The BeST ride: Greenwich to Peacehaven along the Meridian Line
It’s the idea of my friend Ed, to celebrate the end of British Summer Time by cycling along the Meridian Line from capital to coast. We meet at the top of Greenwich Park, the whole of London laid out below in a blur of early-morning mist, the avenues of trees that lead southwards from the Royal Observatory glowing with the bright yellow of autumn. The four of us, me, Ed, Theo and Alex, roll away from the park towards Peacehaven. Clouds suffocate the sun.
The route is dotted with Meridian markers: a sculpture in a park, a compass rose set in the pavement, a finger post along a residential street. A line is drawn on the ceiling of the pedestrian tunnel at Hither Green station; an obelisk sits squat in a park in West Wickham.
Through the suburbs we meander, the countryside soon emerging as houses recede and farms take their place. The landscape is alive with the rusty hues of autumn, reds and yellows vivid even on this overcast day. We ride beneath leaf tunnels, chasing pheasants, chatting as the miles pass under our wheels.
We pause at the end of a climb for a snack. The sporadic drizzle has once more filled the air with moisture. I replace my jacket while we eat. After the next turn it’s a steep descent, says Ed.
I’m first down the hill. It’s steep, and I’m going fast – faster than usual. I’ve always been a cautious descender, never quite trusting that I won’t crash, but recently I’ve been trying to ease off the brakes a little, to let the bike do the work. The road is narrow and the surface is poor – the bike bumps over a rough patch and I loosen my grip on the handlebars to absorb the shock of the road, though they nearly rattle out of my hands. There is a bend in the road ahead, coming up fast. Gently on the brakes, but the bend is suddenly there, and the drizzle has slicked the tarmac, and my rear wheel skids. I shriek, regaining control for a second, but then it skids again, more significantly this time, and down I go. Knee, hip, elbow crashing to the ground, body skidding with the momentum, then head makes contact with tarmac. It bounces off the road and somehow I’m lying facing up the hill, my bike tangled up with my legs. ‘Shit, shit, shit,’ I’m saying as Ed rushes to my aid; ‘I hit my head. Fuck.’ Theo’s a doctor, he tells me, then calls to them: ‘Easy guys, Anna’s taken a spill.’ I’m looking at the sky, hip and elbow burning, the searing sting of ripped skin competing with the throbbing of joints swollen with shock. Theo is beside me: don’t move, he says, and feels my neck, and asks how my vision is, then eases me off the road. My head is cut and there’s a nasty bump, but I’m OK. I sit with my head between my legs, waiting for the dizzy spell to pass as Ed fixes my punctured front wheel. The bike took a battering: bent derailleur, snapped rear light, bashed bar grips, front light in pieces on the road. We pull the derailleur back into place and re-align mudguards, piecing together the front light and checking that wheels are true. The shock is subsiding. Both bike and I really got away with that one.
The crash was 17 miles in and there are at least 40 more until we reach the coast. I would rather keep going – the bike is rideable and moving is good for my bashed-up joints, delaying the inevitable stiffening that will see me unable to move my head properly tomorrow. I berate myself as we ride; I knew I was taking that hill too fast, and in slippery conditions I should have been more cautious. There are certain falls we can’t predict, like the time I skidded in a patch of oil, or when I came down on slippery gravel on the towpath, but here, I should have risk assessed better.
The whole of the right side of my body is in agony – why must I always fall that way? My elbow has barely recovered from the oil crash! I’m annoyed at myself because I wasn’t wearing cycle-specific clothing – I rarely do, because I don’t own much, and I don’t see why I shouldn’t ride my bike in normal clothes. But cycle kit exists for a reason, and had I been wearing my cycling gloves instead of the woolly ones that I removed earlier because it was too warm, my hands would be scrape-free. I wouldn’t have ripped my everyday leggings, or my t-shirt. Heartbreakingly, my lovely new ski jacket now has rips in it, although thank goodness I put it back on – the skin injuries would have been a lot worse had I not.
Mostly though, I realise the vulnerability of my fragile skull, and the terror that went through my mind when it bounced off the tarmac. I wasn’t wearing a helmet. I rarely do, though my family remind me often that they wish I would. I’ve never hit my head before, and now I have, it brings home that the crash could have been a lot worse, and my poor family would have worse news than me limping home. I stand by my previous blog post about helmet use – in my day-to-day life, I probably won’t wear my helmet. But on a ride like this, where speeds are greater and roads less predictable, I will.
Do I regret coming on the ride? Do I wish I had stayed at home today and avoided the whole thing? It’s going to take days for my skin to heal, and weeks for me to be able to sleep comfortably on that side again. But life is the culmination of our experiences – good and bad. If I avoided things that might cause me pain or damage, I would never leave the house. When we get to the end of our lives we want to be able to look back and remember the things we did, not regret the things we didn’t do. And this ride, for sure, is one I’ll never forget.
‘Easy on the speed, Hughes,’ says Ed as we take another descent. Noted. The knee pain has receded but my head is throbbing and my elbow jolts painfully with each bump. The coast is still fifteen miles away. I’m not going to make it that far.
We roll into Lewes and head for the pub. After a pint I’m going to take the train back to London while the boys ride the remaining miles, hopefully arriving at the Meridian obelisk in Peacehaven in time to watch the sun set over the sea. They have been terrific, making sure I’m OK, buying me food and tea and painkillers and now, a pint. We sit down and I raise my glass. ‘Thanks for looking after me. And even though I really hurt myself, I’m really glad I came. I’ve had a great ride. Cheers.’