DEIL TAK' THE HINDMOST - Commuting through London’s Richmond Park after midnight

Nothing beats cycling round south west London’s Richmond Park. I commute through it twice a day at all hours. We take our nephew and niece there for two-wheeled adventures. And we spin round its perimeter with hundreds of other Lycra wannabes whenever we can spare the time.

Anyone with two wheels in west London knows about the park. It's a splash of cool green in the middle of suburban concrete.

And nothing compensates more, for dragging your carcass out of bed at four am for work, than the sight of the park, deserted in the pre-dawn, shrouded in a low-lying mist, through which the antlers of recumbent deer can be seen, poking upwards like fronds of petrified coral, sprouting still from their prehistoric seabed.
There are numerous theories to explain the presence of these non-native parakeets in London

If it’s been raining at this early hour, flocks of startled parakeets who’d been drinking at roadside puddles,  erupt in front of my approaching wheel, flapping  and squawking off, a swirling cloud of dazzling green plumage. One crisp winter morning an owl perched on a felled tree trunk, calmly tracked me as I cycled past on the empty path.
To be able to ride through this pristine, ethereal – and somehow, primeval – environment repeatedly, is both pleasure and privilege. There’s nothing frantic about pedalling serenely through this landscape. Being alone in the park, with only its creatures for company, provides a rare opportunity for idle meditation.

Nevertheless, when I mention in an offhand manner that I cycle through Richmond Park late at night, often in close to pitch darkness, people gawp in disbelief and concern. As a shift worker, I am regularly churning the pedals there at one am, en route from central London to Kingston upon Thames – a commuting journey of just under 13 miles.

It’s assumed that the park is locked up every night. But apart from the months of November and February, when the deer cull is being carried out as a means of managing the population of some 600 red and fallow deer, it’s open round the clock to pedestrians and cyclists - but not cars.

Pushing open the heavy iron gates and creaking your way inside them in the forbidding darkness can be a daunting prospect. As tentative pedal strokes carry you into the eerie interior, twin dots of piercing light can be picked out floating in the blackness as the puny beam from your bike lamp reflects off the eyes of unseen deer and other animals. 

Thanks to the tapetum lucidum – the reflective coating many animals have behind their retinas – these creatures’ eyes glow with luminous intensity, suspended in the air - a disturbingly alien presence.

It’s easy to forget you are still just metres away from the buzz of urban London – Roehampton high rises sit right next to the northern edge of the grounds. Hairs bristle on the back of your neck as you up the pedal strokes, driven by irrational fear. It brings to mind Tam O’Shanter’s ill-fated journey, in Rabbie Burns’s eponymous narrative poem. While Tam was on a horse - his “stout mare” Meg – rather than a bike, it’s still easy as he did, to imagine that warlocks, bogles and Auld Nick himself may be holding an unholy ceilidh in a nearby clearing. Such spooky fantasies help spur me on – boosting my average speed on Strava into the bargain.

Encountering other human beings at such an hour is guaranteed to give you pause. When three black-clad teenagers materialised from the gloom just as I came upon them, I experienced a genuine frisson of horror. They were sitting cross-legged in the middle of the small roundabout at Sheen Cross. As I sprinted up the incline towards White Lodge I could sense their appreciative laughter nipping at my spinning wheels – like the devilish sprites snapping at Meg’s swishing tail as she raced for the bridge in the Bard of Aryshire’s famous poem.

When I spied two pinpoints of red light bobbing in the near distance, another wave of dread washed over me. Apprehensively I continued pedalling, completely in the dark (pun intended) as to what they might be. It was only when I drew level that I saw a man strolling up the path keeping an eye on his two dogs who were off the leash and following their noses in time-honoured canine fashion. They quite sensibly had small lights clipped to their collars.

Colleagues are concerned that I might hit a deer in the park at night. But apart from the occasional close call with a stag’s antlers jutting into the road, as the animal bends to nibble at the edge of the grass, I’ve had little problem with the wildlife. In fact, on those moonless occasions when it really is close to pitch dark, I can smell the proximity of the deer as I cycle past without actually seeing them. It’s a warm, rich, sweaty – indeed, gamey - odour which is quite distinctive.

These animals never seem to sleep and at night can be found in parts of the park – including in the middle of the roads or on the footpaths – where they are rarely seen during daylight hours.

Rutting season is the only time I’m especially wary of these creatures. I’ve found myself doubling back and adding miles to my route in order to avoid coming too close to the testosterone-crazed stag I can hear – but not see – up ahead.

Maybe that’s erring too much on the side of caution as a park spokesperson confirms that the chances of coming to grief with a bike-on-deer clash are slim. She tells me that, “cyclist collisions with deer are very uncommon… in the last year we are aware of only one.”

Not all the park’s animals are so belligerent. How many Londoners’ commute to work takes them through the ethereal, misty, landscape of the park just before dawn? I’ve encountered badgers, trotting along beside my bike, rabbits bobbing off into the grass and even a snake in the middle of the road. I gingerly picked the reptile up with a stick and deposited the animal in the undergrowth away from the risk of being squashed by car tyres. Once, a squirrel took evasive action on my approach but, after a moment of comical indecision, chose the wrong escape route and  ran headlong into the side of my front wheel. He fell – cartoon-style, semi-stunned for a second - then shook himself off and scampered up a tree. If only he’d been a chipmunk, he could have starred in his own animated Hollywood blockbuster. Three laid-back mallards had decided to sleep in the middle of the dual-use path where I was riding. I slowed to wobbling velocity and inched past them. They hardly ruffled a feather – my unwelcome intrusion was indeed water off their backs. Recently the same trail was virtually carpeted in rabbits. On my approach, two of them were so startled that they jumped vertically to improbable heights, twisting as they did so, before haring off (pun, again, intended) in abject terror.

With an arguably higher potential for accidents involving wildlife and cyclists during the hours of darkness, you’d think the park authorities would discourage night-time pedalling. However the press office described cyclists as, “part of the fabric of the park”. As long as you try to keep 50 metres away from the deer, let them cross the road if they start doing so and remember that they are wild animals, albeit ones who are used to being in close proximity to humans, the park accepts that people will and can come through their gates after dark.

The darkness and the silence of the park at night can play tricks on the senses. I have a theory that it actually helps you climb hills. Cyclists who enter by Roehampton Gate heading for Richmond have to grind up the gentle but longish incline leading to Sawyer’s Hill. During the day it’s easy to flag as the gradient kicks up just a tiny bit just before that Sheen Cross mini roundabout. Once you’ve relented, it becomes psychological and before you know it, the energy can drain out of your muscles, leaving you floundering towards the junction at a snail’s pace. The effect is exacerbated if, as you are slowing down, a peleton of ‘whippets’ swoosh past. 

The 'pro-whippets' tackle the park in  2016's Surrey Classic
Team Sky's Geraint Thomas, Froome and Stannard (above) follow in the wheel tracks of countless bike commuters
But – just like the deceptive electric brae in Scotland which plays tricks with your perceptions of gravity and gradient – ascending this hill can seem effortless - at night. Pedalling up here in the pitch dark, with no visual reference points and no overtaking cyclists, it’s possible to get your head down and concentrate purely on turning the pedals. I’m convinced that night-climbing like this is faster.

It’s on virtually this same stretch of road that one of those rare moments of night terror can sometimes assail me. A fan of the American zombie series The Walking Dead, there’s one scene which has been incorporated into the opening titles. Two of the main characters drive past a field in which, in the distance, a lone, long-haired zombie, shambles slowly through knee-high grass. At the end of the episode the characters return, driving in the opposite direction and the solitary walker is still there shambling slowly through the fields oblivious to the fresh meat in the car.

Occasionally, just occasionally, when I’m cycling past the meadows near Roehampton Gate and the aptly named, Bone Copse, I imagine that that long-haired ghoul is out there on the sport fields, stumbling in his undead way towards me. That’s when I give my imaginary Meg a dig of the spurs and increase those pedal revs. It becomes a desperate gallop to get to Ham Gate and out of the darkness in one piece. The sense of urgency induced by this imaginary threat is encapsulated in the phrase, “Deil tak the hindmost” – artfully employed again, by Rabbie Burns, in Address to the Haggis, to describe the speed and greediness of diners who gobble their food as if their very lives depended on it.

Packed lunch of haggis, neeps and tatties lunch for Burns Day
Versions published in Cycling World magazine February 2017 and on 

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