A few weeks ago a programme on BBC television called ‘How to Live a Simple Life’, followed the attempts of vicar Peter Owen Jones to do so, specifically by trying to live without using money for a certain period of time. I didn’t see the beginning, but watched the second episode, in which our old college friend the Franciscan Philippe Yates explained that Christian poverty is not about self-sufficiency but about vulnerability. (How this vulnerability is demonstrated by religious orders who have, if not legal ownership, control of very substantial resources is of course another question…) Owen Jones then made a ‘Franciscan’ pilgrimage (walk-cum-hitchhike) across Southern England, begging for food and accommodation with the assistance of his camera crew and, occasionally, the Anglican clergy network. However, during the third episode, during which he was back home, receiving generously filled casserole dishes from his lady parishioners, the whole doing-without-money thing collapsed suddenly and ignominously. The cause of the crisis was sadly and predictably banal; nothing more than the due date of his car’s insurance and MOT.
As vicar of a rural parish, it was of course understandable that Owen Jones would need to visit members of his flock living in far-flung locations at times incompatible with rural bus timetables and inconvenient to walk to. But there was no discussion whatsoever about the feasibility of his doing without his own car for a period; it was simply stated as being essential and the experiment was immediately over. Would it have been impossible for the wealthy neighbours who had been so lavish with the well-hung game and elaborate puddings to have offered their services in an emergency driving rota? And for a man who had walked at least part of the way to Devon, could a bicycle not conceivably have satisfied his more local transport needs?
After commuting to work, doing the school run and big supermarket shop, driving to church must be one of the most regular journeys made by drivers in Britain and Ireland. What is more, my husband (hereafter MJ), who goes out running on Sunday mornings, or used to, until he decided that he’d really prefer not to spend the rest of the day in A&E or on the mortuary slab, finds that they are often the most inconsiderate and dangerous motorists he ever encounters. Whether this is because their heads are filled with spiritual musings, they are still jubilant from Saturday evening celebrations, they are confident of going to heaven and don’t mind who they take with them, or because the roads are relatively empty and so they’re not taking much care to look, we don’t know, but it’s certainly not an ideal witness.
The question ‘What would Jesus drive?’ has, since it was first asked ten years or so ago, spread out to encompass the entire irony spectrum, from an indie rock band to the website of the UK Christian Car Club (‘cars provide an ideal means from which to share our faith’ – bumper stickers, presumably?). The answers range from 4x4s through hybrids of questionable efficiency to ‘Nothing, he’d walk’ via some really quite execrable puns (easy to Google if you feel like a cringe) but oddly, bikes don’t seem to get a mention anywhere.
To make up a little of the deficiency, I thought I’d describe for you my own journey to church and back this morning. Of course not everyone can do it, and I’m certainly not suggesting that Jesus will manifest his second coming in Lycra and cleated shoes, but it’s easier than you might think. For a few weeks now I’ve been going to Mass more regularly at The Graan, a Passionist monastery a few miles outside Enniskillen. The most well-known member of the community there is Brian D’Arcy, presenter of the Radio 2 Sunday Half Hour, who is a persistent thorn in the flesh of the Catholic hierarchy and regularly demonstrates the kind of honest and courageous vulnerability that characterizes the true spirit of Saint Francis.
I’d visited The Graan occasionally over the four years that we’ve lived in Enniskillen, especially when we lived on the west side of the town, when it was a fairly feasible, if dodgy walk. Unfortunately, being in the countryside, and attracting a largely rural congregation, it has almost no other non-motoring worshippers (I’ve never seen another), and walking up the busy access road with people carriers and 4x4s constantly swooshing past, induces rather too much vulnerability and too little tranquillity of spirit. Once in the grounds, the cars are corralled into a series of one-way parking lanes to ensure a speedy and efficient exodus at the end of Mass. All very sensible, I’m sure, but it does give the place, externally, at least, something of the feel of a theme park or drive-in burger bar. A couple of months ago, though, I discovered a back way which gave, in all senses, an alternative perspective…
This morning when I woke up the sky looked fairly optimistic, so I put on a long summer dress and sandals, planning to add a cardigan if the few clouds decided to consolidate. It was the sort of dress that used to be impossible to wear while riding a bike, as the skirt would inevitably get bunched up between the wheel and brake blocks, bringing me to an ignominous stop and leaving the dress oil-stained and holey in a way that wasn’t even good on a Sunday. A couple of years ago, however, MJ constructed a brilliant skirt guard, of the Continental variety, out of garden trellis, and since then I can be as flowing as I like. It has the added advantage of making the bike, which is actually quite a good one, appear even less attractive to potential thieves. Anyway, the point turned to be moot, as the clouds formed a substantial majority, and a dark grey one at that, and I changed into tights and a shortish skirt (quicker to dry). I very rarely cycle in trousers, except for waterproof ones when it’s really pouring and I don’t wear special shoes, either, unless I’m going for a long ride on my little red Moulton which has cleated pedals. These are the shoes I wore today
1. Waterproof poncho that folds into its own pocket (from Millets, doesn’t have to be so garish, but I bought it for Glastonbury, and anyway it has its advantages as you’ll see later)
2. Spare linen bag for shopping on the way home (as Tim Minchin says, ‘Take your canvas bags…’) Actually I ended up getting a carrier bag too (see below)
3. Camera case with velcro strap that attaches very conveniently to the handebars (and I put the camera strap over the handebar too, for extra security). I don’t usually take a camera to church with me, obviously, even if we do have a celebrity priest…
4. Spare earphones (I’ve been caught that way too often).
5. Guardian linen backpack from Glastonbury last year – extremely convenient for carrying just a few things plus a reminder that this year’s is only ten days or so away…
6.iPod. I usually take my other one, with classical music on it (nothing like a bit of baroque for the long slope) but as mentioned above, I’m in pre-Glastonbury mode now, and listening to stuff by this year’s line-up.
7. Phone. If I was a more serious or less pampered cyclist this would be a puncture repair kit – instead I could use this to call MJ in an emergency.
8. Purse containing small change for collection mite (as in widow’s, not dust) and Sunday paper.
9. Tissues. I’ve been caught that way as well. One thing you can be sure of if you cycle anywhere, regardless of the weather and your state of health; your nose will be starting to run when you arrive. And blowing it on your skirt isn’t nice, especially when you’ve jettisoned the long flowing one.
10. Deodorant. Not generally necessary but on this particular trip, as you’ll see, I do tend to glow slightly by the end and it makes me feel a bit more nice to know, especially when the pews are crowded.
It takes around half a hour to cycle from here to The Graan but I like to allow an extra fifteen minutes or so to get my breath back and avoid the last-minute cars, so as the service starts at 10.30, and I will be stopping to take photos, I plan to leave by 9.45 at the latest. Putting animals inside and outside, and doling out their milk, takes a few extra minutes, but I am out by ten to ten. Freewheeling down to the bottom of the road I meet our next-door-but-one neighbour who, having failed by four votes on the third recount to become our M.P. is instead embracing his retirement with good-natured gusto and a brand new bicycle.
The road is fairly empty but I take my usual route towards town along the grandly-named Great Northern Way, an old railway path parallel with the road and mainly used by teenagers walking to and from school. It’s a reasonable surface for cycling, without too much broken glass in comparison with the rest of the town, and fringed with trees and banks of wildflowers.
The song on my iPod is Jackson Browne’s Thunder and I wonder whether it is a bad omen – the sky is getting very dark. Half way along, the path crosses a road (with a couple of dog-legs to slow us cyclists down – very thoughtful, but wouldn’t it be safer for everyone to slow the cars?) and here a plump man with fluffy yellow hair and a pink T-shirt stares in amazement at me out of his BMW V5 window, a giant toddler in a giant toy car.At the end of the GNW I cross the main road, and take a little dog-legged back road around the back of a terraced row (motorists use it as a short-cut too, so it’s a bit hazardous at school run time) onto Factory Road, past its long-derelict namesake
and the G.A.A. (Gaelic Athletic Association) ground, home to Fermanagh Gaelic football team (which won an unxpected victory against neighbouring Cavan yesterday, to local jubilation – far more important than that soccer thing in South Africa.)
After this the route comes off the road again, along a wooded path which skirts the edge of the hospital and health centre grounds, along the edge of Lough Erne.
The Erne Hospital is a pleasant little place, smelling of toast and mild disinfectant, beautifully situated next to the lake and in easy walking distance from the town centre and many of the larger housing estates. So of course it is being replaced by a giant private finance initiative monstrosity several miles out, where everyone will no doubt have to drive (at great car parking profit to the developers) and toast smells are most unlikely. The shell of the new hospital is virtually complete, after months of thick mud across the roads and local residents’ houses, and the workers (mostly Spanish, as the consortium is Spanish-owned) are preparing for the next two years of interior construction. Presumably the site of the present hospital will then be flogged off for yet more luxury waterside apartments or chain-store shopping centres. I don’t hold out much hope for this mellow old stone wall or the mature trees once that happens…
At the end of this path, under the road bridge, is a small island. When we first moved here, four years ago, it was full of ducklings and cygnets. Now there are none. It’s the same story across the lough, at least in the Enniskillen area; fewer and fewer wildfowl every year. We’ve only seen two cygnets this year, both on the small lough opposite our house. No one official seems to be very concerned or even to have noticed the change. We suppose it is due to a combination of factors; the massive amount of building during the so-called property boom when huge speculative blocks of flats were built which now stand empty, many unfinished, the enormous new premises of Waterways Ireland, ironically built on the marshlands it might have been expected to protect, the motorized cruisers with their powerful wakes, washing away delicate habitats and nests, the quantities of salt poured on the roads during the cold winter, now washed into the lough and increasingly chemical agricultural methods such as the intensive pig-farming which the WWF says is causing the eutrophication of Lough Erne.
Then I’m back on the road again, past the library and fortified police station and over the old bridge. The rowers from Portora Royal School are out practising, which is great; a pity they’re usually accompanied by coaches in fast motor boats – the wake from these often looks worse than the big cruisers.
The people round here are, on the whole, well-meaning and generous; they’ve gone through immensely difficult times with courage and compassion and are working to create a better society for the future. But the lakes are so big and the population so small that they just don’t realize the fragility of the natural environment around them.
A few yards further on is the Round ‘O’, a park and jetty, and another example of destruction for the best of motives. We used to stop here every morning on the way to school and feed the ducks and swans; often thirty or forty at a time. But then, two years ago, the jetties were upgraded, the grassy banks replaced with tarmac and the muddy edge where the wildfowl wandered replaced with an access road so that boat-owners could drive right up to the lough. Maybe it improved the amenity of the site for them, but the birds, and the tiny children who used to toddle along the quiet paths have almost all gone.
After the Round O I pass the gates of Portora, where Oscar Wilde and Samuel Beckett were educated, and the other week Simon Callow gave a brilliant pre-premiere of his new Shakespeare one-man show. From time to time we get these odd little treats here, and this, combined with the stunning countryside and genuine friendships, more than make up for the political oddities and the weather.
After Portora I’m on the Donegal Road, coming out of Enniskillen and soon turn onto the Derrygonnelly road, and the hard bit of the ride. It’s not very hard, really, just a long shallow rise past the recycling centre, the oil depot (most houses are heated with oil around here) and the quarry. I use my usual technique of looking into the verge, at the masses of wild flowers, which takes my mind off my calf muscles.
The song on my iPod is Turin Brakes’ Long Distance, though, and it’s starting to feel like it. But The Graan comes visible quite soon and just when I’m feeling that I’ve really been riding for long enough (it’s been raining for some time now, but not hard enough to make it worth unpacking my poncho and is windier than usual), I reach the little side turning and the final road up to the monastery.
I usually stop halfway up the hill here to lock my bike and make myself respectable, but the farmer (presumably) who owns the cows has parked his Landrover there and is leaning thoughtfully over the fence.
“A good way to be travelling.” he says, by way of greeting, nodding at my bike, and I grin and pant past. This bit is steep, that’s why I’m usually walking it, and I’m down to first gear now and feeling distinctly rosy. I stop around the next corner, lock my bike to the fence, comb my hair, blow my nose and bung on a bit more deodorant. Then I walk up the rest of the hill, past the main part of the monastery, which is now a nursing home
and into the church. At first when I did this I felt a bit awkward about being damp and red-faced amongst the soignée attendees strolling in from their cars, but I don’t think there was really any need. I’m still glowing a bit through the first readings, but by the time we stand for the Gospel I’m back into equilibrium. No one is moving away from me, anyway, and at the sign of the peace my neighbours are all happy to shake my hand. Anyway, not everyone here is a middle-aged motorist; there are quite a few residents of the nursing home sitting in their wheechairs teaching us more acutely than a mere cyclist about vulnerability and patience.
During the sermon I can hear the rain pattering hard on the roof, but during the Creed the stained glass windows light up optimistically. I’m hoping for a bit of sunshine when we go out, but it is still raining, and harder, so I put my poncho on before unlocking the bike. It should have the extra advantage of making me extremely visible, but I switch on my dynamo lights as well, just in case. The view from here is still marvellous, anyway, despite the raindrops on the lens.
The obverse of the tedious ride up to The Graan is the easy sail down again; I can do almost the whole of the stretch to the Donegal Road without turning the pedals. I note the state of decay of the fox that was run over a few weeks ago, but decide that you’d probably prefer not to have a picture. The visibility of the poncho certainly works; a Mercedes driver signals and pulls out a good ten feet despite the fact that I’m tucked well into a layby, taking pictures of the view. Talking of which…
At the junction I stop at the petrol station shop for the Observer. They’re good for local produce too, so I get some potatoes and blackcurrant jam. I now realise the deficiencies in Tim Minchin’s lyric writing. What he should have written was, ‘Take your canvas bags to the supermarket, but if it looks like rain and you’re planning to get a Sunday paper, don’t forget to bring along a reused plastic one as well, so that you don’t end up with a soggy wedge of dirty sludge.’ But since he didn’t, and I didn’t, I had to take a new one. When I come out, the rain has stopped, or almost (making my carrier bag even more reprehensible) , so I take off my poncho and enjoy a refreshing and uneventful ride back home. Unfortunately there are more cars on the road now, and I’m overtaken with inches to spare by three black 4x4s in a row, followed by a courteous Daimler who gives me plenty of room. The drivers of vintage cars are generally the most thoughtful, and the giant new monstrosities the least, forgetting that a cyclist is both alive and moving, and therefore appreciates a little more leeway than you would give a traffic cone. On the Great Northern Way a group of birds fly across the path in front of me; at least one a big rosy-breasted bullfinch. They flew into this tree, if you’d like to look for them.
The whole trip, including the service itself, shopping and stopping to take photographs, has taken about two hours and twenty minutes; maybe an hour more than it would have taken by car (if I’d had one.) But I’d have had to go on the main roads, and would have missed all the most enjoyable bits of the journey, as well as the scents of the flowers, the close-up birds, the smell of the cleansed air after the rain, the feel of the air on my face (and, to be quite honest, the sight of the dead fox). I’d also still have my recommended mild exercise to do, for which I might even have driven to the gym, at the cost of yet more time, money and oil. I’d have missed the friendly farmer, and might have had a more definitive encounter with the pink T-shirted toddler-man, and I wouldn’t have that pleasant almost-ache in my knees that tells me that I’ve done the right thing with them, and can enjoy a substantial dinner without any nagging twinges of nutritional conscience. Talking of which…