We had a particularly pleasant family gathering today involving a good walk in the morning (over 80s excused) followed by an excellent lunch. As various relatives went their separate ways and just the three of us were left to finish off the last of the sausages for our tea, it began to dawn on me that I had enjoyed a surfeit of alimentation and that something ought to be done about it. I was also aware that, despite the good weather on Saturday, I had done almost no miles on the bike and, with severe weather and Arctic blasts forecast for the early part of the week, opportunites for riding in a modicum of comfort were going to be in short supply.
The urge to go for a ride was almost quelled by the unmistakable rattling of rain on the skylights but a few minutes later a quick glance out of the front door assured me that the weather had improved and that the sky, at least in part, had cleared. I got changed into my cycling gear, took the solidlights off the tandem and fitted them to my solo machine, and off I went.
Every activity, every hobby I pursue, eventually grips me like a drug. The more I consume, the more I need to consume to keep the addiction at bay. When I was practising for my piano teaching diploma, I used to have to play for about 4 hours every night in order to improve. These days, I would have ended up with the letters ASBO after my name as well as LGSM because we lived in a small terraced house and I drove the neighbours spare. When I played chess competitively, I used to study the games of grandmasters at great length in order to improve my play, and I used to hate losing to geeky single men who had nothing in their lives except chess, and who would return to some squalid bedsit after the game whereas I would go back to a comfortable home, complete with the family I sometimes resented for stopping me from spending more time on chess.
I don’t want my cycling to end up like that. At the moment, I have an objective, and its a laudable one: to lose weight. I’m succeeding, but I don’t actually have a target weight in mind. I suppose that if I got down to 13 stone, I shoud be satisfied, because not all that long ago I was over 19 stone. I’m nearly half way there, but if I get there, will the addiction take over again? At least with cycling there are lots of spin-off benefits.
Even though for much of the time my riding is along the same roads, no two rides are ever the same. Car drivers control their environments so much, with heaters, stereos, simply the fact that they are separated from the real world by boxes of metal and glass, that, by and large, going from A to B is pretty much the same every time. For the cyclist, there is a great deal of variety depending to a large extent upon what the weather is doing, but also upon one’s own state of mind. One evening last week, for example, the weather was relatively mild and there was almost no wind, and my legs achieved a rhythm which I had forgotten that they could achieve and when I arrived home to my great delight and surprise I had covered just over 24 miles in 1 hour 56 minutes during which time I had noticed almost nothing of my surrroundings.
Tonight was not going to be like that. For one thing winter had returned – “welcome March with Wintry Wind: wouldst thou wert not so unkind” – so overshoes and an extra layer on the top were required. For another, I just felt like observing what was going on around me.
It was about half-tide as I rode along the sea front, having to do relatively little work as the wind was behind me. I had the lights in flash mode, and they must have been angled a bit too high because a couple of drivers coming the other way flashed their own headlights at me vigorously as I must have been dazzling them. It’s such a great feeling, when, having made do for so many years with feeble old Ever Ready front lights which gave out a puny beam, we cyclists can now force motorists to acknowledge our existence with a decent set of dynamo lights.
On entering Wakering I admired the very distinctive church, squat and broad-shouldered, whose clock now told passers by the correct time when for so many months it said ten to seven. However, what would the Bishop have to say about the flood-lighting, now that Rowan Williams has declared climate change to be a moral problem and it is the duty of everyone to cut back on their use of energy? Barling church seemed to have a much more public-spirited vicar, or perhaps just a lot less money, as it was lurking in a Dickensian darkness, just a stone’s throw from the sea wall and marshes beyond. Bolts Farm, on the most remote part of the ride, was highly illuminated again. This is a listed building which has new occupants and they were obliged to seek planning permission to erect a new fence which is not really in keeping with the timber-framed weatherboarded farmhouse, and the house seems to have lost a rough-edged rusticity as a result of recent renovations. It’s the sort of place which modern builders try to imitate, at least, in the veneer they glue onto the breeze-blocks, and at times Bolts Farm no longer looks quite like the real thing.
I was going to explore all the roads I could this evening, and when I returned to Little Wakering via Barrow Hall Road, I noticed flashes of lightning from a bank of cloud far out over the North Sea. I have heard it referred to as “summer lightning” – pyrotechnics so remote that there is no chance of hearing the thunder – but tonight was as far away from high summer as it is possible to be. Past Little Wakering and Barling churches again, and on this lap it occurred to me that rural dwellers seem to rely far less on curtains than do their urban counterparts. I rode fairly slowly, having a good old nose into people’s fromt rooms, and very homely they looked. I imagined fresh bread and beef stews with dumplings.
On my second lap I went along the Barling Road towards Silchester Corner (who named it that and why?) and on a whim turned along Rebel’s Lane. I had only been along here once before, having joined it from the other end where it is a public footpath leading from the northern side of Southend Borough. I rode as far as I could before the tarmac gave way to gravel, and just as I was approaching the point at which I would have to turn round and go back, I saw a fox trotting towards me, completely unaware of my existence as the wind was blowing from him to me. We were only about 15 feet away from each other when suddenly he became aware of me. Foxes are supposed to melt away into the darkness when they don’t want to be observed, but this one displayed considerable alarm as it dashed away inelegantly.
I had forgotten how vulgar, ostentatious and opulent the houses are along the Barling Road, the owners seeming to want to outdo one another in the army of ground-level lighting pointing upwards outside every mansion to demonstrate one unmemorable feature after another, so in the end nothing stood out except for the extreme ugliness of the best that money could buy. Off I went into Wakering for the third time, and this time after Barling church I turned my front light off. There was no moon, but enough reflection of distant neon from the clouds, and the residue of the earlier shower, that I could easily see where I was going. Suddenly I was aware of something above me and I looked and caught the silhouette of an owl, probably a tawny, following me along the road about 10 feet above my head, each of us trying to work out the precise identity of the other. Trying to cycle in a straight line while looking up at the sky is not to be recommended and when I looked down at the road again I could not see it so clearly as I had been able to. On came the light once more until I rounded the bend by Bolt’s farm (again) and turned the light out once more. I noticed an orange light flashing in the farmyard at Mucking Hall. It was a tractor manoeuvring. What were they messing about at at 11 o’clock on a Sunday night?
This was the final lap and suddenly, having been aware only of my surroundings, I realised that my feet were now cold. This was in spite of overshoes, but it seemed that I could actually feel the warmth draining away through the cleats. The rest of me was pretty warm – well, almost all the rest of me – I was beginning to wonder whether there was a hole in the crutch of my Lusso longs, but no, it was just the sensitive bits being sensitive and telling me it was time to get back in the warm and go to bed.
So after another couple of miles that’s pretty much what I did.