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.
After a recent visit to the Knole estate in Kent, the home of the Sackville family for over 400 years of tortuous inheritance, the 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…….
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…..in what might be argued to be the most beautiful corner of the British Isles.
The 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…..so 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?
How 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.
After 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…..
The 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!
Between the Yorkshire Dales and the Lake District lies the Lune Valley and the Settle-Carlisle railway, a remarkably beautiful landscape, but one that is ignored by the bulk of visitors to this region
…from the remains of medieval castles
….to the sweeping flow of valleys following the winding watercourses that formed them
Having climbed the heights through Sedburgh and Garsdale Head, we descended for 11 glorious continuous miles, with breathtaking views on all sides…
….to have our progress arrested by a fortifying cafe break in Kirby Stephen. 80 miles covered with over 4000 feet of climbing.
The climbing muscles were being broken in……in preparation for the mother of all climbs tomorrow……the Struggle and the Kirkstone Pass. Watch this space…..
A 2 hour train ride dropped me and the bike in Darlington, with the prospect of a 70 mile crossing of the Pennines, the range of hills running the length of northern England, linking north with south, but separating east from west. It was a homecoming to the county of my birth…..and as I had always suspected, there was blue blood running through my veins…..
…..land of the prince bishops.
Barnard Castle is a jewel in the crown, with its stunning Bowes Museum, a huge attraction both because of its location, as well as its content
Then as I laboured along the unavoidable A66, the long-awaited summit was announced by the border crossing into Cumbria
…..running close to the highest pub in England, at Tan Hill, and no mistake about what the terrain holds in store….
…..but to my relief, the next ten miles were a glorious descent into Brough. I had caught good weather crossing the backbone of England….in bad weather, it can be a bitter experience.
But then I have to re-cross it in a few days time to catch my homeward train……..
There is something I consistently fail to understand about human psychology, and that is the intimate relationship between pain and pleasure. Now I am not referring to any perverse elements of human nature, the sort that you might seek in dodgy bookshops or on dubious websites. No, I’m referring to the transparent tendency amongst homo sapiens to seek out opportunities to subject themselves to crushing pain and discomfort, swear and complain about it, find someone else to blame for it, say that they’ll never do that again as long as they live…….and actually mean the opposite.
I remember once taking part in a 24 hour cycle ride in the Scottish Highlands, something known as a 400km Audax, and it rained solidly for 22 hours. At about 3am in the middle of the night, after a short rest and refreshment stop, somewhere desolate and remote in the western highlands, we climbed back on our bikes feeling totally miserable, wet, unloved and misunderstood, and I said to my Mancunian travelling companion: “Never again…..never will I do this again…..in my life!!” And he said: “Ay, never again……until the next time, that is”.
D’you know……..he was absolutely right. Like goldfish swimming around in their little bowl, what happened just a few seconds ago is quickly erased from the memory, and before long, we repeat what we vowed we’d never do again as long as we live. That just about sums the psychology of endurance riders like myself. The more dire and hellish a ride has been, the more intense is the pleasure, for simply having survived it, and lived long enough to……..well, do it again.
So it is with this in mind that in 24 hours time, I will take myself off to Penrith in Cumbria, join about 500 other bike riders for the annual CTC Birthday Rides, and spend the whole week sleeping in a tent in the coldest and wettest part of the country, and going for daily 80 mile rides amongst some of the most vertical climbs you can imagine (Honister and Kirkstone passes, Tan Hill, ‘Cote de Buttertubs’…and much more), with the likelihood of hitting a total of 40,000 feet of climbing by the end of the week.
It will give me a huge amount of pain to complain and swear about, but like a goldfish, it will be forgotten in a trice and I’ll be off somewhere else looking for more. Now try explaining that to a ‘sofa bear’.
An eminently readable book and, as ever, very entertaining. Bryson had lived in England for some 20 years before taking six weeks out to travel the length and breadth of the country, mostly by public transport, before he and his family left for the United States. So these are not the reflections of a newcomer. These are the observations of a man who has spent most of his adult life in England, but he still adopts the posture of the surprised and often shocked American who is still veritably puzzled by much of what he encounters.
Now, Bill Bryson is a much respected writer, whose books have sold in their millions. One time Chancellor of Durham University, awarded severally by different bodies around the world, including the Royal Society of Chemistry, and an honorary OBE for services to literature…….. he has a lot of status in the world at large and is a household name in many countries. If he weren’t American, we might even claim him as one of our national treasures.
But this, my second reading of Notes from a Small Island, has been an occasion for studying his style and format a little more closely, appreciating the appeal that brought him to prominence in the 1990s, but also revealing some of the ‘cracks in the paintwork’ of his writing. Like many, I could revel in the perceptiveness and self-deprecating humour of many of his anecdotal stories, but as the journey proceeded, I found myself growing a little weary of a travelogue that is dominated by repetitive train and bus journeys, ugly 1960s shopping centres, the food and beer that he consumed (and the mediocre restaurants and pubs he patronised), hotel rooms that he slept in, and the never-ending nostalgia for those lost ‘architectural gems’ of the past……which in many cases were insanitary monstrosities belching out filth that shortened peoples’ lives by at least a couple of decades.
His prose would have been better populated by the people he could have met, the social/political/religious/ethnic and other experiences that would have given the impression that he was actually travelling in a country of 60 million inhabitants, and not just fleetingly glancing at environments that he pretended to understand by simply walking through them. A day visit to a city doesn’t make you an authority on that city, nor bestow the privilege to lambast the local town planners for their ‘heathen tendencies’. Am I being harsh?
As for his use of the English language, this master wordsmith had my brows arching from time to time, with phraseology such as: “but I trust he had better weather than I”, “a relative of my wife’s” and “what a remarkable series of improbabilities were necessary to its construction”.
Now some of you will go ‘tut tut’ to these observations, because Bryson is only reflecting what is common usage in modern English, but I would say that a man of his literary talents should be setting us all an example. After more than 20 years in the UK, married to an English lady and working for several reputable British newspapers, he can’t use the US/UK linguistic divide to explain away some of his language foibles.
Having said all of that, if you haven’t already read this eminently digestible volume, read it as a kind of dessert if you’ve just finished something like War and Peace, or the complete edition of the Barchester Chronicles. It will settle the stomach for you……
A cycling friend would sometimes try to wind me up by waxing lyrical about the supreme aesthetics of the modern turbine, making specific reference to the 10 erected just outside Burton Latimer. Built as the first wind farm in Northamptonshire, its fame competes with the vast Weetabix factory, both fairly ugly constructions, but the one offending more by its visual impact, and the other by its olfactory presence, bearing no resemblance to the aroma of what lies in the bottom of your cereal bowl in the morning.
Then through Brixworth, the setting of one of the most stunning Saxon Churches in the country. Though it has undergone many additions and alterations over the ages, a lot of the original structure from the 7th century still remain to this day.
If you are in the area, it is well worth a visit.
For me, this is turning out to be a ‘Churchill year’. Why? Well, first of all it is the 50th anniversary of his death, which I remember well. In 1965 the nation was in mourning, and because of his status as a war hero, he merited a state funeral. So his anniversary is the inspiration, but his fame and notoriety has also been a moving force. A larger than life character, he inspired as much contempt as he did admiration throughout his life.
This overview of Churchill’s life in Chartwell comes as part of a package that includes all (or most) of Churchill’s frenzy for buying and renting properties, of moving from one house to another, of being a part of that multi-ownership aristocracy that always seemed to have, or acquire, the finances to carry out their flamboyant schemes of rebuilding, refurbishing, altering details here and there…….until everything was just right. Until, of course, the need for change reared its head once again.
This book by Buczacki is his first outside the field of horticulture. It is very specific in its content, and focuses almost entirely on the properties owned or rented by Churchill and his wife Clementine, and more specifically, Chartwell (which we visited only a couple of weeks ago). If you are looking for something more biographical and analytical, this is not for you. And I have to say, I did struggle with some of the minutiae of property alterations, changes to land and gardens, disputes with architects and builders……but most impressive was the ability of these people to think ‘big’ when it came to developing their homesteads.
The last day of July.….how to celebrate the 212th day of the year? Why (you might ask) does one need to celebrate such a non-event?
Well, did you know that on this day in…….
1703 Daniel Defoe was placed in the pillory for seditious libel…….he dared to satirise High Church Tories!
1990 It was pronounced National Flag day in Hawaii……which, presumably, is a national holiday for all the islands.
1991 The START 1 treaty, controlling the proliferation of nuclear arms, was signed between the US and Russia
And it happens to be the day the Spanish Armada was spotted off the English coast, that K2 was first conquered by an Italian climber, that the British Navy discontinued its daily rum ration, that Fidel Castro handed over power to his brother Raúl, and when JK Rowling celebrates her birthday.
I mean, what better reason for climbing on the bike and going for a 65 mile venture to the northern reaches of the county of Northamptonshire, and gaze over into the delightful county of Rutland?
And the summer countryside was at its best…………
After reading Journey to the centre of the earth by Richard and Nicholas Crane, I was finally prompted to extract a book from my bookshelves that had been beckoning me for several years (you know the story…..you see an enticing book in a bookshop one day, can’t resist buying it, then it goes on the shelf never to reappear). Well, Atlas Biker by Nick Crane is an expensively bound quality hardback, so I’m hoping I didn’t pay full price for it when I bought it!
Crane is a knowledgeable geographer, experienced adventurer and fanatical journeyman, whose mastery of the English language embellishes his descriptions of the natural world, and whose keen eye for the detail of logistics, coupled with his determination to complete the ‘job in hand’, make him both a demanding but supportive expedition partner, and one who is unlikely to take his eye off the ultimate goal.
This book is all about an attempt to traverse the length of the high Atlas mountains in Morocco, to climb and descend (on mountainbikes) the highest mountain in north Africa, Toubkal (4,167 metres), and to take a film crew to capture the experience in all its graphic detail. There were accidents and other upsets, misunderstandings and unintentional diversions from the route, and the demands of the film crew were always in danger of scuppering the entire expedition, which was strictly limited to a 20 day duration. Why? The sponsor who was financing the expedition had made it a non-negotiable condition.
I won’t spoil the story……but it is certainly worth reading.
……or be beaten by the weather?
The accuracy of weather forecasting these days can create dilemmas. In the days when forecasting was more of an art than a science, we cyclists relied heavily on the potential inaccuracies of forecasts, and took our chances anyway. Today, however, its a different scenario. Three weather apps were telling me this morning that rain would set in shortly after 10am. Dilemma: do I go out with the club (and get seriously wet) or head out for a pre-breakfast solo ride, cover the same distance and stay dry?
I’m not usually a fair-weather cyclist, but today I fancied my chances of staying dry, then settling comfortably to watch La Course, the ladies’ elite race around the closed circuit of Paris, followed by the final stage of the Tour de France, where we might witness Froome’s overall victory followed by Cav’s winning sprint finish on the Champs Elysée. It’s hard to believe that three years ago we had never had a British winner of the Tour, and now, in the last four successive Tours, we have already clocked up three wins, had our first dual winner, and boast a sprinter who may (one day) overhaul Eddie Merckx’s record 34 stage wins.
So I gave myself just three hours to get an 80 km/50 mile ride in before the rain, and I had timed it (almost) to perfection. I felt the first spots five miles from home, and caught the first shower with just 2 miles to go. With well-disguised delight, I pitied the dozens of sportive riders whom I passed en route. They were going to have a seriously wet ride, and most looked ill-prepared both for the cycling and the weather.
In the tradition of elite riders in Grands Tours, I stayed in the saddle for three hours and snacked on an energy bar from a back pocket. In imitation of the elite riders? No. For the much more prosaic reason of beating the rain……..
Originally built as an Archbishop’s Palace, it eventually fell into the hands of the Sackville Family, a dynasty of enormous wealth and influence, who have occupied the property for over 400 years. Like all powerful families, the narratives of the individual members go to make up a complex but fascinating kaleidoscope of life, and the stories of their connections with the Bloomsbury group have filled volumes.
Then out came the tandem, to labour the five hilly miles to Ightham Mote, one of the oldest medieval moated properties in the country, and only exists today because of the many rescue plans of successive owners. Then, 30 years ago, it was ‘gifted’ to the National Trust by its American owner, Charles Henry Robinson…….and after many years of labour and £10 million of expenditure, this stunning property is now secured for the foreseeable future.
The route to and from Ightham Mote took us through challenging but delightful wooded landscapes.
As members of the National Trust, what better way to visit a number of properties in a carefully chosen area than to ‘park up’ up for a couple of nights in conveniently situated accommodation, and use the tandem to cruise between properties? Well, I say ‘cruise’, but the reality is somewhat different.
North Kent is certainly not cruising country……..every other place name has the word ‘hill’ embedded in its identity……but delightful countryside it certainly is, and no accident that over the course of history many wealthy and influential people have had their country ‘piles’ conveniently located to the capital, the very place where they exercised their power and influence and, in many cases, made their wealth.
The primary objective of this visit was Chartwell, the family home of the Churchills. The place that Winston retreated to so as to escape the turmoil of political life and running a war; the place where he overcame his ‘black dog’ depressions by painting and building brick walls;
the place where he played with Jock, his marmalade cat, and sat by one of the ponds looking out for his golden orfe; and the place where he produced a prolific output as a writer and historian.
Then on to Emmetts Garden, just a few miles away, to be dazzled by the colours and landscapes of a late 19th century garden, influenced strongly by William Robinson.
A 21 mile circular ride that combined the best of the north Kent countryside with some fascinating insights into the local history.