If you are looking for the perfect conditions for ‘mindfulness’, jump on your bike at midnight on the shortest night of the year and keep riding until dawn. It is mesmeric, self-absorbing and re-creative…….one thing it is certainly not……. quiet. Let me tell you about it.
Going out for an all-night ride at the summer solstice used to be a regular happening for me. Last night the conditions were near perfect. Warm (20C), clear sky, no wind, and the promise of a clearly visible sunrise…..or so the weather apps promised. My route around Northamptonshire villages and Oundle took me along country lanes seldom used by other traffic and, until 3am, I had to use a front light to see my way….but thereafter, the northern horizon began to brighten and the day was under way according to all the wildlife around me. Let me tell what you might encounter if you did something similar……
Life does not close down during the night, especially in summer time. Some of the sheep continue to graze through the night. Birds may be roosting, but they can be supremely noisy at all hours, and occasionally you will disturb a big bird of prey that will take off just metres away, causing you to wobble with the shock. Your olfactic awareness will be sharpened by the diversity from country earth and manure heaps, to the exquisite sweetness of flowering beans and the hedgerow profusion of honeysuckle, occasionally interrupted by the faint whiff of battery chicken farms.
You will engage in races with hares that inhabit the roads through the night. One of the three that I chased reached the heady speed of 25mph (40kph) before veering off through the hedges. You will be followed by owls for several hundreds of metres, and little birds (generally finches, I think) who will precede you along the roads, landing and taking off, asking you to follow them. You will cross bridges over busy trunk roads that are as busy at night time as during the day. And the occasional shift worker will overtake you in the small hours either going to, or returning from, work. One even stopped to ask if I needed any help while I was resting by the roadside.
I stopped in the market square in Oundle for an energy snack and, apart from some distant voices and the passage of two cars through the town, I had the town to myself, illuminated by both street lighting and shop security lights.
I got to within 1km of home at exactly 04.39, the moment when the sun was to rise in our area but, though the sky was generally clear, the northern horizon was obscured by both cloud and mist, making the sunrise a non-event, and I needed to get to bed. So after a quick shower, I climbed into bed at 05.15, to be woken gently (she lightly shook the duvet at the foot of the bed…..) by my lovely wife at 08.20 so I could have breakfast before attending a commitment at 09.00.
All this may sound a bit breathless, but it was invigorating and life-affirming. My mission now is to stay awake until normal bedtime…….
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……..