Let me tell you, being single after many years really blows your weekends wide open. It’s quite astounding actually. Suddenly there’s no one to suggest things, no one to go on an impromptu cinema trip with and no one to lie around in bed with in the morning making hours bleed into days.
Since giving up drinking in December, I don’t even have a hangover to deal with.
All I’ve got is time. It’s odd. And novel. I’m learning to play guitar.
I was chatting to a friend on the phone on Friday evening when, just before we hung up, he suggested I go for a bike ride. It’s not that this was a suggestion far out there, it’s more that sometimes all it takes is a tiny remark to draw your attention to something obvious.
Yeah, I thought. Why not?
I’ve recently moved house, rather conveniently, along the Exe Valley Trail. I hopped on my bike and cycled up river – not far, maybe a couple of miles – just to get the dust of the day out of my head. And it transformed my day. A simple bike ride along a peaceful stretch of river. Every time I stopped to take a photograph, little troops of ducks would paddle furiously over to me, creating yawning Vs in the water. Once they realised I was proffering a camera and not a loaf of bread, they dithered around as if they had come over for some other reason.
I got home after half an hour of enjoying the scenery but when I woke up on Saturday I realised I wasn’t done.
The sun in my eyes
The North Atlantic has obviously decided that Britain deserves an incredible summer. Either that or we unjustly call this island nation ‘wet and windy’ in some sort of show of collective amnesia. Because the sun has stubbornly appeared every day, reminding tens of thousands of people why sun cream is sold in the shops.
I eyed up sky, leaning out of my sky lights and feeling the bug-filled air already starting to burn. I’ve moved to a loft room. It’s great, it has sweeping views of the river and so much light it could be an art studio. It has two vast velux windows that take up one entire side of the pitched roof. It’s also hotter than the sun.
I needed to get out regardless so filled up my water bottle, slapped on some sun cream and gave my bike tyres an inquisitive squeeze.
“Ride as much or as little, as long or as short as you feel. But ride” – Eddy Merckx
The Exe Estuary Trail is a simple as it is beautiful. It winds south from Exeter on flat cycle paths sandwiched between fields and the river and canal. Almost entirely away from roads and with a surface my racing bike can handle, it’s blissful and easy.
South from the Quay to Countess Wear is fast and pretty, with meadows on either side and running between the river and the canal. Crossing the road at Countess Wear is the beginning of my favourite section, where the river was practically oozing along. With picturesque weed floating in patches on the surface, ducks drifting aimlessly and the odd kayaker sweeping through the water, it feels far away from the city centre just a couple of miles away.
Under the M5 I stopped to listen to the roar of traffic above my head. I like bridges, I like the intersection of humanity and nature. There’s beauty in it, this concrete monstrosity standing ever-rigid over the serene river. Perhaps its the brutality, or the sheer scale, or the oblivion. Roads are endless, vast Tarmacced veins that reach from the farthest corners of Cornwall to the crumbling cliffs of northern Scotland. Touching them is almost like being everywhere at once, so intrinsically connected are they.
So it seems only natural they should cross rivers too and the two should curve gently around each other. The M5 flows over the Exe, after all, you can’t stop a river. But rivers are the same, they come great distances, split and meander and become vast capillaric systems reaching as far as they can. Both rivers and roads are limited by the same thing. The ocean.
Nature or humanity, we’re all just trying to get from one place to another.
South to the sea
After the noise of the M5 has disappeared on the horizon, the cycle path follows the canal and the river becomes invisible behind treeline. The Exe has, by this point, flowed out into the Exe Estuary and when I see it at the Turf Locks pub, it’s filled with a classic British sight – boats sat on the mud.
I love the smell of mud at low tide. I never knew how much I loved it until I left the UK. I’ve anchored in hundreds of locations, visited many islands, many countries and spent three years living on a boat but I never realised how intrinsic the tides were until I came back to them.
The tides in the Canaries and Caribbean were barely visible compared to Britain and there’s no mud flats to give rise to the unique smell. The flats are graced with not just fat little boats but also elegant waders, eyeing up the brown ooze for snacks.
I cycled on and finally reached Starcross and its strange, small village atmosphere. I stopped and took up residence on the kind of painted bench that usually house old couples and fluffy dogs. The round trip would be 18 miles which is no long distance feat by any stretch of the imagination but it was enough. More than that, the midday sunshine was starting to dig deeper and deeper into my skin and something needed to give.
I hopped back on my bike and began the return journey.