“Why do this?” is nicely ambiguous as I’m trying to write something both about why I’m doing the cycle ride and also about why I’m creating this mix of site and blog. Without the ride there’d be no account so let’s start there.
Why the ride?
I’ve said a bit about autobiographical, personal historical, roots in my first blog post but that doesn’t really unpick the motivations nor does it address the timing which is that doing it on giving up clinical work, a sort of retirement step. I always planned that it would happen “when I retire” but retiring turns out to be more complex than I’d thought as I’m only retiring from clinical work and very much continuing with my research/academic work. I do intend to have a bit more of the week for pleasure when I return. However, my family would say, with some accuracy, “Oh, so you’ll take a day off perhaps some weekends!” They’re almost right: actually I intend to have at least one week day every week not for work: exhibitions in London are much less crowded on weekdays!
I’m dodging this explaining. This has always been about an experience that would have a meaning to it. I always thought it would have something that, for all that I’ve loved my work, working hadn’t. I’m agnostic: I have never had a clear conviction of religious belief or of there being “other powers” so this isn’t a traditional pilgrimage in the traditions that are strong particularly in Christianity and Islam. I’m not an atheist: I don’t feel I know that there is no system of belief that might be “right”, I don’t think I can know there is no “other power” and I have a lot of respect for the way religion and strong spiritual belief work for some people and seem to empower them to do good. However, I also fear and loathe the way that such belief almost as often seems to inspire people to hatred, contempt and rejection of other people and drives them to do horrific things.
So this isn’t a religious pilgrimage but, whereas I don’t have a religion, I have always felt a deep pleasure in both the natural and the creative worlds: I can get a huge mood lift from seeing a heron overhead perhaps while making my way through London traffic, or from a goldfinch coming to the food I put out in our back garden. Birds are the domain of the natural world I know best: I do know a bit about non-avian European mammals, I can recognise some UK/European trees but there are many I don’t know and I’m pretty hopeless at smaller plants and the entire fish and insect realms. I was a keen birdwatcher for a few years in my young adolescence. With two friends I went out in the fields and woods around Leamington Spa with trusty binoculars and inconspicuous, dull coloured clothes. I was never a twitcher: moving far to see a rare bird seemed wrong to me, and to miss the point. However, I remember an incredible surge of excitement when we saw a waxwing one very cold day. There was a surge of pleasure in knowing what this exotic thing was, that it was just sitting on a very ordinary field gate but sort of blessing us with its rarity and the fact that it had probably come a long way from somewhere much colder to give us the minutes we had before it flew off. However, fairly regular sightings had something almost as special a thrill: kingfishers, those wonderful herons, the three main UK woodpeckers, treecreepers, nuthatches. Even good minutes watching a robin or a wren could be calm and special.
Working hard pretty much from medical student days to now, and living in London for most of that time, I’ve felt I’ve sacrificed the opportunity for much of that simple pleasure in nature and it feels time to get (back) to that.
So part of the logic of this trip has always been about having the time to really savour it as nature rolls by as the speed it does when you’re 59 and pedalling a moderately laden bike. So far I’ve seen egrets, a peregrine at Canterbury cathedral, buzzards, one very near flying, one equally near sitting imperiously on a fence post by the road, and throughout there have been swooping swallows galore. However, this isn’t an ornithology trip, it’s just as good to have felt the ground changing, the configuration of woodland and river with the millennia of erosion and human intervention that have shaped them as they are. And there is a huge satisfaction to be moving through all this under my own steam. Some of that is simple pleasure to have no window between me and what I’m passing, something is the satisfaction that I can still move a bike a fair way in a day but slowly enough to take things in.
Then there’s spiritual pleasure in human creativity: particular foci are the cathedrals and churches and I’m sure part of that is that they have spiritual meaning for people and have had sometimes for over a thousand years. However, there’s also pleasure in the engineering skill that created the canals and the simple aesthetic touches in even quite small cottages: often in the gables and the moulding: a sort of statement of being able to do something that is pure decoration but in no way detracts from the functionality, the often obviously efficient logic of the building.
Ah but those cathedrals and churches … hm, I’ll move on to them next in the next instalment of “Why do this?” To be continued.