Ghosts in the water: cycling in the shadow of Roger Deakin

Last year I wrote a glowing endorsement of Jack Thurston's new cycling guidebook "Lost Lanes: 36 Glorious Bike Rides in Southern England".  I loved the wide selection of routes, the philosophy of discovering quiet and car-free rides in our congested corner of the country, and the stunning photographs that illustrate Jack's engaging writing.  What follows is not so much a ride report of one of the routes, and more a musing on all of the thoughts and ideas a ride provoked:

Cycling in the shadow of Roger Deakin; the Waveney Weekender
(Ride no.27)

Start & finish: Diss, Norfolk.  Distance: 48 miles / 77km.  Total ascent: 183m
Terrain:  Country lanes and a short section of B-road.  Moderate.

The river Waveney weaves languidly from Diss to Bungay through a broad-backed valley of Suffolk fields which hummed with combines as I cycled through at the height of last year's harvest.  The air was thick with corn dust as storm clouds built up in to sticky towers on the horizon.

Jack's bike route, dubbed the Waveney Weekender, charts a looping figure of eight around the river valley, starting at the train station in Diss.  A disembodied voice with a sense of humour reminds us that "CCTV operates at diss station".. 

It's a surprising roller coaster to the busy market town of Bungay.  I thought that Suffolk and Norfolk - Britain's 'big sky country' - was mirror-glass flat, but I was wrong.  It's a fun run of ups and downs, with the waters of the Waveney in the valley below periodically appearing at each crest before disappearing again on the descent.

The Waveney was naturalist and author Roger Deakin's local river.  He swam in it time and again, and lived nearby in a moated farm house.  It was here he first conceived of the idea to make a swimming journey across Britain, sloshing through every canal, tarn and river he crossed.  The resulting book, Waterlog, is a modern classic with the late Deakin seemingly awakening the nation's wild swimming conscious by asserting that swimming in the open air - like cycling - had become an outlier activity.

He wrote; "“Most of us live in a world where more and more places and things are signposted, labelled, and officially ‘interpreted’. There is something about all this that is turning the reality of things into virtual reality. It is the reason why walking, cycling and swimming will always be subversive activities. They allow us to regain a sense of what is old and wild in these islands, by getting off the beaten track and breaking free of the official version of things." 

He explored the Waveney by canoe for a BBC radio production, and as I waded in to the cooling peaty waters myself after a hot, dusty ride through the valley I half expected to see his ghost paddling out from between the rushes.  Instead, I came eye to eye with pairs of aqua blue damsel flies dancing on the surface, accentuating the blackness of the water below.  Cows watched suspiciously from the river bank and I feared they might, at any time, make off with my clothes and inform on me to their farmer, leaving me stranded with only the dark enveloping river to spare my blushes.

But the cows grew disinterested, no ghosts or farmers came, and with my bike safely stashed in a hedgerow I was left to swim slowly upstream to picturesque Mendham Mill alone.  There has been a Mill here for nearly a thousand years, but it is no longer a scene of roaring, pounding agricultural industry.  Now it is a picture postcard of rural peace with flowers growing in the gardens, water buttercups blooming in the mill race and otter spraint on the river banks.

I floated back downstream, back to my cows and neatly folded clothes, looking up at the sky as I passed beneath fallen trees that crossed the river and the long hanging strings of willows.  The roads of Norfolk lay off one river bank, the laneways of Suffolk off the other.  London seemed far away, and I thought about Deakin and his connection with water and the landscape, and how alien that connection seemed to my day to day urban life.  Seeking an escape from the city, Deakin has acted as a literary lilly pad for me.  I came to him from Jack's cycling book, and after Waterlog sprang on to Robert Macfarlane and his writing on The Wild Places.  He in turn lead to Olivia Coleman's account, To The River, of hiking and swimming the Sussex Ouse, on the banks of which Virginia Woolf had written A Room of One's Own and in whose clawing, muddy shadows she drowned herself.

Cumulonimbus clouds like great forger's anvils built higher as the sun waned, their towering reflections deepening the dark shallows of the Waveney.  The air felt thick with static heat, like the river itself was dissolving in to atmosphere and hissing about me.  Avoiding the road I pushed my bike along the deserted river bank, thinking about somewhere to sleep.

"Can I help you?" asked a headless voice.

Startled, I looked around, but there was no one to be seen.

"Can I help you?" asked the voice again.  Perhaps I had swallowed too much of the river.  Perhaps Deakin's spirit had returned after all. 

"You should not be here, this is a private reserve"

A door that was not there before opened in front of me, and revealed the interior of an expertly camouflaged bird watching hide.  A disapproving farmer, of whose view of darting kingfishers I had disturbed, looked out at me and repeated;

"You should not be here, this is a private reserve."

Startled by this apparition I spluttered an apology, mumbling excuses that I thought I was on a public footpath.  He looked me up and down, checked my packed bicycle and softened, explaining that he maintained the river bank and adjacent field to ensure it was kept in the best condition to encourage kingfishers.  Britain's most colourful - and illusive - bird is highly sensitive to water quality and the health of fish stocks. I wondered if pesticide run-off from bordering fields had affected the small bird's population at all?  The farmer, warming to his subject, thought the Waveney was improving every day.  Local land owners used GPS to only spray pesticides as a spot treatment instead of blanket coverage, and never where they'd been sprayed before.  The Waveney was burgeoning with the return of otters, trout and kingfishers.  

"King Edmund the Martyr was abducted near here hiding from the Danes beneath a bridge in 870.  Man has been changing the river for over a thousand years since.  It used to an industrial water course.  Nowadays it is the healthiest it has been in decades and I love it.  This is a renaissance river."

As I climbed away towards the village of Hoxne - where the hapless King had been captured - I thought about the farmer's words.  Too often those who keep the land are accused of exploiting it, but many have as deep a love for the country as any landscape-starved city dweller.  The quiet road took me on, past troughs of cows, solitary windmills, and rows of quaint cottages.  

Making my way back up the valley towards Diss, the accompanying Waveney grew narrower and less prominent, a river running in reverse.  Fields picked over by swifts gave way to housing estates and gardens.  Trees began to admit road signs and fences among their number.  The sound of the train line and the main road running through Diss grew louder ahead, as the trickle of the Waveney - the renaissance river - receded behind me in to overgrown channels, its waters disappearing underground, their beauty hidden from view.  In Bungay, at the other end of my ride, the sense of the sea had been palpable just over the horizon.  My bike ride back up the valley had not felt like a ride against the flow of the water, but instead the narrowing river banks and contracting channel had drawn me forwards, funnelling me on to the end of my ride, back in to the roaring real world and reality.  

"CCTV operates at Diss station" welcomed the tannoy as the train for London pulled in.

Jack Thurston's book Lost Lanes; 36 Glorious Bike Rides in Southern England is available in all good bookshops and via the author's website now.  More photos of my ride can be found on Flickr here.

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Suffolk Cycling said...

Great write up. We have lovely places to ride here in East Anglia - I share my rides in Suffolk using a GoPro video camera on the handlebars.

ibikelondon said...

Thanks for the link and your kind comment Suffolk Cycling. It's a gorgeous corner of the world you have to cycle around!

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