It was the pre-ride cup of tea that set off my reveries this morning. Or rather, more specifically, it was the lack of a readily available teabag that got me thinking about childhood smells just before I left the house and which gave a theme for my ride today. I’m not really one for coffee so I always have a cup of tea before I cycle, except that this morning the teabag tin was empty. No worries; there was a new box on the shelf and as I took off the cellophane wrapper and transferred the contents I was greeted by one of my favourite smells in the world. Fresh, loose tea. Even in a box of teabags you get a small amount of loose stuff which sits in the corners. That’s the bit I love. It reminds me of my grandmother’s kitchen and of the tea chests we used to move house when we were young. So my head was full of olfactory thoughts as I set out on my usual Saturday morning ride.
Normally that would be the end of it – a quick dip down memory lane and then you lose the thread back to the past. The Now catches up with you again and the memories go back in the cupboard. Today was different. I was riding alone so had no conversation to disrupt the thinking and the hot summer sun helped shape the reminiscing too.
Three smells capture my childhood summers. Three banal scents that are not obviously evocative but which transport me back faster than almost anything else. Today’s ride gave all three.
Tea. Tea is a funny thing. I drink it every day and yet it’s only when a new box is opened that it works it’s particular magic. The loose tea takes me somewhere that teabags don’t for it was always loose tea at my grandmother’s house. Loose tea in a blue and white striped jar. We would often spend a few days of our holidays at her house and so, fuelled by memory as much as by breakfast, I rolled out of London thinking of her, of holidays, of the unsurpassable toast she used to make. I was quite enveloped in the process and hardly noticed where I was until just before Keston when I was stopped abruptly by the second scent.
Bracken. If tea is my favourite indoor childhood smell, then bracken easily wins the outdoor category. My parents were heavily involved in the Rambler’s Association and at times we seemed to spend every weekend hiking up hill and down dale; doing specific walks, clearing footpaths, signposting. Of the three children it was I, in particular, who resented this most and probably made my feelings quite clear ad nauseum. One diversion from the monotony of all the walking was to find a big crop of bracken and to run into it at full tilt until the bracken thickened enough to halt a charging child. My brother and I would have competitions about who could get furthest in before becoming entangled. A couple of rounds of that and you would smell of the stuff for the rest of the day. I stopped by the road, just about resisting the urge to repeat the trick this time but did crush a few of the delicate fern-like fronds between my fingers to carry the scent for the next few miles. It’s another delicious, dry summery smell and the roadsides gave a lot of it as headed out South West towards the M25. It had all disappeared by the time I rode through the estate of Woldingham School – which is just about as timeless and idyllic a spot as you can imagine less than 20 miles south of London – and instead I suddenly found myself thinking about the Michelin Man. With two such memorable scents already found it was inevitable that I would start thinking of the third but I really didn’t hold out much hope of finding it.
Tyres. My dad used to work for the Avon Rubber Company selling tyres. Then he worked for Associated Tyre Services, East Yorkshire Tyres and finally Fossit & Thorne Tyres. My dad knows his tyres. He even used to dress up as the Michelin Man on his trade stand at the Yorkshire Show and, when we went with him to his work during the holidays, we would play on the vast mounds of old tyres at the back of the yards. Car tyres, truck tyres, tractor tyres. Hundreds of them. Health & Safety be dammed: we climbed up them, bounced over them, shimmied between them and dropped down inside huge stacks of them. We got filthy from the rubber and from the fetid water that sat inside the open rims. It was great. I can’t walk past a branch of Kwik-fit without those thoughts flooding back.
I didn’t hold out much hope of finding a tyre mountain on my route today and, despite glancing into a couple of farm entrances and having a good long look at the Showman’s winter quarters on the way back down Layhams, I was right. In fact it wasn’t until I got home again that I realised that it had been there all the time. My dad never sold bike tyres but surely my Vittorio Rubino Pro’s are made of the same stuff. So before I put the bike away I had a quick sniff. Yup.. Straight back there, 8 years old, in the mounds of tyres
Riding is so often about sight and feel. Looking at the road ahead, feeling the pain of the miles behind. Whilst you can never switch off to those senses it’s so good to layer another in over the top to give a familiar route new purpose.
Successful ride, smelled sweet.