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North London Dirt III

The woodland, bridleways and quiet lanes beyond the confines of the M25 are not the reason I set an alarm and drag myself from bed on a dark wet morning to get an early train to London. Not meaning to be churlish as it’s always nice to discover new places and I’m glad the lovely chaps from The Ride Journal find this stuff for us to ride but I live with the South Downs on my doorstep, I don’t need to bother with cancelled and delayed trains to ride this stuff. What I come for are the hidden bits of London and it’s outer reaches, the sprawl and scruff. That’s what I like. The hinterlands and in-between places. To be reminded of how we rode as youngsters, riding a dropbar bike over whatever happens to be in front of us, hopping curbs, darting down alleyways, cutting corners across the grass in the park. Finding our own ways, the secret places. The alternative routes from A to B. The paths and cut-throughs that echo and shadow the liminal spaces of railway lines and dual carriageways, the edges of non-spaces, transitional places. The blanks on most people’s maps. Forgotten places or maybe never known to many but not abandoned, we’re here and the existence of these paths mean others come this way, the runners, the dog walkers and the cyclists seek them out… and the fly-tippers and others up to no good. Some of these paths may even predate the city itself. Dotted lines on maps cross stitched into the fabric of the city. Paths over and under roads and railways, bridges and flooded underpasses. A man in wellies carrying his kids and bikes under a low railway bridge. I duck and splash, no hope that my socks will dry out before I get home. Beer cans and barbecues on tow paths, ghosts of evenings past. All consuming puddles, hoping there’s nothing hiding beneath the reflected sky. No idea where I am. The overgrown places behind the houses and over the river from factories, ducks and herons, rabbits and kites, a cat prowling far from home. The straight lines of the city disrupted and disguised but ever apparent, pylon lines fizzing overhead, tower blocks and cranes poke above the treeline like angular artificial mountain ranges. Both sides of the track, and the canal, and the river. Two young fallow stags within sight of a housing estate. Smashed padlocks and forced gates. A fridge in a hedge, a sink in a ditch. Sneaking between back gardens and wasteland. The damp saturates the green against a grey sky pushing down hard. Gravel pits and rivers, cobbles and lock gates. A memory of Belgium flickers in the back of my mind. Rivers running high and fast, banks on the verge of bursting, boundaries blurred, thresholds compromised. The squelch and the slop, vague steering. Wondering why we’re going over that way just to get to over there then realising there an interesting church hiding next to that alley, that the way through the park is quieter, the cheeky steep street chucked in near the end. It’s a ride made from shortcuts but joined together in such a way none of it is a shortcut. Turning right to end over to the left. Crossing rivers just to cross back again and then again. Marshes and reservoirs, football pitches and go-kart tracks. Dashing past ‘Private Road’ signs and CCTV cameras put there to discourage you from a right of way. Straying towards trespassing but always staying the right side of the fence. Out of sight places populated with dented vans and bonfires billowing smoke, the stench of burning plastic, semi-derelict barns that are either storing stolen cars or dead bodies. Isolation and the uncanny. Potholes and speedbumps. The places where the Underground isn’t. Neighbourhood Watch signs and local parks. Shimmying through staggered railings and gates, juddering over roots pushing through concrete, second guessing where that football might end up and still having to swerve. The suburban equivalent to singletrack. Skids and bunnyhops. Happy tired legs. Catching red lights and wondering if I’m getting any better at track stands. Nope but I’ll keep trying. Maybe next year I won’t need to put a foot down.

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