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June 17, 2015 2 comments
Celestial CyclesCorrespondence Friends Events Monthly highlights Travel & Adventure Cycling Urban Cycling Stories
Long before the festivals of Christmas, Easter, Hanukkah, Ramadan or Thanksgiving came along human kind measured its progress through the year by observing the sun and the stars. The solstices are the pair of celestial bookends that mark the longest day of summer and the deepest depths of winter. Unlike religious and cultural festivals, which are ultimately products of the human imagination, the solstices are firmly rooted in the reality of our cosmic situation. Sometimes it's good to remind ourselves that we live on a spherical rock hurtling around a gigantic nuclear explosion, spinning as it goes. [caption id="attachment_14869" align="aligncenter" width="620" caption="The Sweet Grass at Sunset. Photo (C) Nomadic Lass"] [/caption] The earth’s spin is what gives us day and night and the 23.5 degree tilt of that spin relative to the earth's year-long journey around the sun is what gives us the seasons. The summer solstice is the moment when the earth’s tilt brings the northern hemisphere closest to the sun, giving a glorious 16 and a half hour long day if you live in southern England, and more the further north you go (people in northern Scotland enjoy a full 18 hours between midsummer sunrise and sunset). Besides reminding us of our place in the cosmos, the solstice signals that the year is half gone. What, already? Yes, after June 21st the nights will be drawing in. It always takes me by surprise and brings a renewed sense of urgency to my cycling year. So I've fallen into the habit of marking the solstices with some kind of cycling caper. For a couple of years midsummer meant tagging along with a group of London bike messengers in their ‘Rolling to the Stones’ ride, a testing journey of around 90 miles from Hyde Park Corner to Stonehenge, where we’d arrive through to join the dishevelled throng of new age hippies, glow-stick waving ravers and cider swigging locals. The solstices are the only two days a year when people are permitted to get up close and personal with the mighty megaliths. In summer this means an all-night party with a climax at sunrise, or, as is more usual in England, the imperceptible lightening of the sky as the morning dew grows into a misty drizzle. [caption id="attachment_14855" align="alignnone" width="640" caption="Summer Solstice at Stonehenge. Photo (C) Andrew Dunn CC-SA "][/caption] Other years I’ve joined the hundreds on the streets of London on a ride around the deserted streets of the financial district, a late night coffee in Soho, sunrise on Primrose Hill and a fry up on the South Bank. Midsummer Madness is on again this year, and the London Cycling Campaign is doing at again this year. Then there are the times when I’ve just headed to the hills, on my own or with a few friends. A friend and I spent the night on the summit of Cadair Idris in southern Snowdonia in the hope that, in accordance with the legend, we’d return as madmen or poets. I’ve unfurled a bivvy bag high on the Ridgeway close by the Bronze Age white horse on Uffington Hill, on the South Downs at Blackcap and atop Wittenham Clump to see the Thames valley mist rise over the (now demolished) cooling towers of Didcot power station. [caption id="attachment_14857" align="alignnone" width="640" caption="Dicot power station cooling towers: gone, but not forgotten"][/caption] This year, the summer solstice falls on a Saturday night and sadly I'll not be joining the happy throng at the Eroica Britannia to salivate over vintage bikes and enjoy the Peak District countryside, though I can't think of a better way to spend a midsummer weekend. Nor am I attempting to ride coast to coast across Southern England in the Chase the Sun ride, a beautifully simple solstice ride and a serious challenge at more than 200 miles. I’m tempted to make a return to Stonehenge, charting a new route east from South Wales where I now live. Closer to home, there's the Cardiff to the Beach Night Ride, a Welsh incarnation of the Dunwich Dynamo. Closer still would be a bikepacking trip to sleep out on Chwarel y Fan, the highest point in my county of Monmouthshire. Here’s a list of the highest points in the counties of England and Wales that may help if you’re inclined to do the same where you live. [caption id="attachment_14856" align="alignnone" width="640" caption="A hill, a bike, a tarp, the setting sun and a Brooks saddle"][/caption] If you’re new to the idea of the sub-24 hour overnight bike ride, midsummer is the perfect time to give it a try as the night is the shortest of the year - in fact it only gets properly dark for a couple of hours. Grant Petersen of Rivendell Bikes is the acknowledged grand-daddy of the S24O and it's always worth starting with his article that kicked it all off. More recently, professional adventurer and round-the-world cyclist Alistair Humphreys has developed the concept of the #microadventure and his book and blog has loads of great ideas. Use the comments to share your most memorable midsummer nights on two wheels, and the plans you're hatching for this year's longest day and shortest night.