Our Deputy Editor, Jenn Hill, passed away on the 16th October 2015. Today is the day of her funeral, and to mark this day we are publishing the first article she ever wrote for Singletrack from way back in issue 12, December 2003.
By Jenn Hill
Some mornings dawn so perfectly that the long, off road commute is the only way to get to work. Jenn Hopkins uses it to muse on dawn rides gone by.
Going the long way to work again, milking the miles from the end of the summer. Climb through the bungalows under a rising sun, drop down behind the bypass humming already with its tin can payload. Long, steady pedal up to the Downs. Up on the Downs. Big grin. Skip along the ridge with the featherweight Monday bag, jeans, t-shirt and a packet of teacakes snug in the small of my back. Hang a right at the gate and marvel at the mist filling the Weald, tickle the nose of the calf blowing air at my tyres. Skim round the side of the Dyke still buried in darkness, save ‘Sharon’ for another day and climb past the farm in the shadow of dawn, wheels glued to the train-track singletrack that leads to the old Tree.
I remember a ride a few months back, I came up this way then, too. More of us then, nine or ten I think. Another dawn ride. In honour of the solstice we’d missed as the midsummer sun rose over a field in Birmingham. For most of us this year it felt somehow inappropriate then, disrespectful to celebrate the sun rise anywhere other than home, when I’ve spent so much of this year away. Gather friends, gather lights, gather breakfast and beverages in the time honoured tradition and head for the hills. Didn’t quite work out the way it was planned to, though.
There are the friends that you can spend hours with and barely speak a word and then there are the people that require conversation to be made
Funny thing about riding with friends is that, sometimes, it doesn’t happen. No matter how close you are, how well you know each other, there will be days when those people you love to be with, just wind you up. Connections clogged up with the fuzzy dust of expectation. Friends of friends invited who aren’t on quite the same wavelength. Agendas working at cross-purposes. Agendas appearing where previously there were none, and you find yourself wishing that you’d just come out alone.
Heading out of town, up the valley, splitting into twos and threes. Chat and banter drifting with the mist above the hedgerows. Pause at the gate to watch the moon set into the hill and l wish you’d all just shut the hell up. One or two of us standing quietly, a couple of paces back, those that come here often, looking at the sky. Those who respect the occasion and the place for what it is. The rest of you laughing, looking. Being Loud. As the house filled up with bikes and bodies an hour before, the sneaking suspicion that the plan was doomed grew legs and staggered from the room, a bad idea from start to finish. Lurking in the kitchen with the reeling coffee machine, watching you all making efforts to talk, be friendly, be amusing to yourselves. At three in the morning. No-one talks at three in the morning when a long day’s riding stretches ahead. That’s when companionable silence comes into play. There are the friends that you can spend hours with and barely speak a word and then there are the people that require conversation to be made. Not a big effort in the scheme of things but sometimes saying nothing means more than an empty mouthful.
Then a glimpse of what it was meant to be, cresting the hill under the pylons just as day breaks. A moment of peace. A pause, a lull in conversation as the sky grows lighter. A shared emotion, no words spoken but a warmth sparks between us, suddenly some understanding of the reason we are here. Wires ticking quietly over our heads, light spreading westwards across the Weald. Sun still below the horizon, over beyond Newtimber, we’re heading that way later but for now we sit, watch, listen. Words are few and whispered softly, carrying in the still air with the crow calls and the grumbling cows. Falling stars of aircraft ditching into the horizon, heading for countries east and south. The landscape asserting her right to own the moment and remind us how small we are, time on hold for now.
Sun rising over the hill.
And with the flipping of that switch, watches were looked at and throats cleared, obligations brought to mind and somehow nothing was the same after that. Dipping in and out of the shadow of dawn, Legs warm, sleeves damp with mist. Even the treat of poaching favourite trails became an exercise in group inertia, loitering by stiles, all unwilling to take the lead. Strung out up the valley, making the effort to talk, somewhere at the front the decision was made to climb ‘Sharon’ and she broke the back of the ride. As she often does. One of those trails that seems benign, that masquerades as simply ‘challenging’ until you cross her and a vicious side is revealed. Kicking you in the teeth white you’re down. Not the friendliest hill in the world but her odd redeeming good days keep us coming back for more.
Struggled over the top to a row of vacant faces and hollow eyes staring at yet another scorching day, and there didn’t seem much point in staying out on a dawn ride now the sun was high in the sky. Not a cloud to be seen and what seemed like a sensible amount of climbing for a chilly pre-dawn outing was slowly but surely baking us to death. Car parks filling up already: just dog walkers at first, mostly solo, the odd couple holding hands, sleepily bemused by our presence. Later would come families, kite flyers, paragliders; grandparents out for their Sunday afternoon airing. Smile for a moment remembering the dawn that all of these people slept through, the sunrise they missed in their comfortable urban dreams. Then a quick spin home, coffee on the still empty seafront, reality loitering back on the hill somewhere with a belligerent lack of intent.
Back to the present and a quick look at the watch confirms half an hour before the week begins in earnest. Monday and I have yet to make peace with one another and even though there’s a bacon sandwich with my name on it at the end of the trail and an inbox full of mail at the back of my mind I stop for a while and lean against the once noble and upright tree, looking back the way we came.
There are places on these hills where time gets hazy. Maybe it’s familiarity manifesting itself or something more spiritual and tied up in the landscape but sometimes it gets hard to see the boundaries between then and now, to remember exactly when and how I came here last. Life’s been restless the past few months and I now know the paths that lead to the top of the hills better than the blurry mess I’ve been trying to make my home. There have been more solo rides than is probably healthy: quick hellos on the way to making myself late for work again. Fast and lonely night rides, pedaling frantically from trees to clear air, escaping the demons that wait for those foolish enough to ride alone in these places after dark. Lazy Sundays dozing in the bleached white grass, when planned epics dissolved without effort into the heat and we woke, sun blind and sleep drunk, to fumble our way home like we’d never ridden bikes before. More than one memorable struggle-for-the-sake of it, battling into driving rain and a howling gale just because the sun had been shining when the plan was made and a little bit of weather wasn’t going to change my mind.
I remember sitting for a long, long time with a lump in my throat, wondering how I got lazy enough to find excuses to avoid that awkward lump of gradient for a whole season.
And memories full of people, too. Other dawn rides, sleepily excited like children at Christmas, set free to play in a sparkling empty gift of a world. A hazy evening with an absent friend, chewing over the past few months and cementing an uneasy truce as we raced the darkness home. Frightening road-bike moments on the thin black roller-coaster that plummets to the foot of the hill through the damp tunnel of trees. Night rides that turned into impromptu celebrations of nothing more than the fact that we were out, with bikes, and there was whisky in the flasks. Staring at the stars and the satellites like we’d never seen them before.
And I still remember the day in the spring when I pedaled over the hill on a whim, not having come this way in a while and realising with a growing sense of dread that there was nothing breaking the horizon where the branches of the tree should be. Finding her tipped over on the grass, limbs outstretched and roots upended, and all the news I’d brought seemingly pointless now she’d finally succumbed to the wind and the rain.
I remember sitting for a long, long time with a lump in my throat, wondering how I got lazy enough to find excuses to avoid that awkward lump of gradient for a whole season, thinking about all the times we’d passed this way before, all those memories feeling like yesterday with the Tree against my back to remind me that they were anything but. Remember leaving the singletrack for someone who deserved it and pedaling slowly home along the road to make phone calls to the people who cared, and it being like breaking the worst news over and over again. Only a tree: only an old, lightning-struck tangle of wood and rot, beetles and dust, and yet without exception it felt like a death in the family to those that knew.
I think the point is that the hills wouldn’t be the same without the people. Sure, I ride alone here more than most. I am an antisocial sod when I want to be and I’m privileged enough to be incredibly selfish about how I want to ride and when but, like the hills that quietly go on doing their own thing as the seasons roll by, I know that my friends and their bikes will be there when I need them. And that’s more homecoming than a key to any front door.
Jenn Hill (nee Hopkins) Singletrack Magazine, Issue 12, 2003