Category Archives: Aspects of Britain
On a recent four day trip over to the Brecon Beacons in South Wales, we were able to delve beneath the surface of some of the “history makers” of these bonny isles. Like any member of the National Trust or English Heritage, we enjoy learning about our history through the buildings that have been left the nation as an inheritance, invariably by the aristocrats and wealth-makers of bygone ages.
The perspective we get is, naturally, as seen through the eyes of the people who had influence……
……and influence is not just a natural result of birth or connections, but is fundamentally rooted in wealth. The size of your income and bank balance are hugely significant factors in your ability to influence the course of history.
In our thousands, we flock to gape in awe at the fabulous country estates owned by the rich of bygone days. We hear the tales and scandals of how they made their money and, often, how they squandered it.
But how often do we stop to think, and analyse, the ways in which they made their money? So often the misery and squalid living conditions of millions have been the result of their lack of munificence as employers. So often the success of their business ventures had its foundation in human abuse, child labour, inhuman working hours and conditions, low pay, subjugation of strikes, punishment of ring-leaders, eviction of tenants……and the list goes on. In Merthyr Tidfil, in the mid 19th century, average longevity among the poor was only 17.5 years. Why? Living conditions were so appalling that over 40% of children died in early childhood and, those that weren’t eventually killed by avoidable diseases, probably died as a result of some avoidable industrial accident, that could have been prevented by some basic security measures.
For the wealth-creating aristocracy, people were often seen as a replaceable commodity. Life had little value other than its potential to produce wealth for the master. On the altar of productivity, millions were sacrificed.
But on the brighter side, we also soaked up the beauty of the Brecon Beacons covered in their winter garb….
…and enjoyed the heritage trail around one of the UK’s smallest cathedrals…..
Just as the equator separates the north from the south, so the Greenwich Meridian separates the east from the west. The big difference being that the former is a geographical phenomenon dictated by the shape and movement of the earth around the sun. The latter is a man-made phenomenon developed to compliment the already understood notion of latitude…..which, of course, is ‘longitude’. The understanding of both was vital for sailors navigating around the world.
But I’m not a sailor, so what relevance has this to matters cycling? Not a lot, but on my ride out to Barton, near Cambridge, I happened to pass from west to east…….and after my tea and scone with a bunch of mile-eating roadies at Burwash Manor, I crossed back again on my way home. I even got off my bike and stood astride the two time zones, my left leg being a couple of micro-seconds behind my right leg……. People travel from far distant countries to pay a visit to our Greenwich Conservatory to do just that…..stand astride the time line……as they do the equator in countries like Ecuador.
But there was no evidence of a climate difference between the two time zones. The night before, I reckoned it had rained equally on both sides of the time line, and there was no way I was going to risk riding across this little torrent…….yes, believe me, there is a road beneath this.
Radio 4 is putting out some fascinating stuff these days. This year being the 8ooth anniversary of King John’s signing of the Magna Carta in 1215, a document that has had major repercussions through the centuries in many countries across the world, it was good to hear that Melvyn Bragg was entrusted with the presentation of its history over four programmes.
Believed to be the foundation stone of most modern democracies today, it was astonishing to discover that the first version of Magna Carta was denounced as unlawful by the Pope within weeks of its publication, re-establishing the king’s divine right to, not only be the law-maker in his own kingdom, but also to be above the law and immune from prosecution.
The death of King John, however, brought the child King Henry III to the throne, and the rebellious barons once again saw their opportunity to re-establish the principles of Magna Carta, which was finally ratified in 1225.
Though most of the clauses have now lost their relevance in modern democracies, the very principles on which they were based are still pertinent, and have helped lay the foundation of constitutions around the world, most notably that of the United States……to name but one.
A series well worth attention: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04wtchv
I must be growing up and beginning to betray flickering signs of a new sensibility. Once again (will this become a habit?), I allowed the threat of icy roads to persuade me to leave my set of wheels in the garage, and don the little used walking boots for a two hour tramp over fields, along streams, around fish ponds, through woods and copses, breaking ice on virgin pools of water, picking up mud on rapidly thawing furrows………….
And at the end of it all, I tell myself……..I should do this more often. I accessed places that can’t be reached on a bike, was reminded of landmarks that can’t normally be seen by the casual passer-by, and rediscovered dells and niches, viewpoints and landscapes that merit a few moments of contemplation.
When out pedalling the miles, I frequently get distracted. Some distractions lead to unscheduled stops…….and this stop, some 20 miles (30kms) from my home, served to remind me of the importance of Norman Cross during the Napoleonic Wars, more than 200 years ago.
Norman Cross, some two centuries ago, was nowhere near any of the battlefields of the Napoleonic Wars…….but that is precisely why it was chosen as the most suitable spot for creating the very first prisoner of war camp on these islands. Some 80 miles north of London, with ample water supplies and ready sources of food, it was remote enough to discourage French prisoners from trying to escape, but not too far away to make it impossible for the transfer of prisoners, as and when prisoner exchanges took place.
In the 15 years of its existence, some 30,000 prisoners passed through its gates, but the resident population seldom rose above 5000 at any one time. Over 1800 died of natural causes (usually some form of infectious disease), a few swapped sides and joined the British army, and still others chose to stay in this country after their liberation.
Prisoners at Norman Cross relieved the boredom by making ornaments from wood, bone and straw marquetry. These were often sold – there was a regular market beside the prison gates. Many of the objects made are on show at the Peterborough City Museum and Art Gallery where there is a gallery dedicated to the Norman Cross Depot.
The camp was closed in 1816, but it had established a tradition that would feature prominently in future wars, especially the two world wars of the last century.
The Entente Cordiale between Britain and France came in 1904 and in 1914 the Entente Cordiale Society put up a memorial column to the memory of the 1,800 prisoners who died at Norman Cross. The column – a Napoleonic Eagle – was an imposing sight for people travelling along the A1. However, in 1990 it was vandalised – the column was knocked over and the bronze eagle was stolen, never to be seen again.
The Norman Cross Eagle Appeal committee raised money to restore the memorial. When the A1 was rebuilt in 1998, the memorial column was re-erected on its original base on a new site, close to the site of the Depot. A bronze eagle, created by sculptor John Doubleday, was finally unveiled in April 2005.
I don’t regard myself as a pedant, and I try to avoid conversations that begin with “now, when I was a lad…” or “in my day…..” or even worse “in the good old days……”, when English was written and spoken properly…….but I have to confess that I am frequently amused by current uses and abuses of language.
We’ve all seen, by the roadside, garages that advertise “MOT’s while you wait” or signs that warn you a road is “Unsuitable for HGV’s”. Now the abuse of the apostrophe is so gaily rampant these days as to prompt a group of language conservationists to form the Apostrophe Protection Society…….I kid you not. If you are guilty of abusing an apostrophe in a public forum, they will hunt you down, ridicule you in public, and make an example of you before the international English-speaking community. If you get away with just a life-sentence in a high security lock-up, count yourself lucky!
Now, as some of you know, I take a ‘moderate’ interest in all things cycling, and I read a lot from a variety of periodicals, memoirs, travelogues, reviews and biographies. Cyclists, in general, are a relatively literate bunch. Some may lack imagination when it comes to writing about their reflections on a route or journey they have enjoyed but, generally, they can form sentences and
paragraphs, know roughly where full-stops, commas and apostrophes go, and get most of their spellings correct…….
Now, I did say only “most”, because there are a lot of pedallers out there who still can’t distinguish their ‘peddle’ from their ‘pedal’, or their ‘peddlers’ from their ‘pedallers’. I have just this minute read the following in an article: “….a tandem does really need two peddlers”. Now I really want to know if a pair of tandemists “will peddle their tandem to a car boot sale, so that they can pedal their wares”……or is it the other way around?
Excuse the unintended puns, but I hate tinkering with people’s (or is it peoples’) thinking, because to do so can mess with their ‘cycle-logical’ equanimity, but I really do need to know, when I climb on my bike, am I ‘hawking’ or ‘spinning cranks’?
Elsewhere in the world of cycling, there have been other developments in the use of language (and not just in cycling either). I’ve always thought of ‘podium’ only as a noun, but I now have to bow down to the superior intellect of our celebrated TV commentators who will quite happily say things like: “….now has Chris Froome done enough to podium at the end?”.
And if you always thought that ‘medal’ was only a noun……well, think again. It does actually exist as a verb meaning ‘to decorate with a medal’, but its usage has now been stretched to mean ‘ to win a medal’. Throughout the 2012 Olympics, we kept hearing things like: “….Wiggins is approaching the finishing line, and it looks as if he’s done enough to medal…..”….or is that to meddle? (Now I’m really confused).
So, what would the BBC’s erstwhile Brains Trust (or was that Brain’s Trust?) have said about all this?
Some of the most celebrated English naturalists seldom strayed far from their homes to make their astonishing discoveries. On my cycle route to Santiago de Compostela a couple of years ago, I chanced by the home of Gilbert White in Selbourne, Hampshire, and learned that through painstaking observation of the behaviour of swallows in his own village, he concluded that they migrated to other lands during the winter. From that seed of observation sprouted the theory that many species of birds (and animals) followed the same patterns of behaviour.
Charles Darwin, the man celebrated for having the wisdom to unwrap the mysteries of evolution, spent 40 years living in Downe House with his wife and children. Apart from his 5 years travelling the globe with HMS Beagle, the bulk of his study took place in his home, and out on the 18 acres of land purchased with the house.
He spent 40 years patiently observing and conducting experiments, and the theory of evolution was only one of hundreds of theories that emanated from that small domestic environment. In fact, one of his major studies concerned the huge impact of the humble earthworm on the well-being of the planet. The last book he published before his death contained the results of his life-long study of the worm…….and this from a man who was being celebrated (and vilified) the world over for the ‘earthquake’ he caused amongst the thinking classes.
Darwin had the wisdom to publish and then withdraw to the peace and quiet of his home environment, allowing the intellectuals of his time to ‘clear up the mess’. So it is astonishing to discover that his theory of evolution, in the hands of opposing intellectuals of the time, was used to justify the arguments of opposite camps.
‘Social Darwinists’, on the one hand, argued in favour of the theory of ‘the survival of the fittest’ being applied directly to human society: allow the weak and the poor to die off, and the strongest and wealthiest will propagate the earth. (The foundation of the Nazi final solution…..?). On the other hand, Karl Marx himself embraced the theory in proposing the class struggle. If the poor and the weak are likely to suffer and die at the hands of the rich and powerful, then they should rise up and fight for survival.
If you visit Downe House in Kent, allow a whole day to take in the length and the breadth of this fascinating house. More than just a home to the Darwin family, it was the laboratory from which new thinking was to change the way we viewed the world.
Trying to cover the last three miles to Stonehenge can be a trial. You think there is an accident ahead as the traffic creeps along at slower than a snail’s pace. The truth is somewhat more mysterious. There are no visible hold-ups, no roundabouts or traffic lights that seem to be delaying the traffic…..in fact, there is no explanation other than the fact that curious drivers slow down as they pass Stonehenge, probably to have a lingering look at the megalith without having to stop and visit it. For us, a three hour journey stretched to five hours, and we got there just in time for our allotted slot.
Now with its new Visitor Centre, the history and background to this stunning piece of ancient history is all laid bare. No longer can you wander amongst the stones, but you can get wrapped up in the myriad theories of the who, the how and the why of this circle of ancient stones and barrows. My favourite is the long-held belief that Merlin was the architect. Then the Romans were on the list of suspects, and latterly the Druids. But, of course, none of those were the culprits.
Now we know for certain (?) that it was the ancient Britons of 3000BC who were the proven master ‘bricklayers’. Just think of it…. this pre-dates all the admired wonders of Egypt, Rome and ancient Greece. And for centuries the world had thought the folks on these islands to be too stupid and savage to be the authors of such a wonder.
It’s not just our weather that catches people by surprise!
Cycling back from a Local History Society gathering this evening, I approached my home village of Kimbolton from the east, some 30 minutes before the setting of the sun. As I passed the east wing of Kimbolton Castle, my brakes applied automatically………
……and as I swung around to the west side, I peered through the Gatehouse, and the western frontage was bathed in that warm sunlight that only comes with the ending of the day.
If we open our eyes and look carefully at our familiar surroundings, searching for the extraordinary in the unremarkable, we will sometimes find those coveted diamonds in our own backyard. As T S Eliot once said “you will get to know the place for the first time”.
No, this will not be a standard catalogue of reflections from someone who was roadside at the Tour de France coming out of Cambridge.
But it has to be said, in no other sport (I think….) will spectators stand for several hours (even camp out for several days) to catch so little live action. I was there 3 hours before the peloton arrived, and got to enjoy………wait for it…….believe me this is worth waiting for………. I got to enjoy all of 30 seconds of live action.
The peloton had left the neutralized zone just 500 metres up the road and they were winding up to racing speed as they left the city. Perhaps the most exciting bit was seeing two riders begin a very early break…….but that was it. 200 riders can easily pass you in 30 seconds…..and you don’t even get to pinpoint who is who in the bunch….it is just a wave of brightly coloured lycra topped by sleek aerodynamic helmets and shades.
But it’s amazing how roadies wearing their trademarked club kit find each other at these eventsand then after all the excitement (all 30 seconds of it…….), the numbers swell to five as they seek refreshment at the famous Grantchester Orchard Tea Garden, sitting in the shade of the very same apple trees (I guess) as did the First World War poet Rupert Brooke, who lived in the Old Vicarage next door (now Jeffrey & Mary Archer’s house).It’s a hard life!
The above in the village of Elton, famous for its baronial estate of Elton Hall, and its Loch Fyne restaurant. The cafe in the Walled Garden is worth a visit.
The following in the remote setting of Little Gidding, sparkling under the spring sunshine:
After the wettest winter on record, we are now promised a dry week. Three cheers for the meteorologists!
Rupert’s view is the spot where Prince Rupert (The Royalists’ commander-in-chief) mustered his troops to prepare his attack on the Parliamentarians, led by Sir Thomas Fairfax. The Royalists’ position commanded a high ridge, normally a distinct advantage on the battlefield, but the Parliamentarians were hidden by the contour of the land, and were able to maneuver into a position to catch the Royalists by surprise.
This viewing platform gives you a sweeping panorama to the south, giving you an idea of the Royalists’ perspective. Despite rough parity of numbers between the two sides, the Royalists were overwhelmed and massacred. King Charles escaped, but the 100 women camp followers on the Royalist side were put to the sword, an atrocity against civilians which was almost unheard of at the time.
One of the King’s places of refuge was the tiny community of Little Gidding in west Cambridgeshire, which he visited on May 2nd 1646. But he rapidly ran out of options and eventually surrendered himself to the Scottish Presbyterian army. After nine months in their ‘care’, he was sold to the Parliamentarians for the sum of £100,000……..a veritable king’s ransom.
Distance covered: 73 miles
After two weeks of cycling across the sweltering flat plains of Florida, sometimes into 20 mph headwinds, it is good to be back negotiating the ‘lumpy landscape’ of rural Northamptonshire.
The route out to the village of Gretton (near Rockingham) took me across large swathes of sparsely populated countryside, through tiny villages of only a handful of houses, to a village hall where the local community put on a monthly lunch, and feed us the best in homemade soups and puddings. We are usually a group of a dozen or more cyclists, who have come from a wide radius, and the lunch venue is our focus not only for the ride, but also for a gathering of like-minded people of the road, most of whom have pedalled several miles to get there.
There were so many airfields in this area that, not surprisingly, many accidents occurred during the routines of training. With the huge loss of manpower during airborne raids, young pilots had to be trained up quickly as replacements, and their preparation was seldom as thorough as it would have been in peace time.Distance covered: 72 miles
A quick dash out on the bike, to catch the last few hours of rare sunshine this afternoon, had me stumbling into this sign along a Bedfordshire country lane:
The emphatic underlining certainly makes a point, but what of the import of the message? To my knowledge, the only litter to allegedly cause brain damage are the contents of fluorescent tubes and cat litter (in babies especially). Now let’s not be alarmist…… neither of these unlikely dangers are going to feature in the depths farming country. But what other explanation……? Someone just practising his/her sign writing? Feel free to comment.
Though we are not the south west, and still less the Somerset Levels, we can still put on an impressive display of flooded roads
…I traversed at least half a dozen, unsure of what unexpected danger might lurk in the depths. But it was a risk worth taking…………so long as you don’t meet an oncoming vehicle. If you do, and they don’t slow down……..who is going to have very wet legs (at the very least) when you emerge at the far end? But there is a secret for avoiding this…..cycle down the middle of the road through the flooded area, and guess what? The oncoming traffic will either stop and let you through or, at least, slow down to a crawl.
Use the same trick on a narrow single track road. Oncoming vehicles sometimes expect to maintain their speed as they approach you and brush by you, sometimes squeezing you off the road through intimidation. If you can hold your nerve and cycle down the middle of the road towards the oncoming vehicle, you will force them to slow down, and then the two of you can negotiate a passing point at a gentle pace. Accidents can be averted by the cyclist if he emphatically occupies his space on the road, and visually communicates (sometimes by positioning, sometimes by eye contact) with other road users.
To get an early start this morning on the bike, I had to battle the rush hour.
Now, in a small community of about 1200 inhabitants, you wouldn’t think that should be a problem. But then Kimbolton has a secondary school, a Prep School and a Primary School, as well as a small industrial estate and numerous businesses on the High Street. But once beyond the parish limits, the going got much easier…..
I headed west, first into Bedfordshire, then into Northamptonshire, and wound my way through dozens of little villages, through rolling countryside, crossing numerous swollen rivers, until I arrived at Naseby Old Vicarage Tearoom (tantalisingly close to the site of the famous battle of Naseby, which proved to be the downfall of King Charles I).
Once beyond Brixworth, with its beautiful Saxon church, I found myself crossing the old estate of Cottesbrooke Hall, its parkland still preserving the open aspect of so many aristocratic estates, with tree lined avenues, gated roads, and flocks of sheep roaming at will. Red kites were in abundance and, amazingly for mid-January, the birdlife was in full song. In the absence of a prolonged cold spell this winter, much of nature hasn’t yet realised that winter is upon us.
On the return, I chanced by Kelmarsh Hall where, close by, there is a Buddhist Centre. It hosts meditation sessions, retreats and study courses. But it also has a cafe which is open to all, and is a particular favourite amongst cyclists.
After 6 hours on the road, I managed to get back home just before the heavens opened. A rare example of the ‘winds of fortune’ being on my side.
For those of us who didn’t join the hundreds of thousands along the Thames at 12 midnight, we have the benefit of playback.
Enjoy! Click here to view.
How many people would go strolling on Christmas morning around their former place of work? Very few, I would guess. But then I had the privilege of working in Kimbolton Castle, which is now Kimbolton School. At half a mile from my home, its park land made a perfect environment for a Christmas morning stroll. After the storms and floods of recent days, this morning was a real bonus.
And as I passed the south face of the Castle, directly in front of the room where Catherine of Aragon died, I wondered how she had spent her last Christmas in 1535, just two weeks before her death, on January 7th 1536.
For those of you who have been kind enough to follow the meandering and sometimes incoherent ramblings on these posts, thank you, and I wish you a very happy Christmas.
If neither traditional circus nor classical dance is your scene, you may find a niche in what comfortably sits outside of both, but depends on both for its inspiration.
Cirque Eloize, a Canadian dance company, sits in a middle ground of being neither a circus act, nor a dance troupe in the traditional sense. Their show iD (currently on with Sadler’s Wells at the Peacock Theatre in London) is a riveting mix of circus and urban dance, loosely based on the West Side story theme of young love and gang rivalry.
Throughout the performance, there is a throbbing sound track, a multimedia visual backdrop that creates shifting urban scenes in 3D effect, and the troupe of dancers are in perpetual motion, whether gyrating on the ground, balancing on a tower of chairs, dazzling us with trampolining or cycling skills, or simply proving that the human body can twist and turn in directions that it was never intended to. This performance is as exhausting for the audience as it is for the performers. Absolutely stunning.
It’s the best unread seller in Spain (discounting the Bible), and the average volume weighs in at about 2 kilos. Only the endurance reader will begin at page one, and stay with it to the last of its 1,500 pages. As with War and Peace by Tolstoy, it would be nice to be counted amongst the minority who claim to have read Cervantes’ Don Quixote in its entirety. But like most students of Hispanic literature, I could only honestly say that I read just enough to get by in exams.
But now, many years later, I make a fresh start from page one (Kindle version this time, weighing only 171 grams), and within a few hours of negotiating the 16th century Spanish of the early chapters, I chance upon the famous episode of Don Quixote tilting at windmills. Now Don Quixote had got it into his head that the world was in serious need of a chivalric knight at arms, who would mount his trusty steed (Rocinante), clothed in an old suit of armour, a barber’s basin for a helmet, an old sword and lance, and would head off to perform deeds of chivalry, and all in the name of his beloved Dulcinea del Toboso.
Then, one day, he chanced upon a landscape of some 40 windmills and, believing them to be evil giants, he attacked them.The delusional Quixote would not accept his valet Sancho’s realistic observation that they weren’t really giants, but just windmills, and the giants’ arms were merely revolving blades. They were invincible. They couldn’t be defeated by conventional means.
As I mulled over this incident in the life and adventures of Don Quixote, my thoughts turned to the real life struggle our little community is having with the location of wind turbines just outside the boundaries of the village. The headlong rush into green energy has led to many communities like ours mounting a rearguard action to block their arrival.
I won’t rehearse all the arguments of why these 125 metre evil giants should not be built little more than a thousand metres from dwellings, and in full view of dozens of ancient heritage buildings, including an 18th century castle. But having already defeated the proposal once (the process of which took over 2 years) we are now countering a second attempt and, although the omens are currently in our favour, the battle (or even the war) hasn’t yet been won.
So step in Don Quixote. We need a delusional knight, with dented sword and barber’s basin for a helmet. We need a man of chivalric vision, riding his white charger, lance at the ready, to do battle with these evil giants. Or maybe this is the time for a delusional cyclist, kitchen broom and dustbin lid in hand, to go out and meet the foe, and engage him on the battle field. The realists (like Sancho) will tell him he hasn’t got a chance of winning. The foe is invincible and is set to win the day. But even in defeat, Don Quixote was triumphant. He left the battle field with head held high and self esteem intact. He had, in fact, won the day. A chivalric deed had been done. Which makes him one of the most endearing characters in Spanish literature.