cycling from summer to autumn

I have a class in Linlithgow on the last Sunday of the month, and last weekend I cycled home from it. My plans for the 22 mile ride along the Union Canal towpath this summer had been stymied first – often – by weather, and then by engineering works which meant that I couldn’t get the bike to the start point by train. Weather and other commitments have also prevented me from building up much in the way of fitness, so this would be easily my longest ride of the season.

Over the course of a few hours (including two pub lunch pit stops – I said I was unfit), stony surfaces, where the hinterland was arable and open, alternated with squelchier ones on long wooded sections. The repetitions began to create a sense of deja vu in one unfamiliar with the route. Robert Macfarlane borrows a term that I like from American artist William Fox: ‘cognitive dissonance’ (The Old Ways, p.79). Macfarlane finds this chiefly in what he calls ‘data-depleted landscapes’ such as high moors and tidal strands, my own favourite terrains, but it can happen when any sort of defamiliarisation is induced. Sea voyage, test match, Ring cycle. With the canal a constant on my right hand I felt as though I was cycling from summer to autumn. I know what West Lothian looks like: I’ve travelled between Edinburgh and Glasgow regularly for twenty years. I watch it from up in the Pentlands on a weekly basis. But I don’t know it. Canals subvert our knowledge of terrain, linking places by the line of least resistance, the contour, and not the line of greatest efficiency (the road). Their sinuings show you the locality in a new way.

The route of the Union Canal makes a lengthy detour around the Broxburn bings. The red spoil heaps are a memorial to the extraction of shale for oil in this area. Accustomed to seeing them in the distance, their denuded and increasingly biodiverse proximity experienced from cycle level startles. It’s like a passage through an otherworld, or, to use another Macfarlane term, a xenotopia, in the middle of the central belt.

Progress eastwards was slow; Edinburgh seemed as though it was getting further and further away, even when the Pentland Hills and Arthur’s Seat had become visible on the horizon. Signposts – Winchburgh, Almond Aquaduct – kept indicating the passage of a ridiculously low mileage since the previous one. It was the final weekend of the Edinburgh festival, and the journey felt a bit like a (slow) progression from one stage set to another. Woodside, fieldside, woodside alternated like scenes designed to build dramatic tension – or muscle fatigue. I wanted to switch to a higher gear and higher cadence in order to get home a bit more quickly, but wasn’t able to on the narrow track.

A couple of people had told me that there was ‘a rough section’ on the towpath. I think it would be more accurate to say there was a smooth section, a surfaced stretch around Broxburn. For the rest of the route, I and my bike, which is officially and accurately classified as a rugged hybrid, were jolted along uncomfortably. On FB* there’s a photograph of me taken at a poetry reading last week. The forearm grasping my paper, honed by absorbing shock from the the rugged hybridity of Lothian cycle paths over the last couple of years, probably has even better definition now.

And the fest? As usual, I was just getting into my stride in week 3 when fatigue was setting in for everyone else. Unusually, I didn’t attend many music events, choosing to focus instead on poetry and spoken word. Refusing to make a distinction between ‘page’ and ‘stage’, or  book and fringe festivals, was liberating and enriching, though I followed with interest the debate  around the dichotomy and hierarchy between them. I went to two concerts, on the final Friday, and they were very good, but my head was still (too?) full of words. Other highlights: Juliet Binoche in Antigone; gyoza from the Harajuku Kitchen stall in George St; the moon making a guest appearance above the magical lights in Charlotte Square and George Square. Still to come: the exhibitions that stay up in September, and space to actually look at them. More cycling before it gets too cold, and some hillwalking before the heather dies away. Going back to work, and my ‘Summer’ holiday.

* Never an early adopter, I was initiated into the world of Facebook this summer and as a result my blog posts have become even more sporadic. I don’t even know if it is ethical or possible to link to the photo.

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