Cycling Smells

There’s more to cycling than all the sights you see, the terrain, the weather, traffic and the nation’s rotting infrastructure and its institutionalized neglect. Smells are just as much part of your environment, your context.

The other day I had the misfortune to ride through some residential streets in Sonning Common on a hot day just after a street sweeper had been through them, ‘washing’ them with what smelt like sour milk. It wasn’t quite stomach churning but it wasn’t great. On Friday I rode past a barbecue going on at the village hall in Checkendon and it smelt gorgeous.

Ride the lanes near Reading golf course at weekends and you’ll often catch a strong smell of bacon from what I guess is a refreshment hut half way around. It’s all too easy to find yourself riding behind a rubbish cart if you’re out cycling during the week and, in summer particularly, there’s a uniformly unpleasant – but, again, not sickening – smell to them that’s much the same as you’ll experience at a tip. I guess if you work with it you just get used to it.

You’ll occasionally catch a whiff of a coal fire and that’s very distinctive; wood fires vary a lot depending on the wood being burned. The smell of cigarettes is very strong and relatively rare now; the smell of pipe tobacco even more so. (I have to confess, as an ex-smoker, fresh tobacco smoke smells lovely.)

Stinking diesels aside, traffic doesn’t smell much – something you realise if overtaken by a vintage vehicle still running on leaded petrol.

Pig farms can be pretty noxious and I’ll turn and go another way rather than ride through crop spraying, and when I have caught it in my nostrils you know it’s not a good smell, whatever it is. For that matter, ‘natural’ fertilisers can be pretty whiffy too.

And sometimes you’ll smell death – I can’t say I’ve analysed it closely, but rotting mammals seem to have much the same smell about them whatever the animal that’s died. If it’s a strong stench that can be stomach churning, which I guess makes sense seeing as we’re mammals.

Cycling’s Challenges

You can get closer to a lot of things cycling – to the weather, the lie of the land, the area’s natural history, your fellow road users (for better or for worse) and so on. You also get a bit closer to death than you otherwise might.

Today, on a short-ish ride taking in Caversham, Sonning Common, Checkendon and Woodcote, I rode by this sculpture, as I have many times before. This time though, I’d not long ridden by a dead badger on the road side. That put death in mind, and so this time I stopped to photograph it.

A sculpture of skeletons embracing

Death’s embrace, presumably

Today was cold and the badger’s corpse didn’t smell, but on hotter days you can often smell something rotting long before you see it. That experience always emphasises that ‘the stench of war’ must be stomach-churningly grim – likewise any other site of mass death if it’s not cleared quickly.

What I’ve never decided is whether I would – should – stop if I’m cycling along and can smell something rotting but can’t see it. What if it’s a person? Stranger things have happened. I don’t know how brave I am – if I’ve the stomach for it. So far, I’ve never actually had to make that decision; the source of the smell has been visible. But one day …

Is it a case of would, should or could stop?

The challenges that cycling can create aren’t always the obvious ones. Climbing hills is one thing; investigating the smell of death another.

(Of course, in truth, I’ve no idea what was in the mind of the artist who created this sculpture – to be found near Woodcote / Exlade Street / Checkendon – but let’s assume we’re looking at death’s embrace. The crumbling building makes a perfect accompaniment.)

Who’s Me?

A decent length ride looping around East Berks and South Oxon, including Sonning, Maidenhead and Marlow; Henley and Checkendon – with Sonning Common to bookend it nicely.

Big Tree, small seat

Sitting down here, I could feel quite small

As regular readers will know, I’ve long been noticing seats outside – don’t ask why. ‘Sitting Down Outside’ has become something of a theme.

Today was no exception and seats in Checkendon caught my eye. I stopped to take a couple of photos and while doing so heard a very tuneful bird song. I can recognize a couple of common birds by the noises they make but mostly it is just noise – some of tuneful, a lot of it not. This one I didn’t recognize at all but, more interestingly, I am also willing to bet that I’ve never heard it before.

If you like, what I’m saying is that I don’t know what I heard, but I do know I’ve not heard it before. And that seems quite an odd thing for the brain to be able to do: I’ve not been able to categorize or ‘file away’ most bird song because I can’t attribute it, but that unlabelled mess of aural experience is nevertheless sufficiently understood, somewhere way beneath my consciousness, to enable me to notice a new variation.

As with ‘Biggles’ and the low smoke over the fields the other day, it’s another example of not really being in control of yourself, given that you are your brain: I might be able to claim that ‘I’ have learned to recognize a blackbird’s song, for example, but there’s no way I can claim to consciously know which noises I don’t know.


A bad week of tedious sinus-induced intermittently searing tooth and jaw pain. I think it’s becoming a regular event, but this time around it’s late in the year because it’s aggravated by pollen, and spring is late. As a result, today’s was the first ride for a while and it was just a short one in the Sonning Common area to see how I felt – head and legs. Pleasingly, the weather was good enough to make a spin on a fixed wheel a sensible proposition.

Riding around and going surprisingly well, it occurred to me I was riding reasonably drugged-up – painkillers galore. And … it felt good! If at least some of the drugs the professional cyclists abuse are similar, I think I’m beginning to properly understand the appeal. ‘Performance enhancing’ doesn’t have to just be in the sense of making you go faster; having pain blotted out is also going to help. It’s obvious when you think about it and, indeed, experience it, even in a limited way, but thinking back, I’d always somehow assumed the drugs were just about speed.

The next time you’re trying to judge whether the sportsperson you’re watching is drugged-up, judge in terms of pain being endured as well as outright performance.

Colours in the fields

These colours are real, not drug induced!


Upturned Chair

Perhaps we need to upset the whole order of things

A cold wind today but plenty of sunshine and it’s still dry – which seems something notable after all the rain of late. Hence a decent length ride was in order, taking in Sonning Common, Henley, Remenham, the Walthams and thereabouts. Even the road by the gravel workings in Sonning is looking a little less like a causeway.

I spotted two big ol’ Mistle Thrushes in a field today, I guess foraging in the mud for worms and what-have you. Also, a very plumped-up Song Thrush rootling about in dry leaves on a verge. You don’t see either very often but whether that’s a reflection of their numbers or their camouflage I don’t know. Perhaps the drab state of the vegetation at the moment means they stand out a bit more.

Talking of camouflage, at this time of year you can see all the houses (mansions and similar) of the seriously rich dotted around these parts far more easily, simply because trees and hedges aren’t so dense. It occurred to me today that I don’t really know what it makes me feel, seeing all these examples of quite high end wealth.

Even if you conclude it all comes down to how the money’s earned, there’s still a lingering doubt. Perhaps the business that generated the wealth was fair and decent; perhaps the money came through creativity – being an author or something – and it’s all been above board in every way imaginable. However honest the toil, there’s still the doubt about whether we collectively benefit from a society that tolerates – let alone lauds – a class of super-rich people; people who, in turn, are happy to be so rich when there’s so much that needs funding for the less well off.

I know it’s complicated and messy. If you’ve earned a huge sum by honest and fair means, given 50% away but found that left you with more than enough to buy a mansion – what then? Giving away half of your earnings would be generous by any measure – it’s more than I donate. Yes, it’s messy. That doesn’t mean it’s intractable.

I can’t say seeing such wealth makes me angry or indignant. It does make me question how we’re living though. Perhaps I don’t get angry about it because I’m comfortable enough; indeed, because I’m comfortable with the idea of ‘enough’. Perhaps it’s because so many of us are more-or-less comfortable that a critical mass hasn’t formed, angry enough to lynch the bankers and the politicians that have permitted the bankers to thrive.

Dodging The Consequences

Thick hail in a puddle in autumn

Hail. Thick, cold hail. I can be hardy; I can be stoic.

Climate change; global warming; climate disruption – call it what you will. The future looks like it will be challenging. Let’s all hope that ‘challenging’ isn’t a euphemism for something far worse.

That may well be a pious hope.

A proper cloud-burst over the higher ground north of Reading, complete with localised flooding and some serious hail in Sonning Common, and you can’t help but think the future might well be bleak, on the basis of the changing climate alone.

It’s not a noble thought, but I can’t help but suspect I should be actively glad I’m not any younger: the truly grim future may not be far off, but might be just far off enough for me to dodge the worst consequences.