Wednesday, April 18, 2012

My journey, diverted.

Spring is well and truly here and it is good. It is my first real spring in 10 years. Nothing compares to an English spring, certainly nothing in the tropics where temperature variations are less extreme and the trees hold their leaves year round. The sight of bright green leaves fresh from their buds, unsullied by life's travails never fails to inspire me, as does ancient woodland carpeted with bluebells for a few short weeks in April and May. Visiting as I did in the summers, I had not seen daffodils or bluebells in ten years.

Spring is not the only thing that is here. Rosey is here now too. For the first three weeks she was here, the weather was consistently warm and sunny - with the occasional fog to be burnt off in the morning. So England chose to give her an unrealistic first impression. This has been put right since, at least as far as temperature is concerned, but there have still been few April showers. I hope the weather holds out and gives us a glorious summer, whatever the effect on the lawns and gardens of England.

I cycled home from Shoreham today, taking the Old Shoreham Road around the back of Portslade and Hove to where Dyke Road intersects the bypass. There, I had the choice of whether to go down Mill Road and come straight home up the A23, or to take a longer route via Saddlescombe and Poynings. It's an area that has significant meaning for me, having spent a lot of my formative years building camps in the woods, drinking illicit beers and lighting fires on which we exploded full cans of WD40 (highly flammable aerosol lubricant) and second world war era machine gun bullets we'd found in The Dyke, which was then a military firing range. I occasionally return there, not just because of its personal meaning, but because it is an area of outstanding natural beauty with commanding views across the Weald of Sussex.

So, by the time I reached the junction the decision had already been made subconsciously, regardless of going through the motions. I was going the long route (neurological research suggests that the brain has made decisions before people are consciously aware of it). A few hundred metres later, I had the second decision of whether to ride to the top of the Dyke, or continue straight along the road leading through The Downs to Saddlescombe and Poynings on the far side. There was no going back at this point and I decided to ride on to the top, further diverting from the direct route home. It was a good day for it and when I reached the ridge from where the escarpment drops away to The Weald below, I was not disappointed by what John Constable described as "the grandest view in the world".

From this point, the sensible option for me on my touring bike would be to follow the road that returns to the through route. But I'd already set a precedent for being further distracted and I wasn't going to miss the opportunity to revisit the V shaped cleave in the Downs that is Devil's Dyke.

Devil's Dyke is said to be a trench dug by The Devil with the intention of drowning the God-fearing people of Sussex. God, in his wisdom, gave The Devil one night in which to dig his trench from the sea to The Weald. However an early rising old maid in Poynings lit a candle before dawn, fooling The Devil into thinking his time was up and sending him scuttling off to wherever it is he scuttles off to. So much for the fiendishly clever fallen angel.

In reality, Rick Santorum not withstanding, the Dyke was formed by a combination of thawing snow and running water over 10000 years ago and it is now the longest and deepest dry valley in the UK. More recently, the area around The Dyke has been the site of a funicular railway rising 100m from the village at its foot, a standard gauge railway from Brighton and a cable car crossing the valley.

After the first few metres, the middle of the valley is not enormously steep, but steep and bumpy enough to be riding constantly on my brakes. It would have been a lot of fun on a bike that was designed for that kind of thing.

It took another couple of diversions before I finally made my way home, including a visit to my grandfather's grave for what must be the first time in well over 10 years. It was hard to find the headstone in what is an unfamiliar graveyard and when I did, it was hard to make out the writing beneath the lichen that has colonised it. Life has moved in and moved on in the 25 years it has been there just as the natural processes made the Dyke over time. We return, less frequently over time, but still maintaining the link to our past.

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