Category Archives: Cycling UK
I’m absolutely sure that proud Sharnbrookians would not like to be reminded of the true meaning of their village’s name. Sharn is an ancient Anglo-Saxon word for dung, so either the medieval village was the location for one of the world’s first sewage farms, or it was the location of a huge cattle market, with all its resultant effluent problems. Of course, today it is a good-looking, prosperous north Bedfordshire village with its superbly preserved Norman church, a large secondary school, and its twee thatched tearoom in the form of Ashpoles.
Actual stats: 41km, 1hr 50m, 22kph
My route out was against a predictably strong southerly wind, but instead of spending a couple of hours not seeing a single other cyclist (normal for a weekday), I was overtaken by one, then another, then a third on a two-wheeled recumbent. They may have all been at least 20 years younger than me (so why weren’t they at work, paying their taxes, and keeping this nation of ours thriving?), but they showed no respect for seniority. Unforgivable…..
When the recumbent edged slowly past me, I tucked in behind him, but quickly realised that his low profile provided me with no shelter whatsoever from the wind. I told him so: “Hey, mate, you’re not giving me any shelter”. He replied: “So sorry!” OK, I’ll forgive you this time….but only this time. And my thoughts continued silently: ‘Next time, get yourself a proper bike, if only to let me tuck in behind you!’ Yes, I know, we roadies can be very selfish…….
Of course, we always like to complain about the wind. The eternal enemy that never seems to be behind you. Well, I have to confess, this time, the wind drove me home at a pace, sometimes topping 65kph (40mph). Those are the moments when you desperately want to pass a speed warning sign when entering a village, so it can flash a resounding red frowning face at you!
No, the two are not related, but both form the historical backdrop of two Bedfordshire villages I rode through this afternoon. I tell you, small rural communities have their stories to tell…..
Colmworth is noted for many things, but one in particular is its link with the Mormons. The sister-in-law of the local vicar, one Mary Fielding from nearby Honeydon, married Hyrum Smith, brother of the famous Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Latter Day Saints (Mormons). And one of her children eventually became president of the Church.
A few miles away, the tiny village of Bolnhurst (like so many villages in north Bedfordshire) was decimated by the Black Death in 1348, leaving the houses around the church derelict. So its church, St Dunstan’s (caught here in the sunset) is now remotely situated about half a mile from the present-day village.
On a bright sunny winter’s day, any downhill is a ‘feast of speed’, but when you descend at 60-70kph, over a pockmarked uneven surface, you know you are alive. This is Belton’s Hill, with a gradient of 16%……
The modern interpretation of pilgrimage includes all forms of transport – planes, trains, buses and cars. The journeys are as long or short as you want them, and can be travelled in first or third class. You pay your money and take your choice. The idea of self-propulsion and serious effort to get to a destination is now left to the adventurous minority, but that number is growing.
Thurning, a small village in Northamptonshire, bears the traces of a medieval past, both in the continuing celebration of its annual feast (which goes back a thousand years), but also in the date of its feast: July 25th, the actual feast day of St James (Santiago). Its church, in fact, is dedicated to St James, and for hundreds of years has served as a stopping point for pilgrims walking the 1200 miles to Santiago de Compostela in NW Spain.
and other symbols of pilgrimage on the path leading to the main entrance that would have been familiar to medieval pilgrims. I know of one traveller who recently started his journey to Santiago from here. If the medieval pilgrim wanted to get to Santiago, it was either by pony or ‘Shanks’s pony’…..there was no other way. No Easyjet, no Ryanair….it was a journey of 2 million steps…..from Thurning at least. And, of course, another journey of 2 million steps to get back home again. No mean feat. ‘Chapeau’ to our medieval forebears.
Chelveston-Cum-Caldecott features in the Domesday Book of 1086. At the time of William the Conqueror, the settlement was made up of:
One hide…..(enough land to feed one family)
Three virgates…..(0.75 of a hide)
Arable land was made up of:
Three carcates…..(one carcate could be cultivated by one plough)
And these were held by 6 socmen (landholders subject to feudal taxes)
In 1918, to help the war effort, the school children picked a huge 1500lbs of blackberries to make jam for the soldiers on the front line. Along with neighbouring villages, they amassed a staggering 15 tonnes…..and all of this from hedgerows around the fields.
And today, in mid-February, they hold a weekend-long party to celebrate the flowering of the vast display of snowdrops in the churchyard. It is some spectacle. I got there some two weeks in advance, and they are looking pretty good already.
Mention the village of Earls Barton, and most people would look blank. What? Where?
My 37km outward leg was solidly into the wind. No let up, no remittance. The reward was a toasted teacake and a cappuccino, and the sharing of cycling anecdotes with friends.
But just up the road was the setting for the popular musical Kinky Boots, set in a shoe factory called Jeyes of Earls Barton. A heart-warming story, and one to put this small community of 5,000 inhabitants firmly on the map.
Oh, and by the way, the wind-assisted homeward journey was ‘a breeze’!
Martin Luther King once said: ‘We are not the makers of history. We are made by history’. I have to remind myself of this seeming truth when I encounter little snippets of local stories of yesteryear, which do much more to influence who we are than the so-called ‘great events’ of the past.
After spending five days discovering the architectural delights of two cathedral cities, Hereford and Worcester, and catching up with the histories of King John, Prince Arthur and Edward Elgar, it’s tempting to think that we have connected with real history, but on my ride this morning around north Bedfordshire, I was reminded of events and happenings that really did touch the lives of real people.
Thurleigh, a small village of some 700 inhabitants, once hosted a strategically important
airfield during the last war which served as a base for American B17s, hosted the ‘flying bedstead’ built by Rolls-Royce which became the forerunner of the Harrier Jump Jet with its vertical lift-off, saw the arrival of Concorde, and nearly became the site of an additional London airport. All very important local events that helped form our history.
But perhaps the most formative of the lives of poor country people were the rights of squatters. Some of the cottages in Thurleigh were built at the roadside, by people who (by law) had no right to the land but, if they could erect a cottage between sunrise and sunset, and have smoke coming out of the chimney, they were able to claim the right to live there. Thurleigh is one of the few villages in the country to retain evidence of these dwellings.
A month after the winter solstice and the days are noticeably getting longer. Riding in the late afternoon is now becoming an option, but still in the doldrums of winter, I have to make a special effort to add a bit of ‘zing’ to my journeys. My local routes are beyond familiar to me, after all, I’ve been riding them for almost exactly 40 years.
So today, I trained my mind on the significance of the many familiar places that I passed, and drummed up memories of facts, figures and events about places that I had all but stopped thinking about.
Just north of Spaldwick there is the (locally) notorious Belton’s Hill, short but very steep. The first section rises to 16% and the second 7%. This is the scene of the annual hill climb competition for a local cycle club.
Buckworth village, as small as it is, was roughly the same size as now when the Domesday survey was conducted in 1086. In 1942, a British aircraft had to jettison 5 land mines, all of which exploded very close to the village. No-one was injured.
Hamerton Zoo is a local popular attraction, but suffered a tragic death in 2017. One of the staff was caught by a tiger in one of the enclosures and was mauled to death.
Little Gidding is a hidden community of buildings that housed the Ferrar family, and through its history has had connections with Charles I and, much later, T.S.Eliot.
The old Windmill at Great Gidding dates back to the beginning of the 19th century, and has now been restored as a private dwelling.
Molesworth Airbase, near Brington, notoriously became the site of nuclear missiles in the 1980s, and was the scene of many CND protests, some led by Bruce Kent. The small Peace Garden is a little monument to that piece of history.
Total distance for year: 6,325 miles/10,179km
Nobody wants to read a blow-by-blow breakdown of a full 12 months of cycling, and I am certainly not going to indulge myself to that extent. But casting an eye back over the previous year can reveal some interesting things. Annual mileage can be influenced by a host of different things, but I’ve learned that there is a threshold beyond which you will find yourself riding the bike primarily just to increase your total mileage. In other words, it becomes the driving force. The last couple of years have seen me come to recognise that threshold, pull back from it, and settle into what is a more comfortably managed limit, but which still surpasses the number of miles I drive by a substantial margin.
Separating out local mileage from adventure mileage, it’s no surprise to find that the bulk of my annual distance is still in the day-to-day riding within a 50 mile radius of my home (1,802 adventure miles v 4523 local miles). To get further afield on a morning/day ride, I am now not averse to broadening that radius and using public transport for part of the return journey. This has the benefit of opening up new terrain and new areas to explore. So, for instance, I took a train out to Norwich for a two day 125 mile summer solstice ride back home, with a generally supportive wind behind me.
The adventure miles last year were made up by my Biking the Baltic ride (crossing 8 countries and visiting 9 cities in the late summer), a week on the tandem in Holland in July (the hottest week in Dutch recorded history), a tandem rally in the Wye Valley, and the summer solstice ride. My local mileage is almost totally made up of solo-riding, but with the added benefit of meeting up with fellow cycling cronies at country tearooms to chew the fat. So today, as I write this, I have just come back from a 50 mile jaunt out to Fermyn Woods near Brigstock, where there is a café that amply serves the needs of hungry cyclists.
As I was reflecting on annual statistics, I decided to do a quick retrospective of my 11 years of retirement, and discovered (unsurprisingly) that I had accumulated a lot of miles, namely 90,467 miles/145,588km, about 25% of which were achieved on my many adventure trips around the world. As impressive as any of this may seem, it all pales into utter insignificance in the light of the lifetime mileage (1 million miles) achieved by Russ Mantle at the age of 82, much of it during his years of retirement. Very much a man of his generation, he would have spent most of his waking hours turning pedals.
So what of the coming 2020? Perhaps like many adventure cyclists, I will be trying to honour our collective need to add our grain of sand to saving the planet. Even though riding a bike is an ultra-green form of transport, getting to and from our destinations can be fraught with multiple flights. So for this purpose, I have added this little beast to my stable of bikes
The Tern Verge P10 is designed for long-distance, has ten ratios on a 1x gear set-up (ie. just one front chainring) and, most importantly, folds for transportation. This means I should be able to hop on and hop off trains and buses at will, and use non-aviation transport to get to some of my distant destinations.
Watch this space. I am currently looking at Flixbus that might take me down to the French Mediterranean in a few week’s time.
A rare glimpse of a double shadow as the early winter sun meets the horizon….
Having ridden across Europe on a unidirectional trip for 2,400km, it takes some adjustment to return to riding in circles…..but at least I won’t have a headwind for the entire ride…..
And getting back on the Litespeed Ti, weighing in at a mesgre 9kg, if I’m not hitting a good average pace, it drags me along begging to go faster. A bit like taking a young border collie for a walk…..
But I’ve just bought myself a new steed…..to add a new dimension to all this riding….and all will be revealed (one day)….
My routes over the last week have been enshrouded by the mellow fruitfulness of autumn, and the spectres of ghouls and scarecrows….somehow, the two go together.
In the shadow of the triple peaks of the Eildon Hills, the River Tweed carves its way from the Lowther Hills, through the Cheviots, reaching its estuary at Berwick some 160km later. I chose a mid route stretch from Galashiels to Inverleithen, covering some 50km on both sides of the valley, steep and challenging on the southern flank, fighting a strong westerly wind, but fast and undulating on the northern flank, ushered along by the very same strong westerly.
Stunningly beautiful in the autumn sunshine, I will let the photos tell their own story….
How often do you drop by, unannounced, just to say ‘hello’ to a friend? Is it ‘the done thing’ in your part of the world? Where I live, people don’t routinely drop by unannounced but, when it happens, it is invariably a pleasant surprise….unless, of course, you arrive at an inconvenient moment. To overcome that, it is usual to make prior contact and check before taking the plunge.
If you want to just drop by, your vehicle of transport can make a big difference. Caged inside our heated/air conditioned cars, when we pass, we are much less likely to just call by for a chat and a coffee. Someone might explain the psychology of that one day. Is it that our journeys by car are so much more purpose driven, that the journey itself is just a means to an end?
My journeys from home on the bike, however, have very little to do with destination and purpose, apart from the odd café and meeting with cronies of course. They are all about enjoying the journey, the widening of personal horizons and a sense of freedom. And my journeys take me through villages and communities where friends and former colleagues happen to live. For some reason, being on the bike (and not in the car) makes the unannounced visit seem so much more natural. “I was just passing through so I thought I’d drop by to say hello”. It’s natural, spontaneous, non-threatening, and it will only be a short visit…..long enough, perhaps, to share a coffee.
And that is what happened on this 52km route….
It was a pleasure to be invited to speak again at the CTC Birthday Rides, the annual festival of cycling celebrating the club’s birthday, which this year is 141 years old. It is taking place just 10 miles from my home village, at Wyboston Lakes, near St Neots.
They seemed to be enjoying unusually luxurious accommodation and catering, and the conference room where I gave my talk was easily the most technologically advanced I have ever used, and well able to hold over 200 people…..a blessing given that they numbered over 350 attendees in total.
And it was the first time I have ever given a talk in a room with not just one projector screen, but four…….! It was also refreshing to speak to an audience which was well-versed in all matters cycling…..they already knew a lot about the pleasure and the pain of the long distance cyclist.
As usual, at the end of my talk I was asked about my next exploits. And yes, I was able to say they were already set in stone, and in fact, will begin in less than 10 days time. So if you are intrigued, watch this space…….
Ah, the magic is still there (well, just)……
I’d like to brag that I danced up this 14%er like a hormonal teenager……but the reality is, it was more like a slow foxtrot…
But I have a plan. Still riding a traditional compact double, my plan is to replace my drivetrain (which is now showing signs of terminal wear) and scale down the ratios….
Not, as some are wont, by putting on a rear cassette with ‘dinner-plate’ size sprockets (they are for the off-roaders pushing a 1x set-up), but by reducing the size of the front chainwheels. Most road bikes are over-geared these days. The biggest gears can’t be engaged unless you are doing over 30-40mph….nice to have as a ‘just-in-case’, but very seldom used and, therefore, entirely dispensable.
However, getting a non-traditional compact double, outside the normal 50/34 set-up, is not easy, but I have found a supplier in Harrogate…..
…so ‘rock on’ you hills of 14…15…16…17% and up…..some of us will not be beaten!
It is trite to say that wherever you travel in the UK, you are ‘travelling through history’…… because that is true everywhere in the world. However, around these parts, it is staggeringly easy to venture through a tiny village that spills over with significant historical events.
I have waxed lyrical before about the village of Fotheringhay, but it still prompts me to stop awhile to appreciate a little of its past. Despite its diminutive size (119 inhabitants in the 2011 census) it is famous for being the birthplace of our notorious King Richard III in 1452, perhaps the most vilified of all our kings, and whose skeleton has recently been discovered beneath a car park in Leicester
and it was in the same village that the famous would-be usurper of Queen Elizabeth I’s throne, Mary Queen of Scots, met the executioner’s axe in 1587 in Fotheringhay Castle. Sadly, the castle no longer exists, so today we gaze on the mound and re-imagine the scene of her execution.
It’s hard to imagine that this tiny community was once second in importance only to London in the 15th century……now it is a sleepy backwater deep in the Northamptonshire countryside.
Over coffee and cake one day, I asked a buddy of the road how life was treating him, and he simply answered: ‘Oh, been eatin’ a lot of cake recently’…..
Meaning of course that he had been putting in a lot of miles because, as every roadie knows, miles=cakes… Well, I have to confess to the same guilty pleasure myself recently, not just because of the miles (which have been higher than usual) but also to the fact that I’ve been meeting up with groups of cronies almost every day…..which inevitably means spending half an hour collectively emptying the display counters of some distant cafés.
The last ten days have seen me cover over 500km sampling the offerings as far away as Landbeach (Ely), Earls Barton (Northamptonshire) Oakington (Cambridge) Gamlingay and Geddington. I seem to have ventured along most of the roads within a 30 mile radius….meaning, of course, I should know them ‘like the back of my hand’.
But as I came away from Cambridge today, I sought out a hidden burial ground to find the grave of a man who had figured prominently in my research for my MA thesis back in the 1970s….
and I’d like to say he was a hero of mine amongst the analytical philosophers of the 20th century, but I wish I’d understood even just 10% of his Tractatus. I’m so glad that most of his writings remained unpublished at the time….it saved me a great deal of hassle.
If you don’t know the history of the Eleanor Crosses, now is the time to Google it. This one is the best preserved, and dates from the time of Eleanor of Castile’s death in 1290, built to commemorate an overnight stop when her body was being carried from the north to Westminster in London for a state burial.
Unlike most impressive stone monuments, this does not celebrate politics, war or religion…..just the faithful love King Edward 1 had for his Spanish wife….unlike the regard a certain successor of his had for his Spanish wife.
Geddington, the village where it is situated, is a fascinating medieval community. Amongst its many annual events, it has something on Boxing Day called The Squirt. Check it out…
A Firefighter’s equivalent of a ‘tug o’ war’?
Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do,
I’m half crazy, all for the love of you,
It won’t be a stylish marriage,
I haven’t got a carriage,
But you’ll look sweet, up on the seat,
Of a bicycle built for two!
1930 Rudge, similar to our first, costing us £10
The idea behind a later design was that the gentleman would ride on the back seat and steer, while the lady could perch in the front with enough room for her skirts. That meant that all the controls were loaded to the rear passenger, and the person in front could simply enjoy the ride.
The modern inheritance of these designs can be seen in the Hase Pino
where the ‘stoker’ becomes the front rider, leaving the ‘captain’ to do all the steering, braking and gear-changing.
But as ever, today out on the most popular iteration of the design, I was informed (yet again) by a bystander and a passing cyclist for the 1000th time that ‘she’s not pedalling on the back’….so Jenny did stop pedalling…..(I say no more…)