The skills of exploration

Bicycling and walking offer unique entry into exploration itself. Landscape, the built environment, ordinary space that surrounds the adult explorer, is something not meant to be interpreted, to be read, to be understood. Unlike almost everything else to which adults turn there attention, the concatenation of natural and built form surrounding the explorer is fundamentally mysterious and often maddeningly complex. Exploring it first awakens the dormant resiliency of youth, the easy willingness to admit to making a wrong turn and going back a block, the comfortable understanding that some explorations take more than an afternoon, the certain knowledge that lots of things in the wide world just down the street make no immediate sense. But exploring not only awakens attitudes and skills made dormant by programmed education, jobs and the hectic daily dash from dry cleaner to grocery store to dentist. It sharpens the skills and makes explorers realize that all the skills acquired in the probing and poking at ordinary space, everything from noticing nuances in house paint to seeing. Great geographical patterns from a hilltop almost no one bothers to climb, are cross training for dealing with the vicissitudes of life. Exploring ordinary landscape sharpens all the skills of exploration.

Outside Lies Magic by John R. Stilgoe (pp. 10-11)

I read Outside Lies Magic a few months ago, but my mind kept returning to this quote. Stigloe nicely captures what I enjoy about cycling or walking. Spending time to take the what I’m passing, stopping occasionally to get a better look.

I used to spend weekends walking with some friends. I was always the laggard: looking at the way sewage pipes were integrated into a bridge, identifying a new plant of fungus I’d never seen. I must have driven them crazy.

This is what walking was about for me: not the rush to the end (though the inevitable beer at the pub was nice), but the discovery along the way. It was about learning something new, finding something I’d never seen before, solving a mystery.

I recently went on a hike with my young son. We were with a large group, and he was lagging behind. He’d learned to take time looking at what he was walking past. And yet on this hike I became frustrated with him, tried to rush him, tried to get him to keep up. This was a mistake. It’s one of those regrettable mistakes that you almost know you’re making as you’re in the act of doing it. Fortunately, my wife has more sense than I have. After a while, we simply stopped and had lunch on our own. We then resumed our usual pace of wandering and wondering, rather than pushing mindlessly and blindly on to the next point on the map.

I feel the same about cycling. I cycle home from the train station in the evenings. It’s become one of my favorite parts of the day. The thirty minutes or so that I cycle home are the only point in most of my days when I can take note of the changing position of the stars, the progression of plants that a growing in the verge or the birdsong that accompanies me on these ride. I’ve occasionally stopped (though not often enough) to examine a flower that I noticed as I passed or to get a better look at hard-to-see constellations on a moonless night.

I don’t think I’d make a very good road cyclist. The point seems to be to go as fast as possible. While I can understand the thrill of speed and the wind rushing past, I’m more drawn to exploring roadside mysteries than rushing past them.

I like to think that in doing this I’m honing what Stigloe calls the skills of exploration. I need more practice. I don’t stop often enough. I don’t take enough opportunities to explore. Having a six-year-old son helps, though I have to remember to follow his lead rather than expecting him to follow mine.

London to Brighton (again)

Saturday was a fantastic day. Sunshine. Not too hot. Not too cold. The perfect day for a bike ride. In fact, the ride had been planned for some time. Charlie, James and I cycled from London down to Brighton.

What a ride

It was a fantastic ride. My favorite part was Slugwash Lane, which is a typical English country lane. Hedgerow alternated with small woods, where the bluebells were in bloom. It was lovely.

But the most rewarding part of the ride is the ride down to Brighton after climbing Ditchling Beacon. I stopped very briefly (~10 seconds) on the way up, but I pretty much managed to climb the whole thing. And it seemed much less grueling than last year.

It seems that Charlie enjoyed the ride to Brighton, as well. So much so, that he cycled back on his own.

Braver than me

For me, this was just a ride to Brighton on a lovely sunny day. For both Charlie and James, this was a preparation for a much longer ride. Both of them are going to be riding from London to Paris in the Big Issue London to Paris Bike Ride. That’s 240 miles in 3 days. Impressive.

James has a great post on why the Big Issue is worthy of your support, and Charlie has a similar post on why the London to Paris event is important for the Big Issue.

They invited me along, but I declined. I didn’t feel that I would be able to raise the money. What a wimp!

Show your support

So, to make up for my wimpiness, I’m going to urge you to support James and Charlie, even it’s just for a couple of pounds / dollars. Both of them deserve your support, both are very near their target and it’s for a great cause. Here’s how to support them:

I know both of them (and the Big Issue) will appreciate any support you can give.

Back on the bike

Last week, I went to have a beer or three with James, who has recently taken up cycling to work. He’s arranging a bike ride down to Brighton in August. I’ve always wanted to take part in the British Heart Foundation’s London to Brighton Bike Ride, but never seem to register on time. So James’ bike ride to Brighton will be the perfect opportunity to find out if I’m up to it. Of course, I hadn’t been riding my bike at all lately.

Until last week, that is. Last weekend, I pulled my bike out from under the tarp in our back garden. I cleaned it up, lubed the chain, tightened the breaks and took it for a test ride up and down our street. I then used Transport for London’s Journey Planner to find a route to work. On Monday, I cycled to work. The TfL route wasn’t ideal — way too much terror at Vauxhall and Trafalgar Square.

Despite the terror, I’d forgotten how much I enjoy riding my bike. It’s actually much less frustrating than dealing with the daily stress of the tube. Of course, cycling to work has its own stresses, and London’s bizarre cycle lanes are often more of a hindrance than a help. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad that cycle lanes exist, but some of them are incredibly difficult to use, especially the first time you use them. Twice on my way home from work — on St Pancras Way and again on Purchase Street — the cycle lane jumps suddenly from the left side of the street to the right side. Purchase Street is fairly quiet, so this isn’t so bad. St Pancras Way is busy, and the only way to safely move into the two-way cycle lane on the right side of the street is to position yourself well in advance. This is impossible the first time you’re using the cycle lane and pretty damn dangerous during rush hour, regardless of whether or not you’ve used the cycle lane before.

I’m now curious about how and why these decisions get made. I’m considering exploring as many of London’s cycle paths as possible. In order to learn more about how cycle lanes are created and to help improve them, I’d like to document the weirdness that I find. To this end, I’ve joined the London Cycling Campaign, and I may set up a separate blog about my cycling (mis)adventures.

I’m trying to find out if there is any public, Internet-based forum for raising and discussing London-related cycle lane weirdness, but haven’t found anything yet. Crap Cycle Lanes of Croydon, among others, seems to be doing a pretty good job of this, but these seem to be individual efforts rather than a group effort. You can report street faults on the TfL website and to the borough councils, but this doesn’t seem to include cycle lanes. Moreover, fault tracking is hidden behind a system that requires you to know the fault id. There is also no facility for public discussion. If anyone knows of a website that allows cyclists to collaboratively report and discuss dangerous cycle lanes, please let me know. I’d love to join and contribute.

Despite my moaning about London cycle lanes, I’m glad to be back on the bike and looking forward to the trip to Brighton, though I’m not looking forward to how sore my butt is going to be the following day.

Update I’ve just discovered that the CTC‘s FillThatHole.co.uk has map of road hazards, which gives you the ID and allows you to track the status. They also have maps of long distance cycle routes. Alas, I still haven’t found anything along the lines of FillThatHole.co.uk for dangerous cycle lanes.