Something about the English countryside always strikes me as being somehow more voluptuous, more rich and thickly-coated than that of our European neighbours. Even at the very outset of spring, the ground seems to be sprouting almost uncontrollably; a contrast to the bare trees and tortured brown patches of Scandinavian grass I’d watched scrolling past on my way back from Norway. It could be a subconscious bias, I suppose.
Not just flora, but fauna too. Starting out early that morning, I’d spent the first couple of hours sending countless rabbits bolting for cover. And so, as the day matured, I was staggered by the growing amount of road-kill. Rabbits, birds, squirrels, badgers, an unlucky cat, even a young deer – to borrow a book title, it was “strangely like war”.
I stopped to let a group of road racers cycle past, then drafted them for a few miles. None of them doubled up with me for a chat. As they peeled off to the right I thanked them for the wind-break. I was well out of familiar territory, picking my way gradually to avoid Bedford, Milton Keynes, Luton, St Albans. This took a lot of time; I got lost and was faced with a choice between the hard shoulder of the A1 and a muddy footpath through a spinney (I chose the latter).
My anticipated 140km ride was growing rapidly. Long-distance utility cycling in the UK is pretty much non-existent; our cycle network (and I guess the bulk of our utility-cycling population) is mainly within urban areas, and our long-distance routes are more for leisure rides than getting around the country in a relatively straight line. This meant I stopped frequently to check directions and to choose which of the tangle of little lanes would take me to London without spitting me out into a town or onto a motorway.
As the daylight began to trickle away I passed within the M25 and shortly rolled into Cockfosters, the furthermost point of the Picadilly Line and the start of London proper. Exhausted after 160km and with at least 20 more to go, with neither food nor water, it was a relief to be in the city at last – the adrenaline of the night, the traffic and the city lights would take over from here.
It had been a fortnight since I’d last cycled anywhere (to Bodø, Norway), and I could feel that my legs were planning to tell me all about it in the morning. But I’d experienced in one day a cross-section of my home country, from the village of my childhood to England’s seething hub, and everything in between: a very long, very worthwhile little bike ride.