When you ride off-road (known as “rough-stuff” in some cycling circles), you stumble into all kinds of surprises, and some remind you that Spring has finally arrived.
The old Raleigh is rapidly becoming a hack for scooting along trails in the local area. And we have some great trails, the most popular being around Grafham Water, a favourite amongst occasional and weekend riders.
But radiating from this 9 mile circuit is a raft of less used trails that take you deep into the countryside. This morning the sun was bright, there was a gentle breeze from the south and, for once, it was warm enough for uncovering the legs. It can only get better!
Staggering to think that Beeston Castle, near Chester, lies on a lofty outcrop of rock that was settled over 4000 years ago, during the Neolithic age. Testament to the dominance of its location, that oversees 8 different counties on a fine day.The thickness of its walls, and the security of its location, made the building of a keep in the inner sanctuary an unnecessary formality. It was regarded as totally unassailable……..until, of course, it was successfully assailed during the English Civil War by the Parliamentarians. And if you are interested in hidden treasures, you may defy all the experts and treasure hunters of the past by finding some of King Richard II’s personal wealth, which he is supposed to have hidden somewhere in the grounds before he went off to quell rebellions amongst the Irish.More than anything else, climb up to the ruins to enjoy the panoramic views, that include Jodrell Bank, Peckforton Castle, the Welsh mountains and Chester.
If the bookmakers Ladbrokes have cut the odds of snow at Easter to 4/5, after taking a flurry of bets in the last 48 hours, what is that saying about the chances of a white Easter?
But then Ladbrokes are not meteorologists, and they have no greater insight into the possibilities than the average punter on the streets. But there must be some quasi-scientific base on which they calculate their predictions………or is this just fanciful thinking?
A bit like the actuarial tables used by insurance companies to calculate the likelihood of key occurrences like traffic accidents, flooding and (dare I say it) death. Or, as in the case of the financial markets, we always calculate the future performance of investment funds using information on past performance, even though we are told that this is seldom a safe guide.
So, if it does snow on Easter Sunday, it will be the very first time in…………………..well………… only five years. As a lay person, that sounds to me like a distinct possibility close to certainty…….worth putting a tenner on it?
Now I know my 2,500 mile cycle ride in the Antipodes did not elicit much sympathy from anyone out there……nor did I expect it, given that I had chosen to do it. There was always an element of “serves you right” that had to be addressed, whether it was in the face of appalling weather conditions, tough terrain or serious mechanical issues. But there are some things in life that should elicit sympathy, even from the most hardy of comfort-zone dwellers……but then they might argue along the same lines: ‘you chose your bed of nails, so lie on it!’.
The day before I left Melbourne, the mercury had registered 38 degrees C. Back in the UK, the mercury hasn’t risen above 5 degrees C in the last week, but today (just a week before Easter) the country has been brought to its knees with heavy downfalls of snow, whole communities left without electricity, and flooding in some areas.
Whereas Melbourne was registering all-time records for heat in March, and this time last year the UK was registering the driest winter on record, we seem to be ready to set yet another record for the latest snowfall on record.
The bookies are raking in the money from punters backing the possibility of a white Easter this year. After all, it only takes one flake of snow to fall in the right place………on the Met Office?
Hesitating before he committed himself, a 4WD driver asked me if I thought he would get through a flooded stretch of road. Without committing myself to a direct answer, I suggested he might get his feet wet………. So, taking the bull by the horns, he went for it…..hesitated half way through…….nearly stalled…..but he eventually struggled out the other side. But only just.
During a break in the weather today, I did one of my favourite 60 mile routes into Northamptonshire and Bedfordshire: through Sharnbrook, Harrold and Lavendon to Olney on the outward leg; returning via places with evocative names like Clifton Reynes, Newton Blossomville, Turvey, Felmersham…….all of them skirting the banks of the River Ouse, some of them inevitably cut off by the rising water. I witnessed several vehicles taking their chances. A cyclist I met, along the narrow walkway outside Radwell, was well accustomed to riding the narrow bridging. He did it twice a day on his daily commute, but claimed to have been a little nervous at 5am this morning when the water was actually covering the walkway (over 2 feet deep).
The surrounding countryside, as far as the eye could see, was simply one huge lake. The river basin of the Ouse was completely covered, making the river look half a mile wide instead of about 50 yards. Water fowl were having a ‘field day’. Recently sown crops, however, were probably now doomed never to see the light of day.
Apart from one diversion I had to make, the bicycle gave me the freedom to counter, or bypass, the flooded stretches.
I hear leaves drinking rain;
I hear rich leaves on top
Giving the poor beneath
Drop after drop;
‘Tis a sweet noise to hear
These green leaves drinking near.
And when the Sun comes out,
After this Rain shall stop,
A wondrous Light will fill
Each dark, round drop;
I hope the Sun shines bright;
‘Twill be a lovely sight.
William Henry Davies 1871-1940
…..I am referring, of course, to the Thanksgiving Day Service celebrated at St Paul’s Cathedral for the American Community in London. A day in London, culminating with dinner and theatre in the evening, was prefaced by the unique circumstances of seeing the whole of St Paul’s Cathedral occupied by visiting and ex-pat Americans, and joining them in their most fervently celebrated holiday of the year: Thanksgiving.
But…..what are they thankful for? For many years I imagined it to be simply a ‘vote of thanks’ to the memory of the Pilgrim Fathers, who were the first colonists to arrive on their shores, thus laying the foundations of the nation that was to succeed. I now understand that the idea of ‘thanksgiving’ was brought over by the Pilgrim Fathers themselves, carrying with them their puritanical roots from a period of religious reform back in England. Much in the manner of a Harvest Thanksgiving, the Puritans (having abolished all religious holidays) celebrated ad hoc periods of thanksgiving during times of special providence: like the defeat of the Spanish Armada and, curiously, the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot (which eventually became Guy Fawkes night on November 5th).
So what George Washington called “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favours of Almighty God” has gradually become a nation-wide secular day of celebration on the 4th Thursday of November. A time for families to re-unite round a table bedecked with turkey…….and the rest.
Amongst the last to be allowed entry into St Paul’s, we found ourselves enveloped by the presence of over 2000 Americans; we listened to the American Ambassador make his final Thanksgiving Address (before his
retirement); we listened to the harmonies of the Combined Choirs of the American Congregation, and watched the Colour Guard process solemnly along the length of the nave.
Afterwards, the crowds made their way to the American Memorial Chapel (behind the High Altar), built to honour the sacrifice made by 29,000 American airmen during the last World War. The message to ring out from the service was clear and categorical: the bonds linking our two nations together are stronger than ever.
Several years ago, there was a fatal road accident not far from my village. A lady motorcyclist descended a very short, but very steep, hill (about 11%) that ended in a T junction. Sadly, she failed to stop at the T junction and suffered a fatal side-on collision with another vehicle. In spring each year, the spot is marked by flowering daffodils on the verge, and each year I ponder on the circumstances of that accident. What really caused it to happen?
This short post is really a note to self: I must report a possible contributing factor to that accident.
I have no proof that it was, but it is certainly worth mentioning as a ‘just in case’ piece of evidence. Agden Hill is one of those climbs that I tackle several times a month, and occasionally I will return home on a route where I have to descend it. The descent is only about 200 metres, but the incline is such that you can gather speed very quickly, negotiate a sharp left-hand bend and suddenly……find yourself on top of the T junction. For anyone who is descending it for the first time, the sign warning
of the invisible T junction is much too late and (when the hedgerow is lush with foliage) is hidden from view anyway.
A mere 80 yards (74 metres) from the junction, motorists are given their first warning of the danger. If they can see the sign, they may be going too fast anyway to make a safe stop. If they don’t see the sign (and that is likely throughout the summer months), the chances of overshooting the T junction are entirely feasible. The big question on my mind: did the lady see that warning sign in time?
Note to self: I must report my concern to the local highways authority!
……bathed in the warm glow of the autumn sunshine as it filtered through golden leaves that were gently jettisoned by trees heading for the slumber of winter hibernation………..
Words lifted from my previous post……and I was asked by a reader why I hadn’t included visuals of the ‘warm glow’ and the ‘golden leaves’ being ‘gently jettisoned’ from the trees in front of our house. Well here they are. Our large picture-frame lounge window give us a perfect view of the cherry blossom in the spring and the falling leaves in the autumn.
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.
(From To Autumn by John Keats)
We are both life members of the YHA, and the offer of a good deal to spend a couple of days at the Sherwood Forest Hostel was too good to ignore. We loaded the tandem (and a solo bike, just in case) into the back of the car, and off we went for three days riding the glens, exploring the territory where the famous Robin Hood hung out with his merry men. The hostel just happened to be in the same village (Edwinstowe) where, it is alleged, that Robin wed his sweetheart Maid Marian.
The stuff of legends adds so much colour to the often dreary, dull
facts of life. The truth of Robin Hood’s existence will continue to exercise the brains of historians and commentators for centuries to come but…….does it really matter? Just as there is no smoke without fire, so too there is no legend without some roots in verifiable facts. Whether fact or fiction, the mystery (like the Lochness monster) drives business and tourism, and makes old (but ordinary) trees, like the Major Oak in Sherwood Forest, a major attraction.
We discovered miles of forest tracks and savoured hours of quiet solitude meandering through groves and along avenues of oak trees, squinting in the dappled sunlight of perfect autumnal weather. The Major Oak, now over 1000 years old, is now sturdily propped up on its ‘zimmer frame’ (but still alive and well, and producing an abundance of foliage). The area still betrays the recent existence of many collieries and railway lines, but the scars of past industries have been covered over and landscaped, and now serve as attractive locations for a whole variety of country activities.
Our arrival at Southwell was just 10 minutes too late for admittance
to the Minster, where we could have attended the live transmission of Evensong on BBC Radio 3. When I asked the Dean afterwards about the confusion as to whether the church was a Minster or Cathedral, he simply replied “Well, both really. It became a Cathedral (as well as a Minster) when the new diocese of Nottinghamshire was founded in 1884″. This follows the tradition of Minsters such as those of Lincoln and York.
At the end of three days of tandeming, we had covered over 100 miles, and just about met our nemesis on a 12% hill. For those who know about tandem riding, climbing hills is a particular challenge (I am sure there is a law of physics that will explain it), but the descents are usually gloriously fast, sometimes terrifyingly so!
……but a church crawl. Yesterday was the date of the Historic Churches’ Ride and Stride, and Jenny & I headed off to Titchmarsh in Northamptonshire, to join a small ‘peloton’ of other wheelers before heading into the depths of Northamptonshire, over fields and dales, through gravel pits and woods, in search of some of countryside’s hidden gems.
And in some cases, I do mean hidden. Either the churches were built away from the communities, or vice versa, because many are located
in isolated spots up to a mile from their respective villages. But each had its own charm and allure, and each had a member of the local community to welcome us, sometimes with refreshments, and nearly always with a fascinating nugget of information about the history and fabric of the building.
The church at Pilton, for instance, had indelible connections with the famous Catholic Tresham family (of Lievden New Beild) with symbols of the Trinity emblazoned on the outside of the church. In the distance, a house with a lookout tower turned out to be the place where they secretly celebrated mass. All absolutely fascinating………… and all part of the uplifting experience of cycling 35 miles with a group of other wheelers, enjoying the British countryside at its very best.
We were very fortunate to secure some excellent seats in the Olympic Stadium for only £5, and we were feasted with 3 hours of athleticism that was little short of outstanding. When I see the remarkable feats achieved by paralympian athletes, I try to avoid any thoughts or language that highlight the fact they are disabled (they are brave, courageous etc…..), and focus on the unqualified merits and competitive spirit that they all display……and the sheer joy expressed by each when they win a medal.
When David Weir won the 1500m in the wheelchair race, he did it at the remarkable speed of 17.5 mph…..and that didn’t even challenge the world record! We witnessed the medal ceremony for the men’s high jump, and the gold medal winner, Iliesa Delana from Fiji, stepped up to the podium using crutches. Not having seen the event itself, our imaginations were stretched trying to visualize how these athletes got themselves over a bar at more than 1m 70cms.
The long-jump was even more fascinating. Blind athletes relied on the silence of the 80,000 crowd to be able to hear their coaches beating out a rhythm indicating when they had reached the jumping pad at the sandpit. Remarkably, there were very few foul jumps.
Blind track athletes were attached to a guide-runner at the wrist, to keep them literally ‘on track’ to the finishing line. The guide-runners had to be equally fit as, or even fitter than, the athletes themselves.
Goalball and 5-a-side Football have also been developed for the blind player. The only guide as to direction, distance and the proximity of other players is sound (in each case, the ball emits a sound to enable detection). I stand in awe at the skill and deftness of such athletes.
Maybe the average able-bodied ‘couch potato’ will be more inspired by the can-do mentality of the paralympians than by the jaw-dropping achievements of the olympians. They certainly take all our excuses away.
Oh, the sheer extravagance of follies! But was it really a ‘folly’ that I looked out on for nearly 20 years?
I always maintained that my department at Kimbolton School had the best view of any department in the country. Situated in the former bedrooms of the Duke and Duchess of Manchester, my classroom windows to the east looked down the magnificent Mall, an avenue of ancient Wellingtonia trees; and to the north, the vista swept up to a mysterious building known locally as the ‘folly’, but more correctly called The Warren House.
Some six years ago I received a visit in my department (ie. the former Duchess’s bedroom) from people working for the Landmark Trust. No, they hadn’t come to see me, but to gaze from the north window (as I had done many many times) at The Warren House, in order to see for themselves what the Duchess had looked upon in the 18th century. The House had been built specifically as an eye-catcher for the north side of the Castle, and it had been aligned precisely with the Duchess’s bedroom windows so that it could be viewed with great effect.
Researchers then learned that the House had acquired a role beyond that of mere eye-catcher, and had become a dwelling for the warrener, a man in the employ of the Estate who nurtured and protected the breeding of rabbits, which were highly valued for both their meat and skins. Over the years, the building fell into disuse, the land was sold then re-sold. The shell of the building had been patched up only because it had been placed under a conservation order (at the request of the community), but there it stood for many years serving no purpose, and crumbling away.
I had spent the best part of 20 years looking out on this building, seeing it slowly deteriorate, and wondering what would become of it. That fateful visitation by the Landmark Trust was to prove conclusive. They decided to take it on as a project, restore it and open it as holiday accommodation. Like so many of their other restoration projects, another historic building has been saved, and some of the finance will be recuperated because it now has commercial viability.
The Warren House was opened to the public for viewing last week and, for the first time in 20 years, I was able to stand on the front balcony of the ‘folly’ and look back down at Kimbolton Castle, into the windows of the former Duchess’s bedroom, and ask myself: now, was The Warren House really the ‘folly’? Or could the Castle have been built as an eye-catcher for The Warren House?
I have visited many war memorials and Commonwealth War Cemeteries. Most notably, I once spent 12 days cycling a route through the Netherlands, Belgium and the Somme following the tracks of several battles and skirmishes and, in the process, paying a visit to some of the dozens of war cemeteries and memorials en route.
Last autumn, when we were in Washington DC, we spent some time taking in the many war memorials dotted around the capital. None were more moving than the Korean War Veterans Memorial which, instead of simply being a static record of names of those who had given their lives, it recreated a scene on the battle field, of soldiers marching forward through the jungle. As you stood alongside some of the life size figures, you were drawn into the scene and made to feel you were part of the patrol. It not only held my attention but I was deeply moved by the experience. The pain, the fear and the sense of hopelessness was clearly visible on the faces of the soldiers. It was a bold statement of what war is all about: suffering.
In London recently, after a leisurely visit to Buckingham Palace, we wandered over to Green Park to visit the newly inaugurated Bomber Command War Memorial, something that had been a long time in coming. The impact it had on me was very similar to that of the Korean memorial in Washington. Seven larger-than-life figures stand tall and proud, representing the many thousands who had served in the RAF units (over 55,000 lost their lives) that flew over Germany on bombing raids in the closing stages of the war. Each figure portrays some deeply felt emotion: hope, despair, satisfaction, depression…….. in fact, the myriad emotions that pilots and their crews would have experienced during those uncertain days.
If you haven’t seen this memorial, I would recommend it highly. Go prepared to spend some time there, taking in the full significance of the scene, studying the details of the seven figures and, above all, reading the many notes and witness accounts that lie strewn around the base of the monument. They are stories that have to be told and, for that very reason, they are deserving of our time.
CTC Birthday Rides August 2012
Early morning mass starts were carefully avoided. The lanes were far too narrow and potholed. Some surfaces were decoratively adorned with the fresh cuttings of hawthorn hedges, thorns lying in wait for the unsuspecting wheeler whose tyres would gather them up and, in return, send the imprisoned air of the inner tube back into the earth’s oxygen bank. I heard that this happened to one group of riders midst one of those furious cloudbursts that sent an inch of rain down in less than 30 minutes. I wonder what expletives honoured the name of that local farmer?
You may think that 500 cyclists could get lost in a sea of rural tranquillity, but whatever route you chose (and there were at least 20 to choose from) you were sure to chance by several, join up with some, leave others behind in your dust (or be left behind in someone else’s dust), but generally sit down with some in a far-flung café and share the stories of the road. I was in thrall of the longer routes that would
take me 70-80 miles in several directions. Five days and five rides later, I had scaled the heights above Lake Vyrnwy (a reservoir built to supply Liverpool) and done its entire circumference, shrouded by woods and well protected from the winds; I then followed a northerly route to the historic city of Chester, followed the canal tow path to the heart of the city, and got completely drowned by the torrential downpour on the way back; the Shropshire Hills beckoned another day, planting a massive climb
of 20% on my way to the Stiperstones, where I learnt all about the history of lead mining at the Bog Visitor Centre, and sampled the honest delights of home baking in the café; then the infamous World’s End with its treacherous narrow descent to a river ford that will catch the unwary with its slippery under-surface; and the final day promised a steady climb to the recondite Pistyll Waterfall, in full flow after the recent rains, followed by the most stunning climbs through the Berwyn Hills, offering panoramic views that must be unequalled anywhere in Wales.
But, as ever, accompanying any utopian description of riding a bike several hundred miles, you sometimes have to take the ‘rough with the rough’. Serious rain (the sort that would keep sane individuals firmly indoors) dampened our bikes and clothes, but not our spirits, on two days, and on the final day I checked out an aberration on my front brake, only to discover that the rim of my 20 year old front wheel was beginning to disintegrate (hardly surprising I suppose). A careful ride into Oswestry and the immediate attention of Stuart Berkley Cycles saw a new wheel installed in less than 15 minutes. My trusty Raleigh Apex has now done about 40,000 miles, and most of the original kit has now been replaced…………only the rider now remains!
In the purist tradition of a bygone age, I decided to cycle to and from the rally at Ellesmere College in north Shropshire, carrying my own camping gear. A four day return journey, it added 300 miles to my grand total of 622 miles (1000 kms)for the week. Preparing for that journey made me rise to the challenge of pairing down my luggage so that all would fit into a
single saddlebag and small bar-bag. One lady at the rally saw my laden bike (carrying less than 10 kilos of luggage) and simply exclaimed “Impressive!”!
Impressive or not, I was simply determined to carry as little a possible. In this age of competitive cycling, the buzz-phrases we hear are “power-to-weight ratios” and “marginal gains”. To the humble long-distance rider with camping gear, that simply means carry less weight to go faster and further. Still there were several things that I had no occasion to use, which means that things can be trimmed even further on future ventures.
As a fledgling cyclist, I joined the Cyclists’ Touring Club (CTC) on its 100th birthday in 1978, and promptly joined in the centenary festivities by meeting up with 100 other riders in Manchester to ride 100 miles in 8 hours (then known as a reliability ride). It was the first century ride of my cycling career and last week (some 175,000 cycling miles later) I found myself mingling with a crowd of 500 other keen mile-eaters (many of a certain age) to celebrate the club’s 134th birthday. The event is known as the CTC Birthday Rides, a week-long rally that takes place every year in August in some carefully chosen location in the UK. This year our base was at Ellesmere College in north Shropshire, giving us immediate access to large tracts of hilly north Wales, the Cheshire lanes and the Long Mynd in Shropshire.
A remarkable thing about these huge gatherings is the demographic
of the group. Many have been coming to these rallies for years (some as long as 40 years). The demographic may have changed little over the decades, but the age profile has advanced steadily ‘at a constant cadence’. Not for them shaven legs and faces. Not for them power bars, Gatorade and gels. Few sport the latest fashions in lycra, but demonstrations of club loyalty abound in the motley garments of attire. Not for them the latest in carbon fibre or titanium. You won’t see many 11 speed rear cassettes or the latest in Campagnolo or Shimano equipment. The predominant guide on the handlebars will not be a Garmin or Memory Map, but a Maptrap that holds in place the written route instructions and a page torn out of a road atlas.
The Birthday Rides may not be a catwalk of the most recent ‘finger-licking’ developments in the cycling world, but you will be entertained by the motley variety of people who have cycled the world, who will hold you spellbound by anecdotal tales of what happened to them in darkest Africa, or deepest China, or crossing the arid plains of the Atacama desert. You will hear of intrepid pedallers who have scaled some of the highest roads in the Himalayas, crossed the Atlas mountains on two wheels, cycled from one end of Japan to the other, and crossed the American continent.
Many of these people resort to tricks of understatement. When they talk about a ‘lumpy landscape’, they are really talking about high mountains and huge passes. A long day in the saddle to the average human being is about 2 hours. For these people 8-10 hours is commonplace. A journey of 10-15 miles would exhaust a lesser being, but many of these people have cycled successive days in excess of 100 miles per day, and some will regularly do Audax rides of 200, 300, 400 kms without a break for sleep. A shower of rain that would deter the fair-weather cyclist is nothing but a minor annoyance. They will don their waterproofs and ride all day and night if necessary……. after all, it’s only water!
If you look beyond the characteristic stoop of the life-long pedaller, the silver hair and beard, you will see the profiles of
people who have been true adventurers in their own right, quietly and undemonstratively cycling to the far corners of the earth just for the sheer pleasure. It is a privilege to share a few miles with them, or sit at table over a leisurely meal and eavesdrop on their storytelling. None of them have been propelled by the lure of success on the race track nor the limelight of road racing, but by their own curiosity to discover the world and pit themselves against the forces of nature. The ultimate reward was no more than a deep sense of personal satisfaction at a job well done.
If you are a high mileage cyclist, and you want to survive the hazards of the open roads, you have to make some wise decisions. One of those decisions must include sensible choices of routes, not only to maximise your own enjoyment, but also to minimise the chances of accidents. I am seldom intimidated by busy roads. I generally feel able to occupy my own space and command respect from other road users. But better still is the ability to avoid those busy roads in the first place. I would guess that at least 90% of my mileage is on quiet country roads, some of which seldom see traffic at all.
Once out in the country, you can enjoy the freedom of space, the panoramic views, the enticing little nooks that stop you in your tracks and demand a photo. These moments are unpredictable and happen without warning. So many times I have been frustrated because I had left my camera behind. Now, a little wiser, I always take my pocket digital camera because there are moments and places out there that are worthy of a place in your digital photo album. Here are a few taken in the past few days.
I made brief reference to cycling along the Thames Cycleway in a previous post. I had chosen it as a traffic-free route from Hampton Court to the centre of London (to see the end of the women’s Olympic road race on The Mall). If you were to start from its source in Kemble in Gloucestershire to the Thames Barrier at Charlton, the total length would be about 184 miles (296kms). In the closing stages, as you approach London, you would pass by iconic places like Windsor Castle, the famous public school at Eton, Hampton Court, Kew Gardens, Richmond Park, and on into the centre of the city to catch sight of the Houses of Parliament, London Eye, the Millennium Bridge, the Globe Theatre……..and the list goes on and on.
Cycling in London does not have to be a constant battle with traffic, especially if you are there on a leisurely sight-seeing trip. There is a network of quiet, traffic-calmed routes, canal tow-paths and riverside cycleways where the principal dangers are dog walkers and joggers! And, of course, the possibility of falling into the water! I love to take my bike down to the capital and spend the day cycling between places of interest, and taking in the many surprising (and unplanned) encounters along the way.
Try it sometime. It beats using the Underground!