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’.


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


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


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


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.


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.


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: 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


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……..

A ford worth crossing?

This narrow, single lane road runs across a river and, most of the year, is only a couple of inches deep……..a tempting proposition for the unwary cyclist. But beware……! The surface of the road beneath the water is as slippery as ice, as I discovered a few years ago when the bike unceremoniously dumped me into the ‘drink’. Ever since, I have taken the trouble to cross the stream on the footbridge.IMAG2535

But there is another hazard, for both cyclist and motorist. When you approach the ford from one side, it is easy to mistake the turning down-river for the road itself, and vehicles have sometimes taken that option……and to their cost. And when the river is in full flow, of more than a couple inches deep, taking the wrong turn will see your vehicle partly submerged, and you may get a free ride downstream…….assuming it’s water-tight.

Through a glass brightly: Nick Charles

through-a-glass-brightly-the-fall-and-rise-of-an-alcoholic-nick-charles-ebook-pdf-epub-download-free-1-638I seldom engage with autobiographies that tell a story of rags-to-riches, or ‘how I overcame my life-threatening disability to become the person I am today’. The pattern of such autobiographies is predictable, the author concerned is usually a household name, or even a celebrity, and there is frequently a ‘look at my courageous rise from the depths’ flavour to the narrative. I began reading Nick Charles’ book fully prepared to be disappointed……

…..but I wasn’t. In his late teens, he was heading towards a successful career in entertainment, but he was also immersed in a world and culture of heavy drinking and, before long, the demon drink had taken possession of his life. The succeeding biography is a narrative about his scrapes with the police, his lost relationships with his family, his near-death experiences, and the pathetic people he rubbed shoulders with in the grimy underworld of the alcoholics.

But after nearly 20 years of drinking, he pulled himself together, married, opened the successful Chaucer Clinic for alcoholics, and was awarded the MBE ‘for services to people with drinking problems’, the first person ever to be honoured for such.

A very worthy read.

Bressingham Gardens 80km

We all may have a shed full of bikes at home, but if you put nearly 500 cyclists on a site, you will end up with a sports hall full.

……and not all are conventional two-wheeled machines…

…..a great place for surveying the plethora of different cycling concepts.

On a breezy, gusty day, I headed off with this small group of companions

to Bressingham Gardens and Steam Museum and, on the route back, got waylaid by the fascinating little town of Diss, so beloved of both John Betjemen and Mary Wilson (wife of PM Harold). It’s a town that surrounds a 6 acre mere, giving it an unusually picturesque setting.
This week of pedalling through the country lanes of Suffolk has opened new vistas on a county that is often overlooked by the passing traveller. It’s a county full of hidden gems.

Orford 62km

“Hey up….come on, move it…hup, hup, hup…..”.
I heard this in the distance, and this is what I found…….


…..and there’s no hurrying them.
I’ve also discovered that country churches in Suffolk have baptismal fonts decorated with hairy little men carrying clubs, called ‘wodewoses’….

…and the medieval equivalent of a secure password is to have all valuables put in a chest with 5 locks, so that whenever it is to be opened, 5 men have to be present.

….but then they hadn’t discovered the power of the crowbar.
But the crowning jewel of the day had to be Orford Castle


which, despite its fortified appearance, was probably more of a whimsical folly than a real castle.

Framlingham-Southwold 80km


One the most remarkable things about this bunch of nearly 500 cyclists is their average age. They are predominantly retirees, many of them in their 70s and 80s, but they don’t think and act like old people. They are up for an early breakfast, chatting noisily about the day’s route, organizing themselves, preparing their bikes, and then off they go for the day. Evenings are filled with entertainment, quizzes, films, bands and slide presentations. They simply don’t have time to sit around and get bored. All of them are testament to happiness and longevity.

My route took me to Southwold, notable for its colourful beach huts and splendid pier. But en route, I chanced by this medieval painted panel in Wenhaston church,


salvaged from the rubbish tip by someone who had noticed that the rain had washed off its ‘puritan whitewash’, and a gem was saved and restored.

Then this semi-ruined church in Walberswick,


which was left unfinished in the 16th century because the money had run out. They obviously didn’t have a philanthropic lord of the manor who might bail them out.

Sutton Hoo 80km


As the early-morning mist began to lift, the day promised to be hot and sunny……and it was. Narrow lanes led to hidden villages, sand on the verges testified to the proximity of the coast, and huge tractors and trailers reminded us that the harvest was in full swing.
My primary goal for the day was to spend a couple of hours at the ancient Anglo-Saxon burial site of Sutton Hoo.


The story behind the discovery of the treasure-laden long boat is fascinating, and their exhibition gives an excellent overview of the history. And the star exhibit of the Treasury is this warrior helmet


….simply stunning.
Nearly 150 came to hear my End-to-End of Japan story last night, and now they’ve asked for a second show…..I feel flattered.

Aldeburgh and Snape Maltings 63km

I had to be back to set up the room and kit for doing a slide presentation of my End-to-End of Japan, so a short ride took me to Saxmundum, Aldeburgh and Snape Maltings, the recent history of the last two so connected with the composer Benjamin Britten, and his singer and partner, Peter Pears.


But another gem of Aldeburgh was its eye-catching Moot Hall, part of which still serves as a Town Hall, and the upstairs as a museum.


Bury St Edmunds-Framingham 60km

After an excellent overnight in Bury St Edmunds, kindly hosted by long distance cyclists Steve and Debs, the miles were restored to tired leg muscles, and primed to fight against a constant headwind from the NE. We dined on a superb paella, and ‘wined’ on a cheeky Chilean red called ‘La Bicicleta’….nothing like a themed meal to complement the occasion. Steve & Debs, if you are reading this, thanks for your kind hospitality.


I pitched my tent in the manicured grounds of Framingham College, and this was the view from my little porch.


As the sun sets, Framlingham Castle was framed by its dramatic setting.

Kimbolton-Bury St Edmunds 100km

Obstructions in life are commonplace, but on a bike they usually take the form of other road users or pedestrians, and seldom curious cows blocking the way on riverside paths


…..but sometimes you come across little medieval gems like this, that would have been used by trains of 50 pack-horses taking produce to the market



….and (apologies for the excessive reflection on the windscreen) then you chance by a rusting campervan that has one member of its ‘skeleton crew’ sitting in the front passenger seat. When I asked the owner, he simply said they couldn’t afford to bury every member of the family…..


…..and anyway, she never answers him back.

CTC Birthday Rides 2016

About to head off to Framlingham College, Suffolk, to join some 500 other cyclists for a week of cycling, sightseeing and entertainment………and looking forward to getting back to some simple camping in my little Vaude Hogan.

Back to a few basics…… here is my transport, shelter and wardrobe. The simple life.IMAG2472

Travelling through history….

Cycling along country lanes, through little villages and hamlets, I am frequently conscious of the history I am travelling through. Wherever I go in this land, people have populated this country for thousands of years, and every metre of every ride comes close to some significant event in the past that has likely got lost in the mists of time. A well known African proverb tells us: “Until lions have their own historians, tales of the hunt will always glorify the hunter”.  So too with human beings. Until the poor and dispossessed have their historians, tales of the past will always glorify the rich and powerful, and will be recounted and handed down in a carefully sanitised version.

My ride this morning took me through tiny places associated with well known people from the past, some of whom were history-makers. Christopher ‘Troublechurch’ Browne, for instance, was a non-conformist who wanted to separate church from state, and became a mentor and father-figure behind the Pilgrim Fathers who set sail across the Atlantic to found a new colony. He was associated with Thorpe Waterville and had lived in Lilford Hall.IMAG2468

John Dryden (poet) was born in the Rectory in Aldwincle, and John Quincy Adams (6th President of the USA) had ancestors that came out of the tiny hamlet of Achurch. Achurch was also the home village of Alfred Leete, the designer of the famous Kitchener poster of the Great War that encouraged men to enlist in the armed services. My route home traced a long straight stretch of Roman road, and my route out passed through the village of Yielden that can trace its origins back to the late Neolothic period (2000 BC).

We are not only ‘surrounded by geography’, we are also surrounded by our ancient past.

Wadenhoe 60km


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