Sunday 19th June
It was 11.00am before I finally staggered out of bed this morning. The club rideout to Beaulieu had left Stevenage at 8.00 am: so that was my idea for the day screwed already. I needed to make some plans, organise myself, get out on the bike somehow.
I didn’t know it then, but this was going to be one hell of a day.
As soon as I opened the bedroom curtains, a blast of heat hit me like the opening of an oven door. It was the start of the hottest day of the year so far. It wasn’t noon yet and temperatures were already climbing up into the mid 30s - higher than in Jamaica according to the weather report. English heat is not like Jamaican heat, it’s dense and humid. It shrivels you up from the outside in. Some people cope with it, even claim to like it, but I’m a shriveller. By the time I’d got into my clothes, I was soaking wet and beginning to feel like a lump of sticky dough.
And because I was in a hurry to get on the bike and make best use of the day, there were, of course, a hundred urgent things that suddenly needed doing round the house. And when they were done, the long elaborate ritual of getting ready for a ride just seemed to go on forever - I couldn’t find the road map; the chain needed oiling, the tyre pressures were low; the 125 was blocking the alley; I couldn’t find my keys; I couldn’t find my wallet; I found the keys, then lost them again…
Then I failed to observe the essential sequence of bike things – wallet in inside pocket BEFORE zipping up; keys out of deep pockets BEFORE putting on gloves, that sort of thing. With my brains fried by all this unaccustomed heat and my nerves twitching to get off before the day was over (and being absent minded anyway) I kept on getting it wrong. And when I did finally put my gloves back on just before firing her up, the wrist strap broke. Somehow, I could tell this was not going to be my day.
It was as I was swinging back onto the bike after paying for fuel in the next town that I noticed the hydraulic fluid in the clutch reservoir was low - very low, in fact. I checked around the lower valve outlet. Loads of thick. carbonised fluid was smeared all over the underside of the engine casing. My heart sank. When I got the bike back to the house and took the lid off the reservoir, sure enough, there was almost nothing in it. Air in the hudraulic fluid might explain the rattle (at least, in my innocence I thought it might). It might also explain why the Cambridge dealer and Simon didn’t hear the noise it was making. They had both drained and replaced the fluid before taking the bike for a ride.
So why hadn’t I noticed all the crud on the underside of the engine?. My wife tells me I use my eyes for navigation and little else. So that lets me off – sort of!. But in point of fact, the fault must be very intermittent.
I didn’t have any tubing to properly drain the system, so I decided just to top up the reservoir as a temporary measure. I was determined to get some riding in come what may. (I’ll think of booking it into a dealer’s next week.)
By now I’m not only hot and sweaty but almost frantic not to lose any more time, so I do the one thing you should never do with brake fluid – I spill it over the paintwork. That means another ten minutes of cursing and urgent washing-down. Once I get all this sorted I’m not just hot and irritable but hungry too, so it’s back into the house to get something to eat. I change my clothes (I'm sweating like a pig) eat a quick meal, and then gaze out of the window thinking about anything other than going out on the bike. I have to force myself to leather up again. Getting into my bike gear, something happens. I lose all my weariness and now just want to sling my leg over the bike and get out onto the road. It's always like this. I don't just get my energy and motivation back, I almost feel like a different person when I'm in my bike gear, and the world looks like a different world - a biking one.
It is almost two o’stick before I finally leave the house, so a long journey is out. I make for Cambridge through the villages. I know these country roads like the back of my hand. I’ve ridden them on bikes and bicycles since I was a child. And they are a great ride. The British countryside is always beautiful, but today it has reached a peak of perfection. After a couple of weeks of wet weather, everything is a rich, luxuriant green. And because it’s June, the greenery is still lush and moist, not yet dried up or cankered with weeks of heat.
All around, the hedgerows and waste spaces are rank with new growth. The smell of vegetation is overwhelming. But now, this richness is glowing in brilliant sunlight or deepening in heavy shadpw. If you take a walk through the countryside, on a day like this you're filled with a sense of freedom and lightness. The world presents you with a thousand tiny details you haven't noticed before. But on a bike, you absorb the essence of it, drown in it, love it, feel it. You can open your visor and drink it in.
I love this time of year. The landscape is beginning to put on a hundred summer shades: mauves and purples, ochres and creams, yellows and violets. The young green of the May cornfields now has a hit of ripening gold. Beneath me, the V-twin engine rumbles away happily and synchronises with my mood. Within a mile of leaving the town I’m relaxed and the frustrations of the morning are forgotten.
As I hit the throttle at the first unrestricted speed sign, the road dips down into a dense green alley lined on both sides by tall trees. It’s a short road, under a mile in length, but narrow, twisty and, if the traffic is right, very fast. It’s a perfect gem of a biking road. The hedgerows pressing in on either side cocoon you and magnify the sense of speed. I let the bike loose and soon I’m flying. This road never loses its attractions, no-matter how often I ride it, and the pleasure is increased because I’m riding well this afternoon. Bike and body fuse and move together unselfconsciously. The slightest sense of danger on the bends, sharpens my attention and opens my senses. It’s not often as good as this.
I drop down through the gears – no brakes - and hit 30 exactly as I pass the restriction sign – perfect. I’m not planning this. There’s no effort. It just happens – the sun shines, the world breathes and it happens. I saunter the bike slowly through the village. It’s very like the village I grew up in. The sun, the farms, the open fields bring back a sense of the long, lazy days of a rural childhood. This is so good! I’m just blown away.
Beyond the last cottage in the village, the road enters a long tunnel of trees. So dense and total is the cover that the green is mostly pitch black. The road is an ancient one, worn well below the level of the surrounding land by centuries of plodding feet. Down the years, countless agricultural labourers, have passed this way with the setting and rising sun on their way to and from the fields. Their lives were broken-backed and toil-worn. I know the history well. It’s the history of my own family, who lie – generation upon generation of them – in a small country churchyard only six miles from here. On my bike, I feel detached, yet part of it all. The tunnel of trees is like a tunnel through time: it could be the 13th century or the 21st. Who’s to tell? Up on the high banks ash and oak are interspersed with flowering elder and hawthorn bushes. Frothy blossoms of Queen Anne’s Lace cram the ditches, and glow brilliantly in the few patches of sunlight that penetrate the leaf canopy.
My route takes me through about a dozen villages.and a couple of small towns. Each settlement has its own unique character. Baldock is an old market town, named, if you take such stories seriously, after Baghdad, where, in the middle ages, its resident Knights Templar made their fortunes (Anyone read Dan Brown? – what a hoot!). Ashwell has its half-timbered buildings, its ancient inns and pubs, and its inexhaustible spring still surrounded by ash trees. Steeple Morden has its fat, self-important looking houses and chubby church steeple. Littlington has it’s twisty one-way streets. But Barrington is special. It’s everyone’s dream of an English Village with its clumps of thatched cottages set well back from the road by wide, perfectly kept greens. A Sunday cricket match is taking place on one of them.
I stop in Barrington at the Royal Oak pub for a drink and a rest. I spent so much of my teenage life escaping from this unadventurous village way of life that now, it seems strange to see myself drinking it in, unable to get enough of it. No doubt I’m romanticising, but what else can you do on a day like this? I spend some minutes watching the dragonflies zoom across the benches in the pub garden and back to the line of willows on the other side of the road. Then, all at once, as though out of nowhere, a face appears: an elderly, distinguished-looking woman in a plain linen dress and sunhat smiles at me and asks politely if she can share my table. I say, 'of course', and she sits herself down.
She has a wide, attractive smile and mischievous eyes. She comments on the weather and makes some observations on the swifts screaming overhead. She then slyly confides to me that her daughter has dragged her out for a ride, ‘because she doesn’t know how to relax, even on such a lovely day as this.’ She chuckles unselfconsciously. Sure enough, a moment later, the daughter comes bustling out of the pub, lines of anxiety across her face and fretful of missing the last orders for lunch. The elderly woman winks at me as she is bundled off inside to place her order. ‘I used to ride everywhere on the back of my husband’s motorbike’, she whispers. ’I miss him so much’
As I sit nursing my glass, I’m surprised by the number of bikes that go by. I count at least thirty in half an hour. The weather has brought us out in numbers. A fair few of these bikes are Harleys. That is new. There’s a Harley renaissance taking place in the UK. With the government and police piling up speed restrictions by the minute, the magazines are murmuring darkly that sportsbikes have had their day. So, are we moving into the age of the cruiser? A long-established, local Harley dealer, (his was the first business to sell Harleys in the UK) says he cannot import the bikes fast enough these days. He’s offering test rides to all comers, but is specifically targeting the middle-aged returner. The Harley riders I see are all paunchy and middle aged, and I would guess mostly middle-class as well, despite the occasional tat and set of fringes – the bad-"O Ring" image some of them are playing with. I play a game with myself as they ride past: ‘banker’ I guess; ‘solicitor’; ‘company executive’.
Even relaxing can get tiring after a while on a day like this. The bike is calling to me and I soon get the itch to move on. Perhaps I have more in common with the elderly woman’s daughter than I care to admit. As I leave the village, the greens narrow, the thatched houses with their low gables peter out and the road makes a sudden left turn. Here it is flanked on both sides by tall chestnut trees which hide the village from the rest of the world. Beyond the turn, a huge cement works comes into view. Symbols of the real, workaday world crash in on my dreamy mood. Not for the first time, I wonder what the incidence of silicosis is in the village. But this new bit of road is great for a blatt and I get on with the business in hand…
Meldreth, is an attractive if rather ordinary village, but has the distinction of still retaining a set of medieval village stocks on its tiny green. Once a year, though, Meldreth features on the local biking calender. Meldreth Manor hosts a good little bike show. It is organised by the Royston and District Motorcyle Club. There is a friendly rivalry between the R&DMCC and the nearby Stevenage & District MCC to which I belong. This year the Royston mob swallowed their pride and asked us to help organise the annual show as about six months ago their chairman ran off with most of the club’s funds and disappeared no-one-knows-where. A number of the Royston members have also formed a breakaway group limiting their resources even further.
And so it goes, through the villages to Cambridge. As I approach the city I decide to string out my ride and head for Ely some twelve miles further on. The roads I follow through Cambridge only touch the fringes of the historic town centre and its surrounding greens and commons. The greens are thick with sunbathers and picnickers. These roads are not fun. The contrast with the surrounding countryside couldn’t be greater. I’m now riding on the clutch most of the time amid all the din and fumes of heavy urban traffic. It gets unbearably hot and uncomfortable. I stop and put on my shades so that I can open my visor. It seems like an interminable ride round the Cambridge ring road but in reality, it isn’t that far. I’m pleased when I get out of the town once again.
North of Cambridge the landscape changes as you enter the fen country. The English fens are a wide and immensely fertile region, with black earth and a landscape that is so flat it might have been laid out with a ruler. ‘Fen’ in old English means marsh. The local inhabitants began to drain the Cambridge fens in medieval times and the entire landscape is now criss-crossed by drainage ditches, canals and artificial rivers. For centuries the water was pumped seawards by windmills, of which many survive. Very occasionally there is a case of malaria reported in the locality.
You can see Ely cathedral for miles across these flat lands. It stands on a slight, almost imperceptible, rise in the level of the land, which, in this country, is known as ‘a hill’. Like many English cathedrals it lacks the elaborate grandeur of continental churches, but it makes up for it by being exquisitely beautiful. It is one of the oldest cathedrals in the country, pre-medieval. It’s lower levels have the rounded arches of the Norman architects. Once inside the town I grab a bit of parking nearby.
Near the cathedral close are several groups of elderly ladies in print dresses, and sunhats. Their bird-like features and hunched shoulders might have given them a predatory look if their eyes had not been so round and, right now, full of brightness and fun. Towns like Ely are full of elderly ladies like this enjoying a summer jolly in the last years of their lives.
As I watch them stepping across the grass towards the tea rooms, I am suddenly overcome with a moment of jealousy and resentment. Di will never be given the opportunity to become a little old lady. She would have loved it and she would have done it very well. She’d have grown old disgracefully, playing out the role with great seriousness while mocking everything about it. Di is full of irreverent fun and enjoys everything she does. Even now. She still laughs a lot. She would have made a great biker – if only she had shown the slightest interest in bikes.
I suddenly remember, years ago, seeing a couple necking at the bus stop in Baldock for all they were worth. That’s not unusual - except that this couple were in their eighties and still behaving like teenagers. That’s how I had dreamed of ending my days with Di.
I make straight for the cathedral. I’m not religious in any way, but I love old churches. Churches like this are often places of great tranquillity, even the most commercialised of them. The interior is cool and shady: very welcome after all the afternoon heat. The massive stones seem unaffected by the temperature. It’s almost as though they are untouched by excess of any kind.
For the last hour my senses have been alert for the road, my mind revving up the A10. Inside the cathedral, I feel my thoughts subsiding, quieting down. I walk between the massive columns of the Norman nave totally absorbed in the world they create for me. Above the crossing there is a wonderful wooden octagonal tower, unique in England, which gives the place a tremendous feel of lightness. It’s strange what an air of lightness the whole building has, despite its massive construction. In the north transept though, there is a jarring note. As in so many English Cathedrals the walls are hung with local regimental banners, reminders of the total union between church and state. Here among these peaceful precincts is a grand memorial to past wars and a warning of wars yet to come. This is a celebration of power and destruction in the guise of patriotism. Not my politics. I don’t like it, and turn away
I make for the cathedral refectory for something to eat. It’s a small room with only one other customer. The staff are chatting in one corner. They are mostly very young and have a look of innocence that you would never find in a metropolitan area, such as London. But, what do I know? The teenager in the stick’s apron may be a stick dealer for all I know. Still, that sense of a much simpler, more innocent childhood comes back to me again.
A plump, middle-aged waitress, the manager, I suspect, beams her way across to me and is already chatting before she reaches my table. She comes, she tells me immediately, from a family of bikers: father, husband, sons. She stops speaking for a moment and eyes me thoughtfully, covered in sweat, as I struggle out of a sticky leather jacket. As I sit down again, she launches into an anxious diatribe, directing all her nervous energy against youngsters who ride without proper protection on days like this. She is clearly concerned for their welfare and I wonder if she has any personal grief around this issue. She doesn't say, but she’s right. I’ve seen plenty of beach-gear riders today and fully agree.
When she finishes she looks at me with some degree of satisfaction as though approving of the discomfort my gear has been causing me. Maybe she thinks leathers are some sort of chastisement for the soul. Another waitress brings me over a cup of tea and an egg salad. It’s just too hot to eat anything heavy.
There is a rumble in the stalls and the cathedral choristers softly open choral evensong to the delicate tootling of the cathedral organ. The bodiless notes drift around the ancient columns and into the refectory. English church singing is beautiful but limp and seems to have a kinship with the lettuce in my salad.
On the way home I follow the big lazy sweeps of the A10, left, then right, then left… It gradually becomes hypnotic. For miles, the road swings back and forth under the immense East Anglian skies. Why do British roads do this? Out here in the fen country there are no hills: nothing that would make an engineer count the cost of laying down a perfectly, straight road. After all, the dykes and canals and drainage ditches all run in straight lines, so why not the roads? When I was a kid someone once told me that many smaller roads started off as ancient cattle tracks across the fields, and were gradually metalled over. True? I don’t know. It sounds plausible. And perhaps cows just do not like to walk in straight lines. If that is so, then the domesticated cow must be the British biker’s best friend. My body has really got the rhythm now. The bike and I are sweeping back and forth across this open, almost treeless landscape effortlessly. Wonderful!
Out here in East Anglia drivers are very polite, very law abiding - more so than most other parts of the country, I’ve noticed. You won’t ride far before you come across a little caravan of vehicles all travelling along at about two miles an hour below the speed limit. A friend of mine suggested that the reason they drive slowly in East Anglia is that if they hit someone, it would probably be a relative. It’s that sort of place.
For a while I’m happy to follow a lines of cars travelling along at 58 mph, even though there are plenty of opportunities to overtake. I’m still riding well, smooth and confident. The landscape drifts by happily and my thoughts drift on with it, but there is this faint idea hovering around the edges of my consciousness that this is a sportsbike I’m riding and I should be riding a little more… energetically…? Maybe, even aggressively?
‘Should?’ Where did that come from? An angels and demons dialogue starts in my head – so when this guy on a Honda cruiser overtakes me and disappears off down the road ahead, I’m primed to react. A cruiser!!! dodo! Is it possible to ride a sportsbike and not be competitive? Or is it just me. I seize an opportunity to overtake a couple of cars in front and instantly the horns are out. This is what we ride bikes for, isn’t it? Cornering and overtaking? Cars start pulling over when they spot me coming up behind them. My initial reaction is to feel vaguely guilty. I imagine I’ve suddenly stressed them out, disturbed their quiet, orderly drive. But my mood has changed and I’m having fun - not just overtaking, but starting to ride hard. Maybe the cars are just pulling in to let me by, I think, not stressed out at all. I tip them a nod as I pass.
There is a lot of image in bikingm more than many of us would like to think, I suspect. It’s a commercial activity after all and its not immune from consumerism. Just look in any accessory shop or bike magazine - or listen in to bikers' conversations. There's also the obsession with brands. The big international race series have really made something of this and the manufacturers are cashing in. But the image thing is deeper than that. Few people ride a bike purely out of practicality and no-one rides because they want to be safe - unless they live on a different planet to me. And though not everyone is attracted by the traditional bad-"O Ring" image of biking, most people I know who’re into bikes see themselves at being at least slightly at odds with convention. There’s a lot that feeds into our collective self-image.
Let's face it, bikers are engaged in a highly-charged, highly obsessive activity. It’s sexy, it’s dangerous and that inevitably gives biking something of a cult status. Cults encourage cultish behaviour, and that is always related to image. Cults also create nerds. Bike nerds are some of the worst (or best – it depends on your point of view) there are. Hours of conversation, totally incomprehsible to outsiders, go on in pubs and bikemeets every week. (Except in the Stevenage and District MCC where bikes are hardly ever mentioned!).
So, I’ve just been stung by an overtake from a cruiser. What’re the issues here: internalised peer pressure? history? ancient playground taunts? squaring up to conformity? It's all there - layer on layer, I'm sure of it. But, I'm rationalising now: out on the bike, slinging it round corners or cracking open the throttle... well, forget the analysis. When I hit the gas on the A10 this afternoon, that was a good feeling. How do you describe the experience of the bike responding beneath you: the grunt, the sense of unused power, the lightness, and your own ability to ride it home? It’s a red hot feeling stoked up from somewhere else altogether - and who cares where it comes from. You could say it’s a valve for the pent up pressure of living according to all those social rules. You could say that, yet whatever you called it, you would be wrong.
But now I'm back on the Cambridge ring road again and stuck in lines of traffic. constrained by the 30mph signs. What a pain. Enough said!
And just when I’m beginning to feel that this is all getting too uncomfortable, at last, there it is: the round white disk with a diagonal black slash through it. After all the restraint of urban roads, I stick open the throttle and feel the engine respond beneath me. Immediately I leave all the polite queues of cars far behind. For a little while at least I have an open road and a gut full of attitude.
About ten miles from home, lying to one side of the A10 is Therfield Heath. The Heath looks very tame these days: a golf course runs up the side of it and there is a racecourse at the top. But once it would have been a wild place, an uncultivated wasteland, populated by outcasts, brigands, gypsies, the dispossessed and the poorest of the poor. Yesterday, a friend told me that the word heathen’ just meant, ‘from the heath’. Back in those days, Christian culture, especially urban Christian culture, must have looked warily at the inhabitants of these unmanaged regions. I think of the devastating storm scene on the heath in King Lear. I remember seeing that for the first time at the age of 15 and being stunned by the raw power of it. I suspect there is something of a ‘heathen’ in all of us.
Coming back into Baldock, the earth parallel to the road has been opened to expose a long, white gash in the landscape. In a year’s time this will be another new by-pass. The exposed stick gleams blindingly in the sunlight. Running alongside it is a band of deepest red. Poppies, millions of them. It’s a stunning sight. I notice that here and there, there are little clusters of purple poppies too. Later in the year the seed pods of the purple poppies will be harvested by the local kids, boiled up in saucepans and made into ‘tea’ when their parents are out of the house.
Riding the final miles back through the traffic of the North Hertfordshire towns, there's a sense of completion, but also regret. If I have a good day out on the bike, I just want it go on forever. IT doesn't matter if I'm tired or planning to do other things, somehow I never want it to stop. How can you convey that to someone who has never ridden a bike?
Last edited by sv-wolf
on Wed Jul 06, 2005 5:58 am, edited 4 times in total.
“Man has no right to kill his brother. It is no excuse that he does so in uniform: he only adds the infamy of servitude to the crime of murder.”
Percy Bysshe Shelley
SV-Wolf's Bike Blog