If you’ve arrived at this page direct – ie not via the homepage – here are a few words of explanation.
This blog began in 2011 to help publicise a charity cycling project which took place 2012-13, and to keep sponsors informed of progress. I got into the habit of writing it and once the project reached its conclusion just kept scribbling. It has thus become a diary, likely to become some sort of memoir as the years pass. It’s still mostly about cycling, though there’s a bit about music and a lot of random comment and reflection on pretty much anything. More thinking aloud than anything else, but I hope not too self-indulgent, even though like most blogs it’s mainly about the writer’s foibles.
Life’s way too short to wade through blogs anyway, however engaging they may be, so if you can find time to do anything at all whilst you’re here read February 19th 2012′s entry by scrolling to the bottom of this long page. It’s why the blog is here in the first place; the rest of it is mostly fluff. The charity bit is explained on the homepage.
A report on Part 1 of the big charity ride begins with June 15th 2012’s entry, on Part 2 with May 23rd 2013’s, and on the third and final part with July 1st 2013’s, below. Click on any image to enlarge to full screen, although some seem a bit temperamental.
Monday, May 25th, 2020.
Dad & Mum.
I remember my Dad & Mum every day.
It’ll be ten years this July since Dad died suddenly, just a few days before his 87th birthday and his & Mum’s 60th wedding anniversary, for which we had arranged a surprise party in the Lake District.
Just the other day I was looking at an old photograph album of his, chronicling summer holidays he took in 1948 & 1949 with two old RAF friends. They’d all been demobbed in 1947 and gone their separate civilian ways. Dad, a bright working-class lad from Sunderland, took an opportunity he perhaps never would have had but for Adolf Hitler, and went to university in the autumn of 1947. He enrolled for an arts degree at King’s College Newcastle, then a constituent college of Durham University and not to become an independent institution – the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne – until 1963. When by chance I worked for that same institution in the early 2000s I spent much of my time in the Music Department in the old King’s Building, walking the same corridors that Dad must have trodden many times. A nice feeling, contributing to the fondness I already had and still have for the university and its city.
Anyway, in 1948 Dad, Cliff & Taff were in Combe Martin, in Devon, but in 1949 they were in the Lake District. Some of the tiny black and white prints in the album are captioned on the back, but even without looking I could see that they’d climbed Wetherlam & Scafell Pike during their visit, and walked round Tarn Hows. In tweed jackets, shorts and brogues, of course, as was the way in those long-lost days before the outdoors – and the Lake District – were multi-billion pound international industries.
And what days they must have been, liberated from the tragedy and tyranny of war, and looking forward to who knows what? Me, for a start, though that was a few years off 🙂
Dad was a gentle, liberal, humane, decent, well-read and thoughtful man, and I always felt comfortable in his presence. I loved him, and he loved me. Of course we had our ups and downs, as all families do, but I know that he was happy when my sister and I were happy, and vice versa. And he was happy to the end, living long enough to see his grandchildren grow up and start their working lives, and so proud of all four of them, my two boys and Lesley’s two girls.
Dad’s with me all the time, and I often exchange wry smiles with him. As a non-believer, I always contend that the real legacy we leave when we go is no more or less than the sum total of all of the thoughts and feelings about us of those who knew us. That can be positive, negative, neutral, or all three. Dad’s vibe was always positive and outward- looking, always keeping pace; he was working on his Facebook page the day he died. He was a great bloke, and everyone who knew him well remembers him as such.
So I think about him being always interested in the world, in people, in his family; I think about him doing practical stuff – I really do do this almost every day as I potter about making, mending, modifying and building things, in large measure with his tools, or even his dad’s tools, some of which the purpose of which I still haven’t identified! My Grandad Johnson was a plumber who served in the Royal Engineers on the Western Front and went on to a career in municipal water supply, retiring as an inspector. Tools were his thing. And Dad’s. And, I guess, mine. Latest big wry smile was when I was breaking rocks in the garden last week with my pickaxe and 14-lb sledgehammer. Except they were almost certainly Grandad’s – and certainly Dad’s. One of the more bizarre items I’ve acquired via the two of them is a WW1 army helmet, painted white with the logo ‘Water’ overlaid. A memento from when my Grandad – too old to serve in WW2 – volunteered as an air-raid warden and oversaw the repair of bomb-damaged water mains. Sunderland, being a shipbuilding town on the North-East coast of England, was a prime target for the Luftwaffe in 1940. My Grandad’s generation was old enough to remember the town – now a city; I do it a disservice – being a target for Zeppelin airships 25 years earlier, too, and I recall vividly my great-grandmother Ainslie, Grandad’s mother-in-law, telling me about this when I was a child.
I’ve just read Tony Judt’s last book, ‘The Memory Chalet’. Think mine’d be a shed.
Now I need to talk about Mum, her legacy and her family, but that warrants an entry to itself, coming soon.
Friday, May 22nd, 2020.
Avril & I should have gone out for a ride this afternoon. Instead, we’re catching up on domestic chores; there’s a 50mph gale outside, and has been since dawn. Very cycle-unfriendly, and very unusual for late May. It’s blown tons of leaves off the whitebeam in our front garden, and the skylight off the greenhouse. The builders who were due to continue repairing February’s storm damage to our gable end today have had to postpone the job until it’s safe to work at height. All this on top of the late frost last week which whacked everyone’s garden hereabouts. Annoying, but in the grand scheme right now trivial. We can’t complain.
The past few days haven’t been all frustration, though, by any means;
Wednesday, May 20th, 2020.
Self-defence with a bicycle pump.
It’s that time again. Mid-May and buzzards are nesting. It’s safe to assume that they’ll get more aggressive over the years as their confidence and numbers continue to burgeon. Cheeky bastards!
Elsewhere in this saga I tell of the four times to date that this hapless cyclist has been attacked by these birds during the breeding season. Not so hapless now, for sure.
Neighbours would have been puzzled, to say the least, had they seen me in the garden last week waving an extended bike pump about my head. The previous day I’d ridden past Death Buzzard Copse, the place of the last three attacks in the past three years, as opposed to Death Buzzard Alley, the scene of the first over a decade ago, a few miles east and long since quiet. I think I’ve already recounted my belief that, although illegal, that culprit was shot. Anyway, as I passed the woodland in question, scanning above and behind me all the time, I saw a solitary buzzard sitting on a branch above the road. Probably too early to have young on the nest, but not by much. It stayed put.
Hence the backyard pump-ninja antics. On my next ride along the same road I stopped a few hundred yards before the nest site, unclipped my pump, and rode on with it in my hand. My theory , based on what happened in previous attacks, is that a bird will generally come at you from behind and above – though one did once attack head-on at head-height. Waving an arm will divert them and prevent impact. I’ve only been hit once, and that’s once too often. Waving an extended arm, courtesy of a pump, should divert them further, and minimise the likelihood of talon damage, either to clothing or flesh, or both.
Predictably, no bird showed up on the first experimental run. Watch this space.
Sunday, May 17th, 2020.
Every day’s a school day…..
Another bit of velogeekery coming up, I’m afraid.
When I acquired my steel touring bike last year, certain aspects of the deal were non-negotiable. I’d requested straight bars, but only one type was available; 64cm, swept back 6cm. I wrote at the time that I guessed I’d get used to both the length and the sweep and adapt my riding style accordingly – it’s many years since I’d ridden a straight-bar bike regularly, so it’d be only a matter of familiarisation, I thought. I got to like the length, and persevered for over 1000 miles with the sweep. Somehow it never felt right, and I’d get unwelcome aches and stiffness in my wrists and forearms. Everything else about my riding position was fine, and when switching to a regular drop-bar road bike the problem disappeared.
So, I deduced, maybe I should get some different bars? Or, in the first instance try altering the position of the ones I have and see what happens. Cheaper, too.
I reckoned that the backward sweep was the problem, causing my wrists to settle in a position that, whilst not looking uncomfortable, or feeling it for short periods, was clearly wrong in some way. Given that I also use highly regarded Ergon grips, specifically designed to eliminate discomfort, it could be that there was some substance to this theory
So, by way of an initial experiment I rotated the bars through 90 degrees to turn the backward sweep into an upward one, at the same time making the plan view much straighter. My reach was pretty much the same, my overall position marginally less upright but still very relaxed – always a key objective in setting up this bike.
And what do you know? Problem solved; much better overall feel – far more natural – better control, infinitely more comfortable. And no aches and pains. One happy boy.
I guess anyone who knows anything substantial about bike/rider ergonomics and/or physiology could have told me this in the first place, but it was very satisfying to work it out for myself. A marginal incremental gain that has made a significant difference.
Sunday, May 10th, 2020.
After my uninformed but intuitive musings back on February 28th, and the update on March 27th, we’re now into Week 8 of the coronavirus lockdown.
We’ve been self-isolating throughout that time, though it hasn’t stopped us from doing a great many things we enjoy or have had to do. April was the sunniest on record, albeit with cold easterlies blowing for much of the month (which, of course, is why it was the sunniest on record ).
The month was touched with great sadness; my Mum passed away on April 24th, just after her 94th birthday. She was very frail, and her death wasn’t unexpected, but still came as a terrible shock, rendered worse because Covid 19-related confusion meant that we were unable to attend her funeral. Proper amends will be made when everyone who wishes to celebrate her life will meet when circumstances allow. As with everything everywhere, no-one can tell right now when that will be.
But what a life it was; 1920s to 2020s, born just before the General Strike, before talking pictures; universal suffrage for women in the UK; the BBC; the Wall Street Crash. A million years ago. I derive much comfort from knowing that she died peacefully, that it had been for some time her wish to go, and that she’d met her only great-grandchild, my granddaughter Isla, on each of the two occasions when she came to the UK from Singapore in September and December 2019, aged 5 and 8 months respectively. They were truly happy days.
More happiness came on the occasion of Avril’s 70th birthday on April 29th. In the absence of a big party, long ago abandoned, we were able to arrange all manner of online surprises. I’d approached musicians around the world who know her, and somewhat cheekily asked if they’d like to send her a birthday greeting. Much to my delight, they obliged; and how! Greetings came in in various formats, which I was able to collate in one place and play to her on the morning of her birthday. It was truly one of the happiest moments of our life together; we were both in tears, perhaps in my case partly as an antidote to sadness. Suffice to say that there were three Grammy winners in there! Amazing, and deep thanks due all round. I’ll never forget Avril’s face as the messages ran through.
Optimist that I am, I like to think that when this is all over, the world will be a better place and we will not return to business as usual as far as global politics, rivalry, prejudice, greed and stupidity are concerned, and unite in the full knowledge that if we thought Covid was bad, wait until climate change kicks in. As I say, I’m an optimist. Still.
On the cycling front, notwithstanding the massive amount of time spent and progress made in the past two months on all sorts of overdue domestic tasks, it’s been a good time. Weather great, sky unbelievably clear, air especially fresh, mileage decent, outdoor exercise restrictions not tightened, roads quiet – except for more bloody cyclists and pedestrians than I’ve ever seen on my home patch, in stark contrast to the first few days of lockdown. All good things, though. And no contrails in the sky; weird! I guess the folks at the North Atlantic Air Traffic Control radar station atop Great Dun Fell, visible from our kitchen window, will be pretty good at crossword puzzles by now.
Saturday, March 28th, 2020.
Friday, March 27th, 2020.
Wednesday was a beautiful day; sunny, warm, dry, still. The nicest of the year so far, and not a moment too soon after the winter we’ve had. It was also the second day of the coronavirus lockdown. For as long as restrictions allow cycling as a permissible form of exercise, alone or with a co-habiting family member, and for as long as I judge it safe so to do, whichever period is the shorter, I’ll go out.
We’ve been self-isolating, given that we’ve both had various bugs over the last month, which may, may not, but could very easily be or have been a mild form of the virus. Living where we live, self-isolation isn’t hard, but on the occasions when we’ve had to venture forth – and these we have reduced to zero, save for food shopping – we’ve been very careful.
Cycling or walking are low-to-zero risk for us at the moment. The chances of meeting anyone are small, opportunity to give them the requisite wide berth great.
So I did go out on Wednesday, met no-one, and passed or was passed by only a couple of vehicles on a 25-mile ride on country lanes in glorious sunshine and total silence, save for early spring birdsong and the bleating of lambs.
The eerie bit was when I crossed the M6; a moderate flow of delivery trucks – clearly a good thing; but virtually no private vehicles – also a good thing, I guess, in the present extenuating circumstances.
Every day henceforth will be similarly eerie for all of us, in manifold ways. The juxtaposition of the ordinary and the extraordinary, the mundane and the exceptional, the familiar and the unknown.
Military aircraft fly over our place all the time. Nothing unusual or exceptional there, except that today, when three army helicopters flew by very low in the perfect blue sky, I couldn’t help making a fanciful interpretation of what I saw as if it were a scene from a low budget apocalyptic/dystopian B-movie. The prevailing mood of the world right now, I guess.
Got on my bike.
Friday, February 28th, 2020.
A little note to myself. February has been a terrible month for cycling. Atrocious weather, three ‘named’ storms with attendant tempest, flood, snow, ice. Two weeks laid low with a bug – not, thankfully the coronavirus currently threatening to shut down the planet – and a lot of schlepping about the country on various missions. And right now, on what would have been my last chance to get out this month I’m sitting at my desk looking at the foul weather outside and sniffling. Another trip to London tomorrow, weather and trains permitting, so I’ve simply decided to give up. Not even covered 100 miles on the bike this month. Hopeless and very frustrating.
The note to myself? Better Days Ahead! 🙂
Thursday, February 20th, 2020.
I’m sitting, or rather slouching; laid low by a ‘flu-like bug I picked up in London last weekend. Frustrated at being immobilised, but would be even worse disposed if the weather outside wasn’t so foul – I’d be immobilised regardless.
As I have been for most of February; storms Ciara & Dennis and their attendant floods, tempest and aftermath have pretty much shut everything down over the past fortnight; power cuts, four days with no mains water, damage to the house, unrelated internet denial-of-service attack. Chaos. Pretty much camping out, and lucky to get that train to town and back at the weekend for an engagement celebration with Dan & Alice, given that the main line has been closed for considerable periods of late, and is again today.
Grandson Ted’s school trip to San Francisco this week got off to a bad start too when his connecting flight from Newcastle to Heathrow was cancelled on Monday, along with hundreds of others in the UK, resulting for him in a six-hour coach trip, a flight 24 hours later to San Diego, then an eight-hour coach ride to their intended destination.
And so it goes; hard to get anywhere, and definitely ill-advised on a bike.
So I’m glum. My cycling stats are woeful, worse than for a long time, though I suppose I can console myself both by writing down my annoyance and accepting that things could hardly be otherwise. But for my complete bug-induced listlessness, I may well have ventured out today in the foulness just to keep the literal and metaphorical wheels turning. That’ll have to wait, but I hope not for too long, weather, health and fitness permitting. Throbbing headache now. Time to stop.
Sunday, January 5th, 2020.
I was cycling home one the evening last October when I saw a pair of handlebars protruding from the rubble and assorted detritus in a skip standing on the street. Once home, my curiosity aroused, I went back to investigate, to mild derision from Avril. I discovered, to my utter astonishment and delight, the frame of what turned out to be a 1949 Hercules Kestrel. Much scurrying around the internet revealed details about the machine and its manufacturers in Birmingham – they were eventually bought out by Raleigh – and even photos of an identical bike restored in the United States. My astonishment increased as, once back in the workshop, the salvaged frame (no wheels, alas) revealed all surviving mechanical parts, though heavily rusted, to be in working order, and most to be from the ex-works bike all those years ago. Amazing, and even better, the frame (Reynolds 531, decal still intact), was 23”, doubtless the biggest they made back then, and big enough for me. The original leather saddle was there, too, exhibiting no rot and very little indication that it had been ridden much; it still had the metal plate embossed ‘Kestrel’ on the seat, and matched tooling visible on the leather. The bike must have lain in a dry outbuilding for decades.
By the following day the skip had gone. I like to think that the frame must have had my name on it, and it’s become my mission to restore it to working condition.
I’m writing this entry nearly three months after the rescue since I’ve been away so much, so busy and have got so far behind with my blog. I’ve had time nonetheless to begin the renovation, and have now entered the bike (and me) for a vintage event in July, a 50-mile ride, thus setting myself a deadline for completion of the work.
It’ll be much more a matter of time than cost to do this, given the salvageable condition of the parts. I’ve sourced some missing bits on e-Bay, T-Cut and renovated the frame (I’ve been advised to avoid a respray until I’m happy with the strength of the frame; I’ve also been advised that it’s still a strong as a tank!) and stripped down and cleaned all the components. The rusted chrome-plate on the fork crown, seatpost and handlebars has come up almost as good as new.
I couldn’t shift the quill stem and headset, and was reluctant to try to take out the bottom bracket once I’d freed the rusted cotterpins and removed the cranks, given that vintage brackets require vintage tools, which I do not possess. Thankfully, a specialist mechanic was able to do these jobs for me and everything is now in good working order. I’ve tracked down a Sturmey-Archer front hub in Holland, and a 1983 3-speed SA rear hub and controls in Stoke. These, in time, will be built onto 36-hole 27 x 1 ¼” rims to match the originals. Oh, yes, you’ll notice that there was one mudguard still attached to the frame; that, too, is original, in good condition, and has cleaned up well.
So, with luck, more elbow-grease and some specialist help I’ll have the bike on the road by summer. What an extraordinary coincidence to have spotted it on its way to almost certain destruction that October night.
Well, the last-but-one entry was a compendium covering days when there was scarce time to breathe, let alone write. And here’s another one, even longer this time, and written for the same reasons.
That 10-day no-ride break in October has been far exceeded by almost a month out of the saddle in November. Gratifyingly, despite this, I expect to exceed 2018’s mileage total by a decent margin. I put that down largely to this summer’s adventures.
But November’s adventure was the one; Singapore via Dubai to see Luke, Sarah & baby Isla, then Melbourne, Sydney, back to Singapore for a few days, Dubai and home. Seven flights, a lot of tram, train, bus & cab rides, shoe-leather, sleep deprivation and 25,000 air miles. Exhilarating, tiring and definitely not environmentally friendly – will just have to make up for that by cranking up the self-propelled mileage again, which I’ve already started to do despite the huge though hardly surprising temperature drop between the tropics and home.
All that said, this was the trip of a lifetime for us, with a lot of firsts: furthest east I’ve ever been; furthest south (first time over the equator at a mere 66 – I had my birthday in Singapore at 1’20”N); first flights in giant aeroplanes (five in Airbus 380s); the list goes on. And so many new and fascinating experiences and friendly people that maybe I’ll just start a stream of consciousness now – with pictures – and hope to give a flavour of the trip and why it was so special for us.
Luke and Sarah were the perfect hosts, and Isla a delight. Sarah is back at work, Luke on paternity leave and Isla is of course, as all babies are, in charge. Lots of sleep-interruption, despite parents’ best efforts to establish routines.
As it seems with all ex-pat Europeans in Singapore, Luke and Sarah have a full-time, live-in maid, or helper, or whatever it’s best to call someone in that position in the 21st century. It’s a throwback to colonial times, for sure, but simply the norm there. Judy, a Filipino by birth but resident in Singapore for 25 years, is an invaluable help to them, and her presence and skills will be vital when they’re both back at work from December.
Anyway, let’s get on with the pictorial caravanserai:
As with any trip, anywhere, or indeed anything anywhere, above all it’s the people you meet who make things memorable; who restore your faith in humanity; who make you smile and laugh; who make you feel that we’re all in the same boat, or rather on the same small, fragile and threatened planet; who make you want to do whatever you can to spread love and respect as opposed to the hate, suspicion and arrogance that characterise the attitudes of most of those in power the world over.
So thanks to Judy, for helping the family in Singapore, and us; to Johnny, Birgit, Matthias, Penny & Lizzie for your company there; to Anton – the first Aussie we met, who rode the airport ‘bus with us and organised a taxi to our hotel at 1am in Melbourne. And asked only for ‘good thoughts’ in return. We insisted on paying; the good thoughts are standard; to Louise, Sam & family for their hospitality and a great day in the Dandenong Ranges; to all the people who we came across, especially in Australia, who were simply friendly, helpful and courteous; and most of all, and once again, to Luke, Sarah and Isla. We love you.
Thursday, October 17th, 2019.
Today, Avril was going on a day trip to Leeds to see her old friend Linda. On the incomparable Settle-Carlisle railway, naturally. It was a nice day, so I went, too – just part of the way, with the bike – and had a great ride home, with rather a lot of steep hills.
Tuesday, October 15th, 2019.
It’s been so busy of late that only on Saturday did I break the longest no-ride duck of the year. 10 days. Still not much chance to rest; I started to write this on Sunday night in the hiatus between soundcheck and show at Zeffirelli’s, where we were hosting a Soft Machine gig. I woke up that morning and realised that it was 50 years since I first saw the band (well, 49, actually), and as I looked across the house at the packed audience in the evening it looked like that applied to many of them, too. Ancient Hippy Central, but great to see such a healthy turnout on a wet October Sunday in Ambleside.
So, my cycling hiatus and why. Well, with only a couple of weeks to go to our exciting trip-of-a-lifetime to see baby Isla and her Mum & Dad in Singapore, thence on to Australia and back via Singapore again, we’ve been trying to get as far ahead of ourselves with the humdrum. This past week has been spent at home felling trees, building fences, the while taking a 48-hour diversion to modify Dan & Alice’s balcony. In Mile End, of course; a 500-mile round trip by rail with a 70lb rucksack full of power tools. And they weren’t even there; Dan was supposed to be, but at short notice had to go to Qatar with work, and Alice was similarly engaged in Hong Kong and Seoul. We’re past ourselves with anticipation and excitement at our imminent long-haul trip. Just workaday for them.
So, a gig to run, and the first chance to grab a few moments to write and start yet another overdue entry. As the heading suggests, it’s supposed to be about my family history, and here’s why:
About a month ago my old friend Terry contacted me. We haven’t been in touch for several years, so I was both surprised and delighted to hear from him. He was looking for some information on a mutual friend, Race Newton, expat US pianist who I knew and worked with for around 25 years up until his death in 2003, aged 76. As I’ve written elsewhere, Race is someone who had a lasting and positive effect on my life, and those of many others.
Terry subscribes to Ancestry, the online genealogy service, and had become intrigued by Race’s family. Knowing that I’d spent a lot of time with him, he got in touch to see if I could clarify some detail. Some I could, some I couldn’t. Summarising what Terry discovered, both about Race and his English wife Lizzie, would take a huge entry in itself, which in due course I will write and place here. Both Race & Lizzie were from patrician families; he the son of an ophthalmic surgeon from upstate New York, she born to an influential English family in Nagasaki in 1937; Harvard & Cambridge-educated respectively, and each with an incredible personal history.
The reason for mentioning this here is that without that initial inquiry from Terry, and one thing leading to another, he wouldn’t have made a few inquiries into my family history.
My dear Dad spent much time in his retirement – pre-internet in the initial stages – trawling records the length and breadth of the land researching his & my Mum’s families. He came up with a lot of stuff, some of which I knew, and much of which Terry could confirm. But with his tech savviness and diligence, and of course massive new resources like Ancestry and DNA tests upon which to draw, he turned up much detail not previously uncovered, together with a few revelations and some puzzles solved. Again, this will have to form the basis of a much more detailed entry here in the fullness of time. For now, and not least because it’s germane to the main, cycling theme of this blog, I’ll just get to the point, or rather the points. More weird & wonderful coincidences.
Abbreviating everything in order to get to those points:
- I’ve always known that my patrilineal family name might not be Johnson, because my grandfather Johnson had a middle name, Pitcher. Somewhere down the line there was an illegitimacy.
- That was in Norfolk in 1863, when Edwin , aka Edward Johnson was born to 16-year old Martha Johnson. He was my great-grandfather
- He was also known as Pitcher, because Martha married James Pitcher when Edwin was a small child. It isn’t known if James was Edwin’s father; unsurprisingly, no father is named on the birth certificate. Jury’s out on this; James and Martha both lived in King’s Lynn, Norfolk when Edwin was born, but further than that there’s nothing to link them in 1863. So Pitcher may not be my patrilineal family name either.
- James and Martha had another son, Thomas, in 1872. He and his 9-year old (half?) brother were both christened on the same day in St Margaret’s Church in King’s Lynn.
OK, so that’s enough for the moment; now here’s the amazing bit. Many of my forebears were born, married and died in North Norfolk. Specifically in the village of Terrington St Clement, where family baptisms, nuptials and burials took place. When this turned up in Terry’s research, the name seemed familiar to me.
And by way of a bizarre postscript to some of the above, Soft Machine’s long-serving bassist, Roy Babbington, is an old friend of Race & Lizzie’s too. We reminisced 🙂
Tuesday, September 24th, 2019.
It’s been a busy month, with scarce time to sit down and write, so here goes with the customary composite entry that appears at such times.
First off, Isla’s been! Met my granddaughter for the first time on September 4th. During her time in the UK she’s captivated everyone. I would say this, of course; she’s a beautiful baby, and very, very good at making people happy, me especially. And her Mum, Dad, other grandparents and great-grandmother. And, well, everybody else.
On the bike, I’ve taken the opportunity to explore some non-tarmac lanes suitable for a tourer. I’m not up for mountain-biking japes, but am very keen to be able to use suitable bridleways as a means of extending (or shortening!) regular rides; part of the reason I bought an adaptable and tough steel machine. So some of that has transpired of late, especially as September’s weather has been for the most part reasonable.
This month’s big two-wheel development is that Avril’s finally taken the plunge and bought an e-bike. Our experiment with a borrowed one back in February was less than successful, but largely because, as we now realise, the machine was inappropriate. With hindsight, what was needed was the most user-friendly bike we could find; female-specific; step-through frame; reputable components, comfortable geometry. Add to this the other features that the bike in question has – 650B (ie smaller) wheels, lights, hydraulic rim brakes and some nice practical features for a new rider like a luggage rack, chainguard and kickstand– and the recipe is much improved.
She’s clocking 40 miles a week before the weather turns. A great achievement and one which she’s enjoying, the more so when the padded underwear arrives! Needless to say, I’m delighted; we can go out together, and her power-assistance is enough to ensure that I’m always chasing uphill. Perfect.
The second week of September is Tour of Britain time, and yet again this year it passed quite close to us. I cycled over to Great Musgrave near Kirkby Stephen as Stage 4, from Gateshead to Kendal, came through. A lovely trip, where I met by chance my friend Sally, a local primary school head, out for the day with her entire school. They were having a great time, and were much indulged by the passing caravan of team trucks, TV crews, photographers, commentators and police motorcyclists. I made a new Strava friend, too, Craig from Lanarkshire, who was on holiday nearby and had taken the opportunity to ride out for the afternoon. He bought me an ice-cream from our local independent van. I was very surprised to see it there, until I realised that Sally had done a deal with Steve, the driver, as part of the children’s trip out. Sixty cones! And thanks for mine, Craig – I owe you one!
Mid-month and Avril was off to Lancaster to meet her cousin Margaret, who lives near Blackpool, and who she hasn’t seen for 43 years. I took the opportunity to go with her and cycle home on a glorious day. Just under 60 miles of surprisingly undulating, and at times steep, terrain.
We all met at Lancaster House, an hotel on the city’s university campus. Avril and Margaret repaired for coffee then lunch, and I set off on the cyclepaths that criss-cross the campus.
First bonus was how, the moment you’re off-site you’re on quiet country lanes; OK, so the M6 runs down one side of the campus, and the A6 and the west coast main line down the other, but a little lane under the motorway signalled the start of a beautiful and quiet ride. Rising slowly, and slightly unexpectedly, for some four miles through Quernmore, I rode on through Caton and Crook of Lune, then up the long drag to Laverick Hall, where the Lake District fells appeared on the horizon, the pepperpot of Pike of Stickle the most prominent from this angle. Heading north all the time I zigzagged over the motorway, the railway and the Lancaster Canal.
Thence another long climb to Killington summit and Bendrigg – still no traffic to speak of – then the long steep drop into the upper Lune valley to the other, lesser known, Crook of Lune, and back onto the familiar Fairmile through the Lune Gorge. Paused on the way to fix my first puncture in ages, then bask in the sun, so unhurried and relaxed had I become.
Annoyingly, I hadn’t passed a single shop or café that was open, and was beginning to get peckish. I headed for the truckstop at M6 Jct 38, which was a lifesaver. Whilst munching a very late lunch I watched the trucks pile in and out. As I walked to a bin to deposit my rubbish, I spoke to a friendly Scots driver who was fuelling his artic unit and asked him a question the answer to which has always intrigued me. ‘How much does it cost to fill one of these?’ ‘Five to six hundred pounds….every day’, came the smiling reply. Ouch!
Onwards through the gathering and lovely dusk to home. I kind of knew that Avril wouldn’t be back yet. She and Margaret had spent around nine hours catching up on nearly half-a-century’s worth of news. I’m surprised they did it so quickly!
Later that week, and still trying to grab as much good weather as possible as the equinox approached, came a couple of rides to check out progress on the new bridge at Pooley Bridge, which work has just started, and to do an on-and-off road circuit via Haweswater.
Monday, September 2nd, 2019.
A busy end to last month meant that I missed my mileage target, though only just, and attempted to accumulate as respectable a total as possible by doing some higher-speed summer bike dashes. Having spent a lot of time on the new steel tourer of late, I noticed the difference straight away when I got back on to a lighter, sleeker machine; perhaps unsurprisingly, my riding stats were very good. Still another benefit of having a heavy workhorse for a third bike – one I hadn’t considered until I discovered it.
Whilst I missed that monthly target, I did reach another one yesterday. 18000 miles since I started to log details on GPS apps. The significance? Well, that’s the official minimum distance for a round-the-world cycling trip. OK, so you have to pass through two antipodal locations too and, I suppose, actually circumnavigate the globe. Who cares – I’m dead chuffed anyway.
Friday, August 16th, 2019.
August 16th; A famous day for people’s protest: 200 years ago today 70,000 workers gathered in St Peter’s Field in Manchester peacefully to demand parliamentary representation and voice their opposition to the establishment’s refusal to repeal the Corn Laws. Some 18 were killed and hundreds injured by local yeomanry and regular troops – the representatives of that establishment. The Peterloo Massacre. Having recently watched Mike Leigh’s film, ‘Peterloo’, as if we needed reminding, it’s clear that whilst material circumstances have changed in the past two centuries, the attitudes of that same establishment have not.
50 years ago 400,000 people were at Yasgur’s Farm in upstate New York to join an anti-Vietnam War demonstration. Some music happened too.
And this week we see the first real sign that at last a coalition may emerge to promote in parliament a vote of no confidence in the British Government and its insane Brexit plan, and bring about the General Election that is the least the British public should demand in these unprecedented times. There could be no more auspicious time for such a movement to begin.
Sunday, August 11th, 2019.
I never thought that the likes of Michael Heseltine would speak for me. He stops short of
calling current circumstances a coup d’etat, but that’s what it is in all but name. Time to do all we can to stop this criminal insanity; future generations will thank us for so doing, and condemn us, rightly, if we don’t.
Saturday, August 10th, 2019.
An Old Man’s Bike
Way back in the early pages of this blog, some seven or eight years ago, I suggested that I’d probably manage in perpetuity with one bike, suitably adapted and re-adapted to cope with British summer and winter. Since I only had one bike, the suggestion was both a necessary and a practical one.
I relented when I picked up a bargain aluminium frame for £60 in 2014 and put together a winter bike – or rather had it put together by my bike guru Rich – thereby creating of my original machine a summer bike. I actually ended up with about 1.75 bikes, as every autumn and spring various bits had to be transferred from one to the other, most notably my beloved Brooks Swift saddle.
Five years of owning and riding two bikes, apart from lots of obvious benefits, also extended markedly the life of all components, given that each machine is only used for half the year, April to October or October to April, for as long as summer and winter continue to exist and fall broadly into these still (sometimes only just) appropriate periods.
Way back in 2012 I was seduced by Bill Davidson’s beautiful and unreachable titanium frames in Seattle, and in 2015 I made another completely unrealistic foray into examining the possibility of running a third bike, very different to the other two; one which would see me out, or at the very least add ten years or more to my useful shelf-life. I visited Stephen Shand’s Livingston workshop, in Scotland’s central belt, to look at his marvellous steel-framed, Rohloff-geared, carbon belt-driven handbuilt bikes. They’re lovely. And, as you might imagine, expensive; currently approaching £4000 a pop.
Subsequent to that, I spent several years idly and fitfully considering practical alternatives, and gradually refining what was and wasn’t possible, desirable and affordable.
The basic brief gradually emerged as follows:
- Sensibly-priced and as good value for money as I can find
- Steel frame, mid-range tubing – Reynolds 725 chrome-molybdenum or similar
- Comfortable upright riding position
- Low gearing – ideally mountain bike fitted to a touring frame. Rohloff just way too expensive; I’d be looking to build a whole bike for little more than the cost of one of their 14-speed hubs
- Flat handlebars with ergonomic grips
- Disc brakes and disc-specific wheels
- Thru axles, generally thought better for disc-equipped wheels where the braking force is much closer to the hub
- Big tyres – well, big for me, around 35C; puncture-resistant and ideal for touring – and shopping, given the addition of a…
- …rear pannier rack and…
- …SPD pedals and…
- … shoes I can walk in, at last, given that SPD cleats can be recessed into the soles of appropriate cycling shoes, unlike the Look cleats I’ve been riding for over 20 years; good though they are, those boots aren’t made for walking.
I’d refined this shopping list largely by trawling the internet and looking at the online catalogues of smaller specialist companies, not necessarily in the UK. In the end, though, it was four home-grown builders that gave me all the information and choice I felt I needed to make a sensible decision.
Shand I’ve already mentioned, and had, regrettably, to reject solely for reasons of cost. Thorn Cycles in Somerset, touring bike specialists sanspareil, produce a massive 100-plus page online brochure which examines the far end of everything and is very informative, if just a tad overwhelming for someone looking to buy a general purpose workhorse, as opposed to riding round the world on dirt roads. Good on Thorn, nonetheless; I learned a lot from their clear and detailed technical explanations. The Light Blue in Cambridge also produce some fine and affordable machines and plenty of online guidance. And finally there was Ribble in Preston, from whom I bought my winter bike frame and a good many of its attendant components in 2014.
Aware that this is already a geekish and faintly OCD entry, I won’t recount the myriad comparisons I made between these companies’ products. I would, nonetheless, like to be able to refer anyone seeking their own Old Person’s Bike to these notes in the faint hope that they might be helpful, so I’ll crave your indulgence a little longer whilst I pursue this quest to its conclusion. Inevitably, that will involve a little more mildly technical indulgence. Stop reading now if that’s too much to bear.
Chance gave me the opportunity to call in at Ribble’s main warehouse in Preston in May, look at their bikes and ask if they could put together a machine that didn’t match any of the standard specs on their roster but did match mine, essentially a steel road/touring frame with MTB gearing and flat bars. This seemed to staff to be a possibility, within certain limits, and after some exchanging of emails I submitted a written spec.
Needless to say, given that it was non-standard, I feared the worst when I completed their online bike-building procedure, which system did not allow for my modifications to be inserted. Having been assured that the necessary changes would be made in the workshop from my notes, the contents of which had been pronounced broadly workable, I did indeed in the end receive notification that the wrong bike had been built. I sort of expected it, and as a result took a completely benign approach to correcting the error; life is too short to bluster about stuff that can be rectified with a few polite conversations.
As indeed it was, such that in late July I was able to collect a bike that fell within budget and was as close to what I would wish as such a budget would allow. And I’m delighted with it.
I’m writing this after riding some 150 or so miles on it, and will complete the report by making some pertinent observations. Pertinent, that is, if you’re still there and following this thread as someone who’s looking for a similar machine, and particularly if you’re a conventional road cyclist who’s anticipating the slowing-down years and doesn’t want to ride down the increasingly popular electric bike road. Yet.
I only had to look at the ex-works photos Ribble sent me to know that the riding set-up was accurate, and that my measurements had been true. You’ll see from subsequent shots that bar ends, pannier rack and saddle have been added/altered, which was always the intention since none of these options was available ex-works. These have all made significant and positive differences.
So what have I found? What’s the verdict? There’s been a lot to take in and learn, given that so much about the bike and riding it makes things very different to my decades-old routine:
- Riding position; upright and very comfy. Brooks B17 helping there, too. The bike came with long – 64cm – straight bars, swept back slightly by 6cm. Initially I thought I’d cut these down to something closer to my road-bar widths, but once I’d got used to them, I decided to leave them as they are, for the time being at least; I suspect that habit will cement this decision. The Ergon bar ends I fitted give four basic grips, which initially I could feel to varying degrees in my wrists. This is simply because I’m not in any of my customary road-bike positions. Once I’ve adapted, the comfort will come. The main challenge remaining is to master the very sensitive turning control long flat bars give. Gratifyingly, being able to push down on the pedals harder from an upright stance makes the kind of difference when climbing that goes a long way to overcoming the extra weight of a steel bike.
- I’d forgotten how much vibration a steel frame can absorb, even though the forks and steerer are carbon fibre.
- The Shimano Deore gearing is a dream. Front 36/26, rear 11-42. This gives a bottom end like a Rohloff hub, and is so low I haven’t as yet got into bottom gear on any of my regular climbs of up to 20%. The frame won’t take a triple front crankset, so I did worry a little that a top gear of 36-11 might not be high enough when travelling at speed. This turns out to be unfounded, for me at least; any faster than that and I’d be freewheeling downhill anyway, especially if carrying a load. The neat juxtaposition of the brake levers and shifters is nice, too.
- The brakes; they’re hydraulic, which I like. And very crisp. And very hot! Not done much heavy braking – I always try to avoid it – but you wouldn’t touch the disc if you’d just come down a steep hill. Still got a way to go to master the practicalities and intricacies of disc brakes.
- The wheels are only 24 spoke. Ideally I’d have liked more, but that was what was available in the deal. They’re straight pull, though – stronger than j-bends – and centre lock with thru axles. All new to me, but all disc-specific and so far, so good. Schwalbe Marathons, in this case 35C regular, seem to be the gold-standard touring tyre; happy with that, and with the extra comfort and reassurance bigger tyres give, with, of course and at last, the option to take rougher off-road routes if necessary or just because I fancy it. Already done a bit of that.
- New SPD shoes and double-sided pedal clips to match. Nothing short of a revelation. Strong, easy to use and, as I’ve already said, shoes I can walk in. Perfect.
- And finally the pannier rack. Haven’t got any pannier bags yet – that’ll come in time – so I’ve attached my old 6L bag adapted from the seatpost clamp frame I used on my big Scottish ride. So nice not to have to secrete everything in pockets and to have room to spare for anything, clutter-free.
So, all in all, I think I’m going to like this, and, after several years of dithering, am convinced that the research has resulted in a correct, wise, affordable, futureproof and worthwhile choice. Only if I end up succumbing to an electric bike in my super-dotage would I ever need to add another machine to the stable. And having a third bike still further extends the lives of the other two. And, with luck, me! The whole point.
Tuesday, July 30th, 2019.
The time arrived on July 13th to make amends.
I’d discussed doing it again with Dan, and frankly don’t think I’d’ve bothered if he’d said he didn’t want to do it; it would be his fourth time, as opposed to my second. In addition the event fell for him right at the end of around fourteen weekends out of London, some with Alice, some without, one with me – Earth, Wind & Tyre – but most at weddings or stag japes. He’s at an age – 31 yesterday, and celebrating in Sicily – when his peers seem to be getting hitched with remarkable regularity.
Anyway, it turned out he was up for the ride, much to my delight, so plans were laid a few months back.
I dreamt up a fairly ambitious and challenging (for me) excursion, and set about doing the necessary logistics. As will be revealed, certain happy coincidences in recent weeks were to combine to make this trip very different – and much better – than my last attempt to ride 115 miles from London to the Suffolk Coast overnight on the Saturday closest to the July full moon; the Dunwich Dynamo.
As soon as Dan said he was OK to do it, I booked advance tickets for me and my bike. Avril dropped me at Penrith station on Friday afternoon, and three hours later, having read Will Hutton & Andrew Adonis’ anti-Brexit tract ‘Saving Britain’ from cover to cover in transit, I was pedalling out onto the madness that is Euston Road. Not the best of starts to the ride, but within ten minutes I was on the Regent’s Canal towpath at King’s Place, taking me to within 500 yards of Dan & Alice’s flat in Mile End.
Alice was going to be at friends’ 30th birthday parties on both Friday and Saturday nights, so I didn’t feel too guilty at spiriting Dan away for the best part of the weekend. I’m sure anyway that Alice, lovely person that she is, would be happy to think that Dan was primarily looking out for his old man. My own domestique!
So off the two of us went that evening to a favourite Vietnamese restaurant in Hackney – the third time we’ve been there – and were not disappointed. Saturday morning saw the three of us cycle back along the towpath to London Fields lido to meet my niece Siobhan for coffee; she lives in Dalston. An unexpected and lovely encounter, fixed by Dan.
Back at the flat in the afternoon, we spent an hour or so prepping the bikes, resting and carbing up. I had a deliberate snooze in anticipation of the long night ahead.
And so came the time. It only took twenty minutes or so to cycle to the start – back at London Fields. The evening was mild; very little wind, some cloud, but no threat of rain. Pretty near perfect for the task in hand.
It seemed to me that there were fewer riders in the park than there were three years ago, but there were still hundreds and hundreds, and everywhere. We didn’t hang around, and got away just before 8pm, the notional start time. But then everything about the Dynamo is notional; another turn-up-and-go gig, with folk choosing to organise, or not, whatever they like. Only the necessity to book a place on the return coaches/bike transporters gets remotely near to a requirement to sign up for anything, and then only if you wish to return to London. Some hardy folk ride back, others are collected, others ride on elsewhere. I managed to fall into both of the latter categories, of which more anon.
The first part of the ride has one objective; to get out of London and across the M25 into open countryside as quickly as possible. Then you can start to enjoy it. Twenty nervy miles; traffic hassle not too bad, perhaps because Lea Bridge Road now has a cycle lane, which wasn’t there three years ago. And the problem in Epping Forest wasn’t boy racers in noisy Subarus baiting cyclists, as before; quite the opposite; stupid cyclists riding six abreast and refusing to pull over to let cars past. There was much vitriol about this (from fellow cyclists, mostly) on the DD Facebook page in the days following the ride. And rightly so – we got stuck behind such a group at one point, and couldn’t believe how inconsiderate they were, putting quicker cyclists at risk too by forcing them into the path of oncoming traffic in order to progress.
Darkness fell as we reached the first big stop, the pub in Moreton. Quick loo break for Dan and onwards. Then there was that lovely bloke with the fairy-lit track pump by the roadside in Great Dunmow, more village pop-up coffee stops than previously, the endless chain of flashing red lights and all manner of folk on all manner of machines, from high-speed club chain gangs to the guy on a delivery bike with a PA playing salsa through the night.
Dan was riding on his new machine, an aluminium Ribble which he bought through the excellent Cycle to Work scheme, and which he intends to use for touring with Alice, who’s also just bought a new bike through the same scheme. Needless to say, they both do cycle to work. Though his new bike is a much easier ride than his vintage steel Raleigh, Dan was mindful and considerate of me, and we kept a decent pace together to the place of 2016’s nemesis; Sudbury. At 62 miles this is just over half way; the main refuelling stop for the whole trip is Sudbury Fire Station, where off-duty crew and their friends and family run a huge all-night barbecue in the station yard, with all money raised going to fire service benevolent charities. Fire engines and duty crew are sequestered on a side road for the night.
Imagine our surprise then, as we approached Sudbury, to see a huge fire ahead. Perfectly reasonable to assume that it was part of the linear street party that now accompanies the Dynamo; in fact it turned out to be a very large haystack alight a couple of hundred yards off the road. Blue lights everywhere and, of course, the duty crew from Sudbury!
We queued for a while at the barbecue, me not sure if there was going to be a veggie option, and took half an hour to relax and refuel. It was warm enough to sit outside, though we were ready to start moving again when the time came. And yes, there were veggieburgers…….
I said to Dan that I thought I might be a bit slower in the second half of the night than I was in the first, which it turned out I was, though not by much. He remained indulgent and never let me fall far behind. Just before the fire incident I’d gone hammering past him on the hill out of Castle Hedingham – one of very few short climbs on the route. He was in the middle of a group, and hadn’t spotted me riding by in the dark – or probably did but couldn’t see that it was me. Anyway, several hundred yards down the road I stopped for him to catch up. He, of course, was waiting for me at the top of the hill. It took a ‘phone call to sort out the confusion.
There were a couple of points on the remainder of the route where we were out on our own, despite the volume of riders. At one such we were unsure about which direction to take at junction – the route had run out of the cute little electric tealights that some kind people always set out as waymarkers. I was about to dig out my set of written instructions that I still had from 2016 when someone came along and enlightened us. You never have to wait long for help on this ride.
It was starting to get light as we reached Brandeston, at around 95 miles. We decided to stop at the village pop-up, one of many delightful all-night stops run, for the most part, by village hall volunteers. As we sat down with our tea and cake (yes, cake at 4am – essential!) the birds began to sing, and by the time we’d had our short break we could switch our lights off and head for the house of the rising sun. Except we couldn’t; low cloud was going to obscure sunrise, just as it had the moon for a good deal of the night. And it set at 2am anyway!
Not just because it marked then end of a hard night’s work, I found the last 20 miles the most interesting. Tiny roads through some lovely parkland at Sibton, then a traverse of Westleton Heath nature reserve brought us to Dunwich Beach at 6.10am.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but found the whole scene rather endearing, if ever so slightly weird. Folk eating fish and chips from the café and drinking beer, though for the most part the arrivals’ choice was bacon sandwiches and cups of tea. Dan & I eschewed a swim, largely for lack of a towel, though a small number of hardy folk didn’t. We simply sat on the beach for a while in the early morning light. The sun broke through as we looked down the coast to the white sphere of Sizewell nuclear power station. Tired cyclists everywhere.
The coaches and artics booked to take around 1000 riders and their bikes back to London were already there, and Dan was booked on to one of the early ones at 9am. After our conventional breakfast in the café, he learned that his coach may leave early, at around 8am, so we made ready to say our farewells and, of course, to pat one another on the back for a job well done, in my case at last!. In the event, someone on the bus passed out and by the time paramedics arrived Dan’s departure was delayed until 10am.
By then I was just about ready for a power nap. Because here is the ‘of which more anon’ bit.
The redoubtable Wendy, who I met in June on Chase The Sun, just happens to live in Norwich. Her mum lives in Peasenhall, which we’d ridden through earlier that morning. Knowing of my master plan, Wendy had got in touch and said she’d spend the night at her mum’s, pick me up, give me a lift to Norwich for a shower and a rest at her place, then ride on with me to set me on my way for the next part of the journey. How brilliant is that?!
The master plan? The next part?
Well, the idea was to ride on to Hull and meet Avril at Katy & Johnny’s. Initially I’d planned simply to rest as best I could in Dunwich after Dan had left, then get back in the saddle. Wendy’s offer was like manna from heaven, and I only really appreciated this when I was back on my way, on my own. The lift cut about 25 miles off the planned route, but the chance to freshen up, then crash out for two hours’ deep sleep was perfect, and much more needed than I realised. The ride was still going to be 265 miles in two days.
It was a struggle waking up, but once back outside, Wendy led me out through suburban Norwich and about 15 miles out of the city along the not-too-busy A1067 to Bawdeswell. The stop here was pure serendipity (there you go, Wendy!) A garden centre. It had a café, as they all do. It was Sunday afternoon. It was open. Perfect.
We had a coffee and went our separate ways, Wendy back home via a friend’s place, me onward to the Travelodge at Long Sutton, between King’s Lynn and Boston. Again, more than I realised, as I progressed westwards I thanked providence for my chance meeting with Wendy and Paula in wildest Northumberland. For Paula, you might recall, lives in Peterborough, and was going to join me in the morning!
But first, the Travelodge. The 60 miles from Norwich to my bed there was definitely the hardest part of the trip; more particularly, the 45 miles after I’d left Wendy’s company. The reason for this is, I guess, obvious. 60 miles is fine on a Sunday afternoon, but not necessarily after you’d just completed 115 miles on Sunday morning and had just two hours’ sleep since Friday night.
I was pleased to reach King’s Lynn; it gave me second wind. A very nice couple walking along the Riverside directed me to the minor roads I needed to find to avoid the A17 on the last 12 miles to Long Sutton. There’s been a cross-to-headwind all day, and I was starting to get weary. Arriving just before 8pm, the considerate receptionist at the Travelodge, without asking anything, switched my room to the ground floor so I could get my bike in easily. I bought some chocolate from the foyer vending machine, brewed up a couple of mugs of tea in the room, had a long shower and was in a deep sleep within minutes. Bliss.
Monday dawned still, dry and overcast, though much of the rest of the country was basking in hot sunshine; the forecast indicated that the further north I rode, the more I would too. There was a diner next to the Travelodge, it being sited as so many of them are, in a little conclave of filling stations and fast food joints. This diner was independent – Benny’s – and the food was fabulous. I had a full vegetarian breakfast and a gigantic milkshake for under £8. Once more, fuck off Starbucks!
I’d arranged to meet Paula in the Tesco car park in Holbeach, eight miles out for me, and only a short drive from Peterborough for her. Duly reunited, we rode on to Boston for an al fresco lunch at the White Hart, continuing all the while the discussions we struck up in Northumberland last month, and resolving to find a way to cycle together again, hopefully with Wendy & Emily, before too much time passes.
Back on my own again, today’s leg was 90 miles through the Lincolnshire Wolds. As predicted the weather gradually got warmer and sunnier. The ten miles out of Boston on the flat & mostly arrow-straight B1183 along West Fen Drain seemed interminable, leavened by the racket from Typhoons taking off and landing at nearby RAF Coningsby. Beyond Revesby, the road became more interesting & slightly undulating, the landscape more varied and woody.
Horncastle was my next objective. Never been there, but my assumption was that it’d be a nice little market town. It was underwhelming, but largely because I couldn’t find a café where I could sit outside and have a coffee-and-cake break. As Strava shows, I circled the town centre a couple of times, then in desperation fuelled up at the Co-op, consuming my rations standing up in the car park in the heat. Annoying, and just a bit disappointing.
I’d not really looked too closely at the Wolds, or at the B1255, which road was to take me pretty much all the way across them from Horncastle to Caistor. They’re not high; the hills aren’t steep, and the road itself is both wider and faster than its designation might indicate. In fact it’s a bit of a rat run across the county, though thankfully it wasn’t too busy and, as I say, it was much wider and better-maintained than I’d expected. And, in essence, it goes along the top of the Wolds.
The view for the first half of the traverse is dominated by the huge cylindrical tower of the Belmont TV mast. Until it was shortened by 100 feet or so a few years back, I discovered that this had been the tallest structure of its type in the world, at 1272 feet. Much to my surprise, subsequent to that truncation my local mast at Skelton in Cumbria, – a more conventional lattice structure – is now the tallest in the UK , at 1198 feet. Oh, such marvellous things to know!
I seemed to have been climbing gently for ages, or cycling along flat wold-tops, and kept wondering when I’d get some sort of reward. Just before Caistor, the view to the north suddenly opened up; I could see the towers of the Humber Bridge some 20 or so miles away. Wow! Journey’s end not too far away, and best of all, the road skirted above Caistor then fell gently over several miles past Humberside Airport and, with a few undulations, down to the Humber at Barton. Despite being the last part of the journey, this was one of the quickest sections.
A quick pause to take the sea air on the bridge, then onwards over familiar lanes to Katy’s, arriving exactly 48 hours after we’d left Hackney, and feeling remarkably well. There’s absolutely no doubt that that was all down to the power nap in Norwich and a good night’s sleep in Long Sutton.
Thanks Dan, thanks Wendy, thanks Paula, and thanks Avril for being on the finish line. And everywhere else! And everyone else! That was my longest two-day ride ever, and I loved (almost) all of it.
Wednesday, July 10th, 2019.
North Northumberland and The Merse.
Spotting an opportunity to get away for a few days, as we had done at exactly the same time last year when we had a great couple of days in Pembrokeshire, we spent two nights in the far north of Northumberland at the beginning of the month; so far north that we stayed just a short walk from the southern end of the Union Bridge linking England to Scotland over the Tweed. It’s the oldest chainlink suspension bridge in the world, celebrating its bicentenary next year, and I have to confess that, geek though I am where these things are concerned, I didn’t know this until I started to look for somewhere to stay.
And what a somewhere it was. The Old Church in Horncliffe was a fantastic find; great building, great hosts, and the best breakfasts ever, with the option to pack yourself a little bag from the buffet table to take out for lunch. All in a peaceful little cul-de-sac village overlooking the English bank of the Tweed. This is a much-overlooked corner of England, even of Northumberland; a place more often passed through than visited. Yes, I’ve been there before – cycled there, even – but haven’t scratched the surface.
Turns out that this was probably the nearest thing to a perfect short break we’ve ever had. First, of course, the accommodation; then the weather; warm, clear but not too hot, with a light and refreshing breeze; then, and crucially, our choice of things to do;
First off, a lovely drive through the Borders with lunch once more at the Olive Tree café in Newcastleton, thence via Jedburgh, Roxburgh and Cornhill to our destination. On the first (and only) full day, a couple of hours’ walk on the spectacular and deserted Cheswick beach; a quick stop in a marginally run-down Berwick, then on to Eyemouth and fresh crab sandwiches in the delightful harbour at St Abb’s. Back to digs via Duns and the Merse. Driving to Duns on a slightly elevated road on the southern edge of the Lammermuir Hills, the view south across the border to the Cheviots was sublime. The Merse is the ancient name for the Scots side of the plain that occupies this landscape; not much reference to it in signage or general literature, but it survives on OS maps. And so it should; a place this lovely needs a proper name. From the Merse, back across the Tweed at Norham, with its powerful castle ruins (loads of those hereabouts), and a brief turnaround before crossing Norham bridge again for dinner at The Wheatsheaf in Swinton. Eight crossings of the River Tweed in a day, five of them transnational.
The journey home on the third day was every bit as eventful, enjoyable and surprising as the previous two. Up the beautiful Till Valley; more castles at Etal, Ford & Edlingham; unknown ancient monuments, like the Maelmin at Milfield; and a visit to marvellous Barter Books at Alnwick. And whilst in the town, a bizarre encounter worth relating;
It’s a beautiful and busy place. Busier since it became a world-renowned film location (Harry Potter), with the ridiculous tourist interest such things generate.
We parked the car on the street, but the signage was unclear as to whether or not we’d get a ticket. Conveniently, we were right outside the police station, so I walked in to find out whether or not we were OK to leave the car. The place looked slightly threadbare and decidedly retro, neither of which would surprise anyone in the UK who’s watched the steady decline in funding for our vital public services in recent times. So I wasn’t surprised, and pressed the bell on the empty reception desk. A smart and polite lady in a business suit arrived promptly, and I put my question;
‘I’m terribly sorry, she said, I can’t help you. This is a film set!’
We both fell about laughing, she probably more out of politeness, as the unguarded nature of the building probably meant that she was fielding inquiries from well-meaning visitors all the time. We left the car where it was.
On getting home, I discovered that this was not a Harry Potter thing, but the set for a Sky TV production called ‘The Heist’, due to be screened in 2020.
You’ll find elsewhere – June 2017, below -my observations on buzzards attacking cyclists. Well, this past few weeks I’ve had yet two more encounters. Both were whilst cycling past the same small wood where I was attacked – and hit – two years ago. At this time of year, there are young on the nest, and that’s my theory on why the birds only seem to assault humans – especially, it seems, ones on bikes – in June or July. Be that true or not, the first time I passed the wood in question in late June I was wary, looking up and behind me as often and safely as I could whilst travelling the 300 or so dodgy metres past the danger zone – the birds always seem to attack from behind, and without warning. Sure enough, it appeared out of nowhere and swooped. I shouted and waved, and it climbed and drifted about 20 feet above my head. By then I was out of the wood and the danger was past.
Then last week I ventured past the same spot again. I went through the same safety procedure. Nothing. Then I turned to look once more at the road ahead, and there it was, six feet off the ground and coming at me head-on, screaming like a banshee. Much shouting and waving, just in time to stop it hitting me, as it seemed almost certain it would have done. Interesting spike on my heart monitor when I got home!
Monday, June 24th, 2019.
Chase The Sun.
Having intended to repeat last year’s wacky and enjoyable Ride To The Sun as 2019’s summer solstice jape, I heard about the inaugural northern Chase the Sun ride some months ago and registered my interest. Another no-fee, no support, turn-up-and-go event, like RTTS and the Dunwich Dynamo, with which latter I have unfinished business to be concluded in three weeks’ time. The difference? It’s as long as both of them put together. Eeek!
By happy coincidence, the route started in Tynemouth on Saturday morning. Friday was Annis’ 11th birthday; in Whitley Bay, of course. Duly stoked with a fish and chip birthday tea and lots of cake, I bedded down on the sofa far too late at around 11.30pm, in the hope that if I did sleep, I wouldn’t snooze through my 3.30am alarm. Yes, the objective of the day’s ridiculous challenge was to set off at sunrise (4.27am) and ride just over 200 miles to Prestwick on the Firth of Clyde by sunset (10.10pm). Coast to coast. England to Scotland. This is 50 miles more than I’d ever done in one go, and would require an average speed of 14mph over a very hilly course; I already knew that if I could go the distance it’d be well after sunset before I’d finish, given that the very best sustained pace I could hope for on a tough route like that would be around 12 mph in perfect conditions, with optimum fitness. I am a plodding veteran, remember.
I did sleep deeply for three hours, woke at 3am before the alarm, and set about getting ready without disturbing Avril, who was asleep on an airbed in the living room next to me. I still hadn’t thrown off the chest infection I had on the last big ride a fortnight ago, and this had been complicated by lower back pain. I’ve always suffered from this, mildly and periodically, and it always seems to be related to coughs and colds. Back when I was a teenager my doctor diagnosed it as ‘virus lumbago’, which phrase I’ve always held with me. Turns out that the term ‘lumbago’ is now medically defunct, and that there is no such thing as a viral variant. All that I know is that it happens very infrequently, and always goes away after a few days if I move carefully and deliberately. Anyway, I got up to a stabbing pain in my lumbar regions, and hobbled around gingerly whilst I did my preparations. I didn’t want to alert Avril to the fact that I was in some discomfort, as I was convinced that once I got on the bike I wouldn’t feel any, given that the lower back gets a reasonably easy time when you’re riding – or at least when I am, and up to now.
Thankfully, my hunch was correct. I crept out of the house at 4am, and did the short ride to Tynemouth seafront through silent and empty streets, with no idea what I was going to find at the starting line.
What I did find was about 200 riders; an estimate so accurate that when I conveyed my guess to the event organiser the next day his immediate response was to say ‘Rain Man!’ I further estimated that probably as many as 80% of the field was made up of organised and serious club riders with mobile support. There were some triathletes there, too, notably from Cambridge University. The amount of super-expensive carbon and the number of electronic drivetrains I could see, even in the pre-dawn half-light, indicated that this was a heavy gig! An ultra-marathon for seasoned marathon runners. Tortoise and hare, I thought. The mantra for the day.
The start was brilliant. A clear sky over the North Sea; up pops the sun on cue, and we’re off. Everyone was wired, and I got caught up in it, averaging well over 15mph for the first hour, and hooking up early on with Pete from Oldham, another unsupported solo rider, in his 50s with a 30-mile a day cycle commute to work and back rendering him a serious contender. We rode side by side and chatted, happy to be doing a respectable pace, and just as happy to see the speeding teams overhaul us. Given the percentage of participants who were in such teams, it was inevitable that we’d be at the tail end of the field pretty early in the day. Who cares, we said – that’s not why we’re here, and it certainly isn’t a race for us. Ayr Burners CC passed us in their matching orange kit. It wasn’t until the next day that I discovered that they had spent the previous two days warming up for the event by riding a different route from today’s finish (Prestwick is basically a suburb of Ayr) to the start. They’d have done a circuit of over 400 miles by the time they got home.
Climbing up the little slope out of Morpeth, just before our friends Helen & Peter’s house – I had no intention of disturbing them unannounced at 5.30am – I shipped my chain. Pete was in front of me and didn’t notice, and by the time I got it repositioned he’d vanished over the horizon with the rest of the small group we were in. I rode on up the route to the point where it crossed the A1 and trickled off on narrow lanes into the lush and beautiful Northumberland countryside. Suddenly I was on my own. No idea how many were behind me. It was quiet, the sun was up and at my back, the morning chill was beginning to lift and there was no wind. Perfect, so who cares about anything else?
A few miles down the road at a gentle climb called The Trench I came across three riders in Chorlton Velo CC kit. One had lost his rear mech, which had disintegrated. I stopped whilst they were in the process of contacting the rest of the team and their support driver. By the time I left one of the still-mobile riders was in the process of lending the unfortunate rider his credit card – clearly he didn’t have one with him. He was going to walk back to the nearest village – Netherwitton – call a cab from Morpeth, and catch a train home. By way of being supportive – I hope – I said that you can only carry so many spares whilst riding, and that a rear mech wouldn’t be high on the list. Wouldn’t be on it at all for a one-day ride in fact, however long.
Riding on, I caught the rest of the team trying to find out what was going on, told them, and bade them farewell, knowing that they’d come powering past me ere long. Which, duly re-united as a team minus one, they did about ten minutes later.
I was looking forward to reaching Winter’s Gibbet, a well-known Northumberland landmark in a commanding position at the end of a beautiful section of road on the high moor by Harwood Forest and Ottercops Moss, these places resplendent with rogue rhododendrons in full flower, curlews and skylarks.
I stopped to take in the view and route ahead over Padon Hill and down to Kielder, and to photograph the gibbet. As I was about to remount I spotted another lone rider coming up the hill, so, not wishing to appear churlish, waited for her to arrive. My plan anyway was to stop in Elsdon , clearly visible at the bottom of the day’s first pell-mell* descent, for a coffee and cake breakfast. And remember the mantra!
(*If you’re Northumbrian, for pell-mell read tappy-lappy :))
38 miles before breakfast. Hooray!
Meeting Paula was a real tonic, and we were destined to ride the next 45 miles together. She was met in Elsdon by her support driver, Wendy, and I rode across the huge village green to the café. We both finished our break at the same time, and agreed to ride on together. Paula said she was slow but determined on hills, but otherwise both our speed and temperaments were well-matched. On quiet roads, we cycled side by side and chatted.
Paula’s a 52-year old sign-language interpreter, born in Wales, raised in New Zealand and now living in Peterborough. She’s relatively new to cycling, but very keen and quietly determined. She was in little doubt that she’d finish the ride, whatever and however long it took, despite, like me, never having tried a double-century in a day.
We discussed everything from low ratio rear cassettes to Donald Trump, via Jacinda Ardern, Brexit and the state of the world in general. We had much in common, which made for a great few hours together.
At the foot of the Padon Hill climb we caught up with another rider, Roger. He was clearly a serious and capable participant, but was struggling with considerable discomfort – one of those things in the head-heart-lungs-legs matrix of which I’ve written before that sometimes just dogs you for no apparent or good reason. He’d also just had a cochlear implant, and wasn’t long into the recovery period, though had done a few long rides in recent weeks. The three of us rode on, meeting Wendy again, as well as Roger’s wife Alison, at Tower Knowe visitor centre on Kielder Water, the next scheduled break. Alison was concerned about Roger, so we agreed to stick together over the next section across the border to Hermitage, then take stock. We rode as a group and separately as our moods and dispositions took us, Paula getting an energy burst at Saughtree, and Roger the opposite. There was no cellphone signal for forty miles or so in this mid-section of the ride. Given this, when Roger decided he was going to drop out at Hermitage I rode there with him. And who should I find at the pop-up café in Hermitage community hall but Pete, the very same rider I started with. He’d decided to call it a day too, and was very apologetic that he’d lost me earlier on. I went to some length to convince him that there was absolutely no need to apologise!
Paula left Hermitage first, and whilst still there I had decided that I would quit at a specific point; Thornhill, about 140 miles in and on the A76, therefore easy for Avril to reach. We’d booked a room in Ayr Travelodge whatever the outcome of the day. It turned out that Paula, Wendy and Emily, the third member of their group, a young triathlete who was well out ahead, had booked to stay there too. Roger & Alison offered to give Pete and his bike a lift to Prestwick, where they all had rooms booked too, and I agreed to catch up with Paula’s party in the morning, assuming we all got to the end by one means or another.
Before I left I had a lovely conversation with John, an elderly Canadian, local resident and organiser, with his wife Penny, of the excellent and very good value pop-up. We discussed Graham Robb’s recent book, ‘The Debatable Land’, which I’ve just read and he was reading. He knew Robb lived in the valley now, but hadn’t as yet met him. He also knew very well some of the characters in the contemporary sections of the book. He said they would be very keen to get him to give a talk to the community. He, like me, was very impressed with Robb’s scholarship and style.
So I left Hermitage alone, not knowing if there was still anyone behind me, and frankly not caring. Just seeing the magnificent bulk of Hermitage Castle again, my favourite historic building, was reward enough for the whole day. And by now it was a truly beautiful day; it had clouded and cooled a good deal during the Border crossing, but now the sun was out again and it was getting warm. With a goal now set, I could settle down and enjoy the remains of the ride through the fantastic landscape, resplendently green in the blazing sun. I knew this was the right call, and when I reached Langholm and a signal, I rang Avril, who was still in Whitley Bay, as had always been the intention until my final plan emerged and I could let her know where I was going to finish.
In the end, we settled for a finish in Lockerbie, giving us time to go for a meal somewhere at a sensible time. Fortunately, we were able to get a table for two without a prior reservation at the Buccleuch & Queensberry Hotel in Thornhill, which we knew from previous visits to be very good.
Suitably re-united and fed, we drove on through a lovely evening to our accommodation. I wondered what was happening with Paula. When I left Wendy at Hermitage, I expressed my concern, to which she replied to the effect ‘She’ll do it. That’s what she’s like’.
Next morning I looked into the car park, and their car was nowhere to be seen. Turns out it had been parked out of sight, because next time I looked it was outside the front door. So, they’re here, and at least one of them’s up, I thought.
The Travelodge was on one of those amorphous, ubiquitous edge-of-town developments along with gyms, car dealerships, fast food outlets and the like. Next to the hotel was a branch of Tim Horton’s. Maybe I don’t get out enough, but I didn’t know that there were any in the UK. Last time I was in one was 30 years ago, in Canada, the company’s home turf, when it was known as Tim Horton’s Dunkin’ Do’nuts. Turns out they’ve only just come to these shores, and most of the branches are in Scotland.
We stuck a note on Paula & Wendy’s’s car windscreen and repaired to TH’s for a fantastic breakfast. Two big coffees (mine iced), an egg muffin for me, a bacon muffin for Avril and a granola & berry yoghurt. Eight quid. Fuck off Starbucks!
Pretty soon a lively Paula walked in. She’d only bloody well done it, finishing at 1.30 am after 21 hours in the saddle. I mean that’s nothing short of inspirational, not to mention heroic, and I said so. Not for nothing did I describe her earlier as quietly determined, and she’d most definitely borne out Wendy’s assessment of her character.
They had to take Emily back to the finish line at the Parkstone Hotel in Prestwick, where a bus was waiting to take her back to the starting line and her car. Thereafter she had to drive home to Elgin. Not the kind of easy day that should follow one like yesterday!
Our remaining quartet sat in the garden of the Parkstone Hotel, drank coffee and talked for a couple of hours before we all began our journeys home. A marvellous end to a great couple of days.
What did I take away from it? Well, not much that I didn’t already know about myself, but huge inspiration from Paula. She’s one tough girl. Chapeau, lass!
Sunday, June 16th, 2019.
First objective today is to make sure that this entry is at least 151 words long, ensuring that the blog passes the 100,000 word milestone. Don’t think there’ll be any bother doing that.
Thence to more literal milestones;
Joined Dan on June 8th on an interesting, not to mention unusual, challenge. Unusual in that it’s unlikely that anyone else would choose to cycle this particular route over two days. The event was called, much to my amusement, ‘Earth Wind & Tyre’, and was organised by the developing world charity Renewable World. The route ran from Durham to Edinburgh, and was designed to pass many of the wind farms in the far north of England & southern Scotland. It was thus far from direct, running at just over 100 miles a day.
Wind turbines are sited, of course, where there is optimum wind. And it was a windy day on day one. And cold. And very wet. It’s June in the UK, after all.
Dan was cycling in a team of six from work; his law firm is a corporate sponsor of the charity. They’d had the previous afternoon off to catch the train up from London. The event was superbly organised; only 57 riders (plus one interloper!), but each team was charged with raising a substantial amount of money, the weekend’s target being £80,000.
They set off at 8.30am from Durham. The first 40 miles was due west head-on into driving rain. When they arrived at the lunch stop at the excellent Hemmel Cafe in Allenheads the riders were in a pretty sorry state. Dan was particularly shattered, given that he was struggling with a severe throat and chest infection that had almost caused him to pull out before coming north.
It was in Allenheads that we’d arranged to rendezvous. I had originally considered cycling the 40 miles from home to meet them, but thought better of it when I realised that keeping up with much younger and fitter riders for the remaining 70 miles of the day’s ride would be challenge enough. If I’d ever entertained any residual thoughts of doing those hard 40 miles over two high summits, I’d have changed my mind pretty soon when I awoke to the awful weather.
So we set off for the day’s destination, Kielder, in the continuing rain & cold. Turned out I could match the pace reasonably well, given that I was slower on hills, and we stayed together pretty much all the time. 25 miles on we arrived at the next feed stop in a deluge, after which the rain abated for much of the rest of the day, though it didn’t get any warmer. I pulled into the feed stop singing ‘After the rain has gone….’ Sadly, no one got the Earth, Wind and Fire parody. All too young 🙂
Avril had driven me to Allenheads, and went on to meet a friend for lunch in Chollerford, but was on standby to rescue Dan if he began to feel worse, and take him to the night’s accommodation. At the feed stop he pronounced himself feeling much better, and ready to hammer on to the finish, which he did with greater gusto than his old man, for sure. Chapeau, Dan!
Said accommodation was at Hawkhirst Scout Centre on Kielder Water, where the fantastic support team from Renewable World invited Avril and me to join everyone for dinner. What a great gesture, and what a great day, despite the awful conditions. The hospitality provided by the centre staff was superb, though they couldn’t do anything about the plague of midges, at their most annoying in the damp evening air.
Sadly, I couldn’t join the riders for day two to Edinburgh. An easier and slightly shorter ride, it was also dry, warmer and sunny, making for a very enjoyable and successful finish to the weekend. Bike transport home being taken care of by the organisers, Dan and his team spent Sunday night in Edinburgh and caught an early flight on Monday to be back in the office by lunchtime. Now that I would most certainly have struggled to do!
We left late and drove across the Border at Deadwater then back home via Newcastleton & Longtown. I’ll be through Kielder again on June 22nd on Chase the Sun. Who knows how that day is going to work out; a scary big one, without doubt. Watch this space 🙂
This past week looks like the first Strava no-miles week for a long time, given that we’ve spent four days of it out of circulation, and that the rest of the time commitments and terrible weather have conspired against me. In addition, I’ve now contracted a throat infection to add to the discomfort I’m still feeling after I had a molar extracted last week. Under the weather in all respects.
But what commitments they were. Avril and I spent Tuesday to Friday looking after our old acquaintances the Yellowjackets, 17-times Grammy-nominated jazz legends. A fabulous if exhausting time, with two gigs to manage. The band was on fire, audiences completely blown away and once more, as ever, it was a privilege to spend time in the company of these world-class musicians, who also happen to be some of the nicest, most thoughtful, engaging, modest and friendly people you could ever wish to meet.
Sunday, June 2nd, 2019.
I was disproportionately pleased with myself last week when I managed to replace a gear cable and index a new rear cassette with some accuracy, only this week to find that the front mech was throwing the chain off the top ring with alarming frequency. It’s been doing this for some time, though I thought I’d had managed to curtail it with a bit of judicious tinkering and the omnipresent help of Lennard Zinn. A much earlier and unrelated version of this malaise, recorded in these pages, was of course responsible for my abandoning the 2016 Dunwich Dynamo.
Last Tuesday I was fitting some new wheels ready for this summer’s upcoming challenges when I noticed that the bottom bracket was loose. This, of course, meant that the chainring was rotating ever-so-slightly erratically, the lateral play contributing to the chain problem.
An old cycling friend of mine, and an adept mechanic, said to me years ago that he’d never contemplate changing a bottom bracket. It’s a simple enough operation, but with the merest chance of stripping the threads on the frame and thereby ruining it, it’s a job best left to a professional.
Cue Rich, my long-time saviour. Quick ‘phone call to determine availability of parts in the shop, and an appointment made for the necessary operation. Diamond geezer, as ever. Turned out the bracket was both loose and worn, the latter unsurprising as it’d done several years’ tough service.
So, that done – new BB plus a new chain, and the new rims, spokes and serviced hubs that have been stored since Luke bought me the rims for Christmas and Rich rebuilt them into strong wheels in February – I set out on Saturday for the first of this year’s rides with Garry.
We had talked about doing his first 100-miler, for which we have had a route planned for two years now, but decided to make this one a little easier, take our time, have a nice lunch, enjoy ourselves, put the world right, and leave the century ‘til summer proper.
All of this was achieved on a cool but dry day with relatively little wind; Friday was blowy enough to bring down trees, and I’d been injudicious enough to go for a short ride that evening in 40mph headwinds. Bad idea.
We covered 75 miles and achieved all the objectives, though failing to devise a means to prevent the monster Trump visiting these shores again next week. Alas, his itinerary means that we won’t be able to join the protest this time, but we look forward to watching him being made optimally unwelcome.
Saturday, May 25th, 2019.
Another Cautionary Tale.
Way back in February 2015 I wrote in these pages about the wisdom of always wearing a helmet when cycling. That entry was occasioned by an accident involving me, alone, low speed, black ice, hospital and stitches in my face. My helmet had prevented a much more serious outcome. I keep it to this day to show to anyone who cares to be in receipt of unsolicited advice, and to children in particular.
On Thursday night around 7pm I was going out for a short spin round local lanes. No sooner had I got on my bike than a young guy came running to our neighbour’s house. As our neighbour ran back out with him she shouted across; ‘Stuart, don’t go anywhere, we may need you’. Kathryn is a vastly experienced nurse, and unflappable. Puzzled and not a little alarmed, and accompanied by Kathryn’s husband Willy, I followed the pair a hundred yards or so down the single-track road that descends the hill at the back of our house.
What awaited us was a road accident. As we approached we saw a stationary car and to the side of it a pair of legs; the car obscured the rest of the person. There was a bicycle on the road. I feared the worst. What we found was a young lad of about sixteen, conscious and leaning up against the side of the car with a small amount of blood coming from his head. I then noticed that the car’s windscreen was shattered on the driver’s side. And that the boy had not been wearing a helmet. It transpired that it was his head that had broken the screen. The driver was the person who had run to our neighbour’s house. He was local, knew she was a nurse, and had the presence of mind to seek her out immediately. I cycled back up the hill, collected Kathryn’s medical bag – she’s a district nurse, so has it with her at all times – and rushed back down to the scene.
There were some other boys with the injured cyclist. They had ‘phoned the emergency services immediately and, although it’s nearly ten miles to the nearest ambulance station, I could already hear the sirens of two paramedic cars approaching down our narrow, twisting lanes; then an ambulance; then a couple of police cars then, extraordinarily, the Great North Air Ambulance helicopter, which is based in a hangar on a poultry plant about ten miles from us. Circling to find somewhere to land, the helicopter eventually put down in the field at the back of our house, a few yards from our garden wall.
Now surplus to requirements, I sat down by the roadside with the driver, who was clearly in shock. He’d pretty much stopped when the cyclist hit him; the other riders had passed him by narrowly, causing him to brake; the last and unfortunate one seemed to have lost control. All would have almost certainly been going too fast down the hill – I see this all the time, and take great care myself on that particular stretch of road, having traversed it hundreds of times in all conditions and with all manner of traffic sharing it, much of it wide enough to occupy the entire carriageway. I also noticed that one of the other boys was the son of a couple we know in the next village. He, too, was in shock at the state of his friend.
Ever a champion of socialised medicine and the NHS, I marvelled at the speed, skill, calmness, professionalism and comprehensive co-ordination of the emergency team. By this time the police had blocked the road, the helicopter medical team was there, and I’d ridden back home again to see Avril; it had occurred to me that she’d be somewhat puzzled by all the noise, not to mention a helicopter landing in her back yard. And worried; all of this had happened within 25 minutes of me setting out for a quiet evening’s workout.
Feeling that I’d now just be getting in the way, but decidedly unnerved, I said to Avril that I’d go out for my ride anyway; I needed to get events out of my system as best I could, and some exercise is, for me, often the best way to regain perspective.
That said, I think the image of that shattered windscreen and the bleeding boy will never quite leave me. But neither will the fantastic work of our publicly and charitably-funded lifesavers.
The presence of the helicopter always means that there is the option to take accident victims to a major trauma hospital very quickly. In our case that tends to be one of two, both nearly 100 miles away. Cycling out of the village in the opposite direction, I listened and watched for the helicopter to take off, and to see in which direction it headed. I could see that it was flying back to its base, and thus concluded that the boy’s injuries were less critical that at first we may have feared. Relief.
A few days later I spoke to Kathryn, who had called to the boy’s mother. He had been taken in an ambulance to the infirmary in Carlisle. He’d sustained a fractured skull and a broken wrist but was recovering. For someone who wasn’t wearing a helmet, my untutored assessment is that he was bloody lucky. It will be a lesson that he and his friends will never forget. Nor me.
Postscript: We saw the mother of the boy we knew a week or so later, and she confirmed that the boy who was injured was out of hospital, had had the half-term week to recover, and would be able to start his GCSE exams on schedule at the beginning of June.
Friday, May 17th, 2019.
Pork, Spuds & Asparagus
All three comestibles characterised the first half of 2019’s first really big ride. A route I’ve traversed before – and written about – in these pages, but yesterday in the opposite direction for the first time.
The first 62 and the last 22 miles of the 141-mile East-West trek were a variation on my West-East version. The first part was entirely on new roads, largely designed to avoid traversing the Yorkshire Wolds at the start, given that the latter third of the day would involve crossing the Pennines followed by some nasty little climbs close to home, my destination.
I wasn’t really all that successful regarding Wold-avoidance, but given an unusual E-to-SE tail-to-crosswind for most of the day, I fairly flew along the first part of the ride, running long sections at 18mph, and covering the first 75 miles in 5 hours. A 15mph average is exceptional for me. What’s more, though I’m writing this the following day amid considerable stiffness of limb and moderate drowsiness, I felt pretty good all day, even through the potentially demoralising series of climbs at the end. No soreness, minimal fatigue, regular pace; averaged just under 13mph in just under 11 hours’ riding which , given close to 7000’ of climbing, is a cause for some satisfaction. The only niggle was entirely unrelated to the task in hand; incipient toothache, which inconvenience my dentist will be investigating next Wednesday.
Unsurprisingly I’m creaking a bit today, but know that a day’s recovery will set me straight again. One happy boy.
The comestibles? Well, there are a lot of pig farms in the Vale of York, profuse potato crops were sprouting everywhere in East Yorkshire, and in North Yorkshire growing asparagus under glass seems to have become a big thing. I noticed large operations with clutches of mobile homes on the periphery, and mused that these may well be to house the predominantly migrant workers who harvest the crop. No sooner had I thought this than I stopped for lunch at the delightful little shop-café-deli in Helperby and found all the other customers to be, I think, Romanian, likewise on their lunch-break from a significantly less pleasurable task than mine.
Tuesday, May 14th, 2019.
Those who know me know that I often say that I could happily spend the rest of my life exploring the highways and byways of these islands and never feel the need to travel further afield, so rich, varied and unexpected are their delights and secrets.
If proof were needed, on Sunday I cycled fifty miles through countryside which never would have been high on my to-do list, and was utterly captivated. Low rolling hills; hardly hills, to paraphrase Wordsworth; quiet lanes; an English spring in full flower; chocolate-box village after village, except they weren’t – that’s just how they are.
Where is this Arcadia? Well, East Leicestershire, and a bit of Rutland. Even me, with my geekish love of topography, had never registered the Leicestershire Wolds. OK, they’re tiny and cover a very small area, but they’re there. Who would’ve thunk it?
And the weather was great, and my weird & daft place-name list lengthened; Frisby-on-the-Wreake, Whissendine, Ab Kettleby and Bunny being four of the more obvious.
So, QED; ‘there’s a wide, wide world of noble causes; new landscapes to discover’. Again, those who know me will know the source .
And in case you were wondering why I ended up doing this, Avril was on a one-day Fair-Isle knitting course in one of those chocolate-box villages 🙂
Tuesday, May 7th, 2019.
Sunday,April 14th, 2019.
Welcome to the world, Isla Cleo Campbell Johnson, born this day in Singapore to proud mum & dad Sarah & Luke, and super-excited grandparents back in the UK. The pictures say it all :
Saturday, April 13th, 2019.
We decided to watch TV. Catch-up; we rarely have the time or inclination to indulge in what I believe is now called ‘appointment television’. Life is very definitely way, way too short for that.
We spotted two nature documentaries. One on Australia, narrated by Barry Humphries (!), the other on Tasmania, narrated by David Attenborough. The first was predictably naff, with the customary anthropomorphic nursery-rhyme script. You can imagine the production office enthusiasm; ‘Yes, let’s get Dame Edna to do it – she’s an Ozzie, funny, well-known, they’ll love it’. Wrong, wrong and wrong again. Crap. We watched with the sound turned off – the photography was magnificent, as it nearly always is in such things. Same visual quality with Attenborough, but with a script that, surely, he didn’t have a hand in writing or editing? Very disappointing for him, even at 92. Sound off again.
The dumbing-down of everything, both caused in large measure and accelerated by the zero-attention span plague that is the internet, has reached epidemic proportions. And it’ll get worse, and it’ll have consequences (see Nicholas Carr’s ‘The Shallows’, of which I wrote some six years ago in these pages). We’ve had enough of it, which means our TV watching is likely to diminish to vanishing point. That said, we took a chance on the new Attenborough on Netflix, ‘Our Planet’ which, so far at least, credits its viewers with a reading age beyond infant-school average. A small crumb of comfort in a world full of meaningless and random trivia, which phenomena really do influence for the worse the way we think, feel and act, sometimes whether we like it or not. And do they influence the way we see the world, what we believe, how we vote? Well, what do you think? And those consequences are everywhere you look, constantly. And it’ll get worse before, if ever, it gets better.
And then we went out for the day, to The Sill ‘National Landscape Discovery Centre’. It’s a £14.5m award-winning, publicly-funded, earth-roofed eco building close to Hadrian’s Wall . Magnificent. And full of dumbed-down nonsense. Don’t take my word for it – just have a look on Trip Advisor , which I guess we should have done before we went. Anyone visiting with the intention of learning about the British landscape will come out confused and underwhelmed. Anyone who already knows a little will come out annoyed, at the very least. The exhibition space is like a cross between a badly-organised nursery classroom and a jumble sale. Once more, crap. There is an excellent 86-bed Youth Hostel within the building, replacing the one that used to stand on the site, so all is not entirely futile.
Nonetheless, I despair.
Saturday, March 30th, 2019.
Sunday, March 24th, 2019.
Wednesday, March 6th, 2019.
Back to less frightening things, in theory, but in fact just as scary.
February 25th, 2019 was logged as the warmest winter day in the British Isles since detailed records began in the late 19th century. Until February 26th, 2019, which was warmer. Days when, if you have any commitments, you do your very best to rearrange them.
As luck would have it, both were free for me anyway. Just this once I’ll refrain from reflecting on the realities of global warming and let the pictures do the talking. Putting the atmospheric causes to the back of my mind, I covered just under 100 miles in full summer kit on two unbelievable days, and had a ball.
Wednesday, February 20th, 2019.
Right now the world is at a crossroads. No great revelation there, but an observation that disturbs me in a new and frightening way.
Back when I was still in secondary school, I wanted first to be an architect, then a musician, then an environmental scientist. The first ran into the sand, though I still love all things architectural; the second came to pass, in a very roundabout way; and the third didn’t, but never went away, as the bookshelves in our house will attest. I often wonder, though without regret, what might have happened had I gone down that route. I remember as a teenager reading Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’, Barbara Ward & Rene Dubos’ ‘Only One Earth’ and The Ecologist’s ‘Blueprint For Survival’. What was being said then still holds true today. Much has been addressed, but far more has been ignored.
When I read last week that a recent authoritative report suggests that most of the world’s insects will be extinct in 100 years’ time, I was shocked, even in these shocking days. War, famine, refugees, corruption, the drug trade, terrorism, prejudice, discrimination, environmental catastrophe, genocide; somewhere on the planet all have been the background noise to my life, but never in a way that I’ve had to confront head-on. I’ve lived in the right places at the right time. Though I’ve done my bit on the occasional demo, through written and practical protest, and, of course, through the ballot box, I’ve never experienced the fear that many of the above phenomena engender. I’ve had a few insignificant brushes with what it might have been like – a fraught border crossing from Greece into communist Yugoslavia; another where (West) German border guards were determined to find non-existent drugs; trips to Ulster & Eire during the troubles; threatening, but never really a significant threat to me.
Unlike now. It’s only the smallest twinge, but it’s something I’ve never, ever experienced and, more importantly, never thought I ever would. And I can’t see it going away any time soon.
I wrote at length in the rationale for this blog way back on February 19th, 2012 about how I considered myself to be part of a golden generation, and how fortunate I was to be in that position. I was born into the fearful nuclear age, but in the aftermath of the defeat of fascism in Europe, the foundation of the welfare state, and into a society looking forward to the growth of the new, and secular, Jerusalem, full of hope and opportunity. I acknowledged then that my generation was both responsible and paying the price for some of the excesses of the past seventy years, for the betrayal of those post-war ideals and the squandering of their legacy. I argued that things could be done about this; and indeed they are, to a greater or lesser degree. Mostly lesser.
The things I couldn’t have anticipated those seven short years ago were, inter alia, the rise of Trump, Brexit, the resurgence of the far right and the populist vilification of liberal ideas and institutions. How could this have happened? How could it be that, increasingly, those who express thorough, level, considered and, yes, intellectual and liberal points of view are accused of living in an echo chamber, speaking only to those of like mind, and failing to understand the lives of ordinary folk? As if right wing fundamentalists did! Look at those members of the British Parliament – Conservative and Labour -who fall into that category; about as much experience and understanding of the person-in-the-street as Louis XIV. Or read Sinclair Lewis’ staggeringly prophetic ‘It Can’t Happen Here’, from 1935. The title says it all. So many people know little of history and care less, and some of those on the right who do regard themselves as its arbiters.
And as for those non-politicians who subscribe to any or all of the tenets of the new right; well, this is why I worry, why, indeed, I am just a little frightened. Brexit has split the United Kingdom in a visceral and deeply unpleasant manner (see my piece on Jonathan Coe from January 7th, below). Trump has done likewise in the USA. Reflections of and reverberations from these phenomena are happening all over the world right now; in Russia, in Hungary, in Brazil, in Italy. For the first time in that peculiarly sheltered life of mine and many of my generation, should times get tougher, politics nastier and the world sicker, I can envisage those ordinary folk, neighbours all, at one another’s throats.
Now this is what this blog should be about:
Wednesday, February 6th, 2019.
If you’re not a hardcore cyclist, you can skip this bit.
On the other hand, Avril’s not a cyclist, and she found what I’m about to recount amusing, if a little baffling. But then some of it baffled me, too.
A few days ago, we finally got round to calling a locksmith to repair the handle on our front door, which has been defective for ages. We hadn’t met Nick before. As he located the problem and set about fixing it, we engaged in the customary polite conversation and brewed some tea, and he happened to mention that he was a triathlete.
Well, that was it. Common acquaintances in the local cycling community, common experiences, common mishaps. This call was going to turn out to be a little longer than he’d anticipated, though since his next appointment was for a swim training session at lunchtime it didn’t seem to matter too much.
Much conviviality, when up rolls the postman. Not our regular postman, but Robin, who is very occasionally relief on our round. Several years ago he delivered a package of bike spares to me and we struck up a conversation such that every time he works in our village and I’m in we have a chat about what we’ve been up to on two wheels. He’s a keen cyclist and also a motorcyclist, in which latter guise he does adventurous trips to places like Arctic Scandinavia.
So, I introduce Robin to Nick, all the while the three of us standing chatting by the open front door, letting an icy wind chill the house to its core. Avril’s there too, shivering, watching and listening with amusement and occasionally interjecting, particularly when the talk turns to falling off.
As is inevitable, we discuss the current weather. I say I’ve been getting out, Nick and Robin both say they prefer to sit in the garage on their turbo-trainers. They discuss their respective models (at which point I start to lose the thread – I don’t have one, just a cheap old static exercise bike which Avril bought years ago at Argos or somewhere similar for us both to use). I ask if either of them uses Zwift , a software package that links turbo-trainers to real-time simulations of rides on a computer screen. I’ve never used it, but they both do, and at this point I definitely lose the thread.
All of the above occasions much laughter all round, especially when we raise with Robin the idea that middle-aged blokes get bike paraphernalia delivered to their places of work rather than to home – an urban myth? – or that they consistently underplay to their partners how much a particular item has cost. Much more laughter. No smoke without fire!
A few images from January’s excursions.
Tuesday, January 22nd, 2019.
It’s snowing outside as I write, but tomorrow it’ll be sunny, if cold. Generally benign weather has persisted throughout January – not too windy, not too cold, not too wet – giving conditions about as good as you could wish for for winter road cycling. In consequence, I’ve managed to get out pretty regularly. Rarely for long, but the cumulative effect means that, despite the customary couple of written-off days still to come at the end of the month when I’ll be submitting my tax return, I’ll be turning in a respectable mileage total for January, maybe setting me on the way to a better total for the year? I’ve come to the conclusion that, given the myriad interruptions that beset this unassuming pensioner’s life, if I can cover 250 miles a month I’ll have to be content with that. Via multiple small increments – or, as is more common for me between spring and autumn, occasional monster rides – how I reach that total is immaterial. Keeping going is the thing. That’d only give a target of 3000 miles for the year – less than my average for the last three. Despite what I said a few days ago, let’s settle for that and see how it goes; that way achievement is more likely to outweigh frustration and disappointment 🙂
Monday, January 7th, 2019.
Over the festive period both Avril & I have read Jonathan Coe’s new novel, Middle England, completed in October 2018 and published in very short order. It’s the first Brexit novel, or at least the first one I’ve read, and it’s up to Coe’s usual standard. Clever. conversational, hilarious, poignant, and right on the money.
I’ve never met him, or heard him speak at any of the book festivals we’ve been to over the years. A friend was an older contemporary at King Edward’s Grammar School in Birmingham, the King William’s in those of his novels which follow the characters we first meet in The Rotters’ Club, all of whom are principals in the current book. His sixth-former’s fascination with the 60s & 70s Canterbury music scene would have endeared me to Coe even if I didn’t like his books.
Anyway, here’s a choice extract from Middle England, in which two alumni of the said grammar school, now in their late fifties, meet for the first time in several months. Their’s is a professional relationship; Doug a journalist on a liberal newspaper, Nigel a policy advisor to former conservative Prime Minister David Cameron.
Nigel has displayed unwavering loyalty to Cameron in all of his meetings with Doug throughout the book. It’s now October 2017, and page 329. Doug has written of Cameron as;
‘……a reckless incompetent cushioned by wealth and privilege; the great white hope of modern Conservatism who turned out to be a weak, cowardly, malignant narcissistic fool’.
To which Nigel has replied;
‘……the point is………that you’re wrong. The Cameron years will come to be looked back on as a halcyon era. I truly believe that. He was a radical. A moderniser. A man of vision. A man of great personal and moral courage’.
Throughout this conversation it’s clear that Nigel is somewhat distressed at the turn the whole Brexit fiasco has taken, and is struggling to maintain his jolly equanimity. By page 333 this happens;
‘Cameron?’ said Nigel, his face twisting. ‘What a twat. What a grade-one, first class, copper-bottomed arsehole. Sitting in his fucking shed writing his memoirs. Look at the mess he’s left behind. Everyone at each other’s throats. Foreigners being shouted at in the streets. Being attacked on the bus and being told to go back where they came from. Anyone who doesn’t toe the line being called traitors and enemies of the people. Cameron broke the country, Doug. He broke the country and ran away!’
Like I said, right on the money.
Sunday, January 6th, 2019.
To start the year, a few inconsequential observations from a rather lovely ride.
We’re now into what must be the third week of mild, still and dry weather which has bracketed the Christmas and New Year period. Remarkable. Not much sunshine, but lots of stationary high cloud, with high pressure in charge. Couldn’t get better winter cycling weather. I’ve done reasonably well in taking advantage of this, and made a fair beginning to 2019 in the saddle.
Last Thursday I rode to meet Avril for a meal with old friends some 30 miles away, towards the Solway Firth. A splendid ride over some great – and totally empty – roads. Here are a few things that happened, recounted simply because I’ll get some pleasure from remembering them in years to come, when reading about them will be a very useful way of, well, remembering them.
First off, a field with six herons in it. Never seen that before. Just like that field full of curlews I saw last August.
And then, riding on a bridleway – something I rarely do on a road bike, but this one’s surfaced – I came across a coach and four. Well I suppose it was a bridleway!
And then the Nine Dips. Not a name on the map, just one I’ve made up for a stretch of road between the Cumbrian villages of Skelton and Raughton Head where the road drops with amazing consistency, up and down some 50 feet nine times in a couple of miles, each drop crossing a stream: Roe Beck, Peel Gill, Rush Gill, Barn Gill, Nichol Gill, Whale Gill, Sim Gill, Oaker Gill, Cockley Gill. Faster than fairies, faster than witches.
Pleased to have made good times on this week’s rides, too. All in all a respectable start to the year.
Monday, December 31st, 2018.
New Year’s Eve. A lovely day; in fact, it’s been an exceptionally mild Christmas, and the weather looks set fair for a few days yet. Went out to the chickens at dawn in my pyjamas, as I often do; still, calm and already around 10C. Crazy.
Little chance to take advantage of conditions for cycling, though. December has been as crap as November for that (though slightly improved on December 2017 – small mercies). Way back in September I realised that I’d have to revise my targets for the year; no prospect of bettering 2017, or even 2016, given past, known and likely interruptions to the daily round, not to mention the weather (which, frustratingly, turned out to be pretty good in the end, right up to now).
And so it came to pass. Was aiming for something over 3500 miles; respectable enough for me. As it was, I had to snatch a few hours two days ago to salvage some self-respect and get it over 3000. Which I did. No chance for a last gasp today – as ever too much else going on. Looking back at all my goals for 2018, mileage is one I didn’t achieve, though I had a decent stab at some of the other non-cycling ones. 2019 will have to be different! Watch this space.
Monday, December 10th, 2018.
November was another poor month for mileage, but yet again I can plead reasonable cause for my laxity. Lack of time to ride usually means lack of time to write, too, so here is yet another compendium covering several weeks.
A combination of nice things and annoying things has disrupted my training this last month or so. First nice thing: a wonderful surprise birthday trip from Avril to the new V & A in Dundee, plus a visit to Scott’s Antarctic research vessel RSS Discovery, built in Dundee in 1901 and berthed alongside the museum. A fascinating and stimulating trip in classic dreich weather; it hardly seemed to get light.
As likewise on our next trip, though this time with better reason. Though the Latvian capital Riga is only a fraction further north than Dundee (which may surprise you), it was a week later and a lot colder when we got there on an impulsive three-day visit. We’re not quite sure why we did it, other than as a deliberate break from the litany of obligations and inescapable commitments that have dogged us this year. Flying from Doncaster on Wizzair always felt like a gamble. In fact it was fine, but for the usual bumbling lack of an organised boarding regime which seems to plague all budget airlines. The airport is modern and small (it used to be an RAF base – Finningley – where I remember once going to an air show) with, crucially, car parking 30 seconds from the terminal, a splendid consequence of said smallness. And Wizzair was OK, too, though given that the comparator is Ryanair that’s not saying much. Airbus 320s and opposed to Boeings; more legroom for tall people, and newer, better kept planes than has been our experience with Ryanair or Easyjet. Wizzair is Hungarian, and spends most of its time flying to places no-one’s ever heard of. Like Doncaster.
It snowed in Riga, and the people were for the most part glum and expressionless. Not all of them, obviously, but many of a certain generation met our greetings and thanks in the few words of Latvian we learned before we went with stony indifference. Having been occupied by foreign powers for the bulk of the 20th century, and less than a generation since independence, still less since accession to the EU, it’s hardly surprising that the average Latvian of a certain age – several certain ages, in fact – appears cowed and joyless. Most of their lives before 1991 would have been precisely that.
The dead hand of the Soviet Union still extends across the country. Sure, it’s modernising fast – in downtown Riga they have the fastest free street-wifi I’ve ever come across, and young people are as hip and cosmopolitan as young people anywhere. There’s a beautiful art nouveau district, allegedly the finest in Europe, and some spectacular modern buildings, most notably the new National Library. But everywhere there are ghastly Soviet era monstrosities, and in the suburbs and the countryside decaying clapboard houses, giving the whole place a patina of gloom on a dark winter’s day. Knowing the bare bones of Latvia’s modern history, we visited the Museum of the Occupation (Imperial Russian, then Soviet, then Nazi, then Soviet again) to fill in some gaps. And filled in they were. What a sad, tragic and upsetting tale; little different to those told in all the former SSRs and much of mainland Europe, but no less distressing for that. Glum faces acknowledged and understood.
And apropos the trip in general, I still hate being squeezed into an aluminium tube and propelled at 500mph, 40000 feet above the earth. Never will like that, though the one thing it always induces in me is intense concentration. Just about finished Piketty on the flights (see below, March 5th, 2018), and thus achieved one of my resolutions for 2018.
One that I will not achieve, however, is my mileage target for 2018. It’s going to be less than for both last year and the year before; not by a huge margin, but big enough to annoy me. Just too many things competing for time this year. I’ll be riding whenever I can before December is out to try and return as respectable a total as I can, but I’ve no idea what will conspire to frustrate me further. There’s the weather, for a start.
Sunday, November 18th, 2018.
Paying tribute to artists can be tricky, whether or not you choose to do this via the artform they practiced. I’ve written about John Coltrane several times in this blog, and in another context am about to do so again. I’ve heard most of the greats pay homage to the man and his music at various times in the past 50 years, all done with skill and respect. Last week I heard what was probably the most sustained, heartfelt, passionate and breathtaking of all of them, my reservation being because I can’t with honesty recall my reactions to someone doing a similar thing years ago, be it Michael Brecker, Bob Berg, Dave Liebman, Bob Mintzer, Wayne Shorter or any one of a host of other master saxophonists.
Tommy Smith is a one-off. The Scots musician has risen from tough beginnings to establish himself in the past 35 years as a major force in contemporary jazz, respected by his peers across the globe. No time here to expand on all of that, but just to say that his quartet’s interpretation of the spirit, repertoire and demands of the music of the great Coltrane quartet of the early 1960s, as I heard it do a week or so ago, is breathtaking in its scope and execution. The masterstroke was to play the gig without amplification – not even an announcement mic – and thus to replicate the conditions to which the original band was accustomed. It wasn’t just the playing of Smith and his colleagues that captivated a rapt audience remarkable for the level of its concentration on the music, which at times was frighteningly intense, as , of course, was Coltrane; it was the strange and wonderful feeling that you were in one of those small rooms where Coltrane refined and perfected his craft. Not that you were listening to him – that would be a silly assertion – but that you were absorbing an iteration of the unique vibe he created. That takes some doing for the players, not least years of dedicated work and practice, reverence and energy, and a fortuitous coincidence of musical perception and skill on the bandstand. Congratulations to Tommy and his players – Pete Johnstone, piano; Calum Gourlay, double bass; and Sebastiaan de Krom, drums – for doing all of that and pulling off a performance all who were there were privileged to experience. A one off; I know it’ll be a long time before the coincidence of circumstance that led to that performance and us being there will recur.
So that’s the music bit for this entry. Now the cycling section.
You already know that I’ve just become an OAP. By way of celebration my lovely wife surprised me with a trip to the theatre – in this case the unusual Rosehill Theatre in Whitehaven – to see a two-hander on the drug-fuelled rivalry between Lance Armstrong and Marco Pantani in the 2000 Tour de France.
It was an odd experience. Firstly the theatre; it’s had an extensive refurb, which has seen the addition of splendid ancillary facilities – most notably a fine restaurant where we ate before the show – but which has left the original 120-or-so capacity auditorium unaltered from its original state, or indeed from the first time I was there some 20 or so years ago in a big band backing Andy Shepherd. I remember how little room we all had on stage. A bit easier for two actors and two bikes.
Then the audience. Cyclists, mostly, it seemed.
Then the show. One act, only about an hour long, which is about as long as it needed to be to address the well-rehearsed issues and to arrive at the conclusion that Armstrong was an evil villain and Pantani a tragic hero. As graffiti about him we once saw in Tuscany proclaimed, ‘sempre il numero uno’.
Then the credits; no programme, no author – therefore we assumed it was a ‘devised’ piece – and, most strangely of all, no acknowledgement of the two actors – anywhere! As I say, odd. By no means an unenjoyable evening; the show was well-received, and supported by Arts Council money. Put me in mind of something we spotted on a recent visit to Glasgow; a production of ‘Celtic-The Musical’ at the Pavilion Theatre, with lines of footy fans in their green and white garb queuing up outside. Keeping theatres open by all available means, I guess – no bad thing, but midwife to some weird gigs!
This week has also, of course, seen the centenary of the Armistice. We were anxious to mark it in some way, and concluded that, our card-carrying agnosticism notwithstanding, the best way to do this would be by attending a church remembrance service. This proved to be absolutely the right decision. Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday were one and the same this year, so we got up early and drove to St Mary’s Church in Wigton, (Avril’s home town) for the 10.30 service. Avril’s brother Reg, who died earlier this year, had been a leading light in the town’s British Legion (he was 79, thus one of the last men to do compulsory two years’ National Service before its abolition in 1960). The church was packed to capacity with some 400 people and representatives of all sections of the community. The service was ecumenical, powerful and reverential, the two minutes’ silence at 1100am ruined by bawling infants, despite clergy’s prior request that parents take their children into the vestry for the duration if they felt they’d be disruptive. We could sense the intense annoyance of the congregation at the sad and selfish stupidity of a few idiot parents amid the throng. I was furious; it ruined what was an otherwise entirely fitting and solemn occasion, at least for me, and I suspect for many others.
Later in the week we watched Peter Jackson’s remarkable documentary ‘They Shall Not Grow Old’, a digital colourisation of archive footage from the First World War. I’ve never experience anything in any film like the spine-tingling moment when the images faded from black-and-white to colour and overdubbed dialogue began. Astonishing and unforgettable.
And my dear friend of 57 years, Dave, came to see me so that we could celebrate our 65th birthdays (there are ten days between us) in the way we know best; continuing 50 years’-worth of tramping the British hills in all weathers with a celebratory ascent of three Lakeland fells.
A training afterthought here; a nine-mile walk with around 4000′ of climbing exercises a cyclist’s leg muscles differently. After last Tuesday’s march, my hamstrings and quads were decidedly stiff in funny places, and my knees just a little delicate – I managed to twist my right one descending. I went out on the bike on Thursday, and it seems that that was the best remedy – I could feel the stiffness evaporate. A case of loadbearing vs non-loadbearing circuits, for a start.
Wednesday, November 7th, 2018.
Well – see yesterday – the Democrats now control the House of Representatives. It’s a start, but just watch Trump claim that they’ve prevented him from doing anything in the last two years of his presidency and in classic fascist mode use it to whip up even more ugly and ignorant prejudice in his re-election campaign. Unless they impeach him first. Whatever transpires, the next 24 months in the USA are going to be very unpleasant.
Tuesday, November 6th, 2018.
I can hardly believe it was six years ago, in this very blog on November 11th 2012, that I wrote about the coincidence between my birthday, November 6th, and US Presidential elections. Well, today it’s the mid-terms, and I’m hoping that my pressie request to Vladimir Putin results in the monster Trump disappearing on the stroke of midnight. I’ll let you know what happened in the next entry, just in case you’re on Mars this week
In the meantime, what this entry’s really about is being 65 years old, for that is what I am now. An Old Age Pensioner, about to receive my first payment. And it’s that, and stuff to do with it, on which I’d like to reflect.
In three weeks’ time, state pensionable age for men and women in the UK starts to rise to 66; and thereafter to 166 if some have their way, but certainly forevermore onwards and upwards for all manner of reasons demographic, economic and politic. I am thus just about the last person to receive my pension at the age determined when the welfare state was created, and maintained for the 70 years since. I won’t enter into the economic arguments here, but the moral one is pretty clear to me; we have the means to maintain all that was good, and for the most part still is, in our state system. We just don’t have enough decent, honourable, sharp or credible leaders to do the right thing, or a popular culture that any longer understands or cares about history and the lessons it imparts. For me, the latter begets the former.
I learned from the radio this morning that by an amazing coincidence today is the day that women, in their long, hard and fundamentally unjust transition from pensions at 60 to pensions at 66, reach ‘parity’ with men at 65. From now on it’s downhill in tandem.
I also learned after a brief web-search that I’m not entitled to the winter fuel allowance; the qualifying criterion for 2018-9 is for anyone born on or before November 5th, 1953. How annoying is that? I will receive it next year, but learned further from a neighbour that the exact amount I receive will be deducted from Avril’s allowance; the allowance is the same for couples as it is for singles. One final thing I learned, from my well-established pensioner friend Barry, is that I will get the pensioners’ Christmas bonus. All £10 of it.
Monday, October 22nd, 2018.
Before I proceed to the main text, here’s the main text. Luke and Sarah told us yesterday that Sarah’s expecting their first baby next April; they’d been waiting for the 12-week scan to break the news. I’m past myself with excitement as I prepare to make the transition from experienced step-grandad to fully-fledged real thing. The tentative plans for a 2019 trip to Singapore have just become somewhat more focused! Postscript post 20-week scan. It’s a girl! 🙂
Urban cycleways: there are plenty of grumbles about the general state of these in the UK elsewhwere in this blog. Time last Thursday to explore some more of them in Hull en route to further exploration in East Yorkshire – Holderness, to be precise.
I was in what is rapidly becoming one of my favourite cities again on the customary childcare mission, but given that the children in question were at school during the day, there was an opportunity to get out and about, the moreso because the weather was unseasonably warm and calm.
I decided to follow the Hornsea Rail Trail as a way out of the city, and using the excellent cycling map produced by Hull city authorities I managed to get lost. My fault entirely; not paying enough attention. It took me ten minutes to realize I was going the wrong way through the northern suburbs and another ten to use the map to get back to the correct trajectory.
The Rail Trail is, unsurprisingly, a trail on an old railway – the line from Hull to Hornsea, long gone. On reaching its start I stopped a couple of cyclists who were on the Trans-Pennine Trail – of which the Hornsea route forms the final 12 miles – hoping that they might have some local knowledge. No joy there, but they did have a guidebook which said that the route was surfaced then, further along, compacted gravel. Sounded OK for a road bike – certainly worthy of investigation. Spotting that there were plenty of places to peel off onto regular roads if the route got too rough or muddy, I set off.
Barriers and the usual safety features at the start, plus plenty of local colour – a guy walking his alsatian and drinking a can of ale at 10am, another one – seemingly a window-cleaner judging by his leather belt with squeegees and other impedimenta in it – cycling ahead of me for several hundred yards and bathing me in the sweet fog of his giant spliff.
I ambled along in the beautiful sunshine. Is this beginning to sound like at last I’m warming to urban trails? Well I was, until one of their regular weaknesses popped up. Literally. It seems that wherever tarmac is laid over old railways and footpaths, usually thinly, and especially in the presence of trees, without fail roots will push it up and apart, with the consequence that cycling on it is like riding on a corrugated roof. Probably fun on a full-suspension bike with fat tyres, but awful on a road bike.
There were good stretches on the trail, but lots of bad ones. Shortly after the village of Swine (yes), I came across a local couple walking their dog, and they confirmed that beyond the crossing with the A165 the trail deteriorated. I got that far and had a look. In the trees I could see the remains of a railway platform and not much cause for encouragement so, somewhat less than halfway along the trail I peeled off onto the road – and immediately doubled my speed.
And the roads were dry, pretty flat and empty. Near-perfect conditions, and I was feeling great once liberated from the chore of having to crawl along and look at every bump on the ground. So great, in fact, that by the end of my ride I’d have covered just under 60 miles in just over 4 hours (remembering that the first ten miles were at a snail’s pace), including the 18 or so miles from Hornsea to Withernsea – admittedly with a light following breeze – in just over an hour. A ridiculous pace for me, but then if you do all of your training in the hills as I do, then riding in, well, the East Riding, is indeed a breeze.
I felt so good that I didn’t even bother stopping for the customary scone & coffee, and did the whole thing on two bananas and half a bidon of cordial 🙂
Hornsea looked like a good place to stop – dinghies on the Mere, and that cared-for look I’ve written about before. Saw a couple of tempting cafes, one with some cyclists already in it, but pressed on. Withernsea, on the other hand, looked avoidable, though I didn’t avoid it. I made a half-hearted attempt to find the site of the Grand Pavilion, recalling that in the days, over 30 years ago, when I did the occasional dep in the Glenn Miller Orchestra the band did the final gig in the venue before it closed and was, I guess, demolished. That’s the only other time I’d ever been to Withernsea. Failed in my quest, though I did find a new local authority leisure centre called the Pavilion, which I guess could have been on the old site.
One thing that did amaze me was the concentration of very large static caravan sites, with very large static caravans on them, and seemingly plenty of guests and longer-term residents soaking up the last of the year’s warmth. I don’t need to guess how bleak this coastline can be when a fierce easterly blows – or for that matter a run-of-the-mill wet westerly.
Monday, October 15th, 2018.
Thursday, October 11th, 2018.
Well, the annual summer-to-winter bike changeover took just a little longer than usual this year. It normally happens in the first week of October, with the reverse process at the beginning of April. I’d left the winter bike frame as it was in April of this year, aware that it needed a little tweaking over the summer. It didn’t get it. The changeover process itself involves wheels & tyres, brakes, drivetrain bits where necessary, minor adjustments, lubrication and all the usual minutiae. Oh, yes, and the saddle – I only have one, my trusty and lovely Brooks Swift, which needs to be transferred very precisely (well, to 5mm +/-) from one machine to the other, duly proofed.
Anyway, on a cold day last week I gave my summer bike a last run out, wearing my winter gear for the first time. Yesterday I finally gave my winter bike a first test run. Typically, it was a glorious hot day, so back on with my summer kit. I expected to have several further adjustments to make on my return – the purpose of a test run, I suppose.
This proved to be the case, even though I’d spent an inordinate amount of time buggering about and swearing in the workshop prior to that first outing. Time I won’t get back.
My budget front brake caliper had seized and was generally knackered anyway after four hard winters. Even had I attended to this when I took the bike off the road in the late spring I’m sure I’d have encountered the same difficulties. I tried to fix the problem, at least temporarily, by rebuilding an old rear brake and adapting it to fit the front. Not a common thing to do, but safe enough, and a suitable stopgap until I thought of a better idea. The better idea was, of course, to replace the whole mechanism, which I did the very next day via a visit to my local bike shop whilst waiting for my car to fail its MOT.
More time in the workshop, replacing a cable and successfully marrying the new Shimano caliper to Campagnolo controls. And replacing a worn pedal on the winter bike with a good one from the summer bike. And adjusting everything again.
The result of three long sessions spent at the workstand, where normally I’d have expected to take one, is that the bike is probably better-prepped for the coming season that it’s ever been, me having perforce run a few mechanical operations I’d never done before. Not without a bit of trial and error and my trusty copy of Lennard Zinn, I must add, but generally to my satisfaction. Let’s see.
The interim test-run was carried out earlier than I’d have wished in relation to the workshop schedule largely because of available time and the beautiful day I’ve already mentioned.
Given the hot, dry summer (I only cut our lawn once between May and September, there was so little rain), and the return to more normal weather patterns in recent weeks, local farmers have missed at least one forage crop, I guess in some cases two. As I cycled yesterday tractors were out in force giving as many acres as possible a final cut. October 10th – very late to still be cutting anything. There was a huge hatch of flies everywhere, bigger than I’ve seen all year, plenty of late butterflies, and a rash of ladybirds – hardly seen any at all this year. That may be 2018’s swansong; back to wind and rain today, but I think I’m ready for it now.
Tuesday, October 2nd, 2018.
Friday, September 28th, 2018.
Recently, the BBC has ditched the Met Office as its supplier of broadcast weather forecasting services, and taken up with something called Meteo; an independent partner, as opposed to a state-sponsored one. Always one to favour public enterprises, I feared the worst. In the end something weird has happened, neither wholly good nor bad.
I always check and compare both forecasts when I’m about to sally forth, one via the Met Office’s own website, the other via the BBC’s. It’s clear that either they use different technical sources and resources, or that their respective scientists interpret the data differently (assuming that Meteo has some scientists; I was comforted that the BBC’s forecasters were always MO employees, ergo experienced meteorologists, whereas ITV’s were weathergirls and weatherboys). Why the query? Because the forecasts rarely tally, and are sometime diametrically opposed.
Who to believe? Well, yesterday when I was out there was a substantial element of concord between the two services. A weakening front moving SE over Scotland into Northern England, followed by clear, colder air. Surely this meant that I could rely on what I’d read? Well, yes, it did. I was heading north, and could see the leading edge approaching and about to obliterate some lovely sunshine. As I was riding it passed over, depositing the few remaining drops of drizzle for a short while, followed by clearer skies and, eventually, a chilly night with the second frost of the season.
All this serves to support the thesis that if the two forecasters are in broad agreement, there’s a reasonable chance they’re right, whilst the rest of the time (seemingly most of it), you gamble. A fair enough price to pay, I guess, for living in a temperate place with consistently changeable weather but still – with caveats – four discernible seasons. All adds to the challenge of undertaking any sort of outdoor activity at any time of year. And it was ever thus.
On a wholly unrelated note, it’s perhaps worth mentioning – if only for my own benefit, as I still regard this blog as primarily a personal diary – that the physical sluggishness I’ve written about on recent forays seems to have diminished. September has been another poor month for mileage, but Thursday’s 45 miles & 3000’ of climbing both boosted the total to something approaching the norm and left me feeling good. Hooray!
Thursday, September 27th, 2018.
Driving past one of the Lake District’s better-known garden centres last week, I was astonished and appalled to see that it had its Christmas displays up. It was September 22nd, for god’s sake. Today, cycling past a farm which grows conifers for the Christmas trade, I was equally astonished to see acres of trees, still in the ground, with their price labels already attached. I assume this is done on the basis that they are sold by the foot and they’re not going to grow in the next three months. I can understand that as sensible business practice, saving a job at a time when the priority will be cutting the trees and distributing them. The garden centre thing, on the other hand, verges on the obscene.
Thursday, September 20th, 2018.
Calm between storms. After yesterday’s maelstrom, this morning dawned still and bright, but with the prospect of more wild weather coming in from the Atlantic later. Chilly but dry, so with a few hours free whilst the weather looked steady I continued my feeble attempt to improve my recent mileage totals.
Only had time for twenty-five miles and a couple of thousand feet of climbing, but as ever, it was worth it. For the exercise and training, obviously, but equally importantly for all the other stuff that happens. Slowed down to walking pace for half a mile or so where my route coincided with the Coast To Coast walk to talk to Dennis and Mike, two elderly (ie, like me) blokes from Teesside doing the walk in discrete sections whenever opportunity allowed. We had a great chat and as we parted I pointed them in the direction of some good coffee, which pleasure I had to forego, since the time I’d spent talking to them had eaten up my break if I was to get home in time to get changed and out again for a gig tonight.
Flocks of goldfinches on thistle heads everywhere and, pleasingly, flocks of lapwings, too. They’ve been highly conspicuous by their absence hereabouts for years, so it’s great to see them again in significant numbers.
Two USAF F-15s screeched 200 feet above me on open moorland. Goldfinches and lapwings gone 😦
Wednesday, September 19th, 2018.
So Simon Yates did it. Chapeau! The first time in cycling history that three different riders from the same country have held the three major Grand Tour titles in the same year. And with Froome’s Tour and Vuelta wins in 2017, that means Brits have won the last five Grand Tours back-to-back. With three more Froome Tour de France victories and Bradley Wiggins’ original in 2012, that makes nine in six years. After 100 years of bugger all. And all since I started this cycling blog.
Given that Froome was born in Kenya and educated in South Africa, that Wiggins was born in Belgium to an Australian dad and an English mum, and that Thomas is Welsh, Bury lad Simon Yates can lay claim with confidence to being the first Englishman to win. I really like the way he rides, and wish him further success. I’m sure he’ll be pleased to know that 🙂
As for me, I’m sitting here writing this as a 60mph gale blows outside; the first of this year’s equinoctial storms. Thinking about Louise Cruikshank (see below, June 29th) whose Tour O’ Scotland will be battling from Duns to Dumfries today, straight into the oncoming blast. An ancient tree in the field behind us has just keeled over.
Just been picking up debris in the garden, and will have to sit this one out; absolutely no point trying to go anywhere today, the first in a while I’d have been able to get out. Plus ca change; there could be another chance tomorrow.
And yesterday we went out for afternoon tea with our friends John & Christine. John and I sat in the back of the car and, inter alia, bemoaned endemic mangling of the English language. Special ire was reserved for the use of incorrect pronouns with the gerund. Thought it worthwhile my writing that.
Sunday, September 9th, 2018.
It’s that time again. Tour of Britain week, again visiting Cumbria, this year for two stages; an unusual team time trial and, the following day (last Friday), the ‘queen’ stage of the race, from Barrow to Whinlatter. I did my usual thing of setting out to intercept it. This year, as in 2015, I could have done this twice in a day by shortcutting from one part of the course to another, but opted instead for a single stop in an out-of-the way location. Time was short, so I drove to Penruddock and set out from there to coincide with the race by Thirlmere somewhere. As it turned out, I was still feeling sluggish, and the weather was a bit chilly, with a headwind for the first part of the day. Accordingly, I thought it wise to shorten the route to a rendezvous, as a result of which I rode up to the church on the hill at St John’s in the Vale – a steep climb – not altogether sure whether or not the road fizzled out into a track thereafter. I’d been up there not long ago on foot, and didn’t look; the OS map suggested that there might be a third of a mile or so of gravel/dirt track down into the adjacent valley where I aimed to join the A591, and the Tour route, at Dale Bottom. The map was right, but dry conditions and careful riding meant that I could manage the steep track back down to tarmac on my 23mm tyres. Absolutely no-one about.
Had a pleasant twenty-minute lunch break before a four man breakaway whizzed past, soon followed by the entire peloton, with Tour de France winners Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas close to the front. The combined whirring of all those bikes at high speed is a lot louder than you’d think. In the end, I’d have got to my original destination easily enough, and after the tour passed went there anyway by way of keeping up my mileage.
The race headed west, and I turned back east. Whilst it was still a bit cool, the sun came out; watching the stage highlights on TV that evening it pretty much rained on the race for the rest of the day. Short straw for them.
I ambled along the lovely little lane at the foot of Souther Fell, with its annoying six gates – though all the better to enjoy its strange identity as the barrier between open fells and pasture – to Mungrisdale, then back over Eycott Hill to Greystoke, Motherby and my trusty Skoda in Penruddock. Driving back on to the A66 I coincided with the team cars & support trucks heading for Saturday’s stage in the Midlands (mostly Skodas, of course, since the company is a major sponsor of European cycling:)). They obviously hit the road as soon as they can after the day’s racing finishes, especially if they have a long way to go. Last vehicle I saw before I turned off was from the Mitchelton-Scott team, no doubt delighted that their man Simon Yates is leading the Vuelta (Tour of Spain), the race that will always keep a good many top riders away from these shores whilst the two events are simultaneous.
Thursday, September 6th, 2018.
When it comes to cycling, August was a washout. Not meteorologically; the great summer weather continued well into the month, but in terms of opportunities to ride it was hopeless. Managed to get out only five times, with two of those rides being snatched 15-mile fillers. Thankfully the big one at the start of the month and a couple of 50-milers meant that my total for August wasn’t a complete disgrace, but all in all it was a slack month. August always seems to be such. With good reason this year, I must add. Firstly, sadness visited us again with the death of Avril’s remaining brother Ian on Bank Holiday Monday. It wasn’t unexpected, and we’d managed to get down to see him in Berkshire at the beginning of the month, but it was hard nonetheless. Avril has lost all three of her brothers in the space of a year.
Further family commitments, including a week looking after two grandchildren and a couple of nights on the Galloway coast with all five of them and their parents, kept us busy, as did helping to run Ambleside Days again, the second annual iteration of a four day contemporary jazz festival in the Lake District at the end of the month and the start of September.
Managed a decent walk when Dan and his friend Rany came up to do some wild camping over the Bank Holiday. Rany has spent most of a year studying in Britain in the urban south, and was very keen to see some open country. Alice was at a wedding – of the daughter of former Tory leader Ian Duncan-Smith, to which Dan was not invited 🙂
I accompanied the lads for the first part of their first day, before returning to the car and picking them up at the end of the trek the following day. Managed for the most part to avoid Bank Holiday crowds by choosing the route with care. A great weekend, and one in which I learned a lot. Rany is a Lebanese Palestinian, a lovely and very bright guy, nominally Christian, but stateless. He explained how he, his siblings and his parents had all been born in Lebanon, but because his grandparents had fled there from Palestine in 1948 after the creation of Israel, the family was personae non grata. Not because of their faith, but simply because the bulk of refugees, then and now, were Sunni muslim, and the Lebanese government did not want the influx, if enfranchised, to skew the demographic. In short, if you’re Palestinian you’ll never get citizenship, except in rare circumstances. As I say, I learned a lot, and was appalled by much of it. And humbled. Fluent in French (the medium in which he was taught at school, a legacy of the French Mandate), English (the language in which he had just completed an MA) and, of course Arabic, his native tongue, Rany was a thoughtful and generous guest; apart from anything else we had some fascinating discussions about language and on the relationships between the states and peoples of the Arabic-speaking world. One of the best weekends we’ve had in a long time. Fascinating and thought-provoking, with a great walk, some beer and lots of laughs thrown in. 🙂
After four very long days on the festival, coming after all that rushing about, I was completely knackered, to the point that when I got on the bike yesterday it was a real struggle, despite a return of good weather. Bright, still, but markedly cooler.
Swallows & house martins in droves whizzed around, limbering up for their imminent epic journeys. Puts mine well-and-truly in perspective. Later in the day I mused with Avril on what people must have thought in ancient times, and not so ancient, of bird migration. I’m sure there’ll be plenty of literature on the subject. Must investigate.
Sunday, August 12th, 2018.
Everything prepped on Thursday night. Up at 5 am Friday for a 6am start. Cool; still; wildlife everywhere – hares, red squirrels, stoats and jays particularly, none of which would be seen so close or in such abundance a few hours later; early farm feed deliveries from depots miles away – 4am starts there at the latest; then from 7am white vans heading hither and yon. Not much else on the roads.
Less than cool, really – more like chilly. Certainly the morning was the coldest one we’ve had for a couple of months – 6C or 7C – and it didn’t warm up very much in the first few hours. Calculated last night that a long-sleeved base-layer under a short-sleeved cycling top with the ever-present rainjacket would do the trick – the forecast was for showers, maybe thunder, with sunny intervals and light winds. These turned out to be both an exact calculation and a correct forecast. Made steady progress from home to Aisgill and onwards into upper Wensleydale, noting in passing that the waterfall at Hell Gill, by Aisgill Summit, was dry – no rain for weeks on a limestone landscape means dry rivers everywhere. Just missed a heavy rainstorm as I rode into the dale; good news for everyone, me included, though I’d set out prepared for much worse.
Arrived in Askrigg for breakfast at 9.30. The sun came out for the first time, so I sat outside. Had feared that I might arrive before anywhere was open, but such fears were groundless – the superb Humble Pie Café was doing a good trade in breakfasts for visitors and locals alike. 40 miles down, 100 to go; time for some fuel.
Bidding the friendly staff goodbye and tackling the nasty little hill just outside the village, I rode on to Leyburn, thence the wiggly labyrinth of lanes across the Vale of York, more properly its northerly extension, the Vale of Mowbray. Wiggly by nature, wiggly by name, it turned out – every now and then I came across cycle event signage, sponsored by the online sports gear giant Wiggle. A quick search when home revealed that their Great Yorkshire Sportive was to cover some of these roads in two days’ time. Riding from memory, my only wrong turn was rectified in seconds via my MapsMe app; since I already had GPS running for Strava, as soon as I opened the map the pin dropped on my exact location. Problem solved.
With the harvest in early, straw to bale, fields to slurry and plough, most of the traffic I encountered both here and on much of the rest of the ride was agricultural. Hereabouts too a flock of curlews – never seen that before – in a stubble field. And in the background I heard that lonesome whistle blow – a really evocative sound from a steam locomotive on the reinstated Wensleydale Railway, which one day may – will, I’m sure – reconnect east & west. On through the peaceful villages of Thornton Watlass with its cricket square on the village green, Snape, with its castle, Carthorpe & Kirklington before the short dash parallel to the A1 motorway, then over it at its junction with the A61.
All day heavy thunderheads had been building up across the sky in all directions – I could see rain falling at a distance almost anywhere, yet always plenty of blue sky and fluffy clouds. A textbook English August day, but not one we see very often now. I’d managed to avoid a deluge so far, but just before I reached the A61, which busier road I had to ride for a few hundred yards before turning off onto quiet lanes again (I spent a lot of time planning this route the first time I did it in May 2017), the temperature dropped, the wind rose, the light dimmed and a bloody great fork of lightning cracked a few fields away. The heavens opened, to the point that I knew instantly the wisest thing to do was to seek shelter – in this case a bus shelter being the most likely option. Thinking there’d be one in nearby Baldersby St James, I powered ahead through the curtain of rain, fortuitously to find one before the village, at a place called Ward’s Corner where I left the A61. I dived into a decrepit wooden structure inhabited by swallows, and clearly only used for school bus pickups. But it was watertight, so I got everything inside and hunkered down on a birdshit-encrusted bench to sit out the storm . That took all of 15 minutes, but was enough to flash-flood the roads. It took all of another 15 minutes for the roads to dry out, by which time I was well on my way again.
Shortly afterwards I stopped when I saw four cyclists heading in the other direction but stationary and consulting maps. Turns out they were out for the day from Sunderland, had left their cars in Kilburn, and were looking for a nice way back. I couldn’t help them much with that, but we had a great conversation, mostly about the fate of Sunderland AFC of which, of course, I am a lifelong supporter, having been born in the city. The conclusion was that rock-bottom had been reached after two consecutive relegations, and that with a new manager and owner, the only way was up. Two of the guys were season-ticket holders, thus professional long-sufferers. We all laughed, reminisced, smiled a lot and wished one another bon voyage. Back to the Premiership?
Onward to Easingwold, again repeating my previous rest-stop regime on this route with coffee and flapjack at the Sugar Mouse Café on the main square of this lovely little town. Sat outside again, only this time the rain caught up with me as I finished my break. Moved into the capacious bus shelter in the middle of the square. No birdshit, nice seats, and lots of people…. waiting for a bus. 90 miles down, 50 to go.
Skirting the Howardian Hills AONB I was aiming for Barton Hill, where I could cross the busy A64 in safety. On arriving, I was surprised and pleased to find that the junction had been completely reconfigured since I was last there in May 2017, with safe pedestrian and cycle crossings over the fast dual-carriageway where previously there had been none. A hundred yards to the east new lanes had been built the better to deal with traffic to Castle Howard, this being the main point of access to a very busy tourist destination. As I waited to cross the first, eastbound, carriageway, I glanced to my left to see a car pull out of the Castle Howard exit and turn directly right into the oncoming fast lane. I blanched, and instinctively looked at what might be heading towards a potentially catastrophic collision, of which I would be the prime witness; a small van, followed at a safe distance by two forty-ton wagons. The alert van driver slammed on the brakes and switched on his hazards. By this time the errant vehicle was at right angles across both lanes, the driver having realised her error and backed up in an attempt to get into the central right-turn reservation. The trucks slowed, the car pulled into the safe space and disaster was averted. I crossed to the corresponding central cycle-pedestrian area, my adrenalin still a little elevated, just in time to see the dodgy driver pull past me, this time on the correct carriageway, but doing 20mph in the fast lane. Further screeching as the following traffic braked for all it was worth. It was a hire car, the driver and passenger oriental, though probably not Japanese, given that they drive on the left like we Brits. I watched aghast as the car trundled on in the fast lane, as if totally unaware of the danger and near-disaster it had just caused and was continuing to threaten.
Whilst all this happened, a Scarborough-York bus had pulled up at a new stop within the road improvements. By the time I’d crossed the road – safely but still reeling with astonishment and relief – a couple of passengers had got off the bus, and we exchanged thoughts on what we’d just seen. They lived locally, and said they were convinced, new road layout or not, that sooner or later an accident would happen at the junction, most probably due to exactly what we’d seen – an inexperienced or inattentive tourist in a hire car. When they asked where I was going, a jolly conversation on being grandparents ensued and we parted smiling, with our heart-rates back to normal.
Knowing the route ahead, I was conserving energy for the two climbs over the Yorkshire Wolds, from Leavening and Thixendale respectively, starting some 5 miles or so ahead. Perfectly manageable on a short day out, but hard work 110 miles into a very long day, the more debilitating as the only time the sun came out strongly was as I laboured out of Leavening on the mile or so to the top of the hill. It says 14% on the signs, but that’s an average, with a few short 20% stretches in there. The Thixendale climb also says 14%, and that’s pretty much what it is, for around the same length and very even. Easier. And the dale itself is lovely – a dry chalk valley about which I enthused on my last visit, and a very enjoyable 3 miles downhill on a smooth single-carriageway lane. GoPro ready, for sure, except I don’t have one, though I could easily have held my ‘phone camera in my hand, and rather regret that I didn’t. In terms of their agricultural use, the Yorkshire Wolds are very like parts of France, Luxembourg and elsewhere in central continental Europe where the valleys are pasture and woodland and the tops are arable. An upside-down landscape rare in the British isles, and the more intriguing for that.
Another annoying cloud appeared overhead at this point, and dogged me for the next ten miles or so, never getting round to discharging its cargo, just spitting on me annoyingly and enough to make me put my rainjacket on again; it’d been on and off a dozen times or more during the day.
The hilly struggle over when I crossed the A166, the remainder of the route was mostly flat-to-mild-downhill as I rode towards Hull and the sea. Had forgotten that there were just a few too many mild ups on the road from Middleton-on-the-Wolds to Beverley, and that also this was a busier road than any I’d been on all day. Picked up a cycle lane before Beverley and rode through that beautiful town – a hidden gem – slowly, the better to take in its splendid and varied architecture. I came across a massive church, its exterior in need of a bit of a clean, and thought to myself ‘I don’t remember Beverley Minster being that scruffy’, only to turn the corner and see the much more massive Beverley Minster in all its splendour. And a little further down the road, on the way out of town, in a new and sympathetic shopping precinct, an enormous sandcastle model of the Minster, the size of a Transit van, carefully protected behind security fencing, but no less impressive for that. No idea why it was there or who had built it, but clearly it was for some sort of special event.
Duly arrived in Hull after eleven and a half hours in the saddle, some thirteen and a half after I’d left home. Looking at Strava I saw that I had 61 PBs for the route, balanced by 71 2nds, which meant that my overall time was a mere 45 seconds faster than last time. Comparing this with my magnetic bike-wheel computer, on such a long ride that registered around ten minutes less, because GPS, at least as it runs on my smartphone, always lags behind with stopping times whilst the satellite detects that you’re no longer moving.
Into Hull, like last time, just as I needed to switch my lights on, to a rendezvous with Avril at Katy, Johnny, Thea & Coco’s, a Thai takeaway and a couple of IPAs. Just perfect.
Reflecting on this long ride for a second time, I think next time I’ll revise the last 40 miles and cut down to the Humber and avoid the Wolds. It’ll be a bit longer, but it’ll get rid of the climbs at the end, which normally I wouldn’t mind but, as I say, are a bit of a chore towards the end of a long day.
No, I didn’t ride home. Saturday was spent in Hull to see Katy’s first big event in her new role as CEO of Absolutely Cultured, the arts organisation created to manage the legacy of Hull’s tenure as UK City of Culture 2017. A 4km domino run through the city, going in and out of all the main buildings and public spaces, plus a few pubs, shops, and people’s houses, the dominoes being large ‘aircrete’ breeze blocks. Massive crowds, a civic reception, great organisation, much jollity and delight, fabulous weather, a great street-food market, and a chance to walk down the street with my all-time favourite name in the whole world! Well done and thanks, K and team.
A while since the last entry, so here’s a compendium for July.
You wait all year, often year after year, for the sun, then when it finally arrives you can’t handle it. There have been days in this year’s continuing hot summer when it’s been too hot to do much outside. That said, I’ve been out and about, but on a couple of days since the last entry elected not to bother – just too debilitating. Last time I can remember this was in the July 2013 ascent of Liathach – see below. Hard going.
Spotting a few empty days in a busy diary with some notice, we managed to book a three-day break in Pembrokeshire early in the month. No cycling, but two short walks on the Coastal Path; glorious weather continuing; some good food, especially at The Shed in Porthgain, where we had lunch because we couldn’t get a table for dinner; evensong for heathens in St David’s Cathedral – sublime; red kites everywhere (there are none where we live); and two great (if all-day) drives there via Aberystwyth and Cardigan and back via Carmarthen and Builth Wells, the latter with the radio on for the England-Sweden World Cup quarter-final, with a fortuitous stop at a Subway in Oswestry just as the goals were shown on a screen behind the counter.
On the morning of 10th I got a call from Garry to see if I could join him for a ride, like, now! Alas I was tied up, but when, a couple of hours later I got another call from him, I wasn’t. Which was fortuitous – he’d had a major mechanical; sheared mech hanger, snapped lower mech through the spokes; a total mess and difficult to figure out how it’d happened. He wasn’t far away from our place, but somewhat further from his, so I went out and picked him up, took him home and had a very nice lunch and a good catch-up. Luckily for him he lives next door to a first-rate bike technician (whose daughter is fast rising on the European pro-cycling circuit), so all will be well before we get round to our next day out in the saddle.
On the morning of 13th , armed with our senior railcards, Avril & I splashed out a princely £29 for the two of us to get from Penrith to Glasgow and back. There was no way either of us could abide the notion that the monster Trump was in our land, and this was the nearest place we could get to to join a major demonstration against his presence. The sun shone, thousands gathered in George Square, and all made their abhorrence of the man and all he stands for abundantly clear. The demo was powerful, but good humoured. Hilarious, in fact. An American acquaintance remarked to me last week that ‘Brits make the best banners’. I’d refine that further to Scots; ‘Awa & bile yer heid, Donnie!’; ‘Donnie, yer jaiket’s oan a shoogly peg’; plus, of course, less subtle variations on the general theme of plain old ‘Fuck off Trump.’
Since the demo didn’t start ‘til late afternoon, we had lunch in one of our favourite places, the Chakoo Bombay-Iranian Café on St Vincent St, and had time to walk down the bomb-site that is now Sauchiehall Street, closed at the eastern end by the aftermath of the fire that almost destroyed the Pavilion Theatre earlier this year, and closed further west by the conflagration that destroyed Rennie Mackintosh’s priceless Glasgow School of Art just a few weeks ago. Eerie, and very sad, the sadder for me that I was in the city the day the Mack had its first fire in 2014 (see below, May 23rd, 2014) the £35m restoration of which was almost complete when the second, and much worse, fire struck and destroyed everything.
It rained on 16th; I got wet on my ride that day, only to dry out instantaneously. Apart from a few drizzly episodes and a storm at the beginning of June, that was the only significant rainfall since early May. Managed a few short rides thereafter, but that busy diary has kept July’s mileage down. 25th gave us an opportunity for a lovely stroll on the shores of the Solway Firth. A perfect summer’s day.
Maybe it’s all this unprecedented heat, but over the past few weeks I’ve struggled a bit with motivation and tiredness. The two are linked, of course, but I wonder if, after fifteen years of cycling the same lanes week-in, week-out, that part of it is down to lack of variety. I’ve always said that this shouldn’t be an issue; most athletes and gym-bunnies repeat the same routines in the same places ad nauseam – at least if you’re a (non-track) cyclist you’re out and about exercising in the fresh air all the time – the whole point. Considering that there are five roads out of our village, and Strava tells me that in the three-and-a-half years since I started using it most of them have been ridden close to 100 times, maybe it’s time for increasing the adventure & spontaneity quotients? It doesn’t take much for me to get excited about anywhere; our recent trip to Wales found me poring over the OS map for inland Pembrokeshire and finding loads of interesting routes to ride; all less-travelled, or, in my case, never travelled. I never tire of saying that I could spend the rest of my life exploring the byways of the island of Great Britain and rest content, so I guess that’s what’s to be done, or rather attempted, whenever opportunity beckons, and maybe sometimes when it doesn’t. That would certainly test my motivation thesis. I have another theory developing on how all of this links to the importance of taking breaks from any exercise regime. A rest is as good as a change. Hardly rocket science.
And to end the month; a change in weather, thus in plans, and an end to my longest-ever spell in ultra-lightweight kit. I had planned on a day when Avril was busy to drive up to the Borders, camp overnight and cycle a nice new circuit through the Lowther Hills – maybe even stop for a spot of gold-panning. Torrential rain made this less of an appealing prospect. Much-needed torrential rain, I must add, but nonetheless a deterrent to sleeping in a muddy field.
Spurred on by Geraint Thomas’ great 2018 Tour de France victory, I still felt obliged to do something energetic, which resulted in no camping, but a 63-mile circuit around the Solway Firth & plain in pouring rain. Stayed dry and warm, so no real complaints. Enjoyed the ride over some new routes; quiet, and, for a change, mostly flat.
Ride To The Sun.
Moffat, Penicuik, Edinburgh, South Queensferry, Stow, Galashiels, Melrose, Kelso, Hawick, Kirkcudbright, Dumfries. Managed to get to all of those places and more in the 72 hours between last Saturday evening and Tuesday evening in two separate and rather different trips across the Border.
First up; the marvellous Ride To The Sun. Where to begin on this one? Well, it started a couple of years ago as a self-confessed homage to the Dunwich Dynamo (see below, July 2016). A 100-mile overnight ride from Carlisle to the beach at Cramond, Edinburgh, in time for sunrise. Light-touch organisation, no fees, no support, no bureaucracy, no medals or t-shirts; just turn up and go – exactly what I liked about the Dynamo. Why pay money to ride on public roads which you can ride for free on any other of the 364 days of the year and which, as a general and road-tax payer, you’ve helped to pay for anyway!?
I had contemplated adding another 30 miles and riding from home to the start in Bitts Park in Carlisle, but a busy day meant that Avril dropped me in the Tesco car park at Jct 44 on the M6 and I rode into the city from there. Plenty of folk milling around (like Dunwich, there’s no set start time, just a suggested window of a couple of hours). No check-in formalities, of course. There was a BBC Scotland crew there filming for a documentary on the ride to go out later in the year; we’d see them throughout the night. Folk setting off around 6.30pm though, so I joined them.
Another thing I’d contemplated was cycling the first part of the route off-route, via the relief road alongside the motorway to the border at Gretna. I always use this road, as the narrow and busy A7, the alternative, isn’t much fun. I’d realised that the reason RTTS takes this latter is that without its greater length the ride would be just under 100 miles. Given that I started before the start line, I still could have taken the nicer, shorter route and hit the target, but that did seem a bit contrary to the whole spirit of the thing, so I went with the flow. In the end, by the time I’d ridden out to South Queensferry for breakfast the following day, I’d done 109 miles anyway.
So, off along the A7 to Longtown, with first companion Richard from Peebles, doing his first 100-miler. We rode two abreast and chatted some of the way, but it was always going to be a bad idea to do that on that road, so we went line astern and gradually drifted into our own paces, his faster than mine.
Across the border and onto the B7076, which incredibly quiet road took us all the way to Beattock. A lovely ride, and some interesting encounters:
I always slow down if a rider has stopped by the roadside to see if I can help. Usually they’re fine. First of many such incidents tonight saw two ladies of my sort of age, or maybe older, dealing with a puncture. They were fine, too. Unsurprisingly; alongside them was a friend in a Range Rover, which I was to see several times during the night as it passed me on the way to their next rendezvous point. A support vehicle. Turns out quite a few folk were doing this, including a number of cycling clubs who were riding en masse. Not, I think, contrary to the spirit of the event, especially if you need to be transported a long way home from the end. Only difference for me was that Avril wasn’t due to turn up until the following lunchtime.
So there they were; Allen Valley Velo, Buchan Dirlers, Carlisle Reivers, Eildon Velo, Fechan Flyers (nice!), and more, all resplendent in their matching kit and mini-pelotons, whizzing along at club-ride speed. Now this was interesting: I nearly always ride alone, or with only one companion, this latter very rarely. Every time a group passed me, except for those young turks who really were flying, I draughted them for a mile or two then fell back into my normal rhythm. I did this consistently throughout the night, the result being that for the whole journey my average speed was much better than it would have been had I been ambling along at my natural pace all night. Didn’t feel any ill effects, and I arrived in Cramond an hour an a quarter earlier than my sunrise target – 3.15 am instead of 4.30. A bit chuffed with that; all down to the physical and psychological benefits of group riding, for sure.
Being a sociable thing, and in some cases with provisioned support stops, the faster groups generally took longer breaks, which meant that we were passing and re-passing each other all night, and my steadier short & infrequent break plod got me to the end at around the same time as them. Again, satisfying. Tortoise and hare.
A nice variation on this was that as I passed Newton Wamphray , I spotted a lady in a very distinctive bespoke saltire top. I knew this to be Louise Cruikshank from Inverurie, who’s training for a round-Scotland charity ride in September and with whom I’d had some correspondence via her Facebook page, which popped up on my smartphone, as these things do, some months ago. I introduced myself, we chatted, then separated – as a much younger person her speed was averaging more than mine at this point. We were to pass each other several times more during the night, the last at Penicuik. Nicest of all we rode much of the long Devil’s Beeftub climb together. A respectable time for this section for a fit young person is around 45 minutes; I’d planned on an hour. With Louise pacing me for about half of the way, but still at a speed where we could have a good chat, I got up in 51 minutes.
And at the top was this. Fantastic!
Everyone who paused at the top was complaining about an unexpected midge-attack in Moffat. Unusual for this far south, but they really took their toll. I was riding in shorts, and it wasn’t ‘til daylight that I saw that my legs were red with bites, as well as my eyelids and ears. Little buggers!
By this time it was approaching midnight and everyone’s lights were on. The northern sky was still light, and would, of course, remain so, the sun being not far below the horizon. The sky was clear and there was a waxing gibbous moon at our backs, though it set at around 2am. There was no wind, but it did get chilly, so I put on my (very thin) jacket. As I whizzed down into the upper Tweed Valley, thankful for that jacket and past the source of that lovely river, I had a spell of maybe ten minutes when I could see neither red tail-lights ahead nor white headlamps behind. It was still and silent. Lovely, and the only time I was out on my own. Given that there were probably around 800-1000 riders on the route, that was quite an unusual thing. Then right at that point I felt cramp in my left hamstring, immediately afterwards in my right. This has never happened to me before whilst riding – in one leg, let alone two. Fortunately I was going downhill, so I backed off, stood up in the pedals, and crossed my fingers. The cramp went as quickly and mysteriously as it came, thankfully never to return.
And the big break was coming up just down the road. The Crook Inn. I’ve known this place to have been abandoned for several years, and that there is a community buy-out campaign in process, but essentially it’s a derelict pub in the middle of nowhere. Not tonight!
There was a DJ; garage, grunge, grime – whatever it was it was at the requisite 120bpm and made for a great atmosphere. Light show, too. And glowsticks. And a brazier. And Bananaman, giving out free bananas and water top-ups. Just brilliant. I think quite a lot of folk spent a good while here – and why not? – but I shook down, walked about for a couple of minutes, fuelled up and headed out again.
Crook comes at 60 miles, so only another 40 to go. Longish, gentle ups and downs, with some terrible road surfaces on the A701 after Blyth Bridge, then down into Penicuik and the real world. After 2am now, and pissed people everywhere. Pubs still open, couples fighting, people falling into the road, some hurling abuse at riders, some clapping and cheering, and I’d wager none having a clue what we were doing. Got into a nice little group by the time we reached Fairmilehead for the mostly downhill breeze through Morningside to Princes St. Penicuik writ very large – legions of drunks, much rowdiness, and lots of dutiful traffic-light stops at which we were quizzed by anyone still capable of stringing some sort of sentence together. Not really threatening, though the possibility of a scuffle was always there. Hilarious, really. And sad. As the organisers said in their warning email; ‘they’ll be drunk and you’ll be tired.’
Onward through quiet streets away from the city centre and down to the beach at Cramond and the finish. 3.15am, average 13mph, 4000ft plus of climbing. And free beer! Actually, the last thing I wanted, but a lovely gesture. No sign-out, just like no sign in, but I soon gleaned that most people who arrived before dawn went 500 yards back up the road to Cramond Kirk Hall for refreshments, then came back down to the shore to see the sun rise. So that’s what I did. Hats off to the church team, who fed and watered everyone for a respectable fee, which will have bolstered parish funds considerably. I tried to snooze sitting up, which was impossible, then went back down to the shore for dawn, and managed to have a chat with and to thank Fraser Maxwell , one of the two redoubtable guys behind the whole thing. I didn’t knowingly meet his oppo Gary Cameron, although I suspect he might have been Bananaman 🙂
So, what to do after all that? Well, I knew that we had use of the Kirk Hall until 6am. It being a Sunday, I’d imagine that everything would have to be turned round in time for the start of the day’s business. I tried and failed again to snooze. By 5.45am the sun was well up, it was a beautiful morning, and I had an appointment to keep.
I’d arranged to meet Avril at the Railbridge Café in South Queensferry; easy access, plenty of parking, a good breakfast for me and a few hours’ wait by the sea for her to arrive. I’d also contacted my cycling friend David in Grangemouth, knowing that the Railbridge was a favourite haunt for him and his wife Maureen, aka Weemo. I’d met David on The Big Ride in 2013, when we stayed at Durness Youth Hostel on the same night, and we’ve remained in touch ever since. They’d be joining us for coffee late morning, along with their two grandsons. Perfect.
Well, not quite. I rode the seven miles out to the rendezvous on cycle tracks, though not the ones I covered with French cyclist Sebastian back in 2013. I bought a paper and sat on a bench overlooking the Firth and the three bridges, feeling very relaxed and happy, and with no aches, pains or strains. It was about 7am and it was the most perfect of mornings. I was utterly content to sit and read until the café opened at 9 and I could have a much-anticipated big breakfast. So that’s what I did.
Then: I spotted a notice that said that the car park was closed all day. It further indicated that a cruise ship was going to put in, and no sooner had I read this than I saw it – a massive ugly monster moving towards the first of the bridges – the rail bridge – and about to drop anchor. Shortly thereafter convoys of coaches started to arrive, and a fleet of tenders started to remove passengers from the ship, maybe a kilometre away out in the firth.
I was bloody furious, and I know that a lot of residents of and regular visitors to South Queensferry are too. This happens regularly, and I can only assume that the cruise companies pay the local authority a very heavy backhander in order to deprive the public of public space. At a more civilised hour I called both Avril and David to tell them that parking was likely to be a problem, having chosen South Queensferry as a rendezvous for the very reason that it usually isn’t, unlike central Edinburgh. And so it proved to be, of which more in a minute.
Cruise ships are a blight, contributing massively to the ongoing disneyfication of the world and the growing rift between rich and poor nations. I watched as passengers got into their coaches, attended by ersatz guides in kilts. I was surprised at how many of these tourists were young. They were from all races and cultures. They disappeared off to Edinburgh and most of them were back for lunch on the ship. What will they have learned, what will they have understood, how will they see the world differently after their air-conditioned jaunt to fantasyland? I think you’ll be able to guess my answers to these questions. I heard recently that when these ships put into Invergordon on the Cromarty Firth, coaches have to be drafted in from as far afield as the Central Belt to meet the demand to spirit folk away to twee castles, distilleries and gift shops. I think I’ll come back to all of this at some future point; it needs a proper rant! That said, there is something on this theme in November 18th 2017’s entry for those who might care to read it.
A happy rendezvous with everyone over, and very pleased to see David looking so well after a triple bypass operation at the beginning of the year, Avril and I made our way half-a-mile or so up the hill from the café to the first spot she’d been able to find to leave the car, taking a further opportunity to abhor cruising and much of what it represents. I’d sooner spend a fortnight in prison than on a cruise ship. I’d certainly learn more.
Miles (my bike) duly dismantled and snuggled into the car, and me changed (on the pavement, as usual), we set off on the next part of what was turning out to be a great few days in beautiful places in fantastic weather. We followed the A7 back out of Edinburgh, shadowing the newly re-opened Waverley railway line though Stow to Galashiels, then onward to Melrose…… and the best B & B we’ve ever visited, the Old Manse in Stranraer back in 2012 being the only one to challenge it. Fabulous setting on the outskirts of the finest of the Border towns (IMHO); great facilities; fantastic breakfast and, best of all great hosts in Claire & Donald MacDonald – smart, funny and super-friendly folk. Google it now! Stay there! We’ll be back! Claire recommended the Monte Cassino Italian restaurant in Melrose’s old railway station for dinner. Another smart move.
After a leisurely stroll around Melrose on Monday morning, we set off for a memorable meander home, first to Smailholm Tower, then to Kelso and onwards over Whitrope Summit to Hermitage Castle (see entries from November 2015 and July 2016 for more on these).
We walked beside Hermitage Water to the ruined chapel and I had a cooling-off paddle. I should have gone in for a swim in a perfect natural pool, and regret now that I didn’t. The weather continued to be perfect, and we delighted in a whinchat marking out its territory with its distinctive song. Just idyllic; a glorious day to remember and cherish.
And so; second up!
Back home overnight, sort out the chickens, read the post, then back to Scotland in the morning. For those who don’t know where we are, it’s only half-an-hour’s drive to the Border. Great!
Today’s jaunt was of a very different nature. Last Friday, June 22nd, was the centenary of the birth of Dame Cicely Saunders, acknowledged founder of the modern hospice movement. The day was commemorated at St Christopher’s in Sydenham, the hospice she built, and included the launch of a new biography ‘Cicely Saunders; A Life and Legacy’ (OUP) by Professor David Clark, OBE, of the University of Glasgow.
David is a dear old friend of mine. We went to school together, and have stayed in regular touch throughout the near half-century since. He lives near Dumfries, and there was to be a Scots launch of the book at Waterstone’s in the town on Tuesday evening, to which we’d been invited.
Making the most of the opportunity, and the still-perfect summer weather, we packed a picnic and set off early. Lunch on the beach at Rockliffe near Dalbeattie, then on to see the newly-opened gallery at Kirkcudbright, a marvellous conversion of the old Town Hall in one of our favourite places. A brief detour to the fish plant to see if they had any wholesale scallops, only to find that we were too late for that day’s catch, but we were given details of how to reserve some in advance on our next visit. As I learned when I was here before with Roby for the independence referendum (see below, Sept 20th 2014) most of their produce goes straight to France.
Thence to Dumfries for an enlightening and congenial literary evening in sweltering heat.
And the heatwave continues. Last night I managed a short training circuit in my lightest – hardly ever worn – kit; still too heavy for 30C+ temperatures. Knew that my usual 750cl bidon wouldn’t last me more than 20 miles maximum, and it didn’t. I normally drink sparingly when exercising, probably too sparingly, but yesterday I was losing liquid as fast as I could replace it. Conditions like these are rare in northern England, and it made me realise how uncomfortable riding in southern Europe would be at this time of year for a card-carrying temperate creature like me.
Writing this up now in the shade, whilst wired to Spotify and exulting in ‘Both Directions At Once’, the lost John Coltrane Quartet recordings from 1963 recently discovered in his family archive and released today. Sonny Rollins has already described this as ‘like finding a new room in the Great Pyramid’. He’s right.
Thursday, June 14th, 2018.
The bane of my life. They seem to be everywhere, with increasing frequency and longevity. I’ve written about them elsewhere, and my habit of ignoring the signs and cycling on persists.
There are good reasons for this; firstly, if I do encounter contractors, there’s always room (as a cyclist, or for that matter as a pedestrian) to get past them, and they usually regard this with good grace, or just ignore me; secondly, more often than not there’s no-one there anyway, sometimes with indications that work is being carried out, but often no trace of that either.
These restrictions are by and large set up to divert motorised traffic. Again, if the tell-tale phrase ‘Access Only’ appears in the signage, there’s generally a good chance that anyone can get through. All of that said, prudence is best upheld, even for an unassuming cyclist.
Two cases in point: the first photograph shows the standard closure furniture (very intimidating!) and signage. This was at the top of a steep hill last month. I knew there was a short way round, and followed a (not-closed) lane to rejoin my route. Cycling on for a few hundred more yards I came to another barrier preventing traffic from coming in the other direction. I’d joined the route halfway through the closure without anything being there to indicate that I shouldn’t. No-one about, no work in progress. Annoying -and pretty typical.
The second photograph looks a bit more like the signs mean it, but was just as annoying in a different way. This was from a ride yesterday, when I’d planned to follow the lovely narrow lane down the west side of Thirlmere in the Lake District. I knew it had been closed recently, and some miles before I got there I rode with a couple of riders from Keswick who informed me that it still was, that the contractors were ‘going ballistic’ with anyone who used the road, and that they’d erected impassable barriers. Sticking to my ignoring habit, I decided to go to the start of the road and see what I could find. Just before I got there I stopped a local guy and asked him if he knew anything. I got the same tale the cyclists had given me and decided not to waste my time and risk a pointless confrontation. Evidently the closure was as a result of storm damage, with lots of tree-felling and hole-digging going on, so some objective danger, at least. No idea if anyone was there, of course.
The annoyance here is because in order to reach my destination without a detour of 60 or 70 miles I’d have to use the main road on the east side of the lake. It’s busy, and very narrow in a few places, though thankfully completely resurfaced after Storm Desmond in 2015 (see below, April 7th, 2016) . Cyclists are discouraged from using it, as anyone with any judgement would do anyway, added to which the west-side lane is signed as a safe cycling alternative. Biting the bullet I hammered through it as fast as I could; thankfully, traffic was light and I got to the junction where the closed route rejoins, pictured, in very good time. The main road narrows again here, but there is now a cycle track avoiding it – with absolutely no signage indicating where (clearly some considerable distance away) it starts. Pissed off enough, I just ploughed on up the main route to Dunmail summit as fast as I could, the whole purpose of cycle-friendly routing subverted. Bah!
Friday, June 1st, 2018.
A long-overdue schlep across the Pennines to Whitley Bay yesterday. Hot, hazy-to-overcast at the start, turning plain hot and sunny by half-way. Lightest of cool breezes, and the off-road unsurfaced bits of the Keelman’s Way in the Tyne Valley were baked hard and as good as tarmac. A perfect, if tough, day out. 83 miles, a shade under 5,000 feet of climbing, 82(!) achievements on Strava, 16 of them personal bests, and the best month’s mileage since last June -and only a mile less! Didn’t ever struggle to keep a fair pace (for me), and my head seemed to be in more or less the right place all day. Even time to do a bit of DIY at Hannah’s before a late lift home with Avril. In bed for 2am 🙂
Friday, May 25th, 2018.
Sunglasses, shorts, cowslips, bluebells, wild garlic, bistort, vetch, orange tips, curlews, cuckoos, skylarks, lapwings, the sweet fragrances of gorse, oilseed rape, fresh-cut silage – and the less-sweet aroma of slurry – dappled light, stupendous greenery. These are a few of my favourite things at this time of year. In fact this time of year, full stop, is one of my favourite things.
*Picks up soprano saxophone and blows F#m7 to G#m7 round and round in 3/4.*
It’s been a while since the last entry, so what follows is a bit of a composite covering much of May. Sadly, and overshadowing all, Avril lost her brother Reg on the 21st. He’d been very ill for some time, and died peacefully in hospital in the Wirral. He was 79. We were able to visit him regularly over recent months, and know that hospital staff worked tirelessly to make him as comfortable as possible. He’ll be much missed by many.
The unusual coincidence of a Bank Holiday and glorious weather at the beginning of May found us at the Black Sheep Brewery in Masham. Not a binge, just a great – and geographically central – place for the grandchildren from Newcastle and Hull, their parents and us to coincide for a slightly belated celebration of Avril’s birthday. That, the brouhaha surrounding the Tour de Yorkshire (which came through the town the following day) and a lovely walk to the bizarre Druids’ Temple folly on the Swinton estate made for a memorable start to the month.
On May 14th the sun came out again, and as I write this it hasn’t left us. The prospect of another hot BH weekend is upon us. Now that really is unprecedented for May!
Opportunity to get out has been limited, and there has been a deal of wind about to temper all that sunshine – mostly blowing from the east and keeping the usual Atlantic wetness at bay – but there’s been plenty of carpe diem going on in the cycling department; best month’s mileage since last August, and there are still six days to go ‘til June 🙂
Highlights include new ground in South Lakeland and an exploration of almost-never travelled (by anyone) roads in the South Stainmore area of far-eastern Cumbria. These places are passed a million times on the trans-Pennine A66 and universally overlooked. Even cyclists miss them out for the most part, as the main route involves riding up a six-mile dead-end incline, steady but with regular patches between 15% & 20%, then turning round and riding back, though admittedly by a different route if preferred. For me, after lumbering up that hill into the aforementioned easterly, strongest as it funnelled through the Stainmore summit gap, turning through 180 degrees there onto the old A66 for the downhill run to Brough on empty single-lane roads was a delight, pleasantly punctuated by stopping to help a farmer catch an escaped bullock and return it to its field.
And finally, a short extract from elsewhere:
Monday, April 30th, 2018.
Felt some stiffness of limb as I’ve got back into the saddle these last few days after a lovely – and much needed and appreciated – week away in Campania. No cycling, but plenty of walking in manageable heat, sun and onshore breezes. Great people; great food; the staggering magnificence of Pompeii (big enough, at 170 acres, to lose thousands of visitors and make it feel like you’ve got the place to yourself ); the madness of Napoli (especially so as they beat arch-rivals Juventus in the Serie A game of the season whilst we were there – complete mayhem on the streets, fireworks all night etc, etc). The flight out resembled being trapped in a cross between a street market and a creche, the return a little more sedate, but nothing will ever endear me to the palaver and hassle of flying. I duly made progress with Piketty on both flights, and with my watercolours whilst away – see my resolutions, below. And I added one, to do with curbing my sweet tooth – difficult to control in la dolce Italia! Love the place.
Out today on what looked like the first day of spring, but still felt like winter with an icy 20mph northeasterly blowing in my face for 20 miles of a 40-mile ride. On the summer bike since I got back from Italy, but still dithering about apparel. A light windproof jacket and shorts with tights at least make me feel that the season is changing, but it’s yet to get warm enough for me to go out without extra layers. One hopes.
Wednesday, April 11th, 2018.
Random acts of kindness. Sometimes we make them, sometimes we receive them, and maybe what goes around comes around. Who knows?
Last Thursday I had coffee and a scone at a regular cafe stop. As I left, the staff presented me with another scone, neatly wrapped. ‘We’re closing soon – you take it with you for the journey’.
On last Saturday’s long ride, at that other cafe stop where I was simply asking for directions, I took off my cycling specs and put on my readers, then promptly rode away leaving my bike goggles behind. Didn’t realise for several miles. On Monday afternoon I went for a short urban spin around Hull and called in at a nice-looking bike shop to see if I could pick up some cheap temporary replacements. They only did expensive, and I had another decent pair back home. I was about to leave when I was called back; ‘We’ve got these – one of the nose-rests is missing, though.’ ‘That’s no problem – how much?’ ‘No, you can have them!’ I made a contribution to each of three charity boxes on the counter.
Sunday, April 8th, 2018.
It’s a bit early in the season to to repeat my one-stage 141-mile daylight schlep from home to Hull – or at least that was my excuse yesterday, and the reason I resorted to a tactic from the early years of the Tour de France; set out, stop at a railway station, catch a train, get off, ride to the finish and hope no-one notices. A trick which apparently worked a century ago.
I was up early to do the nine-mile dash to Appleby for the first train to Leeds at 8.30am. The weather was dry and chilly, and apart from short delays caused by an ineptly attached dry-bag falling off my saddle twice I made it in record time. My usual belt-and-braces approach, I suppose, to be sure of getting there with some headroom. I was, nonetheless, concerned that since it’s not possible to pre-book bikes on the Settle-Carlisle line and there are only two rack spaces per train, I may be thwarted. I wasn’t, and settled down for a journey I never fail to enjoy. Enough is written everywhere about this marvel of the late railway age, built in the 1870s and surviving into the 21st century against all odds. If you’ve never ridden the line, put it on your bucket list now!
As is most often the case, the train was quiet until it approached the Leeds-Bradford commuter belt – Keighley, Bingley & Shipley. By the time the journey ended it was standing room only – plus one more bike 🙂
Since I don’t run a bike-dedicated (ie expensive) GPS device and I don’t like faffing about with the Strava map on my smartphone whilst it’s running, I usually print off or sketch some simple route maps if I’m embarking on a longish journey over new roads. Duly armed with a printout of Leeds City Council’s urban cycle network I set off in the rain to find my way out of town.
It was awful – a symphonic variation on the usual sad litany which I’ve recited before: poor or confusing signage; crappy surfaces ranging from sandstone slabs with one-inch gaps – perfect for unseating you – through mud to broken concrete, some of it inches away from an unprotected canal edge; several long flights of steps, and, a new one here – concrete blocks and security fencing strewn at random across the marked route. Plus the inevitable broken glass and garbage everywhere.
Utilising my generally reliable blokes’ inbuilt GPS, a loose familiarity with the topography of East Leeds and the resultant semi-informed guesswork, I gave up on the annoying and elusive cycle-unfriendly cycleways , followed my instinct through terraced and suburban streets and made painfully slow progress via eroding bike lanes beside the ring road to a target on the outskirts from which I could strike out onto quieter roads. What a relief when I crossed the M1 and immediately turned towards Swillington. No traffic noise, sweet birdsong; bliss. Still raining, of course.
But nice and relaxed now; so much so I missed the first turning I should have taken. Referring to my sketch map, I stopped and asked three locals, separately, for guidance. Since all had little idea about their immediate surroundings, I switched on the inbuilt GPS again – at least that usually gives me a reasonably accurate compass bearing, which is a handy way to start putting things back on track. Arriving in Allerton Bywater, I double-checked an unmarked road by calling into a cafe where the customers thankfully did know where places were, and set off again.
Plain sailing now, I thought. Two minutes later my nemesis appeared – ROAD CLOSED. As ever, I ignored the sign and rode on, only to find an ambulance, a police car and an RAC truck blocking the route. Fairburn Ings, the RSPB wetland reserve which I was aiming to look at en route had overflowed and flooded the road ahead to the depth of a couple of feet over a couple of hundred yards. The emergency vehicles were rescuing an old bloke who’d tried to drive through it and had more or less sunk. He was OK, if wet and mildly hypothermic, though his car may well have been written off if the water had got into the air intakes, which suspect it had. A friendly police officer advised me of a suitable detour, which had recently been flooded and was a real mess, but was now passable. This took me a few miles out of my way, then back to the Ings and the village of Fairburn. Given that I was cycling between two large cities, had plenty of time as a consequence of my early start and was trying to avoid any major roads I was quite happy to meander a little more than originally planned.
Then the rain stopped, though the sun didn’t appear, and I could sense the annoying easterly starting to abate, confirmed as the many wind turbines in this part of the country seemed to be slowing down.
Cycling out of the village of Hillam I met Chris and his wife Helen, two cyclists from Pontefract out for a spin. We rode together for several miles; there was no traffic, the road was flat and wide and we had a good chat before they turned for home. One cycling observation from me was how much faster I could go in these conditions than at home – we were moving at a steady and effortless 15mph with a rock-steady cadence, conversing all the while. By way of explanation, at home the average 15 mile ride will involve 1500′ of climbing; the second part of today’s ride, Leeds to Hull, would end up being 72 miles long – with a mere 1700′ of climbing. Haven’t done anything like that since I rode from King’s Lynn to London two years ago. Strange, though; a few bits of today’s route where I could see the flat road stretching to infinity were differently debilitating, though in general they caused me to ride even faster in order to get to something less monotonous.
The flatness of this part of East Yorkshire is, of course, because it’s a river plain – probably the most extensive in the UK. The river capture of which I learned in ‘O’ level geography went by the acronym SUNWAC (Swale, Ure, Nidd, Wharfe, Aire, Calder); they all end up in the Humber estuary, as do the Ouse, the Derwent , the Hull, many smaller streams and – something which surprises many people – the Trent.
For cyclists heading east, the Ouse and the Derwent pose a particular problem; partly as a result of their propensity to flood, there are very few places to cross them. The main bridge across the lower Ouse is on the M62 – no go for us. There are only two more, at Howden and Selby. Similarly, the main bridge across the lower Derwent is on the busy A63 – one to avoid – with a quieter one at Bubwith. A pleasant wiggle in the route was followed here in order to cross these secondary bridges and keep out of traffic. But first a lunch stop in Selby; a cheese pasty and a bottle of Lucozade in the shadow of the magnificent Abbey.
On through Wressle, where the Derwent had flooded the road but was just passable; more road closed signs to ignore! Then Howden, with its surprising Minster, and the snaking route into Hull crossing and recrossing the M62 all the way to the Humber Bridge. Thereafter the excellent Hull on- and off-road cycle network. Leeds take note! Finally to Katy & Johnny’s, to where Avril had driven on Thursday. Yes, another babysitting mission, but a great reason for an unusual ride.
And a few other things I noticed today:
Picture postcard villages; Ledston, Bubwith, Wressle, Ellerker, Welton, but a constant juxtaposition of wealth and deprivation, moving between the two in the space of a few hundred yards. Staggered by the abundance of gated mansions, some brand new, some Victorian or older, particularly in Welton and North Ferriby. There’s always wealth associated with industrial seaports. And poverty.
Waste dumped everywhere. The recent global wake-up call occasioned by David Attenborough’s ‘Blue Planet’ TV investigation of plastics pollution was never more timely. So wake up, people, before it’s too late. And don’t dump your fucking crap all over the place!
Saturday, March 31st, 2018.
March hasn’t been a great month for getting out; more snow and ice than for many moons for a start, plus more dashing about to help look after various family members of divers generations, and a trip to London this week to work on Dan’s new flat. That said, whilst mileage doesn’t compare to March 2017, I’m still on a par for the year thus far, and managed to salvage something today, so still on course for a better total in 2018. That’d be nice.
I learned a new word last week – ‘cloverleafing’ – which for road cyclists means going round in circles to train; especially useful in bad weather or when you don’t want to get too far away from your starting point, for whatever reason. I have a local circuit of this type which is about 15 miles long with around 1200’ of climbing, which I use when time is tight and conditions poor. The cold weather returned today, and looked likely to take the edge off the Easter weekend for most visitors to our lovely part of the world, but it was dry, with a north-easterly blowing and threatening only light rain or sleet. I also had a bit of time, so decided to expand my cloverleaf and go round in more circles – twice the distance and twice the climbing, though not twice round the same circuit. When I ran into a neighbour for the second time on the ride I explained what I was doing, much to his amusement. Even more when I met him a third time.
Well, the arctic weather, having almost left, returned. Holed up for another six days this past week – cue; decorate two bedrooms – after which, probably against our better judgement, we set off for a quartet gig in the Lakes on Saturday. The band had already shrunk to a trio; discussions with bass player Neil in Newcastle during the afternoon took little time to decide that it would be crazy for him to attempt a 200-mile round trip in Arctic conditions when there was little chance of getting to the gig, and probably no chance of getting home. The right call; by 5pm the snow gates were down on the A66 trans-Pennine route.
We set off about an hour after that; the A6 over Shap summit was by then impassable, and the M6 was reduced to one lane in both directions. We tailgated a 40-tonner and got to the gig , late, having passed three pile-ups on the way. It snowed throughout the rest of evening, though we were unaware of this, and on getting out of the venue around midnight it was clear that we wouldn’t get home that night. We kept in close touch with Willy, top geezer, phenomenal guitarist and the third member of the trio , as he managed to get home to Blackpool; the worst of the weather was to the north and east. Our good friends Roby (he of my sailing japes) , his wife Krissy and daughter Celine were in the audience, and offered us sanctuary with them in nearby Bowness. And very pleasant it was too – back home at 5pm on Sunday, after a late breakfast and a long lunch!
Finally got out on the bike at 3pm on Monday for 25 before dusk, but not without encountering the leftovers from Saturday’s blizzard.
Whilst out, a passing tractor driver stopped, opened his cab and said; ‘You’re the fella who told me about one of my sheep in distress last week.’ ‘The very same,’ I replied. ‘Well, he made a complete and remarkable recovery – jumping about like a spring lamb the next morning.’ ‘But he wouldn’t have survived the night, would he?’ I asked, remembering my thoughts at the time. ‘No chance.’ A lovely encounter; gave me a warm glow.
The persistent easterlies also produced a spectacular Helm Bar over the eastern Pennine fellside, which I photographed and sent to Nick Hunt, author of ‘Where The Wild Winds Are’, who we spoke to last week after his presentation at Words By The Water, Keswick’s marvellous annual literature festival where, as is often the case, Avril ran into her old family friend Melvyn Bragg, still looking and sounding remarkable at 78. Great presentations too on Putin, Trump & May , from The Guardian’s Luke Harding and John Crace, plus the Sunday Times’ Peter Conradi on Putin’s Russia; all astonishingly timely in view of the Salisbury nerve agent attack last week and its ongoing and disturbing aftermath.
Out again today. No wind, some sun, but still chilly with plenty of unmelted snow about, though not cold enough to mask a few spring signs – lambs everywhere now, buzzard courtship displays, and someone preparing the wicket at Temple Sowerby Cricket Club. Bring it on!
Monday, March 5th, 2018.
Just over three years ago in these pages I wondered when and if Thomas Piketty’s ‘Capital In The 21st Century’ might come out in paperback. I looked to no avail for a couple of years and eventually assumed that since it was a large and expensive academic text which had sold in hardback in unprecedented numbers I may be in for a long wait. I gave up, then a few weeks ago Avril spotted a copy in Waterstone’s – quite by chance; it was on a shelf next to where we’d sat down for coffee. The paperback was published at the end of 2017.
Anyway, a copy was duly purchased at a very fair price for such a fat tome, and it’s my mission to read it by the end of 2018 – a few pages at a time and in detail. It’s turning out to be pretty readable for a non-specialist, but then Piketty is at pains to say that that’s his intention; this, for example, is the first book I’ve ever read where the heavy annotations don’t burden the narrative but are stored on a bespoke website where those with the time, patience and interest can follow them up.
Pondering this, I thought of some of the other personal resolutions I’ve made for 2018; persevere with my Italian; work at my watercolours; get at least some of that monster Chris Potter transcription under my fingers; improve on 2017’s cycling mileage.
Sunday, March 4th, 2018.
Managed to drive out of the village (by the one route in five passable) yesterday. Today should have been the Eden Valley Sportive, the first big cycling event of the season hereabouts (see my notes on last year’s, below). Wisely, the organisers postponed it on Friday; most of the route would have been on impassable roads – both dangerous and completely impractical, courting calamity. Added to that, emergency services were flat out over the weekend anyway, backed up by RAF supply drops to stranded communities.
Regardless, knowing that some roads might be cleared by now, I ventured out on the bike for the first time in six days.
Friday, March 2nd, 2018.
Plenty of time to blog: my hope yesterday that it might be safe to ride again soon was dashed somewhat after a walk to the next village today. And I’ve been deluged with offers from online cycle dealers aware that there’s a nation of riders out there who eschew or can’t afford virtual-reality training and are sitting around somewhat frustrated; the bad weather’s pretty much countrywide. No-one’s going anywhere, and a thaw looks to be several days off. Untreated roads have now developed a surface of armour-plated ice – even walking on them was tricky today.
Thursday March 1st, 2018.
A glance at my Strava log for February shows a respectable month, with much battling against windchill and ice and lots of references to Siberia. Well, things have got a whole lot worse in March – my last February ride was on Monday, prior to the arrival of what the press, predictably, dubbed ‘The Beast From The East’. Heaviest snowfall for years, accompanied by even more ferocious easterlies. Lots of drifting, lots of chaos – the usual Brit reaction to a bit of adverse weather. That said, it has been fierce, and I don’t know when it’ll be safe to ride again. Soon I hope, though there’s been no sign of ploughs, gritters or the postman for the last 48 hours. All schools closed, of course, and everyone just hunkering down until advised to do otherwise.
Monday, February 26th, 2018.
Cycling very cautiously in arctic conditions today I came across a young ram who’d fallen into a water trough. Fleece or not, he would have died overnight. Reluctant to try to hoist him out myself, with no guarantee of anything but a thorough soaking in sub-zero conditions, I made my way to the nearest farm, and was warmly thanked by the farmer, who proceeded to rescue said beast.
Saturday, February 17th, 2018.
Looking after granddaughters Thea & Coco this week meant that everything was on hold whilst we engaged in a 24/7 whirlwind. A swimming trip yesterday to a pool 40 miles away (by choice – it can be hired by the hour, and the girls are real water-babies), and the first reasonable weather for a while gave me an opportunity to catch up on training with an early start, a decent round trip, and a swim, given that Avril was happy to drive there and back with the children. Almost a triathlon, then, and the first longer outing of the year a little earlier than I’d normally expect.
I did this same trip last August, and it was delightful. Yesterday it was cold & breezy, but the roads were dry and there was little prospect of further rain or snow. That turned out to be pretty much the case, though I hadn’t given much though to the possibility that north-facing or shaded stretches of country lanes at some altitude might still be a bit tricky. Oops. Progress slowed for half a mile or so on the high road through Greystoke Forest. It hadn’t been ploughed or gritted during last week’s blizzards, with the result that the surface was covered in 3-4 inches of sheet ice, a little thinner where vehicle wheels had passed. Result – get off into the crunchy snow on the verge and walk. Even that was tricky. Otherwise, it was a lovely ride, despite a strong and cold cross-to-head wind.
A swim after a ride is wonderfully relaxing and therapeutic. Rather too much so this time, as I really didn’t feel much like togging up and setting off back into the wind and cold and cycling another 40 miles home. At least it was a tailwind for the most part, and I took a lower route that avoided any residual ice and snow.
But somehow I felt inexplicably knackered on the return leg, though the more I thought about it the more I ascribed it to being on call day and night for the last week, with the result that you never really switch off – in itself quietly exhausting. I rode on somewhat listlessly until the first available fuelling stop, which was only about ten miles from home. Subsequently sugared up I felt much better, and whizzed along happily as night fell only to puncture in the dark a mile from home. Avril & the girls were back by then, and their Mum had arrived from Glasgow en route to home in Hull to collect them. I ‘phoned to say I’d walk the last mile rather than try to fix the flat, only to bump into a friend as I passed his house – a friend who had just got out of his van, and promptly offered me and the bike a lift home. Nice end to an energetic day – thanks Thomas! Plus 7 PB’s and 22 seconds & thirds. Not bad for mid-February in a suit of winter armour 🙂
Wednesday, February 14th, 2018.
Wednesday, January 24th, 2018.
A week of winter storms has shut most things down and made cycling perilous on some days and just too dangerous on others, but I’ve done what I considered worth the risk, all at a snail’s pace, and not much of it. Ice, snow, wind and water everywhere at various times, but managing to keep my totals reasonable given the conditions:
Sunday, January 14th, 2018.
Dan introduced me to the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami last year. Specifically to What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. Not a novel; Murakami’s a runner, as is Dan. He has much to say in this slim volume worth noting – by runners, cyclists, anybody. So I’ve noted it;
‘I’m the kind of person who doesn’t find it painful to be alone – neither difficult nor boring’.
‘I was never interested in things I was forced to study. I learned on my own, the pay-as-you-go method. It takes a lot of time to acquire a skill in this way, you go through a lot of trial and error, but what you learn sticks with you’.
‘There are three reasons I failed. Not enough training. Not enough training. And not enough training’.
‘If you’re going to while away the years, it’s far better to live with clear goals and fully alive than in a fog, and I believe running helps you do that. Exerting yourself to the fullest within your limits; that’s the essence of running and a metaphor for life – and for me for writing as well. I believe many runners would agree’.
‘You open the fridge and can make a nice meal with the leftovers. You don’t complain. You make do with what you have. As you age you learn to be happy with what you have’.
‘Needless to say, some day you’re going to lose. Over time the body inevitably deteriorates. Sooner or later it’s defeated and disappears…. I’d like to postpone, for as long as I possibly can, the point at which my vitality is defeated and surpassed by the toxin’.
‘If you are a long-distance runner who trains hard every day, your knees are your weak point. Every time your feet hit the ground the shock equals three times your weight. This repeats over 10,000 times a day’.
‘Cycling training alone is, truthfully, pretty tough. Sometimes it strikes me as an intricate form of torture. In his book the triathlete Dane Scott wrote that of all the sports man has invented, cycling has got to be the most unpleasant. I totally agree’.
‘Maybe it’s some pointless act, like pouring water into an old pan with a hole in the bottom, but at least the effort you put in remains. Whether it’s good for anything or not, cool or totally uncool, in the final analysis what’s most important is what you can’t see but can feel in your heart. I’ll be happy if running and I can grow old together’.
I went on to read one of Murakami’s novels, one of which I’d known for some time, and had intended to read simply because the title intrigued me; The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. I enjoyed it, obscure though it is in parts, and think I enjoyed it more because I’d read some of his non-fiction first, knew something of the writer, and liked his personality.
Saturday, January 13th, 2018.
There’s a person in our house who hates faffing about, fiddling on, fossicking, palaver – you’ll have a name for it, too, no doubt, polite or not. That person isn’t me, by the way, but there are times when even my mild blokeish OCD-induced tolerance is stretched.
Take getting ready to ride a bike in winter. Putting that OCD to positive use, here’s what happens in approximately 30 easy stages;
Assuming said bike is cleaned down after its last outing (it usually is), and that all customary spares and tools are already stowed, then; take bike from rack; check tyre pressures; wheel bike from workshop to front door; fill water bottle; put snacks in frame bag; strap heart monitor to chest; put on – base layer top; sports undies; base layer bottom; two pairs woollen socks; insulated tights; warm top; insulated skull cap; hi-vis jacket; thick gloves; shoes; overshoes; helmet; attach lights and computer to bike; take bike outside; start heart-rate app via bluetooth; start Strava via GPS; stow smartphone, house keys and money in frame bag; take off specs, put in jacket pocket; put on cycling specs; lock door; bugger off.
By the time I get to about stage 20, especially if the weather’s crap and I only have time for a short ride, I sometimes begin to wonder if it’s worth the bother.
The answer, of course, is that once you’re on your way it is.
But then you get home and do the whole thing in reverse, plus clean down the bike, upload stats, have a shower, put sweaty togs in washing machine.
Still worth it.
Wednesday, January 10th, 2018.
Cycling north on the A6 towards Penrith. Not something I’d do for long in normal circumstances, but when you’re looking for safe roads in freezing conditions a reasonably quiet trunk route is always a better option than an iced-up back lane.
Anyway, there I was last Sunday when I saw another cyclist approaching; heading south and pushing.
As cycling etiquette requires, I pulled over and asked him if he was OK? ‘Fine’, he said – ‘just didn’t feel like riding for the next few miles. I’ll stop in Shap for something to eat’. ‘Chippy’ll be shut’, I advised. ‘No problem’, he replied, ‘there’s a bus shelter and I’ve got some sandwiches’.
The bike was heavily laden; tent, sleeping bag, stuff strapped to the handlebars and a shopping bag tied to the frame, wherein were the said sandwiches. And the rider had a rucksack on his back. Obviously in for the long haul. It’s the first week in January, remember.
Hard to tell how old he was, but he was road-hardened; maybe the road was his home? Dark hair, lived-in face, long grey beard, scouse accent. We chatted for a few minutes about the weather and journeying stuff. He was cheerful, friendly, and heading for Kendal. ‘Doesn’t matter if I don’t make it tonight’. It was getting dark, and he still had 20 miles to go via Shap summit.
We shook hands – he wished me all the best for 2018, and I returned the same – and went our separate ways, me to a warm fireside, Dave, for that was his name, to heaven knows where.
Good luck mate; may your road be blessed.
Friday, December 29th, 2017.
Well, it’s been a month dogged by dangerously icy roads and too many pressing commitments, so my mileage is going to be low. Not so low that I didn’t pass my 2016 mileage total last week, which is cause for some satisfaction. Aim is to surpass it again next year, and try for a 75-80 miles a week average over all 52 weeks. Gauntlet duly thrown down.
Not that December hasn’t been without interest as I rode………..
….and passed two sites of Cumbrian weirdness known largely, though not exclusively, to local folk….
Friday, December 1st, 2017.
‘First of December, covered in snow’, as that old James Taylor song has it. Well, there was an overnight dusting – the first of the winter – and as I opened the curtains this morning I saw the first fieldfare of the season nibbling at what remains of our crab apples.
Saturday, November 18th, 2017.
Today I heard one of the most depressing radio broadcasts I’ve heard for a while. Perhaps an overstatement, given the parlous state of everything worldwide at the moment, but something that depressed me in a different, and perhaps more immediate way. A first world problem, therefore perhaps unworthy of undue consideration in the grand scheme of things, but concerning nonetheless, to me at least.
The 6.30am BBC Radio Scotland show that I try to catch every week – ‘Out of Doors’, see below, July 11th, 2015 – ran a 90-minute special today on the challenges, crises and opportunities facing the Scottish tourism industry. In my notes written prior to today I had some scribblings about the rise of the North Coast 500 driving route dreamt up and championed by tourist , national and local authorities since 2015, two years after I cycled it as part of my Scottish coastal marathon. Back in 2013 it was relatively quiet. Not so now. Another case of visitors threatening to destroy the very thing they’re coming to visit. The Venice syndrome.
Here are just a few key points from the broadcast, which interviewed people the length and breadth of Scotland, all in some way connected with the tourism industry:
- Motor homes have increased 1000% on the roads of the West Highlands in the past decade. Human waste is being fly-tipped. An example was quoted of a hypothetical visitor from China who flies into Glasgow, hires an RV and drives it off, with no experience of having driven one before, and no knowledge either of the country or of single-track road driving etiquette, protocol or safety. Further examples that deliveries in many places have to go out in summer before 7am to beat congestion, and that emergency services can’t get through.
- There are now both a North-East 250 and a South-West 300 on the stocks. Someone jokingly said that a drivers’ permit system should be introduced at the Gretna border crossing.
- Cruise ships into Invergordon doubled last year to 93. Still tiny compared with major Mediterranean ports, but when a big one comes in 60 coaches are required to take people on their day trips. Some of these have to come from as far away as the central belt.
- Professor Joe Goldblatt from Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh, in discussing cruise-ship & other pressure on just one site in Orkney – Maes Howe – talked seriously and approvingly about the Disneyfication of popular visitor destinations; provide something else to distract them whilst they’re queuing.
There’s a serious problem and a serious challenge here. Those who seek the solitude and peace of the Scottish wilderness, and know where to find it, will still be able to do this, though with increasing difficulty. The vast majority of visitors are not there to do that – they’re following some media & movie-led fantasy trail which requires nothing more of them than to turn up and follow the signs or the guides, or both. The Disneyfication of a nation.
Thursday, November 2nd, 2017.
Probably the loveliest day of the year;
Monday, October 23rd, 2017.
Monday, October 9th, 2017.
Winter bike prepped on October 4th. New chain, new cassette, new bar tape, new brake blocks and general tune-up.
First ride a quick 10-mile test on the evening of October 5th. New chain ships and gets jammed between the bottom bracket and the frame. How can that happen? 30 minutes coaxing to free it. No obvious damage, thankfully.
Second ride Sunday 8th. Pop rear spoke after 30 miles. Limp home with brakes released to allow for considerable buckling. Another spoke pops spontaneously in the workshop. Replace and set up wheel for truing. Transfer cassette and install spare back wheel and tyre.
Third ride Monday 9th. Puncture after 5 miles. Fix. Pump breaks. Walk home. Only rider I meet has no pump but a CO2 emergency cylinder, which he offers to me. I refuse, convinced with my luck of late that he’ll get a puncture himself if I take it. We laugh. Thoroughly frustrated and pissed off, though meet several folk I know on the five-mile walk, which alleviates my annoyance and amuses them.
Tomorrow I will try again. Three failures in a row. Not my week so far.
Postscript, October 16th: Well, things worked out. The fourth attempt resulted in a trouble-free thirty-five miles in balmy weather on Tuesday, and on Wednesday we took off for a long-planned three-day break. Port Appin, Glen Affric, the Black Isle. Marvellous and memorable.
Monday, October 2nd, 2017.
Assorted events and adventures this past month have included less riding than I would have wished, but yet again circumstances have combined to keep me busy elsewhere. Squeezing in whatever I can, I still look on track to exceed 2016’s record mileage, despite this summer’s many breaks in the rhythm.
That mileage looks vanishingly puny in the months in which Mark Beaumont (see below, June 21st, 2013) not only managed to ride round the world in 80 days – 79, in fact – but also achieved a miles-in-a-month record of over 7,000. Chapeau!
My belief that there will always be more to discover in my home isles than I’ll ever have time even to contemplate was borne out again during this year’s annual Scottish walking jape with Dave in mid-September. Tarmachan Ridge was great, in average weather for the time of year, but a drive through Glen Lyon on the way back to our campsite was a revelation. Never been there (unless I went as a child, of which I have no recollection). A truly beautiful place, right up the list for a proper return visit.
On the way home, we encountered a rather depressing feature of this year’s Deloitte Ride Across Britain (see below, September 10th, 2014 for my views on some of its other features). Strung out all along the A85 & A84 between Callander and Glen Dochart were several hundred cyclists. We soon realised what they were doing, but could not understand why they were routed that way. At a guess, it’s to keep the mileage to around 100 a day in order to get the whole thing finished in the 9 days advertised. Anyway, those roads are narrow and twisty throughout, and were busy with regular traffic and huge logging trucks on the day in question. That, and a cold northerly headwind, guaranteed a less than relaxing day for the riders. Were I on it I wouldn’t have enjoyed it, and would have had some questions for the organisers. Had I been a driver heading the same way as the ride (we were going the other way), I’d have been furious with the slow queuing to get past multiple groups of cyclists. We joined the route at the junction from Killin, and followed it 19 miles to where it joins in Callander. Bikes all the way.
To finish, a few random images from September’s perambulations:
Saturday, September 9th, 2017.
Be glad, for the song has no ending.
Up to Thornhill in Dumfries & Galloway last night to help my old friend David run a gig by setting up and running my antiquated PA, thankfully with satisfactory results. A lovely, poignant, funny, nostalgic and moving evening with the remarkable Robin Williamson, a true icon of a never-to-be-repeated era, and at nearly 74 still going strong. David and I shared fond memories of going to an Incredible String Band gig together a mere 46 years ago. In the words of another folk luminary from way back then; who knows where the time goes?
Thursday, September 7th, 2017.
Well, autumn has arrived early. There hasn’t been a summer to speak of, and the usual Indian summer that appears on the day children go back to school in England hasn’t materialised either. Time yet, I suppose.
So the plan was to do a century ride with Garry on Tuesday. Alas he had to call it off, and it pissed down all day anyway, so it wouldn’t have been much fun; we’d probably have abandoned before a pedal was stroked.
Yesterday was a little less bleak, but still autumnal, and the only opportunity I’d have to get out this week, so I decided to do the ride regardless. Turned out to be only 98.36 miles, though 🙂
A trip from home to Scotland and back, with four crossings of the border as I zigzagged over it between Harelaw and Gretna. Back in the Debatable Lands, still as unsettling as I always find them (see November 22nd, 2014 and elsewhere, below). Fascinating, and with a bleak beauty, but there’s just something of the outback about the area that I can’t put my finger on. Nowhere quite like it in the UK so relatively close to mainstream life.
Came across an abandoned and derelict primary school standing isolated in the middle of nowhere (Glenzier, near Evertown, near Canonbie) – the fact that there have to be so many proximities in locating it says it all, and is obviously why it was closed. That said, I went past the equally isolated Shankhill primary school on the English side of the Debatables, and it was buzzing with first-day-of-term activity. Still strange, though, at least to me. There’s definitely something about early autumn, impending winter bleakness, the largely wild and unimproved nature of the marginal agricultural landscape and the abundant evidence of the feuding past that contributes to this feeling, as well as my own contention that no matter how many years it is since you left school, or whatever you’ve done since or do now, if you’re still in the UK you never escape that sweet sadness that summer is over and there are dark, cold days ahead. Especially dark, damp and cold in that still-lost land on the edges of England and Scotland, or so it always feels.
Felt good today though, despite several soakings and dryings-out and a brisk westerly all day. Kept up a steady pace, climbed nearly 6000’ – largely in long & undulating slopes – and didn’t feel any significant discomfort. 17 PBs on Strava, too. Predictably, of course, the only time I expected a following wind, when I turned to the east for the last 10 miles or so, it was evening and the wind had dropped. At least it’d stopped raining by then.
Monday, September 4th, 2017.
A Great Day in Hawkshead.
Privileged to be helping with Ambleside Days Contemporary Music Festival over the weekend. Here’s a photo taken by our good friend Nadja von Massow;
And for those of you who don’t know it, here’s Art Kane’s original from 1958 – A Great Day in Harlem.
Tuesday, August 29th, 2017.
So much for catching up and good intentions. It’s a month since the last entry explaining lack of activity. I’ve been far from inactive in the interim, just that much of the effort has not involved cycling.
Paradoxically, July and August usually seem to end up being my least bike-friendly months. A short holiday; summer chores; endless visitors; visits to be made, engagements and commitments to fulfil and, of course, poor weather when it should be good. I’ve squeezed in what I can when I can, and the totals don’t look too miserable, but I’ve had scarcely a moment to sit down, let alone write – and a growing list of things to write about.
So for this recuperative entry I’ll just mention random stuff that’s happened whilst I’ve not had time to mention it.
This week I got back in the saddle on Sunday after another week’s unavoidable exeat. Tried a hard climb and did what I’d planned. Out again of Monday for 50 miles with Garry, and an annoying muscular twinge began on the outside of my right knee, possibly related to Sunday’s efforts on 25% slopes. Rode with not much more than mild annoyance; it didn’t twinge when I walked, nor when I rode uphill; just when spinning along. Odd. Put an elastic bandage on overnight. Next day I could feel it when I walked. Two days’ lay-off, then out again on Thursday, 40 miles; muscle self-repaired, with two PBs without special effort on two climbs I’ve done many times. Even odder, but a relief.
The human body is an incredible thing. Even mine. Taking care of it is vital as age advances. Last month my annual check-up yielded improved statistics on all counts – weight, blood pressure, cholesterol and around a dozen other measures of my general state of health, mostly gleaned via the usual blood sample. I know what I need to do to try to keep it like this – the combination of age and fate, on the other hand, might have other ideas. Let’s hope not, and do everything possible to thwart them. And as ever, hats off to the NHS.
Saturday, July 29th, 2017.
Just filling in here after a long silence – ten days abroad; no training, no blogging, so just getting back up to speed. Whilst that happens, here’s some music from our trip 🙂
Monday, June 26th, 2017.
After last week’s epic, the usual thing happened; and then some.
I was fine on the day, and sluggish the day after…and the day after…and for three days after that. Between Wednesday and Sunday, though I felt OK – ie not ill – the thought of some hard exercise was pretty much anathema. I did plenty of things, including a fair bit of strenuous DIY stuff around the house and garden, and had various commitments out and about, but I slept a lot and generally felt lethargic and lacking in motivation – certainly to get out on the bike. This is normal after a big effort for most regular folk, I guess, but seemed to go on for too long.
I pretty much forced myself to go out after four days, just for an hour and a half, and could feel the hair-of-the-dog treatment just starting to work. And today I did 40 miles with Garry and felt great. What kills you definitely cures you. Garry did very kindly point out my age and the energy required to do a ride like last week’s, and that it doesn’t take seven years at medical school to explain why I was knackered. But, as I wrote a few weeks back, I think I will ask at my next check up about how best to aid and shorten recovery time; I know my body’s simply telling me what’s best for it, but I still have that niggling feeling that I might be able to help it along with some dietary and other changes. I’ll ask the question and see what answers I get.
I reckon that the key to happiness in outdoor activity – indeed in all exercise – might be in large measure to understand your own recovery process as best you can, then aid it. Everything else can flow from that, with the result that you’ll enjoy what you do to the maximum extent. You’ll still overstretch from time to time, sometimes by accident, sometimes by design, sometimes of necessity, but you won’t make a habit of it. Definitely the key when it comes to extending your shelf-life!
As if to make the point, here’s a screenshot from Strava. I’m Papy Velo – that’s what my French friend Roby calls me. I’d forgotten that on last week’s ride I covered a bit of the 2016 Tour of Britain route. Good to share a page with the legendary Andre Greipel. The times difference says the rest, and I’m very happy with it; you are what you are. Remembering that should aid recovery too 🙂
Wednesday, June 21st, 2017.
The People You Meet.
It’s great; you never know what sort of encounters you’ll have, and most of them are positive & memorable.
Today, for instance.
Two cyclists doing the Coast-to-Coast ride in five days. They were from Gloucester and Hereford respectively, and their wives were the car-borne backup team. I was able to give them a few helpful tips on the route as we enjoyed a ten-minute roadside chat.
My neighbour’s brother, working on a road resurfacing team. Readers will know that I always ignore road closed signs – this time Trevor and his colleagues advised that if I went through I’d have to carry the bike past the newly-laid tarmac, which would take its time setting in the heat of the day. Thankfully there was a wide verge and I only had to walk a couple of hundred yards.
Mark, a fellow-cyclist at the Post Office-cum-café at Hesket New Market. I replenished my drinks whilst he ate his lunch and we chatted, finding out that we had two mutual acquaintances, including the bloke who made my bike frame sixteen years ago!
A group of friendly Aussies in the beer garden at the Shepherds’ Arms at Ennerdale Bridge. They were doing the first half of the Coast-to-Coast walk in a leisurely seven days, and had just completed day one in Antipodean sunshine. And I had a superb bean casserole, my first proper food stop of the day.
A great bunch of new-agers in a van and battered Land Rover encamped for the night at the summit of the Wrynose Pass. They had a barbecue complete with eight-foot stovepipe sizzling away and were just getting ready for dinner when I arrived there in the gloaming at 10pm. We chatted for a while, and they very kindly filled my water bottle from their supply.
Today was a bit of an epiphany for me, and I kind of saw it coming. The weather turned out to be perfect, in fact a little too hot by late afternoon. (This has been the hottest June since the legendary summer of 1976, for much of which I was abroad, though I have very fond memories of a super-sweaty Bob Marley gig in Leeds – hotter than Jamaica on the day!)
Not all of that heat has reached the North-West of England, and the day dawned totally overcast. Gradually the sky cleared to hot and hazy blue, and I made several attempts to buy a tube of sunscreen, since I’d neglected to apply any when I set off into a warm but gloomy morning. Suitably smeared, my ride took me to the foot of the Hardknott Pass in west Cumbria – so far west that I had a text from my mobile network welcoming me to the Isle of Man. And it was here that I realised something. It went a bit like this;
‘Stu, you’ve just cycled 76 miles in 30C heat and are now at the foot of the most vicious road climb in the UK, 33% in a few places. Once you’re over it there’s the Wrynose Pass to negotiate, nearly as tough. It’s 8.30pm. What are you thinking, and do you think there’s the remotest chance you’ll get up at this stage of a long day without getting off and pushing?’
This was my Solstice ride (see last year), so I intended to stay out all night if necessary, and to aim for home, still a good 60 miles distant at this point. Hardknott was brutal, even the descent – I stopped every 100 yards or so to let my wheel rims cool where the tightly-gripped brake blocks threatened a possible a blow-out. A mysterious & strong easterly had sprung up out of nowhere, funnelling down Wrynose Bottom as I headed into it towards the pass. It vanished just as mysteriously when I reached the summit. And, of course, I did get off and push on both passes. No shame there – nearly everybody does save mostly for super-fit athletes with the right physiognomy, intensive training, featherweight bikes and low gears. By the time I headed down into Little Langdale from Wrynose I was feeling OK, but questioning the wisdom of doing another 50 miles or so after a gruelling ride that had already included over 8000’ of climbing – up and down Ben Nevis twice.
By now it was dark, but it took me until after 1030 before I could get a mobile signal to enact plan B – contact friends who had B&Bs in the area, and let Avril know where I was. The last communication I’d been able to send to her was a text from Sellafield. Unsurprisingly there was no reply from the B & Bs at that time, and Avril suggested she pick me up. She was simultaneously gracious and understandably pissed off; I was quietly relieved. I calculated that I could get to Windermere before she could reach there from home, about a 40-minute drive. I got there, after 93 miles, at about 1130, and she arrived shortly afterwards to find me sitting on the verandah of the tourist information centre nibbling the last of my carry-on snacks, drinking the last of that Wrynose water and feeling decidedly contrite.
In short, I’d overestimated my capacity. Had I had to cycle all the way home that night, I would have done it with a pause by the wayside in some bus shelter or other to sleep for an hour or two and still have got back before the inevitable thunderstorms that arrived just after dawn. But I wouldn’t have enjoyed it, and would still have made Avril cross; partly because she worries about me, for which I’m grateful, but also because my behaviour can be headstrong and inflexible. I’m nearly 64, ffs – I should take a bit more care and give a bit more thought. Henceforth I will.
Friday, June 16th, 2017.
Time to bust a rural myth: Buzzards DO attack cyclists! One came up behind me today and clattered my bike helmet with all the force it could muster. Nowhere near enough to cause an accident, but sufficient to make me flinch – the bird came out of nowhere, and rose quickly once it had struck. It took me a few seconds to spot it, having heard its distinctive cry first. There it was, thirty feet or so above me. Cheeky sod.
A bit of research indicates that this behaviour is not uncommon, especially when young are on the nest, ie at this time of year. It’s about ten years since another local buzzard buzzed me when I was cycling; it didn’t make contact that time. The same bird got its talons into the shoulders of a neighbour’s son when he was riding in the same place, and a few weeks later another rider fell off after an attack and ended up in hospital. That incident made the local press. Shortly after that the bird disappeared. Against the law or not, it’s pretty likely someone shot it.
Ever since that time we’ve referred to that bit of road as Death Buzzard Alley. I ride through it all the time, and just a couple of weeks ago was there with Garry, and told him the buzzard tale. Tempting providence, obviously, though today’s incident happened elsewhere.
That wasn’t what I intended to write about. Verges were to be my chosen subject:
Cyclists look at them a lot, especially when lumbering uphill. At this time of year they are fascinating and fabulous, just a riot of plant, insect and animal life. I’m no botanist, so there will be lots of species I’ve not even noticed, and just as many I can’t identify, but of the obvious ones today’s ride turned up bistort, pignut, red and white clover, vetch, celandine, ox-eye daisy, buttercup, bird’s foot trefoil, dog rose, loads of blue and purple things and an abundance of common orchids. Re. these latter, as I rode across the open hillside between Shap and Orton I came across a newly-laid plinth still wrapped in polythene, no doubt destined to hold a plaque delineating the new boundary of the Yorkshire Dales National Park (yes, I know it’s in Cumbria – Google it or read about it in this blog!). Right after the plinth were dozens of orchids in full bloom on both sides of the road, there as if to celebrate their new status.
Friday, June 9th, 2017.
After a great couple of months of dry if windy cycling weather in April & May, with very good mileage totals, following a good ride with Garry on June 1st the month has stalled. A rash of gigs and other commitments, dodgy weather and, when I finally did get out again – to repeat my 2015 election ride up Great Dun Fell – my first major mechanical breakdown for several years all conspired to keep me off the road. I look after my machines, but sometimes stuff just happens; this time it was a repeat of a previous problem – rear hub locking up. Thankfully I was only four miles from home when it happened, and was able to limp back to my workshop. A quick inspection, which largely consisted of listening to the hub rotate and feeling its vibrations, suggested a broken bearing. The offending wheel was quickly consigned to Rich, ever-trusty mechanic and advisor on all things bike which I can’t – and can – deal with. I confess I’ve been thinking a bit lately about doing my own wheelbuilding & truing, but that will involve a small investment in bespoke (ha!) tools which I can’t make at the moment. May happen eventually; would be nice, and save a bit of to-ing and fro-ing to bike shops too.
My abortive election ride actually took place the day before 2017’s polling day, on the grounds that the forecast for the said day was, and turned out to be, terrible. Having set up my spare set of summer wheels and installed them on the bike, we ended up driving to the polling station in the rain – it’s only a mile away but we couldn’t be bothered to get soaked. Whilst on the way I had a text from Rich to say that one of my freehub bearings had completely collapsed and the other was in a poor state, and that he’d replaced them both. My hunch, then, was correct. This was a good mid-price hub from a well-known British manufacturer not a million miles from where I live whom I’ve had cause to praise elsewhere in this blog (look back at the Big Ride Hub Fiasco in the summer of 2012, below). Strangely, this hub had a bearing replaced when it was quite new as a probable result of ingress of water through a sub-standard seal. Not good, but what can you do other than invest in hubs that cost around £300? That said, I also think I’ve been unlucky – hub bearings shouldn’t fall apart like that, and I don’t mistreat them or put undue strain on them.
Reunited with the errant hub, and having stripped down its cassette for a good clean, I decided to stick with the spare wheelset for the time being and put the repaired hub back for a long ride in a few weeks’ time.
Aside from Wednesday’s abortive ride, it’s been eight days since I’ve ridden anywhere – the longest break from the bike I’ve had all year, albeit one that circumstances rather than indolence have forced upon me. Annoying and frustrating, especially as despite my years I continue to build strength and stamina with only the occasional off-day in the saddle, which everyone has, pro & amateur alike.
Thankfully, I was able to restore the balance to some degree today. But before I could do that, we were up for a good deal of the night following the election results, delighting in the Tories’ demise and Labour’s resurgence, and began the day hoping that the resultant hung parliament will lead to a second election in the autumn and a Labour victory. I’m old enough to have voted last time this happened in 1974, when Ted Heath’s Conservatives failed to establish a coalition after the first election, Heath resigned and Harold Wilson’s Labour formed a minority government, calling the second election in October and winning with a majority of 3. And in 1974 the US president, Richard Nixon, was impeached. What chance history repeating in 2017? A good one, I’d say. Fingers crossed!
The new era dawned dry, and I took advantage of a trip to the dentist in Carlisle to cycle an indirect route home whilst Avril did some shopping and drove back. Just under 40 miles in a stiff crosswind, but warm, sunny, and timely – I really feel those endorphins desert me if I’m idle for a moment too long.
Friday, May 19th, 2017.
Not much more to say than that, underlining several comments in recent weeks on the apparent suspension of time which occasionally strikes me as I ride about familiar local lanes.
Wednesday, May 10th, 2017.
Just a little postscript to last week’s east coast expedition. Took advantage of a few free hours and some sunshine on Friday to cross (twice) what I believe to be the longest single-span bridge in the world you can cycle over. And discovered the scone of the year – so far – at the superb Ropery Coffee Shop in Barton-on-Humber, also part, I learned, of the longest listed building in the UK – Barton Ropery. No need to guess why!
First big challenge of the year yesterday.
Avril drove to Hull on Monday to grandbabe-sit, and it was my plan to follow, attempting to do a 140-mile route in daylight, though equipped for darkness and other random interventions.
I was up at 5.30am, and off just before 7. In keeping with recent days, there was an uncharacteristic easterly breeze, which was to persist all day, keeping thing just a tad too cool. I wore tights under my shorts and a light jacket, and kept them on, despite brightness and complete lack of rain.
The journey took me from Cumbria over Aisgill Summit into Wensleydale, thence from Leyburn across the Vale of York (flat, therefore at speed) to Easingwold, then over the Yorkshire Wolds to Beverley and on into Hull, arriving at 8.30 pm. So I did have to use those lights; just.
I made three fuel stops; elevenses at the Humble Pie cafe in Askrigg, a late lunch at the Sugar Mouse cafe in Easingwold, and a final short break to fill up my water bottle, drink a fizzy drink and buy a few necessary Mars bars at the Robin Hood pub in Middleton-on-the-Wolds. These breaks accounted for just over an hour-and-a-half in a thirteen-and-a-half hour trip, in-the-saddle time being 15 minutes under 12 hours, – my estimated and target time. Average speed 12mph with 6,000′ of climbing. Very happy with that, given the wind, which was less strong than on recent rides.
To my delight, my legs felt no real fatigue at the day’s end, and I had little neck stiffness and no saddle discomfort; there’s no doubt that the recently reconfigured riding position on the summer bike has a lot to do with much better neck and shoulder condition. The more upright position also gives me greater mechanical efficiency – well worth sacrificing an aerodynamic profile for, given that’s of no importance to an ambling old geezer anyway.
As usual, I couldn’t sleep very well after a big effort, but avoided any serious cramp during the night. As I write this 24 hours later, though, I know I’ll be flat out by 10pm. I must ask at my next annual check-up in July why it takes 24 hours for fatigue to catch up with me, and figure out if I’m doing something wrong.
Highlights of the trip? Crossing the Tommy Road into Mallerstang as the sun broke through the cloud; superb coffee and cake in Askrigg; whizzing across the Vale of York; the marked change in geology and vernacular architecture from the limestone and red sandstone buildings of Cumbria to the stone-flagged roofs of the Yorkshire Dales to the red brick and pantiles of the Vale and the chalk of the Wolds; riding a few friendly miles with chance encounter Paul from York, out for an evening spin; the delightful drop into the lovely dry valley of Thixendale in the Wolds, bracketed by a couple of climbs I could have done without late in the day; the medieval and Georgian splendour of Beverley; and arriving in Hull as dusk settled.
A grand day out, Gromit.
Monday, May 1st, 2017.
As I never tire of saying, and have said again in these pages very recently, you never know what’s round the next corner. Yesterday I did a circuit of just under 70 miles in and around the northern reaches of the Eden Valley. Strong winds all day, but otherwise dry and pleasant. Some of the minor lanes I didn’t know, and assumed that to cross the river before turning back south I’d have to go up to the A69 at Warwick Bridge.
To my delight and surprise then, whilst waiting at the level crossing in Great Corby on the east bank of the river, I spotted a footpath to Wetheral on the west bank by way of a cast-iron footbridge clinging to the side of the magnificent 100-foot high railway viaduct, completed in 1833. Just a bit more spectacular than the A69, and it only took me 184 years to find out about it 🙂
Thursday, April 19th, 2017.
Last week I depped on a jazz gig. Towards the end of the first set I became aware that someone in the audience was paying more attention to me than I’d expect. That someone turned out to be artist Will Williams
This is what he did. A first for me, and reproduced here with his kind permission. He has a book of his work coming out before too long – you can find out more via the link above.
Thanks, Will – superb craftsmanship; not so sure about the subject!
Tuesday, March 28th, 2017.
The point of winter training…..
…is that when spring comes, it isn’t a shock. Quite the contrary, and here’s proof.
I’ve cycled in all weather throughout the past three winters. I’d done a fair bit in many previous ones, but the arrival of a winter bike in 2014 made all the difference. Who’d think that a pair of mudguards could do all that?
Each year I’ve covered a bit more ground in the dark months, and put up with some horrendous conditions. Only in the disastrous tempest-ravaged December of 2015 was discretion the better part of valour.
The result of all this effort is exemplified by what’s happened this week; the previous entry, below, pointed out that at this time of year hereabouts we’re never sure from day to day what season it is. Too early for spring, too late for winter? Cast ne’er a clout ‘til May is out?
Regardless, I threw caution to the wind and donned my summer cycling kit on Sunday, a beautiful warm early spring day. I did the same in the same conditions today. Still on the winter bike – customarily I run it from the beginning of October to the end of March – I put in around 75 miles on these two rides and, unencumbered by skullcap, tights, base-layers, overshoes, thick socks, heavy gloves and a wind-&-waterproof jacket, really flew. For me, anyway. And felt great, tackling familiar routes with new energy and reduced fatigue.
At this time of the year many cycling retailers market stuff by saying ‘now you’re coming out of hibernation and the new season is about to begin’ and the like. If you’ve been on the road all winter you’re in a continuum. I’m pretty sure that I’m fitter at the start of this season than I’ve ever been – Strava stats certainly appear to support that.
I’ve one simple and modest aim in all of this. Often when I’m out and about I come across wiry 75 year-olds (mostly men, mostly small and weighing about 8 stone ) riding ancient & trusty steel road bikes. I’ve written about them elsewhere in this blog; they’ll have 60 years plus cycling experience and will have seen it all. Cycling is second nature to them, and they’ll keep on doing it until fate intervenes, which for some of them will be a long way off, doubtless in part as a result of lifetimes of physical fitness.
I might become a bit more wiry (wizened, for sure), and I’ll never be 8 stone or small, but I aim and hope to be one of those guys ten years and more hence. That’ll do nicely.
Friday, March 24th, 2017.
At this time of year, around latitude 55N, no-one knows what season it is. Today I cycled to the Post Office and back in glorious sunshine; 13 miles on the first passably warm day of the year, and definitely spring. When I got home I gave the grass its first cut. But……
Sunday, March 12th, 2017.
I had a splendid and unusual day yesterday.
Avril was going to Yarnfest, Edinburgh’s annual expo of all things woolly, held in the city’s Corn Exchange and attended by traders, craftspeople and punters from all over the world. Last time she went, a couple of years ago, I spent some time at the event then went on a fascinating urban hike. I planned to do the same this time, and did bit of research in advance.
We stayed overnight on Friday then set out for Yarnfest from Morningside, brandishing our £4 Lothian Bus day passes. Public transport in Edinburgh is superb, and these tickets are brilliant value for money if you plan to move around a bit.
The Corn Exchange is several miles west of the city centre. Once we’d arrived and Avril was safely inside I found my way to the towpath on the Union Canal, the waterway that runs between Edinburgh and Glasgow, and is now substantially restored including, of course, the magnificent Falkirk Wheel and the nearby Kelpies.. The towpath was alive with activity; walkers, joggers, Nordic walkers, dog-walkers, families, cyclists, canoeists, kayakers and teams from several rowing clubs training hard. All human life was there; it was absolutely lovely, and I strolled along wearing a big smile. People greeted me, and I them – sometimes the other way round.
Right at the city end the path was closed as there’s a lot of building work in progress. I diverted through Merchiston, past the only recumbent bike shop I know – it’s the bikes that are recumbent, not the shop – and up to the splendid Chocolate Tree in Bruntsfield for the second-best hot chocolate I’ve ever had. Sorry, folks, but that morning in Balnakeil will probably never be bettered (see below, Midsummer’s Day 2013).
An hour or so’s mooching about outdoor, book & cycle stores ensued, the weather still and mild, then on to the next part of the trek; back out to Gorgie-Dalry and to Tynecastle to watch Heart of Midlothian play Hamilton Academical in the Scottish Premiership. I’d assumed that I’d just be able get in as a walk-up, but decided to go a little bit early just to be sure. Wise decision; the home ticket allocation was sold out (the stadium only holds 17,000), and I was directed to the away fans’ turnstiles. When I eventually found them (more building work; access closed – a new stand under construction) I hung around for a few minutes with some other confused neutrals, including a couple of friendly Polish blokes, until the stewards let us through. Realising I hadn’t had lunch, I went to the catering counter under the stand and spotted the vegetarian option; macaroni cheese pie with hot-water pastry. The perfect thing for the occasion, and delicious. Yes, a vegetarian option at a footy match, but no beer; unlike at English Premiership grounds, there’s no alcohol on sale at Scottish games. Can’t imagine why that is.
Once comfortably settled among the Accies supporters in the Roseburn End, and by chance alongside the Polish lads, I proceeded to have a splendid time. Hearts appeared to have at least one extra player throughout the match, played well and entertainingly, and demolished Accies 4-0. Three of the goals came from set-plays, two direct from free-kicks and one – something I’ve never seen, and I’ve been going to football matches since 1961 – from an indirect free-kick inside the 18-yard box.
The away fans were highly amusing as they got more and more disillusioned. If the Polish lads’ vernacular English wasn’t up to scratch, they’d’ve been forgiven for thinking that Jesus F Christ played for Hamilton. He certainly got a lot more mentions from the fans than anyone else on the team.
And all the while the savoury-sweet smell of hops and barley from the Fountainbridge Brewery wafted across the stadium. As close as it’ll ever get to beer in there now.
Game over, and a brisk march back to the Morningside bus – three rides and around 9 miles walked today. Thanks all you friendly bus drivers and Edinburgh folk – I must have had twenty lovely exchanges with total strangers of all races and persuasions today. Look after your city; there’s nowhere like it. It’s in danger, after all these years, of replacing Glasgow in my affections.
Tuesday, March 7th, 2017.
Organised, non-competitive cycle rides are everywhere now. I’ve no objection to them, although I’ve only ever done one myself, seven years ago, with two friends. I enjoyed it. Last year’s Dunwich Dynamo was – and always has been – a glorious free-for-all, not really falling into the regular sportive category. In the years since 2010 sportives have burgeoned; they’re pretty much every weekend throughout the country now, with several to choose from most of the time.
They’re also a bit of a racket. A small percentage are on closed public roads, and the cost of co-ordinating this is reflected in the entry fee. Most, however, are on open public roads – still with a substantial entry fee. For this you’d commonly get a couple of feed stops (if the food hasn’t run out, which it did on my 100-mile sportive), a timing chip (pretty much obsolete now that everyone uses GPS ) and maybe a t-shirt and a few other giveaways.
One of the first biggish UK sportives of the year is my local one. It comes through our village on the first Sunday in March, rendering it the busiest day of the year by far, at least in terms of visitors. On a nice summer’s day we may see 20 or so people. On sportive day we see close to 1000. Fleetingly.
Last Sunday was calm and a bit damp – not bad for an early Spring day. It occurred to me that I could join the ride as it passed through – about 10 miles from the official start – follow it round (it’s a 60-mile circuit) and ride the final ten miles alone. No one could stop me, it would be free, and I’d probably meet someone I knew and lots of nice folk I didn’t.
It would of course be free on any other day, too.
So I did it today, admittedly for the price of a vegetable pasty and a cup of coffee in my favourite bakery, which happens to be on the route.
I had the road to myself for the whole way. It was lovely; it’s a great route through varied and beautiful terrain, and the weather was perfect. I couldn’t help thinking that riders who came from afar last Sunday must have thought they’d come to paradise. Well, this is Eden, after all.
I stopped, in splendid isolation, to take the photograph below near the point where the official event photographer snapped all 800 riders as they passed on Sunday. Oh, yes, you always get a lovely pic of yourself in the saddle too, but that’s a subcontracted gig and you have to pay extra for the image.
Sportives are sociable and good fun. You also tend to ride a bit faster when you’re in a group. I compared my time today to the event’s results page on the web, and would have finished about half-way down the field and well up in the over-60 category. I was dawdling today, and would inevitably have been quicker in an event. Sportives aren’t races, but lots of riders treat them as such, and I guess most look to do the best time they can. The tyranny of Strava.
No, I’ve no objection to sportives, although I have a niggling feeling that some people make a mint out of them.
Thursday, February 23rd, 2017.
I’ve said it before, but unless you know your way around a city’s cycleway network, it’s quicker, and probably no less dangerous, to ride on the road. Another case in point this week: I was in Hull on Monday and managed to acquire a network map from the Tourist Information Centre. It was detailed, but not detailed enough – key streets and names missing, that sort of thing. How many times have I said that? Oh, and unlike the elusive online map for the Lea Valley Cycleway in London that I failed to find last year, this one was online, but completely unreadable even when expanded to 400%. On the ground, the usual poor, confusing or absent street signage, predictable back yards & allotments, baffles and gates every few yards, detritus and graffiti everywhere, constant stopping, starting, dismounting and looking about for clues to where to go next. I finally found the rail trail I was looking for, with the aid of three helpful locals I’d stopped in desperation, although the eagerness of one to assist was hampered when he couldn’t place himself on the map. I was pretty frustrated, the moreso when I realised it’d taken me an hour to snake nine miles across the city. More frustration when the good surface on the railbed turned to instant quagmire at the city limits. I turned round and found an on-road alternative.
Thereafter, however, I had a delightful time at high speed on totally flat roads – this is an estuary environment, after all, with only 271 feet of climbing in just under 50 miles! A very unusual experience for me, and definitely the place to come if I want to try to beat my 50-mile time record. As long as it isn’t windy, that is; turning back towards the city I had to contend with a headwind of up to 40mph, with the usual debilitating results. And more cycleway to navigate.
Yesterday I had time for a short spin from home, which proved an interesting antidote to my experience in Hull. I elected to use a stretch of road I tend to avoid at almost any time of year because it’s usually covered in mud by its main users, farm vehicles , is quite badly potholed, badly drained and in one place always covered in lethal fine gravel. This bit of road is two miles long and runs along a ridge with fine views. I reached the start, and saw that a new surface had been laid. This is on the edge of a village, so I thought it may have something to do with services. But it continued. Right to the end. Two miles of perfectly smooth, pristine single-lane blacktop with new culverts, drains, and kerbs where appropriate. All for virtually no traffic. I got to the end and found the contractors taking down the last of the diversion signage – they’d finished the job that day. I approached them, scarcely concealing my delight that this crappy old lane had been turned into a superhighway for cyclists. They were amused, and revealed that the job had only been done as a result of central government funding to assist flood damage repair after the great storms of winter 2015-16. I reckoned it was as bad a road before the floods. The work had cost £650,000. Just for me.
Monday, February 20th, 2017.
Dreams. I rarely remember anything about them. Last night was an exception, and easy to explain why.
I was playing football. For England, no less. In all-yellow kit. We were playing Germany. The only two players I recognised were Paul Gascoigne and Glenn Hoddle, so that makes it the early 1990s. I seemed to be in an attacking midfield position on the left-hand side. Every time the ball came to me I fluffed it – lost control, made a terrible pass, lost possession, fell over, you name it. I wasn’t aware of a crowd. It was semi-dark, no proper floodlights, and there seemed to be trees on the touchline. I was getting more and more frustrated and angry with myself as each opportunity to play the ball ended in abject clumsiness and failure. It came to me one further time, and in my determination to evade my marker, and within shooting distance of goal, I lunged at the ball.
Next thing I’m on the floor, having hurled myself out of bed with an immense clatter, rousing Avril from a deep sleep. Of course I could remember the dream, having been snatched from its reality instantaneously. I recounted it to Avril, and we laughed like drains. At 3.45am
Wednesday, February 15th, 2017.
A delightful ride yesterday, full of surprises, nice encounters and chilly but nonetheless spring-like weather. More than enough good reasons to be out and about.
Electric bikes seem to be becoming increasingly popular. I’ve written about encountering them elsewhere in these pages, and today I came across another one. Saw it at a junction a few hundred yards ahead of me, heading the same way as me. They’re instantly recognisable at a distance – the riders don’t appear to be doing anything for much of the time, and they’re moving far too fast and smoothly for the machines to be anything other than power-assisted. I resolved to try to catch this one up. Over a distance of just under three miles of undulating road, I saw it pull away as it freewheeled uphill, but caught up as it maintained a more-or- less even downhill speed. It appeared to be moving at a constant 18mph – far too fast uphill for me, but a lot slower than I can go downhill. Given that the route had pretty even amounts of up and down, over the three miles I was just able to catch it and pass it, somewhat to the consternation of the rider, and to my satisfaction.
Thence into Appleby, where for the next three days the Settle-Carlisle railway is celebrating the imminent re-opening of its far northern section after 15 months of repair work on December 2015’s huge landslide damage (see below, September 30th, 2016). Said celebration takes the form of several of its daily services being run as steam-hauled excursions. All trains packed, with Appleby’s shops , pubs and cafes doing a roaring trade as passengers simply there for the ride (nearly all of them, and approximately 500 per train) mooch about town whilst they wait for their return journey. A great atmosphere – the polar opposite of what happens when cruise ships put into tiny ports, though in some ways a comparable phenomenon. I stopped at the town’s excellent bakery, as I always do when I’m passing through, and was engaged in delightful conversation by two moochers from divers parts.
Onward along narrow and dry lanes, spotting what I’m pretty sure was a female goldcrest in a hedge – the wrong shape, too light in colour, and too small to be a wren.
Then evidence that Jesus had a thirteenth disciple, from Arbroath or thereabouts;
And what if Paris St Germain did pull off a spectacular 4-0 demolition of Barcelona in the European Champions’ League last night. Time left to get to Carlisle United’s demolition of League Two leaders Doncaster Rovers. A real football match.
Tuesday, January 31st, 2017.
Facebook stuff either goes viral or is buried within minutes, so here’s another rant I’ve copied for safe keeping.
Is it just me? I wake up every day and wonder what unimaginable new horror has been visited upon the world from the White House, for it surely will have been. I feel diminished and depressed in a way hard to describe; something like this has never happened to me before. I can remember Cuba in 1962. I was a few days off my 9th birthday – old enough to understand that everyone was terrified and why. Were that to happen today, there’s little doubt in my mind that the fascist madman in DC would shoot first and ask questions later; what has he done in his first week in office that would make anyone think otherwise? In whatever way we can, however small, billions of us across the globe must act and speak out to resist this monster and his ilk, because I know it isn’t just me; it’s most of us. And it’s all of us who are already suffering and will continue to suffer the consequences of their Neanderthal behaviour.
And here’s an extract from an article published two days ago by Robert Kuttner, a professor at Brandeis. Articles warming to these themes are flooding the world’s liberal and left media, and much of the centre and near-right press too. They’re everywhere, comprehensive, rational and passionate. Rightly.
In 1984, the psychiatrist Otto Kernberg described a sickness known as Malignant Narcissism. Unlike ordinary narcissism, malignant narcissism was a severe pathology. It was characterized by an absence of conscience, a pathological grandiosity and quest for power, and a sadistic joy in cruelty. Given the sheer danger to the Republic as well as to the Republicans, Trump’s impeachment will happen. The only question is how grave a catastrophe America faces first.
On Sunday morning I signed a citizens’ petition posted on the British Parliament’s website calling for any proposed state visit to the UK by Trump to be halted; not to prevent him coming to the UK per se, but to save the 90-year old Liz Windsor the embarrassment engendered by having to meet such a vulgar, misogynist, fascist ignoramus. 40,000 people had signed by the time I did. In the two minutes it took me to do that and share the link, 5000 more signatures were added. By the following morning there were a million of them and now, 48 hours after the petition was raised, there are two million, and Parliament has just announced that it will debate the petition on February 20th. It’s a start, with the added rather odd and minor consequence that for the first time in my life I’ve shown some regard for the British monarchy.
Saturday, January 21st, 2017.
Just posted the following on my Facebook page.
What would you do if a colleague, a neighbour or a member of your family was one, some, or all of the following?
A misogynist; a homophobe; a xenophobe; a racist; a fascist; an ignoramus; a fantasist; a fraud; a criminal.
Denied science; belittled the arts; had no understanding of history; was impervious to rational argument; didn’t read; couldn’t spell; had the vocabulary and manner of a nine-year-old, and a badly-behaved one at that.
(Acknowledging Dave Eggers for the last three).
As a reasonable human being, you may choose simply to ignore that person, perhaps to your cost. As a responsible one you may try to discuss things with them. As a forthright one you would take issue regardless of the consequences.
The United States of America now has a President who is or does all of the above. Let us hope that the majority of citizens who abhor their new leader are not denied the pleasure of seeing such a spectacularly unsuitable individual implode in short order, preferably assisted by continued mass protest worldwide and impeachment on multiple counts. I’m taking bets.
Friday, January 13th, 2017.
When I was collecting my summer bike from its refit the other day, Rich was telling me that he’d spent Christmas in Lanzarote, training in the sun on those big hills, just like most of the European-based pro teams do in the winter. My random rejoinder was that I thought I had one bike left in me, suitable for all purposes anywhere, and that all I knew was that it would be steel and would thus last as long as me. He asked if I’d heard of English Cycles, which I hadn’t, and said they made beautiful steel frames. I checked them out when I got home. Made in Oregon (surprise, surprise) by an English engineer called Rob English. He’s a bike nut, and on his home page he says this;
‘What is it about the bicycle? Something about the freedom and sheer joy of the supreme efficiency of the marriage of man and machine. Something about the zen of the meditative state during riding…..going fast, with less than a square inch of rubber connecting you to the road….. and even the simple ability to cover ground and haul stuff around town.’
I know what he means, and have a page or two of notes scribbled over recent months that warm to the same theme. I’ll get round to editing them and posting them here one day.
Wednesday, January 11th, 2017.
Wednesday, January 4th, 2017.
Thursday, December 15th, 2016.
As I’ve noted elsewhere, Avril always says ‘DFO’ to me when I set off on my bicycle. ‘Don’t Fall Off’. I generally oblige. One thing she never says is ‘Don’t talk to strange blokes dressed in camouflage wielding machetes & wandering about on deserted woodland roads at dusk’. That really did happen this evening, though I’m sure that his business was both legitimate and harmless, except perhaps to pheasants. I didn’t stop to ask. Avril will be pleased.
Tuesday, December 6th, 2016.
A Moment’s Peace.
I have two favourite spots for a quick break on my regular cycling routes. One is on the west side of the Eden Valley looking east over the Pennines, the other on the east side of the valley looking west over the Lake District. I’m almost always the only person about when I stop, and sometimes linger for a few minutes to contemplate the beautiful views or just take in the ambient sounds and smells.
No views today, with a thin mist shrouding the landscape. Not much sound, either. Still, and mild for December. Nice. The moment I thought that I’d just sit for a few minutes and make the most of the silence & solitude I felt my ‘phone vibrate in my breast pocket.
Landline. Don’t recognise the number. Pick it up.
‘Hello. My name is Amanda and I’m from …inaudible company name. I understand that you’ve recently been involved in a road traffic accident.’
Of course I haven’t.
‘I’m going to use a legal term here which I imagine you’ll understand. Complete fucking bollocks. Goodbye’.
One can’t help feeling sorry for the people whose job it is to make these calls. I don’t blame them for anything, they’re trying to make a living. And what a horrible way to do it; I’m sure they get abuse from dawn to dusk. They don’t deserve it, but the people behind them most certainly do. Somewhere in there there has to be some sort of law or insurance firm of the ambulance-chasing variety. Those people make me sick, deserve as much abuse as can be hurled at them, and should be struck off whatever register entitles them to operate.
A moment’s peace destroyed. That’s what really bugged me.
Thursday, November 24th, 2016.
High pressure dominating weather in the British Isles again. A glorious still & freezing day today. Rather too much ice left on the roads for relaxed riding, so caution was the order of the day for a surprisingly hilly ride down the Lune Valley – 3,333′ of climbing :). Great views in the crisp, clear air………….
Friday, November 4th, 2016.
Standards: Any jazz musician, and many others, will tell you about them; the repertoire we’re all supposed to know and love, and which in fact most of us do know and love, at least in part.
What are they? Well, there are narrow and broad definitions. At the most restricted, the repertoire consists of Broadway show tunes from the 1920s to the 1960s, sometimes referred to as The Great American Songbook. A big book, but never without the work of Gershwin, Rogers, Hammerstein, Kern, Porter, Carmichael, Mercer and the like. Broadening out, it can include modern pop & soul tunes, even some folk & country, as long as they are widely known; Lennon-McCartney, Motown, that kind of thing. And it can also encompass what might be called jazz classics – tunes written explicitly for and by jazz musicians, sometimes based on the harmony, or reharmonisation, of Songbook classics.
Back in the mid-1970s we all got excited when the first Real Books appeared. These were illegal compilations of ‘lead sheets’ – single-stave melodies with chord progressions written above them (as opposed to below, where we Brits were more used to reading them). Hand-written and photocopied, they came from the USA, and the first ones to arrive in the UK were eagerly re-photocopied by everyone, myself included. They reflected the broadest category of standards; Songbook tunes, jazz compositions and some pop & rock stuff ( a few Frank Zappa tunes in there, for instance), and in a significant sense were responsible for consolidating that broad definition. We all had access to the books, and played and learned their contents. Even players established long before the advent of Real Books used them. There was much controversy about right and wrong chord changes. That continues.
For a long time, I was ambivalent about standards – the ‘standard’ standards, at least; all those great tunes by the American masters of mid- 20th century popular song. Sure, I practised them to distraction, but all the time I was aware of benchmark interpretations by great players. What could I possibly add to what they had said, and why would anyone be in the least bit interested? That was my mantra, so I stuck to working on the changes in private, only playing the tunes in public in a context where I knew almost no-one would know or care what was or was not going on so long as things sounded vaguely familiar. Function gigs. No jazz police there, no-one checking out my altered scales and tritone substitutions – or lack of them. Or at least I hope not; you can play to 50,000 people, but if you know there’s someone out there who could unmask you, you’re only playing to that one individual. And even if that person isn’t there, he or she is still in your head.
The aforementioned Keith Jarrett Standards Trio (September 23rd, 2016, below) in an early live recording of theirs from 1989 (‘Tribute’, ECM 1420/21) addressed the issue neatly when they played a concert of standards and dedicated each piece to a particular musician responsible for a defining rendition of the same work – Kern & Hammerstein’s ‘All The Things You Are’ dedicated to Sonny Rollins, Cole Porter’s ‘All Of You’ to Miles Davis and so on. No false modesty there – the trio had indeed something to say and said it with every note. It’s one of the greatest jazz groups of all time, so it’d be unlikely to help me overcome my standards problem, indeed it’d be much more likely to compound it.
Over the last few years, though, I think I’ve managed to work out where I stand on this, and why, and feel comfortable with it all. For the following reasons;
I still enjoy playing the pieces most of the time.
I treat them with respect rather than trepidation – there’s a reason they’ve stood the test of time.
I do my best to do them justice. In My Own Sweet Way. Apologies, Mr. Brubeck.
I have no urge to try to say something new, even if I could. I might try to say something old and mean it, and thus may with time become a slightly better player, even if I’m the only one to notice.
Audiences of a certain age love the standard repertoire. Such audiences as there are, anyway. It’s familiar, it’s comfortable, it’s well-crafted, and it doesn’t scare the horses. Now and again I get asked to work with bands that play to these audiences. I can see that they enjoy most of what they hear – even my bits – so for that reason if no other, and with no further or deeper analysis, I guess it’s worth playing standards and stopping worrying that I can’t say anything that hasn’t been said better by a thousand others.
Thursday, October 27th, 2016.
Monday, October 17th, 2016.
Today the weather turned and the benign effects of the anticyclone over Scandinavia since the start of the month began to diminish.
Last Saturday’s weather, however, was great for cycling. Mild, not much wind, a bit of drizzle to start, then clearing to the north, which was the way I was heading. Perfect.
Yet another trans-Pennine schlep, with plenty to keep me cheerful and intrigued, not least the sun after the first 40 miles or so. Roads strangely quiet for a weekend, save for a succession of what might best be described as ‘special interest’ groups, none of which were cyclists, of whom I saw none for the first 50 miles. Remarkable!
So first, as I climbed to Hartside summit, about 30 petrolheads in supercharged saloon cars of diverse vintage passed me heading downhill, engines popping like shotguns and producing chokingly thick exhaust fumes. I could still hear their engines ten minutes after they’d passed me, which was not as long as it took to get the taste of their fumes out of my mouth. They turned round somewhere and caught me up at Whitfield summit about an hour later, and did it all again. Splutter.
Then a long procession of off-road motorcyclists coming down the track below Hartside, thence to another track off the Renwick descent. Didn’t see them again.
Then, bizarrely, the Toyota Hilux Surf Club in Whitfield. No surfboards, but half a dozen battered old 4x4s.
Everyone loves the A686, still widely regarded as the most beautiful drive in England.
I cycled the first 50 miles to Corbridge non-stop, where the sun was warm enough to fill the terrace of the Angel Inn with customers, and I took five minutes to fuel up at the Spar next door, noticing as I did the preponderance of Bentleys, Jaguars and Range Rovers. Not your average North-Eastern small town.
Onward on the back lane to Bywell and onto the familiar Keelman’s and Hadrian’s Ways, the former quite muddy and slippery in places, requiring the sort of riding technique more suited to cyclocross or mountain biking. Managed to stay upright and enjoy 40 more absorbing miles to Whitley Bay.
A happy trip, with a nice Chinese takeaway with Hannah and family before driving back home with Avril. Yes, we’d done that one-way ride thing again. Great, and thanks as ever to my kind and lovely chauffeuse.
A leisurely spin it might have been, but not devoid of achievements.
I’m going to take a moment to bask. 🙂
To be precise, 103 ‘achievements’ in 83 miles according to Strava, including 39 personal bests for the route. The ride also marked an interesting though I fear inaccurate landmark. Since I started using GPS tracking apps on a smartphone for cycling, up to and including Saturday’s ride I’ve logged 315 ‘workouts’. With 8405 miles on the clock, that works out at just under 27 miles a ride. Now if I were a runner, that would be seriously impressive; every workout a marathon. As a cyclist, I’m still very happy with it, especially if I include the 550,000 feet of climbing that would take me halfway to the International Space Station.
Free sports GPS apps have a basic algorithm which plots notional calorie burn as a function of distance travelled, speed, height gained and rider weight. That’s as much as they can do without any additional biometrics for the rider. And this is where I may have reached an inaccurate landmark, for on Saturday the app told me that I’d passed one million calories burned. Probably not an implausible figure, though not worth strapping probes to my chest to verify 🙂
Who cares, anyway? Feels good to me, whatever the true statistic.
Sunday, October 16th, 2016.
Wednesday, October 12th, 2016.
High pressure over Scandinavia from the start of month. Still here and likely to last for a while yet. Great, because that means clear days, little or no rain & plenty of sun, and sometimes a cool easterly breeze. Atlantic low pressure systems kept out at sea. Not quite a re-run of last October, since more layers of clothing are required, but in all other respects just as good. A few miles ridden in ideal conditions, needless to say. Got to make the most of it.
I always find this time of year both melancholy and beautiful. The former because, however old I get, I never lose that end-of-summer-back-to-school feeling. Luke was born in mid-September 1984 on a day like today, and for the first few weeks of his life the weather was sunny and mild; I feel happy and sad when I think of those days, and think of him now on the other side of the world, married and living a global life almost unimaginable to me. But most of all happy that he’s happy; likewise Dan.
Friday, September 30th, 2016.
A chain (ch) is a unit of length. It measures 66 feet, or 22 yards, or 100 links, or 4 rods (20.1168 m). There are 10 chains in a furlong, and 80 chains in one statute mile. An acre is the area of 10 square chains (that is, an area of one chain by one furlong). The chain has been used for several centuries in Britain and in some other countries influenced by British practice. (Thanks, Wikipedia). It’s also the length of a cricket pitch. It’s also the 21st century. Quaintly, the contractors currently fixing the half-million ton (not tonne!) landslip on the Settle-Carlisle railway seem to be using the distances from London measured when the line was built in the 1870s, which are probably still marked on the trackside. I cycled a few rods past the site compound on Wednesday, and wondered how many Brexiters could pass the chain test? Given that many seem to think Victoria’s still on the throne, probably more than you’d imagine.
Monday, September 26th, 2016.
Back in the saddle yesterday after a two-week break. Not too painful.
Much as I would have liked to take my bike to Gascony for Luke & Sarah’s wedding last week, there was neither space for it nor opportunity or time to ride. The whole trip was full-on and fabulous; an inspired celebration in a beautiful place with a fantastic vibe, lots of lovely people and, thankfully, good weather. Couldn’t think of a better start to married life for the happy couple, or to father-in-lawdom.
A few chance velo-themed encounters, though;
Friday, September 23rd, 2016.
Love the music, not the man. That’s the general consensus, and I won’t dwell on it. Look here if you need to know more.
Elsewhere in this blog I’ve written about John Coltrane – who would have been 90 today – and Cannonball Adderley, the significance of their music, and why it’s important to me.
I’m about to write about Jarrett in the same vein, even though I think he’s a total prat. And a genius.
I was backstage at his trio’s RFH gig in July 2000 (ECM 1780 ‘Inside Out’) and he seemed pleasant enough, if reserved, but I’ve seen and heard enough elsewhere to know that in general that isn’t the case.
Geek that I am, I have a pristine original copy of Charles Lloyd’s 1966 album ‘Dream Weaver’, which features the 20-year old Jarrett. That was the first time I heard him. Those who know me know the story of how I had a ticket for but never made it to the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970. My only chance to see Hendrix – his tragic death was just three weeks away – & Joni; and of course Miles was there, with Jarrett in his band – the ‘Bitches Brew’ crew. Plenty of material for another long entry there.
I have an equally pristine first pressing of Jarrett’s ‘Facing You’, his first solo piano album in 1972 for Manfred Eicher’s infant ECM label. How many people must have told Eicher back then that he was crazy to start a record label releasing stuff like that? Last laugh to Manfred. I still love that record, and the super-bright sound of the piano in that little Oslo studio.
I was at Jarrett’s first solo piano concert in the UK in October 1977. The venue was unlikely – the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane – the capacity audience an interesting cross section of the famous, the infamous and the hip; our little corner of the auditorium also had Robert Wyatt and Mike Oldfield in it. Jarrett’s piano stool was squeaky. It annoyed him, but he didn’t kick off.
Five years later he did, when he played Manchester’s Free Trade Hall (now a Radisson Hotel 😦 ) Once more I had a ticket and didn’t make it, but friends who did reported with astonishment that he’d stopped playing to shout at a photographer. A pattern had been set.
Despite his personality, I’ve continued to love his music, and, like most people, have a special fondness for his seminal Standards trio with Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette – the latter never my favourite drummer in other contexts. I well recall the astonishment and disappointment of the audiences at the two ‘Inside Out’ gigs that the band didn’t play any standards other than the encores. In the end, that kind of artistic license can be tolerated and understood in a way that bawling out punters, stage crew and promoters can’t.
Anyway; the Keith Jarrett Trio. There’s a 6CD recording of six sets over three nights at New York’s Blue Note in June 1994. Maybe the band at the height of its powers? Certainly close, IMHO. It’s all there; the fantastic technique; the invention; the brilliance and beauty of Jarrett’s playing; of Peacock’s lines; the trademark long outros; and lots of standards. Very few jazz piano trios come anywhere near. And how could they? At this level the very best are all different; and very few.
‘Jarrett makes each new note sound like a discovery…the music whispered and glimmered, seeking a pure, incorporeal song.’
New York Times, June 6th, 1994
I was on a ferry last night from Bilbao to Portsmouth. I was feeling a bit groggy in the steady swell of the Bay of Biscay, so did what should be done and lay down. I fell asleep in the early evening, with the result that I was wide awake at 3 in the morning. I listened to four of the seven hours on this recording. I’ve been listening to little else for several weeks now. If I were never able to hear any other jazz – any other music, in fact – for the rest of my life, these recordings would provide sufficient nourishment.
I doubt, though, that knowing that would make Keith Jarrett a nicer person.
Wednesday, September 7th 2016.
Big day out on Monday, initially to see the Tour of Britain as it passed through Cumbria, as I did last year , thence to ride on for the rest of the day to Whitley Bay on the North-East coast.
Made an early start to intercept the Tour at Armathwaite, ten miles or so south of Carlisle, where Stage 2 started. It was damp when I set out, but improving over the day such that by early afternoon, though still largely overcast, it became very humid, with the occasional light breeze really welcome.
Fifteen minutes after setting out I came across a very recently run-over red squirrel; very sad, though probably already reported to the relevant wildlife recorder. Right across the road was a dead microwave oven. I doubt that the two incidents were connected, but who knows? What I do know is that idiots who dump junk at random on country lanes – or anywhere else for that matter – are despicable. At least people who run over squirrels have probably done it by accident.
I made a much better pace over the 25 miles or so to Armathwaite than I’d projected, arriving in time for a leisurely breakfast from the excellent village shop before moving to my chosen vantage point on a tight bend at the foot of a climb just across the river Eden from the village. As I sat on a bench outside the shop eating an egg sandwich, an elderly lady asked to sit next to me and proceeded to talk about the Tour in detail; she was looking forward to going home when she’d seen the riders pass to watch the rest of the stage live on TV, especially the ascent of the Struggle at Ambleside. A lovely encounter.
40 or so people gathered over the river to watch the race go by. Mostly villagers, but a dozen or so riders arrived from various directions. I observed them; a motley though typical assembly comprising;
Keen and fit club riders in smart matching kit ;
Fat blokes in lycra on very expensive bikes, at least one of whom I suspect had unhitched his from a roof-rack just around the corner;
Posh middle-aged ladies on electric bikes and bespoke tourers;
And the inevitable endearing eccentric. Look closely and you’ll spot him in the photo.
Onward to Brampton, where the humidity required removal of the rainjacket I thought I’d be wearing all day. Turned out it tanked down on the rest of the Tour’s day, whilst I headed away from the bad weather. Right choice for once!
From here on I was to follow the line of Hadrian’s Wall for its length eastwards to the North Sea, using minor roads and cycleways and covering a few miles new to me on the bike.
And what a lovely trip it was. I lumbered up the hill from Lanercost to Banks Turret , thence followed the lengthy stretch of extant Roman wall leading to the fort at Birdoswald. Past a party of elderly Americans walking the wall path, then a coachload of oriental visitors photographing everything in sight – including me. Once upon a time these would have had to be Japanese tourists; now they could just as easily be South Korean or Chinese. I can’t distinguish the languages or any minor ethnic giveaways; my inability remains and my ignorance endures.
At the top the nasty Glenwhelt Bank out of Greenhead, thankful for the tarmac cycle track that’s been laid in recent years alongside the narrow and dangerous hill climb, and close by another fort, I always become aware of the isolation of this final frontier of the Roman Empire. What the hell must legionnaires from the Levant or the Maghreb, young guys from Syria or Tunisia, have made of their postings here almost 2000 years ago? We know, because documents survive. A beach it wasn’t.
And what of the massive slave labour force that quarried the stone and built the wall stretching across the narrowest part of England? What remains of Hadrian’s Wall is a breathtaking sight. How it must have looked in its heyday to the primitive tribespeople of the Geordie People’s Front ; ‘What have the Romans ever done for us ?’
Onward past the spectacular Sill , due to open in Summer 2017, thence a little dogleg to get onto Stanegate, the Roman supply road a little way back from the wall, quiet and beautiful as ever.
A fast few miles downhill to cross the Tyne at Warden, then through Hexham, a short stop in Corbridge for food and drink, out past the house that once belonged to Paul McCartney when he was married to local girl Heather Mills, and down a winding lane to Bywell. I’d planned to use this as a link to the Keelman’s Way & Hadrian’s Way, traffic free routes on the banks of the Tyne that would take me the last 40 miles or so to my destination, still shadowing the Wall’s route. (See below, July 24th, 2015, for more on these routes).
This blog is peppered with moans about closed roads to the point that I now just ignore the signs; usually a pedestrian or a cyclist can get through. Given that there’d be an annoying detour if this link were closed, I’d thought about it, and almost expected it to be shut. It was. I ignored it. It turned out that the closure was beyond the link, on the section of motor road between Bywell and Ovingham, where the road had fallen into the river. Not all of it, though, and safe for bikes.
Armed with quite a lot of knowledge from previous confusions on this route, and a little new research on the tricky bits, I had a great and quiet time ambling along past boathouses, golf courses, industrial estates and, of course, the Tyne’s many and famous bridges. The research proved particularly useful at Stella, where the signs for the route point in completely the wrong direction. Another case of ignoring them and going the right way; it’s about time someone revised the signage at King Oswald Drive. Some chicanery (literally) on Newcastle Quayside as crew were setting up for the coming weekend’s Great North Run. Somewhere around Roman Segedunum, next to the long-gone Swan Hunter shipyard at Wallsend, a local couple on road bikes out for an evening spin passed me. I was slowing down a bit by now, but decided to let them pace me if they didn’t mind. They didn’t, and we rode together and chatted as far as North Shields. Nice.
My second wind had arrived in time for a delightful finishing run along the seafront from Tynemouth to Whitley Bay where Avril would be meeting me and we’d be staying the night with daughter Hannah & family. A gentle sea breeze made for perfect conditions, and a slight variation to my usual route added the extra distance necessary to bring the day’s total to 100.5 miles. And 32 personal bests. Perfect.
Saturday, August 20th, 2016.
What to wear? Never something that troubles me much, except when I’m on an outdoor jape involving a modicum of exertion. Will I overheat, will I be too cold, will I stay dry, can I still get optimum vitamin D rations if there’s the slightest chance? And I never want to carry stuff I won’t need, so how do I make the calculations?
Sometimes the weather forecast helps, if it looks unequivocal, and it did yesterday. Wall-to-wall rain, low temperatures for the time of year but not cold, brisk southeasterly winds. It was pretty much right, save that the winds turned out to be a bit lighter than predicted.
I’d chosen a ride where the wind would be following me for most of the time anyway, largely because Avril was on a different mission and we could wind up in the same place and she could give me a lift home. Nearly all of my rides are in circles, so from time to time it’s really nice not to have to do that, as it’s likely to involve roads less travelled.
As it did yesterday, with added rain from start to finish. Not a dry second as I traversed the Northern Fells and onward through villages with delightful names – Torpenhow (pron. Trepenna), Gilcrux (pron. Gilcroos), Tallentire (pron Tallentire) – to Cockermouth. ‘Funny sort of name that, Av’, as the late, great British jazz bassist Jeff Clyne once said to my wife.
So off I set with a strange admixture of winter and summer gear. Lightest top, to keep me as cool as possible, but with my winter waterproof on top. Usual summer shorts but winter overshoes, the former because I firmly believe that if there’s no chance of hypothermia this is the best choice – exposed skin is guaranteed impermeable and quicker drying than any expensive fabric; the latter because regular cycling shoes are purposely full of holes, get wet instantly and stay wet whilst it rains. After a while your feet get cold and uncomfortable whatever the ambient temperature.
My what to wear choice was as good as it could have been. After five hours battling rain and wind I was wet and filthy, of course, but not cold. The bike was filthy too. The trickiest part was getting dry and changed in a Sainsbury’s car park whilst retaining a vestige of decorum.
And another thing about days like yesterday. On Tuesday, a beautiful day – see below- I cycled through the Lake District tourist trap that is Pooley Bridge, back to normal after last winter’s privations. It was packed with visitors from all over the world, and I made a speedy transit. Today, in the pissing rain, I spotted two forlorn people under a big umbrella. Car parks and ferry jetty empty, even the cafés. Where do they all go?
Rain. It’s where lakes come from.
Tuesday, August 16th, 2016.
The first day this year that the weather forecast’s shown a big sun for every hour of daylight; and the chance to get out in it. Hard 60-mile circuit of the Eastern Lake District in the baking heat. Glorious – so much so I’ll just let the pictures do the talking:
Tuesday, August 9th, 2016.
Out To Lunch with Garry, aka Gazzelloni. Straight Up And Down to Middleton for Something Sweet, Something Tender. I brought the Beard; we forgot the Hat.
So what’s the missing name that answers the riddle? Not hard for you hardcore jazzheads out there, but impossible for just about everyone else, I guess.
A great day out yesterday with my good friend Garry. 80 miles across the Pennines and back, climbing Hartside in record time, the short killer hill out of Garrigill, Yad Moss (high point) and Grains o’ th’ Beck on the way. 5,400 ft all told. Horrible 30mph headwind – very unusual for August – around miles 50 to 70, slowing us right down and pissing us right off, but some happy rolling when the wind was at our backs. Mindful that without trying three summers ago I’d done my best ever time for 10 miles where this route drops off the watershed into Teesdale (see August 28th, 2013, below), this time we hammered down the valley with intent and covered 10 miles in 23 minutes, 20km in 30. New PBs for us both, followed by an al fresco lunch of cheese pie & chips in Middleton. Don’t often have a sit-down lunch when I’m cycling, so getting started up the hill afterwards took a bit of extra effort. Still the sort of day when you’re glad you can ride a bike. Cheers , Garry 🙂
Friday, July 29th, 2016.
I always say to anyone who asks for advice on buying a musical instrument that they should get the best they can afford, even if they can’t afford it. Without such investment, wise advice and a good teacher there’s no way for a novice to know if it’s their fault or the instrument’s that things don’t happen as they should or sound right. This is definitely the case with my instrument, the saxophone. Unsurprisingly, my horns are long-cherished and high quality; I’m equally fond of saying that if I can’t get the results I’m after, it’s not the instruments’ fault. Time to do some more practice.
I guess this observation on quality applies to all consumer products – you get what you pay for. It certainly applies to most machines, bikes included. I don’t often ride with large groups, but noticed when I did so recently on the Dunwich Dynamo that at times I was freewheeling when some of my companions were pedalling, and we were going at the same speed, and as soon as there was a mild downhill stretch (all you get in Essex & Suffolk) I whizzed ahead. My wheel hubs aren’t the most expensive; neither are they the cheapest, and they’re well-maintained; in conjunction with narrow tyres with low rolling resistance though, they clearly make a difference both to speed and effort expended. You get what you pay for.
A seasonal observation: May is usually wet and greening hereabouts, June wet and greener, but late July into August is supergreen, lush, the foliage so dense that landscapes clearly visible for ten to eleven months of the year are all but obscured, forcing one’s focus to narrow; never a bad thing when it comes to examining the natural environment.
Thursday, July 21st, 2016.
A week’s worth of oddness here; odd insofar as the sequence of events is a little out of the ordinary for me, involving much less sleep than I like.
Started off last Wednesday visiting family in Hull as a prelude to a couple of days’ cycling in Eastern England.
On Thursday we spent a few hours in the beautiful city of Lincoln en route to the village of Oxborough in North Norfolk, staying the night in the village pub. By chance an open-air production of ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ was taking place in the grounds of Oxburgh (sic) Hall. We didn’t go, but in the still evening air the actors’ voices carried with almost enough strength to be deciphered in the pub’s garden.
Friday was warm-up day for Saturday night’s Dunwich Dynamo. Avril set off for the Suffolk coast and I headed south on the bike. This is a flat part of the world, exposed to any wind and below sea level in places. Interesting, if you live in the hills like me, and presenting different challenges to the cyclist. A crosswind was to accompany me all day, which was the only significant impediment to progress. It was sunny, on and off, warm, and didn’t rain.
I wanted to avoid all main roads, as usual, and the first 25 miles to Ely were very quiet, especially the delightful Ten Mile Bank along the river Great Ouse.
From Ely I took back lanes to Cambridge. A famously cycle-friendly city which, despite being overrun with tourists and vacation course students from across the world (though mainly from the USA & China, it appeared to me) was easy to navigate; pedestrians much more of a hazard than traffic. Stopped by my elder son Luke’s alma mater to take a photo to send to him in Singapore, where he and his wife Sarah live.
Around halfway to London by lunchtime, I’d elected not to take a break in the mayhem of Cambridge, guessing that there’d be some village store down the road where I could fuel up. Wrong. Thankfully, a garage at the intersection of the B1368, which I’d be following all the way to Hertfordshire, and the A505 provided the necessary sustenance.
Onward to Ware, and the search for the Lee Valley off-road cycle route. I’d spent a lot of time online trying to find a comprehensive guide to this with a decent map, to no avail, so had no choice but to arrive at it and investigate. It starts in Ware, and I passed a sign to it under a bridge. I knew it was in some parts paved, but for the most part not. Figuring out if the ‘not’ parts were road-bike friendly was my problem. The alternative would be 25 miles of urban and suburban streets in the Friday evening rushhour. The road to Hoddesdon wasn’t too busy, and as I reached Broxbourne, all the while thinking I must take the plunge and get on to the path, I spotted Richardson’s Cycles. The shop was about to close, so I dashed in and asked for some advice. Principally, how would I manage on a road bike with 23mm slick tyres? Good ones, and very puncture resistant, but road tyres nonetheless. Advice was duly given and gratefully received; I should be OK – the gravel surfaces are very fine, and well-pummelled by feet and tyres. I felt a bit bad going in, seeking help and leaving, so I bought an inner tube by way of thanks. I already had two with me, but this turned out to be a wise purchase anyway.
I turned down a side road a few hundred yards from the shop as advised and not only found the path but also Lee Valley Cycle Hire, again just about to close. More helpful advice and – at last! – a really good map of the whole route down to the Thames. Free. I took two, one for younger son Dan, to whose house in Hackney I was heading and with whom I’d be riding the Dynamo tomorrow.
The ride is basically a towpath, and along its length are hundreds of boats in various states of splendour and disrepair, their occupants likewise. At one point I stopped to ask a woman fixing a puncture by a decrepit hulk if she needed any help; ‘No thanks, I live just there’, she said, pointing to the said wreck. The path is indeed fine gravel for maybe 90% of its length. I was to cover about 20 miles of it, and encountered plenty of other riders on road bikes, as well as lots of pedestrians. What was weird – and marvellous – about the whole thing, of course, is that I was getting closer and closer to the centre of the most polyglot city on earth and there was no traffic, just the navigation channel, trees, boats, pedestrians, cyclists, reservoirs and lots of ducks. Then you go under the M25, then the North Circular, then Canary Wharf and the Shard appear pretty close to hand. Still it’s quiet. Weird.
There are a few spots where speed bumps in the shape of sticking-up cobbles are deliberately sited to slow you down on ramps, protecting pedestrians from cyclists – be wary of these, they could damage your bike and/or tip you into the water. I did note in many places that there’s very little to prevent a wobbling rider from plunging into the river. I’m sure it happens.
The path crosses the river at Stonebridge Lock in Tottenham Hale. I stopped for a moment and noticed that my seat-pack anchor had come adrift. I was using the same 6 litre pack which accompanied me on the Big Scottish Ride. It could only be fixed by attaching a nut with the same thread as the securing bolt. Amazingly, I had one in my tool kit – don’t ask! Took me half an hour or so to fix it such that I was pretty confident that it would see me though Saturday night’s excursion. Which it did.
As I reached the only really badly surfaced section of the route I’d encountered, I realised I was only a mile or so from Dan’s place in Lower Clapton, so I cut up Spring Hill onto Clapton Common and did the last mile on busy roads. Spring Hill; a tiny climb: Strava would tell me that I’d cycled 95 miles today, and climbed 1400 feet. I climb that much at least in an average 15 mile ride at home!
More memorable than re-entering the noisy world of traffic via Spring Hill was the cultural delight of shabbat; this is Stamford Hill, it’s getting towards dusk on Friday. Frummers and shtreimels everywhere.
I arrived at Dan’s just as he got in from work, and after a quick turnround we went out to an excellent Vietnamese restaurant. He kindly lent me his bed for the night and slept in the room of one of his housemates who was away.
We had most of Saturday to chill before making our way to London Fields – less than a mile away – for the start of the 14th Dunwich Dynamo at 8pm. And chill we did – nice chats with his housemates, a walk in the park, reading the papers, coffee and cake in a friendly café, Tour de France on TV and a siesta – essential before the night’s work.
I guess that around 1500-1700 riders turned up. There was a carnival atmosphere. Three of Dan’s friends who I knew were coming with us, as well as four who I’d not met before. Nine of us in all. Setting off was bizarre. A trickle turns to a flood, and riders are six-deep, nose-to-tail in the bus lanes by the time we ride the few hundred yards to Hackney Empire. It’s dead slow, for obvious reasons, but once we reach Leytonstone things are stringing out, and by Epping everyone’s found their pace. And we have our first puncture. It’s Dan’s back tyre, and I fix it for him, using the first of my inner tubes. I have three, remember. Some wag says ‘you should never do anything like this without your dad being there to get you out of a jam’. Ten miles further on and the tyre’s flat again. We pump it up, it goes down again.
We stop again and go the whole hog. Spare inner number one was faulty. Spare inner number two is OK, and I put a new tyre on the back wheel. Ten miles further on another rider in our party has a blow-out. I ask if someone else has a spare inner, as I only have one now and may need it. Fixed up and off again, but during all this kerfuffle three of our riders have gone off the front. It’s dark, and there are still riders everywhere, so it’s quite easy to get separated. Riders everywhere, some lit up like Christmas trees, some on ancient bikes, some with Bluetooth sound systems, some flotillas of club riders going for speed . But most people ambling along, chatting, and stopping at pubs whilst they’re still open. That said, we’re ambling at a good pace, around 15mph, and I’m very comfortable in a small peloton of riders over 30 years my junior. We lose someone who stops at a crowded pub when the rest of us ride past it. We wait. We have a slower, less fit but determined rider in the party, so we stop regularly to regroup. All this means that the breakaway three are getting further ahead. A ‘phone call and we all agree to reconvene in Sudbury, Suffolk – the halfway point.
It’s two in the morning and the weather is warm, there’s no wind or cloud, and, of course, the moon’s up. Perfect. We’re a couple of miles out of Sudbury when I ship my chain at reasonable speed. Nothing unusual there, so someone shines a headlamp on my bike whilst I put it back. It’s been twisted round the crank arm, but I’m not concerned. Until I ride off; the chain is running up and down the rear cassette at random . What in the world is that about? For the life or me I can’t think why this would happen. Never mind, if I can struggle into Sudbury the cycle shop stays open all night for the Dynamo and I should be OK. Most of the short hop to Sudbury is downhill, so I don’t even have to pedal much.
First shock; the cycle shop isn’t open this year. I wheel my bike into the Fire Station, which acts as the rest & food stop and where’s there’s some decent light. Second shock: I’ve been looking in the wrong place; under proper lighting, one of our team spots that the chain is bent. It’s super-bent, in three places, and that explains why it runs up and down the cassette, rendering the bike uncontrollable. No choice here; I tell the rest of the group to ride on without me; they have to catch a pre-booked bus back to London from the finish, but Avril is meeting me with the car. I’m thus the only one who can afford to hang about. Both Dan & I are sad & disappointed to split in this way, but it’s definitely for the best. I’m also bloody annoyed, as I’ve been going like a train. And hang about I do; I get out my chain tool and emergency links, but don’t have the necessary equipment to straighten a severely mangled chain. I persevere for ninety minutes until discretion becomes the better part of valour. The kind firemen let me get cleaned up in the station washroom, then I push my bike a hundred yards up the road, roll out my space blanket and settle down for a snooze under some trees outside the parish church until it’s a sensible time to contact Avril. Right now it’s 4am and light.
So far so normal, I suppose, for us. Avril had been staying on the Suffolk coast close to Dunwich, and made it over to Sudbury for around 8.30.
Now for the bit I haven’t mentioned yet;
Though much less active than during my former full-time life in the music business, from time to time something crops up from that quarter that just has to be done, and one such did so three weeks ago. I’ll cut to the chase and avoid all the minutiae. I was asked if I could fix a couple of dates for the Grammy-winning US jazz quartet The Yellowjackets – one of my favourite bands ever – as a result of the cancellation of work in Spain on their current European tour. I knew two of the players – pianist Russell Ferrante & saxophonist Bob Mintzer – of old, so it wasn’t a cold start, though of course protocol dictates that everything had to go through manager & agent , with only polite direct communication with the band. We got it pulled together for tonight and tomorrow, and I’d managed to sort out all of my responsibilities by relying on old friends and colleagues who I knew would handle everything perfectly and professionally – travel, PA, fly-in hire gear collection, accommodation, food and all the other stuff – without me being around, as there was no way I could have cancelled the long-planned excursion to Dunwich. A lot of dashing about in the fortnight prior, though, to allow me to do the ride with a clean conscience and in the right frame of mind.
The band was leaving London on the 0945 train to the Lakes on Sunday morning after 2 nights at Ronnie Scott’s. We were in hot pursuit with an awkward 350 mile drive. I wasn’t totally knackered, but Avril insisted that she do all the driving, which was tiresome on a hot, bright day. What a star. Even more tiresome that we couldn’t find anywhere in Bury St Edmunds for breakfast.
What ensued were two world-class gigs by one of the finest contemporary jazz groups on the planet, now in its 36th year, to audiences who’d travelled the length and breadth of the country to see the only shows outside London. We still didn’t get any time to catch up on sleep, with late nights, more dashing about to collect a minibus and a 6am wake-up to drive the band to Newcastle airport for an early flight to Paris on Tuesday morning.
All in all a slightly unusual week 🙂
Thursday, June 30th, 2016.
And a third up-all-night in nine days, this time for a very different reason again. Out of Ronnie Scott’s at 1am today, home for 9am. Pat Metheny’s new quartet with Antonio Sanchez, Linda Oh and Gwilym Simcock. First time Pat’s ever played Ronnie’s – he’s been too big for 40 years to be able to make it happen, and clearly just wanted to work in the club. Great move; like having the band in your living room, and superb playing all round . Even when I first saw Pat 38 years ago it was in a bigger venue and almost every time since it’s been in big concert halls or at festivals. A rare treat.
Saturday, June 25th, 2016.
Second up-all-night this week, but for very different reasons. Here’s what I posted on Facebook at 5am yesterday.
We’re about to commemorate the centenary of the Somme, when tens of thousands of Europeans – men with far more in common than divided them – died on the first morning. We’re seventy years on from the end of a conflict in which millions of innocent European civilians perished. My generation, grandparents themselves now, have enjoyed a lifetime of peace, opportunity and prosperity. Today we’ve dishonoured the sacrifice of our own parents and grandparents which gave us those opportunities. I feel ashamed and embarrassed to be British. I feel like the clock has gone back a hundred years; that xenophobia, stupidity and a complete ignorance of history have eclipsed progress, compassion and common sense. I feel like leaving the country where I hoped to live out my days and apologising to each and every fellow citizen of Europe for the parochialism of today’s decision. I can best describe how I feel like this; I was in Germany the night the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, and experienced the hope and euphoria generated by an event I never could have imagined could have taken place in my lifetime. Today I feel the polar opposite, whatever that can be called. The turkeys have voted for Christmas, and the prospect that they’ll do it again in the United States in November is almost too much to contemplate, but after today’s outcome something that can’t be discounted. That would make 2016 the worst year of my life, and no doubt of the lives of the many millions of British people who wished to remain European citizens, world citizens.
Spent the rest of Friday variously in the company of friends and acquaintances from the USA, Canada, France, Italy, Germany, Bulgaria, Poland & Latvia. And – you couldn’t make this up – the fascist manbaby came to Scotland today to open his golf course at Turnberry. (See below, June 8th, 2012.)
Thanks to our friend Joe Locke and his great band, Alessandro di Liberto, Darryl Hall & Alyn Cosker, for lifting everyone’s mood last night with their spirit on and off the bandstand.
Wednesday, June 22nd, 2016.
With my summer bike nicely aired off , a workshop visit was due in early June to replace a heavily-worn chain and chainset. Standard maintenance, but not something I’d usually do myself as it involves tinkering with the bottom bracket – special tools, risk of stripping threads etc. A professional’s job. As it turned out, a well-worn front mech hanger, of the brazed-on variety, and a heavily eroded 15-year old front mech refused to play ball, so the solution to the problem required a new mech, and the braze-on fitting to be removed and replaced with a bolt-on version. As a consequence the summer bike’s off the road for a while until the repair can be carried out. Another professional job.
The upshot was a temporary reinstatement of the winter bike, and in some ways this wasn’t a bad thing. It’s an Audax-type frame, giving a more comfortable riding position; a few tweaks to saddle and bar position during the refit rendered it even more comfortable than it has been hitherto. This is of some significance given what follows.
For the first time in 49 years, the summer solstice coincided with a full moon in 2016. I’d spotted this a while back, and planned to do an all-night expedition to make the most of the occasion, whatever the weather. It would also be useful preparation for another overnighter coming up at the next full moon in July; the Dunwich Dynamo – yes, that’s the thing to which I’ve been making oblique references in several posts lately, and the driver for some of my training. As was the solstice ride, though it turned out to be a good bit longer than the Dynamo’s 120 miles, and with close to 7,000 feet of climbing just a tad more hilly than a jaunt through Essex and Suffolk!
I set off from home at 3pm on Monday and made very good time over the first 30 miles to Brampton. Quick stop for an apple turnover and some milk, then onwards through the Debateable Lands to the Border. Love this out-of-the-way part of the world with its isolated farms, fortified houses and what I’ve described elsewhere ( November 22nd, 2014, below) as ‘homesteads’. Weird, really; a perfect subject for an extended photographic essay. Via an undulating route to Newcastleton and onwards past the turning to Hermitage Castle (see November 23rd, 2015, below). Now some new territory, climbing steadily to the summit at Whitrope, also the summit of the long-gone Waverley railway line from Edinburgh to Carlisle, closed in 1969 – two years after that last solar/lunar coincidence, though! Imagine my surprise when I saw this;
Turns out some preservationists have relaid a few hundred yards of track and built a heritage centre. Good on them, but I must confess to being flabbergasted when I saw what amounts to a ghost-train! Glad it was still light 🙂
Great downhill sprint all the way to Hawick. 75 miles covered to the worst fish supper I’ve had in my life. Thence a lovely ride in the gloaming over the B711 to Tushielaw. As I passed Roberton the moon rose, veiled with high cloud, and the temperature began to fall. Thence the long, slow pull up to the shallow col at the head of Eskdale, the moon rising and brightening all the time, though time to switch my lights on. Plenty of rustling wildlife about, a few hares and badgers on the road, but absolutely not a single soul. Strange, though enervating.
Sadly my camera wasn’t up to capturing the surreal sight of the stupa and prayer flags by moonlight at Samye Ling Tibetan Centre near Eskdalemuir, but I have a vivid shot in my head, which is good enough. Better, in fact.
Onward through Castle O’er forest. It was time for a proper stop, and at 1am I spotted a bus shelter by the road in the middle of nowhere. 105 miles out. There was a house nearby, and it looked like the shelter had been built – recently – by the occupants, probably for their children to wait in for the school bus. There are several such shelters around where I live. Enough room in this one for me and the bike; a narrow bench and a decent roof. Might work for a rest, I thought. With my spare base layer on and wrapped up in a space blanket I couldn’t get comfortable, nor could I doze. Hadn’t brought a hat, which would have been useful, as the temperature continued to drop; I was about 800 feet above sea level, and I guess it was down to about 5C. A midsummer night’s shiver.
At 2am I decided that it wasn’t worth trying, and that I’d have to get moving to warm up. My teeth were chattering for the first ten minutes, by which time I’d generated enough internal heat to get comfortable. All other variables were functioning well; bike, saddle, muscles, lungs, heart, motivation. Nice. And still I was the only person in the world. The moon had gone behind cloud now though, not to be seen again before dawn. And yes, it was properly dark – only a glimmer on the northern horizon hinted at the time of year.
Onward down into Annandale, past the 24/7 wood processing plant at Lockerbie. Past the site of the homes destroyed and lives lost in the terrible events of December 1988, poignant and eerie in the darkness. I paused for thought and remembrance.
Then a lucky find at 3.30am – the 24/7 truckstop at Ecclefechan. Just off the M74 motorway, so not the kind of place you’d know about unless you’re a trucker, local resident or, well, itinerant cyclist; some Land’s End-John O’Groats riders will pass this way.
There were lots of 40-tonners parked up, curtains drawn and drivers asleep. I opened a door in a huge shed to find a warm, comfortable lounge, washroom, vending machines and a coffee machine. Made a hot chocolate and sat down, rather pleased with myself. Then the night manager, Martin, came in and was really friendly. Yes, fine, OK to stay in here – make yourself at home. Perfect, and just at the right time. Really was in need of a bit of a break now, and just as I settled down in a comfy chair Martin returned with a fleece jacket; ‘Here, put this over your legs to warm up’ – I was riding in shorts. What a great gesture.
Next thing I know it’s 5.30 and the drivers are coming in to wake up and freshen up, and the trucks are thundering out of the compound. Freshened up myself, then back out on the road by 6 and back over the border and into the 24 hour Asda at Kingstown, Carlisle, for some breakfast, thence through the city’s rushhour to the Border Gate hotel at Junction 42 on the M6 to await the planned rendezvous with Avril. I thought about riding all the way home, though that was never the intention, then thought better of it. After 148 miles what I needed now was a big coffee and a break. By now the sun had cut through the morning cloud, and I was happy to sit outside in the warmth and wait for my chauffeuse.
Friday, May 20th, 2016.
I’ve noted below, April 26th, that an obvious gain from persevering with winter training has been improved fitness. As of today, I’ve recorded a surprising 88 personal bests in twelve rides since April 30th. Now and again I try for them on oft-traversed & favourite benchmark sections – or ‘segments’ as Strava calls them – but most of the time it’s just because I’m fitter than I would normally be at this time of year and they happen as a matter of course, even when I think I’m a bit sluggish. My very modest target of 200 miles a month through all weathers in the winter (always exceeded) has transformed to 200+ in a fortnight as the (slightly) better weather has encroached. Took a couple of rides to readjust to the summer bike, but now we’re comfortable and looking forward to some challenging expeditions over the summer.
Sometimes I just feel like ambling, and may set off with a route in mind then change it as I go along, for any one of a multitude of reasons; quieter roads, better views, more wildlife, a favourite café. Anything. What a privilege to be able to do that.
Monday, May 2nd, 2016.
Today I decided that winter should become summer. A month later than last year, but the ritual of turning my 1.75 bikes from one seasonal guise to another has been performed. Waited long enough, and though there’s still snow on the fells, it looks like a warmer settled spell is in the offing. Time for the change.
Tuesday, April 26th, 2016.
A classic British April day; and then some. Strong northerly wind, bright sun and frequent heavy showers – of snow!
Looking at the blog for this time last year, I switched to the summer bike in the first week of the month during an exceptionally warm Easter. This year Easter was even earlier, but no warmth. My plan was to change bikes this week on our return from a three-day stay in Cantabria (minus bikes). It can wait ‘til May now – not much prospect of improvement before then.
So, off I went in full winter gear, and I needed it. A week’s lay-off whilst away (though I did manage a spinning session in a gym), plus the difficult conditions led to a slow ride, though Strava told me there were a few PBs in there. The fact that I’ve been able to keep up decent mileage throughout the winter has really paid off – I seem to record these personal bests without really trying for them, including a best 100km a few weeks back. Hope I can keep this level of training up into the summer and the next big project. I know – I still haven’t mentioned what that is. Time enough.
Thursday, April 7th, 2016.
Set out today to meet Avril for lunch at Skelwith Bridge, thence a lift home. This provided the perfect reason to ride the A591 between Thirlmere and Grasmere – or as much of it as can be ridden at present.
The road is still closed to regular traffic following the winter’s terrible floods & landslides, but a diversion and a temporary road allows emergency vehicles, contractors, shuttle buses, pedestrians and cyclists to pass. I checked this before setting out, but still felt the need to double check with the security guard – yes, security guard – on Thirlmere Dam. His job is to stop motorists, many of whom think it’s OK to ignore warnings and barriers. My double check was to avoid unnecessary mileage; it’d have been an 70-mile detour to get to my destination had the way been blocked.
Started out from home in a cold NW headwind, which I didn’t lose ‘til I turned south at Threlkeld. On the way there I’d been stopped by the police and asked to get off the road; high-speed chase training was about to happen and there was a stinger on the tarmac ahead. Jocularity all round.
Stopped to take this picture and another cyclist passed me. An oldish bloke on a mountain bike, going uncommonly fast with seemingly little effort. I caught up with him and only then spotted that it was an electric bike, just as we were both brought to a halt by a flock of Herdwicks on the road; unsurprisingly there was no traffic at all on the lovely narrow lane that skirts the west shore of Thirlmere. There hasn’t been for months, so the sheep seem to have reclaimed it.
Onward through the construction work, the temporary road through the forest , and a first glimpse of the new cycle track that’s been built as part of the repair to the collapsed road on the north side of Dunmail Raise. Down through the cul-de-sac that Grasmere village has become, thence over Red Bank into a rainy Langdale. Then some sun and our first al fresco lunch of the year. Perfect; here’s to many more.
By complete coincidence, it was announced today that the road will reopen to all traffic on May 13th, two weeks ahead of schedule. A brilliant job by all concerned.
‘Woke me up on a Sunday,
An hour before the sun.
Had me watch the headlights
Out on Highway 591’.
James Taylor, ‘Enough To Be On Your Way’
Thursday, March 24th, 2016.
Yesterday I upgraded my smartphone from a 3-year old Nokia (remember those?) to a Samsung. No costs involved; same tariff; much more capable device.
For a start, I can run GPS tracking without having to generate files which I then have to email to myself from my phone and open up on a computer. I know.
I use Strava, like millions of others; Nokia Windows phones never supported this programme. Today I went for a spin, primarily to test the programme and associated battery life. Positive results all round, it seems at first assessment. Only cycled for an hour, and the weather was crap – cold, wet & windy. Keen to get home, I pushed hard; harder than I’d imagined, it turned out.
I keep all of my Strava data private, but hadn’t thought to find out if it’s possible to do this whilst displaying the programme in real time on the new phone, as opposed to downloading the data when I get home, the only method available hitherto. The result was that when I looked at the results on the phone they were still in the public domain, and there was something that said ‘6th overall’ for one segment of the ride. Knowing that I’d been hammering hard to get home, that last week’s tough Pennine ride had produced a lot of incidental personal bests and that I’m in reasonable shape at the moment, at first I was puzzled. I was certain that I hadn’t done that two mile segment faster on five occasions. Then the penny dropped; the ‘overall’ referred to everyone who has ever ridden that Strava segment, as my stats were temporarily in the public domain. Further investigation showed that 229 riders had covered the segment over 500 times in total. And I was the sixth fastest. Gasp!
Flash in the pan, for sure. 1’48” mile in there, though. 🙂
Friday, March 18th, 2016.
Sunday, March 13th, 2016.
Stuff happens on every ride. Funny, weird, nice, not-so-nice. Four examples from Friday: I come across a cycling photoshoot on a picturesque lane – too polite to inquire what it’s about; help a stranded caravanner to bypass an unexpectedly closed road; have a conversation with a lady on horseback about the merits of bike bells – I have one; and avoid a car door opened by a driver who hadn’t looked in his mirror. I’m always wary in situations like that, and rode on, only to be caught up by the driver, who was profusely apologetic. A decent man. I said we’d all done it, because we have.
Wednesday, March 9th, 2016.
Time for a grumble.
Our village – of some 70 houses and maybe 170 souls – is not on the fibre broadband grid, despite assurances that it would be. British Telecom, the installers of the national network, has no plans to extend the cable a mile from a neighbouring, bigger, village. We could get together and dig our own trench, as some rural communities have done, or we could go off-grid altogether and receive our internet and telephone services via a microwave aerial, another option becoming common in sparsely-populated areas. We did this latter back in November 2015 as the prospect of any sensible alternative receded. It turned out to be cheaper than our old copper-wire provider, and around 15 times faster – fast enough for our modest needs.
So why is provision in rural areas – certainly ours – so random? On my rides I often spot the new green fibre boxes by the roadside. Some weeks back I found one by an isolated road next to a single farmhouse and over a mile and a half from the nearest settlement. What’s that about? A couple of days ago I was on a ride linking a few short stretches of road I’d never cycled, only to find one such road – a mile or so long into a dead end and serving a hamlet of half-a-dozen houses, itself several miles from any larger village – closed and dug up. I carried my bike across the obstruction and talked to the construction crew. ‘Hardly anybody lives here’, I said, ‘much larger – and presumably more profitable – communities are being ignored. It’s crazy’. The crew said that they could see no logic in it either, that they simply installed as their subcontracting schedule from BT indicated, then gave more examples of random installation and mused that it might all have something to do with who knows whom. They may well be right.
Friday, February 26th, 2016.
Thursday, February 25th, 2016.
Diminishing gene pools.
Anyone who knows me well knows my oft-expressed views on the state of the arts throughout much of the Western world, specifically my views on the expense and increasingly limited value of continuing to train legions of practitioners, however capable or incapable, for opportunities that long ago ceased to exist in anything like meaningful or sustainable volume. Music’s what I know about, but I have colleagues and friends in other disciplines who confirm that some general observations hold true across the visual, performing and literary arts, and increasingly in many non-arts subjects. Even without being an expert in any of these fields, it’s not hard to see how the economics of the madhouse has been at work there for some considerable time.
People with a passing interest in these matters may have spotted novelist Hanif Kureishi’s widely publicised comments back in 2014 on the worthlessness of postgraduate creative writing courses. He’s a Professor of Creative Writing.
Here’s the definitive word, or at least one of the most perceptive commentaries I’ve seen, from a lecture novelist and commentator Will Self gave in Oxford, much of which was published in ‘The Guardian’ on May 3rd 2014 under the title ‘Goodbye Gutenberg’. It’s applicable in most arts disciplines in my opinion, and as such serves as an obvious and clear signpost:
‘The creative writing programmes burgeoning throughout our universities are………a self-perpetuating and self-financing literary set-aside scheme purpose-built to accommodate writers who can no longer make a living from their work. In these care homes, erstwhile novelists induct still more and younger writers into their own reflexive career paths, so that in time they too can become novelists who cannot make a living from their work and so become teachers of creative writing.
In case you think I’m exaggerating, I have just supervised a doctoral thesis in creative writing: this consists in the submission of a novel written by the candidate, together with a 35,000 word dissertation on the themes explored by that novel. My student, although having published several other genre works and despite a number of ringing endorsements from his eminent creative writing teachers, has been unable to find a publisher for this, his first novel. The novel isn’t bad – although nor is it Turgenev. The dissertation is interesting – although it isn’t a piece of original scholarship. Neither of them will, in all likelihood, ever be read again after he has been examined. The student wished to bring the date of his viva forward. Why? Well, so he could use his qualification to apply for a post teaching – you guessed it – creative writing. Not that he’s a neophyte: he already teaches creative writing, he just wants to be paid more highly for the midwifery of stillborn novels’.
Sunday, February 21st, 2016.
Hard to believe that this summer it will be 50 years since England won the World Cup. It took place in England. I went to all the group stage matches held at Roker Park, Sunderland, featuring Italy, Chile & the USSR. The fourth team in the group, North Korea – yes, North Korea – played all of their games at Ayresome Park in Middlesbrough, and in the process pulled off one of the greatest upsets in World Cup history, beating Italy 1-0. They went on to lose 5-3 to Portugal in the quarter finals, after taking an astonishing 3-0 lead. Eusebio to the rescue. The people of Middlesbrough took the team to their hearts – a confederacy of underdogs!
Another quarter final was between the USSR and Hungary. That was at Roker Park and I was there again. Standing in the Boys’ End , where I had been for all the games, for 45 minutes I was just a few yards from the legendary Russian goalkeeper Lev Yashin, still regarded by many as the greatest keeper ever. Hundreds of Hungarian supporters surrounded the enclosure. They were very noisy. In fact they were much more than that – they were violently aggressive towards the Russian team. I was safe behind the barriers, but I remember thinking that something was wrong. Of course it was; 1966 was also the tenth anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Hungary, and many Hungarian exiles had settled in the North-East of England , where the steel, shipbuilding, chemical and coal-mining industries that dominated the region’s economy back then welcomed them as valuable workers.
They hated the Russians; even to me, an innocent boy a few months before his 13th birthday, that was obvious. My dad explained it all to me when I got home. My introduction to the big, wide, bad world.
And as if to underline that, the Russians won 2-1.
Wednesday, February 10th, 2016.
Definitely one of my all-time top wildlife encounters yesterday. Heading for home on a 60-mile circuit in the best conditions for weeks, though still with huge amounts of debris and standing water on the roads, I was riding along a quiet single-lane road lined with trees. Suddenly a barn owl appeared in front of me, in broad daylight. I was making a respectable 16mph, exactly daytime owl-speed, it seems. He/she continued to fly alongside me for about 500 yards, keeping about 15 feet to my left and a few feet above my head. If only I was the kind of cyclist who wears a GoPro camera on my helmet; the view was astonishing, the moreso for being sustained. The owl then peeled off into the trees and I savoured my delight at such a rare experience.
Imagine my surprise when, a couple of minutes later, and perhaps half a mile further down the lane, it appeared again, and flew alongside me for a further few hundred yards. Maybe it was attracted to my hi-vis jacket, who knows? It appeared to be following me, though I didn’t bother to look back once it had flown off the first time. It certainly wasn’t scared, maybe just bored, when it flew off into the trees again.
So that was, in my experience at least, a lucky and unusual thing. I cycled on, still not looking back.
Now here’s the really weird part. Fully two miles further down the road what should appear but a barn owl. I have no way of knowing if the first owl had continued to follow me, or if this was a different bird. I’d changed direction, and a breeze was coming from my right. The owl flew in front of me, and every now and then would hover into the wind maybe 50 yards ahead and over the road. It disappeared, but was sitting on a post when I caught up with it, and commenced the procedure again for several hundred yards further. No other traffic had passed us throughout the half-hour or so of the encounter, but as we approached a busy road, the owl eventually flew off.