Something in the air that says it must be spring

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WE ALL have our own ways of noticing the change of seasons. My wife says she knows autumn has arrived when bird droppings start to turn purple. I rely on students' thumbs more than birds' droppings - when the returning students to Bath University start hitching lifts down Bathwick Hill to their lodgings in town, you know the autumn term has started again.

But spring - how do you tell the beginning of spring? Is it the first primroses? The bluebells singing in the trees? The blossom dancing across the road like confetti, as April and May exchange nuptial vows? Well, no, not for me it isn't. For me it's the sudden necessity to keep your mouth shut while you're out and about on the bike, in case new-born spring insects fly into it. The mouth, that is.

You do occasionally, I am sorry to say, see a bicyclist spitting into the side of the road as he pedals past, rather like a top-class footballer who has just missed a goal and is trying to blame it on a funny taste in his mouth. However, in the case of the bicyclist, more mild- mannered by far than any sportsman, it is undoubtedly because he has just got a mouthful of live insect and is trying to return it to nature, where it belongs.

The collision speed between a flying insect and a bicyclist must be approaching 25mph. These insects are all comparatively new-born, remember, and it is probably the first time they have ever met a human, let alone been inside its mouth. One moment they are buzzing along the countryside, seven feet up, which is a long way for an insect, and the next moment - bang] They're in this big, wet, dark cave. And then, before they've even started to get used to indoor life, they'Ere being spat out. They've never been spat out before. No wonderTHER write error they have to go and lie down for a while.

I don't remember doing much insect-swallowing while I was living in London. Plane seeds were the chief enemy there. I used to know when autumn had come because the air was suddenly full of plane seeds that flew into your eyes, blinding you and causing you to fall in front of big red buses. I bought a second-hand pair of motor-bike goggles to deal with that, which also came in very useful for times when you peeled onions and the tears ran down so fast.

But I do remember at the age of about eight, cycling around my home village of Gresford, near Wrexham, and a bee flying into my hair, getting stuck there and stinging me in revenge. It hurt and shocked me. Not half so much as it hurt and shocked him when I banged him to death on my scalp, but still a lot.

I suppose I still have an ancient, live memory of the day nature bit me back for the first time. Now, every time I am out on the bike and see a small black dot coming towards me like a missile on the radar, my reactions are lightning quick - I duck my head to miss it without even thinking. If it hits me, I burst into tears and try to rush home to my mother.

So that's my piece of age-old country advice to you town-lubbers. If you should go out bicycling in the country round about now, be careful to keep your mouth shut, your eyes open no more than the merest slit, and something on your head to stop bees getting entangled with your hair, and if you should become conscious that something is flying alongside at eye-level at about your own speed, it may not be a fighter plane two miles away. It could be a wasp two inches away.

You will have noticed that I have not mentioned what to do if things fly up your nose. This is because bicyclists have developed their own technique for blowing their noses as they pedal along. It is a fairly complex co-ordination of the acts of nostril-blocking, turning, blowing, and avoiding your own shoulder, and to a non-bicyclist is so distasteful that perhaps I had better leave the subject there. However, there is obviously an unspoken cameraderie among cyclists on this subject, because my son, Tom, once said to me that in winter he never bicycled around London in leather gloves, only woollen ones.

'They're more absorbent,' he said, winking and pretending to wipe his nose with the back of his hand, and I knew immediately what he meant, even though it was a subject that in all our father-son heart-to-hearts we had never previously brought up.