Tuesday, 25 May 2010

The Devil's Punchbowl

I think it was William Cobbett who described the Devil's Punchbowl as... "One of the most God-forsaken spots on earth..." and that not only shows how limited his Rural Rides were, but also how attitudes toward beauty in the landscape as well as viewpoints on wildernesses in general have changed in the last 200 years.

The Punchbowl Hotel is certainly a hell of a viewing point for the vast, natural crater, but we can view it from all angles when we cruise around the rim on the Triumph 650, taking the stretch of the A3 that snakes toward London in the photo above - or at least you can. I will be looking out for potholes, etc.

Just before the Punchbowl Hotel, there is a cross-road. If you take the right turn there, about 1 mile down, you will pass the birthplace of little me, Tom Stephenson. I was born at Beacon Hill, near the Punchbowl and near Haslemere, but as yet there is no blue plaque on the wall to celebrate that fact. Give it time, I'm still relatively young, or at least I am in relation to my relatives, most of whom are now dead, or almost. In any event, we are not taking that turn, we are waiting for the lights to go green before we sweep round the Punchbowl. Oops - they've gone green whilst I was talking, so I crank the throttle and see your feet rise to my ear level either side of my head, before you right yourself by grabbing me around the eyes.

This was a favourite stretch of road for the old-fashioned motorists of the 1920's 30's and 40's during the days when the Automobile Association was an elite club and their their mechanics were stationed at numerous points along the way, dressed in dark green, military style uniforms and standing next to their bright yellow-liveried motorcycles with side-car. If they spied the distinctive A.A. badge bolted onto the front bar of your vehicle, they would salute you as you passed by! My father would be childishly delighted when he received a salute from one of these highway soldiers, because he had never been a member - he just bolted the badge onto every successive car he bought. A genuine A.A. member would be issued with a universal Yale key which fitted the locks of all the many dedicated AA phone-boxes dotted around the country. If you were having a spot of bother with your motor, you would let yourself into one of these booths, pick up the phone and be instantly connected to a female operative with a cut-glass BBC accent. Those were the days.

I don't know how - geologically speaking - the Punchbowl was formed, but it must have taken some forming. I used to imagine that it was the result of a cataclysmic meteor impact as a kid, but I would now imagine the real event took a lot longer. London is only about 25 miles away from here, and it is not long before we start entering the southern outskirts of the city, because the metropolis proper spreads about 30 miles in all directions from the old centre in the East End. That is the strange thing about Surrey - it is an incongruous mixture of green, natural beauty and semi-hidden antiquity, floating in a sea of dormitory commuters - or maybe the other way round. You are never more than a few hundred feet away from a property developer, like the rat myth, so it seems.

You can turn off this road and, within minutes, find yourself sitting beside a medieval water-mill on a quiet stretch of river dotted with thatched cottages, like a scene from a Constable painting. But if the wind is in the right direction and you have keen hearing, you can hear the subdued roar of the city beneath the chirruping of the birds in the hedgerows.

As we approach the great South Circular, 1930's high-rise buildings appear (well, high for England, anyway) with the names of household products in large letters, pinned to their sides. These are the homes of all the famous biscuits, corsets and beef-stock cubes that we were brought up with - domestic super-stars of the 1950's, made famous by blurred, black and white images flickering on 8 inch television screens.

Talking of blurs, there goes the Ace of Spades - to your left! Too late, we've past it.

At last we are on the embankment road of the great river Thames, and Battersea Power Station sits uncomfortably next to a permanent fair ground which - at night - is prettily lit up like the bridge which leads to it, and the floating restaurant on this side.

We get caught up in the sweltering traffic of Parliament Square, and columns of thin, blue smoke waft up from either side of the T110's petrol tank. The clutch is getting snappy and irritable. We all need a rest, so I pull over near Admiralty Arch and press the red button in the middle of the headlamp cowl, sending the engine into faltering silence, punctuated by the ticking and clicking of shrinking, metal components. A duck quacks from somewhere the other side of the arch.

Where shall we go next, or do you just want to get on a tube and make your own way home?


  1. Oh God. I've never owned a bike, and I'm beginning to really regret it. Is it too late?

  2. It's never too late to suffer a mid-life crisis, Cro, but I prefer life with 4 wheels and roof these days. Also, I would never willingly revert to non-electronic ignition in any vehicle, just so long as I was doing my own repairs.