What kind of collective madness brings thousands of people together on the dawn of mid-summer’s day at megaliths like Stonehenge? Ask each one of them, and you will get a different answer…..like asking different people what chocolate tastes like (apart from nice, that is). The annual call to madness gets a hold of me too, but I celebrate the moment in a rather different way.
Some 30 years ago, I began the habit of setting off on the bike at sunset, about 21.20, riding through to sunrise, about 04.45, stopping mid-ride for a rest and refreshment (which I had to carry with me) and arriving back home something after 05.00. I would crash out for a few hours and be at my place of work by 08.30, ready to take my first class. (Alastair Humphreys might call this a ‘micro-adventure‘). Since those distant beginnings, a few things have changed. One year I took a small group of students with me, encountered a mid-summer car rally at midnight (scary, to say the least), waxed lyrical over a perfect sunrise, lay down on the warm surface of a normally busy road, and ended up in the school outdoor pool at 05.30 (having climbed over the fence….). The lads jumped in and immediately disappeared beneath the thick carpet of mist covering the pool. Health & Safety, if it had existed, would have had a field day!
Another year I headed south and had a mid-ride rest outside Castle Ashby, a rather splendid country manor in Northamptonshire. The whole place was ablaze with light and music, and I’d arrived in time for a mid-summer all-nighter…… but, damn, I didn’t think lycra would have counted as fancy dress.
Another year, I again heard music wafting across the countryside, and as I wended my way along the dark lanes, it got closer and closer. At its loudest point, I stopped to look for its source, but couldn’t see any dwellings in the vicinity, until I spied what looked like chicken sheds, ablaze with light and music. I learned afterwards that light and music through the night kept the chickens laying…..
So what have I learned from years of night riding through mid-summer nights? First of all, it never fully gets dark, even as far south as Cambridgeshire, so you can actually ride through the night without lights to see by……though be ready to switch them on should a vehicle come by. Secondly, wild life never actually goes to sleep or even goes silent during the night. You have to be prepared for all kinds creatures lurking on, and beside, the road. They can scare the life out of you, dashing across your path and squawking in panic. After all, I wasn’t supposed to be there! And finally (for now anyway) the coldest moment in the night is just before the sunrise, and it will remain cool for another hour or so. So be prepared…..
Last year, I rang another change to my routine. I rode out after sunset and found a small rural redundant church to sleep in, and discovered another truth. If you have never slept in an empty church, be aware that they are not silent places. If you are of a nervous disposition, and not sure about ghosts, this may not be for you. In the morning, I stepped out to a glorious view of the sunrise across the countryside.
This year, I rang yet another change, and decided to combine it with a ‘flash-dash’ ride. This is my name for the following: you look at the forecast for the next few days, discover the weather is going to be fine and verify the wind direction, and ‘in a flash’ you decide to take a bus/train to a starting point, then start ‘making a dash’ for home (or other destination) with fine weather and the wind on your side. It’s great. This was my fifth flash-dash ride, and it never fails. Last weekend (the solstice weekend) I caught a train over to Norwich, with the promise of two days of fine weather and a tailwind all the way back home. Crazy……
The 197 km trip took me through some fascinating places like Wymondham (pronounced ‘Windum’), Thetford Forest, Mildenhall, and an array of old Norfolk and Suffolk villages with their flintstone churches and occasional ruins of priories and abbeys. And the night I camped on the perimeter of RAF Mildenhall airfield rewarded me with the most perfect sunset……and a bit of plane-spotting, to boot.
I was once asked why I liked riding bikes so much, and I’m sure they were expecting the obvious: ‘countryside, freedom, exercise ….’. But my reply was even more obvious: ‘because I like cake’!….😃.QED
2019 is an appropriate year to immerse myself in two weighty tomes concerning the conduct of World War 2. When my attention is captured by well-written narrative history, life outside the book almost ceases to exist…..and these were two such volumes.
The Taste of War by Lizzie Collingham
Those of us born into the baby-boomer generation will have been brought up during the final days of rationing and the years following. In fact, I still have my own ration card. It is a well known fact that although the rationing system caused severe shortages of basic essentials in the UK, it also happened to be a period when most people enjoyed a relatively healthy diet, to the point where even the eating habits of the poor were improved, and excessive consumption amongst the wealthy was curbed. But this wasn’t the case in most countries engaged in the war.
In countries like Germany there was a deliberate policy of depriving conquered territories of their supplies in favour of the needs of the German population. This also happened systematically in Japan and Italy, where food was weaponized and it’s confiscation used deliberately to obliterate whole populations. In fact, many more people died of starvation in the war than died as a result of conflict, leading to the conclusion that it was access to food that gave the victors a primary advantage in the war’s outcome.
Appeasing Hitler by Tim Bouverie
This is a very pacey, well-researched narrative account of the appeasement of the third
Reich in the weeks and months leading up to the outbreak of WW2. I am aware it has been covered by many eminent historians before Bouverie, but rewriting the narrative at this juncture of time is particularly apt, given the tremendous rise in revisionist populism around the world. Can we learn any lessons from this….?
Hitler and the National Socialists came to power in Germany in the early 1930s, roused by their intense hate of the terms of the Treaty of Versailles which, amongst many other things, robbed Germany of much of its territory and colonies. High on their list of priorities was the reincorporation of those territories into Germany, starting with Austria and Czechoslovakia, and eventually moving on to the invasion of Poland. Neville Chamberlain and his Conservative government spent more than two years bending over backwards allowing Hitler to pursue his own expansionist policies, until the point of no return. Hitler had played his cards so that he had the western alliance eating out of his hands.
This account is both high on detail and analysis of personalities, as well as benefiting from a brisk narrative form which, unusually for historical narrative, makes it a bit of a page-turner.
After the rains, the rivers rise, the countryside turns an intense shade of green, and the crops burst into sudden growth. Muntjac diced with death crossing roads, skylarks sang in disjointed harmony, and the last of the flowering beans still wafted their heady scents.
This is a magical time to be travelling the lanes….
When I completed my End-to-End of Japan in 2015, I was prompted to submit an article about the experience to Cycle Magazine, the monthly publication of Cycling UK which, with a membership of some 70,000, can claim to be the biggest and most representative body of cyclists in the UK.
Dan Joyce, the editor, duly thanked me for my submission, but couldn’t find a space for it at the time, and said he would archive it for future reference. Four years later I received an email from Dan saying he was ready to use the article and……could he pay me for it….! To say I was startled is an understatement…
Over the many years I have been riding a bike ‘in anger’, I have written a lot of articles for various publications, both long and short, but had always written them for fun and the simple joy of writing, and never once expected payment. So the offer of payment on this occasion came as a kind of revelation…… people actually do this stuff for a living! Of course, I knew that already but, like road accidents and winning the lottery, I never expected it to happen to me. So, a couple of hours penning an article earned me the cost of a couple of West End theatre tickets, and a post-theatre meal. I’ll have to do more…. after all, I do like theatre and eating!
So assuming you are not a subscriber to Cycle Magazine, here is the said article…..
A favourite route of mine is to take in four counties in one ride, and I can do this because I live on the borders of three (Bedfordshire, Northamptonshire and Cambridgeshire) and am within striking distance of the fourth, Buckinghamshire. To boot, it passes some fascinating places, such as Santa Pod
Castle Ashby, formerly the family seat of the Marquess of Northamptonshire
on through Olney in Buckinghamshire, once home of John Newton, author of the universally sung hymn ‘Amazing Grace’, and famed for its annual pancake races
and finally through Turvey, now home of the Benedictine Turvey Abbey.
and herewith the 52 mile (83km) route, almost entirely on quiet country roads…
…..disguise yourself as a cyclist? he said. As I stood there in my lycra, astride my Litespeed Ti, I looked up at him and replied: ‘Oh, I’m not sure about that…..how do I do that?
I had gone out for a Sunday morning spin (yesterday in fact) and had forgotten all about the Tour of Cambridgeshire, a sportive that was being run on closed roads to the north of my village. I came across the first road block, and blagged my way through it. I took a diversionary turn off and came across yet another road block (‘Damn these cyclists’ I muttered under my breath……ah, said a little voice over my shoulder, but you are one!). Yes, but don’t let the truth spoil a good curse…….
I took another diversionary route until I had to come back on myself and, of course, met the first road blockage yet again on my way back…..but this time the thick end of an 8000 rider peloton was just coming through.
‘Am I OK to just drop down this stretch to the other end of the village?’ I asked one of the marshals. ‘Can you disguise yourself as a cyclist?’ he asked. ‘How do I do that?’, I said, playing along with his sense of humour…….
He laughed. ‘Well you look like a sensible sort of guy…..just pretend you are a stupid sportive rider who’s paid £80 entry to come and ride his own bike…. that should do you fine’.
So I hopped into the 8000 strong bunch, pretending to be stupid, for about 1km……saving myself about 50p on the entry fee…..
350 people have just dispersed from an event which has been truly remarkable.
At Waddow Hall, Clitheroe, we have just been celebrating all things special about long distance cycle touring, with over 60 presentations, workshops, demonstrations and meet-ups, all organised by some very, very special people, Laura and Tim Moss
with an army of helpers from family members, who have all been supporting this event as unpaid volunteers for five years.
Laura and Tim were inspired by their round-the-world cycle trip 6 years ago to establish this event in the stunning setting of Waddow Hall
and it has gone from strength to strength, drawing in people from all over the country (and abroad) who share one uncomplicated passion….to ride their bikes near and far, in this country and in some of the remotest corners of the planet…….
And the age range was from 9 months to 81 years, children pedalling their bikes everywhere in the grounds, camping and sharing simple food….and the odd glass in the evening.
The above image is my favourite of the weekend…..children just revelling in the freedom of bike……
And don’t let anyone convince you otherwise….’it is all about the bike’!
My journey today to meet up with the bunch at a remote tearoom took me into deepest, darkest fen country…..the absolute bane of a cyclist’s road life if the wind is against ….and let’s face it, it nearly always is….isn’t it?
As I approached the tearoom near Farcet, having followed an arrow-straight drain for about 10 miles, I was amusingly informed by a sign that the road was called Straight Drove….. ha! good to know someone on the local council has a sense of humour….
But…..and I emphasise ‘but’….for the 25 miles out there, I had a tailwind, which on the flat of the fens means you eat the miles in great mouthfuls….. But guess what? There was a 25 mile trek to get home again….so, without putting too fine a point on it, I was in despair.
But I have to admit, it was a freely chosen, and self inflicted despair….so I expect no sympathy.
Compared to the urban ‘city slicker’ cyclist, I’m a bit of a fossilised rustic from the country who still dresses up in shiny spandex to ride a machine that’s still got brakes and gears. How retro is that? Not to mention cleats and clip-in pedals….and a helmet designed specially for the cyclist.
In London last weekend, I was constantly distracted by cool-looking urban mounts like this one:
plain, unadorned, no frills or gears, no brakes (probably illegal)….I guess this one is a fixie (fixed wheel) which means the rider back pedals to slow down…..but still insufficient to be safe. Handlebars are super narrow so the rider can squeeze through tight gaps.
Riders of these bikes are incredibly agile, fleet of wheel, and they seldom dismount at lights and junctions….they are masters of the prolonged trackstand,
so they can race ahead of the traffic from the off. These bikes are a favourite amongst couriers and delivery people, and they have so few moving parts, they can be ultra light and will be very easy to maintain. I like them…..in fact, I want to live in a city so I can justify having one…..(no, just kidding).
But then the other phenomenon that goes with this school of cycling is the urban cycling boutique….what you and I know as a ‘bike shop’. Except that these are presented like designer clothes shops. You walk inside and there is no sign of grease and oil, nor of tools for fixing bikes, nor of displays of cycling accessories. The sales staff have clean hands and even smell of aftershave….you can’t imagine ever going in to ask about a mechanical issue, or even purchase a spare tube.
It’s a world of fashion and style, but it’s understated for greater effect.
Jenny has taken on the locally inspired challenge of the ‘100 miles in May’ walk to help celebrate the 100th birthday of Save the Children, and because of the celebration of her (and her twin brother’s) significant birthday last weekend, she lost nearly 4 days of her schedule, so she has been playing catch-up in the last few days.
So her ‘coach’ steps into the breech, and he decides she needs a pacer…..so now, once again, I am confronted with the differential that seems to be constant in the world of travel. What on earth am I talking about?
Several years ago, after cycling from home to Istanbul, on the flight home it occurred to me that the distance the jet plane would have taken to fly the 4 hours out to Istanbul, took me 4 weeks on the bike, and would have taken about 4 days in a car. Which meant that, in the time it took a passenger on the plane to be served drinks and a meal (about an hour), it would take me about a week to travel that distance on the bike.
So what of the world of walking…. a cyclist will (very roughly) travel at four times the speed of a walker, and cover four times the distance. So what it takes an averagely fit cyclist to cycle in a day, may take 4 days for a walker.
So, how does all this sit with Einstein’s theory of relativity? Does this mean the cyclist ages marginally slower than the walker, and the jet passenger ages the slowest of all? If so, how does that affect the longevity of pilots and cabin crew?
While you are pondering the conundrum, here are the stats for today’s 5 mile walk….
I hear this is about to be added to the cycling proficiency training for all primary school children………:-)
My dogs used to chase people on bikes, then I made them ride one…and guess what? They now know what it’s like to be chased by dogs….😉
Tiny English villages will throw up interesting bits of history, and connections with prominent people of the past. Easton Maudit in Northamptonshire can’t boast a past president of the USA or a Hollywood A-celeb, but this hamlet of some 90 inhabitants had Derek Nimmo as one of its residents.
Prominent in the 60s and 70s as an upper class nitwit, and sometimes a naive clergyman, he starred in several sitcoms and films, but I understand he may not have been very popular with some of his neighbours in the village.
Ah well, his epitaph reminds us he was an ‘actor, wit and life enhancer’, but it may only have been evident when he was playing the thespian on stage.
A tandem rider is stopped by a police car. “What’ve I done, officer?” asks the rider.”Perhaps you didn’t notice sir, but your wife fell off your bike half a mile back . . .””Oh, thank God for that,” says the rider – “I thought I’d gone deaf!”
So, what happens when 120 tandem riders gather together for a weekend of tandeming? (In this case, in the Wye Valley). It probably means that cafes are cleared of their cakes, and pubs have to connect new barrels in the cellar…..tandemists are seldom teetotal.
Oh, yes of course, and a few miles are cycled, and several unforgiving hills are climbed….and if you want unforgiving hills, go to the Wye Valley….you’ll be spoilt for choice. They are so steep sometimes that even descending can be a hazard on just V-brakes….when rims heat up, the scene is set for a blow-out….but it didn’t happen this time…
And we had to pay a visit to an old haunt….St Briavels Castle, a former hunting lodge of the infamous King John (now a Youth Hostel)….the last time I stayed there, I slept in the hanging room…..but relieved to learn it was only used for hanging the game…😊
As I was heading out to Gamlingay this morning, to meet up with the ‘Slugs’ to ‘chew the fat’ over enormous cappuccinos and plates of scrambled eggs, I met with one of those conundrums that frequently blights the, otherwise, joyous life of the cyclist….the false flat. Yes, I do mean the ‘false flat’….
What the eyes see ahead does not always match the painful drag of having to turn those pedals under pressure, sometimes for several miles. Your eyes tell you the road ahead is flat…..but your legs know the truth. You switch down a gear or two, and you grind your way along. It can be very frustrating…..
Even more frustrating when you are in the high mountains, of the Alps or Pyrenees, and your eyes tell you that you are going downhill, but you’re not, in fact you’re having to pedal hard. This is a serious ‘disconnect’ for the brain to cope with….and if you don’t end up blaspheming to the four corners of the earth, you’ll be in line for canonisation by the Pope himself….
Steady on, my friend….a Durham man (such as me) might take offence… But, without doubt, when it comes to wind,
no one would quibble, especially when your outward leg of the day is going west to the café at Manvell Fishery in Walgrave,
leaving you to face 25 miles of dispiriting head wind on the way home…..
There’s no justice in the world….well, in the world of cycling, at least.
Poetry it is not, but a greasy-spoon cafe does its little bit to lift the spirits
…. then open the heart
….and then tempt you to indulge your fancies in a bid to live a ‘full and purposeful’ life…
…all in the tiny space of a WC…
Ah, time to totally use up and wear out the body….!
I sometimes submit articles to journals and, in the undefined period before publication (next month I’ll have another one published by Cycle Magazine that’s been in the editor’s archives for three years), I forget that I’ve written and submitted them.
So, a few weeks ago, when I opened the current Tandem Club Journal, I turned to a page and began reading an article, wondering (at first) why it seemed so familiar to me (had I read it before in another journal?)……then it dawned on me……I myself had written it!!
I submit it here for your perusal……