Solipsism and Me

Idle reports from an idle fellow

60 minute cycles

with one comment

In the dying days of the famous British summer I set myself a weekend goal, not too strenuous, of cycling in more or less the same direction for an hour to see where I get to. Each week in a different direction.

Bridge number 235The first weekend, the direction was North, along the canal tow path, a route I know well. Saturday afternoon and everyone’s out enjoying the sun, so a lot of polite banter as I bounce along, wondering why exactly the ground under my wheels is so corrugated, and when will I remember to buy a bicycle bell, though maybe people respond better to a polite “excuse me” or a jocular “tingaling” than they do to your actual mechanical tintinabulation. This is a route  which has not changed a great deal in the twenty or so years I have known it, though maybe there are more boats and a better maintained path than I remember from the early sixties. The chicken farm that used to be the first sign you were leaving suburban North Oxford is now a new housing development, and when the tow path is diverted tidily away from some ongoing maintenance work under the ring road it is within a distinctly 21st century  wire mesh fence. But the numbered bridges are just the same as they always have been, the hedgerows don’t look significantly different, and — my word this really is a bit bumpy.

Bridge number 223

That’s because the tow path has ceased to be a part of the Sustrans National Cycle Route 5 North, which went off at a tangent at the last bridge, and has now reverted to being just a tow path, at the whim of the villages it passes through. Kidlington likes its tow path, but Thrupp, where I finally stop for a rest as my hour is up, doesn’t give a toss. No matter, the sun is shining brightly, and the Jolly Boatmen is still open, offering quite drinkable cold white wine. (Which it certainly wouldn’t have done in the early sixties). An overland return route seems attractive: straight down the Oxford road into Kidlington, past the no-longer existent railway station, and the Dog Field, and on to Garden City, if memory serves. The road seems a bit longer, and the houses a bit smaller, but then I have not cycled down here since I was about 14 so that’s unsurprising. The Oxford House newsagent, where I used to buy penny toffees on my way to school (and that, dear reader, is why I am now increasingly toothless) is still there, but almost everything else along this street has changed. The Dog Field, which was once a real field, with clumps of dog roses in it, and a rather seedy looking pub called the Dog is now a maze of small streets of suburban houses, and a rather seedy looking eating house called the Dogwood.

I find myself in Laburnam Crescent, where once my best friend Dave lived. I wonder what’s become of him. I remember him explaining to me of why winkle pickers were the thing to wear. After we moved away from Kidlington to live in Bristol, I remember he came to visit me and reproached the city with being too proud of its own name, on the buses, on the buildings, even the cigarettes were called Bristol.

23 Stratfield Rd, in 1960 or so

23 Stratfield Rd, in 1960 or so

I find myself again in Stratfield Road, where once I used to live. That’s our house.

23 Stratfield rd, today

23 Stratfield rd, today

That’s the window I once jumped out of experimentally. But the tree my dad planted is gone, and the house itself seems to be dwarfed by the car parked in front of it. It’s not my house any more, of course not. I cycle on up the road, somehow knowing the rather convoluted route necessary to get to Oxford from here,  without knowing how I know it. I lived here between 1960 and 1962 when these houses were all new. My mum used to have a white vase which a company called Taylor Woodrow who built these houses gave us when we moved in. I remember walking down this road with my dad trying to sell lottery tickets to support the local Labour party. I remember taking trick photos of my sister against this fence which, good heavens, is still there and really in quite good nick.

Ah well, onwards and upwards, over the railway bridge, past the grain silo which my parents used to call the Ministry of Fear because it has no windows, past the Golf Course and five mile drive, and, well, since this is turning out to be a trip down Memory Lane, a brief diversion to see what no 12 Harefields looks like these days.

12 Harefields, in 1974 (Belinda is in the pram)

12 Harefields, in 1974 (Belinda is in the pram)

12 Harefields, today

12 Harefields, today

Unlike children, houses don’t grow up: no 12 Harefields just looks a bit more battered than I remember it being in 1974 when Lilette and I rented it. But the trees are bigger.

* *

A week later, and time for a different compass point. Where can I get to in an hour going South along Sustrans Route 5? Not to provoke unnecessary suspense, I  can reveal that the answer is Radley comfortably, and Abingdon if pushed. It is odd to be cycling into town on a Saturday afternoon through the crowds of happy shoppers and tourists who seem curiously unaware that the street they are thronging is actually part of Sustrans Route 5; I am not going shopping, I am going on an expedition. Over the Oxpens bridge, which has a rather fine political slogan “beware pedestrians from the left”,

Sound political advice

Sound political advice

and so to Marlborough Road, various devious wiggles round parks, Wytham Street, more wiggles, a stretch of riverside splendour, featuring another  fine slogan,

Another sound political slogan

Another sound political slogan

a stretch of ringroad traffic, and thus to the Hanson way. A beautiful straight flat offroad track skirts Kennington, beside the railway. All praise to the Sustrannies and their assiduous nagging of local authorities, though their taste in iron sculpture is not one I share.Way,marker Radley seems to consist of a church,  a row of suburban houses, some kind of college, a railway station and a pub with a silly name, next to a rather fine  blackberry bush. Hesitating here for a while,  I decide to press on to Abingdon, since my hour is only just up and the afternoon is still fine. Which was a very good idea, since the route is almost entirely off road, and moderately scenic, carefully skirting the Abingdonian suburban sprawl via gravel pits, woodland, and open fields. This isn’t the real countryside, but it’s close. And then there’s another kind of transition, from semi-rural quiet to semi-urban leisure space, as we cross over a bridge into Abingdon’s answer to Cutteslowe Park. It’s still a fine Saturday afternoon, and families are taking an airing, in groups with roughly equal quantities of children and aged parents. I reckon I just have time for a cup of tea and a bun before returning to Radley to catch the train home. Which I do, though the return trip to Radley was a bit hectic, ten minutes exactly. Bikes on trains! hoorah!

* * *

Week 3 and the route is East. There is no obvious east-west cycle-specific route, but I have a mind to make one up anyway. The plan is to head for Elsfield, via Marston: I leave the house and proceed in an easterly direction as far as the roads permit me, which is to say up to the entrance into the University Parks. Then am forced to skirt the edge of said parks beforfe finally achieving significant easterly orientation across the river. Was this once called Mesopotamia? Not on any map I can now find, but nevertheless there’s a fine cycle route across it, and across the fields to Old Marston. Back lanes take me as far as the ring road, where I get lost in a trailer park for a while, before eventually finding how to get across the ring road and back on the road to Elsfield. Roads, even country ones, differ from cycle ways not only in the fact that you have to share them with cars, I suddenly re-remember, but in that they tend to have more hills and bends. The road on suddenly shakes itself determinedly and assumes a gradient which I am unfit even to consider cycling up, so I push. Never mind, the sun is still shining, and Elsfield has rather pleasant views over the surrounding countryside. It seems to consist of a small number of houses with rather uninventive names like “hilltop cottage”, “red cottage”,  “new cottage”, etc. . I pause to admire someone’s thatched cottage which features live peacocks, and also, at the very top of the hill, the pseudo-tudor glory of Elsfield Manor, where I learn from a commemorative plaque, John Buchan liked to play at being a member of the squirearchy when he retired from being Lord Tweedsmuir. And of course’s Rosie’s cottage, but there’s no-one home.

From the top of the hill the road bears south, and then joins the old road from Islip to Wheatley, known to you and me as the B4027, a mostly hilltop route through some fairly real countryside. I say this because I see mostly farmland on either side of it, and I’m sharing it with serious cyclists wearing sensible helmets and proper clothing as well as the occasional motor car or agricultural vehicle.

Thatched dog

Thatched dog

I pause to admire a faintly surreal thatched dog, and am tempted by an overgrown bridleway signposted as 2 miles to Barton, but decide to press on to another of my former homes, in the village of Stanton St John. In 1972 I moved into 4 Freeland Cottages,
Freeland Cottages, Stanton St John

Freeland Cottages, Stanton St John

which looks today more or less exactly as it did then, and indeed more or less exactly as it did when (known as Red Cottages) it was photographed in 1897. Other parts of the village have come up in the world: Stanton House, which was boarded up and overgrown in the 70s is now doing very well thank you; Rectory Farm, which was struggling as a farm, has transformed the farmyard itself itself into a modest housing estate, and repurposed one of its pastures as an award-winning (do they really give these things awards?) pick-your-own. And the Star Inn, to and from which I remember many unsteady nocturnal walks, is still there but much gentrified. Other things at that end of the village (the Kings Arms and the village school notably, have been completely transformed into something else entirely, so I beat a hasty retreat to the Rectory Farm PYO, where I enjoy a cup of tea and a bun sitting in the sun, benignly ignoring assorted children released from their motorcars by parents in search of cheap strawberries.

I take the most direct route homeward: along the road past Shepherds Pits (now a rather exclusive looking housing development), down the hill past the Crematorium, struggle up the hill past Barton’s prefabs, most of them now much improved, under the ringroad, and so to the cycle route through Headington which is direct, and downhill, if dull. Nothing to report here: I see this route usually from the window of the X70 to and from Heathrow, which is why I don’t really see it at all. Another good thing about cycling is the ease with which one takes a minor detour, for example to pay my respects to the Oxford shark.


Written by Lou

August 31, 2009 at 13:32

Posted in Biographical

One Response

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  1. Hi! I came across your piece about cycling through Stanton St John while searching for old photos of Freelands cottages. You mention that the row of terraces was previously called Red Cottages and photographed in 1897? I would love to know more information and possibly see these old photos, where did you come across this information?

    (I’m currently hoping to buy number 5!)


    Hanna Sjoberg

    August 31, 2017 at 16:23

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