Against the odds?

Under a pale watery winter sun this afternoon, I passed a target that I thought would have been impossible 11 months ago. My cycling target for this year was to reach 5000 miles (8000kms) by the end of December, and I hit it today  with 4 weeks to spare. Now I know some of you mile-eaters out there will sneer at this, wanting to point out that you’d do that sort of annual distance just on your pre-breakfast rides. And I would understand that. But 11 months ago to the day, I had an ‘event’ that I thought was going to put paid to my continuing ‘bad behaviour on a bike’………and it almost did.

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Keysoe

 

Getting out of bed too quickly one morning, I experienced a catastrophic drop in blood pressure and collapsed, fracturing a few vertebrae in my back and, in the process (although this had nothing to do with the collapse) I discovered I suffered from paroxysmal atrial fibrillation (arrhythmia), a condition that happens to be quite common amongst endurance athletes. Like a lot of long-distance athletes, a scan revealed an enlargement of the upper atrium of the heart which, in itself, may be of little consequence, but coupled with Afib, needs to be controlled and monitored.

Two months after the event, I remember climbing painfully on the bike for the first time and managed to squeeze 4 miles (6kms) out of the legs…….but it hurt. At the beginning of March, I started some serious but gradual cycling ‘re-hab’, and my rides progressed from 7 miles (12kms) to 27 miles (44kms), reaching a total of 280 miles (450kms) for the month. I rapidly progressed to 600 miles per month (1000kms), hitting the usual high in August of 1000 miles (1600kms), the longest single ride of the year being 65 miles (104kms)

So, after a few years of hitting annual mileages in excess of 10,000 miles (16,000kms), this year’s total of a mere 5000 miles is way off the mark, but for me this has been a minor victory on the road to recovery.

Harmonious balm….

Many things in life have a corresponding counterpart, an anti-dote, as it were. For thirst it is drink, for hunger it is food.

After a hectic day in Cambridge, Jenny excitedly exhausted after hours of Christmas shopping, I suffering from a surfeit of ‘over-browsing and over-borrowing’ in Cambridge Central Library, we sank into the warm melodious harmonies of a King’s College evensong, and all was mysteriously right with the world once again……

THE KINGS COLLEGE CHOIR IN CAMBRIDGE REHEARSING FOR THE CHRISTMAS EVE SERVICE.,Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols.. Image shot 12/2010. Exact date unknown.

Infidel: Ayaan Hirsi Ali

It is a long time since a book has kept my attention riveted for 6-8 hours a day, and sometimes awake into the small hours.

infidelAyaan Hirsi Ali, born in Somalia, brought up in Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Kenya, escaped to the Netherlands as a political refugee, eventually becoming a member of the Dutch Parliament, came to prominence when a film producer, Theo van Gogh was murdered in the street by a Muslim extremist, with a knife in his chest affixing a letter addressed to Ms Hirsi Ali. She then embarked on the rest of her life (in 2004) regarded widely as the feminine version of Salman Rushdie, fearing for her life and living with the intense pressure of maximum security.

It is the story of a journey. Not just a physical journey escaping from one country to another, but a psychological and spiritual journey. She had been born into the ‘relaxed’ Muslim society of Somalia which practised excision (genital mutilation), and she describes that experience with painful detail. She joined the Muslim Brotherhood and became evangelical about her faith, but over time, she found many of her questions about the nature of her faith and its treatment of women unanswered. Her father forced her into marrying a distant cousin from Canada whom she’d never met and, on her way via Europe to join him, she made her escape into Holland where she (falsely) claimed status as a political refugee. This chapter of her life was to be the most tumultuous.

Deeply impressed at everything she found in Holland, she gradually lost her faith, became secularized, joined the feminist movement, and began to publicly denounce the practices of the Islamic faith, especially in the area of women’s rights. After the 9/11 attack in the USA, she went on record declaring that terrorism was endemic within the Muslim faith. The murder of Theo van Gogh resulted from a 10 minute film they had made together called Submission, and the letter pinned to his chest called for a fatwa against Ms Hirsi Ali herself, precipitating months and years of isolation and intense security.

In 2005, Time Magazine voted her as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. She is now a naturalized citizen in the United States, has been elected a fellow at the Kennedy Government School at Harvard University, and is now married to Niall Ferguson, the controversial Scottish historian who also teaches at Harvard.

The difference a day makes…

Yesterday, I returned from a 25 mile ‘bash’ on the bike so wet, so completely soaked to the skin, that I left a pool of water on the garage floor. It then took me all of 15 minutes to pare off the several layers, wringing each one out as I created a sodden mound on the kitchen floor. The saving grace of the whole experience was that I had strangely enjoyed the ride (despite the rain), and that by virtue of all the layers, I hadn’t actually got cold. However, because of a serious accident several years ago, when I came off the bike on black ice and broke my femur, I now carry a tightly rolled ‘space blanket’ in my back pocket in case of emergency. Avoiding hypothermia in the cold winter months is a key element of survival in the event of an accident, especially on a remote country lane.

Today, however, was a different story. Bright and occasionally sunny, I headed down into north Bedfordshire to meet up with the Wednesday group at a hitherto unknown country café between Gamlingay and Potton. The Christmas menu just happened to be out on the tables. As we chomped on our cakes and bacon ‘butties’, one of the group had a ‘bright’ idea……why don’t we go for a full 2/3 course lunch on one of our pre-Christmas rides?

Groan……I considered the prospect with mixed feelings. Nice to have a Christmas lunch, but what about the 25 mile ride home afterwards? Rarely do I eat a meal mid-ride…..

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A poppy man

I know it’s well past the season, but this caught my attention today. Put there by the British Legion, the framework was made from the wiring salvaged from old Remembrance Day wreaths from the past. Original and creative, it beckons you to sit next to him and share his space.IMG_20161122_152826067_HDR 1.jpg

The 50 list: Nigel Holland

50-listNigel Holland, in his early 50s, suffers from an inherited genetic disorder known as Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease (CMT), which is a motor and sensory neuropathy. Basically, this means that his nerves cannot communicate action messages to his muscles. He was diagnosed in his infancy and, since then, has progressively lost his ability to live independently. He has been confined to a wheelchair for many years, but has never let this get in the way of meeting the challenges of life. In his own words, he may have a disability, but he is definitely not disabled.

This book is a diary of one year in his life (his 50th year) when he set out to complete 50 challenges, which not only included obvious challenges like scuba diving, zorbing and drag racing, but also less obvious ones like making a creme brulée and completing a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle. The whole book is written as a message of hope to his young daughter, who has inherited the condition, and Nigel wants her to know that she doesn’t have to lower her sights in life because of her progressive disability.

Writing the book itself was one of the 50 challenges, and I would heartily recommend it for its very human story.

Conington airfield

Club cyclists can pick up the scent of a café from several miles. And some of them (cafés, that is) are in the most unlikely of places. I rode out this morning, under a bright blue sky, to meet up with the mid-week group at a little café on a small local airfield, just south of Peterborough. Conington airfield is used largely by flying clubs, and  is a centre for training. About 20 years ago, I remember having a flying lesson from this very airfield, the product of a Christmas present from Jenny, and the flight route I chose took us over to Kimbolton, where we circled the Castle a couple of times, taking photos, before zooming back to base before my stipulated hour was up.

This time, it was eating ‘bacon butties’ and watching a student helicopter pilot go through his paces. And don’t be fooled by the map. I didn’t actually venture onto the A1. For those who know, the old Great North Road runs parallel to the A1, and is much quieter.

conington

Capturing the moment…

Capturing the moment over Grafham Water…….imag2552

Moringa

Sit back and be prepared to be educated. We had to be.

Nine months ago, we were introduced to the little-known properties of one of the latest ‘super-foods’ to enter the global food chain. When our daughter, Rachael, announced to us via Skype (as we sat in our hotel room in Amsterdam during a city-break), that she and her partner, Jonathan, were going to leave Mexico to return to Spain, with the intention of settling and acquiring a few hectares of land to plant something called ‘Moringa’. It was a ‘jaw-dropping’ moment for both of us. Why?IMG_20161018_114156542.jpg

Well, like most people, we had never even heard of the plant. Even an expert botanist friend of ours had only just heard of it, but couldn’t tell us much more about it. Into the small hours that night, we researched it on the internet, discovered that it originates in India, can only be grown in tightly defined sub-tropical areas with ready access to irrigation, and must be planted on well-drained terrain. Rachael and Jonathan, with the help of Jonathan’s parents (both Colombians, by the way) experimented with a few trial plants and found that parts of Andalucía in the south of Spain would provide the ideal environment………all of which led to the kick-starting of an adventure into the unknown.IMG_20161018_114350027.jpg

Having acquired the lease of three hectares of barren uncultivated land, they ‘whipped’ the terrain into submission, ploughed, fed and watered it in preparation for over 1000 delicate little saplings which, in the last six months, have grown at a pace, but their first harvest will  be to capture the seeds from the pods to plant the next generation, extend their holding, then to harvest the leaves the following year for the market………and to make some money, we hope.

Moringa is a fast-growing, drought-resistant tree, native to the southern foothills of the Himalayas, where the seed pods and leaves are used extensively as vegetables. The most nutritious part of the plant is the leaves, rich in vitamins A, B, C and K, with high levels of manganese and calcium. So complete a food, in fact, that in poorer parts of Asia it is a vital constituent of their diet. For the western market, however, where people are mostly well fed, it is promoted more as a supplement that can be taken in addition to the normal diet in the form of teas, pills or powders. Go into your local health-food store and you will find many products that include moringa on their list of ingredients.IMG_20161018_115150040.jpg

It has been a leap into the unknown for these newcomers to the world of horticulture, but they are doing their ‘homework’, dealing with the inevitable problems of working with vagaries of nature, and looking to the future with optimism.

And since the ‘banks of Mum and Dad’ on both sides happen to be significant investors in this pioneering venture, we look on their joys, trials and tribulations with more than just a little curiosity, and find ourselves periodically shouting………. ¡Viva la Moringa! IMG_20161018_114316210.jpg

Witches awheel!

A flock of little ‘fascists’…..

When out on a local circular ride around country lanes, I expect to be held up periodically by traffic, especially around the time of the school-run or the mad dash to and from work by commuters. But on today’s ride, something rather different happened……..

I headed into north Bedfordshire…..thurleigh

….and outside a farm near Thurleigh, I was stopped in my tracks by a flock of little ‘fascists’, goose-stepping their way across the road, heads held aloft, arrogantly ignoring the rights of other road users. I counted twelve as they waddled their way into a neighbouring field in search of……….well, food, I suppose.imag2539

 

I’m no agronomist but….

As we approached a remote 5* hotel in Andalucia (one of the most prestigious in the country), along its 3km drive we were informed of this…..

Now, I’m no agronomist, just a humble penny-pinching hispanist, but I can distinguish horses (caballos) from cows from several hundred metres.

What have the string of celebrities, monarchs and oil-rich sultans made of this, as they approached their £400 a night stopover? 

Needless to say, we only went for a coffee….

Human towers and black wines

That country we mistakenly call ‘Spain’ is more of a ‘Joseph’s coat of many colours’.

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Miravets and the Ebro

Cataluña is not Spain, just as Portugal is not Spain, but an accident of history has defined its place in the world, and over many centuries, it has struggled to maintain its true identity. Even through 40 years of oppression under Franco, when the Catalan language was banned, they held on to their essential character, and never let go of their linguistic roots.

 

They are quieter and more organized than their

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Human tower

neighbours. They have a creative imagination in the field of arts and design that is peculiarly theirs, and the avante-guard architecture of the modernist period is familiar to anyone who has been to Barcelona. During their fiestas, they build fearsomely high human towers, ushering the bravest little boy to the top to compete against other confraternities. They are hard-working, industrious and productive. Their economy makes up nearly 20% of Spain’s GDP, so Spain can’t afford to lose them in an independence referendum.

 

img_20160929_105037817We recently enjoyed a few weeks exploring the southern reaches of the region, sampling the strong, punchy wines, feasting on the huge peaches and nectarines grown just up the road. With the peninsula’s  biggest river, the Ebro, carving its way through the countryside on its way to a broad delta, where much of the country’s rice is grown, it’s not hard to understand why it is such are fertile environment.

When we thought that there was little left to discover about this peninsula, we now understand we have only just started. We need to peer around more corners, lift up more rocks, climb more mountains and cross more rivers…….in other words, we need to ‘get on our bikes’ before it is too late……….img_20160925_131747872

My first literary prize!

Always aspiring to commit some of my life-experiences to paper in the form of a book-length narrative, I decided to join a local Writers’ Group. The principle of associating with others who are already on the journey is always a good starting point, and in my first writing competition with the group, they kindly awarded me the first prize, which included a glass goblet (I promised not to break it in the next 12 months!) and the princely sum of £15….. As we all know, the ‘journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step’, and in the world of letters, your first literary prize (however small) can be your first important step.

The task at hand was to write 1000 words about some aspect of the history of Huntingdonshire. I took as my starting point a line from TS Eliot. The pictures have been added as illustration for the benefit of this post, and did not appear in the submitted piece.

If you came at night like a broken king…

I have cycled the lanes and byways of Old Huntingdonshire for nearly 40 years, and there is hardly a day goes by when I don’t learn something new about this extraordinary little corner of the East Midlands. One day, about 25 years ago, having laboriously climbed over the wold from Hamerton, past the four houses and redundant church that make up Steeple Gidding, a road sign to Little Gidding beckoned me, teasing me along a narrow single-track lane that led to a cluster of buildings and a small church, it’s remoteness advertised by the tufts of grass growing down the middle of the lane. Little did I realise at the time that my unplanned visit that day might lead to a lifelong connection with this isolated little community which, over time, began to release some of its secrets.

“If you came at night like a broken king….”. This line, taken from TS Eliot’s Fourth Quartetts-eliot-99 ‘Little Gidding’, a poem inspired by his visit in May 1936, intriguingly points to the community’s past royal connections. Bear in mind that this tiny hamlet is so remote that even people living in the nearby locality have never paid a visit nor, sometimes, do they even know it exists. So how did a king find his way there, not just once, or twice, but three times?

It is a story set in the early 17th century. Nicholas Ferrar, a former businessman and prime mover in the Virginia Company, as well as a member of parliament, had given up his life in the city and had brought his extended family to a ruined farmhouse in west Huntingdonshire to begin laying the foundations of a contemplative religious community. In 1633 they unexpectedly received a visit from King Charles I on his way to Scotland, and their work on the Gospel Harmonies immediately caught his interest. The Harmonies were an attempt by the Ferrars to bring together parallel readings of the Bible so that they might be seen both separately and as a continuous whole. This was achieved by cutting and pasting diverse sections of the Bible so as to create a more fluent reading of the narratives. The King liked them so much, he asked them to prepare a special set of Harmonies of the Book of Kings and Chronicles, which were duly sent to the him the following year, richly bound and gilded in purple velvet.

(c) Government Art Collection; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

(c) Government Art Collection; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Sadly, Nicholas Ferrar died before the King’s second visit to Little Gidding, just a few months before the beginning of the Civil War. In 1642, on his way north to rally his troops at York and then to raise the royal standard at Nottingham, he once again stopped by Little Gidding, taking advantage of an opportunity to rest and receive refreshment. He first visited the little church of St John, the absence of images and icons telling him of the widespread local puritanical enforcements. “What will not malice invent?” he was heard to comment. Then after taking refreshment and inspecting the latest editions of the Harmonies, the King gave five pieces of gold to the widows of the community, money he had won playing cards the night before.

When the Civil War defiantly turned in favour of the Parliamentarians, the King had to make an escape from the siege of Oxford in April 1646, disguised as a servant, and he began to make his way north under the cover of darkness, sleeping and resting in safe houses during the day. His ultimate intention was to surrender himself to the Scottish army, with whom he thought he might meet with greater clemency. He travelled with two of his most trusted companions, Dr Hudson and Mr Ashburnam, and they arrived in Huntingdonshire in early May. The ‘broken king’ climbed the hill to Little Gidding, crossing the grassy meadow below the manor house, still known to this day as King’s Close, and were received warmly by the Ferrar family. Sadly, this warm reception of the King was to lead to the later destruction of part of the church, and the theft of all the plate and furniture of both house and church.

John Ferrar was aware that Little Gidding was not a convenient safe house for the King. His previous two visits were well documented and known publicly, and suspicion would immediately fall on them in the event of a search party roaming the area. So John Ferrar wisely accompanied the King to a safe house in nearby Coppingford, and it was from there that he made his way north towards Stamford. Charles finally put himself into the hands of the Scottish Presbyterian army at Newark, was transferred to Newcastle, and after nine months of negotiating with the Parliamentarians, was handed over to the enemy in exchange for the huge sum of £100,000, with promises of further funds for the Scots in the future. The fate of Mr Ashburnam is unknown, but Dr Hudson met with a grisly end at the hands of the puritans. He finally surrendered himself on the promise of favourable terms, but these were ignored by his captors. Like many other prisoners of war in Newark, he was thrown over the battlements into the river Trent.

When the Puritans learned of Little Gidding’s involvement in the King’s escape, the Ferrars hastily escaped, possibly to France, and left their estate knowing that it would be

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Little Gidding Church

destroyed and robbed in their absence. The whole of the west front of the church was destroyed, including the west gallery and the organ. The wood from the organ was used to build a fire where several of the estate’s sheep were roasted. The one notable thing that was recovered 200 years later was the brass eagle lectern, which had been thrown into a nearby pond, and is now housed for safe-keeping in Ferrar House.

 

However, despite this act of sinister vandalism, the restored church today is very much as the Ferrars would have known it.

 

 

 

Royal ‘fail-mail’

Explain this one to me……..

A letter (probably a birthday card) was sent from Cornwall with a £2.25 stamp on it, clearly addressed to a lady in Queensland Australia, and it was delivered to our house in west Cambridgeshire, United Kingdom…….and not just once. Mystified by the first delivery which, admittedly, did bear our house number and three sequentially correct letters of our street name, Jenny took it to a main Post Office to make doubly-sure it was re-directed to the correct address. Even the staff at the Post Office had a good laugh at the Royal Mail’s failure. End of story……..?

helen-krimmer-letter-copyNo, the very next day we received just one item of mail. I highlight this because it wasn’t hiding amongst a load of other letters or junk mail, it was just one very large pink envelop, addressed in large lettering with a legibly clear ‘primary school’ style and, for a second time, some poor lady in Queensland Australia was being robbed of her birthday greeting.

This time, I took it to my local Post Office, asking the somewhat rhetorical question why any literate postman or woman would make such an elementary mistake, not just once, but twice……..or, is there more to come?

Watch this space.

Cycle Magazine October 2016

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Isle of Wight, a cycling paradise

Islands are frequently excellent places to explore on bikes, and none more so than the Isle of Wight. Easy to get to (the short ferry crossing is only 40 minutes), great for a one-day circle of the whole island (65 miles) for those who can nip over at a weekend, or even better to linger over several days with shorter rides, building in time to visit some of the many interesting little corners.

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The Needles: tandem ride 20 miles

 

After three days, we had managed two tandem rides of 20 miles each, and I fitted in a solo ride of 60 miles encircling the island. Flat?……it certainly is not! The terrain is varied and challenging, especially on the south of the island, and for those who like traffic-free environments, there are miles of old rail tracks that have been converted into cycle paths, and many are well surfaced and a pleasure to ride.

We enjoyed getting a close look at the The Needles, having lunch gazing over the Solent at Yarmouth, taking in the Old Town Hall at Newtown and the Roman Villa near Brading. We enjoyed especially sitting having a coffee on the platform of the old Victorian train station in Sandown, and watching the comings and goings of the re-cycled London Underground trains now being used on the IOW. Before the Beeching cuts in the 1960s, the whole island was connected by railways, but all that remains now is the short line between Shanklin and Ryde.

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Sunshine Trail: tandem ride 20 miles

 

The end-of-season Bestival jamboree was taking place while we were there, and when I stopped for refreshments at Cowes, I found myself surrounded by hundreds of 20-somethings, many wearing wellies, foraging for food. This last of the year’s big music festivals can cater for up to 50,000 campers. I’m sure the islanders both love them and hate them in equal measure.

iow-ring

IOW ring: solo ride 60 miles

 

The sum of our days: Isabel Allende

Título original: La suma de los días

The_Sum_of_our_DaysThis work of ‘bio-fiction’ sits comfortably amongst both her autobiographies and memoirs on the one hand, and her novelistic output on the other. She is a consummate story-teller, and she applies her broad-ranging skills to the narrative of her life after the death of her daughter Paula, at the age of 28.

We get the impression that she has written about this period, with all the people that populate it, with the candid freedom of a novelist, as if her subject-matter were fictional with no real-life consequences in the aftermath of publication. After all, it is well-nigh impossible to write truthfully of other people without treading on a few toes in the process.

I suggest this is a piece of ‘bio-fiction’ because I suspect that the book had to have the approval of all the family characters that appear in it. If any had disapproved, it would have gone through painstaking editing, or the characters would have been simply excluded from the story altogether. It is, after all, very hard to write about one’s family when they are all still alive.

 

Never a tailwind…..

 

Elton 75km enlarged

Elton, Northamptonshire 75km

 

Blustery, unpredictable, invigorating and infuriating………all at the same time. An 18mph wind from the west swirled around throughout the morning, with gusts of up to 25mph…..which reminded me of a tee-shirt worn by a fellow roadie at a recent cycling event. Emblazoned on the back were the following words:

Frequently from the front, sometimes from the left, sometimes from the  right………but never a bloody tailwind!!

Laid-back cycling

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I met Chris recently in our village churchyard, resting mid-ride, consuming forbidden carbohydrates, with a complacent smile on his face. When I see a fellow roadie, I like to stop by and check him/her out, ask the usual questions (where from/to, how far, which club…….) and study the machine that stands close by.

Chris was sporting a new two-wheeled recumbent, recently imported from Taiwan, and he told me of the ups and downs of familiarizing himself with the riding style, which had taken him several weeks to master. He’s now got to that stage of being a ‘born-again’ cyclist, charismatic about his new-found cycling perspective on the world, and happy to proselytise anyone who passes by and is open to the message.

When I asked him what had prompted him to convert to a recumbent, he simply said: “Oh, yuh know, usual things, back problems, and certain difficulties in the under-carriage area”.

I say no more……..

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