Walking home from Mongolia by Rob Lilwall

Walking home from MongoliaWhatever we do in life, to succeed we need to take inspiration from others. Even the most motivated people need a motivator. My relatively humble expeditions nearly always have an origin in someone else’s ideas, and those ideas usually come from people who have made huge sacrifices to achieve their ambitions.

Rob Lilwall had spent three years on the road cycling home from Siberia, covering about 75,000km. Like most true adventurers, it didn’t take long before those itchy feet started seeking out a new adventure. Based in Hong Kong, he planned a walking route of 5000km from Mongolia, crossing the heartland of China, back to his home in Hong Kong. He did it with a companion, Leon, who was a fledgling cameraman, and the resulting story became both a book and DVD.

Well written, engaging and honest. He reveals both their successes and failures, their ups and their downs, the ins and outs of his relationship with Leon, the failure of film footage in the first few weeks, the challenges of the journey itself……. Anyone who has completed a major expedition will understand some of the changing fortunes they experienced, and will sympathise. But it’s all part of the package. It’s what makes adventurers like Rob much-sought-after motivational speakers, and authors of books and films that inspire others.



Three Spanish volumes

More time for reading, more time for getting back to a much neglected source of reading: Spanish literature. None of these are demanding in terms of attention and time, so all of them are rapid reads, with some interesting lexical challenges in colloquialisms and slang specific to a country, time, generation etc.

Manos en la nuca: Angel Parra

Manos en la nucaAngel Parra suffered for his left-wing political beliefs in the Chilean revolution of 1973, when a right-wing dictatorship unseated the socialist government, imprisoned and summarily executed thousands of opponents, and encouraged a whole generation of Chileans to opt for exile as the only route of escape. This is an insider’s view of what it was like to be imprisoned during this period.




Escuela y prisiones de Vicentito González: Juan Eslava Galán

A seemingly autobiographical novel, we follow the early life of Vicentito as he grows fromEscuela y prisiones being a small child, through the various phases of his schooling in the south of Spain, to adulthood. It provides a vivid portrayal of the impoverished levels of education on offer in Spain in the post-civil war years, of corruption, of child abuse amongst religious orders, of authoritarianism and a general tendency to use physical violence in the education of children. Vicentito is portrayed as a victim of abuse in every school he attended, but happily accepted his own responsibility for the destiny he was served with.

Cazar al cazador: Francisco Nunez Roldán

Not my genre of choice, but an easy read to fill a handful of hours. Cazar al cazadorA murder mystery which is surprisingly un-mysterious, because the author chooses to tell you who the murderer is early on in the story. But there are some interesting twists and turns, some insights into rural life in Andalucía and, if nothing else, you can brush up on your knowledge of Spanish words related to the natural world, especially birds.

Janapar: love on a bike by Tom Allen

Tom Allen, at the age of 23, set off from his home in Middleton, Northamptonshire, to cycle round the world, in the company of a couple of like-minded friends. With no maps and no guidebooks, this was to be an adventure like no other he had ever experienced. Four years and three continents later, no longer in the company of his cycling companions, but now accompanied by an Armenian-speaking Iranian wife, he arrived back at his parental home in Middleton. So what really happened?

This is the story of both a book and film produced by Tom, the result of a journey that was only sketched out on paper before they set off, but was so subject to change as the days janapar-ogp-imageand weeks slipped by, that the original focus (that of cycling round the world) was completely lost. If you read travel diaries to be inspired to follow in the footsteps of others, or simply to be entertained in your armchair, this may not do the trick for you. Tom’s use of the English language is above the normal grade for this type of writing, and he digs deeply into his own inner soul to reveal his innermost feelings, but he loses that lightness of touch that will inspire the hesitant to follow in his footsteps. His prose digs and delves into the darker side of his experience, the loss of friendships as he breaks up with his cycling companions, followed by the tensions posed by his new relationship, whether he should come or go, whether she is able to break the ties of a conservative Iranian family.

By the end, as we read of the final hours riding towards Tom’s parental home in Middleton, along with Tenny, his new Iranian wife, we pick up a sense of optimism about the future, but he seems to acknowledge there will still be many hurdles to overcome.

The bliss of ignorance?

Seven years ago this month, I was reminded of a basic truth in life: none of us is indestructible. No matter how fit and active you are, no matter how many miles you cycle or run, the morrow can bring an unexpected surprise. Seven years ago (almost to the day), I came off my bike on black ice and spent six months recovering from a broken femur. In other words, I was reminded of the essential frailty of the human body.

Ten days ago I had enjoyed the liberating freedom of a 65 mile ride in warm winter sunshine, and had planned another 50 mile ride the next day. The body was in good shape, the eagerness was there to ride the miles, and I was getting myself prepared for a week of volcano cycling in Gran Canaria. I had every reason to feel bright and breezy when I leapt out of bed, but I was reminded once again of the frailty of the human body.

My blackout and fall are having their consequences. Although atrial fibrillation has not been definitively diagnosed, until I see a cardiologist, I have to take  medication for it as a ‘just in case’. And the collateral damage to the back is obviously going to take weeks, or even months, to heal. So, freed up from all my natural eagerness to get out on the bike and ride the miles, I suddenly find myself with the imposed latitude to concentrate on writing. To the many kind people who have  encouraged me over the years to begin writing books about my exploits, I thank you. My excuse has always been that I’ve been much too occupied planning and going on adventures to find the time for sedentary pursuits like writing. Every time I look out of the window, the allure of the open countryside beckons.

And I thought there was no cure for it……..


The unhappy serendipity

A hard lesson that I have failed to learn throughout my life is the art of getting out of bed safely. Yes, you have read that correctly…..getting out of bed safely. Be warned, the simple process of shedding the torpors of sleep to re-enter the world of the living can be fraught with potholes and thorns along the road. Let me explain.

I am, of course, speaking from very recent personal experience. I became a ‘cropper’ the other day by simply getting out of bed. Hard to believe, I know. I can be counted amongst the majority of people (I think)  who return to waking consciousness in the mornings and delay the moment of getting out of bed, sometimes by minutes, sometimes by much more. Of course, waking up does not guarantee an immediate eagerness to get up. Two very different things. Last Wednesday, however, was an exception for this unwary riser. For some reason, totally out of character, I jumped out of bed with inexplicable enthusiasm and headed for the bathroom, only to find my blood pressure went into a downward spiral, and I landed in a heap on the floor, injuring my back in the process.

Jenny panicked, called the emergency services, prised herself into the bathroom and helped me get into the recovery position until the paramedics arrived. It’s only in situations like these that you really learn the true worth of people like paramedics. Working in a very confined space, they managed to administer all that was required, take ECGs, strap me firmly to a board stretcher and expertly lowered me down a very difficult staircase.

An X ray revealed a fracture to the T12, but it was inconclusive about whether it was caused by the fall. Apparently we can live many years with historic situations like these only for them to be revealed by accident in later life. There was much talk of me being fitted with a body brace, but I confounded them by passing all the physiotherapist’s tests, such as walking upstairs and toilet management. So now back at home, minus the body brace, plus a truly impressive array of pain-killers, I await follow-ups to check out the fracture in a few weeks time, and to determine the cause of the blackout. There are murmurings of atrial fibrillation……… Hey-ho!



Doing good better by William MacAskill

There are about 165,000 charities registered in the UK. The ones you know tend to be headline charities that do a lot of media advertising, junk-mailing, and have administration teams worthy of a FTSE 100 company. We all like to support  family members and friends who run marathons, cycle trek across Europe, jump out of planes and abseil down cliff faces, especially if they are supporting a worthy cause. If the charity they are Doing good bettersupporting is looking for a cure for cancer, financing guide-dogs for the blind, giving holidays for deprived city kids or protecting wildlife, or any of a thousand different very worthy causes, it will make us feel good about putting our hands in our pockets and donating.

As you get into MacAskill’s book, you may be forgiven for thinking that he is a bit of a party-pooper. He is very analytical in his view of charities, and asks uncomfortable questions about the real value and effectiveness of charities that pull at our heart strings. The author is not just an academic teaching at Oxford University, he has also co-founded two not-for-profit ventures to help people donate more effectively and to find careers for people who have the welfare of others at heart. This book has a very powerful message, though you may not agree with everything he says. But if you tune into the general intention behind the analyses, it will make you think very carefully about the charities you donate to in the future.

Do you donate to salvage your own conscience? Are you looking for the feel-good factor? Or do you think carefully about the effectiveness of every pound/dollar you donate? Many of us are naturally drawn by the close ties of friendship and blood relatives, and we like to support them in their ventures. If a close relative dies of cancer, it’s a natural reaction to raise money for a cancer charity. But are these the right motives? Do we need to be much more calculating before we part with hard earned pennies?

Some of the answers can be found in Doing good better, but more importantly it raises the difficult questions we all need to address.

Last ride of the year

A near minor mishap on the final ride of the year. Riding on a shared cycle-path with walkers, the quick release on my front brake popped out as I was going down hill, right in the direction of a couple of walkers at the bottom. Fortunately remedial action meant they weren’t in danger, but it was a heart-stopping experience for me at least.

finedon 66kms.png

66kms/41 miles

It couldn’t have been a more perfect day for closing off the year: bright sunshine, fresh breeze, coffee and cakes at the house of some cycling friends, along with a crowd of other like-minded roadies. A great way to finish off the year.

Sharpening the pencil and doing the sums, I worked out the bottom line for the annual mileage in 2015. After hitting a personal best in 2014, I promised myself to keep the miles down to a more reasonable 10,000 this year, and only just overstepped the mark with 10,597 miles/17,053kms.

Steve Abraham, who has only done 63,616 miles this year…….eat your heart out!

Out with the cronies

Cambourne is one of those new breed of town, built in the last 10 years, to accommodate the expanding population in these parts. I’ve watched it grow from a cluster of houses, to getting its own supermarket and schools, and now it’s rapidly heading towards 10,000 in population. Of course, a town of that size is going to have cafés, and one in particular has become a favourite with our mid-week group, called Green’s.

With many people now on holiday in the run-up to Christmas, the place was overflowing with customers, so this bunch of cycling reprobates had to sit outside…..albeit in the bright sunshine. How we suffer……

Our mid-week group, which likes to call itself ‘The Slugs’ (possibly some reference to the average age?) was boosted by a younger contingent yesterday because of the holiday, with a resulting boost in the average speed (damn it!). We must remember to ban these ‘juniors’ in future…… :-)

Cambourne 84kms

84kms @  24kph

The face of Britain by Simon Schama

Simon Schama is an experienced career historian, with a special interest in art history. This volume, accompanying the BBC series of the same name, is a long discursive treatise on how to understand and interpret the FaceOfBritain_SPLA_3517136chistory of a nation through portraiture.

It is as much a study of the relationships between sitters and their artists, as it is of the characters of the subjects themselves. Every painting has a context, and every context has a past history of events and people that lead up to the moment of the portrait being done. We learn about the intentions of the sitters and how they melded, or not, with the intentions of the artist. The portrait, ultimately, had everything to do with the immortality of the sitter, and the legacy of a life lived.

From the ‘warts and all’ representation of Oliver Cromwell to the stately majesty of Elizabeth I, every portrait tells its own story. And the story told by Graham Sutherland’s fateful portrait of Winston Churchill, destined to be hung in Parliament for future generations, was so grotesque to the sitter himself, that it ended up on a bonfire in the garden of Chartwell. It was just too curmudgeon for the likes of many.sutherland-1-EDIT-Kopie

Making hay……

Carpe diem…….

Poddington Odell loop 57kms

57kms  2hrs26mins  23.2kph  233m elevation

‘Springing’ into action….

On a beautiful sunny ‘spring’ morning (winter solstice, in fact!), Jenny insisted on a tandem ride……now it would have been churlish of me to say ‘no’, wouldn’t it?IMAG2328

A Proustian truth

As this is the season for dreaming of next year’s holidays and, in my case, the planning of forthcoming cycling adventures, Proust gives us a timely reminder:

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes” (Marcel Proust)

How right he is.


This guy surely had a death wish………

Ask your Mum first……

Don’t do this at home without asking your Mum first……..!

Have musette, will cycle….


I was given a musette by my local bike shop as a ‘freebie’ one day, and I never realised how useful a bit of kit it would be. For those who don’t already know, a musette in the world of cycling is the small shoulder bag used in elite road races for handing out food to riders as they fly past.

On my long cycle treks, I keep one rolled up (the size of a tennis ball) and use it for buying food to carry to a camping spot. For everyday use, I use it for carrying anything from books to food and drink.

Today, I was able to wrap a 50 mile ride around doing some of the inevitable Christmas shopping, thus lightening the burden of the experience a little, and going to one of our delightful small local market towns, which seldom ever sees the mad frenzy of the Christmas rush. I can’t imagine the ugliness of shopping fever ever hitting the quiet, restrained streets of Oundle…..

As I worked my way around the streets, dozens of cars were parked in every available space (and places with  no spaces), tailgates wide open, suitcases, sports bags and musical instruments being piled into the back……and yes, term was finishing for Oundle School, and there was an eagerness in the air for making a quick exit, and getting back home.

I thought wistfully back to my own teaching experiences of term coming down……and alas, they are becoming  ever more distant memories. Oh dear………


‘Midst the glare of winter…


92km, 300 metres of climbing, 4hrs riding….in the glare of the winter sun

The meteorologists told us we had said ‘goodbye’ to autumn 9 days ago, but thermometers around the country hadn’t been informed reliably of the event. From unseasonably warm humid days, today we were gaspingly plunged into the gloriously cool and sunny clime we are used to this time of year. It was perfect……..IMAG1004

Country House society by Pamela Horn

country house societyMost of my teaching career was spent in a school that occupied the former country residence of the Duke and Duchess of Manchester, a relatively minor stately home in its day, but one which dominated the local community in a variety of ways. After the last war, the Manchesters had to give in to the forces of economic reality, sell up and move out. And they had to accept their considerable losses cheerfully, because the house and estate were sold off to the local education authority for a trifling £12,500. Even in 1949 that was quite a modest sum.

The decline of the British country house, however,  began long before the Manchesters threw in the towel. It was the First World War that sowed the seeds of decline, when dozens of these properties were commissioned for use as hospitals, convalescent homes and army barracks. The landed aristocracy were forced into playing an active supportive role during the war, sending their sons off to the battle front and using their estate staff to work as orderlies, attendants and carers of wounded soldiers.

The crunch came with the end of the war, when thousands of battle-weary men returned from the trenches looking for gainful employment, women had enjoyed a taste of independence working in essential war services, and the government had to impose swingeing taxes on property owners to pay for the huge financial losses incurred by the war effort. This all led to the selling of land and houses, auctioning works of art and parting with jewellery and family heirlooms, and with the approaching stock market crash of 1929, many were reduced to penury.

In the space of little more than 20 years, the British landscape was to change beyond all recognition.

Meteorological winter begins….

……with a late autumn ride on a gloriously sunny day, with golden foliage clinging to the trees against the odds. I’d like to claim a headwind out, and tailwind home….but the reality was very different. It always is. Who would want it to be simple and straightforward anyway?


105km/65 miles


Passing a goal….

After a minor surge in my annual mileage last year, when I bypassed 13,000 miles, I decided to rein back a little this year and have 10,000 miles as my ballpark figure. After all, there is more to do in life than just ride a bike…… (do I hear you mutter ‘heresy’?).

Once over, I thought 10,000 miles would be outside my range. I know several people striving for the same……but here’s a little lesson in life (for me, at least). When you manage to ‘overstep the mark’ and achieve beyond a desired goal (as I did last year), in subsequent years the desired goal becomes strangely achievable…..and with a level of ease.

I was checking my annual mileage for 2015 just today, and discovered I am just 100 miles short of 10,000 miles…..and with a whole month still to go. Take a month off the bike? You have to be kidding……and go kicking tin cans around the village for 4 weeks? The open road still beckons…..and it is insistent.

Today’s ride: a 54km bash just before lunch…..and it helped work up an appetite.27.11.15.png

Suffragettes by Frank Meeres

The recent film, Suffragette, inspired me to dig a little deeper into the background of this nation-changing movement. The film, of course, was a fictional account featuring imaginary characters (mostly), and worthy though it was, it did not capture the complexity and longevity of the movement that had lasted over half a century.

The movement began as early as 1865, but it took many years before itSuffragettes gathered momentum in the early 20th century. Emmeline Pankhurst is widely regarded as the most notable figurehead, but many would say there were others (less well known) who were more capable and worthy of recognition. Among them were Emmeline’s own daughters, Christabel, Sylvia and Adela, and they weren’t always in tune with their mother’s vision of the future of the movement. Sylvia, in particular, became her mother’s most severe critic, and wrote a damning posthumous biography which proved especially influential in later interpretations of Emmeline’s life.

The first country in the world to grant the vote to women was New Zealand, in 1893, but Britain was not going to be influenced by an immature democracy in a former colony. Nor was she influenced by being pre-empted by Finland, Norway, Denmark, Germany, the US……and many other countries around the world. As one of the world’s oldest democracies, Britain had too much staid tradition to overcome…….and it took a world war and the liberation of women in the industrial workplace to see it nudging forward towards the inevitable.

Suffragettes by Frank Meeres is a succinct overview of the movement, not overly concerned with academic scholarship, but vivid enough in its detail to make the reader feel they have a greater understanding of the suffragette movement.

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