Beauty has purpose. I guess I’ve never really considered that before. Perhaps I’ve felt that beauty just is, that it exists for its own sake, and by luck it fulfills some high-level purpose on the hierarchy of needs – ie, the need to be able to ignore the oppressive importance of said hierarchy. And, well, I suppose it does do that. But when you think about it, beauty is also vital – driving our evolution and survival. Arguably, we need the foundation of beauty before we can even begin to discuss the hierarchy of needs.
READ THE FIRST PART OF THIS STORY:
Abnormal Freedom – The Four Points Ride Part 1
Now that I am thinking about it, it seems pretty obvious. Of course there’s purpose. I mean, firstly there is the purpose within immediate beauty, or attraction – the way a flower draws a pollinator, or the way an animal draws a mate. But the beauty I’m thinking about is the beauty of these hills, green and thick with trees. The way the look and smell and feel of forests draw us in, speaking to something deep within our genetic programming. There are all kinds of studies to show that our physical and mental health improve when we’re amid trees. Our bodies reward us for seeking out flora. It makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint, I suppose: forests can provide relative safety and shelter for mammals like us, as well as the right conditions for finding food. Beauty tells us where to be; it helps us find the things we need…
These are the thoughts running through my head on a bright, sunny morning morning in June as I speed north on the A40. I’m climbing in sweeping long arcs out of the Wye Valley on a 2020 Harley-Davidson Sport Glide, settling into the second leg of the Four Points Ride – my ambition to visit Britain’s furthest points north, south, east and west. Today I’m en route to the most easterly location, Ness Point in Lowestoft. It’s a small town on the eastern coast of England – about 300 miles from Penarth, where I live. The United Kingdom is still in a form of lockdown that prohibits overnight stays, so as with my trip to Lizard Point this will be an out-and-back affair. Today will be a long one.
I’m in a good mood. This scene is the sort of thing I talk about when explaining motorcycles to someone who doesn’t ride. I tell them about the feeling of connection to landscape, the realization that you are a part of the world rather than simply an observer of it. In this late-spring/early summer (depending on how you calculate when seasons begin) morning I am bundled up against a light chill but can feel, too, the sun’s warmth through my Pando Moto jeans and base layer. I can taste and smell the evergreen freshness of the air, gulping in lungfuls of the stuff as I gently lean into another corner. All my senses are being used. It’s not like being in a car, where getting from point A to point B can sometimes feel like a long, boring movie; I am here. I am a part of it.
The bike is a part of it, too, offering a steady, world-engine grumble that deepens in tone as the machine fires up through the Malvern Hills. Once again I have packed the Sport Glide’s panniers to the brim with contingency items, only some of which I’ll actually need.
At my first rest stop of the day I lean against the bike and pour a cup of tea from my thermos. The sun has been up for a few hours but the peaceful cool of morning still hangs in the air. Because I have so many miles to cover today I’ve included a certain amount of motorway riding. Besides, where else would I find a place to pee? In a lockdown world, public toilets are uncomfortably hard to find; motorway services are your best bet. For those of you playing along outside the United Kingdom, a “services” is a kind of rest area with fast food, fuel and convenience store. They’re a bit like the Pilot Flying J Travel Centers you find dotted across the American interstate system, but the toilets aren’t as clean and you can’t buy dream catchers or Merle Haggard CDs. More’s the pity.
Blowing steam from my tea mug, I spot two police officers walking my way.
“That thing’s gorgeous, mate,” one of them says, nodding at the bike. “What is it?”
Both are of the typical British police officer stock – relatively easygoing but carrying themselves with a sort of athleticism that says: “Yeah, I’m up for a chase.” I generally find British cops to be likable, but I am a white male. Whatever the case, these two are friendly. They’ve got West Country accents and nothing to do. I’ve noticed a lot more police out and about since lockdown kicked in. I assume this is because they’re spending less time dragging people out of pubs and chasing teenagers away from shopping centers.
One of the officers asks if he can sit on the bike and I oblige. As soon as he’s in the seat and holding the ‘bars he’s wiggling his elbows in that little kid way of pretending to crack the throttle. Our conversation turns to my planned journey for the day and he offers a wry smile when I mention where my day started.
“Wales?” he asks. “I don’t reckon you’re allowed out to play yet, are you?”
Technically he’s right. Whereas people in England are allowed to travel as far as they like (as long as they don’t leave England and are home at the end of the day), the government advice in Wales is still to stay within 5 miles of our abode. I have a flimsy excuse – my riding this bike for the sake of being able to write about it is “working,” right? – but I hold my tongue as the officer and I engage in a millisecond stare-off. He broadens his smile and shrugs: “You’re in England, mate. Do what you like.”
A few miles further on I hop off the motorway onto the A422 and head toward Stratford-upon-Avon. The town is best known as the birthplace of William Shakespeare but it is also home to Adventure Bike Rider magazine, for whom I have written a few times.
About a year ago, I was invited to come up to the magazine’s office to meet the team and be offered a job as a staff writer. Obviously I said yes right away. I genuinely like everyone at ABR and was eager to work with them. I was so eager, in fact – and so charmed by founder Alun Davies’ praise of my writing – that I didn’t even blink at a salary offer some £6,000 a year less than what I was making at the time. Do what you love, right?
But we hit a sticking point in the fact ABR wanted me to be physically in the office every day – an office that is exactly 111 miles from my house. Money and and my wife’s career meant I couldn’t consider a move to Warwickshire at the time, and although I would have had regular access to press bikes (ie, bikes I wouldn’t have to pay to maintain), my monthly fuel budget would have increased 500 percent – this on top of the pay cut, and not mentioning the physical toll of riding 1,110+ miles a week.
If I could live the experience over again I would have bought a van and lived in ABR’s parking lot five days a week, writing #vanlife articles for ABR’s sister publication, Adventure Travel and becoming an Instagram sensation. Why I did not think of this at the time I do not know. I rue my lack of lateral thinking. Instead, ABR and I spent several weeks going back and forth on things like pay, the possibility of working from home, etc., but never managed to find an answer that worked for both sides.
I’ve continued to write for ABR on a freelance basis here and there but I regret letting the opportunity for a full-time gig slip through my fingers. The silver lining is that the experience encouraged me to tackle the very messy and unpleasant business that was my financial state of affairs. If such an opportunity were to come along again I’d now actually be able to seize it.
Anyway, the point is simply this: if someone at ABR were to go back through security camera footage he or she would see a motorcycle roll up outside the magazine’s locked office just before 9 am on a Saturday morning in early June. The bike’s rider would not remove his helmet but would sit there for several minutes, daydreaming about what might have been.
But hold on a second: I’m on a goddamn Harley-Davidson. Clearly my life is not that bad.
Soon I’m cutting across the Midlands with the bike’s cruise control locked on, taking in the sun of what has so far been the best British summer I can remember. Is this what we get when we shut everything down? Maybe we should do this more often. Oh sure, the economy’s going down in flames but the evenings are so perfect that being huddled in tent cities and grilling rabbits poached from the estates of the rich will feel like camping.
As I push further east the landscape changes, becoming flatter and dominated by farmland. It is standard practice in Britain to criticize East Anglia as dull and somewhat backward but I think it may be one of my favorite parts of England. Perhaps because it reminds me just a little – if you squint – of the American Midwest. Certainly the latter is nowhere near the sea and lacks East Anglia’s spidering country lanes, but in both places you’ll find relatively straight highways cutting across sprawling fields of wheat, soybean and sugar beet. In both places the flat earth and dusty sky combine to make sunsets that are hard to beat.
In the regional accent, Lowestoft is apparently pronounced “Lo-stffft.” It lays claim to being one of the oldest towns in Britain, with evidence of human presence reportedly stretching back some 700,000 years. The first time the area began to resemble a more permanent settlement came in the good ol’ days of Cnut (AD 990-1035), when it was used as a kind of headquarters for Danish troops arriving to attack the appropriately monikered Æthelred the Unready, a Saxon king.
After that, Lowestoft spent about a thousand years serving as a fishing port through which tons and tons of herring, cod, plaice and so on were shipped, until the British fishing industry shot itself in the foot through trawling and overfishing. In the 1960s it turned toward serving as a base for the oil industry but that, too, fell apart around the turn of the millennium. In recent years efforts have been made to connect the town to the windfarm industry. By and large, however, the town is somewhat deprived – mostly serving as a day-trip beach destination for people with low expectations.
It takes me a while to find Ness Point. There are no signs to direct me to the spot. It sits on the edge of an industrial area, behind a large abandoned warehouse and rusting gas silo. A parking lot cracked with weeds overlooks a sea wall and beyond it the browngrey flat water of the North Sea. The parking lot’s distinguishing feature is a weird sort of sculpture that looks like an observation platform that’s had its stairs stolen. I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s exactly what it is; stairs will get you good money on the black market these days.
Seeing Britain’s most easterly and westerly points a week from each other provides an interesting contrast. Whereas the rocky cliffs and crashing blue ocean of Lizard Point served as a reminder of this country’s romance with the sea, Ness Point is a reminder of its working relationship. It is industrial. It is utilitarian. But even here there is a strange kind of beauty. The concrete seawall creates a clarity in boundaries generally only seen in maps or video games: here is the land, here is the water, there is no transition.
The parking lot is empty but for two boy-racer Fords, around which stand a handful of young men drinking cider. They nod and raise their bottles in greeting as I kill the bike’s engine. I sit on a high part of the sea wall, watching two men have a discussion about where, exactly, they should fish. They are unable to agree, so eventually set up about 50 feet from each other, with a shared cooler placed between them. I eat my lunch and stare out at the flatness of the horizon.
This is probably a far more fascinating place to be in a storm. When I was a student in Portsmouth, many years ago, there was a spot along the sea wall where waves crashed several feet high during storms. Being the incredibly intelligent university students that we were, my friends and I would get drunk and go stand in the storms, being thrown to the ground by the waves. In those moments I could feel the smallness of Britain.
I sit for a long while but eventually my bladder swells with water and tea. A few more people have shown up in the parking lot, including a family who are preparing to take the children on a bicycle ride along the sea wall. It would do the motorcycling community no favors for me to start urinating here, so I pack up and head out in search of a public toilet or an out-of-the-way set of hedges. A few miles from town I manage to find the latter in a lay-by. As I’m doing my thing a car pulls up and its driver urgently jumps out to do the same. When I make a joke about keeping two meters apart he wordlessly steps into the hedge, as if trying to hide.
Solely because I want this journey to look impressive on my Google timeline I opt not to travel back the way I came. Instead I run south toward London and the motorways that flow into and out of the capital. When I get to the M25 the London orbital is hardly a ghost town but still more relaxed than I’ve ever seen it before. Soon I’m settled into the final stretch home.
Have you ever been on a ship? I’m not talking about your uncle’s bass fishing boat but an actual ocean-going vessel. For British riders, of course, it’s a common experience. The vehicle ferries that run from Britain to Ireland or France or Spain or the Netherlands are enormous, hulking things with multiple decks holding dozens and dozens of motorcycles, cars, trucks and buses. To support that kind of weight, the decks are constructed of heavy, thick steel; decks that are no less solid and immobile than a concrete parking lot.
Initially it feels as if you have ridden into a weird parking garage, but then the whole show pulls from dock and massive engines shake every part of the ship. For a minute or so it feels like an earthquake – CHUN-CHUN-CHUN-CHUN – as silverware and beer glasses clink in the ship’s cafes, items in the duty-free shop sway, tables shudder. Once fully underway the engines run smooth but there is always that oddly comforting sense of immense power pushing up through the floor and through your body – power and steel and bearing.
That’s sort of what it’s like to sit astride the Sport Glide’s big V-twin engine: a feeling of immense, steady power. With cruise control locked at a comfortable 75 mph I sail across the rolling green of the North Wessex Downs. One of the prettiest regions of southern England, this is my favorite part of the ride from London to Cardiff. Actually, no; my favorite part comes right when the M4 meets the A46. The motorway crests a hill and suddenly a huge swathe of Britain stretches out in front of you all the way down to the Severn Estuary, about 12 miles away. On a good day, you can see the Mendip Hills out to your left, vestiges of the Malvern Hills to your right, and the hills of South Wales straight ahead. Look closely and you’ll see the white spires of the Prince of Wales Bridge.
There’s a longstanding joke, not far from truth, that Welsh people start singing as soon as they see the Prince of Wales Bridge, marking the border between Wales and England. After 14 years of living in the Kingdom of Tom Jones I’ll admit some part of me also perks up when I see this piece of infrastructure. Also, it’s a quirk of the geography here that in winter the Welsh side of the Severn is usually a degree or two warmer than the low plateau of Wiltshire. So as soon as I hit the junction of the M4 and A46 – as soon as I am able to see Wales – some part of me instinctively relaxes. On this clear, warm early evening – the sun glinting off my bug-covered visor –I feel my breath stutter from the beauty of it all.
The motorway rises slightly as it curves around Bristol, then drops again as it makes its final run to the Severn. Passing beneath a pedestrian bridge I see a group of teenagers amusing themselves by waving at traffic. I wave back with both hands and they go wild from the acknowledgment.