The heady aroma of fresh cut grass fills my nostrils with its powerful perfume as the summer sun beats down. The wind ruffles my light jacket as I power the bicycle along one of Cornwall’s high hedged, winding lanes, my legs pumping, the breath sharp in my lungs as I push onwards. Every so often the hedgerow dips, or opens up on a rickety looking gate, and a vista of green, rock-strewn fields opens up with the sparkling blue of the sea in the distance.
The sea is never far away anywhere in this beautiful county, and as the road begins to rise sharply I have to dip my head and work harder to keep my speed up. Sweat rolls freely down my face and my thighs are cramping with the effort, pushing, pushing….and then the relief as I top the hill and freewheel down into the little village. I see nobody as I speed through the hamlet, past the empty-eyed windows spying the stranger, whitewashed faces and dark little doors that shield the inhabitants from the bright mid-summer’s day, and on out past the cold walled chapel that broods under a large oak tree at the hamlet’s end.
I can feel the smile growing even as the tiredness in my limbs slows my progress. A long sweeping right hand curve that edges downwards and I take far too fast, leaning the bike over and having to cut the bend on the wrong side of the road, suddenly vulnerable to any ongoing traffic coming the other way. But my luck holds and the bike flies back onto a long straight. The air is bubbling with laughter, which takes me a moment to realise is my own.
The hedgerows have dropped away on my right and now I can see the whole of the bay stretched out beside me. The water is rolling in towards a long sandy shore in languid waves. Even though I am still high on the cliffside road I can see tiny figures in the water, clutching surfboards and bodyboards as they await the waves that will lift them up in and tunnel their existence into a brief few seconds of adrenalin-laced wonder; the power of an entire ocean filling them, owning them, entrancing them. Then the ride is over, and they turn away from the safe stability of the shore, and plunge back into the ever-moving swell of the unknown, desperate to re-capture the rapture of the waves.
But my business is not with the beach this day, nor with the mystery of the sea call magic. No, today is the day of the Meet. The Meet, a once in a decade event where the like-minded gather to celebrate and share our love of the most unusual…hobby. Anticipation has lent strength to my legs once more, and now the road is level and only slightly curving as it follows the line of the beach far below. My backpack is chafing my shoulders, sweat soaked shirt rubbing under my arms, stinging sweat running into my eyes, blurring my vision.
And there it is. I pull the bike over and lay it down at the side of the road. Legs trembling, I strip off my backpack and remove my helmet, welcoming the soft breeze as it whispers off the fields and passes me to cross over and drop away into the empty air at the cliff edge. A long pull of water from my bottle, and not once have I taken my sore eyes from it. Just over a mile away, across the gently curving bay, a narrow headland juts out, its rocky face steep and heather-bound, my journey’s end. I can see a large marquee set up on the field at the base of the headland’s tall peak, the place where my fellow conventionalists will be gathering already, eagerly awaiting the onset of sunset and the beginning of our celebrations.
I decide to walk the last mile, pushing the bicycle along with my backpack hanging from the seat, relieving my aching shoulders. The lonely song of freewheeling gulls pierces the air as I walk, slowly following the narrowing roadvdown and through a twisting tangle of lanes that lead me past a ramshackle farm and back up a rise where the verges grow tall again. The sea is out of my sight now and the air feels close and stuffy with the narrowing road and high-walled sides hemming me in, the sun’s heat magnified in the claustrophobic space. And then I reach the top of the rise and in front of me a field opens out, the road truncated with this sudden stop. The field is full with cars of all types and ages, quiescent in the slowly waning daylight, no people in sight. I leave the bicycle next to the old coastguard lookout building and climb over the small gate into the large grassy paddock where the marquee flutters splendidly in the breeze, overlooked by the rocky promontory at the end of the headland. At its peak, small and brooding, an ancient ruined chapel sits, surveying the bay in silent witness, as it has done this thousand years past.
I can hear the low murmur of voices from inside the marquee and march quickly over to greet my fellow enthusiasts. So many people mill around the marquee’s cathedral like inner-space, tables laden with items of interest, chairs scattered around, and everywhere, brothers and sisters of the Meet talking, laughing, sharing. It is a unique event, and we come together so rarely now. Voices are raised in welcome as I enter, people I have not seen in many years raising glasses to me, calling my name. Round and round I walk, my face fixed in its smile, I am home, with my people, of my people.
Shaking hands, hugging, back-slapping. High colour in cheeks, unnatural brightness to eyes, breaths taken too quickly, the pitch of conversation rising. The sun must be sinking quickly now, we can all feel the onset of darkness rushing onwards, inexorable, unstoppable. The wall of night is rushing westwards as the burning orb of the sun sinks slowly beneath the sea, a swan’s path of golden light playing across the waters as the horizon looms up to swallow it.
It will be soon now.
Anticipation is rising, an electric tension crackling from person to person and voices now pitch downwards to low murmurs. There is no light in the marquee. We need none.
As the sun slides down and the darkness engulfs land and sea alike, we silently troop out of the tent and into the field. 100 of us, standing quietly, calm now the night sky has established itself, waiting patiently as the stars slowly reveal themselves, wheeling into a net of diamond pin-pricks. The hush has become reverential as we wait. My ears grow keen in the darkness, I can hear the scuffling and faint clinking of chains being moved restlessly around in the chapel above us.
Robed figures begin to move amongst us, objects are handed out, each of us reaching out for our share of what is to come. Then, rising above the hills behind us, floating up on the murmur of breaking waves and dark-kissed winds, the moon shows her shining face, flooding the headland with her soft, magical light.
There is a scream from the chapel above us, long and drawn out, slowly deepening and twisting until it forms into a howl. Chains burst, and the howl becomes more urgent, more hungry. The beast is free.
We turn as one to face the shadowed promontory, eyes shining in the moonlight, calm, ready.
A flash of light stabs from the chapel, holds in the air, a bone-numbing hum that thrums through our bodies, sickening, invigorating.
And a hooded figure is revealed at the chapel doorway, stepping forward, the hum becoming louder and louder. It stands before us.
I can barely look up, my knees are weakening, he is lowering his hood and raising his arms. Then, slowly surely, it begins.
Ozzy Osbourne’s voice rolls across the field, and he begins to sing…..country.
Secret addictions, secret darknesses, revealed here, in this place, once more. His voice ringing out in a soulful rendition of Dolly Parton’s ‘Jolene’, and I raise my Ozzy banner into the air, and give in to this glorious folly.