Since the Saturday before last looked like the only rainless day we were going to get in what has been the monsoon month of July I went out for a long cycle, catching an early train to Berwick-upon-Tweed, which I’ve never visited before though I have passed through it often enough and admired its fine bridges and river where the swans sail. It’s an attractive town in faded pink sandstone, and you can cycle round its ramparts and read on boards placed here and there about its intensive military history.
I then went to find the National Cycle Network 76, which started as an extremely pleasant route through rolling and hedged countryside, past substantial red sandstone houses with colourful gardens. Red is the characteristic colour of the southern part of Lothian. Nearer to Edinburgh the stone and earth is yellowish or grey, but there, under the sun the houses were red, the walls, the earth that was turned in the fields, and a quarry near the cement works were in shades of rose, blood or paprika. I even saw a rare red squirrel running under a high neatly clipped beech hedge.
The route went to the pretty harbour town of Eyemouth where I had lunch, with a pint of beer which efficiently turns to sugar and energises you when cycling, then rolled up the hills to moorland. I hit the pain barrier and began to groan at what seemed to be a never ending climb until I got to the brow of a hill and could look below and see the two projecting rounded features of East Lothian, Bass Rock and Trapain Law, among the golden fields and the blue sea. The weather was perfect – warm, but not hot, with a very slight breeze.
I then went down then up a steep coastal road, took a mile or so on the death-making A1 past Torness Power Station, which is the road to hell, where I was hooted at by the internal combastards for inconveniencing them, then turned off onto a marginal path behind the cement works and past the quarry, right by the railway line. Rooks sat on the wires, auditioning for Hitchcock’s The Birds, and seagulls scavenged a huge dump. I like these furtive paths that whoever designs these cycle networks finds and brings in to link the castles, pretty villages and old battlefields to the necessary ugliness of the modern industrial world.
Through Dunbar, then along a nasty stretch on a pavement beside the A1, where again the internal combustards expressed their disgust at the self-propelled on two wheels by hooting at me. After this reminder of how much on sufferance we cyclists exist, there was a wonderful winding through minor roads, a halt by Hailes Castle to eat a sandwich while a wedding party were being photographed among the ruins then through other small roads until I got on a path in a park by the muddy river Tyne, through long grass and friar basalm, and among the dry scent of summer and emerged into a housing estate in Haddington.
I lost the NCN76 signs at that point and faffed around, back-tracking until I found the route again, which now went on a glorious stretch of old railway path, four miles of it on gravel through trees, at a very slight downward gradient, and passing only one person on it walking dogs. I went at high speed until I hit Long Niddrie.
It was then about 7pm. I had been cycling for nine and a half hours with a long stop for lunch and a short one for a snack. The rest of the route was flat and familiar. But when I had gone for about five miles through the towns that are turning into semi-suburbs of Edinburgh, and had reached Musselburgh I realised I had almost no energy left. My muscles weren’t hurting, but I felt like a horse that had been pulling a stagecoach. one that should have been left at a coaching inn while the grooms and ostlers harnessed a fresh pair. It would been sensible to go to a pub, eat, drink and rest to acquire enough energy for the last lap back but I was so close to home, about eight miles or so, that I plugged on, through the city streets. There is a cycle path in that area that I’ve been on a dozen times, but I was too exhausted to try and find it, and on a Saturday evening it could be dodgy. Drinking teenagers can give cyclists a hard time.
At one point I had to halt and get off the cycle simply because my legs had stopped working. Slight gradients that would normally have been nothing seemed like Ben Nevis. When I finally got home I stuffed myself with ginger beer and ice-cream, evidently desperate for a sugar fix. I’m a sedentary bookish blogger and normally my body is something that carries my consciousness around, but cycling turns it into a machine that needs refuelling. If I were a skilled craftsman, eg a builder of drystone dikes, it would turn into an instrument or a calibrated tool as I placed one stone on another. However I’m in the information age and my hands are used for pressing keys and buttons and my body for sitting at a desk.
I then checked the map. I had thought the route was sixty miles, which is ambitious for my level of fitness. In fact it was seventy. The next day I was a fatigued zombie, and then spent the rest of the week boasting about this journey to any sentient being who came my way.
However it was a splendid cycle. At the height of summer the countryside has lost its freshness and white flowers of spring and has not yet gained the colour of autumn, but it did look magnificent, with the jade trees and the golden barley, the willow herb and poppies, and, of course, the redness. It’s iron in the earth that makes it look so red – I know that much – and I had recently been very taken by an essay by Ruskin, The Work of Iron, in Nature, Art and Policy which I had found in The Faber Book of Science.
You all probably know that the ochreous stain, which, perhaps, is often thought to spoil the basin of your spring, is iron in a state of rust: and when you see rusty iron in other places you generally think, not only that it spoils the places it stains, but that it is spoiled itself--that rusty iron is spoiled iron.
For most of our uses it generally is so; and because we cannot use a rusty knife or razor so well as a polished one, we suppose it to be a great defect in iron that it is subject to rust. But not at all. On the contrary, the most perfect and useful state of it is that ochreous stain; and therefore it is endowed with so ready a disposition to get itself into that state. It is not a fault in the iron, but a virtue, to be so fond of getting rusted, for in that condition it fulfils its most important functions in the universe, and most kindly duties to mankind. Nay, in a certain sense, and almost a literal one, we may say that iron rusted is Living; but when pure or polished, Dead. You all probably know that in the mixed air we breathe, the part of it essentially needful to us is called oxygen; and that this substance is to all animals, in the most accurate sense of the word, "breath of life." The nervous power of life is a different thing; but the supporting element of the breath, without which the blood, and therefore the life, cannot be nourished, is this oxygen. Now it is this very same air which the iron breathes when it gets rusty. It takes the oxygen from the atmosphere as eagerly as we do, though it uses it differently. The iron keeps all that it gets; we, and other animals, part with it again; but the metal absolutely keeps what it has once received of this aerial gift; and the ochreous dust which we so much despise is, in fact, just so much nobler than pure iron, in so far as it is iron and the air. Nobler, and more useful--for, indeed, as I shall be able to show you presently--the main service of this metal, and of all other metals, to us, is not in making knives, and scissors, and pokers, and pans, but in making the ground we feed from, and nearly all the substances first needful to our existence. For these are all nothing but metals and oxygen--metals with breath put into them. Sand, lime, clay, and the rest of the earths--potash and soda, and the rest of the alkalies--are all of them metals which have undergone this, so to speak, vital change, and have been rendered fit for the service of man by permanent unity with the purest air which he himself breathes. There is only one metal which does not rust readily; and that, in its influence on Man hitherto, has caused Death rather than Life; it will not be put to its right use till it is made a pavement of, and so trodden under foot.
Is there not something striking in this fact, considered largely as one of the types, or lessons, furnished by the inanimate creation? Here you have your hard, bright, cold, lifeless metal--good enough for swords and scissors--but not for food. You think, perhaps, that your iron is wonderfully useful in a pure form, but how would you like the world, if all your meadows, instead of grass, grew nothing but iron wire--if all your arable ground, instead of being made of sand and clay, were suddenly turned into flat surfaces of steel--if the whole earth, instead of its green and glowing sphere, rich with forest and flower, showed nothing but the image of the vast furnace of a ghastly engine—a globe of black, lifeless, excoriated metal? It would be that,--probably it was once that; but assuredly it would be, were it not that all the substance of which it is made sucks and breathes the brilliancy of the atmosphere; and as it breathes, softening from its merciless hardness, it falls into fruitful and beneficent dust; gathering itself again into the earths from which we feed, and the stones with which we build;--into the rocks that frame the mountains, and the sands that bind the sea.
Ruskin is far more poetic and florid than a popular science writer would be today. He anthropomorphises minerals in a way we wouldn’t now, but like the best popular science writers he conveys wonder at the world and its workings and a joy of knowledge.
I caught an episode of Desperate Romantics last night, and of course Ruskin is a rather pompous art critic and much is made of his rubbish sex life, while Rossetti looks exactly like Kelly Jones, the lead singer of the Stereophonics and is conceived of as a wild rock musician. Also, Ruskin’s wife says to Millais, “This is about [or some other word] you and I.” Ruskin’s wife is an educated woman and would have said “me”, you ignorant vulgarians who researched the period, wrote the script and produced the show.