Winter Days, Summer Nights

Whilst I am not a fair weather biker, winter cycling does challenge. Inevitably, boisterous walks with our dog or short intense, mist-shrouded runs take their place, exacerbated by a busy pre Christmas business schedule.  Yesterday though I fitted in a short ride: really, it was a late Autumn ride: with a bite to the air and the fallen leaves now a levée of pulped compost damming up behind the kerbstones like snow drifting against an exposed hedge or drystone wall. I wasn’t there, but my dad’s recount of the banks of snow up near Tegg’s Nose in 1956 came to mind, so vivid they were in the telling. Towards the road centre, the leafocaust was less intense, here a collage wallpaper print, the maples particularly picturesque. My tyres were skittish. Later I would buy some new ones to find more grip.

In the evening, I read some old blog posts, one from a now defunct blog I had called ‘The Speed of Bike’.  The contrast in this post was immediate: in a few short weeks the clouds of insects, the warm smells of cropped fields and plump, rich hedgerow fruits, gone,  replaced by the clear starkness and broad horizons of winter.  It is reposted below.

I have a circuit. If Map My Ride can be trusted it’s 15.3 miles but close enough for me to call it 15 allowing for rounding. It’s mainly flat, but not so flat to allow just a cruise. The initial 4 miles are a long drag, more than a false flat, less than a ‘categorised climb’, with a lumpy road surface and regular ripples across the road which make for an uncomfortable hammering for the hands. Then a long section, 8 miles which is flat cruising on resurfaced roads, before a final 3 miles that loops me back into the village. It’s my unthinking route – if I want a quick ride and don’t feel inspired to route plan, or just haven’t got the time, then I set off, happy to be unthinking.

That was my mode last night. A quick gap before tea for a breather. Autopilot on, concentrating on the sensations of the road not the ride itself – it may sound strange, but sometimes there’s equal pleasure in just turning over the pedals. Pulling up not just pushing down; counting revolutions as the tyres gently whirr on the tarmac; feeling the road through your handlebars. There’s a mesmeric intensity to it which takes me to another place.

Last night though, Mother Nature caught me out. Not by a blazing show of power – lightning; hail, brimstone. Rather through the gentle elongated light of Summer. As I pedalled, I tried to think of the words for this piece – but unlike my pedal strokes they didn’t flow in the ‘there and now’. It was a bigger, more holistic impression of ‘this is what makes the British countryside so special’. And it was the light most of all. Even two hours before sun down, the light was low. It stretched everything: trees ran across the fields like the bony hands of a skeleton; buildings were pulled outwards like play dough, with a soft shadow added from photoshop. And the air was still warm, melting away in front of me as I cycled – just like the butter my gran would melt on the side of the stove before dragged her bone-handled palette knife through it for the first round of toast.

And the bugs. Millions of nameless, swirling, random insects pinging off my jacket, leaving small pok-marks as their exoskeleton performed its protective task. So many that at times I had to turn my head away and steer through eyes askance down the road. If there is a Maker and we are all to be judged then I’ll need to confess my sins for the number I unintentionally snuck up and spat out.

At last, home. As the brakes ease me to a standstill, and I clip out of the pedals, the sense of sadness that comes from riding on a long summer evening. Like the Summer evenings of our youth, there is just the lingering desire for it to carry on forever.

Early autumn jottings

September 2nd
An early start to Herefordshire, and the first sense that Summer ebbs as Autumn flows. From the broad valley with the Cotswolds on one side, and the Malverns the other, the M50 is the apple route. It becomes immediately more rural, and grassy. Rather than illuminated signs telling you to “use hard shoulder when busy” here they just say “Soft Verges”, a polite warning not to break down as the hedgerows will swallow you up. Then, outside Ledbury, the apple trees begin, defiant, proud, spiky despite huge stands that map the rolling lie of the land. They are heavy with fruit.

September 11th
With a strange circularity today, I meet an old colleague Giles. He worked for an advertising agency in Edinburgh who my old company used, and in 2001, we were up in the Scottish capital in a ‘pre production’ meeting, a critical stage in making an advert where everything about the forthcoming shoot gets agreed. During the meeting we heard the whispers. ‘Have you heard what’s going on in New York?’. Diverting the focus of the meeting, we watched transfixed. When the towers fell, it was impossible to comprehend what was going on. The setting was so familiar, so much like a movie set, watching it felt like one. But it was only in the taxi on the way to the airport and the flight home, that what had happened sunk in. We flew home.

IMG_2337The Plane trees in London are beginning to hunker down in preparation for winter. Leaf edges are curling up and turning cello brown. Some fall early; walking between parallel rows, the gravity of expectation is almost palpable. I don’t know why Planes are so named; but I have a soft spot for their versatility and constitution. Their fruit hanging like posh Christmas decorations, bulbous, glittering and furry; unlike conkers they don’t seem to fall. The Planes have adapted to thrive, like urban foxes.

I wait for my train at the British Library. To work at the library café it seems you must have an Apple computer, but they seem to sell very few apples at the counter, only cakes and excessively crusty sandwiches. It is though, to paraphrase ‘the restoration man’, George Clarke, ‘a great space’ and time passes quickly.

September 14th
I ride 62 miles on my bike, but feel unwell throughout. The land however is bursting with health and vibrancy. Climbing over the Chase under trees, I glance up at the canopies overhead. With the strong light behind, the canopies form patterns like fancy pants wallpaper, Laura Ashley, Farrow & Ball.

September 23rd
With the passing of the Autumn Equinox the daily stride towards darkness begins. And so too the bustle of Autumn, everywhere activity. As the sap in the tree falls as the days shorten, so the wind can starts its ironic late Spring clean, loosening the leaves’ attachment to their home.

The light lingers long now, backlit, iridescent. A short walk against brooding dark skies sees the hills lit up with spotlights. Greens are greener; the autumn colours commence, duns, browns, burgundies, reds. And the puffs of falling leaves have started. The horse chestnuts are letting go all around, a leafy mulch on the pavements. Other are less forthcoming, the oaks are still green, the little coins of the beech are preparing.

September 30th
This morning, low mist hangs over the fields and in places hill tops jut through, floating on the clouds. The sun is low. Bright reflections and long shadows of a leggy man striding across the fields. Squinting. And in the distance a swan, wing up, preens, preparing to hunker down.