A Nighttime Cycle on the Somerset Levels

We escape the heat to enjoy a pint in the Railway Inn and the sounds of an amphibian orgy

Glastonbury is a laid-back town at the best of times but this heatwave has laid all but the hardiest horizontal. Yesterday saw the temperature rise to 35 degrees. Town was quiet, except for some European visitors who couldn’t understand what the fuss was about. There was not a soul to be seen on the benches in the High Street, but a few people were recumbent under the trees in the Churchyard. The only shops that looked at all busy were those with air-con, some others closed early. 

I was feeling smug in a big hat and a neck fan, but then a short, only slightly uphill walk home in the late afternoon almost defeated me. This temperature is a challenge for the British psyche, we see the sun and want to grab the rare opportunity to do something sporty and fun outdoors, but instead, we have to get the fan down from the loft and hide behind closed curtains. Even then it’s still too hot to think, let alone exert ourselves. By 9pm I was suffering from the kind of irritability that even a G&T won’t cure, so we headed out on the electric bikes for a cycle. 

I’m happy to meander aimlessly around the Levels, but the Yorkshireman likes to have a destination, preferably one that sells cider, so we headed off to the Railway Inn, about five miles away from town on the Avalon Marshes. The air could still not be described as cool, it was around 26 degrees, but at least the newly laid tarmac in Benedict Street wasn’t reflecting the heat back at us as it had been earlier in the day. 

Cycling down the snaky Sustrans cycle track saw us moving through alternating cl(ish) and warm pockets of moist evening air. Last weekend I was swimming in the sea on the Jurassic Coast in Dorset, it was a similar sensation. Dusk falls and the nature reserve is empty of birdwatchers and walkers so we keep a steady pace until we get to the short stretch of road that leads to the pub.  The Yorkshireman assures me that midges can’t fly at more than 7 miles an hour, so as long as we don’t stop we’ll avoid being eaten alive. I suspect the cider is singing its siren song to him. 

Around here, the locals drive 4x4s because they need them, the road on which the Inn sits is basically a tarmac crust on a raft, atop the shifting peat of the marshes. Driving along it there is the sensation of surfing waves, with your vehicle constantly dipping and rising. Woe betides the driver of the low-slung boy (or nowadays girl) racer who chances it at more than 18 miles an hour, risking their suspension and oil sump.

The Railway Inn is a no-nonsense kind of a place, a locals’ pub, but not unfriendly. Long and low, it has been renovated, in about 1978. Walking into the packed pub I’m hit with a wall of soggy warmth, like stepping out of an airport in the Mediterranean. I rather like this Mediterranean analogy so I ask the landlord for the cocktail menu and he offers me Guinness or Cider, with a grin.  There are no tapas on offer, but they do have bags of pork crackling and chocolate bars, Wilkins cider is £2 a pint. I know they have bingo nights in the Costa Del Sol too, but the caller here has a broad Somerset accent and her PA is turned up to eleven, someone has just won a free cooked breakfast.

We sit in the back garden, and a friendly character at the next table calls out “hello ladies”, then apologizes when he sees the Yorkshireman’s beard. I can dimly make out his companions in the twilight, I’m reminded of the Artful Dodger’s gang in Oliver Twist, their appearance is what you might call ‘rough and ready’, then I overhear enough of their conversation to realise it’s a Men’s group relaxing after a session and talking about the benefits of spirituality to their mental health. 

Within minutes we’re assailed by squadrons of mosquitoes so we head to the front garden where there’s lighting, here we can at least see the mozzies and admire the pub’s collection of colourful plastic garden gnomes. Having finished our drinks we jump back on the bikes and head back through the nature reserve. It’s properly dark now, but certainly not quiet. I persuade the Yorkshireman to stop for long enough to enjoy the surround sound chorus of frogs, on Summer nights like these male frogs croak to advertise that they’re up for sexy time, we’re stood in the middle of an amphibian orgy. I’m reminded of dark winter evenings when the same reedbeds are alive with the sound of roosting starlings. It’s not long until the mosquitoes start telling their friends that the human ‘all you can eat’ buffet has arrived so we are soon back on the bikes and heading home. I expect to find Glastonbury’s locals promenading in the cool evening air, but apart from a few skateboarders on the Market Cross all is quiet. One of the skaters has his eyes closed and hands together in silent prayer, all is normal for Glastonbury. 

The Railway Inn has bi-weekly friendly Sunday sessions with all-you-can-eat burgers and hot dogs and some great local bands. If you are looking for gourmet food, craft beer and a chat about local schools and how hard it is to find someone to service the Aga please head to Godney instead, it’s just as nice a cycle ride of a similar length, there you’ll find the popular riverside Sheppey Inn.

You’ll find more of my descriptions of life in Glastonbury and my adventures on the surrounding Somerset Levels in my book ‘Normal For Glastonbury’ the latest edition is illustrated by local artist Debbie De Mornay Penny.

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