Going it alone..

In a world where the art of ‘taking exercise’ has become such a highly systematised and commercialised affair, many are left bereft when their options are reduced to walking, jogging or cycling. More than that, during this period of social distancing, people have to be self-motivated, organise their own outings, forego the pleasure of being with friends and stopping for a coffee, and go it alone.The exercise market has developed in harmony with burgeoning economies, growing affluence, and more leisure time. So, in the last decade there has been an explosion in the provision of organised marathons and fun runs, cycling sportives, exercise classes and personal trainers, and I was horrified to discover the number of people who pay expensively for annual gym membership, but never actually go to the gym

I feel blessed to have always found pleasure (and exercise) in simply climbing on my bike and heading out….usually nowhere in particular, but just for the fun. I hope, in the coming weeks, that many more people will (re)discover some of these simple pleasures. Instead of paying about £600 for gym membership, why not buy a bike…..?

Solo in isolation

The sheer benefit of riding a bike during a period of strict social distancing. This is Great Barford on the River Great Ouse, with its ancient 17 arch bridge……and its restored wine press, donated by its German twin town of Wollstein, and now sited on the ancient pound, where stray cattle used to be impounded until the owner paid a fine.A perfect sunny spring day for this 51km ride, and no contact with anyone other than to acknowledge passing cyclists. Everyone locked into his/her own little world….

Melchbourne

With apologies to Rudyard Kipling:

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on COVID19,
If you can trust your judgement when many doubt official advice,
But make allowance for their doubting too……

Keep calm and ride your tandem bicycle…..to some remote spot, at the end of a tiny country lane with no exit, and sit quietly in the early spring sunshine watching the sheep graze lazily, the early bumblebees forage for nectar, and the crows root around in the undergrowth gathering material for their nesting sites.Melchbourne

Melchbourne is one such spot. A tiny hamlet at the end of a road, with its cluster of houses built within the grounds of the 18th century Melchbourne House. Amongst its recent inhabitants are included Sir Percy Scot, a diplomat who helped found the modern Iraq; Audrey Lawson-Johnston, last living survivor of HMS Lusitania that was sunk by the Germans in 1915; and Sarah Kennedy, a well-known BBC Radio presenter.IMG_20200316_122051595

 

Casualty of the big ‘C’…

In fact, a casualty I am pleased to report if, for no other reason, it keeps people safe. I was due to give three illustrated talks next week in different venues: one in Bedford, one in Moulton Northamptonshire, and one in a village just six miles from where I live.

As I cycled through said village this afternoon, the cancellation was confirmed by this notice…..

and cancellations followed for the other venues.

Which got me thinking about public gatherings in general. My talks would have created three 2 hour meetings, making a total of 6 hours in all. We’ve been able to cancel them because they were dispensable, meaning they weren’t vital elements in the day-to-day administration of a nation.

I used to be a teacher, so I know what it’s like to be in the company of children and colleagues for 6-8 hours a day. I, therefore, salute all those in any kind of public profession serving the public during these trying days of uncertainty. They are amongst our nation’s heros.

Stanwick Lakes 34km

A gloriously sunny day, and a chance for Jenny and me to share a tandem ride together……and some lunch at the lakeside Café Solar….

Stanwick Lakes were artificially engineered from old gravel pits, but in their building, they revealed some astonishing archeological finds, including several historic layers of human existence. Iron Age roundhouses, a Roman Villa, and an Anglo-Saxon mill…..to name but a few.

Our route there was littered with the early signs of spring, including Hargrave village church, with its varied displays of primroses, daffodils and hyacinths. And our pedalling kept in synch with the overhead vocals of skylarks, rooks and fieldfares.

And if you want to know why one of the many collective nouns for rooks is a ‘parliament of rooks’, just try cycling by a nest-building rookery and you will clearly hear the angry voices of opposing political parties slanging each other off, vowing bloody vengeance on those of the opposite benches.

Conington Airfield 54km

Many years ago, I was given a birthday present of a flying lesson from this airfield, and I spent an hour flying (with my instructor) up to Kimbolton Castle to take an aerial tour of the estate, and seeing my place of work from the wispy clouds.

These days, I use pedal-power to get me to the airfield café, to spend half an hour in the company of cyclists, mixing with instructors and trainee pilots, jostling for the available seats and tables. Yesterday was particularly busy, with three police cars in attendance over some issue to do with an aircraft…..but no one was saying anything.

The airfield had been built during WW2, as a base for B17 Flying Fortresses, and accommodation for 3000 American personnel, but they had to call it Glatton Airfield, to avoid confusion with Coningsby Airfield in Lincolnshire. Most of the wartime infrastructure has now disappeared, leaving enough to service occasional business traffic and flying instruction.

Norman Cross 60km

It’s been a while since I strayed north to Peterborough, to pay homage to Katharine of Aragon at the Cathedral and visit the City Museum. But en route, I couldn’t help but stop to gaze over the fields at Norman Cross, site of the world’s first known purpose-built POW camp, constructed to house thousands of Napoleonic soldiers over 200 years ago.

The prisoners enjoyed a lot of freedom to pursue interests and business ideas,

and this model of a French palace was built of carved bone and wood. The museum houses an extensive display of such art work found in the ancestral attics of local Peterborians.

Well worth a visit.

The Giddings 43km

43km 2hr 03m. 20kph

A classic case of heading out against another bothersome wind, and being assisted back. As soon as the early morning snow had disappeared, it turned into a bright late winter’s day. And going north over a series of wolds, there were plenty of hills to climb.

There are signs of spring everywhere….in the verges and hedgerows, in the trees, and in the increased activity of wildlife…..especially the daylight hunting of the barn owls. They like to keep you company, tacking along beside you for a mile or two. Even the red kites like to hover overhead, tracking your progress across their foraging patch.

And the sign outside a pub declared Happy Hour 18.00-20.00…..obviously, maths is not a publican’s game.

Gamlinghay 61km

The things we do to meet up with cycling buddies!

It was a gloriously wind-assisted ride out to the café, but the ride back was excruciatingly slow and painful. However, the MapmyRide app of the route failed to stop the clock when I was off the bike, so tells me I was nearly 5 hours pedalling, making my average speed just 12kph. Correction: it was 21kph. Still no great shakes, but it will do for the conditions.

Sharnbrook: dung on the river?

I’m absolutely sure that proud Sharnbrookians would not like to be reminded of the true meaning of their village’s name. Sharn is an ancient Anglo-Saxon word for dung, so either the medieval village was the location for one of the world’s first sewage farms, or it was the location of a huge cattle market, with all its resultant effluent problems. Of course, today it is a good-looking, prosperous north Bedfordshire village with its superbly preserved Norman church, a large secondary school, and its twee thatched tearoom in the form of Ashpoles.

Actual stats: 41km, 1hr 50m, 22kph

My route out was against a predictably strong southerly wind, but instead of spending a couple of hours not seeing a single other cyclist (normal for a weekday), I was overtaken by one, then another, then a third on a two-wheeled recumbent. They may have all been at least 20 years younger than me (so why weren’t they at work, paying their taxes, and keeping this nation of ours thriving?), but they showed no respect for seniority. Unforgivable…..

When the recumbent edged slowly past me, I tucked in behind him, but quickly realised that his low profile provided me with no shelter whatsoever from the wind. I told him so: “Hey, mate, you’re not giving me any shelter”. He replied: “So sorry!” OK, I’ll forgive you this time….but only this time. And my thoughts continued silently: ‘Next time, get yourself a proper bike, if only to let me tuck in behind you!’ Yes, I know, we roadies can be very selfish…….

Of course, we always like to complain about the wind. The eternal enemy that never seems to be behind you. Well, I have to confess, this time, the wind drove me home at a pace, sometimes topping 65kph (40mph). Those are the moments when you desperately want to pass a speed warning sign when entering a village, so it can flash a resounding red frowning face at you!

Mormons and Black Death

No, the two are not related, but both form the historical backdrop of two Bedfordshire InkedInkedColmworth_LIvillages I rode through this afternoon. I tell you, small rural communities have their stories to tell…..

Colmworth is noted for many things, but one in particular is its link with the Mormons. The sister-in-law of the local vicar, one Mary Fielding from nearby Honeydon, married Hyrum Smith, brother of the famous Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Latter Day Saints (Mormons). And one of her children eventually became president of the Church.

A few miles away, the tiny village of Bolnhurst (like so many villages in north Bedfordshire) was decimated by the Black Death in 1348, leaving the houses around the church derelict. So its church, St Dunstan’s (caught here in the sunset) is now remotely situated about half a mile from the present-day village.IMG_20200207_164443944_HDR

The thrill of the downhill

On a bright sunny winter’s day, any downhill is a ‘feast of speed’, but when you descend at 60-70kph, over a pockmarked uneven surface, you know you are alive. This is Belton’s Hill, with a gradient of 16%……

Santiago via Thurning

The modern interpretation of pilgrimage includes all forms of transport – planes, trains, buses and cars. The journeys are as long or short as you want them, and can be travelled in first or third class. You pay your money and take your choice. The idea of self-propulsion and serious effort to get to a destination is now left to the adventurous minority, but that number is growing.

Thurning, a small village in Northamptonshire, bears the traces of a medieval past, both in the continuing celebration of its annual feast (which goes back a thousand years), but also in the date of its feast: July 25th, the actual feast day of St James (Santiago). Its church, in fact, is dedicated to St James, and for hundreds of years has served as a stopping point for pilgrims walking the 1200 miles to Santiago de Compostela in NW Spain.

If you walk up to the church door, you will see the above scallop shell on the gate…..

and other symbols of pilgrimage on the path leading to the main entrance that would have been familiar to medieval pilgrims. I know of one traveller who recently started his journey to Santiago from here. If the medieval pilgrim wanted to get to Santiago, it was either by pony or ‘Shanks’s pony’…..there was no other way. No Easyjet, no Ryanair….it was a journey of 2 million steps…..from Thurning at least. And, of course, another journey of 2 million steps to get back home again. No mean feat. ‘Chapeau’ to our medieval forebears.

 

Chelveston-cum-Caldecott

Screenshot_20200203-160937~2Chelveston-Cum-Caldecott features in the Domesday Book of 1086. At the time of William the Conqueror, the settlement was made up of:

One hide…..(enough land to feed one family)

Three virgates…..(0.75 of a hide)

Arable land was made up of:

Three carcates…..(one carcate could be cultivated by one plough)

And these were held by 6 socmen (landholders subject to feudal taxes)

In 1918, to help the war effort, the school children picked a huge 1500lbs of blackberries to make jam for the soldiers on the front line. Along with neighbouring villages, they amassed a staggering 15 tonnes…..and all of this from hedgerows around the fields.

And today, in mid-February, they hold a weekend-long party to celebrate the flowering of the vast display of snowdrops in the churchyard. It is some spectacle. I got there some two weeks in advance, and they are looking pretty good already. IMG_20200203_110500460_HDR

 

The land of ‘kinky boots’

Mention the village of Earls Barton, and most people would look blank. What? Where?

It was a strengthening south westerly wind this morning, but my journey had a purpose….to meet up with some cycling buddies at the White Mills Marina, just outside Earls Barton.

 

My 37km outward leg was solidly into the wind. No let up, no remittance. The reward was a toasted teacake and a cappuccino, and the sharing of cycling anecdotes with friends.

But just up the road was the setting for the popular musical Kinky Boots, set in a shoe factory called Jeyes of Earls Barton. A heart-warming story, and one to put this small community of 5,000 inhabitants firmly on the map.

Oh, and by the way, the wind-assisted homeward journey was ‘a breeze’!

Thurleigh: the squatter’s cottages

Martin Luther King once said: ‘We are not the makers of history. We are made by history’. I have to remind myself of this seeming truth when I encounter little snippets of local stories of yesteryear, which do much more to influence who we are than the so-called ‘great events’ of the past.

IMG_20200130_121244651

After spending five days discovering the architectural delights of two cathedral cities, Hereford and Worcester, and catching up with the histories of King John, Prince Arthur and Edward Elgar, it’s tempting to think that we have connected with real history, but on my ride this morning around north Bedfordshire, I was reminded of events and happenings that really did touch the lives of real people.

Thurleigh, a small village of some 700 inhabitants, once hosted a strategically important

Rolls-Royce Flying Bedstead

airfield during the last war which served as a base for American B17s, hosted the ‘flying bedstead’ built by Rolls-Royce which became the forerunner of the Harrier Jump Jet with its vertical lift-off, saw the arrival of Concorde, and nearly became the site of an additional London airport. All very important local events that helped form our history.

But perhaps the most formative of the lives of poor Screenshot_20200130-173826 - Copycountry people were the rights of squatters. Some of the cottages in Thurleigh were built at the roadside, by people who (by law) had no right to the land but, if they could erect a cottage between sunrise and sunset, and have smoke coming out of the chimney, they were able to claim the right to live there. Thurleigh is one of the few villages in the country to retain evidence of these dwellings.

The history around us..

A month after the winter solstice and the days are noticeably getting longer. Riding in the late afternoon is now becoming an option, but still in the doldrums of winter, I have to make a special effort to add a bit of ‘zing’ to my journeys. My local routes are beyond familiar to me, after all, I’ve been riding them for almost exactly 40 years. IMG_20170919_144017

So today, I trained my mind on the significance of the many familiar places that I passed, and drummed up memories of facts, figures and events about places that I had all but stopped thinking about.

Just north of Spaldwick there is the (locally) notorious Belton’s Hill, short but very steep. The first section rises to 16% and the second 7%. This is the scene of the annual hill climb competition for a local cycle club.

Buckworth village, as small as it is, was roughly the same size as now when the Domesday survey was conducted inSWNS_HAMERTON_ZOO_10 1086. In 1942, a British aircraft had to jettison 5 land mines, all of which exploded very close to the village. No-one was injured.

Hamerton Zoo is a local popular attraction, but suffered a tragic death in 2017. One of the staff was caught by a tiger in one of the enclosures and was mauled to death.

Little Gidding is a hidden community of buildings that housed the Ferrar family, and through its history has had connections with Charles I and, much later, T.S.Eliot.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe old Windmill at Great Gidding dates back to the beginning of the 19th century, and has now been restored as a private dwelling.

Molesworth Airbase, near Brington, notoriously became the site of nuclear missiles in the 1980s, and was the scene of many CND protests, some led by Bruce Kent. The small Peace Garden is a little monument to that piece of history. Peace garden

2019 in a nutshell

Total distance for year: 6,325 miles/10,179km

Nobody wants to read a blow-by-blow breakdown of a full 12 months of cycling, and I am certainly not going to indulge myself to that extent. But casting an eye back over the previous year can reveal some interesting things. Annual mileage can be influenced by a host of different things, but I’ve learned that there is a threshold beyond which you will find yourself riding the bike primarily just to increase your total mileage. In other words, it becomes the driving force. The last couple of years have seen me come to recognise that threshold, pull back from it, and settle into what is a more comfortably managed limit, but which still surpasses the number of miles I drive by a substantial margin.

Separating out local mileage from adventure mileage, it’s no surprise to find that the bulk of my annual distance is still in the day-to-day riding within a 50 mile radius of my home (1,802 adventure miles v 4523 local miles). To get further afield on a morning/day ride, I am now not averse to broadening that radius and using public transport for part of the return journey. This has the benefit of opening up new terrain and new areas to explore. So, for instance, I took a train out to Norwich for a two day 125 mile summer solstice ride back home, with a generally supportive wind behind me.

The adventure miles last year were made up by my Biking the Baltic ride (crossing 8 countries and visiting 9 cities in the late summer), a week on the tandem in Holland in July (the hottest week in Dutch recorded history), a tandem rally in the Wye Valley, and the summer solstice ride. My local mileage is almost totally made up of solo-riding, but with the added benefit of meeting up with fellow cycling cronies at country tearooms to chew the fat. So today, as I write this, I have just come back from a 50 mile jaunt out to Fermyn Woods near Brigstock, where there is a café that amply serves the needs of hungry cyclists.

As I was reflecting on annual statistics, I decided to do a quick retrospective of my 11 years of retirement, and discovered (unsurprisingly) that I had accumulated a lot of miles, namely 90,467 miles/145,588km, about 25% of which were achieved on my many adventure trips around the world. As impressive as any of this may seem, it all pales into utter insignificance in the light of the lifetime mileage (1 million miles) achieved by Russ Mantle at the age of 82, much of it during his years of retirement. Very much a man of his generation, he would have spent most of his waking hours turning pedals.

So what of the coming 2020? Perhaps like many adventure cyclists, I will be trying to honour our collective need to add our grain of sand to saving the planet. Even though riding a bike is an ultra-green form of transport, getting to and from our destinations can be fraught with multiple flights. So for this purpose, I have added this little beast to my stable of bikes

Tern Verge P10

The Tern Verge P10 is designed for long-distance, has ten ratios on a 1x gear set-up (ie. just one front chainring) and, most importantly, folds for transportation. This means I should be able to hop on and hop off trains and buses at will, and use non-aviation transport to get to some of my distant destinations.

Watch this space. I am currently looking at Flixbus that might take me down to the French Mediterranean in a few week’s time.

The cyclist who went out in the cold: Tim Moore

A veteran of several endurance cycling experiences, including French Revolutions, when he followed the course of the Tour de France, and Gironimo!, when he engaged with the route of the 1914 Giro d’Italia on a period bicycle, in The cyclist who went out in the cold, Moore takes on another seemingly ridiculous challenge, by riding the 8,500km Iron Curtain Trail on a communist East German shopping bike with only two gears, called a MIFA900. Moore is no amateur playing with risky possibilities. Even though his kit looks every inch unworthy of the job, the man who rides it knows how to survive long distances under trying conditions.

All that aside, what carries Moore’s narrative is his sense of humour (which is frequently over the top, and will be too much for many readers) and his ability to tease out fascinating bits of background history about the places he passes through. He is a consummate wordsmith, who conjures engaging narrative from long boring bits of travelling. Until you have spent 8-10 hours a day turning pedals, day after day for several weeks, you won’t understand how uneventful life can be on a bicycle. To convert all of that into an interesting flowing narrative takes a great deal of imagination and linguistic adroitness.

I frequently shy away from reading fully-texted narratives about long journeys on bicycles because, in the hands of many aspiring travel writers, the endurance nature of their travelling experience is translated directly into a feat of endurance for the reader. Very few writers can put together an engaging narrative and carry the reader for the full length of their journey. Tim Moore, however, successfully held my attention through the 8,500 gruelling kilometres, from Kirkenes in the north of Finland, to Tsarevo on the shores of the Black Sea.

With the sun in my eyes…

The beauty of a late afternoon, early winter ride…..

The shadow of my current self

2 minutes from my front door, but it took me nearly two hours of riding to get there