A withering easterly wind hammers into me as I drag my overweight body up towards the airport, a fluorescent orange windsock straining out towards me like a mocking finger pointing out my weakness. Turning towards the terminal building and following the lane to Westcott there is at least a little shelter from the structures erected as part of the airport complex. To the left, an array of fuel containers displays the strangely appealing pattern of razorwire loops on their surface, cast as pin sharp shadows from the still rising sun. To the right an old FlyBe sign proclaims an outbuilding to be ‘The ORB’, and as I cast it an amused glance I am delighted to note that the blue sky above it is appropriately filled with little fluffy clouds scudding swiftly westwards.
For the first time in many months I venture to the edges of the Blackdown Hills and torture my legs with the 20% stretches of climb through Knowles Wood. Passing through the village of Blackborough my mind boggles at the wisdom of some newly built extension on a bungalow which inexplicably seems to have installed expansive picture windows, only to block the magnificent views across the valley with an impenetrable hedge. It strikes me as a classic example of the English obsession with privacy driven to an end of self-inflicted harm.
Leaving Blackborough I decide to try the fork marked ‘Ashill’ and almost immediately wish I hadn’t, as the winter’s weather has washed away most of the surface, leaving potholes and gravel strewn everywhere. For much of its length too the lane is simply a stream, as the runoff from the fields finds the line of least resistance down to the valley floor. At least the sun is shining now, and at one point the junction between Winter and Spring is perfectly captured across two sides of the lane. To the east a fallen tree sits forlornly atop a boundary bank, whilst to the west the lane is topped with clusters of daffodils turning their faces to the sun. I pause for photographs, say hello to the sheep in the field beyond, and turn my wheels back into the wind.
After the wild winds of the weekend today is calm, sunny and almost warm. For the first time since the bizarre mildness of the first week of January I have shed the woollen gloves and am back to leather track mitts. Turning southwards again I head towards the coast, this time down through the delicious gloom of Dark Lane to the seafront at Budleigh. Standing quietly at the edge of Marine Parade walkway, with one foot clipped into the pedals, I consume a caramel flapjack and gaze out at the flat expanse of water. The Union flag here hangs listless and limp and I hear a few passing locals mutter grumpily about the ‘no cycling’ signs as they pass me by. I smile in the sunbeams and ponder how sorrowful life must be if that is all one can think about in the face of this oncoming Spring.
If the Shipping Forecast were to describe the conditions today it would likely be something along the lines of ‘Southerly, strengthening South Easterly. Gales’ I think I’m canny in riding with a side wind most of the way down to Tipton St John and then taking as much shelter from Harpford Woods up the climb to Woods Farm. Conditions on the prom at Sidmouth suggest that it was indeed a good call, as the wind, now coming straight in off the Channel, is in danger of blowing my bicycle over as it rests against the cast iron railing. I hold it in place with one hand and quickly down the double espresso I’ve picked up from the mercifully reopened ‘Summer Cafe’ kiosk. Stupidly, I ask for it ‘to go’, as if there were some secret underground extension to the kiosk stretching beneath the car park. On the corner opposite, a Ukraine flag has replaced the Union Jack outside the Bedford Hotel, its almost rigid appearance promising me a delicious tailwind home.
Ever since the ‘main’ road through to Marsh Green was closed for resurfacing a few months back, I’ve taken to riding up to the Quartermile crossroads via Silver Lane. It’s a quiet route dotted with just a few cottages and farmyards where the mud has thankfully now mostly dried to dust. Today, just out of Rockbeare, I pass a young man walking into the village. He is oblivious to me or to anything else, his ears not only plugged with headphones but also eyes fixed imperviously to whatever is happening on the screen that he holds up close to his face. I can understand the impulses of young people to escape from the ravages of the everyday world into whatever electronic realms might be available to them, but it still feels like such a sadness to willingly cut oneself off from the environment in this way. As I negotiate the bend at Little Silver, guiding my wheels between the potholes and gravel, a little cluster of marigolds cheer me from the bank and a blackbird darts ahead of me before quickly slipping back over the hedgerow.
I have ridden up or down the old Talaton Road more times than I care to remember. In recent years I have watched the ‘Sunny View’ farm house slide slowly into a state of decay, its once bright facade sinking into darkness behind the encroaching tendrils of nature. I’ve come to wonder recently if it is even still inhabited, and whilst once, some six months ago, I noted its gate (with barely legible name plate) open, this might only have been for access to the myriad of collapsing barns clustered in the grounds. Today, however, entry is very definitely blocked, as the tree that once flanked the entrance has fallen almost perfectly across the driveway. How many more years can this strange gem of deterioration hang on for before it is either redeveloped as a quaint holiday retreat for the wealthy or reclaimed entirely by the landscape around it?
The past two and a half weeks have had as much impact on my fitness as they have on the landscape. As I struggle to haul my wheezing body up every tiny incline, the countryside shows the ravages of three Atlantic storms in the shape of innumerable felled trees in the fields and the gutters of the lanes. Nowhere is it more apparent than outside West Hill, where a fallen tree must clearly have closed the entire road. To the south lies its massive lower trunk, resting on saplings crushed in its descent. To the north sit the remnants of its upper branches, detached like a severed hand with its fingers picked clean to the bone reaching forlornly to the void.
With the road into Marsh Green still closed, I once again ride along Silver Lane and as a light aircraft passes close overhead, for the first time I realise just how close I am to the eastern end of the runway at Exeter airport. Over the barren hedgerow a string of green lights shine like gaudy baubles as the airplane lands gently before immediately accelerating and lifting once more into the air. Watching its training exercise of circles and bumps takes me back in time and space to a Prestwick of my childhood and an almost certainly false memory of when the Monkton Road still crossed between similar landing lights at the western end of the runway and traffic was held up by a level crossing as the aircraft lumbered in and out.
After a week away in Scotland and the recurrence of Back Issues, I approach my first ride in two weeks with a degree of trepidation. Fortunately the weather is unseasonably mild and the north westerly breeze as barely noticeable as the small amount of pain that emanates from my right side. It may be only psychological, but it feels as though the pedalling action eases the tightness and I feel very pleased to be out in the Devon lanes again. They may be treacherously slick with mud, but their familiarity brings a vast amount of solace.
In the fields above Columbjohn where the road is red with a skim of rich Devon soil, the farmer has stacked plastic wrapped bales. From afar the pale green bales interspersed with the black make the stacks look like some mad rural game of Wordle where the answer must always be ‘tractor’.
It’s already two months since I’ve ventured along the Lowman valley. The last time I was here the leaves were falling like bronze confetti; today the trees are bare and the freshly cut hedges catch the weak January sun like spiky flat tops. This lack of coverage means the vistas are even finer, and over on my right I glimpse a body of water that I learn later is called simply ‘The Lake’. Further investigations suggests it is likely at least in part the result of a flooded quarry. At Dog Down Cross the wind whips in from the North East, blasting the already decayed signpost whose fingers pointing to Bampton, Clayhanger, Hockworthy and Ashbrittle are barely legible under their layers of lichen. Meanwhile the finger that should point down the valley to Huxham is lost entirely, though whether this is the result of the ravages of time or vandalism by locals looking to confuse tourists is anyone’s guess.