I let cowardice get the better of me today. I have a 14 mile round trip on a Friday to one of my schools. The problem was that it had been raining, more rain looked to be in the air, it was dark and dank and dismal and that was at about 2 in the afternoon. I took the car.
It normally takes me about 40 minutes in each direction to do that ride. Today, in the car, it took me 30 minutes on the way out and 39 on the way back so I gained myself 11 minutes, spent a lot on petrol, polluted the atmosphere and, when I got back, I realised that I would now have to go on another ride to compensate for the one I hadn’t done.
That extra ride was my normal pootle, about 17 miles of sea front, barracks turned up-market housing estate, a couple of villages, and a couple of unlit rural roads punctuated by withered flowers tied to telegraph poles, the tell-tale sign round these parts of boy racers doomed to race no more. But tonight it was far from normal. For one thing, the wind was stronger than I can remember when doing that particular route; and the rain which had threatened to come this afternoon arrived in earnest this evening.
Southend is an odd town. The bits for which it is noted, the tat and tack associated with the sea front, nestle cheek-by-jowl with a different world. A wild, windswept world of wading birds and weapons testing. Tonight, that sinister world, a cross between Charles Dickens and H. G. Wells with some George Orwell thrown in for good measure, flexed its muscles just to let the fragile cyclist know who was boss. Tonight, there were waves.
Real waves are rare in Southend. For one thing, half the time the water is more than a mile away. When the tide does come in, there is such a wide expanse of flat mud that the water is too shallow for proper waves to find their way to the shore. Being an estuary, and an east-facing one at that, the Thames is well sheltered from the prevailing wind. But tonight the waves were pounding the shore as though they meant it, and by the time I got to East Beach, the point at which the river hands over to the North Sea, they were doing a passable impression of the Atlantic at Rhosili.
Whereas my sea-front ride had been subjected to a cross-wind, now I had turned the corner the wind was behind me. I freewheeled on a flat road and accelerated as I did so, suddenly scattering a flock of wading birds who were sheltering in the car park. Parts of the Essex Coast are really little bits of Siberia which got lost, and this ride took me back to a couple of years ago when I took part in the Wetlands Bird Survey, trying to make a not totally wild guess at the numbers of each different species which were out on the mud. When there’s a flock of about 10,000 medium-sized nondescript grey wading birds a quarter of a mile away on the mud and the wind is blowing so strongly that your tripod keeps falling over, how can you honestly tell the ratio of knots to grey plovers?
But I digress. Tonight, I disturbed some small waders as I rode through the middle of them, and their eery cries were all around me as they took flight, unseen ghosts in the unremitting darkness. Then, fleetingly, I was back in civilisation as I came across a dog-walker and his pooch, both struggling against the rigours of advancing age and a force 8.
Heading out towards Wakering, the wind was with me and I thought of Clarion’s lovely description of wheels on a wet road, and mine positively sung as I sped along. Past a couple of pubs, heaving with Friday night, another deserted and in darkness, and soon I was past Barling Church and on Mucking Hall Road. I should have had this to myself, and mostly I did, but there was one vehicle in particular which caught the eye, for all the wrong reasons. What does a new Range Rover with a registration number of X 1 RR tell you about its owner?
The rain was heavier now, and I stopped to put my waterproof on, keeping my glasses perched on the end of my nose so that I could see over the top of them. Straight into the wind I rode, struggling to keep my speed above 8 miles per hour. There is one short stretch of respite, as the winding Shopland Road turns north and has a slight downhill. We’ve had the tandem over 25 mph on that stretch, but tonight I settled for about 18, savouring the last bit of wind assistance I would receive before heading south again along Sutton Road and the final two-mile slog home to fresh coffee.