11 February 2008

Up in the Downs

Humanity displays richness. Richness evokes a scale, a range. Ranges have positive and negative extremes, as does humanity. An example of this can be extracted from a most marvellous mountain biking trip on the South Downs yesterday.

Following a popular route in the environs of Steyning, West Sussex, a friend and I climbed on to the escarpment above the river Adur in the glorious sunshine reminiscent of May, not early Feb. Unwittingly taking a wrong turn at one point (maybe my cartophilia does not always match up to my map reading skills), we ended up on a track classified as 'footpath' and not 'bridleway'. For those not familiar with the over-significant ramifictions of this difference for mountain bikers, well... Simply put, by default you can bike on a bridleway but not on footpaths. In mapland this makes long dashed lines good, short dashes/dots naughty. Of course in fact you can ride on some footpaths and rarely does the classification have any bearing on the suitability of mountain bikers and walkers sharing the same route anyway.

But, on a footpath we were. Naughty bikers. Slap slap. We passed a local walker. He didn't scold us, as I thought he might, but he did warn us of the booby traps. 'The booby traps?' We inquired. 'Yes', he retorted, 'there are those that set branches to knock you guys off.' We thanked him for the warning and made on. Then it dawned on me how horrendous this actually was. Some would cause an accident in order to anonymously express their dislike of mountain bikers. Any accident could theoretically have fatal consequences. But simply by introducing a little temporal separation and the innocent agent of a branch, there are those who are certainly prepared to do this. At first inconsequential, on reflection it becomes plainly horrifying. Evil really. In the true, non-religious sense. Mountain bikers have humanity too though. So they can also be bad. Maybe the secret bike trapper had once been forced to jump for their life by an irresponsible cyclist thundering down with similar disregard for other's safety. But, even, if so offended, would trapping be your solution? People can go very far when no-one is looking.

Back up on the South Downs' ridge, that magnificent undulating backbone seemingly guarding inland Sussex from the sea, we regained legal status by rejoining the bridleway. Phew. At least there had been no surveillance drones buzzing overhead to record our misdemeanours. Not yet, in any case. Don't laugh, they are already in use. In your world. Your same world that now sanctions the abominable practice of indiscriminate sonic repellent apparatus to remove 'hoodies' from your environment. Free of surveillance and trespassing guilt, we headed up to Chanctonbury Ring, an unbeatable piece of Iron Age real estate. What a place to sit and contemplate the sea. England, oh England.

After a 'it's not just a picnic, it's an M&S picnic' picnic (all very nice indeed but £3.69 for some sliced mango, oh please, I'd rather shitter adverts and lower prices), it was time for some bone shaking downhill, the delicious reward for a lung- and leg-lambasting ascent. The wet ground, the vertiginous descent ahead. The risk, the danger; the thrill. Ah, the walkers heading uphill. Conflict, disapproval, Xhosa-esque tut-tutting à la Sussex? I slowed to pass. The elderly couple retreated to the shelter of the path's edge. 'Don't worry, you go for it love,' she screamed. Faith in humanity restored, we thundered down.

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