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A vilified King and usurper Queen

It is trite to say that wherever you travel in the UK, you are ‘travelling through history’…… because that is true everywhere in the world. However, around these parts, it is staggeringly easy to venture through a tiny village that spills over with significant historical events.

I have waxed lyrical before about the village of Fotheringhay, but it still prompts me to stop awhile to appreciate a little of its past. Despite its diminutive size (119 inhabitants in the 2011 census) it is famous for being the birthplace of our notorious King Richard III in 1452, perhaps the most vilified of all our kings, and whose skeleton has recently been discovered beneath a car park in LeicesterIMG_20190715_111346877_HDR

and it was in the same village that the famous would-be usurper of Queen Elizabeth I’s throne, Mary Queen of Scots, met the executioner’s axe in 1587 in Fotheringhay Castle. Sadly, the castle no longer exists, so today we gaze on the mound and  re-imagine the scene of her execution.IMG_20190715_111717785_HDR

It’s hard to imagine that this tiny community was once second in importance only to London in the 15th century……now it is a sleepy backwater deep in the Northamptonshire countryside.

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71km

 

An Eleanor Cross..

If you don’t know the history of the Eleanor Crosses, now is the time to Google it. This one is the best preserved, and dates from the time of Eleanor of Castile’s death in 1290, built to commemorate an overnight stop when her body was being carried from the north to Westminster in London for a state burial.

Unlike most impressive stone monuments, this does not celebrate politics, war or religion…..just the faithful love King Edward 1 had for his Spanish wife….unlike the regard a certain successor of his had for his Spanish wife.

Geddington, the village where it is situated, is a fascinating medieval community. Amongst its many annual events, it has something on Boxing Day called The Squirt. Check it out…

A Firefighter’s equivalent of a ‘tug o’ war’?

65km

200 years on two wheels

Re: Cyclists by Michael Hutchinson

Re CyclistsMichael Hutchinson, a former pro-cyclist-turned-journalist, writes an excellent weekly column in The Comic………more accurately known as Cycling Weekly. His style is to combine well-informed commentary on aspects of the world of cycling, mixed with wry humour and critical insights into whatever is current or in fashion. I know some faithful followers of the magazine turn immediately to his column when they open their current edition.

Re: Cyclists, 200 years on two wheels is his take on (basically) the entire history of cycling, from the ‘draisine’ (hobby horse) invented by Baron von Drais in Germany in 1816 to what we know to today, the bicycle in all its configurations. No matter how sophisticated bicycles become, from the technical metal compounds that go into the frames, to the growing subtlety of the accessories that go on the frames, the design of the bicycle has not fundamentally changed over the years. Two hundred years on we are still taking advantage of that leap of imagination that went into building the early machines, and that will probably never change.

His perambulations take him through the history of Cycling Weekly, a magazine that began simply as Cycling in 1891, bang in the era of the penny farthing (perhaps the most dangerous of the velocipedes to ride), through its brief and disastrous flirt with mopeds, when it was renamed in 1957 as Cycling and Mopeds, to its current incarnation, inspired largely by the world of racing.

Although he dedicates the last chapter to the future of cycling (as most similar tomes do) he is challenged to predict any fundamental changes ahead, given that we have already come through 200 years of history and development without any real departures from the original designs.

A good book and worth reading.

 

Trinidad: UNESCO World Heritage town

Not climbing back on the bike after breakfast can be a bit disorienting, but Trinidad is not a place you fly in and out of. 

It is one of only 5 original Spanish colonial towns in Cuba, and it is by far and away the best preserved. Mostly colourfully painted single storey buildings, it’s heritage is further confirmed by its rough cobbled streets, not very comfortable for either walking or cycling.

Founded in the early 16th century, it was a staging post for expeditions to South America and it was from here that Hernán Cortés launched his invasion of Mexico.

You can spend hours wandering the streets, negotiating the tour groups and touters, and be surprised by something interesting round every corner. I was waylaid my a museum called The battle against the bandits, 

and discovered it was about Castro’s bid, in the early years of his regime, to root out the counter-revolutionaries in the Sierra de Escambray, which is the backdrop to Trinidad. The exhibition was designed to be a war memorial to all those who died for their fatherland…..and there seemed to be a lot of literacy educators amongst the victims. 

Castro had created huge teams of teenage literacy teachers who went out into the countryside to teach the campesinos to read and write….it was claimed the target of 100% literacy in the nation was achieved in less than a year. Many point to this as one of the great achievements of the regime, but I bet many of those people have never been into a bookshop or library in Cuba. Let me explain.

Cuba may be literate but nobody actually reads anything….not even newspapers. The rare bookshop you find has very few books, no customers, and that’s because 90% of the books are about some aspect of the revolution and the other 10% are about yawn-inducing topics like the history of apiculture in Cuba. Even the libraries are empty, because all they have are fusty dusty ageing volumes on topics no one wants to read about. What’s more, they are housed in dark forbidding unwelcoming buildings. The people of Cuba are suffering from cultural and intellectual starvation, and nobody here seems to realise it. Or do they…..?

I would recommend anyone coming to Cuba avoids the organised packaged tour. Go independently, live and travel with the people. Experience something of the discomforts of their means of transport, their lack of choices in both food and consumer goods, their frustrating queues to get the most basic things (I queued today to get into a bank and to buy a WiFi card). People say they want to see Cuba before it changes, as if what the Cubans have now is romantic and cute, and capitalism is only going to ruin it. We need to wake up and stop being patronising. Do go and spend your £s and $s to support their failing economy, but get down there in the trenches with them and try to see the world as they see it. You can’t do that if you are forever retreating into an air-conditioned tour-coach or finishing your day back at a smart hotel that serves canapés and cocktails before dinner.

OK folks, rant over. I’ll be back on the bike again  tomorrow…..😊

Cuba

Cuba map

If the winter weather deities are on my side, my Virgin Atlantic flight will take off from Gatwick at midday on Monday, and will deposit me at Havana José Marti airport at something after 17.00, a 10 hour flight that will allow me to gain 5 hours extra daylight that day. Somewhere in the hold my bike will be in an assortment of bits in a box, and the fact that we are both together on the flight will be unreal for reasons other than the weather……

You see, on Christmas Eve I felt one of those annoying winter infections beginning to take hold and, thinking I would be on the mend within a few days, it just got worse and worse, till I got to the point where this trip was very much held in the balance. Ten days later as I began to slowly emerge from the depths, a plan B gradually formed in my brain, the least taxing option being to just get myself on the flight and over to Cuba without the bike, and take it from there……either hiring a steed for the duration, or just on an ‘as-needs’ basis to do a few local rides.

Then a modification formed to that version of the plan, involving the use of my 25 year old Raleigh, the frame of which I had broken in New Zealand, and which had been repaired by a local boat welder in Queenstown. That was 6 years ago, and it had only ever been ridden sporadically since then for a bit of off-roading. Given that the Raleigh is now superfluous to my needs (my Dave Yates has now replaced it) my current plan is to ride it in Cuba and then give it away, saving me the hassle to boxing it up for the return flight, and providing someone with (perhaps) a much needed bike. Cubans, after all, are renowned for their ability to ‘mend and fettle’, and since bicycles are a bit of luxury for many Cubans, I expect it to find a new eager owner with relative ease.

The Raleigh Apex

Cuba, as many of you know, is a singular place. It is still suffering the austerity of a blockade by the Americans, and many everyday items are difficult to find, especially for resident Cubans. And with access to the internet being extremely limited, it is likely that posts on my blog will be sporadic and intermittent. A blessing you may say but, as ever, I promise to make my contributions to the world’s fountain of knowledge with pithy and ‘short-winded’ offerings.

Watch this space.

 

Bodiam Castle

Bodiam Castle. 

IMG_20171014_124115512_HDRCastles (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.

IMG_20171014_132212020Bodiam 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.IMG_20171014_132916763

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.the_one_on_the_back

 

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The fetterlock and falcon of Fotheringhay

The fetterlock and falcon of Fotheringhay

On my 80km (50 mile) sortie into north Northamptonshire this morning, I sped through villages like Coppingford, Glatton, Lutton, Fotheringhay,  Southwick and Stoke Doyle, all of them small communities with fewer than 100 inhabitants, but all of them with houses built in the singularly attractive stone of the area, and churches that have been cared for and restored over the last thousand years.IMG_20170901_111643959

It is astonishing that a community the size of Fotheringhay (80-90 inhabitants) can afford to pay for repairs to the church’s lantern tower, the scaffolding for which is probably taking the best part of a week to build. But a quick bit of research has uncovered that the community was given a grant of some £54,000 to repair the lantern tower, and that over recent years, they have managed to raise nearly £1.5 million for general repairs to the fabric of the church.

Fotheringhay, as small as it is, has played a major role in this country’s history. Not only was it the birth-place of Richard III, but the Castle (which now no longer exists) was the place of execution of Mary, Queen of Scots. If you study the photograph carefully, you will see an insignia at the top of the tower: a falcon within a fetterlock, the symbol of the House of York.

Study the map below, and the stretch of road from Wadenhoe (in the west) to Old Weston……..remarkably straight, and almost as if my phone had lost contact with the gps signal. Well, here in the UK, a straight stretch of road frequently indicates the one-time presence of the Romans, and this stretch is precisely one such inheritance.

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Ireland beckons!

YatesIt is astonishing how the attention of the long-distance cyclist can be harnessed rigidly to the idea of roaming in far-away places, some exotic, some not quite so, and what lies on or near the doorstep is completely overlooked. I’m ashamed to admit that I have never cycled in Ireland, and doubly ashamed because, on my mother’s side of the family, I have several first cousins in County Limerick, whom I visit only very sporadically. So my decision for 2017 is to right thatDubliners wrong, and spend three weeks riding the Irish ‘End-to-End’……better know as Mizen Head (in the south west) to Malin Head (in the north)…..or known more familiarly as the Miz-Mal.

It is not a huge distance. The shortest route between the two points Irish centuryis about 550kms but, no doubt, I will wander off route and take in some of the west and north-west coast, and probably notch up about 800kms. The first few days will very handily take me in the direction of my relatives in County Limerick, and it will be a huge added bonus that I will be able to spend a few days visiting, catching up with family matters, and celebrating our mutual advancing years.

As with every journey I do, I spend weeks absorbing information, reading and listening to podcasts, generally immersing myself in the history and culture of the country (or countries) I’mYeats' Ireland visiting. Ireland, too long seen as a mere appendage to Britain, is a country with its own Celtic vitality, and it has a rich heritage that is uniquely its own. My reading has taken me through the biography of WB Yeats, some of the short stories of James Joyce, the history of the 20th century and its turbulent years fighting for freedom, accompanied by the stark reality of revolution portrayed in Ken Loach’s film The Wind that shakes the barley.

Much still to unearth and anticipate. Watch this space.

Wind that shakes the barley

North Bedfordshire 60km

Podington.pngIt’s easy to cruise through country communities, some only a cluster of houses, admiring the local architecture, spying churches hiding behind a screen of trees, sweeping over packhorse bridges that date back centuries, and within minutes you’ve left them behind anticipating the next village.

But stop occasionally, root around, find information boards or street names that tell aodell-odell-castle-anon deeper story, and you will be amazed at what you might find. Odell, for example, has a manor house at the top of a hill that is called Odell Castle. Much more than just a name, shortly after the Norman invasion in 1066, a motte-and-bailey castle had been built by Walter de Wahul, with a stone keep, where the family lived for the next 400 years. The much restored castle survived until 1931 when it was destroyed by fire, and the present manor house was built in the 1960s.

Glenn-Miller_Trombone-800-e1425266811285Villages like Milton Ernest will carry connections with a famous person, even though those connections might have been fleeting. The famous musician, Glenn Miller, for example, spent most of the war entertaining American troops in Europe, but sadly met his end when his aircraft disappeared in bad weather in 1944. He had been stationed at a local airfield near Milton Ernest, and his death is commemorated with a plaque in the village hall.

Then I could mention the history of Thurleigh Airfield, but easier to give a link that gives a complete history of its role in World War 2.

Travelling through history….

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.IMAG2468

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.

Wadenhoe 60km

60km

Lanzarote Day 2: 70kms

Walter Raleigh, Malvasia and (unbelievably) rain!

Wanting to explore all parts of Lanzarote forced me to commit the ‘mortal sin’ of setting off for the day’s ride with the 25mph wind at my back. Why mortal? Because, although the outward ride would be a ‘breeze’, the journey back to base (Costa Teguise) was going to kill me…..and it did, because added to it was horizontal rain, which drove me to take shelter behind a bushy cactus, known locally as a ‘chumbera’ or ‘tunera’ (prickly pear)…..and that was a veritably prickly experience.

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But then I was happily waylaid by an excellent museum in the Castillo de San Gabriel, in Arrecife (capital) and not only learned much about the history of the island, but discovered that our famous Sir Walter Raleigh himself had tried to invade Lanzarote, and the islanders had successfully hidden in the huge complex of  volcanic caves. Raleigh sailed off having achieved nothing, because he had been under strict instructions from James I not to harm any of the islanders. I can imagine his frustration….poor chap.

Castillo de San Gabriel

Castillo de San Gabriel

When I got as far south as Puerto Calero, I came across this stunning field of meadow flowers, growing abundantly out of the volcanic ash.

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….and not just wild flowers, but also a very special vine, that produces the Malvasia grape, and thrives in little dugouts in the volcanic ash, capturing moisture from night time dew for irrigation. Because it rains so little here (except for today, of course), this is an ingenious method of cultivating anything in this lunar landscape.

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If you haven’t sampled a Malvasia wine, hunt it out. It will be worth the effort, believe me.el-grifo-coleccion-malvasia-seco-lanzarote-spain-10305720

Istanbul: day1

I stand corrected….having suggested in previous posts that Turkey is an Islamic state, Yunus (the Turkish Kurd I met in Bursa) put me right: Turkey is a secular state, and has been such for nearly 100 years, ever since Ataturk swept out the Ottoman dynasties, and ushered in a new period of Turkish history. This included separating church and state, adopting the Latin alphabet and converting to the Gregorian calendar. These changes were radical, almost seismic, but the country weathered the storm.
Symbolic of this radical shift is the once religious temple (but now museum) Hagia Sophia.

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Founded under Constantine the Great, for a thousand years it was the seat of eastern Christendom, but was converted into a mosque with the advent of the Ottomans in the 15th century. In recognition of its mixed history and dual ownership, Ataturk ordered it to be decommissioned as a religious building, and had it converted into a museum, thus restoring some of the ancient mosaics destroyed by the Ottomans.

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That restoration process will be ongoing for several more years, so the interior scaffolding looks set to stay for a while.
If you look at a plan of Istanbul, you will see there is a mosque on almost every street corner. They form part of the fabric of life in Turkey, and not just religious life. They are social meeting points and resting places

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and children play while their parents are attending to their prayer rituals. Today I sat on the comfortably carpeted floor of a mosque just to observe, and what I saw was a constant stream of men

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coming in to perform their own private prayer ritual, or joining up with others in a straight line to pray in unison, or sit quietly in a wing to read and study the Koran

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In other words, the serious business of prayer and study was woven into the very fabric of day to day living.

Although getting to Istanbul meant cycling across an entire continent and two time zones, today I simply hopped on a regular ferry, paid just over £1, and went to Asia…..and it only took 15 minutes!

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Of course, the Bosphorus is the dividing line between Europe and Asia, so not only is Turkey a country of two continents, so is Istanbul itself.
Does that happen with any other city/country in the world?
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All-consuming preparations…..

When the dates and routes are finalised for a forthcoming bike trek, I bury myself in the research required to make it all happen. I surface from time to time to ride some local miles, both to keep the leg muscles primed and the rump-end callouses in situ. My attention is invariably focused on the feasibility of the project within a given time-scale, and decisions have to made about a multitude of things, not least when to book my return flight from Istanbul.

I have learned much from experience, and experience now informs me that creating a tight time schedule, which is governed entirely by the date of the return flight from destination, is a sure way of putting a lot of pressure on you to complete daily mileages. In one sense, that is not a bad thing. But if you fail to allow for mishaps, diversions, delays or simply getting lost, that pressure can increase exponentially as the ride progresses. And if you started expecting to do high daily mileages from day one…….well, I don’t need to spell it out.Poster 1 - Copy

I have spent many hours poring over maps, using Googlemaps and Google Earth as my route planner, studying the terrain, distances, roads, elevation and places of interest. Very little can be finalised before a ride begins. Experience tells me to leave my starting point with a well-informed but open mind. Have the broad brush strokes of the route mapped out, the time-scale decided, and some of the principal places you want to pass through.

This is the nature of solo riding. You have no-one to please but yourself and, conversely, you have no-one to blame but yourself if things go wrong. You will not have the shoulder of an ATOL or ABTA to cry on. There will be no agent from whom to seek compensation. You have planned it, you are riding it……you learn to take the rough with the rough. But when things go smoothly (and,incidentally, they do for much of the time), it can be like a dream.

2000 miles should be a comfortable month’s cycling, depending on terrain, of course. My route will take me across the Netherlands and NW Germany (gently flat), but southern Germany and Austria will be excessively ‘lumpy’, except where I choose to follow the Danube valley (principally into Vienna). Hungary will provide me with a vast prairie crossing, but once into Serbia and Bulgaria, the Carpathian and Balkan mountains will have me searching for those climbing muscles once again.

When I get to the border crossing from Bulgaria into Turkey, I have an important decision to make. To cross directly into Turkey will mean getting embroiled in the tediously busy roads for 150 miles into Istanbul. If, however, I make a 2-3 hour sortie into Greece before crossing into Turkey, I could find myself engaging with a much quieter, albeit longer, route into Istanbul. That’s a decision I will make at the time.

To provide ‘cushioning time’, I am going to allow 6 weeks for this venture, and if things go unexpectedly according totime_of_gifts plan, this will give me down-time in key places, with time to savour notable local offerings. My background reading so far has seen me delving into the history of the Crusades (both a fascinating and appalling catalogue of events), and I am now piercing the surface of an intrepid walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople, in the first volume of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s trilogy, entitled Time for Gifts. This journey promises to be rich in both geographical and historical terms.

I am delighted to report that my venture to raise £5000 in sponsorship is almost 20% complete. The money raised will go directly to the manufacture of wheelchairs for disabled people in developing countries. For more information and an opportunity to make a donation, please visit my Justgiving page.

Is this really the US?

I set off yesterday morning from Fort Pierce, destination Melbourne……I mean, how confusing is that? This time last year I was actually cycling into Melbourne downunder in 38 degrees of blistering heat….but that’s another story.
Today, I rode 55 miles on one road, mostly straight, into a head breeze, following a narrow strip of barrier islands that is mostly lined with hotels, private properties and golf courses. You actually seldom get to see the sea. It forever lies tantalizingly close on both sides of the road, but nearly always behind property with its own private beach. I tell you, there’s serious money in these parts.
But just occasionally you get a glimpse of the pounding surf

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This is to show Adam Hirst, of Rutland Cycling, that their shirts can get to some exotic places. (This could be the beginning of a series….).
Now, here is an annoying “did you know?” question: did you know that Florida was the first place in the US to be colonized? In fact, I rode right past the beach

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where the Spaniard, Juan Ponce de Leon, set foot in the early 16th century.

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But I do really wonder if he did jump from his ship brandishing a crucifix, expecting all the natives to rush imploringly to his feet, and ask to be converted?

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Well, I’ll leave you to surmise that issue.
But what I was really looking forward to at the end of the day’s ride

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(no, not taking a photo of my helmet on the beach), but meeting, and staying with, Tanner and Leslie, at their house in Melbourne beach. Leslie is a fellow blogger, and had been following my exploits Downunder last year. She hosts a blog primarily about the paleo diet (http://paleovoyage.wordpress.com), but is also a recent convert from spinning classes to road cycling. Her husband, Tanner, has been a big animal carer in zoos (rhinos, elephants….), and is an enthusiastic and experienced skydiver. In fact, shortly after I arrived, he appeared with his skydiving kit, having just completed three more jumps.
Hearing that, on one of his early solo jumps, he had to resort to his emergency chute to save the day, it confirmed me in my belief that cycling really is a safe sport…..and, indeed, I can sincerely say from experience so far on this trip, none safer than here in the US. (This last comment is going to elicit a storm of reaction from some of my US friends….but I’ll do my best to weather that storm)…..;o)
Sharing conversation over a delicious prawn curry was a delight. Thank you to them both.

So this morning, I will head off in the general direction of Orlando (towards Kissimmee in fact)…and it would seem that both Leslie and Tanner would like to join me for a few miles…..watch this space for the photographic evidence.
(But I am bracing myself for a few more cool nights under canvas…..the cold front from the north is still with us….at least in N Florida. Key West beckons, me thinks….)

Reflections on Melbourne

What can a day reveal about Melburnians and their city? Did you know

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that Melbourne led the way in admitting women to the Anglican priesthood and episcopate? Come on UK, you need to run harder to catch up!

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Not sure if this is a caricature of a typical Melburnian, but a lady receptionist has the doubtful pleasure of looking at it all day long from her desk just 2 metres away.

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The Museum of Immigration gives an in depth insight into the migration of people into Australia over 200 years. But most poignant of all was a photographic account of the recent migration of the Irish during the current economic downturn

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all of the photos personal studies of individuals who have separated themselves from family and friends

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…a reflection of what my own mother did in the 1930s, and what my father’s ancestors did in 1840. I felt a certain vicarious empathy.

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The River Yarra may not be one of those iconic city rivers, but it certainly has its own charm.

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And a chance to meet up with fellow blogger Chris Yardin (left) and his brother Mark, and spend the evening sharing drinks and pizza

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and chewing the fat over cycling issues the length and breadth of the sport. Thank you both for the invitation and for the generous donation to the Children in Syria Appeal. Catch Chris’ blog here: http://www.christopheryardin.com

The big question remains: will this man, when he climbs onto the plane this afternoon, be accompanied by his bicycle?
Stay tuned!
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DISCOVERY OF FRANCE by Graham Robb

What caught my attention about this book was not just the title and its subject matter but, perhaps more importantly, the attributes of the author, Graham Robb. He is not only an academic and writer, but he is also a cyclist! And not just an ordinary cyclist (ie. one who simply jumps on his bike and goes for a ride), he actually used his bike to cycle 14,000 miles around France, over a 4 year period, in pursuit of his research for this book. Unjustifiably, perhaps, I decided the book was worth reading……… and in the end, I was right!

In his introduction to The Discovery of France, Graham Robb makes an important confession. Despite almost a lifetime of academic interest in France and his writing of several serious tomes, he came to the conclusion that he didn’t really know France at all. What he knew of France, over the last couple of centuries, has been a vision of the country seen through the eyes of approximately 300 notable French people: writers, philosophers, artists, thinkers, playwrights, politicians and so on. In other words, a vision of France that had gone through several layers of filtration, had been re-interpreted and re-cast to provide an image that was seen fit to hand down to posterity.

So, like any broad-minded academic, he jumped on his bike and he went out to discover France for himself. Amongst the many fascinating discoveries, we learn that the use of the French language as a national language is a relatively recent thing. Even in the 19th century, communities living only a few kilometres from each other were likely to speak different languages. Which means that the vast majority of people living out in the countryside had no contact with, and were certainly not reflected by, the predominant channels of communication in Paris and the major cities. What Robb gives us is a picture of France through the eyes of the poor and dispossessed, the people who didn’t have a voice, but the very people who made up the majority of the French population.

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