Cycling in the Black Mountains
Since the lockdown began almost two months ago, I’ve been off the bike other than for weekly shopping trips and short rides around the block with my young children. As with many cyclists, I turned to an indoor (static) trainer to keep my legs moving. But it’s a poor substitute. Yes, you sit on the saddle, hold the handlebars and turn the pedals, but that’s where the similarity ends. Instead of the lightness of being that comes from riding a bike, you have to endure futile pedalling, profuse sweating and a profound and spirit-sapping boredom. The latest home trainers offer online access and have a display of virtual roads to ride, mountains to climb and other people to race – but it never compares to the real thing.
In Wales, the changes to the lockdown mean I am now allowed out to exercise more than once a day – and I was desperate to get out for a ride. We’re still required to stay local (unlike in England) but I live on the edge of the Black Mountains and there is plenty of great riding on my doorstep. After weeks on the static trainer, I savoured every sensation of being in motion. I leaned exaggeratedly into my turns and rose out of the saddle on the climbs, rocking the bike back and forth. At the top of each hill I stopped to take in the view, stretching my eyes to the horizon.
This year it has felt like the moving tapestry of spring was slipping by unseen. So it was a joy to ride by a wide verge studded with a late-spring tricolour of bluebells, stitchwort and red campion. In the fields, the lambs – newborn and gangly back in March – have more than doubled in size. Majestic oak and ash trees, the familiar old friends that I last hailed as bare winter skeletons, are now in full leaf.
No longer an instrument of sweaty, static torment, the bike was, once again, a source of liberation. I didn’t have to push myself mentally like I do on the static trainer. Instead, I let the bike lead me on. As I freewheeled downhill the sensation as the wind cooled my body and ruffled my overgrown lockdown hair was curiously cleansing. In two hours, I rode 25 miles and came home on a mental and physical high – deep calm and contentment displacing my growing cabin fever.
During quarantine bike sales have been booming as people rediscover the pleasure of riding around their neighbourhoods on roads with 1950s levels of traffic. Emerging from lockdown, cities such as Paris and Berlin are installing pop-up bike lanes to give commuters an alternative to crowded public transport. As we rise to the challenge of the coronavirus, cycling can play its part as a cheap, efficient, healthy and pleasurable way to travel. I for one am thrilled to be back on my bike – and glad to have put the static trainer back under the stairs where it belongs.
Jack Thurston , author of cycling guidebook Lost Lanes North (Wild Things Publishing, £16.99)
To Langton by Spilsby, a Lincolnshire stroll
Since late March, when this strange world began, any deprivation I’ve had has been in the mind. In Lincolnshire, I have a room with a view, and we have a garden and footpaths to walk. Familiarity has not bred contempt, but a contentment and interest in detail, albeit some of it increasingly odd. Noticing a large population of hedgerow elms is one thing, but my son has been itemising the roadside litter, and we have stared at an epic pothole as if the remains of an ancient temple had risen through the asphalt.
We could walk further but consensus cannot hold without solidarity, however ritualistic it may feel to those distant from the awful impact of the virus. Now, the permission of unlimited exercise has come and legitimised a longer excursion. What to do? Learned helplessness has set in. I don’t want to drive to go for a walk – that seems unfair – so we take a familiar route in search of views and light: from Raithby, across the Skegness Road, to the hill at Langton by Spilsby and back – eight or nine miles.
It begins with a meandering mile down the Sausthorpe road, over the gentle contours of the land and crossing the choked remains of the River Lymn. Sausthorpe straddles the Skegness road: on one side is a Victorian church with a spire that looks like Thunderbirds was invented by the gothic revival and, on the other, a faux half-timbered village hall. Further on, the road takes doglegs past bosky little woods and coverts and, squeezed by grassy banks, rises into Langton by Spilsby. It is a pool of limpid pastoral, its fields and valleys set with intriguing, snug old farm buildings and spreading oaks, golden with new foliage and flowers.
Above the road is the elegant, Georgian church of St Peter and St Paul, beloved by John Betjeman (and Simon Jenkins). Not everyone has admired it. In 1825, one John Stephen Langton donated the church six bells and, after his death, the rector observed that he had given “a ring of the sweetest bells in Lincolnshire to one of the ugliest churches in Christendom”. By the village hall is an endearing thatched mud-and-stud circular house, which my son claims as evidence that Smurfs are real, but is, I gather, an example of a cottage orné.
There’s a steep quarter-mile walk to the top of Langton’s hill, passing through a tunnel of skinny ash and sycamore, among which lurk slender elms that have suckered from ancient stumps and shine eerily with the samaras, the green communion wafers that house their seeds. Through the private woods to the right is an idyllic dip called Callow Carr, and the top of the hill is marked by a thick-boled beech with a thick trunk on which many lovers – and a few second world war airmen – have carved their initials, their names growing bigger, but less distinct with the passing years.
Langton’s hill is just 95 metres above sea level but the surprise of its views always delights. A footpath leads onto the escarpment of Northdale Carr, a gentle green cliff dotted with cowslips that faces west across open country towards Lincoln. It is late afternoon when we step out there. The queues of busy white clouds have shuffled off east to the sea, and the light here is dazzling, almost liquefying as the sun begins to descend and the blue turns mauve at its margins. Every blade of grass and fresh leaf below flashes with the light, as if carried away in a flood that is flecked with the spume of mayflower.
I have never seen such a clear horizon here, without the smudge of orange that denotes the traffic of the east Midlands. There are no vapour trails, and a strong wind blows from the horizon as if the Atlantic coast were coming to the east coast. I feel dizzy from the light. Is this what it means to feel light-headed? After a hilltop circular route of a couple of miles via farmland and stony track, we are light-hearted also about compromises and contradictions still to be lived through. We have at least seen a real clear horizon, and a way ahead. The view without the room.
The day is closing when we walk down through the shadows of Langton by Spilsby, where the blackbirds are scurrying under the hedgerows and the rabbits are making their evening congregation. Near home, I see a barn owl, like a huge white moth, and my son finds a hedgehog – the first he’s ever seen and the first live one I’ve seen for several years. It is definitely more interesting than the roadside litter.
Will Cohu, author of Nothing But Grass, and The Wolf Pit (Penguin)
From a garden marathon to a London commuter run
It was counting out the pieces of dried pasta that gave me the first flutters of panic. The total was 1,666 (two bags of penne and about half a bag of fusilli). Each piece represented two lengths of my back garden and by the time I’d jogged each one from a bucket by the backdoor to another by the shed, I’d have clocked up 26.2 miles – and completed my first (and without doubt last) backyard marathon.
Using the pieces of pasta to keep track of the interminable lengths may have been my good idea, but the dubious part – to run so far in such a tiny space – can be laid firmly at the feet of the organisers of the London Marathon. The event was due to be held on 28 April, and in a bid to raise much-needed funds for the many charities that usually benefit from it, they suggested doing a 2.6 challenge at home instead – and whatever that may be (climbing stairs, baking cakes, pulling up weeds, anything with a two and six in it), you followed it up with a donation to a favourite charity. Listening to the marathon’s event director, Hugh Brasher, explain it on the radio inspired me and, on a whim, I decided to join in. But rather than 2.6 miles, I’d try and do the full marathon distance.
I started at 10am on the Sunday. My 18-year-old daughter ran the first 2.6 miles with me (she had her own bowl of pasta to work through). We live in a terraced house and the garden is long and thin, but the bit you can actually run on not quite 10 metres long. Partly paved and partly lawn, it’s hardly an ideal running surface. Up and down I went. Every 10 laps I changed direction so I was running clockwise and then anti-clockwise to save my ankles and knees. Usually, when you run a marathon, every pub you pass is blaring out Keep on Running, but here it was Let’s Twist Again – as I turned and turned and turned again. And all the while the dog snoozed in the sun, acting like a furry roundabout in the middle of the turf.
After 5 hours and 23 minutes I staggered to the end, where my wife had strung up a loo-roll finishing tape for me to burst through. The neighbours cheered over the fence and presented me with a coffee-and-walnut cake they’d baked during the hours while I was running. I raised £800 for Médecins Sans Frontières – not quite Captain Tom but it’s a start. And we ate the pasta for supper – each piece marinated by the sweat of my palms!
This morning – as England’s lockdown eased and my own horizon stretched – I ran in to work. Of course, I’ve been able to jog around my local park, but now I’m able to really stretch my legs. I ran into the centre of London. I jogged down an almost-empty Oxford Street. I crossed Trafalgar Square and saluted Nelson. I ran along the river and headed past St Paul’s. There were still some empty squares and lonely streets. I ran and ran and I didn’t turn round once. The air felt clean. It was glorious.
Martin Love, Observer magazine journalist
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