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.
Now tell me, is this the result of some alcohol-fuelled joke that took root after a long session in the pub, or is this a tiny glimpse of an “us and them” dividing line appearing in a small Northamptonshire village?
The Addingtons are very small communities. Outer Addington does not exist, except possibly in the minds of a small group of inhabitants who live on the edge of Great Addington. They have obviously declared UDI, are now boasting being twinned with the oil-rich state of Dubai, whilst big brother next door has obviously come off second best.
And please tell me what this is all about. What looks like a concrete podium, out in the country, part of which is covered by a substance that looks like white foam. (And before you suggest it….no, it’s not a stile!).
We are blessed in the East Midlands with a huge variety of country tearooms, many of them in sleepy little hamlets, but they manage to survive, even thrive. A mainstay of the numbers that cross their thresholds is the lycra-clad brigade. We arrive, after doing a ‘chunk of miles’, sometimes in challenging circumstances, and expect to be served a gallon of tea and a selection of cakes and scones.
Today, the Old Vicarage Tearoom at Naseby beckoned, along with the pleasure of the company of other like-minded roadies. Except for me, to get my cup of tea and cake, it was the mean distance of 35 miles just to get there, with a similar distance to get back home (of course).
Now I’m not complaining about doing the miles. I mean, someone has to suffer for the benefit of mankind……. But this was suffering of a different order. There was a 20mph (32kph) wind coming from the west, and guess which way I was going………you’ve got it, due west……..all the way.
The last five miles were purgatory (ie. not quite hell). It had taken me about an hour longer to do the distance than in normal conditions, so I was ready for that gallon of tea and endless selection of cakes and scones.
But most afflictions have some compensation……meaning of course, when they stop. But in this case, my route home had the added blessing of a powerful tailwind, making me feel good about the average 20+mph speed. It’s good to be reminded of those days when that might have been an average club-run speed…….
To get an early start this morning on the bike, I had to battle the rush hour.
Now, in a small community of about 1200 inhabitants, you wouldn’t think that should be a problem. But then Kimbolton has a secondary school, a Prep School and a Primary School, as well as a small industrial estate and numerous businesses on the High Street. But once beyond the parish limits, the going got much easier…..
I headed west, first into Bedfordshire, then into Northamptonshire, and wound my way through dozens of little villages, through rolling countryside, crossing numerous swollen rivers, until I arrived at Naseby Old Vicarage Tearoom (tantalisingly close to the site of the famous battle of Naseby, which proved to be the downfall of King Charles I).
Once beyond Brixworth, with its beautiful Saxon church, I found myself crossing the old estate of Cottesbrooke Hall, its parkland still preserving the open aspect of so many aristocratic estates, with tree lined avenues, gated roads, and flocks of sheep roaming at will. Red kites were in abundance and, amazingly for mid-January, the birdlife was in full song. In the absence of a prolonged cold spell this winter, much of nature hasn’t yet realised that winter is upon us.
On the return, I chanced by Kelmarsh Hall where, close by, there is a Buddhist Centre. It hosts meditation sessions, retreats and study courses. But it also has a cafe which is open to all, and is a particular favourite amongst cyclists.
After 6 hours on the road, I managed to get back home just before the heavens opened. A rare example of the ‘winds of fortune’ being on my side.
Most people make a trip to the kitchen to have a cup of tea. They are the sensible ones. Others might nip down to the village cafe which, of course, includes a bit of gentle exercise, if they walk.
If ever you’ve ‘dabbled’ in that niche of the cycling world where ‘having a cup of tea’ or ‘a piece of cake’ becomes the reason for a morning-long ride, sometimes stretching to 70-80 miles, you know a clinical psychologist could have a field day puzzling over human motivation.
What I loved about yesterday’s ride (63 miles/101km) was that it took me north, through the upper reaches of Northamptonshire and into Rutland, to the little village of Barrowden, where the cafe is a community-run business, kept alive by a cooperative of local villagers who volunteer their time. I love supporting businesses like that. The welcome is always genuine, and the service very friendly.
What is more, this route took me through tiny stone villages, with their crops of thatched cottages and a smattering of manor houses, with evocative names like Bulwick, Blatherwycke, Kings Cliffe, Apethorpe, Wakerley, Warmington and, of course, the famous Fotheringhay.
And back at home, lunch was paella…………….could it get any better?
Some people ride bikes for exercise, pleasure, as a challenge, to beat their personal best…………others simply to justify the luxury coffee and large slab of cake they consume at the cafe stop. In fact, cafe stops are such an integral part of a cycling club’s routine ride that a perfect collective noun for cyclists could be a ‘cafe’ of cyclists…….
Now, roadies are usually a civilized bunch of people, but we do take up space, and some machines (trikes and recumbents) can’t be parked nice and neatly against a wall:The Olive Branch Cafe in Brixworth is owned by the Christian Fellowship, a charity that supports projects in the community, especially senior citizens. They always make this crowd of wheelers feel welcome, and their prices are the cheapest anywhere in these parts. And venues like this make me put in the miles. There are days when I head out to do a round trip of 70-80 miles,……..just to have tea and cakes……..and enjoy the company of fellow roadies, of course. It’s worth it.
If you have been waiting for an answer to the ‘major curiosity’ created by my last post, the answer is Achurch. The tiny village of Achurch (meaning ‘church by the river’), a community of some 20 houses, boasts some astonishing historical connections.
If that doesn’t particularly impress you, what about the following:
On a recent visit to Washington, we did the compulsory tour of the Capitol, and saw the very spot (we know because it was marked by a little plaque) where Quincy Adams had had his desk when he was a member of the House of Representatives.
Now, if that is not enough, this little cluster of houses produced the artist, who produced the most iconic work of art during the Great War:How do I know all of this? Well, the people of Achurch have an information board that proudly tells the world of its past greatness.
The funny thing is……..when I cycle through it, it is so small that I leave it behind after only 30 seconds. For such a tiny community to have produced such a vein of talent, it must have harboured a very special gene pool.
To the unsuspecting visitor in these islands, tiny villages can throw up some interesting surprises. When you pass through the pretty, but unimposing, village of Aldwincle in Northamptonshire, you may fail to notice the community’s link with one of the foremost poets of the Restoration period, John Dryden.
Perhaps his most famous work is Absalom and Achitophel, a political satire that encompassed contemporary scandals of his time: the Popish Plot, the Exclusion Crisis and the Monmouth rebellion, all revolving around the protection of Charles II’s throne and his succession.
Aldwincle may be small, but just a few miles down the road is an even smaller village (of some 20 houses) that must take the accolade for important historic links. But more of that in a future post………
The pragmatic use of the scarecrow, to keep birds and predators off the crops, is a centuries-old invention. Largely overtaken by modern high-tech bird scarers these days (many of questionable effectiveness), our nostalgic memories from the past have been resurrected in the context of scarecrow festivals, a relatively recent addition to the annual calendar of summer events.
Scarecrows belong to a class of phenomena called ‘ephemera‘ and, in the context of the festival, they become a channel of commentary on life and the world around us. Like the Fallas of Valencia in Spain, the figures and caricatures can be trenchant comments on people and events (sometimes scathing to the extreme), or simply be amusing reflections intended to entertain the passer-by. In the UK, the scarecrow festival tends towards the latter, and more and more villages around the country are organising their own festivals, usually to coincide with their own summer fêtes.
In the nearby village of Spaldwick, villagers enthusiastically prepare for the festival, mounting their scarecrows at the front of their houses, encouraging neighbours to take a walk around the neighbourhood to admire the exhibits. It is a clever technique in social engineering. People will walk into, and around, neighbourhoods that they would not normally enter. And, of course, there is the competitive side: a pair of cinema tickets to be won for the best scarecrow.
The winners in Spaldwick were a couple who were having their driveway extended, so they designed two scarecrows to stand as surveyor and builder in the excavated foundations. As we chatted to them, they revealed they weren’t very impressed with their work and were thinking of reducing their earnings to minimum wage!
The small village of Little Staughton in north Bedfordshire revealed one of its little mysteries recently. When Jenny and I ride our tandem in the area, a favourite resting place is by a semi-derelict building that looks as if it might have been a small non-conformist chapel (probably Baptist) with its own burial ground round the back. Its local significance also rested with the fact that it once had a post box embedded into the wall of the building.
A little digging into the ‘digital archives’ of Google has now revealed that this building was once a Baptist Sunday School, and the actual church had been on the other side of the road, but now no longer exists. Why? It would seem that during the last war, a flying fortress had taken off from the nearby airfield at Thurleigh, got into difficulties, and in making an emergency landing at Little Staughton airfield, had struck the top of the building and completely demolished it.
It has taken many years of cycling by this feature for me to find out its true significance. Another ‘diamond’ found in the backyard!
We all suffer from eccentricities. Some manage to keep theirs hidden, others can’t prevent theirs reaching the public domain. To tell someone (especially a non-cyclist) that you cycled a round trip of 76 miles (122kms) just for a cup of tea…….well, they might shake their heads in silent sympathy, or give you the calling card of a local psychotherapist. But, yes……I have to admit, I did just that. But then there was a little more to it. The cup of tea (and slice of coffee cake) were consumed in the company of a bunch of fellow eccentrics who, likewise, had ridden their respective mileages to get to the café. And one or two in the company had not expected to see me there. After all, my journey there had touched on 5 different counties (Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire, Northamptonshire, Leicestershire and Rutland)
The café was in the tiny Leicestershire village of Medbourne, miles from anywhere, but arrayed with pretty stone houses and complemented by a delightful little stream running through its heart. Set in the sweeping folds of the Welland Valley, the contours of the landscape made this perfect cycling country. Plenty of hills to climb and descents to enjoy, and the countryside was still alive with the yellow of the oilseed rape.
As I cycled through the village of Thurleigh in north Bedfordshire, my attention was caught by an information board by the roadside. Amongst the titbits of historical information, mention was made of the existence of squatters’ cottages whose legality could only be guaranteed if, during their construction, smoke appeared from the chimney top before sunset. Let me explain further.
Squatters could settle permanently only if they could build their house in a day, and have a fire lit and smoke emitting from the chimney by the end of the day. This key factor determined the manner of building, usually starting with the construction of the hearth and chimney, and then the construction of the house around this focal point. Surrounding land could also be enclosed with the cottage, but was determined exclusively by how far the owner could throw an axe or shovel from the four corners of the house.
These dwellings can date back to the 16th century and would have been built hastily out of wattle and daub, but later encased in brick or stonework to ensure a degree of permanence. I try to imagine what the countryside would look like if these principles of construction were still used today……………………
What better way to end a beautiful sunny winter Sunday than to jump on the bike and spend a few hours basking in the lengthening solar rays. The recent snows seem to have spring-cleaned the countryside, the crops once again are engaged in the process of growth, and the ancient village churches take on a special quality as the sun sinks beneath the horizon. Enough of words………….
For those who have a mild addiction to riding their bikes, and enjoy discovering hidden architectural gems often tucked away out of sight in our rural communities, the Historic Churches Trust sponsored cycle rides are an excellent way of combining the two. And when I say ‘hidden gems’ I really do mean that, because many villages are sited on looped roads that through traffic will bypass and seldom discover, and several churches (particularly in East
Northamptonshire) are sited up to half a mile from the village, and often along a rough, stony gated track that easily dissuades the passer-by from paying a visit. Furthermore, the majority of village churches are kept locked, and only open once or twice a month for their Sunday services.
On the day of the sponsored rides you can guarantee that most (but not all) will be open, and will sometimes be attended by a local parishioner or church warden who can fill you in on some of the history, some of the local notable families and, sometimes, on some of the village gossip. All very entertaining.
On Saturday September 10th I cycled the lanes of Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire, covering 76 miles and visiting 32 churches………a bit like bagging Munros in Scotland, really. But here is a selection of some of the serendipitous encounters on the journey: meeting the mother of girls I had taught back in the 1980s and discovering that one of them is now mother of four children; being the first cyclist to sign in and brighten a church guardian’s
day; finding a huge basket of fresh fruit in the porch of a remote church; chancing on an art exhibition in a redundant church that included a ‘golem‘ (google it!); listening to the organist practise some of his repertoire in Oundle School Chapel, and being astonished by a painting bequeathed by a former master of the school; finding a fully functioning church that is nothing but a Chancel; encountering a
former pupil whom I had taken to China on a school trip 10 years ago; stopping by a remote church that was hosting a wedding, and meeting the new, recently licensed vicar who had just taken the wedding service.
If you haven’t tried combining a love of cycling with discovering the recondite corners of your ‘neck of the woods’ I would recommend it highly.