It’s great when the club ride schedules its cake stop in a place of interest. Outside the small village of Old Warden in Bedfordshire, you’ll find the Shuttleworth Collection, a museum housing early vintage aircraft, cars, motorcycles, penny farthings, and a motley selection of farm vehicles.
Next door to it is the Swiss Garden, a Regency garden landscaped in Capability Brown-fashion to resemble the Swiss landscape. Quite remarkable, really.
But to slake the thirst and replenish the carbs for a group of hungry cyclists, between the two there is an extensive café and restaurant, built to cope with large numbers. At this very ‘unbusy’ time of the year for cafés, a couple of groups of wheelers bring along some tidy business.
Having worked as a journalist for the BBC for over 40 years, John Simpson has a long history that provides him with the source material for his memoirs. Not quite world’s end is just one of his memoirs, covering the late 1990s and early 2000s, dovetailing in with his marriage to Dee, and the birth of Rafe (Raphael) their son, when Simpson was 62 years of age.
The whole book is an unruly kaleidoscope of reminiscences, both about his personal experience of world events, as well as the more domestic happenings in his personal life and how they have altered his perspective on the world. From Iraq to Afghanistan, from Russia to South Africa, from Argentina to Bosnia-Herzegovina…… there is hardly a tract of the known world that Simpson hasn’t reported from and, in keeping with the nature of his job, he was nearly always drafted in to report from some of the world’s most dreadful conflicts where, it was not uncommon, he would often put himself and his camera crew in the most compromisingly hazardous situations just to get that key interview or camera shots of the devastation all around him. He talks of such life-threatening situations as if they were just part of the routine of his work…….which, of course, they were.
But the ‘heavy stuff’ is often lightened by personal reflections, the relationships he built up with people, the food and drink he enjoyed, and the fun he had with total strangers. A very good read, and well worth putting it on a short list of books to read if, that is, you enjoy this particular genre of writing.
I am just a ‘hobby-blogger’. I don’t chase reading stats to make a living out of my ramblings. I simply write for fun, and if my scribblings entertain or inform just a handful of people, I am happy. In other words, within the world of blogging, my website is small-time, creating barely a ripple on the surface of the blogosphere.
However, today I wandered into some of my administration pages and encountered a few veritable surprises, especially on the ‘Top Posts’ page that logs the number of hits for each post. Although the predominant theme of the whole website is ‘cycling’ (and I do apologise if you are a non-cyclist), and more specifically, my long expeditions in some faraway country, it is not entirely about cycling. Hence the cover title of ‘Serendipities of Life’, which opens the door to writing just about anything that catches my attention.
The statistics of the most-read posts, since I began blogging in 2010, reveal that amongst the top ten posts, six have nothing (or very little) to do with cycling, even though many of my posts would never have featured as a ‘serendipity’ if I hadn’t been on a journey of discovery on my bike. So, if you have nothing better to do over the next few minutes, take a dip into some of my most read posts.
- Land’s End to John O’Groats on a Moulton bicycle. The most read post of all time was my account of riding the 1000 miles from Land’s End to John O’Groats in the UK, perhaps the most iconic of British routes that many people aspire to. Probably a key factor was the fact I completed it on a small-wheeled Moulton bicycle: https://frankburns.wordpress.com/2011/02/20/lands-end-to-john-ogroats-on-a-moulton-bicycle/
- Joe Tasker 1948-82. Joe and I were not only born in the same small town in County Durham, but we went to boarding school together. He became one of the most daring and successful climbers of his generation, pioneering ascents of the world’s highest peaks without oxygen, and operating with scaled down teams and minimal equipment. Sadly he died on Everest, with his partner Pete Boardman, in 1982. I had met with him just days before that expedition, and he had sent me a postcard from basecamp just before the final (and fatal) assault. I received that postcard 7 days after the confirmation of his death. Part 1: https://frankburns.wordpress.com/2011/07/15/joe-tasker-climber-extraordinaire-1948-82/……………. Part 2: https://frankburns.wordpress.com/2011/07/16/joe-tasker-1948-82-continued/
- A ‘peek’ amongst the peaks, and not just about the bike. A fascinating visit to the Peak District in Derbyshire. https://frankburns.wordpress.com/2011/07/01/a-peek-amongst-the-peaks-and-not-just-about-the-bike/
- Ushaw College 1808-2011. My school was almost one of a kind. A Roman Catholic Seminary, its origins came out of the Reformation, and its construction coincided with that period of growing tolerance and eventual emancipation at the beginning of the 19th century. https://frankburns.wordpress.com/2011/03/22/ushaw-college-1808-2011/
- A “breeze” through the Outer Hebrides. A singular cycle ride through all the Western Isles, the Inner Isles, ending up on the islands of Mull and Iona. https://frankburns.wordpress.com/2011/03/29/a-breeze-through-the-outer-hebrides-2/
- Coba: human sacrifice and scary heights! An encounter with Mayan history on the east coast of Mexico. https://frankburns.wordpress.com/2011/02/05/coba/
- Brixworth Anglo-Saxon church. A rare and fine example of some pre-Norman architecture very close to home. https://frankburns.wordpress.com/2011/04/20/brixworth-anglo-saxon-church/
- Damien Hirst: a genuine artist? A few reflections after visiting a Damien Hirst exhibition in the Tate Modern.https://frankburns.wordpress.com/2012/05/31/damien-hirst-a-genuine-artist/
- Santiago-Muxía-Finisterra. Back to cycling again. The last stage of my cycling expedition from my home in Cambridgeshire to Santiago de Compostela in NW Spain. On this leg, I left Santiago to reach the most westerly point of the Spanish peninsula. https://frankburns.wordpress.com/2011/05/26/santiago-muxia-finisterra-138kms87m/
- Latin as a school’s ‘lingua franca’. I had a very classical education. Four of my ‘O levels’ were classical subjects: Latin, Ancient Greek, Roman History and Greek History. Hence much of the day-to-day language of the school was a derivative of this classical bias. https://frankburns.wordpress.com/2011/11/15/latin-as-a-schools-lingua-franca/
When major airports were cancelling flights because of dense fog, I rode out the year with an unusually frost-free, fog-free, relatively windless 60kms ride…..overtook a fellow-rider on a similar mission (but he was too out of breath to engage in conversation), crossed paths with fellow-club riders with laconic waves, stopped to offer help to another rider who had punctured (but he had all he needed to do the job), picked up some of the last apples hanging on a friend’s tree, and began to ponder what 2017 might have in store.
Already in the calendar is a week’s winter riding on the Mediterranean island of Menorca, heading off in mid-January. But what about a more ambitious ride? An expedition-like ride in a distant land? And then a tandeming venture for Jenny and me to share together? We have already completed the Coast-to-Coast and the length of the River Thames, both challenging and exhilarating in their different ways. There is much to ponder.
But Strava fanatics will begin the year chasing personal ‘gongs’. Hundreds (even thousands) will head off to the hills (wherever they are in the world) on the first day of the year to try and secure a first KOM (King of the Mountains) placing. Each mountain climb will have its own category, and if the first person to climb a particular mountain on January 1st is especially strong, they may hold onto the placing for much of the year. Weaker riders will almost certainly lose their placings within a few days. The use of GPS and training websites like Strava have successfully ‘democratised’ international amateur competition.
If you have been kind enough to follow any of my ramblings over the past year, I wish you a very happy 2017 and, if you ride a bike, ‘may the wind be ever at your back’.
Tom Allen caught my attention a few years ago as an adventure cyclist, the sort of adventure cyclist who understands the essence of travelling unaided, across continents, carrying only what is absolutely essential for survival.
He has now switched his focus to long distance walking, and is in the process of ‘trailblazing’ a new hiking route across the Caucasian Mountains. You may be inspired by this 5 minute video…………..
<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/192392143″>The Transcaucasian Expedition</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/tenacityinpursuit”>Dave Katz</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a>.</p>
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…….?
After all that has been written over the years about the history of the British Empire, you’d scarcely think there was room for one more tome. But here it is, by the inimitable Jeremy Paxman, preceding a television series of the same title which can be played-back on YouTube.
I fully expected to be reading a highly critical account of Britain’s role as a colonizer of a quarter of the world, but Paxman deftly sails a narrow course between the two opposing views. That doesn’t mean that he is not individually critical of individuals, or actions and policies, he is to devastating effect on many counts. He is not averse to lampooning key figures who ‘got it all wrong’ in their enthusiasm to build the empire, and holding up to scrutiny some of the appalling episodes that became key markers on the empire timeline, such as slave-trading, the opium wars, Amritsar and genocide in Tasmania. But in his desire to create some kind of balance, he also highlights atrocities committed by the colonized, such as the Black Hole of Calcutta, and the institutionalized paedophilia, hand-loppings and floggings that occurred in many less-administered corners of the empire.
Although he needed to give more space to the sub-text of his book: “What ruling the world did to the British”, he cannily leaves us to make up our own minds about the oft-stated claim that if any nation is to be subjected to occupation by a colonizer, Britain was definitely the most benevolent of the bunch. I leave you to make up your own mind.
Whenever I think of heading east from my village, I brace myself for the windswept flatlands of fen country, following the straight lines of drains and dykes, on roads that disappear over the horizon without a rise or fall, and rarely a bend or curve. In short, it’s my vision of ‘cycling hell’. So when the Wednesday group decided to head out to Ramsey, I viewed the prospect with a certain hesitation. For those who know fen country, most of it is land that should rightly be under water, but Dutch drainage engineers in the 17th century helped mastermind the building of a clever system of drainage which has created some of the most fertile agricultural land in the country.
My ride took me over Holme Fen, reputedly the lowest part of fen country, dropping away to 2.75 metres below sea level, though my GPS only detected -1 metre on the road, which stood proud of the field level on either side. You can imagine my surprise, when I downloaded the stats of the ride at the end, to discover that over the course of 74kms, I had actually climbed 350 metres (1100 feet)…….but most of it heading in and out of the fens in west Cambridgeshire, which I frequently nickname as ‘Huntingdonshire’s alps’. In fact, the highest point of old Huntingdonshire is just a few miles from my home, just outside a tiny hamlet called Covington. Somewhere in the field known as ‘Boring Field’, there is a spot that is a towering 80 metres above sea level…….imagine that.
Under a pale watery winter sun this afternoon, I passed a target that I thought would have been impossible 11 months ago. My cycling target for this year was to reach 5000 miles (8000kms) by the end of December, and I hit it today with 4 weeks to spare. Now I know some of you mile-eaters out there will sneer at this, wanting to point out that you’d do that sort of annual distance just on your pre-breakfast rides. And I would understand that. But 11 months ago to the day, I had an ‘event’ that I thought was going to put paid to my continuing ‘bad behaviour on a bike’………and it almost did.
Getting out of bed too quickly one morning, I experienced a catastrophic drop in blood pressure and collapsed, fracturing a few vertebrae in my back and, in the process (although this had nothing to do with the collapse) I discovered I suffered from paroxysmal atrial fibrillation (arrhythmia), a condition that happens to be quite common amongst endurance athletes. Like a lot of long-distance athletes, a scan revealed an enlargement of the upper atrium of the heart which, in itself, may be of little consequence, but coupled with Afib, needs to be controlled and monitored.
Two months after the event, I remember climbing painfully on the bike for the first time and managed to squeeze 4 miles (6kms) out of the legs…….but it hurt. At the beginning of March, I started some serious but gradual cycling ‘re-hab’, and my rides progressed from 7 miles (12kms) to 27 miles (44kms), reaching a total of 280 miles (450kms) for the month. I rapidly progressed to 600 miles per month (1000kms), hitting the usual high in August of 1000 miles (1600kms), the longest single ride of the year being 65 miles (104kms)
So, after a few years of hitting annual mileages in excess of 10,000 miles (16,000kms), this year’s total of a mere 5000 miles is way off the mark, but for me this has been a minor victory on the road to recovery.
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……
It is a long time since a book has kept my attention riveted for 6-8 hours a day, and sometimes awake into the small hours.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali, born in Somalia, brought up in Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Kenya, escaped to the Netherlands as a political refugee, eventually becoming a member of the Dutch Parliament, came to prominence when a film producer, Theo van Gogh was murdered in the street by a Muslim extremist, with a knife in his chest affixing a letter addressed to Ms Hirsi Ali. She then embarked on the rest of her life (in 2004) regarded widely as the feminine version of Salman Rushdie, fearing for her life and living with the intense pressure of maximum security.
It is the story of a journey. Not just a physical journey escaping from one country to another, but a psychological and spiritual journey. She had been born into the ‘relaxed’ Muslim society of Somalia which practised excision (genital mutilation), and she describes that experience with painful detail. She joined the Muslim Brotherhood and became evangelical about her faith, but over time, she found many of her questions about the nature of her faith and its treatment of women unanswered. Her father forced her into marrying a distant cousin from Canada whom she’d never met and, on her way via Europe to join him, she made her escape into Holland where she (falsely) claimed status as a political refugee. This chapter of her life was to be the most tumultuous.
Deeply impressed at everything she found in Holland, she gradually lost her faith, became secularized, joined the feminist movement, and began to publicly denounce the practices of the Islamic faith, especially in the area of women’s rights. After the 9/11 attack in the USA, she went on record declaring that terrorism was endemic within the Muslim faith. The murder of Theo van Gogh resulted from a 10 minute film they had made together called Submission, and the letter pinned to his chest called for a fatwa against Ms Hirsi Ali herself, precipitating months and years of isolation and intense security.
In 2005, Time Magazine voted her as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. She is now a naturalized citizen in the United States, has been elected a fellow at the Kennedy Government School at Harvard University, and is now married to Niall Ferguson, the controversial Scottish historian who also teaches at Harvard.
Yesterday, I returned from a 25 mile ‘bash’ on the bike so wet, so completely soaked to the skin, that I left a pool of water on the garage floor. It then took me all of 15 minutes to pare off the several layers, wringing each one out as I created a sodden mound on the kitchen floor. The saving grace of the whole experience was that I had strangely enjoyed the ride (despite the rain), and that by virtue of all the layers, I hadn’t actually got cold. However, because of a serious accident several years ago, when I came off the bike on black ice and broke my femur, I now carry a tightly rolled ‘space blanket’ in my back pocket in case of emergency. Avoiding hypothermia in the cold winter months is a key element of survival in the event of an accident, especially on a remote country lane.
Today, however, was a different story. Bright and occasionally sunny, I headed down into north Bedfordshire to meet up with the Wednesday group at a hitherto unknown country café between Gamlingay and Potton. The Christmas menu just happened to be out on the tables. As we chomped on our cakes and bacon ‘butties’, one of the group had a ‘bright’ idea……why don’t we go for a full 2/3 course lunch on one of our pre-Christmas rides?
Groan……I considered the prospect with mixed feelings. Nice to have a Christmas lunch, but what about the 25 mile ride home afterwards? Rarely do I eat a meal mid-ride…..
I know it’s well past the season, but this caught my attention today. Put there by the British Legion, the framework was made from the wiring salvaged from old Remembrance Day wreaths from the past. Original and creative, it beckons you to sit next to him and share his space.
Nigel Holland, in his early 50s, suffers from an inherited genetic disorder known as Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease (CMT), which is a motor and sensory neuropathy. Basically, this means that his nerves cannot communicate action messages to his muscles. He was diagnosed in his infancy and, since then, has progressively lost his ability to live independently. He has been confined to a wheelchair for many years, but has never let this get in the way of meeting the challenges of life. In his own words, he may have a disability, but he is definitely not disabled.
This book is a diary of one year in his life (his 50th year) when he set out to complete 50 challenges, which not only included obvious challenges like scuba diving, zorbing and drag racing, but also less obvious ones like making a creme brulée and completing a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle. The whole book is written as a message of hope to his young daughter, who has inherited the condition, and Nigel wants her to know that she doesn’t have to lower her sights in life because of her progressive disability.
Writing the book itself was one of the 50 challenges, and I would heartily recommend it for its very human story.
Club cyclists can pick up the scent of a café from several miles. And some of them (cafés, that is) are in the most unlikely of places. I rode out this morning, under a bright blue sky, to meet up with the mid-week group at a little café on a small local airfield, just south of Peterborough. Conington airfield is used largely by flying clubs, and is a centre for training. About 20 years ago, I remember having a flying lesson from this very airfield, the product of a Christmas present from Jenny, and the flight route I chose took us over to Kimbolton, where we circled the Castle a couple of times, taking photos, before zooming back to base before my stipulated hour was up.
This time, it was eating ‘bacon butties’ and watching a student helicopter pilot go through his paces. And don’t be fooled by the map. I didn’t actually venture onto the A1. For those who know, the old Great North Road runs parallel to the A1, and is much quieter.
Sit back and be prepared to be educated. We had to be.
Nine months ago, we were introduced to the little-known properties of one of the latest ‘super-foods’ to enter the global food chain. When our daughter, Rachael, announced to us via Skype (as we sat in our hotel room in Amsterdam during a city-break), that she and her partner, Jonathan, were going to leave Mexico to return to Spain, with the intention of settling and acquiring a few hectares of land to plant something called ‘Moringa’. It was a ‘jaw-dropping’ moment for both of us. Why?
Well, like most people, we had never even heard of the plant. Even an expert botanist friend of ours had only just heard of it, but couldn’t tell us much more about it. Into the small hours that night, we researched it on the internet, discovered that it originates in India, can only be grown in tightly defined sub-tropical areas with ready access to irrigation, and must be planted on well-drained terrain. Rachael and Jonathan, with the help of Jonathan’s parents (both Colombians, by the way) experimented with a few trial plants and found that parts of Andalucía in the south of Spain would provide the ideal environment………all of which led to the kick-starting of an adventure into the unknown.
Having acquired the lease of three hectares of barren uncultivated land, they ‘whipped’ the terrain into submission, ploughed, fed and watered it in preparation for over 1000 delicate little saplings which, in the last six months, have grown at a pace, but their first harvest will be to capture the seeds from the pods to plant the next generation, extend their holding, then to harvest the leaves the following year for the market………and to make some money, we hope.
Moringa is a fast-growing, drought-resistant tree, native to the southern foothills of the Himalayas, where the seed pods and leaves are used extensively as vegetables. The most nutritious part of the plant is the leaves, rich in vitamins A, B, C and K, with high levels of manganese and calcium. So complete a food, in fact, that in poorer parts of Asia it is a vital constituent of their diet. For the western market, however, where people are mostly well fed, it is promoted more as a supplement that can be taken in addition to the normal diet in the form of teas, pills or powders. Go into your local health-food store and you will find many products that include moringa on their list of ingredients.
It has been a leap into the unknown for these newcomers to the world of horticulture, but they are doing their ‘homework’, dealing with the inevitable problems of working with vagaries of nature, and looking to the future with optimism.
And since the ‘banks of Mum and Dad’ on both sides happen to be significant investors in this pioneering venture, we look on their joys, trials and tribulations with more than just a little curiosity, and find ourselves periodically shouting………. ¡Viva la Moringa!
When out on a local circular ride around country lanes, I expect to be held up periodically by traffic, especially around the time of the school-run or the mad dash to and from work by commuters. But on today’s ride, something rather different happened……..
I headed into north Bedfordshire…..
….and outside a farm near Thurleigh, I was stopped in my tracks by a flock of little ‘fascists’, goose-stepping their way across the road, heads held aloft, arrogantly ignoring the rights of other road users. I counted twelve as they waddled their way into a neighbouring field in search of……….well, food, I suppose.