Cracks in the pavement

This is another repost from the old blog, written in september 2009.

I took the bicycle into the shop today. Whenever it needs work I tend to jump on the train to Dorset, where the service is so much better than in the city, and for a fair price too. The bicycle’s getting to the age where a year or two’s worth of maintenance adds up to the price of a whole new bike, and you have to consider whether a brand new hassle free machine might be worth the investment. Something more specifically designed for the road, perhaps? Why do I still have a mountain bike frame with a front suspension when the most exciting thing it ever sees these days is the Elephant and Castle roundabout? “I dunno,” said Nick in the bike shop. “I reckon it’s probably the most suitable gear for the job.”

And he’s right. The roads of Lambeth and Camden are rougher terrain than any track or trail in the West Country or mountain pass in the Lake District. The London borough councils, it would seem, have gambled all their road maintenance budgets on Icelandic banks, and last winter’s frost damage never did get repaired. High Holborn and the Tottenham Court Road tell the stories of ten million commuter journeys, as the buses gouge ever deeper pits and canyons. A mountain bike is more useful in the city than the country. The cracked and crumbling road outside the bike shop tells only the story of ten million pints of milk, bouncing from farm to bottling plant in the tanker. Few buses pass through here.

Nick fitted a new front gearset, and I tried it out. Through the narrow village street and out into the fields. Over the bridge at Bagber, where the banks subside into the Lydden below, telling the story of ten thousand school bus journeys, the driver accelerating down the hill and jumping the ancient and battered coach over the brim and brow of the bridge, as the school children squeal in delight and hit their heads on the luggage shelves. Then up the long slow climb to the wooded hilltop, where fattened pheasants are the only threat to the thoroughfare. Onto the main road again and back over the Lydden at Lydlinch, where temporary traffic lights direct us to the humpback stone half of the twin bridges at Twofords , as the county council patches the cracks in its neighbour — an accidental story of function and utility, left behind by the Canadian Army on their way to D-Day, and long past its rightful retirement age. And finally, back along the Wood Lane, grass growing tall down the centre of the road, telling stories of children on bicycles and old couples walking with dogs. A seven mile circuit, equivalent to a morning commute up the Brixton Road and over Blackfriars Bridge.

The church had an open day, to pay the maintenance bills. The church warden was selling photographs, and the vicar giving guided tours of the tower. The choirmaster served cream teas. I’d climbed the tower once or twice before, as a child, and had even rung the bells one time, long ago. I’d looked across the vale from the top, and down on the field of earthworks where the manor house once stood. But I had no photos, so I thought I’d give it a go.

So I walked back up the hill, past the British Legion’s ramshackle workshop where the road narrows and the pavement ends. As children we would stand on the side of the road, where the weeds grow up the stonework, looking through the grimy window at the models of ships and trains and whatever else might be on display that week, before the time when the windows were smashed, and the models were never displayed again. Then past the old telephone exchange, converted into Dorset’s smallest dwelling; the new cottages on the old baker’s yard, where smashed old telephone boxes and traditional delivery vans once rested in peace; up the steps where the pavement is restrained by rusted railings now replaced in places with lengths of stainless steel; and along the pavement by the old allotment gardens, where ten years ago the council filled the cracks by spreading a thin layer of tar, like butter on a slice of toast, now almost worn through. Where Church Covert cuts through the rooks’ nests woods to the churchyard, a torn branch of a tree marks the hole where last I walked this way a great oak post had stood, before it had crumbled to dust and collapsed.

In the churchyard, beside the tower, moles dig holes around the sculpted headstone of the Victorian child, weathered worn and forgotten. Heavy fallen stones, cleared and placed against the building a year or more ago, sink through the asphalt path at glacial speeds, pushing up neat piles of the moss covered concrete before them. In the church tower built from reclaimed manor house materials, Nigel the retired undertaker — great white beard and best black suit, a medal pinned to the pocket — winds the weight on the clock mechanism with shaking hands, and the elaborate engineering rings the hour. A few more flaking stone steps and another door too small for the twenty-first century adult opens onto the lead lined roof and through the decorative castellations are my panoramas of the Blackmore Vale.

But panoramas are a different story…

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