Friday, 21 December 2012

Bath or Bust (buggered bits permitted)

I am sure that you know this truth for yourselves, there is a point in your life when you have the glorious summer, it is a time in your life that can never be repeated or bettered in terms of the things that you do to excess. 

The summer of 1996 was the summer that would really be the end of my childhood, despite my actually being in my twenties. I had spent the summer holiday pursuing my glorious hobbies of climbing and mountain biking, while also getting to know a group of friends who were about to become so precious to me that even now, I will never ever forget them. By the end of the summer of 1997, my degree had come to an end and I was forced (sulking and swearing) into the adult world and a very poor show I made of it too.

As I sit here at the end of 2012, it feels like a very long time has passed since that glorious summer of 1996 and the spring of 1997. Yet when a link to 1997 suddenly reopened, I could not let it pass by unremarked or unvisited. Looking back at who I was then, I cannot help but feel that I was so terribly young, so blatantly naïve and still so innocent of life. I am not in any way saddened by this, although at a push I may admit that I miss the carefree nature of it all, but where I am now is a life of greater experience and with so much less sadness. So where is this rambling introduction to a curious adventure leading you may well ask?

Ahh, the memories of warm dry days.

From out of no where came the messenger on winged feet who stated boldly that HE was back, my dear old friend, my climbing companion, my tandem stoker and my teacher. The emblematic Dr Livingstone as it were, the man who vanished, the man who taught me about my inner strength and my having the courage to do the things that scared me and not just the dangerous sports. So the chance to meet up with a most dear friend could not simply be missed and Carol and I made our way to see him and enjoy a moment of his delicate company, his witty word play and his compelling stories of daring. After an evening of reminiscing over the old times shared and talk of new and curious adventures undertaken since, we ended our evening and wished each other well and more new exciting adventures to come. As we parted again, I never expected to see my friend again and I truly was somewhat saddened.

A short while later, I was informed that Mr Mysterious was once again in the beautiful hell that is Bath and that he would love to meet us for a coffee and a natter. To do so would mean a trip to Bath via motorcycle though given that Carol was at work during the week and could not take the time from her day to drive me there. So my friend and I agreed on a time to meet on that Thursday morning. Before leaving my warm and comfortable home I swallowed enough pain killers to keep my shoulder suitably mellow, I slowly and rather painfully donned my bike leathers and the water proof outers and then got my precious Sylvie out of the garage. Being the powerful warrior woman that I am, I was going to see my friend no matter what and if things got too nasty, I had my TENS machine in my handbag!

Sadly, Thursday morning dawned with rain, the persistent heavy rain and dark clouds of winter, but at least it was warm. Freezing rain is not great for riding motorcycles whether you are broken or not. So with a full tank of fuel and my engine purring I made my way through the rain on worryingly slippery roads and from deep with in came the sort of smile that only an adventurer can understand. Riding in the rain is not horrible if you are warm. Warm and dry is preferable, but warm and wet will do. Cold and wet though is dangerous and at speed on a bike, the cold wind can quickly suck the heat from your body. I though had the pleasure of not only riding through the rain while staying not only warm and dry, but also of being comfortable and almost pain free.

My first stop was just passed Churchill when I had to pull over for a short rest for a few minutes, fighting the bike along the soaked busy town roads that had the rainbow of spilled diesel across them had made my shoulder ache rather unpleasantly and taking five minutes out helped to ease that pain. What I did not know though was that from Churchill, the roads were about to become somewhat more epic and I can say now that with hindsight, it was an adventure that I will treasure for many years to come.

The road from Churchill to Bath goes through the Mendips and is surrounded by some of the most beautiful scenery that Somerset has to offer, the cloud clung to the hill sides like avenging wraiths, smoky claws dropping down into the gullies. The fields ran with sediment heavy, wood stain brown water, looking more like a winter marsh than the baked grazing land that they had been in 1997. My speed was steady, I was not blasting along, but I was making steadfast progress in a manner that the conditions safely allowed. The tyres on my bike held a constant firm grip on the road no matter what the rising waters could leave behind as their evidential detritus trail of naughtiness. So if you want to try a truly fantastic tyre for all conditions, give some thought to ContiMotions by Continental, they really are very, very impressive.

I passed the turning for Burrington Combe and the road conditions grew even more treacherous, the metal drain covers at the side of the road puked forth thick dark water rather than swallowing it down and a steady river of water was starting to flow down the side of the road. My concentration was held fast as I slipped into that state that experience climbers know well, a stillness of the soul and the absolute awareness of what you are doing. I have only felt this feeling when I have been involved in either complex technical climbing or when painting delicate works of art. For me, the rest of the world vanishes and all that matters is the task being undertaken, it is like a level of deep thought, a place where the brain is so at peace with what is being done that it ignores everything that is not relevant at that moment. It is the complete submersion into the moment and I love that feeling because at that moment, I am not a rider on a motorcycle. I am instead the machine. The engine is my heart and its pulse is my pulse.

The roads conditions continued to deteriorate when a steady trickle of gravel began running down the middle of each lane being carried by the water from the hills above. The streams at the side of the road had become torrents and ahead of me approaching at speed was a large delivery lorry. I saw the wall of water rise up as the truck rushed through the flood with an urgency known only to delivery drivers on a deadline. The water was a foot deep and I approached this ford across the road with trepidation, my speed reduced to a level that I felt comfortable with and yet not so slow that I would stall if the water proved too deep for my nerves. The steam from the sudden emersion of my exhaust pipe and the resultant hiss were most gratifying, but what was more pleasing was the realisation that I was no longer afraid of riding in floods. In 2008, I crashed a training bike while traversing such a flood and have never forgotten the feeling of fear as the bike failed to follow my lead and instead careered almost unguided into the back of my instructor’s bike.

My next flood was even deeper and it covered both sides of the road for some distance, the grin on my face was suddenly and viciously wiped off though when a large van sped through from the other way and the wall of water hit me in the chest with the force of a punch. The impact on my helmet threw my head back and yet my Sylvie just carried on unflinching of such dangers. The road could have held nothing but dry tarmac for her, given the relaxed feeling she gave at the handle bars. My precious Suzuki SV650 just continues to inspire and impress me and for all of her subtle quirks she is a truly magnificent machine.

From that point the road developed into a series of sweeping S bends so deluged that I pondered the need for a jet ski. Yet with every rain soaked and water washed curve, the absolute involvement with the activity grew within me and left me hungry for the next perilous curve until once again I was the morph of woman and machine. My tempered, swift and even relentless little bike swept through every corner as if she were a train on rails, through the floods and muddy puddles that occasionally came up to her engine cases and which would erupt a cloud of violently hissing steam as it ran over the hot exhaust pipe. Finally and with a little sadness that my journey was over, I passed through the village of Corston and then past the entrance to my former place of study, Bath Spa University. From there is was a quick blast down the duel carriage way, a trip I remember doing on a bike once before with another dear friend. I was a pillion upon his recently rebuilt CB750 and what a fine machine it had been.

Sylvie simply and capably danced along the miles, the biggest limitation to her that day had as always been me, crippled as I was by shoulder and other forms of pain. Given how well she handled the bad weather and even how well she handled the snow only a couple of years ago, I would happily say that she is one of the finest road bikes out there, her light weight and impeccable road manners make her a constant joy to live with and yet at a moments notice there comes forth the sharp little demon horns and she lets out the hooligan from with in that furious little heart of an engine. My SV650 is more than just a plain commuter bike, she has soul and passion under that insectile fairing and I can honestly say that I love my bike.

As for Mr Mysterious, well that is a story for another day.

Back in the days before they invented colour.