Waresley Garden Centre cafe, where I met up with one of my mid-week groups, has the best scones in the area, and today they were offering an unusual raspberry and chocolate variety…..but I resisted the clotted cream…..don’t ask me why….I must have been on a mission to appear virtuous.
And the quality of the cafe offerings was matched by the perfect autumnal weather, the countryside bedecked in the orange, gold and crimson of a soon to disappear seasonal feast. Carpe diem…..
Little did we realise we would be visiting Scotney Castle on the 30th anniversary (to the very day) of the infamous Great Storm of 1987 that devastated the estate (and much of the south of England), destroying a huge percentage of its woodland. We realised the importance of the anniversary when we caught a BBC reporter recording an item on camera for News at 10, which we happened to see when we got home that evening.
Though Storm Ophelia made little impression on this part of the UK, the strong winds did bring dust from the Sahara, and smoke and ash from the Portuguese wild fires, giving the sun an eerie blood red presence which, over the moat waters of Scotney Castle, produced an otherworldly spectral light. The original castle lies on an island, surrounded by water, looking the perfect picture of the once-elegant ruined medieval structure, providing yet another backdrop for illustrating the history of the all-powerful aristocracy of this country.
For Jenny, this was a rest-day from the tandem, so I assembled my titanium solo, found the most indirect route I could to get to Scotney Castle, and found myself having to re-adapt to the flightiness of the super-light frame. But it was a joy for climbing the hills, but scarily fast on the descents (read that as ‘excitingly fast’!). The much-recovered woodlands from the 1987 storm were on the autumnal turn, canopies of rusted browns giving way to crimson reds. It was a good time to be in Sussex.
What better way to enjoy a four day binge on National Trust properties than to take the tandem, spend a few nights in a strategic location so that you can access several properties on two wheels? An hour or two in the morning wending our way across the East Sussex countryside, 3-4 hours enjoying the setting and intriguing history of a rich family’s country pile, an hour having lunch and coffee, and another hour or so heading back, discovering a different route with its own surprises…….which usually come in the form of hills (groan!), but the rewards were stunning views across a countryside strutting the catwalk wearing its new autumnal collection. East Sussex in October is full of chromatic intrigue, and when the sun shines (which it did for us most days), it can be breath-taking. Forget New England in the fall……..we are surrounded by our very own ‘leaf-peeping’ opportunities. You just have to go out there and find them…..
On our first day, we headed off in search of the country hideaway of the famous (and infamous) Vita Sackville West, and her husband Harold Nicolson. Both provocative people of their generation, challenging the mores of the day with regard to their sexuality, they were nevertheless a happily married couple, and together they restored Sissinghurst Castle from its ruinous state, and together they combined their expertise and energy to create one of the most admired gardens in the country.
Vita hated the manicured primness of many country gardens, preferring the more natural beauty of the slightly messy, slightly chaotic growth of flowers and plants that created their own beauty, dividing the garden into ‘rooms’, with each room having its own character and selection of colours.
On our route back, and you will see this from the map below, we were led along a track that was seemingly a right of way, but we were cut off by a locked gate and a big threatening sign telling us that the area was ‘bio-protected’, and was closed to the public. This caused us a bit of panic because we had to double back, increasing our mileage, and it was getting late in the afternoon. We had to get back to our base before sunset. We did, but only just………..
Let me quote the most notable scientist of his generation, Albert Einstein: Life is like riding a bicycle. In order to keep your balance, you must keep moving…….
One of the most notable writers of his generation, Ernest Hemingway, said the following: It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them.
HG Wells was noted for saying: Whenever I see an adult on a bicycle, I do not despair for the human race.
Every walk of life looks for a ‘higher’ authority to give credibility to whatever they do. Cyclists are no different. If people like Elgar, or JFK, or Leo Tolstoy (who learned to ride at 67) rode bikes, we know we are in good company……
Today was one of those magnetic days for climbing on the saddle. On a bright sunny autumn morning, I hunted out narrow country lanes that I hadn’t ridden for several months, even a year or two. The foliage of the over-hanging trees was ‘on the turn’, carpets of leaves were scattered across roads and tracks. The cattle grids were almost hidden beneath their coats of vegetation, and the odd sign told us the farmers meant serious business for undisciplined dog owners…….. No doubt they were relying on the ‘2nd Amendment’ to support their cause…..
And a mid-ride stop to visit a dear friend in Oundle, and be treated to coffee with cream…….well, to mix my metaphors, it put the ‘icing on the cake’.
If you take a meteorological view of the changing of the seasons, autumn has finished today, and winter begins tomorrow, December 1st. If, however, your cycle of seasons depends on the movement of the sun, the winter solstice, December 21st, will herald the beginning of your winter, kick-started by the shortest day/longest night of the year. Though it is curious that the winter solstice is also known as midwinter’s day……almost as curious as finding out that the American Mid-West is largely located in the eastern US.
Whatever the case, the meteorological end of autumn today had to be observed by a ride through the last vestiges of autumnal sunshine, into the dusk, and through the first hour of the approaching winter darkness. There is something very special about riding into the night. The countryside goes quiet, the wind drops, early night time predators are beginning to forage and hunt, and the sun disappears over the horizon to leave a glow that lingers on, and on…….
Your impression of speed becomes inflated. Without the usual visible markers by the side of the road to give you an idea of actual speed, as you cut through the darkness, you imagine yourself to be cruising with the elite. But a downhill stretch in one village challenged me to defy a radar speed sign…..hoping to break the speed limit, but I only managed 25mph (40kph). Hey ho……..