The Freewheeling John Dowie
Many stories begin when the hero or the heroine enters a new reality and their lives are changed forever. It might be Alice falling down a rabbit hole, Mole abandoning his spring cleaning and heading for the river, or Lucy stepping through a wardrobe. My new bike didn’t lead me into Wonderland or Narnia or happy encounters with Toads and Badgers. But it did take me to a Sussex graveyard where I awoke just before dawn with my underpants on my head.
But first I spent more time cycling in and around London. I discovered routes that didn’t mean taking your life in your hands every time you ventured out. Routes that included traffic-free cycling paths running alongside canals and out into the suburbs. I discovered Sustrans, a brilliant organization with a useless name (it’s short for SUStainable TRANSport, I mean, come on). Sustrans create cycling and walking routes using old railway tracks, canal towpaths, green areas and seldom used roads. They also publish maps of these routes, maps that are simple and easy to understand, which came as a relief to me. Having been advised to get hold of Ordnance Survey maps, I did so, and failed to make any sense of them whatsoever. All I could see were meaningless swirls, lines and hieroglyphics. I decided that I didn’t need your fancy, complicated OS maps. Your plain, down-to-earth Sustrans maps are good enough for me. Or so I thought, as I set about planning my first major cycling trip.
Dr Syn alias the Scarecrow had been a hero of mine since I was a boy. A mild-mannered parson by day, he became the fearsome, supernatural Scarecrow by night, much like The Batman, another of my boyhood heroes, whose adoption of a mild-mannered identity to disguise his true appearance was a comfort to me and to people like me – mild-mannered geeks who were beaten up by bigger boys on a regular basis. Luckily, this eventually stopped. Okay, nor until we were in our thirties, but it did stop.
Dr Syn’s adventures took place on Romney Marsh in Kent. They were written by Russell Thorndike, brother to the actress Sybil, and inspired by a night spent in the Ship Inn, Dymchurch, in Romney Marsh. The Ship Inn, I discovered was not only still there but also open for business. I studied my Sustrans map and noted that I could take a train to Folkestone and cycle from there to the nearest town, Hythe, before reaching Romney Marsh itself. But why not take a train to Hythe? I thought. The only drawback seemed to be that, according to my map, no railway line ran to Hythe. This made no sense to me. Hythe is no less important than Folkestone, I reasoned. I couldn’t believe that the people of Hythe could just sit there, at home in Hythe, knowing that their Folkestone neighbours had a railway station while they didn’t. Perhaps, I thought, there is a railway line leading to Hythe but whoever drew the map either couldn’t be bothered to put it in, or forgot. So, I checked with National Rail Enquires and, sure enough, I could take a train from London Bridge and, in just over an hour, I would arrive in Hythe. And so I did. Only Hythe in Essex. Not Hythe in Kent.
I’d sat quite happily as the train took me in almost the exact opposite direction of where I wanted to go. I hadn’t batted an eyelid as I travelled further north from London, through Shenfield and Chelmsford and into Colchester, where I had to change trains. It was only when we arrived in Hythe and I looked around for the road that, according to my map, led from the centre of Hythe to Romney Marsh but which didn’t appear to exist, that I finally thought, “Something isn’t right here.”
My first response was to blame whoever drew the map. Not only had they failed to include the railway line, and the railway station, but now they’d gone and gotten the whole of Hythe wrong. For God’s sake! It was as though I was in a completely different town!
A passing stranger, seeing I was in difficulties, looked at my map and told me that I was. My next response was to blame him personally. I even said, “What do you mean – a different town?” as though he’d planned the whole thing. Even I realised that this was unhelpful. At a loss as to what to do, I went back to Hythe station (how I was beginning to hate the word Hythe) and checked the train times. My best bet, I decided, was to take a train to Ipswich, where I could buy some OS maps and work out where to go next.
I got to Ipswich, found a shop, bought some maps, looked at them, and, as I feared, they made no sense. I didn’t want to celebrate my birthday in Ipswich. If I couldn’t stay at the Ship Inn, Dymchurch, maybe I could find somewhere nearby, somewhere just as nice.
The best I could come up with was Diss.
In Dante’s Inferno there is, spelt slightly differently, another Dis, the sixth circle of Hell, described as, “a great plain of woe and cruel torment” where “such dire laments issued forth as come only from those who are truly wretched, suffering and forever lost”, which is more or less how the rest of my day went.
For a start, I couldn’t find Diss. To reach Diss you turn right out of the station. I turned left and very soon found myself in the middle of nowhere. I decided the best thing to do was carry on and hope for the best, a decision that accomplished nothing except to lead me further and further into mile after mile of empty road, punctuated by signposts promising villages not too far ahead, which all turned out to be exactly the same. Rather than timbered country inns with cracking log fires and busty barmaids serving foaming pints of wallop, all I ever found were three or four houses with the curtains drawn and the lights off. And that was it.
It was close to midnight when I saw the lights of a pub, standing at the top of one of the few hills in Norfolk. My thighs were leaden by now but I summoned what strength I could, forcing myself up the hill to arrive just in time to see the lights go off. A churchyard bell tolled midnight as I wondered, with barely a trace of bitterness, where the hell I was going to sleep.
The graveyard seemed the logical answer. I pushed my bike through the churchyard gate and went inside, leaning my bike against a handy tombstone before lying on the dry, springy grass against a sheltering wall. This may not be too bad, I thought. It was a warm night. The skies were clear. I had no blanket, not even a raincoat, but I did have a foolproof way of making sure I stayed warm throughout the night.
“Heat escapes from the top of the head,” my mother had told me, more often than I care to remember, and for reasons that I’ve never understood. That being the case all I had to do was cover my head and I would remain warm all night, surely? I had no hat, but luckily I had a spare pair of underpants in my saddlebag.
With me, to think is to act. I took out the underpants, placed them upon my head, and lay down. I was exhausted. Sleep was all I wanted. Sleep and the hope that I was up and gone before the church opened in the morning. The last thing I wanted to do was explain to some bewildered country vicar why I was lying in his graveyard with my underpants on my head.
Mercifully, sleep came. Mercilessly, it left. Only one hour later I was wide-awake with freezing bones and chattering teeth. I tore my underpants from my head and cursed my mother. Not knowing what else to do I decided to get on my bike and move on. Ten minutes later I spotted – oh joy! –an allotment. Now all I needed was an unlocked shed where I could shelter from the cold and get some sleep.
The first shed had been padlocked by some sadist swine with absolutely no fellow feeling for helpless cyclists with nowhere to sleep. But the second was not only unlocked but also filled with garden netting, which made a rudimentary mattress and a welcoming blanket.
And the miracles did not stop there. Having slept through the rest of the night, I set off the following morning and found a public toilet which was not only open but had hot running water and paper towels. I washed myself. I dried myself. I cleaned my teeth. I got back on my bike and cycled, in a day of increasing sunshine, through roads that led me, downhill all the way, to the pretty coastal village of Orford where the Kings Head Inn charged me £11 50 for the best breakfast I have ever had.
It was clear that I needed to learn how to read a map. A proper map, with swirls, lines and hieroglyphics. I was able to achieve this thanks to a blazing hot sun and the apparent death of a writer.
I‘d managed to get myself invited to read some poems I had written to the audience of a literary festival in St Germans, Cornwall. Whether they wanted me to or not. I was due to follow a lecture by the writer and philosopher, Colin Wilson.
Colin Wilson achieved fame in the 1950s with the publication of his book, “The Outsider”. You’d think, having written a book with that title, he might have had a bit of knowledge about what things are like when you go outside. But no. Given the weather, his choice of clothing was shockingly inappropriate. It was a blisteringly hot day and Colin Wilson had chosen to wear a thick, woollen polo-neck sweater, a blazer, heavy-looking trousers and, as the only concession to the near-tropical heat, a panama hat.
I waited in the wings for his lecture to end. The subject of his talk was Unified Consciousness and his conclusion was that it would, if ever achieved, be somewhat similar to the World Wide Web. Having made this point he then sat in a chair placed close to the microphone and appeared to die. His head slumped forward and he sat, unmoving. This was of no interest to the compere who simply shuffled past his immobile form to get to the microphone and introduce me.
During my days as a stand-up comedian, I performed in many inappropriate circumstances, from bars full of boozed-up students to rooms full of spitting punks, but even I draw the line at performing comic verse while standing next to the corpse of a recently deceased giant of post-war English literature. I made frantic signals to the compere, pointing at Colin Wilson’s apparently dead body. The compere broke off from whatever he was saying and began issuing requests for the “St John’s Ambulance People to come to the stage”. They came. Two of them. Bowing and waving modestly to the crowd, before doing one of the worst things you can possibly do to a man who has just fainted, which was to push his head between his legs, thus preventing further blood flow to the brain and helping to bring about a possible seizure. Luckily, an ambulance arrived before they killed him, and Colin Wilson was stretchered onto it, still unconscious, and carried away. All of this being quite happily watched by the literary audience, until a Festival organiser requested the crowd to “please give Mr Wilson some privacy, I mean, for God’s sake, people, come on”, and they drifted away.
Given they were meant to be my audience also, I now had the afternoon free. Thank you, Colin. I had brought my bicycle with me, along with an OS map of Cornwall, even though I still couldn’t read it. I decided that, as the heat was so intense, a ride to the Cornish coast would be a sensible thing to do.
I set off, and very soon found myself travelling down a hill of terrifying steepness. And not only a hill of terrifying steepness, but one that seemed to have no end. One thing was clear: assuming I didn’t get killed on the way down, there was no way I’d be able to cycle back up.
I reached the bottom. I had no idea where I was and there wasn’t a signpost to be seen. Consulting my map was my only option. After many puzzling minutes, I managed to work out that I could cycle along a road that led to a ferry, which in turn led to a road on which was a railway station where I could take a train that would take me back to St Germans.
With mounting excitement and total astonishment I realised that my map reading predictions were all coming true. I was so excited by this revelation that I decided to carry on to for another five miles to nearby Plymouth and the train station there. A decision somewhat spoiled by a drunken man lurching out in front me, causing me to jam on my brakes, narrowly miss him, and nearly fall. “I’m just trying to get home,” he shouted as I cycled away, before adding, “You wanker.”
Wanker? I thought. Me? A wanker? Well, yes. Possibly, But at least a wanker who can read a map.