Travelling to Infinity by Jane Hawking

Jane HawkingJane Hawking, the first wife of Stephen Hawking, was moved to write her memoirs after Stephen decided to separate from her (and eventually divorce her) after 25 years of marriage.

She married Stephen knowing that he was suffering from a rare form of motor neurone disease, which was a progressive disease that would only grow worse in time, understanding that Stephen might only have a few years to live. She threw herself into the relationship with mind and body, made untold sacrifices to nurture her weakening husband, and do everything she could to support him in his scientific endeavours. In fact, initially, she put her own life on hold for the sake of her husband.

This moving memoir is a very detailed personal account of how she coped (or didn’t, in many instances) with Stephen’s altering physical state, his rapid promotion to the status of a world celebrity, of how she managed the upbringing of the three children she bore, her relationship with both sets of parents, her endeavour to complete her own doctoral thesis in medieval Spanish poetry, and the whole panoply of the ups and downs of the very hectic life they led. It is amazing how she simply survived.

At nearly 500 pages, this is the abridged version of her original memoir written in 1999, Music to move the stars, and became the inspiration for the much acclaimed film The Theory of Everything. The book held my attention unfailingly, and I would highly recommend it.

Brixworth 100km

 

Brixworth 100km

Brixworth 100km

It’s a warm wind, the west wind, full of birds’ cries;
I never hear the west wind but tears are in my eyes.
For it comes from the west lands, the old brown hills.
And April’s in the west wind, and daffodils.       John Masefield

 

Over the last several weeks, anyone who has been out ‘battling the elements’, for whatever reason, will have been treated to the weather fronts persistently coming in from the west. And if, like me, you frequently let the direction of the wind dictate your direction of travel, you may have inevitably decided to head out and face the full flagellation of the wind in the first part of your journey. And the winds of late from the west have been strong……so most of my routes have taken me west, south-west or north-west, in the hope of catching that elusive tailwind for the homeward journey.

However, my trip out to Brixworth, 42km to the west, was pre-ordained, to meet up with a bunch of fellow cyclists for the inevitable coffee and cake. But the outward was gruelling. Heading into a 19-20mph wind, the trip out took me a full 2 hours, but the return was gloriously fast. As we sat in the friendly comfort of a community café run by the Christian Fellowship, we chewed over the fat of matters-cycling, and on the way back, I spied a board advertising lunch in the village church of Chelveston, and enjoyed soup and cakes in a 13th century building, set within a community that is recorded in Domesday in 1086.

Chelveston-cum-Caldecott_church_-_geograph.org.uk_-_67368

Photo by Iain Macaulay

 

 

 

Goodbye to all that: Robert Graves

GravesAfter a tortured childhood, a desperately unhappy spell at Charterhouse School where he was bullied mercilessly, and his fear of the approaching prospect of going up to Oxford University, Robert Graves quickly signed up for service in the trenches at the outbreak of World War 1.

He vividly describes life and death in the trenches; he drank heavily to assuage his fears and calm his nerves; he was wounded several times, once so severely that he was believed to be dead, and his death was publicly announced and relayed to his parents. The fact that an orderly spotted breath in his ‘corpse’, as it lay amongst dozens of other corpses waiting to be shipped out, was a remarkable serendipity. Though he eventually recovered from his injuries, he was destined to see out the war in non-combative military roles back at home.

After his failed first marriage, he met Laura Riding and, together, they left the UK and settled in Mallorca. It was a bitter separation from his homeland, hence the title “Goodbye to all that”.

North Bedfordshire 60km

Podington.pngIt’s easy to cruise through country communities, some only a cluster of houses, admiring the local architecture, spying churches hiding behind a screen of trees, sweeping over packhorse bridges that date back centuries, and within minutes you’ve left them behind anticipating the next village.

But stop occasionally, root around, find information boards or street names that tell aodell-odell-castle-anon deeper story, and you will be amazed at what you might find. Odell, for example, has a manor house at the top of a hill that is called Odell Castle. Much more than just a name, shortly after the Norman invasion in 1066, a motte-and-bailey castle had been built by Walter de Wahul, with a stone keep, where the family lived for the next 400 years. The much restored castle survived until 1931 when it was destroyed by fire, and the present manor house was built in the 1960s.

Glenn-Miller_Trombone-800-e1425266811285Villages like Milton Ernest will carry connections with a famous person, even though those connections might have been fleeting. The famous musician, Glenn Miller, for example, spent most of the war entertaining American troops in Europe, but sadly met his end when his aircraft disappeared in bad weather in 1944. He had been stationed at a local airfield near Milton Ernest, and his death is commemorated with a plaque in the village hall.

Then I could mention the history of Thurleigh Airfield, but easier to give a link that gives a complete history of its role in World War 2.

An encounter 20 years ago

IMAG2576OK, it’s just a picture of my bike by a small spinney…….so what?

Well, for me much more than that…….the spinney is called Salomé Wood, and about 20 years ago I met someone emerging from the spinney pushing a heavily laden bike.

“Hi! Are you OK?” I asked (we roadies tend to make sure fellow travellers are not in a fix…..and if they are, we do what we can to help them).

“Yeh, I’m fine. Just packed up the tent and I’m on my way? One of the nicest little woods I’ve slept in for months”.

“Goin’ far?”, I enquired.

“Oh, just to Vancouver……..”. He left his sentence hanging in the air, waiting for the inevitable follow-up questions…. Of course, I had a battery of questions. You don’t often meet a lone traveller emerging from a wood having spent the night under canvas, and off to the west coast of Canada.

He told me a little of his story. Separating from his wife several years before, he decided to pack it all in, salvage what monies he could from his marriage, and set off on his loaded bike to travel the world. All that he owned in this world was on his bike…….

“So, you decided to come back home for a while? Have you been cycling the UK in the meantime….?”

“No, no…..had to come back to sort out a few issues, and I house-sat for a friend while he was away. He had left his fridge full of food, he had a comfortable house with all the mod-cons, big TV, stereo hifi in every room, jacuzzi in the bathroom…….for the first few days I couldn’t believe my luck. All this comfort and luxury……not used to it”.

“Was it hard pulling yourself away from it?”. Thinking I knew what his answer would be, he caught me off-balance by saying just the opposite.

“No, no, I had to get out of it. After a few days I started getting restless, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I honestly couldn’t handle the easy comforts, the sitting around all day, having no purpose. So I had to come away early and get back on the road”.

I then said something that I later realized was a stupid observation. “So you spend all your time travelling…..moving from one place to another……and all you have is on your bike? That’s an amazing lifestyle” I said.

“Hey, don’t confuse what you are doing with what I am doing. You’re just on a short fun ride for the morning, whereas this is what I do. This is my life. There’s little fun and recreation in this…..it’s a way of life”.

We said our goodbyes, I wished him well on his journey, and I went away and thought long and hard about his final words. Some encounters have a lifelong impact…….

 

 

 

Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck

travels-with-charley“I have always lived violently, drunk hugely, eaten too much or not at all, slept around the clock or missed two nights of sleeping, worked too hard and too long in glory, or slobbed for a time in utter laziness. I’ve lifted, pulled, chopped, climbed, made love with joy and taken my hangovers as a consequence, not as a punishment.”

John Steinbeck’s self-portrait is Hemingway-esque, and the photo on the front cover of the Penguin edition confirms that comparison. Charley is Steinbeck’s large French poodle, who is going to accompany him on his three month circular tour of the USA, starting from his home in Sag Harbour, New York, heading north to New England, then west and down the Californian coast, crossing back to the east coast via the Mojave desert, Texas and New Orleans. His mode of transport is a pick-up truck with a small caravanette fixed on the back pan (which he named Rocinante, after Don Quijote’s horse), theTravels with Charley map. Stacy Innerst illustration motoring equivalent of a one-man tent.

This is the story of a man, now in his early 60s, needing to rediscover the people and places of his own native country and, in Steinbeck’s masterful prose, and through a keen eye for detail and an earnest desire to reconnect with the ‘music of the regional dialects and accents’ before they disappear altogether in the age of mass media, we are treated to an extraordinary narrative of a journey that carries the reader along as a willing guest.

rocinanteI related strongly to his style of travel. Though my mode of transport is the bicycle, Steinbeck chooses the closest equivalent in the world of motoring, and his unpretentious needs and requirements partner the generosity he shows people en route, sharing a cup of coffee or whiskey with others, giving a lift to walking travellers, passing the time of day with lonely people.

His journey is also a time for reflecting and meditating on so many other aspects of his life so, much more than just a mere diary of three months on the road, it also serves as a personal memoir about his own personal thoughts and feelings. A very worthy read.

Naples ’44 by Norman Lewis

Travel writing with a difference always excites my curiosity. Norman Lewis’s account of Naples during the year 1944 is not the usual memoir of a personal journey of discovery, but the result of being posted out to Italy as a member of the British Intelligence Service in the immediate aftermath of the invasion of southern Italy.

naples-44Lewis came to the posting with a useful command of Italian, learned largely from his Sicilian wife, but the job description that came with the new duties was non-existent. In the early days, they had no idea what they should be doing and, for the next 12 months, much of what they did achieve was the result of following vague orders from on high, with a liberal input of creative imagination. They formed part of an occupation force that was intended to sort out the governance of the south of Italy, long used to the whims and savagery of both the national fascists under Mussolini, and later by the German occupation.

His work was made up randomly of seeking out and dealing with German collaborators, controlling the sale of stolen military goods through the black market, liaising with the local police and people of influence, and dealing with the local Camorra (Mafia). Italy was in a state of crisis and the people were starving. The living conditions were medieval, both because of poverty and the density in which people lived together in squalid circumstance. Typhus, smallpox and malaria were rife. Lewis himself contracted malaria three times during the year.

Although written 30 years later, this memoir vibrates with the immediacy of his experiences, and serves as a perfect snapshot of life that deserves a place in the archives.

Historia de una maestra: Josefina Aldecoa

historia-de-una-maestra-de-josefina-aldecoaJosefina Aldecoa comes from a long line of teaching parentage, especially amongst the women-folk. Both her mother and grandmother were teachers and principals of schools before her. In this short novel Historia de una maestra, Aldecoa seems to be writing in biographical mode, the first-person narrator being her mother, and she featuring as the young daughter. But it isn’t exactly biographical because the dates of the narrative don’t precisely match the dates of her own life.

Set in the 1920s and 1930s in rural Spain, the protagonist, Gabriela, qualifies as a teacher, heads off to Equatorial Guinea in her bid to expand the horizons of her limited world, but contracts malaria and has to return to Spain. She finds work in a village school, meets and marries Ezequiel (also a teacher) and, through their growing involvement in rural affairs, become deeply committed to the new Republican government of the 1930s, which promised to bring major changes that would favour the lives of the poor and landless masses. The narrative takes us up to the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, when Ezequiel was summarily shot for his involvement with the workers’ movement.

This novel is the first in a trilogy, the other titles being La fuerza del destino and Mujeres de Negro.

Menorca: route maps

Menorca: route maps

I don’t normally carry the technology for uploading my route maps from my GPS to my blog, so here they are. I stayed mainly in the south of the island because that is where most of the rideable roads are.

day-1-71km

Intended as a 30km warm-up ride, it turned into a 71km exploration of the south of the island.

 

day-2-77km

77km taking me to two coastal holiday villages…..thankfully one of them had some services open!

 

day-3-25km

25km, my attempt to cycle the length of the island to Ciutadella was foiled by the ferocity of the weather.

 

day-5-91km

91km, in search of beaches and bays that lie several kms off the main roads. Everywhere is closed up for winter.

 

day-6-72km

72km, a final route that included paeleo-Christian basilica and 19th century fort.

 

 

 

 

 

Menorca: the lightning strike

When lightning strikes happen to other people, they often make exciting, intriguing, sometimes sad news. When it happens to you, or causes a major delay in your travel plans, it then becomes an ‘adventure’ a bit too close to home. No, I wasn’t struck by lightning, I am very happy to say, but my Monarch flight was struck as it approached Menorca airport with its contingent of British passengers.

plane-lightning

Photo courtesy of fox13now.com

 

Now, lightning strikes on planes are fairly commonplace these days, and it is heartening to know that all commercial aircraft are designed to withstand even the most aggressive strikes, but they can cause a severe jolt to the plane, and can even throw some of the electrics out, but generally speaking, beyond the shock factor, they do little damage. However, what is obligatory after every such strike, is a complete safety check before the aircraft takes off again. And this was the big rub……

Menorca airport is a small place and, in winter time, works on minimal staffing. The 200 passengers waiting to board were sent emails every half hour informing them of the revised departure time. After three hours, the captain felt obliged to address the restless mob, explaining that they had detected some damage to the electrics, and were awaiting instructions from Airbus about the safety of resuming their journey. He also added that he and his crew were rapidly running out of legal shift time, after which they would have to take compulsory rest……..which would mean having a stop-over in Menorca.

Now Monarch, like most budget airlines, do not have the financial capacity for keeping aircraft on stand-by in the case of such events, so no substitute plane was going to be sent out. We simply had to sit it out and hope for the best. After nearly 8 hours, they allowed us to board where we sat for another 40 minutes waiting for the engineers to sign off the safety check, and I am happy to report that the flight home was uneventful. The ‘huge concession’ made by Monarch was to award each of the passenger with a 6 euro snack….

So, instead of arriving in Gatwick at 14.20, we arrived at 22.00, missing my National Express connection by over 6 hours, meaning I had to buy an expensive train ticket to get home, eventually arriving home at 01.30am. I, like probably most of my fellow passengers, began searching for the small print concerning delays and added expense, and discovered a clause in the company’s T&Cs that Monarch airlines will not be liable if the delay is caused by ‘extraordinary circumstances’. The big question now is: were the complications caused by a lightning strike ‘extraordinary circumstances’? I began to investigate……..and this is what I found.

In January 2016, a judge at Luton County Court, deliberating on a similar case against Monarch, decided that lightning strikes do not constitute ‘extraordinary circumstances’, presumably because they are so commonplace that airline companies should have in place the resources to respond to them. In other words, the simple solution would have been for Monarch to either send out another plane to pick us up, or contract the loan of another aircraft from a nearby airport (like Mallorca or Barcelona, for instance). But they didn’t do that. They made us wait 8 hours, instead, to avoid this major expense to the company, making it clear to us that company profits are of greater importance than the convenience and wellbeing of 200 passengers. If Monarch have to proceed to pay-outs, they could be liable to 600 euros per passenger.

So, I have filed my claim (principally for the cost of a train ticket), and now await a response. Stay tuned……….

 

Menorca day 6

Distance today: 72km

Total distance for the week: 338km

As I set off to explore the few roads left to be discovered on the island, I heard that Alicante had its first snow in 35 years, and Ronda (in Andalucia) had its first snow in 60 years! Records are being broken everywhere, and news bulletins are letting the extraordinary weather events to even upstage Donald Trump’s inauguration tomorrow. As cold as Menorca has been in the last week, at least we haven’t seen any of the white stuff. Whereas over in Mallorca, there have been dramatic pictures of Sky continuing to train despite heavy snowfall. Commitment to earning their salaries, perhaps.

My route took me along one of the few coastal roads, through half a dozen deserted holiday villages, through the town of Sant Lluis 

(a town established by the French during the few years they had arrested control of the island from the British), and eventually out along the long peninsula where an 19th century fort had been built to protect the harbour from invasion.

Sadly closed for the winter, so had to admire it from afar.

Sheltering from a cloudburst….

Despite the challenging weather conditions, atypical for this time of the year, Menorca makes a good destination for cyclists like me, who want to combine cycling the miles with discovering the environment and its history. For the out-and-out sports cyclist, intent only on putting in the miles, it has its limitations. It is too small to provide the variety of terrain and routes so necessary for a roadie in training. If you are an off-roader, on the other hand, the island has much more to offer.

Menorca day 5: 91kms

Ah bliss…..the freedom of the open road once again. Cold temperatures were forecast, as were strong winds with gusts of up to 80km per hour, but the potential of a dry day (according to the BBC weather app, anyway), so I set off into the wind with a degree of optimism. But whatever the street thermometers tell you about air temperature, when the winds blow down from Siberia, 6C really feels like 0C, or what the Spaniards refer to as the thermic temperature.

I headed for one of the many coastal holiday villages called Sol Parc, knowing it would be a winter ghost town like all such communities, but I had been assured by a fellow flight passenger that it had a bar open in the winter months. So off I went. When I eventually found this mysterious bar, run by an English lady, and met the only customer (an elderly gentleman who seemed to be living the life of a hermit, his only companion being his dog), I struggled to visualise the attraction of living in such a place year-round. Menorca is desperately trying to make the island a year-round holiday destination (like Mallorca), promoting outdoor activities and culture for the winter months, but they will have to do something to inject a bit of life into these coastal ghost towns if they are to succeed.

One of the coastal villages, Son Bou, had this fascinating 5th century Christian site 

with the uncovered remains of an ancient paleolithic basilica, built after the Roman occupation, and before the arrival of the Moors. I tell you, this little island has seen some history. 

And as I swung round from viewing the ancient remains, I was only this far from stepping onto a beach and gazing out over the horizon.

Over a late leisurely lunch in a harbour-side restaurant in Mahon, I met a young English family who were preparing to up-sticks in Dubai and move permanently to Menorca. In fact they had only just clinched the deal on their new house, and they were both nervous and excited about the prospects. Having just experienced the coldest week in Menorca for over 10 years, at least they were making their decision when Menorca wasn’t exactly selling itself.

Menorca Day 4: Ciutadella

We were spared the heavy snow experienced by neighbouring Mallorca, and even further south in Alicante, but the freezing winds whistling down from Siberia had me skulking under 7 layers of clothing, as I climbed on a smart-looking bus to Ciutadella at the other end of the island. Even though it’s not the capital, it is bigger than Mahon, and had been the capital until the arrival of the British. Today, embedded in their patronal festivities, was a re-enactment of a very important moment in the history of the island…..and this time, I’m not referring to the arrival of the British!

The island had been occupied by the Moors for 5 centuries until, in the 13th century, Alfonso lll of Aragon arrived to claim possession of the island, and it was in Ciutadella that he arrived,

ceremoniously knocked three times on the city gate, and entered to begin the long process of re-Christianizing the island……and establishing a dialect of Catalan as the official language.

A formal choral mass is led by the Bishop in the Cathedral, followed by a procession through the streets led by mounted dignitaries, until they arrive at the Plaza de Alfonso lll, where the ceremonial knocking at the gate is re-enacted to the cheering and applause of the crowd.

Then everyone disperses to have a party…..I mean, what else is there to do on a freezing Siberian winter day…..?

Menorca day 3: 25 kms

Trussed up like a turkey: this is what you get to look like when the forecast tells you the weather gods are going to throw everything at you…..rain, hail, gale-force winds, with temperatures just hovering above freezing. 

The smile for the camera was completely erased an hour later when I had to throw in the towel and turn back to basecamp. I rode back through patches of settled hail stones, and had to peel off the several sodden layers one by one before jumping into a blissfully hot shower. My room now looks like a Chinese laundry.

Because the Siberian weather front is set to intensify tomorrow, with the rarely experienced possibility of snow falling on Menorca, even the patronal fiesta activities have been postponed for two weeks. San Antoni, normally celebrated on the 17th, is just going to have to wait (sorry mate!).

However, things brightened up in the late afternoon, which gave me good reason the explore Mahon, and it really is a charming and fascinating place, particularly it’s natural 5km long harbour, where hundreds of luxury yachts and launches are moored:

Most of the historic centre was built by the British in the 18th century, so the predominant architectural style is Georgian, but British touches were also added to already existing buildings, like the clock on this 17th century masterpiece.

but there still remain some very impressive 16th century ecclesiastical buildings, like this Carmelite monastery (now a library and covered market)

And one other curious reminder of the British presence is the continued use of adopted words: grevi (gravy); winder (window); botil (bottle); mervel (marble); xoc (chalk), to name just a few. And when I say the British occupied Menorca, what I really mean is they captured it and occupied it three times. There was quite a bit of squabbling going on with France, then with Spain, and finally with Austria. Then they all came to a gentleman’s agreement (meaning the British won the fight to leave behind gin-drinking and cricket as their inheritance) and handed it over to Spain…..and everyone lived happily ever after.

Menorca day 2: 77kms

Food is seldom far from a cyclist’s thoughts. A day’s ride is predictably punctuated by calorie-loading stops, but here in Menorca, I begin the day with a local breakfast delicacy: the famous ensaimada.

A yeast-based pastry made with fortified flour, light to eat but surprisingly filling. One is good enough to take me 30kms…..And they taste nice, too!

The weather forecast for today was dire. The landlord warned me to take great care (obviously, he didn’t want to lose a tenant so soon after I’ve arrived!). Strong winds were expected, with gusts of up to 60kms per hour, and sea surges up to 4-6 metres high. With the wind coming from the north, it was going to carry the icy chill from central Europe, where temperatures have dropped to -20C. So I headed off very tentatively, going north to Fornells

taking the punishment of the headwind while the legs were fresh, with the prospect, of course, of coasting back home at the end of the day. 

When conditions out on the open roads are tough, it is nice to know that the Spanish Ministry of Transport has the safety of cyclists at heart…..

and, amazingly, most motorists do observe the 1.5 metre rule, patiently trailing behind me until they can overtake safely, allowing me the stipulated safety margin. I am impressed. And despite the strong winds, cyclists were out across the island doing their weekend miles, especially racing clubs, who frequently left me behind to eat their dust…..

But as I whizzed through (wind behind me, of course) Es Mercadal again this afternoon, I was treated to one of those serendipities that halt you in your tracks. Carried by the wind, I heard the familiar drum rolls of a drumming band, so I followed the sound to the main plaza, and chanced upon two bands practising for the patronal fiesta on Tuesday.

They were surrounded by a growing audience, flashmob-style, and kept us entranced by the complex rhythms of their repertoires. The most impressive display of drumming I’ve ever witnessed was the famous Holy Week gathering of 1000 drummers in Calanda in Aragon. At the stroke of 12 on Good Friday, the surrounding buildings began to vibrate with the sheer decibel level of the outburst. Today’s 20 drummers re-ignited that memory for me.

When I got back to Mahon, I was annoyingly waylaid by a Galician restaurant that beckoned me inside to sample their empanadas and padron peppers. Life can be so difficult to manage at times…….

Menorca: Day 1 (73kms)

You’ve heard it all before…..’The best laid schemes o’ mice and men….’. I picked up my hired steed (a very nice carbon fibre Specialized Roubaix)

at a winter discount price, headed out beneath a threatening sky and against a very cold 20kms head wind, and decided to do just 30-40kms locally to get used to the bike, and have a quick route of escape back to base in case the weather turned nasty…… and what happened?

I got into my stride, the bike felt good, I felt good, the weather didn’t turn brutal, and what should have been an amble round bays and through villages turned into a moderately long day ride. One day I will accept that I can’t simply do ‘ambles’, because ambles are rides without purpose. For me, a ride with purpose requires two ingredients: a destination and a distance, and you begin the ride with both as given, because at the end there is a sense of completion and achievement.

I began the ‘amble’ bit of the ride exploring villages in the south, stopping for a much needed hot coffee in Sant Lluis (the wind chill had really got to me), then got the bit between the teeth and motored north to Es Mercadal, to the foot of the infamous climb to El Toro. 

When you see an innocent little sign like this, there is nothing innocent about it. 3kms of bends in the road usually mean only one thing: a big climb with severe switchbacks. In this ‘post-truth age’ I won’t make any claims about my performance, because you’ll probably guess the real truth anyway.

But my quest to unearth a few more clues about the British occupation of Menorca in the 18th century was richly rewarded today. Sitting next to me at the bar in Sant Lluis were two venerable old boys enjoying their pre-prandial aperitives, and what were they drinking? Neat gin (an unusual drink for most Spaniards), but in very un-British large measures. Not only did we export one of our drinking habits, but it would seem our game of cricket pops up in the most unexpected places (as it did in Corfu)

And after following this winding country road for 25kms, I discovered that Kane was one of the British Governors of the island in the 18th century. He had had this road built to link the capital, Mahon, with the north of the island.

You see, doing ‘research’from the saddle of a bike is easy. Not to mention the bronze age megaliths that kept delaying my progress…..but don’t let me bore you with that.

Menorca con mal tiempo

I tap out this post on my phone accompanied by tv images of critical weather conditions across Spain. Mercifully, Menorca is not going to have the snow and sub-zero temperatures of the mainland, but it is going to be cold and wet for the next 4-5 days….. whoopee! 

Unlike the Canary Isles, the Balearics do have a proper winter, but one which is usually mild and sunny…. but not always. In other words, if you come to enjoy out-of-season sport, you take your chances, just as I am this week. And because Menorca has a proper winter, most of the island is in winter-mode, with minimal services, and many bars and restaurants closed. Perfect if you prefer to avoid the crowds, but disastrous if you like nightlife and the buzz of human activity. Menorca in January slumbers like a hibernating bear. 

And my UK friends mustn’t imagine that we are the only country suffering from a crisis in our health services. Spain is reeling from a flu epidemic, people are dying, and the hospitals are in crisis. Here too, patients on trolleys are lining the corridors, and some of this has been caused by a somewhat less than enthusiastic autumn campaign to have the most vulnerable vaccinated.

Menorca: trying to leave the UK….

A dramatic and confused start to any venture brings with it a few anecdotal stories. I chose Gatwick as my airport of departure because Monarch Airlines offered a very good deal….and my plan to get there? Easy….a straight through train from Bedford to Gatwick. Ah, but there was the little matter of the ongoing Southern Network strikes…..damn! Plan B? Take a National Express coach from Milton Keynes. Straightforward? Sure, but let’s not mention the gathering snow storm hitting the south east which forced the cancellation of dozens of flights (admittedly mainly from Heathrow).

My coach faltered its way around the M25, while vehicles rapidly became enveloped in the white stuff, and it began to bank up on the hard shoulder. There was an element of touch-and-go about the last 30 miles, but we made it in the end, albeit 90 minutes late, putting the driver beyond his legal time limit. 

Any blessings? Oh yes, the fact I had decided to travel down the day before my early morning flight has been, undoubtedly, a huge blessing…… no fretting about the possibility of a missed flight unless, of course, we had got completely stranded on the M25. So, a night sleeping rough in the airport?

The capsule pod. I must be giving in to my feminine side, because I’ve just shelled out £45 to spend the night ‘glamping’ in the South Terminal. I can’t really believe I’m doing this. I was rapidly becoming a world authority on airport sleeping conditions, and the next plan was to write a Lonely Planet guide on airport sleepovers, assigning a starred rating to each one. 

So, proving that the spirit may be willing but the wrinkling flesh is weaker still, I booked into a Yotel, a Japanese-style capsule hotel, where the rooms are tiny pods that look like small (and I mean small) ship’s cabins.

These pods are only a one-floor lift ride from check-in, the pods are superbly designed, with full en suite, TV and WiFi, even a little camping stool and fold-away table. A couple of square metres is about the size of a small family tent.

So, instead of curling up across three uncomfortable seats near check-in and having all the disturbances of an airport at night (automated security announcements, cleaners etc), I am now wrapped up in an air-conditioned sound-proofed little pod where hot drinks are provided at any time of the day or night….and I can lie in bed to watch the 10 o’clock news. Is that cool, or what?

I am now pondering on all of this and asking myself…..am I on the slippery slope?

Menorca

My quest to cycle most of the major islands of the Mediterranean continues apace tomorrow, as I set off for the small island of Menorca, lying to the north east of Mallorca. I have already cycled Mallorca a couple of times, always off-season, and Ibiza and Formentera. Further to the east, I have spent a week each on both Sicily and Cyprus, but still in my sights are islands like Sardinia, Corsica, Crete and Rhodes. I have visited Malta as a tourist, and the size of the island and the density of both population and traffic make it a poor destination for a cyclist like me. menorca-map

Menorca, however, holds a lot of mysteries. It is small and basically has just one road that straddles the entire length of the island, about 50kms long. From this central spine, several local roads and tracks lead down to bays and beaches, all waiting to be explored. Around the entire island there is a bridleway, Cami des Cavalls, established by the British in the 18th century when they occupied the island for over 60 years. This route around the island was used by British coastguards (on horseback) to look out for invading forces.

The last remaining gin distillery is a lasting testament of the British presence, but much remains to be discovered in order to unearth other nuggets of information about the history of the British on the island.

Intrigued? Stay tuned…….

Old Warden, Bedfordshire 71kms

old-warden-1It’s great when the club ride schedules its cake stop in a place of interest. Outside the small village of Old Warden in Bedfordshire, you’ll find the Shuttleworth Collection, a museum housing early vintage aircraft, cars, motorcycles, penny farthings, and a motley selection of farm vehicles.

Next door to it is the Swiss Garden, a Regency garden landscaped in Capability Brown-fashion to resemble the Swiss landscape.  Quite remarkable, really.shuttleworth-cafe

But to slake the thirst and replenish the carbs for a group of hungry cyclists, between the two there is an extensive café and restaurant, built to cope with large numbers. At this very ‘unbusy’ time of the year for cafés, a couple of groups of wheelers bring along some tidy business.

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