Once Upon a Time in the West

Last June, for the annual tour with my friends Jeff and Tim (our usual fourth member Matt being sadly ruled hors de combat with a back injury), we tackled the West Country Way, an epic 240 mile ride along Route 3 of the National Cycle Network, travelling through the highly varied landscapes of North Cornwall, North Devon and Somerset. It took place a couple of weeks before the EU Referendum, and will be forever known as our ‘Brexit bike trip’.

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Things get off to a gentle enough start with a 17 mile ride out of Bodmin station (four hours from Paddington) along the converted railway track of the Camel Trail (flat and, ironically, hump-free) to reach the start of the West Country Way at Padstow on the north Cornish coast. We toast the beginning of a new adventure sitting outside a pub overlooking the picture postcard harbour, soaking up the late afternoon rays and trying not to think about the weather forecast for the weekend ahead (apocalyptic as per usual for a summer bike trip), before cycling six miles back up the Camel Trail to our first night stop, the Molesworth Arms at Wadebridge.

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Wadebridge, one would imagine, is normally a sleepy market town, but this evening the streets are jammed with people spilling out of the pubs, most of whom appear to have been drinking since 9 o’clock this morning. The atmosphere is good-natured and carnivalesque, but things suddenly kick off in the street outside the Molesworth when a feisty young woman thumps a man in the face, ramming the back of his head against a shop windowpane, and chucking a pint over him for good measure. Wisely, he retreats and stands glaring at her from a safe distance.

Ten minutes later the scene morphs from saloon bar western to the golden age of silent movies as the local cops turn up and chase the man up the steep hill through the town. They all vanish from sight at the top for several minutes before the man suddenly re-appears and runs back down the hill chased by the red-faced and wheezing cops, cheered on by an appreciative crowd, before they finally catch him, pin him to the ground and cart him off in a waiting panda. Maybe he’s broken a restraining order or committed some previous assault on the woman, or maybe it’s all a piece of performance art staged for the benefit of any cycle tourers passing through.

Back inside the Molesworth Arms I find myself in a long conversation with a couple of very jovial men who explain that we have arrived in Wadebridge in the middle of the three day Royal Cornish Show, a major event in the county featuring many different kinds of agricultural machinery and prize livestock for sale, and involving industrial quantities of cider. Full of beginning-of-holiday bonhomie I show a tad more interest in the subject than I truly feel, and have soon learned more than I ever thought possible about current developments in the technology of hay-baling.

The rest of the evening passes without incident as we enjoy some decent pub grub, a few more ales and a gig featuring local celebrity crooner Josh Kernow, semi-finalist on Britain’s Got Talent 2016. Josh delivers a full-throated and well-received performance but slightly lets himself down during the interval (according to an eye witness account from Jeff) by failing to wash his hands following a visit to the urinal. As always on a bike trip, all life is here.

Seven pints/23 miles cycling is not the most sensible ale/physical exertion ratio on the first leg of such a big trip, and the next morning I awake with a throbbing head and a nagging feeling that I may have agreed to buy a combined harvester and a couple of heifers by mistake. Meanwhile, the second day of the Royal Cornish Show is already getting underway and in the breakfast room of the Molesworth Arms a man is ordering a full English and a pint of scrumpy.

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Our first full day is a testing 47 miles to Bude as the Camel Trail gives way to much hillier terrain. Panting up one particularly tough climb we round the bend at the top and are confronted by a dispiritingly huge red and white ‘Vote Leave’ poster, the first of a great many over the next few days and a harbinger, as it turns out, of what is to come later in the month. There is clearly an almighty shit storm brewing out here in the shires and we begin to feel a long way from London in more than one sense. Jeff points out that, being Cornwall, the poster could actually be expressing a desire to leave the UK.

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The route skirts the western edge of Bodmin Moor crossing a blank expanse of sparse vegetation and abandoned airfields, strange and desolate-looking under heavily overcast skies, then veers west to join the coast road near Millook. The ride into Bude is spectacular with very steep ascents (unrideable at times), nerve-jangling downhills and breath-taking clifftop views of the waves crashing onto the rocks far below. We arrive just as the long-threatened rain begins to fall and check into the Atlantic House guesthouse on the seafront, a decent establishment which also boasts the only Creole restaurant in the South West of England.

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After a long day in the saddle and a good dinner it’s always such a pleasure to fall into bed. There’s nothing like a really physically tiring bike ride or a walk for getting a great night’s sleep. In As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, the young Laurie Lee recounts his journey on foot from the Cotswolds to London in the early 1930s, describing the wonderful solace of rest after a long day on the road: “Even exhaustion, when it came, had a voluptuous quality, and sleep was caressive and deep, like oil.”

It was alright for Laurie Lee though. He probably never had to share a room with snoring middle aged blokes. The key lesson, knowledge hard-won from previous bike trips, is to make sure you’re the one who nods off first – better to be the snorer than the snoree. On this occasion I fail to do so, but at least have taken the precaution of bringing ear-plugs. Flight ear-plugs, in fact, designed to block out the din of a Boeing 747 taking off. Unfortunately they fail to muffle the roar of the Jumbo taxiing on the runway over the other side of the room. I stare at the ceiling deep into the wee small hours, contemplating the prospect of a gruelling 60 mile ride tomorrow and wondering if anyone has ever been found dead in a B&B, strangled with their own bicycle chain.

On the morning of day three we cross the county border out of Cornwall and the landscape subtly shifts to something classically Devonian with rolling hills and the congenial charm of Midsomer Murder-type villages like Holsworthy and Petrockstowe, where we join the Tarka Trail for nearly 30 miles of welcome flatness as far as Barnstaple. Another fine old post-Beeching railway track conversion, the Tarka Trail traces the journey of the eponymous critter in Henry Williamson’s 1927 story Tarka The Otter, made into a successful film in 1979 with a screenplay by Gerald Durrell.

Henry Williamson, as well as being a celebrated local author and naturalist, was also a keen Nazi, an admirer of Hitler and member of Mosely’s Blackshirts, though this tends not to be mentioned by the North Devon tourism industry. Were he alive today he would probably, one suspects, have been a Brexiteer, although in the 1950s he did write for a journal called The European, edited by Mosely’s wife Diana Mitford, established by the Moselys as a platform for the BUF leader’s belief in a united (fascist) Europe as a bulwark against the US and Soviet Union.

The Tarka Trail is a lovely, family-friendly ride which can also be cycled as part of the 100 mile Devon Coast to Coast Cycle Route (from Ilfracombe down to Plymouth). In addition to its other delights it’s probably worth doing if only to have an opportunity to tell the old curry house joke: “Waiter, what is the tarka?’… ‘It’s like the tikka sir, but it’s a little ‘otter”. We follow the trail along the River Torridge, stopping for lunch, Spartan fare (for once) of cuppa soup and coffee at the Torrington Cycle Hire café opposite the Puffing Billy pub, before continuing up the Torridge Estuary, getting caught in one of those heavy but mercifully short summer downpours, then quickly drying off in the afternoon sun.

Past Bideford on a short detour to the North Devon coast lies Westward Ho!, notable for its fine beach and fish and chip shops, but also for its unusual name. It is, as far as I know, the only village in Britain to be called after a novel (written in 1855 by local author Charles Kingsley, who also wrote The Water Babies). It is also the only place name in the country to boast an exclamation mark. In this respect, however, it is outdone by the Canadian town of Saint-Louis-du-Ha! Ha! which has two exclamation marks. Westward Ho! could surely settle this once and for all by changing its name to Westward Ho! Ho! Ho! But that would be daft.

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We leave the Tarka Trail at Barnstaple and begin the relentless pull up to Long Holcombe, 483 metres above sea level at the top of Exmoor. Thick swirls of cloud obscure what must be stunning panoramic views in clear weather, but today they add to the atmosphere of this beautiful, lonely place. Meanwhile, Tim’s bike seat has become mysteriously detached from its post and the machine is barely rideable. Dusk is creeping over the moors and there are few landmarks up here which can help us to find our night stop the Sportsman’s Inn, located somewhere between the villages of North Molton and Withypool. With our only GPS system fast running out of charge we manage to find the place (completely hidden from view on a turning 100 metres off Route 3) just in the nick of time – another 15 minutes and we would have cycled straight past the turning and been stranded up here in the inky black with barely a passing motorist.

The Sportsman’s Inn is a delightful old pub and we are royally looked after by Graham, the sprightly old chap who runs the place with his son Martin (who is away with his mates enjoying a similar weekend jolly to ourselves, but something involving fast cars). Utterly shagged out after the climb up Exmoor we collapse in the bar in front of the TV (watching England’s underwhelming opening draw with a mediocre Russian side in Euro 2016), barely able to speak as we shovel down onion soups, lamb shanks/battered cods, sticky toffee puddings and pints of Exmoor Ale. For half time entertainment we play hunt the mobile phone signal in a pitch dark field full of bleating sheep behind the pub.

When we have regained the power of speech we ask Graham how they manage to run an obviously thriving pub up here in such a remote place. There are many regulars who drive here from the villages scattered around the top of Exmoor, but the Sportsman’s Inn, as its name suggests, is also very popular with the hunting community who gather here for lunch after a morning’s shooting. ‘What do they shoot?’ we ask. ‘Pheasants, partridge, rabbits, hares, foxes, deer – pretty much anything that moves really.’ Graham is also bracingly unromantic about life up here in the winter months (‘bloody awful, covered in fog for days on end, can’t stand it’).

Next morning, after serving us a superb breakfast cooked by his wife, Graham cements his status as a total legend by ushering into his workshop at the back of the pub, an Aladdin’s cave of tools, where he performs some form of demented alchemy on Tim’s bike seat with a lump of wood, a bunch of screws, a couple of spare bungees and a pomegranate; an ingeniously make-do solution straight out of the Heath Robinson cycle repair book.

The next day is another 65 miles, but far easier than yesterday as we descend from the top of Exmoor to Dulverton, crossing the border into Somerset and continuing on undulating minor roads to Tiverton and Sampford Peverell. The deep silence is punctuated only by the occasional Sunday driver and, at one point, repeated bursts of gunfire coming from a field around the next bend. One of the things you begin to notice on cycle trips is how much shooting there is in the British countryside. Unsure whether the intended targets on this occasion are some form of game, as described by Graham, or possibly a cull of Remain voters, we cycle past nervously just as a fresh batch of clay pigeons bites the dust.

The Globe Inn in the village of Appley (about a mile off Route 3), reputed to be 500 years old, provides a fine lunch of monkfish curry, hot with chilli and aromatic with coconut and tamarind. Afterwards, flying down country lanes in the afternoon sunshine I lose concentration and only a last second swerve narrowly averts a crash into the hedgerow at 24 miles an hour. When you haven’t come a cropper on a bike for a long while you can start to feel a bit complacent, almost invulnerable. It’s sobering to remember now and again how close at hand disaster can lie if you get careless. The author and farmer John Lewis-Sempel said ‘There are only two good ways to fall of a horse – be either young or very drunk”, and the same probably applies to a bike (though only the latter option remains open to me now).

Route 3 continues through the centre of Taunton, past the county cricket ground and the Joel Garner stand, prompting fond memories of ‘Big Bird’, the six foot eight lethally quick West Indies and Somerset bowler of the late 70s/early 80s. There’s a nice easy finish to the day along the Bridgewater and Taunton Canal to our night stop at the Friendly Spirit pub in Cannington, just off the route four miles outside Bridgewater.

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The final day is the longest (over 70 miles to Bath) and the cycling conditions, a bit like the local cider, are mostly cloudy and flat as we cross the Somerset Levels, these days often an area of severe flooding but thankfully not at the moment. Approaching Glastonbury the distinctive mound of the Tor beckons us on, popping up first on one side of us and then the other as the road twists and turns, its 14th century ruined tower pointing skywards like an ancient one finger salute.

This stretch of Route 3 almost certainly follows a ley line because strange phenomena now begin to occur: firstly a horse-drawn carriage carrying a man and woman, dressed in what appear to be Elizabethan costumes, comes clattering towards us down a country lane. Minutes later, this is followed by a second world war Lancaster bomber flying very low overhead and disappearing across the ancient peat moors outside the town, raising the strong possibility that we have entered some kind of wormhole in the space-time continuum.

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We enter Glastonbury itself, passing the Excalibur pub, the Merlin petrol garage & mini-mart and the Joseph of Arimathea pizza parlour. Judging by the rest of the town centre the local economy seems to be mainly dependent on the sale of crystals. With horror I realise we have failed to include a single proper cake stop in the entire trip, an omission partly due to time constraints given the longer than usual distances covered. We finally manage to squeeze in a late morning hunk of coffee & walnut at the Uther Pendragon café, before riding up the High Street (or, as it used to be called in Arthurian times, New Age Tatte Shoppe Street), then on past Glastonbury Abbey. The ‘discovery’ of Arthur and Guinevere’s tomb was announced here in 1191, though this is now seen as a publicity stunt to attract more pilgrims to the town and generate revenues for the re-building of the Abbey which had been destroyed by fire seven years earlier. Tourism marketing strategies clearly haven’t changed much in the past 800 years.

Where would King Arthur have stood on Brexit? It’s entirely possible, given that he was always up for a bit of Saxon-bashing, that he would have been in favour of triggering Article 50 at the earliest possible opportunity. But I’d prefer to see the egalitarian nature of his famous Round Table as evidence of a commitment to the European Social Charter and the Convention on Human Rights.

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After the tackiness of Glastonbury town centre the more sedate and elegant charms of Wells come as something of a relief and, stopping for lunch at a pub overlooking the magnificent cathedral, I drink a token pint of Somerset cider just because I feel I ought to at least once on the trip, the acid sharpness refreshing for the first couple of swigs and then offering diminishing returns, reminding me why I’m an ale man. On the other side of Wells the West Country Way offers one last test with a strenuous afternoon climb up and over the Mendips rewarded by great views back across the Levels, before we join the Bristol & Bath Railway Path, the very first section of the UK National Cycle Network to be built back in 1984.

It’s been a challenging but very memorable trip (though I’d suggest taking at least an extra day on top of the four and a bit we squeezed it into), and the weather, though hardly the stuff of balmy evenings and long shadows on cricket pitches one always hopes for, has been nowhere near as dire as predicted. We finally reach the end of the West Country Way at Bath Spa station, leaving us just enough time for a final celebratory toast before catching the train back home to our metropolitan bubble.

Homage To Caledonia

Two years ago my son Sam and I cycled Lochs & Glens North from Glasgow up to Inverness. This summer we decided to retrace that journey but this time taking an entirely different route, incorporating the Caledonian Way (Route 78 of the National Cycle Network, newly launched by Sustrans in 2016) which starts in Campbeltown on the Kintyre peninsula.

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Sitting on my bike in Campbeltown harbour I swear I can hear the faint sound of Macca’s ghostly bagpipers floating on the breeze as I gaze wistfully towards the Mull of Kintyre. Mist is rolling in from the sea. My desire, as you can probably guess, is always to be here. I can’t though – we’ve got 240 miles to cycle and we have to be in Inverness six days from now. Besides, mist isn’t really rolling in from the sea anyway. It’s pissing down with rain and we’re getting a bit goose-pimply. I’m not entirely convinced Macca has ever been here to be honest.

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Our epic trip got off to a good start yesterday with a nice, mostly flat 40 miles in warm sunshine following NCN Route 7 south out of Glasgow, along the Clyde and down the Ayrshire coast to the port of Ardrossan where we caught the evening ferry over to Kintyre. The three hour crossing felt like an adventure in itself, with stunning views of the mountains of Arran silhouetted dark blue against the silvery light as we settled back in the lounge of the CalMac ferry, swigging bottles of beer from the Isle of Arran Brewery (motto ‘Guid ale keeps my heart aboon’).

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Kintyre is a peninsular though it feels as cut off as an island: long, thin and straggly, ten miles wide, dangling down into the North Channel of the Irish Sea between Arran to the east and Islay to the west. Its southern tip (the famous Mull of K) is a mere caber’s toss from the coast of County Antrim in Ulster.

Campbeltown, 15 miles north of the Mull, is the region’s main town and it’s a long, convoluted trip by car from Glasgow, which means the peninsula has found itself cast adrift from the Scottish ‘mainland’ over the years. The ferry service, fully launched only in 2016, has now offered a new lifeline to this wild west fringe of Scotland, as well as opening up the region to cycle tourers like ourselves.

Campbeltown retains traces of past glory in the faded elegance of its grand hotels around the harbour and it once claimed with some justification to be the ‘the whisky capital of the world’ with 34 distilleries (which helped to fuel the illegal smuggling routes into Prohibition America in the 1920s). Today though there are only three active ones left and it was named in 2012 as one of the two most economically vulnerable towns in rural Scotland. The B&B where we’re staying in the town centre displays a defiant nationalism with SNP posters and leftover Yes stickers still blue-tacked to the windows nearly two years after the referendum on independence. Maybe they’ve just been left there for the next one.

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Route 78 starts in the harbour and goes up the eastern side of Kintyre with several very steep hills made even more challenging by the driving rain and thick cloud, so low at times on the summits that we are can hardly see the road ahead. Occasionally the clouds break up enough to unveil tantalising views of Arran over to our right. A sound like the distant baying of a hound percolates through the porridgy gloom, adding to the romantic and very Scottish feeling of the lonely landscape. There are few places to stop on this section of the route but a restaurant on the way into Carradale village provides brief respite from the rain along with welcome cheese toasties and coffee.

Now there are some people who claim that when you get caught in heavy rain, after a while you just can’t get any wetter. Those people are fools who should be rapped on the head with a small bicycle tool. It is in fact possible to get very wet and then to get much wetter still, and then to carry on getting wetter until the rain has soaked not only through your clothes and the contents of your panniers but has seeped into your pores and inundated your very soul. This is the level of wetness we are to experience over the next few days on the Kintyre Peninsula.

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Luckily I have been reading Robert McFarlane’s book Landmarks, a powerful manifesto for the reclamation of the disappearing language of landscape. McFarlane believes that an ability to describe the richness of our natural world can help us to value and protect it more. As a result I have acquired a glossary of regional terms to describe the many types of rain across the British Isles, a good number of which are, unsurprisingly, Scottish or Gaelic dialect words. I suspect this list of rain words is going to come in pretty handy this week.

Arriving at our night stop, the coastal town of Tarbert, we find our B&B has been double-booked by mistake and we have been gazumped by a party of Dutch people doing a whiskey tour of the islands. We sit in the kitchen thawing out from the day’s plypes (sudden heavy showers, Scots) and sipping hot tea as the owner frantically rings round trying to find us an alternative bed for the night. Eventually he finds us a willing host, Andrew who runs The Moorings, a guesthouse with fine views of the harbour front who is already full but offers to put us up in his spare room in the attic.

The Moorings is a comfortable and quirky place, the front garden like a fairy tale grotto stuffed with a menagerie of ornamental creatures: monkeys, bears, big cats, snakes, turtles and exotic birds peeking out from behind plant pots or camouflaged by thick green foliage. Andrew ushers us inside, a stocky bearded Scot, very kind if slightly bossy. ‘I’m afraid I’ll have ter ask yers not to smoke anywhere in the hoose’ he says, rather unnecessarily as I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many no smoking signs gathered together in one place, pinned to every available wall space and door. The house is also festooned in multi-coloured lights that wink on and off as you approach them, including some floor-level bulbs around the toilet in our room that unexpectedly bathe my legs in a disconcerting purple glow as I’m taking a dump later that evening.

Andrew offers to run the sodden contents of our panniers through his washing machine and tumble drier. It’s amazing how many B&Bs do this but I suppose they must be used to bedraggled, miserable looking cyclists down to their last pair of dry pants. On our way out for the evening he beckons me over, looking very grave. He’s spotted Sam sneaking a crafty fag across the road. ‘I can’t believe the young man smokes!’ he says. ‘And him a cyclist!’ ‘I gave up 15 years ago. And I never touch a drop ‘o booze’, though you’d never believe it’ he says, gesturing around at shelves piled high with bottles of spirits from around the world. ‘Me only addiction is me telly’, he says. ‘I’m off to watch Emmerdale…’

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Tarbert is a pleasing fishing village with a pretty harbour full of colourful boats. King Magnus Barefoot of Norway sailed here in 1098 and claimed Kintyre as part of the Viking Kingdom of the Sudereys (Southern Hebrides). High on a hill overlooking the town is the picturesque ruined castle mostly built by Robert The Bruce, the Scottish king who after a famous encounter with a spider in a cave decided to abandon his previous devo-max position and form the SNP back in the early 14th century, a crown more recently held by his descendants, the fishermen Alex The Salmon and Nicola the Sturgeon (Did you check all these facts? Ed).

As well as facing seawards Tarbert is also located on the shore of Loch Fyne where the restaurant chain of that name originated. The whole area is famed for its seafood. The Starfish in town has a high foodie reputation but you need to book in advance to have any chance of getting a table. We settle instead for The Anchorage, a cosy harbour-side bistro where we dine as handsomely as no doubt King Magnus Barefoot once did on local produce including fish chowder, smoked salmon and venison sausages. We go on for a couple of beers in the bright green painted Corner House pub next door where old men in kilts are playing pool and the TV is showing a feisty Friday night Scottish League Cup tie between Arbroath and Dundee. It all feels nicely authentic in a low key sort of way so we decide to round things off properly with a ten year old Isle of Arran malt. I judge it to be pleasantly peaty, although I have no idea what that means. It just sounds like the sort of thing you might say when tasting a ten year old malt.

Next morning we are joined at breakfast by two other cyclists, a nice German couple from Konstanz who are thankfully too polite to bring up the embarrassment of Brexit. They are doing the iconic Lands End to John O’Groats route or Das LEJOG as it is probably known in Deutschland. It’s not entirely clear how they managed to end up this far west. They set off from Cornwall about two weeks ago. ‘The weather was good at first’, says the man, ‘but as soon as we entered Scotland it became not so good. And this –  this is not a holiday!’, he says gazing mournfully out of the rain-spattered window and looking a little tearful. His wife squeezes his hand and we all agree that cycling is still brilliant even when it’s raining, if only because it makes you appreciate the good days even more. We swap stories of our past campaigns completely forgetting about the bowls of strawberries in front of us until Andrew comes in, looking rather peeved. ‘Are yous all not eating yer froot then?’ he wants to know. Bike chatter is instantly replaced by the clatter of spoons.

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From Tarbert the route turns across the peninsula towards the west coast, through the lush if totally unpronounceable Forest of Achaglachgach, memorably described in Richard Guise’s cycling book From the Mull to the Cape:

“The lochside stretch I was rolling through formed the trickily named Achaglachgach Forest, where I panted up and down Glen Achaglachgach, past Achaglachgach House and through Achaglachgach village, which was totally deserted. Maybe they’d all choked to death trying to say ‘Achaglachgach’.”

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At this point Kintyre becomes the Knapdale peninsula and the minor road up the west coast offers lovely views of the island of Jura (where George Orwell stayed when he wrote 1984), but today its hazy outline is filtered through the steady ciuran (drizzle, Gaelic). Whatever the weather though, there’s a deep sense of stillness and spaciousness about this landscape which calms the spirit and declutters the mind – ‘fabulous nothing’ as the poet Kathleen Jamie described Jura.

The Kilberry Inn is one of the few places to stop for refreshment round here and has excellent gastronomic credentials, but we are still stuffed from Andrew’s full Scottish this morning and just settle for a bottle of IPA from Colonsay, apparently the smallest island in the world with its own brewery.

Turning inland the route continues along the Crinan Canal towpath and across the raised peat bogs and mossy hummocks of the Mhoine Mhor nature reserve before we encounter the first of many stone circles, standing stones and burial cairns of Kilmartin Glen. This area contains one of the most important Neolithic sites in Scotland dating from around 4,000 BC with around 150 prehistoric monuments crammed into a radius of six miles. Nearby is Dunadd, an Iron Age fort said to be the home of the first Kings of Scotland.

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Climbing up into Kilmartin village we reach our night stop the Kilmartin Inn, its slate roof and stark white walls nestling beneath the green slopes that tower above a small cluster of houses, a museum and a village church which contains an impressive collection of medieval gravestones dating back to the 13th century. Carnasserie Castle on the far edge of the village is also worth exploring, an evocative ruined 16th century tower house on a hill overlooking the Glen.

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Surrounded by so many reminders of the ancient past and enclosed by the brooding grey sky, rain blattering (heavily and noisily, Galloway) on the pub windows, Kilmartin is an atmospheric location to stay the night, a perfect blend of time and place. Pies and pints are followed by the already established ritual of the nightcap local malt (Isle of Jura). It proves to be pleasantly peaty, though perhaps not quite as peaty as last night’s. But it’s hard to be sure so we have another one just to check.

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Before turning in for the night we switch on the TV and find the weatherman beaming with glad tidings. After a few days of widespread rain tomorrow’s forecast shows a ridge of high pressure drifting in from across the Atlantic, bathing Britain in a pool of warm sunshine. There are bright yellow symbols punctuated with fluffy white pillows dotted everywhere across the map. Well almost everywhere. On that long, thin, straggly bit that dangles off the west coast of Scotland there are menacing black clouds leaking diagonal lines of doom. The only bit of the UK, it would appear, where there is any chance of precipitation tomorrow. Even Northern Ireland has little golden orbs of happiness which seems meteorologically unfeasible. Oh and apparently there’s going to be a heatwave in John O’Fucking Groats…

So next morning the rain (somewhere between a dreich and a mi-chailear with a fair amount of bleeterie and a number of heavy flists since you ask) is already set in for the day as we follow Route 78 past the village of Ford and alongside Loch Awe on a 20 mile rollercoaster of a road through thick forest.

After a shivery lunch in a roadside cabin where we dribble pools of water across the floor we cycle across the lovely Glen Nant, Glen Lonan and Glen Hoddle (are you sure about the last one? Ed). Again the challenging, hilly terrain is matched by the stunning beauty of the scenery but it’s too wet to stop and drink it all in as much as we’d really like. One day it would be wonderful to re-visit this whole stretch up from Campbeltown in more serene conditions. However just outside our next night stop in Oban we do at least manage to take advantage of a brief pause in the rain to explore the 13th century Dunstaffnage Castle in the village of Dunbeg, perched formidably on a huge rock overlooking the Firth of Lorn, and like most Scottish castles boasting a long history soaked in blood and passion.

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I’ve been to Oban before about 25 years ago when my wife and I stayed here for a few days, taking trips from the harbour to the islands of Mull, Iona and, best of all, the wonderfully bleak Staffa, an outcrop of wave-lashed rock famous for Fingal’s Cave, inhabited only by screeching birds and reachable by a thrillingly wave-tossed ride in a small boat. It rained during our entire stay back then and needless to say it’s started raining again as we arrive now. It would not surprise me in the least to hear that it has not stopped raining in Oban for the past quarter of a century. Despite this it’s a delightful town to stay in. We tuck into top notch fish and chips in one of the many restaurants that line the seafront and then retire to the cosy Lorne Bar for a few pints of Kilt Lifter brewed locally by the Oban Bay company, topped off with the inevitable Oban 12 year old malt. When in Oban etc…

The next day is the fourth consecutive day of rain. A full-on Glibbeid (mix of rain, sleet and hail, Gaelic) is even forecast at one point. For the first time since leaving Campbeltown there is the possibility of catching a train to our next night stop in Fort William. I’ve never skipped a whole day of any bike tour so far and am reluctant to set a dangerous precedent. If I was on my own I’d probably just put on an extra hair shirt under my waterproof jacket and shove another roll of barbed wire down my Lycra shorts and get on with it, but I sense an air of weather fatigue about my companion and fear he may have reached peak precipitation.

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Maybe it’s time for common sense to prevail  – sod it, we’re on holiday! So a decent morning lie-in and the train it is. Highlights of the Oban-Fort William stretch of Route 78 would have included the impossibly photogenic medieval Castle Stalker, floating on a small islet on Loch Laich (which played the part of The Castle of Aaargh! in Monty Python and the Holy Grail), as well as two more ferry crossings at either end of Loch Linnhe. Oh well, maybe another time…

Our final day is by far the longest with a 66 mile stretch from Fort William to Inverness, but the Scottish weather gods are on our side at last as we wake up to warmer temperatures and even some hazy sunshine beginning to seep through thin white streaks of cloud. We follow quiet roads out of town to join the towpath of the Caledonian Canal, soon reaching the series of eight locks known as Neptune’s Staircase and the unmistakeable hulk of Ben Nevis, the top shrouded in cloud as it generally is for around 300 days every year.

Following the Great Glen Way walking trail, Route 78 continues to Gairlochy where it leaves the canal and runs through the forest along the edge of Loch Lochy (they must have run out of names for lochs by the time they got to this one). This section feels wild and remote and the off-road trail is rocky and slow-going in places, but the sun is now pouring through the forest canopy and there is pure pleasure in our ride at last.

At Laggan Locks, where the route re-joins the canal, we clamber on board the Eagle, a Dutch barge once used as a troop carrier in the Second World War and now converted into a restaurant of real character. Basking on the top deck in the lunchtime heat we stuff our faces with bowls of chilli washed down with Red McGregor ale brewed in Orkney. Sam plumps for the extra hot sauce option with his chilli and I make a mental note not to be cycling in his tailwind this afternoon.

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Fortified we continue off-road with more sections of towpath and a well-surfaced cycle track running alongside Loch Oich, then on to Fort Augustus which is exactly half way to Inverness, and a kind of lower key version of Fort William with a few tourist coaches and a smattering of tea shops. A cake stop comes in handy here because as soon as we leave the town we hit the gruelling five mile climb up to Carn an t-Suidhe, the highest point of the Caledonian Way at almost 400 metres, our reward being wonderful sweeping views at the top and a long joyous freewheel down to the village of Whitebridge. Here the route forks left and runs along the long southern shore of Loch Ness for the last, easy 20 miles to Inverness.

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As we pootle alongside Scotland’s most famous Loch, the late afternoon sun sinks low, throwing mysterious shadows on the glassy surface. On the edge of my vision something flickers, the hint of a dark shape moving beneath the water. Having had so many slightly disappointing wildlife-watching experiences on holidays over the years (no-show dolphins, mythical puffins, strangely introverted lions), what an irony it would be if I suddenly caught a glimpse of ‘the big one’!

Apparently there have been 1,081 recorded sightings of Britain’s most celebrated monster including half a dozen this year alone and the creature is worth an estimated £60 million to the Scottish economy. If any American or Japanese tourists are reading this they may also be interested to hear of The Leytonstone Lizard, a marvellous giant beast reputed to live at the bottom of my garden in East London (or Jack the Ripper’s East London to give it it’s official name), just behind the pop-up tea room and luxury gift shop.

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Actually they did find a 30 foot serpent in Loch Ness a few months ago but it turned out to be a prop from The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, a 1970 Billy Wilder film starring Christopher Lee. Still you never know. After all it was possible at the beginning of the 2015/16 football season to get shorter odds on the Loch Ness Monster being discovered than on Leicester City winning the Premier League, so miracles do occasionally happen. Nevertheless I feel confident in saying that ‘Nessie’ will never be found and hereby go on public record and pledge that if proved wrong, I will cycle from Land’s End to John O’Groats wearing nothing but a pair of underpants decorated with the Scottish flag.

Meanwhile we finally reach the end of the Caledonian Way beneath the castle walls in Inverness. There’s goat curry, there’s Yellowhammer ale from the Black Isle Brewery and there’s a final toast with a 14 year old Auchentoshan malt – a toast to cycling, to good company, and to the glorious Scottish landscape, to its people and even to its godawful weather. Today has been pretty much the perfect day’s bike ride and we feel we’ve earned it.

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Cymru Gan Beic

Following our adventure north of the border last year my son Sam (now 20) and I decided to keep the Celtic theme going this summer by taking on the legendary Lon Las Cymru, following National Cycle Route 8 from Holyhead to Cardiff.

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‘Well, Holyhead’s right at the top and Cardiff’s right at the bottom so I think you’ll find it’s pretty much downhill most of the way’, said a friend who is Welsh so clearly ought to know. The Lon Las Cymru, 250 miles long, covers the entire length of the country, crossing Snowdonia, mid-Wales, and the Brecon Beacons, and has the reputation of being one of the toughest routes on the UK National Cycle Network. But that must be if you start at the bottom of the map and work your way upwards. Luckily we’re going north to south, so it sounds as easy as an afternoon spin round the park.

We begin the ride after a long train journey from London up to Crewe, and then along the north Wales coastline to the tip of Anglesey. After a showery start the afternoon clears up nicely. In contrast to the dramatic landscape of Snowdonia, visible on the horizon just across the Menai Straits, Anglesey offers flat cycling on peaceful country lanes and an atmosphere of pastoral tranquillity.

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The route passes the Bodowyr Burial Chamber, a Neolithic site and one of over 120 ancient monuments on the island. Later we cycle through the village sensibly described on the map as Llanfair PG, whose famous railway station sign proclaims it’s full name Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwillismtysillogogogoch (that’s pronounced Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwillismtysillogogogoch).

According to the excellent and oddly compulsive Dictionary of British Place Names by AD Mills – my bible on bike trips – the ‘Llanfairpwllgwyngyll’ bit dates from 1536 and means ‘Church of St Mary in the pool of the white hazels’. The rest of the name was added just for a laugh in the mid-19th century, and the whole thing now means ‘Church of St Mary in the pool of the white hazels fairly near the rapid whirlpool by the church of St Tysilio at the red place’.

By early evening we’ve covered 30 miles to our first night stop at the Anglesey Arms just before the Menai Bridge, where some very decent pub grub (pork & leek sausages & mash/steak & ale pie), and a few jars of JW Lees Tackler’s Gold, sets the gastronomic bar high for the week ahead.

Next morning we’re bracing ourselves for an expected deluge. We get away early while it’s still dry, but the rain kicks in about 10.30 and it’s obvious from the thick grey sky that it’s already set in for the rest of the day. We’re probably cycling through some of the finest scenery in Britain but it’s hard to be sure as visibility is soon down to about 50 yards.

It’s time to don my ‘Emergency Poncho’, a bright yellow plastic cape bought for £1 from Halfords prior to the trip. In fact because I was going cycling in Wales I decided to invest in five ‘Emergency Ponchos’. Unfortunately the garment fails on every level, not only letting all the rain in but also turning me into a sort of windsock on wheels, the whole thing ballooning full of air so that I fear I might take off and float away over the mountains of Snowdonia. To make it worse a group of teenagers out on a school trip point and laugh as we go past. Fortunately they are talking in Welsh so I don’t know what they’re saying.

If you’ve never been to North Wales (most people haven’t; even people I know from South Wales never go to North Wales), nothing prepares you for the weirdness of hearing everyone speaking Welsh, ‘the soft consonants strange to the ear’ in the words of the poet RS Thomas. To the outsider it sounds as otherworldly as Elvish or Dothraki, with the occasional English-sounding word thrown in to fool you into thinking you know what’s going on.

I’m immediately fascinated and decide to enrol for a course in the history of Welsh at the University of Wikipedia. The language emerged in the 6th century from Common Brittonic, the ancestor not only of Welsh but also Cornish, Breton and Cumbric (now extinct but once spoken in my home county Cumberland).

Welsh is characterised by a number of strange sounds that occur in hardly any other European language such as the ‘voiceless alveolar lateral fricative’ (apparently also found among Zulu and Navajo speakers). This is the thing that enables Welsh people to manage all those ‘LL’ sounds, and involves constricting the passage of air through the throat as well as some quite strange use of the tongue.

Meanwhile the rain is getting heavier. We shelter for a while in Caernarvon in the ramparts of the impressive 13th century Castle, but standing still just makes us feel colder. I may have written elsewhere on this blog about the joys of cycling in all the elements, the wind in the hair, the sweet solace of summer raindrops or something or other. I’d now like to withdraw those remarks, especially that bit about the sweet solace of summer raindrops, and make it clear that cycling in all the elements is definitely over-rated. In fact it’s often pretty shit.

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Around lunchtime in the middle of nowhere we find brief sanctuary in a roadside portakabin which houses a greasy spoon for passing lorry drivers. We clutch our tea mugs with both hands trying to extract whatever heat is available, but by the time food arrives Sam is shivering all over, and even a double cheese burger and chips fails to work its customary magic.

Studying the map I suddenly realise we can cut off a 12 mile loop around Criccieth by taking a short detour along the main road, which would leave just a few miles to our night stop in Porthmadog. But I hate missing out bits of a route even when the weather’s miserable, a grim stoicism I put down to a northern childhood of trudging through rain and wind on country walks with my father. And I was really looking forward to seeing Criccieth Castle.

For about fifteen minutes (I’m not proud of this) I consider just not telling Sam about the short cut. But his teeth are now chattering quite alarmingly. If he checks the map later he’s not going to be pleased. I offer the detour and he grabs it with desperate gratitude. Actually if truth be told I don’t really mind too much. I’m normally pretty gung-ho about these things, but even my ho is not feeling quite as gunged as usual today.

We take the main road for a couple of miles and re-join the cycle route further on. Through the blanket of cloud we can just make out the dark shapes of hills towering above us. We pass through villages whose grey stone houses and slate roofs as black as bibles add to the austere atmosphere of the Snowdonia landscape in teeming rain. Eventually we arrive in Porthmadog. It’s a bustling market town even on such a dismal day, with a great variety of small shops all lit up and cosy-looking, feeling more like mid-afternoon on Christmas Eve than early July.

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Our accommodation, the Bluebird B&B, is tucked away down the back streets of town. I hammer on the front door, tempted to shout like Richard E Grant in Withnail and I, ‘We’ve come on holiday by mistake…I demand to have some booze!’ The landlady, a plumpish woman of mature years with the unlikely name of Mrs Lightfoot, seems shocked by our appearance. But once we have wheeled our bikes into the backyard she ushers us inside with a show of fuss and welcome talk of steaming baths and piping hot mugs of tea.

Up in our room we peel off our wet things as rain continues to lash against the window panes. Wimbledon is on the telly, and annoyingly Centre Court is baking in hot sunshine. It’s Kings Landing down there and North of the pissing Wall up here. But things soon get better as I thaw out in one of the most sumptuous baths I’ve ever had. It’s unusually deep and wide with a useful handrail for climbing in and out, and is presumably designed for the elderly and infirm. As I lie soaking I wonder about getting one of these installed at home, but that might feel a bit macabre.

Everything in our panniers is saturated but Mrs L kindly offers to put all our clothes through the tumble drier. Sam, meanwhile, hits on the clever wheeze of drying his sodden trainers using the hair dryer in the bedroom. I have a go on mine too, shoving it down into the toes and waggling it about to blow the hot air around. This seems to be working well until there’s a loud pop from the hair dryer and a stink of burning. I’ve had some low moments on bike trips but I’m fairly sure this is the first time I’ve set fire to my shoes.

Later in the evening, in between showers, we venture out to eat. It’s time for something traditionally Welsh so we head for the Sima Tandoori for a kickass curry. This seems like a good moment to call home and share the news of our heroic battle against the biblical elements. But as I’m waiting for someone to pick up the phone at home the waiter comes over to take our drinks order, so when my wife eventually answers the first thing she hears is me saying, ‘Two large Cobras and some poppadoms please.’

‘Well it certainly sounds like you two are having a good time’, she says. ‘Yes, all is well now’, I say, ‘But you should have seen us earlier – it was hell! ‘Really?’ she says, clearly unconvinced. She has had a long and tiring day at work (school parents evening), has a pasta ready-meal to look forward to, and it’s only Monday; sympathy is in short supply.

Back at the Bluebird we manage to sleep well despite the rain drumming on the windows through the night and seagulls shrieking in the yard. But next morning, although the skies are still leaden, the rain has at least stopped. We eat breakfast in Mrs Lightfoot’s parlour, surrounded by family photographs, many showing young men in army uniform. The shelves are stuffed with ornaments and evidence of a collector’s zeal with numerous chess sets designed on a military history theme: Waterloo, Custer’s Last Stand, The Charge of the Light Brigade…

We are joined by four fellow guests at breakfast, all of retirement age, here on classic British holidays: walking, bird watching and riding around on heritage railways in the rain. They seem a bit glum but cheer up when Mrs Lightfoot tells them the weather prospects for the rest of the week are looking up. She turns to us, and says, ‘And I’d like to say the same to you two, but I’m afraid it’s going to get worse where you’re going…probably much worse…’

This is a bit of a downer and completely at odds with my own reading of the forecast. According to the BBC things should be brightening up as we move further south. Is Mrs Lightfoot privy to some infallible local intelligence on such matters? Or maybe she just thinks we carry our own personal weather around with us – a relentless drizzle – wherever we go.

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Leaving Porthmadog we reach the town of Penrhyndeudraeth (‘The promontory between two beaches’). At this rate I might be able to fill an entire blog post with unpronounceable place names. The route continues on a viaduct across the estuary but unfortunately it’s closed for repairs and is not due to re-open until next week.

The only alternative is a ten mile detour on a very busy A-road. I can tell this is not going to be one of those bike trips where everything goes smoothly according to plan. Luckily there’s a railway station in town and the next train leaves in an hour which gives us time for a second breakfast of two pots of tea, a plate of Caerphilly Welsh Rarebit and the Independent crossword.

We take the train a few stops down the line past Harlech Castle to the village of Pensarn where we re-join NCN 8. The sun is shining weakly by now, and I’m pleased to say that Mrs Lightfoot’s Cassandra-like prophesies are proving wide of the mark. The rest of the day is one of my favourite sections of the Lon Las Cymru. The route cuts inland over the hills then follows the coast road down to Barmouth, a seaside resort long past its glory days but retaining a faded windswept elegance. We cycle along the front, sandblasted and showered by spray from the waves crashing in over the Irish Sea, stopping for a late lunch of chip butties and beer.

The route continues along the Mawddach Trail, a lovely ten mile stretch which crosses the River Mawddach via a 700 metre long wooden viaduct built in 1867, and then follows the estuary inland to Dolgellau. There are stunning views of the southern Snowdonia mountains. The Trail uses part of the old Great Western Railway route which used to ferry visitors from northwest England to Barmouth from Victorian times into the early decades of the 20th century. The line fell victim to the Beeching axe in 1965 but, like so many others in Britain, has been happily reincarnated for cyclists and walkers.

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From Dolgellau the road gradually snakes upwards 400 metres, reaching high into the clouds, bleak and beautiful up here on these lonely fells, the sky dark and brooding and pierced by occasional shafts of sunlight. Panting heavily to the top I suspect my Welsh friend’s topographical reading of the landscape was not entirely correct.

As we cycle over the brow of the last hill and reach the summit a middle-aged couple climb out of the back seat of a car, grin sheepishly, and get into the front. You could probably be up here all day normally and not see a soul. From the top we swoop ten miles down through the forests of the Dulas Valley to our night stop at Machynlleth, a place described by Mike Carter in One Man and His Bike (a wonderful book about his cycle trip around the British coastline) as ‘a place light on vowels but, if pronounced properly, heavy on expectoration’. The White Lion in the main street provides us with fish & chips, Banks’s Bitter and a comfortable bed.

Rain is falling again when we awake but is expected to stop by mid-morning so we opt for a late breakfast and a delayed start. After cycling hundreds of miles around Britain over recent years, failing to spot any interesting wildlife apart from sheep, today brings a rare success. Outside the White Lion the manager of the pub points out a red kite flying high above the town.

Over the next few days we spot more examples of this supremely graceful bird of prey, now thriving in the UK after once being on the brink of extinction. Once identified it’s easy to spot, even for me, with a wingspan over five feet, forked tail, brown and white colouring with streaks of red-rust, and has such economy of movement that it barely seems to fly at all, gliding effortlessly on pillows of air.

Machynlleth nestles in a valley between the mountains, and the road out of town is almost a mirror image of yesterday afternoon’s climb but this time reaching 509 metres, the highest point on the Lon Las Cymru. At the top we catch up with a man and woman aged about 60 who we saw earlier this morning at breakfast in the White Lion. Both look to be seasoned cycle tourers, whippet-thin and weather beaten, their bikes heavily loaded with luggage. We stop for a chat. One of the great joys of a bike trip, I say, is spotting interesting wildlife.  They agree enthusiastically. Indeed only yesterday they saw ospreys, one of the rarest, most elusive and majestic of all British birds! I was about to mention red kites but decide not to bother.

The route continues along the upper course of the River Severn dropping through Hafren Forest and down to our lunch stop in the town of Llanidloes. The name just trips off my tongue like a native, and, mysteriously, I think I may now be acquiring a voiceless alveolar lateral fricative. The sun comes out and we sit outside the Crown & Anchor in the town centre with a pint of Hancocks (served by Ruby, landlady here for the past 50 years), munching pastries from the Talerdigg Bakery next door.

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For lunchtime entertainment there’s a procession of brightly coloured and decrepit looking estate cars, 500 in total, streaming through town with klaxons blaring and a cargo of Dutch passengers in very high spirits. It turns out this is the Carbage Run, an annual car rally in which competitors from the Netherlands have to buy and customise their own vehicles which must cost under 500 euros and have been built before 1998.

There’s a different route every year and this time it goes from Holland to Aberdeen, on back roads via London, Swansea, the Peak District and Glasgow. It’s like a cross between the Wacky Races and Jeux Sans Frontieres, with competitors given daily tasks to earn extra points. Today’s challenge is to find someone called Ben and persuade him to travel the rest of the way to Aberdeen with hundreds of crazy Dutch people.

After lunch we enjoy a peaceful and undemanding afternoon on undulating minor roads down into the Wye Valley. At one point the way ahead is blocked by a group of sheep who have wandered from a neighbouring field. Startled by our arrival they hurtle down the lane with a great chorus of baaing as Sam chases after them laughing and ringing his bell for about half a mile until they manage to escape through a gap in the hedge.

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Arriving at the Horseshoe Guesthouse in Rhayader, we shower and watch Andy Murray win his Wimbledon quarter final before heading out to The Eagles, a fine old pub which dates from 1579. The menu features locally sourced Welsh black beef and a wide range of game dishes, as well as kangaroo, crocodile and ostrich. We plump for a couple of rich, dark casseroles, mutton (Sam) and pheasant (me). The evening concludes with a fiercely fought game of darts at the Cornhill Inn round the corner from the Horseshoes. Turning in for the night I wonder how Ben is getting on.

Next morning, we’re cycling beneath deep blue skies at last as the route meanders along the course of the River Wye, passing through Newbridge and on to a lunch stop in Builth Wells. There’s more of a sprinkling of English-sounding place names down here, particularly as we get closer to the border. It’s been a couple of days now since we’ve heard any Dothraki and everyone now speaks with a proper Welsh accent like on Gavin & Stacey.

After a couple of pints of Hereford Pale Ale we enjoy some more afternoon cruising along flat quiet roads in glorious sunshine. But everything is going too well. Just as we are approaching the town of Glasbury, near Hay-on-Wye, my back tyre explodes with a frighteningly loud bang.

I’ve not had a puncture in years so I’ve been dodging this bullet for a while. I’ve got a spare inner tube and have even practiced changing it at home so although it’s annoying I’m not too worried. But then I realise the full extent of the damage – it’s not just the tube that’s punctured, there’s a large gash in the tyre itself. There’s no way I can mend this and we’re still 15 miles from our night stop in Brecon, and that’s via the most direct route on the dual carriageway of death.

Luckily for circumstances like these I have a contingency plan up my sleeve which is to Throw Myself Upon The Beneficence Of The Universe. We suddenly notice a bus stop 30 yards down the street and, ten minutes later, the last bus to Brecon pulls up. The driver looks at the bikes and shakes his head. It’s strictly against the rules. I pull my most desperate face and he softens. He’s a mountain biker himself and will not leave us stranded. Top man. Like most bike trips – I think even more than most – the kindness of strangers has been striking throughout the whole week.

He drops us in Brecon town centre and we wheel our bikes to our accommodation at the Bridge Café. This is a wonderfully quirky place run by Carole and Jon, an agreeable pair of rat race escapees who have poured their dreams into this charming and higgledy-piggledy 16th century house, full of nooks and crannies and chickens clucking around in the yard outside. The sloping floors upstairs are strangely disorientating. ‘You don’t need to go the pub’, says Jon. ‘You feel a bit pissed just being in the house.’

I tell Jon about my gashed tyre. ‘You can sometimes do a temporary fix by wodging a bit of cardboard into the hole’, he says, hinting at a level of technical competence I can only dream about. The Bridge Café doubles as a bistro at the weekends and the menu looks enticing but unfortunately this is a Thursday night. We make do with takeaway pizza in the main square and a visit to The George Hotel where we drink fine ale brewed by a local company with the Welshest of names, Evan Evans.

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Next morning the Bridge Café wins the coveted Worthington Top Breakfast Of The Trip award: eggs with intensely yellow yolks,  local organic sausage and bacon, field mushrooms, artisan bread and excellent coffee. It’s all very much to my liking although Sam, who has developed gritty northern tastes since studying in Hull, would prefer something more authentically proletarian and bemoans the lack of sliced white Sunblest and Nescafe.

After popping into the local bike shop to get a new tyre fitted we set off on the last leg of the Lon Las Cymru, which follows the Taff Trail mostly off-road for 50 miles from Brecon to Cardiff. The first section is one of the most scenic and remotest sections on the whole route, following quiet roads to the Talybont reservoir, and a long hike up through Taf Fechan forest on the western edge of the Black Mountains, pools of warm sunshine pouring through the trees.

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We are alone save for a troupe of scouts on an orienteering exercise and the occasional red kite hanging on the breeze. The Brecon Beacons National Park is a pussycat this morning and it’s hard to believe only four days ago a couple of walkers were tragically struck by lightning in separate incidents up on those high peaks. From 450 metres at the top we plunge ten miles downhill (the surface loose and treacherous in places) to a last lunch of omelettes at a pub on the outskirts of Merthyr Tydfil in the one-time heartland of industrial Wales.

The final 30 miles follows the River Taff on flat cycle tracks and B roads through Pontypridd and on to the centre of Cardiff where we end the trip in The Cambrian Tap, Brains Brewery’s newly opened craft ale bar. The city centre is lively and buzzing with the collective relief of another Friday night, heightened on this occasion by the joy of cricket fans pouring out of the Sophia Gardens down the road where England are slaughtering Australia in the first Ashes Test of the summer. And as we toast the successful completion of the Lon Las Cymru, I’m not sure life needs to get much better. It’s been a great trip. Glad we don’t have to cycle all the way back up to the top though.

I hope this encourages someone to try this wonderful ride. If so please do let me know in the comments below, or also if you have any recommendations for other trips.

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As We Cycled Out One Midsummer Morning (or Four Men On The Bummel)

Following last year’s successful ride from Paris to the Champagne region, this summer my friends Jeff, Matt, Tim and I stayed closer to home and tackled the Cotswolds & Severn Vale Cycle Tour, a 180 mile circular route beginning and ending in Stroud in Gloucestershire. It proved to be a strenuous but highly enjoyable jaunt, cycling through ancient rolling countryside, chocolate box villages, some seriously challenging hills, and plenty of top notch cake and ale… 

The road is signposted to ‘Waterley Bottoms’, which sounds like a place not to be sniffed at. We arrive at this point an hour or two after leaving Stroud station on a Friday lunchtime in late June; the route has begun with a gentle short section along the former Stroud-Nailsworth Railway line, and then a taste of what lies in store over the weekend with a steep climb out of Nailsworth and a sharp plunge down into Wotton.

We follow the road to the incontinent-sounding village of WB, and continue into the Severn Vale, the broad expanse of the river gleaming in the late afternoon sunshine. Jeff, as usual, is out in front on the hills, standing up and as he likes to put it ‘dancing in the saddle’; it’s even possible (warning: weak pun ahead) that he may actually be doing the Dance of the Severn Vales.

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We leave the road and turn along the towpath of the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal, at one time the widest and deepest ship canal in the world, running headlong into a thick swarm of flesh-eating flies. I have rarely encountered such vicious insects this far south in Britain. I suspect we may have run into a marauding party of Scottish midges, on a weekend mini-break down in the Cotswolds, probably come to laugh at us for electing a Conservative Government.

We rejoin the network of quiet roads, passing through Frampton and Framilode, eventually arriving at our night stop in the village of Haresfield. Matt, who has been reading Laurie Lee’s classic memoir As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, tells us that the poet passed through Haresfield in 1934 at the start of his journey from Gloucestershire to London and on to Spain. We are staying at the Beacon Inn where the affable landlord serves us platters of fish pie and pints of Uley, a wonderful golden brew made in the nearby village of the same name.

There is a wedding reception at the pub tomorrow and a party of guests staying tonight, which is why we were only able to book the family room – a new experience for us on our cycling trips and one which we are not entirely relishing. As we sit outside beneath the stars, supping our pints of Uley, a taxi pulls up just before midnight depositing some very high-spirited wedding guests, including a man who tumbles out of the cab and falls up the steps into the pub, calling loudly for more beer.

Knackered, we turn in for the night. The family room experience turns out to be less hellish than feared, the room itself comfortable and surprisingly spacious. This is just as well since we are later joined in the small hours by the chap from the taxi who barges in and galumphs around the room, realises that none of us appears to be his wife, burps, grunts an apology and leaves.

After breakfast next morning we discover why the pub is called the Beacon Inn, when we leave the village and face one of the toughest climbs we have ever done on any of our bike trips.  Haresfield Beacon climbs 200 metres reaching gradients well over 20%. There is no let up as the road twists and turns upwards, becoming steeper the higher you go. No-one is dancing in the saddle now. I grind up to the summit in my granny gear and collapse on the grass by the side of the road. My heart is thumping against the walls of my ribcage and I feel like I’m going to vomit. Now this is what I call a holiday.

We are now moving into the heart of the Cotswolds and as we pass through one village I notice a macabre looking straw effigy dressed in rags – like a scarecrow or Bonfire Night Guy. This is the first of several such sightings during the weekend, some resembling grotesque human figures, others with the head of an animal, such as a stag or badger. All are placed in front of houses facing outwards to the road, possibly to ward off evil spirits or cyclists down from London for the weekend. Maybe the old gods still inhabit these ancient parts. But perhaps my imagination is just feeling a bit gothic today because it’s the eve of the Summer Solstice, or maybe because the great Christopher Lee passed away only a few days ago…

Meanwhile, north of the historic wool town of Painswick, we hit another gruelling 150 metre climb, less steep than the Haresfield Beacon but longer and almost as exhausting. There are no single hills quite as challenging as these for the rest of the day, but for the next 30 miles all the way to Winchcombe we face a leg-sapping roller coaster of continual climbs and descents.

In the middle of this assault course the Mill Inn at the village of Withington offers welcome lunchtime respite. We sit outside the pub as fat warm raindrops begin to fall, washing down plates of Smoked Haddock Florentine with pints of Sam Smiths, while watching preparations for the Withington annual summer fete in the church garden next door.

Every two years our summer bike trip happily coincides with the football World Cup or European Championship, providing entertainment in the pub after a long day in the saddle. This year there’s no football alas, but it doesn’t matter because, hey, there’s  Morris dancing! Bearded men in white flannel costumes and red braces emerge from the pub, a-jingling their bells. As Tim points out, these are men who have clearly not heeded Sir Thomas Beecham’s excellent advice – ‘You should try everything once in life, except incest and Morris dancing’. We watch them trooping over to the village fete as we try, almost certainly without success, to erase all traces of a metropolitan smirk off our faces. They stare back defiantly, a-jingling their bells.

After lunch Matt and I wander over to the village fete, in search of homemade cake. Tim and Jeff stay behind. Inexplicably, they have little interest in cake. When we arrive the festivities are in full swing: clusters of adults and kids try their luck at the coconut shy, lucky dip and mini golf, the Morris Men are cavorting merrily, a-jingling their bells, and in the far corner a Scottish Presbyterian virgin is being burned alive inside a giant wicker effigy. It’s possible I may have imagined one of these.

Meanwhile, from behind a stand of trees at the back of the fete a strange rumbling sound is floating towards us. As we get closer the source of the strange sound becomes clear – a long trestle table, covered with a white cloth, literally groaning with every conceivable kind of cake! Coffee and walnut, carrot, chocolate, lemon drizzle, Dundee cake, scones, the lot…I have sworn never to use the phrase ‘a veritable cornucopia of delights’ in this blog, but if I hadn’t that is exactly the phrase I would be using right now. ’I’m very excited’ says Matt. We both are. It’s impossible to choose. Matt opts for a slab of Ginger Parkin. It does look tempting but I suspect it may sit heavily in the gut on some of those late afternoon climbs. I secretly congratulate myself on my choice of a light and fluffy Victoria Sponge.

A heavy downpour threatens for much of the afternoon but holds off until 5pm, when we suffer the obligatory soaking – every bike trip has to have one. We arrive, sodden, at our night stop Elms Farm near the small hamlet of Gretton three miles from Winchcombe, where our host – the excellent Rose – offers to dry off our shoes by the Aga. Later she drives us into Winchcombe for the evening and even comes back to collect us at closing time. The next morning we enjoy a top breakfast cooked by Rose which, for the carnivores among us, features one of Elms Farm’s very own pigs.

Today’s Midsummer’s Day and fittingly it’s the longest day of our trip with 60 miles to travel. The first half of the day picks up where yesterday left off with a continually undulating route along quiet roads. This section is quintessential Cotswolds country where everything is built from the local stone known as oolite, a form of Jurassic limestone which bathes each village in a distinctive warm yellow tone. We cycle through ‘The Slaughters’, a collective noun given to the time capsule villages of Lower Slaughter and Upper Slaughter, where there has been no new construction in more than a century. Their names sound rich with connotations of ritual sacrifice, though disappointingly it appears they only derive from the old English ‘slohtre’ meaning ‘muddy place’.

‘Bring your daughter to the slaughter’, sings Jeff, an Iron Maiden song from some years back. The song proposes an unconventional approach to child rearing which has never really caught on, and is the kind of lyric that gives heavy metal a bad name. But it suddenly occurs to me that the message the Maiden may have originally intended was ‘Bring your daughters to the Slaughters’, a song extolling the bucolic pleasures of a family weekend in the Cotswolds. As it happens we do possess a number of daughters between us – a quick headcount reveals five.  But we have left them at home so, regrettably, on this occasion we won’t be able to bring our daughters to the Slaughters.

We arrive at Bourton-on-the-Water, a town overflowing (at least on a Sunday in late June) with coach loads of visitors and tacky gift shops. We stop to buy over-priced soft drinks. The others set off again and as I am pushing my bike along the pavement, waiting for a gap in the traffic, a red-faced man walking along with a small boy accuses me very aggressively of getting in his way. I politely point out that I’m not actually riding my bike on the pavement and have as much right to be there as he does. He seems unpersuaded by this argument, brandishing his son’s scooter close to my face and yelling ‘Bugger off out of Bourton!’ After a brief hesitation I decide it might be sensible to follow this advice and jump on my bike, pedalling hard down the road (though not without a brave cry of ‘wanker!’ as I go.)

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After a lunchtime pit stop at the Fox Inn at Great Barrington just outside Burford, the remaining 25 miles of the day offer agreeably gentle cycling, cruising through the Windrush Valley in the afternoon sunshine. This feels more like proper slow travel after the exertion of the last couple of days, and we even find time for another tea time cake/ice cream stop at the Bibury Trout Farm (which, as one might expect, also does a mean line in trout-related cuisine if you haven’t had lunch).

We stop to ask directions from an elderly couple who have one of the poshest cut-glass accents I’ve ever heard, rather like the Harry Enfield character Mr. Cholmondley-Warner. They are courteous and helpful but reinforce the general impression of extreme well-to-do-ness in these parts that seems to bring out my inner Jeremy Corbyn. I think it’s fair to say that many of these Cotswolds villages don’t appear to be struggling unduly under the yoke of austerity. Everyone round here seems to drive huge and very expensive jeeps and 4x4s. There can be few greater pleasures than pootling down a narrow country lane on a warm summer afternoon, the scent of honeysuckle, the warbling of the skylark, and the impatient revving of an SUV stuck behind you.

By early evening we reach our night stop, the elegant Roman town of Cirencester, and check into our accommodation at the Fleece Inn. The name of the pub and the well-executed Henry Moore-esque murals of sheep in the outside bar area are a nod towards the town’s illustrious history as an important wool-producing centre. I am about to remark that punters must flock to this pub from miles around but then I remember I have already used up my annual EU quota of ovine-related puns on a previous bike trip (see An Autumn Adventure).

After a few well-earned beers we round off the last evening of our trip with a bracingly hot curry at The Sultan in the town centre. Probably just as well we haven’t got the family room tonight.

With a fairly easy 30 miles back to Stroud and a mid-afternoon train to catch, Monday offers the chance for a leisurely start. It’s a nice flat ride across the South Cotswolds countryside, rising gently beyond Tetbury to reach 200 metres up on Minchinhampton Common, where there are fine panoramic views and cows graze on the golf course or wander nonchalantly into the road. We are expecting a fairly low key end to the route – Stroud is hardly the most iconic destination for a bike trip, especially when you have started in Stroud. But the ride has one last surprise in store, as we enjoy a thrilling fifteen minute descent from high up on the Common, spiralling down into the town centre at high speed shouting at the tops of our voices.

The Cotswolds and Severn Vale Cycle Tour has been a terrific trip. Some of the route directions provided by the Cotswolds tourist board are a trifle idiosyncratic at times and it would benefit from some proper signposting. But this is a minor quibble. The route deserves to become very popular, especially given its proximity to an increasingly cycle-crazy London, and its do-ability over a long weekend, though it’s perhaps best avoided if you’re not keen on hills.

Meanwhile, there’s time for one last pub lunch before we catch the train home. As we sit in the sun there is much checking of emails as the world once more begins to intrude. Food arrives but we eat, for once, in silence as weariness and satisfaction mingle with the tinge of regret that accompanies the end of another adventure. I am reminded of the closing paragraph of Jerome K Jerome’s 1895 cycling classic Three Men On The Bummel:

“A Bummel, I should describe as a journey, long or short, without an end; the only thing regulating it being the necessity of getting back within a given time to the point from which one started. Sometimes it is through busy streets, and sometimes through the fields and lanes; sometimes we can be spared for a few hours, and sometimes for a few days. But long or short, but here or there, our thoughts are ever on the running of the sand. We nod and smile to many as we pass; with some we stop and talk awhile; and with a few we walk a little way. We have been much interested, and often a little tired. But on the whole we have had a pleasant time, and are sorry when ‘tis over.”

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An Autumn Adventure

‘Remember the couple who cycled around Cuba?’ I say. She knows straight away it’s been a difficult week at work.  I’m dreaming of escape again.

Some years ago, before the children were born, my wife and I were on a train journey and met a couple in their mid-60s who had just returned from cycling around Cuba, taking their own bikes on the plane and carting their luggage about on trailers. This was before I had done any proper cycle touring myself and it was the first time I realised that a bike holiday could be a great way to have an adventure, to get off the beaten track and discover the ‘real country’. I’ve since discovered that this holds true not just in exotic locations but closer to home as well.

But what really made an impact on us at the time was the openness to life shown by this older couple, their hunger for new experience still burning bright. They were an inspiring example of how the autumn of life might be lived, spitting in the eye of the ageing process and refusing to go gently into that good night.

And in recent years, ‘Remember the couple who cycled around Cuba’ has become a reassuring mantra for us both, a promise of good times ahead, wheeled out whenever we are feeling stuck at the bottom of the u-bend of mid-life . (As Dante put it, ‘Midway in the journey of our life, I came to myself in a dark wood, for the way was lost’ – there being no GPS available in 13th century Italy I guess…)

For my wife though, I’ve come to suspect that ‘the couple who cycled around Cuba’ might be more of a symbol than anything else, a metaphor for the potential freedoms of later life when the birds have flown the nest. It’s shorthand for a wide range of possible travel adventures, some of which may even involve nice hotels, spas, shopping and the like. For me, on the other hand, ‘the couple who cycled around Cuba’ is more literal – I really want to cycle around Cuba.

So I’ve been thinking it might be a good idea to start now, to try out some shorter cycle trips just the two of us, so we can build up to the ‘big one’. The idea is to try a late October ride in the Waveney Valley along the Suffolk-Norfolk border, on Monday and Tuesday of half term week. Son is now away at Uni, daughter is staying with a friend, having reached the age when a mini-break in East Anglia with mum and dad no longer holds the excitement it once did. The dog has been shunted off to my sister’s.

The route is about 50 miles, starting and finishing in the town of Diss, about a two hour drive from our home in east London (also reachable by fast train from Liverpool Street). I want to make this as pleasant and pain-free as possible so we’re going to take things pretty easily the first day with a mere 20 miles to our night stop at Bungay, which leaves 30 miles for the second day.

It’s 11 am on a fresh, sunny morning and the ride out of Diss is pleasant enough, though there are a few more lorries on some of these B roads than we might have wished for. But once we skirt past the village of Hoxne we’re onto quiet lanes alongside the River Waveney, the route dotted with distinctive white-washed cottages with bright red roofs and old watermills. We stop for lunch in The Bell at Wortwell, where I re-acquaint myself with Old Hooky, a friend I haven’t seen for some years. After lunch we’re cruising on flat roads and arrive in Bungay way earlier than expected.

Bungay is a pleasing town boasting the remains of a 12th century castle and crammed full of independent shops selling antiques, second hand books, curiosities and the like. Back in the 1700s it became briefly fashionable as a spa resort and famous for its theatre and music, even acquiring the nickname of ‘Little London’ and attracting illustrious visitors like Dick Turpin and ‘Prinny’ (later King George IV). It’s other claim to fame is the Black Shuck, a ghostly and terrible hound with flaming eyes which has long been part of East Anglian folklore. One of the most infamous sightings took place here in 1577, when the Shuck is said to have burst into the town church and killed two people. More recently, and perhaps most terrifying of all, the Black Shuck was the subject of a song by glam-metal band The Darkness.

Unfortunately the charms of Bungay are not best experienced on a Monday, as most of the town is shut. Woody Allen once said ‘If I had to live my life again, I’d do everything the same, except that I wouldn’t bother to go and see The Magus’ (he’s right, brilliant book, rubbish film). Well, if I had my time over again I probably wouldn’t bother visiting Bungay on a Monday.

We’re staying at the Castle Inn, an appealing 16th century pub which also boasts a Michelin Guide recommended restaurant, though this part is inevitably closed on Mondays. We check in at reception at the same time as an elderly lady and her husband, a sweet old man in a cardigan who endears himself to me by describing himself as an ‘ale man ‘. I ask the woman on duty – the owner it turns out – if she can recommend anywhere else to eat tonight in Bungay.

‘Well actually we also run a very good Italian restaurant, just down the High Street.’

‘Great, what time does it open?’ I ask.

‘It’s closed on a Monday I’m afraid.’

‘Ah.’

‘There is a Thai place, she says, and an Indian, and, er…well there’s always the Fleece of course…’

‘The Fleece?’

‘A chef who used to work for us left to do their food…but most of our guests who end up eating there say they, er, feel rather fleeced actually…’

I sense this may not be the first outing for this joke. I’m also catching a strong whiff of pub-on-pub rivalry and am determined not to be put off. There’s no way we’re not going to be eating at the Fleece tonight.

We dump our stuff in the room and head out to explore the town. Readers of this blog will know there are few things I like more on a bike trip than a bit of serious tea room action. And happily there are no less than three to choose from, even on a Monday! If we wanted to we could go on a toasted tea-cake crawl of Bungay High Street, and that might actually be the best way of spending the afternoon. But in the event we opt for the Old Bank Tearoom, where we enjoy a thick slice of very decent Victoria sponge and a pot of full-bodied rust-coloured tea made with proper leaves.

The Old Bank is a classic tea room blend of the vintage, the nostalgic and the quirky (artfully mismatched crockery, as opposed to the artlessly mismatched stuff we have at home). The standard 1920s tea room music floats along in the background. This music is all part of the gaiety and charm of the tea room experience and I rather like it in small doses, but it must drive you bonkers if you have to work here all the time. ‘I wonder what music we’ll have down at the tea-room today?’ you might ask yourself optimistically on the way to work one morning. ‘Maybe we’ll have a bit of dubstep or the latest Daft Punk album for a change…oh it’s the fucking Charleston again, right…’

There being little else to do in Bungay this afternoon apart from drink tea, we have a short wander before retiring to the Castle Inn to recover from our morning exertions, modest though they have been. Later that evening we go back into town in search of dinner. On the way out of the Castle I spend some time perusing the Michelin Guide-recommended menu on the wall. I feel compelled to see what I could have eaten tonight, had it not been a sodding Monday. My wife tries in vain to hurry me on, knowing no good can possibly come of it. But I’m in a quandary over my main course. I’m tempted by the ‘Hempnall butchers best 21 day hung sirloin steak with a rich red jus and Dauphinoise potatoes’. I’m just not sure I can manage a large steak after all that cake though.

In the end I plump for a starter of East Anglian mussels with smoked bacon lardons, leeks, cider, double cream and parsley, followed by slow cooked shoulder of lamb served on thyme mash, with pan juices and parsnip crisps, rounded off by the dark chocolate tart with chocolate orange sauce and honeycomb ice cream, washed down with a very passable Corbieres, an Armagnac and coffee. I can honestly say it’s one of the best meals I’ve never eaten on a bicycle trip.

Back in the real world of Bungay on a Monday night we find ourselves, inevitably, in the Fleece, eating scampi and chips out of an enormous basket. It may lack Michelin-endorsed finesse but it’s decent enough pub grub and there’s certainly plenty of it for the price. ‘I certainly don’t feel fleeced’, says my wife, a little too loudly. The place is not exactly rammed and a few punters at the baa turn round. She looks sheepish. ‘I think ewe ought to keep your voice down’, I say.

We’re up early next day aiming to get away by 10 o’clock, mindful of the fact that the hour went back last weekend and it’s going to be getting dusk by 5ish. Breakfast at the Castle is good and includes a local butcher’s sausage with an unusual and intense herby flavour which immediately plunges me into a reverie, conjuring up fond memories of my Great Uncle Sam. Proust had his madeleine and I have my sausage. He used to come and stay with us every year in my childhood (Great Uncle Sam that is, not Proust), bringing us yards of this wonderful stuff from his local butcher, Leaf’s of Calverton. He was a sweet, cardiganned old chap, as plump as a fat hen, with a pocket always full of toffees; a First World War veteran, farm labourer (and human scarecrow), Methodist, pencil sketcher and harmonica player (often playing hymn tunes on a country ramble to a field of enthralled cows). He ate a full English breakfast every morning, walked everywhere and lived to his mid-80s.

Later, we collect our things from the room and as I go to settle the bill on the way out I hear our fellow guest, another sweet old cardiganned fellow, complaining to the young breakfast chef. It seems he’s unhappy about the quality of his poached egg and is tearing him off a right old strip. The yolk, apparently, was not runny enough. The young chap is reddening as he tries to explain this is the first time he’s been on breakfast duty, and poached eggs are not really his forte. I’m relieved I went for the fried egg option myself, and secretly sympathise with the old fellow who is becoming less sweet and more cantankerous by the minute. It is annoying to be served a disappointing breakfast egg and it can be hard to let go and move on. I know because I’ve been there.

And all of a sudden I’m confronted with a bleak vision of myself aged 75: the scourge of callow young hospitality industry employees across the Home Counties and East of England. The Cycling Around Cuba Years, I fear, are destined to be followed by the Poached Egg Years.

Meanwhile, it’s a lovely sunny day again as we cycle south of Bungay through a group of small villages known collectively as The Saints, named after a cluster of eleven medieval churches. We pass an enticing turn-off to St Peter’s Brewery, where the very fine ale of the same name is made. Tours and tastings are advertised. It’s only 10.30 though, a bit early for a piss-up in a brewery, assuming I could manage to organise one. I only have a small saddle bag but my wife has a fine pair of voluminous panniers (I vowed this blog would never descend to the level of cheap smut, but I am weak). I suggest we might pop in and take back a few bottles, but the suggestion is not well received.

The route winds on through a network of small lanes, with hardly a vehicle in sight and a deep sense of peace and remoteness. It’s also surprisingly hilly in places considering this is East Anglia (Cuba, I assure my wife, is much flatter), and we are occasionally rewarded with good views across the valley. The horizon is dotted with wind turbines. They generate a fair amount of flak in some quarters and some people think they are not worth the hassle given the size of their energy contribution. In fact data from the National Grid shows that wind generated enough electricity to supply the needs of a quarter of UK homes in 2014, and around 10% of the country’s total electricity supply. It could be an awful lot higher if the ‘greenest government ever’ hadn’t so cynically undermined the industry in a bid to court UKIP supporters in the shires. The ghastly Eric Pickles has intervened personally to stop over 50 planned farms from going ahead, despite a string of opinion polls showing two thirds of the public are in favour. (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/oct/28/war-on-windfarms-tories-latest-sop-to-ukip)

I really can’t understand why some critics see them as a blot on the landscape. Looking down the valley they strike me as elegant, graceful even, with their white sails flopping over in the breeze like children turning lazy cartwheels on a distant beach. A few hundred years ago I dare say there were some people round these parts saying, ‘We don’t want all these bloody windmills ruining the view, not in my backyard…how much corn can they even grind anyway? I had that Squire Pickles in the back of the stagecoach once…’

At the bottom of the valley we rejoin the Waveney at Syleham and for a stretch of around five miles we are retracing part of yesterday’s route back to the village of Hoxne. My wife is suffering from a sudden dip in energy levels (having made rather less of a pig of herself at breakfast than me), and there is a growing threat of mutiny in the ranks owing to my failure to pack any provisions. For the last 20 miles we haven’t passed a single shop or pub (unlike Cuba, I say, where there is a great café or restaurant literally round every bend). By this time it’s getting on towards 2 o’clock and luckily we arrive at the Swan in Hoxne, a lovely 15th century inn with low ceilings and oak beams, just in the nick of time for lunch, refuelling on smoked salmon sandwiches and a couple of pints of Timothy Taylor Landlord.

After lunch we set out on the last leg back to Diss, but following a different route to yesterday, looping around the pretty villages of Eye, Mellis and Thrandeston. The late October sun hangs low in the sky, throwing our shadows onto the high hedges of the lanes as we ride past, as if we are accompanied by two ghost cyclists. Maybe even the shades of our Cuban adventurer friends who, for all I know, may be pedalling the great coast to coast in the sky by now. Everything is bathed in that soft golden light that makes this time of year so beautiful. For once in my life there’s nowhere I’d rather be than where I am at this moment – here in East Anglia. Except maybe the Caribbean.

We thread our way back to the starting point and find our car, just before dusk arrives. It’s been a successful trip and, I like to feel, an important staging post on the road to Havana.

The full details of this route (‘The Waveney Weekender’) can be found in the book Lost Lanes: 36 Glorious Bike Rides in Southern England, written by Jack Thurston and published in 2013: http://thebikeshow.net/lost-lanes-shop/

Also see https://overthedoorstep.com/2014/04/08/zen-and-the-art-of-cycling/

Happy Days

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The summer bike trip I do with my friends Jeff, Matt and Tim began in 2011 and has since become an annual ritual. For the past two years we’ve headed across the Channel to France. In 2013 we tackled the iconic London to Paris ride, following the excellent route on Donald Hirsch’s website. This year we took our bikes over on the Eurostar and cycled east of Paris on a sparkling 150 mile journey to Epernay in the Champagne region. The full details of the route can be found in the highly recommended book Cycling Northern France by Richard Peace and Andrew Stevenson.

This year’s ride also had an extra dimension, happily coinciding with the second (knock-out) round of the football World Cup. Though the England team had already returned home in disgrace, the French had started brightly. With two games to look forward to each night, the atmosphere in the local bars promised to be electric…

With a long weekend of biking, beer and the beautiful game ahead, we leave St Pancras in high spirits. The weather prospects are less bright. The sky is a dismal grey and rain is forecast for the first two days. We may get a bit of sun on the third day if we’re lucky. It’s not ideal but it’s in keeping with the back notes of existential angst that flavour this trip. We’re staying for the first two nights in the town La Ferté-sous-Jouarre, two miles from the house of Samuel Beckett, where the author of Waiting For Godot and many other gloomy plays lived during the latter phase of his life. It promises to be a weekend of dramatic pauses and gallows humour in the face of the absurdity of existence. Plus footy.

The route begins just outside the Gard du Nord and for the first three hours the threatened rain mercifully holds off. We make good progress out through the leafy suburbs of the city along the Canal St. Martin and Canal de l’Ourcq towpaths, then onto quiet roads into the lush green of the Marne valley. At this rate we should do the 47 miles to La Ferté in time for the 6pm kick off in the mouth-watering South American clash between Brazil and Chile.

However we have reckoned without Matt’s annual puncture, which has become a regular feature of our trips. His bike has been christened Berbatov, after the abundantly talented but temperamentally fragile ex-Spurs and Man United striker. This year he has taken the precaution of fitting extra strong Armadillo ‘puncture-proof’ tyres. Around mid-afternoon we hear the familiar hiss of escaping air pressure and the familiar howl of anguish. There’s a delay while a new inner tube is fitted, and when we get going again it starts to shower. Pretty soon it’s raining ‘chats et chiens’ as the French say. We’re now well behind schedule and arrive in La Ferté during the half time interval.

La Ferté is not blessed with accommodation options. The only hotel we could find on Tripadvisor had a review from someone who was given a mouldy chocolate on his pillow and was forced to fill his own bath with 20 buckets of hot water. So we’re staying for two nights in the local Polish Catholic Mission, recommended in the guidebook, for which I have paid the risible sum of 50 euros a night for two double rooms.

The others wait outside the Mission with the bikes while I go to check in. I enter the wrong door and come face to face with a rotund priest sitting at a table scoffing his dinner. He scowls at me, pointing back through the door shouting, ‘Il faut aller à la réception’. I eventually manage to locate the lady in charge, decked out in black and white nun’s habit and wimple, presumably the Mother Superior. I check in and we lock our bikes up in the shed.

I ask the Mother Superior if she knows anywhere with a TV nearby. Her face immediately lights up.

‘Pour le match?’ she asks?

‘Oui’, I reply, ‘Brésil contre Chile.’

‘Et plus tard’ she says, ‘Columbie contre Uruguay!’’

The international language of football truly knows no boundaries. She is so animated I begin to suspect she may have had a bit of a wager, perhaps even a monkey on a Brazil-Columbia double. In fact, although my French isn’t brilliant, I’m pretty sure I hear her say, ‘J’ai un singe sur le Brésil-Columbie double.’

She beckons us to follow and leads us to a bunker in the basement of the building. An underground chapel or crypt perhaps. But inside the darkened room there is a TV, armchairs and a bunch of nuns plumping up their cushions. We settle down for the second half of what turns to be a dour 1-1 draw which Brazil undeservedly win in a tense penalty shoot-out, sending dark horses Chile out of the tournament and triggering a volley of swearing from Tim, followed by a sheepish grin as he remembers there are nuns in the room.

Afterwards we head out to find somewhere to eat and a bar to watch the late evening game. Unfortunately the whole town appears to be shut apart from a kebab shop, a mini supermarket and a Tunisian salon de thé, which has a TV but does not serve alcohol. We dine chez Monsieur Kebab and consider our options. We could get some beers from the mini supermarket and head back to watch another match with nuns. But it’s not really how we imagined we’d be spending Saturday night on our holiday. We opt for the salon de thé where we enjoy an impressive Columbian victory, washed down with several mint teas, before heading back to the Mission.

The rooms are small but functional, with two beds, a shower, a few pieces of religious iconography on the walls and bibles on the bedside table. No TV, no whirlpool bath, no mini bar and no tiny bottles of shampoo. This is very much at the budget end of the Polish Catholic Mission market.

We do the traditional coin toss to decide who rooms with whom. This is our fourth annual cycle trip. We have put up with each other snoring and farting around Devon, northern France and the Low Countries and miraculously still managed to remain friends. I try to decide which Beckett play provides the most appropriate metaphor for our room sharing experience. Maybe Happy Days, in which a woman is buried up to her neck in sand, prattling incessantly to her monosyllabic husband, in a relentless flood of harsh light from which there is no escape, in a world without end and without hope.

The next morning the sky is still grey and rain appears set in for the day. The mood is a tad flat. Not so much Champagne as Pomagne. But at least there’s little danger of starting the day in La Ferté with a hangover. Down in the refectory we are served a meagre breakfast of instant coffee, stale buns and the French equivalent of Dairylea Cheese Spread, a grim repast which does little to lift our spirits. I find it hard to believe the grumpy prelate I saw last night is dining on this spartan fare. He’s probably somewhere in the cloisters tucking into devilled kidneys and eggs benedict, washed down with Green Chartreuse served by cherubic choirboys.

Half way through breakfast a Swiss lady, around 60 years of age, rushes over to join us. It seems she’s been living here in the Mission for some time and is thrilled to have an opportunity to practise her English. The conversation soon turns to politics and we discover that she is a fan of both Vladimir Putin and our own British Queen, enjoys watching young men in military parades and is the founder of an organisation that campaigns for world peace. She believes the world would be a better and more peaceful place if it were run by a council of army generals from different countries. She congratulates us on our glowing complexions and healthy demeanours, making the unexpected suggestion that we might wish to accompany her on a visit to the local municipal swimming baths. We decline the invitation, explaining that we are looking forward to a day cycling in the hills in relentless drizzle.

Today’s ride is a relaxed 30 mile circular loop exploring the hilly countryside around La Ferté, following quiet almost-traffic free country roads, meandering through small villages and enjoying sweeping views across the Ourcq valley. Because we’re staying two nights in the Mission it makes a nice change to leave our panniers and saddle bags behind and to ride unencumbered by the spare clothes, 19th century Russian novels and Cuban heels (Tim) that usually weigh us down.

On the way out of town there’s a long steep climb up to the village of Le Limon, particularly gruelling at this time of day before we’re even begun to warm up. Samuel Beckett apparently did most of his shopping in La Ferté and it may have been while cycling up this hill with his morning baguette that he wrote the famous line, ‘You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.’

Surprisingly the rain stops as soon as we are up in the hills. Spirits rise even further when we arrive at the village of Certigny and find a great place for lunch, a small café with a few tables in the back. Nothing fancy, but decent rustic French cooking: grilled goats cheese and prosciutto salad, a fine beef and ratatouille, and half a bottle of red each (experience has shown this to be the upper limit in the middle of the day on a cycle tour). Rural France may not be the most happening place in the evening, but they still know how to do lunch thank god.

We get back to La Ferté by late afternoon in time for Mexico v Holland. Near the main square we spot a bar we hadn’t seen the first night. It looks like it might be a promising venue to watch the football. It’s called Le Sports Bar and it has a World Cup wall chart in the window. I enter and ask le patron if he is showing the match. He stares at me as if I am mad, then gestures around the room.

‘Mais où est le TV?’ he asks, ‘Où est le TV?’

A gaggle of drinkers at the bar burst out laughing, and repeat in unison, ‘Où est le TV?’

They are right. There is no TV in Le Sports Bar. Although it does have an old table football in the corner, the paint peeling off and several players with heads missing. And besides, it seems the bar is about to close on account of it being nearly 7 o’clock. Of course, I don’t know what I was thinking of. I murmur apologies. Luckily there’s still time to get to the salon de thé and get a round of mint teas in before kick off.

Following a dramatic late comeback by the Dutch to win 2-1 we discover another eating option on the outskirts of town, a half decent Japanese restaurant where we dine on sushi and Asahi beer before hot footing it back to the salon de thé in time for the late evening game.

Jeff has spotted hookah pipes which somehow seem to have escaped the French smoking ban. He calls for one to be brought over, there being no other form of artificial stimulant available in La Ferté at 10pm. This is my first experience of the hookah and it feels illicit and slightly thrilling, heightened by the solemn ritual of passing the pipe between us. Whenever the flavoured tobacco (more fucking mint) appears in danger of fizzling out, a fat bald man with a goatee beard suddenly appears as if from nowhere and re-lights it, the genie of the pipe.

I’m feeling pretty mellowed out. It may just be the combination of feeling tired from the last two days cycling, the soothing gurgle of the hubbly bubbly and the heat from the burning charcoal, but it definitely feels like it’s ‘working’ on some level, albeit subtle.

Jeff later points out this is the longest smoke he has ever had, lasting the entire 90 minutes of Costa Rica versus Greece, plus half an hour of extra time and a penalty shoot-out, interrupted only for a ten minute fag break outside at half time. My mouth feels like it’s sucked a million Polos and by the end I’m practically communing with power animals. (I read later that one pipe may be the equivalent of around 200 cigarettes, making this possibly the most unhealthy cycling holiday ever. If there are any young people reading – my son for instance – smoking a hookah pipe is a really stupid thing to do.)

Next morning we decide to forego the Nescafe and buns in favour of an early start. As we’re getting ready to leave we run into the Swiss lady, who is waiting for us outside our rooms. She requests our assistance with a letter she is writing to a very high-ranking English General. She is organising an international military coup and wonders if he is doing anything a week on Thursday. Tim patiently helps her compose her letter in polite English, while I go to find the Mother Superior to hand in the keys and check out.

It turns out there’s been a misunderstanding. It seems I have only paid for one night not two and I have to cough up an extra 100 euros. Suddenly the room rates of the Polish Catholic Mission don’t seem quite so risible. The Mother Superior asks me to fill out a form for the second night. I complete the form using the only pen I have on me, which happens to be a red biro, and hand it to her. Clearly horrified she cries out:

‘Non Monsieur, pas de rouge, pas de rouge!’

‘Vous n’aimez pas le rouge?’ I ask. ‘

‘Je deteste le rouge! C’est le couleur du communisme!’ she shouts, screwing up the form, tossing it in the bin and handing me a new one with a blue ballpoint pen.

I consider this. She’s right of course. Red is undoubtedly the colour of communism, and I can understand why a Polish nun may have negative associations (a red rag to a papal bull). But red is surely the colour of many things. I’m not sure it’s reasonable to write off an entire primary colour on this basis. However I don’t have time to dispute with the Mother Superior. We have 61 miles to cycle and France v Nigeria kicks off at six. I fill out the form in (conservative) blue ink and pay for the extra night. In any case, it’s been well worth it for the entertainment.

As we’re leaving the Swiss lady is waiting for us again by the exit. She wonders if we would care to make a donation for world peace before we go. Well, it’s certainly a worthwhile cause, one which I think we’d all wish to support. We’re just not entirely convinced that a global military council is the best way to achieve it. We decline and bid her au revoir.

Today offers the most challenging day’s cycling with over 1,100 metres of climbing, as well as some of the best scenery. The first half of the day runs from La Ferté to Chateau-Thierry. This section offers quiet undulating roads and sweeping valley vistas, the sparkling ribbon of the Marne never far from our sight, and even the sun occasionally donning his chapeau. Or, as Beckett would have said, “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.” Miserable bugger.

The highlight of the morning is the tough but rewarding path from Orly up towards Bassevelle, a long hike through the deep green silence of the forest. The only sounds to be heard are birdsong, the occasional creaking of timber and cussing from Berbatov as he encounters another pothole or patch of loose gravel. We arrive famished at a promising restaurant only to find it’s just closed (lunch apparently being served between the well-known lunch hours of 7am and 1pm). Luckily, the woman in charge takes pity on us and serves up a cheese baguette and a cold Leffe.

In the afternoon we hit Champagne country proper as the hilly road winds alliteratively through the vineyards of Vincelles, Vernueuil and Vandieres. ‘Expect your spirits to elevate along with the route itself’ the guidebook tells us. There’s a leg- and lung-busting climb up to the hilltop village of Chatillon (‘tough, cruel even, but brief’) where we have a café stop before the final ten mile stretch into Epernay.

Epernay is an attractive and relaxed market town which makes much of its location at the heart of the Champagne industry. Almost every shop is selling a bewildering array of bottles from a multitude of Champagne houses in every possible size from Piccolo to Jeroboam to Nebuchadnezzar.

We have booked into a hotel for the night, given the deplorable lack of ecclesiastical accommodation in Epernay. The front of the building is covered with a vast neon sign which flashes ’58 euros a night!’ It’s a capsule hotel, a Japanese concept that is probably quite cool and minimalist in Osaka. Here, it appears to be the result of a drunken bet to see how tiny a space you can cram two beds, a shower and toilet into and still charge 58 euros.

Epernay has a bit more going on than La Ferté and, with the match about to start, we dive into the first bar we see near the hotel. After playing their opening group games with Gallic flamboyance the French have retreated into caginess. Though clearly the better team, they are struggling to break down a well-organised Nigerian side. The mood in the bar is tense for the first, goalless, hour and a quarter.

There is palpable relief when France score two late goals and murmurs of satisfaction at the final whistle. It’s all a bit low key compared with back home though. No fist pumping or joyous shouts of ‘Oui!!!’ If our team of no-hopers had made it to the quarter finals of the World Cup we’d be yelling ‘Bring on the Germans!’ and hokey cokeying around a pub in North London by now. We wander into the town centre. Things get a bit livelier here – cars driving around the main square honking horns and dangling tricolours from their windows. Then everyone remembers it’s past 8 o’clock and goes home.

We find a great restaurant where we enjoy some classic French cooking: grilled fish, a fine coq au Pinot Noir with mash and a sumptuous crème brûlée – thick sweet custard covered with a thin layer of crisp caramel as delicate as an angel’s wing. Later, though most of the town has inevitably shut, we manage to find one late bar (ie open after 9.30) in the centre to watch Germany beat Algeria in the company of a joyously drunk man and his wife from Cologne.

The final day involves no cycling, just some souvenir Champagne shopping (try saying that after a Jeroboam), followed by a 90 minute train journey from Epernay back to Paris where we check our bikes in at the Eurostar terminal. The train back to London does not leave until 6pm so we have a whole afternoon to kill. We discuss the options. A cultural tour is mooted. There is an interesting exhibition of Bauhaus furniture in town. We give careful consideration to this before deciding, on balance, in favour of a four hour lunch at Terminus Nord.

This is the second year in succession that our annual trip has ended up in this fine art deco brasserie opposite the station. This time we manage to set a collective personal best – all that training has paid off, putting in the hard yards over the last few days. The route unfolds before us: the traditional bottle of Champagne to begin, then onto towering platters of seafood, grilled salmon, a couple of bottles of Muscadet, via tarte tatin, cheeses, dessert wine, eventually reaching our final destination of coffee and Calvados . You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.

We pay the bill, stagger out into the late afternoon sunshine and head for the train home.

Oh this is a happy day, this will have been another happy day! (Pause). After all. (Pause). So far.

 

For Those In Peril On The Sea

Captain hook

A recent family holiday was spent in Croatia, staying in the medieval town of Trogir in Dalmatia. One of the many delights was the amount of travelling around we did on water. The roads once built to speed up travel have become so clogged up in the summer months that the only way to get anywhere is by the boats they were designed to replace. The entire coastline is dotted with ferries, water taxis and private boats of all descriptions as well as the odd cruise liner, serving towns in the region including the colourful city of Split, various islands and local beaches. It’s a wonderfully serene way to get around. But the ‘slow travel’ highlight of our holiday was when we decided to hire our own boat for the day (the first time we’ve ever done this) and cruise around the Adriatic…

It’s nine thirty on a hot morning in late August when we arrive at the boat hire place and select our vessel. It looks a bit tatty but boasts a ‘five horse power Suzuki engine’, although perhaps they are only sea horses. The man in charge spreads out a map and shows me where we are meant to go, his suggested itinerary roughly following the coastline. I point to a tempting mass of blue space on the left hand side of the map but he shakes his head. ‘Too much open sea’, he says, then mutters something darkly under his breath, possibly Serbo-Croat for ‘There be dragons…’

‘You have driven a boat before?’ he asks. I hesitate. I once steered a barge on the Stratford & Avon Canal, and I’ve seen a fair bit of pedalo action in my time. As nautical CVs go I guess it’s not exactly Sir Ben Ainslie though. ‘No, I reply, ‘not as such’. ‘No problem,’ he says, ‘is easy. Easier than car.’ I think it best not to mention that I don’t do that either.

He beckons me over to the boat to give me a demonstration. I try to rope my son into coming with me. He’s recently had his first driving lessons and happily doesn’t seem to have inherited my low capacity for spatial awareness. But the man waves him away. He only wants to talk to the head honcho.

I know it’s important to concentrate very hard on what he’s telling me, but the harder I listen the more my mind seems to keep wandering off. Anyway, it seems there are only three or four things you have to do to get the thing going: put the engine into neutral, make sure the accelerator is on the low setting, pull the starter cord and switch the engine to the forward position.

I watch him do it a couple of times then he gestures for me to have a go. I’m flummoxed. It’s amazing how many permutations of three of four things there are. And apparently it’s important to get them in the right order. He shows me again. I follow it now but the problem is getting the engine to fire up. ‘You must pull harder’, he says, laughing. Evidently this is some kind of test and I have to man up. I pull as hard as I can but there’s just deathly silence. He smirks and pulls out the choke, which is clearly a shameful option of last resort. He suggests I try again. I give it everything I’ve got. It splutters like a wet fart then dies on the wind. Maybe I just want it too badly.

I sense the eyes of my family on me, and am aware out of the corner of my eye that some random strangers have also gathered to watch. Sweat is trickling down my neck. There must be a knack to this. An obscure memory flashes into my mind of a story once told by Kenneth Williams about a temperamental toilet chain in a bedsit, and his landlady’s advice on how to make it flush. ‘You ‘ave to surprise it!’ she said. I pause for a long time and, just when I think the engine is least expecting me to, I give the cord a good sharp yank. It roars into life, or as much of a roar as a five horse power engine can muster. I punch the air, Tim Henman-style, as relief gushes out of me.

He then tries to show me how I can tilt the engine in and out of the water if I want to, but frankly why would I? I’ve reached information overload by now and am not really paying attention. The crew members climb aboard, ropes are untied, I shove the engine into forward and we’re off!

I’m flushed with success and, once we’re past the other moored boats, accelerate towards the wide blue yonder, a sea shanty already on my lips. I waste no time in assigning roles to the crew. I feel it’s important to have some form of hierarchy at sea. My wife is appointed First Mate and my son and daughter are designated Able-Bodied Seamen. I want to keep things fairly informal though (we are on holiday after all), and suggest they might call me ‘Skip’. No-one replies. I guess they can’t hear me above the din of the engine. Never mind, I’m absolutely loving this sea-faring lark, and even before we’ve got beyond the harbour walls a new life plan has begun to crystallise, involving sticking our house on Airbnb, buying a boat and decamping to the Med. We’re so getting a boat!

We stick fairly close to the coastline and things go well for the first couple of hours. It’s a lovely morning, I grudgingly allow everyone to have a turn steering and the crew are in high spirits. Everything feels so wide open and free out here. But then, as Macbeth might have said, vaulting ambition begins to overreach itself. We edge closer and closer, and then well beyond that bit of the map which is meant to be strictly off-limits.

All of a sudden there seems to be an awful lot more water than there was before, stretching in all directions, probably as far as Italy, or maybe Bolivia. The wind whips up and the sun-shade canopy on top of the boat begins to sway alarmingly on its rickety poles, which we now notice are held together with bits of sticky tape and Elastoplast like Jack Duckworth’s spectacles. A sharp gust sees the whole edifice swing over to one side of the boat, blocking my view, and for a worrying few minutes I have no vision at all to my starboard (or possibly port) side. There might be other boats, ferries or even, god forbid, ocean-going cruise liners up ahead and I would have no idea.

The crew manage to wrestle the canopy back into position and hold it steady with great difficulty against the wind. But it’s too dangerous and we’re forced to remove the poles and take down the canvas roof, resigning ourselves to spending the rest of the day roasting under the searing sun without any shade. Meanwhile the waves seem to have become a good deal choppier and the boat is lurching from side to side. I notice that the First Mate is beginning to look a little green around the gills. A long-buried memory floats into my mind, a holiday in the early days of our courtship: a remote Scottish island, a small boat, a rough sea…it didn’t end well.

We decide it’s sensible to turn around and head back towards land. But we’re now sailing into a stiff breeze and making very slow progress against the tide. The sun is overhead and we’re cooking down here. I’m sensing a subtle shift in mood below decks. A fight has broken out between the two Able-Bodied Seamen over a bottle of mango flavoured ice tea. The First Mate appears to be projectile vomiting over the port side (or possibly starboard). We’re so not getting a boat.

Eventually signs of civilisation appear and we head over to the shore where enticing tables, chairs and shade have been spotted. We attempt to moor the boat but someone shouts and tells us we’re not allowed to stop there. We have to back out and I shove the engine into reverse. I must have pressed something by mistake because the engine suddenly jerks upwards and is now waggling around and poking out of the water at 45 degrees.

I shift into forward gear but the propeller is churning half air and half sea, making a terrible racket, and we’re barely moving. I struggle with the engine, pressing every lever that can possibly be pressed, trying to shove it back down into the water, but it keeps popping back up. It’s like wrestling with a greasy pig. I have no clue how to fix it. Behind me I hear the First Mate cry out in despair, ‘This just isn’t right. People like us shouldn’t be allowed to hire boats!’

We manage to crawl about 50 yards along the shoreline and eventually come to a sort of floating jetty. We tie up and clamber off, having to wade waist-deep through water to get to the shore, which doesn’t seem to improve morale much.

Reaching the restaurant, I’m confident things will sort themselves out after a decent lunch as they so often seem to do. Plates of pasta arrabiata and a jug of cold beer duly arrive. The First Mate, however, opts for a small hunk of dry bread and a stomach-settling bowl of thin tomato soup. Her smile is even thinner. I sense mutiny in the air, especially when it turns out you can get a bus just up the road from here all the way back to our apartment. I try to salvage things by declaring my firm belief that ‘the worst is now behind us’, that for the remainder of the voyage the sea will be ‘mirror-calm’. It’s too little too late though. In football parlance I think I may have lost the dressing room. I resign myself to the loss of a valued crew member.

After lunch we bid farewells, and the remaining crew wade out to the boat and attempt to hoist ourselves back on board, which turns out to be a good deal trickier than getting off. Eventually I manage to clamber over the side, gashing my knee in the process, and belly flop onto the deck like a landed tuna, blood dripping from my cut. The kids follow, incurring a couple more minor flesh wounds. They cast off the ropes and I start the engine, but the propeller is just spinning through air and it’s obvious that with an engine only half submerged we’re just not going anywhere.

We drift about 50 yards out to sea but appear to be just turning round in circles no matter how much I accelerate. I examine the engine from every possible angle again, but still can’t for the life of me figure out how to get it back down into the water. Half an hour later the situation is becoming desperate. We’re stranded miles from the boat hire place. The First Mate, doubtless about to hunker down on a sunbed with a Kindle and a chilled mojito, is frankly well out of this.

There’s an ‘SOS’ phone number painted on the inside of the boat but I’m not sure this situation really qualifies. If only there was a ‘General Ineptitude’ helpline that would fit the bill perfectly. My son suggests we shout to people on the beach for help. ‘But what makes you think they will know what to do either?’ I ask. ‘Dad’ he replies, ‘I think everyone knows apart from us’. I have to concede he may have a point. We all jump up, waving our arms and bellowing ‘Help!’

A guy on a jet ski some way off turns and whizzes towards us, probably thinking we are in real distress. I point to the engine bobbing up and down. He mimes the solution but I’ve no idea what he’s trying to tell me. He shrugs and powers away again. For a moment I think he’s just buggered off and left us, but then I realise he’s gone back to the beach to pick up his mate. They whizz back towards us and his mate climbs aboard, grimacing at the blood seeping from my knee, then fixes the problem in about two seconds by pulling on some lever which I swear wasn’t even there earlier.

I feel like hugging them both but settle for a sheepish grin and a thumbs-up. I’m still not quite sure how he fixed it, but as long as I don’t attempt to put the engine into reverse or try and stop anywhere for the rest of the day, everything should now be fine, barring something unforeseeable like a surprise incursion by Somali pirates.

We spend the rest of the afternoon pleasantly cruising around the coastline, taking it in turns to drive, lounging around and dangling our feet in the water. The mood of tranquillity is only temporarily interrupted by a large boat flying the French tricolour, which steams past on our port side (or possibly starboard), churning up some pretty big waves which almost capsize us. It disappears around the headland only to return five minutes later, now passing us on our starboard side (or possibly port), churning up some more big waves, their four man crew giving us a cheery salute as we reel from side to side, water sloshing all over the decks. As they turn and begin to perform a figure of eight around us, it’s clear they have enjoyed a long and satisfying lunch and are looking for some sport. I am minded to give them the finger, but have no wish to trigger an international incident so just smile amiably through gritted teeth.

All too soon it’s late afternoon and time to return the boat. I begin to head back towards Trogir. Behind me, to the west, the sun has sunk lower in the sky, the sea now calmer and flooded with golden light shimmering on the surface of the water. It’s one of those perfectly still, clear moments that seem to hang in the air for ever. But summer is coming to an end, three days from now we will be back in London, another month and my son will be at university, the first to leave home. Time and tide. I glance back once more into the golden light, then turn and drive on towards the harbour.

As we approach the boat hire place I slow the engine. There’s now a lady on duty and she waves to me from the quayside. I wave back. She carries on waving. She certainly seems very friendly. In fact now she’s waving with both hands quite vigorously. It dawns on me this must be the maritime signal for ‘Stop you pillock!’ I cut the engine and throw her a rope. It’s too late to stop the forward drift but luckily she manages to grab the rope, almost gets pulled in, but just manages to steady us in the nick of time before we smash into the propeller of the boat tied up in front, saving the day and doubtless the hefty damage deposit I was forced to hand over this morning.

We climb off the boat and, with the ground still swaying beneath us, stagger back to our apartment, sunburned, bloodied and grinning stupidly.

 

From Scotland With Love

I’m writing these words listening to From Scotland With Love, King Creosote’s (aka Kenny Anderson’s) love letter to his homeland and soundtrack to Virginia Heath’s documentary film of the same name, released to celebrate the start of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. Gorgeous and elegiac, it’s also the perfect soundtrack to accompany my recollections of a wonderful few days cycling north of the border…

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Following the success of our Way of the Roses trip last summer, this year my son Sam (now 19) and I decide to head even further north, tackling National Cycle Network Route 7 from Glasgow up to Inverness, a 217 mile ride packaged as ‘Lochs & Glens North’ (‘Lochs & Glens South’ being the stretch from Carlisle to Glasgow). It seems a timely choice, given the impending historic vote on independence. Who knows, it may be our last chance – by this time next year Hadrian’s Wall may have been fully re-built…

One Wednesday lunchtime in late July we get the west coast mainline train from London and arrive at Glasgow Central Station around 6pm. The original plan was to have a proper Glaswegian night out before embarking on our journey next morning but this was scuppered by the opening of the Games the day of our arrival. All hotels in the city being either full or prices ramped up to the max, I had booked a B&B 15 miles from where Route 7 starts (ten minutes from the station).

This works out well, enabling us to enjoy a balmy evening of gentle cycling along the towpaths of the River Clyde and the Forth and Clyde Canal, passing places like Partick, Clydebank and (our first night stop) Dumbarton, names that immediately evoke memories of watching the Scottish football results come through on the Grandstand teleprinter on wet Saturday afternoons 40 years ago. There seemed something alluringly romantic about score lines such as Montrose 1, Partick Thistle 1, or Queen of the South 0, Cowdenbeath 2. (Probably like many other people, I’m sure I can recall the fabled announcement of Forfar 5, East Fife 4, but I couldn’t possibly have done as the game took place in January 1964 when I was less than a year old)

Dumbarton is immediately recognisable by the 5th century walls of the castle perched on a towering volcanic rock, once the hiding place of Mary Queen of Scots en route to exile in France. We find our B&B and head out for the local Weatherspoons, me gorging on a vast plate of fish & chips, Sam getting straight into the tartan mood with ‘Balmoral Chicken’ (apparently very tasty despite its dubious royalist overtones.)

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The next morning is the start of the journey proper, and the first of several ‘full Scottish breakfasts’, a subject which had provided us with the opportunity for much idle speculation and lazy national stereotyping on the train journey up. How would this differ from its counterpart south of the border? Would it include a Scotch egg or a deep fried Mars Bar, would the bacon be marinated in Tennent’s Super, or would breakfast be accompanied by one of those famous ‘wee drams’? As it turns out it’s basically the usual full English version except in two respects: a ‘tattie scone’ in place of hash browns/fried bread and haggis for black pudding. As they say in Pulp Fiction, ‘it’s the little differences’.

Over our tattie scones and haggis we chat with the owner of the B&B, a nice fellow of around 60 who used to work on the fishing boats off the west coast until forced to retire by a stroke. He speaks in a soft warm burr, the Rs trilling in the back of his throat, with a note of sadness as he describes how he misses life at sea. He asks us about our cycling plans, and for some reason I feel the need to inject my own unique version of a Scottish brogue into my replies, emphasising the ‘ochs’ with a strange guttural sound as Sam looks on horrified.

“And where are yoos boys off to today then?” (I love it when someone calls me a boy).

“We’re heading first for Balloch…ch…ch.”

“Ballock, aye.” (and for some reason his attempt to correct me only makes me over-compensate even more)

“Aye, and then Loch…ch…ch Lomond.”

“Lock Lomond aye.”

“And then on towards the Trossachs…chs…chs, aye.”

“Trossacks aye…Are you OK? Would you like a glass of water?”

Anyway, after breakfast we leave Dumbarton and follow a cycle path along the River Leven to the afore-mentioned Balloch on the shores of Loch Lomond, the lake which adorns many postcards and souvenir tea towels. It’s the largest expanse of inland water in Britain, but somehow we almost manage not to see it, as the route veers up and away almost as soon as its reaches the Loch, though we keep catching tantalising glimpses through the trees as we climb through Loch Ard Forest and descend to our lunch stop in Aberfoyle.

We are now in the Trossachs National Park, an enchanting area of small lochs and steeply wooded hills. The afternoon’s cycling is magical, with some challenging off road sections, sharp climbs and flowing downhills, up through the Achray Forest and along the shores of Loch Venachar and the wonderfully named Loch Drunkie. We continue on a minor road to our second night base in Callander, a popular tourist town at the base of the Highlands, where we refresh ourselves with Belhaven ale and hearty plates of mutton and ox cheeks, neither of which I’ve eaten since about 1973.

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The next morning the weather is still perfect (can this really be Scotland?), and we enjoy a 25 mile ride to Killin through the increasingly rugged Southern Highlands. Cycling along quiet, virtually traffic-free roads and paths, over rolling hills blanketed in purple heather, the sun slanting down through lush pine forests, the beauty of the scenery feels intoxicating at times and I find myself waxing lyrical (or talking bollocks depending on your standpoint). Sam says I remind him of Michael Caine in an old film of Kidnapped he recently watched, who (playing the part of the Scottish independence fighter Alan Breck) at one point roars ‘I’d give my life for the rocks and heather of Scotland!’

We pass the village of Balquhidder, burial place in 1734 of the local hero Rob Roy, outlaw, class warrior and cattle rustler, known apparently as the ‘Scottish Robin Hood’. I’m not sure this is really accurate though. While Robin Hood is said to have stolen from the rich to give to the poor, Rob Roy’s wheeze, as far as I can make out, appears to have been to steal from the rich in order to give to Rob Roy. Maybe Scottish folk heroes are just a wee bit more canny.

We stop for a breather and get chatting to another cyclist, a man in his 60s who lives nearby. He tells us he needs a knee operation but is putting it off as long as possible because there’s a chance he won’t be able to get on a bike ever again. He smiles ruefully and wishes us well. The whole way to Inverness we encounter many fellow cyclists and the camaraderie of the road is much in evidence with a great deal of friendly nodding, cheery waving and theatrical grimacing on hills.

The route continues for a long and lovely stretch along a disused railway line, culminating in a long sweaty climb up the Glen Ogle valley, and across the old train viaduct 60 metres above the main road below. Not for the first time on my cycling adventures I raise an ironic glass to Dr Beeching, who may have butchered much of Britain’s railway network, but who has turned out to make an unwitting contribution to the cause of slow travel by leaving us a legacy of magnificent off road cycle paths (thanks to the work of Sustrans). The track sweeps downhill to Killin where we enjoy an excellent lunch by the waterfalls at the Falls of Dochart Inn: venison casserole (Sam) and smoked haddock risotto (me), washed down with a pint of ale brewed locally at Loch Fyne.

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Post-lunch we’re in the mood for no more than a leisurely afternoon pootle which is just as well because the next stretch is a mildly undulating 16 mile single-track road through woods along the shore of Loch Tay. We’ve settled into a good steady rhythm now, rolling along at a respectable pace, me out in front leading the way, calling out useful bits of advice: don’t be afraid of your gears, dance in the saddle when you’re going uphill, never bet on a low pair…the three or four things a man needs to pass on to his children.

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We continue on though the village of Kenmore at the foot of Loch Tay and along some quiet roads, passing the turn-off to the village of Dull. The local residents (Dullards?) have clearly retained a sense of humour because a road sign informs us that the village has been twinned with the town of Boring in Oregon, USA. (I read later that the two places have also recently forged an unholy – or possibly just uninteresting – trinity with the town of Bland in New South Wales). The sign says ‘Welcome to Dull, Drive Safely’, as if one could possibly drive any other way in a place called Dull. Personally, I’d have preferred an ironic twist here along the lines of ‘Welcome to Dull, Drive Like the Wind and The Devil Take The Hindmost!

A few miles further on we reach our evening base, Aberfeldy in Perthshire. Like many towns in the region Aberfeldy is long and thin, basically one long main street featuring four pubs, and although containing a smattering of low key tourism it feels like a very authentic Highlands town. After our evening meal (salmon in dill butter), we embark on a proper crawl, starting at the far end of the street. It’s Friday evening and by the time we arrive at the other end, it feels as if the whole of Aberfeldy is out on the lash. We end up in the Black Watch where a folk duo are playing The Braes o’ Killiecrankie (by Robert Burns), and squash in on seats next to a gang of very drunk labourers. The quietest one tells me he is from near Belfast and moves around the world – Scotland, Holland, Zambia – doing jobs, returning home every few months to see his wife and daughter. He drifts off into his thoughts as the band plays The Irish Rover.

At half past eleven we leave and make our way back to the Breadalbane Arms where we’re staying. The night, it seems, is yet young with the walls shaking to the sounds of a band playing 60s and 70s covers. On the pavement outside we get talking to a couple of lads about Sam’s age, students back home for the summer.  I ask them what they are going to vote in the referendum. They answer simultaneously but one says ‘yes’ and the other says ‘no’.

 (A selfie of the author undergoing a Zelig-like transformation on a night out in Aberfeldy )

Perhaps I’m a wee bit tired and emotional but I suddenly appear to be channelling the spirit of William Wallace. I say if I was Scottish I would have no hesitation in voting Yes, that it’s a chance to break with the failed neo-liberal consensus and start again, create a new kind of country based on social justice and ecological balance. I talk of the stunning beauty of the landscape we are cycling through and how they must draw inspiration from this. They must seize the moment and vote Yes even if it condemns the rest of us to an endless winter of Conservative government!

I see them exchange glances and smiles. I can tell they are very moved. I close my eyes, summoning all my rhetorical powers for one final flourish, but when I open them they seem to have gone off to the bar, taking Sam with them. It’s a pity. I think I may have been about to pledge my life for the rocks and heather of Scotland.

Back inside the pub it’s all kicking off, ale and malts flowing freely, the band playing Whisky In The Jar, someone’s dog running loose among the swaying bodies. Behind the bar a young man bobs around, drenched in sweat, trying to quench the unslakeable thirst of Aberfeldy on a Friday night, while beside him an oldish woman pulls pints unhurriedly with a frown of Presbyterian disapproval at the rollicking scenes unfolding before her eyes. The band wraps up some time after 1am with a heroic rendition of The Bonnie Banks o’ Loch Lomond (the AC/DC version), everyone in the pub linking arms and belting out the words. I glance over at the bar and see the elderly woman now clapping and singing along, her face lit by a smile.

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The next morning we’re both a tad weary, though in my case it’s not so much the cycling I’m struggling to keep up with as the après-cycling. I’m also contemplating the fourth day with a certain amount of trepidation as it’s the longest so far (57 miles), and the forecast suggests heavy rain will kick in later, around the time we’re likely to cross the Drumrochter Pass, a remote 12 mile climb through the Cairngorms. Meanwhile, just outside Aberfeldy, a short detour offers a chance to see the Fortingall Yew, an ancient tree which could be anywhere between 3,000 and 9,000 years old, said to be the oldest living organism in Europe. This morning I have a pretty good idea how it must feel.

As we cycle on through Pitlochry we are entering the Cairngorms National Park and the landscape begins to change from the shortbread tin prettiness of the first half of the journey into something altogether more open and wild. The skies ahead begin to darken and there is a sudden chill in the air. This is the region known as Britain’s Arctic. We go through Killiecrankie, and see a re-enactment of the famous battle where the Jacobites defeated William of Orange’s troops in 1689 (inspiration for the Burns song we heard in the pub last night).

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Flagging, we stop for a late lunchtime pizza in Blair Atholl, the last outpost of civilisation before the long climb begins. A few miles beyond the village a stone sculpture marks the start of the climb to the 457 metre Drumrochter Summit. A sign says ‘Weather conditions deteriorate without warning and can be severe even in summer…no food or shelter for 30km.’ I half expect the ghost of Private Frazer to appear wailing ‘Dooomed, you’re all dooomed…’

As we begin the long slow climb Sam seems to be dropping further off the pace and I’m concerned about the time in view of what lies ahead. Knowing my bike is a bit faster than his I suggest that, ‘if we swap over, with you having the better bike and me having the not so good bike we’ll probably be about equal.’ We swap, Sam immediately shoots ahead, and it soon becomes apparent that I will be spending the rest of the way to Inverness 200 yards behind struggling to catch up. I’m forced to swallow the bitter truth that the advantage I had ascribed to my superior cycling ability and fitness was pretty much all down to having a better machine. Worse still, from the way he keeps stopping and waiting for me and smirking, I can tell he is enjoying his moment of triumph, perhaps sensing it as some kind of turning point, a symbolic patricide even. Tonight it seems I will be dining on humble pie, served with the neaps of shame and the tatties of hubris.

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The 12 mile climb to the summit, meanwhile, turns out to be less arduous than expected, thanks to a very gentle gradient, and a decent cycle path sandwiched between the busy A9 and the railway line (which reaches the highest point of any railway in Britain). At times the path veers away from the road to dip behind the grassy slopes, and away from the roar of the traffic the atmosphere feels lonely and remote. The dark hills surrounding us are bleak and dramatic, late afternoon sunlight piercing the gathering clouds and glinting off the high tarns. We pause at the summit to savour the moment, gulp down fizzy drinks and pick wild raspberries, spirits lifted by the anticipation of a 20 mile glide downhill to our night stop in Newtonmore.

The threatened deluge still hasn’t arrived and although something vaguely damp has been misting the air for much of the afternoon I would hardly call it rain (and coming from the north west of England I feel I know a thing or two about the subject), but more like a mild Cornish mizzle – I’m not impressed frankly. As if sensing my disappointment, the sky now begins to turn chilly, the wind gets up, the mizzle turns to a properly dismal Scottish ‘dreich’ and then it starts. For the last ten miles of the day it feels like we’re being lashed by thick sheets of cold porridge. From here on it’s just a question of heads down, hang in there and plough on to the end.

Newtonmore is a quintessential Highlands village and one of the main locations for the TV series Monarch of the Glen, but we’re too wet and knackered to really care, and all we see that night is the comforting interior of the Glen Hotel, me padding around the bar in my last pair of dry socks while vainly trying to dry off shoes and clothes on radiators upstairs. Luckily for me they are clean out of humble pie so we both enjoy a top-notch chicken and ham puff pastry version instead, one or two ales and in bed by 11 for once.

We awake deeply refreshed after sleeping the kind of sleep only available to the pure at heart (but fortunately also available to those with slightly impure hearts who have just cycled 57 miles and had four pints of best bitter and a large pie). For breakfast we plump for some fine Arbroath Smokies and scrambled eggs which makes a nice change from fried pig and sets us up for our last day, another 60 miles, but mercifully flattish or downhill most of the way.

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We make excellent pace on quiet tarmaced cycle paths and minor roads through the Spey Valley to Kingussie, Kingcraig, Inverdruie and past the ski resort of Aviemore. Road signs alert us to the presence of deer and red squirrels. One of the much anticipated aspects of this trip has been the rich wildlife for which the Highlands are justly celebrated. Red squirrels, red deer, Cairngorm reindeer, wild salmon, beavers (in the River Tay), osprey, capercaillie, golden eagles, pine martens, Scottish wildcats… Needless to say we don’t see any of them. Sam claims two red squirrel sightings but when I look they have suspiciously legged it.

Meanwhile, outside Inverdruie, where there is a choice of road and off-road options, a sign says, ‘Warning – if cycling through the forest, roe deer cull in operation!’ We decide, on balance, to stick with the road. We’re just not really in the mood for a culling today. As we head north, behind us we can hear the sound of a repeating rifle, a bullet every two seconds, monotonous and chilling. There’s a massacre taking place in those woods, although one undertaken for necessary reasons of sustainability I don’t doubt. My reading material on this trip is George Monbiot’s recent book Feral and I reflect that, if his argument for re-introducing the wolf and lynx to the Highlands were to be acted upon, there would be no need for this kind of industrial slaughter. Not particularly good news for the deer I guess, but how cool would it be to cycle through a forest knowing there were wolves lurking within…

As we pass a pretty village called Boat of Garten, the puffy white clouds of the morning turn black as the rain comes down again hard and relentless. We abandon our bikes outside a welcoming inn in the town of Carrbridge, tip the water from our shoes down the toilet and eat lunch (sea bream/steak & ale pie) while huddling goose pimpled in a corner.

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Happily after lunch the skies have cleared and we soon dry up in the warm sunny breeze.  Before leaving Carrbridge we pause to look at the famous ‘coffin bridge’ (above), built in 1717 to carry funeral parties over the river to the churchyard.

Lochs & Glens North now reaches a fitting climax with some thrilling downhill sections along country lanes and past Cava Cairns, a wonderfully atmospheric and well-preserved Bronze Age site with standing stones and huge burial cairns up to 4,000 years old. We have one last rest stop among the ancient stones (below) before the final leg past the Culloden battlefield, site of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s last stand, and down towards Inverness.

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A few miles before the end we pass through the village of Balloch, the second place of this name we have passed through on the route (the first Balloch was near the beginning, a few miles outside of Glasgow, a symmetry which is somehow pleasing). I mention this to Sam who agrees this is an unusual coincidence. I point out that ‘it’s not really that surprising because Ballochs normally come in pairs’. I have been planning this punchline for almost 200 miles. I feel it has been worth the wait, though it would perhaps be an exaggeration to say he nearly falls off his bike laughing.

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The traffic gets busier as we approach Inverness but the route into town is mostly on safe cycle paths and through small housing estates, right into the heart of the city and our journey’s end. Exhausted, elated, we dump our bikes in the hotel, freshen up and head out for one last night in the capital of the Highlands, a warm and relaxing city that feels as remote and far north as you would expect from a place on the same latitude as Sweden.

We sup a Guinness by the River Ness in view of the castle, its warm sandstone lit salmon pink by the last rays of sunshine, before trudging stiff-legged and sore-arsed into the centre for an excellent final meal in a restaurant called Kool Runnings, where we dine on that well-known Caledonian classic of goat curry, jerk chicken, rice and peas, washed down with a Red Stripe. We’ve got an early start tomorrow for the eight hour train journey back to London but there’s still time for one last pub stop where, by happy coincidence, they are serving a fine summer ale with the name of Golden Peddler.

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The train leaves at eight the next morning and for the first couple of hours we get to enjoy the final sections of our bike ride in reverse; the Cairngorms, now framed by blue skies, less menacing than the other day but no less majestic, before the line veers eastwards passing through Stirling and Edinburgh, across the border to Newcastle and beyond. By this time the length of the trip is testing even my allegiance to slow travel, and it’s a relief when we finally pull into Kings Cross and are able to stretch our legs and enjoy a final ride down the Regents Canal and along the River Lea home.

But as we cycle along the towpath, within the space of thirty minutes: a group of men, shouting, chase a mugger across a bridge; a lycra-clad lunatic comes hurtling out of a tunnel and almost sends Sam flying into the canal, no bell, no apology, no fucking manners; finally as we pass under another bridge near Hackney a couple of young ne’er-do-wells hurl a bike tyre at me which bounces off my head. They scarper off, hooting with laughter. I give them the finger and yell that word, the one that’s reserved only for occasions such as this. I feel momentarily better, then worse for letting them get under my skin, reducing me to shouting obscenities in front of my son.

And the Highlands suddenly feel like an awfully long way away. Welcome back to London, with love. Still, as the 18th century cyclist Dr Johnson said, when a man is tired of London etc… and whatever you say about this place, it’s certainly never Dull.

I hope this encourages someone to try this terrific journey for themselves. If so please do let me know in the comments below, or also if you have any recommendations for other trips…

Lundy Calling

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Islands have a pull on the imagination, cast adrift from the mainland, floating free, with their own special atmosphere and pristine quality; buffeted by winds and untainted by the smells, noises and pollutants of modern urban life, the air feels fresher, the night sky clearer, and there is a deep silence to be found. They are places of romance and magical fantasy (The Tempest), dreams of paradise (Huxley’s Island) or sometimes dystopian horror (The Wicca Man, The Beach).

England has around 120 islands dotted around (a mere handful compared with over 790 Scottish islands) and on a family holiday in North Devon I’m eager to visit one I’ve long wanted to see, Lundy, located 12 miles off the coast and reached by a two hour boat ride from the harbour at Bideford, which feels like a real adventure in itself.

At half past seven on a chilly morning we board the MS Oldenburg, a 60 year old vessel once used to ferry passengers between the German mainland and the Frisian Islands in the North Sea, transferred to service on Lundy in 1985. While the rest of the family head into the warm fug below decks, lured by the promise of cappuccino and bacon butties, I head up top. As soon as I embark on any boat trip I tend to come over all maritime, humming a sea shanty, strolling about the poop deck and generally behaving like a salty old sea dog. I’m not wearing a cap today but, if I was, there’s little doubt it would be cocked at a jaunty angle.

It’s a dull day so we don’t get our first glimpse of Lundy until we’re fairly close, which adds to the sense of drama as the high granite cliffs and lush green fields loom through the thick clouds.

Lundy’s main attraction is its remote tranquillity, cut off from the modern world, but it also boasts a 13th century castle, a disused lighthouse, a village pub and a unique species of cabbage found nowhere else in the world, imaginatively known as the Lundy Cabbage.

The island has had a colourful history, including being invaded by Barbary Corsair pirates from the Republic of Salé (now part of Morocco) in the 1600s. The Corsairs remained in occupation for five years, flying the Ottoman flag over the island and holding a number of prisoners who were later shipped off to Algiers to be sold into slavery.

I’m a sucker for anything piratical, the more bloodthirsty the better, and the Barbary Corsairs are up there with the best of them. (Although my favourite pirate of all time would have to be Black Bart Roberts, a devoutly religious man who would happily slaughter and maim everyone in sight Monday to Saturday but would never spill a drop of blood on the Sabbath. Except maybe the odd bit of light maiming, every other Sunday, just to keep his hand in).

I’m not sure the Lundy coast-to-coast is ever going to feature as a major event in the UK cycling calendar as the island is just three miles long and three quarters of a mile wide at its broadest point. Still, it makes for a very decent hike up one side and back down the other, with steep craggy cliffs, a profound, slightly eerie sense of calm, the Bristol Channel on one side and the vast blue-green of the Atlantic on the other.

Considering tourism is now its main reason for being, the island is remarkably unspoilt, but that’s why people come here. It’s the absence of things that draws them: it’s car-free, Wi-Fi-free ,there are no TVs and it doesn’t have a Nando’s.

Apart from cabbage, Lundy is also celebrated for its wildlife. A leaflet picked up on the boat lists all the species we can expect to see on our visit: seals, puffins, skylarks, oystercatchers, wheatears, kittiwakes, razorbills, guillemots, deer, Lundy horses…

As impressive as this menagerie sounds, my expectations are not high, being a veteran of slightly disappointing wildlife watching attractions over the years: boat excursions to view elusive sea creatures; zoo trips where charismatic mega fauna, known for their precocious interaction with humans, are unaccountably struck by shyness on the very day I happen to be visiting.

I once took a boat trip which boasted a ‘72% chance of seeing dolphins, porpoises or basking sharks’. It should have said ‘28% chance of seeing fuck all’. So I’m not overly optimistic. However, even I can see that puffins are going to be a shoo-in on this trip. Lundy is famous for its puffins. Indeed, Lundy actually means ‘Puffin Island’ in Old Norse. What’s more, on arrival, a notice in the Lundy Island Office says ‘Puffins spotted today!’ and gives the exact reference point of the sighting – the evocatively named Dead Cow Point. Yes, it’s going to be Puffin City out there today and no mistake…

We set off walking up the west side of the island in the direction of Dead Cow Point. After an hour my daughter, some way in front, cries out. A seal has been spotted 20 yards off the coast! We scramble up a grassy bank and no-one speaks as we watch the sleek black shape floating just below the surface of the water. Nothing happens for a very long time. We keep on watching. Eventually my wife says ‘I don’t think it’s a seal after all. I think it could be a rock.’ We agree. It is a rock, albeit one that looks uncannily seal-like.

Half an hour later we arrive at Dead Cow Point. An elderly man and a small boy are perched on the edge of a cliff taking it in turns to peer through binoculars at a crag on the opposite side of the bay. They have been here a fair while it turns out and are yet to see a single puffin. In fact, there isn’t even a dead cow at Dead Cow Point. I suppose there must have been once but it was probably removed for health and safety reasons.

There are plenty of other birds apart from puffins though, squawking and wheeling and darting overhead and the elderly chap takes great delight in pointing them out and naming them to his grandson.

I suddenly feel inadequate because I’m not good at identifying birds, apart from the obvious ones that everyone can do like robins. I do actually know the names of lots of species though. As a child my brother had an extensive egg collection (considered a legitimate hobby in the very un-pc 1970s). I also used to spend a lot of time playing ‘things that begin with the letter A’- type games with my father (there were few other means of entertainment back then. A bit like Lundy today if fact). If I was a contestant on Pointless I’d be quids in if there was a ‘birds’ round; Capercaillie, Golden Oriole, Ptarmigan, Grebe, Widgeon… just don’t expect me to point them out to you. I wouldn’t know a Ptarmigan if one shat on my head.

It’s the same with a lot of trees and flowers and butterflies. I’m quite ashamed of this ignorance. My dad knew all this stuff, so maybe it’s a generational thing or the effect of years of urban living. I suppose I’m one of those people for whom nature, in the naturalist Richard Mabey’s words, is something of a ‘generalised green blur’. I love that blur, delight in walking and cycling amongst it, and believe passionately that we should do everything we can to protect it. I just don’t know all that much about it. I resolve to do better in future though, starting with that Collins Bird Guide I bought a while back and haven’t opened yet.

Back on the walk, we do have more success with Lundy’s land mammal population, though on a landmass totalling two and a quarter square miles even I would find it hard to miss a dozen majestic wild horses and a large herd of deer.

A little further on we stumble upon the carcass of a small animal, recently killed judging by the raw neck wound and the stench of fresh blood carried on the breeze. ‘It’s a rabbit’, I pronounce confidently, although it is rather a funny looking one. ‘Oh my God, it’s a baby deer!’ says my daughter. ‘Yes, it’s a fawn!’ I say, trying to regain authority by employing a technical term. It is indeed a fawn which has paid the ultimate price for wandering 50 yards from the herd. I’m puzzled by the identity of the killer – a dog out of control? But glancing at my Lundy wildlife leaflet it dawns on me that the assassin must have swooped from the heavens in the shape of a Peregrine Falcon. That green blur can be pretty brutal sometimes.

Back in Lundy’s village pub, The Marisco Tavern, there is more Bambi (casseroled) on the menu and ‘Lundy Experience’, a fine ale from Cornish brewer St Austell. Lundy has a resident population of about 30, all employed by the Landmark Trust to look after the island and its visitors. One of them, a young woman serving food, says she came once on a day trip and has been here ever since. She prefers it on ‘non-trip days’ though, when it’s much quieter, ‘not like today’, she says, gesturing with a sweep of the arm. I look around and see a family munching cake, a young couple playing scrabble and a bearded man in a cardigan.

A sign behind the bar asks people to switch off all mobile devices. I came across a similar notice in a tea shop in Totnes (in fact my wife pointed it out to me as I was talking loudly into my iPhone). This seems to be a growing trend – the ‘digital detox’ space where we are encouraged to unplug ourselves from the grid for an hour or two.

There’s also a clock on the wall which looks odd but I don’t know why. Then I see. It’s numbered backwards, the 9 where the 3 should be, 10 instead of 5 (and vice versa), and so on. Although the hands appear to be in the correct positions, the effect is disorienting. Perhaps this is meant to signify ‘Lundy time’, a place that obeys its own temporal laws. Or maybe it’s a cunning ploy by the Landmark Trust to make sure we miss the last boat back and have to rent out one of the island’s 23 holiday lets.

As beguiling as Lundy is I don’t want to be marooned here overnight. I think I might go a little stir crazy after a day or two on an island of this size and remoteness. (Later that night though, I wake up in bed and think, ‘Let’s move to Lundy! I can become an expert on the island, write books on the flora and fauna, local walks and history of Lundy. Keep bees maybe, grow my beard, learn to play the oud…’)

We make haste to the jetty at the bottom of the cliffs. The clouds have cleared and as the boat chugs away from the little harbour and we say goodbye to so-called ‘Puffin Island’, I sit on the deck and fall asleep with the warm afternoon sun on my face.

I awake to hear a man in conversation with a mother and daughter who are sporting huge pairs of binoculars and clad in matching yellow cagoules. They appear to be comparing notes on the varieties of Lundy wildlife they have spotted, but it soon becomes clear it’s a fairly one-sided contest. The woman reels off a formidable check-list, ‘skylarks, kittiwakes, puffins (yeah right), wheatears, guillemots’, she’s unstoppable now, ‘kestrels, shags, seals obviously…’. Her daughter nods earnestly. She hasn’t finished yet though. ‘But we saved the best till last…(inside, a small part of me dies)…a family of dolphins frolicking just off the rocks over on the east of the island!’ .

I’m reeling frankly. I feel like shoving her off the boat. Dolphins are not even mentioned in the leaflet! For all I know this could be the first sighting of dolphins on Lundy, ever. Lundy is clearly more ecologically rich than the Amazon Basin. How can we have managed not to see any of this? I have failed as a parent.

Thinking dark thoughts, I wander to the back of the boat (which we nautical types call the stern). As the island becomes a faint speck on the horizon I find myself wondering if this is the last time I’ll ever come to Lundy. More and more these days, I find myself thinking such thoughts – rather melancholy, I know, but their poignancy also seems to heighten the experience of things. As Martin Amis said, as you get older things become ‘imbued with a kind of leave-taking resonance, that it’s not going to be around very long this world…so it begins to look slightly magical again’.

Years ago I visited the island of Iona off the west coast of Scotland, a wonderfully mist-wrapped, atmospheric place. As we were leaving, the guide on the boat told us that, according to ancient Scottish legend, ‘If you see Iona once,  you will see it twice’. This prophesy has yet to be fulfilled but I like the idea of some ineluctable force calling me back. Although on reflection it does sound like another ploy by the local tourism board to drum up repeat business.

So maybe I’ll return to Lundy one day too. I’m not sure though. I feel like I’ve done Lundy. Apart from the sodding puffins.

Good Year For The Roses

The following is an account of a great cycle tour I did last summer with my son, following the Way of the Roses.

As Wikipedia tells us, ‘The Way of the Roses is the newest of Great Britain’s coast-to-coast, long-distance cycle routes…The route should not be confused with The Wars of the Roses, a 15th century war between two dynastic families.’

It’s an easy mistake to make. Thankyou Wikipedia.

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June 2013, The Lion, Settle, North Yorkshire

A bluff, jowly man at the next table in the bar is staring at me in disbelief. He’s not impressed. “What’s the fookin’ point a’that?” he wants to know. “That’s why’t fookin’ petrol engine were invented!”

I’m trying to explain why my son Sam and I are cycling 170 miles across Lancashire and Yorkshire, doing the ‘Way of the Roses’ from Morecombe (home of Eric) on the Irish Sea coast to Bridlington by the North Sea. I try to convince him: the wind in the face, the sheer physical challenge, the chance to slow down, smell the roses (pun intended) and enjoy some of the most stunning landscapes in England.

“Yer off yer ‘fookin’ ‘eds!”

Having been brought up not far from here, in the Lakes, I should have remembered. Londoners (even adopted ones like me) have romantic notions of exploring the countryside on two wheels or two legs; those who live in it sometimes prefer to power through it (or out of it) as fast as they can.

It turns out he already knows about the wind in the face bit though. He’s a motorcyclist, who likes to bomb around the Dales with ‘tmissus in a sidecar and, for reasons I can’t quite fathom, a German second world war helmet and a fake machine gun mounted on the front of his bike.

A right pair of lunes

Sam (18) and I are enjoying a few pints and a slab of beef and ale pie, after a gruelling first afternoon. We’ve cycled 32 miles up the Lune Valley and through the Forest of Bowland in heavy rain and, at one point, a hail storm (on the last day of July) up on the high fells.

I’m pleased Sam’s agreed to come with me. At school he was officially designated as a ‘PE refuser’, a title worn proudly as a badge of honour. He seems really up for this trip though – especially the chance to quaff some choice local ales at my expense. He’s at that in- between stage: old enough to drink but not old enough to stand a round. It’s a difficult age. For me anyway. Actually, I may have slightly over-sold the ale quaffing part of the trip, made it sound like a pub crawl on wheels. It is a pub crawl on wheels, just that the pubs are 30 miles apart.

In the beery fug of the Lion, I think this may be the moment to break the news about the 380 metre climb out of Settle first thing tomorrow morning – the steepest ascent of the whole three day trek. After a good night’s sleep we fuel up on a full English. Sam has extra black pudding. We’re ready to face the hell of High Hill Lane (the clue’s in the name). Happily, we’ve seen off the worst of the weather on day one and the 9 o’clock sun already feels hot on our backs.

Half way up I’m struggling. It’s one of those tortuous climbs that are just go on and on, without hope. If Sisyphus had been riding a bike (Wikipedia is unhelpful on this question) this is exactly the sort of hill he’d have been forced to tackle, over and over. For ever. I glance back and see Sam fifty metres below, pushing his bike and smoking a roll-up. If I was with my cycling mates at home I’d probably tough it out but, hell, there’s no-one here to see my shame apart from a few cows. I get off, walk to the top and drink in the view. The deep silence of the morning is broken by the raucous bleating of sheep being rounded up by dogs in the valley below.

Ruddy ‘ard cycling

We ride on through the Dales. The route winds along the River Wharfe to Burnstall and the delightfully named Appletreewick. We stop for a spot of lunch at the 16th century Craven Arms, a fine inn boasting eight real ales, though with 35 miles still to go until our base for the night we settle for just the one. Wise as it turns out, because as soon as we set off we’re climbing steeply again up to Nidderdale and the village of Greenhow, at 404 metres the highest point of the whole route.

We pause for breath and gaze over the moors by a small chapel at the summit where a plaque tells us Rudyard Kipling’s grandfather was the Methodist minister. His nephew, the celebrated writer and cake-maker himself, is known to have visited the village, saying “you could tell Greenhow Hill folk by the red-apple colour o’ their cheeks an’ nose tips, and their blue eyes, driven into pinpoints by the wind.” It certainly is exceedingly fresh up here.

Ripon yarns

From the top it’s a hair-raising two mile plunge with hair-pin bends into Pateley Bridge, then another sharp climb up through Brimham Rocks before the route begins to even out as we cruise through the peaceful gardens and deer parks of Fountains Abbey, and on through the centre of Ripon. The town is already festooned with flags, celebrating its inclusion in the first stage of next year’s Tour de France. Sam and I can now boast that we’ve ridden part of the 2014 Tour. OK, it’s Ripon High Street, not quite Mont Ventoux, but still.

We stop for the night at the Lock House B&B in Boroughbridge, scene of a famous battle fought in 1322 between King Edward II and Thomas, Earl of Lancaster. The owner tells us she’s been getting a steady stream of cyclists since the Roses route opened in 2010, another example of how the growth of cycle tourism is helping local businesses up and down the country. We do our best to pump some more money into the North Yorkshire economy at the Black Bull Inn and the Crown Hotel (someone, as they say, has to do it) before falling, knackered between, clean white sheets, hoping that all that chain oil came off in the shower.

Pork to York

Breakfast is the full monty again and (we both agree later on the train home), the best meal of the whole trip: fine sausage and bacon, fresh eggs, great toast, homemade orange and ginger marmalade, hot strong coffee. Sam seems to be enjoying the trip almost as much as me and perks up further when I tell him the worst hills are now behind us.

With a song on our lips and a belly full of locally sourced pork products we’re off. After the exertion of the past couple of days the cycling is easy-peasy through the Vale of York, along riverside paths and right into the heart of the old town. We stop for lunch inside the city walls, a stone’s throw from York Minster. After 110 miles mostly seeing only the odd car, tractor or occasional rambler/fellow cyclist, it feels strange to be surrounded by hordes of people waving cameras and clutching designer shopping bags.

We leave York behind and, just outside the city, there’s the only truly off-road stretch of the whole route, a couple of miles on farm tracks that skirt around and then straight through the middle of fields of bushy wheat, glinting gold in the afternoon sun. This is the only section that’s a bit iffy for my road bike and I have to get off and push.

England 1 Norway 0

We re-join the road and continue to Stamford Bridge, not the home of Chelsea FC but the site of another famous battle, this time in 1066. It was fought between the two Harrys: King Harald Hardrada of Norway and our own King Harold Godwinson, victorious up here in Yorkshire but destined to be hammered three weeks later by the French in a pulsating third round tie down on the south coast. Sam tells me how the bridge was held by a single Viking warrior for days who was only defeated when an English soldier sailed down the river in a barrel and shoved a spear up his arse. This has been one of the pleasures of our trip. He’s full of such gobbets of information, gleaned from a childhood passion for non-fiction books and, more recently, endless repeats of QI on Dave and arcane factoids read on the back of Rizla packets.

Cake crisis

It feels all of a sudden as if the hills of the past two days have started to catch up with us. Legs grow heavy and morale is sagging like the udders of a cow at milking time. It’s 4 o’clock and there’s still 30 miles to go to our night stop. I’m desperately in need of cake. We arrive, eventually, in the pleasing town of Pocklington and are directed by a helpful passer-by (my urgent need for gateau now etched across my face) to the ‘best tea shop in Yorkshire’ in the market square. We arrive just as it’s closing.

Luckily we find a small baker’s still open round the corner and there are five different kinds of cake! I want all five but settle on a lemon drizzle iced sponge, washed down with tea, made (I can hardly believe my luck!) with actual tea leaves and served in a china teapot that’s designed properly, so the tea doesn’t dribble down the side when you pour it. It’s all down to the height of the spout, in relation to the lid. My cup (metaphorically) runneth over. Life is just non-stop excitement when you turn fifty isn’t it? Sam has a coke and a meat pie. I don’t really get the younger generation.

Poop poop!

Fortified, we’re up for the final push of the day, 20 odd miles through the Yorkshire Wolds, fairly gentle rolling hills compared to the climbs of the first two days but some of the most scenic countryside as the route winds up and down valleys and around corn fields, lit red and gold by the late evening sun.

Five miles outside of our stop for the night, the perfect stillness is ripped apart by a motorbike, a Harley, flying past us and screaming into the distance. At first I think it might be our friend from Settle and ‘tmissus taking the evening air, but it’s a much younger man. I turn round and see Sam, stationary in the middle of the road, gazing awestruck in the direction of the disappearing dust clouds and the fading roar of the fat boy ahead. His lips soundlessly form a ‘wow’. There is a glint in his eye, reminiscent of Mr Toad on glimpsing a motor car for the first time and uttering the immortal words ‘poop poop!’, an obsession that resulted in six crashed cars, three hospitalisations and a number of fines. I’m not sure a push bike is going to cut it for him much longer and I wonder how I’m going to break this to his mum.

Journey’s end

We arrive at the White Horse in Hutton Cranswick too late to eat so have to make do with takeaway pizza; fortunately the beer is well up to scratch. Next morning, the luxury of a semi lie-in and a lateish breakfast as we only have 20 miles to go to the end of our journey. There’s one last climb just after the village of Burton Agnes and at the top we get our first glimpse of the sea – always a heart-lifting moment on any coast-to-coast ride. This is Hockney country (the artist lives in Bridlington) and I try to see the surrounding patchwork of fields and hills through his eyes, the pastel shades transformed in his landscapes into vivid greens, hot pinks, purples and oranges.

From here on it’s nearly all downhill and at one point we’re freewheeling for an exhilarating 30 minutes without having to touch the pedals once. We enter Bridlington and follow the red and white rose signs down to the beach. Four hundred yards from the sea, a whoosh of air as the PE refuser sweeps past me, hell-bent on being the first over the line. Piqued by this show of insolence, my fingers hovering over the gear lever, I’m about to unleash my big dog, but change my mind and settle for second place. Sometimes a tactical defeat is best. Hopefully he’ll want to come again next year.

A sign pointing back the way we came says ‘Morecombe 170 miles’. We’ve made it and I’d heartily recommend it to anyone. Wonderful scenery, almost all of it on quiet B roads or cycle tracks, well-signed and easy to follow, pretty villages and towns, great pubs, cake. What’s not, as they say, to like? At the end of the promenade the high cliffs of Flamborough Head gleam chalk white against the blue of the sea. Down on the beach, it’s a perfect English day out. Kids building sand castles and flying kites, a fat man bare-chested and burnt scarlet, sea-gulls wheeling and diving. I light the customary cigar. There is hugging, there is fish and chips, there is cold beer. As the 18th century philosopher and Tour de France winner Voltaire once said, “All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds”.

For full route details and other information see (www.wayoftheroses.info).

I hope this encourages someone to try this great ride. If so please do let me know in the comments below, or also if you have any recommendations for other trips – I’m looking for ideas for this year’s rides! (Jan 2015).

Biking And Nothingness: a tour of East London

The following post is an account of an event called Philosophy by Bicycle, run by the excellent School Of Life (www.theschooloflife.com), a ‘doorstep adventure’ which I did a while back.

‘There are some pitifully soft tyres out there,’ says Jack, brandishing a high pressure pump and threatening to ‘have a quiet word’ in the ears of the guilty later on. Bikes propped in the courtyard, we are inside the Tour de Ville at 8.30 on Saturday morning, a vintage bike shop-cum-café in deepest Hackney. I’m drinking my third expresso and chomping on an apple Danish the size of my handlebar.

‘Thinking consumes as many calories as cycling’, says Jack, urging us to snack at every opportunity during our ‘doorstep adventure’ around the hidden cycle-ways of East London, scheduled to cover 25 miles and ‘as many key thinkers’ in a day.

Ooh, aah, Kant-ona

Like most of my 20 companions I see myself as more of a cyclist than a philosopher. In my youth, though, I did spend a lot of time staring at the sea and listening to early 1970s concept albums. I believe I was considered deep in some quarters. A flirtation with Buddhism was shelved after university in favour of child rearing, work commitments and Manchester United. Now I’m more Cantona than Kant, but I’ve hit mid-life and the big questions loom large once more. It’s time to get back in the saddle.

Our mentors are Jack Thurston, presenter of the Bike Show on Resonance FM, and philosophy lecturer and writer Nigel Warburton. Tyres now rock hard , we set off. First stop is Victoria Park. We gather under a plane tree to discuss the first topic, the Self. Nigel invites us to consider our bike as a metaphor of personal identity. I’ve changed the break pads, tyres, inner tubes and chain. What if I replaced the frame itself? Would I still be riding the same bike as the one I bought? Is there an essential ‘bikeness’ that transcends the sum of all the parts? Is that what some people call the soul?

It’s a bit early doors for this to be honest, but we do our best. Memory, we decide, is the essential thread of human identity. Without memory there is no narrative linking all the changing parts together. John Locke is mentioned and there’s something about Louis Bunuel. And Aristotle, who, I seem to recall, was a bugger for the bottle.

Jung at heart

We head off through the Lee Valley and along the Greenway cycle path. West Ham, Plaistow, Beckton…According to Carl Jung, on his deathbed, ‘the answer lies in the East’, though I’m not sure he had Canning Town in mind. Jack gives a short history talk at the Temple of Sewage, a kitsch ‘Oriental palace’ built in 1868 ‘to take the shit out of London’ –  it’s near the original Big Brother house, built more recently to bring the shit back into London.

Our next stop is Royal Albert Dock, where we refuel on coffee, apples and chocolate. Squatting on a patch of grass, the thunder of planes taking of from City Airport next door, we discuss the idea of space, and how we are affected by our environment. Nigel shares the theories of Gaston Bachelard. Our first house becomes a source of emotionally charged imagery that we revisit in our dreams and carry into every experience. But is it ever possible to feel truly at home in the outside world? Erno Goldfinger is also name-checked, apparently a modernist architect as well as the inspiration for a Bond villain, and Robert M Pirsig, Zen novelist and hero of my adolescence. Names and ideas wash pleasantly over me in the sunshine. Back on the route, Nigel wants us to become aware of how the sense of space on a bike is different from being in a car: ‘You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming.’

The perfect bike ride

On through the Cyprus DLR station, across the Woolwich Ferry, and down to the Thames Barrier. Lunch at a waterside boozer in Charlton is followed by the next session on ‘bliss’. Nigel invites us to conduct a thought experiment. We are to imagine a virtual reality simulator, giving us the illusion of a perfect bike ride that would leave us feeling completely blissed out. ‘Johnny Dep or Penelope Cruz or whoever you like can be there,’ says Nigel. You can program in the occasional virtual puncture if you want, just by way of contrast.  After a while you completely forget it’s not real. The question is, would you plug in for life? The group consensus is no. People want actual experience, not just a simulation. Jeremy Bentham is wrong. We don’t just want pleasure, whether it be ‘push-pin or poetry’. We want stuff like freedom and authenticity. Sod you Jeremy.

Late afternoon sluggishness kicks in. Sunshine, a belly full of scampi and chips, an  unwise lunchtime pint. My legs are fine but, philosophically, I’m a tad saddle sore and could do with a doze. Secretly, I quite like the idea of being plugged into some kind of orgasmatron, like Woody Allen in Sleeper. Maybe I’m not that deep after all.

Fear and loathing on the Isle of Dogs

We continue along the river towards Greenwich and, back in the real world, the group suffers the first of two punctures. A posse of feral teenagers on bikes overtakes us, yodelling with menace. A rival school of cycling philosophers perhaps – those Young Hegelians are a right bunch of scallies. We head down into the foot tunnel taking us back under the Thames. A sign warns ‘No cycling, no loitering, no spitting, no animal fouling…’ Dismounting, we troop in single file through the Stygian gloom, then emerge blinking into the light.

We pootle on towards the Isle of Dogs and Millwall, past the sulphurous smell of a chemical factory and gather in a nearby park to discuss the fear of death. Now this is my idea of a day out. Who wants the sheer tedium of immortality? It would be like a bike ride without an end. Death, like love, says Nigel, makes life worth living. And in any case, as Epicurus says, we never actually experience being dead: ‘When we are there, death is not, and when death is there, we are not.’  That’s death sorted then.

Condemned to be free

I’m getting my second philosophical wind now and we’re on the last leg over the Limehouse Cut and into Mile End. The evening sun sparkles on the Regent’s Canal as we dodge the joggers and pushchairs back along the towpath to Victoria Park. Back under the plane tree Nigel winds up with a discussion on choice. A piece of fruit falls from the tree onto his head and someone calls out ‘Eureka!’ Cyclists love freedom, that’s why we ignore red lights, and the bike is often a symbol of liberation in culture. According to Nigel our patron saint should be Jean-Paul Sartre. The world sometimes gangs up on us – this is the despair of the human condition. But although we can’t stop the puncture happening, we are free to choose how we react to the puncture – ‘you didn’t see me put those tacks under your wheels before did you?’ adds Nigel.

This is not to be confused with crude positive thinking – that’s for wimps. Sartre believes we are ‘condemned to be free’, whether we like it or not. We have far more freedom than we think most of the time and its ‘bad faith’ to deny this and blame others. We have to take responsibility for all our choices. It’s tough, but ultimately we are all free to choose our own routes through life. We nod sagely, mount our bikes, and go on our separate ways.

Note: The details of this route (along with 35 other corkers) are included in the excellent Lost Lanes: 36 Glorious Bike Rides in Southern England, written by Jack Thurston and published in 2013: http://thebikeshow.net/lost-lanes-shop/

Finding The Way

One summer, some years ago, staying with my parents in the Lake District, my then girlfriend (now wife) and I dug out a couple of old bikes rusting away in the shed and went for a long ride. I meticulously planned the route and the places we would stop and we set off. A couple of hours later, my brakes failed descending a steep hill. Having narrowly avoided disaster, I then ran over some glass and punctured both wheels. The ride being over, miles from home, I was furious, with my bike, with the road, with myself, with my girlfriend, with the universe. We got off and pushed, walking towards the nearest railway station, me chuntering and mithering the whole time, with a right ‘monk on’ as they say in those parts.

Then all of a sudden, somehow, I managed to let go, dropping like stones into a well all those feelings of disappointment and regret and thoughts of what might have been – a rare spirit of acceptance for me. We trundled along the road, my mood lightening, and pretty soon came to a turning, a forest path signposted to a nearby castle. We took the turning and found ourselves wandering through oriental gardens, through scarlet and orange Japanese maple trees, sweetly scented wild flower meadows and strutting peacocks. The path wound on through shady woods, emerging in bright warm sunlight at the coast. We walked along the shoreline, coming to a village where we sat outside a pub, ate salty chips, drank cold beer and gazed across the Irish Sea. Afterwards, the tide having receded far enough, we were able to push our bikes across the wet sand of the estuary, ending up just a couple of miles from home. It was nothing very much but it felt perfect, the pleasure so much the greater for having been unplanned. It may have been a lesson for life or it may just have been a good bike ride.

My hope for this blog is that its shape might also emerge, over the course of time, step by step, pedal by pedal, one post at a time, perhaps through wrong-turnings, dead-ends, happy accidents and unexpected surprises…