Sunday, 2 May 2010

Haunted by Pevensey Levels

It is a land where nesting swans and moorhens outnumber human beings, a place detached and featureless that dissuades men’s habitation, a reclusive world that wraps itself nocturnally in unpolluted darkness when night reveals the heavens in their splendour. No better reason why the house and lawns on a prominence south of the village of Herstmonceux should enfold the copper-green pepper-pot giant domes that once accommodated the functioning telescopes at the earth-bound base of the British Royal Observatory, the once working-home of the Astronomer Royal. Of April’s Castle Cycle Challenge, the stately but utilitarian Herstmonceux Castle was the jewel in the crown, the pearl in the oyster, le prix Goncourt of the forty-mile ride.
But this prize had a flip side that revealed itself ominously on the return ride after Magham Down when solitary navigation through the Pevensey Levels animated the haunting seclusion of the gulag landscape. Suddenly there were no yellow-jacketed marshals to point the way across a patchwork wilderness of winding canals and towering reed grass. Instead, discreet blue arrows on white cards meekly pointed the direction, along narrow roads, potholed and inadvertently gravelled, threatening immobility through puncture and its consequent unpunctuality; man and bike against a seemingly hostile nature, for an interminable seven miles.
Punctures were avoided however, at least for two Thornton forty-milers, and no silver lining was ever so uplifting to hearts beating at 130 bpm than that illumined on the arrival at Pevensey Castle roundabout. From then on, there was the thrill, the exhilaration, the adrenalin, of a following wind on the twelve miles to Bexhill and Hastings. Laggardly returning off-road bikes, of which there seemed to be several hundred in the twenty-five-mile ride, were passed with ease by the few score road bikes and their riders, the occasional impertinent hill was mounted without a twinge of inconvenience, and the dignified Edwardian urban sea-front homes and hotels were greeted fleetingly at speed as old friends, first met on the windward outward ride. A hero’s welcome awaited all riders in Hastings, and for those who had completed the forty-mile circuit in two-and-a-half hours or so (as did your derring-do Thornton pair), speechless amazement from the municipal officials who handed out the medals.
This was a ride not to have been missed, earning a medal not to be spurned. The sea air and showers, with their precipitation of volcanic ash, as well as the seagull’s deposit on the car, were small costs to pay compared to the immeasurable pleasure of the cycle journey. Well done Hastings.
Eric Bates