The Blog: 2018

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.

Mission accomplished! Tarbert, June 27th 2013, 6.15pm.

Mission accomplished! Tarbert, Kintyre, June 27th 2013, 6.15pm.

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!

——————————————————————————————

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 🙂

The beach at Hornsea.

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.

Didn’t expect this!

Monday, October 15th, 2018.

For no other reason than that the sky today looked fantastic from our back yard, here’s a picture 🙂

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.

Snatch those rays while you can 🙂

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.

Apropos of none of the above, here’s a nice shot of me with Luke, Dan and their Gran and my Mum, Jennie, 92. Luke was recently in the UK on business and we all managed to hook up in Northallerton in Yorkshire where Mum lives in a nursing home. Three generations of Johnsons. Whoop!

Tuesday, October 2nd, 2018.

Velo guru; rouleur extraordinaire; musical mentor to many (not least Sting – read his autobiography – and me); Hammond organ virtuoso; bike wizard par excellence – here he is with his latest creation, fashioned for peanuts from odd bits around a vintage Peugeot/Reynolds 531 steel frame (with matching haute couture); and all round top geezer. Layzngenlmn, I give you Dr Gerry Richardson. Chapeau, Gerry 🙂

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.

Oops. Run out of proper road 😦

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.

Overall leader Primoz Roglic at the front, Froome & Thomas with Sky team about ten riders back.

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.

Fells end, fields begin. Souther lane.

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.

The ruins of C15th Galdenoch Castle, right next to our splendid accommodation on the Rhins of Galloway. Gulf Stream giveaway in the shape of the adjacent eucalyptus.

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 🙂

With Rany & Dan in our back garden. The smiles say everything about the weekend.

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. 🙂

Rany & Dan in Mardale

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.

Paul McCandless – he of the sweetest soprano saxophone sound ever, and a hero of mine – last Saturday with Bay Area trio Charged Particles.

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.

Breakfast time….

….great coffee, two eggs in a bun, huge blueberry scone. Powering the next 50 miles, for sure!

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.

Top of the Leavening climb, looking west. Thunderstorm to the left, summer sky to the right.

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. 

Tuesday, July 31st, 2018.

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.

Just how you’d imagine the Pembrokeshire Coast Path to look

Deserted beach at Porthmelgan

 

 

 

 

 

St David’s Cathedral

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.’

‘Although analysts have long favoured dominant monkey behaviour as a parallel for the powerful human male’s, Trump’s thundering greed, idiocy, aggression, immaturity, cruelty, priapism, misogyny, destructiveness, egotism and impulsiveness indicate, as never before, its limitations as chief comparator, a sufficiently abject animal alternative having yet to evolve.’  Catherine Bennett, The Observer, 17th June 2018.

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.

Reproofed my one-man tent in preparation for a couple of possible uses in the near future. I mention this simply because I was minded to take a picture in order to demonstrate how our lawn has migrated to Provence.

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.

Despite the fact that this shot was taken just a few hundred yards from the western end of Hadrian’s Wall, that’s not the remains of a Roman temple you can see on the headland……..

…….. it’s what’s left of the amazing railway bridge that once spanned the Solway on the line from Kirkbride to Annan; England to Scotland.

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.

Friday, June 29th, 2018.

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!

What does the RTTS have in common with the 7th chapter of ‘Wind In The Willows’, Pink Floyd’s first album and a Van Morrison song? The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, of course. More accurately, The Piper At The Back Door Of Dusk, but who’s splitting hairs? A fabulous and memorable moment 🙂

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 moon with brazier. (Thanks to RTTS for image).

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 🙂

Sunrise at Cramond, 4.30am, June 24th 2018. (Thanks to RTTS for the image).

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.

Grrrrrr!

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).

Avril & Melrose Abbey.

Smailholm Tower.

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.

Road Closures.

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.

High Brow, Backbarrow.

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.

Wythburn, Thirlmere.

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 🙂

First visit to the much-loved Hartside Summit Cafe since it burned down in February. I’m certain that something interesting will one day replace it. My bet’s on an eco-building with a glass wall facing out over Eden Valley and the Lake District. With coffee and cakes, of course.

Looking into Northumberland from the top of Whitfield Moor.

On the Keelman’s Way. Looking back upstream to Blaydon Bridge and watching boys and girls from the Derwenthaugh Sea Cadets’ Centre handle Quest dinghies with astonishing skill. Great to see.

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.*

Bluebells in Mill Wood, Thorphinsty, Winster Valley.

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.

Chapeau!

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 🙂

Enlarge and spot Rusland church 🙂

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.

The lonely old bridge at Stainmore summit across the long-gone railway from Barnard Castle to Kirkby Stephen. Traffic on the A66 in the distance.

The lovely winding lane back down the hill from Clatteringdike Nook. They don’t name them like that any more!

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.

Alone in Pompeii! 🙂

Funky gal with graffiti

May not have been cycling last week, but Strava was still with me and hard at work. In searing heat last Sunday, Dan raised £4300 for the Stroke Association with an amazing 3 hour 25 minute London Marathon. Forza Dan!

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.

Take away the trees, the hedgerow and the clouds, and that red earth could be in the Utah desert, the Great Rift Valley or the Australian outback. A great example of the unique soil produced on Lazonby Red Sandstone in East Cumbria, the colour enhanced by a bit of spring harrowing and rolling and some very welcome blue sky.

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.

Big shout out to Mrs Miller’s Tearoom, Culgaith, Cumbria and Ken Ellerker Cycles, Chanterlands Avenue, Hull.

Sunday, April 8th, 2018.

Trans-Pennine Cheating.

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.

GoING nowhere.

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.

Selby Abbey scran 🙂

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.

The ancient bridge at Bubwith Ing on the lower Derwent doing its job – just!

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.

Tuesday, March 20th, 2018.

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!

Made it 🙂

Finally got out on the bike at 3pm on Monday for 25 before dusk, but not without encountering the leftovers from Saturday’s blizzard.

Wasn’t expecting more of this!

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 Helm Bar; unique cloud formation associated with The Helm, Britain’s only ‘named’ wind.

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!

The great view from Kirkland, looking west. Click to enlarge, then L to R: Shap Fells, Harter Fell, Ill Bell (through the Nan Bield Pass gap), Mardale Ill Bell, High Street, St Sunday Crag, Fairfield ,Helvellyn, Raise, Great Dodd, (Little Mell Fell & Great Mell Fell in foreground), Grasmoor, Grisedale Pike, Blencathra, Skiddaw, Caldbeck Fells.

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.

So here’s the to do list 🙂

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.

There was just a bit of snow! Whilst I was out it started to rain, and by the time I got home it was clear that a thaw was under way –  sooner than anticipated.

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.

Spindrift and relentless wind.

And icicles everywhere.

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.

No ploughs, no problem! Our great local mechanic Stephen gets his vintage tractor on the job. Top geezer 🙂

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.

Musicians of a certain persuasion will get the reference 🙂

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.

I know it’s the Winter Olympics at the moment, but cyclo-luge isn’t my thing.

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.

Still working out the best response to this 🙂

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:

From this…..

…..to this,  in 48 hours.

And, two years on from the devastation wrought by Storm Desmond, Brougham Bridge over the River Eamont is finally rebuilt, reopening my preferred minimal-traffic cycling route to Penrith. Some masterful masonry, which with the passage of time will weather to match what remains of the original bridge. Superb engineering and craftsmanship.

Sunday, January 14th, 2018.

Murakami

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.

Palaver 

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………..

….into the mist….

….and beyond ….

….to the next day 🙂

….and passed two sites of Cumbrian weirdness known largely, though not exclusively, to local folk….

St Helen’s Well at Great Asby. Limestone country here, hence the resurgence of an underground stream in the middle of the village, cascading into Asby Beck. A lovely and very unusual spot.

The railway from Appleby to Kirkby Stephen (and beyond all the way to Darlington) ceased to carry passengers well over 50 years ago. Part of it remained open for freight and to supply a military base for a while, but then closed completely. Nobody bothered to lift  the track for much of the route. A section is now preserved by enthusiasts, but this bit now runs through somebody’s garden in Appleby. Bonkers.

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.

No ride today, but here’s a note from yesterday’s cautious circuit. -5 windchill all the way.

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;

Flat calm, sunny, cool, silent, dry roads, crisp air; absolutely perfect.

Monday, October 23rd, 2017.

Sometimes a surprise guest shows up. Such was the case on last night’s gig in Newcastle 🙂

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.

Failing to spot dolphins at Chanonry Point on the Moray Firth. Fort George across the water – see the Big Ride blog from 2013, below.

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.

Tarmachan Ridge looking west….

…and east. Meall nan Tarmachan in the clouds.

The Fortingall Yew at the foot of Glen Lyon.

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:

The new stone shelter above Sunbiggin. New National Park money, for sure. 🙂

Summer bike modification 🙂

And goodbye summer. What summer?

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?

One of these chaps played Woodstock in ’69 🙂

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.

Debatable road……

 

……debatable school……

 

……debatable names and debatable bloke (wet).

 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;

Featuring Joe Locke, Nick Smart, Tim Garland, James Maddren, Steve Watts, Stan Sulzmann, Mike Walker, Dave Holland, Gwilym Simcock, Nikki Iles, Mark Lockheart, Asaf Sirkis, Norma Winstone, John Helliwell……..

And for those of you who don’t know it, here’s Art Kane’s original from 1958 – A Great Day in Harlem.

Featuring Count Basie, Art Blakey, Dizzy Gillespie, Coleman Hawkins, Charles Mingus, Thelonius Monk, Gerry Mulligan, Sonny Rollins, Lester Young………:)

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.

And previously:

The lovely lychgate at Cumdivock church

On Great Dun Fell again

Get the message?

Two flying machines at the Solway Aviation Museum, Cumbria.

August Bank Holiday ascent of Blencathra with Dan & Alice…..

…whilst simultaneously Dan’s brother Luke and sister-in-law Sarah conquer Mt Whitney, 14,496′; the culmination of 18 days’ straight and unsupported walking the entire 220-mile John Muir Trail in California’s Sierra Nevada. Chapeau, et encore – a fantastic achievement!

 

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 🙂

Wayne Shorter, Perugia, July 14th, 2017. 84 next month and still on the case 🙂

And 39 years ago; Weather Report ‘Night Passage’ tour, October 1978, Newcastle City Hall, UK. My second Shorter gig – the first was the ‘Heavy Weather’ tour the year before. Jaco Pastorius & Joe Zawinul on both, of course. Happy days indeed.

Monday, June 26th, 2017.

Recovery Time. 

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?’

Is that clear?

Steep enough?

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.

Hardknott sunset

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.

Well, the worst public motor road in Cumbria just got worse. Not been here for a while, and it doesn’t look like anyone else has 🙂

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.

Bucolic idyll.

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.

See what I mean?

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!

Humber Bridge from the south shore.

Wednesday, May 3rd, 2017.

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.

Top of the Tommy Road, named for the navvies who built the railway that tunnels beneath it.

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.

Top of the climb out of Thixendale.

They don’t name ’em like that any more!

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 🙂

Looking west to Wetheral Station

And east to Great Corby.

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!

Wednesday, April 12th, 2017.

Part of the joy of cycling; you never know what’ll be round the next corner. Yesterday, a 1914 Model T Ford! And you could hardly hear the idling engine 🙂

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.

Winter bike, summer clothes.

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……

…yesterday winter came and went in a morning. Snow overnight, and the thaw turning roads to streams by noon.

And on Tuesday it was bright and breezy, although that’s a snow shower coming in.

Sunday, March 12th, 2017.

Edinburgh.

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.

On the towpath at Meggetland.

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).

Not a lot of these about.

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.

Grainy shot taken on my phone from the other end of the ground, but you get the picture: indirect free-kick about to be taken, resulting in Hearts’ second goal. Getting the ball past an 11-man wall on a second or subsequent touch is no easy feat, but Hamilton’s defence was decidedly awry today.

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.

And how about this. I’ve known of Nan Shepherd’s seminal book ‘The Living Mountain’ for a while. Robert MacFarlane devotes a chapter to her in his recent book ‘Landmarks‘ . Now here she is on a new  plastic fiver. Shock horror; RBS does something right!

Tuesday, March 7th, 2017.

Sportives.

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.

It Might As Well Be Spring (Ballad, G major)

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.

Stone Creek.

Stone Creek.

And the first daffodils of the year.

And the first daffodils of the year.

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.

We live here :)

We live here 🙂

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.

Appleby Station, where it's always 1953.

Appleby Station, where it’s always 1953.

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;

dscf3187And a spectacularly gruesome molecatcher’s gibbet – see November 2nd 2015 for an explanation.

dscf3193And 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.

20170214_210933

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.

And similarly;

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.

Apropos of none of the above, a radio transmitter vanishes into the mist on yesterday's dreich ride.

Apropos of none of the above, a radio transmitter vanishes into the mist on yesterday’s dreich ride.

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.

Keep up that winter training :)

Keep up that winter training 🙂

Wednesday, January 11th, 2017.

Summer bike rebuilt nice and early. New bars - a Christmas pressie from Avril - & 4cm shorter stem give an exact copy of winter bike riding position, which is much more comfortable for long rides. A clear indication that I'm getting older. Thanks, as ever, to master technician Rich for his work.

Summer bike rebuilt nice and early. New handlebars – a Christmas present from Avril – & 4cm shorter stem give an exact copy of my winter bike riding position, which is far more comfortable for very long rides. A clear indication that I’m getting older. Thanks, as ever, to master technician Rich for his work. Perfect.

Wednesday, January 4th, 2017.

New ditching, flayed hedge, flock inbye munching on swedes. Respect to our farmers in their winter labours.

New ditching, flayed hedge, flock inbye munching on turnips. Respect to our farmers for their winter work. And what a beautiful day!

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………….

M6, West Coast main line and Howgill Fells from Grayrigg Hause. The Fairmile Road's in there too, if you know where to look.

M6, West Coast main line, River Lune and Howgill Fells from near Grayrigg Hause. The Fairmile Road’s in there too, if you know where to look.

Lowgill Viaduct. Disused for over half a century, but restored to safe condition.

Lowgill Viaduct. Disused for over half a century, recently restored to safe condition.

The beautiful old packhorse bridge at Crook of Lune

The beautiful old packhorse bridge at Crook of Lune

Contemplating snow-capped Pennines from Orton Scar.

Contemplating snow-capped Pennines from Orton Scar.

Friday, November 4th, 2016.

Standards.

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;

  1. I still enjoy playing the pieces most of the time.

  2. I treat them with respect rather than trepidation – there’s a reason they’ve stood the test of time.

  3. I do my best to do them justice. In My Own Sweet Way. Apologies, Mr. Brubeck.

  4. 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.

And after that, this. A glorious November's day for a ride. :)

And after that, this. A glorious November day for a ride. 🙂

Thursday, October 27th, 2016.

First bit of bleak autumn, the wind bending a long-suffering tree on the slog up from Great Asby to Gaythorne Plain. A headwind for me, of course.

First bit of bleak autumn, the wind bending a long-suffering tree on the slog up from Great Asby to Gaythorne Plain.  A headwind for me, of course.

And back home to a bit of beautiful autumn. The acer by our garden gate.

And back home to a bit of beautiful autumn. The acer by our garden gate.

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!

Whitfield Summit

Whitfield Summit

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.

The Original and the Remake. On Friday my kind friend and fellow saxophonist John called and lent me his 1959 Selmer Mark VI tenor. He has two, and insisted that he can't blow them both at once :) Here it is with my 2004 Selmer Reference 54. The reference is to the year the Mark VI was first manufactured. Never a better horn, and this one sounds magnificent. Thanks, John!

The Original and the Remake.
On Friday my kind friend and fellow saxophonist John called and lent me his 1959 Selmer Mark VI tenor. He has two, and insisted that he can’t blow them both at once :).  Here it is above my 2004 Selmer Reference 54. The reference is to 1954, the year the Mark VI was first manufactured. Never a better horn, and this one sounds magnificent. Thanks, John!

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 small reflection on the end of empire. Only 100 years late.

A small reflection on the end of empire. Only 100 years late.

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.

luke-sarah-sunset-170916

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.

Castelnau des Fieumarcon, September 17th 2016.

Castelnau des Fieumarcon, September 17th 2016.

A few chance velo-themed encounters, though;

The church of Notre Dame des Cyclistes, Armagnac. Weird.

The church of Notre Dame des Cyclistes, Armagnac. Weird.

And in Bilbao, they know how to look after all modes of transport. Great!

And in Bilbao, they know how to look after all modes of transport. Great!

Friday, September 23rd, 2016.

Keith Jarrett.

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.

The peloton at Armathwaite.

Tour of Britain 2016, Stage 2. The peloton at Armathwaite.

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.

dscf2852Onward 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.

Hadrian's Wall near Birdoswald.

Hadrian’s Wall near Birdoswald.

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.

All in a day's ride.

All in a day’s ride.

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.

Across Ryton Willows Nature Reserve.

Across Ryton Willows Nature Reserve….

....and onto the 5-star cycleway at Blaydon - the bit you miss if you follow the signs!

….and onto the 5-star cycleway at Blaydon – the bit you miss if you follow the signs.  Daft.

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.

Gloom over Caldbeck Commons.

Gloom over Caldbeck Commons.

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.

An interesting hazard. Two miles of it from Ireby to Torpenhow.

An interesting hazard. Two miles of it from Ireby to Torpenhow.

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.

Whatever could this be about?

Whatever could this be about?

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:

Shap Summit.

Shap Summit.

Into Longsleddale.

Into Longsleddale.

Shadows and light. Potter Fell Road.

Shadows and light. Potter Fell Road.

The Tongue and Troutbeck Park Farm.

The Tongue and Troutbeck Park Farm. How about that!

Kirkstone Pass Summit.

Kirkstone Pass Summit.

Glenridding flood repairs.

Glenridding flood repairs.

Bucolic idyll, Watermillock.

Bucolic idyll, Watermillock.

This week's big gig at Tirril Village Hall. I look forward to the Q & A with the curator, Dr. Olaf-Tacitus Wu :)

And this week’s big gig at Tirril Village Hall. I look forward to the Q & A with the curator, Dr. Olaf-Tacitus Wu 🙂

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 🙂

Stu & Garry at Grains o' th' Beck bridge.

Stu & Garry at Grains o’ th’ Beck bridge.

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.

Hilton Beck at Deep Gill, Cumbria, the water the colour of tea after a night of heavy rain in the peaty fells.

Hilton Beck at Deep Gill, Cumbria, the water the colour of tea after a night of heavy rain on the peaty fells.

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.

Tidy Bank. Has a place ever been better named?

Tidy Bank on the Eastern Fellside, Cumbria. Has ever a place  been better named?

And this is what they saw today; sweet newly-cut hay and the Eden Valley in all its summer splendour.

And this is what they saw on Wednesday; sweet newly-cut hay and the Eden Valley in all its summer splendour.

Tea break?

Tea break?

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.

First World War poppy memorial, Lincoln Castle.

First World War poppy memorial, Lincoln Castle.

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.

A fine example of Exuberant Decorated Gothic. Ely Cathedral in the background.

A fine example of Exuberant Decorated Gothic. Ely Cathedral in the background.

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.

Emmanuel College, Cambridge.

Emmanuel College, Cambridge.

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.

Some of the team at the start.

Some of the team at the start. Compare with May 4th, 2014, below 🙂

And the whole team :)

And the whole team 🙂

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.

Roadside repairs

Roadside repairs

 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.

Dane Alderson, William Kennedy, Some Bloke, Bob Mintzer, Russell Ferrante. Yellowjackets.

Dane Alderson, William Kennedy, Some Bloke, Bob Mintzer, Russell Ferrante.  The Yellowjackets at Newcastle Airport.

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.

EU Referendum.

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;

Bizarre sight, Whitrope summit 200616.

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.

Newly renovated 16th century Thornthwaite Hall in Mardale, Cumbria. Taken from a road less travelled.

Newly renovated 16th century Thornthwaite Hall in Mardale, Cumbria. Taken from a road less travelled.

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.

Cold bike to warm bike.

Cold bike to warm bike.

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.

....and not much better in the Valle de Cabuerniga last Friday.

….and not much better in the Valle de Cabuerniga last Friday.

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.

Snowstorm

Snowstorm.

Nostorm.

Nostorm.

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.

Landslide repairs

Landslide repairs

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’

Langdale Pikes from a wet High Close.

Langdale Pikes from rainy High Close.

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.

Out of a gloriously sunny spring day at home and up into Pennine gloom. Doh!

Out of a gloriously sunny spring day at home on Tuesday and up into Pennine gloom. Doh!

With a bit of this........

….with a bit of this….

....and yet more of this, of which by now I am thoroughly fed up.

….and still more of this.

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.

Random fibre.

Random fibre

Friday, February 26th, 2016.

Stopped by the Saxon cross in Addingham churchyard, Cumbria, earlier today. Don't look for it on the map; the village of Addingham was abandoned in the 14th century, but the parish remains. Bonkers.

Stopped by the Saxon cross in Addingham churchyard, Cumbria, earlier today. Don’t look for the village on a map; Addingham was abandoned in the 14th century, but the parish remains. Bonkers.

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.

Another one gone. Bell Bridge, over the River Caldew near Welton, Cumbria. Built in 1772, and a listed structure, it collapsed at the end of January.

Another one gone. Bell Bridge, over the River Caldew near Welton, Cumbria. Built in 1772, and a listed structure, it collapsed at the end of January.

And a little further upstream at Sebergham, the road margin has collapsed into the river. Cunning cyclists can creep through the gap in the fence. :)

And a little further upstream at Sebergham, the road verge has fallen into the river. Cunning cyclists can creep through a gap in the fence. 🙂

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2016.

Only free day this week, and the sun shone for the first time in ages. Dry, too. Wow! An opportunity to be seized.

Usually my time-delay cycling selfies are badly composed, given that I have 10 seconds to get in the frame and often the wind blows the camera over. Every now and again one turns out OK. I quite like the one below, taken with the co-operation of the aforementioned sun. Oh, and this page has just passed 50,000 words. Half way to a memoir :()

Bank Moor, by Orton Scar, Cumbria, 030216.

Bank Moor, by Orton Scar, Cumbria, 030216.

Sunday, January 31st, 2016.

A still, damp & mild(ish) day, so grabbed a couple of hours between storms for the sole purpose of getting my January mileage over 200, and had a nice time in the process. Wouldn’t have expected to do as many miles – and it’s hardly very many compared to what serious folk might cover – in what is traditionally a poor month for getting out on the road, so I feel quite pleased. An auspicious start to training for a heavy-duty outing in July, of which more in due course.

Onward

Onward

Thursday, January 28th, 2016.

Just finished reading Paul Theroux’s latest book, ‘Deep South’. A man who’s spent forty years travelling and writing about the places he’s visited and lived, many of them in the third world, with this volume he returns to his homeland to find that the third world’s been there all the time. That’s the main thrust of the book, a gazetteer of poverty in Dixie, where the Civil War is still a running sore 150 years on, racism is ever-present 50 years after civil rights, the North is regarded as another country to be treated with suspicion, and unemployment and lack of opportunity, especially where the black population is in the majority, is endemic. Throughout the book various individuals, Theroux included, point out that the US puts far more time, energy and money – public and private – into economic and welfare programmes in developing countries than it does into its own neglected back yard.

Off the top of my head five of the eleven US Presidents in my lifetime have either been from the south or began their political careers there; Democrats Johnson (Texas), Carter (Georgia) and Clinton (Arkansas) and Republicans Bush Snr & Jnr (Texas) – and Eisenhower was born there.

As Theroux says; ‘Though America in its greatness is singular, it resembles the rest of the world in its failures’.

Forty miles between storms in grim conditions today, but worth doing to keep the mileage up and limbs & lungs flexed. And to counterbalance last week’s entry, all the farmers I passed were friendly.

Sad to see that last week Steve Abraham had to abandon his attempt to break the one-year distance record, but his achievement is still remarkable. Here’s me trying to do 200 miles a month through the winter and he’s been doing it every day!

Friday, January 22nd, 2016.

A shade under sixty miles on filthy roads on Wednesday. Chilly, but no rain or snow, nor any wind, so couldn’t complain. Could complain about rude people, though.

Everywhere in my locality sheep farmers have their flocks inbye (off the hill), feeding on root crop fields. Early lambs will appear in the next few weeks. Travellers are likely to be stopped on narrow country lanes at almost any time of year as sheep & cattle are moved about; I’ve documented this before, and have had a few delays in recent weeks, including on Wednesday’s outing as some 200 or so sheep were being moved. I saw them coming at a half-mile distance, stopped, got myself and my bike off the road, poured a cup of sweet black tea from my thermos flask and waited. Five minutes later the cavalcade arrived; man on foot with stick leading the flock, two Land Rovers, a quad bike and a tractor. No dogs. Six or seven people in all. Save for the friendly quad bike rider at the rear, not one of them looked at me, acknowledged me or thanked me for my patience and good sense. Why should I expect it? Well, quite, but I know that I still try to say thanks to anyone who helps me, or at least refrains from hindering me, as do most people I know. Alas, the world is full of ignorant twats, though today’s little encounter was as nothing compared to my major sheep altercation on the north coast of Scotland back in June 2013, when insults were exchanged – see relevant entry below. I should add that I have some very nice sheep-farming friends; the rule that proves the exception 🙂

The village green at Culgaith, Cumbria. A pond for weeks now, and today a skating rink.

The village green at Culgaith, Cumbria. A pond for weeks now, and today a skating rink. Old maps show it as a permanent feature; Culgaith Tarn.

So much unavoidable mud on narrow rural roads that I had to stop several times to remove accumulations wedged between tyres and mudguards; riding a winter-adapted road bike with skinny 23mm tyres and minimal guard clearances means that anything trapped in the space between them will soon create a messy build-up, even after cycling through puddles to try to dislodge it. Annoying, but particularly prevalent at the moment as the aftermath of recent storms Desmond, Eva & Frank has left everywhere in a mess. Whilst out I met by chance a neighbour’s brother who drives one of those left-hand drive roadsweeping trucks for the local authority. He stopped and we had a chat; he reckoned it’ll take months to clean up the washed-out debris in and on roads, verges, ditches and culverts; lots of lethal gravel washed out too, just waiting for hapless cyclists and motor cyclists to lose control. Impossible to relax on the road at the moment,………………

Roadside shuffle

…………..but one tries.  How else to respond to yet another silly road sign?

Sunday, January 17th, 2016.

Joni Mitchell.

Celebrating the 40th anniversary of Joni Mitchell’s timeless album ‘Hejira’. By re-imagining the themes, rewriting the lyrics in Scots – ‘Coyote’ becomes Tod (a fox), ‘Amelia’ (Earhart) becomes St Columba, ‘Black Crow’ becomes Hoolet (an owl), ‘A Strange Boy’ becomes the Weird Lass o’ Kippenrait, Memphis turns into Dundee. That couldn’t possibly work, could it? Well, we took a punt and went to poet James Robertson’s ambitious showpiece at Celtic Connections in Glasgow last night. GRCH main house packed; ‘a lot of people for a poetry reading’, as Mr Robertson noted. It was either going to work or be utterly dire. I was fearing the worst.

And was wrong. A true labour of love and a clever, witty, quirky, authentic vote of thanks to Joni. The audience – a few thousand sixty- & seventy-somethings, mostly – loved it. Disappointed that two players originally billed, Scots singer Dick Gaughan and US bassist Felix Pastorius, weren’t on the gig. Felix’s dad, Jaco, of course, was on the original album, as was Larry Carlton, who was on the stand last night. Marvellous. And a 40th anniversary of sorts for me, too. Last time I saw Larry Carlton was in the summer of 1976 with the Crusaders!

Standouts for us were singer Karine Polwart, whose intonation and timing were perfect; not easy on most of those Joni tunes; her brother Steven, who MD’d a tight backing quartet and paid great attention to detail; James Robertson’s sensitive and often very funny lyrics; and a great house sound that made everything crystal clear .

Someone would have to raise a lot of money to make this gig happen again – there were around 25 players involved – but if it ever does and you’re a Joni Mitchell fan, go! You’ll feel like that daurk hoolet fleein cross a pale mune.

And I wonder if anybody clocked that James Taylor’s forebears were Dundonian? 🙂

I’ve just been listening to ‘Blackstar’, the  David Bowie album released this week, just two days after his death. I’ve never been a Bowie fan. Donny McCaslin, however, is one of my favourite tenor players. I had no idea when I saw him last,  with Maria Schneider in November, that he – and his quartet – were the studio band on the album, booked by Bowie on Schneider’s recommendation. They get plenty to do. I like it.

Wednesday, January 13th, 2016.

For six months from July to December 2015 we were mightily distracted – and not a little stressed – at the prospect of developers applying to build solar array parks on agricultural land in the Eden Valley, where we live. Five of these sites were proposed within a mile of our house, with two overlooking it, these latter totalling 60 acres – 60,000 panels. Despite the fact that these plans contravened government guidelines, the local authority’s own core strategy and common sense, the applications went ahead. They were not about decarbonisation, but about opportunists making a quick buck before subsidies reduce at the end of the current financial year in March 2016. No one in the community asked for the developments, no-one wanted them, and no-one stood to gain but for an unprincipled absentee landowner with no sense of obligation to his fellow citizens.

This is not the place to chronicle the long and debilitating community campaign against the developments; suffice to say that to date common sense has prevailed, with the two developments closest to our home (like 150 yards close) being refused planning permission a week before Christmas, despite continuing pressure from self-regarding planning officers for elected representatives to accept. I spoke at the planning meeting as part of a co-ordinated lobby which many local residents had put together over all those months, a lobby frustrated at every turn by a system stacked against the little guy.

I could go on, but one of the reasons I haven’t even mentioned this in the blog to date is that writing the blog, and riding the bike, were snatched antidotes to an oppressive experience. It’s not over yet; there may be appeals, but we’re hoping there won’t be, as time is running out for the developers. Unless someone moves the goalposts again.

All that by way of preamble to a cycling point. As a result of all that hassle I’ve taken to stopping every time I see a planning notice pinned to a post when I’m out and about. Two today; a barn conversion and a wind turbine. I’ve learned a lot from opposing a major set of developments, and I intend to keep my wits about me, knives sharp, powder dry and metaphors mixed.

Forty cold, squelchy but pleasant miles today, with a short break on the astroturf outside the lovely new Murton Institute, nestling beneath the Cumbrian Pennines.

Forty cold, squelchy but pleasant miles today, with a short break on the astroturf outside the lovely new Murton Institute, nestling beneath the Cumbrian Pennines.

Saturday, January 9th, 2016.

No better word to describe the weather than a Scots one; dreich. Somehow it sounds just like what it describes. No need to elaborate, then.

So much surface water everywhere; fields & roads saturated, and road surfaces suffering from associated attrition. When the predicted freeze comes the additional damage is likely to be substantial, adding still further to the County Highways Department’s litany of woe.

Farmers continue to flail and ditch verges, (see November 11th 2015, below), some of it the regular seasonal stuff, some of it additional and vital remedial work to free blocked culverts and drains. Everywhere continues to bubble, trickle, gush, pond & stream. And it all goes somewhere. Not far from where I live is a farm called Wintertarn. The name stems from the temporary lake – tarn hereabouts – which always appears next to it after heavy rain, usually in winter but often at other times. I cycled past it this week, as I have dozens of times, and was astonished to see how big it was – more extensive than any long-time local resident can ever recall, and with an extra tarn on the other side of the farm road which I, for one, have never seen. The record 32 consecutive days of rain just ended – 600mm in our village – means that there really is nowhere for water to go any more.

Wintertarn in extremis

Wintertarn in extremis

But last night was clear. I saw the stars. First time since November, with a rather wistful hope that the Aurora might display. No luck there, but we really do need some regular winter conditions before crops, stock, flora & fauna think it’s spring. Bring it on.

Yet to be included in the Highway code.

Yet to be included in the Highway Code.

Saturday, January 2nd, 2016.

Pooley Bridge. Gone.

Pooley Bridge. Gone.

The poorly bridge at Pooley Bridge. Much lobbying in the local community for a quick temporary replacement before traders go out of business. Rightly, IMHO. A military bailey bridge would do the trick – just like the one built at nearby Langwathby over the River Eden after similarly disastrous floods in 1968 – and still there! Apparently all the necessary kit to do the job in a few days is just 90 minutes’ drive away at the army’s Catterick base. So what’s the problem? (Postscript, January 12th: seems there isn’t one. Hooray!)

Eamont Bridge

Eamont Bridge. Still standing, but unsafe and likely to be closed for a long time. The steel pedestrian bridge alongside remains open – good news for Land’s End-John O’Groats cyclists, many of whom come this way.

Wednesday, December 30th, 2015.

Well, I was right about December – that it’d be by far my lowest mileage month of 2015 – but that’s hardly surprising. Getting any cycling done at all was a major achievement, given that half of the month is always written off with the usual seasonal commitments, but more significantly that Cumbria has been under siege for four weeks, with all weather records broken. The litany of wind and flood damage, collapsed bridges, landslides and destroyed roads is without precedent, plus on the one day that it didn’t rain it snowed and roads were iced up. It’s my guess that Borrowdale in the central Lake District may exceed a metre of rain for the month.

I’m writing this on the London – Glasgow train, recalling that old gag that Virgin got this rail franchise because it never goes all the way, but relieved that it looks like tonight it will and we’ll get home without incident*. Another violent storm has done its worst, though this time the brunt of the impact has been just across the border, 30 miles beyond our destination.

Roll on 2016.

* Turns out that was the last direct train from London Euston to Glasgow for over two months. The next day the bridge over the River Clyde at Lamington in Lanarkshire was closed after storm water had washed out the stone foundations. All services were to terminate at Carlisle until March.

Saturday, December 19th, 2015.

Cabin fever finally got the better of me today. The weather is still atrocious, but weird; very wet, very windy, but warm – 15C . We’re heading for the warmest – and wettest – December on record. Simply had to get out for a while though, after all this enforced inaction, and as conditions were hardly pleasant, but at least safe, I took the chance. Didn’t need to put my winter gear on, just a single layer, summer gloves and my rain jacket. As I say, weird.

Everywhere is still trashed from the floods a fortnight ago; there’s been plenty of rain since, and river levels are high and fast. I set out to have a look at the state of local bridges, and encountered some difficulty in places I didn’t expect to be impassable. The ground is super-saturated, so watercourses are still overflowing and roads still covered with debris. Nothing like the chaos of December 5th, but today’s conditions would be regarded as very bad had that not happened. Now they’re seen as, well, almost normal.  Make up your own mind;

Submerged bridge on lane below our house.

Submerged bridge on lane below our house.

Somewhere under there is a ford. River Lyvennet at King's Meaburn.

Somewhere under there is a road.  River Lyvennet at King’s Meaburn.

 

 

 

 

 

Sunday, December 13th, 2015.

Frustration. Had planned to get out today, as opportunity and sensible conditions have both been in exceedingly short supply in December. Weather was fair, but black ice everywhere dictated that cycling was a bad and dangerous idea. I walked up the village before making a decision, but it was obvious that roads were treacherous, and I do not want a repeat of last February’s accident.

Given my – and everyone else’s – commitments for the coming fortnight, December is going to be the worst month of the year for mileage. More frustration. Did manage to get out last Monday in Hull, simply because I took a bike knowing that I would not be looking after grandchildren whilst they were at school. The ensuing 15-mile ride along urban and suburban streets was interesting; a whole new set of antennae grown to deal with the traffic; the usual crap-strewn cycleways; the entire thing on a big chainring and small sprockets – unsurprising, given that this was the pancake-flat Humber Estuary, with a grand total of 41 feet of altitude change on the whole trip. Made me realise how far I could go in a day if I lived there. All the way back here, probably.

The terrible flooding that Cumbria’s experienced this past week needs no further comment from me. We escaped with minor damage to property and are fortunate to live on a well-drained slope. On my ride today I intended to visit some local river bridges either destroyed or closed for safety reasons. The devastation has been unprecedented, and it’ll be a very long time before things are back to normal.

Monday, November 23rd, 2015.

Cycloreiving :)

Cyclereiving 🙂

A lonely and wonderfully atmospheric ride in the Scottish Borders on Friday, starting and finishing in Langholm via the Tarras moor road and Hermitage Castle. Grey, damp & cold. Perfect conditions for the itinerary.

Hermitage Castle.......

Hermitage Castle.

Hermitage has to be one of the spookiest places ever – an intact fortification (bar the roof, of course) dating back to 1240 and standing in splendid isolation on the edge of a wild and barren hillside, with only a murder of resident crows for company. There’s no public access in winter, so no-one was about when I visited. Needs a grey, damp, cold day and some solitude to bring out the essence of a place wherein terrible deeds have been done; I had plenty of time for quiet contemplation and a bit of a shiver. The contemplation largely consisted in ridiculous contrasts between today and yesterday, when I was in London*; nothing profound, just wonderment that both Hermitage Castle and the Shard stand on the same chunk of the globe. And that one can move overland within hours from the most polyglot city on earth to a place where you’re the only person you can see and all you can hear is wind, water – and those spooky crows. And maybe Redcap Sly.

Tarras Road summit, looking west.

Tarras Road summit, looking west.

Carewoodrig

‘There are places….like the lovely, lonely road up to Carewoodrig, where the past rushes in with the swirling mists, where the whaups cry on the wind, and where at early winter twilight no-one would be surprised to hear the thump of hoofbeats on the grass’. Alistair Moffat; ‘The Reivers’, p165 (2007)

Hardly saw a soul all day, in fact. Back in Langholm I was dismantling Bird (my winter bike, companion of course to Miles) and loading it into the the car when a friendly passer-by stopped to chat. Turns out Scott is the local Church of Scotland minister, and a keen cyclist. We stood for half an hour in animated and enjoyable conversation, and resolved to stay in touch, the plan being that next time I’m up there we may ride a way together, circumstances permitting. That’d be great. I’d thought about doing a longer version of today’s ride whilst I was out, and on looking at the map realised from Scott’s card that it would pass all four of the kirks in his ministry. Route sorted 🙂

*For the Maria Schneider Orchestra at London Jazz Festival. A joy.

 

 

Wednesday, November 11th, 2015.

Poppybike 111115bA ride in the rain, with a pause for contemplation by the River Eden at 11am.

Then onward accompanied by somewhat more prosaic thoughts. Farmers do a fantastic job of keeping hedges and ditches under control, out in all weathers flailing & digging whenever time will allow. Most rural roads would be impassable most of the time if they didn’t do this, and today was the day to demonstrate why. After several dry weeks, there has been heavy rain for a few days. All watercourses are filling up fast, and overflowing in places. This first big deluge of the winter reveals the weaknesses in artificial drainage channels and natural watercourses alike where blockages cause overflows. The farmers’ work can’t possibly guard against every risk – there are miles and miles of ditches. So today I had regular encounters with small floods as water spilled over roads. None impassable to a driver, pedestrian or cyclist, and most will be spotted and dealt with by those same custodians of the landscape within days. Hats off to them.

Then soggy leaves everywhere, ground to a slimy paste by passing traffic and as slippery and dangerous as the ice to come. Not much farmers can do about these, but at least a chance for cyclists to get in some careful riding practice before the cold dark days ahead.

Mist

And some mist…….

Monday, November 2nd, 2015.

Last Friday I cycled past a molecatcher’s gibbet. They’re not uncommon, but I haven’t seen one for a while. A dozen or so dessicated moles hung on the wire to verify the number dispatched at around £5 a time – the catcher’s fee. I‘d always wondered why these displays existed, and found out when by bizarre coincidence I opened the ‘Guardian’ the next day to see an article opposite the leader page by James Rebanks, a former neighbour of ours and now increasingly prominent in the media as a result of the success of his books chronicling the life of the Lake District sheep farmer, of which he is one. The article was about the disconnection in western society between killing animals and buying food, and it began with a few paragraphs on the necessity of killing in a farmer’s life; killing moles, in this case. The thesis developed into a lament for the fact that, like so much else now, the links in the chain between producer and consumer are either impenetrable or simply severed, and ignorance abounds. I’d add that this doesn’t just apply to food production; it’s pretty much universal. Who understands manufacturing and distribution? How many people now know how to make and mend simple stuff, or are taught to do so? Why should we bother, you might say. Well, maybe you’re right and I’m just old school.

So yesterday I was out on the road again, and what a day. 17.3C mid-afternoon, and on checking when I got home, 22.5C in Cardigan – the hottest November day on record in the UK.  So my hesitancy about the weather in the last entry, below, proves well-founded! It’s worth pointing out that on the big ride that gave rise to this blog, the mean temperature, in May & June, was around 12C. Climate change? Maybe, but then I have a lifetime’s memories of good weather at this time of year during my birthday week, more or less bracketed by Hallowe’en and Bonfire Night.

River Lowther from Rosgill Bridge.

River Lowther from Rosgill Bridge. November!

Two further highlights from yesterday’s ride. Another red squirrel sighting, supporting  further my contention that the Cumbrian population is thriving, based on nothing more than a chance ride-by sighting in a different place on almost every outing for the past two months. This one was the best ever, though; cycling along with the low sun to my left, Mr Squig appeared on the drystone wall at the roadside, and proceeded to run along it for 50 yards or more at exactly my pace and right by my shoulder, backlit by the sun so that he looked for all the world like an iridescent toilet brush. Splendid!

And Bob. Stopped on Rosgill Bridge to take a few photos of the beautiful day when along he came. The bridge is at the bottom of a long hill, and he was walking down it and then up it again, as he does every day. We introduced ourselves and talked for ten minutes or so; he extolled the benefits of walking, in between telling me about his great-great grandfather who fought in the Crimean War and survived the Charge of the Light Brigade, all the while both of us basking in the unseasonal warmth. Then off we both went with a smile and a salutation. Bob told me he’s 83. Top geezer

116 miles this week, well above my target distance. 🙂

Wednesday, October 28th, 2015.

Today marked the end of the Indian summer, I think. There have been a few dull days and a very small amount of rain in recent weeks, but by my calculation the settled weather has lasted since September 26th ; 32 days. Not unsurprising, then, that October is going to turn out to be my best cycling month in 2015, both in terms of conditions and distance travelled. Lots of short rides and a few long ones, the former encouraged by plenty of opportunities to grab a few hours here and there in lovely weather. I’m writing this on a very wet though still warm autumnal day, though the real end for me was marked yesterday as I cycled over the Pennines to Hexham. Sunshine and a helpful south-easterly as I set off, then lights on before Hartside Summit and mist and damp for the rest of the journey.

It’s English schools’ half-term week this week, so plenty of families driving about. Passed several yesterday, and noticed something, especially when the sun was still shining; glorious landscape, distant views, all eyes on electronic devices in the back seat. The Heads-Down generation

Thursday, October 15th, 2015.

Last night we went to a neighbour’s surprise 60th birthday party. We had a drink. The party hosts were extremely generous; wine glasses like buckets, half-pint measures of nicely chilled white. I had two, and had to pass on a third. Good job; I don’t drink alcohol regularly, and my tolerance has always been low. The party was good, but I came home thinking I’d probably done something daft. Luckily, no hangover this morning, but I felt distinctly delicate. Planned to go out for a ride, and I knew that that would either make or break me. Thankfully, and luckily again, it was the former. Another note to myself; basically, Stu, don’t drink alcohol.

The spell of settled weather is now into a remarkable third week. This week I’ve managed to get out three times so far. Regular training for nearly two months now means that my fitness levels are good; best all year. Given that recent trips have been half-day at best, I’ve concentrated on climbing hills to make the most of the opportunity to maintain that fitness. I’ve been quite pleased with the results. So, whilst this week’s three rides have totalled a modest 80 miles, that has included just under 6000’ of climbing, all of which has been manageable.

Until today. And it was only 250’. The rest of the ride was fine, tackling slopes I do regularly at a good rate and with energy in reserve, but I’d chosen to visit an out-of-the-way spot wherein lurks probably the steepest climb, short though it is, for many a mile, just to see how I got on. I’ve never got up it in the past (North Side from Bretherdale, GR 586048, double arrow on the map). I don’t know of one steeper hereabouts, other than the notorious bit on the Hardknott Pass, and surprisingly some local cyclists haven’t heard of it at all, probably because it is well off the radar, down a single-track lane that appears to lead up a closed valley. Except just when you think you’re coming to a dead end a narrow road strikes off straight up the fellside. Only 250’ height gain, but close to 30% at its steepest point. I passed that point, and as the gradient eased a fraction I knew I’d have to stop; my pulse was coming out of my ears. Tricky to dismount in cleats at a grindingly slow pace when you’re only just able to balance, but managed it, more by luck than skill, all the while thinking I was about to topple over. Pushed the last bit, only 50 yards or so, then took a moment to recover and take a photograph.

Bretherdale from the top of the climb.

Bretherdale from the top of the climb. (A few days after this photograph was taken it was confirmed that a 3% expansion of  the Lake District National Park will incorporate Bretherdale from August 1st 2016. Much of the area to the east of the nearby M6, though still in Cumbria, will be incorporated in a 24% increase in the area of the Yorkshire Dales National Park on the same date. Hooray!)

It’s evening, and I’m knackered. No doubt this is as a result of fitful sleep last night with too much wine in my system, then hard exercise and fresh air today. The latter has counteracted the former, but the result will be an early night.

Sunday, October 4th, 2015.

Note to myself. I’ve had the good luck to get out on the bike a little more than usual in the past few weeks. My fitness levels are good as a result of this extra training; hills easier, spinning faster, generally less pain and a bit more gain. The challenge (and hence this note) is to maintain it throughout the winter -the usual conundrum – and be ready for some big stuff next summer. The winter bike will no doubt reappear in the next few weeks, but I must make the effort to get on the static trainer when I can’t get out if I’m to keep up this healthy momentum. Easier said than done, as with most worthy plans, especially since I regard static training as a bit of a chore. A necessary evil; watch this space.

Friday, October 2nd, 2015.

Well, this has been an extraordinary week. A true Indian summer; seven days of unbroken sunshine, clear skies, no wind, no rain and lots of warmth. And the first frosts after clear, starlit nights; and a full moon! Braemar, in Scotland, has had the unusual – perhaps unique? – distinction of being both the coldest and the hottest place in the British Isles on the same day, when the temperature there ranged from -2 to 23C on Wednesday.

So important stuff has been shelved to make the most of these rare and delightful circumstances and spend as much time outside as possible. Who knows when the weather will be this good again for this long? Could easily be another year; remember these are temperate climes, this is Britain.

A ride east into limestone country on Monday was a delight, and west into the Lake District on Wednesday likewise, with Ullswater looking and feeling decidedly Mediterranean; it was, in fact, hotter in northern England this week than in a good deal of southern Europe.

Back lane to Bennethead, above Ullswater.

Back lane to Bennethead, above Ullswater.

And the lake.

And the lake.

Just before I set off on Wednesday I noticed a broken spoke on my back wheel, so hurriedly swapped wheels and rear cassette, only to realise after setting off that said cassette was worn beyond use when it started to slip in certain gears. Made hills a little harder, and when I returned and looked more closely at the damaged wheel I discovered that somehow a stone or similar hard object must have jammed between the hub and the inner sprocket, probably at speed, gone round a few times and been ejected, bending all outward-facing spokes close to the hub holes and snapping one. What chance of that happening? Anyway, a repair is imminent, though not urgent, as the change to the winter bike looms, probably when the weather breaks. Which it looks likely to do this weekend.

Thursday saw a long walk for the two of us in blazing sunshine,

By the River Lyvennet

By the River Lyvennet

and today, another less-worn cassette installed, I had a couple of hours of unusual encounters on favourite lanes, again in idyllic conditions;

The things you find.....

The things you find…..

...on quiet country roads.

….on quiet country roads

New notice in Whinfell forest, right across the road from the perimeter fence at Center Parcs holiday complex Interesting challenge for staff!

New notice in Whinfell forest, right across the road from the perimeter fence at Center Parcs holiday complex. Interesting challenge for staff!

Happy boy. :)

Happy boy after coffee and a scone in Mrs Miller’s Tea Room at the old railway station, Culgaith.

On top of all of this I’ve seen red squirrels on all of these days in different locations. An extraordinary enough week for this quiet old geek; can’t be a case of needing to get out more.

Sunday, September 27th, 2015.

Yet again September’s weather in the UK proves to be better than August’s. For how many years has that been the case? Three or four, for sure. Perfect day yesterday for a decent spin, with the possibility that we might be in for an Indian summer in the coming days. Let’s see.

Rode out to the flanks of Blencathra and back; 50 miles on several stretches of road I’ve never cycled. Hard to credit that that’s possible, but there are odd bits that simply head off in the wrong direction and are only ever ridden for the sake of it, usually engendering detours. Not entirely the case yesterday, as my objective was to ride the tiny lane along the foot of Souther Fell, one of those roads never travelled, involving wiggling lanes there and back. As ever, I aim to avoid traffic, a quest in which I was and am largely successful.

Souther Fell lane.

Souther Fell lane…..

I skipped some of my usual routes avoiding riding the busy A66 westward through the Lake District, though crossing it three times, and rode some of those indirect lanes before ending up at the White Horse at Scales, the western end of the Souther Fell lane to Mungrisdale. Climbing up to this point from Wallthwaite I was aware of loud engine noises in the distance, and gradually I was caught by a string of very old and very battered motor bikes, with riders and costumes to match. From the distinctive smell of the exhausts most of them appeared to have two-stroke engines. Having heard the machines for ten minutes before they arrived, I could smell them for another ten after they passed me. Quaint.

...and a gate.

…and a gate.

Souther Fell was great –  thick bracken, still green, down to the road’s edge – though the six or seven gates that keep the sheep on the fell and off the fields never allow a rider to pick up much pace. The season still hasn’t turned completely, and the benign weather made the day feel more like summer than autumn. Splendid.

Harvest & Blencathra.

Harvest & Blencathra.

 

 

 

 

 

Thursday, September 10th, 2015.

The harvest well under way, windblown straw and thistledown everywhere, still the occasional smell of wild garlic in the woods. It’s a beautiful, warm September day. In Cumbria it’s Westmorland Show day, and Stage 5 of the Tour of Britain winds its way through the county. For once, the weather does the right thing.

So off I go in pursuit of the Tour. Twice. Spent a while last night figuring out how I could catch it as it headed south from SW Northumberland to Ullswater, then beat the peloton to a second rendezvous as it headed back north to the summit finish on Hartside. Minimal use of stage roads and stops at points where I would get a good view guided my plan, thus the first choice was a ninety-degree bend at the top of Scalehill, west of Lazonby in the Eden valley, thence to Briggle Hill on the A686 before Melmerby. At both places the riders would slow down; turned out to be good choices, with just a few spectators at each who’d chosen the same spots for the same reasons.

Scalehill

Team Sky lead out at Scalehill

Briggle Hill

Briggle Hill; British road-race champion Peter Kennaugh in white.

As I cycled through Langwathby on the way out I passed lots of cyclists heading for Hartside and a good view of the finish. That turned out to be worth the effort – a tight sprint.  And the party spirit was abroad; encouraged by the good weather, spectators were everywhere, some settled down for lengthy picnics, many on bikes, and just about every school on the route out for the afternoon. Great. What a lovely day out for them and for me.

Waiting for the peloton.

Waiting for the peloton.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Broom Wagon

The Broom Wagon

Official race photo approaching Hartside Summit finish.

Official race photo approaching Hartside Summit finish.

Wednesday, September 9th, 2015.

Back from a short ride in Brittany :)

Back from a short ride in Brittany 🙂

Tuesday, August 25th, 2015.

Here’s a weird thing about cycling and wind. On Sunday the weather was hot for NW England. Maybe 23C. In keeping with the rest of the summer, it was also windy – very windy – gusting up to 40mph SE. And warm, maybe lowering the ambient temperature a couple of degrees at most. These are very unusual conditions hereabouts. The weirdness? Well, I found it quite refreshing, even into headwind, concluding that what’s really annoying about the wind and cycling most of the year is not just that it slows you down or blows you sideways, but that it makes you cold. Except today it was like welcome air-conditioning in a hot & stuffy building. The rest of the time it’s what it usually is; annoying, uncomfortable, debilitating, northerly, westerly and wet.

Yesterday rode up to Hartside Summit café with my good friend Garry for morning coffee. Some brand new road surfacing, new concrete culverts, new car park tarmac at the summit, local authority surveyors about, general activity and yellow-sprayed bikes everywhere. Couldn’t be anything to do with the Tour of Britain Stage 5 summit finish in a fortnight’s time, could it?

Monday, August 17th, 2015.

The English Lake District on an August weekend. Honeypots best avoided at all costs. Lunch with friends in Coniston, one such location, meant that an expedition was required on Sunday. I cycled, Avril drove, and there wasn’t that much difference in our times for the 40-mile trip; I took about half as long again as she did. I had the luxury of being certain, as a non-motorist, of catching the Windermere Ferry, and followed a carefully considered route avoiding congested roads. Avril had to negotiate Windermere and Ambleside, the latter gridlocked. We both got stuck on the main street in Coniston. People everywhere, completely blocking roads, never caring to look for traffic and acting indignantly when road users braked to avoid them and occasionally remonstrated, including one cyclist who perhaps exhaled a choice expletive just a little too loudly. Who, I wonder, could that have been? Why on earth do these tourists bother? What conceivable pleasure can they have? OK, so many were there for commendable outdoor sporting japes on and off the lake, but most seemed to be just hanging about to no obvious purpose, cluttering the place up and, no doubt, spending money. We both agreed that we’ve rarely seen so many people in the Lakes; but then we rarely venture into the heavily-visited areas when they’re likely to be packed. What’s that statistic about national parks the world over and the ridiculously high percentage of visitors who never get more than 100m from their car or coach?

Great ride anyway. Shap Summit, back lanes to Windermere, the ferry, Esthwaite Water and Hawkshead Hill. Just under 3000’ of climbing all told and a good half hour quicker than I’d estimated. Pleased.

Journey's end; by Coniston Water

Journey’s end; by Coniston Water

Tuesday, August 11th, 2015.

‘Summer’ 2015 continues with no two days’ weather the same. So it was on Sunday as I set off with my friend Martin to cycle from Whitehaven to the top of the Whinlatter Pass. And back again solo to collect the car. Martin had missed this bit of his Coast-to-Coast ride last month when he fell ill on the first day, and so was keen to fill in the gap. We rode out through Cleator Moor, Ennerdale Bridge and Fangs Brow in the rain with a following wind, the sun came out by the time we reached our destination and Martin’s pick-up point, whence I rode back via Eaglesfield Paddle and Frizington into a stiff headwind and more rain. That section took me through the old industrial villages of Rowrah & Arlecdon, two places I’ve always suspected have their names spelt backwards, though Harwor and Nodcelra seem just as improbable.

Lorton Low Bridge.

Lorton Low Bridge.

 

And a reminder; the remains of the same bridge in November 2009, after the heaviest day's rain ever recorded in the UK - 13.5 inches!

And a reminder; the remains of the same bridge in November 2009, after the heaviest day’s rain ever recorded in the UK – 13.5 inches!

Wednesday, August 5th, 2015.

My plan to cycle west yesterday was thwarted. It’s now August, remember, so general gloom with cold driving rain and strong westerlies in the morning guaranteed a miserable trip. Avril was meeting an old friend for lunch; the idea was for me set off early, join them, then get a lift home. The forecast predicted a better afternoon, so Plan B; get a lift there and cycle back with a tailwind for most of the way. Avril’s friend’s husband, who I didn’t know before yesterday, is a keen cyclist, so he rode to the meeting. He’s probably ten years younger than me with a classic cyclist’s physique; no more than 9st at a guess and maybe 5’6” – a foot shorter and five stone lighter than me, with a power-to-weight ratio to match. He trains every day, and does more miles on a bike in a year than he does in his car. He’d done just short of 50 miles to the rendezvous, including an ascent of Newlands Hause, one of the Lake District’s tough passes. We had a convivial lunch, during which he showed me his Garmin GPS device. As he scrolled through the functions, I noticed his average mph for the day as just over 17, on predominantly steep roads. But for the fact that we were approaching the meeting from opposite directions, I may have suggested we ride together. Good job I didn’t – he’s one super-fit dude.

Turning for a 40-mile ride home, I felt humbled. Lots of uphill, with a few short 20-25% bursts, and of course the rain returned. I gave it my best shot and managed a best hour of 13.4  🙂

Friday, July 24th, 2015.

Out for a longish trans-Pennine schlep this week – 85 miles and 5000’ of ascent – a variation on an oft-ridden route from home to Tyneside, with Whitley Bay being the objective this time. Resolved to make more use of available cycleways and less of busy urban roads in the last third of the trip, of which more anon.

The first in a series of obstructions today!

The first in a series of obstructions today.

Still but drizzly for the first fifty miles or so, running to stay ahead of gloom coming in from the west, and with the three longish climbs of Hartside, Whitfield Moor and Stublick Chimney. None really steep, so the usual steady grind overcame them all. The stillness and relatively quiet roads made for a pleasant, contemplative ride. Did feel sorry for a woman Coast-to-Coaster I passed on Hartside, struggling in the rain with heavily laden panniers, then getting off to push, probably not realising that there’s much tougher stuff ahead. I thought it wise not to tell her.

Stublick summit

Stublick summit

Cycleways. I’ve written elsewhere in this blog that they can be messy, as much in their surfaces as in their capacity to interrupt any sort of cadence, at least on a road bike. I don’t live in a city, so I don’t use them often and am thus far from an authority. They’re a great thing, and long may their development continue, but I think they’re probably better tackled on hybrid or mountain bikes.

A combination of the Keelman’s Way and Hadrian’s Cycleway take you all the way from Stocksfield to Tynemouth along the banks of the river Tyne – right through the heart of the city of Newcastle. I’ve ridden these routes quite a few times now, and always end up doing them slightly differently. Signposting can be a bit erratic and counterintuitive,  and sections are prone to be closed for various reasons, as they were this week. If, like me, you don’t carry SatNav , a good look at the map beforehand can suggest nice alternatives to the rougher or blocked sections, assuming you know where they are before you get to them! I did that, so left the main roads at Stocksfield to navigate the last 30 miles or so of the ride on minor roads via Bywell, Ovingham and Wylam , then said cycleways. A new variation for me, and a good and interesting one. Most sections of the off-road are either tarmac or cinder; fine for a road bike. Some are compacted earth, quite muddy on my chosen wet day, so less suitable – particularly the case for a few miles from Wylam.

Six of the seven bridges that now cross the Tyne in Newcastle.

Six of the seven bridges that now cross the Tyne in Newcastle.

The main inconveniences are twofold. In the rural sections, trails can be footpath-like, sometimes too narrow for two bikes to pass, and even if the surface is OK for a roadie, there can be unexpected sharp turns and short, steep gradients. They catch you out. Wrong gearing, usually. In the urban sections there are endless baffles and gates at junctions to stop hapless riders from speeding onto main roads. Entirely right and proper, but they break the flow that road cyclists love and generally make the ride erratic. I know enough of this particular route now, after a good many traverses, to be able to select safe & pleasant on-road alternatives to the annoying bits and exploit the cycleways to the full to avoid heavy traffic and make sure I don’t miss the good places for landscape, views and wildlife. And, of course, the splendid Ouseburn Cycle Café on the riverside just east of downtown Newcastle. Arrived there this time to enjoy great coffee and watch the closing minutes of the day’s stage of the Tour de France. Perfect!

Not the last of the day's inconveniences, but probably the least expected :)

Ryton, on the Keelman’s Way. Not the last of the day’s inconveniences, but probably the least expected 🙂

Saturday, July 11th, 2015.

Most Saturdays from 6.30am to 8am I listen to ‘Out of Doors’ on BBC Radio Scotland. The presenters are OK – seasoned & knowledgeable if slightly annoyingly enthusiastic – and the production is great; I think it’s the only radio programme I’ve tried to listen to as often as I can since ‘I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again’ back in the 60s. By great production what I really mean is that there’s always at least one intriguing and well-structured item, and sometimes several; good editing, in effect. It’s a magazine programme covering all aspects of outdoor life in Scotland; sporting activities, the environment, farming, science – you name it. Today’s was a particularly good edition. It began with a half-hour feature on Roy Dennis, doyen of Scottish ornithologists since the late 50s (though himself English), and a man whose reputation was already formidable when I first heard of him when I lived in Aberdeen in the 70s. There followed a sixty-minute attempt to find out if there was a ‘Heart of Scotland’. It was completely absorbing. It answered the question from geological, anthropological, historical, geographical & cultural perspectives, and came up with six answers. What surprised me was that two of the resultant locations were close to my circumnavigation of the country – one literally a few yards away – and I had no idea of their presence or significance A third, equally obscure, wasn’t that far off the route either. And they were?

  1. Siccar Point on the Berwickshire coast. Considered by James Hutton in 1788 to be the best example of what became known as Hutton’s Unconformity, establishing a key principle in the new science of geology and laying the foundations for its development independent and in spite of church dogma.
  2. The Tinkers’ Heart. An important site for the Scots traveller community, at which all rites of passage have been celebrated since the 18th  century. A quartzite heart pattern set in the tarmac of the old A815 at its junction with the B839 on the north-eastern shore of Loch Fyne. This bit of road is now disused, the new carriageway passing a little to the east, which is why I cycled right past it.
  3. Auchengilloch Covenanter’s Monument. In Ayrshire – one of many such monuments erected to commemorate those who died or were transported overseas as a result of their fight for religious freedom and against the established church in the latter half of the 17th century.

And the other three?

Loch Katrine (the Walter Scott connection); Faskally Stone Circle, in someone’s back garden near Pitlochry; and a point nearby,  a few miles east of Schiehallion which, taking the extreme points of mainland Scotland only, is the place where the lines that join them intersect – the geographical heart.

‘Fascinating stuff’, as the blokes on ‘Out of Doors’ tend to say rather too frequently.

Thursday, July 9th, 2015.

After last week’s walking trip to Scotland, I felt distinctly under par. May have been that I’d not done a long, tough hike for a while, and that uses a set of muscles not employed to the same degree in cycling. Whatever the reason, it took a few days for aches and stiffness of limb to dissipate, and I also felt pretty lethargic. Could have been something completely unrelated, of course. Anyway, the remedy has been to get a few short, fastish rides in this week, and I’m glad to say that the ill effects have dissipated and I feel reasonably chirpy again. Long may that continue.

Compare and contrast. Today and, right, January 2015

Compare and contrast. Today and, below, January 2015.

Bank Moor Top, B6260

Not that much difference, really 🙂

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Saturday, July 4th, 2015.

Sound of Islay from near Inver House, Jura.

Sound of Islay from near Inver House, Jura.

Whilst Southern England had its warmest July day on record, old chum Dave & I diverted our planned trip to climb Foinaven in far NW Sutherland this week just as we set off,  and went elsewhere to take advantage of better weather. Warm and very windy, deteriorating to cloud and fog, but definitely the right choice, as you can see 🙂

Saturday, June 27th, 2015.

Second anniversary of the completion of the Big Ride, which I hadn’t remembered until I sat down to write this. Fitting celebration, though – an east-west ride across the Lake District in glorious sunshine and an unpleasant 20mph headwind, finishing with a rendezvous with Avril at the Lakes Distillery after she’d been to the annual Woolfest in Cockermouth, among other things picking up tips on how to process a lovely, scruffy Hebridean sheep fleece we were given in Scotland last week.

Skiddaw from Aughertree Fell

Skiddaw from Aughertree Fell

Got caught up in a time trial for three or four miles – young guys in skin suits and pointy helmets on carbon aero frames whizzing past me every few minutes, though always seeming to slow down once they’d overtaken. On a long downhill stretch I decided to slipstream one of them, and managed to keep up, to the point that where our routes diverged the race marshalls mistook me for a competitor. A result 🙂

Wednesday, June 17th, 2015.

I put the following on Facebook yesterday,  and copy it here for the record.

I’m fond of quoting the great Frank Zappa. To paraphrase a little, he said in one of his last recorded interviews that whilst science contends that carbon is the basic building block of the universe, since it is so plentiful, this is not the case. Stupidity is the basic building block of the universe, since it is even more plentiful.

Stupidity can arise from innocence, ignorance, arrogance; from any number of places. Its effects can be is harmless, even amusing. They can be criminal and lethal, and often are.

Hence this post.

Early yesterday evening Avril and I were driving along a quiet country road in North Yorkshire; the B1257 at Newsham Bridge over the River Rye, just south of Great Barugh. We were heading towards Malton, where we were staying for the night. The bridge is approached on a right hand bend. It’s narrow and hump-backed so has traffic flow signs on both sides, the type with red and white counterposed arrows indicating which direction has priority. We had priority, but given that it’s a completely blind crossing we slowed to a standstill and pulled over to the the left of the wider road immediately before the bridge in order to make a cautious approach. Anyone coming the other way would do likewise, being similarly unsighted and with the added restriction of not having priority on the road. Or so one would think.

At that very moment a car literally flew over the bridge. It left the ground momentarily after it crested the hump-back, then went into a skid as the driver lost control on what for him was a left-hand bend, missing us, stationary, by inches. The driver was male, possibly young, possibly wearing a flat cap. The car was, possibly, a 6-7 year old dark blue Ford Fiesta saloon. The whole incident took a second, maybe less; no chance of clocking the registration. The car sped off.

We were both in shock. There is absolutely no doubt that had we arrived at the bridge just a few seconds earlier, even proceeding as cautiously as we were about to do, and irrespective of any priority signage,  that car would have ploughed into us headlong at around 40 mph, written off both vehicles and seriously injured – possibly even killed – everyone involved.

The driver of that car knows who he is. He’ll have got a mighty shock, too. His actions were criminally stupid, and potentially lethal. Whoever and wherever he is, he would do well to reflect on Zappa’s words. And mine. All our lives hang by a thread at all times. Humanity, decency and common sense demand that we do whatever we can to strengthen those threads for each and every fellow human being.

Share this. Who knows, he just might read it.

Thursday, June 11th, 2015.

Dare I say it? Summer’s here. Hottest day of the year yesterday, until today – even hotter at 22.6C/73F. After a 2-week cycling layoff, with unavoidable commitments and the sailing trip – and the weather’s not been great – it was good to get out, though I was sluggish in the unaccustomed heat. Lovely 50-mile ride on quiet roads out through Mungrisdale and back.

Carrock Fell

Apronful of Stones, Carrock Fell

Poppies 110615Friday, June 5th, 2015.

From the anchorage at Sanda, 4th June 2015.

From the anchorage at Sanda, 4th June 2015.

A dash with my kind and patient sailing mentors Roby and Bill, from Whitehaven on the Solway to Port Ellen on Islay in the Southern Hebrides. Brisk winds and a choppy sea. Sick as a dog, in fact more sick than I’ve ever been in my life; six hours of retching, all but the first half hour on an empty stomach. Not nice. A 27 hour voyage in one go, with 6 hours waiting for the tide anchored by Sanda. For musicians of my generation, that’s the island the late Jack Bruce bought in 1969 from the proceeds of his time with Cream. It’s now in the hands of a Swiss businessman. What a surprise.

Wednesday, May 27th, 2015.

A lovely ride marred by strong winds, rain and cold. May 2015 has been true to the form of recent years. Camped overnight at Lochmaben to get an early start on a route from Annandale to Upper Clydesdale to Nithsdale via the Dalveen Pass and back through Ae Forest.

Minnow amongst mansions

Bivouac amid mansions.

Found the B7076 annoying. This is the old A74, running parallel to the M74 and the West Coast Main line up the Evan Valley to the watershed at Beattock Summit. Because of its width as the former major route between the West of Scotland and England, and probably because it’s favoured by many LEJOG cyclists, there are cycle lanes at the side of each carriageway; variously obscured by trees, full of crap, potholed and otherwise rough, and then at times marvellously smooth and clear, with for some obscure reason a totally separate purpose-built cycleway right on the summit. Annoying, and in a way a bit silly, because hardly any traffic uses this road now. I guess I saw half a dozen vehicles in 15 miles, and only one other cyclist for that matter, who turned out to be the only one I saw all day.

Glad of some smooth Lanarkshire redtop I turned at Elvanfoot into strong headwinds which took the edge off the ride to the top of the Dalveen Pass. Beautiful and desolate, it would have been nice to have some appropriate seasonal weather to enjoy it to the full. As it was I just kept going, and the rain arrived. At least by the time I’d reached Nithsdale the wind wasn’t in my face.

Dalveen Pass descended

Dalveen Pass descended

Onward through the lovely hamlet of Durisdeer, a place whose equally lovely name I’ve known since I first walked in the Lowther Hills in 1971, but which I’d never visited until today.

Ford at Durisdeer

Ford at Durisdeer

Thence the beautiful road along the eastern edge of Nithsdale, through resplendent beech and birch woods, a stiff climb for this stage of the day from Burnbrae up onto the high moor and on into Ae Forest via Poldivan Bridge and Loch Ettrick. A road very much less- travelled.

Back road to Ae

Back road to Ae

Respite came in the form of shelter in the trees and a few downhill miles to Ae, via what looked like a scrapyard for motorbikes in splendid rural isolation. Passed one car all the way from Durisdeer.

I knew when I set off that there probably wouldn’t be a single shop or café on the whole route, but not being a mountain biker had forgotten something important; The Seven Stanes. This is a series of MTB facilities in Southern Scotland, and very popular. Thus at the Forestry Commission local HQ in Ae there’s not only a mountain bike shop and hire facility, but an excellent purpose-built café too. Coming sixty miles into a seventy-mile ride it wasn’t too late for a proper stop, even though as a roadie I looked a tad out-of-place amid the kneepads and GoPros. Pannini, hot chocolate and carrot cake ensued, I dried out and warmed up, then went back out into the rain and covered those last ten miles to Lochmaben at the day’s fastest average pace. 🙂

Monday, May 25th, 2015.

SNJO.

What makes a great band? Well, the whole has to be greater than the sum of the parts for a start; it has to have highly skilled, inventive and committed members; great material; adventurous and inspiring direction; consistency of personnel; sound management; essential financial support; longevity; enthusiastic audiences, and lots of very hard work.

To bear this out look no further than the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra. Twenty years of all of the above from Tommy Smith and his team has produced what is, IMHO, by far the best big band the UK has ever seen, and one equal to any in the world. Over the years I’ve seen most of them – Kenton, Herman, Basie, Rich, Hampton, Gillespie, Gil Evans, Lincoln Centre, (alas not Ellington – missed my only chance in 1971); many of the European state-funded & radio ensembles and more recently the fantastic Gordon Goodwin band. SNJO can hold its own with ease in this company, and has time and again proved this through its collaborations with and commissions from some of the world’s greatest soloists, composers and arrangers, covering the entire history of the music.

Last night’s Sinatra centenary concert in Glasgow with Kurt Elling was just one of many fine examples of the band’s work; last year’s collaboration with Bob Mintzer one of the most nourishing I’ve ever heard. Further examples abound; just look at the diary and back catalogue. Not a national treasure in the making; one made.

I noticed Tommy was wearing a tiny enamel saltire on the breast pocket of his jacket yesterday. He’s fiercely proud to be a Scot, and is a great ambassador for his country and its creative community; and the nation is clearly proud of him and the band; and the state recognises their achievements and assists. A virtuous circle. Others take note.

Friday, May 22nd, 2015.

Cycled from home to Scotland and back on Wednesday. I chose a predominantly flat 80-mile circuit to and from Gretna. Such terrain is something I rarely experience. The result was that despite constant headwinds and sidewinds on the outward section I still managed a much faster average speed than I reach on the interminable ups and downs of my usual local training circuits; and without really trying very hard. Happy with that.

Westering home

Westering home

Today the great and the good have descended on Gretna to mark the 100th anniversary of the Quintinshill rail disaster, the worst in British history. Coming as it did in the same month as the sinking of the Lusitania and the ill-fated Gallipoli landings (where over 200 soldiers from the Royal Scots who perished at Quintinshill were bound),  the crash never received the thorough public inquiry it warranted.

Wednesday, May 13th, 2015.

Hard to believe that it’ll be two years tomorrow since I started the second stage of the big ride,  three years next month since the whole thing began, and four in August that I had the initial idea and began this blog. Time flying too fast, too much to do. Carpe diem!

Crappiest public road revisited. See Nov 24 2014, below.

Worst public road revisited. See Nov 24 2014, below.

Thursday, May 7th, 2015.

Get on bike; cycle to polling station; vote; cycle on to the highest point you can reach on a paved road in England. Got any better ideas?

Not a ploy to ensure that I’m so knackered I’ll have a perfect excuse not to watch the all-night General Election results broadcast, just an opportunity seized. I’m not at all knackered, in fact, just pleasantly weary, and alert enough to sit down and write this entry.

It was a cool, sunny, breezy day. I put pretty much my full winter kit on, minus one layer and overshoes. As a result the first ten miles or so, down in the valley, were a bit sweaty, and so it remained as the big climb began; the temperature dropped steadily and the wind increased as I gained height, vindicating my choice of clothing. Was very glad of it by the time I reached the summit.

It’s a while since I’ve done the ‘Radar Road’, as the locals call it, and it was hard; really need a good summer’s day with lightweight kit to make the best of it – and a bit more training in advance. Made it nearly the whole way – just a short dismount at the last little kick before the col at 750m (2460’). Made up a little rule here; if my speed on a road bike on a steep and long climb drops to 2.7mph in my lowest gear, then I’m on something around or upwards of a 20% slope. If its stays there for a couple of minutes, such poor forward motion means I’m on the verge of losing my balance. It’s quicker, safer & wiser to walk! These days I follow the Wiggins rule and never get out of the saddle on a climb unless I can see that a short burst of extra power will overcome an obstacle that I won’t ascend otherwise and won’t burn me out. Sometimes a tricky judgement, and at 61 I think I’m OK to let discretion be the better part of valour.

Only 100m climbing to the summit (847m – 2778’) from the col, with that nasty little sting in the the final few hundred metres, enhanced by now by a very strong and cold NW headwind. Clear skies, though, and the right clothes, of course, so time to hang about on the top, take a few pics and revel in the view. No-one about, and nice, too, to intercept the Pennine Way in its 50th birthday week.

The summit

The summit

White knuckles ahead; the first part of the descent. No barriers!

White knuckles ahead; the first part of the descent. No barriers!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Talked to my Mum tonight. We mused that Stanley Baldwin was in his second period as Prime Minister when she and her twin sister Margaret were born (April 1926). They were a month old when the General Strike was declared. What a lifespan.

Friday, May 1st, 2015.

Two chances to get out this week for the first time in ages. Yesterday back to full winter gear; sun, sleet and rain. Today summer gear. Mistake. Sunny when set out, then cloud and a cold easterly wind took over. Cut an hour off the ride and still got home frozen to the bone. Welcome May.

Generally satisfied, though; rode to the east shore of Ullswater yesterday with the sole aim of seeing how I’d find the Howtown Hause hairpin climb. Fine, in a word, enhanced a good deal as I passed some (admittedly not very fit-looking) mountain bikers pushing their machines up the hill, and enhanced further by a lovely chat with a shepherd in Martindale – still a way to go with lambing up there.

Back down the hairpins

Back down the hairpins.

Monday, April 27th, 2015.

20C plunge in daily temperature from last week, 20C to 0C, a ‘polar plume’, evidently;  strong windchill yesterday, heavy frost last night. Ho hum, the British spring. Back on with the thermals, then 😦  (See April 5th’s entry).

Thursday, April 23rd, 2015.

Warmest day of the year so far, and able to take advantage of it. Bare minimum kit – shorts, no base layer, not even a waterproof. Sunscreen duly smeared, so of course a large cloud appeared and obscured the sun, though not much of its warmth, for most of the ride; all around me seemed to be bathed in light, but try as I might I always seemed to be in the penumbra.

A very pleasureable few hours nonetheless, with three spring firsts for me; a lark ascending (and descending – my transcription skills nowhere near good enough to work out if it’s singing the same thing backwards as it comes down); the lovely coconut smell of flowering gorse I’ve written about before; and a quick stop for a scoop of Cumberland fudge ice cream.

All that, then this:

Cycling carpenter finds roadside treasure :). Completely unattended sycamore in the midst of slicing.

Cycling carpenter finds roadside treasure 🙂 A completely unattended sycamore in the midst of cutting.

Sunday, April 19th, 2015.

Another nautical interlude; a mad 1000-mile 48-hour expedition (four-wheeled, alas) to Foleux Marina on the River Vilaine in southern Brittany to deliver crew to ‘Alondra’, a splendid 42-foot ocean racer.

At Foleux.

Encounter at Foleux.

Back home at 2am this morning whilst the Franco-Anglo-Polish trio (Roby & Bill, see May 2014, below, and Marcin) sail to her new home in Whitehaven via the Scillies, with luck within a week. Then a few weeks for some routine maintenance and onward, all things being equal, to the Hebrides and Northern Isles.

And another milestone; this section has just passed 40,000 words 🙂

Saturday, April 11th, 2015.

In recent years we’ve attended far fewer gigs than ever before. We live miles/hours from any major venues; we’re getting older; more choosy, harder to please, maybe; we’ve been around the block many times. When Ian Underwood asks Frank Zappa if he can join the Mothers, Zappa famously asks him; ‘What can you do that’s fantastic?’ I guess that’s the subtext to our ever-diminishing attendance. Even with our rigorous (some say sniffy) selection criteria, we’re still disappointed far more often than we’re delighted. I won’t name names, as some will surprise and maybe annoy you, and you’ll conclude too that we’re unreasonably demanding. We’re not; we just like to be uplifted, amazed and captivated by music, to feel that it’s making us better people, and that we haven’t wasted our time and money. None of this seems unreasonable, to us at least. Anyway, that’s all the subject for lengthy debate elsewhere; suffice it to say here that I came up with a neat solution to all of this on the way home last night from another gig by a person I won’t name and who ought to know better or, perhaps, retire. Stay at home and listen to Bill Evans play the piano. Better personhood guaranteed.

Sunday, April 5th, 2015.

Never mind the solar eclipse; today what seems an even rarer occurrence – the coincidence of Easter Bank Holiday weekend and the arrival of good weather. 16C – 61F in old money – so a quick decision this morning to abandon other chores and refit the summer bike earlier than intended, then on with summer cycling kit for the first time.  The resultant short spin was interrupted at regular intervals by the expected stops to tweak brakes, derailleurs and other things suspended in the workshop for several months, but how nice to be out in the warm sun again. It won’t last 😦

New wheels & headset. Nice.

My trusty bike into its 14th  season. New wheels & headset, old tyres. Can’t have everything.

Here's to more days like today.

And here’s to more days like today 🙂

Plus a reminder of the last long winter ride. great to see these traditional signposts being renovated all over the place up here.

Plus a reminder of the last long winter ride. Great to see these traditional cast-iron signposts being renovated all over the place hereabouts.

Saturday, March 21st, 2015.

Solar eclipse, 9.36am,Friday, March 20th 2015, Braithwaite, Cumbria, UK.

Solar eclipse, 9.36am, Friday, March 20th, 2015, Braithwaite, Cumbria, UK. Taken by my friend Brian at the start of our walk up Causey Pike.

What a week! A rare display of the Aurora Borealis in Northern England, a solar eclipse, the vernal equinox and a perigee-syzygy (‘supermoon’) all within 72 hours. Won’t see that again in my lifetime. And the best day of the year so far – perfect spring weather, and as good a day as I’ll get all year to be out and about. 50 tough but thoroughly enjoyable miles – the first decent-length ride of 2015 – covering by chance some of September’s Tour of Britain route announced yesterday. Yellowhammers, long-tailed tits, buzzards displaying and pairing up, a flock of fieldfares about to depart, primroses & daffodils just out, a mad March hare, frogspawn, a very groggy wasp and, sadly, a run-over red squirrel – not by me, I hasten to add. All this against a hazy blue sky with the highest fell tops still capped with snow and still-leafless trees making it feel like I’m riding through a Japanese watercolour. Beautiful.

Stu 190315

Drystone bike 190315Sunday, February 15th, 2015.

Interesting excursion today, in lovely mild conditions. At one point, against my better judgement, followed a farm road which I know to be paved at both ends, and which large-scale OS & satellite images show to be OK in the middle. Wrong. Or rather wrong turning. Half a mile of cyclocross later back on a proper surface. If nothing else, this confirmed my oft-expressed preference for road over MTB. If it gets muddy or rocky I’d sooner be walking.

Not on this bike you don't!

Not on this bike you don’t!

Thursday, February 12th, 2015.

Have any Guardian readers out there noticed that the ever-feisty Zoe Williams seems to have taken an interest in cycling? A few weeks back she did a feature in the travel pages on mountain biking for families, and last Saturday, February 7th, she wrote a half-page article in the main paper on Steve Abraham’s lunatic quest to break Tommy Godwin’s one year endurance record, which hasn’t been challenged since he set it in 1939. 75,065 miles!

It’s  sobering to think that every time I’m out on the bike this year, unless it’s in the middle of the night, Steve Abraham will be on his, covering an average of just over 200 miles a day. Even more sobering is that Godwin carried on into 1940 after he set the year record, and didn’t stop until May when he reached 100,000 miles exactly 500 days after setting off. Ridiculous. He was then called up into the RAF. A terrible winter, rationing and the blackout had made the latter part of his quest particularly difficult.

Puts today’s 25-mile recovery ride in its place. After last week’s calamity, I’m very grateful to pronounce that both man and machine are functioning again.

Tuesday, February 10th, 2015.

Well, it’s a week since my horrible encounter with the tarmac and I’m on the mend. Stitches out yesterday and new budget helmet procured with the aid of accumulated vouchers for my ever-helpful local cycle store. Planned a hair-of-the-dog outing today, but pressure of other stuff meant that the diem was not carped. Will do this by the weekend, as I’m now fully ambulant, and having gone over the bike with a fine tooth-comb, it just needs to be ridden to make sure all is well with both machine and rider.

Such was my relief at not sustaining any really serious injuries last week that I missed an awful lot of collateral damage!

Such was my relief at not sustaining any really serious injuries last week that I missed an awful lot of collateral damage ’til I had a good look at myself the next day!

Wednesday, February 4th, 2015.

Helmet 030215This is why you should always, ALWAYS, wear a helmet when cycling or doing any other activity where head injuries are even remotely likely. Parents, tell your kids and enforce it! I’m OK; stitched and on the mend after hitting some black ice yesterday and using my face as a brake*. Heartfelt thanks to good samaritans Mark & Joe who picked up a zombie by the roadside and insisted they drive him ten miles to hospital; to the brilliant staff at said hospital, Penrith, Cumbria; to Avril and neighbour Kathryn (a nurse) for ministering to me since, and to everyone out there (across the world!) who through the wonders of the web have sent good wishes. The odd picture out here is Luke & Sarah’s get-well greeting from Hokkaido last night. Cheered me up no end. They’re wearing helmets.

Messy face 0115Clean face 0115

 

 

 

 

 

 

Luke & Sarah Niseko 0115This all brings me back with a jolt to the reason I started this blog in 2011 as part of a sponsored fundraising campaign for Cancer Research UK. There but for the grace. My Mum, now nearly 89 and in sheltered accommodation, is in hospital with a broken leg, though soon to be discharged . She was diagnosed last summer with vascular dementia. She’s tough, but she’s frail, and the NHS is doing all the things for her we can’t. The NHS fixed me up with good cheer and total professionalism yesterday. And by weird coincidence I’m reading Henry Marsh’s moving and thought-provoking ‘Do No Harm’ at the moment – the best selling memoirs of a brain surgeon. In the NHS.

‘You don’t know what you’ve got’ til it’s gone’, Joni sang in the 60s, warming to the growing environmental movement. The NHS is my generation’s birthright; socialized medicine is, for me, the defining characteristic of a truly humane and civilized society. We must uphold and defend it to the last, and let’s hope we get the chance to defeat those who think otherwise come May’s General Election. Barbarians.

* On the minor road over Lazonby Fell, Cumbria.

Thursday, January 22nd, 2015.

This week I cast caution to the wind in a desperate attempt to cure cabin and other fevers (see below January 19th), and managed some decent workouts on still-dodgy roads in variously still, misty, sunny but always freezing conditions. Well worth the effort and risk,  the latter minimised with some very cautious riding where roads which should have been ploughed and gritted still hadn’t been several days after the last snowfall. Frustrating, as I’d chosen routes on more major roads of the type I’d normally avoid in order to maximise the likelihood that they’d be clear of snow, ice & slush. Given that, and a continuing spell of sub-zero conditions day and night, speed was not the object, but who cares – if you can manage to get outdoors when conditions are crisp and bright and the air fresh and bracing, as they were for a few hours this week, that’s good enough, for me at least. A special kind of invigoration on a bike, kind of skiing without skis.

Shap Summit

Shap Summit

Bank Moor Top, B6260.

Bank Moor Top, B6260.

Winter light

Winter light

In the midst of all this I discovered the neat little phenomenon that is the .gpx file. I use a free tracking programme (Endomondo) on my cheap Windows ‘phone. It’s served me well since early 2013, and tracked that year’s stages of the Scotland marathon perfectly. For some reason the programme stopped working in late December, and I’ve not been able to track with it since, despite trying everything I could think of to fix it. I managed to figure out that the ‘phone’s GPS system was still working, so that wasn’t the problem, so I downloaded another free tracker the other day. It seems to work, and I’ve discovered that it creates .gpx files which can then be exported via email to Endomondo and, much to my delight, Strava, the system just about everyone seems to use. There is no Strava app for Windows ‘phones, which is why I’ve never used it hitherto, so I downloaded it to my PC and was amazed to see how comprehensive it is. And slightly spooky to have it tell me right off that I’m the King of the Mountains this month on one ‘segment’ of a ride. Not surprising, since only one other Stravite had been that way; probably a nonagenarian on a tricycle. All in all a bit of a result, though, since I should always now be able to find some way of logging and uploading cycling data; I have to confess to having become a minor geek in this regard, although I still run an inexpensive conventional bike computer as a permanent backup, relying on my turning front wheel and a magnet rather than an array of satellites.

Monday, January 19th, 2015.

A flu-like bug which laid me low for a week, then a week of 100mph winds, a fair bit of travelling and now snow and ice on untreated roads have combined to keep me out of the saddle for a fortnight. Frustrating and annoying. Managed a lovely walk on slippery surfaces round the local lanes today though, so all is not lost.

A footbridge that could easily be neolithic, not to mention its occupant. :)

A footbridge that could easily be neolithic, though it’s not. As for its occupant….. 🙂

Monday, January 5th, 2015.

The low winter sun doesn't get everywhere when it's a nice crisp day for a ride.

The low winter sun doesn’t get everywhere when it’s a nice crisp day for a ride.

Sunday, January 4th, 2015.

The left is justifiably heartened by the runaway success of Thomas Piketty’s ‘Capital in the 21st Century’. You may have read that last week he turned down the Legion D’Honneur in his native France, remarking that government has no place in deciding who is honourable. He’s a front runner for the next Nobel Prize in economics, if the powers-that-shouldn’t-be don’t get to the jury first. But the true accolade is surely this: I put his name into Amazon’s search engine yesterday to see if the book is out yet in paperback (it isn’t). He is currently Thomas Number 2, ahead of both Hardy & Pynchon. Only Thomas the Tank Engine does better 🙂

Whilst on literary matters. Should we be worried, that of the one hundred best selling titles in the UK 2014, we’ve only read three?[Bill Bryson; ‘One Summer; America 1927’ (No 54); John Williams, ‘Stoner’ (No 83) and Alan Johnson, ‘This Boy’ (No 94)]. I thought we’d managed four when I spotted ‘Looking for Alaska’ at No 45, only to realise that it wasn’t Peter Jenkins’ splendid 2001 book, but a novel for young adults by John Green, author of the No 1 title ‘The Fault in Our Stars’, of which neither of us had heard, perhaps unsurprisingly. I note that the ‘Beano Annual 2015’ came in just ahead of the Bryson at No 53 and that four of the top seven titles are Minecraft handbooks. We’re not worrying – we listen to jazz, after all.

Sunday, December 28th, 2014.

I never cease to be grateful for living where I live. Get up in the morning with time for a spin on the bike. Where to go? North to the Borders? South to the Howgills? West to the Lakes? East to the High Pennines? All in the saddle from the front door. Brilliant.

Today was a crisp, still, cold & sunny winter’s day of the finest vintage. The Pennine fells were the only quarter in cloud, and those only over the hills themselves – above was clear blue. Above 2000’ there was fresh snow everywhere, so a ride into a quieter Lake District destination beckoned. Thirty-five miles on some of my secret back roads and up to the end of Haweswater and back. Even the car park at the road’s end wasn’t quite full with walkers’ vehicles, and scarce a soul passed me all afternoon. Was attacked at one point by two out-of-control dogs, forcing me to slow down to almost a standstill and all but fall off, whilst their hapless owner stood by. They continued to jump at me, and I was reluctant to unclip and kick them, so I just shouted at them to fuck off, which mortified their owner. Good!

Mardale

Mardale

Wednesday, December 17th, 2014.

The usual mad flurry of stuff to be done in December means that I’ve only managed to get out twice on the bike so far this month, much to my chagrin, though I did join my fellwalking friends from Wigan for our pre-Christmas stroll last Friday. Atmospheric conditions, as you can see. Thanks to Brian for the panorama.

Above Grasmere, December 12th 2014.

Above Grasmere, December 12th 2014.

Monday, November 24th, 2014.

Near Rough Hill, Mardale. Possibly the worst-maintained public road in Cumbria? Nice, though. :)

Near Rough Hill, Mardale. Possibly the worst-maintained public road in Cumbria? Nice, though. 🙂

Saturday, November 22nd, 2014.

Every now and then when I’m out and about on my bike, something either ridiculous, hilarious, coincidental or just very nice happens. I think this week’s experience falls into the last two categories.

I was on a foray over the border, through the no man’s land that was so often and bloodily disputed between England & Scotland, and which still feels, to me at least, just a bit strange*

Cycling the back lanes from Ecclefechan to Annan, I came upon a sign to Annandale Distillery. I knew it was being rebuilt, so went to investigate. Turned out that it opened last Monday, that the still has been working for a month, and that my arrival coincided with the first tapping of whisky since it closed 95 years ago! Serendipity or what? Watched staff filling the first casks and was offered a nip from the pipe. 64% proof 🙂  Fab café, and nice staff, finding their feet amid brand new everything, and me the only customer. The place will rocket when the word’s out; they’ve already got all the signage in Japanese.

Recession or not, everyone says that the Scottish whisky industry is booming. I noticed through my binoculars from the ferry back from the Outer Hebrides in May that the Adelphi distillery at Glenborrodale , Ardnamurchan – the one I wrote about below, June 25th, 2013 – looked about finished. It opened in July, and is one of a significant number of new ventures.

Distillery 211114The first casks, 211114

 

 

 

 

 

 

*On a damp & muddy late November day, many of the solitary houses on lonely lanes, with their smallholdings, varying degrees of agricultural detritus and threadbare outbuildings, seemed somehow to be of another time and place. None of them are far from major communication arteries and towns, but they just don’t feel like that. In addition, there’s a fair sprinkling of derelict houses of all shapes and sizes, and of course the remains of fortified ‘bastle’ houses from the days of Border reiving. ‘Homestead’ is not a word the British use in referring to our rural landscape; we would associate it with the 19th century Midwest of the United States and Canada, or the Australian outback perhaps – isolated places where the occupants have to fend for themselves. Yet that’s the only way I can describe the vibe I get on those country byways. Interesting to learn that the letter ‘A’ in the shape of a sail which the Annandale Distillery has adopted as its logo is inspired by the fact that in the 18th & 19th centuries Annan was a thriving port, from where many of the two and a half million Scots who emigrated embarked, many to homesteads in the places I mention.

Wednesday, November 19th, 2014.

Anyone who lives in the Eden Valley in Cumbria, as I do, will tell you that there are many days when the weather is damp and overcast everywhere except in and above a long strip at the foot of what is known locally as the Fellside, the line of villages running roughly northwest-southeast from Melmerby to Hilton at the western foot of the Pennines, a distance of about 12 miles as the crow flies and forming part of the eastern boundary of the said valley. There are complex meteorological reasons for this phenomenon, which definitely gives that part of the world more sunshine in a year than places just a few miles away. The Helm Wind (Britain’s only wind with a name) blows here, and is part of that complexity.

For cycling purposes, this sometimes means that that’s the best direction to take on a day of changeable conditions, and so it was today. Wet, slimy, muddy roads, with almost predictable respite on the Fellside, even some dry tarmac, and plenty of sun. Not for nothing is one of the few vineyards in Northern England on these SW-facing slopes; a noble and perilous enterprise. Here’s a picture of me this afternoon right by it – in the background just over my left shoulder. Click to enlarge, as with all photos in this blog.

Keisley 191114And for more on wind, wine and weather should you be so inclined, click here.

Friday, November 14th, 2014.

John Coltrane.

As I made the coffee this morning I was listening to a recording from Coltrane’s 1961 European tour. That music is astonishing, and listening to it for the millionth time made me realise how profound an influence it has had on me throughout my life. Well, almost throughout. I first heard a Coltrane record in 1969, two years after his death, around the time I switched from clarinet to saxophone. By 1972 I’d managed to get to an Elvin Jones gig – drummer with the great Coltrane Quartet – and felt as a naïve youth that I now had some sort of tenuous connection with the inner sanctum – whatever and wherever that is – which has remained with me ever since. The last surviving member of that band, McCoy Tyner, only 22 on those 1961 recordings and playing out of his skin, is of course still with us and going strong.

Twenty years or so ago I recall talking to some older trad players I knew who had been to the Coltrane gig at Newcastle City Hall, England, on that European tour. Yes, North-Eastern chums, that really happened – and moreover it was the Quintet with Eric Dolphy! The music scared the shit out of them, they hated it and left before the interval. As far as they could remember, the first half consisted of a fifty-minute rendition of ‘My Favourite Things’.

I’ve just googled the British press reviews from that visit. Pretty much universal bemusement and condemnation, with anything favourable at the opposite, ecstatic pole.

Were I a less rational soul, I’d be inclined to think that something in the ether, a vibe from that inner sanctum maybe, must have led me listen to that recording this morning, because in searching for the reviews I saw that the Newcastle date was November 14th, 1961. 53 years ago today.

Like my comments on Cannonball Adderley back in May, below, the music that band played all sounds like they did it yesterday. It is truly astonishing, timeless and uplifting. And still will be 53 years from now.

Sunday, November 9th, 2014.

Last Thursday I had a very nice birthday. If you didn’t know me, the book, movie and music presents I was given by my wonderful, kind and thoughtful family and friends would probably tell you whether or not I was a potential chum. It definitely tells you how well they know me.

Books:

Naomi Klein: ‘This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate’

Owen Jones: ‘Chavs: the Demonisation of the Working Class’

David Goldblatt: ‘The Game of Our Lives: The Meaning and Making of English Football’

Max Leonard: ‘Lanterne Rouge: The Last Man in the Tour de France’

Henry Marsh: ‘Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death & Brain Surgery’

George Monbiot: ‘Feral: Rewilding the Land, Sea & Human Life’

Florian Illies: ‘1913: The Year Before the Storm’

Graham Robb: ‘The Ancient Paths: Discovering the Lost Map of Celtic Europe’

Bill Bryson: ‘One Summer: America 1927’

Stephen Clarke: ‘1000 Years of Annoying the French’

Ian Crofton: ‘Walking the Border: A Journey between Scotland & England’

Film:

Wes Anderson: ‘Rushmore’

Wes Anderson: ‘Moonrise Kingdom’

Wes Anderson: ‘The Darjeeling Limited’

Music:

Noel Langley; ‘Edentide’

And if that leaves you in any doubt, I’m currently reading James Meek’s ‘Private Island; Why Britain now belongs to someone else’ and have just finished Owen Jones’ latest, ‘The Establishment, and how they get away with it’. Heard Jones speak at a literary festival in Edinburgh a few weeks ago; he’s a seriously impressive 30-year old with an easy manner, and if he doesn’t burn out or get stitched up by the very establishment he so rightly deplores, he’ll be a major intellectual and political force by the time he’s 40. Listen up, folks.

Wednesday, November 5th, 2014.

61st birthday this week, so a 61-mile ride seemed like a good idea, weather permitting. Turned out to be only 56 miles, but what it lacked in distance it gained elsewhere; a tough circuit from home over Shap Fell and Kirkstone Pass. The only day I had free turned out to be a typical Lake District autumnal one, by turns sunny, cold, wet and windy – usually any two of those at the same time. Unusually, the wind was southerly, making the southbound Shap ascent in the rain a bit unpleasant – the ascent, truth be told, isn’t very hard, so crap conditions brought it up to scratch. Needed to adopt some sailing technique on the descent to avoid being blown over; one of those pedal downhill situations too, so not much fun there either. Kirkstone from the south is easier but longer than from the north, yet even with a following wind was a slow grind. I specialise in those. The sun had been shining in South Lakeland, but as I turned north all I could see ahead was dark cloud – a classic example of the mountains making the weather as moist air blown in off the sea is pushed upwards. Patterdale was wet and gloomy: it didn’t rain that much whilst I was there, but the road along the side of Ullswater was awash and the runoff from the hills spectacular. It must have been throwing it down just before I got there. The deluge then returned for the last hour of the ride which, all in all, was quite tough enough for this 61-year old.

Kirkstone Pass summit.

Kirkstone Pass summit.

Thursday, October 30th, 2014.

I consider myself to be a medium-tech person in most respects. Savvy enough to know the basics, but at heart unsophisticated and unable or unwilling to grasp the niceties. And also loath to justify the expense that hi-tech usually entails.

I ride aluminium bikes, with mid-price but good components. Not much carbon in evidence, a bit of steel, and a few retro treats (lo-tech being as expensive as hi-tech in some instances). I’m very comfortable with this, and think it reflects the sort of person I am. Like man, like bike.

Today I ran into Jim. He was having a rest on one of my favourite rural benches, which never has anyone else on it when I get there. Until today.  I waved,  rode on and took a break half a mile down the road. A few minutes later he came by and stopped to chat. He was two days away from his home in Wharfedale having cycled to the north coast of Scotland and back on a threadbare 25 year-old steel-framed mountain bike laden with his tent, sleeping bag and two heavy panniers, and with a rucksack on his back. In October. We were going the same way for a few miles, so we rode together. At 8mph. Jim had travelled on and off road and suffered more than most in the process. He was cheerful, if a little sore, and was looking forward to pitching his tent – in the rain – and going to the pub in just a few miles’ time. Chapeau, Jim.

We shook hands, parted company, and cycled our separate ways into the gloomy autumnal dusk.

Yes, medium tech is the place for me 🙂

Jim ahoy.

Jim ahoy.

Friday, October 3rd, 2014.

Well, September turned out to be the driest in over a century. Not forgetting however that August was one of the wettest,  rumours that Mardale village had once more appeared out of Haweswater turn out to be somewhat exaggerated. Still a few late swallows and martins about, too; last thing I’d have expected after August 30th’s comments, below. 🙂

Low, but not that low.

Low, but not that low.

Sunday, September 21st, 2014.

Even though this spectacular calm, warm & rainless September continues, I’ve taken the decision to transfer the relevant bits from the summer bike to the new winter bike (I don’t quite have two complete bikes) and lay up the former ready for maintenance and overhaul. It’s worked hard this year, and the chance to sort out any teething problems on the winter bike in decent weather conditions is worth taking. 40 mile spin this afternoon and everything sitting nicely. Marvellous 🙂

Saturday, September 20th, 2014.

Referendum Raid.

Gateway to a bright future? Kirkcudbright.

Gateway to a bright future? Kirkcudbright.

Afloat again on a very short-notice trip to catch the momentous events of September 18th in Scotland.

Upholding the ancient ties between France & Scotland, Roby is keen to be there for the big day and very kindly asks me to join him. Soldemar is made ready at Whitehaven Marina and we set off for Kirkcudbright across a calm Solway. Enough wind to make 6 knots, though, and we anchor in the lee of Torrs Point and wait to catch the incoming tide at 3.15 am, arriving at 5.15 and going back to bed. Not without a little drama in the interim though,  as we lay to beside the Kirkcudbright Range Safety Boat; big military site here, operating tonight with several very loud and extremely eerie sounds over the water – new weapons being tested, we learn. Frightening.

And the heat goes on. Temperatures will be around 23C the whole time we’re ashore. A splendid climate in which to absorb both the referendum and Kirkcudbright, the former unprecedented, the latter mellow and lovely.

We meet lots of interesting folk, watch the steady stream of voters entering the Town Hall, drink some coffee and a little beer, and soon realise that if Dumfries and Galloway votes Yes, Scotland will be an independent nation tomorrow. Everyone we meet who’s prepared to divulge their choice is voting No, and the valiant Yes campaigners run their street stall enthusiastic to the last. In the end, D & G has the largest No vote of the 32 electoral districts, 67%. I wake at 4.30 and listen to the final stages of the drama on Radio Scotland. By then it’s clear what the outcome will be. When the final No hurdle is crossed in Fife at precisely 6.08 am I’ve momentarily dozed off and miss it.

Next morning we keep an appointment to buy a bargain kilo of scallops from the local factory – which exports 80% of its catch to Carrefour and Intermarche – and scamper back to the pontoon to catch the ebb tide; Kirkcudbright’s moorings are some three miles up the River Dee, so getting in and out is a matter of considerable calculation and navigation. We anchor off Little Ross Island and paddle ashore for a picnic lunch. Hysterical laughter as Roby’s only brought his one-person (or two small persons) dinghy. The resultant intertwining and balancing warrants a new entry in the Kama Sutra. We sunbathe and snooze in the old walled garden beside the lighthouse, scene of a notorious murder of one keeper by another in 1960 which resulted in one of the last sentences of death by hanging in Britain. During the appeal process the murderer committed suicide, by which time, by my reckoning, capital punishment had been abolished.

The lighthouse, like every other one in the UK, is now automated, so we have the island to ourselves for a balmy afternoon. The light and its outlier were essential to make a transit line at night for our entrance into the main channel.

For some reason I feel a bit queasy in the calm sea on the way back. I stay on deck, lie down for a while, and the five-hour crossing passes uneventfully with a fair wind. One final drama though; it’s just dark, and we stow the sails off Whitehaven prior to requesting the marina lock gates be opened. Roby can’t find the ignition key for the motor, so we unfurl the jib again to avoid drifting and start crawling about on the floor, opening all the rubbish bags we’ve just filled, shining torches everywhere. Relief all round as it’s found in an unlikely and inexplicable location and we head in for a great value late dinner in a time-warp hotel.

Sanx again Roby for another great trip, and the chance to observe history being made.

Solway sunset

Sails in the Solway sunset.

The Auld Alliance arrives

The Auld Alliance endures.  Soldemar moored in Kirkcudbright.

On Little Ross Island

On Little Ross Island

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday, September 10th, 2014.

The fabulous Indian summer continues into a second week, and I’m able to get out again for a long afternoon. Glorious, and enlivened by an unexpected encounter with one of the better-known organised endurance rides.

DRAB14 TentsSo this is how some people do it. Cycling through Hutton-in-the-Forest near Penrith, I was astonished when I happened upon today’s support destination for the Deloitte Ride Across Britain – 9 days Land’s End to John O’Groats. Hundreds of identical tents in rows, a massive dining marquee,  a laundry, a drying room, hot showers, masseurs, medical tents, mechanics’ tents, baggage drops and I’d guess a couple of hundred staff. Plus, of course, 800 riders, the first of whom were rolling in from today’s start in Haydock, Lancashire, as I chatted to some friendly marshalls. And all of this duplicated as the whole circus leapfrogs like big rock and roll tours – one team days 0,2,4,6,8, the other 1,3,5,7,9. I have to say that I was very impressed with the organisation, but then if I was paying £1600 to participate, I’d expect to be. Plus the cost of transport to the start and from the finish. 2 grand all in? You could do the same trip unsupported and spend every night in a £250 hotel, assuming you could find one. Or do it unsupported and add most of the £1600 to the money you’d be raising for your charity of choice – it’s a fundraising ride. The marshalls asked if I’d fancy doing it next year. I declined, mentioning that my 25-day challenge, slightly longer than Land’s End to John O’Groats and back, cost me less than £500. On the other hand, the thought of dawn-to-dusk support, excellent food, professional mechanics, masseurs and all the other paraphernalia just might make riding a long way a bit more comfortable.

On the way up Park Brow, above Ullswater. A perfect day.

On the way up Park Brow, above Ullswater. A perfect day.

Tuesday, September 9th, 2014.

Every time I set off on the bike, Avril whispers ‘DFO’. Don’t fall off. She need never have worried. Just been going through a stack of old documents unearthed recently whilst helping to move my 88-year old Mum into a sheltered flat. Good to know that I’m safe in Scotland and Ulster, too.

Stu's Cycling Proficiency Certificate, 1965Sunday, September 7th, 2014.

Not having had enough opportunities to train properly this summer would be the perfect excuse for not doing what I did today. The weather was great, and with everyone else on the planet – 57,000 of them, anyway –  doing the Great North Run, I finally set about ticking off something on my 2014 to-do list and try for a sub 3-hour 50 mile ride on a flat(tish) course.

That to-do list elsewhere in this blog originally speculated about a 2 hour 30 minute 50. That would have required a proper and uninterrupted training programme and perfect conditions, and even then would have been very hard for this 60 year-old on a heavyish aluminium bike. I abandoned that idea a while ago. I’m not at all fast, but have plenty of stamina, so reckoned that I could maintain a steady pace for the whole distance and not flag in the final quarter, all other things being equal.

I’d chosen a variable circuit on what North Cumbria folk call The Island, the Cardurnock peninsula on the Solway Firth, home to the radio mast array responsible for the Greenwich Time Signal. It’s basically tidal salt flats, marshes, rough grazing, wildlife reserves and an old airfield with a road running all round it and another through the middle. My plan was to ride these in the configuration best suited to reducing headwinds and crosswinds. Riding a route in circles and figures-of-eight would achieve this, and did to a reasonable extent.

It was a sunny day with light cloud and a 10mph westerly. When my chain shipped three times in the first mile and my computer broke at the same time I was very annoyed, and did some loud swearing. I stopped the first time I reached the spot where we’d parked the car,  and where Avril was sitting knitting by the shore, did my best to fix things – chain OK, computer not – and also removed the ancient aero bars I’d attached in the morning in the forlorn hope that they’d make a difference. The extra weight pretty much cancelled out any aerodynamic advantages. Unavoidable pit stop over I cracked on, with my phone GPS tracking software still working and providing the required statistics. Endomondo, since you ask. Free and all someone like me needs.

I did indeed maintain a steady pace throughout, almost all in my highest 52-13 gear and with no tailing off, so I was pleased with that. Each time I covered the Solway shore I looked across to Scotland and pondered the outcome of next week’s momentous vote. I also did my fastest 50km and best hour.

And my final time? A completely annoying 3hrs 00 mins 55 secs! A moral victory and mission accomplished, though; headwinds, crosswinds, the mechanical hassle at the start (the first mile was much the slowest), deprived of my second-by-second tripmeter information, and something I completely forgot when I planned the ride – the bloody cattle gate on the NW shore road, at which I had to stop then open and close four times.

So I’m happy to call it a sub 3-hour 50 mile ride, even if you aren’t. 🙂

Tuesday, September 2nd, 2014.

Following Saturday’s lament for a lost summer: school hols over – sun’s out.  ‘Twas ever thus, or seems like it was.

Crossing Great Asby Scar, Cumbria.

Crossing Great Asby Scar, Cumbria.

Saturday, August 30th, 2014.

I’ve not been able to get out on the bike as much as I would have liked this summer for a variety of reasons, but this week was at last able to take a whole day and do a proper ride.

August has been like September. The season has turned early; already hints of frost at night. Cycled from home to the Northumberland coast. 85 miles, mostly into a brisk easterly headwind, but no rain and plenty of sunshine. A grand day out. Swallows gathering on telephone wires; heather on the moor tops already purple; tupped yows on the fellsides; harvest & final silage cut well on the way; trees changing colour; hedgerow fruits ripe. Hello Autumn.

Given that I’m not as fit as I should be, but factoring in my altered bike configuration (see previous entry), I was delighted to see that during today’s ride I managed my fastest 100km, including two sub two-minute miles.

The beautiful location that is Cupola Bridge in the West Allen Valley, Northumberland.

A beautiful place; Cupola Bridge in the West Allen Valley, Northumberland.

Tuesday, August 19th, 2014.

You can teach an old dog new tricks.

Without ever reading anything on the subject, analysing it or asking for advice, for years I’ve assumed the procedure I was shown as a kid to set the right saddle height on a bike to be correct and incontrovertible. Rest lightly on its surface with the balls of your feet on the ground.

My friend Tim is the same height as me (6’5”/195.5cm). He recently bought an off-the-peg road bike from a certain German online retailer. I saw it for the first time when we went to the Tour in July (see below). I sat on it, and my feet would only touch the ground by leaning the frame sideways. Tim said that his method was to straighten his leg with the heel on the pedal at its lowest point and adjust the saddle accordingly.

A few weeks later I picked up the winter bike I’d been piecing together for months from the friendly mechanic who’d done the final assembly (see below again). He’d guessed the saddle height, and on trying it by chance it conformed to Tim’s formula. On getting home I raised the saddle on my summer bike to the same height.

Result; revelation. Circumstances have contrived to keep me off the bike in recent weeks, but what early experiments I’ve conducted seem to indicate that the new (and optimal, as far as I can work out) riding position increases my efficiency by around 5% with no perceptible discomfort. Further experimentation required.

Postscript August 21st.  Ridden a regular 25-mile measured course twice this week and compared with previous average time. 9% better!

Thursday, July 24th, 2014.

Five months on the winter bike is complete. On the hottest day of the year, of course. Went out for a test ride this evening and on my sweaty return discovered that the time of the trip coincided exactly with the highest recorded temperature of 2014 thus far hereabouts - 28C, 82F. Can't complain :)

Five months on and the winter bike is at last complete. On the hottest day of the year, of course. Went out for a test ride this evening and on my sweaty return discovered that the time of the trip coincided exactly with the highest recorded temperature of 2014 thus far in our part of the world – 28C, 82F. Can’t complain – and the bike’s perfect 🙂 – Big thanks to Rich and the  team at Arragon’s Cycles, Penrith for an excellent job, as ever.

Saturday, July 5th, 2014.

Stu & Tim intercept the Tour de France. Thwaite, Swaledale.

Stu & Tim intercept the Tour de France. Thwaite, Swaledale.

Tuesday, June 24th, 2014.

Back North in short order :) Forcan Ridge, Kintail.

Back North in short order 🙂 Forcan Ridge, Kintail.

Thursday, June 5th, 2014.

A Hebridean Adventure.

As I’ve written elsewhere, I’ve been visiting the west of Scotland regularly for well over 50 years. It’s always been an ambition to sail the islands, sounds and sea lochs which I know from landward so well, not so well, or not at all.

I’m not a sailor, canoeist or kayaker, and past experience has shown me that dinghy sailing isn’t my thing either. So the ambition would in all probability never be realised. I wouldn’t want to crew a yacht as part of a random group of customers, and the notion of spending any time on a large cruise ship is anathema. And I’ve no idea whether the idea would match the reality; it certainly didn’t with dinghies, neither with skiing, windsurfing nor waterskiing, all of which I’ve failed to grasp in the past.

I have a friend, Roby Tonnet, trans-oceanic yachtsman and past member of the French Olympic sailing team. He has a friend, Bill Douglas, engineer, vastly experienced sailor and master navigator. Roby has a 35-year old classic Rival 34 yacht , Soldemar, which he keeps at the splendid Whitehaven Marina in Cumbria. Roby met Bill after he discovered through the broker from whom he bought the yacht that he was the previous owner. You can see where this is going.

So it was with excitement and not a little trepidation that I boarded a train in Carlisle, armed with a marvellous Scotrail Club 55 £19 return to Kyle of Lochalsh , not expecting – rightly as it turned out – to begin my return journey from Kyle. At nineteen quid who cares?

Roby and Bill were sailing to Kyle from Whitehaven, and had been at sea for nine days via Bangor, Rathlin Island, Islay, Iona, Staffa, Rum and Loch Hourn when I joined them on the evening of May 16th. There was Soldemar, the only boat moored on the jetty a short walk from the railway terminus. I’d never sailed before, but knew I was in good hands and would learn a lot very quickly. Three men in a small boat; skipper, mate & cabin boy; how would it be?

Soldemar at Kyle of Lochalsh. Skye Bridge in background

Soldemar at Kyle of Lochalsh. Skye Bridge in background

In common with other multi-day reports in this blog, the following commentary runs down the page in chronological sequence, as opposed to up the page in chronological sequence like the rest of the blog. Makes it easier to read.

Friday May 16th 2014.

A long three-train journey Carlisle-Edinburgh-Inverness-Kyle, taking the whole day. Great weather until coast-to-coast from Inverness, but clearing by the time I reach Kyle. The Inverness train leaves for two destinations – Wick and Kyle – so important to make sure you’re in the right half when it splits at Dingwall!

Bill and Roby are on the platform to meet me, and after stowing my gear aboard we make for the Co-op to stock up for the week. Earlier in the day, negotiating Kyle Rhea in a rough swell, Soldemar had passed two skilled yachtsmen in a Wayfarer dinghy. Roby and Bill were amazed at the audacity of the two-man crew, and when they put in at Kyle to load the dinghy onto a trailer invited them aboard for a drink. John & Mark had sailed for a week to Rum and back, camping in the boat. As I’ve said of my cycling expedition, you meet a crazy person every day. Two today, and fine chaps both.

Saturday, May 17th, 2014.

An overcast day. Under the Skye Bridge and across the Inner Sound, past Scalpay (the first of two Scalpays on this trip), then a tack north into the Sound of Raasay. As ever, at least in my life, the Skye Cuillin are completely obscured by cloud. Soaking up information as fast as I can (which isn’t very fast these days), I have a spell at the helm, nervously watching the GPS and sonar displays and experiencing for the first time the great feeling when a boat under sail responds to tiny movements of the tiller. It’s physically quite hard work, using muscles which don’t get that much to do on land; hard work for everyone, so the two types of automatic tiller (one GPS-controlled, one wind-controlled) will be regular helpmates.

Roby

Roby

Bill

Bill

We look out for the big white arrow painted on a rock which marks the narrow entrance to Acarsaid Mhor, the beautiful sheltered inlet on the west coast of Rona, and make for the evening’s anchorage. Rona is owned by a benevolent Danish millionairess, and has been for many years. Her factor lives in the renovated Rona Lodge with his partner; they’re the island’s sole inhabitants, other than staff based at the small & inaccessible military base on the island’s extreme north tip and seasonal visitors who rent three cottages in Acarsaid Thioram, over the hill from the mooring.

We paddle ashore to reconnoitre as evening falls, and resolve to spend the following morning and early afternoon exploring the island.

Rona

Acarsaid Mhor, Rona

 

 

Sunday, May 18th, 2014.

Bill and Roby

Bill and Roby

 

 

 

 

 

 

Still grey, damp & misty – perfect midge weather, but too early in the year and too cold. Back ashore we set off for Church Cave, on the island’s east coast. We meet Bill, the factor, and have a friendly chat. He’s ferrying drainage pipes across the island on a quad bike.

Church Cave was used for worship in the absence of a kirk or chapel on the island. There’s still an annual pilgrimage to this odd and extremely isolated spot. Inside there are a few votary candles and a Bible. I read my favourite passage to Roby & Bill – the bit in Leviticus about why iguanas and chameleons are unclean. We see a nuclear sub offshore in the naval exercise area,  and I think I have my ‘phone jammed when I pick up a signal and try to call home. Subsequent inquiries suggest that this is entirely possible.

Church Cave

Church Cave

Back over the hill to Acarsaid Thioram – Dry Harbour – where there are three splendidly renovated cottages available for rent. All else lies in ruins, although wind-power and water-supply works are much in evidence, and we meet a friendly temporary resident over from Raasay for ten days with a mechanical excavator to improve the island tracks and drainage. We also lose Roby, which anyone who knows him will understand. We don’t worry about it.

Acarsaid Thioram

Acarsaid Thioram

Back to Acarsaid Mhor, and there’s Roby in the inflatable, fishing. We get back to Soldemar , then I hop in the dinghy and row back ashore and up to the Lodge for a shower, a facility available to visiting yachtpeople. Bill and the friendly digger driver are just coming back for lunch, and I have a splendid scrub – at £5 the most expensive shower I’ve ever had, but then when you consider what it takes to get the water hot in a place with no mains links of any sort, a bargain. And, as it’ll turn out, the only time I’ll get a proper wash until I get home, so a wise move. Bill and Roby had a shower each last week, so don’t feel any sense of urgency. I’m fast learning that things are different at sea.

Found him. :)

Found him. 🙂

Back aboard and away around 3pm, aiming for the uninhabited Shiant Islands off the east coast of Lewis. So the Minch to cross. Yes, but it’s almost flat calm – insufficient wind to fill the jib; we motor most of the way.

Feet up in the Sound of Raasay

Feet up in the Sound of Raasay

I’m fascinated by Bill’s navigator’s routine. As a map freak I can relate to it, and to the complex calculations to be made involving wind, tide, chart-plotting, weather information and careful judgement. You can’t just go where you want when you want. Every three hours we listen to Stornoway Coastguard on VHF.

We reach the Shiants at dusk and anchor on the west side of the main island; the wind is picking up from the northeast, and we’re in the lee of the cliffs. Too late to go ashore – that’s for tomorrow. There’s an utterly breathtaking sunset.

Shiant sunset, 180514We light the oil lamps, fire up the charcoal stove, switch on the gas cooker, and just about suffocate. Too many fumes at once; we open all the hatches, and I go on deck for some fresh air. I feel sick, but the clean, cool air works its magic. Bill goes aloft a few minutes later and throws up over the side. The boat is perfectly static.

An appropriate point for a short diversion into food and sleep.

It isn’t possible to contract scurvy in a week, and we eat well, if oddly. Bill does most of the cooking, although we agree in advance what delights we will consume. There’s no fridge on the yacht, but all perishable stuff is stowed below the waterline, so stays pretty fresh. There’s no toaster either, so toast is linseed & soya bread lightly fried in olive oil. Yum! With a two-burner cooker, the carb-veg balance produces such treats as cauliflower rice and cabbage pasta. Tinned fish provides my protein. There’s vodka, beer, malt whisky , lots of bottled water and all manner of teas and coffees. There’s something marvellous about sitting down to eat round the tiny galley table – the galley serves as sleeping quarters for Bill & me, too – under a starlit sky, with the boat rocking gently. I had absolutely no problem sleeping at night, despite the cramped conditions, and we all took short naps at various times during the day. Essential.

Monday, May 19th, 2014.

Our wedding anniversary. I open the card from Avril I’ve carried with me. No hope of calling her from here, although it may be that if we climb to the top of the island there could be a signal from Lewis, six miles away. Let’s see. I managed to get a signal from the top of Askival on Rum a few years ago – no idea where from, but any mast would have been considerably more than six miles distant.

Shiant landing, 190514We paddle ashore to the amazingly narrow spit which links the two parts of the main island, and make a beeline for the bothy. If you know Adam Nicolson’s book about the Shiants –he inherited them – you’ll know all about this building. If you don’t – read it. I first read ‘Sea Room’ in 2003 and loved it. Unsurprisingly, I’m just reading it again with fresh eyes, ears and nostrils.

The circumnavigation transforms :) Account of recent Hebridean adventures coming here just as soon as I can get it written.

I walk out with my binoculars to watch thousands of seabirds and immediately spot three golden eagles overhead. Two isn’t uncommon hereabouts, but I’ve never seen three together. Too many tasty snacks amid the acres of breeding birds. A couple of skuas rise to see them off, with limited success. We climb to the top of the hill on Eilean na Tighe, pick up that mobile signal, make some calls and return to see that another yacht has anchored in the bay on the other side of the spit. It arrived on Rona just as we were leaving, and has come up from there this morning. A charter yacht with five Israeli crew. Unusual.

Soldemar at anchor, Shiants.

Soldemar at anchor, Shiants. Beat that!

Galtachan

Galtachan

We set sail past the eerie pinnacles of the Galtachan sea stacks towards the spectacular basalt cliffs on the north shore of Eilean Garbh on the other side of the spit, and we almost come round into the east anchorage before turning 180 degrees across the Sound of Shiant, known locally as The Stream of the Blue Men (see Nicolson). Roby fishes off the stern for mackerel, without success.

Roby fishingThis is the best weather we’ll have all week, and we make steady progress with a following wind. Bill suggests that we visit a lovely anchorage by the tiny island of Hingarstay (Thinngarstaigh)  in Loch Claidh on Lewis before sailing on into Loch Seaforth. This we do, to be greeted by lots of seals at Hingarstay.

Clisham, Harris, in the mist. The highest point in the Outer Hebrides. the mist from Loch Seaforth.

Clisham, Harris, in the mist. The highest point in the Outer Hebrides,  from Loch Seaforth.

The weather closes in as we move into Seaforth. I’m at the helm when a juvenile white-tailed sea eagle flies by, gone before the others can come above deck to see it. We anchor for the night beneath Cithish Beag, around 12 miles from the open sea, whilst another pair of golden eagles hunt on the mountainside. Six eagles in one day. Doubt if I’ll ever see that  again. Tonight’s pair stick around for nearly an hour.

Tuesday, May 20th 2014.

A gloomy morning with cloud low on the mountainsides. We sail out of the loch, completing the circumnavigation of Seaforth Island in the process, and can see up ahead that the weather is clear over the open sea.

Leaving SeaforthBill has timed our departure to take advantage of the tidal flow, and we encounter a decent swell as we pass our second Scalpay. The sun shines and I spend some time sitting on the bow, watching puffins, guillemots and gannets breeze past. Roby briefly flirts with the idea of a fast dash through the Sound of Harris and onward to St Kilda, but all the conditions are against us. Bill is the voice of reason, as ever. Roby and Bill are absolutely perfect foils for one another; a human dovetail joint. Better guides, instructors and companions one simply could not find, IMHO.

Scalpay lighthouse

Scalpay lighthouse

Inshore the sea is calmer, and we make our way through the very narrow entrance to Loch Euphort on North Uist for the night, negotiating a wreck as we make for the most sheltered anchorage. I get the chance to try my first transit. This involves lining up two marks on the landscape (in this case a painted cairn and a painted rock) and keeping them in perfect vertical alignment, ensuring safe passage through tricky water. I’m not very good at it, so Bill steps in, but at least I get the principle.

Tonight will be our third night of complete isolation. Other than our brief encounter on the Shiants we haven’t seen a soul since leaving Rona.

Over dinner we discuss the plan for tomorrow. The forecast is worsening, with strong northerly gales predicted by Wednesday night. Weather permitting, we’ll make for Lochboisdale on South Uist. It has a hotel, bar and shops.

Wednesday, May 21st, 2014

A dreich day. We set sail into much the heaviest sea we’ve encountered. We surf a bit, and I manage to keep cheerful by staying on deck and keeping my eyes on the horizon. I look at the instruments as little as possible to avoid sharp changes of focus and balance, which usually produce predictable results.

I get cold. One thing I hadn’t considered is that regular thermals and waterproofs are only so much use at sea. The difference is that on land when you’re wearing them you’re moving and generating body heat. At sea you’re not. But you’re also not worried about the weight of the garments, just their capacity to keep you warm and dry. Oilskins are a lot cheaper than Goretex, and a lot more effective out here. Noted.

Whilst Roby’s doing some deck housekeeping we suddenly stop moving forward, which certainly should not happen in these conditions. We’ve snagged a small buoy, probably marking lobster creels. Roby and Bill prepare to tack away to unsnag us when the buoy frees itself and we move on. No lobsters, though.

I’m content to get cold as I’ve no idea how I’ll be below deck in much the roughest sea we’ve encountered so far. Bill is snoozing (in his oilskins, of course), and when he comes up for a stint he assures me that if I go below for a nap, I should just lie flat, shut my eyes and all will be well. He’s right. Soldemar is bobbing like a cork, and I’m completely unaffected. Another important lesson learned from my marvellous and patient mentors.

Skipper at work.

Skipper at work.

And a new experience for us all; a Mayday call. We pick this up via the coastguard and follow it throughout. We’re too far away to render assistance, which is what all craft should aim to do if close enough to the distressed vessel. A boat – we’re not sure whether a yacht or a fishing craft – has lost power off Kylesku on the mainland. It’s only a mile offshore but is drifting. The Lochinver lifeboat is launched, but after twenty minutes or so the boat is reported to be under tow by a local fishing boat. The lifeboat is recalled. Bill points out that the lifeboat crew has done the commercial boat a favour; the latter can claim salvage, the former can’t.

We tie up on the visitors’ moorings at Lochboisdale and paddle ashore for an excellent dinner in the friendly Lochboisdale Hotel. Looking at the bill I’m delighted to spot my new-found, if temporary, identity.

Lochboisdale eatsWhilst we’re there, a huge 70-footer puts in on the ferry jetty. We go to have a look at her around 11pm before paddling back, and the skipper invites us aboard. Most of the 18 crew have just gone to the pub. The Alba Endeavour is a former round-the-world racing yacht now owned by Ocean Youth Trust Scotland, a charity. The current crew is adult, hence the pub absence. We’re impressed by the galley, comfortable seating and amazing chart table & instrumentation, but find the triple hammock bunks less to our liking. This was after all a racing boat where personal space is minimised to reduce weight and crew would sleep in shifts whilst competing round the clock. Soldemar’s intimacy isn’t perhaps too bad; at least there are only three of us.

Alba Endeavour was St Kilda bound, but even a boat that size has to abandon such a plan. (I learned a week or so late via the OYTS website that she had eventually made it there and back in tough conditions, with a soggy landing for the crew).

The wind picks up just as we climb back aboard, and Roby tightens and secures everything on deck that can be tightened and secured. It’s still a very noisy night, and I don’t think any of us slept that well. Wind was force 8 gusting to 9 at times, Roby reckons, and is still blowing in the morning.

Thursday, May 22nd, 2014.

So we can’t get off the boat, still less sail anywhere. The wisdom of heading here yesterday is vindicated, as my ferry is early tomorrow. Assuming it arrives – these conditions often lead to delays and cancellations.

There was a brief hope that we could use this final day of my shift for a trip round Barra and Mingulay, picking up the ferry in Castlebay tomorrow. Impossible.

We’re stuck on the boat at anchor all day, unwilling to risk a ditching from the tender. I begin to sense what proper cabin fever might entail.

Eventually, in the early evening, we see the ferry coming in. She’ll go on to Barra then return in the morning. This is good news for me. When she’s sailed, it gradually gets calm enough to move Soldemar away from the visitors’ mooring to the fishing anchorage on the other side of the jetty. We’re not really supposed to be there, but needs must – it’s much more sheltered. We paddle ashore and climb up on to the jetty via the deck of a shellfish boat. To the pub again; very welcome after 20 hours of relentless wind and too long incarcerated aboard and static At least it gave me time to finish reading the book I’ve scarcely had time to look at thus far, so all was not lost.

Friday, May 23rd, 2014.

Up early, I say my fond and heartfelt farewells, and Roby rows me ashore. MV Lord of the Isles docks on time and leaves just before 9am for the five-and-a-half hour crossing to Oban. The journey started with a short and timely dinghy ride, and is about to go downhill fast. The trip back to the mainland is delightful though, in excellent weather (although the Skye Cuillin still remain hidden in cloud). I spend a lot of time on deck with the binoculars, just looking at land- and sea-marks; the Harris Mausoleum on Rum, the Oich-sgeir skerries and lighthouse, the north coast of Coll, Ardnamurchan lighthouse and Avril’s favourite Sanna Bay. No dolphins, porpoises or basking sharks, alas.

Sanna Bay to Ardnamurchan Point

Sanna Bay to Ardnamurchan Point

The ferry is held up in Oban Bay, just minutes from journey’s end, and just long enough to see the (supposedly) connecting Glasgow train pull away from the harbour as she ties up. Maddening. The boat will always wait for the train, but the converse never happens, apparently. A helpful bloke in the ticket office works out that the next train will ensure that I just miss the last direct connection south from Glasgow Central, but that there is a later one which would get me via Kilmarnock and Nithsdale to Dumfries for 1.15 on Saturday morning, with only a three-and-a-half hour wait on the platform for the 4.58 am to Carlisle. And, of course, in the time honoured tradition there are no trains from Glasgow tomorrow as it’s a Bank Holiday weekend and the line is closed for engineering work. I thank him and dash to the West Coast Motors office down the street. They’ve rescued me once before – see below, June 13th, 2012.

There’s a bus for Edinburgh leaving shortly, alight at Tyndrum and pick up the Fort William-Glasgow bus arriving at the same time, getting to Glasgow with half an hour to spare for the connection I’ve always had booked as part of my £19 return. A daily and well-rehearsed bus transfer. Except not today. We wait for the connection, it doesn’t turn up, and after half an hour the driver, without a word to anyone, drives away leaving five of us stranded and, as you can imagine, bloody furious. I call Avril and ask her to try to contact West Coast Motors – I have no number – and find out what’s going on. It’s gone 5pm on a Friday, so of course no-one’s there. I’m already planning an unscheduled night in Glasgow – or even Tyndrum – and a slow bus journey home in the morning. An hour late the connection turns up, with no explanation.  As we arrive in Glasgow, passing Cowcaddens, I glance up the hill to see if I can get a glimpse of one of my favourite buildings, Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s School of Art. I can only see the modern extension.. I see no safety cordons – but then I’m not looking for them – and am astonished when I get home to learn of the tragic fire that had destroyed a significant part of the building that very afternoon. I pause at Buchanan Street Bus Station to voice a very strong complaint to the bus company about the appalling attitude and behaviour of the driver on the first part of the journey – the polar opposite of the guy who drove my bus back in June 2012.

Quickly legging it with my pack on my back across the city centre, I get to Central in time for the last train south stopping at Carlisle, let Avril know, grab a pasty and collapse into my seat. She meets me at Carlisle station, having had an horrendous day herself – don’t ask – and we get home around midnight. A sixteen-hour journey for me; dinghy, boat, bus, another bus, jog, train, car. Could have got almost anywhere in the world in that time. Nuff said.

A fantastic trip which I consider myself extremely fortunate to have undertaken with such skilled,  considerate and congenial companions.

Thanks for everything, chaps.

Thanks for everything, chaps.

Sunday, May 4th, 2014.

Living in Cumbria, one learns never to venture on to the hills, or at least on to the more popular & well-trodden ones, on a Bank Holiday weekend. Scafell Pike is one such, of course; if someone, anyone, and particularly a non-hillwalker, climbs one hill in England in their lifetime, chances are it’ll be the highest one, Scafell Pike.

Sometimes rules must be waived, though. Such as yesterday, when Dan and his five lovely friends Andrew, Beth, Hazel, Lily & Matt arrived at our house hot-foot from Hackney at one in the morning on a quest to climb Scafell and Snowdon, the highest peak in Wales, over the weekend.

After not much sleep and a hearty breakfast we were all at Seathwaite in Borrowdale by 9.30am. A still, mild & overcast day – as good as you’re wise to hope for at this time of year. A splendid and convivial walk up and down ensued, although I have to confess that this sixty year-old struggled with the pace of five fit young people in their twenties. They were kind to me, and I pushed my regular solo-walking pace a bit to keep up as best I could.

Anyway, back to the Bank Holiday thing. I’ve never seen so many people on a hill on the same day. At a very conservative estimate, given the parties that we saw converging on the summit from the three main approaches – Borrowdale, Wasdale & Langdale – during the six hours we were out, there would have been well over 1000 people up there during the course of the day Peace and solitude there were not!

Nonetheless, a great day in the marvellous company of six wonderful young people, capped off with tea and scones at Booth’s in Keswick, whilst shopping was done for the onward dash to North Wales that same evening – alas not accompanied by me – and the ascent of Snowdon today. Can’t neglect to mention, by way of capping off a perfect day, that tea was accompanied by my delighted squeaks as I learnt that my team, Sunderland, had just won at Manchester United and taken a massive step towards securing continued Premiership football next season. Fingers crossed.

And here’s a random outdoor observation. Given the huge number of people on the Central Fells this weekend, why is it that there were only a couple of tents on the campsite at Seathwaite, and not that many more at Seatoller & Rosthwaite , the other main sites in upper Borrowdale? Where does everyone come from,  where do they stay, and why don’t they appear to camp in anything like the numbers they used to?

Matt, Beth, Stuart, Andrew, Hazel, Lily, Dan. Scafell Pike summit. Snowdon was duly conquered the following day. :)

Matt, Beth, Stuart, Andrew, Hazel, Lily & Dan on the summit of  Scafell Pike.  Snowdon was duly conquered too 🙂

Thursday, May 1st, 2014.

Cannonball.

Back in February we were in the marvellous Backbeat record store in Amsterdam, a retro paradise, and I bought an 8 CD Cannonball Adderley box, covering 1957-60, for 8 euros. Ridiculous! Much of the stuff I already had in other formats, but some I didn’t know, even after all these years, and at that price duplication was hardly an issue.

Anyway, I’ve listened to Cannonball a lot in the past few months, as if to remind myself of his genius. All the intelligence of bebop, dazzling musicality, frightening technique, groove, but above all, and singling him out above all alto players for me – soul. Listen to him now, people, and if you’re not uplifted then your soul’s on holiday. That music was recorded the better part of 60 years ago, and much of it sounds like it could have been done this morning. Timeless.

Monday, April 28th, 2014.

A lone young golden eagle has been reported in Mardale in the past few weeks. It’s a lovely 30 mile loop there and back for me, returning on the ‘Concrete Road’ built by the contractors who flooded Mardale and made it into Haweswater in the 1930s. Rough in places, although oddly with new flat-topped cattle grids, but still OK on a road bike, and now plastered with notices by United Utilities, the owners, to the effect that it’s both private and dangerous for motor vehicles. Both true – the road is now closed between Keld and Sleddale and deliberately blocked with boulders; a bridge and roadbed are in imminent danger of collapse. Still walkable and bikeable, though.

A warm, still evening. Beautiful. I love Mardale, and as long as the reservoir is full and the dam isn’t visible, the untrained eye would never know it isn’t a natural lake, at least until it spots the dry-stone walls beneath the surface. The village of Mardale and its parish church are also under there.

No eagle, but red squirrels, jays, geese and gulls on the reservoir, a newly-arrived pied flycatcher in Frith Wood and, best of all, the first coconut aroma of gorse in flower and the warmth of the sun on my back as I climbed the gentle rise back from Mardale Head. It might as well be spring.

Looking across Haweswater into Riggindale; elusive eagle country.

Looking across Haweswater into Riggindale. Elusive eagle country.

Wednesday, April 16th, 2014.

The first really lovely day of the year yesterday. Clear blue sky and lots to indicate that Spring is here, on time for a change. A free afternoon and evening found me on one of my longer training circuits, 55 miles round the Howgill Fells with around 3500’ of climbing. One of my favourite rides, which I haven’t done since last September, on what I recall was the last day when the weather was as good.

The big Spring indicator today was the wildlife. Chased a stoat with a bank vole in its mouth for about 100 yards before it had the sense to jump off the road and through a hedge, still holding its prey. Some great silent-cyclist close-ups of a stonechat, a couple of wrens and a pair of curlew. An oddly cold south-easterly headwind dogged the first half of the circuit, but the early evening return half was a joy, despite a few nasty climbs.

Bizarre mechanical stuff returned to pester me for the first time in ages. A strange scraping sound announced the loss of a rear brake block. How on earth did that happen? It’s all but impossible, so much so that whilst I always carry enough small bits and pieces to fix most problems on the road, I never carry spare blocks. Riding 30 miles home on the front brake only necessitated a few adaptations!

I had my wheels booked in for trueing today, and a small amount of lateral movement in the rear hub I’ve been riding all winter prompted me to ask for it to be checked, too. Turns out that the aluminium cassette barrel had split clean apart along its length. That shouldn’t happen either, especially on high-quality components. Slightly embarrassing for the manufacturers, a short way away in Lancashire. I’m assured that a replacement will be sent under warranty. Three rear hubs and two bottom brackets knackered in two years. Uncommon bad luck.

Regardless, the summer wheels and tyres went on today. Onward 🙂

Friday, April 11th, 2014.

Le Tyke SportifOn July 5th I’ll be heading for Yorkshire. So will around a million other people. Specifically, I’ll be heading for Thwaite at the top of Swaledale, the nearest point on the Tour De France Grand Départ route to my house,  around 35 miles away. This trip has been in my diary since the route was announced a year or so ago, as you might imagine. I’ll be cycling, naturellement, and may or may not be accompanied; I’ve mentioned my plan to a few cycling friends. If I wasn’t cycling I guess walking would be the only other option, as I imagine that all along the route the roads will be jammed with cars and mobile homes (and cyclists, of course),  even in relatively isolated Upper Swaledale.

Anyway, the direct route to see the stage involves the ascent of Lamps Moss above Mallerstang in Cumbria, some 1100′ of climbing in around 4 miles, with three tricky bits. Steeper than anything the peloton has to tackle that day, too. I’ve come down the Moss in the past returning from Tan Hill, but it occurred to me that I’ve never ridden up it. Thinking it prudent to check out likely times in order to ensure that I get to Thwaite promptly in July, I took advantage of a free afternoon and decent weather today to ride from home the 40-odd miles to the top of the Moss and back  The run into Swaledale from the summit is pretty straightforward, so no need to rehearse that.

Anyway, here’s the point. The climb. Tricky Bit One; signed 20% straight out of Nateby. Probably slightly less than that. Short. OK. Tricky Bit Two; signed 17% about half way up. Probably slightly more than that. Shortish. OK, but out of the saddle now. Tricky Bit Three (the killer); right at the end. 200 yards of crash barrier straight up the escarpment. No hairpins. Not signed at the bottom, but signed at the top. 14%. Who made that up? Way the steepest section. This early in the season I have to confess that I got to within 100 yards of the top and got off. Made good time on the ascent to there, so expect to be able to handle it after the more regular training I do as Spring unfolds. Mission accomplished, though – I’ll be in Thwaite before the tête de la course 🙂

14%? What do you think?

Over the edge. 14%? What do you think? See below (August 28th, 2012) for the fantasy sign.

And later that same day. 2014 or 1954? What do you think? :)

And later that same day. 2014 or 1954? What do you think? 🙂

Thursday, March 13th, 2014.

I’ve just rediscovered the source of my favourite Frank Zappa quote. To paraphrase;

‘Scientists say that the basic building block of the universe is carbon, because it’s so plentiful. Wrong; the basic building block of the universe is stupidity, because it’s more plentiful’.

The source was a BBC documentary on the man and his work recorded and screened shortly before his death in 1993. It’s turned up on YouTube. Required viewing.

FZ was, as ever, right.

I’m sick of prats on the road. Several dimensions of stupidity here. Just this week;

i)                     Tractor driver refusing to move over as he approaches cyclist (me) on single track road. Common phenomenon hereabouts.

ii)                   Idiot driver moving at 15mph downhill on single track road and refusing to speed up or pull over with highly visible cyclist (me) right up his arse.

iii)                  Teenage idiot with bike pushing it into the path of oncoming cyclist (me) in order to talk to passing driver, probably his dad, on other side of road.

Cyclists should never, ever forget that however much they may try to look like a dayglo lighthouse, to some people they’re still invisible.

It’s amazing the things people do on bicycles. Heading home earlier this week on the sunniest day of the year so far, I travelled for a short distance with another rider who was on his way home from work. Work in Penrith, home in Carnforth! 40 miles on the A6 over Shap Summit. He did say that this wasn’t a daily occurrence, but chapeau, nonetheless.

Here comes the sun. About time!

Here comes the sun. About time.

Thursday, March 6th, 2014.

Not cycling, but definitely a bit more (partial) circumnavigating in prospect. It’s been a lifelong ambition of mine to sail the Scottish coast. I’m not a sailor, but I’ve loved and known the landscapes and seascapes for well over fifty years now, man, youth and boy. Imagine my delight (and slight trepidation!) when a friend – a highly-experienced trans-oceanic sailor –  knowing of my passion and interests, asked me if I’d like to join him for part of a trip through the Hebrides and the Northern Isles this summer. Can you believe that? Were any hands bitten off? Is Bradley Wiggins a cyclist? And by way of good omen, a trip was made to Whitehaven Marina on the first properly sunny day of the year last Monday to make sure that my 6’5” frame will fit into the 34 foot hull and berths thereof with minimal discomfort. It does. Hooray! And here she is. Wow!

Soldemar 030314

Friday, February 28th, 2014.

Well, I’ve had enough. Four months of rain, three frosts in all that time, roads endlessly flooded and filthy. A rare and happy chance earlier this week unearthed a clearance lightweight winter frame whose dimensions almost match those of my ageing custom road frame, and, mutatis mutandis (check that out!), will.  At £60, a genuine steal. Yes, I know winter’s nearly over, and that I said just six weeks ago – see below- that a winter bike was probably out of the question, but this was a one-off opportunity which definitely had my name on it. I did however say to the nice man at the warehouse when I ordered the frame that what will now happen is that it’ll arrive and the sun will be shining and there’ll be no wind or rain. That, of course, is exactly what has happened, but as the man replied, wouldn’t that alone be worth 60 quid anyway? Dead right. Off out immediately, with three seasons to scour the world for the right parts at affordable prices and put the rest of the  bike together. And, no doubt, a winter to come 2014-15 perfect for riding a summer bike.

Winter frame 2014.

And a fragment of winter sunshine.

And a fragment of winter sunshine.

Monday, January 27th, 2014.

A weekend looking after delightful small grandchildren in the North-East. Excuse enough to do the year’s first long ride to get there.  Conditions poor, but not terrible, although the 60-mile ‘direct route’ from home over the Pennines to Shotley Bridge on Friday included snow, rain, wind, and traverses of the Eden, South Tyne, Nent, West Allen, East Allen, Rookhope & Derwent Valleys, the latter twice. Hartside, Black Hill, Rookhope Head, Cuthbert’s Hill and Carterway Heads summits; 5000+’ of climbing in all, and the last fifteen miles in the dark & wet.

Yes, it was hard; having been out a good deal in January, I still wasn’t quite ready to leap to the kind of route I’d normally be contemplating in March. Glad I did it, but even happier Avril gave me a lift home; I normally do the ride both ways, although didn’t plan for it this time. Just as well, given my unpreparedness, slow recovery time, two days with a one year-old and a four year-old, and the truly atrocious weather on Sunday. Slept rather well last night 

Tuesday, January 14th, 2014.

Lonely winter road.

Lonely winter road.

Sunday, January 12th, 2014.

Staying comortable, staying warm

Staying comfortable, staying warm.

Staying comfortable and staying warm seem to matter to me more than most things when cycling. 12 years ago when I had my bike frame made I couldn’t find one anywhere off the peg to fit. I still can’t, although some manufacturers are getting close to the 665cm seat tube, 625mm horizontal top tube & 240mm head tube I need to ride with minimal discomfort. So, whenever I look about idly for a winter bike, I always end up sticking with my one trusty machine and a few home-made mud-diverting modifications – a very narrow front fork means that the biggest tyres I can run in winter are 25mm, leaving no room for proprietary mudguards, and I’ve devised a rear one cunningly crafted from 3” guttering. Works for me, and a lot cheaper than a second bike, leaving whatever budget there may be to maintain this one in prime condition, knowing that I’ll be able to ride all day without avoidable discomfort. I’ve been tempted to buy something cheap that almost fits my sizing, but I know it would be second-best, so will wait until I need, rather than want, to have a new frame built. That could be a long way off, or maybe even never. In the meantime, I’ll read the usual veloporn. Amazed how often I hear of men of a certain age buying expensive components & stuff (not just for bikes) and having them delivered to the office. 🙂

Now, staying warm. I think I’ve cracked that. Out in freezing wind today, the kind which means you won’t need to remove any layers however hard you’re working. No such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothes, as the old adage runs. As long as I’m moving, I seem to stay snug – overheat a little if anything. The clothing layers conundrum is close to intractable in the British climate; I still think that most ‘technical’ waterproof jackets don’t work in the worst conditions, and that there are simple physical reasons for this. Not getting hypothermia and staying dryish seems to be the most achievable compromise. Even if the water’s staying out, there’ll be condensation somewhere. It’s only water. And where would we be without it?

Wednesday, January 1st 2014.

Donald Fagen.

I love Donald Fagen; his strangled voice; his lyrics – when I can make any sense of them; his love affair with the Fender Rhodes and the Hammond B3, my favourite non-acoustic analogue noises; and above all his composition and arranging. The best in the field, IMHO, and I keep good company in thinking that.

So there I was this morning working out on the static bike whilst listening to his 2006 album ‘Morph The Cat’. Specifically to ‘Brite Nightgown’, a charming ditty about cheating death. Far from his most sophisticated writing, but a fabulous groove and a commendable sentiment, perfect for pedal-pushing and shortening the elapsed boredom time which always envelops me on a static trainer or in a gym.

Of course we can’t cheat death, but most of us have it in our gift, if we’re wise, sensible and lucky enough, to aim to impede its encroachment through the choices we make in life.

So we’re all starting with New Year’s resolve. Take a tip from Don; ‘F*** the fella in the brite nightgown’.

Thursday, December 12th, 2013

Weather bore here again. Has anybody noticed how mild late autumn and early winter has been in the UK? I have. November pretty benign, just a few light frosts, light winds and below average rainfall. Approaching mid-December mean temperatures in north-west England are in low double figures, no frosts so far, although granted there was a big storm across most of the UK at the start of the month. Some other parts of England – and Scotland – have been even warmer than where I live. This makes the average temperatures better than they were on many of the 25 days I was doing my long ride in June 2012 and May & June 2013.  The upshot would appear to be that if you want to do a marathon ride, you might just as well do it in winter. There, weather gods; your bluff is called for 2014.

And to prove the point, the annual Christmas walk with my chums from Wigan, Friday 13th. Wet, windy. But not cold.

And to prove the point, the annual Christmas fell walk with my chums from Wigan on Friday 13th. Wet, windy, gloomy. But not cold.

And off we go......

And off we go……

Monday, December 2nd, 2013.

Invested in a decent, very bright and safe bike light for the first time in my life last month, and have started training in the dark. The Proper Dark – no street lights and precious little light pollution where I live. Love it; a whole new world of funny noises and badgers. And easier to anticipate traffic on isolated country lanes. Not that there is very much.

Portrait of a winter cyclist with added Grade A darkness.

Portrait of a winter cyclist with added Grade A darkness.

Saturday, November 23rd, 2013.

Three entirely unrelated reflections from yesterday’s ride.

i) I often liken a good workout to opening up a filing cabinet to the elements and letting all the accumulated crap blow away.

From where I live in the far North-West of England I can cycle up a long & gentle hill on a clear day to a glorious view encompassing the summits of Blencathra & Cross Fell, the former in the Lake District, the latter the highest point of the Pennines. They’re 23 miles apart as the crow flies, across the broad expanse of the Eden Valley, but only 100 feet or so separates them in height. They tell me a lot about the weather. Hardly any snow on Blencathra yesterday, but the top 500 feet of Cross Fell covered. Easterly air flow; probably more cold weather on the way. I stopped to take a photograph. Landscapes never look like the eye sees them on all but the most expensive of cameras, so you have to look hard even to see the skyline in the shot below, which looks NE to Cross Fell, some twelve miles distant. As I was taking the picture, another cyclist happened along. He was local, although we’d never met, and we proceeded to spend half an hour enthusing about the landscape and agreeing that we were so lucky to be able to live here.  Filing cabinets well-and-truly purged.

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

ii) Signage. All over the place you’ll find signs plagued with bad spelling, bad punctuation & bad grammar. I passed two yesterday, indeed I pass them frequently. The first extols us to ‘Beware Red Squirrels’, when , of course, it should be urging caution. The seconds states; ‘Slow children in village’. I saw the one below in Pondicherry a few years ago. Nothing at all wrong with spelling or sentiment.

No Honkingiii) Gear. Like all good cyclists, I do what I can to support my local bike shop. Elsewhere in this blog I sing its praises. But both they and I acknowledge that sometimes no sane person on a budget will spend over the odds on stuff that can be found on the internet at very low prices. We all do it, but most of us give the benefit of the doubt, and the cashflow, to our friendly local experts whenever we can. Long may this continue for all small traders the world over.

And then there’s Aldi. Not only do they frequently stock perfectly serviceable ‘own-brand’ cycling gear – especially clothing – at silly prices,  they also sell the nicest and cheapest energy bars I know. They had some arc welding rods in there the other day for next to nothing. One has to ask why? And how?

Monday, November 11th, 2013.

Special publication to mark my 60th birthday, with thanks to Geoff & Linda Whitehead.

Special publication to mark my 60th birthday, with thanks to Geoff & Linda Whitehead.

Sunday, November 10th, 2013.

*NB: This entry was posted on March 12th, 2018. Sorting out some files that day I came across the speech I made at my 60th birthday party. Rereading it I quite liked it. It rehearses and sometimes repeats themes which occur elsewhere in this blog, but I thought it worth lodging in the appropriate chronological space, if only for my own benefit:

Welcome, one and all, and thanks so much for coming.

To plagiarise that marvellous telegram exchange between a journalist and Cary Grant at the height of his Hollywood fame; ‘How old Stuart Johnson?’. ‘Old Stuart Johnson fine, how you?’.

First, a word on why we’re here. Not here, as in Netherwood – this was always going to be the place we’d try to hold this celebration, and many thanks to Mike & Chris Fallowfield and all their lovely staff for making it such a marvellous occasion; this is the friendliest and most accommodating venue we know, and we know a lot of them.

No, I mean Grange-Over-Sands. The demographers amongst you – I’m sure they’re everywhere – will of course know that Grange has one of the oldest populations of any community in the UK. At the last count the average inhabitant was 127.

This, therefore, makes it the perfect place for a 60-year old to hold a birthday party and feel OK. Sixty thus becomes not new 40, but the new 21.

There’s a note of seriousness in there. Many of you know, because I can bore for England on the subject, that I consider my generation, the Baby Boomers 1945-55, the most fortunate generation in history. Not just British history, either. I can give you dozens of reasons for this assertion, but now is neither the time nor the place. I’ve been blessed with good health and fortune throughout my life because of many of those reasons. And, of course, a considerable measure of luck, for which I’m profoundly grateful.

Most of you know that I had a humour arrest by the time I reached the fourth form. The youthful Footlighters on the Home Service at the time,  not to mention TW3, the Goons and Kenneth Horne, had a lot to do with that, assisted by the hot-house that was my boys’ grammar school.  I still love terrible puns and find it funny when people fart. More importantly, though, I really do feel that many aspects of my personality and world-view haven’t changed that much since the 1960s. I’m actually quite proud of it. My dear friend of 50-plus years Prof. Dave Wastell would have been here today to corroborate this, but is currently engaged in something academic and obscure in Chile. It might involve terrible puns. Or worse.

I’m not really trying to prove that 60 is the new 21, nor that all other forms of my development have arrested – I’ll leave you to judge that. What I’m saying is that I grew up at a time of great change and turmoil, but of great hope and vision. Moreover I didn’t have to do national service, I didn’t have to go to war, I didn’t have to pay for my education or my health care, and I’m three weeks the right side of the line to get a full state pension at 65; in this final respect my life encapsulates almost to the day the rise and demise of the post-war dream.   We indescribably fortunate baby boomers; we’ve had it all, and now it’s gone. 

I believe just about everything I believed forty years ago, and like and love most of the same things too. Call me a fuddy-duddy, a stick-in-the-mud, but it’s my party, so I’ll tell you what they are. You’re here because you’re my special friends. I hope you still are in a minute’s time. Here are a few of my favourite things;

  • I’m still trying to play a single note on the saxophone that sounds like John Coltrane might have played it.
  • I still listen to the songs of Joni Mitchell and James Taylor , and love it that our children’s generation have discovered and love much of the music that shaped us.
  • I still fool myself that I can do all the physical things I could do when I was 19, and keep trying.  Which wasn’t a big deal when I was 21, but is a little tougher now. So I still haven’t quite finished the Cuillin Ridge in Skye, or a million other challenges. The aforementioned Professor, my lifelong partner in outdoor japes, on hearing that a Scottish fell runner & free climber had traversed the whole ridge in under three hours last month – a truly astonishing feat – remarked to me laconically that we’d managed to do a little over half of it in forty years – we started in September 1973.
  • And it’s 1973 since my hometown football team last won anything significant. I still go through the annual festival of anguish that is what it means to support Sunderland, and so many other clubs. And I still love it when Manchester United or any of the London clubs lose.
  • I still read too many books I can’t understand.
  • I still despise prejudice and dogma in all their forms, and the stupidity that leads to them. Another hero of mine, the endlessly quotable Frank Zappa, once said; ‘We’re told that the basic building block of the universe is carbon. Don’t believe it, people; the basic building block of the universe is stupidity’. He was, of course, right.
  • I still believe in social ownership of our infrastructure, and most of the other founding principles of the welfare state, the New Jerusalem that our grandparents and parents created for us at unimaginable cost, for which we should all be eternally grateful, and for the preservation of which all decent folk should fight tooth and nail. Somebody once said that the hallmark of a truly civilised society is its capacity to care for its least fortunate members. I think it was me. I was right, too.
  • I still hate most Tories and despise Thatcher for what she did to this country and what her ilk – from all parties  – continue to do.

Appropriate point to stop the list, I think, and stop this turning into my first official wrinkly rant.

Thanks once more to you all for taking the time and trouble to come here today, especially those who have come from afar. Thanks to Dan, Luke & Sarah for making the Friday night scramble out of London; aside from a few hours at Christmas, this weekend is likely to be the only time Dan, Luke & I will be together for a good while. Luke & Sarah move to Singapore in a few weeks’ time, and I’d like to raise a glass to success in their new adventure. I’m already figuring out how long it’ll take to cycle there, and have just realised that in the past two years my total cycling mileage just about covers the distance! I can’t express how proud I am of my two boys, so I won’t. Thanks chaps; you’ve made a happy man very old.

Big thanks too to Hannah, Stuart, Katy & Johnny and all the children for bringing endless moments of joy and sweet madness into our lives,  and to Hannah, Fabian & Sarah for coming all the way back north a day after moving Sarah south.

Thanks above all to Avril for sorting all of this out with her customary efficiency, and for subscribing to Age Concern’s Adopt-A -Geezer Scheme. I know I’m in safe hands.

And not forgetting my mum, Jennie, now approaching 88, and the memory of my dear, gentle, smart & humane dad Jeff. Jennie’s not here today, but we visited her in North Yorkshire this week and went out for dinner on the eve of my birthday. We had a lovely time, and I think she might finally have forgiven me for being 10lbs and a breach birth.

And with that, to return to the old Home Service and announcer John Snagge; if you have been, thanks for listening. Now get on with enjoying yourselves; those of you who aren’t already 60 will be sooner than you’d imagine.

Wednesday, November 5th, 2013.

I'm 60 tomorrow. How did that happen? I have many memories of fine weather in my birthday week. 2013 is no exception. Crookwath Bridge in Lower Mardale, Cumbria, on my last ride before reaching veteran status.

I’m 60 tomorrow. How did that happen? I have many memories of fine weather in my birthday week. 2013 is no exception. Crookwath Bridge in Lower Mardale, Cumbria, on my last ride before reaching veteran status.

Thursday, October 24th, 2013.

A beautiful day, with a bit of time to take advantage of it, though roads wet, muddy & greasy with leaves after some stormy weather. Just put some fatter (25mm!) tyres on for the winter – the same ones I used on the big ride, though with less of a payload to deal with now.

Stopped at one of my favourite spots, Kirkland, below Cross Fell.  You can see many of the Lake District hills really well from here on a clear day, even though it’s only 650 feet up. Today was exceptionally clear. Sitting on the stone stile that leads into the village churchyard, I could see the Howgill and Shap fells in the south, through the gap at Nan Bield Pass to Froswick above Kentmere, along the whole of the High Street ridge down to Helton, with Fairfield and the Helvellyn ridge rising behind that, then through the Glenderamackin valley beyond Keswick to Grasmoor & Grisedale Pike, then north to Blencathra, Skiddaw and the Caldbeck Fells.  All framed by bright sunshine, glorious autumn colours and lovely cirrus cloud. Perfect. As you can see……………………….

Kirkland sky 241013Sunday, October 20th, 2013.

First puncture for about 4500 miles. Manufacturers must be doing something right, or maybe I'm just lucky.

First puncture for about 5500 miles last week. Manufacturers must be doing something right, or maybe I’m just lucky?

Wednesday, September 18th, 2013.

Right on cue, Autumn’s chill descends and the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness is upon us. Already got our crab apple jelly made, and on my ride today I encountered several early bramble-pickers scouring the hedgerows.  Put some of my winter gear on for the first time too, and was glad I did; the riders on the 2013 Tour of Britain have really been suffering in this week’s wet & windy conditions.

As the cricket season closes, groundsman are seeding in preparation for next year. Passed a village pitch today and did a double take as I saw a huge eagle owl sitting in the middle of the wicket.  It took me in at first glance; only on looking more closely did I see that it was plastic, and doing a very good job of keeping all other birds away from the seed.

Mists & fruit; no bad thing to read the whole poem

Wednesday, September 4th, 2013.

Started the day with text exchanges with Luke, who’s on a business trip to Jakarta. Simple soul that I am, I still marvel that I can look out from my window at a rural landscape little changed since the Enclosure Acts, and at the same time be in instant communication with my son on the other side of the world. I’ve always been intrigued by the incongruous juxtaposition of old & new, tradition and technology. I remember when I was 15  walking the Lyke Wake Walk across the North Yorkshire Moors for the first time – fifty miles through the night –  crossing  Fylingdales Moor and its ancient sites in the dark,  then coming up against the perimeter fence of the old Cold War early warning station. Strange. Much more recently encountering satellite dishes on the rooftops of primitive mudbrick & thatch dwellings in rural Andhra Pradesh gave me a similar feeling.

I could go on, but this is just by way of prologue to today’s picture.

The Fairmile was once a drovers’ road, and before that a Roman road, the only way through the Lune Gorge south of Tebay in North-West England. It was superseded as a north-south route when a motor road, the A6, was built over Shap Fell to the west in the 1930s. This in turn was superseded by the M6 through the Gorge in 1970, parallel to the main West Coast rail line opened in 1846.

So, cycling along the Fairmile on a beautiful September day there’s no traffic at all. There rarely is. Yet half a mile to the west across the valley, the main rail and road arteries to Scotland hum with activity, the noise frequently enhanced by military jets using the gorge for low-fly training. On the Fairmile side, you’d not be surprised to meet some drovers. Despite the constant traffic so close, it’s still a beautiful and timeless place. Some of those millions of folk who’ve looked out of their train and car windows at 80mph will probably spot that too; a pretty little single track road from a bygone age.

The Fairmile

The Fairmile

The contrast continues as you cycle the old road north past Roundthwaite and Scout Green,  riding for 2 miles between the northbound and southbound carriageways of the M6 where they’re widely separated and accommodate grazing sheep, who will almost certainly be the only other creatures you’ll meet.

Wednesday, August 28th, 2013.

With the nights closing in, I seized what may be the last opportunity for a while for a long afternoon out. A hard one, too; not done much over 40 miles on any of August’s rides, so an 80-mile circuit over three long Pennine climbs – Hartside, Yad Moss and Grains o’th’Beck  – was guaranteed to dust off any cobwebs. And it did. Have been struggling with mysterious hamstring cramps of late, mostly when I’m asleep; odd, in that hamstrings always feel like they take less hammer when cycling than, say, quads. Do they? And even odder that this has really only started to happen since my heavy exertions of spring and early summer ended. Anyway, they gave me some discomfort towards the end of the ride, thereby strengthening my resolve to have my first ever sports massage ere long. Why else, one asks, do many athletes have one as soon as their exertions are over?

The ride itself was tougher than I would have expected it to be, though largely for the reasons outlined; not match-fit, and carrying a slight injury. Had forgotten the 25% climb out of Garrigill, and wondered what the ratio of pedallers to pushers is among riders who attempt this variant of the C2C ride? I was a pedaller, thankfully. The onward climb out of South Tynedale into Upper Teesdale over Yad Moss, with its strangely unexpected (even to those who know it’s there) ski-tow, was into a strengthening wind, which turned into an annoying headwind on the last climb from Middleton-in-Teesdale back over the Pennines again to the Eden Valley. Always good to do this route, if only to allow you to drop into conversation that you’ve spent some time at MIT. 🙂

Raced to get to the general store in Brough before it closed at 6 for some much-needed energy food, only to find that it closes at 9. Noted for future reference! The last part of the ride, through the beautiful Eden Valley to home – I’m so lucky to live in this part of the world – coincided with the day’s best weather, the setting sun accompanied by the sounds and smells of harvesting and muck-spreading all around, grain and grass crops coming in by the ton. With contractors working all night whilst the weather’s dry, the sound of tractors and trailers bouncing along single track lanes could still be heard as I fell asleep at 1am.

Tuesday, August 13th, 2013.

Out on a 40-mile circuit in brisk but dry conditions. Nice. I’ve not had the chance to ride as much as I would have liked in recent weeks, so feel a bit off the pace. Was surprised and delighted therefore to find that I was doing all today’s climbs in bigger gears than normal; not a deliberate thing, it just felt OK. Probably won’t next time out. I’m not a speedy rider, nor a racer; stamina is my trump card, and always has been – it’s just how my physiology seems to work. Considering what I could remember of my cycling stats for 2013 to date as I rode, however, I began to think that given a flattish, smooth & dry circuit with no wind I might just manage 50 miles in 2.5 hours with a bit of extra and slightly modified training. I’ve decided to put that on my list for 2014, and as something to keep me going through the winter. I even thought of a few places where I might make the attempt.  I’ve had another ambitious target simmering away for about 6 months now, though one that will only take a day to realise; I’ll keep that one to myself for now, as I suspect I’m going to end up with four or five such for next year, and will have to settle on two or three of them at most. Whatever else, 2014 will definitely be a year of short challenges. No multi-day epics.

A bit of deja-vu now; see June 20th, below. Cycling down a hill with right of way, a Land Rover appears from a side road at the bottom on my left, waiting to turn right across my path. I see the driver looking left, then he pulls out, complete with trailerload of sheep, without looking right. I brake and look at him as he drives past. This time the driver knew. He looked very, well, sheepish.

Wednesday, August 7th, 2013.

A detour through out-of-the-way Bretherdale, Cumbria; secluded, beautiful and with a strange feeling of isolation given its remarkable proximity to the M6 and the West Coast main line. And this climb to get out of the dale, just when you don’t expect it. Short, but a killer – bit of 25% in there. Ouch.

Bretherdale Climb 070813Friday, July 19th, 2013.

26 days later and I’m back in Torridon. Not on the bike this time, but on foot. I’m on the summit of Liathach with my lifelong & dear chum Dave. At last 🙂  – see July 20th, 2012, below. Not a breath of wind. Not a cloud in the sky. 28C (82F). Hard & dehydrating work, but totally fabulous; a rare day to single out from a lifetime’s walking in Britain’s hills for its sheer splendour. Dave & I muse that the last time we climbed together on a mountain in heat like this was in the Pyrenees. In 1973! As I’ve said elsewhere in this blog about the weather in Scotland, though for very different reasons: Ridiculous!

Liathach summit, Torridon, with Beinn Eighe in the background, July 19th 2013.

Liathach summit, Torridon, with Beinn Eighe in the background, July 19th 2013.

Monday, July 15th, 2013.

Splendid news. Visited my mum, Jennie, 87,  in North Yorkshire today. She sponsored my ride,  and her donation took the total through the £5000 barrier with Gift Aid. Thanks, Mum. Brilliant!

Sunday, July 14th, 2013.

It had to happen. Heatwave began on July 5th, a week after my return, and it continues; 10 days so far with temperatures in the high 20sC (low 80sF), light to zero wind and no rain. The best spell of consistently summery weather for several years, although it’s not been nearly so good in Northern Scotland.  Managed to get out for a 25-mile circuit on Friday, and it was a complete joy; body well-tuned after last month’s exertions, weather hot with a slight and welcome cooling breeze, road quiet, bike nicely re-adjusted for more usual duties. Just a marvellous feeling. Perfect conditions to ride the Ventoux this afternoon, where the weather is similar. Think I’ll leave that to the pros, though. Allez Froome!

Monday, July 1st, 2013.

As with the reports on Parts 1 & 2,  the account of the third and final part of the trip, below, runs down the page in chronological sequence, as opposed to up the page in chronological sequence like the rest of the blog. Just makes it easier to read.

Day 16: Tuesday, June 18th, 2013. Inverness-Helmsdale via Tarbat Ness.

There’s a little rant on the Facebook page that I put up last night to do with rail travel and its attendant frustrations, but I won’t repeat it here – I’ll save my energy for my attempt to get my fare back.

So I arrived in Inverness after a very tiring rail journey, feeling like I’d ridden it, did a 5-mile evening ride round town to figure out the best way to get to and over the Kessock Bridge this morning, given that it’s down to one lane through roadworks, then rode back to the same youth hostel I stayed at when I finished Part Two last month. Back to the Cinnamon restaurant for a curry again, too – if it ain’t broke don’t fix it –  then an early night. Two people in my dormitory, one of whom, Miles, is 72 and two days from completing a solo Land’s End to John O’Groats ride.  He only took up cycling when he retired. Chapeau, Miles.

Day 16 of 25 dawns, and it’ll turn out to be one of the best so far. Not hard to do! I’m on the road by 7.30am; high grey cloud, no wind, just a few tiny spots of rain, and a journey full of delights and surprises to come. Once over the bridge I cut off the main road and follow quiet lanes across the Black Isle, aiming to have breakfast in Cromarty before taking the ferry across the firth to Nigg. Through the delightful little town of Fortrose, with its cathedral, only to find nothing open in Cromarty. I’m the only passenger on the ferry, a Dutch motor home having been refused passage on account of its size. I allow myself a self-righteous cycling moment; continental European motor homes, however, will at times seem to be the only vehicles on the road in the coming days. Apart from continental European motorcycles, that is.

Only passenger on the Cromarty Ferry.

Only passenger on the Cromarty Ferry.

I often sing to myself when I’m riding. Today it’s that well-known anagram Britney Spears (presbyterians, in case you’re trying to work it out). What?! I hear you gasp. Surely you’d be singing Coltrane’s soprano solo on ‘Softly As In a Morning Sunrise’ live at the Village Vanguard in ’61, or some such; what’s happening to you, Stu? Well, this is what’s happening; we’d seen our friend Joe Locke, one of the finest jazz musicians on the planet, in London just two days ago, and he played us this video.

Fabulous. Plenty of carbs and a great groove is all you need!

I decide to ride on up to Tarbat Ness and through to Tain for a decent brunch; as long as I’ve had a substantial carbohydrate intake the night before, I can ride half a day without refuelling, so missing breakfast is no big deal. On the way I come across what looks like a derelict warehouse in the middle of nowhere; no high fences or anything, just a single security guard and an open door, through which I see whisky barrels; it’s an (unmarked) overflow bonded warehouse for Glenmorangie Distillery, a few miles away. Seemingly pretty lo-tech security considering there must be millions of pounds worth of booze in there. Unless it’s an empty barrel store, of course, though even those would be worth a bit.

Tarbat Ness is still and atmospheric. No-one else there, of course, and all I can hear is the signature cooing of an eider duck just offshore. Onward to another lovely, cared-for town, Tain, and a good feed in Harry Gow’s Bakery. Marvellous.

Tarbat Ness

Tarbat Ness

Another relatively recent bridge – over the Dornoch Firth this time – and to the third lovely town of the day, Dornoch. With its cathedral.

Delightful Dornoch

Delightful Dornoch

I stop at a quiet spot near Skelbo overlooking Loch Fleet to take a photograph, just as a Highland Council road crew turn up to cut the grass; we have a genial and jovial chat, and they advise me on crap roads of the far North-East. And good ones.

Loch Fleet. Look closely and you'll see the offending statue at Golspie on the distant hilltop.

Loch Fleet. Look closely and you’ll see the offending statue at Golspie on the distant hilltop.

As I ride into Golspie, I see another cyclist up ahead; he’s moving more slowly than me, and as I get closer, I see that it’s Miles. He set off  from Inverness just after me, but has come the direct route up the A9, much shorter than mine. We chat for a while and I ride on ahead. We knew before we set out that we’d see each other again tonight, since we’re both booked into the independent hostel in Helmsdale.

I always get a bad vibe in Golspie. Could it be the massive statue to himself erected by a former Duke of Sutherland atop Ben Bhraggie? Or just his gross and ostentatious faux-French chateau, Dunrobin Castle, built when he’d done