No Surprises / New Thrills

One night during the week I woke up sometime around three, the house was cold … and it was very quiet; everywhere felt very still. Sleep-befuddled, I briefly wondered if it was cold enough for snow.

Of course it wasn’t – as I knew from the forecasts. Despite the iffy nature of British weather forecasting, it’s rare that weather will be surprising. By and large, the errors are within safe margins.

Mid-week, I had to go Buckingham way for a business meeting, to somewhere I’d never been before. I plotted a route in some detail and printed it out. (As is my wont, if I can find a back-roads kind of way I normally will. SatNavs just don’t give you the flexibility.) I looked up the place I was going on Google’s Street View and fixed that in my mind before leaving. I checked for road works and other problems before I left.

I had a totally uneventful trip and found the place with ease, recognising it from Street View. Hassle free! Stress free!

And I had pretty well no sense of adventure, and no sense of discovery. As with the weather, it seems there are fewer and fewer opportunities for surprises these days.

My first reaction to that thought was that it’s a shame. Of course, there’s the option to wilfully remain in the dark but that seems, well, just stupid – and realising that made me think that having all this knowledge to hand isn’t a shame: it just moves the focus. Whereas once there might have been a thrill in finding something out for yourself and now that’s easy … the thrill, surely, now lies in what you do with whatever it is you’ve been able to find out about.

As for cycling, this week has seen a 40+ mile ride on Monday, a routine circumnavigation of Reading and a shorter one in South Oxon’s mucky lanes today. However, whichever way you tackle it, riding at this time of year doesn’t have a great deal of sparkle.

If you’re trying to keep the miles up and your legs in good shape then you can take the approach I was adopting on Monday and go for longer rides – do the weekly distance, but have to make yourself go out less frequently. The trouble is, that gets a bit of a grind after a cold and grey couple of hours …

So, instead, you can take the ‘several short trips’ option – but then you’re having to muster up the initial will power more often.

You could just stay in of course – but “winter miles equals summer smiles” and all that …

Just merging-in naturally

Just merging-in naturally

Did I Notice?

Sparrows have dust baths. Maybe other little birds do too though I don’t think I’ve ever seen it.

Today, I saw a Kestrel having a dust bath, on the edge of a lane near Henley.

A few days ago I was able to stop in a lane near Caversham just a few feet away from where another Kestrel was hovering, to witness its superb flying control close-up. I confess I found myself smiling just because I was seeing something so impressive.

In the previous few months I’m sure I’ve been seeing more Kestrels than in other years … but perhaps that’s only a by-product of my conscious effort to be more observant. I’m entirely sure I’d have noticed if I’d stumbled upon one taking a dust bath before now, but there’s this nagging doubt about all the things I might have passed by.

Regrets, as ever, are pointless; perhaps the best I can do is hope to notice more from now on, and hope anyone who reads this will take up the same approach, perhaps earlier in life than I have. I think my experience – that a more observant life is a more enjoyable life – will be true for others. Curiosity is enriching.

The Greater Reading List II

Another circumnavigation of Reading, another reasonable summer day for it and another jumble of impressions:

  • Freshly shorn sheep seeking shade under trees around the edges of a field, the lambs now losing the curiosity they had in such abundance when very young.
  • Tired-looking left-over jubilee bunting. When’s the right time to take it down?  Do you risk accusations of disloyalty from a neighbouring monarchist?
  • A Goldfinch in its prime; strongly coloured and perched close to me as I rode by, perfectly set-off against a blue sky.
  • A ‘vacancies’ board outside a factory, with a vacancy they’re trying to fill.
  • An idiot in a sporty Bentley, taking brainless zero-gain risks.
  • Someone setting-up their easel to paint an old bridge over a stream; were they good at their work; would they come away satisfied or frustrated with their day’s effort?
  • The inevitable rotting infrastructure.
  • Construction at the Atomic Weapons Establishment site – investment, jobs, money: it’s growth of sorts. I don’t know how you’d feel working on weapons that can each kill tens of thousands. Do you believe Mutually Assured Destruction is a good thing? Do you just think of it as a job that if you weren’t doing someone else would?  Do you hope to see them used one day, believe in enemies of that magnitude?  Robert Wyatt’s song, Shipbuilding, came to mind but I’m not sure what I think. I didn’t even understand the so-called moral arguments against the neutron bomb.

Construction work at AWE

Building for better bombs …



  • A large deer’s corpse on a verge; you don’t have to see it – the smell is unmistakeable.
  • Three large blokes by a snack van, shirts off, stopped for lunch. Heads of brawn looking nicer shorn, to quote Bowie.
  • A thin, small, old lady with a walking frame, struggling, alone, each leg shaking as she laboriously made her way, step by individual step. She looked vulnerable and she looked lonely. Perhaps that’s just me. Perhaps she noticed me, a lone cyclist, and thought the same. I hope I’m as wrong about her as that would be about me.

Boring Caring

I’ve been reading about butterflies being in decline in Britain. That’s one of those stories – it’s telling you something that you knew but that you didn’t realise you knew. Cycling around, in my garden, out walking – wherever, I’ve been registering that butterflies are fairly rare but not consciously. They’re rare enough to make me want to try and grab a photo when I see it.

A Comfrey flower with a butterfly

A Comfrey flower with a butterfly - another huge gap in my knowledge as I haven't a clue what sort it is

As is often the case, the loss of habitat is the issue: the normal bad, short-sighted farming methods; too many people and nature-unfriendly gardens; not enough people caring. It’s the same old story. It’s boring in its familiarity – which means it never makes it on to the widespread general news agenda. There is no effective, loud voice for the caring in any ongoing way.

Riding today – the lanes of Berkshire and South Oxfordshire – and there was another case of only now noticing the obvious: I’d never before realised how green the hedgerows become once the white flowers fade, how rare any other colours are. Rhododendrons are an exception but they’re not native. There are some other colours to be found dotted about but you have to look hard to find them – clover for example. Perhaps it is different elsewhere in the country but now I’m thinking about it, I can’t recall ever noticing a bright ‘natural’ hedgerow anywhere that I’ve been in Britain.

I thought bees and other pollinators were attracted to colours as well as pollen itself or, rather, attracted by colour (and scent) to pollen. Perhaps I have it all wrong, or perhaps these days hedgerows are as ruined and thus nature-unfriendly as our farmed land.

I don’t know if it’s a reflection on me or simply a reasonable reaction to how we live that I’m inclined to believe the latter more than the former.

Rhododendrons - non-native but successful if they find the right conditions

Rhododendrons - successful non-natives

A clover flower

Clover - a spot of colour

Real Fast Cats

I’m plodding along up a lane in South Oxfordshire on a mountain bike. There’s no-one else around – sensibly, as it’s another grotty day.

Out of nowhere, I’m joined by a small cat – I guess farm or feral – running alongside of me. I’m doing a shade over 12mph; he or she overtakes me, easily gains a few yards on me until it’s further up the lane where it dives into the hedge.

Now, I accept that at 12mph I’m not exactly scorching along, but this cat overtook me with ease – it wasn’t trying. I can’t say I’ve ever give it any thought at all, but if, before today, you had asked me I wouldn’t have said they could run that fast for so long with such ease. I’d have said they can do quick fast bursts, sure, but for a longer time was a surprise.

I hadn’t seen the cat earlier; logically, I must have disturbed it but it could have just remained where it was. And it came from behind … which means it must have decided to start running after I’d gone by, which made it a bit odd. Perhaps it was just showing off.

I heard it before I saw it. I didn’t realise a cat’s paws made quite such a noise on tarmac when they’re running. I’d have assumed they can run silently. It wasn’t a hard sound, not that scrabbling noise you can sometimes hear if you disturb a cat and its claws scrape as it tries to get a grip before running off. This was what I can only call a fast series of gentle thuds as each paw hit the ground; I could clearly hear the pattern of its running. It wasn’t even a large, heavy cat.

That’s all just slightly strange, completely inconsequential and all true; about the only thing of note on a mediocre ride. I guess what’s interesting about it is how well it demonstrates how easy it is to not think about the everyday. I’ve seen cats running hundreds of times in my life; I’ve never wondered how fast they’re going or what sound they make. I slightly dread to think how many other things that’s going to be true for.

(I Played And Lost) Rain Cloud Roulette

April showers are here. We all know this is a good thing given the drought. However, the gulf between what we know and how we feel is often huge.

Setting off for a decent length ride, taking in the frighteningly quaint-sounding Stanford Dingley as well as Upper Basildon, Goring and Woodcote, that it was going to be random whether I’d get rained on or not was obvious from the clouds. The bigger question was whether it would be a real cloud-burst of a soaking if it did come; yesterday saw some proper, if brief, deluges around Berkshire, complete with a couple of loud claps of thunder.

Despite heavy legs the ride went well enough. An oil tanker driver, Pinnock Brothers, encountered on the hill near Upper Basildon went out of his way to give me room to descend safely and that’s always appreciated, and I did make it as far as the bottom of what I know as Cleeve Hill, the road up to Woodcote that goes by Elvendon Priory, before anything came out of the sky. And on the plus side when it did it wasn’t heavy … but it did start off as hail.

Hail is surprisingly loud when it’s hitting you, and you’re not going to forget it’s ice when it goes down the back of your neck. It’s an experience; it didn’t last long and as with most instances of this kind of thing, the thought is worse than reality. I don’t think it’s masochism – or stupidity – when I say there’s something enjoyable about it. It lets you know you’re alive. Being always dry, always warm, always comfortable is very numbing – far more so than ice down the neck.

Being out in it also gave me that real pleasure of the smell you get when it rains (or hails) on warm-ish, dry roads that haven’t seen any moisture for a while, that unique … what? It must be some kind of chemical reaction or something, a gas of sorts being given off? I have always thought of it as a hot summer day smell but it was definitely to be enjoyed as I started to climb out of Goring on this not that warm April day.

Given the weather, I was surprised and pleased to see a chap out with a very little lad on their bikes, on the roads near Woodcote and Goring Heath. As I said to the chap, he – the lad – was going really well, particularly for such a youngster. I hope by saying ‘hi’ to the lad too I was at least a little bit encouraging. I have no idea if that’s a naive pipe-dream. I think an adult cyclist saying hello to me at that age would have made a positive impression, and that’s about all anyone can go on: what is true for you.

I finished reading Richard Mabey’s ‘The Unofficial Countryside’ the other day. It’s a good read on more than one level, but if it did nothing else, it emphasised to me how little I know about our plant life. I don’t think I have the drive in me to become an amateur botanist, but I would like to take more interest and know a few more names. I think I’ll be relying on Charli for help in the coming months – she’s far stronger in this area than I am.

I suppose it does beg the question – why do I want to know? What does it matter if notice and know the name of a plant I ride by? Curiously, I’m not able to answer that. I’ve some vague notion that I ‘ought’ to notice and know but why? Where does that come from?

Perhaps it’s true that life is richer if you know and understand more about what you’re surrounded by, that if you notice and are able to appreciate what’s around you, your place amidst it all makes more sense. Perhaps.

I sometimes feel curiosity is itself a measure of how alive you are – when you’re not taking an interest in things for no other reason than that you don’t know about it, that feels to me like you’re starting to die.