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Carpe diem…

Waresley Garden Centre cafe, where I met up with one of my mid-week groups, has the best scones in the area, and today they were offering an unusual raspberry and chocolate variety…..but I resisted the clotted cream…..don’t ask me why….I must have been on a mission to appear virtuous.

And the quality of the cafe offerings was matched by the perfect autumnal weather, the countryside bedecked in the orange, gold and crimson of a soon to disappear seasonal feast. Carpe diem…..

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Scotney Castle and Storm Ophelia

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Hitting the National Trust trail…..

IMG_20171013_115210514What 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…..Sissinghurst

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 sackville Harold NicolsonVita 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………..IMG_20171017_203007

 

Life is like riding a bike…..

IMG_20171003_202655Let 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……IMG_20171003_110222527

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 IMG_20171003_111937082vegetation, 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’.

 

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80km/50 miles. Conditions sunny and windy.

 

Meteorological winter begins….

……with a late autumn ride on a gloriously sunny day, with golden foliage clinging to the trees against the odds. I’d like to claim a headwind out, and tailwind home….but the reality was very different. It always is. Who would want it to be simple and straightforward anyway?

Gretton

105km/65 miles

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The last gasp of autumn…

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If you take a meteorological view of the changing of the seasons, autumn has finished today, and winter begins tomorrow, December 1st. If, however, your cycle of seasons depends on the movement of the sun, the winter solstice, December 21st, will herald the beginning of your winter, kick-started by the shortest day/longest night of the year. Though it is curious that the winter solstice is also known as midwinter’s day……almost as curious as finding out that the American Mid-West is largely located in the eastern US.IMAG1002

Whatever the case, the meteorological end of autumn today had to be observed by a ride through the last vestiges of autumnal sunshine, into the dusk, and through the first hour of the approaching winter darkness. There is something very special about riding into the night. The countryside goes quiet, the wind drops, early night time predators are beginning to forage and hunt, and the sun disappears over the horizon to leave a glow that lingers on, and on…….IMAG1004

Your impression of speed becomes inflated. Without the usual visible markers by the side of the road to give you an idea of actual speed, as you cut through the darkness, you imagine yourself to be cruising with the elite. But a downhill stretch in one village challenged me to defy a radar speed sign…..hoping to break the speed limit, but I only managed 25mph (40kph). Hey ho……..IMAG1003

 

 

Through the equinox of September

“The breezes taste

Of apple peel

The air is full

Of smells to feel”

(John Updike, September)

In my teaching days, the end of August heralded the reining in of the wanderlust of summer, and the girding of the loins for the onset of the new term. The first few days of September saw all the systems firing up to receive the returning pupils from

Extracting a JCB from our garden......

Extracting a JCB from our garden……

the previous year, and the new pupils making their hesitant start in a new school environment. Since retiring from teaching, I’ve noticed how many of the ‘silver haired’ generation seem to disappear in the early days of September, presumably heading off to those very same resorts and hotels recently vacated by departing families heading home for the start of the school term. Not for them the exorbitant prices of the high season; not for them the noise and boisterous fun-making of children.

We stayed ‘chez nous’ for the duration of the month, primarily to be around when the garden landscapers moved in to dig a huge hole in our back garden, and then begin the process of filling it in again with a new patio. Having lost our patio 6 years

Blackberries....!

Blackberries….!

ago when we had a conservatory built on it, we decided to regain it once again……….in time, of course, for the promise of any warm lazy autumnal days that may lie ahead………….. ;0)

Cycling in September jostled for space alongside the obligatory blackberry picking and apple scrumping along the country lanes. This is the time for filling the freezer with the autumnal harvest, and the hedgerows this year have been awash with ripening fruits. Many has been the time I’ve got back home with the three back pockets of my cycling jersey stuffed with apples……….only to be met by the uxorial admonishment of “Oh no, not more fruit-for-free! What are we going to

Castle Ashby

Castle Ashby

do with it all?”.

In terms of cycling, the month started with descending temperatures, to the point where some domestic heating systems were fired up (not ours, of course………being post-war babies, we remember well the benefits of simply putting on multiple layers of clothing) and winter cycling layers were dug out from the depths of drawers. After a glove-less summer, applying brakes and gears with gloved hands seemed a little strange. But then a promised Indian summer appeared on the horizon, and the last two weeks of the month provided perfect cycling weather.

Somewhere in Staffordshire

Somewhere in Staffordshire

This is the time of year when cycling mileages normally tail off a bit. The days get cooler and daylight hours get shorter. Unlike July and August, when several of my day rides exceeded 160 kms/100 miles, my longest route in September was only 130 kms/81 miles. But I numbered 23 riding days in total, averaging 75 kms/47 miles per day………giving a total for the month of 1,735 kms/1,078 miles.

Which reminds me……’tis time to check the chain for wear, and get it replaced before it begins to do irreparable damage to the cassette and chainwheels. My last change of chain required a new cassette…………the guys at my local bike shop told me I was doing too many miles……

Bathed in the warm glow…

……bathed in the warm glow of the autumn sunshine as it filtered through golden leaves that were gently jettisoned by trees heading for the slumber of winter hibernation………..

Words lifted from my previous post……and I was asked by a reader why I hadn’t included visuals of the ‘warm glow’ and the ‘golden leaves’ being ‘gently jettisoned’ from the trees in front of our house. Well here they are. Our large picture-frame lounge window give us a perfect view of the cherry blossom in the spring and the falling leaves in the autumn.

With no apologies to John Keats

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,

   Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;

Conspiring with him how to load and bless

   With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;

To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,

   And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;

      To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells

   With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,

And still more, later flowers for the bees,

Until they think warm days will never cease,

      For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

(From To Autumn by John Keats)

Deep-pocketed cyclists?

If you are a non-cyclist, or even a cyclist who wears ‘normal’ clothes when cycling, you may have asked yourself a few questions about the garments worn by ‘lycra-louts’. Why, for instance, do they wear those strange jerseys with deep pockets at the back? Usually three of them. Well, there are a variety of reasons, mostly connected with practicality. But I won’t bore you with those.

When the autumn arrives, that season of “mists and mellow fruitfulness”(Keats), I take on a new persona. My instinct to forage and harvest fruits in the hedgerows rises to the surface, and as I wend my way along country lanes, my eyes become sensitive to the store of hidden fruits that lurk within the hedges and beyond the ditches.

Blackberries, of course, are a favourite and available in abundance. This season has seen several kilos consigned to the freezer for winter consumption. But even more remarkable than blackberries are the apples for the picking in the wild. Tell-tale windfalls will reveal the presence of an apple tree (being a ‘good’ cyclist, my gaze is normally at the road ahead!) and you can either pass it by (as most people do) or stop and collect some of its fruits. My, almost uncontrolled, instinct is to stop and harvest some of the windfalls.

Now, I normally ride a lightweight road bike, with no luggage space for anything. Hence the practicality of the three deep pockets for the cyclist-scavenger like myself. And you would be amazed at the different varieties of apple available in the wild, and most are sweet enough to eat off the tree.

I returned home today from a 60 mile ride with empty pockets. My wife sighed with relief!! I wonder what fruits you harvest from the hedgerows? (Yes I’m looking for further inspiration).

Letter from America 6:Time is up as leaves come down!

Autumn leaves. As the autumn nears its end and the leaves fall fast and furiously, the mechanisms for dealing with the countless tons of leaves swing into action. You can either deal with the problem yourself by raking the leaves and bagging them for the special ‘leaf collection truck’, or by blowing them to the side of the road for the leaf garbage truck to suck them up. Or there are countless little enterprises that will call around and clear your gutters, rake up the leaves, cut and treat your lawns, close down your automatic watering systems, clean out and prepare your swimming pool for its winter rest. In fact, there is nothing that can’t be handled by some eager odd-jobber, and the dedicated DIY person (ie. Don’t Involve Yourself) can sit back and have all his domestic needs covered.

Christmas in style. I was astonished to find out that many Americans of ‘certain economic means’ will pay an expert to decorate their homes for Christmas. And I don’t mean put up a tree, a few lights and streamers. We are talking about a full-scale designer makeover that costs $1000s. All the customer has to do is decide on the year’s theme, discuss a few generalities about colours and so on, then leave the rest to the experts. When the festivities are over, the same experts will ‘expertly de-decorate’ your house and dispose of everything. Generally the customer will keep nothing because, next year, he will choose a completely different theme that will require going back to the drawing board! Only in America……………..!

George W. Bush. I nearly fell off my chair laughing at the hairdressers the other day. After my haircut, at the hands of a former Texan cowboy called Howard, I had a few minutes to read an item from the Detroit Free Press about using search engines on the Internet. Apparently (and please don’t try this at home without a safety net!) if you type into Google the key words “miserable failure”, the first website to come up will be George W. Bush’s biography! Some hacker has done an effective job of discrediting the most powerful man in the world. Everywhere I go, I bump into people who have few kind words to say about their President. Many have expressed their admiration at how Tony Blair not only faces up to regular public criticism and debate in our House of Parliament, but also at the way he seems to handle it. George W. is only ever heard in public (I am told) when he has 4-5 lines carefully rehearsed, and he delivers them without interruption. Confrontational scenes that we are well used to in our House of Commons, would be held behind closed doors here, well away from public scrutiny.

My birthday. To celebrate my birthday, we went out to an Ethiopian restaurant

Ethiopian dish

called the Blue Nile. This was a ‘life-first’ for me, and I did not know what to expect. The food was served in an “eat all you can” feast in the form of small portions of several different meats and vegetables on a large circular platter. Most diners did not sit at table, but around an elevated round font into which the platter was placed and provided a communal source of food for everyone. The food was then scooped up using thinly sliced doughy bread, and the portions were continuously replenished until you called a halt. Both before and after the meal, we were offered hot scented hand towels. The service was impeccable and the food was delicious. I would recommend it to anyone.

Henry Ford Museum. On my last weekend in Michigan I took advantage of a fine day to cycle over to the Henry Ford museum in Dearborn (an area which, incidentally, has the largest Arabic community outside the Middle East). I expected to view the whole history of the automotive industry, and I did not

Ten man bike

anticipate meandering through the entire history of invention and engineering, from the sewing machine to advanced forms of aviation.  All this was housed under one massive roofed 8 acre site, in which they had assembled whole aeroplanes, including the one flown by the Wright brothers over 100 years ago. It is amazing to think that, within 65 years of that historic moment, man would be walking on the moon! As you step outside the museum, you enter Greenfield Village, a 28 acre development that brings together samples of housing, factories, shops and restaurants from the last 200 years of American history. It was a real historic adventure to walk through the family homes of the Fords, Edisons, Wrights and Heinz, and then by contrast to step inside a slave dwelling from a local plantation. Henry Ford’s vision of what was good about America rose well above the mere assemblage of the Model T.

The highlight for me, however, was not only to see the famous bus in which Rosa Parks had staged her sit-down protest, but also to sit in the very same seat. Unfortunately there was no elderly San Diego lady in sight waiting to receive her lesson on race relations!

In my last few days, I have had the pleasure of dining out with the Principal, Steve Archibald, and his family, and with several colleagues in the World Languages Department. I have been overwhelmed by kindness from all directions. Everybody has been so warm and welcoming that it is going to be hard to say goodbye.

Time to depart. My time at Stevenson High School is drawing to a close. Six weeks have been too short, but my time here has given me a privileged insight into the mechanisms and dynamics of a very good American High School. A school is a complex organism, and one the size of Stevenson is more complex than most, but my immersion in the life here has been uplifting, and has underlined  a certainty in my life that, no matter how long I have been in teaching, the summit of the mountain of knowledge still remains obscured in the distance. Engaging the minds of teenagers and empowering them to learn is a never-ending quest for all teachers. Doing an exchange is one way of exploring some of the myriad possibilities of succeeding in that quest.

With that, I sign off and say “cheerio” for the final time.

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