I had snuck my solo into the car, along with the tandem, to do a slightly longer route on our last day in Norfolk, and I had arranged to meet Jenny midst the restrained opulence of Felbrigg Hall near Cromer, an estate that dates from the 11th century, and owned continuously by the Wyndhams from 1450, until it was passed to the National Trust in 1969, for safe-keeping on behalf of the nation.
It’s only in remote rustic corners like rural Norfolk that you will find a level crossing where you have to open the gates yourself, stop, look and listen for ‘approaching traffic’, then make a life-threatening dash in your car across the railway line, before closing the gates behind you. And if you fail to close the gates, watch your back! You may be fined a tidy £1000 for bad behaviour.
But a small reward for the effort will bring you to sights like these……..old windmills that once worked round the clock (or when the wind was blowing, at least) to grind the wheat. Some are still working models today.
My route took me out to the coast, where the strong winds from the north were whipping up the waves, guaranteeing the beaches an eerie solitude. But there was beauty in the unbridled lack of restraint………
Blickling Hall, Norfolk
A few days in a small country hotel gave us the opportunity to use the tandem to get to a nearby National Trust country estate, following some of the narrow winding country roads so characteristic of deepest rural Norfolk. But I was beset by an almost insuperable mechanical issue when we arrived, not because it was impossible to resolve, but because I had stupidly left the necessary tools at home. I have names for people like me……*&@##+#+!!
The front gear changing mechanism had mysteriously got completely twisted, and I had neither an adjustable spanner, nor the appropriate allen key to fix it. But because we were at a National Trust property, I reasoned they had some maintenance people on site and, sure enough, a ‘Mr Fix-it’ appeared with the right tool to sort out the offending mechanical. You might say I was making full use of our membership of the association.
But we had a most enjoyable 3-4 hours at Blickling Hall, an extravagant Jacobean pile that dates back 400 years. Then we ‘motored’ back to the hotel with a gently assisting wind behind……..
…..and passed through a little village pretending to be the equal of the eponymous town where Jenny had been born in Derbyshire……..but it lacked the altitude, and the ‘attitude’!
A breathless ‘bash’ around the shores of the 8th largest reservoir in the country. 5km across open countryside, crossing an old wartime airfield, I can be on the bridleway that circles the water, taking in the views and swallowing the midges as I forge my way around. The sun was setting, the light disappearing fast, and the scent from the bluebells in Savages Spinney was heady. More importantly, I had most of the track to myself…….unbridled freedom!
Saying goodbye to club mates at Roxton Garden Centre to make my way home, I had allowed the Garmin Connect website to route my ride. I had chosen way points and then let the website choose the route between those points. It could have been a big mistake and I knew it was going to be a bit of an adventure because the website frequently can’t distinguish between metalled roads and unsurfaced tracks and sure enough, once I had crossed the railway line at Tempsford, I was sent off along bridleways, across land that landowners with a ‘fortress mentality’ tried to seal off as being private, the metalled surface led on to grass tracks, which led on to a narrow forest track that was just about rideable on a road bike.
My cross country route lasted 6-7 miles, ascended the odd unclimbable hill, crossed rutted stretches far too rough for 23mm tyres but, in compensation, I came across my first display of cowslips just pushing their heads through the surface, and in the denser parts of the forest, I stumbled across some early season bluebells.
I wasn’t expecting this to be published so soon after my trip. Such short articles normally get archived until some future date when there is space and a need for them…..and then they are not always published. This appeared in Cycle Magazine, national magazine of Cycling UK, with a circulation of 70,000.
Through my local library’s online services, I am able to access publications (free of charge) from around the world, including the British magazine Cycling Weekly. Because it is a racing publication, and much of its content is devoted to the road racing scene, I read it very selectively, because my interests in cycling lie in other quarters. However, I have noticed in the last few editions, with the advent of the racing season, more and more articles are devoted to the processes of training, nutrition, use of technology, interpretation of statistics, and a whole panoply of reviews of ‘new and improved’ bits of kit that will bite huge chunks out of the average monthly salary.
I skim through some of these items with a degree of bemusement, happy not to be spending the silly money some are prepared to spend for infinitesimally small gains, and equally happy not to become a ‘victim’ of the statistics of my performance on the bike, such as pedal cadences, heart monitors, power meters, dynamic profiles and so on. I go out on my bike to have fun, enjoy the countryside, and indulge myself in that sense of utter freedom that is so fundamental to the enjoyment of cycling.
My two shorter rides over the weekend took me in a less familiar direction. You might know my penchant for heading out against prevailing winds, to catch that delightful tailwind on the way home. Well, unusually for these parts, the winds had switched to the NE, so my rides took me roughly in that direction, rediscovering roads I haven’t ridden for several months. It made a very pleasant change…….
It’s a warm wind, the west wind, full of birds’ cries;
I never hear the west wind but tears are in my eyes.
For it comes from the west lands, the old brown hills.
And April’s in the west wind, and daffodils. John Masefield
Over the last several weeks, anyone who has been out ‘battling the elements’, for whatever reason, will have been treated to the weather fronts persistently coming in from the west. And if, like me, you frequently let the direction of the wind dictate your direction of travel, you may have inevitably decided to head out and face the full flagellation of the wind in the first part of your journey. And the winds of late from the west have been strong……so most of my routes have taken me west, south-west or north-west, in the hope of catching that elusive tailwind for the homeward journey.
However, my trip out to Brixworth, 42km to the west, was pre-ordained, to meet up with a bunch of fellow cyclists for the inevitable coffee and cake. But the outward was gruelling. Heading into a 19-20mph wind, the trip out took me a full 2 hours, but the return was gloriously fast. As we sat in the friendly comfort of a community café run by the Christian Fellowship, we chewed over the fat of matters-cycling, and on the way back, I spied a board advertising lunch in the village church of Chelveston, and enjoyed soup and cakes in a 13th century building, set within a community that is recorded in Domesday in 1086.
Photo by Iain Macaulay
It’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 a 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.
Villages 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.
OK, it’s just a picture of my bike by a small spinney…….so what?
Well, for me much more than that…….the spinney is called Salomé Wood, and about 20 years ago I met someone emerging from the spinney pushing a heavily laden bike.
“Hi! Are you OK?” I asked (we roadies tend to make sure fellow travellers are not in a fix…..and if they are, we do what we can to help them).
“Yeh, I’m fine. Just packed up the tent and I’m on my way? One of the nicest little woods I’ve slept in for months”.
“Goin’ far?”, I enquired.
“Oh, just to Vancouver……..”. He left his sentence hanging in the air, waiting for the inevitable follow-up questions…. Of course, I had a battery of questions. You don’t often meet a lone traveller emerging from a wood having spent the night under canvas, and off to the west coast of Canada.
He told me a little of his story. Separating from his wife several years before, he decided to pack it all in, salvage what monies he could from his marriage, and set off on his loaded bike to travel the world. All that he owned in this world was on his bike…….
“So, you decided to come back home for a while? Have you been cycling the UK in the meantime….?”
“No, no…..had to come back to sort out a few issues, and I house-sat for a friend while he was away. He had left his fridge full of food, he had a comfortable house with all the mod-cons, big TV, stereo hifi in every room, jacuzzi in the bathroom…….for the first few days I couldn’t believe my luck. All this comfort and luxury……not used to it”.
“Was it hard pulling yourself away from it?”. Thinking I knew what his answer would be, he caught me off-balance by saying just the opposite.
“No, no, I had to get out of it. After a few days I started getting restless, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I honestly couldn’t handle the easy comforts, the sitting around all day, having no purpose. So I had to come away early and get back on the road”.
I then said something that I later realized was a stupid observation. “So you spend all your time travelling…..moving from one place to another……and all you have is on your bike? That’s an amazing lifestyle” I said.
“Hey, don’t confuse what you are doing with what I am doing. You’re just on a short fun ride for the morning, whereas this is what I do. This is my life. There’s little fun and recreation in this…..it’s a way of life”.
We said our goodbyes, I wished him well on his journey, and I went away and thought long and hard about his final words. Some encounters have a lifelong impact…….
Distance today: 72km
Total distance for the week: 338km
As I set off to explore the few roads left to be discovered on the island, I heard that Alicante had its first snow in 35 years, and Ronda (in Andalucia) had its first snow in 60 years! Records are being broken everywhere, and news bulletins are letting the extraordinary weather events to even upstage Donald Trump’s inauguration tomorrow. As cold as Menorca has been in the last week, at least we haven’t seen any of the white stuff. Whereas over in Mallorca, there have been dramatic pictures of Sky continuing to train despite heavy snowfall. Commitment to earning their salaries, perhaps.
My route took me along one of the few coastal roads, through half a dozen deserted holiday villages, through the town of Sant Lluis
(a town established by the French during the few years they had arrested control of the island from the British), and eventually out along the long peninsula where an 19th century fort had been built to protect the harbour from invasion.
Ah bliss…..the freedom of the open road once again. Cold temperatures were forecast, as were strong winds with gusts of up to 80km per hour, but the potential of a dry day (according to the BBC weather app, anyway), so I set off into the wind with a degree of optimism. But whatever the street thermometers tell you about air temperature, when the winds blow down from Siberia, 6C really feels like 0C, or what the Spaniards refer to as the thermic temperature.
I headed for one of the many coastal holiday villages called Sol Parc, knowing it would be a winter ghost town like all such communities, but I had been assured by a fellow flight passenger that it had a bar open in the winter months. So off I went. When I eventually found this mysterious bar, run by an English lady, and met the only customer (an elderly gentleman who seemed to be living the life of a hermit, his only companion being his dog), I struggled to visualise the attraction of living in such a place year-round. Menorca is desperately trying to make the island a year-round holiday destination (like Mallorca), promoting outdoor activities and culture for the winter months, but they will have to do something to inject a bit of life into these coastal ghost towns if they are to succeed.
One of the coastal villages, Son Bou, had this fascinating 5th century Christian site
with the uncovered remains of an ancient paleolithic basilica, built after the Roman occupation, and before the arrival of the Moors. I tell you, this little island has seen some history.
And as I swung round from viewing the ancient remains, I was only this far from stepping onto a beach and gazing out over the horizon.
Over a late leisurely lunch in a harbour-side restaurant in Mahon, I met a young English family who were preparing to up-sticks in Dubai and move permanently to Menorca. In fact they had only just clinched the deal on their new house, and they were both nervous and excited about the prospects. Having just experienced the coldest week in Menorca for over 10 years, at least they were making their decision when Menorca wasn’t exactly selling itself.
We were spared the heavy snow experienced by neighbouring Mallorca, and even further south in Alicante, but the freezing winds whistling down from Siberia had me skulking under 7 layers of clothing, as I climbed on a smart-looking bus to Ciutadella at the other end of the island. Even though it’s not the capital, it is bigger than Mahon, and had been the capital until the arrival of the British. Today, embedded in their patronal festivities, was a re-enactment of a very important moment in the history of the island…..and this time, I’m not referring to the arrival of the British!
The island had been occupied by the Moors for 5 centuries until, in the 13th century, Alfonso lll of Aragon arrived to claim possession of the island, and it was in Ciutadella that he arrived,
A formal choral mass is led by the Bishop in the Cathedral, followed by a procession through the streets led by mounted dignitaries, until they arrive at the Plaza de Alfonso lll, where the ceremonial knocking at the gate is re-enacted to the cheering and applause of the crowd.
Trussed up like a turkey: this is what you get to look like when the forecast tells you the weather gods are going to throw everything at you…..rain, hail, gale-force winds, with temperatures just hovering above freezing.
The smile for the camera was completely erased an hour later when I had to throw in the towel and turn back to basecamp. I rode back through patches of settled hail stones, and had to peel off the several sodden layers one by one before jumping into a blissfully hot shower. My room now looks like a Chinese laundry.
Because the Siberian weather front is set to intensify tomorrow, with the rarely experienced possibility of snow falling on Menorca, even the patronal fiesta activities have been postponed for two weeks. San Antoni, normally celebrated on the 17th, is just going to have to wait (sorry mate!).
However, things brightened up in the late afternoon, which gave me good reason the explore Mahon, and it really is a charming and fascinating place, particularly it’s natural 5km long harbour, where hundreds of luxury yachts and launches are moored:
Most of the historic centre was built by the British in the 18th century, so the predominant architectural style is Georgian, but British touches were also added to already existing buildings, like the clock on this 17th century masterpiece.
And one other curious reminder of the British presence is the continued use of adopted words: grevi (gravy); winder (window); botil (bottle); mervel (marble); xoc (chalk), to name just a few. And when I say the British occupied Menorca, what I really mean is they captured it and occupied it three times. There was quite a bit of squabbling going on with France, then with Spain, and finally with Austria. Then they all came to a gentleman’s agreement (meaning the British won the fight to leave behind gin-drinking and cricket as their inheritance) and handed it over to Spain…..and everyone lived happily ever after.
Food is seldom far from a cyclist’s thoughts. A day’s ride is predictably punctuated by calorie-loading stops, but here in Menorca, I begin the day with a local breakfast delicacy: the famous ensaimada.
The weather forecast for today was dire. The landlord warned me to take great care (obviously, he didn’t want to lose a tenant so soon after I’ve arrived!). Strong winds were expected, with gusts of up to 60kms per hour, and sea surges up to 4-6 metres high. With the wind coming from the north, it was going to carry the icy chill from central Europe, where temperatures have dropped to -20C. So I headed off very tentatively, going north to Fornells
When conditions out on the open roads are tough, it is nice to know that the Spanish Ministry of Transport has the safety of cyclists at heart…..
and, amazingly, most motorists do observe the 1.5 metre rule, patiently trailing behind me until they can overtake safely, allowing me the stipulated safety margin. I am impressed. And despite the strong winds, cyclists were out across the island doing their weekend miles, especially racing clubs, who frequently left me behind to eat their dust…..
But as I whizzed through (wind behind me, of course) Es Mercadal again this afternoon, I was treated to one of those serendipities that halt you in your tracks. Carried by the wind, I heard the familiar drum rolls of a drumming band, so I followed the sound to the main plaza, and chanced upon two bands practising for the patronal fiesta on Tuesday.
They were surrounded by a growing audience, flashmob-style, and kept us entranced by the complex rhythms of their repertoires. The most impressive display of drumming I’ve ever witnessed was the famous Holy Week gathering of 1000 drummers in Calanda in Aragon. At the stroke of 12 on Good Friday, the surrounding buildings began to vibrate with the sheer decibel level of the outburst. Today’s 20 drummers re-ignited that memory for me.
When I got back to Mahon, I was annoyingly waylaid by a Galician restaurant that beckoned me inside to sample their empanadas and padron peppers. Life can be so difficult to manage at times…….
You’ve heard it all before…..’The best laid schemes o’ mice and men….’. I picked up my hired steed (a very nice carbon fibre Specialized Roubaix)
at a winter discount price, headed out beneath a threatening sky and against a very cold 20kms head wind, and decided to do just 30-40kms locally to get used to the bike, and have a quick route of escape back to base in case the weather turned nasty…… and what happened?
I got into my stride, the bike felt good, I felt good, the weather didn’t turn brutal, and what should have been an amble round bays and through villages turned into a moderately long day ride. One day I will accept that I can’t simply do ‘ambles’, because ambles are rides without purpose. For me, a ride with purpose requires two ingredients: a destination and a distance, and you begin the ride with both as given, because at the end there is a sense of completion and achievement.
I began the ‘amble’ bit of the ride exploring villages in the south, stopping for a much needed hot coffee in Sant Lluis (the wind chill had really got to me), then got the bit between the teeth and motored north to Es Mercadal, to the foot of the infamous climb to El Toro.
When you see an innocent little sign like this, there is nothing innocent about it. 3kms of bends in the road usually mean only one thing: a big climb with severe switchbacks. In this ‘post-truth age’ I won’t make any claims about my performance, because you’ll probably guess the real truth anyway.
But my quest to unearth a few more clues about the British occupation of Menorca in the 18th century was richly rewarded today. Sitting next to me at the bar in Sant Lluis were two venerable old boys enjoying their pre-prandial aperitives, and what were they drinking? Neat gin (an unusual drink for most Spaniards), but in very un-British large measures. Not only did we export one of our drinking habits, but it would seem our game of cricket pops up in the most unexpected places (as it did in Corfu)
And after following this winding country road for 25kms, I discovered that Kane was one of the British Governors of the island in the 18th century. He had had this road built to link the capital, Mahon, with the north of the island.
I tap out this post on my phone accompanied by tv images of critical weather conditions across Spain. Mercifully, Menorca is not going to have the snow and sub-zero temperatures of the mainland, but it is going to be cold and wet for the next 4-5 days….. whoopee!
Unlike the Canary Isles, the Balearics do have a proper winter, but one which is usually mild and sunny…. but not always. In other words, if you come to enjoy out-of-season sport, you take your chances, just as I am this week. And because Menorca has a proper winter, most of the island is in winter-mode, with minimal services, and many bars and restaurants closed. Perfect if you prefer to avoid the crowds, but disastrous if you like nightlife and the buzz of human activity. Menorca in January slumbers like a hibernating bear.
And my UK friends mustn’t imagine that we are the only country suffering from a crisis in our health services. Spain is reeling from a flu epidemic, people are dying, and the hospitals are in crisis. Here too, patients on trolleys are lining the corridors, and some of this has been caused by a somewhat less than enthusiastic autumn campaign to have the most vulnerable vaccinated.
My quest to cycle most of the major islands of the Mediterranean continues apace tomorrow, as I set off for the small island of Menorca, lying to the north east of Mallorca. I have already cycled Mallorca a couple of times, always off-season, and Ibiza and Formentera. Further to the east, I have spent a week each on both Sicily and Cyprus, but still in my sights are islands like Sardinia, Corsica, Crete and Rhodes. I have visited Malta as a tourist, and the size of the island and the density of both population and traffic make it a poor destination for a cyclist like me.
Menorca, however, holds a lot of mysteries. It is small and basically has just one road that straddles the entire length of the island, about 50kms long. From this central spine, several local roads and tracks lead down to bays and beaches, all waiting to be explored. Around the entire island there is a bridleway, Cami des Cavalls, established by the British in the 18th century when they occupied the island for over 60 years. This route around the island was used by British coastguards (on horseback) to look out for invading forces.
The last remaining gin distillery is a lasting testament of the British presence, but much remains to be discovered in order to unearth other nuggets of information about the history of the British on the island.
Intrigued? Stay tuned…….
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…..
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.