A wee birthday burl around the lanes leads me once again through Bradninch on my way home. Up past The Duke’s House I pass an old Trabant, daubed in tones of green. Across its bonnet is painted a rudimentary facsimile of the Cerne Abbas Giant, mercifully sans appendage.
The air is still filled with chill, but the sun is tricking some into believing that warmer days are coming. In the Lower Comberoy copse I spy the first blanket of Bluebells, whilst over the Killerton Clump floats the first hot air balloon flight of the season. It advertises Bath Gin, another hopeful cipher for a brighter future.
Up out of Tipton St John on the way to Sidmouth, just past the sign advertising fish and chips at the Golden Lion, the road kicks up to a 13%. I flip down the gears and pass a woman pushing an old Dawes ladies tourer, attached to which is a trailer carrying what looks like a Christmas tree. We wheeze a brief ‘hello’ to each other as I ride past, each bent to our task. At the top of the hill the landscape opens out and the road passes between two fields, each filled with Donkeys enjoying the sunshine. I think of my dad and how much he would have loved to see this.
In Sidmouth a couple of girls splash into the sea wearing summer bathing costumes. I sit on my bicycle on the prom, still dressed in winter cycling kit. I am not warm.
A fine coating of Saharan dust speckles the cars and vans that pass and sit idly in their driveways. Outside Feniton station a teenager stands in short shorts and a cropped top, determined to exploit the sunshine at all costs. The cost must surely be exposure, for as the biting North Easterly whips into me I for one am thankful for merino gloves and skull cap.
The sun that bathes the Farringdon fields has just enough sparkle of warmth to it that one might almost believe Spring is arriving. However, two hours later as I ride into a biting headwind past the sweet scent of cowsheds up to Frogmore Cross, a fusillade of hailstones assaulting my face proves that Nature will always have a trick up its sleeve. The sound of the tiny white spheres striking the steel tubes of my bicycle sound like airgun pellets on tin cans.
The milder weather continues today and the earth seems to open itself gently in appreciation. Riding out of Marsh Green I pass clumps of snowdrops, tiny hooded sentinels of the approaching light. On a gate post a Buzzard lazily gathers up its wings and flies.
After what feels like weeks of an eternal cold that has blasted the ground to a bleak wasteland, some mildness arrives to cheer the spirit. In Rewe, I pass a young woman jogging along the footpath, pushing a pram filled with what I assume are twins and followed close behind by a small cocker spaniel, ears flapping wildly. All four appear to be enjoying the morning enormously.
The cold has kept me indoors for too long, so I venture out regardless and enjoy the harshness of the winter. Past the riding school at Crabhayes a poodle is getting some exercise, wrapped up tight in a bright pink onesie, its paws erupting like furry pompoms.
A hard frost has left a film of ice across the shaded parts of the lane out of the village and so I think perhaps I ought to stay on the gritted main road. However, by the time I reach Rewe, barely 2km into the ride, I am already tired of the traffic, still frustratingly plentiful, and turn up a never before ridden lane that climbs, eventually, to Bradninch. From here I turn into familiar back roads that nevertheless appear remarkable in their newness for being travelled in the opposite direction. Towards Langford the road skirts the forested copse at Paradise, and on the rolling lower slopes I see a wintering orchard, the trees no more than evenly spaced marks, like a Ravillious pattern in a landscape.
Throughout 2020 I rode Rockbeare Hill many times, always going straight on up for the final steep kick to the West Hill ridge. Today I decide to avoid the kick and take the New Road that leads through one of those unexpected industrial complexes that are often hidden in the depths of our picturesque countryside. On the right, concrete bunkers of gravel and the peculiarly titled ‘materials laboratory’ of the Devon County Council. On the left, a sign announces ‘Weighbridge’ in a marvellous serif typeface in two tones of blue, whilst a smaller bright yellow modern plaque warns us the dangers of quarry workings, ponds and quicksand. For a moment I feel like I have been transported to a 1970s Public Information film.