Age creeps up on all of us, that’s why many of us don't see it as important, even if it is. I've known for some time that I need new reading glasses, the old ones were so ineffective I needed longer and longer arms, so I took the plunge and, bored of slipping them onto my head or looking over the rims like a severe physics teacher, I decided on vari-focals.
Always up for a bargain, I tried on a good looking set of Oakleys in a shop, then set about finding them cheaper on the internet. Not long after receiving them I worked out that buying vari-focals, perhaps any glasses, on line is not a good idea, as when they came they were hard to see through and didn’t get any better. It felt like someone had poured sand into my eyes, perhaps they’d done it from so close I couldn’t see without glasses. I complained and, after some negotiation with the on-line opticians, I decided I would visit their shop so they could properly set the lenses and I could use the glasses.
England is not a large country and, living where I do, I can reach most places pretty quickly, especially on a motorbike. And what better way is there to get from Cambridge to Bolton, Lancashire in the middle of a British winter, than by bike. The sat nav said it’s only 136 miles, all I’d need was a few more layers of clothing than normal and I’d be fine. Of course, I hadn’t bothered fixing the bracket for the sat nav, so I knew I couldn’t use the mp3 player or hear voice prompts, but I’d decided not to take a particularly circuitous route, so that’d be OK, especially if I entertained myself with music on my iPhone, which has a Garmin app anyway. Sorted.
I set off on a still and very mild January morning, it was about 10 degrees as I joined the A14 and headed north onto the A1. I had my Modern Rock playlist banging away in my ears, so the likes of The Verve, Stereophonics and Radiohead were making the motorway more interesting. I know that selection isn’t that modern, but it could have been The Kinks, The Stones or ELO. Just as well I had something to keep boredom at bay as, so mundane was the route, I’d covered over 90 miles before I touched the brake lever and that was as I left the A1 to take the A57 junction for the cross-country bit of the journey. I by-passed Worksop and joined the M1, passing Sheffield, then turning off at junction 35a to take the A 616, heading into the Pennines. This was where mere travel became experience and adventure.
I stopped for petrol then started heading up hill. Having ridden in the Alps, I realize that these hills are nothing in comparison to those mountains, but where there are hills there is scenery and there are bendy roads. The A618 crosses the Woodhead pass and is one of the major trans-Pennine routes, with traffic to match, that doesn’t make it a bad road, you just have to be ready for overtaking opportunities when they come. And they do. Like an Alpine pass, the temperature dropped the higher I rode and, as I crossed the highest point it was freezing. I could see my breath inside my helmet, though at least the visor didn’t steam up, thanks to a Fog City insert. The cold was OK, I was well dressed, but the wind was something else; it felt like I was riding on a track cyclist’s disc wheels, acting like sails, they were being buffeted hard by the gale from the left, which made steering and staying on the selected line very difficult. Too close behind me, a black Range Rover I had overtaken before the summit, was obviously looking to overtake the same lorry I was, but was never able to take the opportunity I did, and I was off, the road now clear in front of me. I swept down the drab, brown valley, slate grey reservoirs, reflecting the dull sky, on my left, occasional trees overhanging the road, grey stone walls guarding the verge. The road is a good one if you can get past the dawdlers, like I did a drab coloured Renault Megane, and exploit its predicable, sweeping nature and even in winter the views are good enough to recommend it.
‘It’s grim up north’ goes the saying, and at that moment I couldn’t argue. The road was damp and, though the wind was dropping as I did, there was nothing green or pleasant in this little English valley. But still it was beautiful in a way only England can be: bleak, majestic, foreboding, heart-warming, it made me realize why I love my country. I also realized that England’s geography is what defines its cultures. The North, where the hard landscape was exploited for heavy industry contrasts with the softer scenery of the South and its more white collar outlook: both equally valid and both equally beautiful.
One thing this part of northern England is known for is its rain, so it was no surprise when it started as I joined the M60 at Hyde it accompanied me until I was back on the other side of the Pennines. I rounded Manchester and found Bolton without incident, though without knowing I rode straight past the optician and shortly after even managed a foot-up U-turn, though the street was very wide. I parked in the rain and wandered about until I found the shop. I was dealt with brilliantly by Beena and the other optician whose name I didn’t get, though she could talk for England. I still say don’t buy vari-focals on line, but if you have more simple lenses you could do worse than buying from Vision Direct.
Before finding my bike and leaving, I had a coffee and a slice of cake in Café Nero, overlooked by a large statue of a grinning Fred Dibnah. Perhaps he knew the M62 had a 50mph limit most of the way back over the Pennines, or that it would rain on me all that way too. I would have gone that way even had I known about the rain, fog and speed restrictions as those conditions would undoubtedly have made the journey back over the Woodhead Pass more a chore than a joy and I wanted to get home before the children went to bed. Though I can’t say it was the most exhilarating journey of my life, travel by motorcycle is inherently more involving and satisfying, thus more enjoyable than that in a car.
I’d intended, for some reason to take the M62 all the way to the A1, then head south, but after powering round the dry roundabout and accelerating hard onto the main carriageway, found myself on the M1. Never mind, though the sat nav was dead, I still knew what signs to follow. It wasn’t busy and maintaining a reasonable pace was easy enough. Forced into it by my earlier inattentiveness, I concluded the way I’d come was now the best way home, so I left the motorway at the A 57 junction, just as dusk was gathering. I stopped for petrol and had a chat with the cashier about riding motorbikes in the winter. At least I think that’s what she was talking about, as so often happens, my ear plugs, which she had no idea I was wearing meant that I cold only hear about every third word she said. In some people’s eyes motorcyclists are pariahs, so it was nice of her to pass the time of day.
There are some half entertaining bits on this stretch, and I had a bit of fun as there was no other traffic around until I reached Worksop, in the sign-post-desert that is Nottinghamshire. It wasn’t entirely the local Highway Authority’s fault that I got lost, but it is their fault I took a long time to find myself again. I did see a sign, but didn’t read it properly and found myself on a road which headed only to Mansfield. What signs there were gave no indication of where I was going other than there. According to the signs, there were no places between me and Mansfield and none after (though a look at the map over a glass of wine later revealed a place called Nottingham is just beyond.) Whilst I have been to Mansfield twice, both occasions were over 20 years ago and I had no idea where I was, so just carried on in the dark, hoping for some form of directional inspiration. It came in Mansfield Woodhouse (still no signs for Nottingham) in the form of a sign for Ollerton, which I knew was a small town signposted off the A1. That’ll do, I thought.
I’ve not had cause to ride a lot in the dark and I seemed to descend into a focussed state of dreamy, intense concentration, aware of everything but nothing superfluous to my passage. Everything was easy, nothing surprised me, I just rode on. I found myself on the edge of Ollerton and saw the first sign of the afternoon for the A1, though it also said Doncaster, I took it, heading north instead of south, but safe in the knowledge I’d know where I was soon. Shortly after I found the Worksop junction I should have been at some 30 minutes earlier and headed home.
The final 90 miles of the day were on the same roads as the first, they were neither more or less busy than before, but the journey bore no resemblance to the ride that morning. It was cold now, though I felt no discomfort as I glided through the darkness. In the lit areas I was caught, then was overtaken by my shadow a thousand times, in the dark I was alone with myself and the music accompanying me, never interrupting the flow, it was unheard when it needed to be, savoured when it could be. Concentration remained effortless, anticipating, looking at, round and through made all my actions easy and without error. I don’t know how long this part took, it was timeless, even spiritual. You see, on a motorbike any journey is an experience or an adventure, even going to the optician.
As a friend said today: four wheels move the body, two wheels move the soul.