Rural rhymes, or how to earn a beer

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The Independent Online
I was out for a bicycle ride in the country the other day, which is what I generally do when there is something more important to be done, and I stopped at a pub for refreshment, which is what I generally do when there is serious biking to be done. Of course, there is something rather odd about a bicyclist stopping at a pub at all. Bicycling has a puritan image, all green and ecological, and pubs are all about getting fat and drunk and loud, so really cyclists should stop at health food shops and ask for bottles of spring water and bars of energy-giving wafer, but there I was, sitting outside this pub on a sunny day with a pint of lemonade shandy, and, I'm ashamed to say, a pork pie.

First of all, though, I had to clear my mouth of insects. This sunny weather, the air is full of flying animals, the very same little flying foodstuff that swallows come all the way from Egypt to live on, but we humans have not yet adapted to an insect diet, so when something flies into your mouth your instinct is not to swallow it but to spit it out as quickly as possible.

While I was preparing my mouth to receive the first donation of lemonade shandy, I was startled to hear a very rural voice beside me.

"North, east, west, south,

Never cycle with an open


I looked round. There was an old chap sitting at a table by himself with an empty glass. He smiled at me.

"Old country saying, that. When I was a lad, my father taught it to me. Said he had once known a chap who had been cycling along with his mouth open and a bee had flown in. Gave him a terrible sting on the palate. Couldn't speak for five days and could never say his Rs properly again after that."

"Is that really true?" I asked.

"It's what my dad told me," said the old man, "so I expect it weren't. But what he said about cycling with your mouth open was true enough, as I see from you fishing bits of insect out of your mouth."

"At least it's just my mouth," I said. "Some days you get swarms of tiny black flies in your clothes."

"North, south, east, west,

Never cycle with an open


said the old man. He looked at me cheerily.

"Another of your dad's?"

"No. That was from my mum. After all, it was she had to get my clothes clean."

"Were there lots of these cycling rhymes when you were a lad?" I asked.

"Thousands. We more or less communicated in rhyme. I remember going on my first long ride. My Dad said:

`Keep to the left and ring

your bell;

If you see a bull, then ride

like hell.' "

"Any others you remember?"

"Don't lock your bike where

it will flood,

Or you'll find your saddle

full of mud."

"What does that mean?"

"Pretty obvious, I would have thought. If you park your bike where the river tends to flood, chances are you'll come back and find it underwater. Or maybe with cow damage."

"Cow damage?"

"A spoke will carry a bicycle


But it ain't no match for an

old cow heel,"

he said triumphantly. "Meaning, that when a cow steps through a bicycle wheel, you won't be riding away on it in a hurry."

"Did you ever know a cow stepping through a bicycle wheel?"

"No-o-o-o," admitted the old man reluctantly. "But maybe that was because people paid heed to the rhyme and didn't leave bikes where cows could get in."

There was a pause.

"How's the pork pie?" he said.

"Heavy going," I replied.

"If you could get a pie to


It'd say `I'm a lot more pie

than pork,' "

he said.

There was another pause.

"Have you got an old country rhyme for every occasion?" I asked.

"Certainly have," he said. He banged his glass significantly on the table.

"Hear the empty pint pot


Means it's somebody else's


I took the hint and bought him a pint, but this time I stuck to mineral water and a certain brand of chocolate which likes to think it gives you more miles. The old man didn't think so. As I rode off again and waved to him, I heard him saying:

"One Mars bar

Won't get you far

You'll get more cheer

From a pint of beer."