Yesterday afternoon I crested one hill after the other as I climbed my way through the Yorkshire countryside, wheels turning beneath me as I pedalled towards Oxenholme station. Drystone walls flanked my route initially, as I wove along the valley bottom before passing through Sedbergh and the hills beyond. The stone walls were replaced by high hedges and the road narrowed and steepened, forcing my pedalling out of the saddle, gently tossing the bike between my hands to lever my way up the climb. Blessedly, there was smooth tarmac beneath my bike. The previous few days had been spent cycling with Lucy and Tom along the Great North Cycle route, which had started on innocuous gravel paths before becoming more untamed and wild. We had followed what was essentially a succession of footpaths, slipping our way down narrow rocky paths, our bikes vibrating like a pneumatic drill, not quite with the intention to throw us off, but we knew that a dislodged hand would land us on the ground the next second.
After clattering down one stony path we would be greeted with its reverse: a climb as steep as I was now climbing, but with none of the home comforts that smooth asphalt offered. Pedalling hard, twisting the handlebars to and fro, avoiding large stones placed like mines to thwart our progress, we waltzed around these obstacles with all the grace of a new born foal – bikes wobbling in slow motion as we tried to maintain Newton’s X law and balance as each sinew of our bikes – stretching chains, rubber tires clawing to grip smooth stone or each single blade of grass, flexing spokes – struggled up each slope.
I had rarely cycled like this, and previously only on a mountain bike. Now I was on my touring bike, with city-slicker tires striving to show, that despite their preferred office environment with its easy commute, beneath their smart suited appearance they could grit it out with their rural knobbly cousins on Lucy and Tom’s bikes. It was exhilarating to discover that you could throw yourself down a slope, surely only suitable for sheep, and arrive at the bottom unscathed, for the most part.
I was leaving this behind, the fresh Pennine air, camping in a copse of trees, waking up to green sculpted mounds flecked with sheep and textured with trees, the camaraderie after a relentless day of movement, because, in equal parts ironic and mundane, I needed to prepare for my own ride. Departure day for Bristol2Beijing was beckoning and this cycling could only very loosely be termed as preparation – in a strictly physical sense.
I bid farewell to Lucy and Tom in Hawes, lashed by flashing rain, and set off for Oxenholme station,doped up on my third flat white of the day.
The train journey back to Nottingham, our starting point, was unremarkable, until we arrived in Bolton. The train had been stopping for some minutes at each station so as five minutes at rest turned to ten I continued with my email tapping. But as ten turned to twenty, an announcement filled the carriage, “there is an obstruction on the overhead powerlines, we are waiting for this to be cleared and then we will be on our way”. Further down the carriage, a man in a close-fitting white shirt and dark tie cursed. The cropped hedgehog wrapped around his face worked hard to keep up with the rate of knots his words tumbled out, addressed to the carriage “I’ve got to get back to the office for 8:30, there’s a contract I need to pick up, and then I’m heading out on a date. She’s gonna be waiting for me”. He paced back and forth – the only thing moving on our stationary train. As twenty minutes became forty he became more and more agitated, calling colleagues at the office, asking them to cover for him. This contract seemed to be of high importance to him, and perhaps it was.
At one time, I would have been frustrated by the delay. I would have resented the disruption to my plans – the shower and shave I had been looking forward to, the fresh set of clothes that awaited me, the chance to get a good night’s sleep. As an hour slipped by and the view remained resolutely static – temporary metal fences closing off a section of platform. The man strode off the train, talking intently to the air in front of him as his headphones picked up each syllable. I was fortunate to have no hard deadlines, no colleagues who might feel let down, no date that I might never see again if I was a no show. However, at least yesterday, in that moment, I knew that getting frustrated by this situation would achieve nothing. I could not make the train move. I could not hurry the process along. In another place and time, I would be quite happy to read The Economist on my phone, so this is what I settled into here, catching up on fiscal policy, Netanyahu and Russian meddling. It’s how I get my kicks.
Then the inevitable piped over the speakers, “this service has been cancelled and a bus service will take you to Manchester. Please leave the train and talk to a member of staff at the entrance”. This was the way it would be. Not ideal at all. On the bus to Manchester I checked the train times; I would miss every train to Nottingham bar the last at 2220, which would bring me to Nottingham at 0048. After enquiring about taxis and being rebuffed this appeared to be my only option. Several years ago, on a train journey down from Scotland, I remember being delayed for some hours, and being deeply frustrated how the delay had unsettled my plans, caused me to spend extra time on the train, stopped me from living my life from how I wanted.
Yesterday, I realised I could choose how I approached this situation. I could wait it out another couple of hours on the platform, harbouring righteous discontent, fuelled with the energy of one who had been wronged, and tell the story to a few friends, gaining a few sympathetic remarks. But what would that do for me? I would still have been miserable, I would still have lost out on living life with joy. Would I have missed out on an opportunity.
A playful, creative, strand of thought rose into my mind, as if carried on an irresistible thermal updraft. Why not have a night out in Manchester? Why not have some fun with the situation I found myself in? Instead of putting myself through a train journey when I would rather be asleep, I could have a mini-adventure. As the idea surfaced, I realised the only thing holding me back was that I would have to let go of the righteous resentment that I felt at being wronged by the train delay. If I could drop those shackles I bound myself in, I would be free to enjoy Manchester. At least yesterday, it came easily.
I strode out of Manchester Victoria station, my late-night idling train only existing in my imagination. I booked into a Travelodge – what a fantastic institution! A bed, a shower and a kettle for two-thirds of my train ticket – scrubbed up, googled “speakeasy bar” and twenty minutes later found me feet flapping at the paving slabs beneath my feet as I walked over to the Washing Room in my flip flops, shorts, crumpled t-shirt and fraying jacket. I would be wildly out of place but I couldn’t care in the slightest – this was all part the fun!
Manchester’s centre is an attractive mix of old and new. Honey-coloured stone, reminiscent of Cotswold cottages, forms stately buildings that would proudly stand shoulder to shoulder with any of London’s grandees. Rather than being old and faded, love and care had been taken to ensure these buildings had become burnished with age: “Arthur Kay and Bro: WEDDING RIGHTS CHARGED ON BY WEIGHT”, gleamed the embossed, constrained, sign, with all the majesty of a coat of arms.
Other stone buildings were lit by neon signs “Franky and Benny’s”, “The Hard Rock Café”, yielding a curious mix of stolid permanence with glitzy symbols of globalisation.
The new buildings were sheet glass and concrete, housing every prominent high street retailer. Mannequins beckoned, dressed in what is presumably today’s ‘look’. Fragrances, electronics and watches promised to make me happy. Under the overhang lay several men, wrapped in sleeping bags, with a bottle of water or coke beside them, head cushioned by a plastic drawstring bag. I walked past. I had chosen to sleep outside in the hills two days earlier, but that was a deliberate choice which I knew I could rescind at any moment. These men are also part of Manchester, and yet I, and so many others, walked by.
I carried on walking until I came upon a laundrette. Dirty washing was stacked on top of two industrial washing machines. There was another washing machine midway up the wall on the lefthand side, bras and panties plastered against the glass. Curiously there was a door handle next to it. I pulled. Locked. Looking around, I saw an old-fashioned telephone on the wall. “Press here” was scribbled on it. I did, and picked up the receiver. I must have been an odd sight – leaning against the wall, receiver to my ear, blue jacket, pink shorts and flip flops – as another couple entered. They were dressed to impress. A tall, powerfully built man with a strawberry blond closely cropped beard led in a girl in a tight-fitting white top with a plunging neckline. They were both dressed to impress.
The telephone rang through and I was ushered in through the door of lingerie, leaving the couple to explore the selection of dirty laundry.
The ingenuity of the entrance was only matched by the list of cocktails – a dazzling array: the Darjeeling Limited had curried apple juice and cumin syrup, whilst the Sunday Best had been steeped in a leather bag for some purpose I struggled to follow. Other cocktails required a flamethrower to toast a marshmallow, and still others wafted fragrant smoke when the stemless martini glass was lifted from its glass cup. I ordered and sat back, taking it in. Couples sat in booths, and across from me a guy with a turban said he was taking out his nephews (who looked as old as he did) for a drink; their first experience of Manchester’s watering holes.
I sat back and sipped, a complex whirl of flavours washing over my palate. All the complexity of a three course meal tucked inside a simple sip.
What an evening.
There was nothing preordained about this good fortune, this wonderful evening which had come from nowhere. It was mine to enjoy, as each moment of life is. But it was my decision to look for the opportunity in the inconvenience. If I had not found such a interesting end to my evening would I have been wrong? No, because it was my attitude which mattered most.
There are things I can’t control in this situation, but what can I do, if I choose, to seek out some enjoyment, enrichment? I think good things tend to happen if you look for them and work to create those chances. They might not come in the form you expect and your definition of success might need to look a little fluid – as I surely did as I liltingly walked my way back to my room. It wasn’t Nottingham, it wasn’t an early night, but it was certainly an evening I would remember, mostly.