Are you scared of the dark?
- Credit: citizenside.com
Most of us have a primeval wariness about the night. Not Dixe Wills. He comes out once the sun’s gone down
It makes you saddle-sore just thinking about it: the 115-mile Dunwich Dynamo bike ride from London to Suffolk that takes place during the hours of darkness one summer weekend. One of the best things about it must be finishing at the glorious Suffolk seaside. Imagine if riders started there and all they had to look forward to was pedalling into the dusty, sweaty metropolis...
Travel writer Dixe Wills, a “Dun Run” virgin, decided to splash out on an eight-gear upgrade for his Raleigh and point his front wheel north-eastwards to see what all the fuss was about. His journey didn’t always go swimmingly...
He chronicles it in his new book, At Night – an intriguing offering that looks at some of the best places to explore in Britain once the stars come out.
Dixe, below, has form. He’s known for his eccentric trips and has a great deal of knowledge under his belt about getting around the green way – by foot, bike and train. His previous books include The Z-Z of Britain, Tiny Campsites, Tiny Stations, and Tiny Islands.
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For At Night he goes to places such as the UK’s first Dark Sky Park (Galloway in Scotland) and Sherwood Forest; to Dartmoor and the island of Skomer, off Pembrokeshire.
He follows in the footsteps of Charles Dickens – unable to sleep, the writer would stride for miles during the night – and takes sleeper trains.
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So why has he done it? Why not do it in the daytime, and spend the wee small hours tucked up in bed like most of us?
“Night is a magician,” he explains, getting all mystical. “A place familiar to us in daylight can seem suddenly strange and unknown beneath the velvet cape of darkness – a whole new mysterious entity brought into being by some subterfuge of the dark arts.
“Taking a trip out into the night, particularly in remoter spots where its power is not diminished by artificial light, is perhaps the closest we’ll ever come to entering a magic kingdom of trickery and illusion.”
It also snaps us out of our routine – in a good way. As our eyes struggle in the gloom, our senses of smell, hearing and touch are heightened. “The bark of a tree caressed in the dark of the night is a landscape all of its own.”
If you happen to be out on the lonely mudflats of Suffolk one full moon, and see a group of people on a nocturnal wander, it might very well be Dixe leading them. (His sister and brother-in-law live up here, so he knows the place.)
He does it every year, teaching people some night-walking skills on an eight-mile ramble that begins as the last light fades and those flats “release a pungent, almost primordial scent”.
They navigate by the stars and use ears and noses to keep to the right path, their guru realising quickly that “from a very early stage most of the party are wrapped in a sort of entranced awe at the night and its beauties”.
He writes: “In dense woods, we hear the calls of hunting owls, before tramping out on a board-walk over a sea of reeds, chalk white in the moonlight. We end our walk in a tiny village [Blythburgh] whose church bears the claw marks of the terrible hound of the marshes, Black Shuck.”
Who wouldn’t be spooked?
Actually, Dixe makes the point that even in modern Britain many of us still have a fear that evil lurks in the darkness.
“It is a notion espoused in many areas of our culture, from virtually every horror film ever made, to the ghost trains at the fairground, to the movement-sensitive lights attached to our houses, to the service of compline, the final prayers of the day, when monks, nuns and sundry faithful appeal to God to defend them from ‘evil dreams’ and the ‘fears and terrors of the night’.”
He even admits to a “vague apprehension” himself. “It comes upon me at twilight, the time the French call entre chien et loup – ‘between dog and wolf’.”
It’s unfounded, though. “If I’ve learnt anything from the nights I’ve spent at large, the danger and the anarchy tends not to be found in the darkness itself but in our wild imaginings of what might happen to us simply because we cannot see.”
Enough of the psychology; what about that cycling?
There was a sense of mystique and anticipation as Dixe rode the couple of miles from his home to London Fields, “a slightly scrubby park in Hackney”, ready for his first overnight Dunwich Dynamo.
He was aboard his ancient Raleigh Winner – a steed once called “a racer” but which he says has been downgraded to “road bike” because of the explosion of hard-core cycling – “as if the idea of actually racing anybody on one was tantamount to a Formula 1 driver turning up at Monaco in a Ford Capri”.
The “Dun Run” is Britain’s original night ride. It began in 1992, is open to all and is pretty ad hoc. (There’s not even a set route.). It attracts about 2,000 riders each year and is held on the Saturday night nearest to the July full moon.
The only people likely to make any money out of it are the pubs and the pop-up stalls along the way that serve hungry and thirsty riders, he says. At about 8.15pm, without fanfare, a few riders start to make their way out of the park and he hitches himself to the back of a group of men on expensive bikes. The neat bags on their backs contrast with the weighty pannier on the side of his bike, “giving it a rather alarming tilt to the left…
“I was also pretty confident that none of them had had a series of bike maintenance incidents in the previous few days that had led to them scurrying desperately around London a few hours beforehand in search of a new back wheel in what was now an apparently outdated and unpopular size.
“Nor would they have unwisely just purchased an eight-gear cassette which, no matter what frantic adjustments they made, offered up just two gears from which the chain would not immediately slip. Nor had they forgotten to bring along a reserve front lamp to back up the solar-powered light they had never tested to see if it would last all night.”
Oh, and he’d put on a pair of old pedals because they had toe-clips. They also had ball bearings that “clicked and clonked and crunched with every revolution”. Oh dear.
It all leaves Dixe yearning to be back on his old bike, “an equally venerable but incredibly reliable Falcon Oxford. I had travelled over 35,000 miles on it over the course of 14 years, until one night just before the previous Christmas when I left my local pub to find the railings heart-sinkingly bare”.
Anything else against him? Well, he’d never before ridden more than 80 miles in a day (and that was a decade ago) or done any training for this…
Still: onward. Along Epping High Street, albeit now reduced to one gear but comforted by the fact he’s already passing half a dozen riders mending punctures at the side of the road. “I was also pleased to note that there was a healthy proportion of riders who were dressed in street clothes as I was, rather than in the go-faster Lycra beloved of club cyclists.” At 1.30am, in Sudbury, he finds Torque Bikes is open.
A long queue of riders are having their ailing bikes revived by several mechanics working flat out. Dixe joins them. “I spent the best part of an hour in the shop and by the time I came out my bike was almost unrecognisable. New brakes, new pedals, a new tyre and a new inner tube had all been fitted and the mechanic had even had a quick go at adjusting the gears so that at least some of them worked. When I rode away, I felt like a king.”
And then, a few miles on, he gets a puncture, which he mends with a fresh inner tube and some borrowed muscle from a friendly couple in their 60s who are passing and help him wrench the forks far enough apart to manhandle the wheel back into place.
Spirits rise as he sees a fox and a family of breakfasting rabbits. At 6am, at Cretingham, “a joysworth of magpies” bounces across the road and the wood pigeons are in full voice, “their five-note song landing on the rooftops and tumbling down to earth”.
And then, as Dixe begins to close in on the finish, things start to go wrong, “which was ironic since these were roads with which I had scraped acquaintance in the few years since my sister and brother-in-law had come to live nearby”.
He’s latched on to a group of riders who seem confident about directions… but shouldn’t be. There are wrong turns and doublings-back. “We were saved from further ignominy by a growing stream of hardened cyclists who, having made it to Dunwich, were now heading back to London,” he writes.
Dixe rolls into Dunwich, once the capital of East Anglia and a port to rival London, at 7.30am. His journey has taken more than 11 hours.
“I was beaten to the beach by two small teenage girls in floral clothes with daypacks on their backs. They rode in on fixies – single-speed fixed-wheel bikes – looking as fresh as if they’d just set out ten minutes beforehand from the next village.”
The car park behind the beach is packed with “slightly dazed yet jubilant” cyclists. The beach is even busier. “It resembled one of those die-in protests or a scene from a public information film in which a nuclear bomb has just exploded, only with added bikes. Exhausted cyclists, some captured at last by sleep, were splayed out in all directions…”
Dixe slips away to the Ship Inn, open since 5am, and stands outside, “supping the earliest pint of cider I think I have ever had”.
At Night is from AA Publishing at £16.99