Author Archives: Frank Burns
Some hold-ups are annoying, unnecessary and downright frustrating, but if you insist on going for a ride through the countryside at this time of the year, you have to expect this from time to time……..and if you are in no hurry, and you engage with the farmer, it can be an informative and entertaining interlude in the ride……as this was.
The front-end of the combine (reaper/gatherer??) was so big, it had to be dismantled and separated from its enormous ‘parent’ and transported individually to the next field in line for harvesting. I asked the farmer the size of his combine: ‘Thirty five feet’, he told me……’but it’s not the biggest….which is currently forty feet’. I asked him if he had contracted it in: ‘No no, that’s mine….bought it last year….this is it’s second harvest……cost me £400,000. I’ll give it another year before I have to change it’.
I was trying to compute these enormous figures when I asked him when he would start to see a profitable return on his investment. ‘Profit? Profit? Nah, we farmers never talk about profit……..we’re farmers, after all’, he said, with a broad grin on his face…….
We stood and watched as this enormous beast began to swallow swathes of the field of rapeseed…….. simply astonishing.
Can a bike be faster than a train? Oh definitely….especially during this period of chaotic timetables on Thameslink.
I took the opportunity to hammer my way down to Potters Bar, close to the M25 (London’s outer ring road). It was 111km (70 miles) and it took me something over 4 hours, including a couple of stops. A super ride, along lots of surprisingly quiet country lanes, past George Bernard Shaw’s house, through parks and urban woodland, to Potters Bar station, where I would conveniently catch a train back to St Neots, just 17km from my home.
Conveniently? You have got to be kidding….! The first of my two trains was cancelled, for lack of a driver. Thameslink simply have not trained enough drivers for the new schedules. My second train from Stevenage was also cancelled, presumably for exactly the same reason.
So by the time I got home, including the ride from the station, my journey back by train had taken longer than my ride down. Moral of the story?
I suppose you could say the trains were delayed by a head wind…..😁
The animated versions of my routes along the south coast give a very interesting perspective, especially of elevation and the coastal direction……you will notice moments of significant hesitation and changes of decision especially going through urban environments like Portsmouth and Southampton….
Every journey throws up a few oddities, often in the most unexpected places. Having bought a pint of milk in a small garage food store, I realised I’d left my bike parked under this….
…and on the train out of Weymouth, I lifted up the loo seat to be confronted by this….
…a slightly edited version of which also popped up in one of the youth hostel loos….
…(using the now defunct English subjunctive) would that signwriters could always brighten up our lives, even when the message carries a finger-wagging admonition…
…..but the views from the tops were stunning.
The ride from the YHA (where I camped) in the New Forest began with a few kms of rough stuff, eventually dropped down to the beach at Bournemouth, where I had a glorious 12km riding between beach huts and a pristine white sand beach, the likes of which I had never seen in the UK….
At the end of the Sandbanks peninsula, the most expensive real estate in the UK, there is a chain link ferry that takes you over to Studland and the Purbeck hills, and my route took me past Corfe Castle, Lulworth Castle and Durdle Door….
…to finish on Portland (famous for its stone) and Chesil Beach, a long dune of stones and pebbles, made famous by novelist Ian McEwen.
Here I end my little flash-dash of 260km, camping in the garden of the YHA overlooking Chesil Beach….
and given the garden has a 15% slope, there may be a few slumbering bodies at the bottom by the morning….😊
Ah, the wind is coming from the east…..so back down to Brighton on a train crammed with beach-loving trippers who want to stretch out on the piercingly uncomfortable pebble beaches of the south coast……and get a tan.
I step off a beguilingly air-conditioned train to be greeted by the suffocating heat of Brighton… I started feeling week at the knees immediately….so, westwards I headed, enjoying a garden BBQ with family on my first night….
then on a long drawn out day, I painfully negotiated both Portsmouth and Southampton in my bid to get to the New Forest, only to find a chained gate trying to deprive me of my rightful access to a bridleway…..
I make a mental note to complain to the Forestry Commission….
but, as ever, there were moments to savour on the day’s 117km (73 mile) route….including the growing discomfort of the saddle!
Shopping errands become a ‘must-do’ when you can choose a route this nice…….. Vive ‘le shopping’!
You’ve all heard of ‘fly-tipping’…… the fly-by-night who leaves his rubbish by the roadside, usually so as to avoid paying an environmental fee at the waste disposal centre. Well, I’m going to add a new concept to the list of English phraseology…..’fly-kipping’. Ever done it? Well, you probably have at some stage of your life, but probably never on a summer solstice.
If you have followed my ramblings for any length of time, you will know I like to go out on an all-night cycle ride through the night of June 20th, and ride into the sunrise, which usually happens about 4.40am round these parts. Well, as with my concept of the ‘flash-dash’ which triggered an eagerness to ring some changes to my riding, I decided to ring a change or two in how I celebrate the summer solstice this year. Instead of simply riding through the night and getting home and into bed at 6am, I decided to sleep out, to ‘stay out on the tiles’ and without a tent. For those of you who like to free-camp (responsibly, of course), the attraction of camping out somewhere on the night of the summer solstice has to be a huge draw.
So, at 23.00 hours, I set off in the dark, my way lit partly by the half-moon peering from behind the clouds, and partly by my bike light of very basic lumen output. I wore high-viz and had flashing lights front and rear, but I was still very wary of potholes, and many of the roads had no white markings, nothing to mark the centre point, not to mention where the road ends and the verge begins. The local fauna were in full voice. There were noises coming from every quarter. Every so often an animal would dart across the road in front of me…..I could only guess that it might be a fox, a muntjac, a rabbit or hare. My average speed was quite low, but I managed to get to my chosen destination by 00.30 hours, hoping that the door would be open. And it was…..!
You might say that I was going to sleep on ‘a wing and a prayer’, or ‘down amongst the dead’, because I had chosen a little country church to bed down for a few hours, the name of which will not be revealed, though I’m sure that some eagle-eyed reader will have suspicions. When you approach a little church at dead of night, with only the light of a wispy half-moon, you may be filled with a mixture of feelings…..as I was. Fortunately, I am not superstitious nor do I believe in ghosts, and I’m (almost) sure that any strange noise in the night will have a natural explanation…..but I can assure you that churches at night are far from silent places. Indeed they aren’t…… there will be the cracking of roof timbers, birds or bats nesting somewhere, wildlife snuffling at the door, the hooting of owls and, if you’re unlucky, there may be church mice (or worse) scurrying about. Are you still tempted….?
My heart was still pumping from the exertion of the bike ride, so not an appropriate physical state for descending into slumber. I laid out my sleeping mat, climbed into my sleeping bag and waited for sleep to descend…..but of course, it didn’t…..well not immediately. But I must have drifted off because when I awoke suddenly a couple of hours later, I noticed that the early rays of dawn were just beginning to light up the windows. Two hours later again I opened my eyes expecting to see the fully risen light, but all I saw was complete darkness…….until I realised that, with the cold of the night, I had snuggled right down into my bag and had my face completely covered.
Uncovering my face I caught the whole building bathed in the bright sunshine of a perfect dawn. I had woken up just 5 minutes after the official time of the sunrise, and it was glorious. The mullion windows filtered the light coming into the nave, and the easterly sunrise enhanced the intense colours of the stained glass window. I immediately went outside and stood enthralled by the countryside waking up to the new day. This was a moment to savour, and the rationale behind going on this little escapade, a micro-adventure that I have decided to call ‘fly-kipping’…..you arrive, you sleep, you leave the place as you found it, leave a donation in the box, and enjoy the ride back home to begin the new day…….or go to bed if you are numbered amongst the ‘retired and idle’.
You won’t be surprised to learn (will you?), I didn’t go to bed……
Could this be the start of a new trend in cycling? If you were social media savvy and enormously hungry to make a name for yourself, you could plug a new idea and flog it to death until…….until, that is, you get to a point where people recognise the message and begin to think it is not such a bad idea after all……and from there it rolls on.
The Flash-Dash will be no media ‘rage’……especially since it climbs on the back of the much more media savvy Alastair Humphreys, long distance cyclist, adventurer and author, who launched the idea of the ‘micro-adventure’ a few years back. He very neatly sowed the seeds of the idea of leaving your place of work on a mid-week evening and riding your bike to the top of the nearest mountain, to the shores of the nearest lake, to the depths of the nearest wood, or simply to a place that is far from anywhere, and camping down for the night, whether with a bivvy, hammock or tent. Dine under the stars (if they are shining), listen to the wild life throughout the night, wake up with the dawn and (perhaps) the rising sun, have breakfast on whatever you are carrying, then cycle back to your place of work, having experienced something very different and invigorating. For sure, you won’t be discussing the latest shenanigans on Coronation Street or East Enders.
My concept of the Flash-Dash is very similar, but more extended and (perhaps) more spontaneous……and some would say a complete ‘cheat’. What? You sleep in a bed for the night, and you always go with a tailwind behind you, and…… and……you can almost guarantee good weather for the duration? You’ve got to be kidding….
It all sounds impossible, but read on. Cycle Magazine, the national publication of Cycling UK (with a membership of over 60,000) squeezed my little offering in amongst the Traveller’s Tales at the end.
Monday becomes ‘Twosday’…
Good to go off-road….and the track around Grafham Water is incomparable…forgetting, of course, the swarms of mosquitos by the water side. Being a Bank Holiday Monday, there were myriad bikers out enjoying this late spring holiday: from the kitted-out, camel-backed enthusiasts to the more senior rider with electric-assist machines, from the carefree ‘sit-up-and-beg’ riders to families with trailer bikes and child carriers….they were all there, and they all had smiles on there faces, except when they were struggling up one of the many little hills.
We passed a couple who had stopped to rest, and she looked at us on the tandem and the expression on her face seemed to say: “I’d like one of those, then he could do all the work….”.
We can access the track from a bridleway just 5km from our home, so no need to load the tandem into the car, and the round trip puts 25km onto the clock….so worth getting kitted up for it. And with a couple of cafés on the circuit, there’s no need to go off-piste in search of refreshments, and with Grafham Cycling also located on the route, any mechanical issues can be resolved during the ride.
A breeze of a ride down to Willington to eat cake with the boys ‘n girls……..😊 And don’t be taken in by the 0.04km headline box of the Relive animation…..it was actually 62km..
Cycling and sociability.
When we talk about cycling being a sociable activity, we are usually referring to the camaraderie shared on the road with a bunch of other like-minded roadies, and the banter and teasing that goes on at the coffee stops. But what if you are a lone cyclist? By that I don’t mean the hapless ‘billy-no-mates’, the guy whom no-one will cycle with, but just someone who chooses to be on their own, for whatever reason.
When I am on one of my long trekking rides in a far-distant land, I find riding on my own is a much more ‘sociable’ experience. But what do I mean by that? Simple really….if you cycle with a partner or a group, you are much more likely to spend your time almost exclusively with them. It is, after all, the dynamics of that kind of setting. However, if you are on your own, you find yourself engaging much more with the local people in passing, and they are much more likely to want to engage with you, to the extent that they may offer you a meal or even a bed for the night. This has happened to me countless times.
More locally, in your own home environment, riding a bike through nearby towns and villages, you feel much less intrusive if you decide to call on a friend without announcing your arrival. It is so easy to roll up to a friend’s house, spend 15-20 minutes with them, sometimes sharing a coffee, and catching up with the latest news. To do that when you are passing in a car is quite different, both for you and the friend. Stopping for a casual unannounced visit feels much more intrusive in those circumstances…….and people seldom do it. As a result, there are some 12-15 friends who live away from my village that I see more often, albeit for short snatches, by riding the bike. And when a friend complains that they haven’t seen me for a while, then I know that my occasional visit is appreciated.
Fighting the wind……not, not of the gastric variety, but what the elements unleashed this morning. But it was great tea and cake at The Stove in Bourn, with the ‘illustrious’ company of the Silver Slugs…….
Ah, the summer has arrived here in the UK……which just goes to prove my stupidity. Just as one swallow doesn’t make a summer, so neither do a few sunny days…..But I decided to risk all, including my own credibility, and take out my Litespeed titanium, and announce to the world “The summer is here”!
A smaller lighter frame, with enough twitchiness to keep my attention for the duration of the first ride….but it’s also quicker and more invigorating. Not really the sort of bike for relaxing into a long ride, but one to make the long ride just a little shorter……which may mean an earlier lunch some days…😁
Good to be back on the road….regenerated by a couple of weeks of alternative activities on the southern beaches of Spain: walking, yoga and swimming, it was good to feel renewed energy on the bike, and the (perhaps deceptive) lightness of the forward propulsion of pedalling.
But it was just my luck to have to stop mid-ride to help a young lady cyclist (this doesn’t often happen, believe me) who had fallen off her bike. Only a few days into learning to ride a bike, she had fallen on the grass verge and, unshaken by the experience, she had picked herself up, dusted herself off, but her bike needed a few adjustments before being able to re-mount. I raised the saddle a few inches for her, but she was nervous she wouldn’t be able to easily touch the ground with her feet. I straightened her handlebars and checked a few of the mechanicals to make sure they would work for her. A mile down the road, I stopped and looked back, and I could see her getting up to speed, so left her to it.
Most of us learn to ride a bike as children, but some don’t. As children, we are so used to the rough and tumble of childhood that falling off a bike is hardly novel or much more painful than any other fall. But learning as an adult is a different story. Having broken my femur on one occasion falling off my bike, I came to understand (somewhat painfully and late in life) that we no longer ‘bounce’ as we did as children. And that is the fear that deters many adult learners, just as it deterred my wife, Jenny……..but then she married someone who explored alternatives, like a tandem. For any non-bike rider who would dearly love to ride a bike, riding stoker on the back of a tandem is an (almost) perfect solution…….as it is for people who are sight-impaired, or have some other disability that keeps them from riding a bike.
If you know of anyone who is in this situation and would dearly love to ride stoker on the back of a tandem, then check out Charlotte’s Tandems, a charity that organises the loan of tandems to people with disabilities. They do a great job and have a network of volunteers around the country who can supply a tandem free of charge.
On the hottest April day since 1949, I hit the ‘hills’ of Northamptonshire with a group that meets up every Thursday in different locations. The idea is to gather at a coffee stop, the organiser gives out the route sheets and takes bookings for lunch, then everyone takes to the road in self-selected groups to meet at the pub for lunch, and from there everyone makes their own way home.
I always ride out to the café, do the ride in between, then ride home again, usually logging up between 80-100km, so it can occupy most of the day. This particular group has been meeting for 40-50 years, and some of the originals are still there, not riding the miles as they used to, but still active. And each one is a ‘cycling encyclopaedia’ of bicycle wisdom, anecdotal stories of their achievements and near-misses, and often masters of the art of bicycle-fettling. I always enjoy their company.
Just like straddling the equator, straddling the Greenwich Meridian should be just as momentous, but I wonder how many thousands of people going in and out of Cambridge on a daily basis from/to the west realise (or simply remember) that, geographically, they are moving from one time zone to another?
Let’s face it, even though this line of longitude became the official worldwide 0 degree point as far back as 1884, so that all time zones around the globe could be determined, there are many countries in the world that have ignored it, and have simply opted into the ‘time-zone next door’ for their own convenience.
This came to my attention many years ago after visiting Galicia (NW Spain) and Sicily in the month of February. Although officially in the same time zone (central European time), they were so far apart (east to west) that there was a clear 100 minutes of difference between their respective sunrises and sunsets, and if you look at the map of time zones, you will see that Spain should, geographically speaking, be in the Greenwich meantime zone.
However, you can imagine my disappointment at discovering that the actual line, verified thousands of times by modern GPS systems, is actually 334 feet to the east (c102 metres) which, at the speed of a Usain Bolt, is all of 10 seconds away.
Disappointingly, we have been living a lie all this time…….
Discovering a new piece of software that can bring your day’s ride to life helps you to relive the experience in a different way. And for those who haven’t yet discovered the joys of propelling themselves through the countryside on a pair of wheels, this kind of animation of a route may possibly kindle an interest.
As you will see from the photo embedded in the video, the weather did not inspire, but once on the bike, with the leg muscles warming up, the sheer momentum of the experience can make the weather irrelevant…….unless, of course, it is ‘tanking it down’……which it was the other day. But then the worst that can happen to you is…..you get wet…….and so what?
Our view of history over the centuries has inevitably been moulded and formed by the victors of battles, by the rich and the powerful, and by those who were able to read and write and, more importantly, use their knowledge of language(s) to form opinions. Seldom do we get to take on the perspectives of the losers in battles, of the weak and poor, and importantly of the illiterate. I see the social historian as someone who helps to bridge that gap.
T.C. Smout’s volume A Century of the Scottish People 1830-1950 is dominated by interpretations of how the ordinary peasants and the factory workers in the cities were subject to the control of the rich and powerful in society. From the inhumane clearances of the countryside to the appalling and dangerous conditions of the industrial environment, from the cruelty of employing children as young as 6 years of age in the mines and on the looms to the injustices shown to home workers in the textile industry, the story unfolds gradually towards the formation of unions and the establishment of compulsory education for all children.
Scotland in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was a tough place to live if you were a member of the majority social class. Child mortality was high, people died young of industrial diseases and accidents, and mothers frequently died in childbirth, not to mention all the other potentially fatal diseases like TB and typhus. There were no comforts, little food, and the living conditions were frankly appalling. By contrast, the succeeding 70 years up to the present time have seen changes that have transformed the lives of the majority to a level that would have seemed impossible in Victorian Britain.