Ups 'n downs

It might, I suppose, be thought something of a miscalculation for an Englishman (after a sedentary, four-wheel, motor-driven lapse of twenty years) to take up cycling again in Scotland. After all, the place is all hills.

But Scotland is, as the alien settling North of the Border soon learns, the best place on earth for anything to happen. For a start, this is where every invention worth inventing has, without question, been invented. The Scots are only too willing to point out that the British didn't invent the telephone, gas lamps or television. Oh no. Nor did the British (the mere English, by the way, don't get a mention) develop the steam engine. And the British didn't pioneer photography, either. The Scots did.

And - of course - it was the Scots who invented cycling.

They really did. There were two of them at it as early as the 1840s. There was Kirkpatrick Macmillan, a blacksmith from Dumfries who (I quote from the Encyclopaedia Britannica) ''took a dandy-horse, added cranks, pedals and driving rods to it, built a comfortable seat, elaborate arm rests, handlebars, etc., and rode the machine for many years.'' It does seem likely that he may have taken the occasional rest: that first velocipede was tremendously heavy and ferociously hard to operate. Nevertheless, there we have the sturdy Kirkpatrick, the first man on earth (or, rather, off the earth) to be self-propelled without having his feet touching the ground. Is it any wonder that he was once actually prosecuted and fined for ''furious driving'' on the roads? The very sight of him must have filled the pedestrian citizens of Dumfries with superstitious alarm and awe.

Then, just to establish firmly the Scottish interest, it was a cooper from Lesmahagow who was the very next pioneer in the history of cycling - Mr. Gavin Dalzell. He much improved and marketed the invention.

Here, then, are two good reasons for recycling (if you'll pardon the expression) my old bike in Scotland. I look on the exercise as a kind of tribute to the auld originals.

It is also, I have discovered, a kind of tribute to the lasting qualities of youth and boyhood. The whole experience of taking to two wheels again has forged a link to an almost forgotten past. How incredibly much time I used to spend on a bicycle! And how limited the lives of children must have been before bicycles were commonplace. The bike, in my childhood, was both utilitarian and fun. I can still vividly feel the expansion that took place in my world when I was first free to speed down the road past our gate. We must have spent countless hours just cycling for the sheer happiness of it - racing, circling, screeching to a halt, fooling around with feet on handlebars. Then new independence opened up and we could cycle down to the town, to the pet shop, or the baths, to buy sweets or to go and spend an afternoon rowing up the river from the gasworks. To reach the shed where you hired the boats, you had to cycle over cobbled streets - a sensation which belongs bone-shakingly to my memory of childhood in Yorkshire.

Schooldays in Norfolk were punctuated and liberated by cycling. We cycled to and from classes. In free time, cycling was the vital method of exploring the countryside - and all the primary, vigorous realizations of nature's richness and excitement that I associate with that time, I associate directly with cycling. Sunset over mudflats and marshes, fields red with poppies, the lush green and white extravagance of hedgerows, the mysterious shadowy tunnelling of lanes through the overhanging density of trees, and large old country houses come across unexpectedly, the remote and outsize domains of once wealthy families, their estates and gardens long established with giant elms and the massive, dark contours of copper beeches. It was on my bicycle that I made painting expeditions, naive but intense efforts to measure paint against distances, against old mills by ponds, against light on the sea, against the energetic harvest: the Norfolk countryside seen through the unlikely (and much Anglicized) eyes of Van Gogh and Pissarro.

Cambridge, too, I realize, was basically a cycling experience, and on the two or three occasions I have since revisited the university city (returning to one's past, I feel, should be strictly controlled), I have found it oddly slow-moving. The reason, I now see, is the lack of a bicycle. I never went anywhere, during the four years at Cambridge, if I could possibly avoid it, on foot. The only exception there to two-wheeled locomotion, was punting on the river: and that was really more for aimless romantic floating than for going anywhere much. So bicycled, in fact, was virtually everyone I knew at university that I still, when I see them in my mind's eye, think of certain friends as almost immemorially inseparable from their bikes.

Enough, however, of nostalgia! It is what is happening now, in Scotland, that interests me. Can this, I wonder, be the start of a new era? Or the unexpected continuation of an old, interrupted one? Will I look back, in a few years' time, with amazed disbelief at that dubious interval of my life when I took to car travel?

The advantages of bike over car are numerous and persuasive: you never feel cramped on a bicycle; you never have to strain out of a window to see a building or to take in the magnificent and entire expanse of sky; you never have to fill a bicycle's rear with petrol or its front with oil and water; you never feel separated from the country or city around you; you never miss a single summer perfume of rose or honeysuckle, never get stuffy and airless, never make a loud noise, never flatten a hedgehog, never stick in a traffic jam. The whole business costs remarkably little effort and no money. And best of all (boyhood surfacing again), cycling is thrilling, especially (and this is why mountainous Scotland is indeed a fine location for such wild adventure in rejuvenation), especially when it is jubilantly, crazily, furiously, exultantly and uncontrollably DOWNHILL!

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