Gentleman Cyclist

July 24, 2018

St. Andrews here I come!

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 10:23 pm

Posted on 24 July 2018

This is the first time for quite a few years that I have used the Caledonian Sleeper. After a very pleasant evening in the company of my good friend Jane at the splendid Look Mum No Hands cycling café in Old Street, I arrived at Euston in plenty of time to be able to use the showers in the first class lounge only to be told by the platform staff that the first class lounge was closed. However, there is a perfectly adequate was basin hidden away in my cabin so I employed the complimentary toiletries to good effect for an “underarm-underleg wash”, as my dear sister in law so delicately describes abbreviated ablutions.

Recalling how the movement of the train is not conducive to relaxing slumber, I retired early in the hope that I would nod off before our departure at 11.50, but that was a vain hope too. There was just too much hubbub and activity from other passengers and the slamming of the train doors just prior to departure would have woken me up in any case. Then the guest (we are “guests” on the sleeper: not “customers”, and heaven forfend that anyone should refer to us as “passengers”) in the adjacent cabin produced a sneeze of the kind of pitch and intensity of which the Flying Scotsman would have been proud. Then the train started moving. I think it would be easier to sleep in a chair facing the direction of travel rather than a bed across the carriage, but I have paid for this bloody bed so I shall do my best to sleep in it. Suffice it to say that this is the first night since being issued with my CPAP machine that I won’t be able to use it. There are no 3-pin sockets in the sleeper cabins. I don’t think it will matter very much: in order to suffer from sleep apnoea, firstly you have to be suffering from sleep.

Oh, and what, you may well ask, am I doing in St. Andrews? I shall be spending the next six days participating in a summer school dedicated to the study of the choral music of the great Johann Sebastian Bach. That, and catching up on my sleep.

May 29, 2012

Why I’m not singing for the Olympics

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 9:25 pm

On 6th July one of the Olympic torches finds its way into Southend. A massed choir of about 2000 people will be assembled on Southend Sea Front in order to sing to the torch when it arrives.

There has been plenty of publicity about the torches, the fact that a lot of them have gone out and been re-lit by the flame of the sacred fag-lighter of Olympia; that they are travelling around the place in vehicles; and that Olympic torches have been fetching huge sums on Ebay. None of this seems to be particularly in the Olympic spirit.

Neither are the games themselves. They are a massive commercial venture – a monstrous shopping centre with a stadium tagged onto it. There will be huge inconvenience for the residents of East London and the vast sums spent on this could well have been spent on something which would benefit the people of the area – some decent housing, for example, rather than shove people who have lived in London all their lives to Walsall or Wolverhampton just because the government wants to save money for their friends the bankers.

Although they are quite good reasons not to take part in an event which is being held in anything but the Olympic spirit, they are not the reasons that I am not going to do so. More often than not, as a member of Southend Bach Choir, I sing stuff I don’t necessarily believe in. In March, I took part in a terrific Messiah concert, without in any way considering myself a Christian. Last week, I took part in a Jubilee Concert: although some of the words I sung went very much against the grain of a lifelong anti-royallist, it’s the music I go for and mostly it was very good indeed.

There’s a specially commissioned Olympic Anthem, composed by a chap called Tolga Kashif. A quick google tells me that he’s got pretty good musical credentials and the piece is tolerably musical, although really aimed at youngsters and not the veterans of the Southend Bach Choir – I’m one of the youngest members and I’m 58.

No, the reason I will not sing in this event is that we were told this evening that we were expected to sing the anthem twice. That’s not terribly arduous, as it probably takes about 15 minutes to sing from start to finish. The reason I’m not going to sing is that the two performances are due around the time the torch appears, at 11.32 precisely, and again when it disappears off to its next destination.

What, I hear you ask, is the problem with that? It’s the fact that “Security” insists that all singers are in their seats by 8 a.m. and they will not be allowed to leave until 2 p.m. It seems that some poor kids are being bussed in at 7 a.m. (whether everyone taking part will be on coaches I don’t know, but something tells me that if I were to turn up on my bike in order to take part in this event I would be turned away).

There comes a point when “security” becomes so overbearing that it simply is not worth bothering with the event being made secure. I would assess the risk to the people of Southend from having an olympic torch turn up in the town to be probably no more risky than the annual carnival, much less risky than the annual air show, and probably on the par with the average home game for Southend United. On the other hand, having 2000 people corralled onto some temporary staging on Southend sea front for six hours on a July morning is asking for trouble. Early July is likely to provide one of two types of weather – either swelteringly hot or a deluge. Neither is suitable for sitting around for 6 hours, whether you are a teenager or an octogenarian, and the risk from so doing will be far far greater than any risk from a terrorist attack.

One assumes that there will be toilet facilities for the choir – it will be pretty insanitary if there aren’t – and what about food? It has been documented elsewhere that anyone attending the olympics will not be allowed to bring in their own food and drink. Will the sponsors, those well-known champions of healthy living Coca Cola and MacDonalds, also have a monopoly at the torch events?

All of this is as far from the olympic spirit as it’s possible to be and I’ll have none of it, thank you very much.

April 10, 2012

Loop from Berwick

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 12:06 am

A very fine rounding off of the holiday with a 27 mile pootle to Etal for 11ses, the Chain Bridge Honey Farm for lunch and then back to the B & B. The 10 miles out to Etal took us two hours on account of the vicious headwind. A similar distance to the Honey farm took us half that. It was quite odd eating lunch on a Bristol Lodekka bus, of a type that was new-fangled when it took me to school in the 1960s.

Whilst negotiating the boundary of the Paxton estate we saw a buzzard swoop down and take something but we are pretty sure it was nothing more exciting than a choice cut of roadkill pheasant.

We finished off with an excellent curry at the Villa Spice.

April 7, 2012

Thornhill to Moffat

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 11:34 pm

Aware of the high off-road quotient of today’s ride, we ordered an 8 a.m. breakfast. It was just as well as Jan found it especially difficult to get going today. I was also aware that we might have to take food with us. Although various websites informed us that there was a thriving Mountain Bike Hire and licensed cafe at Ae, the village after which the forest was named, I also knew that there was no backup plan should that oasis prove to be deserted. A couple of days ago I had phoned the Glentrool visitors’ centre and was assured that there would be an adequate lunch for us on our arrival, and so there was. I tried phoning the Ae cafe several times but no-one answered. I feared the worst: that it was no longer serving. On the strength of that fear, we went into Thornhlill and stocked up on pro-thingstoeat. I bought some fruit cake slices and custard creams in the Co-op, some jelly babies in the Spar shop and a couple of steak pies and doughnuts at the baker’s.

Rather later than I intended, we set off. Leaving the village involved a climb, gentle initially but steeper later. We still haven’t encountered a chevron on this trip, but this morning must have been a close-run thing. There were plenty of occasions when we walked and Jan needed a rest, and the first 4 miles took us over an hour. Some of the roads in the area did not show up on the Garmin, although present on the OS map, including that down which a farmer on quadracycle and his two dogs drove a flock of 50 or so sheep and lambs. We also went under a railway bridge which, minutes earlier, had had a train cross it. There clearly had been a station there at one time, but now the nearest was Sanquhar, about 20 miles away.

Once we were 1000 or so feet up, the next 8 miles were almost all downhill and our speed picked up. There was very little traffic on the road but whenever a car or cattle truck did turn up, we just stopped and let them past. There was rain in the air and, although the weather was mild, the landscape loses so much of its appeal under cloud cover.

Just before we arrived in Ae I stopped to take a photograph of a small cottage which boasted an enormous collection of motor bikes all around it. There were dozens of them. They looked fairly clean for the most part and many of them bore current tax discs, but there seemed to be nowhere to hide 70 or 80 superannuated hell’s angels. Neither had we seen any motorcyclists on the road. It was most bizarre.

Soon after 1 pm we arrived in the village and found the totally deserted cafe which had clearly carried out no business for quite some months and also proved the veracity of the answer to Radio 4’s oft-repeated rhetorical question:

“Ye’ll have had yer tea?”


I congratulated myself on my foresight as I tucked into my excellent steak pie and doughnut. There was a family of mountain cyclists who had been trundling around bits of the forest and we had a conversation about closed cafes. Then, with some 12 miles of off-road track of unknown quality to traverse, we set off.

I’d done a fair bit of research into this bit of the ride. Googlemaps was sufficiently aware of the road that Bikehike would happily send a route along it. Furthermore, it was easy to pick out from aerial photographs as it snaked its way through dozens of square miles of conifer forest. The critical question was “Was it rideable?” and there was only one way to find out. However, I was encouraged by the following website:


Cycling around Dumfries

Locharbriggs and Heathhall
Local Cycle Route 10 runs from Dumfries Rail Station north on to Edinburgh Road out to Locharbriggs and Heathhall. For a great leisurely cycle ride in the countryside, follow Route 10 further north out to Ae Forest and Moffat.

We were further encouraged by a large blue Sustrans-style sign that told us that Moffat was 16 miles away along local cycle route number 10. Initially the surface was OK and we rode, but the signs advised us to leave my planned route and to follow a different track. Again, not a problem. The forest was a labyrinth of tracks like this and one would be very much like another.

We started to climb steeply and of course that meant getting off and pushing. Once again, I had no objection to this. I knew that we would be climbing to well over 1000′.  Every so often the gradient lessened and we could ride, but progress, even by our standards, was slow. I had warned our landlady for the night that we might be late arriving, so she wouldn’t be sending out search parties unnecessarily.

The worst bit, and I’d defy anyone to ride on this surface, was where the Forestry Commission had “repaired” the road by covering it in lumps of rock roughly the size of a cricket ball, but mostly cubic. On occasions more frequent than I care to recall we pushed our bikes up a steep ascent only to find that where the slope became rideable once again, some cretin had dumped tons of rubble all over it. Jan is not the most confident cyclist and is particularly unnerved when suddenly her back wheel leaps sideways on account of  dreadful road surface. Neither is she given to displays of histrionics but at one point she screamed out of sheer frustration before giving me a vigorous hug just to tell me that she knew it wasn’t my fault. To describe this as “a great leisurely ride in the countryside” was about as far from the truth as it’s possible to be. Firstly, it was far from leisurely, and a Hard Slog would be a more appropriate description; secondly, much of the time we weren’t riding; and thirdly, when one’s view from the road is occupied entirely by unceasing millions of pretty much identical sitka spruce, it’s about as great as riding through a massive industrial complex.

Eventually two things improved: we reached about 1230′ above sea level, which meant that there would be a lot more downhill than up; and the unrideable “repairs” had stopped so we made much better progress. The first four miles of forest road had taken us over 2 hours to complete whereas the next 8 took us about the same amount of time so it was approaching 6 p.m. by the time we emerged onto a metalled, but very pot-holed road which led down the hill to the motorway junction and, beyond it, to Moffat. This was achieved without incident and we arrived at the B & B around 6.30, showered and went out to choose from several very promising looking pubs. The first we tried had no ale, just keg rubbish, so we tried another, The Star. This did a very good pint of a local brew named Criffel and a very succulent, and excellent value, sirloin steak. We also learned that it has earned a mention in the Guinness Book of Records on account of its dimensions: 20′ wide and 162′ long.

April 5, 2012

Newton Stewart to St. John’s Town of Dalry

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 3:53 pm

Posted on 5 April 2012

My wife must love me very much.

It was a bright, cold day in April and the Garmin told us it was 9.52 or thereabouts. We headed north towards snow-covered peaks. We were full of an excellent breakfast from the Flowerbank Guest House as we were heading up the Cree valley. The scenery was stunning and our progress was slow. However, we only had 34 miles to do today so there was no particular hurry.

After a few miles we came across some RSPB notices about the nature reserve we were travelling through, and amongst the information about the various species which one might see if one was lucky was information about how Dumfries and Galloway boasts Britain’s highest population of mainland otters. There was a sign to “The Otter Pool” and as one of my unfulfilled ambitions is to see a real live wild otter (I achieved the otter roadkill milestone last year on the Isle of Mull) we sat for half an hour or so beside the Otter Pool and all we saw was a brace of pochard being chased away by a pair of carrion crows.

We carried on and around midday we had completed about 11 miles and we found ourselves at the Glentrool visitors’ centre where we had an early lunch consisting of toasties. Mine contained cheese and ham. We did well to arrive when we did because when we left the place was heaving with people many of whom were queueing up for lunch.

A couple of miles after leaving the visitors’ centre we ran out of road. I knew this was going to happen and had warned Jan of the fact, but I don’t think that either of us was prepared for what Sustrans thinks is a cycle route. It was too rocky to be ridden and also too steep. We walked for the first couple of hundred circuitous yards and then I tried riding. I could manage but it was not easy to keep going on account of the vagaries of gradient and surface quality. Jan made an heroic effort to ride, but given her shortage of solo practice and inherent suspicion of anything remotely dangerous, we were going to have problems as we had about eight miles of quite vicious offroad to do before being reacquainted with tarmacadam firma. Words were exchanged and they were not conducive to matrimonial harmony.

Rig of the Jarkness

As luck would have it, after a mile or so of mostly completely unrideable cycle route, we crossed a stream adjacent to which was a Forestry Commission van, and the road improved. We managed to ride a bit, but the gradient was still a problem. A couple of times I rode my bike to the top of a climb and walked back down towards Jan, rode her bike to the top of the climb while she walked, and so slow progress was made. When we came across a slope that neither of us could cycle up, I gripped my bike by the stem with my right hand, placed my left hand on Jan’s saddle, leaned forward and pushed the bikes. I felt like a number 8 at the back of a scrum preparing for the longest pushover try in the history of rugby union.

Eventually we reached the summit of our ascent, about 900′ up and not far from the Rig of the Jarkness. From that point at least we had the slope in our favour most of the time and Jan started riding extremely well. We kept up a steady 6 or 7 mph for most of the rest of the offroad bit and at about 5 p.m. we finally reached a metalled surface once again. We circumnavigated the south side of the Clatteringshaws Loch and we were within shot of the Porridge House, our abode for the night. We arrived there at about 7.20 and by 7.50 we were in the Clachan Arms and I was ordering the venison casserole out of which they had run when we were last here some 5 years ago. It was well worth the wait.

As I opined at the start of this post, my wife must love me very much. I dragged her, kicking and screaming, out of her comfort zone and made her cycle some horrendously difficult terrain on a diet of chocolate chip biscuits and jelly babies and here we are at bed-time and all is forgiven.

I am a very lucky chap.

The night before we set off on this trip I had been singing in The Messiah. When I took this photograph, all I had bouncing around in my head was “And the Glory, the Glory of the Lord…”. It’s a shame I don’t believe a word of it.

April 4, 2012

Kirkcudbright to Newton Stewart

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 9:53 am

We left the Anchorlee Guest House shortly before 10 a.m. in bright sunshine. We crossed the river Dee and headed south, the estuary widening to our left. As ever when riding next to Scottish beaches, I kept an eye out for otters but of course there was none. We climbed into Borgue but the pub, which claims to serve tea and cake, isn’t open on a Tuesday, so we didn’t stop there. We carried on along the west side of the peninsula, heading north, and noticed how much stronger the wind had become now that we were against it.

Something called Cream o’ Galloway appeared on the Garmin’s screen and we thought that an establishment thus named ought to sell tea and cake. So it did, but as a working farm selling tickets to the city-dwelling masses so that they can see what a cow looks like and hopefully understand that cows give ice cream, it was crowded with the hoi-polloi.

When we emerged the wind was stronger still and several times we simply ground to a halt. After two miles or so of very hard work, NCN7 left the road and dived through a wood towards the Gatehouse of Fleet, which gave us some very welcome respite from the vicious headwind. Just before we reached the pub for lunch, we were treated to a bout of hail.

We emerged from the pub around 2.30 into rain. Given the remote nature of the next few miles, we invested in a few calories in the form of fig rolls and then continued our northward trudge along NCN7. The countryside was wild and magnificent, even though we were scarcely higher than some of the roads we regularly cycle in Essex, and as we climbed so the rain turned to snow. Mostly we suffered a headwind but, more and more, as we turned towards the west, so we had a cross-wind which would batter the panniers like sails. On one occasion I involuntarily left the road, fortunately at a point where a flat gravel area saved me from something more embarrassing or dangerous.

Eventually we reached the summit and then began a lengthy descent, almost 4 miles of it. Now we were on the north side of the hill, we could see how much the snow was settling above us – a stark contrast to the balmy days this area was enjoying only a week ago. We reached Creetown, which looked pretty scruffy, so we didn’t stop, but joined what would once have been the A75, a wide frost-pocked road carrying little traffic but what there was was too fast. Shortly we found our way onto the disused railway which serves as NCN 7.

For the first time, I began to feel cold, which was quite remarkable considering how long we’d been cycling in heavy snow. My fingers were becoming painful with cold, but the rest of me was warm and dry, a fact that I put down to the excellence of the Paramo jacket.

Eventually, at around 6 p.m., we arrived at the B & B, 36 or so miles covered in about 5 hours’ cycling. After a quick cup of tea we found the nearest eatery and ate.

April 3, 2012

Dumfries to Kirkcudbright

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 9:38 am

Posted on 3 April 2012

At breakfast, which involved a fair bit of meat for me, although Jan restricted herself to scrambled eggs and toast, there was a German in a kilt. I was fascinated by this idea and wondered about the possibilities of mixed national dress. Lederhosen with sporran and bagpipes? Grass skirt with a stripy smock and a string of onions? Clogs, assegai and not much else?

We bade farewell to Robertson & Emma and, as we were loading the bikes, we noticed a blue signpost indicating a cycle route. It was NCN 7, was pointing towards Castle Douglas, which was where we wanted to go, so we set off. I didn’t recall seeing a cycle route on our OS map but we decided to give it a try.

It was magnificent. Built on the course of an old railway, the Maxwelltown Path was opened in 2006. It takes the discerning cyclist out of Dumfries along perfectly traffic-free routes. It’s flat, wide and smooth and leads directly to the minor road that we were heading for. Better still, it crosses the river Nith at a point where low sandy cliffs mark the river bank and there were sand martins flying around. I couldn’t tell at first that they were not swallows, but I trained my binoculars on them and I could see them making for holes in the sandy cliff.

The morning was fraught with faffage. This was the first day’s laden  touring Jan had done on her new solo machine, and every so often we would stop to tweak the panniers because her heel was catching, or to allow her to catch her breath after a bit of a hill. There was nothing especially steep all day but we had to do something to pass the time as our ride was only meant to be about 30 miles.

The scenery was wonderful: nothing like the grand stature of the Highlands, but gently rolling, an occasional top just exceeding 1000 feet and the road climbing up to about 500 feet but not much more. There was a fair bit of interesting wildlife: buzzards, lots of chiffchaffs and a few oystercatchers although what these shore-dwellers were doing so far inland I’ve no idea.

We had a light shower during the morning which persuaded me to put on my new Paramo jacket, but I soon became too warm and had to remove one of my other layers. The rain didn’t last long but what there was seemed to roll off the fabric and I remained warm but not too sweaty. Mind you, we were not exactly putting in a great deal of effort.

There were no tea rooms to stop at and we hadn’t taken any sustenance with us (we had intended to buy something in Dumfries, but our route along the cycle path took us away from the shops) so we only needed to stop to swig from the water bottle. We stopped for one such break in the open gateway to a field and hadn’t been there long when a tractor pulling a spreader full of muck appeared. I moved my bike and the the tractor entered and started spreading its steaming load over the grass. I was surprised at how quickly the spreader was emptied and when the tractor left again the trailer was with inches of running over my back wheel. A narrow escape.

At about 1.30 we arrived in Castle Douglas, some 18 miles from Dumfries, which had taken us almost three hours to cycle. I had thought that solo touring might speed us up a bit, but so far, no. We found a cafe and enjoyed a pleasant lunch washed down with plenty of tea and then dropped into the Co-op for a bottle of water for Jan, some cake for later, and jelly babies which, as luck would have it, were on a 2 for the price of 1 offer.

The sun put in an appearance during the afternoon, which was a pleasant bonus over the forecast weather. There was gorse in flower, and that always looks much better in sunlight. Just south of Castle Douglas there is the Carlingwark Loch, which was very attractive.

The descent into Kirkcudbright is fairly steep, and beset with pot-holes and hair-pin bends. Once in the main street we quickly found the Anchorlee guest house and settled in. For our evening meal we adjourned to the Selkirk Arms where, it is alleged, Mr. Burns wrote his famous Selkirk Grace,

Some hae meat and canna eat,
and some wad eat that want it,
but we hae meat and we can eat,
and sae the Lord be thankit.

Just to be awkward, we each had fish, and my turbot fillet on a prawn and noodle broth was absolutely superb.

April 1, 2012

Trains to Dumfries

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 9:33 am

Posted on 1 April 2012

5.15 a.m. is far too early to get out of bed. It’s even worse when, for the last 90 minutes or so of scheduled sleeping time, one is wide awake. However, that was my fate this morning.

As ever, we scrabbled around at the last minute and I couldn’t find my Tilley hat and Jan left her water bottle on the kitchen table, but we were on the platform at Southend Central with about 5 minutes to spare for the 6.44 train. Watching the perfect dawn bathe the fishing-boat-bobbing sea in horizontal light was ample reward for our lack of sleep.

Crossing London was uneventful, our train was announced about 5 minutes before it was due to leave, we got away to time and arrived promptly in Carlisle some 4 hours and 6 minutes after we set off from Euston. I was a bit concerned when an irreponsibiilty of BMX riders arrived at the bike carriage before us, but the guard was sensible and we all got on. Jan’s bike lost its dangly bike space cherry, which, by the nature of these things was over very quickly and we were in Dumfries, having forgotten precisely how close to the station the Ferintosh guest House was. We made tea, ourselves at home and up for lost time and were soon on the way to see Jan’s cousin, whose lovely house, set in several acres of land, is only a couple of miles from Dumfries. We had tea and cake followed by beer and crisps and then lasagne and salad washed down with a good red wine, the conversation flowed along with the wine and liqueur chocolates and it was after dark that we set off for the guest house again. I finished off the Glen Moray whisky and then prepared for sleep.

March 29, 2012

The weirdness of Schubert

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 11:52 pm

Radio 3 has had a whole week of playing nothing but Schubert. They are calling it “The Spirit of Schubert”.

Although I’m familiar with a few of his pieces, an awful lot of stuff seems to have been composed for personal consumption. One string quartet, for example, they reckoned was composed for members of the talented Schubert family to play and it was never performed again until the 1860s, more than 30 years after Schubert died. It’s very odd to think that Schubert was born when Beethoven was 27 and died a year after Beethoven did, that they lived in the same city as one another for all that time, but there is no record of them having met.

Some of his music is wonderful – something like the Trout Quintet is right up there with the best music ever composed – but quite a lot of it is really odd. It’s almost the musical equivalent of a “magic eye” picture. Your brain takes a while to sort out the chaos until suddenly something or other becomes abundantly clear. There are lots of odd fragments of works which were never finished: one assumes that had there been a commercial imperative that they would have been completed and performed. He seems to have written most of his stuff for the fun of it. I’ve played nothing more than a couple of his Impromptus, which are beautiful, liquid pieces. I tried one of his sonatas once but I couldn’t get into it – I think it was the weirdness again.

When my son was doing A level music he had a piece of Schubert to study as a set work – I think the F Major octet. I know he was completely gobsmacked by the sheer beauty – and weirdness – of the music.

March 24, 2012

BHF “Cam to Coast” charity ride

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 11:50 pm

An early train to Cambridge for the BHF Cam to Coast ride. At Lpoo St I met a chap I haven’t seen for quite a long time (he was on the Priory Park Committee about 10 years ago) and we had a good natter on the train up to Cambridge. A few minutes before we arrived I used the loo and who should come bouncing up to me but Barion and Clutterfly, on their way tandem shopping. We wove our way between the various colleges and found our way to Jesus Green (Clarion said it sounded like a profanity) and soon set off.

What an absolutely marvellous day for a bike ride! The escape from Cambridge was very pleasant, and a good deal of it was off road on very well maintained cycle paths. We went round the back of Addenbrooks Hospital, through Whittlesford, where some years ago I recall playing a Chess County Championship semifinal, I think against Cambs, and I think we lost. The mist cleared, although it was always hazy, and by Duxford it was time to get my legs out. I kept up (for me) a rattling good speed and those flimsy-looking wheels and the pencil-thin stays did their job and the bike and I didn’t end up in a crumpled heap. The Brooks Professional saddle was not the most comfortable, but it looks as though it has never been ridden. Where did I get that, I wonder?

We passed through Littlebury and the great heights of NW Essex loomed before us. I stopped on the bridge by Audley End to see if the black swans had nested there again. They did some years ago, during a period in which I taught in Saffron Walden and would come down to the river Granta to eat my lunch. However, this year I saw no signs of any, although there were plenty of Canada geese squabbling noisily.

When I got to Thaxted the Swan wasn’t serving any proper food so I went down the hill, acknowledging Gustav Holst’s house as I went by, and found a shop which I hoped would have cake. It didn’t. I was a bit surprised that a busy small town like Thaxted, with its spectacular church and wonderful Tudor guildhall, seems not to have a proper baker’s but near the shop I had tried there was a cake sale in aid of Macmillan Nurses. I bought two for £1 and washed them down with a fairly noxious banana milk shake that I’d been given by the chap I’d been chatting to on the train. The cakes really were quite awful. The sponge was rubbery, the icing was leathery and the words “Macmillan cancer care” or whatever it said were printed in lurid green ink.

I set off again and used the minor roads through Tilty and Little Easton. A pair of teenage girls were riding ahead of me and continually looked over their shoulders as I gradually gained on them. Eventually they moved over to the right and allowed me to overtake. We exchanged greetings and off I went.

The Cricketers pub in Dunmow was a scheduled drinks break but there were no other cyclists there when I arrived. I’d covered something like 35 miles and the generally nasty nature of the refreshments I’d consumed in Thaxted had had an unfortunate effect and although I had no desire to buy anything from the pub, I did need their facilities. Some minutes later, off I went again and made pretty good progress towards Great Leighs and the St. Anne’s Castle pub, whose claim to be the “Oldest pub in England” seems dubious to say the least. I bought some fish and chips and a pint of Nethergate ale yclept “Growler” (fnarr fnarr). I had just finished when a young lady asked me if I would look after her bottle for her. I suddenly realised that she was one of the team of Southend Cycle Instructors and there indeed were some more, including Sara Hadden, one of the Road Safety Officers, whom I’ve had on the back of my tandem. (that reminds me – I don’t think she’s on my list!)

I carried on, mostly riding alone, with not much happening, but noting the house where another composer, Elizabeth Maconchy, lived, on the outskirts of Boreham, until I began to climb. I climbed and I climbed and, as I climbed, I thought “This is The Mighty North Hill! I’m on my Mercian! This will be a ride to impress the MEMWNR crowd!” I hurtled down the south face towards Bicknacre and stopped briefly at the Swan to see if there was anyone there I knew, but now I was on very familiar roads, the sun was beginning to lose a bit of its power as the afternoon drew on and I wanted to get the ride over with. I toyed with the idea of going through Rayleigh, but in the end I stuck with the Watery Lane route and as I was riding along Lower Road, Hockley, I detected that there was someone on my wheel. I don’t recall this ever happening before, but have read enough ride reports from audaxers to realise that they find it irritating when some unidentified person plonks themselves right behind you, almost invading your personal space. You cant’s see them, only their shadow, and you wish they’d stop being such anti-social gits and identify themselves.

As the Ashingdon Road loomed ahead, I decided I’d had enough of this person’s company so I left the prescribed route and headed instead for Doggetts Farm. I’d end up cycling about half a mile further, but at least I’d have two or three miles of traffic-free peace and quiet and I’d lose whoever this parasite was who had all but leaped on my back. I did indeed lose my parasite and after Rochford I rejoined the route again. Now I was in Southend borough and using rather uneven tarmacadamed cycle lanes in the environs of the airport. I crossed the A127 near Tesco’s and then joined Westbourne Grove, whereupon my right shoe lace twanged itself on one of the teeth of my big ring and the outer casing snapped. This is exceedingly irritating as I have been having a lot of trouble with shoe laces recently and I don’t know anywhere in Southend that sells decent ones.

I avoided the cycle lane on the sea front as there were too many people milling about and shortly I arrived at Southchurch Park and the end of the ride. Sara and her friends were in one of the marquees and it turned out that they were celebrating Colette Kemp’s birthday (Colette is another of the road safety officers) so I inveigled myself and was duly offered a slice of birthday cake. After consuming it I trundled home to a lovely hot shower.

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