Rural: The ill wind that brought a countryman no good news

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The Independent Online
To go out on a mountain bike into the teeth of a howling gale may sound like an act of folly; but when Duff Hart-Davis set out to observe exactly how the wind was behaving, he achieved an unexpected insight.

To call the expedition interesting would be an understatement. At one point it became literally electrifying. Yet it started calmly enough, for the lane that climbs out of the valley behind our house lies in a deep trench through a wood, and was sheltered from the westerly blast. The tops of the trees were roaring like the sea, but around their roots all was calm.

Just as well, because the hill is extremely steep. The sign at the bottom gives it one in four. I reckon it is more like one in five - but even that puts a bike at the limit of adhesion: sit back ever so slightly and your front wheel is in the air.

The moment I came into the open at the top, I was hit by a fearsome blast from the right, and progress became a struggle. Then I turned left on to the main road, and instantly was travelling at about 25 mph without pedalling. Thereafter, my meteorological research became fascinating. The effect of gentle contours was much more subtle than I had expected. The noise remained terrifying, but some areas of the plateau, where I had anticipated severe problems, were almost wind-free, protected by minor undulations in the land, which shunted the gale over them.

Now, as never before, I appreciated the value of hedges. In the lee of thick hawthorns the temperature felt 10 degrees higher, and alongside a blessed, 6ft stone wall I entered a different climate.

My route lay round an anti-clockwise eight-mile circle. For a wonderful mile or so I flew down-wind. Then for several miles I was battling with cross-wind, the blast coming from my left. Obviously the penultimate stage was going to be the worst, along a high ridge straight into the gale.

I had set out in a relatively clear period. Then the sky to the west turned black as another storm raged in. The roar of the wind rose several notches. Huge drops of water came hurtling past. Rain turned rapidly to horizontal hail. When lightning snaked down out of the blackness, and thunder cracked through the general tumult, I capitulated: I dived off the main road into a village, whipped out my waterproof cape and took refuge against the wall of a building.

Five minutes later, when the hail reverted to rain, I went on. But the cape proved impossible: the moment I swung into the wind, it acted as a sail. I was blown sideways, backwards. The only solution was to take it off and get wet.

Then came another surprise. The leg along the ridge, which I had been dreading, turned out to be blissfully sheltered. Close study of the terrain - never possible from a speeding car - revealed that the lie of wood and land was unexpectedly favourable, and that the howling flow of air was well above my head.

So my crazy ride provided much interesting information. Yet it also had a wider effect, in that it confirmed a belief that has been growing in my mind over the past few months: namely, that the majority of British people, along with the Government which represents them, could not care less about the countryside.

Three factors led me to this conclusion. One was the revolting deposit of rubbish in hedges and on verges, casually thrown out of cars. Beer cans, bottles, crisp packets and fast-food boxes littered almost every yard of the route, clearly revealing (at best) thoughtless indifference to the environment, or (at worst) contempt for the people who try to look after it.

The second factor was the sight of Limousin-cross cattle huddled in the shelter of a barn. Fine animals, they have been rendered almost worthless by the Government's decision to ban sale of beef on the bone. Never mind that the odds against anyone catching CJD from meat on the bone are reckoned the same as those against winning the National Lottery 14 times outright: craven political correctness has left farmers facing ruin, to no conceivable gain.

The third jolt was administered by the sight of a fox lying dead in a field below the outside of a bend on the road. Obviously it had been hit by a car and killed instantly, yet it looked perfectly intact, with its beautiful fur coat throwing off the rain.

The sight reminded me of the futility - in humanitarian and conservationist terms - of Mike Foster's bill to ban hunting with hounds. All country people know that if the bill becomes law it will drastically lower the life expectancy of foxes, because farmers, gamekeepers and pest-control officers will harry them more ferociously than now with guns, snares, traps and poison - and still thousands will die on the roads.

So it was that a storm, a scandalous scatter of garbage, redundant cattle and the body of a fox combined to demonstrate how coldly the latter-day townsman despises his backward cousins on the land. Altogether an inauspicious start to 1998.

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