Monday, 3 May 2021

OK, OK....let me get my coat off



The Rolling Stones, Melody Maker and Cycling



FUNNY, how amusing moments can stick in the mind, some of them from way back.


I’m writing about some of them instead of a story about how cyclists and pedestrians have been barred from using the Humber Bridge because of suicides there. When I started writing that story up it made such uncomfortable reading I binned it.

Instead, a few funny things, not all of them cycling related.

Here goes.

“On the left”…. Trevor Bull’s shouted command in a British pro road race sprint finish in the 1970s cost Phil Bayton the win – because he obeyed and moved over!

The affable Bayton (known as the “Staffordshire Engine” and hard to beat) laughed fit to burst that he should fall for that one.

Phil Liggett, the cycling TV commentator when a humble staff man on Cycling magazine in the 70s relieving the boredom of subbing the racing results and keeping the rest of us entertained by calling every rider by the first name of Harry.

Ken, the genial post room clerk in an engineering firm I briefly worked for, doing virtually the same thing, coincidentally also calling out  aloud  “Harry” -  instead of the real name on each envelope as he popped them in their various pigeon holes.

And for good measure, listening to an imaginary conversation going on around him by occasionally calling out “Oh yeah”, as if in agreement with what was being said.

The Dog. This was the moniker given Merseyside pro Geoff Dutton on training runs, whose call “coming through” – sounded more like a gruff bark.

Egg. This was Terry Dolan, now a reputed frame builder to the stars, who I recall rushing around the deck on the overnight Isle of Man ferry, snatching cushions from under the heads of sleeping passengers. No idea why Terry was called Egg.

 

“Can’t stop there…” Liggett winding up his companions by refusing to pull over for a café stop when driving ahead of the Tour de France – if the café was on the wrong side of the road, only to relent after howls of protest. Can't recall which side was "wrong".

“What you doin’ down there, Hardi’?”…Former national road race champion Pete Matthews to his Liverpool Mercury club mate Keith Hardiman who was sliding by on the road, still fastened to his pedals. Hardy had been the first to fall on a greasy bend in the Circuit of Ashurst, the Merseyside season-opener.

Many others skidded and fell that day, including yours truly in the exalted company of Tour of Poland stage winner Billy Perkins.  That was my claim to fame and it earned me a pint from a club mate at the Jazz Club that night.

 

“Good morning, my English friend, have you had your bacon, eggs and fried bread…” a French pro’s greeting to Tony Hewson, the new boy to Continental professional road racing during in 1950s, recalled in his splendid book “In Pursuit of Stardom”.

The Tour  of Sweden pro-am 1984: Peugeot’s Sean Yates distracting the Dutch amateur team from setting a furious pace – by whistling as he sat on their rear wheels.

Also on that same Tour of Sweden, Peugeot’s Allan Peiper chasing down an amateur who had attacked through the feeding station. Having got alongside him, Peiper thrust a ham sandwich into the trouble makers face, shouting, “Eat you stupid sod, eat – or you’ll never last the week.”

Assistant Editor Sid Saltmarsh, arriving at Cycling’s offices each the morning irritated by a question from a colleague before he’d barely got in the door… “OK, OK… let me get my coat off.”

Sid tapping his fingers on the window pane of the office partition with music paper Melody Maker, calling out “two minutes”:  his time limit for turning down the volume on the racket from a Rolling Stones album. And when they didn’t, shouting: “Oh, for FUCK’s SAKE!

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday, 17 March 2021

Grant Shapps snaps up BLAH OF THE YEAR AWARD

 


 “The government has a long history of setting targets to increase cycling without providing the funding to support them”…

Roger Geffen, Policy Director, Cycling UK

Shock, horror, Cycling UK has spilt the beans and all but admitted that the government is doing its best to avoid funding the eight billion pound cycling and walking strategy.  It’s all blah, blah, blah and very little action.





It means  that Grant Shapps, because he is transport top dog, is singled out for Blah of the Year Award, even though he might not be the villain at all, simply the messenger delivering confused tidings.

He might be kept guessing like the rest of us, told what to say by the Oracle, someone guiding policy from deep in the heart of government, some Blofeld figure with a glass eye sitting in an armchair and stroking a cat. Or it might even be Dominic Cummings who has never really gone away.

We’ll never know.

What we do know for certain though, is that nothing has changed since that great deception of 1996, when the National Cycling Strategy was launched with no funding whatsoever.

Loathe as I am to follow up my most recent blog on government deception with another tilt at the devious bunch, I changed my mind upon learning that Cycling UK’s Policy Director Roger Geffen is pleading for ministerial help to get the delayed Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy Report published.

Geffen says that for over a year now the government “has been sitting on a report showing how much more funding it must spend to meet its own targets to increase cycling and walking by 2025.”

His report published last week in a Cycling UK news email to members is full of complex detail but I think I've got the gist of it.

About year and half ago Geffen persuaded an MP to table a parliamentary question asking when the Strategy - commissioned in 2018 - might be published.  He learnt it would be ready for publication early in 2019, almost a year later than promised.  There had been delays!  Guess what? It wasn’t published in 2019.

 

This from Geffen: “Unfortunately, the Treasury didn’t want this to happen – presumably because the research said that meeting the Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy targets would require a lot more money than the Treasury was prepared to spend.”

Which was a fraction of the 27 billion pounds they are prepared to spend on new roads.

Last year when Geffen asked if the report would be published in full, he was told that the DfT might publish parts of it…blah,blah, blah… but not the whole of it!  They were being as inscrutable as the panellists on Television’s “Would I Lie to You”.

He continued to press for the release of the missing parts of the report, before and after the country went into lockdown.

There was then more government blah blah, building up all our hopes, when transport secretary Grant Shapps announced 2billion for cycling and walking over five years. Well, this pleased the campaigners, until they realised it was a few billion short of what was required.

For although it was a six-fold increase on the funding announced in 2017, it was but a fraction of what is required now –between six and eight billions pound, if the government is to meet its 2025 targets.

Then in July hopes were raised again when Blah in Chief, the Prime Minister announced blah, blah his “Gear change” vision for cycling and walking, together with new cycling infrastructure design guidance. 

This included the excellent government funding for “Pop Up” cycle lanes when lockdown was prematurely ended last year. Sadly, the Pop Up lanes are now a distant memory as many of them have since controversially been ripped out.

Last month when Shapps gave evidence to the Commons Transport Select Committee he avoided answering a question as to whether the much delayed report Geffen is keen to see actually  exists.

Instead he  throws more blah into the ring, announcing the government’s target is to increase cycling and walking by 50 percent in towns and cities and the target date to achieve this was to be extended by five years. So, pushing it back a few more years. More delaying tactics.

This of course begs the question, 50 per cent of what? 50-per cent of 2-per cent? That’s the current woefully low figure which has remained largely unchanged for some three decades? That would lift cycling trips to the magnificent figure of three per cent of all modes, whereas in Holland bike use is 27 per cent of all modal trips.

Then comes another below the belt punch -  the government blah, blah makes a 15 per cent cut in the active travel budget!

And all the while, no one has seen the government funding report which is supposed to say exactly what needs to be done.

 BLAH, blah, blah, blah………….

 

Monday, 8 March 2021

THE DISTORTIONS AND LIES AT THE HEART OF GOVERNMENT TRANSPORT POLICY

 


TWO legal cases caught my eye last month.

The first was Cycling UK’s legal action against West Sussex County Council, objecting to the removal of a successful pop-up cycle lane installed following lockdown last year.

The second legal case reported recently was Transport Action Network’s bid to halt the government’s controversial 27 billion pound expansion of England’s road network, on environmental grounds.



Good luck with that one!

It is claimed that transport secretary Grant Schapps overrode official advice to review road building plans when it became apparent the scheme would mean the UK breaching the Paris Agreement to cut pollution levels to zero by 2050.

Schapps says the claim is baseless but will not justify why it is baseless.

Because he can't, probably.

Of course, government lawyers back him up saying that Schapps has no need to provide reasons for saying so.

Only last week it was revealed in a European Union court that the UK has consistently failed to control air pollution for a decade, in particular from diesels.

The case began before Britain left the EU and the legal limits remain in UK laws.

The report says that dirty air causes 40,000 early deaths every year in the UK.

Britain will do its best to fudge  this ruling, and dodge the issues over their road building plans.

Proving yet again that it takes a lot to shake a moronic  cabinet when it has decided on a course of action, even when it will pump more shit into our lungs. Nothing must be allowed to spoil their love affair with their pals in the road construction business. Road building  is considered a vote winner whereas cycling, despite all the many health benefits for the nation,  is not.

However, we can take heart to recall  one monstrous road scheme they were forced to abandon. 




It brings to mind an interview I had with a transport minister in the 1980s, when Robert Key – if I recall the name correctly – defended plans to build Link Roads either side of the M25.

The M25 London orbital was built to relieve London of heavy traffic going to and from the Channel ports and other key destinations.

However, it also attracted local traffic diving on and off, using it to reach the many out of town superstores which were springing  up all over the country. And so the M25 became too congested.

Cue to build Link Roads either side to relieve the M-way. Except by now it had become established that new roads often generate even more traffic. How to balance this phenomena with the need to reduce vehicle pollution which is now seen as an absolute necessity.

Answer, stop building more giant roads if, as is likely, more traffic will be generated as a result. 

He was a portly man, was Key, a cheerful friendly guy, bit like the liar who is now our prime minister.

The proposed Link Roads would make the M25 12 lanes wide! At our meeting he went out of his way to avoid admitting this.

No, it’s not a 12-lane motorway, he insisted. The Link Roads are separate.

But the link roads, as you call them, will be laid right next to the M25, all the way around London, and that makes it a 12-lane highway, I said.

 No, no, it’s not a 12-lane highway, he insisted.  The link roads are separate.

Look, I said, if you view this from the air, you will look down on your Link Roads system and see it has  three lanes running  on either side of the six-lane (four lanes near Heathrow) M25.

That makes 12 lanes – 14 near Heathrow. And they will be connected by huge interchanges twice the size of what’s in place now. And they will become a barrier to vulnerable road users wanting to cross it on the normal highway.

I said to him how did he imagine cyclists would cope with threading the huge interchanges if no provision was to made for them? Because no provision was made for cyclists.



He hadn’t given cyclists a thought.

I am pleased to say the Link Roads were never built thanks to long-running and huge campaigns staged by Friends of the Earth and communities around the M25. This action succeeded in generating massive press and TV coverage.  One major newspaper ran a front page story with an artist’s impression of the giant roadway across the full width of the page. The editorial described it as the biggest road system in Europe, the equal of the multi-lane highways of LA.

The public learned of the expected impact of extra pollution and increased traffic flow on local roads connecting to the new highway. Such was the furore the government were forced to abandon its plans. Or put them on hold! Keep any eye out in case they ever try this one again.

Meanwhile, on a much smaller scale – but one which could  resonate nationwide -  is Cycling UK’s legal case  against West Sussex County Council for taking take out a popular cycle lane introduced in Shoreham-by-Sea during lockdown.

The case rests on Cycling UK’s claim that the council failed “to carry out an equality impact assessment before making the decision to remove the cycle lane.”

It had only been in place two months and thirty thousand rides were registered on it. This was one of a spate of pop up cycle lane removals across the country as local authorities acted with unseemly haste to get rid of them in response to minority groups protesting that loss of road space was causing congestion!

It was mostly all bollocks

In West Sussex’s case the council chose to ignore its own data revealing its popularity with users and which reported no negative impact on journey times nor increase in air pollution during the very little time the cycle lane was in place.

In general, transport planners just don’t get cyclists and pedestrians, despite the many campaigns and reports explaining how to do so. They never have and there is no sign they ever will.

It was this ignorance which led to civil engineer John Grimshaw MBE to

put cycling routes on the map in the UK, quite literally. He did so in the 1970s by creating Sustrans (Sustainable Transport) and set about converting disused railway lines into cycling and walking paths. He followed this by creating the 16,000mile National Cycle and walking network, funded in the beginning by the Bicycle trade and the Millennium Commission in 1995.

Grimshaw was one of the few engineers who understood the needs of cyclists. He rode a bike purely for utility purposes and pretty quickly realised how hostile the road network can be and a deterrent to cycling for many. He told me he was frustrated by engineering colleagues who just didn’t understand the needs of cyclists and pedestrians who over the years have been designed out of the road system. 

Grimshaw realised that many people, and especially the young would simply never ride a bike and therefore not acquire any road craft if the roads were not made safer for them.

That’s why he determined to create traffic free paths along disused railway routes, as safe places to ride, so that with confidence gained, they would eventually venture on to the roads.

I must also mention the National Byway (National Byway Trust), covering  over three thousand miles  around  quiet roads in England and parts of Scotland and Wales, connecting with sites of historical interest. It includes 60 loops for one day rides. Three sections remain to be sign-posted.  They need funding to do this, plus funding for a three-year marketing plan and staff to meet public demand and run a PR program.

But  the sums involved in helping create both of these fine networks 

fall far short of the billions of pounds required to make the national road system safer for cyclists. 

Even when ministers do a good talk on the need to make th e roads safer, they often fail to follow through. For instance when a new traffic layout at Kings Cross in London was completed a few years ago, cyclists needs had once again been ignored. I'm not sure if any remedial work has since taken place.

A few years ago in an interview in Cycling Weekly, a minister was asked if she thought traffic planners were any closer to understanding the cyclist-pedestrian concept.

She replied that, sadly no, they have still have some way to go!

And only a couple of months ago I heard from a civil engineer who himself is a member of Cycling UK who  regretted to say that in his experience  civil engineers in general still had no clue how to plan for cyclists and pedestrians.

FINALLY.......

Last week’s Budget contained no extra investment for cycling, leaving Cycling UK red faced and very angry. No surprise there.

It proves yet again that Britain has no interest in improving the safety of the highway for cyclists,   beyond providing peanuts here and there.

Cycling UK’s policy director Roger Geffen will be feeling especially aggrieved, for he received an MBE in 2015 in recognition of his tireless efforts promoting cycling, with a  huge chunk of his time devoted to lobbying government for decent funding. 

In retrospect perhaps his award was really for banging his head against a brick wall.

What Geffen said in 2015:

 “I’m humbled to be appointed an MBE but I still wish the government would find some serious funding for cycling, far more than me having three letters after my name!

Give it back, Roger.

 

Sunday, 7 February 2021

TV actor's role in cycle lane backlash

 

A once well known  television star has played a major role in persuading his local council the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea to rip out their experimental cycle lane less than two months after it was installed.

CYCLE, the flagship mag of national cycling organization Cycling UK, in their article entitled “Beat the Backlash”, has the details.

It appears that since Kensington yanked out their cycle lane at the end of last year, other authorities across the country are doing the same.


A pop up cycle lane in London.



CYCLE says there appears to be a country-wide backlash by a various loud minorities objecting to losing road space, but that this does not reflect public opinion.

It’s probably the motoring fraternity who consider all roads to be motoring roads, although Kensington council say they are responding to complaints from residents and businesses.

The actor - I will deny him the oxygen of publicity, even in this little blog  -  is known for "playing the quintessential, old school Englishman with his dashing good looks, cut-glass accent and thoroughly charming manner" - to quote Wikipedia.

He also has previous form attacking cycling.

In an anti-cycling article in a major newspaper some years ago he played the role of a cad berating bike riders - cad, as you may know is an old school Englishman's expression for a fellow who behaves discourteously. You and I may prefer another word from the Chambers Dictionary - twat.

He may well have been justified in complaining about an incident on the road but he couldn’t stop there. The mean-spirited tone of the piece made it clear that the very existence of cyclists on the same stretch of tarmac as himself were not to be tolerated.

Critics of cyclists  conveniently overlook the fact that motorists head the league table for clogging up roads and for dangerous and careless driving which cause serious injury and death. No cyclist has ever killed a motorist.

But this generally goes without comment because the public is so used to bad driving, whereas the cyclists who make one dodgy move get it the neck. And often we are honked at by a driver who cannot bare to be held up for few seconds. 

In his latest appearance, this time for a Sunday  newspaper  I consider so awful I will not write the name,  actor complained that “Disastrous, poorly designed and EMPTY cycle lanes have resulted in gridlock every day – and streets choked with fumes.”

Borough chiefs falling over themselves to please their VIP resident promptly removed the bollards marking out the cycle lane, ignoring opposition from BBC presenter Jeremy Vine and Extinction Rebellion protesters.

The London Mayor, Sadiq Khan waded in with criticism of the Borough, as did parents, children and teachers of a local primary school. A protest outside the town hall was to no avail. Stuff them all.

The full width of the road has been given back to the motors and the borough say they will look to provide alternative back street routes for cycling,   as if they think people just want anywhere to play at cycling rather than use the main routes to travel to the shops, school and work.

The Pop Ups were installed, you will recall, when the Covid-19 lockdown was prematurely lifted last summer. This was in response to the  thousands of people who had got on their bikes  for permitted exercise during lockdown, and who  enjoyed riding on empty safer roads breathing in the clean air as traffic pollution levels dropped. 

The  government provided two billion pounds in Active Travel Funding  and instructed  local authorities to grab road space for bikes before the filth returned.

The idea was to encourage the returning work force, wary of the risk of infection from using crowded public transport,  to use bikes instead.

The scheme was warmly applauded by cycling organisations who couldn't believe their luck and it was hoped this would lead to more permanent cycle lane installations.

Surveys showed that the majority of the public were in favour. A YouGov poll carried out on behalf of Cycling UK revealed that 61 per cent of people agreed with the statement “we should make it easier for people to cycle by building more separated cycle lanes”.

It was a nice honeymoon while it lasted.

Cycling UK is looking into whether legal action may be taken against those authorities who have removed the lanes. Don’t hold your breath.

 COMMENT

I once lived in the Royal Borough, sharing a house in cobbled Adam and Eve Mews just off Ken High Street.  There were six of us: me and another Adam, plus four Eves. I knew the borough like the back of my  hand, cycling all over London and to the countryside beyond on my training runs, and also roller skating  in Kensington Gardens.

I would ride 10 miles to Finsbury Park CC club nights in North London on Mondays and  most days ride the few miles to Cycling's offices, then in Fleet Street. Blimey, I was fit back then.

I liked  Kensington High Street, the whole area in fact. It's full of shops, cafes, pubs in the side streets. I especially liked the fashion store BIBA, now long gone,  and all the varied clothes stalls in Kensington Market, and Slick Willies, the skate shop. I still have the bright blue sweat top I bought there back in 1975!

Ken  High is a major route into and out of London, a busy residential area and so clearly it would benefit from having a cycle lane. 

It seems such a draconian thing to do to simply rip out the experimental cycle lane without first trying to resolve the pros and cons. 

This affair is a stark reminder that in Britain, planners just don't get cycling.

Tuesday, 19 January 2021

Stay "local" - what a conundrum!

 

Stay “local” when exercising – whatever that may be!




 Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s advice to stay local when taking exercise was typically vague. This came with the reintroduction of the current lockdown following the predictable post-Christmas surge of the Pandemic as a result, it is believed, of the PM allowing family gatherings for turkey.

Now he's saying we may exercise, but stay "local".

Would the PM care t0 define what is meant by "local", he was asked by British Cycling and Cycling UK.  I haven't read of his response.

He could have suggested a radius from home, say three or maybe six miles. That would be clearly understood.

But we know better than to expect the  PM to be more specific, as his advice  to relax our guard a to enjoy a limited Christmas family get-together proved.

Perhaps he’d heard the virus was going home for the festivities and wouldn’t be back until Boxing Day.

He rabbited on and on about wanting us all to have a normal family Christmas with grandparents and a few relatives thrown in.  In doing so, revealed his complete lack of empathy for the many thousands of people who live alone and don’t have a family and so had no prospect of a risking a shared Christmas even before the Pandemic increased their isolation.

Pressed by his scientific advisors fearing closer contact over Christmas would see the virus spread, Boris rowed back a bit.

Celebrate Christmas. Don’t celebrate Christmas. Invite the grandparents – if you have any.

One aunty, one uncle, or one nephew and perhaps a niece. You’ll have filled the six spots before you know it.

Apply the two-metre rule, even at the dining table. Small table? Eat in shifts.

Meet over the garden fence, for those who have gardens.

He couldn’t bring himself to say stuff Christmas get togethers and stay safe.

So, to the exercise conundrum.

Local means different things to different people, as recent news stories have revealed. For many bike riders used to clocking up 80 to 100 miles local might mean a thirty mile jaunt.

Boris’s own interpretation of staying local by cycling at the London Olympic Park seven miles from Downing Street drew criticism for not being local at all. He should have gone round St James Park or Hyde Park, only a few minutes away, said his detractors.

The “science” says the point of staying local is to reduce the chances of spreading the virus to other areas – should you be an unwitting carrier.

So what sort of distance should “local" mean in this context? Perhaps Boris might have suggested a radius of X miles, not stray beyond that.

What should it be, three miles radius, six miles?

That would be clear.

Staying local is no problem for me. I define local to mean no more than four miles from the house.

Perhaps even that is too far?

I’ve been limiting my cycling to within three or four miles of the house for nearly two years now, because my wife and I are carers of our chronically ill daughter and it doesn’t do for either of us to be away from home for more than an hour.

So our house has been practicing “lockdown” for years before the virus locked up everyone else.

I missed doing decent rides to begin within.  But needs must –- as the saying goes.

Now I’ve got quite used to my limited field of play, going out most mornings at 8am, before the house is up.

I’m lucky we live in a small market town in the middle of North Downs in Surrey, and I can be out into the countryside within minutes.

I shoot through town out and back on a cycle track beside a trunk road.  Occasionally, when the legs let me, I take a loop onto a quieter roads up the mini-alp,  lifting me up 400 feet to the top of downs. Then back down and into a local wine estate for a few laps of a small road circuit servicing the facility. 

For variety I can also exit town in the other direction, out and back to a  village one mile away, over a few minor drags. I  retrace through my town,  head out of the other side to the vineyard for a few finishing circuits.

As the saying goes, Ride your bike, ride your bike, ride your bike.

It’s doesn’t matter you don’t go far, just keep those pedals turning.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tuesday, 5 January 2021

A RIDE ON THE WILD SIDE

 

NOWADAYS when the temperature is hovering on freezing I don’t go cycling, for fear of ice on the road, especially where water runs off fields.

When I was younger it never used to concern me, nor my club mates, even when on occasion we all went down like skittles on an icy patch of road.

We just laughed, bounced back up and carried on. Carefree! Lucky! The obvious danger from other traffic just never occurred to us.

One day we completely ignored a really bad weather forecast  and set out on a club run.

We took no heed. Foolish youth!




I can still recall a police officer’s shouted warning.

“HANG on lads, hang on…severe weather warning. Gale force winds…his other words were carried away on the wind… this morning…” shouted the police officer, as he ran towards us. 

Thank you officer, we called out, and kept going.

What did he say? Asked a club mate riding up alongside of me.

Not sure, something about force…I answered.

Nothing could be allowed interrupt the Sunday club run. Well, heavy rain would probably do it.

But not when blessed with a fine wind blowing us all the way to Warrington. Trees bowed this way and that, waved their branches at us. Overhead wires sang their tortured songs. We chatted, as you do, about six of us in two lines. Hardly another soul to be seen.

It is 15 miles exactly from our starting point from the Rocket Pub in Liverpool to the Warrington boundary sign, along flat roads.

And we covered that distance in half-an-hour!

15 miles in half-an-hour! THIRTY MPH.

We looked at each other in amazement.

What did that copper say?

Gale Force 10, someone recalled.

Met Office Definition...

“A gale force wind is a sustained strong windregistering between 7-10 on the Beaufort Scale, which indicates wind speeds of between 50 and 102 km/h (32 - 63 mph).

Bloody Hell!

At sea Gale Force 10 throws ships onto rocks.

On land it could easily drive a cyclist off the road, up the verge and tip him over a barbed wire fence into a field!

I was all for turning home immediately. The others decided to carry in the vain hope the gale would abate for their return! Or you’ll be in Scotland for tea, was my parting shot!

I figured differently and alone I charted a circular route to avoid a direct headwind, hoping I might fare better with side winds.

It was the hardest ride of my life, trying to keep the bike going in a straight line.

I recall two stand out moments quite vividly.

The first was on a narrow lane cutting between flat open fields and farm buildings, where barn doors creaked and banged in the wind.  I was taking the brunt of the wind on my left shoulder and I was leaning into it. But an unseen force in the air, like a massive wall of pressure, was pushing me slowly but surely into the centre of the road. There was nothing I could do and I eventually found myself hard up against the grass verge on the right, still moving painfully forwards at walking pace.

I was now on the wrong side of the road. Try as I might, I could not move back to the other side of the road.

Then I was pushed up on to the verge, which was cut grass and easy to ride. Finally, still just about making headway, the gale pushed me up against a fence. Yes, the barbed wire fence was waiting for me and unceremoniously and without fanfare, and in slow motion and still fastened to the pedals; I went bike over head  and into the field, 

I had this view of my wheels against the sky. There I was, lying there in a ploughed field, unscathed and laughing at my impromptu attempt at  slapstick! Charly Chaplin would have been proud.

I struggled to release my feet from the pedals and quickly got to my feet, looking around in embarrassment anxious that no one had seen  my folly!

No one had. There was not a soul to be seen. My honour was intact.

The rest of the ride home is lost in a blur of images of  thrashing tree branches,  hedgerows twisting this way and that, rubbish bowling towards to me, the sky all of a rushing noise.

But I well remember the descent of Parbold Hill near Ormskirk.

This was my second vivid recollection.

Normally you would take this descent at speed, in top gear.

Not that day. For the hill barely checked the   roaring wind which rushed across the flat plain from the Irish Sea some 10 miles due west, sweeping up the slopes with renewed vigour,  bringing me  almost to a standstill.

No one will believe this. But I was forced to stand on the pedals, as I strived to 

turn bottom gear,  all the way down to the bottom. 

A few miles on my course swung to the south onto the dual-carriageway Preston to Liverpool trunk road, bringing welcome relief as the wind was now placed squarely on my right. But gusts still blew me all over the place and so I took refuge by riding on the cycle path, safe from what little traffic there was.

I reached home exhausted.  Pushed open the back garden gate and just got through before my howling tormentor slammed it shut with a crash, as though to say, "You've been lucky today, you little bastard." 

 “Bit windy today, dear?”  said my mum.

My dad just gave me a look. He knew!

 

 

 

 

Monday, 28 December 2020

 

All aboard, we’re off to Stockholm, by rail this time.

Following my Liverpool trip in a previous blog, this time I recall a trip to Sweden. 

By rail, not air, which has lost much of its allure.

I like an airport where you can walk across the tarmac to the sleek flying machine. Now, airports have become garish shopping malls and  restaurants. 

Oddly, you need to pass through passport control and customs to get to the shops.

After a while you move into a large room with other people, and from there down a windowless corridor  to a doorway into a small cylinder packed with rows and rows of seats.

Last time we flew we waited 90 minutes on the runway because of violent thunderstorms! Did wonders for the nerves.

At last, the captain announced that the tower had told him they could just about see a hole in the storm clouds, big enough to get through. But that we had to be quick before it closed!!!...GO...GO...GO.

Great roaring sound and we are pressed back into the seat as everything tilts upwards and we are catapulted into the sky and through that hole, presumably. Exciting bit over. 

Then there is silence, stillness, no sense of movement through the motionless sky. And then everything happens in reverse. Great noise, bump, and then out of the cylinder, into a corridor and voila, another shopping mall where all the signs are incorrectly spelt.

Next time we went by rail and spent two days travelling through northern Europe: four changes of trains in all.


                                            Changing trains at Cologne.

This was a 2,000 kilometres (approx.) rail journey from Surrey to Stockholm, located in the south of Sweden, on roughly the same longitude as Edinburgh.

Whereas Edinburgh is at the northern end of the UK, Stockholm is at the southern end of Sweden, which stretches a further 1000 kilometres north into the land of the reindeer, across the Arctic Circle.

Long hot summer days in Stockholm (18 hours of daylight at the June solstice) brings the mozzies out by the water and contrasts with very cold long winter nights (18 hours of darkness in January) when the ice breakers go to the work in the Baltic.

I recall an earlier visit at Christmas when everything was a glistening frozen white

beneath a blue, cloudless sunny sky.  It was minus 17c and that was at midday!

Although flying is quicker, it still takes the best part of a day to get to Stockholm with all the faffing about getting to and from and in out of airports.

Rail is city to city and you have a sense of place because you get to look out of the window at the world going by noting the subtle changes in landscape and buildings as you go.

At 09.35 we depart our local station for London Waterloo and take a taxi from there to St Pancras International, admiring the beautifully restored 19th century Midland Railway terminus with its blue painted roof curving high over the sleek 18-car Eurostar trains.  The roof boasts the largest span of a railway station in the UK.

There we board the 12.57 Eurostar for Brussels in Belgium, a 2 hour 11 minute ride for the 232 mile journey, at a top speed of 186mph!  At Brussels we change trains and take the Thalys express to Cologne in Germany, a 1 hour and 45 minutes ride.

From Cologne we board the Night City Link, a sleeper, for Copenhagen in Denmark, arriving there the following day, Sunday. This long train has connections for Berlin and Warsaw, and suffers delays on its journey. Instead of nine and half hours, it takes 13 hours!

Finally, from Copenhagen, we are due to take the X2000 express for Stockholm, the Swedish capital. But because we are late, we must rearrange our booking for later in the day.  So we take a local train to Malmo, just across the water in Sweden (via the spectacular 7.8-kilometre long bridge over Baltic Sound), to enjoy a splendid late lunch in the station. Finally we join the inter-city express for the final 500 kilometres to Stockholm, arriving Sunday evening, some 32 hours after setting out.

It amused us that during this great trek, the mobile phone services of each country kept track of where we were, sending us text messages of “welcome” to punctuate our journey across the borders of five countries.

“Welcome to France,” as we popped out of the Channel tunnel, and soon after that. “Welcome to Belgium”. Later that evening, “Welcome to Germany”. At about 8.30 the following day, “Welcome to Denmark”. Finally, that afternoon, “Welcome to Sweden”.

But therein lies a rail traveller’s tale, of a mixture of emotions. The excitement and anticipation interspersed with anxiety at the prospect of missed connections. There were four changes of train across Europe, in Belgium, Germany, Denmark and Sweden.

The longest delay came on the second day, in Denmark, when just after 9am the engine failed at a place called Vojens. We were told another loco would be despatched and in the meantime, why don’t we stretch our legs on the platform and enjoy the sunshine.

I recall one guy who was wearing a tee-shirt with a most appropriate message across the chest: “Where’s my train?”…!

Did he know something?


        An unscheduled stop somewhere in Denmark: Where's my train?



Eventually the new loco turned up and our overland rail adventure, now considerably delayed, continued.

All made possible by the Channel Tunnel, at 50 kilometres from end to end - thirty seven of those under water - the longest underwater tunnel in the world.

Takes the train thirty five minutes to get through, at 160kph an hour.

At the lowest point, you are sitting 75 metres deep below the sea bed and 115 metres below sea level.

Best not dwell upon that!

Upon our return I was struck by how small and claustrophobic Eurostar seemed compared to the larger, more spacious European trains, which run to a wider loading gauge than in Britain.

That wasn't the only difference. 

There were no checks whatsoever  as the train crossed the borders between France, Belgium, Germany, Denmark and Sweden where train staff greeted us with broad smiles and a welcome. 

This contrasted starkly with the  British border control for Eurostar at Brussels manned by unsmiling glaring officials resembling prison officers, waiting to process everyone back into custody in Fortress Britain.

The draw bridge gets pulled up for good on New Year's Eve.