Monday, 12 August 2013

Postcard from the Woods

Sunday, 11th August 2013, 4 pm
by the river, in front of The Anglers Arms, Bishopstoke SO50 6LQ


I was trying this morning, in my garden, to read Slavoj Zizek's "The Year of Dreaming Dangerously". Trying and somewhat failing to understand a Marxist interpretation of the current geo-political condition, I decided to get my spanners out, fix my half-ruined ancient bike and ride it somewhere far away.

Setting off along the river Itchen, a few yards from my new home, I followed its winding course upstream, through Riverside park, golden green and filled with ambling families, kayakers on the river. Swaythling, under the motorway and into fields.

Somewhere along the way, proceeding I knew not exactly where, other than roughly north, on a rutted, root-bobbled, woodland path, I started to hear a kind of work-song, a blues chant that built upon itself before shifting tangentially.

The route led out of the woods, alongside a barbed wire fence to a shit-piled, bumpy, furrowed pasture where riding was harder than walking. I got off and walked. I got lost, then stuck, at a dead end of fences and high grass.

Turning back, I saw two distant brightly coloured teeshirts, a couple resting under trees. As I approached to ask them the way I found they had vanished.

Near the spot where they had seemed to sit, I found a kissing gate, a cattle-gridded bridge and a steep gravel climb to a thronging play area, full of ice cream and grizzling toddlers.

A sort of piratical Nicholas Cage (many piercings and tattoos, resplendent greased quiff, expensive round, brown, gold-rimmed shades) directed me back the way I had come for the requested Itchen Navigation path.

So I took the other way, finally back to the ancient waterway after a five mile cowpat-deep detour.

The sun shines on my loneliness and fear, evaporating it with steady, unceasing action.

In my bag are raspberries and sausage rolls. The road ahead seems shorter than before.

I will take the train home from Winchester, apparently some 8 miles off and compile the Postcard from the Woods that I heard as I bounced through the wood.

[ I found this figure to be wildly optimistic, after three hours of sweating, clunking forwards but cannot offer an accurate alternative. Perhaps 14 or 16 more in all was closer to it ]


8 pm
Garden of South Western Arms, Adelaide Rd, Southampton SO17 2HW

My phone's map software reckons 13 miles from here (one yard from my house) to Winchester.

I reckon I rode 25, due to detours, back-tracking and the wildly meandering waterway woodland paths.

I didn't know the age of it, assuming C18th like most of our canals.

Therefore I was amazed at a plaque below Bishop's Bridge stating the Romans established the city in 70 AD and constructed the section of the navigation that runs there around that time, to prevent the river flooding. A huge engineering feat, in any age.

I remembered childhood picture books of anchored rafts with huge lead weights winched up wooden chutes as pile drivers for three men to wind and drop, hammering tree trunks into the bed of the Thames for platforms to build the first, wooden, London Bridge.

Approaching Winchester via Compton, pausing atop the bridge crossing the magnificent and shocking M3 motorway, then continuing up and down steep hills then suddenly across the top of a meadowy valley, the Victorian viaduct below, to which I then swooped and crossed.

Passing the 12th century Hospital of St Cross, its half-ruined enormity bespeaking the ancient humanitarian and self-organising power that the city always evokes as I enter it.

Cycling on the flat, through green woodland paths at the edge of the town walls, I circle Winchester College and regain the water's side, approaching Bishop's Bridge.

Stopping to eat sausage rolls and raspberries from my bag, I realise my legs are feeling very used, shaky and shocked.

I resolve to do this more and more, to see if I can pass hills as effortlessly again as all the lycra boys, always moving ahead like trains while I shuffle and grunt up a slope.

Up the High Street, under the statue of King Alfred, alongside a confusing cordon, turning out to be for an athletic event, a cycle race.

I feel both left out of a club and nonchalantly smug about my own petit tour.

If only lycra didn't make me look like a fish in a bag.

Last, thigh-burning, climb to the train station at the top of the town hill, buying a can of cider and a ticket, I discover the train to my new home's doorstep is five minutes away.

Blissful recline under the lowering sun's undiminished brilliance, I laugh to recall the sometimes desperate thoughts of perdition, of never arriving, of punctures and river tumbling on foot-wide sections of sloping mud that my ancient town bike handled like a husky.

Fabulous old rusty bike, thank you very much for a lovely day.

Here is the music I imagined, clunking and wobbling over the tiny rutted paths between cows watching and swans not, the eternal outflow of a thousand subterranean mouths, flickering sun dappling the water through swaying willow leaves, carpets of butterflies that scattered like fairies before my approaching wheel: