Maps and Legends

April 8, 2013

(This piece was originally published in 2011 in Gaudie, the newspaper of Aberdeen University Student’s Association, and is reproduced here without permission.)

I never saw much of Aberdeenshire before I got into cycling. A transplanted Londoner, I used to stare idly downwards through the plastic porthole of an EasyJet 737 on the way into Dyce, but without much genuine curiosity about the topography below. But now I can surprise native Aberdonians with my knowledge of obscure placenames in the little green belt corners on the outskirts of the city, and the delightful, wild, windswept outer reaches of the county.

I’m fascinated by some of these names. From the Walter-Scottish evocative; Logie Coldstone, Kincardine O’Neill, Mains of Drumtochty, through the unpronounceably surreal; Goosecruives, Auquorthies, Finzean, to my personal favourites, the monosyllabic and gritty. Echt, Clatt, Tough. This last is pronounced “Teuch”, but on a winter’s day, snow lying on the fields, Northeasterly scything in direct from Siberia, my own South-of-the-border pronunciation seems like an accurate description of the place.

It can be tough on a bike, at the mercy of all extremities of the weather, but the payoff is that it’s undoubtedly the best way to experience its beauty. Nothing comes between you and your  enjoyment of sunshine on snowy fields, the hills looking blue under low clouds, or a bright blue summer sky.

So, handlebars and wheels have been the means by which I’ve got to know the world beyond the student zone that is circumscribed by King’s College, and Union Street on a Saturday night, and found out something about what’s out there, beyond the horizon and the Northfield transmission tower, beyond the housing estates and the dual carriageways. Why? That might be too long a story to go into just now. Instead, I’m going to wrap up by emphasising how far I’ve still got to go in this education I’ve been getting. From the magazine of Deeside Thistle Cycling Club, a description of a map;

“What’s special about this map is that it is nearly unreadable. For all of my cycling life I’ve carefully drawn on it any cycling route that I’ve followed. Aberdeenshire has 1000s of miles of A and B roads. There are equally as many miles on minor roads and countless others on tracks and paths. These paths and tracks have been the lifeblood of the country, and though they may now sometimes appear to go nowhere it’s special to know that the annotation on my map proves to me that I’ve been there, done that. And there are only a few more scattered pieces to collect.”

I know I’ll never reach this depth of immersion; I’ll always be a foreigner here. I’m hardly the only one in Aberdeen, and many of us have come from much further away than me. That isn’t really what this is about, for me. Instead, as I finish writing this article, I’m thinking about the little back road I found yesterday. It was a sunny afternoon, bright the way only the low winter sun can be. It was windy, and I was pedalling directly into the wind, keeping my back as flat as possible and my nose down next to the handlebars. I wasn’t even sure this road was going to take me anywhere; it looked like a farm track, could easily have been a dead end. Instead, within a minute or two I could sit up, relax, enjoy shelter from rows of beech trees and the natural sun-shade-sun strobe effect of the light shining in between them. It was one of the moments that remind you why you took up cycling. I like to have one of those moments on every single ride.



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