Slow ride home
The sun has not yet risen as I pedal away from my boat, ahead 140 miles of riding over the next two days. This pilgrimage is to my twin sister’s house so we can spend our 35th birthday together. Pale blue and grey is reflected in the canal as the horizon begins to lighten; the moon still holds its night time magnificence and hangs like a lamp in the sky. The owls are quietened by the promise of day.
The night brought a freeze, and the morning wind holds my face in its teeth. Puddles across the towpath crunch beneath tyres, and on the hills, trees stand bare like chimney brushes. At the foot of the valley the river surges with winter rain, though here, the canal sits calm, feathered with ice.
Other cyclists share the path, as do early Sunday runners; like me they are wrapped within a cocoon of buffs and scarves. A boater stumbles to his neighbour’s with a cup of tea. A woodpecker vibrates against a tree. Birds emerge to chatter in the hedgerows.
The dawn begins its slow burn, a blooming of orange radiating from the eastern horizon, with the colours dissolving into the rapidly lightening sky. The sun wrestles itself free of the horizon to look me in the eye.
The miles pass slowly as tyres stutter over stones and mud sucks at progress. I rumble ever eastward as the canal steadily rises through the locks into Wiltshire. Here, with mudguards clogged, I leave the river to its meandering course and seek out the predictability of tarmac.
At the height of the day the sky shines like glass, the winter sun slowly arcing close to the earth, white and crisp. The moon is chalky now, the crescent adjusting its angle as the sun tracks through the sky. Coal tits and finches flash across the road as though fired from one hedgerow to the next. A red kite fans its tail above my head and starlings rise in one cacophonous cloud. The glint of an aeroplane tears at the blue like scissors to paper.
The freeze has lingered, puddles lying solid in the shade of the bushes. At the crook of a hill, a ford covers the dip, a previous visitor having piled the ice to the side in giant slabs – thank goodness, as an ice rink on the descent could have meant a nasty end to my adventure. The lanes are a delight, unfolding through farmland and climbing up tree-lined avenues where leafless branches bristle in the cold.
By nightfall I am still riding, the sunset having long since stained the horizon. In the sky are a thousand other suns, some fiercely shining, some so faint they appear as dust. The quiet of the road is interrupted as motor vehicles pass, their lights glaring on the tarmac. I had hoped to be there by now, but the slow drag along the towpath, the zig-zag country lanes, a constant headwind and my heavy panniers have elongated the ride. Not that I mind; the steady spin of the bicycle is how I choose to travel, and to see the day pass through every stage has been a privilege.
London is within touching distance: planes hang in the sky awaiting their arrival into Heathrow, and the glow of the city scars the horizon. Tomorrow I will reach the Thames which will draw me into the glorious madness of the capital. It already feels like another world, the gentle canal and the endless plains of the morning. The plod continues towards my overnight stop, the land steadily morphing beneath my wheels, and though tired, cold and hungry, there is a smile on my face. The prosecco can wait. This is the time to see the world.