RECOLLECTIONS OF A TRIP TO WEYMOUTH: PART ONE
"When is a bike not a bike?" asked the ticket inspector at Leeds railway station. "This is no time for riddles", I thought. Our eyes met. "When it's in a bag" he laughed. I thought about correcting him with the word tricycle; pedantry is usually the last faculty to desert me in difficult situations.
A few minutes earlier, before I left the station to have a cup of tea, I had shouted across the line that my bag contained a bicycle. This might seem like madness: sane people do not shout on railway stations, you might think, least of all about such a sensitive matter. On a previous journey I had even told a fellow passenger, in an attempt to conceal the true nature of my bags contents, that it contained a musical instrument; a faux pas I regretted when I found I was talking to a musician travelling to a recording session.
On this occasion, I had been wandering aimlessly around the station when I noticed two armed policemen suspiciously eyeing my bag. One of them was talking into a radio. Misfortune frequently befalls me in Leeds on my last visit I had become mixed up in a brawl as I passed a pub, and had got vomit (not mine) on my new Shimano shoes. I had a vision of the Bomb Squad blowing up my new trike while I waited helplessly on the street. The thought prompted behaviour that to bystanders probably looked like a brief bout of madness, with shouting and strange arm movements.
When my train arrived, I left my 'musical instrument' in the luggage van, then walked through several carriages of mostly reserved and unoccupied seats. 'Why do they bother sticking all these tickets on the seats?' I wondered. When I found my allotted place, a young woman was sitting in it. I politely showed her my ticket. 'I think you will find' she replied, 'that your seat is facing this one'. I took another look at things, and was surprised to discover she was right. I was about to apologize when I noticed that the young lady had raised her novel, by Jane Austen, level with her eyes. I had an urge to tell her to keep the book in front of her face as she looked better like that, but the only way I ever manage to be rude to people's faces is by accident. I wandered back towards my trike.
When I had found an unreserved seat, I relaxed and marvelled at the effortlessness of rail travel, feeling a bit of an anarchist and planning the things I would do when I reached Bristol. A visit to the Mud Dock café was first on my list. I had never been there, but I got hungry just thinking about a café for cyclists, and resolved to treat myself to the best food they could offer. Then I would revisit some of my old haunts, before heading east on the cycle track which I had a small hand in building many years ago, and which is now threatened by a road scheme.
Bristol differed in one important respect from the way I had imagined it: it was raining; so I continued to Bath by train. Arriving at the railway station there it was still drizzling and I left my things at the nearby Avon Valley Cyclery (where, incidentally, I once had my workshop, when I used to make bicycle panniers), putting the fee into their campaign tin. After eating and sightseeing I returned, unfolded my trike (which takes five minutes), chatted with the proprietor Richard Grigsby, then rode on to my friend's house.
My arrival was unexpected as their computer's new voice-mail system had been misbehaving. I knew my friend would like my new trike: it was much easier to ride than the last machine I had turned up on, a folding 2-wheel recumbent. Against my better judgement, he became set on taking the trike, despite its lack of lights, to his local pub. When we arrived there that evening a glance inside brought back the horrors of a rugby scrum; the pub, however, was cleaner and less smelly, despite being popular with cyclists.
After several pints my friend had disappeared, probably outside demonstrating my trike, I thought. Everybody seemed to know him. He had stood in the recent general election, for the Green Party unsuccessfully, needless to say. Our paths had last crossed, briefly and unexpectedly, on a march through the woods outside Newbury, before bulldozing began for the so-called bypass there.
Left to myself, I started pondering important questions like: "Why does beer, contrary to economic theory, become more desirable the more of it one has?" and "Why haven't I got a local pub?". Then I remembered that I was a socially awkward southerner currently living in the north of England, who didn't usually enjoy drinking beer.
My reveries were interrupted when I thought I glimpsed an old girlfriend. I inched closer, only to discover that my eyes were not as good as they used to be. The woman looked at me expectantly. I stood for what seemed like a long time with my mouth open, but no words coming out, before escaping into a nearby conversation involving a young chap who was launching a new cycling magazine. "Is there room for another one?" I interjected with some doubt. "Yes. Would you like to be in it?" he replied. It must be difficult finding things to fill the pages, I thought. I muttered something about having a look at his magazine. My companion reappeared and it was suddenly closing time.
I had not been looking forward to this moment. "I can ride on the pavement" my friend said. I thought he was a bit big for that. "It's all uphill anyway" he continued. At least it would be easier for him than walking, I thought. I went into the night planning what I would say if we met a policeman. I resolved at my earliest opportunity to fit the dynamo system I had hastily packed into my bag.
Halfway up the steep hill two young women appeared out of the darkness. They had obviously been drinking, to the extent of needing something to lean on. They did not seem too fussy about what it was. My friend received some assistance in pedalling up the hill, but most of the force seemed to be in the wrong direction, and he became mixed up in some shrubbery. As we struggled to untangle him, the women seemed to lose interest in us. I wondered if they would make it home safely; perhaps they had the same concern about us.
"Two short rings" said my friend when we finally reached his door. His wife, back from her shift at the local hospital, appeared in her nightclothes, surprised that I was not her husband. "Hello" I said, "he's around somewhere", wondering what had suddenly happened to my companion and not wanting to add that I thought he might be hiding.
The next morning my friend, who is a biologist, explained that after a certain age the human liver steadily loses its capacity to metabolize alcohol. His wife suggested her folding workbench, in the absence of anything more suitable, to help in straightening the steering on my trike, bent during the previous evening's excesses. "It's in the shed" she said as she cycled off to work in her nurse's uniform, "at the back, under everything else. Have a good ride to Weymouth".
That seemed unlikely with a hangover, a bent trike, rain, and the contents of a shed to shift. I set out to rectify what I could. Eventually I thought I had a rideable recumbent, in a kitchen restored to the state it was in before I started using it as a workshop, apart possibly from a grey stain that resisted all attempts to remove it from the floor.
The ride out of Bath began on busy roads with steep hills rising from the valley bottom. I had cycled the route several times previously on the annual grape-picking trips I used to make to France. This time heavy showers made me thank God frequently for trees. After a while the leaves were dripping wet, so I sat in a bus shelter somewhere near Radstock, and gazed idly at sweet wrappers. A pub across the road beckoned.
As I entered an enormous dog greeted me. There was no smile on its doggy face. I hoped that someone would say "he won't hurt you", but nobody spoke, except for the hint of a growl. I remembered an off-duty police alsation, small in comparison, which had once sunk its teeth into my leg on my way to work. Before I was taken to hospital its handler had told me that I was in the wrong place at the wrong time - as it happened, at the bottom of the dog's garden just as the policeman opened his gate. I consoled myself with the thought that the dog in the pub had probably not been trained to attack people with long hair and beards. It did however resemble a fat pig, and it too seemed to be telling me that I had deviated from an optimal path through the space-time continuum.
A fat man sitting by the bar bore an uncanny resemblance to the animal, which was drinking beer from a bowl on the floor. The chain he held was the sort of thing you would lock your bike with if you had to leave it for the day in Leeds. I was not sure whether the dog or its owner would win if they argued over where they wanted to go, but at least they would stay together. I drank my coffee.
Two workmen decided to have another beer. They were rebuilding a nearby wall knocked down by a teenage motorist a few nights previously. Evidently they could not do it in the rain. I sensed from the gloom that the young man had been injured, or worse, but could not exclude the possibility that people were just usually miserable in that place.
The fat man thought it was a marvellous achievement to cycle even as far as the next village, and quite beyond his ability. To disagree with most people in this situation would be a kindness both to them and to the environment. In his case though it would just have been to encourage cruelty to bicycles. The only way he could ride a bike, I mused, would be by reincarnation into a more suitable body. He tried to get the dog to sit on his lap, to establish that despite appearances it was really a friendly creature, or perhaps to show that he too could do something difficult and dangerous. Or maybe he just wanted a warm body close to his. Whatever the reason, he did not succeed: the dog stubbornly preferred to rest its vast bulk on the floor. If the spectacle demonstrated anything, I thought, it was the pointlessness of human existence. I looked out of the window, hoping the rain had stopped. Jean-Paul Sartre might have felt at home there, but he did not have a recumbent tricycle.
I had not expected to take more than a couple of hours to reach the Mendips, but the best part of a day had passed by the time I descended into Evercreech. I was hungry, and found a baker's shop that sold pies and flapjack. While I ate I chatted with a Londoner who had retired to the town. She was old but seemed contented. I felt I could live happily there too, just on pies and flapjack. I went back to buy some more.
By the time I reached Sparkford I was hungry again and had no
food left. The sky looked particularly ominous. I passed a campsite and went
for a look. Most campsites make me yearn for a quiet field by myself. I said
I just wanted to fill my water bottle when I bumped into the proprietor. "Help
yourself" he replied affably. He evidently liked to chat. He had not had
the campsite long. He was a solicitor, I learnt, and was still wearing his pinstripes.
I wondered how long his enthusiasm would last, and decided to stay. "You
wouldnt believe how much those electrical sockets in the washroom block
cost me", he said as I completed a form in the office "The working
classes have ways of getting their own back", I surmised. A grey-bearded
man appeared outside. He was towing a trailer with a Brompton, and reminded
me of Father Christmas. "I bet I know where he's going" I said.
The name of the grey-bearded gentleman is Mike. I saw him again at the CTC rally in York. He was interested in buying a GNAT from me. Unfortunately, with the GNAT's long gestation period, I was not in a position to sell him one. The next time I encountered him he was the happy owner of a brand new ICE trike.
On my next visit to Bristol, construction work had started on the much-delayed bypass. I discovered this fact late at night when I found the Bristol-Bath cycle route blocked, and had to cross fields by moonlight and then sneak through someone's back garden in order to get onto a road..