From The ST Archive: Nightstalker

by Ben Haworth 0

Philip Diprose discovers a world of calm and peaceful riding in the very middle of the chaos he’s trying to escape.

Photo by Philip Diprose.
Photo by Philip Diprose.

There are over seven million people in London and I’ve only seen two in the last mile and a half. At certain times in the very early morning this might seem normal but I’m riding close to the centre of the city and it’s still supposed to be rush hour. Welcome to my new commute home. Freelance circumstances have gifted me a 13+ mile commute in each direction. Not only does it fall nicely into the area of ‘not too close, not too far…’ but it’s also away from the baying hordes of commuters. The morning ride is good, but at night it’s a different world. Without the blanket of orange light that covers the rest of the city, the towpath is transformed. Where this morning’s other commuters have gone I don’t know, but what I do know is that there is a silence and a calm I’ve rarely found in the bustling metropolis, and half the time it scares the crap out of me.

As I join the canal I can feel the temperature drop. Stepping down the bridge with my bike on my shoulder it’s as if the lungs of the city are exhaling. A couple of degrees cooler, I swing my leg over and try to build up a little heat. Away from the exhaust warmth and light of the roads my eyes begin to adjust to the darkness. It’s almost pitch black and my three-LED front light is only illuminating a spot the size of a pizza, and a pretty small pizza at that.

Settling into my pace I come across the first cluster of narrowboats. The warm glow through their windows and the scent of woodburning stoves call to mind the snuggest of hobbit-holes. Temptation is rearing its cosy head, and I’m barely five minutes in. It’s impossible to ignore the canal that lies impassive by the side of the path. My eye and wheel continually seem drawn towards it as if in a morbid fascination. My mortality creeps into mind as I find myself wondering just how cold it would be if my wheel slipped and I fell into the water? Would it be hard to climb out? Would I be able to find my bike easily or would I have to give up searching after fruitless dives into the gloom? Like a moth drawn to the darkest of flames, I find myself transfixed by my passive friend the water. And it stares back, unblinking, like a crocodile’s eye, watching me as I make me way. Thoughts then turn to police shows where it’s always someone by the towpath who finds the body… or is it the person by the towpath who IS the body? Time to speed up.

As it’s always quiet down here I allow myself one ear of iPod. I find both ears too distracting and my spacial awareness goes askew, but one ear keeps me engaged with the real world while also drifting away with the music. The shuffle option does its usual job of kicking up unlikely combinations. Iron & Wine segues uneasily into Sub Focus which then shifts to some old Eric B & Rakim. Sometimes the combinations work perfectly with my state of mind and I put the hammer down in euphoric excitement. Other times the soundtrack seems as disjointed as my riding and I just continue on my way. Tracks by Burial occasionally come up and I have to click on to the next. Its desolate dark dubstep is too perfectly written for the more urban areas I ride through. Weaving under bridges that remind me of the tramp fight in ‘A Clockwork Orange’ is not the place for this soundtrack. I can already feel my heart-rate climbing, and it’s not due to the exertion. Abstract shadows are cast across the walls and an overactive imagination places sinister figures in stairwells. A second glance reveals them to be the illusion I know they are, but this is the time to keep up the cadence and leave the mind games.

Away from the bridges and crank-clipping railings, I’m back into the darkness. Racing along the edge of London Zoo. All its birds may be safely netted away but that doesn’t stop me from looking for my own menagerie. I’ve seen swans, geese, coots and even herons along this stretch. All seem as surprised to see me emerging from the night as I am to see them. There have been amazing moments where I’ve been riding alongside geese and herons as their wingtips almost break the surface of the water. Slow majestic beatings that make a mockery of my erratic pedal strokes. Here is human solitude, here is a place where I feel like I am intruding. A world of silence and darkness that doesn’t ask for visitors but doesn’t begrudge those who choose this route. As the nights get colder, and sadly wetter, I can see the traffic I encounter dropping off even further. People may see the towpath as an inhospitable place to be in the evening. Maybe that frission is part of its allure. Soon enough near the end. My canal-side finish line is the gawdy bright lights of ‘Feng Shang’ the floating Chinese restaurant. Its reflection in the calm waters doubling the glare. The nerves that have been building up and the excitement coursing through my veins begins to subside. I climb a short path away from the canal. The lights increase, the traffic begins to swarm and my moments of quiet seem literally a world away.

Philip helps to create The Ride Journal as well don’t you know.