Part One of Harry Mottram’s cycle ride to Scotland during the 1976 drought.

In the days before Global Warming and Climate Change were on the lips of politicians and environmentalists and in the pages of Green World, the drought of 1976 continues to be the summer that all hot summers are judged against.
The heat and dryness of that summer burnt into the collective memory due to its status in a decade of wet summers and a near national emergency prompting the appointment of a minister for drought as the reservoirs dried up.

Denis Howell checks out the stand pipes. Pic: BBC

It was also the summer when I decided to cycle to Scotland to volunteer on an archaeological dig. I had taken part the year before by accident when I visited the dig at Threave Castle in Galloway when I had called at the site and was mistaken by the site manager for a new volunteer rather than a tourist when I asked about volunteering.
“Yes, I got your letter so if you can start tomorrow,” said the site manager – much to my surprise, “the volunteers are staying in the Haugh of Urr village hall so if you can make it there tonight by six then we’ll get you signed in. You’ll need a sleeping bag for the hall and some are camping out the back. Supper is at seven.”
“Oh right,” I said, “I will er… OK… volunteer… er and er cycle over this evening.”
I had been staying at my brother Toby’s cottage in Kirkcudbright so borrowing a bicycle I cycled over that evening with the necessary camping kit. And thus in the summer of 1975 having just left school and flopping my A-levels I found myself scraping away with a trowel in trenches and shifting topsoil in a quest to discover the story of the Black Douglas and how the defenders of the castle held out in clan disputes of the 15th century. It was a happy experience mainly due to the boozy social life in the Laurie Arms and Village Hall in the Haugh of Urr. The archaeologists and volunteers were a mixture of professionals, hippies, romantics and students who introduced me to the world of beer, darts, Bob Dylan and Scottish football with a trip to watch Queen of the South FC play one evening in Dumfries.

The summer of 1975 was cast under leaden skies and the trenches at the dig on the island of Threave were often filled with rainwater delaying work in the mornings. The following year there has been scarcely any rain since March. I had worked on a farm picking potatoes and in a Cash-and-Carry super market before a spell as a volunteer digger on a Saxon village near Litchfield in Staffordshire. As spring turned to summer I was back working on the farm harvesting potatoes. Clouds of dust followed the tractors as the usual heavy clay soil turned to red dust and the potatoes were so small we joked they would be only any good for cocktail sticks. Not that I knew what a cocktail stick was.
The previous year I had hitch-hiked to Scotland but this time I cycled using my mother’s road bike – I can’t remember why she had a racing bike but she was not a conventional parent and she rode everywhere on a Vespa scooter.
I remember setting off dressed in a sheepskin waistcoat and yellow tee-shirt with surf beads as accessories and just £27.77p in my pocket – my wages for the last week on the farm paid in cash.
It was already hot as I said goodbye to mum outside our home in West Lambrook and set off northwards towards Langport. I planned to stay at my sister Alex’s tithe cottage at Woebley in Herefordshire more than 100 miles away on the first night, then with friends at Sheffield Art college on the second night and camp somewhere near Gretna on the third night reaching the Haugh of Urr on day four a total of more than 400 miles.
The 1976 drought stands out because it created a political crisis with the passing of the Drought Act in August and the appointment of Denis Howell as the Government’s ‘Minister for Drought.’ He was perhaps the most successful Government minister in history as within days of his appointment it began to rain thus ending the crisis – days after stand pipes were placed in our road and our water supply was cut off.
If the drought was the big news there were also some extraordinary events that summer. The Postmaster General John Stonehouse faked his own death, the IRA murdered Christopher Ewart-Biggs, the British ambassador to Ireland and a civil servant Judith Cooke with a roadside bomb, and the Dangerous Wild Animals Act was passed leading to sightings of panthers and leopards wandering the countryside for years to come.

In the charts that summer were Tina Charles, The Wurzels, Abba and Demis Roussos, while Elton John and Kiki Dee held the number one spot in the singles chart with Don’t Go Breaking My Heart for several weeks – a 45 single sounded from every shop doorway and car window – or so it seemed. My own tastes were changing from favouring top TV theme tunes to the Rolling Stones and Deep Purple as I graduated from spotty in-betweener to spotty teenager.
My abiding memory of that sun-baked summer cycle ride was the light burnt sienna colour of the landscape. The normally green fields of Somerset, Herefordshire, Staffordshire and Yorkshire were a collage of washed out yellows, browns and beige with many of the trees showing yellowing leaves as they suffered distress from a lack of rain. It could have been Tunisia or Tuscany or the Spanish Sierra rather than England. Dust from passing cars and lorries blown from dry verges along the roads gave a rich aroma of petrol and diesel fumes infused with dusty dry grass and sandy powdery earth. I called it Perfume de ‘76.
I made good progress that first morning in July along the lanes and B-roads of Somerset through Long Sutton, Somerton and Meare passing through Wedmore where children were walking up to the old primary school on Cheddar Road. Looking back as I pushed my bike up Shipham Hill on the Mendips I could see what would decades later become my spiritual home – Cheddar Reservoir – and the nearby town of Axbridge. It was like a glimpse into the future.

The Wurzels were in the charts that summer with Combine Harvester

As I free wheeled down towards Churchill and Langford disaster: a puncture on the front tyre. I had no tools, puncture repair kit or spare inner tube. In fact I was woefully unprepared for the journey – assuming I could wing it. No Google maps in those days just an Ordnance Survey map of Somerset to get me to Bristol and an old AA hand book with maps for the rest of the journey. I asked at the petrol station (now Tout’s Budgens) if there was a bicycle repair shop locally and they suggested I try Wrington about a mile away. I pushed the heavily laden bike along a lane to the village wondering if the trip had come to an early end and debating to myself the possibility of turning back. In the village there was a car repair garage and petrol station. Entering into the dark and oil covered interior I asked the mechanic who was having a cup of tea from his flask if they repaired bikes as I stood there with my bike and its flat tyre.
“We don’t normally but if someone in the village has a flat I keep a few spare inner tubes to help them,” he said, “where are you heading?”
“Scotland. I’ve cycled from South Petherton.”
“Oh. Let me see, what size is your tyre? Ah I think you are in luck.”
To my relief, he took a packet from a shelf and took out a spare inner tube. I unloaded the bike and turned it upside down and with a speed of movement I could only admire he had the wheel off, the tyre removed indicating a nail stuck in the tread and within a couple of minutes had replaced the punctured tube and restored the front tyre and with a blast of air it was inflated.
“That would have taken me hours,” I said.
“Changing a car tyre is even quicker, but since you’ve got a way to go I thought it was best to get you back on the road.”
I thanked him and got out my wallet.
“It’s on the house,” he said, “I get them sent to me by reps – good luck with the ride. Scotland? You’re mad!”
I’ve had a positive feeling about Wrington ever since, and moments like that restore your faith in humanity.

Setting off from West Lambrook on mum’s bike

So back on the road having lost less than an hour I headed up to Bristol to take the A4 from the A38 in Southville. To my dismay the Portway was closed and I found myself diverted up into Clifton and on through Henleaze towards rejoining the A38 at Filton.
It was another strange feeling as though I had a glimpse of the future as I remember thinking what it would like to live in urban Henleaze compared to rural West Lambrook. The houses, the shops and so busy as I cycled along Southmead Road. Decades later I moved my young family there where we lived for ten years before moving to Axbridge.
Woebley was still some 50 or more miles away as I crossed the Severn Bridge – stopping to touch the railings and look down on the swirling waters of the river I gasped in surprise. The railings were vibrating despite it being a windless day – a slightly disturbing feeling as with all that steel and concrete you’d think it to be rigid – but of course it is a suspension bridge and then the only crossing.
The rest of the ride up the Wye Valley through Monmouth and Hereford was thankfully uneventful as I listened to my transistor radio tuned as always to BBC Radio 4. I also had a cassette player which as an alternative to The World at One, The Archers and The 5PM News held tracks by Jimi Hendrix and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers – which helped to drown out the succession of Ford Cortinas and Morris Marinas shooting past – sometimes just inches away.
Arriving in at my sister Alex’s home in the early evening – a modern tithe house rather than a cottage – she made me bacon and eggs before a bath and bed where I fell asleep with seconds.

Rapscallion Magazine is an online publication edited by Harry Mottram

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