After the rains, the rivers rise, the countryside turns an intense shade of green, and the crops burst into sudden growth. Muntjac diced with death crossing roads, skylarks sang in disjointed harmony, and the last of the flowering beans still wafted their heady scents.
This is a magical time to be travelling the lanes….
A favourite route of mine is to take in four counties in one ride, and I can do this because I live on the borders of three (Bedfordshire, Northamptonshire and Cambridgeshire) and am within striking distance of the fourth, Buckinghamshire. To boot, it passes some fascinating places, such as Santa Pod
Castle Ashby, formerly the family seat of the Marquess of Northamptonshire
on through Olney in Buckinghamshire, once home of John Newton, author of the universally sung hymn ‘Amazing Grace’, and famed for its annual pancake races
and finally through Turvey, now home of the Benedictine Turvey Abbey.
and herewith the 52 mile (83km) route, almost entirely on quiet country roads…
A thousand metres of climbing over 76km is a challenging day in itself, but frustratingly more challenging when I couldn’t change down to my lowest gear at any point of the day, no matter how much fiddling and fettling…..so I ground my way up the hills fighting to maintain momentum, only being defeated by one especially brutal climb, limping into a cycle shop when the day was nearly over…..to be told the cable was completely ‘shot’. “Should I put a new one in for you?” he said. Is the pope a Catholic, I muttered to myself….so, within minutes it was re-cabled and the gears ‘retuned’…..and I left a happy bunny.
The ride took in the 13th century Croxden Abbey, whizzed through Alton (of the famous towers) and headed back through Oakamoor…..a lumpy bumpy route…..but it was exciting.
The countryside of Staffordshire is a well-guarded secret…..like it’s oatcakes, it’s appreciated by the conosseurs….and, of course, by cyclists like ourselves.
I shared the ride with 7 other fellow roadies from the bunch of 300 attending the Birthday Rides at Stone in Staffordshire…..but met up with others both on the road and at the café….a great social experience.
Discovering a new piece of software that can bring your day’s ride to life helps you to relive the experience in a different way. And for those who haven’t yet discovered the joys of propelling themselves through the countryside on a pair of wheels, this kind of animation of a route may possibly kindle an interest.
As you will see from the photo embedded in the video, the weather did not inspire, but once on the bike, with the leg muscles warming up, the sheer momentum of the experience can make the weather irrelevant…….unless, of course, it is ‘tanking it down’……which it was the other day. But then the worst that can happen to you is…..you get wet…….and so what?
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…..
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…….!
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’.
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’.
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.
Cycling along country lanes, through little villages and hamlets, I am frequently conscious of the history I am travelling through. Wherever I go in this land, people have populated this country for thousands of years, and every metre of every ride comes close to some significant event in the past that has likely got lost in the mists of time. A well known African proverb tells us: “Until lions have their own historians, tales of the hunt will always glorify the hunter”. So too with human beings. Until the poor and dispossessed have their historians, tales of the past will always glorify the rich and powerful, and will be recounted and handed down in a carefully sanitised version.
My ride this morning took me through tiny places associated with well known people from the past, some of whom were history-makers. Christopher ‘Troublechurch’ Browne, for instance, was a non-conformist who wanted to separate church from state, and became a mentor and father-figure behind the Pilgrim Fathers who set sail across the Atlantic to found a new colony. He was associated with Thorpe Waterville and had lived in Lilford Hall.
John Dryden (poet) was born in the Rectory in Aldwincle, and John Quincy Adams (6th President of the USA) had ancestors that came out of the tiny hamlet of Achurch. Achurch was also the home village of Alfred Leete, the designer of the famous Kitchener poster of the Great War that encouraged men to enlist in the armed services. My route home traced a long straight stretch of Roman road, and my route out passed through the village of Yielden that can trace its origins back to the late Neolothic period (2000 BC).
We are not only ‘surrounded by geography’, we are also surrounded by our ancient past.
A dodging-the-showers ride across countryside crying out for the harvest to be brought in. It’s the month of frustration for the arable farmers around here.
Then we get the most stunning sunset of the early summer……that’s one of the beauties of clouds…….they first bring the rain, followed by promises of better things to come.
Now that I have your attention…..what does he mean ‘cycling and gaining weight’? Surely, the aerobic exercise of turning pedals is all about losing weight…….. Well, that depends. Let me explain.
Jenny and I used to organise charity cycle rides, sending up to 200 cyclists on any of 6 routes, the longest 100 miles, the shortest just 3 miles for little kiddies. We put on feeding stations at regular intervals that served up a variety of sweet snacks, including cakes, flapjack, chocolate……you know, all those things you shouldn’t eat, but justify them because you are cycling a few miles. I used to brag that we put on the only sportive-like event where riders were guaranteed to put on weight……even the 100 milers!
Well, I headed off this morning looking to gain a few kilos. And sure enough, I gained 4 kilos after about 35 miles. How? Well, the autumnal foraging season had begun, and I set off in earnest down into Bedfordshire, carrying my musette (normally a cyclist’s feedbag used in racing events) aiming to fill it with the fruits of the earth.
My first stop was a walnut tree that I had spied last month. After consulting a few websites, I calculated they would be ripening early September……but not quite yet. The cool August might have delayed them. So they will spend some time on the conservatory windowsill to see if they will burst open.
Then onto a favoured apple picking site, where there are two trees planted on the site where there had been an American War Memorial…..not sure what happened to the memorial
….but a few metres away, in the hedge, I noticed a plum-like fruit…..and decided they were greengages. We did a bit of checking at home, then I braved the tasting and……well, I’m still here 🙂
The nett result was that I returned home 4 kilos heavier than when I set off, with the stuffed musette slung behind me. I have to admit, I noticed the extra weight as I climbed the hills….
Back at home, off I went to our local blackberry offerings, and picked about 1.5 kilos. I know I’m a very sad person, but I do take great delight in foraging and, in the words of Richard Mabey, getting my ‘food for free’.
A cycling friend would sometimes try to wind me up by waxing lyrical about the supreme aesthetics of the modern turbine, making specific reference to the 10 erected just outside Burton Latimer. Built as the first wind farm in Northamptonshire, its fame competes with the vast Weetabix factory, both fairly ugly constructions, but the one offending more by its visual impact, and the other by its olfactory presence, bearing no resemblance to the aroma of what lies in the bottom of your cereal bowl in the morning.
Then through Brixworth, the setting of one of the most stunning Saxon Churches in the country. Though it has undergone many additions and alterations over the ages, a lot of the original structure from the 7th century still remain to this day.
If you are in the area, it is well worth a visit.
Have you ever wondered how some shops, cafés and pubs in remote village locations manage to survive, even thrive? Well, here’s one answer……… this Garden Centre in Waresley is a very popular watering hole for mile-eating roadies, and we all know that many cyclists only ride their bikes for one thing…….cake and coffee! Our own group, euphemistically called ‘The Slugs’, numbered at least 12 the other day, but there were other groups hailing from Cambridge and its environs.
When I held down a full-time job, I imagined all these places gently slumbered during the week, and waited for the weekends to ‘gather in the harvest’. But not so. I suspect some are even busier on work days than at weekends, when the hordes of the ‘idle and free’ (aka ‘retired’) descend on them to demand their loyalty card discounts, their two-for-one breakfasts or their senior lunches.
The Slugs’ motivation for riding their bikes is clearly visible on the table…….and the many and varied smiles tell their own story.
Only in a small country like ours can you spend a handful of hours on the bike and actually dip in and out of four counties. And do you notice differences between counties? Of course. Some of them will be so subtle that they will go unnoticed by the casual visitor, but ask any local resident, whose family has lived in the community for several generations, and they will keep you entertained with a host of differences “with them folks across the border”.
On a mid-November day, when the morning greeted me with a prolonged all-enshrouding mist (until I realized my specs had misted over!), which later broke into a golden glow of sunshine peeking through the falling leaves, my route took me from Cambridgeshire, through Bedfordshire, into Northamptonshire, and finally into Buckinghamshire. It was a route of winding country lanes, gently undulating roads that frequently followed river valleys, through woods and open countryside, past historic houses and ancient dissolved monasteries…….what more could you ask for?
(Ignore the artistic licence of Googlemaps. You can seldom embed the map you have designed. This was 123kms/77 miles, 4hrs 54 mins on the bike, at an average speed of 25kph/15.6mph).