Berlin: the reign of two terrors

You have to remember that Berlin (and Germany) was not just subjected to the devastating division between east and west during the cold war years, but in the 1930s and 1940s it also suffered the appalling oppression of the National Socialists.

Brandenburg Gate, on the divide between east and west.

Brandenburg Gate, on the divide between east and west.

Germany had undergone a social and political revolution with the coming of the Third Reich, which initially promised to be the saviour of the country following defeat in WW1 and the economic depression but, in fact, turned into the force that ultimately destroyed Germany by 1945. Instead of being liberated by the allied troops at the end of the war, the division of Germany into four sectors spelled the advent of years of ‘incarceration’ for those in the east.

Curiously, on the same site where a long section of the Wall has been preserved, you will also find the museum of the Topography of Terror, which is housed in the area where the National Socialists had their centre of operations, including the buildings where dissidents were interrogated and tortured.IMAG2133

The museum provides a detailed and honest account of the brutality dealt out by the Nazis. I found the same message coming across as I did in the Documentation Museum in Nuremberg (which I visited 18 months ago en route to Istanbul). The blame for the war and its destructive consequences was entirely the responsibility of the National Socialists, including the utter annihilation of much of Germany. At no point did I see the merest suggestion that the allied troops bore any of the responsibility.

Dawn over the eastern sector

Dawn over the eastern sector…..and building work continues along the former ‘death strip’.

I guess that Germany’s ability to swiftly come to terms with its own past has been a cornerstone to the rapid reconstruction of a country that has, once more, become the leading nation of Europe……both economically and morally.

Berlin: another brick in the wall

Our hotel in Berlin was located 100 metres from the site of the Wall, inside the old American sector. By a hair’s breadth, those who lived along this strip had found themselves just inside the western sector when the barricade went up overnight on August 13th 1961. Many families were split. People were cut off from their places of work. People who had stayed the night in one sector found they couldn’t return the next day to the other sector. What had once been the easiest crossing from east to west Germany, suddenly became the most difficult………indeed, the most lethal.

section of the Wall by the Topography of Terror museum

section of the Wall by the Topography of Terror museum

The no-man’s land created by a second wall became the killing zone, better known as the ‘death strip’, where more than 100 would-be escapees lost their lives. Over the years the barricade was upgraded until, in 1975, they began constructing the ultimate retaining wall measuring 12 feet in height. But none of this prevented more than 5000 people making a successful bid to cross the border; some in hot air balloons, some through the sewers, some in daring car dashes through checkpoints, even some on crude zip wires. If the desire was strong enough, some would most definitely find a way.

Checkpoint Charlie

Checkpoint Charlie

“Ich bin ein Berliner” (JF Kennedy) and “Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall” (Reagan) were powerful milestones on the road to the Wall’s demolition, but none more powerful, perhaps, than Bruce Springsteen’s rock concert given in the eastern sector just 18 months before the wall came down. His invitation to play may have been the GDR’s attempt to appease its own younger generation, but it had exactly the opposite effect. It simply made them hungrier for more of the same.

The line of the Wall has now become a defined cycling and walking route around the city. What used to be the ‘death strip’ has been the biggest building site in Europe for many years, and it is along this strip that you will find some of the most avant garde buildings and creative open spaces that you’ll find anywhere in an urban setting.

Afore ye go: a Thames overview 184 miles


Rivers never go in a straight line. If you enjoy A to B rides, as I do, following the course of a river can be eternally frustrating. It’s always a struggle to create a balance between the desire to arrive and the joy of the journey. For me, the balance is nearly always tipped in favour of arriving, which leads to cutting some corners to get to the ‘good bits’. You may call this ‘cherry-picking’, the ‘Classic FM’ of travelling…..but you have to bear in mind that the Thames Path is mainly for walkers only. It is not a bridleway or byway, but can be shared space between walkers and cyclists through cities like Reading, Oxford and London

So, much of our journey was pieced together from Sustrans routes 4 and 5, and yes, we did straighten out some of the wiggles in the river, but we did visit, or pass through, many of the principal towns and cities on the Thames. It has to be said that following a river from its still-dry source, seeing it gather size and volume as the journey progresses, and observing how the river integrates into the lives of the people who live along its banks…… miniature, it’s a journey through life itself. It has a beginning and an end. It goes from conception to birth, through its infancy and childhood to adulthood, maturing into a fully fledged river……until, of course, it spills out into the North Sea, and is no more. There’s probably a deeper meaning and purpose to such journeys along rivers…..but then I’m only a ‘bear of very little brain’ who likes to turn pedals. I’ll leave you to ponder the subtleties……..

Crossing London to the Barrier


Epsom-Thames Barrier

In the world of off-roading (or rough-stuffing, as we used to call it), we say that 10 miles of rough tracks are the equivalent of 20 miles on road. Let me now add a piece of homespun wisdom of my own…..the same equation works for urban cycling too. Your expended effort is roughly doubled, and your average speed is usually halved. A combination of crowded roads, crowded cycleways, traffic lights and sundry street furniture, all conspire to frustrate your progress.
But added to that, we did spend 3 fascinating hours at Ham House on the southbank of the river


….then we crossed over to the north side of the River on Putney Bridge, and we desperately needed some sustenance; but long stretches of the river front in these parts are completely occupied by residential and office blocks. You’d be pushed to find food outlets or cafés between Putney and Vauxhall Bridges.
Eventually we made a stop in a friendly ethnic cafe south of the river, and treated ourselves to a comfort sugar-rush with a knickerbocker glory….nostalgic memories of childhood immediately kicked in.
And at 6pm in the evening, with both energy and daylight fading, we hugged each other in front of the Thames Barrier, and a kind Ecuadorian couple took the photo that would become our personal little ‘gong’ for having completed the 184 miles (295km) of Old Father Thames.

imageAnd to celebrate, we had booked ourselves into the Devonport House Hotel, a rather elegant listed building that formed part of the Naval College in Greenwich. Virtually straddling the Greenwich Meridian, and next door to the Cutty Sark, we enjoyed a meal and the company of my youngest brother and his partner, and relaxed after a testing day crossing the capital.

Devonport House Hotel, Greenwich

Devonport House Hotel, Greenwich

A diversion to Epsom….



As we left our Travelodge in Horton, near Heathrow Terminal 5, I was struck by the leafy greenness of the ‘country lanes’ around Heathrow….green fields, sparse housing, relatively little wonder Heathrow is being targeted for a second runway. Look carefully at the first few miles of our route….. crossing the big reservoir to the SW of Heathrow truly tested the ‘pedalo functionality’ of the tandem!
We headed on through Staines, Walton on Thames, Chertsey, Shepperton (of the famous studios), Esher (boasting the greatest percentage of detached houses in the country) and onto Epsom (famous for its salts and Derby). The River treated us to glimpses of quintessentially Thames scenes like this…..


…and curious street art like this, entitled Out of order


But we had to leave the river temporarily, and head further south to Epsom, and an unmissable opportunity to stay the night with one of my four brothers and his wife. He is not only a fanatical golfer, but an excellent cook… how else does one go armed with a present for the table?wpid-imag2090.jpgHaving a brother who is a ‘golfing gourmet’ can lead to a variety of puns……..and his potatoes had to be served as ‘wedges’, of course!

Back pedalling 800 years….


A delightful escape route from Reading took us along the Thames path, mingling with other cyclists and walkers, zipping past houseboats moored to the riverbank……but, sadly, riverside tracks seldom lend themselves to comfortable tandem riding. Too many obstacles and tight turns, which are negotiable on solos, but are difficult on a tandem…..which meant mounting and dismounting at frequent intervals, slowing down the pace to little faster than walking speed.
So, a temporary farewell to NCN4, the Thames Cycleway, we headed off through rich farming country in search of Windsor Great Park. It was a relief to leave the traffic behind, to be enveloped by the wide open panoramas stretching across Windsor and its Castle,

Windsor in the far background

Windsor in the far background

and the almost complete absence of other human beings. If you’ve never walked or cycled across Windsor Park, put it on your short list.
Then off in search of the site where, 800 years ago, a charter was agreed and signed by King John, in the presence of his rebellious barons……..


an action that would engrave the terms of universal human liberties on the constitutions of every democratic country, most notably that of the USA.
I am, of course, referring to Runnymede and the signing of Magna Carta, where a dignified covered monument bears witness to that event…..

The twelve Jurors

The twelve Jurors

….now accompanied by a very recent addition of 12 chairs called The Jurors, set out in the open field, seemingly awaiting a gathering, and each bearing depictions of world-changing events that should give us cause for reflection.
A quick visit to JFK’s memorial, set at the top of 50 stone steps, completes this homage to universal civil liberties.


With heavy rain threatening, we jumped back on the tandem and sped off in search of shelter, refreshment and a bed for the night.

…then over the Chilterns


Our route along the Thames, from source to Barrier, is based on a couple of naive assumptions: that heading downstream will, by and large, be a downhill experience….but let’s pretend the Chiltern Hills aren’t there; that the predominant westerly winds will always be at our backs…..except of course, when it blows from the east (and it did yesterday); that the tandem, after careful preparation and mechanical checks, is unlikely to let us down…..except, of course, when it does, and then almost terminally.
Climbing our first steep hill into the Chilterns, I tried to engage our lowest gear, and the chain jumped the largest rear sprocket and became (almost) irretrievably jammed between wheel and cassette. It took a huge amount of brute force to free it, potentially breaking both spokes and chain, and wrecking the gear hanger….but, fortunately, none of that happened, so plan B was not called into action (ie. how to extract two people and their unserviceable tandem from a remote spot in the hills).
Once over the Chiltern Ridge, it was an exciting descent towards Reading, to be reunited once again with ‘Old Father Thames’, now massively wider than just 50 miles upstream, and in full flow.



To the city of dreaming spires…



The dire weather forecast predicting torrential rain and high winds concentrated our minds as we munched through our B&B breakfast. With the deluge arriving just after midday, we were on the tandem by 9am with the intention of completing our route to Oxford by lunch time… we dug in, still allowing ourselves a relaxed coffee stop, and found the sun shining most of the morning,


and descended into Oxford supremely happy at our good fortune. The deluge came later than predicted…..but it came, nevertheless.
We checked into our accommodation, but this was no ordinary affordable B&B on the fringes of town. This was in the heart of the city, as guests of a friend and former pupil, now doing research at Keble College.



Jenny looking like meat in the sandwich!

Yes, we had the privilege of a room in College, dining in the Fellows Common Room with Tom, and spending a few hours at the Ashmoleum Museum.

A great way to spend a night in the city of dreaming spires.

Riding the Thames 184 miles

“What?…..riding the Thames on a tandem?” someone retorted. “Yep, we’ll just pump  a few more pounds of air in the tyres, and go with the current….kind of pedalo style”.
Joking aside, our first task was to find where the source was. Hard enough in late summer after so little rain, but even harder when there are several differing theories about the true location of the rising of the Thames.
Even the biggest rivers in the world develop from totally unspectacular beginnings….usually a bare trickle from the earth, or a mere dripping from a rocky outcrop. But the Thames was being especially unspectacular this summer. Marked only by an illegible stone marker and a few rocks, the source was notable by its total absence.


For three, four, five miles or more….the river bed was still ‘running dry’.


Somewhere between the source and Lechlade, the mighty Thames made its tentative, hesitant beginning, colluding with incoming tributaries and canals, and we wended our way awheel through typical Cotswold villages, past ancient decommissioned churches,


to spend our first night in Lechlade, an ancient ‘inland port’, due to it being located at the highest navigable point on the river.
We have embarked on a mini-adventure riding the 184 mile length of the river, as far as the Thames Barrier.


It will be a journey of companionable discovery, stopping in village community cafés, checking out heritage properties just off our route, and catching up with friends and family over convivial meals.

Cirencester-Thames Source-Lechlade

Cirencester-Thames Source-Lechlade

Riding the churches……

Another dimension to riding a bike (or the tandem, in our case)……riding the churches of the local benefice, in the company of friends from the village………IMAG2008

…..doors to these historic buildings left open and a warm welcome with refreshments inside. Not only are these buildings a capsule of the religious past and present, but they also give us a unique insight into the heart and soul of a community. We have a singularly rich heritage in this country that is worth preserving.

Along the Med on a bike called Reggie: Andrew Sykes

Before I say anything about this volume, let me tell you where I’m coming from. After more than 35 years of long distance cycling, and with a catalogue of adventure cycling books already read (and some abandoned after only the first chapters), I came to the reading of Andrew Sykes’s Along the Med on a bike called Reggie with a certain hesitation…….indeed, I wasn’t sure about it.

The cover suggested either the author was a menopausal male trying to catch up on missed opportunities in life, or he was one of those ‘born-again’ cyclists who may come across as a ‘fresh-faced cycling evangelical’. And I definitely wasn’t sure about the anthropomorphism of naming the bike……. but this clearly doesn’t rank alongside people who imagine dialogues with their bikes (yes, believe me, they do), or store their bikes in their bedrooms for reasons other than security.

Andrew SykesHowever, this is what I actually found when I read this book. Knowing, as I do, the extended routine of the long distance cyclist, the repetitive timetable from day to day, which focuses around those elemental things like eating, sleeping, re-hydration, riding the bike hour after hour, map reading, staring at the road ahead………I know how difficult it can be for the narrator to keep the reader engaged. The solo traveller is just that…….a solo traveller, on his/her own for many hours every day, frequently disengaged with the world around him/her. Dare I say that even Bill Bryson appears to be disengaged sometimes, and his writing can lose a certain substance from time to time.

Andrew Sykes, on the other hand, does have a voice, a narrative, a story to tell……..and his style is almost conversational. There is a ‘stream of consciousness’ thread throughout his narrative (capturing the thoughts that run through his mind on the bike) that kept me engaged to the end. Yes, a lot of campsites and hotels feature, so do the meals and the drinks he has consumed, as well as the repetitive map reading, accommodation booking, physical aches and pains……..but, fortunately, they all sit comfortably amongst a lot of perceptive comments about his surroundings, witty observations about things he passes, and a little post-ride research fills in the gaps with many interesting details.

Thousands have done, and are doing, transcontinental bike rides just like this one, but not many can tell their stories in quite such an engaging way.

Watch out for his forthcoming volume Heading north on a bike called Reggie.

Cycling and gaining weight!

Now that I have your attention…..what does he mean ‘cycling and gaining weight’? Surely, the aerobic exercise of turning pedals is all about losing weight…….. Well, that depends. Let me explain.

Jenny and I used to organise charity cycle rides, sending up to 200 cyclists on any of 6 routes, the longest 100 miles, the shortest just 3 miles for little kiddies. We put on feeding stations at regular intervals that served up a variety of sweet snacks, including cakes, flapjack, chocolate……you know, all those things you shouldn’t eat, but justify them because you are cycling a few miles. I used to brag that we put on the only sportive-like event where riders were guaranteed to put on weight……even the 100 milers!

Well, I headed off this morning looking to gain a few kilos. And sure enough, I gained 4 kilos after about 35 miles. How? Well, the autumnal foraging season had begun, and I set off in earnest down into Bedfordshire, carrying my musette (normally a cyclist’s feedbag used in racing events) aiming to fill it with the fruits of the earth.

Walnuts...yet to ripen

Walnuts…yet to ripen

My first stop was a walnut tree that I had spied last month. After consulting a few websites, I calculated they would be ripening early September……but not quite yet. The cool August might have delayed them. So they will spend some time on the conservatory windowsill to see if they will burst open.

Two apple trees

Two apple trees

Then onto a favoured apple picking site, where there are two trees planted on the site where there had been an American War Memorial…..not sure what happened to the memorial

Now greengages in the bag....

Now greengages in the bag….

….but a few metres away, in the hedge, I noticed a plum-like fruit…..and decided they were greengages. We did a bit of checking at home, then I braved the tasting and……well, I’m still here :)

The nett result was that I returned home 4 kilos heavier than when I set off, with the stuffed musette slung behind me. I have to admit, I noticed the extra weight as I climbed the hills….

A small sample of all four fruits

A small sample of all four fruits

Back at home, off I went to our local blackberry offerings, and picked about 1.5 kilos. I know I’m a very sad person, but I do take great delight in foraging and, in the words of Richard Mabey, getting my ‘food for free’.

Cumbrian rides mapped…

Some of you may enjoy studying the route maps of the rides on my recent trip to Cumbria and the Yorkshire Dales. They make fascinating reading. The relief contours tell you a lot about the terrain. We don’t have any high mountains in this country, but we have hills and gradients that compete with anywhere on the continent.

Continental road engineers mastered the art of levelling out the climbs, by creating the switchback. British road engineers, on the other hand, looked for the shortest route over a hill and built the road accordingly……ie. straight over the top. Hence, we have roads of 20%, 25% and, yes, even 30%. Thank goodness this one over Wrynose and Hardknott Passes was off our route!IMAG1965

We cyclists like to boast and brag about the murderous climbs we’ve conquered, and complain bitterly about the climbs that have conquered us. But we never give in……..

Over the Pennines 121km/70 miles

Over the Pennines 121km/75 miles

Aug 20th

Yorkshire Dales and Lune Valley 127km/80miles

Red Bank 25%, Blea Tarn 25% Kirkstone Pass 20%

Red Bank 25%, Blea Tarn 25% Kirkstone Pass 20%

Solway Firth 114km/72miles

Solway Firth 114km/72miles

Honister Pass 25% 117km/73miles

Honister Pass 25% 117km/73miles

Eden Valley 65km/40 miles

Eden Valley 65km/40 miles

The 105 km recovery ride……

Gretton GPSies

Returning from Cumbria on a psychological (ie. mental) high, with nearly 500 miles covered and 30,000 feet climbed in a week, the body protested vociferously and rapidly succumbed to a chest infection…….what many women mistakenly(?) refer to as ‘man-flu’. Oh dear…..we men are grossly misunderstood……..sometimes.

It took me the best part of a week to shake it off and, when I woke this morning, I said to myself: “This is the day to try those legs, to see if they still function”. So I climbed on my road bike and headed off to a village hall in deepest Northamptonshire, where the local community puts on a simple lunch, and met up with a small bunch of other cycling cronies.

Not only did the legs still work, but they worked surprisingly well, and the chest didn’t heave too much with unpredictable coughing. The pace was a relatively lively 24.2 kph (15 mph), with a north-westerly headwind going out, and plenty of assistance on the homeward.

Moral: if you’re worried about losing fitness through inactivity, a week off the bike doesn’t make such a huge difference. It won’t help you to win races, or improve your PB in time trials, but you’ll still be able to breeze along with the best of them.

Too late for the Tour of had passed through here a couple of months ago!

Too late for the Tour of Cambridge….it had passed through here a couple of months ago!

Inheritance by Robert Sackville-West

After a recent visit to the Knole estate in Kent, the home of the Sackville family for over 400 years of tortuous inheritance, Inheritance Sackville Wthe sheer size and scale of the property (bigger than an Oxford College) had me intrigued. The current incumbent, Robert Sackville-West, now living with his family in just one wing of the property, and sharing ownership with the National Trust, has brought together the meandering and complicated story of his family history.

Mercifully, this is not a cover-up job, an attempt to reinterpret the history so that all the bad bits are airbrushed out. The author delves into both the good and the bad; he roots about in the murky corners to tell us of the infidelities and illegitimacy, the soured relationships over wills and inheritance, the strains of madness and depression in the genes, the sibling rivalries and the interminable and expensive court cases which beset the family over the generations.

He makes generous reference to Vita Sackville-West’s similar attempt to write the biography of the house and family, in Knole and the Sackvilles, a century ago, but he also tells us much of Vita’s passion for the house, as well as the long love affair she had with Virginia Woolf, who based most of her writing on Knole.

But, of course, the author has a familial reason for writing this volume. As he says at the end, and in the light of the ownership passing from the family to the National Trust: “This book is my stamp of territoriality, my equivalent of Thomas Sackville’s initials on a drainpipe”.

And with 147 years remaining on the Sackville lease, there is a great deal more to be written…….

…and back over the Pennines

Today’s climb over the Pennines would bring my total climbing for the week to 30,000 feet….more than the height of Everest….if ever you could climb Everest on a bike. But would I have the legs to haul myself once more over the backbone of England, to catch my train from Darlington?
In the event, I had little to worry about. The 1400 foot climb from Brough was gradual, perfect for consistent cadence and, the cream on the coffee, I had the wind at my back! So the descent into Bowes was very fast, especially on the 5 mile section of closed road, where I had no trucks to contend with, and had the whole carriageway to myself.

Now, to prove the perverse mentality of some cyclists, I was asked why I hadn’t caught a train to Penrith (instead of to Darlington). The latter, after all, is 70 miles away, and on the other side of the Pennines….lost for a meaningful answer, I simply said that I had thought Penrith station might have been axed under the Beeching cuts of the 1960s…….


It was a superb day to cross the country, with stunning views from the tops of the hills, this remarkable ‘kodak moment’ with the ancient castle at Barnard Castle, an encounter with the earthworks of a Bragantian fortification, said to be the base for Catherine of Bragantia,


and the fascinating story behind this toll suspension bridge built in 1830 over the Tees.


A perfect conclusion to a week and 475 miles of cycling… what might be argued to be the most beautiful corner of the British Isles.

A recovery ride…..

Aug 24thThe pounding of hills and the ‘storming’ of passes draw heavily on the physical energy bank. After five successive days of serious climbing, bagging over 23,000 feet of climbing, a shorter, more gentle ride was called for… I headed off NE following the upper flanks of the Eden Valley, and discovered that these parts will be ‘en fete’ when the Tour of Britain comes through Cumbria in September


….and as I turned off the route to check out an ancient druid stone circle (Long Meg and her daughters), I met up with a group of Hertfordshire riders who were following the same route


41 miles of gentle climbing and fast descending, with views of the northern Dales on my right, made a perfect antidote to the severe stuff of previous days.
So tomorrow is pack-up and move-on time, and make my way back over the Pennines to Darlington for my train back home. And despite what the weather is doing in the south, we are promised sunshine all day……in this the wettest region of England…..can you believe it?

Honister Pass…but the wrong way

Aug 23rdHow can you climb a pass ‘the wrong way’? Good question….but we did….so let me explain.
All the routes at the Birthday Rides have been mapped out by local club riders, who know the roads and, more importantly, know the cafes. We can use written route notes, paper maps, or gpx files on cycling satnavs. I used the latter, and I set off with Alex (from Shropshire) on the 40 mile approach to the pass, via Buttermere, only to see before us the enormity of the whole climb (here you can see Alex in the early stages)


…..but added to that, (and we knew this was going to happen) we had a fierce headwind, with gusts of up to 50-60mph. It blew us both completely off the bikes on the ascent, Alex to re-mount twice and complete the climb, I couldn’t re-mount, so had to walk the final quarter of the ascent (damn it!).


Look carefully and you will make out the sign announcing its incline of 25% (1 in 4).
We could, of course, have done the route in reverse and ‘enjoyed’ a wind-assisted climb, still horrendously tough, but with nature’s support. Why didn’t we?
I wish I knew……the perversity of free will, perhaps? The greater simplicity of following a route as laid out by the route designer? Whatever the reason, we paid the price……..


….but we enjoyed the views of Crummock Water


….and Derwent Water.
Some prices are worth paying….. :)
Distance: 73 miles. Climbing: over  6000 feet.

….then back to sea level

Aug 22ndAfter 6000 feet of climbing yesterday, and with the promise of heavy rain from 1pm today, I decided a swift morning ride down to the Solway Firth, with a lot of flat riding, would be the order of the day.
So along with two new riding companions, Tony and Deryk from Cheltenham, we zoomed down to the coast, to the western end of Hadrian’s Wall


where variously, walkers and cyclists, were heading off to follow the length of the Wall….to Wallsend, of course, but probably not the 1050 miles to Rome.
Serendipitously, we had chosen the route that turned out to be rain-free…..when we got back to base (after 70 miles and 3500 feet of climbing) we heard the horror stories of  rides elsewhere. Such is the weather round these parts.

But as I pen these words, the campsite outside is under a deluge, and I fear the worse for my little lightweight tent…..and my prospects for the night. Watch this space for the next episode…..

We go up…as the rain comes down!

Aug 21stThe climbing we did yesterday paled into insignificance compared with the menu today


….which took us into the heart of the Lake District, along the length of Thirlmere


up the 25% climb of Red Bank outside Grasmere


winding our way over Little Langdale


another 25% monster, and the ‘dessert’ was the iconic haul up the Struggle


which deposited us outside the Kirkstone Pass Inn, shrouded in mist, and the beginning of the scarily fast descent to Patterdale.
The mileage today, some 70 miles, is largely immaterial compared to the 6000 feet of climbing. And my Garmin tells me I expended over 4000 calories in the process……some serious eating now needs to be done!

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