Articles - RIVER TO DAMASCUS
Rather like St Paul on the Road, I had a revelationary moment last weekend, which may well have changed my attitude to paddling forever. The Lord didn’t appear to me, or anything so miraculous. But still it was strange. Not least because I wasn’t in a boat, and the nearest water was a two-inch deep puddle in the rut of a bridleway. I was, in fact, out on the Quantocks with a bunch of mates on mountain bikes.
I’m into pedalling for similar reasons that I am into paddling. It gets me out into the wilds and gives me a thrill simultaneously.
On this particular winter Sunday, the sun is shining and it feels like the entire biking community of the Southwest has taken to the hills. At the top of one of many gruelling ascends, we stop for a photo opportunity, trying out a variety of witty alternatives to the customary ‘cheese’ thing. Oh, how we laugh!
Then I notice a middle-aged couple quietly approaching on shank’s pony. They have all the gear and wiry appearance of seasoned hill-walkers. Suddenly I am aware that my pals and I are being quite rowdy. So I blurt an apology, “Sorry, I expect you were hoping for a quiet walk.”
The wife smiles, appreciative, and then the husband chips in, “Sadly, those days are gone.” He’s not trying to be rude. It’s more the tone of a gentle man, resigned to an inevitable tragedy. A world he doesn’t fully understand has moved on. He accepts he can’t wind back the clock, there’s no point in blaming individuals or getting angry. It’s just a loss he is learning to live with.
And in that brief moment I feel for him. For forty years or more, this man and his wife could have been walking these hills on Sundays like this one, hardly meeting a soul. The few people they met would have been on foot or on horseback. They would have been transported back to a time when these were the only forms of transport. An ancient time before all the rush and the mayhem.
Then came us mountain-bikers, and within ten years the trails are filled with lycra-clad maniacs, who no matter how polite, considerate or in love with nature we pretend to be, move at a different pace – a modern pace, that clashes with the timeless tranquillity of the landscape we pass through; the pell-mell of the hunt that shatters the mystic’s quiet contemplation.
Shockingly, though, my sympathy doesn’t stop there. I start thinking about an angler by the side of a river. (Have I gone crazy?) Perhaps he has carried his rods over miles of moorland to find a quiet pool where no one but he can disturb the fishes. It’s the quietness and the other-worldliness that attracts him as much as the sport. Then he hears echoes in the gorge, and a bunch of kayakers flash past, whooping and hollering. And the specialness is punctured and he’s angry and he can’t get the inner-peace back, even when the outer-tranquillity is restored.
And in these thoughts, I realise that both paddlers and mountain bikers are too often like tourists who destroy the very things they come to revere with their loud shirts, loud voices and flashing cameras.
Is there any solution? Are anglers and walkers right when they call for kayaking and mountain-biking to be restricted?
Of course not! Without outdoor sports and the income they generate, much of the landscape we all love would be torn up for housing, roads and retail parks. Walkers and anglers need us to make up a right-thinking majority on the side of Nature. But that still leaves a conflict on the hills, on the beaches and along our rivers.
One answer is the purpose-built centre where the speed and adrenaline-junkies can get their fixes without upsetting anyone. The whitewater course at HP, or the new one they are building for the Olympics; the soon to be completed artificial reef break at Bournemouth… Guaranteed whitewater or surf, it’s got to be a winner.
Another answer is to herd us into ghettos, the dedicated forest trails for the mountain bikers, the flagged off section of beach where surf-craft can surf with ignominy, the limited licence on a whitewater section of river.
These solutions have their attractions, but for me they deny the main reason for my paddling or pedalling: to be OUT THERE LOST IN THE WILDERNESS, AWAY FROM OTHER PEOPLE! (Apart from a couple of mates, obviously)
And I can’t deny myself this pleasure, any more than the walker or angler should do.
So instead, I am determined in future to go quieter, and gentler and if not at all times slower, then occasionally to stop and breathe in the air and take in the view, and give thanks for the rare solitude, and hopefully in some way to atone for my madness and folly.
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