From(e) Sloe Gin to Cheddar by way of the Worship of Rye

Ian’s wonderful hospitality made it hard to leave Salisbury. We wanted to stay and sample more homemade jams, bread and booze, help with the build out of his newest garden beds, talk politics, and lounge in his beautiful conservatory. Alas, as they say, fish and houseguests start to smell after three days, so we bade farewell and pushed onward, to Frome.

A purple wildflower treat en route to Frome.

Frome is a small city about 30 miles northwest of Salisbury, known for its progressive politics. It also happened to be the place we spent the evening of the Champions League final game, and at Ian’s recommendation we watched in a fun bar with some die hard Liverpool fans. When they beat Tottenham Hotspur (it was a rare English v English matchup), one fan stood up and yelled “Tottenham! Scum of the earth!!!!!” and everyone cheered; a taste of real British fandom.

We left the bar at the tail end of daylight, and made our way to the other side of town and across a few fields to our lodging for the evening: a lovely campsite on a vegetable farm called Vallis Veg. The field crossing under moon-lit clouds was a real treat, and led to a patch of tall grasses and trees enclosing a sweet little enclave where we had pitched our tent earlier in the day.

We slept – always easily and well after a long day of riding – and the next morning, retraced our steps back into Frome for breakfast.

Field crossing back to Frome by daylight.

Hungry and ready for caffeine (at least, I was), we found our way to the magical Rye Bakery. Walking in, this place felt like the manifestation of all of our cafe and bakery dreams and schemes. Rye Bakery is located in what once was an old church. The altar now overflows with stacks of fresh loaves of bread beneath a beautifully preserved old organ. The pews have been refinished and turned to serve as seating on the perimeter of the cafe (not pictured). The spaces outside the main sanctuary serve as a community gathering rooms and meeting space, and outside, a lawn provides additional seating and a sumptuous vegetable garden. The menu is simple but thoughtful: we sampled several buttery pastries, a couple of egg dishes, a few excellent cappuccinos, and of course, bought a loaf of bread. We lingered and lingered, and reluctantly tore ourselves away only after we could eat and drink no more.

The bread sits where the altar used to!!

Outside, we found a lively farmer’s market underway, stalls filling the already narrow streets and people snaking among the vendors to purchase tasty snacks. We stocked up on a few items ourselves, and returned to our campsite to head out of town.

Next stop, Cheddar!

It began to rain just as we started rolling, and the day’s ride quickly devolved into a trying struggle to stay warm and dry. After about an hour of wet riding, we stopped in at a pub for a cup of tea to warm up. We met a motley crew of patrons, all of whom were – more wisely – whiling away the gray day indoors. Slightly recharged by the tea, we returned to the saddle, but the hours ahead persisted in their cold, uninspiring drizzle.

On point.

Just beyond the peak of our last climb of the day, Drew spotted a farm stand selling strawberries and clotted cream and pulled over to make a purchase. After some patient coaxing (I was in a soggy, grumpy, stubborn, pouty mood), he persuaded me to try one.

It was transformative!

From the farm-stand-on-hilltop, sweet strawberry dipped in cream in hand, we could see a vast swath of western English landscape, down to where our campground awaited, and across the skies to a heavenly break in the otherwise thick clouds. We rode the remaining few miles energized by fructose and the increasing late afternoon sun. We pulled up to the Cheddar Bridge campsite much drier and happier than we had been since breakfast.

We had planned the next day as a rest day, so naturally we decided to hike a gorge. Cheddar Gorge, to be precise. This limestone rock formation cuts a near-500 foot deep crevice into the landscape, and also is home to the Cheddar Man: Britain’s most ancient complete human skeleton, estimated to be about 9,000 years old. (Sorry if you were hoping Cheddar Man was a superhero of some kind. I was too.)

After our hike, we returned to the town of Cheddar by way of another of the region’s star attractions: a cheese factory! Even though the town is the namesake and origin of the world famous dairy product, the volume of cheddar cheese production is actually relatively low here these days (residents of Vermont would be unimpressed). Nonetheless, there is a small award-winning producer still in operation who keeps their factory open to the public. You can pay a small fee to learn about the cheesemaking process, watch artisans at work, and sample cheeses.

Obviously, we did that without hesitation. Alongside a small exhibit showing some of the early tools used to make cheese, a helpful video narrated the key steps of production (which involve several consecutive days of work and waiting, and then months and years to let the cheese age). The exhibit then opens up to an actual production room, where you can watch whatever stage of cheesemaking happens to be underway while you’re there. We watched with admiration as a skilled professional carried out the intricate and sometimes quite laborious tasks of the curd stage. As other visitors came and went, we remained with faces pressed up to glass, riveted by this cheesemonger at work.

In the background, the cheese is in an early stage of the production process – going through a shredding machine prior to being pressed overnight into rounds. In the foreground, the bins into which the newly shredded cheese would be placed for pressing. We were somewhat bemused to learn that the verb “to cheddar” (distinct from the proper noun) refers to a relatively minor part of the production process for this type of cheese. In fact, “to cheddar” is just to cut up big slabs of curd (cheese-in-the-making) and turn them over by hand so they release moisture gently and gradually.

Taking note of our unusually long attention span for his work, the cheesemonger stepped out of the room to greet us. He told us he was a former baker who got into cheese because “the hours are better.” We liked that, and him, a great deal.

We then had the chance to sample over a dozen different kinds of cheddar cheeses, including those of varied ages, and some with additional flavors. I was particularly amused that they had one with Marmite, England’s inferior, and frankly downright gross, take on my beloved Vegemite.

We left with a single block of cave-aged cheddar (being on bicycles and having to carry everything we own has really helped us show restraint where we might otherwise have gone totally nuts at the cash register) and some pickled jam, and headed back to our campsite to snack and plot the route for our coming days, as we turned our bikes towards the south coast!

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