White and white on white
It was March. It had been a cold winter. That October, there had been The Gales, which had such a devastating effect in Kent, where I lived.
It was my father’s birthday on the 7th, a Saturday. Wintry weather was forecast, but I set off nevertheless on my VFR 750, cosseted in a hi-tech winter riding suit. I rode into work all year round in those days, undeterred by the cold; I was immunised. I was between marriages and girlfriends; in fact the pearl white Honda I would be riding I had arranged to be delivered, somewhat cruelly, with hindsight, the day my first wife moved out. Anyway, there was no-one to tell me it was a crazy idea to ride to my parents’ sleepy Cotswold village 120 miles away that day.
The first 50 miles or so were fine - it was actually invigorating, being out while most sensible folk stayed at home. The roads were relatively clear, well salted (I’d have to give the bike a good hose down, as always, to get rid of the salt when I got to my real family home.)
I hadn’t told my parents I was coming; I thought that the visit would hold a greater element of surprise that way. And I couldn’t wait to see the look on my father’s face as he opened the door.
He had been a great motorcyclist himself, like many of his generation. BSAs, Nortons, Matchlesses, Ariels, Triumphs, AJSs, he boasted about having owned 26 different motorbikes since being taught to ride while serving in the Army, on slag heaps; I don’t recall where.
I stopped a couple of times at service stations for cups of revitalising coffee, and to warm up, especially my hands, which I held under the dryers in the toilets.
Turning off the M4 at the Swindon junction heading towards Cirencester, (passing the sign to “Honda” which still seems incongruous to me in the heart of the Cotswolds), the snow seemed to be settling on the dual carriageway with more determination. By Cirencester, I was really getting cold, the feeling in my fingers was disappearing,the snow flakes were getting bigger and sticking on my visor longer.
There was a remote, alien voice whispering at the back of my brain, telling me that it would be wise to turn back, or find somewhere to rest, warm through, and consider the situation logically, dispassionately, sensibly. And then return home.
But I’d come too far. I drove on, regardless, one goal in mind.
Cirencester came and went, and the dual carriageway turned to beautiful meandering single lanes. The hedges either side of the road were now completely weighed down with snow. There was nobody else on the road, so the still silence I imagined to be outside the confines of my white Arai helmet were only interrupted by the lazy, pulsating drone of that beautiful V4 down below.
My speed was now down to around 20mph as I tiptoed my way along. I was probably less than fifteen miles from home.
I skirted round the edge of Aston Down airfield, where, several summers previously, I had enjoyed my first gliding lesson.
Looking up ahead, I saw the broad sweep of a gentle right-hander; the airfield was by necessity situated on a bleak, wide open area with few interruptions to the wind. Half way round the corner, I spotted a gleaming white (I think they all were) Audi Quattro - you know, the one that, at the time, had won just about every rally going. Its secret recipe for such indomitable success, the four wheel drive system that gave it its name. I think probably unique among vehicles other than farmers’ Land Rovers at the time.
In a mesmerising way, and with a balletic grace, I watched as it pirouetted in slow motion, through 360 degrees as it negotiated the corner.
Which I was now approaching, on a 750cc, one wheel drive motorcycle, also gleaming white.
I knew what to do.
Don’t apply the brakes, let the motor edge the speed off. Steer into the turn.
Which I did.
Until I couldn’t steer into the turn any longer.
At which point, I had no option but to slowly lay her down on her white pearl flanks into the soft, white, powdery snow.
I wasn’t going fast, and nothing was hurt but my pride. I was less than four miles from my father’s home. But I would have to call him to be rescued, spoiling the surprise.
I couldn’t lift the bike. Normally I would have been able to but the cold had sapped my strength; it lay on its side in the middle of the road in snow-dumbed silence. I also found standing problematical. Under the snow lay a sheet of solid ice. I’d never had a chance.
Eventually someone appeared and helped me heave her up. Still rideable, incredibly. Some scratches and scrapes, and a few bent levers. I hobbled round the corner and stopped outside the first farmhouse I chanced upon.
I was welcomed inside, and invited to use their phone. A world before mobiles. A huge log fire roared, lighting stone walls several feet thick, with tiny windows. Cosy doesn't begin to describe it.
We left the bike there for a few days - I can’t remember, but I probably rode her home once the snow had cleared.
My father picked me up, overjoyed that I’d come to see him on his birthday, devastated that my pride and joy had been damaged in the process.
The final lanes up the other side of the valley to their house are treacherous at the best of times, and it struck me that even if I had made it to the bottom of the valley, I’d never have made it up the other side.
I was amazed by the nonchalant finesse my father exhibited in piloting the aged rear wheel drive orange Datsun up those stone-wall-lined tracks; just the right whiff of throttle here, a flick of the wheel there. All the way up, we slithered and slid, but never a wheel put wrong.
That night we walked to the King’s Head in King’s Lynch. You won’t find it, down all those tiny lanes, at the head of a secluded, forgotten valley. A memorable celebration, cossestted by the warmth of the pub fire. A memorable ride, a memorable birthday, I fancy.