Bare ground frowns
A warning; reproach seethes
In the grumbling river that, in its anger,
Has hurled aside cracked slabs of dirty ice
And made its sodden banks
A desecrated graveyard.
Every unburdened birch
Points accusing fingers as we pass;
Reindeer stand like cattle,
Hemmed in by fence and flood;
While the empty roads
Hiss sinister threats
In the grey spray thrown by passing trucks.
And away in the north
The long night’s slow retreat
Brings no hopeful dawn
But a new and different darkness
We may never drive away.
Just returned from our second trip to northern Norway, which has experienced its mildest winter in (depending on who you talk to) 60, 70, perhaps even 100 years. The difference in the landscape compared to this time last year was stark and startling: I have looked climate change straight in the eye, and it is real and scary. N.
No day of rest
For me and the tribe:
Pinched faces streaked with filth
Like miners coming off shift;
Shining machines crusted with clay
Like implements back from the fields;
Sharp air and long labour emptying lungs,
Flash-flooding muscles with fire.
But ask us
If we’re happy in our work
We’ll look at you blankly
Amazed that the question
Ever even entered your head.
The Sunday-morning ride is a ritual observed by cyclists the world over. With the worst of the winter (we hope) behind us, and the racing/sportive season on the horizon, the roads are starting to get a little busier than they’ve been for a while. Last week, I met a couple of dozen hardy souls, from other soloists to club-run bunches – and wherever I encountered them, they were always heading in the opposite direction to me; I didn’t overtake (or get overtaken by) a single rider in almost two hours. Strange how things work out sometimes. Maybe they knew something I didn’t…whatever you’ve got planned, have a great weekend. N.
A sudden, fragile truce.
For an hour
And yields the field.
A shell-shocked sun
Blinking in bewilderment
In the spin of silver spokes;
As I ride out to greet and grasp it
With my bare hands.
Later, locked in the deep dark
With Spring’s brief kiss
Still warm upon on my skin.
A parting and a promise
That I will hold her to.
Round the corner
From calm, unthinking black
To glassy, deathly white
In one sharp breath
And a shocking spike
Driven through my chest:
With the solid, blessed earth
From the soothing clasp
Of friendly, faithful friction.
Nerves yanked tight,
Every wolf and lion our fathers ever saw
Springing out of time
And suddenly recalled;
The helpless dread of drowning
On dry land.
And then the sagging joy
Of grip and sanity regained.
But more awaits:
I feel it in my bones.
After more than 20 years and many thousands of miles in all conditions, I readily confess that I’m still petrified, almost literally, by icy roads. There’s not much ice about at the moment – indeed, there’s hardly been any all winter – but yesterday I rounded a corner and found myself on a veritable skating-rink, the surface smooth and glassy from verge to verge. I got through OK, and in my whole cycling career, I’ve had only a couple of minor ‘offs’ on black ice, never a serious fall, so I should really get over it. Just can’t, somehow. N.
A molten copper sun
And roads left parched
By a week of quicklime frosts
Sets the old urge surging
Through my sluggish blood and ruined bones,
Shaking lost desires from their long winter sleep.
Tool up, clip in, tuck down
Turn the taps on full
Settle to the work.
And so the wheel turns.
The road bike has been waiting patiently in the shed all winter for the roads to dry up and the sun to put in an appearance. Yesterday, finally, it all came right. And it was good. N.
Dirt, sure. But not the ground-in grime
Of long neglect,
The careless patina of time
No nameless filth, no gnawing rust
To stain and blight;
No petrified, cemented crust
Of oversight –
No: these are battle honours, scars
Earned in the field
That tell, through long and bitter wars,
We did not yield
But faced down Winter’s worst, and won.
So let them stand
Until a cleansing, reborn sun
Reclaims the land.
No warmth left in the cast-iron soil, or weak winter sun.
A cold, colourless world, emptied of all life.
Silence lies on the leafless woods and bare, frosted fields;
Ice lurks in shadows, a wicked, watchful eye.
Naked hedgerows, armed with thorns, frown over dank ditches;
Half-lost lanes languish, scabbed with old farmyard filth.
And in this desolation, your swirl of red and gold
Sparks hope of brighter days and tales to be told.
By this stage in an English winter, everywhere is looking a bit dead, grubby and neglected. But Nature has a way of redeeming herself, as she did yesterday with a charm of goldfinches, who burst out of a hedgerow as I rode past. At that moment, all was forgotten and forgiven. N.
I will not go back in.
Not for a while –
Though the thin light fades
And rooks wheel, homebound, over the leafless wood.
I am now outside the walls
Released, alone, in a voiceless winter
Rejoicing in the silence.
There is no echo here.
We shiver in a sunless solstice, soaked in rain
Whipped in on winds from the western sea;
The country cloaked in colourless cloud,
All mirth a memory, all merriment a mockery.
The fire flickers, the flame faint and fitful
As the cold comes creeping closer
And the little light that’s left to us is lost.
Our dreams are done. Dark days indeed.
Last day of winter. Could I be anywhere but here,
Marking the moment, feeling the great wheel turn?
One final skirmish in a war fought on long cold fronts
Against the North wind’s fists, clear nights with sharp knives.
Now its white wolves, cowed and muzzled, slink back to their lairs
Among the floes and treeless slopes shot with scree.
A westerly breeze sends dead leaves spinning before me
As, together, we run winter off the road.
I started this on 29 February but wrote the closing two lines today, when the weather finally realised that Spring officially began a week ago. The long months of filthy bikes and endless layers of thermal/windproof/waterproof cycling kit are at last coming to an end. And not a moment too soon. N.