Noticing Smells; Appreciating Drivers

Making the most of it – another reasonable road ride before the weather takes a turn for the worse, from tomorrow onwards. For no conscious reason, I was noticing the smells.

  • A faint odour of sewage as I neared Sonning – not as bad as it has been, but there.
  • The distinct smell of stagnant water, also near Sonning, as the floods recede, and again near Remenham church.
  • The stench of diesel from a bus on the road to Wargrave. As I understand it, the only reason for an engine to belch diesel smog is through poor maintenance. That seems likely – cutting maintenance costs would please accountants, and they run the world for short-term gain these days.
  • A nose full of two-stroke from somewhere, something, along the A4.
  • An unpleasant, thick, over-strong fug of cooking fumes being churned out of the fans on the side of The Little Angel, on the corner of Remenham Lane. You really wouldn’t want to live near that.
  • The unmistakable smell of cigarette smoke coming from an open car window – the car stuck in the normal queue to get in to Henley. It is surprising how rarely you smell cigarettes these days. As for seeing or smelling a pipe or cigar – I can’t remember the last time I’ve come across either in use in public.
  • And, several times, a faint smell of gas. I don’t know if each whiff is a leak that I should be reporting. It seems unlikely: it happens so often on a cold day.

There was also the distinct sense of cold air but that’s more a nasal sensation than an odour.

Now, I know my sense of smell isn’t great – too many years of being a smoker myself, and too many years stuffing sinus ‘cures’ up my nose – but what is, perhaps, most surprising about modern life is how few smells there are. Over the course of the entire ride there were those instances but otherwise, nothing.

I couldn’t find a way to photograph today’s smells, so here’s a clichéd image of someone holding their nose.

I couldn’t find a way to photograph today’s smells, so here’s a clichéd image of someone holding their nose.

And talking of specific instances … Over and above all the perfectly appropriate interactions with traffic – which must number in the hundreds over a ride – three incidents stand out.

A chap driving a ‘Volume/Print Ain’t Dead’ van gave me all the slack I needed to safely negotiate the huge pot-hole craters along the road to Sonning. A lady driving a blue ‘people carrier’ type of vehicle also gave me lots of room along the narrow lane up near Crazies Hill, and an unbranded blue-grey bus hung well back so as to not hassle me as I had to wait to turn, just outside of Henley.

These are people going out of their way to make my life as a cyclist easier – it’s appreciated and I often think it needs mentioning specifically. Too many cyclists are too quick to moan about bad driving but they never mention the opposite; they also all too rarely mention bad cycling.

Floods On High

During a ride that went over the hills from Woolhampton up to Bradfield, down then up again to Upper Basildon, down to Goring and up again to Woodcote, it’s obvious that the warnings about floods being easily possible in coming weeks are all too real. After last night’s rain absolutely everywhere was sodden, no matter how high I was.

A sodden English lane in Autumn.

A sodden English lane in Autumn.

This feels like the classic English autumn of lore but it’s coming after an untypically wet summer. It is all adding up. I’ve know I’ve said it before but it continues to astound me that anyone wants to pretend – to themselves or anyone else – that the climate isn’t changing. Perhaps the most interesting thing is our – collective and individual – reaction to it. Fiddling whilst our world burns? Denial? Bolting doors on empty stables? Human nature is an odd thing.

I’m mindful, too, that the home counties aren’t suffering much (as yet) from the unusual weather patterns. If it’s out of kilter here, it must be far more obvious elsewhere – particularly further west.

Still, for all that, it was a decent enough ride – albeit one that required some making-it-up-as-you-go regarding the route to try and avoid lanes that were likely to be seriously awash with water, mud and grit. Around here, the grit all too often carries flint in it – sharp little slivers of the stuff that will go through anything. Ancient man used flint as a blade; it can be all too obvious why.

It felt like drivers were going out of their way to be considerate too – helpful when, on two wheels, dealing with puddles and pot-holes is that much trickier and that much more important. Thanks, particularly, to the Mick Bicknell lorry near Elvendon Priory and The Light Corporation van near the Bird-in-Hand, outside Sonning Common, and numerous unidentifiable motorists. It is appreciated.


This year seems a good one for Magpies generally, and they seemed particularly evident today – boldly pecking at carrion in the roads; chattering – if you can call it that – with that harsh noise they make at each other in trees.

From seeing them around it was a short mental hop to thieving bastards, and again from that thought to government – national or local. Sometimes I just get sick of the whole cursed lot and all the waste that they represent.

For a cyclist the obvious example is the state of the roads. There are pot holes everyone. A very significant proportion of them are holes in existing patches. The patches are always done badly. They’re not sealed around the edges. The rain gets in; the hole reappears.

One pot hole marked to be filled, the one next to it not.

Here’s a good idea. Let’s pay someone to mark a hole to be filled but leave the one next to it. Then we’ll pay some other people to come and fill one hole but not the other. And then we can do it all again when the second hole gets big enough. Yes, that will be brilliantly efficient.

That’s not some great insight or deduction. It’s not hard to see what’s going on, but we – idiot tax payers – continue to have countless thousands of pounds just thrown away on more useless repairs. The people spending the money either don’t give a damn or are criminally incompetent.

I can’t see any alternatives apart from corruption – that there are back-handers being paid somewhere along the line.

It’s not hard to come up with a corruption conspiracy. After all, those mending the roads are on a job for life. Mend it badly. Get called back to do it again. It’s easier than snatching sweets from kids; easier than fiddling an MP’s expenses. Bung a sweetener to some government wonk somewhere and it all can carry on nicely.

I have no idea if that sort of corruption’s happening. The natural instinct is to hope not, but would it be better if those running this system were just plain incompetent? Or totally uncaring? I don’t know.

There has to be a reason why this thieving continues – for that’s what it boils down to, this constant leeching from the public purse for someone or another’s gain. And if it’s systemic, if ‘the system’ means repairs are always done badly, then those responsible for the system are the guilty ones. Systems don’t just happen.

It is the waste that’s so galling; and against a backdrop of ‘austerity’ that waste is cast in ever sharper relief. And I have a strong dislike of being angry and impotent.

It’s not all bad. I owe some thanks to the friendly and considerate driver of the, I think, vintage Merc at the top of Aston/Remenham Hill coming out of Henley.

Terribly, Terribly English

Riding around the lanes, villages and small towns like Henley today and yesterday, it was surprising how few people there were around. I don’t think they can have all been indoors, retreating from the relentlessly dismal weather. (If it’s not raining it will be soon.) I don’t think they were all at Jubilee parties.

There have been endless attempts to market on the back of the Jubilee – from the connected to the desperate. I’ve been offered ‘Jubilee Guitar Strings’ (at 10% off, no less) by email. The pubs are the ones I fear for; they’re nearly all trying to get punters in the door for some Jubilee-themed event or promotion or something but I doubt there are that many punters to go around – or even that there would have been if the weather had been glorious.

Today, riding past a seat provided to mark the Golden Jubilee 10 years ago, along the Harpsden Bottom road, I realised I’ve not heard anything at all about longer-lasting community ‘Jubilee Projects’, whether as small (but significant) as the seat or anything more grand. Perhaps they’ve just not crossed my radar.

The Queen's Golden Jubilee - anniversary bench

Something lasting …

I confess I’m finding it a bit tedious now – as ever, the media are giving the whole thing such an overkill treatment. I suppose it’s the same underlying issue as the pubs’ events: the media are just as desperate to attract punters, and just as imagination-free in their efforts. It’s very hard for anything to retain any semblance of being in any way ‘special’ when it’s flogged to death.

I can only have praise and affection for the people of Goring and Streatley, their 1km long table for an outdoor Jubilee lunch and the way they just got on with it in the rain, including an attempt at baking the most scones (4,000) in one sitting. It’s just so terribly, terribly English in every way that’s wholly admirable. (Of course, that should really be a .62 mile long table.)

Perhaps the way the weather’s brought out such classically English ways of carrying-on is a blessing – albeit well disguised. Perhaps that’s just sort-of de facto twaddle and we’d have been ever better in our Englishness if the sun had shone.

Talking of the praiseworthy – my heartfelt thanks to the (possibly quite elderly) lady in the Honda on the road out from Henley today. Without excessive detail: the situation on the road was out of the ordinary because of a large lorry; I wasn’t correctly positioned as a result; the lady understood perfectly what was happening, gave me all the space I needed and passed me with a cheery wave. It’s appreciated – and should be acknowledged.

Some photos from BBC Berkshire, including of Goring’s Jubilee party.

First Recognise The Problem

From the small van on the roundabout in Emmer Green who let me across even though it was his right of way to the bin lorry in Pangbourne to the Volvo in Pangbourne lane and the blue car in Twyford, there was a lot of active consideration being shown today. It wasn’t busy though; I wonder if people feel they can be more considerate, if people simply have time to look up more, if they’re less hassled.

On the lane that runs past the turn to Mapledurham and on up to Goring Heath they were litter-picking the verges today. It makes a terrific, positive difference; the leap from neglect to cared-for is vast in both its visual impact and how that then makes you feel – the emotions it engenders. You can’t help but feel those doing the litter-picking are contributing labour of far greater social value than any number of ‘financial sector workers’.

Drive around, cycle around, walk around – whatever your mode of transport, if you keep just half an eye open then the signs of careless and unnecessary, unjustified neglect are everywhere. There’s so much littering and fly-tipping, so many ‘public works’ (roads, pavements, buildings) are tatty or badly repaired. So much graffiti isn’t cleaned up … and so on. Just focusing on these simple but very visible aspects of public life is very grim. And in so many cases it doesn’t seem to be a question of money; it’s far more to do with how money is spent.

With the Olympics coming up and the hoped-for influx of tourists, who presumably won’t stop just in the East End of London, I was wondering today whether there’s a drum to be banged about the state of ‘Royal Berkshire’. If I was a tourist visiting, I’d be very quickly disabused of any notion of England being a green and pleasant land. If we can’t get the only Royal County looking half-decent, then what hope for the rest of the nation. To do anything about it though, first the problem needs to be recognised for what is. We can’t keep on pretending that England’s a great place to visit. It’s not. We need to own up to that, and then tackle why it’s not.

Discarded Union Jack

National pride only goes so far, it seems

Maximum Sweetness

Riding along a narrow lane, into a strong and cold headwind, the first I was aware of a vehicle behind me was its really peeved driver honking on its horn. Even with the headwind, it would take me, what, a couple of minutes to get to a point where it could pass me. Anyone but a moron could see there’s nowhere for me to let it pass – not least because it was one of those fat pseudo four wheel drives, not a properly rugged working off-roader but a ‘poncing about in the country’ version, much loved by the ladies who lunch brigade and never known to get dirty.

This is the second time I’ve had a sort-of run-in with a vehicle like that on this lane near Checkendon in the last two or three years. It might well have been the same person, there are only a few houses down this lane. Either that or the houses constitute an enclave of the peevish.

Anyway, I went out of my way to pull over as soon as I could and sure enough, the grotty little individual driving it sped by without any acknowledgement – as predictable as the sun coming up in the morning.

To pull over I had to cross the gravel-strewn middle of the lane and I pulled off-road into a muddy field entrance. Just a few yards further on, I had a puncture, with a large sharp flint stuck in the tyre.

At this juncture, I’m not a happy bunny and I thought then as I’ve thought before about bad tempered motorists: if I pass you further up the road, and you’ve crashed and you’re in need of help, I’m just riding by without a backward glance.

And those thoughts do me no favours at all, superficially sweet as they might be. To think them is to lower myself into the same angry little hole the peevish idiots dwell in.

So, rising above that seemingly is better … but why? You could take the view that in those circumstances it would probably be sweeter still to demonstrate that you’re capable of helping them, even though they’re such grotty individuals. The trouble is, that’s getting awfully smug.

I suspect, ultimately, it comes down to what emotional baggage you want to burden yourself with and carrying around pointless hatred is just that, a burden.

Anger as a positive energy is another thing entirely.