Author Archives: Frank Burns
Let me do an unashamed plug for the City of Culture. Ah, come on……really…..you don’t know what I’m talking about? Whenever I mentioned to friends that we were going for a few days to the City of Culture, those who knew what I was talking about replied something like this: “What, you’re going to ‘ull? Why? Who in their right mind goes to ‘ull?”.
That reaction is, sadly, all too common. Kingston upon Hull (to give it its full name), the place that nobody visits because it is out there, on a limb, and you never go near it on your way to anywhere else. The people who end up in Hull only do so because they are actually going to Hull……..for some strange reason (apparently). The place that everyone loves to mock……but I’m now going to put the lie on that.
Hull is a happening place, especially now it has been elevated to the status of City of Culture. It began the year with an almighty bang, with a firework display second only to what happened on the Thames at New Year. Go to Hull this year and you will find museums bulging with special exhibitions, art galleries with veritable masterpieces, theatre and musical events going on in the most unexpected places. The Ferens art gallery has a Francis Bacon and a stunning Rembrandt. The University Art Gallery is displaying BP prize winning exhibits. The Museum Quarter in the old town will keep you happily engaged for hours, from the history of slavery and its abolition (William Wilberforce was MP for Hull), to a splendidly bedecked museum of transport and street life (including a whole section on the history of the bicycle).
You can take a taxi ride that introduces you to the past and present of the city, or take a walk over the Humber Bridge wearing a pair of headphones, listening to readings, poems and music that will enhance your walk. We spent a whole morning in the aquarium known as The Deep, happily absorbed in the dazzling variety of sea creatures, competing with excited toddlers and their parents for space next to the aquaria.
The day’s activities over, one evening we escaped to nearby Beverley, to its Minster, and let the dulcet tones of the Minster choir waft over us at their choral evensong. The other evening was spent back at the Museum Quarter where the History Troupe, under the leadership of Rob Bell, led us engagingly through the history of the Great War, digging beneath the surface to reveal the fortunes and misfortunes of the many thousands of Hullensians who fought and died in that dreadful conflict. In Run for the Line, the story celebrates the life of the outstanding HKR rugby player, Jack Harrison, scorer of a record 52 tries in one season. But we are constantly brought back to the hardships suffered by the people of Hull, to the deaths in the Pal’s battalions which were decimated on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, and of the 7,500 men who perished and the 25,000 other casualties who were left maimed, both physically and mentally, by the brutality of warfare. The readings and the songs were scripted from the collection of narrative poems written by Rob Bell, entitled Sharp Street, and the power of the music alongside the descriptive narrations left the audience deeply moved.
Before 2017 is out, make a decision to spend some time in Hull. Ignore what all your friends say about the city. As likely as not, they will never have been there. I guarantee you will be entranced.
I love it when a visit to a historic country house in the UK throws up a bit of obscure history that didn’t quite make it into the A level history syllabus. And this is precisely what happened when we recently visited Farnborough Hall in Oxfordshire.
I am sure, like me, you will have heard of the window tax, used extensively in the 18th and 19th centuries in several countries, as a way of raising revenue for the crown. Instead of the income tax we pay today, families then were taxed on the number of windows (above a certain number), meaning that those with the biggest properties were taxed more heavily than the rest. Because some wily home owners started bricking up windows, thereby reducing their tax bill, in 1792 William Pitt had a brainwave. In addition to taxing windows, he imposed a tax on the number of clocks and watches owned by people. The resulting effect was exactly the same. People got rid of surplus timepieces, the bottom fell out of the clock-making industry, and pubs and inns started doing brisk business because they were often the only establishment in a community to have a clock. Yes, you’ve got it….locals would pop in to check the time and be distracted by the merchandise.
The few clocks that were made during this brief period (lasting only about 6 months), came to be known as Act of Parliament clocks, and I’m sure if you are an owner of one dating from this time, you will be sitting on a fortune.
Time to book your place on Flog it! or the Antiques Road Show.
This semi-autobiographical novel has the most unusual structure of being a dramatic monologue, between the protagonist Changez and his non-speaking American listener, whom he met in a Lahore tea house. Changez recounts his own story, that of a Pakistani from an impoverished upper middle class background who goes to the USA to study at Princeton University. His degree takes him on a meteoric career with a company that assesses the marketable value of businesses before they are taken over, but his life comes crashing down in the wake of 9/11, when all American citizens of his skin colour become immediate suspects of being collaborators, and his failed love affair with Erica leaves him in emotional turmoil.
He walks away from his high-flying career and returns to Lahore, where a reassessment of his own loyalties to family and country drives him to reconfigure his own national identity, and begin to look critically at American involvement in his own country’s affairs. At the outset of his career in New York, he was asked by a co-worker where he would like to be in 25 years time, to which he answered: ‘a dictator of a fundamentalist Islamic state’. His answer may have been intended as a joke, but his quiet admiration for what the 9/11 attackers had achieved adds an edge to our assessment of the real character of this apparently pro-American Pakistani.
I suspect readers will be deeply divided about the merits of this type of fiction, but it certainly held my attention throughout, and the fact it has been translated into 25 languages and has been shortlisted for numerous literary prizes (including the Booker prize) is, perhaps, testament to it literary value.
I had snuck my solo into the car, along with the tandem, to do a slightly longer route on our last day in Norfolk, and I had arranged to meet Jenny midst the restrained opulence of Felbrigg Hall near Cromer, an estate that dates from the 11th century, and owned continuously by the Wyndhams from 1450, until it was passed to the National Trust in 1969, for safe-keeping on behalf of the nation.
It’s only in remote rustic corners like rural Norfolk that you will find a level crossing where you have to open the gates yourself, stop, look and listen for ‘approaching traffic’, then make a life-threatening dash in your car across the railway line, before closing the gates behind you. And if you fail to close the gates, watch your back! You may be fined a tidy £1000 for bad behaviour.
But a small reward for the effort will bring you to sights like these……..old windmills that once worked round the clock (or when the wind was blowing, at least) to grind the wheat. Some are still working models today.
My route took me out to the coast, where the strong winds from the north were whipping up the waves, guaranteeing the beaches an eerie solitude. But there was beauty in the unbridled lack of restraint………
Blickling Hall, Norfolk
A few days in a small country hotel gave us the opportunity to use the tandem to get to a nearby National Trust country estate, following some of the narrow winding country roads so characteristic of deepest rural Norfolk. But I was beset by an almost insuperable mechanical issue when we arrived, not because it was impossible to resolve, but because I had stupidly left the necessary tools at home. I have names for people like me……*&@##+#+!!
The front gear changing mechanism had mysteriously got completely twisted, and I had neither an adjustable spanner, nor the appropriate allen key to fix it. But because we were at a National Trust property, I reasoned they had some maintenance people on site and, sure enough, a ‘Mr Fix-it’ appeared with the right tool to sort out the offending mechanical. You might say I was making full use of our membership of the association.
But we had a most enjoyable 3-4 hours at Blickling Hall, an extravagant Jacobean pile that dates back 400 years. Then we ‘motored’ back to the hotel with a gently assisting wind behind……..
…..and passed through a little village pretending to be the equal of the eponymous town where Jenny had been born in Derbyshire……..but it lacked the altitude, and the ‘attitude’!
A truly absorbing and moving first hand account of an idyllic holiday in the Masai Mara that suddenly turned into something of tragic proportions. Judith (Jude) and her husband, David, had spent a perfect week on safari in the Masai Mara in 2013, followed by the anticipation of a relaxing beach holiday just 40km south of the Somali border. The remoteness of this picturesque beach engendered both its beauty and its danger, and Jude felt uneasy about its deserted tranquillity from the outset. With good reason because, on the first night, they were awoken by intruders, David struggled with one of them, and Jude was roughly dragged off to a skiff, thrown on top of a pile of fuel cans, and taken off on a long journey, to be kept prisoner as a hostage for over six months in Somalia.
What she didn’t know for several weeks was the fate of her husband. She had fondly believed he was still alive and in the process of negotiating her release. She discovered, however, during the first phone call with her son, Ollie, that David had not ‘survived his injuries’. He had, in fact, been shot. What had already been a very difficult experience for Jude turned into something so painful that she wasn’t sure that she could survive.
This memoir is a very well written account of her six months in captivity, of the relationships she struck up with her captors, of her methods of survival, of the notes she kept (which were destroyed by her captors), and of the hourly pacing around her small room to help keep herself physically and mentally fit…….hence the title ‘A long walk home’. A remarkable lady and a remarkable story.
A breathless ‘bash’ around the shores of the 8th largest reservoir in the country. 5km across open countryside, crossing an old wartime airfield, I can be on the bridleway that circles the water, taking in the views and swallowing the midges as I forge my way around. The sun was setting, the light disappearing fast, and the scent from the bluebells in Savages Spinney was heady. More importantly, I had most of the track to myself…….unbridled freedom!
David Sore came to my attention during a BBC documentary about the Raleigh Cycle company a few weeks ago. I grabbed my phone as I was watching, logged onto my local library service, and found he had written a book about his cycle journey around the world, on his modified Raleigh bicycle, in the 1960s. At the age of 25, he began a journey of nearly four years, riding 35,000 miles through 21 countries, and his volume A journey round the world: a cycling memoir is his record of that journey.
Though it is a very commendable self-published account of a memorable, life-changing experience, and could be an invaluable guide to anyone wanting to dip their toes in the world of long-distance touring, it does suffer from a few flaws. Published 40 years after the experience, it relies heavily on his diary notes and latter-day research, and fails to ‘bristle’ with the liveliness and enthusiasm of a recent experience, a point I noted elsewhere with Patrick Leigh Fermor’s trilogy about his walk to Istanbul in the 1930s.
This ‘chronological detachment’ probably also encouraged a style of narrative that dwells overmuch on the ‘nuts and bolts’ of his journey: food, drink, camping, the gearing on his bike, and the almost mechanical focus on a place-by-place description of everything he encountered. It would have been a much improved narrative had he explored his inner feelings and perceptions more, his reactions to places and, above all, to the people he met. We learn very little of the man himself, what makes him tick, and how people along the way altered his perception of the world.
It is, however, a worthy read, a story that has a beginning, middle and an end and, even through the narrow style of his writing, he does give a flavour of the rigours of the life of the long-distance cyclist.
In a saner moment, I would never choose to pick up a book about cosmology, but then I had recently read the memoir of Jane Hawking Travelling to Infinity, which had led to a second viewing of the film The Theory of everything, so I had to complete the ‘trilogy’ by making an effort to read A brief history of time. It was not the challenge I had expected, even though many of the concepts went straight over my head, but Stephen Hawking very adeptly puts into layman’s language the very complex concepts about time, the universe, black holes and the continuing expansion of the universe.
I never expected to be so engaged, and that probably explains the more than 20 million sales in over 40 languages of a book that would normally be confined to the reading rooms of university research departments. Hawking succeeded in making theoretical physics ‘cool’, even though the vast majority of those who purchased the book (I imagine) have never managed to read it in its entirety, or not at all. Like Shakespeare and the Bible, everyone wanted to have it on their bookshelves, but few have made it a reading priority.
If you have a copy in your bookcase, I would highly recommend re-visiting it. It is certainly worth the effort.
Saying goodbye to club mates at Roxton Garden Centre to make my way home, I had allowed the Garmin Connect website to route my ride. I had chosen way points and then let the website choose the route between those points. It could have been a big mistake and I knew it was going to be a bit of an adventure because the website frequently can’t distinguish between metalled roads and unsurfaced tracks and sure enough, once I had crossed the railway line at Tempsford, I was sent off along bridleways, across land that landowners with a ‘fortress mentality’ tried to seal off as being private, the metalled surface led on to grass tracks, which led on to a narrow forest track that was just about rideable on a road bike.
My cross country route lasted 6-7 miles, ascended the odd unclimbable hill, crossed rutted stretches far too rough for 23mm tyres but, in compensation, I came across my first display of cowslips just pushing their heads through the surface, and in the denser parts of the forest, I stumbled across some early season bluebells.
When you discover that Bloomsbury pulled back all the review copies of one of its books before publication to pulp them, because something potentially libellous in its text was exciting a few lawyers, you know that the covers are going to be filled with some contentious thinking.
Brown and Woodhead have endeavoured to write an account of the last 30 years of the history of the Anglican Church, exposing what they think have been all the weaknesses and aberrations that have led to the spectacular decline in church attendance, and the end of a history where the Church was formerly accepted as an institution of the establishment. According to them, the Church is no longer the religion of the state, and its interior self destruction is as much to do with its own internal wars as it is with the general changes in society as a whole.
With so much rivalry amongst the different power bases (the charismatics, evangelicals, liberals and Anglo-catholics, to name but a few), and the radically different perspectives of the Church on continents like Africa and North America, it is astonishing that the Church has held together as a single institution. Then add to that the controversies over the ordination of women and the integration of gay priests and bishops, and you begin to wonder whether now is the time for them to call it a day, and break off into their sundry groups, and seek their own identities.
If you ride a bike, what better way of getting yourself fully insured, legally protected, and in touch with hundreds of groups and events around the country, than by joining up with the nation’s largest cycling charity, Cycling UK. With a history stretching back 138 years and current membership standing at 70,000, you’ll find it is a truly representative organization that works hard for the interests of all cyclists, whether you are a keen sports cyclist or someone who just likes to commute and take short leisure rides. Outlay can be as little as £2-£3 per month, but the benefits are outstanding. I have been a life member since 1978.
To follow it up, you can ring 0844 736 8451, or check out the website at www.cyclinguk.org/MGM
I wasn’t expecting this to be published so soon after my trip. Such short articles normally get archived until some future date when there is space and a need for them…..and then they are not always published. This appeared in Cycle Magazine, national magazine of Cycling UK, with a circulation of 70,000.
Through my local library’s online services, I am able to access publications (free of charge) from around the world, including the British magazine Cycling Weekly. Because it is a racing publication, and much of its content is devoted to the road racing scene, I read it very selectively, because my interests in cycling lie in other quarters. However, I have noticed in the last few editions, with the advent of the racing season, more and more articles are devoted to the processes of training, nutrition, use of technology, interpretation of statistics, and a whole panoply of reviews of ‘new and improved’ bits of kit that will bite huge chunks out of the average monthly salary.
I skim through some of these items with a degree of bemusement, happy not to be spending the silly money some are prepared to spend for infinitesimally small gains, and equally happy not to become a ‘victim’ of the statistics of my performance on the bike, such as pedal cadences, heart monitors, power meters, dynamic profiles and so on. I go out on my bike to have fun, enjoy the countryside, and indulge myself in that sense of utter freedom that is so fundamental to the enjoyment of cycling.
My two shorter rides over the weekend took me in a less familiar direction. You might know my penchant for heading out against prevailing winds, to catch that delightful tailwind on the way home. Well, unusually for these parts, the winds had switched to the NE, so my rides took me roughly in that direction, rediscovering roads I haven’t ridden for several months. It made a very pleasant change…….
Jane Hawking, the first wife of Stephen Hawking, was moved to write her memoirs after Stephen decided to separate from her (and eventually divorce her) after 25 years of marriage.
She married Stephen knowing that he was suffering from a rare form of motor neurone disease, which was a progressive disease that would only grow worse in time, understanding that Stephen might only have a few years to live. She threw herself into the relationship with mind and body, made untold sacrifices to nurture her weakening husband, and do everything she could to support him in his scientific endeavours. In fact, initially, she put her own life on hold for the sake of her husband.
This moving memoir is a very detailed personal account of how she coped (or didn’t, in many instances) with Stephen’s altering physical state, his rapid promotion to the status of a world celebrity, of how she managed the upbringing of the three children she bore, her relationship with both sets of parents, her endeavour to complete her own doctoral thesis in medieval Spanish poetry, and the whole panoply of the ups and downs of the very hectic life they led. It is amazing how she simply survived.
At nearly 500 pages, this is the abridged version of her original memoir written in 1999, Music to move the stars, and became the inspiration for the much acclaimed film The Theory of Everything. The book held my attention unfailingly, and I would highly recommend it.
It’s a warm wind, the west wind, full of birds’ cries;
I never hear the west wind but tears are in my eyes.
For it comes from the west lands, the old brown hills.
And April’s in the west wind, and daffodils. John Masefield
Over the last several weeks, anyone who has been out ‘battling the elements’, for whatever reason, will have been treated to the weather fronts persistently coming in from the west. And if, like me, you frequently let the direction of the wind dictate your direction of travel, you may have inevitably decided to head out and face the full flagellation of the wind in the first part of your journey. And the winds of late from the west have been strong……so most of my routes have taken me west, south-west or north-west, in the hope of catching that elusive tailwind for the homeward journey.
However, my trip out to Brixworth, 42km to the west, was pre-ordained, to meet up with a bunch of fellow cyclists for the inevitable coffee and cake. But the outward was gruelling. Heading into a 19-20mph wind, the trip out took me a full 2 hours, but the return was gloriously fast. As we sat in the friendly comfort of a community café run by the Christian Fellowship, we chewed over the fat of matters-cycling, and on the way back, I spied a board advertising lunch in the village church of Chelveston, and enjoyed soup and cakes in a 13th century building, set within a community that is recorded in Domesday in 1086.
Photo by Iain Macaulay
After a tortured childhood, a desperately unhappy spell at Charterhouse School where he was bullied mercilessly, and his fear of the approaching prospect of going up to Oxford University, Robert Graves quickly signed up for service in the trenches at the outbreak of World War 1.
He vividly describes life and death in the trenches; he drank heavily to assuage his fears and calm his nerves; he was wounded several times, once so severely that he was believed to be dead, and his death was publicly announced and relayed to his parents. The fact that an orderly spotted breath in his ‘corpse’, as it lay amongst dozens of other corpses waiting to be shipped out, was a remarkable serendipity. Though he eventually recovered from his injuries, he was destined to see out the war in non-combative military roles back at home.
After his failed first marriage, he met Laura Riding and, together, they left the UK and settled in Mallorca. It was a bitter separation from his homeland, hence the title “Goodbye to all that”.
It’s easy to cruise through country communities, some only a cluster of houses, admiring the local architecture, spying churches hiding behind a screen of trees, sweeping over packhorse bridges that date back centuries, and within minutes you’ve left them behind anticipating the next village.
But stop occasionally, root around, find information boards or street names that tell a deeper story, and you will be amazed at what you might find. Odell, for example, has a manor house at the top of a hill that is called Odell Castle. Much more than just a name, shortly after the Norman invasion in 1066, a motte-and-bailey castle had been built by Walter de Wahul, with a stone keep, where the family lived for the next 400 years. The much restored castle survived until 1931 when it was destroyed by fire, and the present manor house was built in the 1960s.
Villages like Milton Ernest will carry connections with a famous person, even though those connections might have been fleeting. The famous musician, Glenn Miller, for example, spent most of the war entertaining American troops in Europe, but sadly met his end when his aircraft disappeared in bad weather in 1944. He had been stationed at a local airfield near Milton Ernest, and his death is commemorated with a plaque in the village hall.
Then I could mention the history of Thurleigh Airfield, but easier to give a link that gives a complete history of its role in World War 2.
OK, it’s just a picture of my bike by a small spinney…….so what?
Well, for me much more than that…….the spinney is called Salomé Wood, and about 20 years ago I met someone emerging from the spinney pushing a heavily laden bike.
“Hi! Are you OK?” I asked (we roadies tend to make sure fellow travellers are not in a fix…..and if they are, we do what we can to help them).
“Yeh, I’m fine. Just packed up the tent and I’m on my way? One of the nicest little woods I’ve slept in for months”.
“Goin’ far?”, I enquired.
“Oh, just to Vancouver……..”. He left his sentence hanging in the air, waiting for the inevitable follow-up questions…. Of course, I had a battery of questions. You don’t often meet a lone traveller emerging from a wood having spent the night under canvas, and off to the west coast of Canada.
He told me a little of his story. Separating from his wife several years before, he decided to pack it all in, salvage what monies he could from his marriage, and set off on his loaded bike to travel the world. All that he owned in this world was on his bike…….
“So, you decided to come back home for a while? Have you been cycling the UK in the meantime….?”
“No, no…..had to come back to sort out a few issues, and I house-sat for a friend while he was away. He had left his fridge full of food, he had a comfortable house with all the mod-cons, big TV, stereo hifi in every room, jacuzzi in the bathroom…….for the first few days I couldn’t believe my luck. All this comfort and luxury……not used to it”.
“Was it hard pulling yourself away from it?”. Thinking I knew what his answer would be, he caught me off-balance by saying just the opposite.
“No, no, I had to get out of it. After a few days I started getting restless, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I honestly couldn’t handle the easy comforts, the sitting around all day, having no purpose. So I had to come away early and get back on the road”.
I then said something that I later realized was a stupid observation. “So you spend all your time travelling…..moving from one place to another……and all you have is on your bike? That’s an amazing lifestyle” I said.
“Hey, don’t confuse what you are doing with what I am doing. You’re just on a short fun ride for the morning, whereas this is what I do. This is my life. There’s little fun and recreation in this…..it’s a way of life”.
We said our goodbyes, I wished him well on his journey, and I went away and thought long and hard about his final words. Some encounters have a lifelong impact…….