I stretch lazily in bed, happy that I do not have to go to work this morning. It’s Saturday and I have the entire day to myself. I glance through the window, the sun is already shining in a clear blue sky. The weather man had not lied for once. This is going to be a hot day and I want to make the most of it. The only problem is that I have no idea what to do. All I know is that I do not want to remain in London. I gather my guidebooks and maps and start browsing. Instinctively I am drawn to the trails and footpaths of my OS Maps but they are too far north. Since I have moved south of the Thames, I do not want to explore more of Hertfordshire but find myself drawn to Surrey and Kent. I push the maps aside to find Lost Lanes by Jack Thurston under them and forget about my walking shoes. I flip the pages to the map and quickly settle for ride number 12, the Ripley road.
I pack my bag, pump up my tyres, and head to the train station. Less than an hour later I am standing in Woking. I grin like an idiot as I push on the pedal to propel me down White Rose Lane. It’s a long descent and I let gravity do the work for me. It’s good to be back on the saddle for the simple joy of it. My bike has been a mode of transportation and an occasional mule on market days lately. I had almost forgotten it was also an agent of discovery and freedom.
Wooden signs pass me by, tempting me into forests and fields but I resist. “Not today,” I whisper to myself. Today is about the wind in my hair and the speed of my wheels. But I am no match for the regular Saturday lycra cyclists. They whizz past me on their full-size bikes, half of them greeting me and exchanging a knowing smile. We might not look alike but we are both happier than the people passing us by in their cars.
As I steer into Pyford I spot a small church. I park my bike against a tree and walk to it. Churches in England are always so different to the ones I grew up with. In northern France they are never small and always cold from the grey of their stones but here they look like oversized cottages, drawing you in. As I get closer, I hear the notes of an organ and wonder if a mass is going on. I do not want to disturb the ceremony but it has been a long time since I’ve heard an organ played live. I open the door and I’m surprised to find the church empty of devotees. A single man is sitting at the keyboards, practicing his skills. I sit down and listen for a while as his notes resonate in the small building, encompassing my entire body in their melodies. After a few songs, I silently walk away, leaving a note of thanks in the guest book.
Back on the road, I cycle under canopies of trees, sheltering me from the rising heat of the day. I pass a few sleepy villages where shirtless men seem to have an agreement to all mow their lawns at the same time. As I cross Ripley, I briefly think of cyclists of an age long gone who had so enjoyed this part of the world*. I spot the Anchor and consider stopping there for lunch, but I have a sandwich in my bag and there is a forest ahead of me I want to explore. So I push on, I’ll raise a glass to history another time.
I arrive at Ockham Common, dismount from the bike and follow the signs to the Semaphore tower, ‘the last surviving tower in the line of signalling stations that stretched from the Admiralty in Whitehall to the Royal Naval Dockyard in Portsmouth’, reads the information panel. It stands proud in the thick of the forest, almost ready to report to duty should it be needed again. But it is only a museum piece now.
Lunch eaten, I walk back to the road, trying to spot a track in the woods to lead me to a footbridge to cross the sprawling A3 but I cannot find it. Defeated, I head for the A3 and pedal as fast as I can on the bumpy cycle track. I know I am safe on the segregated lane but the traffic feels unreal, like something from a science-fiction movie. This is all going too fast, too loud. The bridge appears not a second too early and I eagerly make my way to the other side. The noise soon fades and I am back in the quietness of English country lanes until I reach the jovial chatter of a busy pub by the River Wey.
I dismount and amble along the water joining families in their digestive walk. On the river, barges travel leisurely upstream, men sharing beers and steering at the back, while women chatter away the time at the front. Occasionally a lone stand up paddle boarder pass by barely leaving a ripple in his wake. I could wander until the end of the day but I soon find myself back on the road to Woking. So I jump on the saddle and slowly pedal back to the train station.
*In the 19th century, Ripley was the ‘Mecca of all good cyclists’, the police in Kingston Upon Thames reporting that 20,000 cyclists passed through en route to Ripley on Whit Sunday 1894 . Read more about it in this article by Carlton Reid.