With a very lightweight harvest in the barn I needed something to take my mind off things. So it was that I allowed myself to be persuaded by my youngest daughter to accompany her on a bike ride along the 99-mile South Downs Way.
The South Downs Way stretches along the southern chalklands between Winchester and Eastbourne. We started our marathon at the western end and headed ‘home’ towards my farm, which sits at the eastern end where the Way runs directly past my farmhouse
To find myself on the Downs on a mountain bike, rather than in the seat of a tractor, Land Rover or combine, was disconcerting. It was so unsettling to experience the Downs as a recreational facility rather than to see it as a factory floor that provides me with my living. Working each side of this busy public right of way, I have always perceived it as more of a potential nuisance to me than a source of huge enjoyment to others in the form of countless walkers, runners, horse riders and cyclists.
But now I was one of those cyclists and on other farmers’ land. As I pedalled desperately, trying to keep up with my daughter’s dust, it was suddenly me who was in danger of becoming the inconsiderate user of this public right of way. As I became ever more tired and thirsty in 32°C of August heat (there are very few drinking water points along the track) I started to grumble to myself: “Why don’t these farmers make their gates open and close a bit more readily?”
As we pedalled further east I even started to feel a little irritated at what I perceived to be distinctly hostile signage. Notices declaring “No Mountain Bikes”, “Private”, “Keep Out”, “Beware of Guard Dogs” and even “You Are Being Watched” started to make me feel distinctly unwelcome.
Things came to a head when we met a car on the South Downs Way that had emerged from a farmhouse drive. To pass it we drew to the left hand side of the wide track, but the car then moved slowly over to our side of the road as it approached us. We had no option but to take avoiding action by moving to the right but, as the vehicle passed us, its driver did not even register our presence but instead stared straight ahead. We got the message.
I’m now back on my farm and back into my farming routine with severe saddle soreness becoming a welcome distant memory. But since my return I’ve made sure that the bridle path gates on my land are as easy to open and close as possible. I’ve also become more tolerant towards users of the South Downs Way and their occasional inconsiderate behaviour.
After all, perhaps all those horse riders, hikers and cyclists feel as hungry, thirsty, over-heated, short-tempered and grumpy as I was when I pedalled those endless, flint-strewn, hellish hills.