It was a bright late spring day and I had the day off from work.
The latest lockdown restrictions had eased and I was slowly getting reacquainted with my bicycle. So I decided to pedal from my home to my local arboretum. Google Maps told me it was 20 miles away from my front door though I knew better than to trust it. I am in a habit of diverting to all the smallest roads I can find and Google is not great for that. Instead, I packed a paper map, plenty of water, some snacks, and my Minolta SRT303 paired with a MD Rokkor 24 to 50mm zoom lens. I loaded a roll of Ilford FP4, set the camera ISO to 200, and went off.
I was apprehensive of the ride. Although I had been back to commuting with my bicycle for a few months, I wasn’t sure how my body would cope with 20 to 30 miles under the sun and with many more hills than my commute. I set forth, knowing that worse come to the worse, my partner could come to my rescue with her car. She was already due to provide me with a lift back to our house.
I cycled familiar roads, following small blue road signs easily missed when driving by. My legs settled into the rhythm of the road and I relaxed, my body remembering how strong it used to be, how strong it could be again. I left known lanes for new ones. Leaves danced gently in the breeze creating an ever shifting pattern of light on the ground. I stopped often to take a breath, to take in the landscape, and to snap a few photographs.
The muscles in my legs tensed and burned as I climbed the steepest hill I had encountered since 2019. The road carried on and so did I, wishing I had panniers attached to my rear rack and camping gear with me. I could not recall why I had been incapable of cycling during the various lockdowns, my body unable to move faster than the speed of walking. In this moment, all I wanted was to lose myself in the network of English lanes and disappear into an everlasting English spring filled with trees in leaf, cow parsley in the grass verges, and sweat dripping down my back.
Unlike my bicycle, my camera had seen a lot of use during the various lockdowns. It had been a safety net to keep my mind occupied and my hands busy. I had grown so accustomed to it, that every gesture was intimately known. The old adage of ‘film slows you down’ was no longer true with my Minolta SRT303, the MD Rokkor 24 to 50mm lens, and Ilford FP4 rated at 200. At this point, they had transformed into an extension of my hands and eyes. As soon as a scene was pictured in my mind, it took mere seconds for me to stop the bike, swing the camera around my chest, put it to my eye, adjust the settings without looking at them, and press the shutter knowing I had captured what I envisioned.
The landscape transformed once more in a familiar layout of roads, driven repeatedly as restrictions from the first lockdown eased. Back then my partner and I use to take refuge within the trees of the arboretum on a weekly basis, our mind and soul seeking the soft company of trees and the quiet of birds. I pedalled on, my partner passing me in her car as I neared the arboretum. She waved and I sped up, attempting to catch her up even though I knew it was pointless.
We met up in the car park, locked my bicycle into the car, and stepped onto the known paths of the arboretum. We had been many times and yet each visit felt like a new scenery awaited us. From afar, the dense thicket of trees appeared uniform but as soon as we dove under their shelter, details emerged we had never seen. New buds had bloomed into flowers and new insects crawled on our legs as we laid on the grass eating our lunch.
The scent of wild garlic wafted by, beckoning us to a side path we had never explored. It led out of the arboretum. We climbed over a fence, walking on in the countryside. Clouds of dust followed our steps in the dried undergrowth until we stopped, surrounded by a carpet of wild garlic extending as far as we could see in either direction. We dropped down and began our harvest. I tried creating an image or two but the thick roof of the trees kept the light at bay. I left the camera on my back and focused on looking, smelling, touching, remembering another way. Our bounty collected, we returned to the boundary of the arboretum, detouring by the café for an ice-cream before the drive home.
We followed quiet roads, our speed so low, it was easy to pretend we were cycling. The horizon caught up with the sun, the world ablaze in a vivid orange glow. We stopped at a pub for a drink in the last of the sun, unwilling for the day to end. Eventually we had to go back to the car, roads widening as we neared our house at the edge of the city. Still, it was not all bad, wild garlic perfumed the car, a promise of woodland in our diner to come. And on my lap, my cherished Minolta SRT303 filled with latent images of golden memories collected on Ilford FP4.