The Simple Things - - ESCAPE -

There was a time when I would cy­cle to Corn­wall ev­ery sum­mer from my home in Lon­don, to join friends in a hol­i­day cot­tage on the beach. Each year I took a slightly dif­fer­ent route, stay­ing overnight with peo­ple I knew along the way, or just sleep­ing out in the open.

It usu­ally took me four full days. By train it’s just a few hours. My av­er­age speed on those sum­mer rides was about 12 miles an hour, which sounds slow but by his­tor­i­cal stan­dards, the bi­cy­cle is ac­tu­ally pretty quick. It’s four times walk­ing pace and dou­ble the speed of a horse-drawn car­riage.

The bi­cy­cle, and only the bi­cy­cle, combines speed, ef­fi­ciency and free­dom with a to­tal im­mer­sion in the world around us. Rid­ing through the sun, the wind and the rain, ev­ery sight, sound and smell is as vivid and im­me­di­ate as it can be. Cy­clists ex­pe­ri­ence the land­scape with a de­tail and def­i­ni­tion that is just a blur when trav­el­ling by car or train. As Ernest Hem­ing­way puts it, “It is by rid­ing a bi­cy­cle that you learn the con­tours of a coun­try best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them.”

Nowhere is this more true than in the west of Bri­tain – the hills, downs and moors of the west coun­try and the moun­tains and val­leys of Wales. I have felt the pow­er­ful call of the west all my life; when I moved to the Black Moun­tains of south-east Wales, a big part of the ap­peal was all the cy­cling to be had there. Of Wales’s 21,000 miles of roads, a full 60% are nar­row, ru­ral and un­clas­si­fied.

The old joke goes that if you flat­tened Wales out, it would be big­ger than Eng­land, and it’s true that Wales is con­sid­er­ably hillier than its neigh­bour, and its moun­tain roads make for breath­tak­ing bike rides (in both senses). But it’s not all about the hills. There are gen­tler lost lanes in the lowlands and along the coast, too; per­haps the great­est con­cen­tra­tion of lost lanes just right for cy­cling is in the rolling bor­der­lands be­tween Eng­land and Wales. Fron­tiers and edges, the places where one thing gives way to an­other are al­ways the most in­ter­est­ing. The first real taste of the west comes with the sight of the chalk downs that fan out from Sal­is­bury Plain; thatched cot­tages, an Iron Age hill fort, pre­his­toric burial mounds and stand­ing stones. Then you have a choice: the ups and downs (al­beit with spec­tac­u­lar views) of the Dorset coast, the flat straight roads over the peat moors of the Som­er­set Lev­els, or the gen­tle farm­land of the Black­more Vale. Any of these will bring you to the rich red earth of Devon with its high-banked lanes. Then there are the gran­ite tors of Dart­moor be­fore reach­ing the rocky At­lantic coasts of Corn­wall.

Bri­tain’s ru­ral lanes com­prise as much as a third of the en­tire length of the road net­work. The story of these lanes, capped in just a thin ve­neer of Tar­mac, is the story of Bri­tain it­self, from Ne­olithic track­ways to Ro­man mil­i­tary roads and me­dieval pil­grim’s trails. Most com­mon of all are the time­less, name­less lanes that have seen noth­ing but the un­re­mark­able and un­recorded to-ing and fro-ing of daily life. Over count­less years, these ev­ery­day jour­neys have worn their way into the land­scape. And when­ever I ride down a dark, wooded holloway or fol­low a chalk-white scar that strikes out across the downs, I can’t help think­ing of all the feet, hooves and wheels that have passed this way be­fore me.

A road is for trav­el­ling be­tween places, but a lane is a place in it­self. Lined by flower-stud­ded verges »

and ven­er­a­ble hedgerows, twist­ing through shady woods and bright green pas­tures, lanes fol­low rivers, cross clifftops and pass by cot­tages and farms, pubs and churches. In a hec­tic and stress­ful world, they are the su­per­high­ways for the soul.

I’ve spent many happy days and nights fol­low­ing lost lanes, for­got­ten by­ways, peace­ful tow­paths and wilder off-road tracks. Each route of­fers de­tours and di­ver­sions, im­pro­vi­sa­tion and al­ter­na­tion. No two bike rides are ever alike. As the sea­sons come and go, you can wit­ness the sear­ing sum­mer sun, the fire of au­tumn, the first snows of win­ter and that most spe­cial time when the rus­set, khaki and pewter of win­ter is re­placed by daz­zling shades of bright green and the hedgerow fire­works be­gin with the pear­les­cent fizz of blos­som. There’s no bet­ter way to im­merse your­self in spring than by rid­ing a bi­cy­cle down a coun­try lane.

l Taken from Lost Lanes Wales and Lost Lanes West by Jack Thurston (Wild Things Pub­lish­ing). Buy the books and you can down­load the route in­struc­tions and ob­ser­va­tions for your GPS or mo­bile de­vice.

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