Journeys From My DoorstepA Visual Diary
Photography by Roff Smith
No prizes for guessing why Sussex is known as “Leafy Sussex”. The richness and vivacity of the spring leaves in the forest canopy along the lanes makes them a delight to ride along on a bright Sunday morning in May. This image captured along Stonestile Lane, between Hastings and Westfield.
I love crescent moons. There is something magical about them. So when I saw that a fine thin crescent moon would be rising at 3:59am this morning, and the prediction was for generally clear skies, I realised that an early start would be in order if I wanted to catch it before the sun rose and faded it out. With sunrise this morning slated for 5:05am it gave me a narrow window of opportunity – especially since the particular country lane I had in mind for the shot, where I knew I could get a good view of the rising moon, was a good 45 minutes’ ride away. I was out the door by 3:40am, pedalling hopefully into the darkened countryside. The result, I think, was worth the effort.
There is something exhilarating about pedalling into a sunrise when you’re miles from home, having already ridden a long ways by lamplight while all the rest of polite society is home in bed. It makes a day feel as bright and full of possibilities as a new-minted penny.
As spring advances towards summer the leaves on the trees take on a rich summery greenness and form dense canopies over the little lanes in the weald – such as this one near the village of Fairlight. Pedalling along them by lamplight in the grey hours before dawn and then bursting out into clear morning sunshine, with the rolling Sussex countryside spreading away, gives me a giddy sense of adventure and going places on my morning rides.
It’s surprising what you can discover when you explore your neighbourhood by bicycle – slowly, intimately, camera in hand, looking upon the familiar with fresh eyes. I’d been past this corner on London Road countless times in the past, by bus and in cars, but I’d never before noticed its peculiar Hopperesque quality. I love Edward Hopper’s art. Always have. His distinctive blend of pensiveness, melancholy, solitude, use of stark impersonal space and the edgy after-hours feel he manages to conjure in his work has always appealed to me. When I came upon this desolate street corner at 4:30am as I pedalled along the seafront in Hastings, I immediately thought of Hopper’s iconic 1942 painting Nighthawks. And so I set up my tripod across the street and created this tribute to it.
What a glorious thing a bicycle is – jaunty, elegant, easy to repair and maintain, almost glib in its 19th century simplicity, it can carry us anywhere we want to go, anytime we like, at the drop of a hat, be it just down to the shops or around the world. And it will do it swiftly, cleanly and for free. And yet at the same time it’s lightweight enough to tuck under your arm and carry up a flight of stairs.
Sunrise cast a soft painterly glow over the landscape this morning – a contrast to the histrionic sunrises, blown highlights and rosy-gold mists I’ve been witnessing lately on my marsh rides. Today’s show came with a better soundtrack though – an overture of waterfowl honking, quacking and splashing, songbirds trilling and countless insects buzzing and whirring in the grass – everybody getting an early start on what promises to be a fine warm summery day.
A landmark hill on the homeward leg of my old familiar ride across the marsh to Pevensey. Here I’m still a good forty-five minutes out, with home and hearth and a fresh pot of coffee waiting up the road. I have been wanting to capture this image for quite some time, but until this morning the lure of home and fresh coffee would invariably bring out the procrastinator in me: I’d do it another day. This morning though I was out on the marsh especially early – before 5am – and the light was perfect, irresistible. And so I pulled over, set up tripod and camera and captured this image.
I just had a feeling it was going to be one of those smouldering sunrises this morning, and so I left the house extra early to be sure to be in position in time – and given the early sunrise times around here, and the time it takes to pedal out into the marsh, that meant setting off at 4am sharp. My hopes built when I saw the thick ground mist shrouding the landscape and sure enough, this luminous orb of sun simmered above the horizon at twenty past five. Looking at it, one could imagine being somewhere exotic and far away – Africa, perhaps – instead of familiar old Sussex, but such is the magic of travelling at home.
As a travel romantic, escapist and cycling Luddite who rides an old-school tourer with quill stem, flat pedals and an old-fashioned Carradice saddlebag dangling from a Brooks saddle, it’s no surprise that I seek out images that evoke a long-lost, possibly mythical golden era of cycling in the English landscape. This picturesque stretch of Sussex lane, near the village of Doleham, was too evocative to pass up.
I especially love those murky pre-dawn rides along the promenade when a thick sea mist is rolling in off the Channel, although they can be awfully tricky to photograph. This image taken along the seafront at Bexhill-on-Sea
Some of the hills in the Sussex weald are no joke – such as this gentle rise coming out of the village of Doleham. To be fair, this particular hill looks a bit steeper than it actually is, thanks to the foreshortening effects of a 200mm telephoto and the fact that the landscape in the backdrop is also on a steeply rising hill on the opposite flank of a narrow valley – so call it a poetic truth. The hills up here are steep and engaging and the crooked little lanes that go up and down them put the ‘travail’ back into travel and involve you richly in the landscape.
Luck plays a role in getting an image like this but as with many things in life I find that the more I plan, the luckier I get. I’ve witnessed countless sunrises from the saddle of a bicycle and have become adept at gauging the density of haze along the horzon on warmish mornings. Seeing the heavy band of violet haze along the eastern sky this morning, I guessed that we wee in for one of those haunting “luminous orb” sunrises. Knowing – through much observation – roughly where the sun was going to appear at this time of year, I hastened to this well-placed, picturesque bend I knew about on the old marsh road hoping that I might just get ‘lucky’.
As an artist and keen observer of sunrises and the drape of light and shadow, I can never resist the thrilling geometry of a fan of sunbeans bursting through the branches. Not often do you find them so beautifully arrayed and in a place where hedgerows and a bend in the road form an almost perfect, if empty, stage. The only trick here was trying to place myself squarely in the spotlight.
Channelling my inner Monet this morning with the help of a dense sea mist and this soft yellow sunrise. I have been wanting to do something with this particular stretch of marsh road for quite some time. I loved the juxtaposition of creek, marsh grasses, the billow of trees and the sense of being abroad on the marsh, alone, early in the morning. I’ve stopped and photographed it a number of times but without ever capturing its magic – until this morning with this impressionist sunrise and the suggestion of romance and mystery.
One of the many joys of exploring the world that lies at your doorstep is the continual rediscovery of places that had seemed drearily familiar. I’ve ridden along the old marsh road countless times over the years but coming upon this serpentine curve this morning on my bicycle ride, seeing it bathed in clean lemony sunshine, was like seeing it for the very first time. I marvelled that I had never noticed its beauty before, and stopped to capture this image.
Oh the joys of being out and about on a bicycle early on these bright clear mornings and witnessing first hand the rapid progression of spring. Suddenly, and seeming out of the blue, the hawthorn has come into bloom along the hedgerows – a real spirit lifter on an early morning ride. And so I paused to capture this image.
An early morning spin through the sleepy village of Doleham in the Sussex weald. I liked the soft painterly effect of the light at this time of the morning. Coupled with the picturesque setting it created the pleasing sense of pedalling into a romanticised magazine illustration out of the 1920s.
I liked the backdrop of bare branches and these ancient ivy-decked oaks huddling close by this narrow lane not far from the village of Wartling. Once the leaves come into bud, the scene will change completely. I wanted to get it while it was still bare and autumnal – and so I pedalled for an hour and a half by lamplight in order to be here for sunrise and made certain to wear a jersey whose colour would stand out but still be in keeping with the mood.
I love the sense of mystery and adventure that comes with a ride by lamplight through the thick sea mist on the marsh – the great pre-dawn hush broken only by the whirring of insects, the eerie cries and splashes of unseen waterfowl, and the rhythmic whirr of my bicycle chain as I spin along the lonely lane guided by the glow of my lamp.
Sunrise this morning found me on the crest of this gentle rise, about a third of the way along the old marsh road between Cooden and Pevensey. I like the gnarled wind-shaped tree here and the way it frames the road and often I try to make use of this setting in my images. This morning it was was especially beautiful, illuminated by a vibrant red sunrise which, coupled with the dense ground mist, bathed the scene in this rich, rosy light.
We might not be able to travel much in these lockdown days, or indeed, stray far from home, but it doesn’t mean we can’t dream. This image taken King George V Coronation Pavilion, overlooking the seafront at Bexhill-on-Sea.
Skeletal trees, a clammy ground mist and the eerie bluish light before dawn combined to create an interesting Forbidden Forest atmosphere to this stretch of the old marsh road on my ride over to Pevensey this morning.
This was one of those rare delightful mornings when I had the pleasure of two separate sunrises – the first when the sun peeped over the horizon, a bref burst of hard orange sunlight before the sun disappeared in a thick band of haze. The ‘second sunrise’ a few minutes later was altogether grander, shooting broad rays across the landscape, casting the marsh in a fine pink light and with the sun, gently dimmed by mist, riding moonlike on a sea of clouds.
A chilly dawn and a slant of pale wintry light illuminates this stretch of a narrow country lane not far from the village of Rye. I had scouted this scene earlier and liked the atmosphere created by the weathered fenceposts and the suite of withered browns and bare branches in the backdrop. I waited for a crisp clear morning and made a point of wearing a sandy coloured jersey to complement the overall colour palette of the scene.
A quiet moment to witness the sunrise at the end of a thirty-something-mile pre-dawn to Eastbourne and back. Like Henry David Thoreau in Walden, I consider myself something of an inspector of sunrises, phases of the moon and the state of the tides.
During the course of my daily ramblings on my bicycle, I go many places that aren’t on any map – to new ideas and old memories, passages in books, drafts of stories I mean to write and proposals I mean to send to editors, to imagined dialogues with the famous and infamous, to alternate paths by life might have followed. That’s one of the chief joys of a bicycle ride, something I felt stirring within me from the very first time I set off down the street on my doughty old Schwinn newsboy as a child: I can go anywhere!