#365daysofbiking Not forgotten:

November 13th – Back in Darlaston I paid a visit, as I always do, to the beautiful and moving town War Memorial just near Victoria Park and the Town Hall.

This sombre, noble and beautiful monument is one of my absolute favourites: It is respectful, dignified and in just the right place, surrounded by a lovely, well-tended garden.

Laid out at the food of the plinth and in the surrounding beds were the wreaths, crosses and other keepsakes of Remembrance, and a good deal of time was spent reading their dedications and reflecting on my way to work on this sunny, beautiful, better day.

We will never forget.

#365daysofbiking Going down:

September 26th – Crossing Cathshill Junction and heading up to Anchor Bridge, I caught it on the cusp of day and night, and realised that soon, I would be doing this once more in darkness.

I don’t know where summer went this year; it seems barely days since I was riding the roaches, eating ice-cream at Blithfield or riding in short sleeves around North Warwickshire.

Time passes so fast these days. It was a good summer – I doubt I’ll ever see one with such consistently fine weather again.

March 23rd – The towpath resurfacing between Walsall town centre and Bentley Mill Way continues, as I noted earlier in the week, tarmac is being laid on top of compacted ballast. It’s a nice enough surface, but I’m still bemused by the pointlessness of it all.

Today I passed as they work crew were filling a butty with hot asphalt, ready to spread and roll. The ease with which it tipped from the excavator bucket and the steam that billowed suggested it was very hot indeed – and it made me wonder how it was heated – in the yard or from the place it was produced? I suppose the limestone grit it’s made from has quite a high specific heat capacity, so it must hold heat awhile.

One thing I always love about hot tarmac is the smell. It’s one of the really strong smells I recall for some reason from my childhood, and one sniff of it and I’ back in the schoolyard.

Funny how smells do that to you.

November 10th – The sadness of things. Post Remembrance Sunday, Darlaston War Memorial is a small sea of wreaths and small crosses, many with dedications to the lost and fallen.

I’ve said many times, this is the most sombre, sensitive and beautiful such monument I know. Standing there today, on a grey morning buffeted by the inclement weather, I was lost in contemplation for a good while.

It must have been the wind making my eyes water.

October 25th – The Parade, Brownhills. The main route over the common, and so I’m told, once the line of a colliery tramline.

These trees in neat rows are younger than me. I remember harsh winters, when these trees were saplings, and the council used to erect snow-break fences down here.

The hard winters seem rare now, and the trees are large and beautiful. It’s not their fault that they make me feel old…

September 5th – On the way back, I popped to the church at Stonnall, to have another look for the grave of an old acquaintance I knew was there, but had been unable to find for years. I finally found it – slightly neglected, lettering disappearing to the weather, but still there – and unguardedly, I fell into memories for a while.

Decades ago, we’d cycled these lanes together, and discovered places like this quiet churchyard. We weren’t huge pals, but we rode together fairly often, and shared the odd pint.

As I looked from the churchyard over Stonnall, the air had a scent of autumn, and the landscape concurred. I felt a little autumn inside, too.

Time and memory wears you like a stream polishes a pebble bed.

Stepping back into the light, I got on my bike, and rode home.

November 10th – I make no apology for featuring this war memorial twice in one week. Darlaston is always beautiful and poignant, but after Remembrance Sunday, even more so.

The crosses, flowers and wreaths tell their own stories of loss, valour and gratitude.

You can’t fail to be moved by it.

April 4th – I’ve been struggling with my relationship with Walsall, and my memories of it, for a very long time now. I think seeing some of the places I loved burnt down, and others displaced by progress started it. I felt it was time I acknowledged it for once and for all.

I still love this surprising green, but ugly town. I love it’s unexpected beauty, I love its corners, twists and turns. I love the people, the frankness. I love the mixed cultures and the frontier mentality of a place thats both within and outside the Black Country.

I hate what time and my memory have done to it. But change is what happens to everyone, and I what I suspect I mourn isn’t Walsall, but the times I spent here.

St. Matthews is a handsome church in a commanding location, atop a hill that I’m convinced was once probably a fortification. A very large, ambitiously designed church, it’s almost too good for the place yet completely appropriate. Resplendent in yellow sandstone, it watches over the town below. For two centuries or more, it was surrounded by a sprawling slum; it’s now sitting in proud isolation with greenery and open space around. Time has been kinder to St. Matthews than one might think.

I used to come up here to think, and dream and wrestle with things that troubled me. I found the benchmark on the side of the church before I knew what it was for, and its image was persistent and perplexing. In those days, someone had written above it in neat chalked script, ‘I can’t come here anymore.’ I never knew what they meant. I do now, but the writing has long since washed away.

As I wandered around, remembering good times and bad, trying to make sense of what I felt. I looked to the skyline, to the towerblocks of Paddock, and at the flowers growing so beautifully wild in the churchyard. 

I remembered the words of the great, tortured and lost songwriter Doug Hopkins:

The last horizons I can see are filled with bars and factories 
And in them all we fight to stay awake… 
Drink enough of anything to make this world look new again 
Drunk drunk drunk in the gardens and the graves 

The last horizons I could see are now resigned to memories 
I never thought I’d still be here today… 

It dawned, gradually, that it’s about going away, and returning. Spiritually, I left this place a long, long time ago. I let Walsall go. It’s right, and natural, and what happens to us all. But I never thought I’d still be here.

And once you’ve left, although you can come back, you can’t go there anymore.

Relieved, but hurting, I got back on my bike, and rode home.