The wheels rush over grainy tarmac, bubbling over fissures in the path. Tufts of grass on the path’s verge skim by, rippling behind in the wake of air. Trees saunter along, some lazy, barely seeming to move at all, others have a sturdy pace, sliding past beyond the breakings of grass. Another cyclist is gone in a flash, only leaving the memory of the whirr of wheels on bitumen and a swish of wind. The clouds overhead are still. Path curves, trees recede, elevation drops. free-flowing like a torrent of water around the base of the brass horse hill, the nearest trees now ardently arranged rank and file alongside the long walk in two regiments. The outer has lost its leaves already, stripped bare to a cluster of twigs and branches, the inner still clinging to yellowing leaves, able to hold out for a moment more. The clouds over head are still. The open space retreats to the shrinking patch of sky as trees encroach on both sides, leering over the path as it continues to curve and now rise up the hill. on the verge, two bucks stand opposing each other, vehement and solid, staring the other down and daring the first move. One dummies forwards, dipping its head and thrusting its antlers. A test. The other holds, still waiting. He raises his head, shifting weight hoof to hoof and leaps a few steps, colliding and clattering antlers. Locked. They wrestle and road, twisting their necks, pushing against each other, hooves sinking in soft mulchy grass. They untangle antlers and step back for a moment, assessing strategy, taking a break. It lasts a moment before colliding back into a knot of bone. A spike makes it through the mess, jabbing into the other’s neck. he quickly concedes, groaning in pain and backing away.
The path split among the fields banked by scrubby bush, peeling away over small rises. Veer left along a gravelling stretch of road, meeting at a small crossroads and splitting towards an ominous hill, down a tree-lined mock-boulevard, or right towards a cluster of old Victorian cottages: the Royal Village. The hill drives into wooded land, great old oaks packed tight up to the edge of the road and the ground between covered by a thin coat of scrub and struggling grass. A plateau for a while as it moves out of forest and alongside the great green polo fields: perfectly manicured lawn stretching half a mile away in the distance. A lone few dog walkers traipsed across the expanse, dwarfed by the flat land. One morning I had come by here as the sun was still warming the ground, ridding the earth of its dewy coat. Swathes of mist hung across the field and clung amongst the bordering trees like fine silk. Moving through them, it is as if your vision becomes blurred and faded, distant objects reduced to pale outlines and the sky dulled of the once crystal blue. The mist stroked my skin like ice, damping it but not drenching, a welcome feeling in a hot summer, but that morning my skin dimpled like Braille.
My legs relaxed into the repetitious cycle. The constant rhythm Cyclic to the end of the straight. With my body on loop, my mind weaved away on a strand; remembering similar fields on the journey to Paris, the endless roads, alleys, country streets, fields, lines of trees, railway paths: the joy of it then had mixed with the dull ache of my legs from the days spent spinning away. But through the pain, endless as it was, the cycling become a meditation. Just as the Buddhists choose to sit lotus-legged to provide the mind some initial distraction of discomfort, so the slight throb of over-worked thighs set the ground tone, the background hum, for my thoughts. There had been no beginning, and there seemed no end in sight. It was as if all I had ever been doing was peddling away through those fields, and that was all I intended to do. in that moment, I could imagine doing nothing else. The ache becomes like the drone of a bagpiper: initially, and when alone, it is annoying, but combined with the melody of a changing landscape and wandering mind, it serves to enhance and anchor the experience. It is pain, but an addictive pain, a pain that you relish for the eventual reward, only here, the journey itself is simultaneously the reward.
Or the pain is one that re-affirms life. What are we if not living bodies that can heal? A body that is not strained will stagnate like a tepid lake where all hope of flow has been blocked by rock and mud. The body must move and the body must heal. I find the pain to be addictive partly for the absolute feeling of aliveness—in dreams you feel no physical pain, and so to feel it is to know beyond doubt of your awake-ness, of your alive-ness. The pain and gentle ache in my thighs as I tackled hill after hill was my reassurance. Like the ache after a good workout, the tender feet after a long hike, the relief of the end is so encompassing and embracing that it seems as though the hours and hours and days and days and miles and miles of slow hurt was not just worth it, but entire necessary.
I turned past the polo club, now distracted by activity of buildings, and headed past the steaming compost site. Piles of mulch and matted branches loomed on the other side of a low fence, looking like a great dinosaurs nest, pieced together by great metal beasts.Great metal birds. Flightless, lumbering, docile beasts with low rumbling roars and slowly moving claws. Their plumage is a deep green, like the weathered pine needles of the ancient alpine forest caressing the top of the world like a turtle-neck. But glossy, as if veiled by a sheen of crystal frost. And streaked with fine lines of glittering silver. And governed by the central few brittle glass feathers that cocoon its head like a lyrebird’s sweeping quills. They ferry mouthfuls of broken tree into the steamy nest, constructing huge mounds that seem useless to them except perhaps as heat. Adding stacks on top press down on the pile, spreading it and compressing it. The very bottom is unrecognisable as the trees and sticks it once was. Busy ecosystems have reduced it to jet black tar dotted with raisins of relics from the tangle of twigs it was. The birds continue their work, coughing and choking in grey breaths.
I headed away from the monster’s lair and down a long sweeping hill. Sat back on the seat, the easy ride and rushing air is welcome after the long monotony of the straight flat past the polo fields. The road snakes over a small stream, rearing up on the outside edge as if to accommodate my speeding, leaning turn. My tyres are like a precision razor scoring a perfect bézier around the bend, coursing from one side of road to another. Momentum thrusts me into the awaiting incline but only eases me so far up the hill: I must strain again to reach the top. Out of the park now and back on the main road, I pedal down a tunnel of trees. Lorries brush overhanging branches away and their force ripples behind. I tickle the stray brambles lurching onto the road.
Returned. Through a field of flat gridded stones and to the front door. Wheels stop. The clouds are still. The church nearby tolls three. The park behind me waits for my return.