Wednesday, 8 July 2015

In search of The Road sublime

What is it that drives me on my quest to find that Spirit of Place that clicks?

As my consciousness drifts across the surface of our planet, it is seeking the places where I get that *PAFF!* moment - recognition of a timeless, transcendent beauty. Atavistic feelings of oneness, a unity of spirit and location.

As a child at weekends, I'd often go with my parents and brother to Sandy Lane in Esher, near Oxshott Common. It was a journey we must have made many scores of times over the years. A route I knew inside out and back to front. As a child I was already sensitive to the aesthetics of the Road. Boston Manor, Syon Park, Isleworth, Twickenham, Teddington, Bushey Park, Hampton Court, Littleworth Common, Esher, Oxshott. Some parts of the road appealed to me more, others less so.

Finely attuned to the nuances of the road, the prospect of a journey somewhere new filled me with a marvellous anticipation. Actually taking that journey would inevitably be part let-down, part delight. The Chinese concept of Feng Shui has clearly something to it; the alignment of the road relative to the vegetation and infrastructure on either side, as well as the position of the sun and shade are crucial to how your consciousness receives and appreciates the visual stimuli.

Driving or being driven in a car, one only has the impression one gets gazing through the window. The other senses are cut off. Which is why I prefer walking or riding on two wheels; the total sense of being there. The smell of the vegetation, the feel of the sun and wind on the skin. And on a perfectly cloudless day, not infrequent in central Poland from mid-spring to mid-autumn, and not forgetting those utterly gorgeous days in winter when the heavens are sapphire-blue, that sense of sublime wells up within. You can enter a forest on a hot day in mid-August and pick up the scents - and two weeks later, same place - it smells subtly different.

Here in Mazowsze, such days are more common than in London, and the ability to pick up one's feet and go whenever the weather and inclination allow thanks to grown-up children and flexible working hours is a huge asset that I should not let go to waste. I must move, I must see, and feel, the Road. My Consciousness fleets across the surface of our planet.

And after a long day on the Road, I retire, closing my eyes, and the day's images return to me for embedding into my long-term memory, to return in the form of flashbacks, prompted willingly or by association, or merely flashing back unprompted.

As I said, some stretches of the Road are more sublime than others. What makes them so? I have very strong memories of the Sublime Road from my visits on walking and cycling holidays. The high meadows of the Picos de Europa in late spring; less-busy coastal roads of the Algarve; crossing the Sierra de Guadarrama at dawn; the road from Caceres to Badajoz in the wee small hours. Rural France, la France profonde, again at dawn, the sound of a distant Mobylette taking a huntsman and his shotgun to les etangs. But most of all, it is America that to me synonymous with the concept of The Road sublime. A return to the deserts of the South West is a yearning I feel strongly, 1950s Mid-Century Modern architecture.

But I live and work here in Mazowsze and the atmosphere, the klimat, the spirit of place here too is strong; something I felt in childhood West London (perhaps memories of being driven across Poland at the age of three and half, perhaps atavistic memory). It is the klimat of a Chopin nocturne, a slight rise in the land ahead of a gentle valley, coppiced willows, fruit orchards and woods of silver birch. The road is dusty and straight, lined with trees, narrow strips of field on either side. Here and there a stork's nest; on the horizon a spire or the dome of a Baroque church. Timeless rural Poland.

There are those stretches of road where I feel it strongest. Heading south from Jeziorki (itself a place of magnificent charm) the atmosphere weakens as I pass through Zgorzała, Nowa Wola and down through Piaseczno, picking up only past Łbiska, from there past Piskórka onto Wągrodno, the feeling is strong, the atmosphere full of Mazowsze klimat. South of the DK50, orchards begin to dominate, down as far as the Pilica river. Essential Mazowsze. Rural Poland is sparsely populated and one can easily find the solitude and peace that act as antidotes to the pace of urban life.

But head out east of Warsaw. Cross the Bug, then follow the tracks south-east alongside the river. Tonkiele to Drohiczyn. Magic imagery.

So many roads - quiet country roads, less meandering than English ones, less undulating, but the strong in spirit of place, an atmosphere that is hard to find elsewhere in Europe.

I have consciously determined to focus my motorcycle ramblings around Poland, choosing depth rather than width, to really get to know these two countries rather than to flit from continent to continent, understanding little of what's around me, not really getting under the skin of the place. Here we are, between Zamość and Chelm, the DW843.

What's this place called? Does it matter? It was there, I registered it... Central? Eastern? Western Poland? Can't remember. But I was there. It lodged in my memory.

The Hunter Enters The Forest. Double white lines, no one behind me, no one in front of me. The Road must be experienced thus.

Left: Give me a blue sky and an open road, empty but for me. A sunny Sunday morning in midsummer. A gentle right-hander through a young forest.

Below: "It don't matter which way I'm comin' from, it's which way I'm goin' to." A quote from the greatest ever biker movie, Kathryn Bigelow's The Loveless (1982).

On a hot summer day in Poland there's just one thing to do: head out into the countryside and let the deserted backroads be your Saviour.

Left: out on DK48, somewhere around Dobieszyn. Onwards, onwards, never rushing, filling the consciousness with the spirit of place. Some stretches of road resonate more than others, the stretches that return to you in flashbacks long after the moment. "When oft upon my couch I lie/In vacant or in pensive mood/They flash upon my inward eye/Which is the bliss of solitude."

As you ride into a forest, the smell of the resin fills your nostrils; this is living the road, not shut away within the tin and the glass and security of a car. You are part of the landscape, not just looking at the landscape through a screen.


Poland is a country with a patchwork history that's easy to appreciate from the road. You can sense where pre-war Poland ended and Germany began.

Below: approaching the old border, near Opolskie province; soon, brick-built houses and barns, villages with different topology, different field patterns.

Below: The Road calls for Americana, the klimat of the 1950s. One of my two Yamaha Drag Stars. The other is in black. A man can never have too many motorbikes.

The Vistula snakes its way across Poland, flowing south to north, dividing the country into east and west. It is crossed by bridges at strategic points, but it's more fun to cross by ferry. These are coming back into use after closing down for many years; to cross with your motorbike costs between 5zł and 9zł. Left: waiting for the ferry at Zawichost, between Sandomierz and Annopol.

This time last year:
Ukraine's not gone away.

This time three years ago:
More about Modlin airport

This time six years ago:
Get on your bike and RIDE!

This time seven years ago:
Moles in my own garden
[Before I discovered the Secret: Mr Dembo's special sauce]

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