Category Archives: Cycling UK
If cycling on a bright sunny spring morning does nothing else, it will most certainly bring us in closer contact with the beauty of the world around us, but sometimes that beauty is adulterated by human beings. No, I am not talking about farmers, road menders, wayside factory units or inconsiderate drivers, I am referring to the feckless individuals who are intent on ‘spoiling the party’ by dumping their household waste on country roadside verges.
Not only do they thoughtlessly dump it willy-nilly in remote spots, but they also make their unwelcome presence felt by spreading their rubbish in several places, thus making it harder for anyone to clear up. So, what do they gain, and what could they potentially lose if they are identified?
Given that most of this waste could easily be disposed of through normal domestic collection, they gain absolutely nothing. But they do stand to lose on at least two counts: if they are identified (and household waste can throw up a lot of clues) they stand to be stung for a £400 fine, but more importantly, if they are members of a local community, they may have to face the opprobrium of those who live around them.
This very same stretch of road (I have decided) also sees the frequent passage of a committed coca cola drinker. How do I know? I see many discarded cans by the road side, but along this stretch there were no fewer than some 20 coke cans……the same colour red, the same company insignia…..is it not time to impose an environmental tax on these companies.
Rant over…. today’s ride was otherwise glorious, mixed as it was with paying a visit to two old friends en route.
Good to feel the warmth of the sun piercing the multiple layers of insulation……is this the real beginning of spring? The countryside has that air about it, pendant catkins and developing sticky buds tell their story, even the bird life is being lulled into a frantic bout of nest building.
Where does the truth lie?
The lowest county summit
I don’t live in the flattest part of England, because that accolade is probably richly deserved by Lincolnshire, but the now non-existent county where I do live (old Huntingdonshire) does proudly boast the lowest historic county summit in the country….which is of particular interest if you are an inveterate ‘hill-bagger’….yes, there is a league of hill-baggers out there who go bagging all the highest points of historic counties, no matter how low they are.
Imagine going from bagging Scafell Pike (978 metres/3208 ft) to the summit of old Huntingdonshire (81metres/266 ft)…..not exactly in the same league, I would say, but features on the same list of baggable points.
Now, I tell you all this simply because my route today took me dangerously close to bagging my first highest summit on a bike…..and astonishingly it is listed in the baggers’ almanac with the never-to-be-forgotten name of ‘Boring Field’, just outside the village of Covington.
However, and this is a big ‘however’…….there is a hotly contested issue as to the summit’s exact whereabouts. Could it really be on a bridge over the now defunct Huntingdon-Kettering railway track? In other words, do engineering structures really count as part of the landscape?
Don’t write to me….write to your local MP…..
Drowning the candle…..
It was, of course, a delight to climb on the tandem, pedal in sync for a few miles, enjoy the cool February sunshine, and to punctuate our ride with a fine lunch at a local country pub.
Jenny, very kindly, poured me a glass of water, releasing the slice of lemon for my sole benefit, and as I put the glass to my lips I peered into the depths of the glass and, beneath the slice of lemon, lurked a tea-light candle……😁 She had decanted my water into the candle holder……..!
Well, we made ‘light’ of it, it didn’t ‘douse’ our enthusiasm for the meal, but it put paid to a candlelit experience…….
There are times when you just have to get off your home patch and find pastures new. The familiarity of repeated routes on home territory sometimes drives my ‘ philosophical ruminations’ to watery depths unfamiliar even to David Attenborough. An errand to Stamford (Lincolnshire) to pick up a re-built wheel for my Dave Yates bike gave me the chance to linger in the Rutland area and revisit some of the sweeping hills that separate towns such as Oakham and Uppingham and Rockingham
……and coast along the picturesque valley of the Welland river…….
…forgetting that I would be chancing by the famous Harringworth Viaduct, in all its 1.166km of glory, and its 82 arches. Its construction required the labour of 2,500 men, many of whom lost their lives…..in times when ‘elf and safety’ amounted to no more than a nod of acknowledgement that 10 men had died in a month……and it was all put down to ill fortune rather than the conditions of work. Whatever the statistics of life and death, it is a truly impressive structure and, I understand, is still in occasional use even today.
The strange little dog’s leg coming out of Empingham was a 3km out and back. When I discovered the untreated country lanes were still covered in very slippery frost, I opted to follow busier trunk routes for the morning session, until the sun had time to rise sufficiently to defrost the country roads. As the day progressed, I was feasted to the most perfect winter sunshine, and a sunset ‘to die for’……..well, not literally…..but you know what I mean.
Now into December, and morning temperatures hovering just above or below freezing, I have to remind myself of the spill on black ice I had 8 years ago when I broke my femur. Cars in our street were frosted over, so I used the early downtime for catching up on some reading, then headed out mid-morning.
It was one of those perfect early winter days. The temperature eventually rose to the 6-9C range, with a gentle breeze and a cloudless sky (for some of the day, at least). The roads were clear, visibility was good for several miles, and the countryside was looking its manicured best. The autumn sowings had produced a gentle green carpet that covered most of the fields.
My route took me through villages that I hadn’t visited in months, and when I got to Oundle (after 46kms), I called unannounced on a friend who very kindly invited me to soup and coffee……the fuel to propel me the 30kms back home which, incidentally, was gently aided by a north-westerly breeze.
The mapping App on my phone tells me I covered 75kms, climbing some 457 metres and (if I really want to believe it) I expended 2,900 calories in the process. Sounds like just cause for a big evening meal tonight…….:-)
Windcheater? Who me? 🍒 picking again? Not taking the rough with the smooth, eh? I have to be careful here…..in the cycling world, there’s something called a ‘sense of honour’. Hard to define it exactly, but as in the world of yoga every posture has a ‘contra-posture’, so in the world of cycling….every downhill has an uphill, and every tailwind should have a headwind……life on the bike can’t be permanently downhill with the wind behind you. If opposites didn’t exist, the world would lack equilibrium. So today, I’ve done my little bit to unbalance the world……
You see, I thought I could use a bit of prestidigitation (let’s call it magic) and conjure up a whole day’s ride to have the wind behind me all the way. Dishonourable, I know….and I deserve all the scorn that more compliant roadies might vent……but I may have been caught on the cameras of some road surveillance system watching out for cycling cheats like me. Well, I’ll just have to sit it out now and wait for a potential ‘slap on the wrist’ from a Dixon-of-Dock-Green type bobby who may call at the door at any time. D’you think I care……?
I took a 10km ride to a nearby town to climb on a bus, enjoyed a free 2 hour ride to Buckingham (the joys of the bus pass….😊) and then caught the wind in my sails and headed in a north easterly direction. I’d like to say it was plain sailing all the way, but it never is…..
Yes, I chose my spot to have an instant puncture, when the air just exploded out of my tyre, and was completely flat before I could stop. Beside a noisy road, and with 30-40mph winds, it was well nigh impossible to locate the blow-out, and then I couldn’t find the cause. It’s always a bit nervy when you put a fresh tube in the tyre without knowing what caused the puncture, but I did…..but that wasn’t the end of the story. When I had finished inflating the new tube, as I tightened the valve, the pin broke….hey ho……but the tyre kept its pressure, so I continued my journey with all fingers and toes crossed.
However, should I feel guilty about such brazen 🍒 picking? Would you?
I wanted to get to the White Cliffs Visitor Centre, and a fingerpost pointed the way for both walkers and cyclists……what it didn’t tell me was that I would be pushing my laden bike up horrendously steep dirt tracks to 400ft above sea level, when there was a nice surfaced road (albeit longer) that allowed cars to get up there. What the hell….I was wearing my superman suit anyway.
The Visitor Centre was very disappointing. It didn’t even have an information display, so when I asked about cycling along the cliffs to South Foreland Lighthouse, I got a ‘big no, no’. The National Trust had recently banned bikes, so I teamed up with another biker, on his fat tyres, looking every inch the gravel biker, and he showed me the alternative route……if you are familiar with the shipping forecasts, you will have heard reference to the North Foreland Lighthouse…….it always seems to succeed Gibraltar Point (the Wash), and precede Selsey Bill (nr Portsmouth). The history of the lighthouse was fascinating, including one of a dynasty of keepers who fathered 13 children in the nearby cottage…..(well, it was Victorian England, after all. What other fun was to be had?)
I passed kite surfers………
this gentleman on his new elliptical pedal cycle, which roared past me at twice my speed, but made pedalling look like climbing stairs…..
crossed this narrow gauge railway…….
and found myself wending my way along quiet country tracks strewn with autumnal leaves…..
And when all is said and done, and the going gets tough, do the ‘tough really get going’? Not really…….they just eat chips…..
On the train home, I met a friend from the same village, and showed him the GPS app I use on my phone for tracking my rides……I switched it on as we sat there and detected that the train was hitting over 130mph….and it was just a normal commuter train out of London taking people home from their day’s work.
Oh, and btw, this must be the most photographed signpost in the whole country. You couldn’t make it up……reality is sometimes stranger than fiction.
And finally, the route……. (total distance for the whole trip: 237km)
When the landscape was flat, it was extremely flat. When the roads went skywards, it was like a kick in the gut. There are extensive marsh lands (Romney Marsh, for one) along the coast, meaning a high cruising speed on the bike with a gentle following wind. But when the road climbed one of the notorious escarpments, like the one out of Folkestone, tailwinds were of no assistance. They were like a sympathetic friendly arm over my shoulder….understanding my pain, empathising, but powerless to do anything about it.
The morning was miserably misty with a sea fret that seeped through the clothing, but the sun protested loudly in the afternoon and poked its face through the gloom. This coastline is truly dismal when it’s wet, but when the sun shines, it has a magic all of its own.
Hard concentrated riding tends to rob me of my appetite, but mid-afternoon a breakfast muffin filled an empty space, and fuelled the climbing muscles for the final big climb out of Folkestone, steep enough to keep me in my lowest gear, and long enough to require 20 minutes of my attention. This was the view of the escarpment as I started the climb….
And if I had done my route planning properly, my Garmin should have taken me to the front door of my overnight…..a backpackers hostel in Dover.
But when I arrived, it was completely enshrouded in scaffolding, the whole place a building site, so I wheedled my way into another place, overlooking the port.
41 conubial years celebrated, now this man has hit the road yet again for another ‘flash-dash’……I pedalled down to Bedford, jumped on a Thameslink train and stayed with it until it’s terminus two and a half hours later: Brighton, which seemed to be ‘rockin’ and rollin’ with half term fun fairs.
So at 2pm I climbed on the bike and began to follow the wind, heading eastwards along the coast, and the meteorologists are promising I’ll have a supportive breeze all the way to Broadstairs and Margate, where I might jump on a homeward bound train…..or I might head into Canterbury and take the train from there.
Don’t be impressed by the tracking map. I left it running while on the train. My total of 61km on the bike topped and tailed the journey, and I am now in a youth hostel in Eastbourne, where the average hosteller is well beyond middle age…..time for the institution to have a name change? Age Hostels UK, perhaps?
And a fellow dorm companion has given me a dire warning…….there’s not just one, but two snorers to provide the entertainment in the small hours…..now where are those earplugs?
Little did we realise we would be visiting Scotney Castle on the 30th anniversary (to the very day) of the infamous Great Storm of 1987 that devastated the estate (and much of the south of England), destroying a huge percentage of its woodland. We realised the importance of the anniversary when we caught a BBC reporter recording an item on camera for News at 10, which we happened to see when we got home that evening.
Though Storm Ophelia made little impression on this part of the UK, the strong winds did bring dust from the Sahara, and smoke and ash from the Portuguese wild fires, giving the sun an eerie blood red presence which, over the moat waters of Scotney Castle, produced an otherworldly spectral light. The original castle lies on an island, surrounded by water, looking the perfect picture of the once-elegant ruined medieval structure, providing yet another backdrop for illustrating the history of the all-powerful aristocracy of this country.
For Jenny, this was a rest-day from the tandem, so I assembled my titanium solo, found the most indirect route I could to get to Scotney Castle, and found myself having to re-adapt to the flightiness of the super-light frame. But it was a joy for climbing the hills, but scarily fast on the descents (read that as ‘excitingly fast’!). The much-recovered woodlands from the 1987 storm were on the autumnal turn, canopies of rusted browns giving way to crimson reds. It was a good time to be in Sussex.
We were doing the four points of the compass from our lodgings in Flimwell: NE for Sissinghurst Castle, SE for Bodiam Castle, and now SW for Bateman’s, near Burwash, home to Rudyard Kipling and his family for more than 30 years. But we had to negotiate a few hills to get there……..East Sussex is lumpy! Every downhill spelled the beginning of the next uphill, and there was no let-up…….to the point that we even began dreading the downhills …..I mean, where’s the justice in that?
When Kipling bought Bateman’s in 1902, it had no running water or electricity, but it came with 33 acres of the most stunning landscape, and we were seeing it in the full flush of autumnal colour. Their daughter, Elsie, who married and moved into Wimpole Hall, left instructions with the National Trust to re-create the interior of the house as her parents would have known it, including the desk at which many of Kipling’s most famous poems and stories were written. He had been a prolific writer, a controversial imperialist, both hated and admired, but was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature at the early age of 42, and is said to have turned down offers of a poet laureateship and a knighthood.
Unlike a lot of stately homes managed by the National Trust, Bateman’s is a family home of more modest proportions, where you actually get the sense that a family once lived there, doing all the normal things that a middle class family of the day would do. But Kipling had made enough money through his writings to indulge his passion for motor cars………it is said that he eventually bought himself a Rolls Royce because it was the only one could afford…….!
Castles (from the latin ‘castellum’ = fortified building) were generally built for protection, and would incorporate all kinds of features to make them safer places in the event of attack (moats, crenellations, drawbridges etc…). But that was only true up to the later middle ages when the increasing use of artillery in warfare made castles easier to conquer. Thereafter, castles were generally built as pseudo-fortifications, imitating some of the features of the traditional castle, but only for decoration, like Kimbolton Castle and Sissinghurst Castle. They were certainly built to impress, but only as fine country houses to entertain guests and, sometimes, royalty.
Bodiam Castle, on the other hand, was built in the 14th century, incorporating all the elements needed for keeping the enemy out (in this case the French), including towers, drawbridge, battlements, moat, murder holes (for pouring boiling oil through)…..but never once in its history was it ever threatened by siege. But unlike many medieval castles, which were fairly spartan places to live in, Bodiam was designed to provide comfortable living quarters for the Dalyngrigge family for several generations. When it finally fell into the hands of Lord Curzon in the 20th century, he bequeathed the whole property to the National Trust on his death in 1925.
We sat on a couple of Trust deckchairs looking down on this impressive pile before feeling the tug of intrigue to discover the interior, climb up a couple of the towers, view the vineyards covering the hillsides and peer through the arrow slits looking for the approaching enemy. It had all the elements of a robust fortified building, and is still this impressive because it had never been attacked or ransacked by a marauding army.
What better way to enjoy a four day binge on National Trust properties than to take the tandem, spend a few nights in a strategic location so that you can access several properties on two wheels? An hour or two in the morning wending our way across the East Sussex countryside, 3-4 hours enjoying the setting and intriguing history of a rich family’s country pile, an hour having lunch and coffee, and another hour or so heading back, discovering a different route with its own surprises…….which usually come in the form of hills (groan!), but the rewards were stunning views across a countryside strutting the catwalk wearing its new autumnal collection. East Sussex in October is full of chromatic intrigue, and when the sun shines (which it did for us most days), it can be breath-taking. Forget New England in the fall……..we are surrounded by our very own ‘leaf-peeping’ opportunities. You just have to go out there and find them…..
On our first day, we headed off in search of the country hideaway of the famous (and infamous) Vita Sackville West, and her husband Harold Nicolson. Both provocative people of their generation, challenging the mores of the day with regard to their sexuality, they were nevertheless a happily married couple, and together they restored Sissinghurst Castle from its ruinous state, and together they combined their expertise and energy to create one of the most admired gardens in the country.
Vita hated the manicured primness of many country gardens, preferring the more natural beauty of the slightly messy, slightly chaotic growth of flowers and plants that created their own beauty, dividing the garden into ‘rooms’, with each room having its own character and selection of colours.
On our route back, and you will see this from the map below, we were led along a track that was seemingly a right of way, but we were cut off by a locked gate and a big threatening sign telling us that the area was ‘bio-protected’, and was closed to the public. This caused us a bit of panic because we had to double back, increasing our mileage, and it was getting late in the afternoon. We had to get back to our base before sunset. We did, but only just………..
OK, you’ve never heard of it before, because I have just coined the word. No, it’s not stolen from some online video game, but it definitely has a line of ancestry. For those of you who have heard of Alastair Humphreys, you will be familiar with his concept of the ‘microadventure’, aimed directly at the 9-5 wage slave, and asks the beguilingly opportunistic question: so what about your 5-9? Those 16 hours from every 24 hour period when you are not at work? How do you use them?
From his musings spawned the brilliant idea of the ‘microadventure’ which, for the cyclist, could mean jumping on the bike at 5pm after work, and heading off to the countryside/hills/lakeside/forest with a bivvy and a camping stove, and sleeping out under the stars. It may mean occasionally getting a bit cold and wet, but heading directly back to your place of work the next day, the regenerative impact of doing something so adventurous on a micro-scale can raise the happiness barometer enough to turn a dull boring week into something much more memorable. Instead of watching your favourite panel game or soap in the evening, you may have gazed at the setting sun, seen an owl on the hunt, or even a murmuration of starlings. And instead of joining dozens of other bored commuters on the train in the morning, you may have descended directly from a nearby hill and had breakfast at your desk. So, let me take this concept one step further, and bring a degree of spontaneity to it, and less of a reliance on bivvies and camping stoves, which are not for everyone. This is the knee-jerk reaction of the ‘flash-dash’.
One evening last week, after taking delivery of the internet food shopping at 9.30pm, I clicked on a weather-app only to discover that the following three days were going to be fine, even sunny in parts and, more importantly, with the wind generally blowing from the west. I suddenly got excited. Somewhere in the dark recesses of my travelling brain sprung the crazy idea of ‘what if I head off with the bike, on a train, in an upwind direction and spend the next few days cycling home, with the wind behind me…….?’ I didn’t need to look at a map to realize that the Peak District in Derbyshire would be the perfect location……cycle 25km to a local station, spend 90 minutes on the train, and then head up into the hills of the Peaks for what remained of the day. Brilliant idea, but ……………I still needed to float it by Jenny for her approval….and that meant waiting for her to return from a choir practice.
By 10.30 I was granted AWL (absence with leave), I stuffed some tools and a change of clothes into a saddlebag, quickly booked two £10 overnights online at Youth Hostels, and jumped on the bike after breakfast the next morning to head to a nearby station. By 2pm, I was leaving Chesterfield station and heading out into the hills. Admittedly, I had to battle against the wind for 58km that day, but the next two days were generally wind-assisted, taking me through some of the most stunning countryside in the Peak District National Park, following rail-trails and NCN routes, meeting steam locomotives and crossing micro-streams, sometimes in the footsteps of legendary fictional heroes like Ivanhoe, sometimes stumbling across a road named in my honour.
I didn’t sleep under the stars, nor heated a tin of beans on a camping stove, but I did wake up to the sunrise from my top-floor window in the hostel, I did encounter numerous reminders of the impact of the industrial revolution, and I did meet a host of people from all walks of life, some from Canada, others from South Korea and China. In many ways, this ‘flash-dash’ was in direct contrast to my normal full-on adventures, that take weeks to put together and several months in the planning. It was an unpremeditated response to a weather forecast, and a certain itchiness to get out of my normal comfort zone and go with the unplanned.
If you have read this far and have been just a little intrigued, why not open your own mind to the spontaneous, to the here and now? Although pre-planned microadventures are a great idea, you never know what the weather is going to be like in a few days’ or a few weeks’ time, so what if you can respond immediately to a sudden impulse, to the promise of a few days of fine weather and act on it immediately with minimal planning? The chance of it being successful is increased enormously. So too is the chance of it being serendipitous……. not just taking the road less travelled, but choosing the least expected moment. Make the ‘flash-dash’ a wardrobe that takes you into Narnia, or a hidden doorway that takes you into the secret garden.
As I hammered the 123km that separated my hostel overnight in the National Forest from my home, a generally favourable wind drove me into a lashing rainstorm just one hour from my destination, and I arrived home soaked, hungry and exhausted……but ultimately thrilled by the whole experience. Try it sometime……it is exhilarating.
As I woke up this morning and peered out of the window, I was visited by the piercing rays of the dawn….
Oh, and not to forget the 86km route from Ravenstor to the National Forest at Conkers (Moira)……quite a route, with plenty of climbing…..
On the road again, and heading for the hills……the wind, the rain and, ultimately, the pain. But why? Why do roadies look for the pain? “No pain, no gain?”. That’s only a very tired cliché…..but without a doubt, getting to the higher elevations has its rewards….and more fundamentally, getting into fresh territory has even more rewards. Not knowing what is round the next bend, over the next brow, what may be flying overhead or scurrying through the undergrowth…..they all enrich the travelling experience.
and found myself gazing at the icon of the town, the crooked tower….
but I was soon into the Peak District…
and onto one of the many old railway trails, starting at Hassop, the private station of the Duke of Devonshire….unbelievable, I know…
and thinking it was going to be plain sailing (ie. flat) to the end, I forgot that in these parts, railway lines have to climb, and they do imperceptibly to the eye, but not to the legs…..you have to work hard….
till I got to Miller’s Dale, the famous station that provided a connection to the Manchester-London line….
and eventually found the entrance to my overnight…..
a former mill owner’s mansion, now a Youth Hostel, and paid the ludicrous sum of £10 for my bed……
with an amazing view from my top-floor dormitory…..
and a little bit of humour that accompanied having a pee…..
What more could you ask for the first day of a lightening break that I only decided to take at 9pm last night? Viva! the flexibility of retirement……
Let me quote the most notable scientist of his generation, Albert Einstein: Life is like riding a bicycle. In order to keep your balance, you must keep moving…….
One of the most notable writers of his generation, Ernest Hemingway, said the following: It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them.
HG Wells was noted for saying: Whenever I see an adult on a bicycle, I do not despair for the human race.
Every walk of life looks for a ‘higher’ authority to give credibility to whatever they do. Cyclists are no different. If people like Elgar, or JFK, or Leo Tolstoy (who learned to ride at 67) rode bikes, we know we are in good company……
Today was one of those magnetic days for climbing on the saddle. On a bright sunny autumn morning, I hunted out narrow country lanes that I hadn’t ridden for several months, even a year or two. The foliage of the over-hanging trees was ‘on the turn’, carpets of leaves were scattered across roads and tracks. The cattle grids were almost hidden beneath their coats of vegetation, and the odd sign told us the farmers meant serious business for undisciplined dog owners…….. No doubt they were relying on the ‘2nd Amendment’ to support their cause…..
And a mid-ride stop to visit a dear friend in Oundle, and be treated to coffee with cream…….well, to mix my metaphors, it put the ‘icing on the cake’.
Take Mark Beaumont as an example…….two weeks before his recent success at breaking the round-the-world cycling record, which he completed in under 80 days by the way, I sat in on a presentation he gave at the Adventure Cycling Festival in Ambleside, and he painted the broad brush-strokes of his forthcoming challenge: ride 18,000 miles in both hemispheres, be on his bike every day for 80 days for 16 hours, and ride an average of 240 miles per day.
Now, I know what it’s like to ride 240 miles in a day because have ridden 250 miles in less than 24 hours on several occasions, but………..(and here is the big ‘but’) they were Audax 400km events, and they were ridden as stand-alone events, and I still used up most of the 24 hours to complete them. Beaumont, on the other hand, had to ride at a much higher than average speed to complete each day within 16 hours (including 4 rest stops), to give himself a chance to catch 4-5 hours sleep at the end of the day. That requires stamina, fitness and discipline…..
I thought long and hard about Beaumont’s adventure, and the dilemma between speed/distance and pure enjoyment on the bike, as I meandered my way across the golden landscapes of an autumnal countryside, enjoyed lunch with a crowd of fellow roadies, and decided that my own cycling life was definitely in its ‘autumnal years’, where enjoyment has almost (and I mean almost) imperceptibly superseded speed and mileage-bagging as the desired goal. Unfortunately, I cannot entirely own up to not taking any notice of the stats that appear on my Garmin screen as I bowl along (the average speed, in particular, holds a feisty grip on the attention), but my eyes spend much more time enjoying what lies around me, passing and acknowledging other people on the road, especially cyclists.
Today’s route was a civilised 70km at an average pace of 24kph. I mean, how laid-back is that…..?