In May/June 2019, I am cycling the length on Britain, visiting all the places that I have lived and a few friends along the way. This is a charity ride aimed to raise funds for Alzheimer's Research UK and the Spinal Injuries Association. I will also have fun looking for various features along the way and exploring the meaning of memory
The next place to visit on Down Memory Lane is Durham – where I was at University from 1974 to 1977. I was nominally attached to Van Mildert College but apart from staying in rooms there for the first year, I had little to do with the college. I spent more time working on the Durham Students Union entertainments, becoming social secretary for a year, but in fact a bit longer due to my predecessor needing to step aside a term or two early. I think the training on organising events (concerts and discos) was equally useful to the formal degree training in Zoology (with a year’s Psychology).
But first there was the small matter of getting over the Pennines from Newbiggin-on-Lune. As can be seen below, there were two long and fairly brutal climbs. The first starts at Brough in North Yorkshire and finishes at the boundary of County Durham. The climb was accompanied by the sound of heavy machine gun fire from the nearby army ranges! Prior to Brough, the roads went through 20 km of amazing upland scenery. A total of six vehicles passed me (regardless of direction) and I should think that I saw ten times that many curlews. Curlew calls are one of my global favourites – sadly they are long gone from the patch of rough wetland next to our house that is now being built upon. Maybe we should propose “Curlew Crescent” for one of the street names in memory of what was once there (along with Snipe Street).
Among the events that were organised, partly outside the Student’s Union was an annual free festival, held on the banks of the River Wear – known as Domefest after the wooden domes that used to be assembled, led by the few that knew how to put the beams together.
For those not used to Doric, the word drookit means thoroughly wet and miserable. Yesterday was drookit, which was sad as the route took me over some of the finest South Lake District scenery and back into the northern end of the Yorkshire Dales.
Anyone in the UK will know that it has been unseasonably wet and cold, and I was very glad to have got through Lincolnshire before the floods had struck there. It had rained heavily in Barrow overnight and there were plenty of deep puddles to navigate around (bikes tend not to go through as floods can hide some pretty large potholes)
The route was mostly surrounded by hedges or woods for which I was grateful as they gave me shelter from the mostly northerly (head) wind. I failed to get a photo on the second ferry crossing of the journey (across Windermere) being partly fascinated by the blue bin liners being worn by two of the other cyclists on the crossing, and partly struggling to put back on my waterproof trousers as I was getting cold.
Apologies for this blog being a day late. The hotel last night had very dodgy wifi and I have now learned that WordPress and bad wifi do not mix. The day started well with a relatively short ride to Barrow-in-Furness from John and Fi’s house.
In 1974 I was employed by Oxford University’s Animal Behaviour Research Group under Niko Tinbergen as a research assistant on South Walney Nature Reserve. The post would probably be described as an intern these days as I received no pay, just full board and lodgings. My role also included cooking for the group of students and others on a shoestring budget. This was my reason for coming to Barrow-in-Furness and Walney. I enjoyed my time (basically the gull breeding season) very much and learned a lot of seabird biology (not just animal behaviour) in what was then a huge gull colony of 10s of thousand pairs – mostly herring and lesser black-backed gulls. My main research role was to check around 1000 nests on a near daily basis to track the progress of each. I put colour rings on each of the chicks as they hatched (having first marked each egg as it had been laid). The gulls tended to attack intruders by swooping, sometimes bashing your head with their feet, and often dumping on you too. For these reasons we were issued with a brown lab coat (the “shoat”) and a safety helmet that we attached to the back of the shoat with a wide piece of cloth. If we had a spare hand, we would carry a bamboo in the air too.
Anne has driven down from Banchory to be with me (when not cycling) for a couple of days, so we went to Walney in the afternoon and had a look around. The first thing that struck me on the way down was the replacement of a monster rubbish tip by a large green hill. This tip used to feed quite a few gulls. The next thing that struck me was the almost total lack of gulls. We found out that between 1 and 2 thousand are all that are left, at the far end of the reserve. There have also been a lot of earthworks near the coastguard cottages to create some wetland habitat. One of the hides overlooking one pond was called the Tinbergen hide – there were no signposts for it though and we stumbled upon it almost by accident. It turned out to be a wonderful shrine to the man – and different to any other bird hide that I had been in.
Anyone living in the UK reading this on publication date will know that yesterday was another horrible one weather-wise. It was also my day allocated for crossing the Pennines and Yorkshire Dales with my longest distance yet (122 km) and greatest ascent (1967 m) -running totals: 1604 km, 14869 m) – that total is also 4 miles short of the 1000 mile mark for the metrically challenged!
The weather stayed dry, but with a very strong northerly (therefore cold) wind for the first big climb of the day. As I was going up this I was encouraged by adverts for a café at the top – only to find the inevitable closed sign…
I pedalled onwards and eventually a café associated with some caves came into sight and I bolted into it for coffee and cake.
While I was in there, another long distance cyclist came in, only the third that I have seen (as identified on the presence of loaded panniers) but the first that I have talked to. He was doing a coast to coast run on behalf of Suicide Prevention and taking 4 days over it. He had only started cycling 6 months ago and it emerged that his charity was due to his grandfather committing suicide on the D-Day anniversary last year. It was only after he died that his war record was discovered and it turned out that he was one of the first ashore on D-Day whose job it was to dynamite his way through the barbed wire on the beach to let his fellow troops follow. Bad dynamite had led to a return to his landing craft and a bullet wound to his leg before he was successful. He then saw quite a lot of his comrades killed. He received an award for this bravery but it seems that PTSD can lie latent for many years. It was a shame that my Grandfather’s armoured division was not bigger still – that armour saved a lot of lives. I wished my fellow cyclist the best for both his cause and his ride.
The rain came as the general drift of the route turned northwards into the wind and at the start of another long climb. The top of the hill here was miserable and I could hardly see due to water on my glasses. I did though register a couple of snipe flying off (new species). The bit that hurts on the hills though is not so much the long climbs (or descents) as the incessant little climbs. The short descents are soon over, so it feels like one long climb into the wind and rain. I was very cold (shivering) by the time I arrived into Settle and was glad to be able to get into another dry café and add some layers of clothing. This did not seem like the English summer weather that I had looked forward to.
I was very pleased to see Fi (later joined by John) who were kindly giving me a bed and delicious supper. I initially worked with, and later shared a house with, John near Aberdeen in the early 1980s and I think had introduced them to each other then. They had moved away later so it was good to catch up with them. John had in turn introduced me to Dawes bicycles – so has a link to this ride. It was good to see them and to catch up a little.
I think that I passed the half way mark on the journey today; another one that was wet, but the lack of wind made it better. Another very welcome mark also passed – £6000 on the sponsorship page. An article in that august publication, the Dunmow Broadcast, gained me some sponsorship (and also added to my conscious memories!), as did a post on my sister Jo’s blog. The damp today restricted my use of the camera (maybe I should have got a waterproof Go-pro), so apologies for fewer than usual pictures.
The forecast was ok for the start of the day, but then seemed a bit uncertain as to how wet it would get, so I set off as early as I reasonably could from Dave and Pauline’s in Hedon – I am still so pleased to be seeing many friends there a full 40 years after I left. The first part of the journey was around Hull on their very good cycling infrastructure – city with the biggest tick for that yet and then up to Beverley – it too has a Minster.
Onwards towards Pocklington and about 5 km short of that destination there was a loud bang from my rear wheel. I knew immediately that a spoke had pinged and a swift inspection confirmed that. It was raining quite hard so I decided to go to Pocklington which seemed likely to have a cycle shop. It did, just it was closed on Mondays – and there was no sign/no answer from another place that came up on Google. So I retreated to a café in Pocklington and studied my route to discover that it went more or less straight past a cycle shop in the northern outskirts of York, just 25 km away. Cycle Scene confirmed they could repair the wheel as soon as I got there, and sure enough that is exactly what they did. This was a really professional service and a credit to cycle mechanics everywhere. The replacement spoke would have taken me most of 2 hours or so – getting it done in less that 20 minutes, along with a gear tune up was fantastic. They also confirmed that the route that I was taking to Boroughbridge was the best and most scenic. A fine toll bridge at Aldwark was free for bicycles, but cars were paying a whole 40p to avoid a 25 mile detour. Not much later I was into Boroughbridge after a good ride despite the rain.
Today’s statistics: 113 km (new record) running total: 1482 km. Ascent: 439 m, 14902 overall. 3 tubs – running total: 69. No new bird or mammal records.
There is a lot of argument as to where “the North” is in England, but I think everyone agrees that Yorkshire definitely is the North. In 1978 and 1979, I had a job at Hull University working on the birds of the Humber Estuary. I moved to the small town of Hedon, just east of Hull and today’s ride took me there. First though was to enjoy myself pedalling through north Lincolnshire. The lanes here as everywhere are picturesque and beautiful.
Eventually the Humber Bridge came into view. This was at one time the longest single span suspension bridge in the world at a little over 2 km. It was being built at the time that I lived in Hedon, and if we wanted to visit the south bank of the Humber, we took the ferry. I know at least one person who was sea-sick on that ferry. The bridge was partly built with an eye to bringing more trade to Hull from the south of England, but the mooted motorway link southwards was never built. It was also built to try to unite the two sides of the Humber into the then county of Humberside. This creation of a county did not go down well north of the river where the east riding of Yorkshire did not want to be detached from their fellow Yorkshire tykes. I am not certain what the Lincolnshire “yellow-bellies” thought of the deal. Yorkshire has a greater population than Scotland – in other words it could be a country on its own. some of its proud citizens would prefer this to the sort of bureaucracy that created Humberside!
Hull is also fairly independently- minded – perhaps its most obvious feature to the external eye are the cream-coloured phone-boxes. These are because the then Hull (strictly Kingston-Upon-Hull) city council had set up its own telephone company and decided not to join the UK wide company (now BT) when it was formed, so never adopted the red colour for telephone boxes.
Although I did not travel further east than Hedon on this visit, the lands there where I worked were very like the flatlands of the fens, having also been claimed from the sea.
The lasting highlight of my stay in Hedon has been the friends that I made. I had rented a terraced house in the grandly-named “The Boulevard” and my nearest pub was the Station run by a very friendly man called Dick Hargreaves. His style had attracted a group of very friendly locals who were kind enough to adopt a slightly odd ornithologist who enjoyed getting cold while staring through binoculars and telescope at remote dots on the mudflats. Even though I only lived here for a short while, several are still friends (sadly some have passed away) and Dave and Pauline kindly invited me to stay for the night. A reunion at the Station seemed appropriate. It was great to see them, and we were sad that a few others could not join us for good reason.
Today’s statistics: 98 km, 1369 km overall. Ascent: 474 m, 12463 m overall. 5 tubs in fields, one new bird species – yellow wagtail, and I forgot to mention yesterday’s peregrine at Lincoln cathedral.
I have been very lucky on this trip so far to only have rain for part of days (not so lucky in those days coincided with days where I particularly wanted to see certain things in the outdoors). Today was bad from beginning to end, with continuous rain and a strong westerly (and therefore mostly side) wind. I did not get many photos as my camera is not waterproof.
Today was a decisive swing northwards from Peterborough to Lincoln. I have never been to Lincoln before. The flatlands continued for about a third of the journey, with few hedges to interrupt the rain, but before I left Peterborough, I had two calls to make. First was to the flat where I stayed when I was here; this was just off Lincoln Road (handy) and I rented from a very characterful gentleman called Steve who came from what is now Zimbabwe. He was a tennis umpire, but had been moved to be a line judge at Wimbledon due to age. One of the highlights of living in Peterborough was using the four tickets that he got to take Mum, Dad and Anne to Wimbledon. Steve lived on his own and was always good for a chat. Sadly he is no longer with us.
My other call was in to buy a new rain jacket, having discovered that my old one was just that, old and leaky. Terry Wright Cycles was on the route, and is strongly recommended as a proper bike shop. Photos of my new red top will follow!
One of my friends in Peterborough suggested that I was surely bored bicycling so much – I assured him not, but in fact yesterday was pretty close to that – usually there is some natural feature to see or listen to – yesterday was just rain and wind, though I did entertain myself trying to work out the origin of some of the place names. The Scandinavian influence was obvious with a number of “…by”s and “…wick”s, but others defeated me.
Eventually Lincoln cathedral came into view. This must be one of the most imposing of cathedrals in Britain as it is located on top of a limestone outcrop that towers above the landscape (see vertical profile of today’s route). The building seems as high again, made of the same limestone.
Finally after six hours of battling the elements, I arrived. Someone must have been smiling from above though, because on check-in, I was told that I had been allocated the bridal suite. Large room with four-poster bed, a dressing room and best of all a large deep, hot bath.
Today’s statistics: 100 km, running total: 1271 km, 463 m ascent, 11981 m so far. No new birds, but one large brown rat at the Peterborough hotel – ahem!
Today was flat, very flat. It was sad to say goodbye to my family and head off again, I always enjoy seeing them and their pets, but it was onwards to the headquarters of my UK employers – the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) in Peterborough.
I was seconded to Peterborough for nearly a year very early in the existence of JNCC as Head of Publications. This was for a number of mostly political reasons associated with JNCC being a UK body, while the constituent parts of the Committee were dealing with the four countries that make up the UK. There was also a desire by the then JNCC Directors to centralise in Peterborough and close the Aberdeen office. The latter was fiercely resisted (I think everyone would now agree that we were right to fight that) so I ended up commuting. A major benefit was that I could easily visit my parents in what turned out to be my father’s last year.
The ride started in the Norfolk “uplands” and I promptly got another puncture – I blame Norfolk flints on the road – but once that was sorted, it was down onto the flatlands of the fens. For those that do not know, this was once a large swampy inlet of the sea that was drained several centuries ago by those experts in these things: the Dutch (attested to by places names such as Walsoken). One of the major rivers: the Great Ouse is canalised for most of its length and since it flows to the sea at Kings Lynn and a major tributary, the River Nene runs past Peterborough, I crossed rivers several times today.
The routing today took me through a prison (!), past several sewage works (or at least that is what I assumed they were based on smell, past a rubbish tip and over quite a few level crossings of the railway across the fens.
One issue in the fens is that when soils and sub-soils are dried out, they shrink, but not necessarily uniformly. This has affected houses in many places, and consequently there are few houses or new developments on the fens proper. The roads also become very domed with both sides seemingly sliding off into the ditches on either side. This does not make for easy riding – I would often proceed carefully down the top of the dome in the middle of the road, and even that undulated considerably.
Finally near Peterborough it started to rain, and I discovered that my so-called waterproof fluorescent yellow top was not waterproof…. shopping required tomorrow.
I was greeted by my once boss, now Chief Officer of JNCC, Marcus – who appeared to be lurking waiting for me to arrive. Being a Friday afternoon, the corridors were not exactly thronging, but it was great to catch up with Marcus and those of my friends and colleagues who were still around. I was invited to the after work pub visit, and was very pleased to see a good turnout from many who I was meeting for the first time. It is good to see a thriving UK governmental body in these current times – well done all.
Totals: 91 km today, 1171 km overall. Ascent today (!): 183 m, 11526 m overall. 5 new tubs, one new bird species, one new live mammal – a fox that I startled in a ditch.
Today is the 75th anniversary of the Allied invasion of northern France that led to the end of the Nazi regime. I have been staying with my brother (I’v taken a day off riding) and visiting my mother, who lives next door. My Grandfather (Mum’s father) was one of the most influential commanders on D-day, so my mother has been glued to the television and other media coverage – in fact she barely looked up when I arrived yesterday! He was Major General Sir Percy Hobart, though he hated the “Percy” and preferred Patrick, but was known to most as Hobo. He had been bought back by Churchill from enforced retirement (by the Army) into the Home Guard – in fact he went into a meeting with Churchill as a corporal in the Home Guard and emerged as a Major General! His appointed role was to develop and train all of the specialised armour that was first ashore on D-Day – and continued to spearhead the assaults on Nazi defences across northern Europe afterwards. He formed the largest armour division that the planet has seen, and the importance of the armour can be demonstrated by comparing the results from the five Normandy beaches. The Americans in their pride decided not to use the British armour and sustained many more casualties and did not advance as far as the allies on all other beaches.
My mother suffers from vascular dementia but can remember quite a few things from the past. On D-Day, she was 14 years old and remembers having no lessons at school for the day, instead listening to the wireless commentary of the invasion. She remembers her father bringing camembert cheeses back from liberated France (remember these were luxury in wartime) and even sending his dispatch rider with cheeses also.
Hobo has been written about extensively, including in a full biography – Armoured Crusader, by Kenneth Macksey. He died of cancer before I was two years old so I remember nothing of him, but he sounds like a very strong-willed character with a very fierce drive to get things done; he did not suffer fools gladly. Maybe some personality characteristics can be inherited….
Today I did my longest ride yet – a touch over 110 km, from the east coast at Minsmere to my mother and brothers home a little to the east of Kings Lynn. This crosses one of the more productive arable regions of England, so I thought I might show some pictures of the agricultural progression that I have seen during my first 1000 km (that mark was passed today, along with the less welcome mark of my first puncture).
I think that bicycling through Britain confirms that surprising statistic that only 2% of England in build upon. I have been in the countryside and enjoying agricultural sights, sounds and smells almost all of the time. I cannot let this topic go without reference to one of my favourite comedy sketches – apologies to those of my friends not making loads of money!