Some of the most celebrated English naturalists seldom strayed far from their homes to make their astonishing discoveries. On my cycle route to Santiago de Compostela a couple of years ago, I chanced by the home of Gilbert White in Selbourne, Hampshire, and learned that through painstaking observation of the behaviour of swallows in his own village, he concluded that they migrated to other lands during the winter. From that seed of observation sprouted the theory that many species of birds (and animals) followed the same patterns of behaviour.
Charles Darwin, the man celebrated for having the wisdom to unwrap the mysteries of evolution, spent 40 years living in Downe House with his wife and children. Apart from his 5 years travelling the globe with HMS Beagle, the bulk of his study took place in his home, and out on the 18 acres of land purchased with the house.
He spent 40 years patiently observing and conducting experiments, and the theory of evolution was only one of hundreds of theories that emanated from that small domestic environment. In fact, one of his major studies concerned the huge impact of the humble earthworm on the well-being of the planet. The last book he published before his death contained the results of his life-long study of the worm…….and this from a man who was being celebrated (and vilified) the world over for the ‘earthquake’ he caused amongst the thinking classes.
Darwin had the wisdom to publish and then withdraw to the peace and quiet of his home environment, allowing the intellectuals of his time to ‘clear up the mess’. So it is astonishing to discover that his theory of evolution, in the hands of opposing intellectuals of the time, was used to justify the arguments of opposite camps.
‘Social Darwinists’, on the one hand, argued in favour of the theory of ‘the survival of the fittest’ being applied directly to human society: allow the weak and the poor to die off, and the strongest and wealthiest will propagate the earth. (The foundation of the Nazi final solution…..?). On the other hand, Karl Marx himself embraced the theory in proposing the class struggle. If the poor and the weak are likely to suffer and die at the hands of the rich and powerful, then they should rise up and fight for survival.
If you visit Downe House in Kent, allow a whole day to take in the length and the breadth of this fascinating house. More than just a home to the Darwin family, it was the laboratory from which new thinking was to change the way we viewed the world.
They came out in their ‘droves’ today………
No doubt it had something to do with everybody being back from their summer holidays, it being the last Sunday of August and the sun happened to be shining……..all little (but important) factors in the process of deciding whether or not to climb on that bike after an early breakfast.
As I normally do, I headed directly out to the café-stop to meet up with the groups, thus neatly avoiding adding the extra 20 miles to St Ives, and then only to find the route actually goes through my own village on the way out……..
Most Sundays there seem to be 2-3 groups, riding at their respective speeds, and the café seldom has more than 20-25 to serve. Today, however, there seemed to be 5 groups, plus a few independents like myself, and the Old Barn garden in Wadenhoe turned into a sea of red……..
I think the staff were somewhat stretched to serve the 40-50 that turned up, when they were only expecting about 20. But……it was all good for business. I am convinced that the regular business that cycling clubs bring to country tearooms keeps them thriving. And long may it last……
God’s own county? Really? I’ve heard Lancastrians say the same about Lancashire. Is this just a hang-over from the Wars of the Roses?
I could wax lyrical about my few days cycling the highways and byways of one of God’s own counties, but I’ll let the images speak for themselves. All photos taken by Edward Shirley.
As we glided along the empty lanes of the fens, past Grunty Fen (among others), the lack of hedgerows gave us frequent views of Ely Cathedral in the distance. When you are in the prone position of a recumbent trike, you normally get to see very little on either side of the road, but you are in a prime seat if the Red Arrows just happen to be flying overhead! Drivers seem to show you a little more respect, but then that’s because you are only one step away from doing wheelies on your mobility scooter. They probably think you are old and venerable…….well, some of that may be true.
You not only get to inspect the undercarriages of passing vehicles, but under your own carriage, you really get to feel the camber of the road, which frequently has you leaning towards the verge. And the avoidance of potholes causes interesting manoeuvres. On two wheels, you can weave in and out of them, but on three wheels, you may avoid them with the front two wheels, but that back wheel may experience the depth and breadth in all its fullness…..
Fun to ride and sociable, if you get to ride side by side on quiet roads. Will we invest in one?…….Well, watch this space.
Mark Beaumont came to prominence when he set off to break the world record at circumnavigating the world on a bicycle, covering a minimum of 18,000 miles, going in one direction and cycling in both hemispheres (terms and conditions of the Guinness book of records). But it wasn’t just his record attempt that brought him to our attention. He planned the whole venture to be a mainly self-recorded journey, using all the portable modern technology available to him at the time, so that it could be converted into a documentary series for television.
In other words, he had the wisdom and foresight not only to go for the world record (which, in fact, he only held onto for a matter of weeks), but at the same time to almost virtually pioneer a method of self-recording the attempt, to a level of quality that would attract the attention of the BBC, and thus launch his career as an adventurer, documentary-maker and author.
I am always very tentative when I pick up books that are first accounts of such ventures. Many are poorly written, offer a journal-like description of the journey (eg. we did this, then we did that…..) and frequently give the reader far too much detail of the mile-by-mile experience, bicycle specifications, kit lists, food eaten etc…….. These details may be important to the author, but the general reader quickly tires of the predictable formulaic style of writing.
Beaumont’s book, however, doesn’t fall into that trap. He tells us a lot about the “touchy-feely” aspects of the journey (the saddle sores, the knee problems, the headwinds…..but also many of the joys) but, more importantly, he relishes sharing the details of the people he met along the way, the cultural and linguistic challenges he encountered, the potential threats to his life both from people and the insect world (eg. tarantulas in Australia)…..and much more. His narrative could make much more of some of the tense moments of his journey, but he neatly avoids the danger of over-egging his experiences, where the reader may begin to suspect unnecessary embellishment for effect.
This is a very worthy travel volume from an adventure traveller who pushed himself to extraordinary limits to achieve his goal…..that of cycling around the world unsupported, in the hope of breaking the world record.
When I have my trusty stoker on the back seat, cycling becomes the alternative activity to lots of other interesting things. We stop to check things out, like the town museum in Oundle, which is only open a couple of days a week, is manned by volunteers who are (over) eager to enlighten you on some of the finer details of life in the town, but are so brimful of enthusiasm, you can’t help but be drawn in.
But a fascinating place it is, complete with magistrates cell, with a ‘model’ prisoner who speaks to you when you open the hatch.
Passing through the village of Barnwell, if you linger long enough you will discover it is, in fact, two villages…….St.Andrew and All Saints. And both have their separate churches, although the one in All Saints was largely demolished in the 19th century, leaving only the chancel standing.
As I stirred this morning, after an unusually cold night for August, I poked my nose out of the tent to take a good look at the campsite I had landed in the night before. It had been after sunset when I arrived, and I had pitched my tent in the failing light. I looked around…..there were a handful of caravans, only a couple apparently occupied (one by the site guardian), my bike tied to the fence, and my empty supper plate lying in the grass…..
I started to strike camp when I heard a voice in the distance: “D’yuh wanna cup o’ tea or coffee?”. It was the site guardian, and he obviously thought I was a case that needed pity……I mean, who in their right minds would sleep in what is no more than a flimsy bivvy with poles?
As I finished packing my tent, I heard another voice in the distance: “Are you going far?”. I looked up and saw a couple coming towards me, occupants of what looked like an American trailer caravan (you know the sort….big and pretentious) towed by a conspicuously un-British pick-up truck that needed a dual lane carriageway all to itself.
They had lived in Florida for 20 years, had now had enough of the unrelenting heat and the expensive medical care, but had lost a lot of money trying to sell their 13 houses because of the economic downturn. But for the crisis, they could have been millionaires……they said.
“Can we get you a cup of tea and some biscuits?” they asked. I listened to their story of woe trying to unhook themselves for the American way of life, but I really wanted to tell them they should unhook themselves from the American lifestyle by selling their trailer and truck. But I tactfully let that opportunity slip.
Having covered half of today’s journey yesterday, I felt relaxed, cruised my way through tiny Northamptonshire villages until I felt the need for breakfast. I stopped in Kingscliffe to ask a scruffy-looking farmer, climbing into an equally scruffy-looking truck, if there was a café in the village. “I could murder a bacon sandwich”, I said. “You need to go back the way you’ve come and go along the A47 where there’s a great trucker’s stop……or maybe you don’t like A roads?”. “That’s right”, I said with a wink “I don’t want to meet people like you driving trucks like this…..”. I somehow knew I could get away with being cheeky because he laughed and told me he said lots of similar things about cyclists.
So I resigned myself to going the extra 8 miles to Oundle for my breakfast bap, and lingered in the familiar environment of a café well known to our Sunday club riders. As I got closer to home, I felt prompted to re-visit a local site that rose to prominence during the 1980s and the CND movement.
This Peace Garden is all that is left of a Peace Chapel, which had been erected twice and dismantled twice by the MOD, which reminds us not to take our current peace for granted.
Well the next expedition will be with my dear wife, astride the tandem, doing the Coast-to-Coast route called the Way of the Roses, which starts in Morecambe in the west and finishes in Bridlington in the east. Crossing the Pennines, we are guaranteed some hills……some big hills! The only thing I will ask of the weather-gods will be: let the current north westerlies continue blowing………and hard………..please!
When you get the wind in your sails, anything can happen. For the first leg of my ride back home, the wind was in my favour. The speed to effort ratio was ridiculous.
I also had the company of John
whom I met at the festival, and who had nothing better to do than join me for the first 40 miles of my journey. He was great company at the beginning of what turned out to be a long day in the saddle.
Why a long day? Very good question. My intention had been to stay again at a campsite in Lincoln, but Lincoln just sailed by as I forged my way south.
The pace was fast and I was engaged. When you find that ‘sweet spot’ on the saddle, and your pedals are tapping out a rhythm, you simply keep going. And I did…..
As the sun was setting at about 8.30pm, I chanced by a simple campsite, rang the contact number, and the farmer came out with a plate of cooked burgers and sausages (from his own farm), chips, and a couple of beers.:…and charged me only £10 in total for everything. Unbelievable!
My journey today has taken me from York to Stamford in one leg of 124 miles (198kms)….and it felt good all the way.
An invitation to dine with friends in York, coupled with my eagerness to visit a couple of places en route, led to what is euphemistically known in the world of cycling as a ‘recovery’ day. No, this is not a full day off the bike, but simply a shorter day, with fewer climbs.
I set off this morning with a ‘social’ group (gentler pace and more conversation) and broke off after some 30 miles to spend more time at Byland Abbey
…making use of my English Heritage membership (and I was even allowed in without my card) to discover the extraordinary past of this Cistercian Abbey
These places developed into grand palatial properties in medieval times, financed largely by the bequests of wealthy local families concerned about the salvation of their own souls.
Then on to Ampleforth Abbey and College
a Catholic Benedictine community with a private secondary school, set prominently in the Yorkshire countryside, with fine views over a valley. I particularly wanted to pay a visit because a great uncle of mine had been head groundsman early last century.
If what I was looking at was a legacy of his time there, he would have been proud. The grounds swept down the hillside and into the valley, revealing cricket fields and sports pitches that enjoyed prime locations.
And like my own school in Durham, they had a high wall that served as a court for playing racket-ball. I’ve never seen these anywhere else.
So tomorrow sees the end of the festival. Tents will be packed, bikes will be dismantled for transportation, and goodbyes will be said. Most will drive home, but a small number will climb back on their now loaded bikes to begin the journey home. And that includes me…….heading south for two days….which, I’m told by many, will be a downhill journey all the way…..
Oh would that it were true!
“Why don’t we add an extra loop to the route, to take us past the White Horse, and up and over Sutton Bank?”, said Alex. No-one asked for further details or questioned the decision.
We all knew about the brutal 25% incline of Sutton Bank, but we were going to descend that….right? Of course we were but……and here’s the clincher…..to descend the infamous Sutton Bank (closed to caravans, it’s so dangerous) you have to get to the top. And how? Via the climb past the White Horse, silly…..
Five of our group of six went for it, and we all made it to the top. When a climb averages 25%, sections are likely to top 30%, especially around the switchbacks….and they almost brought us to a standstill. With my lowest gear, I was at my limit, but one of the group was having to push an even higher gear than me…..and he made it to the top ahead of all of us. Well, he had to, because had he lost momentum, he would have fallen off his bike. Pushing higher gears gives you the incentive to push on hard to the summit.
On our approach, this was the distant view of the White Horse, and then we stumbled on this roadside cross
marking the spot during the plague where food was dropped for the local plague village, in exchange for money that had been disinfected in a small trough nearby.
Then passing Byland Abbey
reminded me that this area had been awash with wealthy monasteries before the Reformation, and there are now ruins aplenty being cared for by the conservation societies.
And if you see a Bentley parked outside a pub,
you might expect to see a personalised registration plate…..but what if this owner really wants to say “no” to his baby? Interesting….
One day into the Wolds, another up onto the Moors, and today into the Dales….Yorkshire has everything. But you need determination and a strong pair of legs to tackle the hills….but the views from the tops make riding ‘into the red zone’ worthwhile.
Our little group of three was joined by Andrew & Martina, the latter cutting her teeth in this kind of cycling, but full of guts and determination.
Andrew, her husband, is an old hand at turning cranks, but on this 18% climb, was being totally outgunned by his wife.
When we most needed a cafe, one presented itself at the church tearoom in the tiny hamlet of Fewston.
Built with a lottery grant, on the site of the old churchyard, they had to exhume over 100 graves for re- burial elsewhere.
A perfect stop-off for cyclists, and used regularly by local clubs.
When we got to Pateley Bridge, we stumbled in on their 1940s weekend, right at the moment when a Spitfire was doing a fly-past. The sound of those engines visibly bathed the older folks in waves of nostalgia.
And if you think Yorkshire by now has allowed the recent Tour de France to be consigned to the history archives, think again
…you have to remember that these parts have a remarkable history in the cycling world…..
characterized by Beryl Burton’s dominance for over 25 years as national champion, and 7 years as world champion. She’s never received the national recognition she so greatly deserved…..so we honoured her today by riding along the Sustrans cycleway that bears her name.
For some reason, the general interest in doing an A route (over 80 miles) had dwindled this morning, and only three stalwarts turned out at 8.30am for the major ‘hike’ into the Howardian Hills and up onto the Yorkshire Moors.
The unique selling point of this route was…..well, I’m sure you’ve guessed. In short, you had to relish the prospect of several major climbs, many over 15%, up to a maximum elevation of 1200 feet.
Through the honeypot attraction of Helmsley, then up and up to the wild heather-covered moorland, with bilberries annoyingly not quite ripe,
…up to the head of Sleightholme Dale, marked by the tiny hamlet of Cockayne. The views over the dale were dramatic, the ultimate reward for the toil and the grinding of gears.
My companions, Alex and Edward, were able to spin their pedals up the climbs, with their triples and widely spaced gears.
The gears on my double front, however, were more suited to the rolling landscapes of the midlands, which meant I had to capitalise on momentum and attack the hills to get to the top. This ultimately has a wearing effect on the legs, guaranteeing the last climbs of the day were going to be particularly demanding. And they were….but I still had the satisfaction of having climbed everything.
The ‘hillocks’ of home seemed strangely insignificant when I gazed over the vast expanse of the Moors from 1200 feet.
Heavy dew on tent and grass made it feel it had rained in the night….but the hour before dawn had me shivering in my sleeping bag….but I was too lazy to do anything about it.
The solid English breakfast weighed heavily on my stomach as I joined up with a select group of wheelers for an early start
There was some disagreement about who would lead the ride, but many agreed it should be allocated to one of the two senior managers of the CTC. As we set off, there hadn’t been a conclusive decision….which is par for the course amongst independent roadies.
And of course, the inevitable happened….people stop to take photos or have a ‘comfort’ break, and the group begins to spread out, even break up. But that’s the nature of the sport…the high pace of the ride can mean that a 5 minute stop can leave you more than a mile adrift.
Amusingly, anyone with a Garmin rapidly found himself leading a small group, everybody thankful they weren’t having to navigate themselves, happy to ‘suck’ on the wheel in front. But as I have alluded in previous posts, Garmins are a mixed blessing. They have minds of their own, and make decisions that sometimes send you up dirt tracks, or across church yards. I teamed up with Dave from Leicester, who cussed and swore at his device, but always seemed to ignore his Garmin at appropriate moments.
The high paced ride took us through the stunning landscape of the Yorkshire Wolds, up and down dale after dale…..and I was thankful that we descended the most viscious hill of the day…..a monstrous 16%. The brakes were burning…
But of course, the whole objective of the ride was to get to the cafe stop…..and (wait for it) …..we indulged in fruit pie and custard…..which makes a change from fruit scones and chocolate cake…..:) It’s a hard life!
I scrambled out of the campsite before the caravan and campervan set had stirred from their beds. It was chilly. Autumn is just around the corner.
A couple of miles into the journey, I had to stop and check that my new optician’s prescription wasn’t playing tricks on me…yes, I was definitely cycling across the Holy Land
….pity I’d brought the wrong maps.
But today, I was repaying the debt for the favours heaped on me yesterday…the head-on northwesterly wind had me screaming for mercy…..but, alas, none was forthcoming. And the one occasion it rained, it came so fast and furiously that everything (me included) was soaked before I could get the covers out.
I had every reason to let out a reverberating ‘Harrumph!’
And the weather wasn’t the only thing to surprise me today. Having set off on a light breakfast, I started hallucinating about bacon sandwiches….in fact, it came to a point when I would have happily traded my bike in for one, even a small one….But could I find a cafe? Not a single one, nor any little grocery stores, for over 40 miles. That’s rural Lincolnshire for you. They have yet to be fully civilised in these parts.
But when I did find a cafe, I ordered the biggest bacon butty on the menu…..justly heavenly!
So, into York, and to the venue at Askham Bryan College, where some 500 cyclists have convened for six days of local riding. I’ll be heading off on an 80 miler tomorrow in the company of the new CEO of the CTC, and the Chair of Council.
The CTC is a charity where all the management practise what they preach…..they ride bikes, and many of them seriously.
The CTC Birthday Rides once again beckoned, to be staged this year in York. This is an annual festival of all things to do with cycling, and this year it celebrates the Cycling Tourist Club’s 136th birthday. I know exactly how long I’ve been a member, because I joined during its 100th year, back in 1978.
So once again, there was a fond farewell to my dear wife, but only after a self-indulgent coffee at the George Hotel in Stamford….which made the parting a tad easier.
But the journey north today threw up a few surprises….I’ve heard of boy’s toys, but surely this is a bit OTT….
…and when I stopped for a rest in the tiny village of Ropsley, I discovered in the church that the famous Richard Fox had been born there……Famous you might ask? Well, apart from being the Bishop of Winchester, he was also the founder of Corpus Christi College in Cambridge, and a couple of eminent schools to boot.
But what really astonished me about south Lincolnshire is how hilly it is. Fens there may be in abundance, but it’s not all tame.
Distance: 52 miles. Stopover in a campsite in Lincoln. Wind direction: from the SW…..delightful!
Grammes are being shaved off every which way……..
And that does, of course, include camping kit…..now, how do we shave grammes off the camping stuff……….?
Trying to cover the last three miles to Stonehenge can be a trial. You think there is an accident ahead as the traffic creeps along at slower than a snail’s pace. The truth is somewhat more mysterious. There are no visible hold-ups, no roundabouts or traffic lights that seem to be delaying the traffic…..in fact, there is no explanation other than the fact that curious drivers slow down as they pass Stonehenge, probably to have a lingering look at the megalith without having to stop and visit it. For us, a three hour journey stretched to five hours, and we got there just in time for our allotted slot.
Now with its new Visitor Centre, the history and background to this stunning piece of ancient history is all laid bare. No longer can you wander amongst the stones, but you can get wrapped up in the myriad theories of the who, the how and the why of this circle of ancient stones and barrows. My favourite is the long-held belief that Merlin was the architect. Then the Romans were on the list of suspects, and latterly the Druids. But, of course, none of those were the culprits.
Now we know for certain (?) that it was the ancient Britons of 3000BC who were the proven master ‘bricklayers’. Just think of it…. this pre-dates all the admired wonders of Egypt, Rome and ancient Greece. And for centuries the world had thought the folks on these islands to be too stupid and savage to be the authors of such a wonder.
It’s not just our weather that catches people by surprise!
Why is it that milestones in life are encapsulated by numerically round figures? We make a fuss about a 50th wedding anniversary, but not a 49th. Centenarians get a letter from the Queen, but someone who is 99, or even 101, doesn’t. We are learning more about The Great War on the 100th anniversary of its inception than we have in all the intervening years.
Of course, none of this explains why I should have noticed the passing of a little watershed in my own cycling history. It’s all entirely artificial. There’s no Guinness Book of Records recognition. There’ll be no short-listing for the Sports Personality of the Year award. I could have marked the event by cracking open a bottle of bubbly…..but I didn’t. So what’s all the fuss?
Well, there isn’t any. It’s just a quirky bit of human psychology that attaches importance to these things….but somehow our attention is galvanised, and we are prompted to achieve goals and targets for their own intrinsic value, and the satisfaction we get from stretching towards them.
Yesterday, on an 86 mile (138 kms) ride, I happened to pass 200,000 miles (322,000 kms) in my lifetime total of distance cycled. But, is this a true reflection of my cycling history? No, of course not. I can’t guarantee my records are accurate. I can’t even guarantee that the devices used over the years for recording mileage were reliable. There’s also a full 20 years of my life (my childhood and early adulthood) when I kept no records, which are not included here.
But who cares? It’s a milestone……it has been passed…..I may have a quiet two seconds of smugness to revel in it…..but then tomorrow I will climb back on the bike and hope to power up those hills for a few more years. That’s the fundamental draw of turning pedals ‘in anger’….. If you haven’t experienced the joy of breezing through the countryside on two wheels, dig out the ‘old hack’ from the back of the shed, inflate the tyres and oil the chain………and just go. You’ll be amazed.