I went for another ride yesterday. Just another bike ride. I never did ride much before we moved out here to what in England is called the West Country. We left the city of Oxford for this region because of the grime and the crime.
My brother was the one who suggested I start biking. Lee is and Iron Man competitor, and he had heard about how beautiful the cross-country cycling was out here, away from the cities. I basically entered into this kicking and screaming. I did it because there is not a gym within thirty miles.
Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would fall in love with a new sport, at the wild old age of 53. Golf maybe. But I’ve been told all my life that golf is not a sport; it is an addiction. Well, the same can certainly be said for cycling. At least as far as I am concerned.
It is a loop I discovered in parts, as in, I did one segment, and then another, and then found a connecting road, and as my strength and wind increased it became possible to link the parts together. Doing a loop means I never cover the same area twice, and also pushes me to the limits of my endurance—after the halfway mark there is only one way back, and that is to complete the course.
This particular loop covers about 45 miles. There are nine climbs each over a mile long. It contains some of the most beautiful country I have ever seen. Oh, there are certainly more dramatic places than the Wiltshire Downs. But this calm and silent land holds a charm that is uniquely British. There are moments when I stop and listen to the wind, and feel as though I have discovered the heart of England.
The weather of late has been awful. When English weather goes off, there really is nothing like it anywhere. In early June, the weather compares with the worst week of February in my home state of North Carolina.
The high two days ago was 58 degrees F. It has rained for six days straight, a bitterly cold drenching rain that is driven by a wind so strong it strikes the skin like liquid nails. It did not warm up yesterday, but it also did not rain. And we have to leave for America soon. I am teaching over there for all of July and August and September, and I can’t do this particular loop in October; it’s too exposed. So I went.
I left my car in Compton Basset, a village about 40 miles from my home. The first part of my ride is pretty tough. It is the one section of highway that I include in any of my favorite loops. I really don’t like cycling on highways. The traffic roars past at 70 miles an hour, on a two-lane road, but it is the only road that connects the dots.
So I stick tightly to the side of the road, and I push hard. This highway section is five miles long, and all but the first mile is uphill. There is nothing nice I can say about this section, except that there wasn’t much traffic, and when it is over, the change is as jarring as it is welcoming.
I turned off the highway onto a narrow country road, two-way traffic, eleven feet wide. This is known among cyclists as a white road. A white road indicates the color that it is shown on the national touring maps. The British government does a series of regional maps called touring guides that are astonishingly precise, and show all the tiny roads and give their gradients.
I never thought I would find pleasure in poring over a stupid map, looking for ways to connect different places while accomplishing two goals—staying off big roads, and avoiding gradients over fifteen percent. A fifteen percent grade may not sound like much. But when you have cycled one over a mile long, you know it. You know it for days.
Three miles along this country lane, I enter into Avebury. This town is ringed by planted stones, much older than Stonehenge, and without their dramatic circular precision. No one knows why these stones were planted, or when. Around five thousand years ago, is the best guess.
They stand in haphazard beauty, grey monoliths that rise from the meadows that are shared by sheep and tourists now. There must be a hundred of these stones, possibly more.
The place attracts hordes of New Age tourists. Yesterday a group had set up a wall of Tibetan cymbals and were chanting in a circle around a cluster of about six stones. This sort of thing happens all the time. It is such an utterly bizarre view, coming down this lane into a medieval village, surrounded by pastures and prehistoric stones and people with flowers in their hair.
From Avebury I head up, and up, and up, in a series of dramatic swooping climbs that take me through a hidden valley. A hidden valley is my term for a dale without people. No town or hamlet or house. Just me and this tiny narrow road and fields and forests.
In a land as densely populated as England, it is amazing how many hidden valleys are waiting to be discovered. My route takes me up and into this valley, then up the other side and out onto a long plateau that gradually climbs into the Downs.
The Downs are an ancient name, from a time beyond time, describing a series of high flat ridges, which fall dramatically into valleys, up and down, eventually cascading down to the sea some eighty miles further south. Riding the downs is a unique experience, as there are few roads and fewer people, and most of the visitors are here for the same reason as I, to be awestruck by the region’s natural beauty.
This climb is long and gradual, leading me up about five miles to the highest point in the region. The descent is almost perpendicular, and the road follows the one course that is not a vertical drop.
I stop at the top and look over the rusty guardrail, down some fifteen hundred feet, to the green east-west valley I will soon traverse. Far in the southern distance rise the next hills, lost in the mist and the perfume of meadows and the distant sea. The only sounds are the wind and the bleating of sheep. The occasional car passes with an apologetic slowness, like people entering a chapel or some sacred grove.
The valley is eighteen miles long, and has one road down its heart. Once I descend and take the right-hand turn onto the valley road, I am greeted by a white horse. A white horse is another prehistoric phenomenon, like the planted stones. Some are newer copies, but this one is ancient. Five thousand, six thousand years, no one knows for certain.
The white horse is carved into the steep hillside I just descended, and measures some four hundred feet long. It shows the image of a racing stallion, and is fashioned from the chalk imbedded in the cliff. It races alongside me for the next ten miles, until a turn in the road and the surrounding valley walls takes it from view.
The climb back up is another three miles, a much steeper ascent, and then there is the final drop, the final country road, and the green forest that surrounds Compton Basset.
I have made a habit of stopping when I return to the car and giving thanks. It is not always easy, especially on a day like today, when the wind has been a force to contend with, as strong as the ascents, and blew straight into my face the entire final climb.
The sky has remained leaden and grey, and I arrive back tired in my bones. What I want most at that moment is to get home, stretch, bathe, and have a bowl of hot soup.
It is so easy to run on to the next thing. There is, after all, always another ‘next thing’. Stopping is not natural for me. I am a forward-moving guy by nature. But this day I hold to the habit, and I stop and I give thanks.
Second, for the chance to be here at all. Deep in the English countryside, a universe removed from haste and pressure and meetings and goals.
And third, for the Maker of this place and this moment and me. The One who feels very close, both then and again now as I write this. Because I have forced myself to do what is not natural for me.
And say thank you, for the gift of this incredible day.