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.

A Human Pace

And just like that it seems we’re in quite settled, quite warm weather. It changes everything, not least how long I feel like being in the saddle. I’m now doing 30+ mile (50-60 km) or longer rides in Berkshire, South Oxfordshire or North Hampshire.

With the warmth comes a change in pace – if they can, people seem to slow down, or at least want to. Where they can, there are more smiles to be seen; people seem happier and more relaxed.

In the villages (numerous) and small towns (Wallingford- or Watlington-sized, for example) that I’ve ridden through lately it seems palpable. People are still doing what they have to do, of course, but there’s less bustle and less hustle.

In contrast, in larger towns, Reading most obviously, the hot weather seems more likely to generate frustration – people want to slow down but can’t. The heat serves only to increase the tensions that come with the inevitable traffic jams or car park queues and so on. You can only pity the slow-cooked commuters on the trains.

And it seems to me the key thing is that it’s not the case that warm weather makes us want to relax and makes us happier and thus makes us slow down. Rather, it’s that we are wiling to slow down when it’s warmer, and it’s when we slow down that we find the slower pace makes us happier.

Obviously, that’s all just unscientific impressionism – it’s how it strikes me, that’s all. But it did make me wonder whether there’s such a thing as a human pace – a speed of things, a speed of life, that somewhere, somehow, deep down, chimes most happily with our internal body clocks or some other internal, instinctive rhythm.

If that were true, the natural conclusion should be that we ought to be trying to match the speed of our collective lives to that pace. As it is, collectively we seem remarkably willing to let any number of external factors dictate to us how fast we must live our lives: from the non-negotiable demands of the working day to the incessant nagging of social media.

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Fox gloves in the sun

“Time to stop and smell the …”

Up Around Goring (Walk With Route)

This walk will take you up in the hills on the more gentle side of Goring and Streatley. The mapping starts on the east of the rail bridge but if you’re driving you’ll need to find somewhere to park first – there’s a car park signposted as you head towards the river.

Going anti-clockwise, the route starts with a short stretch by the B4526 but you quickly turn off into Whitehills Green and walk through that small housing development, heading up and to the right as it were, until you spot the footpath at the end of the close.

Further on in the route, in Great Chalk Wood, while the Chiltern Way is marked straight on there’s no marking for the left hand track (paved, going downhill) – but take it anyway. It is a right of way although the gate at the end is locked – but it’s easy enough to clamber over or around. You’re then back on the B4526 for a short stretch but there’s a path high up on the verge that brings you down to road level again in time for the footpath to Elvendon Priory. The rest of the route is pretty straight-forward. It’s about 4.5 miles.

3D view of walk from Goring

About 4.5 miles

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A South Oxfordshire Stroll (Walk With Route)

A reasonably lumpy walk that’s just over six miles, starting and finishing at the reliable and very popular King William pub at Hailey, near Wallingford in South Oxon. You can always cycle or walk to the pub to start, but if you drive you’ll find they’re very walker’s-car-friendly. Just be sure to eat and drink there to repay them.

Going anti-clockwise, a few things to note are: the road section by Braziers Park is normally quiet (but on the 5th May 2014 they are having an open day, so that might change). The road by Ouseley Barn has a path by the side of the field you can use. Take the second path off to the right, not the first, for the climb up Hammond’s Wood. Lurking in the woods between Checkendon and Garson’s Farm there’s a short sharp climb to tax any aching legs. As you come down towards Well Place, make sure you come out of the field on to the road, then take the path that’s sign-posted almost immediately on the left. You need to do this to drop below the line of trees in the field – as you come down the hill it’s tempting to think you can just keep on going.

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3d Rendition of a South Oxon walk

Hailey-Checkendon-Hailey – just over 6 miles.

Feeding Kites And Growing Sheep

Hurrah! A happy conjunction of available time, good enough health (joints) and decent weather means 100 miles ridden – and enjoyed – this week. That’s a welcome change.

Getting out at this time of year is slightly different because a lot of the hedges and stands of shielding trees aren’t in leaf yet, so you do get to see (pry) into properties you’d never otherwise catch a glimpse of. Seeing the homes of the rich with another parliamentary expenses scandal dominating the news, and yet another bank’s massive losses making headlines, and the immediate thoughts are inevitable. The issue is what to say or do that’s not mere moaning. For now all I’ll say is that I’m working on it; merely moaning is tedious.

In the meantime, in South Oxfordshire today I saw a large Red Kite swoop down, grab something from the edge of a rapeseed field and then proceed to either eat or at least investigate whatever it had in its talons as it was taking off. It was all very ungainly – it almost had to stop flapping to reach down to peck at whatever it was – but that’s definitely what it was doing. Presuming it was prey, I hadn’t realised they’d feed on the wing.

Also in South Oxfordshire in spring, the fields sprout lambs. And there I was, thinking they were mammals.

Field grass with lambs

Lambs Sprouting

The Joy Of Self-Delusion

Cycling around South Oxon today, in lovely but unseasonably warm weather, I found myself wondering about the distinction between us and rats.

To explain: the latest IPCC report confirms what we already knew – because of climate change, the planet faces a bleak future, and thus so do we all.

It’s that simple. This made top story in some news outlets … for a day. And that’s it. The scale of news media’s response is a good measure of how we are collectively going to respond to this looming calamity. We’re not. We know it’s coming, but it’s not going to set any meaningful national or global agendas. It’s not going to make any significant difference to how we all behave. And then, sooner or later, the problems will force themselves into our lives (if they haven’t already), and then we’ll struggle on, and cope as best we can – or not.

Perhaps some did, but none of the news reports I saw made mention of the screamingly obvious elephant in the room: population growth. If you really want to tackle both the causes of climate change and help mitigate the consequences of it, there would be a world-wide drive to discourage the human population from growing. There’s as much chance of that happening as there is of us all decamping to a new planet to live there happily ever after.

What I did see in the news reports was the inevitable clutching at straws – the mentions of ‘perhaps this report by the IPCC might be alarmist’, or ‘perhaps some crop yields will increase’ or ‘perhaps human ingenuity can come up with solutions’.

Crops in unusually warm spring weather

Perhaps all this unseasonable warmth will mean bumper crops. Perhaps.

Ignoring problems and instead clutching at straws: this isn’t surprising behaviour. It’s akin to smokers believing that they won’t get lung cancer, or the obese not believing it’s what they eat that’s the problem. (Said the over-weight ex-smoker.) There are any number of examples of how humans like to and, more importantly, are able to deceive themselves.

There’s a famous – if pretty grim – experiment from the 1950s by someone called Curt Richter. In a nutshell: if you put rats in jars of water that they can’t get out of, they’ll give up struggling fairly quickly and drown. If you set the same conditions up but take a rat out before it drowns, then put it back in again, it will struggle on for far longer, before – of course- it eventually drowns too. Such is the power of hope.

The distinction between us and rats is that the rats need an external cause to have hope – they need to be rescued (albeit briefly) before they feel they have a reason to struggle on. That is to say, they can’t fool themselves that there’s hope. Unlike rats, we can fool ourselves and have hope despite all the evidence to the contrary. Whether that makes us the superior of a rat or not, I’m not sure.