As the summer solstice nears, the colder, wetter weather has buggered my hopes of cycling most evenings. It’s not just warmth I crave. On a fine evening, after an hour or so in the saddle, the play of strong light and shadow across the hedgerows and fields is mesmeric.
Two recent rides have ticked my boxes. The first westwards, out through the mid-Essex village of Pleshey, where the castle motte and bailey dates back past Magna Carta, and the Leather Bottle pub was once run by Keith Flint of the Prodigy.
Roses sprawl over cottage walls to each side of the road. Once you have reached the house of retreat and old church at the top of the hill, shown below, the legs and lungs are aching from three steep climbs, and the ride has started in earnest.
The endorphins are kicking in, trickles of joy flushing around the system.
My bike is a hybrid, and so chunkier, heavier and harder on the legs than a racing model. I bought it for just those reasons. So that each ride burns calories and builds stamina. If I’m out with brother Neil, ascending a tough hill together, it is not unknown for him to come cruising past me on his racing bike, feet resting, suppressing a grin, while I work up a sweat.
After Pleshey, the road runs mainly flat for about 4 miles, through High Easter, and then down to Aythorpe Roding, through fields recently bedecked with rape.
Unless you’re riding into wind, it’s the sole part of the outbound ride where the body can take a breather. That relaxation mode is helped by the distinct lack of cars on these roads. Urban Essex – with its growing road rage and inner town traffic bottlenecks – is somewhere else, some other removed dimension.
Thoughts inevitably intrude. It’s difficult not to think about my dad, and his worsening short-term memory. And our domestic cash situation. My decision has been not to panic and cast around immediately for new work after the NewsBase shock (Blog 188). But to work out exactly what I’m good at, and like doing. And to slowly pitch for that, confidently.
With the body and bike generally in sync, another set of climbs are required to reach White Roding, through tight country lanes where traffic is almost unknown. Then a short stretch on the A1060, marking the sole stretch of highway where cars are suddenly a palpable danger. Such a relief, after 5 minutes, to turn left onto another sleepy road, heading south-west towards my destination, Matching Green.
My favourite section. Much of its steadily uphill, but with a gradual fading of the hedges, dwellings and trees until the last mile or so is open in all directions, with remnants of the former Matching airfield still visible. The facilities were used in WW2 by the RAF and US air force.
I never cease to be surprised at a dark Tata International lorry parked idly out on an old runway. If the sun is out, it is impossible not to feel happy, with my oasis drawing ever nearer. The Chequers pub, where sacrament awaits.
It has taken 75 minutes to get here, over about 16 miles. Average of nearly 13 mph speed, which isn’t bad, given the weight of my bike and the numerous uphill stretches. I like playing around with these numbers. Typical bloke?
I park the bike at an outside bench, and ask the young barmaid for a pint of Noble English Craft Lager. My Eucharist. Always exquisitely good, so cold, and exceptionally flavoursome, as it should be for £4.90. One pint only. Enough to slake the thirst, and trigger minor raptures, yet insufficient to make me a danger to other road users.
The sun beams down its rays. Cricketers in their whites are playing on the green opposite the pub. A live English summer cliché, with crows hopping about in the foreground. Zen moments. I sit by my bike. Chilled sips.
There is hardly anybody here. Two couples in their sixties, laughing and enjoying the evening. Leaning right into life. On a busier night at the Chequers, the deepest ethos of Essex can be heard. Aspirational philosophies. Money, always money peppering the conversations, loudly, tacitly, comfortably unchallenged. Males spraying it about. Females tuned into pleasing ways of receipt. Money and sex. On the warmest evenings, it pleases me to imagine the physical fun of this tribe, back at their Essex ranches, lights out.
I eke out my pint. Thoughts occasionally fly in, including the apt thought that thoughts come to us. We don’t generate them, or somehow grind them out. All you do is wait. Like my work life, where chances have tended to present themselves.
A cyclist arrives. His apparel shouts how he takes this lark seriously. Expensive, body-hugging kit, and a simple, streamlined bike that wouldn’t look out of place on the Tour de France. His legs are about four feet long. He says hello from the next table. I raise my glass to his health.
He pulls a water bottle from his bike, strolls to a tap used mainly to fill dog bowls, and tops it up. Drains it slowly and returns to fill it again. Clips it to the bike, stands up, and prepares to take his leave. Didn’t spend a penny.
But I do, metaphorically. A nice long piss in a clean toilet, with scented soap.
As I strap my (cycling) helmet back on, I grin from ear to ear. A slow bowler ambles up to the wicket, a hundred yards away, arm coiled, like a scene from a bucolic 19th century painting. Behind his arm, at the very back of the canvas, flies the sleek, long-legged cyclist, swift as a falcon, propelling his machine to somewhere. Past and present, in a surreal juxtaposition.
The interim ends. No regrets. Neil and I tend to stretch the adventure further, setting off south-east towards another pub at Highwood, through the villages of Moreton, Willingale and Newney Green. North-east for me though, homeward bound, but I’ve decided to tweak the route. More stimulating.
Back through the airfield zone. My windows of perception are wide open. A constant downhill slope lets the bike cruise along in top gear, in a cooling breeze. The sky screams for my attention, alive and communicating, shape-shifting. Animism testifying, out in full view. Clouds flowing, pointing and arcing. Scrunched together and then coming apart. Ecstatic to witness. Noble is an excellent beer.
I whoop several times, heard only by more crows.
What the hell am I? Are we? What is the plot?
I often ask myself that, at these moments. It’s stating the obvious to say that we experience a continual explosion of sensory impressions, thoughts, memories and feelings that appear in our field of consciousness. But why? For what purpose? (To purchase and own things, some denizens of Matching Green might reply).
Life is suffused with meaning, much of which seems to be self-generated. I reckon that consciousness, not Essex-style Darwinism, holds all the clues in this greatest of detective mysteries. The one that attracted the sharpest gumshoes, such as Buddha and Jesus.
Back on the A1060, I stay on the main road for an extra mile, to get to Leaden Roding. Rush hour traffic has happily dissipated, and the bike shoots up the final hill to the village, my leg muscles trebled by the magic Noble potion. Now out onto a quiet country road, once cycled with my old Welsh mate Tony. I had tucked snugly in behind as he braved a headwind. Wonder how he is now? He is one of a group of friends dropped over the years.
Tonight the bike rockets down the road, into Good Easter, where two massive climbs await. In a nice gear, they pass quickly. Insects have infiltrated my crash helmet. I can feel them crawling around on my bonce. I am approaching a house in the middle of nowhere (Mashbury) that was once a pub, The Fox. An old sign has been removed. Tony and I arrived there on our bikes one evening well over a decade ago, ready to slake our thirst. Only to witness another country pub that had bitten the dust.
I’m the easiest person to get on with, if you want to talk. Nothing is off limits. I won’t judge. But you have to be kind, with the playground and crab bucket in your past. Intimacy and trust, or what’s the point?
Lost in thoughts of old friends, my phone makes sounds. In my shorts. The tone is of me dialling somebody, somehow. A strange voice responds. I’ve arse-called him. Could be anyone. A Scottish accent, slightly official? My contact lenses and evening sun make it hard to see the screen.
“I’m sorry. I think I’ve called you by mistake,” I say.
Muffled sounds from the recipient. Then laughter, which puzzles the hell out of me. Still can’t make out more than a few words, but the chuckles are ringing bells.
“Is that you Chris?”
Chris McFadzean is finally audible. “It’s such an honour Kevin, to be called by your backside, after you haven’t been in touch for two or three years!”
Is it that long? Chris (above) is a friend of friends, who I have hooked up with for a few beers now and again. Good company. “It was definitely a mistake Chris. I’m in the middle of nowhere, seeking no company.”
We provisionally arrange to meet when he’s back in Essex. Setting off again, I chuckle at the way the universe orders things. The last 3-4 miles is all downhill, and I get home with the clock saying exactly 60 minutes. I am fortunate: Maureen has a meal ready. I never take that for granted, always thank her.
A cracking evening. A glorious, warm bath in physicality. Please may it not end soon.