and I found my senses & spirit easing into 'ordinary' from the heightened awareness of the sensory-deprived underground path. And yet not quite - somehow the day seemed brighter, the trail more richly green and the world itself a little more welcoming & delightful. I had passed through an altered state and viewed my familiar world with revitalised eyes. And a smile crept onto my lips.

The path led on with trees either side (often joining overhead) and after a few minutes I came to the second tunnel. This was laid out in the same way as the other one but somehow felt different - a bit lighter, a bit squarer in cross section, a bit less mysterious. Was this just the loss of novelty value? This tunnel was considerably shorter than the first one and the exit appeared not long after the entrance had faded behind (although it was curved all the way through so you couldn't see the whole stretch at once) so maybe it was as simple as that. It was nice but, in comparison, not as special.

After the tunnels the trail continued onward, through the delightfully named Linear Park. Slowly the town on either side became more and more apparent and the green borders shrank back until, as I crossed the railway line by Oldfield Park, I found myself riding along an urban pathway with no trace of the countryside I'd come from. Which seemed to be a good point to turn around and retrace my steps.

On my second pass through the long tunnel I was determined to be more analytical than experiential but it still wove its magic through me. The dark, the chill, the moist air, the hush - I knew they were coming but still the overall effect was to give a sense of wonder. If anything it reminded me of being in a cathedral between services, a place that retains its numinous quality despite not being 'in use' in a way that we can comprehend. A temple for lost Gods? A teacher of mine had once explained that people could learn things 'without passing through understanding' and I could easily imagine my mind being carefully distracted while a deeper part of my being soaked up treasures from deep under the Earth.

Once again the tunnel felt cold without seeming to draw the heat out of me - I'd taken off my cycling gloves to take pictures but the chill didn't get into my exposed fingers as I rode, something that I'm usually susceptible to. "Aha!" I thought, "it seems cold but it actually isn't". Which seemed to explain it until I came out of the end and my glasses immediately steamed up, prompting a quick stop and demist. Very odd.

My wayward sense of direction reasserted itself (again) on the journey home - what seemed like a short cut along a little country lane turned out to be a steep and relentless ascent up and over the highest point on the hills flanking the river Avon. More exercise! The hedges on either side were, however, heavy with extremely ripe blackberries so I feasted on them as I slowly walked up, richly rewarded for my exertions. Another exciting downhill plunge followed, down through Limpley Stoke (really!) to river level and on to meet the canal towpath again. And from there, back home.

The tunnels had been an unexpectedly wonderful experience but I was also impressed by the network of cycling paths through the area, something I'd been peripherally aware of in the past but had never seriously investigated before. To be able to ride from my house to the far side of Bath with only a very few meetings with cars (and those on quiet country roads) made the whole excursion so much more relaxing & enjoyable, a real treat. There's quite a network of routes in the area so I small be exploring further in future.