It’s 10.30pm when my alarm goes off, waking me from a brief nap. I set my snooze alarm twice before finally dragging myself out of bed and dressing in my cycling gear. It’s pitch black outside, with a few stars and an almost full moon visible between the clouds. I put some food and my waterproofs in my bag and head off, into central London, to meet my friends at Monument.
Why did I get up when I would ordinarily be going to bed? Why have we gathered with our bicycles at midnight when most other people awake at this hour are in the pub? This is the SeaCycles group: every month we ride our bikes to somewhere on the coast, we swim in the sea and we eat fish and chips. Except this time we are doing it overnight.
We eat biscuits, chat, and psyche ourselves up for the 56 miles that lies ahead. Then we set off, south, towards the sea. All around are the sounds of late night London: revellers spilling out of bars, the neon lights of chicken shops flashing to snare their prey, the gentle rumble of the night bus. The roads are less choked with traffic than usual; we negotiate Elephant and Castle and Camberwell with ease, then climb towards Dulwich, Sydenham Hill, and the red beacons of Crystal Palace.
What is the attraction of riding at night? Why have we set out at midnight to cycle all night to the coast? We could be in the pub; we should be in bed; tomorrow will be a write-off. Yet still, we are here.
“But you’ll miss the scenery!” one of my friends had said. We stand at the top of Crystal Palace hill and look down on a blanket of lights, the whole of London sparkling far into the distance. We smile at each other – here, London is a magician’s box, a treasure chest, a mystery. We rarely see it like this. The roads are quiet and the sky black above us.
A few hours later we have shaken off the city altogether and are deep into the countryside. The country lane winds narrow ahead, passing huge estates where houses sit grand behind iron gates, porch lights illuminating neat lawns and Mercedes in the drive. There is the faint suggestion of fields behind the hedgerows, the black horizon punctuated by the blacker outline of trees, and the moon shines above it all. We are privy to the night creatures: the quick dash of a fox, the slow glide of an owl, the shuffle of a badger. It’s a whole new world, one with which we are almost entirely unfamiliar. The roads are all but empty. Few people are awake at this hour, fewer still out on their bikes. I stop riding and an intense peace descends. This is the magic of midnight.
We didn’t see the fields, we didn’t see the folk who live in those houses, we didn’t see the sun sparkling on a lake, we didn’t see the new buds of blossom on the trees. But we saw so much else, things we rarely see, experiences we rarely experience, and that is enough. And, best of all, as we descended into Ditchling, we saw the dawn.
It was three exhausted and sleep-deprived cyclists who arrived on Brighton beach at 7am on Easter Saturday, ready to hit the sack as soon as we’d found breakfast. Unusual? Perhaps. Unforgettable, yes.