On the hottest April day since 1949, I hit the ‘hills’ of Northamptonshire with a group that meets up every Thursday in different locations. The idea is to gather at a coffee stop, the organiser gives out the route sheets and takes bookings for lunch, then everyone takes to the road in self-selected groups to meet at the pub for lunch, and from there everyone makes their own way home.
I always ride out to the café, do the ride in between, then ride home again, usually logging up between 80-100km, so it can occupy most of the day. This particular group has been meeting for 40-50 years, and some of the originals are still there, not riding the miles as they used to, but still active. And each one is a ‘cycling encyclopaedia’ of bicycle wisdom, anecdotal stories of their achievements and near-misses, and often masters of the art of bicycle-fettling. I always enjoy their company.
Just like straddling the equator, straddling the Greenwich Meridian should be just as momentous, but I wonder how many thousands of people going in and out of Cambridge on a daily basis from/to the west realise (or simply remember) that, geographically, they are moving from one time zone to another?
Let’s face it, even though this line of longitude became the official worldwide 0 degree point as far back as 1884, so that all time zones around the globe could be determined, there are many countries in the world that have ignored it, and have simply opted into the ‘time-zone next door’ for their own convenience.
This came to my attention many years ago after visiting Galicia (NW Spain) and Sicily in the month of February. Although officially in the same time zone (central European time), they were so far apart (east to west) that there was a clear 100 minutes of difference between their respective sunrises and sunsets, and if you look at the map of time zones, you will see that Spain should, geographically speaking, be in the Greenwich meantime zone.
However, you can imagine my disappointment at discovering that the actual line, verified thousands of times by modern GPS systems, is actually 334 feet to the east (c102 metres) which, at the speed of a Usain Bolt, is all of 10 seconds away.
Disappointingly, we have been living a lie all this time…….
Discovering a new piece of software that can bring your day’s ride to life helps you to relive the experience in a different way. And for those who haven’t yet discovered the joys of propelling themselves through the countryside on a pair of wheels, this kind of animation of a route may possibly kindle an interest.
As you will see from the photo embedded in the video, the weather did not inspire, but once on the bike, with the leg muscles warming up, the sheer momentum of the experience can make the weather irrelevant…….unless, of course, it is ‘tanking it down’……which it was the other day. But then the worst that can happen to you is…..you get wet…….and so what?
Our view of history over the centuries has inevitably been moulded and formed by the victors of battles, by the rich and the powerful, and by those who were able to read and write and, more importantly, use their knowledge of language(s) to form opinions. Seldom do we get to take on the perspectives of the losers in battles, of the weak and poor, and importantly of the illiterate. I see the social historian as someone who helps to bridge that gap.
T.C. Smout’s volume A Century of the Scottish People 1830-1950 is dominated by interpretations of how the ordinary peasants and the factory workers in the cities were subject to the control of the rich and powerful in society. From the inhumane clearances of the countryside to the appalling and dangerous conditions of the industrial environment, from the cruelty of employing children as young as 6 years of age in the mines and on the looms to the injustices shown to home workers in the textile industry, the story unfolds gradually towards the formation of unions and the establishment of compulsory education for all children.
Scotland in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was a tough place to live if you were a member of the majority social class. Child mortality was high, people died young of industrial diseases and accidents, and mothers frequently died in childbirth, not to mention all the other potentially fatal diseases like TB and typhus. There were no comforts, little food, and the living conditions were frankly appalling. By contrast, the succeeding 70 years up to the present time have seen changes that have transformed the lives of the majority to a level that would have seemed impossible in Victorian Britain.
Most of my riding may be solo these days, given that I live out ‘in the sticks’, but I invariably join up with other roadies at some ‘watering hole’ to chew over the fat, and to indulge in that favourite pastime of most roadies……coffee and cake.
One of the groups I tie in with is made up mostly of the ‘retired-and-idle’, who have nothing better to do with their spare time than to ride bikes and eat cake. I mean that in
jest of course, but it’s not too far from the truth. Today’s ride took me to a small Northamptonshire village called Earls Barton, a community with a rich Anglo Saxon heritage (pre-600 AD), in later years famous for its leather trade, and most recently a protagonist in the film Kinky Boots, which was based on the Northamptonshire shoe trade.
Our watering hole today was a very nice café in the local marina, nestling beside the moorings of river boats and narrow boats, and it was warm enough in the sunshine to sit outside on the veranda. Although I have been
retired for nearly ten years, I was clearly the ‘junior’ member of this group, the eldest well into his 80s. And this is the message of hope, perhaps…….that riding a bike regularly, doing some decent weekly mileage (which all of these people clearly do), keeps you fit and active……and it is remarkable how little the aches and pains of old age creep into the chat and banter over the table. If any discomfort and pain is ever mentioned it is usually about the damn headwind on the way out, or the hill that had them grinding in their lowest gear…….or occasionally about some inconsiderate driver who nearly cut them up. Otherwise, we are usually engaged in relating anecdotes of cycling times past, or discussing something technical about the bikes, or mocking the latest generation of sportive riders who ‘have all the gear and no idea’…….and would be better off riding a cheaper bike and losing several kilos of body fat.
All said and done, we have a laugh.
Then I came across this green plaque in Woolaston and learned something new about the town……
Re: Cyclists by Michael Hutchinson
Michael Hutchinson, a former pro-cyclist-turned-journalist, writes an excellent weekly column in The Comic………more accurately known as Cycling Weekly. His style is to combine well-informed commentary on aspects of the world of cycling, mixed with wry humour and critical insights into whatever is current or in fashion. I know some faithful followers of the magazine turn immediately to his column when they open their current edition.
Re: Cyclists, 200 years on two wheels is his take on (basically) the entire history of cycling, from the ‘draisine’ (hobby horse) invented by Baron von Drais in Germany in 1816 to what we know to today, the bicycle in all its configurations. No matter how sophisticated bicycles become, from the technical metal compounds that go into the frames, to the growing subtlety of the accessories that go on the frames, the design of the bicycle has not fundamentally changed over the years. Two hundred years on we are still taking advantage of that leap of imagination that went into building the early machines, and that will probably never change.
His perambulations take him through the history of Cycling Weekly, a magazine that began simply as Cycling in 1891, bang in the era of the penny farthing (perhaps the most dangerous of the velocipedes to ride), through its brief and disastrous flirt with mopeds, when it was renamed in 1957 as Cycling and Mopeds, to its current incarnation, inspired largely by the world of racing.
Although he dedicates the last chapter to the future of cycling (as most similar tomes do) he is challenged to predict any fundamental changes ahead, given that we have already come through 200 years of history and development without any real departures from the original designs.
A good book and worth reading.
If cycling on a bright sunny spring morning does nothing else, it will most certainly bring us in closer contact with the beauty of the world around us, but sometimes that beauty is adulterated by human beings. No, I am not talking about farmers, road menders, wayside factory units or inconsiderate drivers, I am referring to the feckless individuals who are intent on ‘spoiling the party’ by dumping their household waste on country roadside verges.
Not only do they thoughtlessly dump it willy-nilly in remote spots, but they also make their unwelcome presence felt by spreading their rubbish in several places, thus making it harder for anyone to clear up. So, what do they gain, and what could they potentially lose if they are identified?
Given that most of this waste could easily be disposed of through normal domestic collection, they gain absolutely nothing. But they do stand to lose on at least two counts: if they are identified (and household waste can throw up a lot of clues) they stand to be stung for a £400 fine, but more importantly, if they are members of a local community, they may have to face the opprobrium of those who live around them.
This very same stretch of road (I have decided) also sees the frequent passage of a committed coca cola drinker. How do I know? I see many discarded cans by the road side, but along this stretch there were no fewer than some 20 coke cans……the same colour red, the same company insignia…..is it not time to impose an environmental tax on these companies.
Rant over…. today’s ride was otherwise glorious, mixed as it was with paying a visit to two old friends en route.
Good to feel the warmth of the sun piercing the multiple layers of insulation……is this the real beginning of spring? The countryside has that air about it, pendant catkins and developing sticky buds tell their story, even the bird life is being lulled into a frantic bout of nest building.
Where does the truth lie?
Have you ever passed a mechanic’s workshop that advertised MOT’s while you wait or, worse still, read a piece in a newspaper that said in the 1970’s? Or maybe you have sat through a party political broadcast that used a lot of meaningless psychobabble like we will be tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime or we now have to operate within shifting paradigms? We all now live in an age of information overload, with media that can produce billions of words a second, and the language we use for communication is changing faster than the speed of light…….and much too fast for the likes of John Humphrys, stalwart of the Today programme on Radio 4.
Humphrys has a long-standing reputation (which he likes, by the way) of being the grumpiest of grumpy old men, and his manner of interviewing the great and the good (and I mean that metaphorically, of course) betrays his utter impatience with people who seldom speak plainly or, for that matter, to the question. For that he receives an equal amount of praise and criticism from the general public, but he will never reform his ways. But if you want to encounter Humphrys at his light-hearted best at being grumpy, Lost for Words will be an excellent read.
He is not a linguistic expert, nor someone who has any special academic qualification for commenting on the use of language, but as a journalist for over 50 years, he has been exposed to a lot of abuse of the English language, and the ‘University of life’ has taught him a thing or two. Although whole chapters are dedicated to the misuse of grammar and syntax, and the misunderstanding of basic English words (like disinterested for example) and so on, I found his chapters on the abuse of the powerful emotive force of expressions (which he divides into boo phrases and hurrah phrases) to be the most intriguing. Although this volume was written back in 2004, his reflections of the abuse of language by politicians at that time shows a clear lead through to the kind of language and fake news that is being exploited by today’s ruling classes. Couple that with a general refusal to answer direct questions by substituting tired mantras (remember Theresa May’s strong and stable government mantra), and we should not be surprised with the rise of populist leaders today.
The subtitle to his book is The mangling and manipulating of the English language……..if I had been tasked with the duty of writing his subtitle, I might have been tempted to use the noun manipulation instead of yet another gerund. But then that’s me….
Whether villains or saints, the generations of the second Elizabethan age have left their footprints on the sands of time. James Naughtie, a well respected radio journalist, has done a survey and produced the names of 60 people who made a difference, for good or ill, and his pen portraits were broadcast on Radio 4 a few years back. The book of the series, The New Elizabethans, is a highly readable and very informative published version of those scripts, ideal for snatched moments of reading on train journeys or just before the bedside light is switched off.
When we think of influential people, we usually picture those who have had a positive impact on the world, people such as Tim Berners-Lee, David Attenborough, Francis Crick or David Hockney. But then there is a much longer list of people who were equally influential but divided public opinion, people such as Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and Simon Cowell. At the negative end of the scale there is a depressingly substantial list of those who inspired resentment and loathing for their ruthlessness and their own self-serving interests: people such as Fred Goodwin and Rupert Murdoch.
But whatever their motives, whether for good or ill, the 60 people who found their way into this series certainly had (and some still have) an authoritative impact of the world, and it came as no surprise that the final episode was reserved for the Queen herself.
As an inveterate traveller myself and an inordinate consumer of travel literature, it has been clear to me for many years that there is no such thing as a single genre of ‘travel literature’. Travel comes in many forms (cruising or long-distance walking, for instance), has different durations, connects variously with the people and cultures along the route, stays in one place or flits between several destinations, and many other variations. People who choose to write about their experiences can resort to as many different sub-genres of travel writing, some engaging but, sadly, many not so engaging. Being a traveller does not guarantee any special powers of communication, no matter how fascinating the journey was. Because of the nature of my own travel (long distance on a bicycle) my diet has always been top-heavy with the observations of people who ‘take the road less travelled’ and are not afraid to expend a bit of perspiration on their peregrinations. But travellers of my kind invariably skim the surface of the people we meet and the places we visit.
John Greening, on the other hand, has created a two year narrative from his time in southern Egypt in his recent volume Threading a Dream. Rather than a ‘moving-on’ experience like the long distance traveller, this is very much a ‘staying-put’ experience with his wife, Jane, as VSO volunteers in the early 80s, with plenty of ‘moving about’ amongst people and places within the country. The nett result is a growing familiarity with his environment, a deeper integration with the people and their way of life, and a burgeoning understanding of where Egypt as a nation has come from, and where it might be heading in the future.
There is something more deeply satisfying about this kind of travel literature compared to the restless meanderings of the independent trekker. John Greening, in fact, can be safely Dewey classified amongst the august body of literary travel writers, but I will make a distinction here between those who travel just to write (like Bill Bryson) and those whose writings have emerged as a result of their travels. Threading a Dream falls into the latter category and earns my respect all the more for it.
For many readers whose travel reading is limited to the Sunday supplements and the occasional ex-pat offering like Driving over lemons, this may not be the kind of book for taking to the beach or reading in snatches before falling asleep. But for those who want to get beneath the skin of a nation, its people and its history as seen by a couple of young inexperienced teachers who were hungry for contact with all around them and, in the case of the author, was also on the cusp of a writing career as a poet, Threading a Dream will be an intriguing read, and well worth the effort.
The lowest county summit
I don’t live in the flattest part of England, because that accolade is probably richly deserved by Lincolnshire, but the now non-existent county where I do live (old Huntingdonshire) does proudly boast the lowest historic county summit in the country….which is of particular interest if you are an inveterate ‘hill-bagger’….yes, there is a league of hill-baggers out there who go bagging all the highest points of historic counties, no matter how low they are.
Imagine going from bagging Scafell Pike (978 metres/3208 ft) to the summit of old Huntingdonshire (81metres/266 ft)…..not exactly in the same league, I would say, but features on the same list of baggable points.
Now, I tell you all this simply because my route today took me dangerously close to bagging my first highest summit on a bike…..and astonishingly it is listed in the baggers’ almanac with the never-to-be-forgotten name of ‘Boring Field’, just outside the village of Covington.
However, and this is a big ‘however’…….there is a hotly contested issue as to the summit’s exact whereabouts. Could it really be on a bridge over the now defunct Huntingdon-Kettering railway track? In other words, do engineering structures really count as part of the landscape?
Don’t write to me….write to your local MP…..
Drowning the candle…..
It was, of course, a delight to climb on the tandem, pedal in sync for a few miles, enjoy the cool February sunshine, and to punctuate our ride with a fine lunch at a local country pub.
Jenny, very kindly, poured me a glass of water, releasing the slice of lemon for my sole benefit, and as I put the glass to my lips I peered into the depths of the glass and, beneath the slice of lemon, lurked a tea-light candle……😁 She had decanted my water into the candle holder……..!
Well, we made ‘light’ of it, it didn’t ‘douse’ our enthusiasm for the meal, but it put paid to a candlelit experience…….
Oh dear, rural war is about to break out again….. In our group of villages, we spent a couple of years and about £150,000 fending off the wind turbines…….. so far, we have won the battle……but not necessarily the war.
Every colonial building in La Habana is a potential gem, but sadly, only some of them have been restored to their former glory. A work in progress….. But occasionally you come across something so exceptional, it stops you in your tracks. In the courtyard of one such building I was stopped in my tracks by this exceptional marble carving of a mother and her child
On my way out of La Habana, returning to my casa, I prepared to do battle with the queues for the bus….it is a chaotic experience, and those who survive it have to be battle-hardened. I approached the queue and asked ¿el último?….who’s the last?
A gentleman told me he was at the head of the queue, but told me to stand next to him….I was puzzled at first, but we got talking. I gained his confidence, and he slowly gained mine. When I asked eventually what he did for a living, astonishingly he told me he was a cardiologist, but he had a second job supervising infants in a nursery…..I was struggling to fully appreciate what he was telling me.
One of the few people I’ve heard say anything negative about Cuba, he told me that he was not allowed to earn more than $50 per month, and that the average wage for most people was $15-20 per month. It was then I understood why he was fighting the unruly queues to squeeze into the state-subsidised buses……but even more astonishingly, he slipped me the 40 centavos (2p) for the fare, got me into the bus, and grabbed a seat for me. Quite bewildering, really…..
And before I leave Cuba, I wonder if anyone could enlighten me why the Irishman O’Reilly should be honoured with a street name? On a plaque it said “Two island peoples in the same sea of struggle and hope: Cuba and Ireland”.
In all its crumbling magnificence, La Habana has not changed at all in the 15 years since I was last here. It is still crumbling away, but scaffolding around its Capitolio suggests they are trying to do some restoration. Sixty years ago, before the revolution, the city was the richest and most lavish in the Caribbean, but lack of money and expertise since the revolution quickly saw it deteriorate in succeeding years.
The Capitolio was built by Machado, a dictator in the 20s who most obviously ‘sucked up’ to the Americans by building a duplicate copy of the Capitol building in Washington, but somehow it’s architecture doesn’t quite fit the Carribbean context. But despite the flaws in the environment, La Habana is very much a partying city. The sounds of salsa come out of every bar and restaurant, street dancers troupe through the streets in their regalia…
A vibrant city, a honeypot destination for people from across the world, but as I sat on an overcrowded bus on my 5 centavo journey to the suburbs, the faces of the people betrayed history’s ethnic melting pot that Cuba is. Every thing from black Congolese to the purest white Caucasian is evident in Cuba’s racial mix…..but never once have I been aware of any racial tensions. It just doesn’t seem to figure in their thinking…..
Fifteen years ago, in 2002, I brought a large group of pupils, staff and parents over to Cuba for a 10 day guided tour of the island. It was a very successful trip, not without its issues of health and safety, but we got everybody safely back home just in time for Christmas. But I want to focus on just little event, which happened on a walking tour of La Habana.
As we crossed one of the plazas, keeping everyone together as best we could, it turned out that a street artist, a caricaturist, had walked beside me (just one step behind so I didn’t see him) and he had very quickly drawn a caricature of me. This had been set up by one of the pupils and, before we left the plaza, the artist presented me with the finished product. And like all caricatures, it wasn’t really me, but…..and this is the skill of the caricaturist…..he captured something about me that definitely did make it me, and I’ve kept it all these years, and framed it, as a memento of that moment. So why do I tell you this little anecdote from the past?
Well, the other day, I was sitting in a bar tapping in a post for my blog, and it would seem that another secret caricaturist (Cuba must be full of them) was busily at work, obviously outside my line of vision, and taking advantage of my distraction. The first I knew about it was when he came over and put it on the table in front of me. He left me to get over my surprise and study it, then came over hoping for a donation…..which I did honour for his labour…..but my immediate reaction was “that’s not me, flattering though it is, because he seems to have captured something about me when I was 20-30 years younger”. But after several minutes, I realised he had captured something about me that ……… well, simply made it me.
Don’t be impressed…..now bike less, I picked up a colectivo taxi which, because it is shared with other disparate passengers, is not so expensive. With some guidance from a mapping app on my phone, the driver found the casa where I had started my journey 2 weeks before, which would be a last ditch attempt to meet up with Bob, an American cycling buddy whom I had met in New Zealand 6 years ago. We had already made an abortive attempt a couple of years ago to go cycling together in Cuba, but it never happened, and I went off to Florida instead for 2 weeks.
When I met Bob for the first time, he and his 10 year old daughter, Anna, were riding a Hase Pino tandem ( with a semi-recumbent front rider) and his wife Christine was on a solo. They had courageously taken a year out to cycle the world together as a family, and we met on a campsite of South Island. We stuck together for the next few days, climbing a few hills together, finally saying goodbye in Queenstown. I knew then that was not going to be the last I would see of them.
It was so good to be in his company again, very much a case of like minds coming together again. We seized the moment, sharing a good 10 hours of stories, anecdotes and shared memories, before Bob headed back to Lake Tahoe in California. We hadn’t met on the road because our travel schedules hadn’t quite matched, and independent travellers don’t like hanging around, but we kept in touch on the road, and pinned ourselves down to this get-together.
It was the perfect conclusion to an eventful couple of weeks.