It’s the first overnight bike ride since SeaCycles began, and we meet at midnight at Monument, ready to cycle all night to the coast. I am feeling groggy after a brief two hour nap, David has been in the pub, and Paul has just arrived on a train from Brighton – for him, this is a cycle ride home.
We eat biscuits, chat, and psyche ourselves up for the 56 miles that lies ahead. Then we set off, south, towards the sea. All around are the sounds of late night London: revellers spilling out of bars, the neon lights of chicken shops flashing to snare their prey, the gentle rumble of the night bus. The roads are less choked with traffic than usual; we negotiate Elephant and Castle and Camberwell with ease, then climb towards Dulwich, Sydenham Hill, and the red beacons of Crystal Palace.
What is the attraction of riding at night? Why have we set out at midnight to cycle all night to the coast? We could be in the pub; we should be in bed; tomorrow will be a write-off. Yet still, we are here.
“But you’ll miss the scenery!” one of my friends had said. We stand at the top of Crystal Palace hill and look down on a blanket of lights, the whole of London sparkling far into the distance. We smile at each other – here, London is a magician’s box, a treasure chest, a mystery. We rarely see it like this. The roads are quiet and the sky black above us.
A few hours later we have shaken off the city altogether and are deep into the countryside. The country lane winds narrow ahead, passing huge estates where houses sit grand behind iron gates, porch lights illuminating neat lawns and Mercedes in the drive. There is the faint suggestion of fields behind the hedgerows, the black horizon punctuated by the blacker outline of trees, and the moon shines above it all. We are privy to the night creatures: the quick dash of a fox, the slow glide of an owl, the shuffle of a badger. It’s a whole new world, one with which we are almost entirely unfamiliar. The roads are all but empty. Few people are awake at this hour, fewer still out on their bikes. We stop riding and an intense peace descends. This is the magic of midnight.
We didn’t see the fields, we didn’t see the folk who live in those houses, we didn’t see the sun sparkling on a lake, we didn’t see the new buds of blossom on the trees. But we saw so much else, things we rarely see, experiences we rarely experience, and that is enough. And, best of all, as we descended into Ditchling, we saw the dawn.
It was three exhausted and sleep-deprived cyclists who arrived on Brighton beach at 7am on Easter Saturday, ready to hit the sack as soon as we’d found breakfast. Unusual? Perhaps. Unforgettable, yes.