I’ve previously written here about cycling to work in Oxford from a home base in Hackney, north-east London. I waxed lyrical about the size of Beaconsfield’s vicarage, the beauty of the Ridgeway, and the rich ecclesiastical patronage that laces the route.
Last week, I set myself the task of cycling from London to Oxford in the morning, undertaking some work for Oxford Today, and then cycling back to London that evening — a journey of about 218km (135 miles). For the work element, I decided that I would pay a visit to an eminent philosopher . . . the only catch being that I would need to punt five kilometres up the Thames to reach him.
I arrived in Oxford by 10am, having left home at the stroke of 6am. The legendary inaugural editor of Oxford Today, Christina Hardyment, then accompanied me to her camping punt, Dulcibella, afloat for the first time after a long winter in dry dock. We proceeded upstream, raising ourselves at a lock and then making slow progress against current and wind, until we reached a friend’s house beyond Bablockhythe.
En route we grabbed on to a willow tree and drank a miniature Buck’s Fizz to celebrate the spring. All the way along we were flanked by skipping lambs, and at some points there were no traces of modernity whatsoever. We could have been in any century, which is one of the features of the Thames that will be celebrated in Christina’s forthcoming book about the river.
Upstream of Oxford, the river is so often neglected historically, yet in many ways the best section, being the most intricate and least navigated. After mooring, we secured a lift to Cumnor from a friend, and there paid a visit to the great Oxford intellectual and French philosopher Theodore Zeldin, to discuss his new book, The Hidden Pleasures of Life: A New Way of Remembering the Past and Imagining the Future. Already published in French, it will soon come out in English. A review will be forthcoming in Oxford Today.
After a wonderful cup of tea provided by Theodore, who being French had a perfectly straightforward comprehension of cycling, I jumped back on my bike and retraced my route to London. Contrary to expectation, instead of getting horrible, the ride seemed to open up into itself, into the hinterland of long distance that for so long I had only been able to imagine. Instead of worrying Would I be up to this? everything seemed to resolve around I am doing this. I constantly reminded myself that pain is more imaginary than real, as told by Oxford researcher Lauren Heathcote.
As the steep climb to Christmas Common began after Watlington, I heard the red kites mewing and crying above me. Suddenly, one of them came streaking across my path, mere metres away, pursued by another. As it passed me, the first kite confusedly dropped a baby rabbit right on the road beside me. It landed with a light thud.
The rabbit was dead, and a piece of its pelt had already been torn aside, the resulting bare patch glistening, the colour of rosewater. The two assailants then wheeled up and around, clashing talons in mid-air. It was the sound of this that struck me. It sounded like they were doing battle with plastic chopsticks, a sharp yet dull series of clicks. Then they were gone, and I was left alone to continue my slow ascent.
Conditions were fortuitous, with a following wind. As the light faded at Stokenchurch, I descended at great speed, my lights now on. Out of High Wycombe I stopped for a sandwich at the Esso garage, to take stock. In all honesty, there wasn’t much traffic. From there, it was on into the night with an improving wind at my back. All the roads across London seemed empty and the route I have long learned through Maida Vale, Harrow and Harlesden was swift. I was home by 10.15, and it was over. After a beer, I slept well.
Red kite © Marilyn Barbone / Shutterstock.