Tag Archives: Bike rides

Full Circle

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This summer Sam and I rode the Wiltshire Cycleway, a delightful 160-mile circular route beginning and ending in Bradford-on-Avon, just a few miles outside of Bath. The ride packed 5,000 years of history and 16 pubs into five days (two new personal bests), and featured a nostalgic return to a 1970s children’s TV classic, as well as some rather odd smells…

The picture postcard Bradford which sits on the Avon is prettier and more genteel than its better known, brassier West Yorkshire cousin (though the latter doubtless has much better curries). From the 13th century stone bridge which straddles the gurgling river, there are good views of the steep hill dotted with old weavers’ cottages perched high above the town. Everything is built from the same honey-coloured limestone which gives Bradford, along with Bath and many other places around here, a sheen of elegance and soft harmony. It’s mid-afternoon and we mark the start of our ride with tea, vanilla milkshake and biscuits at one of the many tea shops in the town centre. Ready to go, we pick up the first section of the route from the Lock Inn Café on the banks of the Kennet & Avon Canal, heading in the direction of Dilton Marsh.

Just outside the village of Westwood we cycle past a field of blue and white striped tents, catching the sweet scent of wood smoke on the breeze. A group of adults and children  hold hands and dance round in a circle singing. It looks like a fey, more new-agey version of the Woodcraft Folk. I suddenly recall my father claiming he knew how to start a fire by rubbing two boy scouts together. I’m not sure that joke is still possible in the post-Savile era though. ‘I expect it’s some form of ritual sacrifice’, I shout cheerfully to Sam as we pass by. As I speak, a man looms in front of us, shaven-headed and piratical with a red and white checked headband, gold hoop earrings and silver bangles. He is walking very deliberately down the middle of the road straight towards us with an intense, magnetic stare, forcing me to brake hard. The thought flashes through my head that he might be an escapee from the high security wing of some local institution, hidden deep in the countryside.

‘Yes’ he says, in a deep, Hammer Horror voice, ‘You have guessed our secret – human sacrifice! And you have arrived just in time. We’re looking for our next victims!’

He strides right up to my handlebars without hesitation as if he is going to walk right through me like a ghost, his eyes boring into mine. But he veers away at the very last second and walks past, then turns and says a bit huffily, ‘Cos obviously we’re into black magic and Satan and all that stuff aren’t we?’

I feel embarrassed. ‘Sorry, it was just a daft joke’ I say. ‘Who are you by the way?’

‘We’re the Unicorns,’ he shouts, as he enters the tented field. ‘You sound like a horny bunch’, I’m tempted to reply, but think better of it.

Later in the afternoon we stop to look around Farleigh Hungerford Castle. It was ‘built by Sir Thomas Hungerford’ in the late 1300s (yeah right, I’m sure he laid every stone), and remained in the Hungerford family for three centuries. The castle is now largely in ruins but all the more evocative for its crumbling walls which enclose a history of scandal. Agnes, the wife of Sir Edward Hungerford, was hanged for throttling her first husband (Sir Edward’s steward) and burning his body in the kitchen furnace. Later, Sir Walter Hungerford III imprisoned his wife Elizabeth in the castle for four years and tried several times to poison her, but she survived by eating food smuggled in by local women and drinking her own piss. Walter also managed to get himself appointed as the local agent of the powerful Thomas Cromwell who made him into a Lord, but he was later convicted of treason, witchcraft and buggery (they say good things come in threes), and hanged next to his gaffer by order of Henry Eighth in 1540.

The crypt underneath the chapel also boasts eight very creepy-looking, ‘anthropoid’ lead coffins. Anthropoid coffins are shaped like the human bodies they contain, with faces moulded from death masks taken from the corpses. These ones hold the embalmed remains of various 17th century members of the Hungerford family who have been pickled in alcohol. By the 1830s the coffins had become a bizarre tourist attraction, with holes drilled into the lead and samples of the corpse-infused liquor offered to visitors to taste as a kind of macabre dare.


Back on the route, we turn into Longleat Safari Park and cycle alongside a fence where ominous signs warn ‘Danger keep out – wild animals!’ When it opened in 1966 Longleat was the first drive-through safari park outside Africa. The park has become famous over the years for images of big cats snarling through car windows and chattering monkeys scampering over bonnets, terrifying the shit out of families on day trips. Hopefully we’re not actually going to be cycling through any animal enclosures today. Longleat is now home to over 500 creatures including African pygmy goats, warthogs, blue wildebeest, eastern bongos, white-faced whistling ducks, southern white rhinos, Canadian timber wolves, red-necked wallabies, amur tigers, cheetahs, two prides of African lions and Anne the Asian elephant. As per usual on our bike trips we fail to see any of the promised wildlife. On this occasion it’s probably for the best.


The only creatures in evidence are a bunch of frisky fallow deer skittering around near the edge of the woods, probably kept on their toes by the scent of so many apex predators drifting on the wind. A passing walker tells us to listen out for the cry of the lions at dusk, and as we are leaving the park there is indeed a strange, mournful sound coming from just beyond the trees. This could have been the African lions, or it could have been the plaintive cry of the inmates of nearby Longleat Center Parcs, desperate to be spared another 25 quid round of mini-golf and begging to be released back into the wild.

The route continues past Longleat House and its lovely grounds, landscaped in the 18th century by Capability Brown. (The contract had originally been awarded to his rival Bloody Useless Robinson, but for some reason there was a change of plan). We cycle towards the exit along the long, perfectly straight driveway which seems to go on for ever and ever up a slight but spirit-sapping incline. Sam is suddenly struggling, ravenously hungry and dangerously close to ‘bonking’ (that moment long-distance cyclists dread when your body runs out of sugar and your stomach starts eating itself in an act of wanton self-cannibalism). I hadn’t thought to bring any snacks along on this first afternoon of the trip, and not for the first time I feel like a bit of a slack dad. Luckily he manages to make the last two miles to our night stop at the Somerset Arms in the village of Maiden Bradley, where pie & chips and a side order of battered onion rings the size of plump doughnuts soon sort him out.

The next day is a relaxed 40 mile canter, crisscrossing the South Wiltshire-North Dorset border, the route gently rising and sinking, but fairly untaxing with ample time to enjoy the scenery and stop for vittles along the way. One of the joys of a cycle trip is the rediscovery of those happy opportunities for supplementary refreshment between main meals, long-forgotten interludes in the day such as elevenses and tea-time.

During the morning we pass Stourhead House, one of many stately homes on the Wiltshire Cycleway, home to 16 Baron Stourtons over a period of three centuries (including one,  the 8th Baron Stourton, who was hanged for murder). In 1714 it was sold to the Hoare banking family who replaced the old house with the Palladian mansion that still stands today, a miniature replica of which was used as Lady Penelope’s mansion in Thunderbirds. The house and gardens also featured in Stanley Kubrick’s brilliant, eccentric 1975 period epic Barry Lyndon, based on a Thackeray novel. (Its unhurried, painterly style and three hour running time was not to everyone’s taste. Stephen Spielberg described the experience of watching Barry Lyndon as a bit like ‘going through the Prado without lunch.’)


Our own lunch is taken at the Bennet Arms in Semley, and while Sam piles into a full platter of Wiltshire ham, eggs and chips, I feel I ought to choose something a bit more salady. I’ve always been blessed with a rather svelte, not to say skinny, frame, but I can’t help but notice of late that a certain inflation has been taking place around the old midriff. Following my bike trip last year in the West Country, which involved over 250 miles pedalling and a total elevation equivalent to climbing Snowdon and Ben Nevis, when I got on the bathroom scales back home I discovered that I had somehow acquired five surplus pounds. I have no idea where they can have come from.

So with my expanding girth in mind I opt for a ploughman’s lunch which comes with a large hunk of crusty bread and a thick slice of butter, and a generous wodge of creamy Dorset blue cheese, as well as those little ramekin pots of pickle and coleslaw, crisps and slices of apple that English ploughmen have traditionally eaten throughout the centuries. (Or at least since the 1960s when it was invented by the Milk Marketing Board). And for once I settle for a single lunchtime pint (Ringwood Best). Though I end up having the second anyway, mainly to keep Sam company.

We spend the afternoon drifting from one sleepy hamlet to another at approximately Barry Lyndon pace: Donhead St Mary, Alvediston, Berwick St John, Bishopstone…Passing a number of farms along the way we are growing accustomed to the characteristic fragrance of Wiltshire wafting towards us on the headwind. It’s a bit like breathing into a ripe, full nappy while riding behind a flatulent donkey.

Arriving in Salisbury we check into the King’s Head, the large Wetherspoon’s pub on the riverside. Unusually, they have no secure place to store bikes but will let us keep them all night in our bedroom. I do know one or two cyclists who seem to like this kind of arrangement, in some cases even relishing the opportunity to spend the night with their beloved machines, though I have always felt it best not to probe. Personally I’m not at all keen as I always end up clattering into the handlebars or bashing my shins against the pedals on the way to the toilet in the dark.

Salisbury is one of those delightfully quaint medieval towns full of narrow cobbled streets and oak-beamed pubs. We spend some time wandering around, soaking up the atmosphere and admiring the cathedral with its stupendous spire, the tallest in England, before retiring to the Wig & Quill for dinner. Afterwards we call in at the Haunch of Venison, which claims to be the oldest alehouse in Salisbury (which is saying something), originally dating from 1320 and first used as a hostel for workers building the cathedral spire. It’s certainly one of the quirkiest inns you could find anywhere, and appears on a popular online listing as one of the ’25 pubs you must drink in before you die’. It’s not clear whether you’re meant to drink in all 25 in a single session (over a long weekend say) and then die, or whether this task is meant to be spread over a whole lifetime. I assume the latter, in which case (at the time of writing) I’ve now drunk in six of them but am not dead, so very much a work in progress. Among the Haunch of Venison’s many curiosities is an old bread oven under the fireplace which contains the mummified hand of a ‘demented 18th century whist player’.

Next morning is our pilgrimage by bicycle to Stonehenge. Leaving Salisbury we cycle through the villages of Woodford and Lake, the crystalline waters of the Avon glimpsed at intervals through the trees on our left. At Wilsford we push the bikes along an old, winding footpath that leads us up onto a wild and open plain, the earth scored as far as the eye can see with a mysterious pattern of bulges and saucer-shapes. This is Normanton Down, a Neolithic and Bronze Age burial complex of three long barrows and 40 round barrows. Stonehenge soon appears tantalisingly in the distance separated from us by the insanely busy A303. We approach and wait ages for a gap in the traffic, then hurry our bikes across the road and through a gate. We find ourselves in The Avenue, a pair of parallel grassy banks with outer ditches dating from about 4,000 years ago. This is thought to be a processional path, built to commemorate the route taken to the site by the famous bluestones from the banks of the River Avon (where they had been off-loaded after their long journey from the Preseli hills in Pembrokeshire).

We lean the bikes against a fence and duck underneath a thin strip of official-looking yellow tape which forms an unconvincing barrier across the path. This is the way our ancestors once approached the site before we developed the more advanced method of sitting in a traffic queue for an hour and a half and paying 17 quid a head. The path slopes upwards and at the crest of the hill the stones suddenly loom in front of us, breathtaking in  scale, the giant sarsens perfectly framing the white of the sky. It’s such an iconic sight, though unfortunately the image that most comes to mind is Spinal Tap’s stage set for the song ‘Stonehenge’, when they have mistakenly ordered stones 18 inches high instead of 18 feet.

In front of us on a wooden walkway a huge crowd of visitors are trudging around the stones which are roped off 20 yards away; an endless circular crocodile of parents followed by bored looking children checking their social media feeds and posing for the occasional selfie. What would our Neolithic ancestors have made of these strange 21st century rituals? An officious man with an English Heritage badge scuttles across to tell us we are not supposed to be standing where we are standing, forcing us to climb over a barbed wire fence into an adjacent field carpeted in sheep droppings. For good measure he ticks Sam off for smoking a roll-up.


When we have seen all there is to see from this rather limited vantage point, we retrieve our bikes and repair for lunch to the nearby town of Amesbury. This is the home of the Amesbury Archer, an early Bronze Age fellow whose skeleton was discovered in 2002, immediately dubbed the ‘King of Stonehenge’ by the media. Whatever his true identity he was evidently some kind of local Charlie Big Potatoes, judging by the unprecedented amount of grave goods found alongside him, including gold hair tresses, the earliest gold objects ever found in England.

Carbon dating shows that the Amesbury Archer lived around the actual time that some of the stones at Stonehenge were being erected, and archaeologists have speculated that he may have played an important role in the site’s construction. Tests also show that he originally came from the Alpine region in central Europe, the area of modern-day Switzerland, Germany or Austria, This offers further proof of the widespread inter-continental trading networks and free movement of people that are now known to have existed as long as 4,000 years ago. And it just goes to show, if you want a proper job doing you can’t beat imported European labour. Historians now believe that if we’d had to use only Ancient British builders, what with the tea breaks and the knocking off early, Stonehenge wouldn’t have been finished till the middle of the 14th century.

We settle on The New Inn in Amesbury High Street for lunch despite my fears that its boast of providing ‘The best karaoke in Wiltshire’ may not bespeak the finest dining experience. Happily my appalling snobbery proves unfounded. The New Inn is a friendly, unpretentious pub serving a top class sausage & mash, with succulent herby, local porkers and a generous slick of rich onion gravy, helped on its way by a couple of pints of Butcombe, a lovely ale brewed in Bristol. And it’s all refreshingly free of gastro-pub bollocks (‘I’ll have the pan-fried cod with hand-cut chips, drizzled in oil of Olay and topped with a grass-fed llama turd please’ ).

The afternoon brings the longest and prettiest river stretch of the journey, staying close to the Avon and passing through a series of ancient villages including Figheldean (‘valley of a man called Fygla’,  Old English), Fittleton (‘farmstead of a man called Fitela’, Old English), and Everleigh (‘wood frequented by wild boars’, ditto), before climbing once more onto the expanse of Salisbury Plain where the route crosses MoD land. Notices on either side warn us disconcertingly of ‘Danger from unexploded shells and mortar bombs’. There are also frequent road signs indicating tank crossing points. (In case this crops up unexpectedly in your driving test, or there’s a Highway Code round on Pointless, it’s a red triangle enclosing a symbol of a tank with a very long gun barrel).

Late afternoon thirst kicks in and our water bottles are empty, but there is little in the way of refreshment facilities around these parts. The village of Collingbourne Ducis (‘stream of the family of a man named Cola’, Old English) sounds promising (and if we’re lucky his brother Pepsi may also be at home). But when I call out to a man pottering in his front garden, ‘Are there any shops open in the village?’ he laughs and replies ‘Not since about 1978’.

By the time we arrive at Great Bedwyn we’re spitting feathers. The entrance to the village is marked by a ‘Welcome’ sign and a wooden picket fence decorated in a pretty tangle of pink, cream and powder blue cottage garden flowers. As beguiling as this is it cannot disguise the fact that Great Bedwyn in August is the shittiest-smelling village in England. Even by Wiltshire standards, a county where the olfactory bar is set high, the whole place is ripe with the stink of rotting poo. It would not surprise me in the least to discover that Great Bedwyn derives from the old English Gratte Bedwinder meaning ‘great pile of steaming horse plop’. However it seems that its residents are either no longer aware of the smell or have decided to ignore it and hope it goes away. A white-whiskered old chap, dapper in a green linen waistcoat and maroon cravat, out walking his spaniel, bids us a cheery ‘Good afternoon’.

‘It’s a lovely village we have here isn’t it?’ he enthuses, full of local pride.

‘Yes, lovely’ I gasp, almost choking as I inhale another fruity blast of silage.

‘You should try the pub – the Three Tuns, it’s absolutely lovely’ he says, pointing down the high street.

We follow his advice. The Three Tuns is indeed a lovely country pub and full of lovely, charming, well-spoken people who are all doing their best not to mention the elephant in the room (not to mention what the elephant appears to have left behind in the room). If anything the pong seems to be even worse inside the pub than out in the street.

We down a pint as quickly as possible and leave Great Bedwyn, able to breathe easily again on the final glorious stretch through the ancient Forest of Savernake. This was a favourite royal hunting ground for centuries from the time of William the Conqueror onwards. In 1535 Henry Eighth went cross-bowing for deer through these woods at the invitation of the owner of the estate Sir John Seymour, taking a shine to his foxy daughter Jane at nearby Wolf Hall. Savernake is also home to the Big Belly Oak, one of the most famous trees in Britain, and certainly one of the fattest, with an ample girth of more than 36 feet, almost as plump as Henry and possibly me too if the present rate of expansion continues.


On the other side of Savernake Forest lies Marlborough, a handsome old market town, where we find our night stop the Castle & Ball Inn situated in the middle of the second widest High Street in Britain (the widest is Stockton-on-Tees!) This may also be the second most boring fact in Britain. After we’ve gorged on fancy fish & chips Sam confesses to feeling a tad Neolithic in the legs and goes up for an early night. I, on the other hand, appear to have quaffed at the fountain of eternal youth, and stay down in the bar to a late hour supping Old Hooky, a fine old ale from the Oxfordshire town of Hook Norton.

The last full day of this trip may be one of the best days spent on any of my bike rides so far. When I’m in my dotage and my legs have finally let me down; when my cycling recollections will be like ‘memories ripening in the sunlight of a walled garden’ (in the words of RS Thomas), this day will be one of those I will most want to revisit. How nice it will be many years from now to look back on a day like this,  unwrap its pleasures and savour it one more time, like the last dregs of port and slice of Christmas cake guzzled on a drizzly afternoon in mid-January. If there was to be a Groundhog Day of cycling then I would be hard-pressed to find a better one to repeat endlessly. (I probably wouldn’t get this day though. I’d probably get that day when I had stomach cramps all the way from London to Brighton after eating a bunch of bananas for breakfast and shat myself behind a bush outside Hassocks).

We leave Marlborough, passing the famous public school whose alumni include Kate Middleton, Sam Cam and Otis Ferry, resisting the temptation to cycle over the flower beds, and follow a quiet road hugging the River Kennet. The bulge of Silbury Hill soon appears in front of us, the largest man-made mound in Europe, almost seeming to quiver like a giant green jelly in the still morning air. It has an eerie sci-fi quality, like an upturned crater ready to burst as if the earth itself is about to give birth. It was clearly of huge importance to its creators but its original meaning and purpose have been lost for thousands of years.

We lock our bikes to the fence and follow a track half a mile across a field to the ancient burial site of West Kennet Long Barrow, built around 3,600 BC (several hundred years older than Stonehenge). Excavations have found the remains of around 50 people, men, women and children all buried within a space of 30 years, although the tomb remained open for a thousand years before being blocked off. We clamber over the top of the barrow then wander around inside the burial chamber below. Within the hollowed out crevices in the stone walls previous visitors have left simple offerings, touching in their sincerity: strings of beads, sea shells or little piles of pebbles, a sprig of grasses tied with a red ribbon or a single mauve flower in a tiny jar. Standing at the back of the chamber looking towards the entrance, dazzling light pours through the opening in the rocks and floods the treacle blackness of the interior. I take pictures of Sam, silhouetted and mysterious in the doorway. There isn’t really any more to see, but the sense of presence in the place holds us for a while longer, until it suddenly feels like it’s time to leave.

We retrieve our bikes and cycle down a minor road curling towards Avebury village, meeting the West Kennet Avenue on our left; a long winding path straddled by pairs of standing stones (around 100 originally), that forms a link between Avebury and the Sanctuary, once the site of another ancient circle on nearby Overton Hill. We get off and push our bikes through the long parade of stones and down into the village.

I’ve never been to Avebury before but everything about the place is instantly familiar, as it must be for many people my age who rushed home from school on seven chilly Monday afternoons in early 1977 to watch the TV series Children of the Stones. The story is a heady blend of occult paganism, astrophysics and archaeology. It concerns widowed scientist Adam Brake (played by Gareth Thomas, later of Blake’s 7 fame) who arrives in Avebury (re-named Milbury in the series) with his teenage son Matthew to conduct a research project into magnetic fields and stone circles. They quickly realise that most of the villagers are really odd, wandering round looking blissed out and greeting everyone with ‘Happy Day’ and a strange saintly smile. They form an alliance with two of the few normal people left, Margaret, the glamorous, flame-haired curator of the Milbury museum (conveniently also widowed) and her daughter Sandra. Other British character actors of the period include Ian Cuthbertson who plays the affably menacing lord of the manor Hendrick, and Freddie Jones (still an Emmerdale stalwart at the age of 90), playing the ‘harbinger of doom’ character Dai the poacher (‘Leaving? What do you mean you’re leaving boy? No-one ever leaves the stones. No-one ever will…’).

We lean our bikes against a wall in the centre of the village and explore the stones. There are plenty of other visitors but it’s nowhere near as jam-packed as Stonehenge, plus it’s free and there are no daft restrictions on where you can and can’t walk. Sam (just graduated and starting work in archaeology) wanders about with his Time Team hat on, looking for traces of Mesolithic dandruff in the topsoil or something or other.

I approach one of the largest, most twisty sarsens, close my eyes and place my hands on its cold hard surface, half expecting to be hurled through the air by some powerful magnetic impulse like Adam Brake in the first episode. I hear weird, discordant voices in my head. Considering it was going out in the ITV kid’s slot at quarter to five in the afternoon, Children of the Stones was extraordinarily creepy. Its atmosphere was heightened by the theme music, sung by The Ambrosian Singers like a Gregorian choir on mushrooms performing a black mass. It begins with a sinister breathing which flows into a beseeching chant and an atonal wailing which climaxes in a crescendo of terrifying babble as the camera zooms and jerks violently between the jagged and contorted standing stones. It has been described as ‘the most inappropriate theme music ever used for a children’s TV series’.

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As I wander around I also recall how much the 14 year-old me had identified with Matthew, the outsider in a community where the pressure to conform is great. I also remember the crush of adolescent longing that confused 14 year old me (definitely not one of the ‘happy ones’) had felt for the pretty, dark-haired Sandra, and the painful realisation (spoiler alert) that her burgeoning friendship with Matthew was not going to end well. All of this stuff is swirling around inside as we walk through Avebury. I feel connected to this place, not by the ley lines that formed an element of the outlandish story, but by the power cables of memory. Avebury is Milbury and I can only process the village through this fictional prism.

Later, I even wonder how much Children of the Stones, along with its obvious influences – classics of the folk horror genre like The Wicker Man (made four years earlier), and the 1960s sci-fi film Village of the Damned (which always seemed to be on TV in my childhood) – have coloured my responses to many of the old villages passed through on my rides through Britain. I love the feeling that there might be something hidden, something strange and sacred and dark about these rural places. Dai the Poacher was right, maybe I will never leave the stones.

We spend an hour or so looking round then go to the Red Lion in the middle of the village, said to be the only pub in the world located inside a stone circle. After lunch we do in fact manage to leave the stones, via a lane out of the back of the village winding high up onto the hillside where it joins the 90-mile Ridgeway. This is one of the oldest pathways in the country, part of the longer Icknield Way which runs from Maiden Castle in Dorset all the way to the Norfolk coast. It’s the M1 of ancient England, once the principal long-distance thoroughfare used by traders and drovers in a country whose roads had yet to become London-centrified by the Romans, now mostly empty save for occasional walkers, mountain bikers and horse riders.

The track we have taken up from Avebury crosses the Ridgeway and continues on the other side through an empty expanse of farmland. A sign on the gate says ‘Bull In Field’ accompanied by a picture of a cartoonish black creature with sharp-pointed horns and a ring through its nose. A guerrilla cyclist or militant equestrian has scrawled ‘Illegal on bridleways, remove sign or face prosecution!’ in black marker pen over the sign, and above it, more hopefully, ‘This sign has been here for two years. Is the bull dead?’ With no sign of the mythical beast we turn left onto the Ridgeway itself, but lacking proper mountain bikes we have to get off and push for at least half of the rocky three mile stretch that eventually rejoins the main Wiltshire Cycleway.

But despite the rough surface we are reluctant to come down off the hills too soon. It’s so peaceful up here high on this ancient path, weaving its way through open down land with the gait of an amiable old drunk. There’s just the rustle of a light breeze in the trees, the warmth of the mid-afternoon sun on our backs, both of us a good lunch and a couple of ales to the good. We sit for a while and I smoke a cigar, letting time unspool with the wispy blue smoke. It could be a lazy summer afternoon from any time in the past 5,000 years. Finally we whizz down a long B road to the valley below, feeling the smooth reassurance of 20th century tarmac. At the bottom only a handful of cars and the odd tractor scurry about their business, but it’s enough to break the spell and make us feel we have fast forwarded through the ages.

And the rest of the afternoon is just a quintessential English bike ride. One of those gentle meanders through rolling countryside in soft caramel light, passing through villages with Hansel and Gretel cottages and names like Clyffe Pypard and Tockenham, where shadows grow long on cricket pitches and old maids with hat pins and names like Mrs Honeyman still cycle to Evensong. We stop off for an early evening pint of warm beer in the town of Malmesbury, a place which looks as soothing and tranquil as it sounds. As dusk approaches we reach  the village of Grittleton, the last night stop of our trip, where we are greeted by a deafening clang from the top of the church tower, signifying either that an ancient royal has just kicked the bucket, or more likely that there is sod all else to do on a Thursday night apart from bloody bell-ringing.

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The Neeld Arms in the High Street provides pretty much the perfect end to a pretty much perfect day’s ride. Chicken & tarragon pie/pork medallions with apple and calvados sauce, and several pints of Stonehenge Pigswill are followed by end-of-ride celebratory malts and a smoke outside the front of the pub. ‘I’m really disappointed in you two’, says the landlord Charlie, as he comes outside to collect the glasses. ‘I had you down as fitness types. You’ve really let me down’.

Next morning we have an easy 20 mile stretch back to Bradford Avon. We spiral down the steep road from the top of the town, past the honey-coloured cottages to the 13th century stone bridge which straddles the gurgling river at the bottom. At the same tea shop where we set out four days earlier, we order the same tea, the same vanilla milk shake and the same biscuits. The circle is finally complete.

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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.


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.


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.


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…’


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.


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’.”


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.


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.


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.


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.

Castle Stalker

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.


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.


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.


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.



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.


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.)


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.”


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.’


‘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


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.


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/