Riding 300 miles in two days doesn’t sound like a big deal but, on this trip, some of those miles are on unsurfaced roads – roads whose surfaces cracked up decades or even centuries ago. We’re on one of Britain’s oldest routes, the Fosse Way, which connects Lincoln with Exeter. It changes status and number several times along its length, and at a couple of points disappears, but essentially it’s still there. More modern roads take the bulk of the traffic, leaving the Fosse Way free for people who aren’t in a mad rush to get where they’re going – and people with vehicles that can tackle some moderately challenging off-road conditions. We’ve chosen two bikes with ‘fun’ and ‘versatility’ written all over them, in the shape of Yamaha’s XT660Z Ténéré and BMW’s F650GS. BMW’s curious naming policy rather undersells this GS: it has the same engine as the F800GS, but in detuned form, with a chassis set-up slightly less well suited to off-roading. The Ténéré is Yamaha’s adventure bike, a higher-spec companion to the cheaper, more commuter-friendly XT660R. The road they'll be riding marked the
80 Ride MAy 2009
western frontier of Roman rule for the first few decades after the Roman invasion of Britain in AD 43, linking Exeter in the west and Lincoln in the east and allowing the relatively rapid transit of goods. You might say it was the Roman M1. Our challenge is to follow the Fosse Way as closely as possible without getting lost and without using motorways to plug the gaps. It sounds almost too easy; I mean if a few sandal-wearers in metal skirts on wheelbarrows with iron wheels being towed by horses could manage it, I feel pretty confident that equipped with two of the latest dual-purpose bikes and all the right kit, it's going to be a cinch…
Day one ➜ We’re way behind before we’ve even started. It’s easy enough to find our starting point, the magnificent Lincoln Cathedral, most of which dates from the 13th Century, but it takes a lot longer to find a decent breakfast. Eventually we’re sufficiently fortified to head out of town and on to the A46 across the flatlands of Lincolnshire towards Leicester. The dual carriageway, which more or less follows the original route, takes us quickly
Top left: Lincoln Cathedral, the trip's starting point, is a doddle to find, unlike some stretches of the Fosse Way. Road signs range from the proud to the non-existent
Fosse Fact The word fosse comes from the Latin word fossa meaning ditch. It’s likely that this refers to the Roman practice of digging ditches on each side of a road.
through the first 50-odd miles and gets us used to the bikes. Even at high speeds the single-cylinder Ténéré is proving to be far less vibey than I’d anticipated. Adam keeps trying to make me jealous by reminding me how comfortable the BMW’s seat is and how warm his hands are thanks to the heated grips, but nothing can spoil the upbeat mood of heading out on a fresh adventure. The first clue that we’re on the right track appears as if by magic as we skirt Newark, the small ‘Fosse Road’ sign on the A46 swiftly dismissing any notions we had of being lost. It’s served its purpose, but we’re glad to leave the A46 and divert towards Syston to follow the original route along an unclassified road that to this day is signposted as the Fosse Way. In fact, along various parts of the Fosse Way, mostly in rural areas, it seems that the locals are pretty proud of their Roman heritage. In Syston itself we fill up at the Fosse Garage just down the road from the Fosse Garden Centre. This visible pride in our Roman heritage soon disappears, though, as we head out through Thurmaston and into the Belgrave area of Leicester where the highest-profile culture definitely isn’t Roman – it’s Hindu.
BRITAIN AT ITS BEST
A local man, Rohit, stops by to ask what we’re doing and when we explain he’s only too happy to reciprocate by telling us all about various festivals including Navratri, the celebration of a battle between good and evil lasting nine days, and Diwali, the festival of lights, when this part of the Fosse Way is closed as the street celebration carries on into the night. Retracing the ancient Roman route has been pretty easy so far. But now we’re faced with the concrete and brick confusion of a modern city centre. We know that the Fosse Way goes past Leicester’s Clock Tower, but the old streets of the city centre have long since been transformed into a pedestrian shopping precinct, meaning that for the first time on our journey there’s no way of following the original route. We work our way through Leicester and head south. The slender width, generous steering lock and instant response of the Ténéré make light work of slicing through the lunchtime traffic. Meanwhile, Adam’s smugness about his heated grips and comfortable seat seems to have evaporated. The panniers, loaded with camera gear, went unnoticed on the dual carriageway – but here they ruin the BMW’s
usually superb low-speed handling and seriously reduce Adam’s options when it comes to filtering. Our first piece of Fosse Way green lane is a two-mile stretch just off the B4114. It’s not easy to find, but we persevere because we know it’s there and we know it’s a road with vehicular rights of way, so we will be able to ride it. The first mile or so of hard-packed lane ends at a picnic site. From there on we try to get along the more rutted, greener part of the lane but soon have to turn round after getting stuck in boggy ground. In the summer months when the ground is firmer it’s probably easily passable – but not today it’s not, at least not on the pseudo trail tyres that the bikes come fitted with that are far more suited to Tarmac. Much puffing and panting later, two very muddy motorbikes and two very muddy riders are back on solid ground. We decide we need to make haste if we’re likely to find anywhere to stay for the night. The next part of our route takes us across another Roman road, Watling Street (also known as the A5). It’s signposted as the Fosse Way all the way along the incredibly straight B4455 until we join the A429 at Halford. That Fosse pride we first witnessed in
Mosaics (above, centre) make it well worth stopping at Chedworth Roman Villa. Bath (above) mixes Roman and Georgian in a combination guaranteed to make a gawping tourist of anyone
Syston returns. Now nearly every garage, garden centre, shop, pub and practically any other business has the word Fosse in its name. Every signpost towards Cirencester bears the name of our chosen route and, as we head towards Moreton-in-Marsh on the edge of the Cotswolds, I can’t help but reflect on the diversity of this old road, from the splendour of Lincoln Cathedral to the ethnic variety of Leicester right through to the rustic charm of the Gloucestershire market town we’re staying in for the night. Indeed, all’s well at the end of day one.
Day two Fosse Fact Between Lincoln and Ilchester in Somerset, a distance of 183 miles, the Fosse Way deviates no more than six miles from a straight line.
➜ We’ve swapped bikes for the day and it feels like I’ve drawn the long straw. Those heated grips, the wider, more comfortable seat and a motor that cheats by having one extra cylinder and 150cc more than the sticker proclaims add up to quite a bonus. While the Yamaha felt comfortable for the first tank of fuel and did a better job of deflecting the bitterly cold November wind, by comparison the BMW is an armchair. The lower seat height is welcome too, particularly as I’ve got short legs and, just north of Cirencester, we need to keep stopping to check the map.
MAy 2009 Ride 81