Monthly Archives: April 2014

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.

Art-1

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).

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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…