I suppose I've never really got the idea of a holiday by the sea. The coast is where you go to travel somewhere else so a holiday at a seaside town is the vacation equivalent of spending a week in a flghtless airport terminal or silent and rusting disused railway siding. There isn’t anything very much to do or look at and in fact the sea is the opposite of a view; it is, as the permanent neighbour of our temporary residence put it, a blank canvas. There is sound of course, smell; salt, seaweed and seagull shit, and the touch of shingle on bare toes but it’s still a kind of sensory deprivation. For someone who has, as have many, experienced that non-specific feeling of having missed the boat, or several boats, or if truth be told more like a whole f****g navy, a source of great regret for someone who counts on the sparse positive side of a list of personal strengths and weaknesses a complete imperviousness to any form of motion sickness, in fact it’s standing still for too long on dry land which doesn’t feel right to my wrong-way-around constitution, this is not the ideal environment for rest and recuperation. The sensation of having been left behind is only heightened by the twinkling lights of the cross channel ferries heading for the horizon by night and the tide rising over then uncovering the Mulberry caisson which never made it to Normandy back in 1944 by day. At the seaside you can sleep of course but I’m not the world’s greatest at that, you can read but I read a book once and didn't really enjoy it, and you can think but thinking without any problem or purpose is like riding a bike indoors on rollers, to add a tenous cycling reference to what is supposed after all to be a bike blog, which is to say an ultimately unsatisfying affair which misses the point of doing it completely and can only end by falling off and bruising your psyche against the metaphysical kitchen cupboard with all the sharp and pointy stuff of the sunbconcious in it. I get dry land, I get the sea, it’s just the bit in between the appeal of which somehow, like so much else, passes me by. Still, as Nelson, whose flagship lies just up the road, announced to his crews, and I’m paraphrasing here, everyone is expected to do their duty and holidays are about what other people want, not you, so shut up, smile and you can moan about it online when you get home.
Yorkshire writer Simon Armitage wrote a poem Evening
about the passing of time, and of life. You should check out his stuff. He writes as he speaks; softly and with thought. It’s getting late in the summer now. Dusk falls earlier and by increasing increments each day. It’s still not properly dark until nine of a night but it’s the sense of movement, of the direction of travel, accompanied by those few extra degrees of coolness on an early morning or late afternoon that have the effect, the journey not the predictable and familiar destination. The awareness and sensation of the passing of time is one of the joys of spending a lot of time outdoors, and one of the poignancies at the same time; like alcohol it accentuates the mood it finds you in, lifts the high, the positive, the optimistic and accentuates the low, the melancholy, the reflective. There were a lot of bike riders out this evening. I don’t know whether they were experiencing a ‘crikey let’s get out there quick because in a few weeks it’ll be pitch dark and freezing cold at this time in the evening’ kind of vibe or if the ‘it’s still August, it’s warm, it’s light for ages so let’s make the most of it’ call was what they were answering. Probably they’re like me, the same awareness as every other day of the lateness of summer, but whether riding with sense of grim urgency or of joyful seizure of the moment very much depending on where they are in terms of the rest of their life; work, family and all that other less important than riding their bike stuff.
It is said the British Isles account for three quarters of the world’s heather moorland so although not unique to these islands if there is a landscape that really has a ‘made in Britain’ stamp on it then this is it (because it is of course a ‘made’ ecology as most of the country was once wooded and wild and heather is very much a managed affair). I don’t know, therefore, why as a nation we don’t celebrate the flowering of the heather in August more, in the way perhaps that the japanese venerate the cherry blossom or even as folks here will exitedly announce their first snowdrop of late winter or bluebell of spring. Maybe we could get some of those hippy new age druid types up from Stonehenge to do a chant or something. I suppose it’s because the heather presages the coming of autumn, a great big fat purple reminder that summer’s over folks so better get sorting out your sweater drawer, and then there is the whole grouse shooting thing of course, but it is a real shame heather suffers from associations we make for it which are beyond its control, just being a woody shrub and all, because to me it’s a special time of the year even if nobody else feels the same.
This time last weekend I’d just arrived in London for a large ‘Olympic Legacy’ bike ride from the retro-soviet grandiosity of the old Olympic Campus in the East End out into the Surrey suburbs and back into town for a grand finish on The Mall. It was a great ride; a ‘big day out’ feel, wide city boulevards closed to traffic, people supporting the ride from the roadside and loads and loads of bikes and bikeriders but one thing I didn’t seem to share with the other participants was my disappointment at the ride being shortened at the last minute because there was some rain forecast. Alot of southern riders saw this as an opportunity to get a faster average time and to miss out what to me are very minor bits of uphillness but to them seem to be some kind of forbidding mountain range. Southern riders were also perhaps less concerned as they hadn’t had to travel very far or pay for hotels and with income differentials between London and the North East being what they are the entry fee was probably not a lot of money to them. Coming from a part of the country where folks like to get what they’ve paid for and where hills and bad weather are a part of normal life whether you ride a bike or not seemed to set me apart quite distinctly from the locals down there, even the bike riding ones, in a way which I found quite surprising at an event for people with whom I appeared to have so much in common. Sadly I ride fast for the wind in my hair not the time on a clock, I ride up hills for the heart beating out of my chest and for being closer to the sky, not for the strava segment, and I ride at all to be outdoors, whatever is happening outdoors at the time, not to get a sun tan, so I don’t really seem to fit in down south.
It’s strange because on the face of it London ‘gets’ cycling: there are blue-painted bike lanes on some busy roads, little boxes at traffic lights for bikes to stop in, you can take your bike on the train across town much more easily than around my neck of the woods and they organise the biggest bike ride in the country. I think however that non-cycling southerners are not perhaps so accepting of sharing the highway with bikes as they are here at home where folks are used to stuff on the road which isn’t neccesarily going at 60mph in the same direction them; sheep, cows, horses, tractors, combine harvesters, ramblers, deer, cyclists, squaddies on foot or in large and very slow military vehicles, fallen trees and collapsed stone walls in the winter, and at this summer holiday time of year lost tourists lugging huge camper vans and caravans around the narrow lanes desperately prodding the sat-nav for inspiration and there isn’t the level of anti-cycling sentiment that you hear about down south, although there is a bit it has to be said. Drivers and people in general round here, mostly, even if they don’t get cycling per se get being outdoors and get that driving in real life is a constant negotiation with others and that the empty roads beloved of car adverts are not what you are ever going to get in real life. A city like London where there’s so much conflict, despite all the apparent advantages offered to cyclists, can’t really be said to get cycling and the organisers of a bike ride who shorten (and nearly cancel if the web chitchat is to be believed which I appreciate sometimes it isn’t) the ride because it might rain are a million miles from getting cycling as I know and love it.
It was great to visit London last weekend, it’s a terrific city in so many ways, but it’s good to be back home. Home is what this post is intended to be celebrating rather than being a stereotypical northern moan about soft southerners which is why I have put up these pictures from my ride this morning and home, as Christian Morgenstern said, is not just about where you live, it’s about where they understand you and I don’t think they really get, either geographically or philosophically, where I’m coming from down in the big city.
Despite the disappointment that twenty kilometres and the only two hills on the route had been taken out of the course by the organisers due to the wet weather inevitably felt by many, especially by those who don’t fully grasp the concept of not riding over a small hill just because it’s raining and who drove a five hundred mile round trip to take part in what turned out to be a diminished version of the billed event, I suppose it is kind of possible to understand the decision after seeing how many accidents there were yesterday, the first one witnessed by myself being a rider in front of me at traffic lights on the way to the start who fell from his stationery bike taking out the lass next to him in the process, and so it is perhaps important to accentuate the positive when it comes to Sunday’s RideLondon bikesportiveride, that curious and rather marvellous fusion of charity fundraisers and weekend warriors, of the newbies and the seasoned, of the eccentric and the takingitmuchtooseriously, the unique experiences that came from this pootle around what even non-Londoners would have to recognise as one of the most important towns in the South East of England.
After all, on what other weekend can you stay in an East London hotel where it is the guests not wearing bike gear who feel a bit conspicuous and self concious, where else do you get the chance to receive free Haribos (and Tangfastics at that, not the usual boring Supermix) from a real live person by buying a t-shirt from the Wiggle shop at the sign-on expo even if the logo does need altering now from RideLondon100 to RideLondon87, what other time can you up close and personal with the Rapha H-van as it doesn’t look like it would get this far north in a human lifetime under it’s own steam, on which other day can you ride the Hammersmith Flyover, the Blackwall Tunnel and scary looking six lane highways which if bikes aren’t banned from them completely you’d need to be much braver than I am to ride them, on what other occasion can you pedal a bike at quite an unfeasible number of kilometres per hour on the wrong side of the road and past every red light through the Monopoly Board place names of the centre of town and push your biggest gear past the Palace of Westmister and the National Gallery to recreate your fading memory of finishing the London Marathon on the Mall all those years ago then drift back to the City along a silent and traffic free Victoria Embankment, so lost in your thoughts and in the views of the river and in the sheer peacefulness of it all that you are overtaken by a young lad weaving precariously on a Boris bike?
The failure of Mayor Boris’s charm and persuasion to ensure the large Atlantic depression formerly known as Hurricane Bertha didn’t dump 50mm of precipitation on his jurisdcation yesterday may be the reason he is going back into parliament to get more powers. Not being from down that way I don’t know what his legacy to London in the non-cycling field will be, other than perhaps planning permission for lots of very tall glass-sided buildings, but I hope this celebration of all things two-wheeled and human-powered continues, if only so I can come back and ride it on a sunny day, finally go up Box Hill, and find out what I was missing.
There’s a big day out on the bike down in the big smoke at the weekend I should be saving my efforts for, there’s a load more non-bike stuff to worry about and on a weeknight a stiff drink is more than a match for getting the bike out in the competition for being the first thing I think of coming in the door but there’s a diminishing number of summer evenings to look forward to, the heather is in flower, and I need to check that the wheels won’t fall off on Sunday and as the roads empty, the clouds clear and the wind swings around behind me as I turn for home I remember why I do this, and anyway that drink will be a bit colder for the extra time in the fridge.
It’s good to go fast and feel the wind in your hair but sometimes you don’t even need to be moving at all; just sit on your bike on a windy day and watch the cloud shadows crossing the fells; the perfect antidote to watching all those serious looking folks rushing around Glasgow on their bikes in the rain today, well, the perfect antidote to lots of things really.