The gritty social realism of historical epic Downton Abbey which came to an end last weekend has challenged many of our preconceptions concerning what it was like in the old days. Many people, for example, would have imagined the Yorkshire of a century ago as a highly stratified society whereas writer Julian Fellowes shows us that in fact the lower and upper orders mingled quite amically all day long and gathered every evening to read The Guardian together over a nice hot mug of noblesse oblige. The most important way Downton has changed my historical perspective however is in showing me that there were no horses back then and everybody travelled everywhere either by walking freshly swept and well maintained lanes free of muck of any kind, blagging a lift in the car from an aristocrat with more titles than Waterstones or taking an unseen train service of a speed, frequency and affordability which surely surpasses anything the as yet unbuilt HS2 promises in even its wildest promotional claims. The fact that Yorkshire in the early twentieth century was as horseless as it was classless when in the same place today both of these things are very much in evidence was as much of a revalation to me as the discovery when I first watched Star Wars that people in the previously assumed to be weightless realm of outer space could walk around as if they were on a sound stage in Hertfordshire. And to think that they say TV isn’t educational. My present day experience of riding a bike around modern day Yorkshire suggests that we have both gravity and horses in quite large amounts and I’m always reassured by both of their continuing presences in my neighbourhood.
Riding up towards the moors I often pass through a village where on an early morning many horses join the cyclists headed up the hill out of town. Most of the horses you meet around the lanes are amateurs of course but these are the pros and they are looking forward to next July when some bikeriders of a slightly higher class than the ones they encounter most of the year ride though this way. The horses can look a bit disdainful but the jockies are more friendly and the wet and cold often makes me feel for the lads and lasses headed up to the gallops. If I get chilly I have some pedals to turn to warm me up, at least I assume that’s what they are there for, but in their case the horse, to be honest, does most of the physical effort. I am sure there is a golden Dragons Den opportunity waiting for the inventor of stirrups with pedals for horse riders shivering on those frosty days or trying to shift those last few pounds for the weigh in. Other than this slight difference though horse riders and bike riders have so much in common I always love to see them out on the roads, hardened professionals or enthusiastic amateurs, as I like to see other bike riders out. I’m not alone in this because MTBers also like them as horses are the only other thing on the road that weighs nearly as much as their bikes.
In accordance with good horse-passing practice, and in accordance with good not being an antisocial knob who refuses to say hello to anyone not wearing the same brand of sunglasses practice I always call out a friendly good morning so the horse knows I am a human and not a wolf (wolves being famously disinclined to make small talk) and I generally get a friendly greeting in return. If the horse knows you are a human he won’t use his strength and speed, which are probably greater than your own, against you. Humans give the horse carrots and sugar lumps, the well known staple diet of thoroughbreds, so are a species he is generally cool with. I am the same with anyone who gives me jelly babies. I can’t help thinking though that humans are also the ones who get a horse up early on a sunday morning, kick him out of a warm stable and make him run around in circles on a freezing moor in the pissing rain with someone sitting on his back carrying a whip so at at least some point in the day being a human has got to be the very worst thing you can identify yourself as to such a very large and powerful animal with a good kick on him. The trouble is the only wolf noise I can do is their whistle and that might get me into even more trouble.
The world of Downton Abbey might be one of enlightened liberal values, well manicured lawns and even more manicured hairdos, and riding bicycles sidesaddle whilst wondering why nobody in the village is under twenty-five but that world is gone, never to return, until the christmas special, so you and I will have to make do with the modern world. We might have slower trains than they do, and probably slower broadband as well where I live, the sun doesn’t always shine and I dream of how many bikes I could have kept in one of those grand houses of yesteryear’s big empty stable blocks but as long as I can ride my bike I’ll make do with this world as I feel more at home here and today anyway, amongst the muck and the rain and the horses.