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.

Closed Circles

A bank holiday weekend and a ride around the roads of Berkshire … and where’s everyone gone? Sonning was empty. The lanes in the general direction of the Walthams were quiet. Even Henley, normally one of those honey-pot destinations on a day like today, was quieter than I’d have expected. There were some people milling around by the river but not that many; there were some traffic queues but not as bad as many a weekday.

Presumably, people have left these shores for holidays in warmer climes. That’s not surprising – last year was a washout and this year’s shaping up to be the same. I’m no sun-worshipper and even I’m craving a few consistently warm days. But it means the circle’s closed: lousy weather leads to more flights abroad which leads to more CO2 – and air travel’s particularly bad for emissions – and so climate change, which is causing the lousy British weather, accelerates. Hey ho.

A Real Challenge

A short ‘rehab ride’ with Charli on the 12th, a ‘grab the chance while I can’ ride in very so-so weather on the 13th, yesterday was a wash-out and all of a sudden it’s midweek again. If all things are relative, given how much time seems to be speeding up, whatever it’s relative to must be slowing down to a snail’s pace.

Today’s jaunt was just a quick 20 miles – Sonning-Wargave-Henley territory – but it turned out OK; I dodged the showers and there was even a bit of sun, which was something after a dismal morning. The only thing that can be said for weather like today’s is that sometimes the light can be striking – bright sunshine and dark clouds, and everything is greening-up abundantly now.

I was moaning about idiot road users, both the other day and two years ago. I was thinking today that in reality, all road users fall into four categories:

  • the ‘helpful’ – the ones who go out of their way to be helpful and courteous;
  • the ‘normal’ – the ones who just do what they do without causing anyone any problems;
  • the ‘irritating’ – the ones who don’t do any real harm but who are sure to get someone’s back up, at least some of the time; and
  • the ‘dangerous’ – the ones that genuinely put lives at risk – their own or other people’s.

The helpful and the dangerous are quite rare. Most of us like to think we’re in the normal category; most of us would probably benefit from remembering that to others we’re almost certainly irritating, at least occasionally. I think we need a road user manual – a R.U.M. – to explain this, to drivers, cyclists, pedestrians and everyone else. Essential reading along with the Highway Code.

It occurred to me, too, that if it’s true that we’re all often unwittingly irritating to others, then a real challenge would be to try and think positively, or at least kindly, about the strangers that it’s all too easy to find irritating. I think I’ll see if that’s possible in coming rides: the TK (Think Kindly) challenge!


Green trees and threatening skies

Green trees and threatening skies

Wake-Up And?

Wind turbine by the M4, Green Park, Reading

This is quite new. I am not.

A reasonable 30-miler, circumnavigating Reading, taking in Purley, Pangbourne, Theale, Three Mile Cross, Aborfield, Sandford, Sonning and Caversham. It’s a mark of how dismal the year so far has been for cycling, for me at least, that this is the longest ride I’ve done in 2013. With such a badly laid foundation over the winter, the summer’s riding will be harder than ideal.

For large parts of the route south of Reading, the wind turbine by the M4 looms large. Quite simply, that could not have existed just a few years ago. For most of my life, wind turbines like this just weren’t around. It feels very odd to be reminded of the passage of the time in such a blunt way.

Reality, of course, is that reminders are everywhere, from the bikes I ride and the shoes I wear to ride them upwards, and in every other aspect of life. Perhaps it’s the size of the wind turbine that makes it more striking – more forceful as a wake-up call.

Is being reminded that you’re getting old a wake-up call? It probably should be, if only to tell you to make the most of it. The hard part is knowing what constitutes ‘the most’ of any ‘it’ and, indeed, deciding which ‘its’ one should make the most of.


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.

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.