I – SUBURBS. A Sunday morning in February before dawn. I’m sitting at the kitchen table, half-dressed, trying to force down a bowl of porridge. Dumped on the chair next to me is a jacket, helmet, gloves, skullcap, tools, food, money. The kitchen window is an impenetrable black. At least there are no streaks of rain.
Words: Paul Maunder
Illustrations: Matthew Burton
The biggest challenge of the morning is closing our ancient front door. Usually it needs a hefty slam that would certainly wake up the children. My wife has kindly given me time to ride my bike; the least I can do is avoid waking everyone up. I pull the door slowly, gently, willing the stiff lock to slide noiselessly into place. Click. I wince, that wasn’t too bad. I listen for yelling. Silence.
Across London, across the country, middle-aged men are performing the same stealthy escape. I imagine us all carefully putting our porridge bowls in the dishwasher, slipping on our cycling shoes, pulling shut our front doors. A collective comedy routine that will give us a couple of hours on the bike.
We meet at a scruffy crossroads, just around the corner from my house. There are five of us this morning. A minimal greeting, then we bump down from the sidewalk and ride, lights blinking, reflective strips flashing. We head south, following the route we always take out of the city through sleeping suburbs: Grove Park, Sundridge Park, Bromley, Hayes…. At any other time of day it’s 6 miles of frustrating stop-start riding.
The weekend escape from the city has always been a feature of cycling in Britain. The focal point of any cycling club is the Sunday morning club run that meets in a suburb and swims out into the countryside. In industrial cities, cycling clubs have always been a valve by which working-class men—sadly it was predominantly men—let off the pressure of their daily lives.
Our little Sunday morning group is shamefully homogenous. We’re all white family men around 40, mostly working in creative jobs, living in one small middle-class enclave of South London, with young children. Indeed, it’s the kids that originally brought the group together. Toddlers have a way of creating adult networks they’re not even aware of. I’m on the periphery of the group because I’m terrible at getting up so early on a Sunday. Or any day, come to that. But when I do manage to crawl out of bed in time, I enjoy the sensation of riding with other people.
Talking is a rhythm that has to fit your pedaling. Among cyclists who often ride together conversation can be spare or profuse, but it always has a natural flow. Pedaling is adjusted to ensure that the rhythm of a conversation is maintained, or the conversation is paused to allow for momentary changes in the landscape: an intersection, a steep hill, a wet bend. The regular group knows each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and positions on the road change accordingly. Our strongest climber is a tall lean rider. On the scarp slopes of the North Downs we create gaps for him to dart through, then let his titanium frame disappear into the darkness.
Often there is a comfortable silence. Riding together is enough. The shared sounds of breathing, whirring freewheels, click-click of gear changes.
After about half an hour our legs have loosened up and we’ve settled into this morning’s riding conditions. The roads are damp. The air, though not cold, is laden with a fine mist. The dawn is little more than a streak of light gray behind the clouds. At Keston, the sidewalks end. Not that we’re riding on the sidewalk, but this moment is significant because I think of it as a practical definition of where the city ends.
Crudely, we can divide the whole of the landscape into three zones: city, suburbs, country. It’s tricky to define why city is different to suburbs. Both have the same jumble of contents, both are defined by human presence and activity; and in roadside terms the cyclist has the same view of life whether he is in Lambeth or Bromley. Only we know that’s not true. The suburbs feel different because there is more of a sense of space. Suburbs sprawl across the land, while the city’s structures are forced upward.
However, between the suburbs and the country there is a more marked difference. One moment the cyclist is moving past pavement and houses, the next it’s a hedge and fields. From human-living space to horse-living space.
Landscape works on all of us, massages our brains, even if we don’t register it consciously. Every cyclist who likes to escape the city, who heads for green space, will have two or three routes out, and on every route they will have a marker for the point where city ends and country begins. Often, it’s the start of hedges and fields but it may be more oblique than that; it may just be a quiet stretch of road, a view of the hills or simply the point at which the rider can relax, can breathe a little deeper.
II – WOODS. The road begins to descend and before I lose too much elevation I turn off onto a much smaller lane, single-track and always gravel-strewn, taking me into Lambridge Wood. From light to shade. The reassuring expanse of skies is replaced by a dense canopy of young beech leaves. Soft, late-afternoon sunlight glows through, illuminating the leaves’ spidery veins, falling green-tinted into still air. The floor of the wood dips and rises in a series of mounds, burrows and holloways. When I was younger, maybe eight, I would have enjoyed running up and down those crazy slopes but now that I am 10 I want only to swoop along the road that passes through, carrying speed from drop to rise. I glance sideways into the wood and see only darkness within. Keep pedaling, stay on the road; I’m not so grown up that being caught alone in a dark wood doesn’t scare me. If I puncture now I’ll ride it flat—to hell with ruining my wheels!
For the (rational) cyclist the woods are a refuge rather than a place of fear. They offer protection from climatic extremes: wind, rain, sun. If you’re fighting a stiff wind across open moor, look for the valley forests where your foe will be diffused. If the sun is making your head hurt, dive into the cool shade among the trees. One’s eyes take a moment to adjust to the gloom—the inverse of the dazzling bloom of oncoming car headlights at night—and, deprived of clear sight, the fast-moving cyclist is briefly helpless.
Safely wrapped in the wood, the cyclist has less to fear than the walker who goes off into the undergrowth. A road may meander but it will emerge into the light. The sense is less of venturing into the wood and discovering something grizzly at its center than of slicing through the wood. Stay on the road and you will not get lost, and even if a nasty creature leaps out at you, odds are you can out-sprint it.
So I keep pedaling, enjoying the silent, secretive movement of my body through the stillness. I have placed my faith in my bike. It has brought me freedom, independence, solitude. As I’m 10 years old now, I’m no longer scared of the monsters—human or otherwise—that populate children’s books.
So now, at 43, am I unnerved when I ride through a dark forest?
Well, yes. I carry with me the stories of a lifetime—myth, superstition, legend. Above all, fear. From Roald Dahl’s wicked creations to the “Wild Things” on their island, I savored fear and its defeat. In a quiet boy, is a lively imagination inevitable? Perhaps. Certainly my mind was always chivvied by fear, by the growing sense of dark forces beyond my control. I see it in my own children, the incremental discovery of this thing called death. At first it is through a simple connection to Heaven; which exists up in the sky but may as well be the English county of Hampshire for the matter-of-fact way the children accept it. Then, with more stories, printed or otherwise, comes the discovery that death and fear are connected, and that danger doesn’t only exist in books.
At five I used to demand that I go to bed with the lights on and the bedroom door open. I’m still scared of the dark. But then I think anyone who claims they are not is lying. In stories, we can safely let more darkness cover us. When darkness takes over, fear gets out of control. An occasional conversation with friends goes something like this:
Friend: “We were thinking of a camping weekend, if you fancy it?”
Me: “I don’t do camping.”
Friend raises eyebrow.
Me: “It’s not that I’m being a diva. It’s just that since ‘The Blair Witch Project’ I don’t do camping.”
Me: “I’m not joking.”
The story of “The Blair Witch Project” was simple: three film students travel into remote woodland to make a documentary about a fabled witch. After hearing of several unexplained violent deaths in the area, they set up camp in the woods, become disoriented and scared. The unseen witch—or something equally vicious—haunts them, prompts them to mentally break down and ultimately takes their lives.
Here was wilderness as a site of malevolent spirits, somewhere that will drive you mad before you die. Its power came from our primeval fear of the dark and our contemporary fear of wilderness.
When this country was covered in woodland, perhaps we felt it to be our natural habitat, but that era is long passed. We feel at home with roads, shopping malls and roundabouts. The woods are dark and put us on edge. We know a tent and a flashlight won’t protect us.
III – SNOW. Riding on snow-covered roads isn’t too hard given the right tires. You quickly get a feel for this strangely pliable surface. Like riding on mud or gravel, your eyes scan the road 4 feet ahead of your front wheel, always assessing where traction can be bought and sold. It can be fresh powdery snow, older hard-packed snow, lethal stiff ridges that can send your wheel sliding inwards, friendly slush, traitorous slush turning to ice or invisible ice that covers the road like cling film. The joy of this ride was immediate and unusual: freezing air in my lungs, tires crunching through snow.
I pedaled out of the hilltop town on a back road bordered on one side by a row of bungalows, on the other by fields falling back into the valley. As the dwellings came to an end there was a farm, deserted and motionless, then open country. The country lane was narrow and its snow had been recently compacted by the weight of a tractor, the hieroglyphics of whose tire treads could be felt through my own wheels. From the moor the wind came to meet me, energetic and eager to lick my face, the cyclist’s best friend. On either side of the lane were snowdrifts, whiskered with green shoots and the odd looping bramble. Beyond the drifts were tumbled dry-stone walls. Ahead of me, I knew from the map, the paved road would soon turn into a bridleway, which would curve across the hillside and up to Lough Hill.
A five-bar farm gate marked the end of the lane. It was open, so I charged through, bracing myself for a change in surface and the extra effort required to push through snow rather than over it.
Cyclists often say that crashes happen in slow motion. My experience is that rather than one continuous action replay, the calamity is captured in several separate images, like stills from a film printed out on cards and held up one after the other. At least this is how the trauma lives on in the memory. The sequence for this particular crash was both simple and utterly daft.
First, my front wheel sank into a snowdrift so deep that only a slender crescent of tire and rim remained visible. Second, the bike stopped. Third, I did not. A blunter shape than my bike, when I landed I avoided piercing the snow and ending up stuck headfirst in the snow with my legs waving about in the air. Naturally, given such a forgiving landing pad, I was unscathed, but I did resemble an English mince pie given a hefty covering of icing sugar.
Once I’d scrambled to my feet and brushed off most of the snow, I looked down at my parked bike. And then I laughed. What foolishness, what hubris. To think I could go for a jaunt across the moors in such conditions. What bloody arrogance. The bridleway ahead could be traced by the two dry-stone walls continuing to a vanishing point somewhere near the haze of land meeting sky. Between them an undisturbed eiderdown of snow. It could have been 2 feet deep, it could have been 6 feet deep; whatever its depth, it wasn’t possible to ride a bike through it. This place, its wildest points, was closed to me.
I pulled my bike out of its impromptu parking slot, shook loose great chunks of snow and wheeled it back to the lane. The most memorable ride of the year had also been the shortest.
Fifty years ago, a young artist called Richard Long made a work titled “A Ten Mile Walk: England 1968” in which he walked in a straight line across Exmoor, a revealingly difficult thing to do. The start and finish points had no particular significance, though the route did connect three Stone Age barrows before passing a line of standing stones. Anyone recreating Long’s walk will have to cross open moorland, jump ditches, clamber over fences and dry-stone walls and crash through the undergrowth of Cowley Wood, where the walk comes to a rather anticlimactic end. The imposition of a ruthlessly straight line onto a natural landscape reminds us that, for the most part, the way we travel fits to the contours of the land. We make progress by avoiding obstacles rather than tackling them.
Long’s route is challenging on foot but impossible on a bicycle. And riding a bicycle is a very different act to walking. To ride a bike is to use technology. It’s a humble, humanistic technology that frees us—unlike motor vehicles, which have developed into baffling robots apparently with opinions of their own. Cycling is of our world because it’s a technology that hasn’t slipped out of our control. For all the space-age materials now being used, at heart it uses a few simple rules of mechanics. The bicycle rewards hard work; we understand and respect that. And it is seductive, tempting us to go farther, faster, higher, to keep chasing the horizon.
Walking is limitless. Walking is for true explorers, those seeking ground where few have trodden. Want to climb Mount Everest? Want to go deep into places where people rarely go? Lace up your boots. Walking is for those who wish to leave civilization behind, to lose themselves in the natural world. But this is, at best, an act of nostalgia. Long ago we lost a direct relationship with the wild.
Creatures of technology, our lives have been immeasurably enhanced by the industrial age and our relationship with the natural landscape has grown complex, fraught with all the love and insecurity a grown-up child feels for his parents. As cyclists we’re perfectly placed to observe that difficult relationship. We are, you could say, the therapists of the landscape.