My alarm rang at 6.32am as it does every other Saturday and I jumped out of bed. I didn’t need to build up any motivation to go to work that day. It was the 21st of June – the longest day of the year – and come five o’clock I would be riding outside of London in search of a carefully chosen distant hill to sleep on.
I ate my usual breakfast before turning to writing but my mind was not up to the task and soon I abandoned my keyboard to pack my bags. My bike was quickly ready and I set off to work. It was still early and I pedaled slowly, stretching the ride as much as possible and feeling the comfortable weight of my bags pushing me down the hills.
Work passed in a blur of boredom and it was with relief that I locked the doors and engaged the first pedal stroke pushing me away from the library. I had carefully planned directions in my pocket but for this part of the journey I did not need to follow them. I know my borough well enough to navigate out of it. Half an hour later I was out of London, the M25 crossed and left behind to enclose the city away from me. I tried to follow my route, navigating nameless roads with the help of my compass but it was a hopeless effort. I was soon lost. I should have known better than to follow a list of directions. I have so far never been able to stick to a plan unless I was following a river. I tidied the papers away, gripping my compass instead. I simply needed to head north and slightly west towards Luton.
I kept on pedalling, the names on road signs familiar sounds from countless waiting hours on train platforms. I didn’t want to meet them but ended up finding my way into their labyrinth. I had set off with dreams of countryside, sprawling fields and small lanes but was greeted with endless connected cities unsure of where they started and ended. I pedaled harder, trying to escape their claws through their quieter streets. It was only three hours later that I finally reached the countryside I was seeking. It was not the relief I had imagined it would be. The sun was getting low and I still had to bypass Luton before I could contemplate a sight of my hill.
I gulped down a few sweets hoping they would quench my growing hunger and would give me the power I needed to keep going for another hour. In truth I did not know how far I was from Luton, British road signs ever reluctant to announce a distance. But I felt it couldn’t be that far now. It was only when I stumbled upon the cycle route 6 that I finally found out I was close to my goal. Luton was only two and a half miles away. I could finally relax. A new burst of energy rose in me as I left the busy roads and entered the small shaded trail.
My hill and its views felt so very close but not even a mile into the cycle path my bike started to wobble and I had to pedal harder to make any progress. I wanted to ignore the problem, to think that the dirt road was the explanation but I knew deep down that this was not the truth. I got off the saddle and sure enough the back tyre was starting to deflate. I cursed it, my gaze lingering from my watch to the tyre and finally the trail leading off to my hill. The distance between its view and me was suddenly expanding. I wanted to keep going but I was beaten and would have to settle with what I had around me. I took a deep breath and surveyed my surroundings. There was only a slope sheltering the cycle path with its young trees. It appeared a decent wild camping spot that could hide me from curious eyes but there was a fence running alongside it and I did not fancy managing it with my bike. So I decided to walk back to the road that had led me here. I remembered seeing empty fields and I hoped one of them would offer me a bed for the night.
I didn’t need to go so far. As I reached the end of the track, the fence disappeared and I could see made up steps of mud leading up to the trees. I did not hesitate for a second and climbed up to investigate. As I had thought the incline offered me with a perfect spot. I carried my gears up and settled into a corner protected by trees and small bushes. My views were completely shadowed by the young trees in bloom but it didn’t matter much any longer. My thoughts drifted to the food and book I had packed with me, conjuring up pictures of the evening to come but I was soon brought back to reality by a long forgotten buzzing. My eyes opened wide in shock a split second before I saw my first glimpse of a mosquito heading straight for my exposed skin. I swished it away and hurriedly covered myself up. Nothing was going according to plan on this microadventure.
Covered from head to toe, I spent my time gesturing the small beasts away from me and stirring my meal, preparing myself for an uncomfortably warm night buried deep into my sleeping bag. Dinner ready I gulped it down before sliding into my bag, any prospects of reading discarded. I closed my eyes and hoped for sleep.
I drifted off for a little while but was soon awakened by renewed attacks from the mosquitoes. I cursed under my breath and pulled the hood of my sleeping bag further down my face hoping it would fool the mosquitoes away. It didn’t and the game continued on for what felt like hours until the flying beasts seemed to grow bored and finally left me alone. My ears cherished the disappearance of the constant buzzing that had assailed them and I started to doze off only to be woken up by the sounds of mice scrounging for a meal and a couple of night birds that had decided to have a domestic scene on the exact night I was here. I closed my eyes, pretending the cries of the birds and the small paws of the mice were a sweet lullaby and eventually fell asleep. When next I open my eyes dawn came as a surprise. I slowly pulled the hood of my sleeping bag away from my head, not quite believing the stillness and silence of the world surrounding me.
My eyes were drowsy, my face puffed out and my body sweaty but in that instant it did not matter. The world was peaceful and mine alone to enjoy. Mist was covering it in a soft acoustic blanket that seemed to have quieten the frenzy of the animal world. I drank in the surrounding sights through the gaps of the trees as I got breakfast ready – a squashed banana and croissant to dip into delicious chestnut spread accompanied by an herbal tea. As I was enjoying my luxurious meal, I heard the first note of a harmonica. It was a beautiful tune that seemed to be emanating from the landscape itself matching its beauty and peacefulness. I listened to it quietly, closing my eyes every now and again to let the music sip into me. When it ended I tried to find the musician but he remained invisible and I could only send him my quiet thanks hoping it would reach his ears.
I tidied my gears, removing any evidence of my stay. Back on the cycle path, I fixed my puncture and rode back to London. I was glad to start the journey along country lanes but too soon I had to manoeuvre the endless cities. They were silent, people still fast asleep and businesses closed, but they still made me pedal harder in eagerness to reach home. I did not understand the excitement rising in me at the idea of entering the M25 but as I crossed its circle and reached Enfield it all made sense. I was greeted by endless fields, bushes and remnants of a forest long since destroyed. The countryside I had yearned for had been there all along, waiting on my doorstep. In my hurry to leave London to find a fantasised world I had forgotten how rural my own London borough can be. Next time, I would not need to try so hard to escape the city. I would only need to glance at my backyard.