Monday, March 15, 2010

'I cycled to the Arctic Circle'

OK I didn't, that was 'Dummy Jim'. But I'm thinking of him for inspiration as I start the uphill training towards the Etape Caledonia - a day's 'spin' along 81 miles of closed roads in (hilly) Highland Perthshire. In May, when this ride happens, I'll have had my bike for 20 years.

Getting back on a bicycle after a winter break reminds me what I love about cycling. As far as rhythm and pace go, it's not as meditative for me as walking. Movement and thought are less well matched, but the same sense of independence goes with it; me and the road, blasts of fresh air and a pace that engages me with what I travel through. There can also be occasional speed, and the potential for tea and cake stops if I get the route right. It reminds me of my earliest 'strikings out' on a bicycle as a teenager, at first to get to a horse I wanted to ride and then on solo tours with a tent on the back.

Re-establishing my cycling cadence, easing out stiff limbs after my lengthening rides, has made me appreciate this quote from H.G. Wells, The Wheels of Chance: 'After a day of cycling, one dream is inevitable. A memory of motion lingers in the muscles of your legs, and round and round they seem to go. You ride through Dreamland on wonderful dream bicycles that change and grow.' Cycling literature inevitably brings to mind Flann O'Brien's brilliant The Third Policeman (I'll be keeping an eye on my wall-leaning habits over the next two months).

So who's Dummy Jim? In May 1951 a profoundly deaf 28 year old Scotsman called James Duthie – known fondly to his local community as ‘Dummy Jim’ – cycled solo on a return trip from the small fishing town of Cairnbulg in the north east of Scotland to the Arctic Circle. The journey took three months and cost £12. On returning to Scotland, Duthie wrote about his travels and in 1955 a slim volume called ‘I Cycled into the Arctic Circle’ was published. Sadly the cyclist was killed in a mysterious road accident in 1965.

In 2001, artist film maker Matt Hulse was inspired by the eccentric journal and made a commitment to bring James Duthie’s unique story to the silver screen. A Creative Scotland Award set the wheels in motion, and the film is due to be made in 2010, as well as a cycling reconstruction (re-cycling?). You can follow progress, and support fundraising for the film, on the inventive and entertaining website which involves pedalling hard through the story and all the countries on the way to the Arctic.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

more hares

The wind is rising, and so is the temperature. The first green patches have re-emerged in my garden, and there are rumours of a thaw after what seems weeks of a china-blue freeze over a white land. So I took my skis out again, back to the hares on the hill, while I still can.
I saw only one or two at first. They sprang up out of hollows; the sound of the wind must have stopped them hearing my approach. In a normal winter, I'm used to spotting them easily, white against dark heather. But this year, seen against snow, I see more clearly why they're called 'blue hares', following with my eyes their smoky, off-white coats as they loped away.
Suddenly, when I got up to about 1500 feet, there were 30 or 40 of them, widely spaced but fleeing in the same trajectory, uphill, away from me . Once they'd gained the relevant distance, they stopped simultaneously, sat, frozen again, offering me a series of triangular profiles like unbreathing sentinels guarding the hillside.
I heard a snippet on In Our Time on Radio 4 this morning, about Boudica, who used a hare in her uprising against the Roman Empire, releasing it from her skirts as a form of divination in battle. Perhaps it was the idea of this mystic run that tempted me out onto the hill again.

Thursday, March 4, 2010


One of the delights of being surrounded by white stuff has been observing the criss-crossing patterns of prints made by animal and human movement. I was on a hill near home this afternoon which was scrambling with mountain hares in their white coats. They were locked, as they should be now that it's March, in nose-to-nose combat, leaping and circling. I was mesmerised by the lines left by their journeys; ill-defined holes in deep snow, or fine, clawed paw-prints in the harder stuff. But always that characteristic cadence.

It brought to mind some lines I love from a Thomas Hardy poem:

'Yes, I companion him to places

Only dreamers know,

Where the shy hares print long paces,

Where the night rooks go'

(The Haunter)