A light footprint

“Oh God, I hope the brakes work.” Visiting Slaithwaite in West Yorkshire on a crisp November morning of 2019, I felt I had an insight into the prayer of the people who live here, because the sides of the Colne Valley are steep, twisty, and often covered in water running from the fields. It was as I cycled down Crimble Clough into the village, that I quietly joined my prayers with the prayers of everyone who had come this way before.

Shortly after that first visit, I took up my post as Interim Vicar to these communities that were once dominated by the woollen mill industry. As I visited people, I began to learn about the hills and lanes in the intimate way only a cyclist can: through deep gasping breaths, a pounding heart, and the heat of lactic acid in every fibre of my body. I have always felt that my Christian ministry shouldn’t come at the price of damaging God’s good creation and although I drive occasionally I’m convinced that I should move with a small carbon footprint when I can. Christians are called to be a blessing on the world around them; blessed in order to be a blessing, and I believe that my joy and capacity to ride a bike are a blessing on me. I’m physically capable of moving myself around the countryside, leaving nothing more poisonous than my own warm breath behind. It is as though my Christian vocation here is as physical as it is spiritual.

“You cycled how far?” It doesn’t matter whether I’ve cycled as far as the east is from the west, or whether I’ve rolled down the hill to the pub, someone is always going to be dumbfounded I achieved the feat under my own steam. I usually make light of it, explaining that cycling isn’t really a sport. After all, we’re sitting down most of the time, and at least half our journey will have been downhill by the time we get home: between gravity and tailwinds I reassure them I have barely made any effort at all. No one believes me.

People who live in Marsden and Slaithwaite are amazing: they really care for each other and have a cooperative and entrepreneurial spirit. During the pandemic local businesses made sure that every home had food and volunteers delivered care parcels to those who were alone. Over time I feel this love has been extended to their Vicar, as they see me riding up and down Manchester Road each day. Familiarity with my black and red “Dennis-the-Menace” jumper and helmet-less head must have honed a whole new aspect of village prayer life, doubling the community intercessions from “Oh God, I hope the brakes work” to include “Oh God, it’s the Vicar”. As a result, the last section of the A62 as it leaves West Yorkshire is possibly the nicest section of the UK’s road network I have ever ridden. Mind you, can you imagine having to explain to your friends that you killed the Vicar? I suspect that even among the non-religious there is a taboo about killing Vicars.

The extrovert nature of Reverend Dennis-the-Menace calmly pedalling around the parish has allowed me to be a visible priestly presence in this community I’ve come to support. Cycling immerses me in the liveliness of the community; people often go out of their way to tell me they’ve seen me on my bike, or sometimes to flag me down for a conversation. Cycling requires energy too, and the multiple cafes offer me a chance to refuel with cake and locally roasted ‘Darkwoods’ coffee. There is also the blessing of serendipitous conversations that only accidental meetings can yield.

I know that I’m blessed to have the strength and confidence to ride a bicycle, and I know that not everyone else has this freedom. I know that the difficult terrain of the South Pennines makes active travel appear unachievable, and that once out of the oasis of Marsden and Slaithwaite the traffic of Huddersfield is impatient and aggressive. Mix beleaguered and aggressive motorists with roads degraded by heavy goods vehicles, wet weather, and a lack of funding for repair, and you have every excuse to stay in your car: those cyclists must be mad. I feel sad for those who are trapped in their expensive mobility scooters, but I don’t blame them. How are they supposed to discover the liberation and joy of cycling when our playground is so dangerous: it makes my life doubly prophetic that I’m a priest who chooses to cycle.

All clergy who cycle are a visible priestly presence in the places they’ve been called to support, and are living an obviously liberated life. Each of us has been set free to worship without fear, even while we travel through this “valley of the shadow of the motorcar”. Please don’t think I’ve come to convert the act of cycling into a Christian ritual: by no means! Instead I feel that every cyclist is blessed in a way in which can only be understood by those riding in our tyre tracks. Cyclists have liberated themselves from self-imposed inactivity, and the unnecessarily early decline of health. All I would like to add, is that the freedom all cyclists experience can be incorporated into priestly ministry, and can become a blessing magnified and overflowing into the world around us.

As I cycle, I pray for everyone who lives, works, and travels through my parishes. I have a hope that I may once more double the prayer of the people who live here: I hope that one day the people of Marsden and Slaithwaite will add to their intercessions, “Thank God the brakes worked”, and “Thank God that was the Vicar”.