Tag Archives: landscapes
There are two ways I can close out my loops on my long morning rides out to Pevensey and points west, and both of them involve my climbing a fairly steep hill towards the end of the ride. Given that I am presented with a choice it might seem a little odd that virtually every time – unless I am really running late – I always take the longer and more circuitous route which also involves a considerably longer and bigger hill and yet still consider myself to be taking the easy option. It’s because the other hill is simply the wrong kind of hill – for me, that is.
It is an Alberto Contador kind of hill, short and sharp, rearing suddenly upward at a gradient of 14% and then twisting backwards in a kind of elbow bend – and this little beauty coming off a hard left-hand turn off a nearly flat stretch of coastal road. You pretty much start this one at a dead stop. To be sure, it doesn’t go on for very long at all, but it is mean and punchy – in fact, precisely the brutal kind of grade on which El Pistolero likes to launch his attacks. He can have it.
I would much rather ride the extra (and rather scenic) three miles along the Hastings seafront and then climb out of town on the much, much longer, winding and still fairly steep St Helen’s Road. Not only is it a far prettier way for me to get home, with large attractive villas on one side of the road and Alexandra Park on the other, but this is a hill I actually enjoy – one on which I am happy to launch my attacks, go at it hard, particularly when I am riding my winged Pegoretti. I love it. It is exhilarating. Getting some momentum up on the approach out of town and then churning up the grade as swiftly as I can gives me a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction when I finally crest that last rise. For me this hill nicely caps off my ride, the perfect ender.
As far as elevation gain, it is a much higher hill than the other, probably double the height – and in fact from its crest I end up coasting the last half mile home. The overall energy expenditure on this one is greater as well, I dare say, for it is not really all that much shallower a grade. It is for me, though, the right kind of hill.
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.
The Tirah Campaign of 1897-98 was another of those endless frontier wars the British always seemed to be fighting on India’s northwest borders back in the glory days of Kipling and the Raj. In this case it was a group of renegade Afridi tribesmen who rose up when nobody was expecting them to and seized all the forts leading up to the Khyber Pass, prompting a swift response from the British who sent an expeditionary force under General Sir William Lockhart of the Punjab Army Corp to sort them out – which they did, in short order.
So what has any of this to do with cycling? Well, not a lot, really, just that there is a memorial to this obscure, all-but-forgotten expedition and the soldiers from 2nd Royal Sussex Regiment who served in it standing just across the street from the old Victorian fun pier in Eastbourne, a spot which also which marks the turn-around point of one of my favourite out-and-back rides.
It is a fairly substantial monument – a plinth at the intersection of Grand Parade and Cavendish Place on which a larger-than-life bronze statue of an English officer assumes a dramatic pose, with drawn sword. On its sides are sculpted bronze plaques, greenish with age, on which are inscribed commemorations, lists of campaigns, and decorative imagery depicting the pith-helmeted men of the 2nd Royal Sussex in action back in the day.
I’d be willing to bet that hardly any of the hundreds of drivers who swerve their cars around it every day are even conscious of the fact it’s there; that is, beyond a subliminal turn of the steering wheel to avoid running into the thing. And to the extent they do notice it, and it registers in their brains as a memorial rather than an obstruction, I doubt very much any of them pull over, get out of the car and wander over to see what this statue is all about. Hell, just finding a place to park along there would be disincentive enough.
On a bicycle though, it’s different. Not only do you notice the richness and the details in the streetscapes and landscapes as you pedal through them, there is something about the rhythm of pedalling and the involvement with the world around you that frees your imagination and fires your curiosity – or at least it does mine. And of course it is but a simple matter to stop, dismount, and take a gander at whatever strikes your fancy without having to fuss about parking places or wondering if you have enough change on hand to pay the metre. You can just pull over and hop off. And I do it all the time. On my bicycle I am never in a hurry. I am forever pulling over for closer looks, or to read the inscriptions on historical plaques and monuments, or else simply pausing, roadside, to admire the composition and the detailing in the cavalcade of scenes and settings I ride through every day. Better still, this sense of wonder and curiosity that comes over in the saddle stays with me after I get home, enough to make me want to fire up the computer and look up this long-forgotten Tirah campaign and find out what on earth that was all about; inquire more deeply into the earliest days of British motor racing which according to another plaque I read apparently got its start along the Bexhill seafront in 1904; or learn more about the 18th century smugglers who used to haunt the marshes I ride through every morning on my rides over to Pevensey. My rides not only take me through a pretty stretch of Sussex countryside every morning, they enrich it as well, give it depth and colour and savour. I go travelling every day. And I love every bit of it.
What a difference a week makes. Although all seemed dark and gloomy to me only last Sunday with the unwanted and much-grumbled-about (by me) shift to Daylight Savings Time, already the sun has clawed back a full fifteen minutes of that hour, and its rays could be seen bursting above the horizon at 6:33 this morning just as I was swinging through the sleepy old village of Pevensey, on the homeward leg of my pre-dawn ride over to Eastbourne. It was a pleasure to see it and bask in the glow.
I like this old familiar course of mine, along the seafronts of Hastings and Bexhill, across the marshes to the ruined castle at Pevensey, and, when the mood strikes me, on to Eastbourne and then back again along pretty much the same roads – except that when I reach Hastings I continue to follow the promenade through the town centre and make by way home via St Helens Road and the long winding hill by Alexandra Park. Thirty miles in all, forty if I go on to Eastbourne, mainly flat except for that last big hill and so familiar to me by now that I can practically pedal it on autopilot.
For several winters now it has been my old favourite off-season stand-by, the perfect route to follow in the cold and dark since it is so flat and familiar and without any tricky curves or bends to send you base-over-apex when the roads get icy; I know where all the frost hollows are, and each lump, bump and pothole along the way.
Despite the fact that I know it so well, I’ve never become bored with it – although now that spring is coming, and the mornings are becoming lighter and brighter I’ll soon be venturing off on some other seasonal favourites, longer rides over to Beachy Head or the South Downs, up into the weald or maybe head over to flat farmlands in Kent. People tell me that I am lucky to be able to ride in such pretty surroundings, and it is true – Sussex is a lovely and evocative place in which to ride bicycle. But then again beauty and romance is where you find it. When one of my editors last week remarked that my morning rides seemed so much ‘cooler’ than his own daily cycling commutes, I found myself wondering why that would be so.
He’s an intelligent, creative and imaginative man, and riding his bicycle into Washington DC, one of America’s most beautiful cities, pedalling (at least in my imagination) along the Potomac, and with the cherry blossoms in bloom, at least at this time of year. My same-old, same-old winter route, photos of which he’s been seeing on this blog, is a dead simple out and back through a couple of faded, old, and rather down-at-heel English seaside towns and across a stretch of marsh, nothing more. There is nothing intrinsically cool about it. The ‘coolness’, such as it is, comes simply from easing into the rhythm of your bicycle, looking around and about you, exercising your imagination as much as your legs, and seeing with daily bicycle-refreshened eyes the scores of intriguing vignettes and constantly shifting scenes, settings and moods that can be found in landscapes and streetscapes the world over. The world is a big and beautiful place, rich in detail and ripe for discovery, and there is no better way to see it than from the saddle of a bicycle.
One of the many things I love about cycling through the English countryside is the breezy familiarity you acquire here with antiquity and tradition. By that I don’t mean just the big-ticket items, the ruined castles, Norman churches and picturesque 15th century pubs, all of which by the way I see all the time on my daily jaunts, but all the little, common everyday things. Take for example those classic old Royal Mail pillar boxes.
They are so ubiquitous, so much a part of the accepted scenery, that you hardly notice them, a dash of scarlet on a curbside or at a rural crossroads, hidden in plain view. But when you look more closely you discover that some of these post boxes are old enough, antique enough if you will, to be museum pieces – or at least they would be anywhere else.
Britain, as every stamp collector knows, is where postage stamps got their start, beginning with the Penny Black, bearing Queen Victoria’s likeness, back in 1840. In those days anyone wanting to post a letter was obliged to take it to a post office, or to a tavern or shipping office nominated for the purpose, and leave it to be sent on by the next available ship or contrivance.
While this worked passably well on mainland Britain, the people on the Channel Islands – Jersey and Guernsey – where the mail packets called in at irregular intervals were poorly served. And so in 1852 the postal authorities dispatched a young Anthony Trollope – later the famous Victorian novelist, but then a mere postal inspector – to Jersey so see what they could do to make things work better. He came up with the idea, or rather, he borrowed an idea from the French, of a cast iron pillar box where letters could be left for collection. The first one was set up in Jersey that year. More followed, in Jersey and in Guernsey, and soon on the mainland itself, as the idea caught on.
Then as now, every Royal Mail post box bears the Royal Cipher – the Latin initials of the reigning monarch at the time that particular post box was set up. Then, of course it was VR for Victoria Regina – Queen Victoria. These days it is ER II for Queen Elizabeth II. Given that she has reigned for nearly sixty years now – she’s celebrating her diamond jubilee next June – it’s no great surprise to find that most post boxes you see these days bear her cipher. Most, that is, but by no means all. You still see plenty of old cast iron boxes with her father’s cipher – a curvaceous G.R. enclosing a tiny Roman numeral VI, for King George VI.
There is nothing like cycling for bringing to life the details of a landscape and as you start riding more and looking around more you discover there are also still quite a few King George V ones too, his monogram being a simple unadorned G.R. These are pretty old mailboxes we are talking about here, bearing in mind that he died in 1935 and so all of those bearing his cipher must be at least 76 years old.
But this is Britain, where history never dies or even seems to be put on the shelf and out of the way. Just up the road from us, casual as you please, is a pillar box adorned with a copperplate E.R., not Elizabeth this time for the intertwined letters there enclose a Roman numeral VII – making this one a true Edwardian relic and at the very least a century old. It’s far from being the only one around. I pass another Edwardian one every morning as a spin along the seafront, past Warrior Square Gardens, and on mornings when I ride up into the weald I ride past yet another, beside an old pub on a tiny rural lane in a village called Wartling.
It has become kind of a game with me, a past time while riding, to notice the monograms on the these old British post boxes. Once, while touring up in Scotland, in a village called Tobermory, I came upon a very rare one bearing the initials of Edward VIII – the king who was never officially crowned but abdicated in favour of love and an American divorcee. Only a handful of these pillar boxes were ever made.
My favourites though are those with the oh-so-elegant intertwined VR. I pass a couple every day on my morning rides, genuine cast iron Victorian relics that have been collecting the mail since the days of Anthony Trollope and the penny post and are still in casual use, curb-side, here in the Age of Blogs and Broadband.