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Joining the ‘snowbirds’ in Florida

“No person shall operate a bicycle unless it is equipped with a bell or device capable of giving a signal audible for a distance of at least 100 feet, but no bicycle shall be equipped with, nor shall any person use upon a bicycle, any siren or whistle”…….

This extract from the Miami highway code is a clear warning to this unwary British cyclist, who is about to descend onto the land where Beckham is king of soccer, and where “It is illegal for men to be seen publicly in any kind of strapless gown”.

I booked my passage with Virgin Atlantic about three weeks ago, not only because it operates a direct flight to Miami, but it will also carry my bike free of charge (the only restriction being weight: it must be under 23 kgs). VA are definitely the most cyclist-friendly airline crossing the pond. They not only transport your bike free, but you can also have another 23 kgs of check-in baggage as part of your allowance.

At the time of booking the flight, I happened to be back in touch with my American friend, Bob, whom I had met in New Zealand, on a world trip with his wife, Cristine and 10 year old daughter, Anna.

Anna, Bob and Cristine

Anna, Bob and Cristine

Anna, Bob and Cristine had introduced themselves as the ABC family, and I was to share a few very pleasant days in their company as we made our way down South Island.

Hearing of my plans, Bob jumped at the chance of joining me for two weeks in Florida. He booked his flight from California and arranged for his bike to be shipped overland. He ordered maps from the American Cycling Association and did his research on the recommended circuit of the peninsula.

Working as a team against and unforgiving wind.

Working as a team against and unforgiving wind.

But then……(the best laid schemes o’ mice and men) little more than a week from departure, a prolonged dry winter in California suddenly changed, and the snows began with a vengeance. Bob and his family live at an elevation of 6000 feet near Lake Tahoe, and when the snows come at that height, it is serious business. Quite rightly, Bob had to reassess the situation. Flying down to Florida meant leaving Cristine and Anna to their own devices, coping with the routines of daily life midst the worsening weather conditions. So Bob has had to abandon his plans. He was profusely apologetic……..but he didn’t need to be. Though I will sorely miss his company, I did point out to him that it now leaves me in very familiar territory………riding solo and unsupported.

So, in a nutshell, my plan is to do a circular route of some 800 miles, carrying my little tent, and staying at the simplest and cheapest campsites I can find. I have been warned by many to beware not only of the traffic (which can be very heavy in the south), but also of the crocodiles, which can lurk motionless by the roadside. If you appear to be a tasty morsel at the time, they can achieve bursts of speed in excess of 30 mph. That’s when the 100″ gear will come in very handy!

Suffolk: so near but so ignored

We have lived in East Anglia for 33 years, and I am ashamed to say that it has taken all that time for us to really explore the hidden gems of Suffolk, a mere 50 miles from our own doorstep. Too busy flying off to far-distant honeypots to really notice that some of the best gems are just down the road.

And as is usually the case, it takes a visit from friends to fire up the enthusiasm for local exploration, and in the process you get excited by all that you discover in your own locality. Our friends, Pilar and Mariano, are very old friends from the 1980s, when we spent a year in the little known town of Teruel in Aragon and, in the process, made some very firm friendships which have endured to this day.

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From stately country piles like this

Audley End House

Audley End House

to a Guildhall like this in Lavenham, that dates from medieval times……

Guildhall, Lavenham

Guildhall, Lavenham

Relaxation from leg-wearying sight-seeing came in the form of blackberry picking on an extended walk

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and cream teas in iconic little tea shops to conclude each day, the best at the Orchard in Granchester, the scene where endless numbers of writers and intellectuals from Cambridge got together to enjoy tea and cakes under the shade of apple trees. Rupert Brooke and Virginia Woolfe are believed to have swum naked in the nearby River Cam, and May Balls at Cambridge inevitably ended with a punt down the river and breakfast at the Orchard.

For us, it was a perfect late afternoon to be idling under the ripening fruit.

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The Orchard, Granchester

And look out for little glimpses of local humour around the Suffolk lanes…..

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……and guess the name of this pub…….

.....the Cross Keys!

…..the Cross Keys, of course!

…and as we went into this church in Lavenham, a visitor from Ireland shared some of his family history: an ancestor bearing his own surname had actually financed the building of the church back in the 15th century, and he himself could trace his ancestry back to the arrival of the Normans in the 11th century.

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St Peter and St Paul’s, Lavenham

…and perhaps you can tell me the exact interpretation of the category of this café….

2013-08-27 18.40.58…..or the category of this hotel….

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An Arboretum like no other…….

Combining the pleasures of a long bike ride with the discovery of unfamiliar corners of this little island of ours, makes for a perfect day. My 85 mile route took me SE of Yarnfield, through Cannock Chase, where I chanced upon the only German military war cemetry in the country

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where more than 4000 German soldiers from both conflicts are buried. I read as I entered “A reminder of all those who died as result of evil tyranny”.
Lichfield Cathedral
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has escaped my attention for years, but what a bonus today! The Chapter House not only displayed a stunningly scripted copy of an 8th century bible written on vellum, but also displayed information on the recently discovered Staffordshire hoard, including 3500 pieces of militaria from Saxon times.

They are still puzzling over the many possible explanations of why so much was found in one place.

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Then an Arboretum designed to remind us of the sacrifices made by our soldiers in the conflicts since WW2 (and the numbers killed are frankly jaw-dropping), but even more alarming are the spaces left vacant for deaths in the future……and it seems they are expecting the killing to continue unabated.

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National Memorial Arboretum

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There is a worrying acceptance here that international conflict is not only to be expected, but is a natural phenomenon that is inherent in the human situation.

Going ‘up north’……..

The cancellation of the York Cycle Show gave me the opportunity of heading to Sheffield to take my eldest brother out for a birthday lunch. I could either make a 200 mile dash on the bike (there and back), or take a few more days, and a more devious route, and find out what there was to see. The route looked something like this, a total of 364 miles/585kms:

I was amazed to discover that Stamford (Lincs) had wallowed in the delights and dangers of bull-running in the streets for over 700 years. 2013-06-20 15.20.21And I had thought that only crazy towns like Pamplona in Spain indulged in such medieval pastimes.2013-06-21 15.03.57

Newark Castle was a revelation. A Royalist town through and through, it had withstood three sieges during the English Civil War, and only capitulated on the orders of the then captured Charles I. Then the Parliamentarians, without any consideration for their country’s heritage, proceeded to dynamite the place. 2013-06-21 15.14.23But I have a question: why is the town called Newark on Trent, when the river runs almost 2 miles north of the town?

When I dropped by to see Rufford Abbey (near Ollerton), I found that an International Ceramics Fair was occupying the ruin, 2013-06-21 17.26.43but in a rose garden nearby, I chanced upon a “heliochronometer” (now, dear reader, don’t even pretend you have heard of one of these before….), a kind of ‘Dyson-esque’ improvement on a normal sundial.2013-06-21 17.33.01

And now they have actually found the long-lost body of Richard III (under a car park in Leicester), 2013-06-24 11.17.39the Richard III Society will be crowing with delight, and we can now expect to see reconstructions of what he actually looked like, and the excellent battlefield museum at Bosworth Fields will now have to extend its display.

If you need to stop somewhere for a rest north of Milton Keynes, there is no better place than Stoke Bruerne, CIMG9236a pretty little village on the Grand Union Canal that boasts a series of locks and tunnels.

But having recently become a member of English Heritage, I was determined to start cashing in on my investment. Near the village of Silsoe in Bedforshire, I was astonished to discover the sheer size of Wrest Park, 2013-06-25 12.47.13its layers of history through 600 years of ownership by the De Grey family, 2013-06-25 11.57.44its occupation by the Sun Alliance insurance company, its use as a hospital during WWI, its conversion to an agricultural college in later years, and finally it came to rest in the hands of English Heritage, whose long term plan is to restore the multi-layered gardens to their original state.2013-06-25 13.44.04

But as I passed through Ampthill in Bedfordshire, my attention was caught by this pub sign. Why, you might ask, is the head of Catherine of Aragon (first wife of Henry VIII) adorning the sign of the Queen’s Head pub? AmpthillFirst of all, technically she had been downgraded to a Dowager Princess by her husband, so when she died she was no longer a queen. However, the castle at Ampthill had been her first place of house-arrest, and the people had loved her, and had opposed her separation from Henry. This is simply one pub’s way of correcting an ‘accident of history’.

Reflections on Melbourne

What can a day reveal about Melburnians and their city? Did you know

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that Melbourne led the way in admitting women to the Anglican priesthood and episcopate? Come on UK, you need to run harder to catch up!

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Not sure if this is a caricature of a typical Melburnian, but a lady receptionist has the doubtful pleasure of looking at it all day long from her desk just 2 metres away.

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The Museum of Immigration gives an in depth insight into the migration of people into Australia over 200 years. But most poignant of all was a photographic account of the recent migration of the Irish during the current economic downturn

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all of the photos personal studies of individuals who have separated themselves from family and friends

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…a reflection of what my own mother did in the 1930s, and what my father’s ancestors did in 1840. I felt a certain vicarious empathy.

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The River Yarra may not be one of those iconic city rivers, but it certainly has its own charm.

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And a chance to meet up with fellow blogger Chris Yardin (left) and his brother Mark, and spend the evening sharing drinks and pizza

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and chewing the fat over cycling issues the length and breadth of the sport. Thank you both for the invitation and for the generous donation to the Children in Syria Appeal. Catch Chris’ blog here: http://www.christopheryardin.com

The big question remains: will this man, when he climbs onto the plane this afternoon, be accompanied by his bicycle?
Stay tuned!
http://www.justgiving.com/Frank-Burns1

Lugo: Celtic city

Walking the Roman Walls

Lugo is a city with prominent Roman remains, as evidenced by the restored Roman Walls encompassing the whole city. But its origins, according to its name, seem to be Celtic. It is named after the great Celtic God called Lugh, a name which occurs across the whole of the known Celtic world (the city of Lyons, in France, was originally known as Lugdunum).

Those of you who know a little Irish history, will be familiar with the harvest festival celebrated in Ireland on August 1st called The Festival of Lughnasa. This is a celebration that is variously connected with the harvest fruits and man’s ever-present battle against famine, the search for husbands and

Band of drummers

wives, and the bearing of children. Given my own Irish ancestry, I should feel a warm welcome in Lugo!

The day we visited was a ‘fiesta’. Everybody was out on the streets, eating and drinking inside and outside bars. Drumming bands made their way along the streets, the insistent beating of the drums filling the acoustic well between buildings. Regional dances were staged, to the sound of bagpipes………this could have been Ireland.

Alberto Núñez Feijóo, President of Galician Government

Then, as we sat enjoying a drink on a street terrace, a commotion caught our attention. Photographers and TV cameras were sycophantically encircling a gentleman, who was making his way in our direction. I immediately recognised him as Alberto Núñez Feijóo, the current President of the Galician Regional Government (like an Alex Salmond, First Minister for Scotland) who was seeking re-election in the forthcoming elections. I jumped up immediately, presented

Here’s to the Celtic God of Lugh!

myself to him, shook his hand…..and he was intrigued to know what an Englishman was doing in Lugo, in Galicia……

I became aware of the insistent attention of dozens of cameras, I searched for my most ‘endearing smile’ and, rather than be a party-pooper and pretend to criticise his politics (“so what are you going to do for the expatriate Brit here in Galicia?”), I wished him well in the forthcoming elections. Did that encounter make the news the next day? We will never know.

Embutidos….delicious!

Sign outside the men’s loos……

….and the women’s loos….. Make of them what you will!

Casa Camiño: house on the hill

Casa Camiño

I have a proficient knowledge of the Spanish language, a passing familiarity with gallego (the local Galician language), and many years of familiarity with the Spanish culture and way of life. If you were to ask me to take on, even the administration of, a major restoration project in deepest rural Galicia, I would quake at the knees. I can’t even begin to enumerate the myriad façades to carrying out such a project, but our friends Kim & Sue Renkin jumped in at the deep end and are swimming their way successfully to completing a major piece of restoration.

The old farmhouse, probably the equivalent of an old  ‘pazo’ or ‘estancia’ was in a completely ruinous state, but its major appeal was its location, perched on the side of a hill at over 700 metres above sea level. It is a stunning position, located right next to the Camino Primitivo, one of the ancient routes to Santiago de

Front view

Compostela. When it is completed, they will open it as a small, select B&B (hotel rural). Guests will be guaranteed magnificent views over the lush green Galician countryside, and a swimming pool will lie invitingly awaiting its first customers.

right next to the Camino Primitivo

And when I say a ‘project of restoration’, I mean just that. This is not a mere refurbishment of an already existing building. This is an ambitious undertaking of creating a whole new infrastructure that didn’t exist before, but retaining the ancient stone shell. They have not only had to battle with the perversity of two different languages (Spanish and Galician), but also the perversity of Spanish planning laws, working practices, the availability of  materials and labour, as well as the endless details of the legal mechanisms that go with owning property in a foreign land.

They hope to finish, and be open for business, by the summer of 2013. If you like quiet rural retreats, or need a stopping place on the Camino Primitivo, I would recommend heartily that you stay at Casa Camiño. Take a look at their website here.

A section of the Camino

A Galician lunch, along with Bernie, their plasterer

And so to Santiago de Compostela

Rainbow over Ribadeo

After a stop-over in Ribadeo, a ‘frontier’ town between Asturias and Galicia, we arrived in Ferrol, the end of the line for the FEVE narrow gauge train. We had completed the journey in 5 sections, but to do it as a continuous journey (not recommended) it would take about 14 hours from Bilbao to Ferrol. Jenny was mesmerised throughout by the views on both sides of the train. I lazily read newspapers keeping half an eye on the changing scenery, jumping out of my seat from time to time to grab a photo. The FEVE is a beautiful, gentle way to travel the north coast, so long as you are not in a hurry!

I have been to Santiago de Compostela many times before, twice as a cycling

One of the 250 FEVE stations!

pilgrim. For Jenny it was 30 years since her last visit, a time before the re-inauguration of the Camino, and when there was only a relative trickle of pilgrims arriving at this ancient medieval city. Today, hundreds of thousands walk, cycle or horse-ride their way to Santiago, and many millions more come by other forms of transport. It is a huge, and growing, business, and the Compostelanos are well organised ‘y sacan máximo provecho de tanto turismo’.

View from our hotel window

You can spend hours on the Plaza del Obradoiro (in front of the Cathedral) and be entertained by the stream of pilgrims arriving in a constant procession. Even in early October, there are over 1000 pilgrims arriving daily from the Camino. After they have collected their Compostela (certificate of completion) many will go to the Pilgrim Mass at noon in the Cathedral, the principle attraction being the swinging of the huge censer (botafumeiro) after the service. If you like the smell of incense, this is the place to be. If you enjoy unusual spectacles, this is one of the most unusual, and it has its

The famous censer (botafumeiro)

origins in the deep medieval past. Whatever spiritual or religious significance you care to attach to the use of incense, an important function was its ability to mask the appalling smell of thousands of pilgrims in medieval times. Remember, these people had spent many months on the Camino, and they would arrive unwashed, lice- infested and carrying an untold number of infectious diseases. Incense may not have been the cure, but it raised the senses to higher things!

When we opened the curtains of our hotel room, we were left speechless. I normally manage to book rooms overlooking car parks or noisy city streets, but this time we were able to feast our eyes on the soaring spires of the Cathedral, and when the moon was up and the illumination on, the sight was magical. For your information, it was the Hotel Pombal.

After a couple of nights in Santiago, we left to stay with some friends in deepest rural Galicia, who have thrown all caution to the wind and taken on the all-consuming project of restoring an ancient Galician farmhouse. Read on…………

Sunset over Santiago

Guess which is Jenny……..!

…with the rising moon

“By the rising of the moon”, from our window…..

A happy band of cycling pilgrims

Hey, you down there…..!

A bad day out hunting is better than a good day at work!

Don’t tidy or clean this room. I like it as it is.

Oviedo, capital of Asturias

Entrance to the Arye Hotel

When you enter the region of Asturias, you are not only entering the most ancient principality of the peninsula, but also the land of cider, hearty stews of pulses and blood sausages (chorizos and morcillas), cabrales cheeses, and much much more.

A taxi driver told us of the close relationship between Asturians and the Irish: he pointed to the common Celtic origins, the style of traditional dress, music (eg. bagpipes) and dance…….and more importantly, character and personality. His favourite film of all time

Palace of Congress

(he has seen it 30 times!) is ‘Barry Lyndon’. Given my own Irish roots, I felt immediately at home!

When we entered Oviedo (capital of Asturias), we were delivered to our hotel by the said-taxi, a jaw-droppingly modern structure designed by Santiago Calatrava, forming part of the Palace of Congress. The contrast with the 16th century Casona Solar of

Two of the figs left uneaten………..

Santillana was mind-bending. The whole wall on one side of our very large room was plate glass, giving panoramic views of the city below and the Picos in the distance.

We dashed across the street to a bar for some light supper, and engaged in conversation with two couples on the next table. The two husbands were both retired doctors, obviously enjoying their retirement, and then one produced a bag of figs, picked from his own

Oviedo Cathedral

garden. Thrusting several in front of us, we  relished the sweet seediness of the ripe fruit, forgetting what the ultimate consequence might be if we ate too many. But, we had struck up a friendship and exchanged details.

Oviedo has the ambience of a northern city, unlike anything on, or near, the Mediterranean. The streets are cleaner, the people are quieter, there is a great deal more restraint about everything. And if you have even a trace of Irish blood in you, go and meet your distant relatives!

Gaiteros asturianos (Asturian bagpipers)

Pouring the cider in Asturias

Our room in the Ayre Hotel

Another view of the Palace of Congress

You can only trust people over 90 years….when accompanied by a parent!

Husband for sale, or part-exchange (I’ll pay the difference)……comes with mobile phone and TV remote……no children in tow….single owner, documentation up to date, ready to take away. Great finance plans available!!

Santillana del Mar

…..ni santa, ni llana, ni del mar (neither holy,  flat or by the sea). When I asked a local why it was called “del mar”, he told me there are two Santillanas: one further inland, and the other nearer the sea. It may not be on the coast, but it may mean your post is delivered to the correct place.

Santillana del Mar: the whole town is a museum! The ‘casco histórico’ (historic centre) is utterly stunning, and mostly dating from the 16th century. Some would say it is too stunning, making it a typical ‘honey pot’ tourist attraction, guaranteeing that between 10am-6pm the place is crawling with day visitors. The coaches arrive mid morning, everybody stays for lunch (which in Spain is about 3pm), then everybody departs, leaving the place empty in the evening. If you have ever been to Venice, you will know precisely what I mean.

There is a clear message here: go to Santillana to stay the night, and enjoy the place in the peacefulness of the evening or the early morning. Our visit was made very special by our hotel, a ‘Casona Solar’, a large ancestral house built in the 16th century with its own coat of arms. Our room was enormous, our balcony looked out directly onto the street, and most of the furniture was heavy oak. We couldn’t believe this only cost us £26 for the night!

Amongst many things, Santillana is famous for its ‘sobao con leche’ (sponge cake with a glass of milk). Many years ago the BBC had made a short film about a family business, that owned a big ancestral house, selling ‘sobao y leche‘. Nothing special about it, just that it formed part of a Spanish language programme about 25 years ago. We entered the said shop and reminded the elderly owner about this film, and his face lit up. It was probably many years since anyone had mentioned the long-forgotten piece of filming, and he entertained us to several minutes of reminiscences. We had instantly become his ‘amigos íntimos’.

Santillana del Mar is a jewel in the crown of Cantabria. Go and see it!

Typical roof drainage!

Oak cabinet: note -treading grapes on the right and drinking the results on the left!

Nappies and politicians need to be changed often….and for the same reasons!

My wife is for sale…..excellent condition, original owner, documentation up to date…..Conditions of sale: no returns accepted!

Bergen: former capital of an ‘empire’.

Hard to believe that in the 11th century Bergen was the capital of a region that included Iceland, Greenland and parts of Scotland. For many centuries it was the largest city in Norway, and its importance as a centre of trade was established by its membership of the Hanseatic League, a powerful network of cities that combined forces to promote and protect trade.

Take the funicular railway up to the top of the mountain, and you can linger over fine views of the harbour or go walking along the network of tracks away from the hustle and bustle of visitors. Or drop into the Domkirken (Cathedral) and watch a dress rehearsal for a

5 cruise ships were in harbour

forthcoming wedding or listen to the organist practise on the huge Rieger organ which has 61 stops and its sound reverberates in the almost perfect acoustic.

On the way back to the ship, we witnessed preparations for a city-centre cycle time trial (which we missed by only two hours!) and saw this ingeniously designed three-wheeled motorbike full equipped with cameras. If you have ever wondered how sports photographers get such good close-ups of cyclists as they are speeding downhill at over 50 mph, the answer lies with machines like this one.

Away from the hustle and bustle

Wedding rehearsal in the Domkirken

The Rieger organ

Photographer’s motorbike

Pre-race interview

Stavanger: from rags to riches

Stavanger was little more than a small fishing village for centuries, but in the 19th century an influx of herring and sardines in the waters offshore kick started a lucrative canning industry that saw over 70 canneries open.  One has now been converted into a museum, with all the original work areas preserved, even down to the authentic smell of the smokery.

Then in the 1960s, oil was discovered off the coast, dragging Norway onto the list of the world’s major producers of ‘black gold’ and, literally, making it an oil-rich state. Like Aberdeen in Scotland, Stavanger underwent major cultural and demographic upheaval, its population rapidly becoming the most cosmopolitan in Norway. The Norsk Oljemuseum (Petroleum museum) is no ordinary exhibition building. It is built as a North Sea Oil Platform, giving the visitor the opportunity to experience, in a 3 dimensional environment, what life is really like on a working rig. You can climb into diving bells and rescue craft, you can play with the drilling mechanisms and the monitoring equipment. Like many good museums today, it is a real hands-on experience that will keep you engaged for hours.

As we made our way back to the ship, we wandered through Old Stavanger, with its cobbled streets and its whitewashed timber houses, complete with small pretty gardens and picket fences.

Old Stavanger

Petroleum Museum

Inside a diving bell

The Firetower. Stavanger had been burnt down several times in the past.

With our private launch in the background!

Haarlem: bicycles everywhere!

En route to Oslo, our cruise ship docked at Ijmuiden in Holland, providing passengers with an opportunity to visit Amsterdam (some 35 kms away). Taking the road less travelled, we hopped on a local bus which took us to the nearby town of Haarlem, a miniature version of Amsterdam (but without the red-light district!). In fact, not only did Haarlem in Holland give its name to the much more famous Harlem in the USA, but New York itself was originally called New Amsterdam, reflecting the scale of Dutch migration in the 17th century.

With its pretty cobbled streets, flower-bedecked houses (it lies at the centre of the bulb-growing district), its Grote Markt, canals and bridges, what really stands out to a cycling enthusiast like me is the huge number and variety of bicycles. Holland is a country, par excellence, where the bicycle plays a hugely important role as a means of transportation. Whether you are cycling on your own or taking the children to school, there are bikes to suit all occasions. Whether you need to carry your weekly shop or go to the DIY store for building materials, there is a bicycle for you. The typical Dutch design for bicycles is eminently ‘sensible': they are designed to be comfortable modes of transport capable of carrying significant loads. Bicycles that we comically call a ‘sit-up-and-beg’ will usually have their origin in Holland.

The ‘Toon on the Tyne': a geordie experience

Although I was born in County Durham (long before the boundary changes swallowed up my home town into some nasty artificial conglomerate called Teesside in the 1970s), a recent visit to Newcastle reminded me of my elemental links with the north east. My father had been born in Hebburn, into a large family whose livelihood had been entirely dependent on the continued success of the collieries in that area. The closure of collieries and the general decline of the coal industry had driven them south to Teesside, where new heavy industry brought a general migration of people from all over the country.

Stepping off the train in Newcastle’s Central Station (now all clean and sparkling), we were enveloped by that most distinctive regional characteristic of the Tynesider: the geordie accent.  I don’t know what you think of the geordie accent, but for me it

The old castle of 'Newcastle'

is but an outer sign of what the people are really like deep down: warm, friendly, welcoming…..and so often with a ready smile. The fact that you are a complete stranger is of no consequence. They will share their smiles and cheeriness with you, brighten up a dull day for you (of which there were a few!) ……and will do it because………that’s just the way they are.

I was lured into a hairdresser’s by the promise of a £5 haircut (unbelievably cheap, I know) and the young lady who did the honours for me, told me she had migrated back to Tyneside from South Africa because she had simply missed the friendliness of the people. A beautiful climate is no substitute for the warmth of the human touch. And she is right. You can wrap up against the cold and the damp of the UK climate, but how do you ‘weather the cool civility’ of a community where people ignore each other’s existence?

Have you been to Tyneside? Do you live in Tyneside? Does any of this ring a bell?

And here are several more reasons for putting both Newcastle and Gateshead on your short-list of places to visit:

Baltic Art Gallery, where all the exhibitions are temporary (lending an air of vibrancy)

Gateshead Millennium Bridge: check the timetable to see it tilting when a boat passes underneath. The only tilting bridge in the world.

The Sage (concert venue). It's a breath-taking piece of architecture, and get yourself some tickets for whatever concert is on. It is worth it.

Take a look at the beautiful wood carvings of the Cathedral choir stalls (and much more).

If it hadn't been for a Tynesider, we'd all still be in the dark today!

....and Jenny is normally camera-shy!

Mallorca: days 4 & 5

It is an understatement to say that Mallorca becomes the cycling capital of the world in the late winter/early spring. With the bad weather largely behind us, the roads were veritably clogged with pairs of legs pumping carbon-fibre (or alloy, as the case may be!). On the rainy day yesterday, few groups had been in evidence, but solo cyclists like myself had been everywhere. Now the groups and clubs are out in force, fighting for road space. Road vehicles must be out-numbered by cyclists, at least by 5-1, and you note a certain respect amongst drivers for the pervasive presence of the pedal-pushers. They even stop on roundbouts to let pelotons take priority. Without a doubt, cyclists are the mainstay of the local economy during these dormant months of the season, and many of the locals do their little bit to make them feel welcome.

Day 4

The threat of more rain dictated the route: stay on low ground and ´motor´ the miles. Direction south: across the albufera (the closest thing to fenland) following tiny country lanes to the ancient town of Sant Llorenc where (unbelievably) we found a cafe in the plaza where we were the only cyclists! And the hunks of home-made cake were enormous! But they provided the power to the legs to take on a few challenging little climbs and justify a second stop in the village of Sineu, where most of us indulged in baguette sandwiches, big enough to ´pop´ your tyres under the added weight! And….yes…we did have a puncture in the group……. Now, a question: how many people are required to mend a puncture?…….. Well, in this case, five volunteered their services……a question of too many cooks….? Not at all……it was mended in a trice.

We managed not to squash this little tortoise!

A welcome little touch in each cafe are the segments of orange doled out in their dozens to thirsty cyclists. And free of charge.

Distance: 141 kms/ 88 miles

Day 5

Dishearteningly, the morning greeted us with overladen skies and another threat of rain. Everyone dressed for the part, hoping the worst would not be inflicted upon us. But our outward route was flat and winding, intertwining with dozens of other groups from the four corners of northern Europe (but mainly Germans) as we headed through Santa Maria to Bunyola. Our stop there, to fill the empty reserves after  nearly 45 miles of cycling, was overshadowed a little with the knowledge of the enormous climb to come. The Coll d´Honor was to take us to 550 metres at an average gradient of 5.9%, then after a dip downwards, on to climb the Orient at 490 metres. These climbs break up the cohesion of any group, but after re-grouping at the top, you enjoy the long, very fast descent, frequently touching over 40 mph (60 kph). It is hard to adequately describe the sense of exhiliration……….

Distance: 130 kms/80 miles

A philandering ‘castrato’…..how does that work?

In cathedrals and abbeys, one’s eye is usually caught by the bold, audacious tombs and memorials that beckon our attention, but behind the scenes, sometimes hidden by the furnishings, you may find something of much greater interest and intrigue. Tucked in a corner behind the hymn books of Bath Abbey, I came across the curious character Venanzio Rauzinni, renowned male soprano and assumed by many to be a ‘castrato’.  He was born in Rome in 1746 but apparently, having travelled throughout Europe and visited many a lady’s bed, he set up home in Bath for the best part of 30 years, and became famous not only for his fine soprano voice, but also for his teaching.

But the teasing questions, raised by recent researchers, have pointed to the nature of his sexuality. It was believed, at the time, that he was a member of the ‘castrato’ class (baby boys were sometimes castrated at birth, on the instructions of choirmasters, so that many of them could play female roles at a time when women were not allowed on the stage).  Hence the fine male soprano voice. But it would seem this ‘castrato’ had been well able to court the attentions of the opposite sex in several cities throughout Europe. So much so, that he was a much scandalised figure, hounded out of a number of cities. You might well ask: how does that work? Well, the short answer to that is: it shouldn’t.

So Rauzinni had either been in full possession of his ‘sexual faculties’ and had been blessed with a natural soprano voice, or the tales of his sexual exploits were just that…………tales.

For further information, click here.

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