The weekend had been windy. Branches removed from the trees, with lashing of rain and grey skies. So it was with considerable relief that come Monday and the Windmiller’s ride, the weather had turned to give a lovely autumnal late afternoon, with bright sunshine and little wind. The sun shines on the righteous of course. Seven Windmillers assembled at the Red Cow in Chrishall; Martin, Maurice, Alan, Simon, Charles, Deborah and Nicolas. With the present Covid rules we set off well-spaced and in the fervent hope that the locals can’t count.
We were determined to do our best to enjoy the ride despite the absence of Andrew, alias Deputy Dawg. Martin reported that Dawg had acquired food poisoning, had lost 10 pounds and was feeling too miserable to ride. We thought that sounded quite plausible, after all, that is quite a lot of money for a Scotsman.
We rode clockwise round this loop.
Along the Royston Road and up the hill to Arkesden. At 4.30 the pull of the Axe and Compasses was easily overcome. Our furthest point was Stocking Pelham. Wikipedia tells us that its population was exactly 163 in 2001 and exactly 163 in 2011. My belief is that so little happens they probably put the same documents in for the 2011 census that they had for 2001. This shows an admirable contempt for government form-filling, as one would expect from the wild no-man’s-land that is the Essex-Hertfordshire border. More Pelhams, then on to Lower Langley Green, where the attractions of the Bull were, with some effort, resisted. Down to Duddenhoe End where Nick peeled off and back to Chrishall, losing Charles to the attractions of Chalky Lane. Deborah needed time to do something for her husband’s birthday. The details were mercifully sketchy. Only three Windmillers up for a drink then, the downside of which is that there were only two available for me to scrounge drinks off.
Sitting in warm, post-ride sunshine Simon observed, quite correctly, what fine child-bearing hips the barmaid at the Red Cow has. Only to be told by another club member that they had spotted her first and that he would have to join the back of the que. He felt that this offends against the usual spirit of the Windmill Club, with its all-important emphasis on generosity and sharing.
We thank Maurice for the route and leading. Andrew for coping so well with organising the club in these times of increased rules and restrictions on our cherished freedoms. Members should note that ‘Simon’s Law’ in the new Club Rules, restricting the sharing of nuts and crisps, was studiously observed throughout. All that was shared was our company, something for which were all are truly grateful in these times of government sanctioned isolation.
Thirteen Windmillers set off, in two groups, on the usual Thursday club ride this time from the Pack-horse Inn in Moulton. Pack-horse bridges (~1400 AD) pre-date the canals and railways. They were just wide enough to accommodate a mule with their packs, allowing them to cross geographical barriers such as the River Kennett here in Moulton.
The Kennett has been much reduced of late, by water extraction for agricultural purposes and to quote the Wikipedia page “it has only been the presence of the sewage treatment works between Dalham and Moulton that has meant any water has flowed through Moulton in recent years”. This reason isn’t in all the guide books though.
The first leg saw us ride through Cavenham and Icklingham, then stopping at the West Stow Anglo Saxon Village. It was 10.50 and they usually didn’t start making coffee until 11.00. However Morris and Andrew used their considerable powers of persuasion to get things started anyway. It was difficult to keep social distancing in this process. Future rides will be altered to try and avoid the problem, so that everyone can feel comfortable and safe.
West Stow was the site of an Anglo-Saxon village (~700AD) and was the site of ‘experimental archaeology’ in the late 90’s, where scientists tried out their theories about how Anglo-Saxon’s lived by re-building the village, in ancient style and trying to live that way for a while. Often this is a disaster of course, but that just adds to the fun.
The centre has a Beowulf and Grendel trail, indicated by a giant log and a wooden sword outside. The tale of Beowulf, a legendary Anglo-Saxon King, is important because it’s one of the first things ever written down in English. Everything else of the era was in Latin, the language of the church and monasteries. The story is; in his mid-twenties Beowulf kills a monster, Grendel and its mother, in a cave. Then after 50 years as King, he kills his final dragon, then dies quickly and painlessly soon after from his wounds. It’s the sort of life-story many members of the club aspire to. Any similarities between it and The Hobbit we are told are “accidental”. But Tolkien was professor of Anglo-Saxon history at Oxford and wrote a book on Beowulf, so I’m not so sure.
Such stories share the common tropes of good versus evil, reluctant chivalrous hero and the tragedy and pathos of a final, but costly victory. They were told round the camp-fire in an oral tradition, with the teller making them more popular, by embellishing here and there.
This tradition isn’t dead.
The Anglo Saxons were well known to popularise stories by the inclusion of suggestive language and for mentioning their love of beaver which was readily available in their riverside villages.
The ride returned via Dalham, a very attractive village, which has both an old oast-house and a windmill. Though getting a picture of the latter required attaching a telephoto lens to my phone . In Dalham a small group split off for a detour, adding a few extra miles, on what was a beautiful day for cycling. Back at the pub we enjoyed food outside and were joined by Brummy Brian who had cycled out to meet us.
Thanks to Morris for the route and to Andrew who books the pubs, deals with all the administration and who led the 2nd group round the ride.
Not everyone was encouraging about this trip. “You are not going to France. You will still be locked-down, locked-in and should be locked-away for contemplating it. We’re in the middle of an international crisis. Quarantine, infection, no ferries, no accommodation, nothing will be open. You’re not fully fit. Maybe you will have to isolate when (if) you return.”
I could only reply. “Fair points but maybe we can still figure out how to make it happen. We may need to tweak the plan a bit. At this stage of life though, it’s important not to give up on one’s pleasures too easily”
So it was that after considerable uncertainty and several changes of plan, four Wind-Millers set off for France on one of the first passenger-carrying ferries to leave Blighty during this fateful year. It was the result of hours on the phone to ferry companies by Andrew (Deputy-dawg) and a complete re-write of the plan by Martin (Rev.), from pedestrian crossing followed by cycling point to point, to becoming a trip with two cars, lots of driving, with cycle racks, indeed with dismantled cycles in the car. It took quite some planning. Still we remembered those fateful words, “Never give in. Never, never, never, never in nothing, great or small, large or petty never give in, except to convictions of honour and good sense.” (1 see link). We might need to rethink the “good sense” bit perhaps.
Tuesday, the first day, was a circular ride to Mont St. Michel. This was an inspiring sight in the mist during a day which started with rain and gradually became very pleasant. I wondered why we admire these monuments so much. Why do people come from near and far to this pilgrimage cathedral, on a remote rock, in a sparsely populated corner of France? If anyone suggested it now I guess an accountant would say “if you must build a worship solution, it would be cheaper to build it on flatter land, in a place with better transport links”. Today the Glory of God has been replaced by worship of the profit and loss account and I suppose people miss something else to value.
The cider in this region is most impressive. Each Gete seems to make their own, not too sweet or dry and redolent of the small area the apples came from. Every breakfast had exclusively home-made jams and locally sourced croissant. Sometimes the start of the day’s cycling was delayed by the absolute necessity to wait for the Gite owner to return from the bakery. The roadside was also completely devoid of the detritus all too common on roads in the UK. Recent elections in France have seen the ‘Greens’ returned. I wonder if we won’t see much more of that in this country.
Wednesday 15th found the intrepid Wind-Millers cycling north from Mont St. Michel, up the coast with Jersey a distant silhouette out to sea. In a tiny town called Quettreville we sought our evening meal and came across a gem. This was a restaurant run by a former Rumanian monk, brewing his own beer and I can only say ‘designing’ his own sea-food dishes. All this from what looked like a corner-shop cum transport café. The restaurant was filled with home-made preserves and pickles. The food was as good as any high-class restaurant in Paris. The chief was completely immersed in the art of cooking. I still can’t quite believe a place like this exists in a location so remote. Full marks for Martin in finding it. We sampled much of what was on offer and cycled back to the Gete with the level of discipline that Morris would expect of us.
Thursday saw us cycling through low-lying marshes well in-land from Carentan. The wildlife was plentiful, especially noticeable were cranes and storks. The area is so remote that no restaurants were available near the accommodation. Our rooms were a wonderful set of ex-stables next to a local race-course and we cooked using the stable-lad’s two ring stove out in the courtyard. Myself, ably assisted by sous-chief Dawg, soon rustled up spaghetti carbonara. Afterwards we got back on the bikes, just in time to attend the local, evening trotting race.
In a previous blog I have admitted to my utter ignorance about horses. However being a member of this club is nothing if not an education. It turns out Dawg can spot a winner at the races from the angle of the horses ears during practice. However his virtual betting style missed a £130 win from £5 down. The Rev meanwhile, having rapidly sussed-out the racing in France, employed an intensely data-driven approach, but to less effect. Much less effect actually. Still both myself and Lawrence came out marginally ahead on the night. Once again ignorance and idleness had triumphed over knowledge and application. Life isn’t fair in so many ways I’ve noticed.
Friday 17th we started out back to the coast, then headed east across the beaches where on June 6th 1944 the Allies started a new chapter in Europe’s history. Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword, the scale of what happened here is difficult to comprehend even now. The Mulberry harbours, as big as Dieppe port, two airports, a petrol pipe back to the UK, all built in a few days and under fire. Every promontory has a gun battery overlooking what are now beautiful, white sandy beaches. We stopped at a few including the monument to the 47 Royal Marine Commandos at Port-en-Bessin. Dawg has repeated their D-day ‘yomp’ many times along with a former club member Kell Ryan. Unfortunately Kell has since passed away but is remembered at a memorial in the village, dedicated to him and other friends of this commando group.
We stopped by at the Normandy US cemetery where many of the first 10,000 casualties of the invasion are interred. I’m in two minds whether a war cemetery can ever be an ‘attraction,’ no matter how imposing it is. One downside of tourism is that it sometimes treats places like Venice and Belsen as equivalent. Soldiers don’t die in neat rows to be marked by clean, white, marble crosses of course. My own father, on burial duty, exhumed and bagged three day old corpses from shallow, sand graves. He extracted a legless tank-officer’s corpse from under a thorn bush and found the dead using binoculars to spot flocks of feeding birds. To his cost he was never able to fully express just how much he hated war. Still the men buried here liberated Europe and we celebrate them. I just hope the Instagram generation aren’t too distant to truly understand what this cemetery cost. Uneasily, we took a few photos and left in a slightly sombre mood.
Though I am generally well disposed towards it, I couldn’t help but notice that France was very foreign. This fact seemed to have escaped one ex-pat we met, who had bought the land on which was situated one of the German’s largest defensive fortifications. It was buried by the Allies and has since been excavated by him. However all his attempts to turn this into a museum and attraction have been complicated, almost defeated, by local rules and bureaucracy. Oh yes, bureaucracy, I think that is a French word, isn’t it? A few minutes with him underscored some of the differences between our two countries. He may eventually get somewhere, if he lives that long and his blood pressure can stand it. We wished him well and quickly cycled on.
The difference between France and the UK can easily be explained using bread as an example. In France bread is baked locally and bought every day at 8.30am from the boulangerie. (2) It tastes of something (bread), is regulated by the government and is part of life. On the other hand, in the UK, 85% of bread (by volume) is made by just three manufactures in a small number of bread super-factories. (3) Not even Mr Corbyn suggested regulating bread’s price, size and content because the UK hasn’t had a revolution about it (yet). In the UK it’s bought once a week and its nature can best be described as “convenient carbohydrate”. Club members might try it sometime as an inexpensive excursion into the food culture of the UK’s masses. One country celebrates the local, high quality and the availability of a simple pleasure to everyone; the other convenience, efficiency and market-driven price, size and quality. Of course good bread is available in the UK too, if you can or want pay for it. So there you have it, two countries and two approaches to life through the allegory of a simple commodity.
The final day of cycling (Sat. 18th July) was a challenging 65 miles following the coastal roads back to Deauville. On the way, by chance, we met the head of Renault’s historic car collection. The Rev and Dawg, both proud former Renault owners, needed to reassure themselves that Renault did indeed have examples of the cars they had owned and loved. They did, because Renault has a collection of 850 different cars which they show to enthusiasts all over the world. I’m glad we all enjoy different things. My current car is blue, I thought the last one was red, but my son tells me it also was blue. It’s funny how your memory plays tricks on you. Deauville was packed for some Saturday racing. In the evening the harbour area was a heaving mass of people. We found a suitable (posh) restaurant well out of town and settled down to more fine food. And a few drinks, which we felt were richly deserved having had such a busy day.
Sunday was given over to the Rev and Dawg going to get the car from Mt. Michel while myself and Lawrence read the newspapers at the hotel. Thanks, you guys are heroes, then driving on to Dieppe and an AirB&B which Martin had booked. The air in AirB&B originates from the first beds being blow-up ones in the corner of someone’s room. But things have moved on, and the beds were very comfortable, especially after a trip to one of Rick Stein’s secret sea-food restaurants in Dieppe and a few more glasses of Muscadet.
The ferry back was uneventful. A certain amount of ‘shopping’ had been done in Dieppe but Customs waived us through. Perhaps they couldn’t hear the clinking. Those ferries are so very noisy.
So there you have it, a great holiday in excellent company; a testament to the restorative virtues of exercise, good food and reverently drunk wines. We must do it again some time. I hope so.