Category Archives: Aspects of Britain
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…
Oh dear, rural war is about to break out again….. In our group of villages, we spent a couple of years and about £150,000 fending off the wind turbines…….. so far, we have won the battle……but not necessarily the war.
As I reflect on our curtailed tandem trip along the Rhine, and await a definitive diagnosis of the scaphoid bone at the fracture clinic timorrow, some routines have to be maintained, but adapted to the circumstances. Since climbing on the bike is not an option, the great outdoors is now enjoyed on two legs, and the shift in pace brings different perspectives as I climb out of the village across recently ploughed fields, and lose sight of civilisation for a hour or so.
The wolds in these parts are not high, but high enough to give panoramic views of the village and surrounding countryside, with its castle at one end and the church at the other. If I’d had a pair of field glasses, I might have peered into my old teaching room at the castle.
I have memories from my teaching days of looking out of my windows and seeing walkers (like me, but more often with a dog) wending their way across the fields, negotiating crops and small footbridges, and frequently envying their freedom and apparently care-free lives, while I was still ploughing the furrow of earning a living. Now I am one of those walkers…..and I now sometimes pass my former teaching room, look up at the window and quietly say to myself: ‘and I’m not there’.
I rode the length of Coniston Water where Donald Campbell made his last, and fateful, attempt at the water speed record in 1967. Here is the video of that attempt, and below is a cutting of a press report of deep-water divers finding some of his remains at the bottom of the water 34 years later. The find was not greeted with universal pleasure amongst family members……….
Campbell’s remains ‘are found’
by GRAHAM KEELEY, Daily Mail
Divers recovered what they believe to be the body of Donald Campbell from the bottom of Coniston Water in the Lake District yesterday.
Thirty four years after his water speed record attempt ended in disaster, bones were found in a racing suit near where his boat Bluebird was recently discovered.
There was no skull among the remains, which were taken to a hospital for a post-mortem and police DNA tests to be carried out.
It could be three days before the body is identified.
Last night, however, the family of the legendary daredevil appeared divided over the find, as Campbell’s sister launched a bitter attack on the divers who discovered his boat and now the body.
Jean Wales said she had been told by the diving team that the remains had been located.
‘This is the last thing that I wanted,’ said 77-year-old Mrs Wales.
‘My brother has been there for 30 years or more and they should let him rest there. Now they are bringing him up but for what good? It only causes distress and heartache for myself. I just feel devastated about it.’
However, Campbell’s 51-year-old daughter Gina Campbell was at the lakeside when the remains were found, filming a BBC documentary on the discovery of Bluebird.
She said: ‘This is a great relief. We are in no doubt that this is my father’s body because of the suit the remains were found in.
‘If his body was found in another 20 years, his close family might have all passed away and we would not be able to savour this moment.
‘The water at the bottom is murky and horrible and you would not want to leave a national hero down there.’
Campbell’s widow Tonia Bern-Campbell, 64, who now lives in San Bernardino, California, was said by friends to be ‘too upset’ to comment.
Campbell’s final moments have become part of the national consciousness after his spectacular crash was captured on film, in photographs and in a chilling recording of his last words.
As Bluebird edged towards 300mph then spun out of control, Campbell shouted: ‘She’s tramping, the water’s not good … I can’t see much … I’m going … I’m on my back … I am gone.’
Last year, a recovery team led by a millionaire diving enthusiast named Bill Smith discovered the final resting place of Bluebird 140ft down, but no trace of Campbell’s remains.
The incredible impact of the crash was apparent from the twisted remains. The cockpit and bow had been torn away. Only fragments of the nose have been found. But the red, white and blue of Bluebird’s tailfin was intact.
Mr Smith argued the craft would be looted by treasure hunters if it was not raised and, with some misgivings, Campbell’s family agreed.
In March the 1.5-ton wreckage was raised. It is now being restored.
Donald Campbell already held the water speed record at 276mph and was trying to better that when he died aged 46 in 1967.
His boat was named after the car in which his father Sir Malcolm Campbell had set what was then a land speed record of 146mph in 1924.
Last night Inspector Paul Coulston, of Cumbria Police, said: ‘At approximately 1pm, partial remains of what is believed to be a human body were recovered from the bed of Coniston Water in Cumbria.
‘It was close to the site where wreckage of Donald Campbell’s boat, the Bluebird, was recovered.’
The remains were taken to Furness General Hospital, Barrow-in-Furness where a post-mortem is expected to begin today.
People sometimes like to see route maps of rides. Everybody’s rides have something of the rider’s own personal touches….what prompts them to take that direction, climb this hill and not that one, stop in this place and not that one. My two rides over the weekend were circuits of two large bodies of water: Windermere and Coniston Water. It’s tempting to think that circuits of lakes will be fairly flat rides, but not so in the Lake District.
The two rides together included nearly 1200 metres (4000 feet) of ascent, almost the height of Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the UK. Of course most of the hills were relatively short, some sharp, some gentle, but one in particular was almost unrideable (for me at least), rising to about 20% in gradient.
When you live in East Anglia, and do most of your daily riding in your own locality, the muscles in your legs have to be ‘re-formatted’ when you go to an area like the Lake District. It is quite a change…….
The Windermere ride took me past Wray Castle, a Victorian neo-Gothic building notable for its selection of rare and unusual trees, and Hill Top House, the home and farmstead of the famous children’s author, Beatrix Potter.
My ride around Coniston Water led me to the former home of John Ruskin, writer, artist and social reformer of the 19th century.
The sun shone over the water as I was served, in the adjacent tearoom, with one of those ambrosial cream teas that are the ultimate comfort food for the hungry cyclist. Drool over this……..
Laura and Tim Moss, an intrepid couple who cycled 13,000 miles on their world tour in 2013-14, came back so enthused by their experiences that they set up the first Cycle Touring Festival at Waddow Hall in Clitheroe in 2015. I have just come back from the 3rd edition of the Festival, full of that ‘cycling spiritual refreshment’ that only comes from joining hundreds of other cycling ‘pilgrims’ at the mecca of cycle touring in the UK.
This was no ordinary festival. It steadfastly refused to follow the usual format of being dominated by sponsors and traders. The event was born of enthusiasts, it was run by volunteer enthusiasts, all the workshops, demos and presentations were given by enthusiasts without payment, and the inevitable end product was that, at the end, everyone went away brimming with renewed eagerness to go out and storm the world on their bikes.
One of the great ironies of the weekend was that the programme was so crammed with fascinating events on site, that it left no time to actually go out on the bikes and enjoy some of the local lanes. A bit like going to a pub with no beer, really. Everything was geared for the cyclist (or budding cyclist) who simply wanted to go on adventures on their bikes, whether multi-year round-the-world expeditions, or simple weekend micro-adventures in their own locality. Volunteers gave presentations on their own adventures, experts shared their knowledge of GPS systems, filming on the road, camp cooking and stoves, wheel building and basic mechanics, and much much more.
We enjoyed a presentation by a family with two young boys of their 6 month adventure in Japan, and cycling the west coast of Scotland. We had a yoga session specifically for the needs of cyclists, given by a yoga teacher and physiotherapist, who also happened to have cycled mega-miles across the globe. There were films, kit demos, talks on bothies in Scotland, bikepacking demos, discussions on dynamos and lighting systems, bike and light-weight tent demos, and an advice session on coping with cycling-related injuries.
They were the ‘serious’ parts of the programme, but in the gaps and in the evenings there were fun plenary gatherings in the marquee, an open mike session to hear 3 minute travelling stories from anyone who wanted to stand up, and the inevitable beer drinking to keep the bonhomie going late into the night.
Most people camped in the grounds of this splendid estate, within earshot of the river Ribble crashing over a nearby weir, which created a swimming-pool effect that enticed many to go swimming in the breaks. We were contained within a fantasy bubble during the entire weekend, ready to burst back out on the world when the final session was concluded, the final pint drunk, and the spare food doled out for people to take home with them.
If any of this inspires you, check out the Festival website, and sign up for a newsletter to be kept informed of the next event in 2018. In the meantime, you may want to tie into another festival taking place this weekend, June 2nd-5th, at Brathay Hall in Ambleside. If you do, I’ll see you there………………..
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.
Stopping for a rest and refreshment in a small village churchyard, my gaze fell on a nearby headstone. Edna Jones, born 10 years before the start of WW1, had died at the ripe old age of 102…….a good innings and a high score, if you forgive the abuse of cricketing terminology. She had outlived her husband by 20 years who, himself, had enjoyed a much better than average innings. As I chewed on an energy bar to replace lost carbs, I began to ‘chew over’ a few thoughts on this lady’s life. If she had been born 4 years earlier and had still lived to be 102, her life would have spanned 3 centuries. By no means a unique accomplishment, because it does happen the world over, especially in countries like Japan……but it is still very rare.
Back at home, I wanted to check out a few facts to put this achievement into context. When Edna was born, at the beginning of the 20th century, life expectancy in the UK was only 50 (worldwide only 30), so Edna had more than doubled the average longevity. The birth of the NHS in 1948 did much to improve health and hygiene, but by that time, Edna was already 44 years old, roughly the equivalent of entering into old age, so she had survived a lot of the terminal possibilities before the advent of free health care.
It is astonishing how rapidly the average age of longevity has risen in the 20th century. In 100 years in the UK, it has risen from 50 to just under 80, the equivalent of an extra 12 months of life every three years (put simply, every three days an extra day). Quite astonishing really.
Back in the early 1980s, as I was invigilating a long tedious A level examination, I remember reading a question on the General Studies paper related to longevity and the payment of pensions to senior citizens. Apparently, the actuarial tables used to determine payments (35 years ago) were based on the average person working to the age of 65, and dying within the next 18 months. Today, conversely, one of our greatest concerns as a society is the imbalance the number of senior citizens is causing the country’s economy, and the added pressure placed on social and healthcare services. On the one hand, medical science continues to stride forward in its endeavour to extend the average life span, but the net result is the huge increase in the need to support the diminishing quality of life amongst people who have far outlived their biblical ‘three score and ten’ years.
So, where do we strike the balance…….?
Many things in life have a corresponding counterpart, an anti-dote, as it were. For thirst it is drink, for hunger it is food.
After a hectic day in Cambridge, Jenny excitedly exhausted after hours of Christmas shopping, I suffering from a surfeit of ‘over-browsing and over-borrowing’ in Cambridge Central Library, we sank into the warm melodious harmonies of a King’s College evensong, and all was mysteriously right with the world once again……
Always aspiring to commit some of my life-experiences to paper in the form of a book-length narrative, I decided to join a local Writers’ Group. The principle of associating with others who are already on the journey is always a good starting point, and in my first writing competition with the group, they kindly awarded me the first prize, which included a glass goblet (I promised not to break it in the next 12 months!) and the princely sum of £15….. As we all know, the ‘journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step’, and in the world of letters, your first literary prize (however small) can be your first important step.
The task at hand was to write 1000 words about some aspect of the history of Huntingdonshire. I took as my starting point a line from TS Eliot. The pictures have been added as illustration for the benefit of this post, and did not appear in the submitted piece.
If you came at night like a broken king…
I have cycled the lanes and byways of Old Huntingdonshire for nearly 40 years, and there is hardly a day goes by when I don’t learn something new about this extraordinary little corner of the East Midlands. One day, about 25 years ago, having laboriously climbed over the wold from Hamerton, past the four houses and redundant church that make up Steeple Gidding, a road sign to Little Gidding beckoned me, teasing me along a narrow single-track lane that led to a cluster of buildings and a small church, it’s remoteness advertised by the tufts of grass growing down the middle of the lane. Little did I realise at the time that my unplanned visit that day might lead to a lifelong connection with this isolated little community which, over time, began to release some of its secrets.
“If you came at night like a broken king….”. This line, taken from TS Eliot’s Fourth Quartet ‘Little Gidding’, a poem inspired by his visit in May 1936, intriguingly points to the community’s past royal connections. Bear in mind that this tiny hamlet is so remote that even people living in the nearby locality have never paid a visit nor, sometimes, do they even know it exists. So how did a king find his way there, not just once, or twice, but three times?
It is a story set in the early 17th century. Nicholas Ferrar, a former businessman and prime mover in the Virginia Company, as well as a member of parliament, had given up his life in the city and had brought his extended family to a ruined farmhouse in west Huntingdonshire to begin laying the foundations of a contemplative religious community. In 1633 they unexpectedly received a visit from King Charles I on his way to Scotland, and their work on the Gospel Harmonies immediately caught his interest. The Harmonies were an attempt by the Ferrars to bring together parallel readings of the Bible so that they might be seen both separately and as a continuous whole. This was achieved by cutting and pasting diverse sections of the Bible so as to create a more fluent reading of the narratives. The King liked them so much, he asked them to prepare a special set of Harmonies of the Book of Kings and Chronicles, which were duly sent to the him the following year, richly bound and gilded in purple velvet.
Sadly, Nicholas Ferrar died before the King’s second visit to Little Gidding, just a few months before the beginning of the Civil War. In 1642, on his way north to rally his troops at York and then to raise the royal standard at Nottingham, he once again stopped by Little Gidding, taking advantage of an opportunity to rest and receive refreshment. He first visited the little church of St John, the absence of images and icons telling him of the widespread local puritanical enforcements. “What will not malice invent?” he was heard to comment. Then after taking refreshment and inspecting the latest editions of the Harmonies, the King gave five pieces of gold to the widows of the community, money he had won playing cards the night before.
When the Civil War defiantly turned in favour of the Parliamentarians, the King had to make an escape from the siege of Oxford in April 1646, disguised as a servant, and he began to make his way north under the cover of darkness, sleeping and resting in safe houses during the day. His ultimate intention was to surrender himself to the Scottish army, with whom he thought he might meet with greater clemency. He travelled with two of his most trusted companions, Dr Hudson and Mr Ashburnam, and they arrived in Huntingdonshire in early May. The ‘broken king’ climbed the hill to Little Gidding, crossing the grassy meadow below the manor house, still known to this day as King’s Close, and were received warmly by the Ferrar family. Sadly, this warm reception of the King was to lead to the later destruction of part of the church, and the theft of all the plate and furniture of both house and church.
John Ferrar was aware that Little Gidding was not a convenient safe house for the King. His previous two visits were well documented and known publicly, and suspicion would immediately fall on them in the event of a search party roaming the area. So John Ferrar wisely accompanied the King to a safe house in nearby Coppingford, and it was from there that he made his way north towards Stamford. Charles finally put himself into the hands of the Scottish Presbyterian army at Newark, was transferred to Newcastle, and after nine months of negotiating with the Parliamentarians, was handed over to the enemy in exchange for the huge sum of £100,000, with promises of further funds for the Scots in the future. The fate of Mr Ashburnam is unknown, but Dr Hudson met with a grisly end at the hands of the puritans. He finally surrendered himself on the promise of favourable terms, but these were ignored by his captors. Like many other prisoners of war in Newark, he was thrown over the battlements into the river Trent.
When the Puritans learned of Little Gidding’s involvement in the King’s escape, the Ferrars hastily escaped, possibly to France, and left their estate knowing that it would be
destroyed and robbed in their absence. The whole of the west front of the church was destroyed, including the west gallery and the organ. The wood from the organ was used to build a fire where several of the estate’s sheep were roasted. The one notable thing that was recovered 200 years later was the brass eagle lectern, which had been thrown into a nearby pond, and is now housed for safe-keeping in Ferrar House.
However, despite this act of sinister vandalism, the restored church today is very much as the Ferrars would have known it.
Explain this one to me……..
A letter (probably a birthday card) was sent from Cornwall with a £2.25 stamp on it, clearly addressed to a lady in Queensland Australia, and it was delivered to our house in west Cambridgeshire, United Kingdom…….and not just once. Mystified by the first delivery which, admittedly, did bear our house number and three sequentially correct letters of our street name, Jenny took it to a main Post Office to make doubly-sure it was re-directed to the correct address. Even the staff at the Post Office had a good laugh at the Royal Mail’s failure. End of story……..?
No, the very next day we received just one item of mail. I highlight this because it wasn’t hiding amongst a load of other letters or junk mail, it was just one very large pink envelop, addressed in large lettering with a legibly clear ‘primary school’ style and, for a second time, some poor lady in Queensland Australia was being robbed of her birthday greeting.
This time, I took it to my local Post Office, asking the somewhat rhetorical question why any literate postman or woman would make such an elementary mistake, not just once, but twice……..or, is there more to come?
Watch this space.
…..and right outside my house, I am reminded of the famous ‘sakura’ (Japanese cherry blossom) of last year. Happy memories……
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
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.
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…..