It’s time for the annual musings known as Shadows and Reflections. Since so many of our lives were lived in thematic overlap in 2020, we’ve asked our contributors and friends to focus on the small, strange and specific as they look back over the last 12 months. Today it’s the turn of Alistair Fitchett.
A year of cycling the lanes of Mid and East Devon.
A New Year’s Day bike ride has been a fiercely held personal tradition ever since my friends appeared on my doorstep as 1983 dawned and we rode to an Ayrshire beach in a howling gale. This morning there are no gales, but a hard frost has left treacherous stretches of ice in the deep Devon lanes where sunlight rarely reaches. As I turn sharp left and the farm track rears up towards the Ashclyst Forest, the surface is almost entirely sheathed in a film of ice. The rear wheel slips helplessly and I’m forced to steer into the grass and broken stones of the verge. Rather a puncture than a tumble, I tell myself. Somewhere in the depths of the forest the plaintive call of an unidentified creature assures me that this is a good decision.
There may still be a chill wind blowing from the South East, but there is finally enough warmth in the sun to hatch the many bugs of an early Spring. At Knowle Cross I pass a young woman carefully plucking one of these bugs from her grandmother’s white hair as they take their daily exercise. They smile as I pass, hand raised in recognition of this shared fleeting moment of tenderness.
The biting easterlies of recent days have started swinging back into the south and a thin veil of warmth returns to the land. In the fields outside Hele a tractor traverses an expanse of red, the rattle and thrum of attachments hurling seeds into the maw of the earth. Clouds of dust rise in the breeze and suffocate the sky.
A plummet from Peak Hill and a bunny hop onto the prom. Sidmouth has never looked so quiet.
As is always the way my mind drifts to the first time I came to this place, some thirty years ago. I came to meet friends who were desperate to leave, whilst ironically I found in Devon a place to call home. Pedalling out of town I pass familiar road signs. Livonia Road. Primley Road. I think of the letters and tapes that travelled between here and Scotland a lifetime ago. Lifelines for me, certainly. An education.
In Sidbury the cream stone church crouches behind luxurious blossom. A red telephone box filled with books winks at me and I idly wonder if it contains a copy of The Warzone.
The land is waking all around me. In the orchards trees are heavy with blossom, whilst all along the verges cow parsley, dandelions and harebells wink and dance in the breeze. Along Allercombe Lane a hawthorn hedgerow is so heavy with flowers it looks as though it is covered in an unseasonable covering of snow. Beside the crackle and hum of power cables and pylons a different energy emanates from the earth: the shimmering lilac of a bluebell wood, in the midst of which stands an elderly couple rapt in silent reverie. In the dappled sunlight they appear almost wraith-like. I blink, and in a moment I am past.
It seems to me, in these moments of nature’s rebirth, that it might just be possible that those ‘dark satanic shopping centres’ could yet be crumbling to dust, their shadows reclaimed by the ancient natural magic. Wouldn’t it be pretty to think so.
At Feniton I start making things up as I go along. A sign pointing to ‘Curscombe’ leads down past the most ridiculously picturesque row of wisteria-clad cottages and I think, well, it would be rude not to. As the narrow road heads back northwards I tell myself it’ll be next right and right again and we’ll see where that takes us. Where it takes us is into Buckerell, where I pause to photograph its charming church. As I do so, a piercing cry breaks the silence and to my surprise a peacock struts out from behind the neatly tended gravestones, its lustrous chest as blue as the freshly shampooed sky.
Up above Tiverton, just by Seven Crosses, I pause and gaze down on the valley. To the north I can see the golf ball at the top of Three Gate’s Hill glinting in the sunlight whilst down below me, nestled beside a copse of trees, sits an ochre brick cottage relishing its isolation. Later I discover that the valley road has reopened and that this detour across country will no longer be necessary. I set a mental reminder to follow the lesser trodden lanes regardless.
Thunder storms have cleansed the air, leaving it freshly laundered and sharp to taste. Climbing towards home I ride through the luxurious depths of the Ashclyst forest once again, where the still dampened track spits mud on my legs and unknown birds cackle in the hidden, endless depths of shadow.
There has always been something quaintly ludicrous about English schools having ‘summer’ holidays when they do. I am reminded of this peculiarity today when, riding out of Tipton St John towards the coast at Sidmouth, a horse-chestnut falls from an overhanging bough and clatters off my helmet. Later too, at the end of my ride passing Dane’s Wood, a tractor ploughs a recently harvested field, turning the earth back to the deep Devon red. Once again it feels like summer is departing just as ‘summer’ begins.
A quick blast this afternoon to loosen the legs, up again past the giant LOVE to glimpse the magical Raddon Tree in its solitary summit splendour. Such simple things that give us succour.
A day of smells today. At the edge of Ashcylst forest, as I hunker down beneath an oak tree to escape the rain as thunder peals overhead, it is the stench of cow manure from the farm next door. At the Salcombe Regis Thorn it is the simultaneously sweet and bitter scent of freshly hewn wood drifting over from the enormous (and no doubt quite aged) tree that is in the process of being felled in the garden of ‘Sunnydale’. Finally there is the scent of Seaton: as I climb up out of town on the road to Beer there comes on the air the unmistakable aroma of Generic English Curry, wafting gently on the south easterly breeze from the town below.
Strong, blustery westerlies push heavy clouds swiftly across the skies. In Aylesbeare and Marsh Green the annual scarecrow festivals are in place and I cannot resist the temptation to stop and photograph one dressed in what appears to be an England soccer outfit. At first glance it appears to be grotesquely strung up on a makeshift gallows, like some morbidly apt metaphor for our times.
There is all kinds of Bank Holiday weekend fun in evidence up at Dunkeswell today. As well as the usual gliders being towed up into the sky, there is a field filled with horse boxes and small ponies trotting around like something out of a Norman Thelwell book of comic illustrations. Innumerable signs dotted along the lanes suggest this is the advertised Fun Ride. Meanwhile, up above, spots of bright colour whirl and swoop as parachutists cascade like petals in the wind.
Farmers are out with their contraptions, cutting back the hedgerows. As I ride past the old Folly End farm shop the cacophony on the other side of the dense green barrier sounds like a multitude of angry hornets.
#85 (The End)
The roads are slick with mud and mulchy leaves. Take care, I tell myself. Don’t catch a brake, I remind my gloved fingers.
In the appropriately named Ratsloe, barely 2km into the ride, my hands ignore all advice and before I know it I am colliding with the ground. Hip, back and ribs bear the brunt and I lie for a moment in the middle of the road, swearing loudly. A kindly lady emerges from a house on the corner and asks if I need help. Somewhat grimly I smile and say no, no, I’ll be fine.
For a moment the adrenaline surge and my pride harangue me to carry on, to get back on and Ride It Out. Sense of a sort prevails, however, and I limp home, gingerly avoiding any lumps on the road as even the slightest shock sends tremors through my chest.
Later I lie on the sofa and feel my ribs move beneath the cushion. The pain makes me nauseous. I accept the inevitable and surrender myself to the mildly hallucinogenic succour of drugs.