Rise Above the Noise
On a fine Spring day last year, I rode my bicycle from the city centre of Newcastle out into the countryside. I had intended to stop in Gosforth for an appointment and then head home but when I got to Gosforth a strange impulse came over me. What if I just kept going? Tall buildings and traffic jams had already given way to suburbia. Perhaps that too would give way to open fields and empty roads. So I continued north.
It didn’t take long, perhaps forty-five minutes. Newcastle is a compact city after all. One minute I was cycling through a place called Hazlerigg, housing estates and chippies and a Post Office lining the street, and then it just, sort of, ended. Either side were grassy meadows. A herd of cows could be seen lazing in the sun. There were no cars and the silence was broken only by birdsong. I stopped to look around, slightly dazed, as if I’d been flung out of a dark room into the light. A cow mooed in my direction. “Well, I made it,” I thought to myself. And with that I turned around and headed back into the city.
This was the first of many jaunts on my bicycle to escape the big smoke. I plotted a fifteen mile loop that took me past that same herd of cows and beyond, into villages like Dinnington and Horton Grange. Of course, this was a superficial escape. The city never entirely lost its grip on me and blotches on the landscape, like Newcastle Airport, were deceptively close. Nonetheless, it felt like a small victory to see a glimpse of proper countryside, to breath clean air and smell fresh manure. That’s the stuff. And all under my own steam.
I’m now living in Manchester and such literal breakouts aren’t so easy on a bicycle thanks to the city’s sprawling nature. No bother. A more whimsical, figurative form of escape has filled the void. Allow me to explain.
The most common route I cycle is from my home in South Manchester to the city centre. It’s a five mile pedal along one flat road, which has thankfully been equipped with a segregated bike lane. There are still a few sections where one is forced to tangle with buses and cars but it’s an otherwise pleasant ride.
It takes me along Withington High Street where charity shops and estate agents mingle with hipster cafés. Next comes the nostalgic student bubble of Fallowfield. Endless fried chicken outlets and kebab shops somehow survive on the same stretch of road and students mill around in strange clothes, smoking cigarettes and generally making me cringe at the thought of once being a student too.
A brief moment of calm follows as I pedal alongside Platt Fields Park and then the madness that is the Curry Mile begins. It’s a remarkable stretch of road. About seventy restaurants, all serving an array of Asian food, are packed onto a narrow high street, emitting such a dazzling combination of smells as to make any passing cyclist a tad light-headed. Conversation flows through the crowded pavements in loud bursts, fresh vegetables tumble out of world-food supermarkets, and the constant stream of buses and honking cars add another layer of noise to this enthralling place. It really is like you’ve been plonked into the heart of a throbbing South Asian city.
I love this section of my commute. It’s hectic and exciting and the openness of a bicycle allows for true immersion in my surroundings. What’s more, with a delicate surge of speed I’m able to glide through the commotion on a higher plane. This is the new type of freedom I was alluding to – cycling down a busy street requires focus, especially if you pick up the pace, and you become blinkered. The city recedes to a pleasant background hum as you dodge stray pedestrians and murky puddles. Wind whips, blood quickens, the eyes smile. Chaos is washed away by riding right through the middle of it. And not a stitch of lycra is required.
After the anarchy of the Curry Mile I’m plunged back into student life. Cheerful undergraduates stroll to their next lecture and ever-present campaigners hand out leaflets on illegal wars and the sins of capitalism. By this point only buses and taxis are free to use the roads and there’s a tangible ebb in the tyranny of traffic. Not quite like emerging into Northumberland’s countryside, but it’s still a chance to catch my breath as the city centre looms large.
I’m nearly at the Central Library now. Bike lanes have dissolved into bus lanes, construction work presses in from both sides, trams snake through the streets. It doesn’t matter though. As long as I’m on my bicycle it’s easy to rise above the noise and pedal away.