Tag Archives: dawn rides

New Year’s Day

Here is a photo, taken a couple of weeks ago of how I had fondly imagined my New Year’s Day ride to have been. And indeed nearly all the elements were in place on this, the old marsh road, just as envisioned in this photograph, as sun rose and (the luminous moon set) on the first day of 2013. There was but a single thing missing from this wintery English cycling idyll. That chap you see on the touring bike was not there. He was home, sipping weak tea and feeling very sorry for himself, having become the latest victim of what would appear to have been the ghastly norovirus that has been making the rounds, and the news, lately.

I hate missing my New Year’s Day ride.  There is something really upbeat and clarifying about starting off the New Year bright and early and in the saddle, when the road are dead quiet and everyone else is asleep or hung over. Some of my most beautiful and memorable rides have been on New Year’s Day, one of my favourites being three or four years ago when I set out at about five o’clock (you may have guessed by now I am not a big one for late-night New Year’s Eve parties)  and reached the ruins of Pevensey Castle an hour or so later with big feathery flakes of snow falling around me, shimmering in the lamplight, and seeing a Christmas tree festooned with fairy lights and dusted with snow beside the old castle’s portal. It looked and felt almost magical. I’ve never forgotten that ride.

No magic for me yesterday, only a vague longing as I looked out the window at the translucent dawn sky, full of imaginings and recollections of what the old marsh road must have been like just then – and being the hopeless optimist that I am, so to speak, the thought that at least I was getting a galloping start on my resolution to lose a few pounds this year.

Better today and tomorrow I hope to be back in the saddle, working more happily towards other resolutions – of actually riding a few century rides this year (I did none in 2012, the first time that has happened for a long while) as well as breaking out of my auto-pilot rut to do some more exploring of those endlessly fascinating olde English lanes up in the weald. I hope everyone else got their year off to a grander start.

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Warm Hands on A Cold Ride

Bitterly cold out on the marshes this morning, with another thick frost forming as I rode – and not just on the leaves and twigs along the roadside but a thin almost snow-like veneer on the surface of the road itself. I could hear it crackling softly like rice paper beneath my wheels as I pedalled along (carefully!) over to Pevensey and back. It was beautiful, clear and still. I left my run a little later this morning so I would have a hope of taking some photographs on the way back, and in doing so, in stopping and taking pictures along the way, I gained a new appreciation for my heavyweight Gore Fusion MBT waterproof gloves.

These heavy things I bought for an assignment in the arctic earlier this year. I would usually use them only on the wettest of rides, preferring as a rule the lighter, slimmer lines of my Assos Early Winter gloves when it comes to cold dry weather. The Assos ones I can pair with a matching lightweight liner or their weatherproof lobster-claw outer, giving me great warmth and comfort on long cold rides – as long as riding my bicycle is the only thing I plan to be doing. If I am stopping to take photographs along the way on bitterly cold mornings, and find myself having to peel off three pairs of gloves each time, the Assos system gets a bit fiddly. And so this morning I decided to go for the heavyweight Gore ones – just to see. And what a pleasant difference it made.

I’d peel them off – just the one pair – to manipulate the camera settings and rig up the tripod. Sure, my hands got red and very cold doing all this but at least after the shot I would have the pleasure of slipping my frozen hands into the heavy-duty warmth of these gloves. They mightn’t have been as breathable and tactile as the Assos ones, but they were instantly warm. And that was no small matter out there this morning. Indeed, it was so nippy that when I picked up my gloves, as I got ready to ride on, I would find a thin coating of frost already forming on the outsides of them. But inside, all was toasty. Straight away I could feel the circulation returning, and with it an eagerness to push along down the road, in search of picturesque new scenes and settings. And so I spent about nearly four hours on the road this morning, cruising the Sussex countryside, taking photos, revelling in the crystalline beauty of an early December frost.

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A Touch of Frost

Cycling photographer Roff Smith goes for a spin along the deserted seafront at Hastings, East Sussex with a hard frost forming and a creamy full moonA brisk minus-2C when I went out the door this morning at a half past four, with a big creamy moon floating high in the sky and a sharp tang of incipient frost in the air. It hadn’t formed yet though – that was something I was privileged to watch take place over the next two and a bit hours as I rode across the marshes to Pevensey and back, and another of the many surprises and pleasures that come with being out and about so early. Usually frost is a magic you just wake up to.

On my outbound ride there was only cold damp air, and a fine sheen just starting to form on the windscreens of cars and silvering the tips of the grasses along the roadside. By the time I had rolled up to the ruins of Pevensey castle the air felt much crisper and sharper, my toes were cold in my cycling shoes (note to self: time to dig out the thermal socks) and I was feeling inspired to put on a bit of extra pace.

As I rode back towards home along the same cold dark little lane over which I had just come I noticed that the grass which had been an uninteresting silvery brown in the glare of my headlamps on the way over to Pevensey had in the meantime developed a beautiful coating of frost, which grew thicker by the minute. It was a pleasure to watch this little miracle unfold – one well worth the price of getting cold toes. I would love to have been able to capture on ‘film’ the early morning delight of riding down an English country lane with the frost thickening on the grasses and leaf tips along the roadside, but I couldn’t think of a way to light it properly and do it justice, and certainly not to capture the kaleidoscopic wonder of seeing it thicken as you pedal along. Perhaps more frost will bring more inspiration. What I did do was give the new camera another try out along the seafront back in Hastings, where I enjoyed greater solitude that I had the other day. It is short acquaintance yet but I am liking very much the Canon G1X’s increased resolution and larger, more sophisticated sensor – perhaps there will be a way to catch Jack Frost yet.

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Spring Forward, Fall Back

What a pleasure it was to set forth in daylight this morning, thanks in part to my sleeping in a little later than usual, but mostly because the clocks went back an hour last night to good old standard time. Being the early rise I am, I’ve never been a big fan of Daylights Saving Time. I’ve never been able to find a ready use for the ‘extra’ hour of daylight in the evening, whereas having the sun come up bright and (very) early in summer would be delightful.

But now we are back to the standard day, time and our clocks reconciled to the sun’s real position in the sky. It peeked above the horizon at a more uplifting 6:44 this morning instead of the nearly quarter to eight it had been rising, and which had me doing most of my rides lately by the light of my headlamp. It won’t last long. We are at the point in the calendar when the slide towards winter darkness really starts to accelerate, but for now at least it was nice once more to be pedalling along the seafront in the raking light of sunrise.

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A Bather’s Hut Reprise

What a difference a shift in light and mood can make to a scene. If you’ve been following this blog you might recall that a couple of weeks ago I shot a photograph of an old bathers-hut/ice cream stand on the Bexhill seafront, which I pedalled past early on a Sunday morning just as the proprietor man was opening up (See here). It was the first time, in several years of riding along the seafront, that I had ever seen anyone there so early in the morning and the contrast of the glow of the lights inside the little kiosk and the loneliness of the promenade appealed to me so I stopped to take a few photographs.

Well, today he was there again, with the lights aglow in his hut but this time instead of a luminous pink sunrise as a backdrop, we had heavy grey autumnal cloud with a feeble smudge of sun struggling to come through. I liked it. I liked it a lot. It looked and felt a much different scene than the one I had photographed before, and so at the risk of seeming repetitious I pulled over and shot it again, while exchanging a few early morning pleasantries with the owner.

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The Morning Star

It’s quarter to five on a cold clear October morning, with Venus riding high in the sky over my left shoulder and the lights of Eastbourne twinkling aways off in the distance, all solemn and still and slumbering in the great starry hush. I’m pedalling along the old marsh road, headlamp aglow, miles from home, revelling in the bracing wildness of being out and about like this, moving along the road under my own steam, when all the world’s asleep.

I spin along past the line of beach huts at Cooden, and into the darkness beyond, where the road runs along unlit beach. The tide is out. Nevertheless in the great dawn hush I can hear the gentle wash of waves over shingle.

I’m pedalling easy, finding my favourite ground covering cadence, the wide tyres on my old tourer feeling comfortable and grippy on the bitumen. The road curves hard right and up ahead the red lights of the level crossing start to blink, as an early train – nearly empty eight cars – rattles through from the Eastbourne side, bound for Hastings. It clears the crossing and the boom gates are already starting to lift when I reach the crossing; I barely have to slow.

I rumble across the double set of tracks, casting a glance at the receding glow of the train, and then back into the lamp-lit dimness of the marsh road. It has curved away from the shore now, and I’ve hedges rising on both sides of me.

Small insignificant sounds carry startlingly well in the stillness. From somewhere comes the trickle of a stream, rustling in the leaves, the rhythmic whir of my bicycle chain, the soft hum of my tyres on the road surface.

The Star Inn, silent and windows dark, comes and goes.

As I pass the old pub, with the coloured fairy light twinkling on its roofline, I notice that the windscreen of the owner’s car is just starting to whiten with frost.

It’s nippy this morning, no doubt about it.

The pub and its fairy lights falls astern. I’m heading into the marsh now, across it. The sky around me is wide and dark and spattered with stars; tall grasses and cattails grow in the damp depressions along the roadside.

A few brisk, darkened miles brings me back to the A-259 at the Pevensey roundabout. It’s sitting dead quiet beneath the glow of its streetlamps; I’ve not seen a car since way back on Bexhill Road. I touch my brakes and carve an easy left at the roundabout and keep going straight and on into Pevensey.

The village main street is dark, except for the spills of a few streetlamps, and the inviting glow, dead ahead, of an old-fashioned streetlamp standing just outside the arched stone portal of Pevensey Castle. I like that vignette: the glowing lamp and the crumbly walls of the castle, seen in the chilly dark of a late autumn or winter morning. There is something of an old Christmas card about it, or an illustration from one of the Narnia books.

The homeward ride, though, is all about Venus. It is no longer over my left shoulder, but ahead, where I can see it. It’s shining incredibly brightly out over the sea. It was captivating, a hard sparkling diamond, set beautifully against the deep translucent blue of the sky. I find myself gazing at the whole way back. As I was spinning along the promenade by the old King George V pavilion in Bexhill, with the warm colours of the sunrise starting to glow on the horizon, I couldn’t resist the urge to stop and take this photograph.

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Route 1066

Pevensey high street at dawn, viewed through the gates of the old ruined castle

Today in case you didn’t have it marked on your calendar, is the 946th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, that seminal point in English history when the French Duke William II of Normandy defeated King Harold II in a bloody battle on Senlac Hill here in Sussex and, as William the Conqueror, claimed the English throne for himself. It was also the last successful invasion of Britain.

Although the battle became known to history as the Battle of Hastings the actual fighting took place about six miles inland near a town that is called, rather appropriately, Battle. One of the many nice things I like about cycling around here is the easy proximity you have to all the gaudy old knights-in-armour history that Britain has so much of, and indeed one of my favourite early morning loops takes me along what I like to think of as Route 1066. I start off heading west along the coast over to Bexhill and then across the marshes to the ruined Roman Age fortress at Pevensey where William assembled his army after he landed, on the 28th of September 1066.

It was a great spot for a landing, for this was a wild and lonely coast of tidal marshes and swampy streams and Pevensey itself in those days was an island (the suffix ‘ey’ means ‘island’ in Old Norse). The Roman ruins – which were ruins even in William’s time – provided some means of security while William marshalled his troops and prepared them for the boggy inland march to confront Harolds hastily assembled forces somewhere up in the weald.

Although the sea has long since retreated from this stretch of the Sussex coast, it is pleasingly easy to imagine the landscape as it must have been in those days, a shallow inlet surrounded by tidal marsh with the low, irregular line of hills rising off to the north. This old geography never fails to intrigue me, as I pedal across here, thinking that all this was a few metres deep when William sailed his armada in here, imagining the voices in the great primal stillness of the 11th century coast and picturing the ancient fortress as a ruin on an island.

After I touch base with the ruined castle I head inland, following on my bicycle a similar route to that which William’s mounted knights and foot soldiers took up towards the wooded heights where Harold’s army was waiting. There is a footpath you can follow that better approximates the route. It is a very pretty, well-marked hike, rambling fifteen miles from Pevensey Castle across country to Senlac Hill, and the imposing 11th century Battle Abbey that William caused to be built on the battlefield to commemorate the thousands of lives that were lost to his ambition.

Being greedy for miles I go a slightly more circuitous way on my bicycle, travelling along the sunken old lanes through the woods, and approach the battlefield from the direction Harold’s troops must have when they came south to confront the Norman invaders.

It is a beautiful ride, my Route 1066, especially in the early hours of the morning with the mists still rising and the low-angled sunshine coming down through the branches. With luck and good timing the morning sun will be glowing on the red sandstone walls of the Abbey by the time I pedal up Battle’s narrow high street, with 25 miles under my wheels by then and the enjoyable prospect of another eight miles’ ride through pretty lanes in the Sussex countryside to get myself back home again.

If you are in the neighbourhood and care to give this route a spin, here’s a few directions which, with the assistance of Google Maps, should give you an idea: from the Hastings train station (or the one at St Leonards-Warrior Square) make your way dow to the seafront and head west, following the cycle path along the promenade to Bexhill. (There is a two-mile stretch from the end of the nicely paved promenade along the coast to Bexhill which is pretty rough, but it is the only ‘bad’ bit on the route’) From Bexhill continue along the seafront towards Cooden Beach, and from there take the narrow lane (which turns off to your left just before the Cooden railway platform) and westward across the marshes to the Pevensey roundabout. I like to call in at Pevensey (first road to your left on the roundabout) and see the castle – about half a mile off. Then back to the roundabout and head inland, towards and through Wartling and on to Herstmonceaux. From there my best description might be to get you to look at Google maps and link Herstmonceaux, Bodle Street Green Brightling, and Battle (via Netherfield Hill Rd) If you are coming down from London you can catch the train home from Battle – otherwise return to Hastings via the lanes through Catsfield and Crowhurst)

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Early Sunday Morning

Every ride is different – different light, different weather, different frame of mind when you set out the door. That’s one of the joys of getting out on a bicycle. No matter how many times you might cover the same stretch of countryside, there is always something new to catch your eye or capture your fancy. For years now I have been riding along the seafront here in Bexhill-on-Sea and have often noticed and admired the evocative qualities of this old bathing hut-cum-ice cream kiosk – and indeed it has been a feature in some of my favourite photographs from my rides – but until this morning I had never seen anyone there.

Today though, as I came along the seafront just before sunrise I noticed the door was open, a light was burning and the proprietor inside puttering around, straightening things and looking perhaps as though he were taking inventory, for it was way too early to be opening up. Whatever the reason for his coming down to his shop at this hour on a Sunday morning, the glow of lights and sense of human activity transformed an old familiar scene, and in keeping with my Hopperesque theme of yesterday I pulled over and took some photographs, my own Early Sunday Morning.

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Early Saturday Morning

Something about Edward Hopper’s urban paintings have always appealed to the solitary cyclist in me – their melancholy style, a sense of late-night desolation, the themes of solitude and loneliness in the midst of a big impersonal city, and lives lived out far beyond the periphery of my own. Because of the unsocial hours in which I ride, and the generally downbeat quality to Hastings seafront I often come across such Hopperesque scenes and vignettes on my rides, and often find myself wishing I possessed Hopper’s power to capture them.

I came across just such a scene today – one that reminded me of one of Hopper’s Main Street Depression-era gems, called Early Sunday Morning. I was spinning along the seafront in the pre-dawn grey, an hour when everybody else was still fast asleep and their windows were all dark except, all but this one solitary bay window along this row of tired and gently down-at-heel Victorian flats. Here a lamp glowed golden yellow and as I glanced up I could see the outline of an indistinct figure gazing thoughtfully out to sea. Funnily enough when Hopper was painting Early Sunday Morning he had wavered back and forth about including a figure gazing out the window, before deciding against it. Here was my opportunity, on a Saturday Morning,to try something of my own.

I couldn’t resist. Although I’d found a nice comfortable rhythm and had been making brisk time, I touched the brakes, pulled over smartly and hopped off. In a trice I had my tripod set up and moving quickly as I could, before this scene could change, I made a sort of tribute photograph to one of my favourite painters; think I’ll call it Early Saturday Morning.

Early Sunday Morning – Edward Hopper (1930)
Oil on Wood
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

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Blue Moon

Autumn is well and truly here with a snap in the air and a light frost forming on the grasses along the roadside on my ride across the marshes and over to Pevensey this morning. What caught my fancy though, as I pedalled along, wasn’t the autumnal chill but the glorious haunting spectacle of a Blue Moon hanging in the hard, clear skies to the west. It wasn’t actually blue, of course; it was a brilliant creamy white – the term ‘Blue Moon’ being a colloquial term for a second full moon in a calendar month. The next one won’t be until July of 2015. (Astronomers and almanac editors, by the way, have a slightly stricter definition, a Blue Moon in their eyes being the fourth full moon in a single season.)

Whatever the term or definition, the luminous Blue moon this morning cast a lovely glow over the countryside. This, coupled with the touch of frost in the air, and the thick ground mist over the marshes, and the twinkling lights of Eastbourne off in the distance made for a wonderfully evocative ride. I wanted to capture the sense of being out in it, all alone, miles from home, while the rest of the world was sleeping. And so with apologies for the blurring, colour casts and blown highlights, here’s a glimpse of a ride through the marshes by the light of a Blue Moon.

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