I know corona virus is all around us, but these are not tough days, these are challenging days. These are some of the most challenging days we have ever known. The challenge of course is to stay fit and sane, so that you are ready for when things finally perk up. Think warm spring sunshine, a pint in one hand. You know you can do it, take it one day at a time.
From Littlebury Green I set off clockwise up the hill heading for the Royston road. I needed a breather by the time I got to the radio-tower at the top of the hill. Too much turkey and Christmas pud I suppose. I took a photo and thought, ‘I wonder why those aerials are all different shapes. I bet there are people for whom that is fascinating’. And sure, enough there are fans of radio-towers. You can buy a list of them or download the android app (mastdata), then visit them and tick them off. There are 2342 authentic ones around the country and websites for enthusiasts who add annotated photos and leave comments. I have included one such here.
LTE is ‘long term evolution’ for the uninitiated, a step in our journey to 5G. My wife didn’t find anything about this surprising. She simply said, ‘I know, I have dated men like than’.
The route was like this:
It’s always a relief to encounter fellow club members on the ride. It means you have got the right day, no mean feat during lock-down. And that you are on the right route, very reassuring when you are as bad at routes as me. I was well into the ride and feeling pigeon poetry coming on before meeting Alan. Very soon Julia and Graham past me. A little later Lawrence and I cycled on, within the rules, for much of the rest of the trip.
Both Rod and Lawrence had close encounters with lorries carrying straw, which are a common hazard this time of year. Either they cover the road with slimy straw or retain some of it on their trailers and push you off the road instead. Likewise, Andrew had the customary 4 by 4 encounter.
Just because it’s quiet doesn’t mean it’s safe of course.
Club members were able to avail themselves of a new charity box. We raised £60 which I think is commendable for a cold Monday.
We received doctor’s notes to be excused ‘physical education’ from Deborah, who planned to ride but was too tired after Samaritan’s work in the night and Martin with a case of digging-man’s-back. Brian had a good long ride which only overlapped with ours for a very few miles. Those attending in a more conventional sense were Andrew, Rod, Charles, Geoff, Graham, Alan, Lawrence, Maurice. It was a great pleasure to see you all and to know that you are all up for the ‘I’ll still be here after this bloody virus’ challenge.
Since I know some of you are parents with ‘returning’ off-spring I thought I would share with you the following story. It started with a mystery. My son who lives in the other half of the house, beyond the conservatory, would walk through into the main house, use the facilities then return to his domain. Puzzled I eventually enquired why, since there is a bathroom and toilet in his self-contained area. The reply was, ‘well sometimes it smells, and I am working all the time over there’. Yes, I thought that’s why you are an economist. That’s the way most big businesses behave.
Next Thursday’s ride will be on Friday. As if I weren’t already sufficiently disorientated. By way of retaliation I finish with more pigeon poetry, which various club members have assured me is indeed, very bad. Well here you go, you deserve it.
Pigeon. Early life and career.
I grew up in the North with green fields aplenty And won my first race by the time I was twenty Talented they said, contact a pigeon fancier With wind in my ears what I heard was ‘financier’
To London I went, fine place for a young pigeon So much money to make, no time for religion With pigeons of all types, race was no barrier Did business with fantails, homing and carrier
I know making money is a pursuit sometimes vulgar Still they built me a tall perch in a square called Trafalgar With grey sky above me, some dreary Admiral below Doing business was easy for this bird in the know
They came crying help! for my business is blighted You’re a smart pigeon, so clever, farsighted Being able to see things from great elevation I got rich doing deals between business and nation
I retired to Essex where the sky is much bluer With big fields of grain and where people are fewer Enjoying apple buds in the spring and grain in the fall Being a healthy old pigeon is no trouble at all
For Thursday 19th November Maurice had set an unusual course; a figure of eight, with Haslingfield at the centre and Burwash Manor as the coffee stop. On this occasion the pleasure to be derived from the trip depended on whether you did it in the morning, as 16 people did, or later after the rain had mostly passed, as did Deborah and Jenni.
Eight has long been regarded as the luckiest number in Chinese culture. The opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics started at 8 seconds and 8 minutes past 8 pm on 8 the August 2008. Jesus was resurrected on the 8th day after Passover. Spanish gold was known “pieces of eight”. The 8-ball is the key to snooker. Everything will be OK on this course I felt, what can possibly go wrong?
There’s no getting over it, the weather was dismal, but I set off hoping to see people and receive a cheery wave. I donned wet weather gear and reached Ickleton unscathed, then visited the charity box at Martin’s. To my delight CHOCOLATE BISCUITS to keep out the cold, top chap. And beer. Better drink that later, after all it’s only 9.50. Still I am beginning to understand why they make alcohol expensive in Nordic countries. Goodness isn’t it grey. On I go Hinxton, nobody, Duxford, nobody. Whittlesford. Where are you all? At Newton I check my phone. Yes it’s Thursday, yes I have the right map, but where are 16 of you? Uncharitably I think, they must have looked out of the window and gone back to bed.
The rain wasn’t hard, just enough to keep me in wet-weather gear. It was grey though. I thought what shall I do to cheer myself up? I know compose a poem, so here it is.
A poem by Hannibal the
Alliterative, Little, Lecter of Littlebury.
There were eight pigeons on that wire
In spring they ate all my apple-tree buds
Some birds I ‘ate because they are destructive (and don’t sing)
As a convicted multiple murderer of pigeons
Unrepentant, I will scratch on my cell wall
I ate, the eight fat pigeons I ‘ate.
And I don’t care.
To forestall the obvious literary criticism, I know these are homophones, a subset of homonyms and not alliterative, but this art not English Language A-level, so give me a break. Now you understand how bored I had become.
Finally I struck gold, none other than Maurice and how glad I was to see him. Not long after that, my cup over-floweth, Victor too. Victor had started with Brian, but Brian had pulled out, faced by impending hills and a complaining back. Victor was about to give up and go home, but now I knew everything was going to be alright. You see I knew 8 was a lucky number.
The weather steadily improved as we made our way round. We encountered increasing numbers of club members. Good to see you all and to have a chat in these lock-down days.
I say the weather improved, it did so to such a degree that by the time Deborah and Jenni had done the circuit they were able to capture these amazing images
By the end of the day one would have to say this was actually a highly successful Windmill ride. We had been encouraged out by being part of the club. We had eased the boredom. We had raised another £150, with more to come.
We thank the usual Maurice and Andrew. Also Martin for his hospitality and Graham for his efforts on Zoom pub meetings. It takes a lot of effort to make a club work and I’m sure all the members are grateful, especially in these challenging times.
Like Bob Geldof in the Boomtown Rats (and Brenda Spencer), much of the club ‘don’t like Mondays’. Still going for a cycle ‘livens it up’ without hurting anyone, so off we went again. Many members made it out; Alan, Lawrence, Maurice, Martin and Suzanne, Deborah and Jenni, Andrew, Simon, Charles and Andrew with Lindsey having to drop out of this one.
People set off from different points with Andrew having assigned a clockwise or anti-clockwise direction for each person beforehand. All very well if you can remember how to reverse your way-points on the fly. Still we set off meeting sporadically as usual with the occasional conversations from opposite sides of the road. This is most social we are allowed to be at the current time.
The highlight of the ride was the spotting of so many red kites. Suzanne and Martin saw 5, Deb and Jenni saw 10. Taking my editorial duties very seriously, I thought it wise to check the verisimilitude of these sightings of course. The RSPB site says ‘There are probably around 1,800 breeding pairs in Britain, about half in Wales, with the rest in England and Scotland. In England the reintroduced birds can be found in the Buckinghamshire Oxfordshire, Northamptonshire, Yorkshire, Gateshead and Grizedale Forest in Cumbria.’ So seeing so many was very lucky, perhaps due to a local-spot, maybe.
One the other hand, there are a number of common birds of prey in UK; Harrier, Goshawk, Buzzard, Sparrowhawk. One of particular interest is the Common Buzzard.
I shall be looking more carefully next time. Maybe we should have a prize for the first good photo?
Just outside Clavering on the way to Langley Upper Green we have a fine example of hedges cut according to two British traditions. The smooth and understated, following a time honoured style, for which the UK is famous. This tradition is best embodied by the Royalty and our splendid city parks perhaps. And on the other side, innovation and individuality, this is also the British way; the Beatles, Punk, Henry Moore and Banksy. In Switzerland the right hand hedge would elicit a letter from the council, asking for it to be tided up. I speak from grim experience. I was fined for mowing the grass on Sunday and sternly warned by a local government official, not to flush my apartment toilet after 10 pm.
Dark nights, cold and solo cycling, this leaves time for ones mind to wander. What would I like for Christmas, I thought? I don’t know. After thumbing through the back-catalogue of my memory, it came to me.
What I would like most is well trimmed bush as modelled by my niece, pictured here last summer. Yes that would make me very happy. There’s a lot that needs doing in the garden. That’s that problem solved then.
Soon after I took the hedge photos, Alan passed me and we made our way round to Chishill together. It was good to have company and the road from Chisill back to Elmdon is mostly downhill, so as the light faded, I was soon home. Another Monday ride done.
Another fine route by Maurice. Made to happen by the steady organisation of Andrew. It was good to see all those who took part.
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.