People gawp in disbelief when they learn that I cycle through west London’s Richmond Park late at night, often in the pitch dark.
As a shift worker, I frequently find myself churning the pedals there at one am, en route from central London to Kingston upon Thames – a commuting journey of just under 13 miles.
It’s commonly assumed that the park is locked up every night. While it’s true that the car gates are secured and roads inaccessible during the hours of darkness, the pedestrian entrances which also allow bikes through, are never locked. That is to say, apart from the months of November and February, when the cull is being carried out as a means of managing the population of some 600 red and fallow deer which have inhabited this amazing green space since the seventeenth century, you can always get into the park on foot or bike. That’s round the clock access.
At first, venturing into the forbiddingly dark, 2,500 acre (1,000 hectare) interior is a daunting prospect. It brings to mind Tam O Shanter’s ill-fated journey in Rabbie Burns’s eponymous narrative poem. Of course, unlike Tam whose mode of transport is his stout mare, Meg, I am not pedalling through the trees after a skinful of ale imbibed on market day. But it’s easy enough to imagine that warlocks, bogles and Auld Nick himself may be holding an unholy ceilidh in a nearby clearing, nevertheless. The spooky thought certainly spurs me on – and incidentally helps boost my average speed on Strava. Chapeau to the Bard of Ayrshire.
After years of cycling through the centre of the park after midnight, I’ve thankfully grown less conscious of how terrifying it can be. But sometimes I still get caught out.
Encountering other human beings at such an hour is guaranteed to give you pause. When three black-clad teenagers materialised from the gloom just as I came upon them, I experienced a genuine frisson of horror. They were sitting cross-legged in the middle of the small roundabout at Sheen Cross. As I sprinted up the incline towards White Lodge I could sense their appreciative laughter nipping at my spinning wheels – like the devilish sprites snapping at Meg’s swishing tail as she raced for the bridge in the poem.
When I spied two pinpoints of red light bobbing in the near distance, I experienced another sensation of dread as I approached. Apprehensively I continued pedalling, completely in the dark (pun intended) as to what they might be. It was only when I drew level that I saw the figure of a man strolling up the path keeping an eye on his two dogs who were off the leash and following their noses in time-honoured canine fashion. They quite sensibly had small lights clipped to their collars. Mystery solved.
Speaking of smells. Colleagues are concerned that I might hit a deer in the park at night. But apart from the occasional close call with a stag’s antlers jutting into the road, as the animal bends to nibble at the edge of the grass, I’ve had little problem with the wildlife. In fact, on those moonless occasions when it really is close to pitch dark, I can smell the proximity of the deer as I cycle past without actually seeing them. It’s a warm, rich, sweaty – dare I say, gamey, odour – quite distinctive.
These animals never seem to sleep – or maybe they slumber in the standing position. At night, the deer can be found in parts of the park – including in the middle of the roads or on the footpaths – where they are rarely seen during daylight hours.
Rutting season is the only time I’m wary of these creatures. I’ve found myself pedalling on the shared route from Pen Ponds to Ham Cross in the dark, only to stop in my tracks – and, deterred by the bellowing of an unseen, testosterone-crazed stag – turn and retrace my steps to take the much longer ride home on the road proper.
Not all the park’s animals are so belligerent. How many Londoners’ commute to work takes them through the ethereal, misty, landscape of the park just before dawn? I’ve encountered badgers, trotting along beside my bike, rabbits bobbing off into the grass and even a snake in the middle of the road. I gingerly picked the reptile up with a stick and deposited the animal in the undergrowth away from the risk of being squashed by car tyres. Once, a squirrel took evasive action on my approach but, after a moment of comical indecision, chose the wrong escape route and ran headlong into the side of my front wheel. He fell – cartoon-style, semi-stunned for a second- then shook himself off and scampered up a tree. If only he’d been a chipmunk, he could have starred in his own animated Hollywood blockbuster.
Then one crisp morning – just after 4am, I was speeding along the path past a fallen tree trunk when I realised somehow that I was being watched. There, perched calmly on the end of the log was a little owl (the park’s commonest owl species). The bird didn’t ruffle a feather, but I could feel those big eyes tracking me calmly as I pedalled past. My first and only owl sighting to date.
It goes without saying that I encounter numerous ducks, geese, woodpeckers and flamboyant ring-necked parakeets. When it’s just beginning to get light and if rain has left roadside puddles, there are invariably clusters of bright green parakeets, uncharacteristically on the ground drinking the puddle water. To see twenty or thirty of them suddenly take fright as my front tyre crunches towards them, and launch themselves, squawking heavenwards in mass panic, is truly breathtaking.
I’d sensed the presence of that owl before I consciously acknowledged what it was. The darkness and the silence of the park at night can play tricks on the senses. I have a theory that it actually helps you climb hills. Cyclists who enter by Roehampton Gate heading for Richmond have to grind up the gentle but longish incline leading to Sawyer’s Hill. During the day it’s easy to flag as the gradient kicks up just a tiny bit just before that Sheen Cross mini roundabout. Once you’ve relented, it becomes psychological and before you know it, the energy can drain out of your muscles, leaving you floundering towards the junction at a snail’s pace. The effect is exacerbated if, as you are slowing down, a peleton of whippet-impersonating roadies swoosh past you on their way up the hill. But – just like the deceptive electric brae in Scotland which plays tricks with your perception of the gradient – ascending this hill can seem effortless – at night. Pedalling up here in the pitch dark, with no visual reference points and no overtaking cyclists, it’s possible to get your head down and concentrate purely on turning the pedals. I’m convinced that night-climbing like this is faster.
It’s on virtually this same stretch of road that one of those rare moments of night terror can sometimes assail me. A fan of the American zombie series The Walking Dead, there’s one scene which has been incorporated into the opening titles. Two of the main characters drive past a field in which, in the distance, a lone, long-haired zombie, shambles slowly through knee-high grass. At the end of the episode the characters return, driving in the opposite direction and the solitary walker is still there shambling slowly through the fields oblivious to the fresh meat in the car.
Occasionally, just occasionally, when I’m cycling past the meadows near Roehampton Gate and the aptly named, Bone Copse, I imagine that that long-haired ghoul is out there on the sport fields, stumbling in his undead way towards me. That’s when I give my imaginary Meg a dig of the spurs and increase those pedal revs. It becomes a desperate gallop to get to Ham Gate and out of the darkness in one piece. The sense of urgency induced by this imaginary threat is encapsulated in the phrase, “Deil tak the hindmost” – artfully coined again, by Rabbie Burns, in Address to the Haggis to describe the speed and greediness of diners who gobble their food as if their very lives depended on it.
About the Author: Iain has been pedalling through London and Richmond Park, believe it or not, since 1989. He definitely predates the genus, ‘mamil’. And if you enjoyed this post please consider donating money to Iain and his Gurning Grimpeurs team who are raising vital funds for Bloodwise – the UK’s biggest blood cancer charity. They’ve cycled from London to Paris twice as part of their fundraising which began two years ago in memory of Iain’s brother-in-law Mike who’d lived with acute myeloid leukaemia for about 11 months before he died. The Gurning Grimpeurs comprise Mike’s two children and his wife, along with Iain and his wife.