Goodbye Didcot (A), Goodbye Baggage

Summer continues and the lanes of South Oxon, criminally neglected though they are, beckon. I’ve been riding the roads near Didcot lately because part of the power station there is being demolished. Three of the six landscape-dominating cooling towers are going later this month.

And that’s all a bit odd.

I’ve taken dozens of photos of Didcot over the years, nearly all of them from some distance away, primarily because it’s one of those features in the landscape that’s surprising for how often and where it pops up. It’s not as if losing three of the towers will reduce its impact in the wider landscape (although of course it will make a big difference close-up), but it’s still going to be a major change, so taking a slightly longer look at it as it appears now seems, somehow, the right thing to do.

Didcot with six cooling towers

I’m easy, either way

But looking at it now I find myself strangely, surprisingly neutral. And looking back, I realize I’ve not taken all those photos with any real affection, nor with any dislike. It’s more a case of ‘because it’s there’ rather than anything else.

And that’s all neither here nor there in itself, but it leaves me wondering what else that applies to. How much of what we see do we actually care about? For that matter, how much of any facet of life do we genuinely care about?

Of course, it’s a knackered old cliche that you only realise how much you care about something/someone when they’re gone but that’s always taken to mean that you find you care a lot about something/someone you take more-or-less for granted, if you only knew it.

What thinking about Didcot power station is making me realise is that the converse can be true too: under examination, it’s possible to realise that you don’t actually care much about something. That sounds negative, but it might be a positive – if you look properly at your life you might find you’ve fewer ties, less baggage if you like, than you might imagine.

Up, Up And Away

Not a brilliant walk so not a route to share, but the view of Didcot from Nuffield was striking, and I can’t resist some steps to nowhere.

Didcot Basking

Didcot Basking

Steps To Nowhere

Steps To Nowhere

Hazy September Sunshine

And as the night time temperatures in the south of England are around what the day time averages should be … you can either worry about our erratic climate or just get out and enjoy it while you can.

Would that be fiddling while Rome burns?


But I increasingly suspect anything Joe and Josephine Average might do to try and reduce their carbon footprint will be so spectacularly undermined by the actions of others that it just doesn’t matter. When you hear that they’re going to build air-conditioned football stadiums in the desert for a one-off tournament, you know the world is quite perfectly insane.

Didcot Power Station, idle

Didcot, idle, photographed from a nature reserve. That must be poetry.

In My Back Yard

On a ride starting at Beaulieu Heath, perhaps because the weather wasn’t great and perhaps because I was generally a bit disappointed with the cycling in the New Forest, rather than focussing on the pleasures of the area I found myself thinking the place has something in common with home turf: a lot of my home rides have Didcot power station as a backdrop; rides in large parts of the New Forest have Fawley oil refinery’s towers poking up in the distance.

I rely on electricity as much as the next man, so I can’t complain about Didcot; I drove down to the New Forest so I can’t moan about an oil refinery. But that said, I’m very aware that I don’t live under their shadows or that of anything similar. It’s easy to be sanguine about eyesores and dismiss ‘not in my back yard’ arguments when it’s not in your own back yard.

Sobering for a different reason, it’s perhaps also worth bearing in mind that the view from the top of one of Fawley’s towers of a load of holiday-makers with their cars and tents and what-have-you, moaning about the towers ruining the view, wouldn’t be too edifying either. There’s something to bear in mind the next time you’re on holiday …

Fawley oil refinery in the distance

It has to be in someone’s back yard

The Joy Of Didcot

A good length English summer’s day ride with Jim and the talk included climbing Mont Ventoux (as he’s done, more than once) and the importance of being able to see what you’ve achieved when you’re cycling – where you’ve been – when the going’s hard.

Of course, nothing in southern England is on a par with the so-called Giant of Provence but the principle is the same. It doesn’t have to apply to just major climbs; climbing up on a lane through a beech wood, for example, as we were today, doesn’t give you any sense of how well you’re doing.

Whether you think it ugly or otherwise, Didcot power station looms large (and often quite unexpectedly) on most rides going immediately north of Reading. It may be in the distance, just poking over the horizon, or close-up and dominant. It serves the cyclist well as a kind of benchmark to measure progress against, in the same way as looking down from a mountain road might.

Didcot power station peeping through the trees

Didcot, sometimes unexpectedly appearing

It’s curious to think that I’ll miss it when it’s not there – but I think I will. It’s curious to have that thought, I guess, because disliking big and imposing man-made things is so ingrained in us.

I don’t know if those who are doing that ingraining are necessarily to be trusted; society, the media, the establishment … A lot of what’s taken for granted perhaps shouldn’t be.

Voters On Bikes

Instances of cyclists being killed by drivers who then, more-or-less, get off with it, aren’t hard to find in Britain*. Today’s ride took me by Didcot. You get six months in prison, suspended, for killing a cyclist near Didcot, even if you’re driving illegally**.

Politicians are often keen to ‘send a message’ with sentencing – just think back to the last large-scale riots and the disproportionate government-directed judicial reaction to looting. There is only one deduction to make: the message politicians are happy for the judicial system to send out to motorists regarding killing cyclists is ‘well, we’d rather you didn’t but if you do, don’t worry, we’ll just give you a bit of a slap on the wrist’.

That’s not a grey area, that’s not open to debate; there’s nothing to quibble about here. The politicians in this country don’t much care about cyclists being killed; judged by their deeds rather than any cheap words, that’s a statement of fact.

If you’re a cyclist, any cyclist at all, that should inform your view of this country’s politicians, I suggest to the exclusion of any other consideration.

Forget the old, tired and trite left-wing / right wing politics; forget class-based politics; all those old divisions have long been meaningless. Review the past few decades of politics – as played out in reality, not as promised in manifestos, glib sound-bites and ‘spun’ for the media – and then forget any notion that one or another major party in Britain is morally, ethically or any other –ly ‘better’ than any of the others.

We live in a country governed, largely, by professional politicians who have opted to make a career out of politics in order to further their own interests – just like anyone in any other career. Perhaps there’s nothing inherently wrong in that, but understand it for what it is: we are governed by people who are driven to govern because of what they’ll get out of it. They’re not in it for your benefit, for my benefit or anyone else’s: they’re in it for themselves.

(That the desire to rule over people is determining someone’s chosen career is itself a trait that merits close examination, but that’s another issue.)

Lobbying is just a nice word for buying power – lobby politicians and you’re in effect, buying politicians, directly or indirectly. With the UK dominated by careerist politicians (local or national), then the way has never been more open for lobbying: careerist individuals are, by definition, all about advancement and attracting the attention of lobbyists (being bought), in this new scheme of things, simply means you’re doing well.

That leaves us cyclists with a choice. We could try and buy enough politicians to make a difference, but we’d be up against entrenched interests with very deep pockets. Arguably, ‘cyclists’ aren’t a coherent enough voice to organize and lobby for power anyway. Indeed, I’ve argued in the past that we need to be seen not as a group called ‘cyclists’ but as the diverse group of people we are: mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, friends and lovers. ***

The alternative to buying politicians is voting them out of office. The more cyclists there are, the more of this basic political clout we have. We need to recognise our commonality – that we’re cyclists, that we’re voters on bikes, and that our politicians don’t much care about us – but beyond that, what we need to do is act as individuals against whatever politician, local or national, of whatever party, we are entitled to vote against by dint of where we live.

The diverse nature of the nation’s cyclists, in this scheme of things, is a positive: it makes us much harder to divide and rule, much harder to buy-off and neutralise. It should make us more of a threat.

In a nutshell – if your councillor or your MP isn’t actually achieving something for you as a cyclist, then vote against them. It doesn’t matter their party or your past allegiances; it doesn’t matter what they’ve said or promised. Judge them purely on what they have actually done for you, as a cyclist.

A lot of seats – particularly local – can change on a few votes. The more cyclists there are, voting for their interests, as opposed to along party lines, the fewer safe seats, even at a national level, there would be. ****

Yes, doubtless there are some exceptions to the career politicians out only for their own interests. Let them prove it though – not by talk but by action. The same is true of local councils: if you have a good one, demonstrably working for cyclists, vote to keep it in power. Nonsensical cycle lanes and other tokenism doesn’t count.

Otherwise, be as clear-eyed and cynical as I’m suggesting. You can be sure that, away from lip-service to the contrary, most of our politicians are far more cynical in their decision to not stand-up for cyclists.

Perhaps cyclists should organize in local groups if appropriate; perhaps the role of each town’s cycle club, cycle action group etc should primarily be to make it very clear to everyone what the politicians of their area are actually doing for the good of cycling. Again, this should be a wholly apolitical appraisal – based solely on demonstrable action or inaction.

And if anyone challenges you for being too cynical, or tries to rally you to a party’s colours, take that as a hint that you’re getting somewhere, that you’re rattling them, that you’re actually troubling the establishment, because the establishment is the whole lot of them – all the major parties, together.

* The Road Justice campaign site lists some injustices – but by no means all.
** Didcot cyclist-killer’s sentence
*** On the need to get away from being ‘cyclists’.
**** On how cycling doesn’t align with political divisions, and the need to reject the old party system.

Didcot in the distance

Didcot, dominating the skyline – and my thinking today