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.
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 it 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.
It is always nice to be given a chance to tell the story of my ride through Japan, and I’ve had a spate of invitations recently.
On Friday November 27th at 7.30pm, I will be talking to a bunch of cyclists at the Rockingham Forest Wheelers Clubhouse, 11 Ashley Road, Middleton, Market Harborough, Leicestershire LE16 8YP.
If you are curious and within reach of the clubhouse, do come along. Entry is free……and, I believe, refreshments will be served. I can’t guarantee the talk will be riveting, but the cake will be excellent!
No sooner do we learn to walk as toddlers, but ‘hot on the heels’ of that achievement comes the ability to run……or in the case of toddlers, to scamper and tumble in headlong mindless enthusiasm. But seldom do they really hurt themselves. Their bodies are so light and flexible that falls are sustained with the minimum of fuss.
So, is the thesis of this book a glaringly obvious observation: ie. that ‘we are born to run’? Well, I suppose that the writing of a 300 page book is based on the assumption that it is not. That the majority of people today see running as an unnatural activity, a huge inconvenience, and one to be avoided at all cost, is surely proof that very few (if any) are born to run. But, of course, we all know people (and you might be one of them) who run marathons, jog daily, train with a local athletics clubs…….but, still, they are a minority. McDougall’s thesis, after studying and running with the Tarahumara community in the Copper Canyon in Mexico, is that we have lost something that was genetically inherent in homo sapiens, and that is the ability to run to survive.
The Tarahumara people are a remnant (and there is another similar community in the Kalahari Desert) who have preserved their ancestral ability to run for hours and days with little, or no, rest and sustenance…..just as their forebears had done as hunter gatherers. Through them he learns about man’s innate ability to run prey into the ground, even the fastest and most elusive of prey like the antelope. They never hunted with spears or bows and arrows…..they simply pursued their prey relentlessly until it lay down with exhaustion.
Through many examples of modern world champion ultra runners competing against people of the Tarahumara race, he strives to prove to us that the raw skills of long-distance running are still alive and well, though there is much to learn from our primitive forebears.
If you know anything about the history of 16th century England, no doubt the subject of religion will feature prominently. The reigning monarch dictated which should be the established religion, and refusing to obey the wishes of the monarch could make life very uncomfortable. Indeed, many lost their lives because they refused to acquiesce and change sides.
In Amsterdam, on the other hand, the great change brought about by the Alteration in 1578 saw the city officially change its status from being Catholic to being Protestant. Unlike the ‘great alterations’ in England, this alteration did not cause a huge social and political earthquake. The Amsterdamers took it in their stride, and weighed up the pros and cons of taking a severely hard line attitude to dissent, and eventually decided that the wealth and talent brought by members of other religions to the city were immensely more important than ostracising them, or even executing them.
So Amsterdam settled into a long period of quiet acceptance, so long as the dissenting places of worship were not visible to the rest of the community. So over succeeding years, several buildings and attics were adapted to meet the spiritual needs of the dissenters, the most notable (and probably the only surviving example) is the Catholic chapel known as ‘Our Lord in the Attic’. An ingenious attic conversion that can accommodate several dozen in the congregation, but remains invisible to passers-by.
Amsterdam beckons for reasons far beyond its legendary tulips….believe me.
Now you may be thinking this a thinly veiled reference to its notorious red light district (…and yes, visitors do flood there in their thousands) and the equally famous cannabis supplying coffee houses (the only places in the whole of Holland where foreigners can indulge legally). But no…..Amsterdam is much, much more than that.
If you want to get to the palpitating heart of Amsterdam, and understand its very essence, you have to take in some of its excellent museums and the grand houses where the great and the good (and not so good) used to live. Spend an hour in Rembrandt’s house, then go to the superbly refurbished Rijksmuseum, and spend another hour in the golden age gallery, absorbing the masterpieces of the 17th century, until you are confronted by Rembrandt’s dazzling Night Watch…….trust me, you will be bewitched.
When Amsterdam underwent its huge religious earthquake, with the Alteration of 1578, when the city converted to Protestantism from Catholicism, the genre of painting almost immediately changed from expensively patronized religious art, to the secularism that became so famous of the succeeding century. Even formal portraits gave way to relaxed smiling couples on their wedding day, and drunken behaviour within families……..in the world of art, this was akin to a tornado sweeping through the population.
Then move forward in history and take a 10 minute walk to Van Gogh’s museum, and allow your mind to be rudely switched from the darker, sombre colours of the 17th century, to the bright colours and vivid brushstrokes of an artist who was hardly recognised in his day, who struggled to make a living through his art, and whose ultimate insanity drove him first to cut off his own ear, then to shoot himself…..at the absurdly young age of 37.
The museum has put together a joint retrospective of Van Gogh alongside the Norwegian Edvard Munch (famous for The Scream)…..two contemporary artists who learned their trades in Paris, who never actually met, but both betrayed an astonishing similarity not only in their artistic techniques, but also in their psychological and emotional states. The contrasts are enlightening.
A recent visit to Peterborough Cathedral reminded me that the memory of Edith Cavell was being celebrated this year……in fact, just three weeks ago, on October 12th. Following in those famous traditions established by the ‘lady of the lamp’, Florence Nightingale, she entered nursing (still regarded as an unseemly profession for ladies of her background in the mid-19th century) at the age of 30 (the same age as her pioneering predecessor). Having been largely unfulfilled by a series of posts as governess to rich families, she decided she wanted to devote herself to something ‘for the good of humanity’, and began her training in what was a rapidly evolving profession.
Though ambitious, with a strong desire to rise in the profession, her personality frequently got in the way. Quiet, self-effacing and not given to self-promotion, she lagged behind in scaling the ladder of promotion but, eventually, she was offered the post of Matron in a new nurses’ training school in Brussels. Her previous 5 years as governess to a rich Belgian family stood her in very good stead from a linguistic point of view, and she took on the post with great energy and vision in 1907.
Just 7 years later, while she was on holiday at home in Norfolk, she was caught by the outbreak of the Great War and, instead of staying put in the relative safety of rural East Anglia, she sped back to Brussels to resume charge of the rapid changes taking place to her school’s provision. But the day that wounded British soldiers started turning up on her doorstep proved to be a dramatic, and ultimately fatal, change in the direction of her life. In effect, she joined the underground resistance movement in Belgium and helped stranded allied soldiers escape from the occupied zone.
She, along with dozens of others, was arrested, seven were sentenced to death, but only two of them were eventually executed. Her execution, and the haste with which it was carried out, scandalised not only the whole of the allied world, but also caused much shame amongst the axis powers. Like Florence Nightingale before her, heroine of the Crimea War, Edith Cavell became a war heroine of the Great War…..so much so, that not only were statues erected in her honour and streets and hospitals named after her, but even a mountain in Canada came to bear her name, as did a feature on the planet Venus, the Cavell Corona.
A remarkable person whose right to sit comfortably side-by-side with the greatest heroes of this country is well deserved.
It is very easy to put down one Laurie Lee memoir and immediately pick up another. The sequence, however, was badly chosen…..I should really have started with Cider with Rosie and then moved on to As I walked out one midsummer morning, but the sequence mysteriously chose itself. The reality is I found an old copy of the former lurking on my bookshelves, and beginning the read was little more than a knee-jerk reaction. It was easy to do……
No doubt you will have already read Cider with Rosie, perhaps several times. You may have studied it for an exam, or it may simply be a long-forgotten read from you past. Unlike many memoirs, Lee not only captivates us with the actual story of his early years, but he uses a language that carries us along with his breadth of vocabulary, colourful local idiom, and a poetic prose that is a joy to read.
Born in 1914, just as the Great War was beginning, his mother moved the whole family to Slad, a small village in Gloucestershire. I say ‘the mother’, because the father had walked out leaving his wife to raise both his families (including the step children from a previous relationship). Lee grew up in a rambling untidy cottage with his 6 siblings, survived near-death experiences with bouts of illness, got up to all the mischievous things boys get up to, had his first sexual encounter in a hay loft (with Rosie, of course), until he packed his knapsack and began his long walk across Spain.
Through Lee’s childhood eyes, we not only see how he progresses from an age of innocence to a fully matured, sentient adult, but we also see the country (indeed the world) move from an age of rustic simplicity, poverty, disease and suffering, to an approaching era of rapid industrial and technological change, that would change the contours of the landscape for ever.
The use of optical illusions, or forced perspective, are common techniques in the art world, but when you come across one and realise that you yourself have been tricked…..well, that is some measure of the artist’s success.
In the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery the other day, after spending most of my time absorbed by the history of the city, Jenny asked me if I had seen the optical illusion on the ground floor. Of course, I hadn’t……even though I had walked right past it. So I went back to study it carefully, and as I approached it, this is what I saw…….……but then, as I stood in front of it, this was the ‘forced perspective’…..……and as I passed it (and apologies for the amateur videoclip) I got to see the full impact of the illusion…..https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RrIiCjvF8NA&feature=youtu.be
Anyone who’s read just one book by Laurie Lee will almost certainly have read Cider with Rosie, a favourite with GCSE English syllabuses, and a very accessible read for a younger audience. However, at the tender age of 19, in 1934, in common with Patrick Leigh Fermor who had set out on his walking adventure to Istanbul a year earlier, Lee left home in Gloucestershire with a knapsack and violin, and started walking to the south coast, then on to London.
Interestingly, he had set out on a journey of undefined length without a clear idea of where he was going. When he arrived in London, he stayed 6 months working as a builder’s labourer, but when it came time to move on, his decision to go to Spain (and not any other country) was entirely arbitrary, and founded on his unique linguistic ability to say just one thing in Spanish: “Can you please give me a glass of water”. Obviously, survival was uppermost in his mind…….
Arriving in Vigo, in the north west of Spain, the year 1935 found him walking across a country at a time when social and political ferment were the order of the day, and through the eyes of a naive young English man, we see the country rapidly sliding towards civil war, which caught him unawares down on the south coast. After almost two years on the road, he was finally rescued by a British naval frigate based in Gibraltar, but later decided to return to Spain to fight on behalf of the Republicans.
Like Leigh Fermor, amidst all the toil and suffering of travelling on foot, Lee managed to discard the shackles of his prim middle class childhood, and enjoyed many epic drinking bouts, raucous parties, sex with a variety of women, met notable people (like the poet Roy Campbell) and experienced the generosity of many people en route. More than just a long walk, his account gives us a snapshot of two countries on the brink of two catastrophic wars.
How can a city go through so much turmoil and destruction, as Berlin had done during the 20th century, and still emerge as Europe’s leading democratic capital in the 21st century? During our recent visit, we found a modern, vibrant city, a people who had evidently come to terms with their country’s recent past, recognised its full destructive impact, picked up the pieces and had moved on.
As I read Antony Beevor’s detailed analysis of the final downfall of Berlin in 1945, I struggled to understand how a city could rise up once again from such total devastation. What Hitler had meted out to the Soviets during the German invasion of Russia in 1941 was going to be repaid through spectacularly violent retribution by the Soviet Red Army.
The focus of the book is almost entirely on the progress of the Red Army as it marched down from the north. Stalin played a game of ‘cat and mouse’ with his western allies, concealing his real intentions, because he wanted the Soviet Union alone to claim the prize of taking the German capital. And he succeeded. Truman and Churchill were outwitted by their communist ally, and it was the Soviets who successfully fought their way, street by street, to the heart of Berlin, and finally raised the Soviet flag above the crumbling Reichstag.
As a former army officer turned historian, Beevor gives a detailed descriptive and tactical account of the final march on Berlin, but you need a strong stomach to digest the appalling levels of violence exercised by both sides. Not a book for the squeamish…….
I haven’t quite mastered the technical know-how for uploading my tracks from my GPS via my smartphone. I know it can be done via Bluetooth (but my GPS is not enabled for that) or via a special OTG cable and an uploading app……or I could record the track on my phone using an app like Ride with GPS (RWGPS), but that is very heavy on battery and, lacking a dynamo hub on my bike to recharge the phone on the run, I would have to carry a recharging pack. All extra kit……
So for the stats-addicted amongst you, here are links to the tracks. But before you guffaw at the shockingly low average speeds (and I would do the same….quietly, of course), do remember that we climbed nearly 4000 metres (13,000 feet) in total, and some of the climbs were approaching 20%. But it was all good fun, nevertheless………..
For those of you happy just to see the mapped routes, scroll back to the previous four posts, and you will see they have been inserted into the text.
We woke up on our last day, determined to make use of a fine morning before heading back home. At 8.30am we battled our way through the school run and immediately headed uphill….and it was freezing!
Ground frost and a chill mist made the first few miles an ordeal of endurance….until the sun began to show its face above the high ridges.
It was going to be a few hours of riding, notable more for its climbing than for the distance covered. We climbed and descended time and again, from one valley to the next, wending our way over high ridges, dropping down gated roads with grass growing down the middle (my favourite), through woods of towering Douglas firs…..in 12km we climbed over 600 metres, at an average of 5% (many stretches much steeper, of course)…
Dropping down to Betws-y-Coed, we relaxed in a comfortable cafe, and over coffee and cakes, I struggled to learn the art of transferring photos phone-to-phone via Bluetooth….”and you’re a bloody teacher” they said! Come on guys….gimme a break.
It has been a great few days, all thanks to this man’s organisation….
Shaun de Clancy, and the access he gave us to his climbing club hostel in Lantrwst. It was a perfect base giving us access to some of the best of Wales.
Thanks Shaun….it was a cracker!
To have three successive sunny days in North Wales is little short of a miracle….but the BBC weather app even promises sunshine on our fourth, and last, day.
So how is it that a bunch of old whingers like us deserve such blessings? I’ve said this before elsewhere, the nation needs to tap in more to the creative energy of our generation. We stop for 5 minutes by the roadside to admire a view and chat about some issue of national importance, and the problem is solved before you can say ‘boo to a goose’.
I tell you, we have much to offer on behalf of the wellbeing of the nation…..but nobody listens to us.
However, luck and sunshine do sometimes desert us. A local farmer had been hedge cutting along this lane, and 40% of our little group (ie. 2) were ‘gifted’ a puncture.
It was nearly 60%, because I pulled a long thorn out of my back tyre…..but luckily it never managed to pierce the Kevlar coating inside the tyre. So at the moment, I am the only one in the group to be puncture free these last few days. But there’s still time….
And so, what about today’s route I hear you say. Well it took us north along the eastern ridge of the Conwy valley, meeting the sea at Colwyn Bay, heading around the headland of the Great Orme to Llandudno (where we stoked up on a Wetherspoon’s breakfast), then onto Conwy where some indulged in a rather long liquid lunch (hence the shorter ride….. ) and then back along minor roads to Llanrwst, our base for the trip.
It all makes stunning terrain for long cycle rides.
As we sat in a cafe, surrounded by working men having their morning coffee break, I asked the others: “So what do we contribute to the nation’s economy and wellbeing?”
Of course cyclists are seldom caught unawares by an unexpected question. Quick on the response, we heard the following: we buy (and wear out) bicycles, so need a constant stream of spare parts; we patronize cafes and pubs during mid-week quiet periods; we frequently need accommodation; we need bits of technology, clothes……and the list goes on.
So if you think retirement is a breeze, with nothing to do, devoid of any sense of responsibility towards the nation……I’m sorry to disabuse you of that idea. We ride our bikes and work hard for the national wellbeing…….QED
Today’s ride was (and I struggle to find adequate words) simply one if the very best day rides I can ever remember. The sunlight, the land and skyscapes, the views of peaks (and frequently of Snowden itself) and the panoramas of valleys and coastline were to ‘die for’. We laboured up climbs, hurtled down to lakesides, we forged our way through woodland and lingered at dramatic vantage points……what more could I say?
Well, not a lot that would be meaningful…..
Beyond the guide books, I wanted something to give me a different perspective on Berlin before heading off on our visit. This volume by Rory MacLean, Berlin: imagine a city did just that. I wasn’t sure about its format at first, but a few random chapters in, I tuned into the idea of getting a glimpse of the inside of the city through a series of 23 vignettes.
Each chapter is devoted to a mini-biography of someone, whether famous or unknown, who either had an impact on the city, or who was impacted by the city. From Frederick the Great to Bertolt Brecht, from David Bowie to Marlene Dietrich, from Christopher Isherwood to John F Kennedy….along with unknown nationals and migrants……their lives were all intimately tied up at some stage with the fortunes or misfortunes of Berlin.
This is a city that has had a turbulent recent past. If there had been any vestiges of an ancient and medieval past, they were all successfully wiped away by the utter destruction of the city by allied bombers during the last war…….and its reconstruction developed a city of two halves. During the Cold War years, the political division between east and west spawned two ‘cities’ that were a hemisphere apart……..and since the fall of the Wall, the strip in ‘no man’s land’ that came to be called death strip, became the biggest building site in Europe, and is where some of the most exciting and innovative architecture is to be found today.
This volume is an unconventional way to begin your journey of understanding Berlin, but it makes a very interesting read, nevertheless.
Getting into the Reichstag requires some planning and patience, though entry is free to visitors. I tried to book tickets online, but there was nothing available for weeks in advance. We sought inside information from some young staff on the gate, and they advised coming early in the morning to join a queue……which I did the next day…….when I arrived at 7.30am, I found myself second in line.
The lady in front of me had arrived at 7am in the hope of securing tickets for her entire class of students. We chatted until a third person arrived, and discovered he was waiting to get tickets for his whole family. I had been warned about carrying ID for both of us (in our case, passports) but the other two were unaware that ID was needed, especially for those in their groups who weren’t present in the queue. As I secured our tickets for an evening visit (the Reichstag stays open until midnight) I watched the other two walk away dejectedly, presumably to return and make a second attempt.
The Reichstag, which is now the seat of the German Bundestag, was built at the end of the 19th century, to house the government of the German Empire. In 1933 it was severely damaged by fire (believed to have been caused by Nazi arsonists) and more or less fell into disuse until reunification in 1990, when it was decided to move the capital from Bonn back to Berlin, and to rebuild the Reichstag to house the parliament.
The prestigious contract was granted to the famous British architect, Sir Norman Foster, and he replaced the old dome with a magnificent glass dome, including a spiral walkway that takes visitors to the very top. We started our visit just as the sun was setting, so the views over the city illuminations were mixed with the luminescence of the fading sunlight. The upper balcony was a place to linger to enjoy the urban panorama, the base of the dome was also a place to linger, to study the information boards delving into the complex history of the Reichstag.
And right beneath us, looking down into the well of the dome, you could gaze on proceedings in parliament which, at 9pm, understandably had more visitors in the viewing gallery than deputies on the floor.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.