Ode to biking

From Comberton to Newnham Croft

I pedalled my way to school,

Crisp white shirts on bright spring morns,

In nineteen sixty two.

My grandfather had lit my torch,

He had an old green “steed”,

He’d travelled far beyond my dreams

At stately granddad speed.

When small he sat me on his bars

And pushed us up the hill,

“Never fear to walk up hill a bit”

His words are with me still.

My mother used to worry then

Though traffic was far less,

And now my kids are fearful lest

I’m finished by a bus.

And so I still dance on my bike,

As free and young as then,

Wind in my hair, bird songs and smells

School lad of seven again.

The Code is Clear

It has been a couple of weeks since the latest revision of the Highway Code https://www.gov.uk/guidance/the-highway-code was published. According to media mania some of the new rules were going to cause chaos on the roads with pedestrians being mown down as they stepped out in front of turning cars, cyclists being told to ride in “the middle of the road” (BBC kept saying that), and prosecutions for opening the drivers door with the wrong hand. Of course a little bit of truth makes a myth more believable but if you wish to see a breakdown of the myth v the actual then here is a useful link.


Well I have not noticed much difference, I suspect the reason is, as one angry driver once exclaimed to me as a valid excuse for his bad driving, “Yeh, but no one reads that”.

I still see bike users on pavements. I don’t mind the under 10’s but not the 50 year olds wobbling in between the tottering elderly and tear away toddlers on the narrow village high street pavement. And as for those teenagers who just drop their bikes outside the shop doors, .. wouldn’t I just like to walk over the wheels feeling the satisfying give of the spokes underfoot. Well yes, but I won’t, will I.

I am not sure of the impact, is that the right word?, of taking one’s right of way to keep walking across a side road knowing that all turning vehicle must give way whether or not I am already crossing. I mean I believe in the right not to be impeded by a might over right situation but as I step out and the turning car is forced to stop and the truck behind hits it because the driver did not see a pedestrian was going straight on, don’t I have a bit of responsibility?

No, it does not say ride in the middle of the road. It is at least 75cm out and motor vehicles must pass at least 1.5m away. It does talk about taking the middle of the chosen lane when that is necessary to avoid being e.g. squeezed at bottle necks etc.

I did see one cyclist last week cycling according to one clarification in the code. He was slowly riding around a large roundabout so kept in the left lane with his arm out until he finally reached the required exit, passing several others on the way. It was heartening to see that all the joining and leaving traffic saw him and thus avoided giving him a short “bonnet trip” up the wrong exit.

Overall I have to say that it will be a relief to know that if laying flat on my back having stepped out at a side junction, ridden in the centre of my lane or presented my vulnerable side on a roundabout, the highway code states it weren’t my fault guv.

Bye bye Bill, for now

The handover

Having been back from my Cumbrian cycle trip for a few weeks I finally got around to going through the little pile of debris that had come out of my saddle bag. Amongst the folded extracts of maps and tattered tourist information leaflets was the piece of notepaper that Bill had left for me.

“If you are still interested get in touch in a few weeks. Bill”

When I had met Bill he had been looking at a book that featured the mines at Nenthead and had been annotated by his grandfather. He wanted to discover what the annotations were about and was going to explore the mines. I had not seen him after that night but he had left me this note and a ‘phone number. For the few minutes that I had chatted to Bill in the dimly lit hotel bedroom he seemed OK. I guessed he was the sort not loaded with excessive energy but with age acquired slow stamina and perseverance. But did I want to commit to a trip into his past with him? I pondered this as I looked out of the window. The winter wind was dashing rain across the pain, the rivulets distorted the shapes of thin branches of bushes that bent then sprang back in unison as the wind eased off, as if taking a breath before its next blast. I thought of the open moorland, the valleys channelling the wind, the rising waters of the streams, the slippery mud on the tracks, the cold wet cycle shoes.

Heading into the kitchen to make a cuppa I decided I did not currently fancy a trip to Cumbria, I’d put Bill off. Thinking of Bill reminded me of my old cycling pal, Jim.

Jim was always up for riding anywhere, any weather. One Easter Jim came up with the idea of three of us going away for a couple of nights up on the moors. We knew of a grouse beaters’ hut where we could sleep on the benches, we would not need to carry tents. It was always left unlocked, possibly as an emergency shelter, due to the consideration of the landowner. The stream nearby had reasonable drinking water and we would carry food and stove fuel for the three days. Thus with everything packed on the bikes we set off from Liverpool Friday afternoon and arrived up in the Berwyn hills at sundown. Some numbskull had left the hut open. The sheep had used it for everything that sheep do. It had no windows so at first it was only the smell that hit you. Old urine, ammonia, decaying grass, wafts of lanolin. If one dared to step in there was a notable lack of traction in the slimy floor. I was not worth even lighting our acetylene torches to see how bad it was. There was no way we could sleep in that hut. Also there was no equipment to clean it up. Not perturbed Jim carefully detached the hook from the door, wandered around to the landlord’s hospitality end of the building, picked the lock and replaced the hook. It was a far more spacious and almost luxurious weekend that planned for. When we left only the sheep would have know we had been there.

Maybe it was those acetylene lamps that linked my thoughts of Bill’s mines with Jim. Back in the 1970’s cyclists camping wild had limited options for camp lights. Hurricane and storm lamps were really too heavy and delicate to carry. Battery lights would not last long with the old filament bulbs. Candles smoky paraffin lamps were not great in a tent. The readily available alternative was acetylene caver’s lamps. These were light, robust, long lasting and the fuel was easy to carry. Hence a few of us had these lamps. They were pretty safe too, I suppose they had to be if you were going to light one, stick it on your head then go deep underground, it’s that last bit that seems the dangerous bit to me. However they did have to be treated with some care. Prior to one trip I was sorting my kit out late in the evening in my landlords kitchen. I emptied the old exhausted calcium carbide onto the border outside. Came back in, added a little fresh carbide, screwed the water reservoir back on top, turned the water on at which point the slightly pressurised acetylene gas air mixture should flow through the ignition nozzle where it would be lit by the old fashioned flint. It didn’t light, I turned the water flow up, it still did not light, I held it more firmly between my two hands and span the flint again. It lit, not a dazzlingly bright flame from the nozzle but a globe of cold yellow flame from its waist engulfing both hands and reaching a couple of foot in diameter. I dropped it into the sink with a wet tea towel on it and waited. I waited to see if my hands were burnt, no but there was a horrid smell of singed hair. I waited to see if the lamp exploded, or whatever. There was no more flame, there was no bang. I leaned back against the stove and drew breath, relieved, thankful that no damage was done. In that silent moment it began to snow, in the kitchen, in black. Filaments of soot started floating down from the ceiling, coating the surfaces, the floor, me. Fortunately I managed to get rid of the soot before the landlord came home. The cause was simply that by tipping out the old carbide in the dark I had given the sealing ring chance to escape and cause trouble. Fortunately for me the fuel rich mixture pouring out around my hands had insufficient oxygen to burn hot. I still think they are great little inventions but LED bulbs have supplanted their use for cycle camping, but those were the days.

So perhaps Jim might be a better companion for Bill. I sent texts introducing them to each other and let them get on with it.

Last two days in Cumbria

Friday dawned cloudy, this was going to be my last full day here. I wanted to ride the contour road on the valley slope opposite Alston, also there was a trip to Nenthead mines and the bridge at Garrigill was supposedly worth a visit. The Tour of Britain was due to pass the hotel at 1 pm so I decided on trying to fit two shorter rides either side of it.

Having pulled back the curtains to greet the spiders on their dew spangled webs outside, I passed their good wishes onto their cousins in the “en-suite” on the landing then headed down for breakfast. Yesterday’s early arriver had already left and there was no sign of Bill who I thought I had met the other night. It probably was all just a dream but I decided I would still go up to the mine workings in the morning for a short ride.

Having stoked up both myself and the bike battery I checked both repair kits and was off. When I say both repair kits I mean one for the bike, puncture repair, essential tools etc, and one for me, a first aid kit. Now when we were in Cubs or Scouts we were taught a kit should have: plasters, triangular bandage for broken arm, finger bandage, gauzes, pins, creams, zinc plaster, scissors, etc etc. Today I carry: a couple of plasters in case of a deep cut or blisters, Volterol for the knees, plus a few types of tablets just to keep me going, or not, as needed.

Today the road to Nenthead had no roadworks on it and the villagers had painted in pink a large “Welcome to Nenthead” across the road. I guessed that this was probably for the Tour cyclists, not me, but I can not be certain of that. I cycled across the public car park that abuts the mine heritage site then passed a coach disgorging its cargo of elderly tourists for a loo stop. It was a sign of things normalising after the lockdowns, that the elderly were happy to travel together in a rather confined space for hours on end. I find it amusing to think how prim we are. There were small groups chatting in the car park. I bet quite a few were busting to go but didn’t want to show it so stood chatting uncomfortably while keeping a wary eye on the gradually diminishing queue. Even that queue was more of a small gathering, not too close to the WC, but close enough to ensure no queue jumpers got there first.

As for me up on the moor, I would just check which way the wind was blowing first.

The disused mine workings were quite accessible although closed for business. The track passed the workings was surfaced with stones too large to cycle over so I had to walk which gave ample time to see the various sluices, wheels and buildings. This would definitely be worth a visit when they are open.

Top of the workings

The track was soon rideable again.

Towards the top of this small valley I stopped for a photo and inadvertently disturbed couple of black grouse that flew off complaining. I noticed that although I had come through a gate marked “No unauthorised motor vehicles”, the track was well used by something heavy.

It was peaceful on the top.

These fells are fairly flat topped so you can see the course grass moorland in the near distance as well as distant hills. The weather was still good, with the slight breeze rustling the grass sounding like gentle waves receding on a shingle beach. After a few miles I was back on the B road to Alston, passing high above Garrigill and looking down on the South Tyne as I travelled eastwards.

I was back by late morning and although Alston had the bunting and barriers out in preparation, the Tour was not due for a couple of hours. I had a quick lunch then unbolted my shoe cleats for a walk along the river valley. Cleats on the shoes snap into the pedals keeping the feet firmly in position and enable application of greater and more consistent force. On a racing shoe they force the walking cyclist to walk a bit like a penguin, toes pointing upward, hands out sideways in preparation for a fall. Even on my touring shoes they are not fully countersunk so they crunch and grate on pavements, on cobbles they await the slightest lapse in concentration to imbue the stone with ice like qualities.

The narrow path of the South Tyne Trail followed the boundary of the steep sloped sheep fields with the steeper wooded gully of the river. The path mostly stayed some twenty foot above the Tyne, only dropping occasionally where the river widened and flowed through small flooding meadows. Having inadvertently squelched through a boggy area, cycling shoes have good ventilation which lets water out as well as in, I reached my turning point. Low Nest farm house is a lone, low grey stone house built part way up the hill side. Apparently it was built on foundations of an ancient fortified farm house with four foot thick walls. The lady of the house, or rather garden, considered that one good day in this part of the country is worth twenty days of the poor weather that they get. She also frequently travels to see her family in Guernsey. I wondered if she misremembered where the good weather was. The paths back into the town are marked with names but with a Scottish origin or local spelling name. Loan is an old Scottish word for path and several of the paths were so marked, e..g. High Loaning.

There was good cheer amongst the small groups of spectators as the officials’ and teams’ cars bumped and scrapped over the re-cobbling road works.

 Mark Cavendish is in there somewhere

The very many police motorcyclists seemed to be enjoying their day out as they rode out of their saddles like jockeys, revving their machines to negotiate the road works, one guy doing such exaggerated nodding so that it looked like his head had worked loose, his broad grin suggested that it had not. That was followed by much encouraging cheering as the cyclists laboured up the steep hill and were gone in short shrift.

My second ride of the day took me on a clockwise loop first heading north to the road running through the woods high on the valley side above Alston. I rejoined the main road just before Nenthead and turned off through the old mining village. The terraced cottages were painted brilliant white and appeared to be well looked after. This time I rode tarmacked road over the fell, parallel to the track I had taken in the morning. Leaving the village it immediately rose steeply between stone walls and stunted trees. I’d not got far up this hill when I saw in my mirror a cyclist on a racing bike turn into the road a couple of hundred yards behind me. If he was a thoroughbred he would pass me very soon. Or perhaps he was an ordinary club cyclist. He would have seen that I had a traditional saddle bag, and mud guards, therefore not a lightweight racing bike. Was he intent on passing me? Had he realised he was following an oldie with electric assist? He held the gap while I was feeling sympathy for him. The road got a bit steeper and he began to slowly drop away, I almost felt guilty. I could see he was struggling so to make him feel better I also started to get up out of the saddle. The road continued steeply up and now he was weaving, so I started to weave across the road as if finding really hard. But poor fellow, as the road began to level a little, he dropped out of view beyond the curve, I didn’t see him again. I hope he was not too stung by being outdone by an oldie.

view down towards South Tyne valley

From the B road I dropped down into the South Tyne valley at Garrigill, a worthy stopping off place with its stone cottages and narrow stone bridge. I didn’t stop as I only had a few miles to do following the river back to Alston and it was coming up to five pm. The moment that I realised that it was five was the same time that I remembered the forecast was for rain, probably at five and I felt the first couple of drops. By the time I had got my jacket on the rain was bouncing off the road. Cars passed with headlights on and wipers on double speed. My soaked cotton shorts tightened their cold clamminess around my thighs. Water ran down my arms and legs drenching my cycle mitts and wetting my feet. The motorists were considerate, slowing so as not to further drench me by throwing up the enormous puddles. Of course a cyclist dare not ride through unfamiliar puddles on the roadside. Many years ago I learnt my lesson when I did that and ended up with concussion because my front wheel dropped into a large, hidden, hole.

It stopped raining close enough to Alston for my clothes not to dry before I got back. But all in all it had been a great day, to be finished off by an evening meal. I rang Alston House hotel.

“Are you doing meals tonight?”

“I should imagine so.”

“Can I book a table?”

“For how many?”

“Just one”

“We aren’t taking any more bookings, just come and try your luck.”

It was not the most inviting response. Maybe my questions were based on a southerner’s approach to going out. I went. That hotel was also up for sale, I hope it stays a hotel because it did seem to cater for all sorts. There was the dad and young daughter.

Dad: “The fish and chips comes with peas.”

“I don’t like peas, I only like garden peas.”

Dad “That’s OK, These are like garden peas.”

“I don’t like them, I want garden peas. Is there anything else with garden peas?”

Dad “This comes with peas.”

“I don’t like those, I only like garden peas.” etc. etc.

Eventually Dad signs, “Let’s have a pizza”

There was a group of business folk who were much more interested in their conversation and the drinks than the food. There were several couples out for the evening. Most seemed in love, some with each other, some with their smart phones. There were walkers and anglers and cyclists and just plain old tourists. ‘Plain’ may be unfair but ‘old’ is accurate. I finished up, there is only so much solo drinking one should do, and wandered back. Passed the boarded up Blue Bell inn, up the steep slope passed the stone town hall and church where the art exhibition was, to the cobbled square, then further up Front Street to the Victoria Inn and up the thirty three stairs to my room.

It had been a good week, I had not done a large mileage despite the rowdy pub bar two storeys below I was soon away with the fairies.


It was time to leave the Victoria Inn in Alston. That Saturday morning I had squeezed my meagre kit back into the saddlebag and sauntered into the bar where the little oriental landlady was cuddling a large mug having finished serving full English breakfasts to her guests. It had been a good four days and I was beginning to like the somewhat dowdy yet relaxing pub. It all seemed stuck in another era with the worn out dark red patterned carpet, small bistro type tables, faux leather bench and small bar with old fashioned till and tatty paper guest register. The landlady put her drink down and went behind the bar chatting all the time. She picked up the only modern bit of equipment there, typed the cost of my stay into it and proffered the card reader for me to enter my PIN. The sum for the bill was a bit like my PIN number, or was it the same? It was at that point that a little man in my head started to scurry around as if he was trying to catch a piglet that had stolen the number. He charged, it squealed, he leapt and missed, round and round they went. All he seemed to achieve was to get more muddy. I got it, two digits were around the other way, or was it those two? I glanced up trying not to show any panic, she was looking expectantly at me. My fingers poised over the key pad, pretty certain now, but then the man and piglet started off in another direction and confusion reigned in my head again. The from off stage in my head the prompt man shouted, “Talk to her”. Yes that was it, distract her while the man hopefully grabbed the little blighter with the number.

Me “Well thanks for a really relaxing stay, and the weather helped.” Hurry up, I’m beginning to look like I’m don’t like the bill.

Her “Oh yes.. sowy the bill high, was pity double room, but no singles, what can yoo do?”

Me “Oh no problem, I knew that when I booked.”

Me to my man “Getting embarrassing, catch the little b..r..”

Her “Yoo go home now?” A distant voice “18”

Me to my man, but out loud “What was that?”

Her “I say yoo go home now?” A distant voice “10”

Me to anybody “Who said what? Oh yes.” My fingers type 1810, “At last, yes, I mean I go home now, thanks”.

Me to my man “Lock that ruddy pig up.”

At least, I think I said it to the man. She almost has a puzzled expression as she handed me the receipt. I am not surprised, I don’t even know where I have been during the last eight seconds, but it seemed like a dark hour’s nightmare. It was then that a most surprising thing happened, she gave me a folded bit of note paper, torn out of a ring bound note pad, just addressed to room 6. Inside were written the words “If you are still interested get in touch in a few weeks. Bill” together with a mobile number. I had become convinced that the late night encounter with Bill had just been a dream. Every detail was still in my head but I had not seen him before or since, he did not turn up for our ride on Friday and his idea to retrace his grandfather’s footsteps at the mine on the basis of some old maps seemed far fetched in the light of day. The paper could well have come from the notepad that lay on his bed as we looked at the maps in the book.

“Was Bill here?” I asked.

“Yes, but he was not well and left early Wednesday. He good man, he paid for half the rest of nights, didn’t have to.”

She opened up the big old black garage door, I mounted my bike still in a ponderous mood and freewheeled down the cobbled hill back towards Penrith. The clouds hung low over the hill sides. Soon I was climbing towards them and a fairly stiff headwind rattled my water proof jacket and coursed in and out of the vents of my helmet. By the time I reached that top viability was barely a hundred yards. The bench seats on the scenic viewing point stared forlornly into a bank of low cloud which wetted everything it touched. The damp hairpins were taken gingerly but soon, just like the raising of a theatre curtain, the view to the North Lakes opened up. The best part of this ride was that from the damp open fell to the small sunny fields of the river Eden it was mainly downhill, followed by a short bounce up and over to Penrith. After lunch and afternoon tea with friends near St Andrew’s church I caught the train directly back to Watford. My musings about Bill were frequently interrupted by announcements made at each stop that the train manager had mislaid her “valuable” card reader on board. Why tell passengers that it is valuable, that is one way of ensuring someone goes off with it. Passengers were requested to keep a look out for it. staff kept wandering up an down searching for it. Well I might have had a slippery piglet moment over my PIN, but at least I didn’t mislay the whole machine.

View towards the north Lakes, just below the cloud

Moles and hills

The more northerly loop

The following day was overcast and mainly dry, it was also a few degrees cooler and more comfortable, for me. The part of the Tyne that runs past Alston is the South Tyne, the southern tributary. It joins the North Tyne some miles north of Alston. It can be followed on foot or bike along the South Tyne Trail therefore before I set out I stopped by the town hall library to get a copy of the route guide. They didn’t open until ten so I stood outside in the drizzle whilst through an open sash window I could hear the office ladies chatting on. Well yes, do have your coffee, I wouldn’t mind one too, it’s chilly out here. And no, it’s not too busy, in there, but there is one client waiting, outside, in the rain. Yes, it is ten already, yes probably should open up …

“Hello, good morning, how can we help you?”

They must watch a lot of Lewis because they speak with a Kevin Whately accent. I asked for the trail guide to be told it was in the vertical display in the corner. We then played a couple of rounds of a variant on the old Golden Shot game.

“Err, where exactly?”. “Up a bit, no left deary, no down, to your right, yes that’s, no, right a bit that’s it, lovely. 50p please love”

The we had another go. You see there were perspex shields in front of the counter due to Covid, they were very clean, in fact I could hardly see them. So we had another round of the game with me trying to find a gap to pass my 50p to one of the ladies.

“No, not there, err over here I think, no it’s not there either, ahh, here’s the gap. Thanks, have a nice day deary.”

I now know what a bubble bee feels like trying to get back out through a closed window.

Climbing northwards out of Alston I pretty soon got that “passing guilt” feeling. There was a band of cyclists on the hill in front. Some were pushing their bikes, some were weaving their way up and all were carrying a lot of kit. There was nothing for it but to pass, smile and apologise for cheating with my motor. But to give me my due, this day, and probably only this day, I think I would have eventually passed them even without my motor. This was the contour hugging road that I had seen from across the valley at Ninebanks. It produced another rewarding swoop down for several miles to Whittfield where I turned northwards again onto smaller roads. It was remote. Between passing the cyclists and my lunch later on, I saw one person to speak to, a farmer leaning on his Landrover near a field gate. An odd conversation ensued.

“Lovely countryside you have here”

“D’you think so? Aren’t you afraid of getting lost?”

“No, I’m OK with maps and with sense of direction.”

“That’s lucky.”

Why “lucky” I wondered. I asked if he was very local, farmed here maybe.

“No, just waiting for some beasties to come”

I was not sure where to take the conversation from there so left him to await his beasties, whatever they were.

I was soon over the top of the fell and dropping down towards the South Tyne valley. One does see some odd things when away from home. I did not want to linger long near this line of what? Moles, rats perhaps. Over what period were they caught, a week, a month, a year or longer? Were the gaps yet to be filled or had the dead fallen off? Perhaps these were the awaited beasties. A quick bit of research reveals they were probably moles. One reference suggests it is a traditional practise so the farmer could see how many have been caught and pay the gamekeeper. But I can not see how that works when they were not marked with their “expiry” dates.

On reaching great river Tyne the back road crossed it on an old stone bridge. A lone motorist was standing looking down at the water. I got the impression that he had decided not to jump, instead of drowning he would probably just break his ankles.

I am glad that I had forgotten about the moles by lunch time. I sat on the stony banks of the river near the aptly named Slaggyford village. It was peaceful to begin with and the rain held off. However soon many others joined me for lunch, their lunch being me. This was the only time that midges bothered me, obviously time for a shower when I got back.

Lunch stop at Slaggyford

The South Tyne bike route wound its way through dank dells, smelling of conifers and damp leaf litter. At one point there was a cattle grid, now have you ever ridden across what I call a rattle grid? I fear these things, there is a unshakeable thought that one’s front wheel might drop in, propelling one ingloriously headlong to finish at the feet of some smirking sheep. I did once pull up short when I came across a cow clearly on the wrong side of a grid. There were no nearby gateways or gaps in the stone wall so I was pondering what to do. The cow decided that it was not that keen on making my acquaintance, it looked at me with that “Am I bovvered?” sort of look, slowly turned its hind quarters towards me and gingerly headed back across the cattle grid.

Back to Alston for an early afternoon cuppa I found another cyclist waiting on the door step. He had arranged for an early check in at three. We stood and chatted until the land lady turned up, at six. She said we should have made ourselves at home in the bar, but it just didn’t seem right to sit in a pub when the owner was away, too much of a temptation. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everyone could trust and be trusted in this way. It does seem that these days the boundary of our trust only stretches as far as the walls and doors of our own homes. Just imagine a local life where did not need locks, keys, passwords, PINs and so on. Our land lady ran her B&B like that. One resident workman got back, let himself in, pulled a pint and left his empty glass on the bar for her to bill him when she got in. Why not? Good for them.

Allendale Town

Allendale Town was my destination for the first day of riding. Having entered Northumberland the road to Allendale Town is mainly down hill for over nine miles. From the open land, which had lost its summer green and was taking on its autumn straw colour, fluffy thistle heads were blowing towards me. That was a sure sign of a head wind now and a tail wind on the return. The head wind was of no matter compared to my downhill advantage. Very few cars were on this remote road which had snow poles on the verges. One could imagine how bleak it would be in the snow. However this day the sun was strong and I was in need of shade for my coffee break in Allendale Town. Sitting outside a cafe at the cobbled town square I watched the life slowly go by. There were the six elderly visitors, piling their three dogs into a camper van, stowing the zimmer frame, then clambering aboard to continue their journey You may think me unsocial, or on some autistic spectrum but nine in a van just seemed to be too many. Too many interactions, too many conversations, too many complications.

“Tea dear?”

“Sorry didn’t hear you, what was that?”

“I was asking Fred”

“Oh, Fred, Doris was saying something to you”

“What was that Doris?”

“Tea dear”

“Oh yes, it’s gone up a lot, Mable buys Adsa tea”.

“What was that?”

“I said Mable, Asda tea”.

“No she hasn’t, I’m doing that next.”

There was a local collecting coffees from the cafe for the office, there were others enjoying what appeared to be their regular mid morning full English breakfast whilst exchanging almost unintelligible titbits of gossip. Having finished my coffee and scone I had no excuse to hang about so bumped down the cobbles and headed across a smaller hill northwards. Even these lower pastures had that remote feeling where cars were far between and one far more likely to see pickup vans towing sheep / pig boxes than any other vehicle. Being so remote it was a surprise to see that one farmer had diversified and invested in glamping with pods in the field.

I passed through Ninebanks, a tiny hamlet which only notable feature was the Ninebanks tower, the residue of a fifteenth century house. The route back towards Nenthead was on the quiet side of the valley.

The main road could be seen following the contours up to the right on the northern side. There was a little riding through shady tree tunnels and then the road climbed back up to open country. From straw coloured fields, fluffy thistle heads were blowing towards me. Which was sort of odd, and a little irritating as clearly the wind had changed and I was beginning to tire.

Having rejoined the sea to sea route I paused partway up a hairpin bend to take a couple of photos.

It was at this point that the cyclists I had passed in Penrith went swooping down in the opposite direction on their way to the east coast. One of the ladies called out that they would not be descending as fast as the recumbent rider, I bet, been there, done that. Those low “bents” stick to the road, and speed around corners. They stick just like Scalextrix cars on their track, but even they do eventually fly off and fortunately I only experienced that at slow speed on ice.

Spot the other bikes in the picture

I finished the loop back via Nenthead to Alston. This day was supposed to be my biggest challenge in terms of distance and climbing yet with the aid of the e-motor and good weather I was back in time for a late lunch in front of the tele, watching the Tour of Britain.

There is a TV channel called the Discovery Channel, but often arriving in a hotel it’s more a matter of trying to discover any channel. The Victoria Inn was no exception. The TV was plugged into a free view box for which there was no remote. The mains cable extension did not quite reach the sockets near the floor so I slid the TV over towards a wall socket. The TV announced “no channel found, poor antenna connection. I re-cabled the TV direct to the aerial socket, the TV repeated its claim. I sat back and thought this would go better with a cuppa. The kettle cable didn’t reach the floor socket. I moved the kettle to the bedside, unplugging my battery charger. My voyage of discovery continued. There were no milk sachets, but thanks to the generosity of the train buffet I still had two milk “tubes” in my bag. Thinking that there must be a sensible answer to the aerial problem I searched the drawers, cupboards, down the side of the arm chair and the floor for a second remote or instructions. I found many tourist guides from 2014, a WFI password – out of date, a hair grip – not clean, two paper hankies – not mine, two small cobwebs – spiders absent, and a Gideons bible – to be read later. It was at this point that I noticed that the socket near the floor was installed upside down. Thus if one plugged the multi way extension bar or kettle in upside down then the cables were just long enough. I moved everything back to where it started, then aimlessly and forlornly pressed several buttons on the TV remote and hey presto Channel 25 and bike racing.

Of course the voyage of discovery continued into the night for instance how to get a hot, not scolding or freezing shower. How not to wake up neighbours on the way to the bathroom and not get locked out of the bedroom, how to remember that tiny little step just behind the toilet door and in front of the bowl, in the dark, every night, and also trying to remember that the six foot of landing between the shower and bedroom is visible not only to other guests and pub patrons down stairs but also, through the open door, from the pavement. Admittedly not many folk would be looking up the thirty three stairs as they passed by or entered the pub, but wearing just baggy boxers one just does not want to take that chance. Best get dressed for the splash and dash.

Alston to Allendale head


From the top of Hartside pass I took a final look at the view to the west and the north lakes then swept down to Alston. Anyone passing through Alston on the main road would miss the heritage town centre. which is up the steep side road.

Picture from Hartside summit towards Penrith and lakes

Alston is a small market town, it has seen more prosperous days. In fact it seems to be not only shrinking but shrivelling up as well. Two pubs were for sale, another was boarded up and the town did not seem to be responding to more folk holidaying in the UK. The heritage railway, station cafe and museum were only open at weekends, other cafes had limited opening and seating gardens of the chapels were overgrown and looked unkempt.

Alston wearing its greys

Yet there was life there if one looked, like lifting dead autumn leaves and finding life under the leaf litter. The chippy was really busy with locals, until it closed at seven pm. The two inns were booked up in the evenings and there were always locals chatting on their door steps and in the market square. They were passionate about keeping their ambulance station which was under threat. The old small grammar school building fronted the pavement up the hill. The stone work lintel declared it had been rebuilt by subscription. Yet part of the front has now been replaced with a rather large half glazed garage door, holding back the eager looking local fire engine.

The main square was being recobbled and I pushed my bike up the steep cobbled pavement. The Victoria Inn stood sandwiched between old town buildings, its black glossed coach door closed up against the pavement. It was built in 1901 to replace a previous pub, originally a temperance hotel in the town that had 24 pubs at that time. The origin of the name is obvious, 1901 is the year Queen Victoria died.

The Victoria was an old temperance hotel

Whilst wondering what to do with the bike a little oriental lady appeared at the pub door and asked if I was staying the night. I felt immediately welcomed as she heaved open the garage door and told me to take my time and asked if I wanted a drink. It was not the tidiest, most secure, cleanest or best kept B&B, but it was welcoming, friendly and served big English breakfasts. I had one of those rooms that encourages one to improve ones organisation and memory. It was on the second floor, 33 stairs up, so I quickly learned not to forget something that I might need later. The view over the town and South Tyne valley made up for the climb. However, I tried not to think of my only alternative should I need a fire exit, a straight drop to the cobbled courtyard below.

Alston at dawn

After a beer and burger it was off to bed. I did not have an ensuite so during the night had to take a trip along the landing to the oddly labelled “ensuite toilet”. On the way back I noticed a door open and light coming from another room, with the sound of someone quietly humming. As I passed a floorboard creaked underfoot and a voice said “hello, come on in”.

I tentatively looked in and there was the older cyclist that I had seen in the bar earlier. He was sat in the rather shabby arm chair, humming to himself and deep in thought. Cycling kit lay on the floor and on the bed was an Explorer map, unfolded to reveal our local region. Also on the bed was an old linen backed Barts cycling map, with routes pencilled in and notes in the margins. He still wore his battered workman’s trousers and baggy check shirt although he had no socks on his pale feet. In his lap lay an old tattered pamphlet on mining history in Cumbria. He asked if I was touring or just passing through, and if I was interested in the heritage of the area. Saying that I had a mild interest in the industrial past seemed to encourage him to open up. He said his name was Bill, named after his grandfather who used to work in a mine in the area, up at Nanthead a few miles away. The book he was reading belonged to his grandfather who had marked some of the pictures and maps with arrows accompanied by letters. Some of the arrows converged, others separated and pointed away from the mine workings, one up a particular miners drove. Bill explained that although Nanthead mine was a heritage site it was not fenced off from the public and only had occasional open days. He was going to explore it, probably on Friday morning and asked if I would ride with him and come to try to find out what his grandfather’s arrows meant. Why not, I thought, a bit of biking, a bit of history and a companion to boot. We had both planned separate cycle rides for the next two days so we agreed to meet after breakfast on Friday.

I went back to my room and turned in and awoke to a gorgeously bright morning. Today was forecast to be the hottest of the week and I had planned for it to be my most challenging ride over the fell to Allendale Town. The cooked breakfast had five main protein sources eggs, bacon, sausage, beans, mushrooms, plus tomatoes and toast. But alas, and I know I can’t complain, there is never marmalade in the bowl of those silly individual packs of preserves. Every little bit of breakfast was eaten and mopped up then washed down with as much tea as I thought my semi horizontal stomach would hold on the bike. I wasn’t sure about the implications of all those baked beans, but hey, I couldn’t leave them and the concreting effect and crampings of the previous morning’s dose of loperamide had been sorted earlier. And that is all I am going to say on that subject.

After a short climb through the upper town the road turned eastwards and followed contours along a steadily climbing valley. The riding was triply good, at Alston the road was closed so there was very little traffic, the sun was shining but not yet too hot, the road surface had been improved in preparation for the coming Tour. I also felt a little smug to see school buses and others off to work while I was enjoying myself. Soon I passed through Nenthead. It is a small village built on one of those sharp bends in a valley that indicates the road crosses an adjoining stream. On the right was a narrow road from which led off the entrance to the mine heritage site, the drovers road and the tarmacked road past the old miner’s cottages.

Looking back towards Nenthead

Nenthead marks the start of the climb out of the valley, a climb where the tree line drops away and open fields of sheep take the place of cropped fields. I stopped part way up to look down on, and photograph, the old mine workings.

Nenthead old workings

Looking at the abandoned site reminded me of the conversation with Bill. I had not seen him at breakfast, in fact the whole encounter seemed a little improbable. I pushed onwards beginning to realise that it was probably just a dream. Reaching the top of the climb towards Allendale Town was in every way a high point. The road disappeared downwards into the distance as and the Nothumberland sign beckoned me on.

Towards Northumberland

But it is not just about the bike and the view. If one stops and takes a moment one senses provide such rich and subtle tones that can not be captured by the picture.

At first it seems quiet, the slight underfoot crunching of tarmac has ceased. There are no planes and few cars to disturb. Then in the distance sheep can be heard calling and answering, letting each other where they are. The very gentle breeze that brushes the hair and cools one cheek more than the other rustles through long course grasses.

Autumn Leaves

A wise lady, I may say a wise old lady, told me that she considers autumn to be the beginning of the year. The dropping leaves may reveal tiny nodules from which next year’s leaves or early flowers will appear. Some bulbs are already beginning to push aside soil as their green tips search for the sun. Many fungi spread their fruiting bodies to send their spores on their way to a new home. And although it is still getting colder it is not too long before the days start to lengthen.

It can certainly be as pleasant as any other time to get out into the countryside on a bike. You can be bowled along by a following wind with little effort. Stopping amongst the trees on a windless sunny afternoon one can see late bracken fronds, picked out by the slants of sunlight, some green fronds standing erect like miniature Christmas trees. In the stillness one can hear the slight rustle of leaves dropping down through their more tardy compatriots.

On one of my rides this week I took a loop through a few woodland areas. Although one is never more than a few hundred yards from rural “civilisation”, the woods are generally peaceful and full of interest. Whether on a journey or throughout life we can worry about the route we have taken to get here, and where the road leads to once it passes out of our view. But just stopping and being appreciative of the moment is so important, it will form part of our history.

Stopping for a drink I spotted this bale of hay left over from the harvest.

It looked like a deer but it did not move. I watched it for at least five minutes, thinking how misleading something in the distance can look, especially if one does not have binoculars. It did not move. I photographed it to show how one’s mind can play tricks with what you think you see.

This time of year there really is an abundance of fungal fruiting bodies, the visible evidence of their huge networked mycelial structures unseen in the soil or decaying wood. They are another essential part of the ecosystem that we rely upon for life. (see Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake).

Getting back on my bike I just had time to see the white rump disappear through the hedge, I do have an appointment with the optician.

On my route out I had passed a high hedge on my right behind which I could hear a light petrol engined machine in use, at the time I did not recognise what was making the continual intermittent noise. Later on in the ride I was reminded of the source. By now you should realise that I quite like autumn, I love the colours, I like the falling leaves, I like to have a cycle ride through the lanes. One of the elements we probably all recognise about autumn is that there is a fair amount of wind. It blows clouds, it blows us, it blows leaves. Some petrol head noticed this latter phenomenon and decided to create a machine to blow leaves. The blowers were out in force this day. Two were blowing leaves down a drive into the road, kicking up leaves and sticks into my path. They didn’t stop as I approached because they had their backs to me and COULDN’T HEAR OVER THE NOISE. Further on another was the other side of a hawthorn hedge blowing leaves out of his huge garden into the road. This left a twenty yard long bank of leaves on the tarmac that was rapidly turned to a mushy skid pan by passing cars. When I returned by way of the first user I was able to glance through the hedge to see what bit of garden or drive he was trying to tidy up. It was not a drive, nor a garden, only a full size football pitch surrounded by trees. These days I even see them in use in small gardens and on the pavements, just blowing leaves into a heap for the wind to redistribute later.

What happened to the old fashioned grass rake or broom I ask myself? After all a session of raking or sweeping saves hours down the gym, not to mention the saving in pounds and fossil fuel.

In the comedy series Only Fools and Horses the broom Trigger used was said to have been well maintained and lasted well having only had 17 new heads and 14 new handles in its time. I suspect that these petrol blowers will soon be renewed and are unlikely to get 17 new fuel filters, 14 new spark plugs, 2 new carburettors, 5 shoulder harnesses on top of the 2 gallons of oil and 40 gallons of petrol. I tell you one thing, I have only seen men using these things If you put the motor in reverse, called it a hoover and suggested it be used for cleaning the carpet would it become less attractive to those men? I suppose electric blowers aren’t so bad, as long as the leaves end up back in the soil one way or another. Oh well, each to their own, I quite like the leaves being scattered by the wind. The worms that take them down into the soil benefit from them and everything else in that complex ecosystem.

How important it is not to let my annoyance or intolerance of things, no matter how trivial or important, overwhelm the positives of the moment. I return to thinking about the moment when I saw the deer in the field. It was waiting for me to move. At the time there was a wren in a hedgerow giving out its characteristic chirk chirk chirk warning call. A family of long tail tits passed by, keeping in touch with their multidirectional peeps. The breeze rustled the leaves and rippled the tips of a new crop in the field. And far above was the call of a red kite floating effortlessly on the wind, looking to keep the country tidy by finding a fresh carcass.

Yes wherever we are going for now we must continue not only to feel part of all this, but to truly be part of it.

Penrith to Alston in Cumbria

I hope that from now on you will not be subjected to unwanted ad’s as I have opted for a no-ad blog. ASnyway here is another rambling blog. Thanks for all the comments on the previous one. I seem to have lost the editing ability to reduce the quality / size of the photos included. If that makes loading too slow for you then please let me know.

The tourist information office provides some attractive views of Penrith and its description begins:

Penrith has a rich history. Previously its position on the strategic route to and from Scotland resulted, since Roman times, in its development as a military centre.
It was in the 9th and 10th centuries that the town became the capital of Cumbria – a semi-dependent state which, until 1070 AD formed part of the Kingdom of Scotland and Strathclyde. The two oldest streets, Burrowgate and Sandgate, date from the 13th Century. The imposing ruins of Penrith castle have an intriguing past.

The station and the dark red castle ruins sit on a hill in the town, the modern and ancient facing off either side of the one way system. I left them glaring at each other as I joined the clockwise traffic making its way through the usual confusing array of street furniture, road signs and lane paint. Bus behind, Keswick left lane, not for me, right lane marked “S’store”, car emerging from Morrisons, stick to middle of lane to stop overtakers, right to “town c’tre” and Carlisle, err yes to one of those, switch lane, that’s “mirror, signal” (no time for that) “manoeuvre”, hope they’ve seen me. Down hill, change up, walkers crossing, cars passing, lights changing then the little blue sign.

Most of my route from Penrith to Alston was on the sea to sea cycle route 7. The route is marked with small blue and white signs, yes more street furniture but at least they are subtle and useful. One of them pointed down a pedestrian alleyway, where coffee shop tables and chairs overlooked the church yard of St Andrews, again made of that local dark red stone. The sun was blazing as I wheeled the bike past the coffee drinkers, past the “no cycling” sign and out onto the east bound route. I wonder how many folk realise that although the prohibition signs showing various motor vehicles mean that those vehicles are not permitted to enter, the cycle equivalent means “no cycling”, not “no cycles”. Although it is a criminal offence to drive or cause to be driven a vehicle (includes a pedal cycle) on a pavement. But my bike was too heavy to carry all the way down the alleyway, and most coppers have better things to do,

It was with some trepidation that I had anticipated the next 20 miles, the Hartside pass is 1300 feet above Penrith, and with the ups and downs of the lower hills I would climb over 2000 feet and drop about 1500 feet, so you can imagine how pleased I was to have that little electric motor to assist on the steeper bits.

One problem with having an e-bike motor is that it does rather make me feel guilty if I pass other cyclists on hills. As I edge past and they turn their head, panting, I do sometimes apologise, saying that I am cheating. Their answer is generally a smile, or possibly a grimace. So the best option is just to follow them up at an easy pace and let the racing snakes pass on their stripped down machines. I don’t envy those, I’ve got a saddle bag full of snacks and goodies as well as loads of time to get to Alston.

Almost straight away I had to face the e-bike guilt. Two young ladies had huge bright yellow panniers on their bikes and seemed to be starting the climb accompanied with a fellow on a modern faired low recumbent bike, also well laden. Now recumbents are hard to climb with. This time I passed them, nodded, got no obvious response and determined to keep going to put some distance between us. I did see them again, the following day, when I was coming back from where they were going to and we were all friendly and cheerful and tired. I then noticed that the recumbent was fitted with an e-motor, don’t blame him, but a bit of an advantage over the two ladies each apparently carrying what would be two weeks worth of kit for a bloke.

The first ten miles passed through mixed agriculture and increasingly remote villages via twisting climbs and rapid downward swoops. The sun blazing on my back at the tops then patterning the road as it found its way through the leafy dells at the bottom of the hills, the road turning sharply over little stone bridges. Then, after having to back track a mile due to misreading one of the little blue signs, I began the climb out of the tree line, up to the pass. Now and then I would have a break from looking at the stone walls and wild flowers on the verge to look up to the distant hill where little white specs were heading for the high horizon. I preferred not to dwell on the apparent miniature size of these vehicles, nor on the fact they did not seem to be getting much closer.

I had plenty of time to get to Alston because my pub B&B did not open until 6 pm. The weather was fine, I had stocked up on water at Milton Keynes station, and I was not going to run out of energy. I might get tired but that is not the same thing. Running out of energy on the bike is sometimes termed the knock, hitting the wall or the bonking. It is when you run out of available glucose and glycogen to burn and the body has to try to switch to burning fat. It is almost impossible to carry on if it happens. My first personal experience was when taking a ride up the valleys from Cardiff to Pontsticill reservoir above Merthyr Tydvil, up the valleys. I made myself a couple of jam sandwiches for lunch and was determined not to eat them before I had conquered the valleys on my old hack college bike, 32 miles up 1300 feet. Big mistake. By the time I got to Merthyr I’d had it. My energy was gone, my brain had gone fussy, my legs were jelly. I bought and ate two Mars bars, yes two, one after the other. I don’t remember what I washed it down with but it certainly did the trick. I experienced something similar a few years later but that time treated it with a visit to a greasy spoon cafe after which I lead out the train of my friends back to Chester. The first time I witnessed it, although did not realise the cause, was after a long ride on a cold April day. To my great surprise and consternation my cycling companion, who was clearly the stronger, fitter and elder of us, just keeled over onto the verge. Roused by her barking dog, a kindly lady brought out a sarnie for my pal. Ten minutes later he was right as rain, although my parents were not too happy as I was back very late, Dad was out in the car looking for me.

But that was not going to happen on this ride. I had spent nearly four hours on trains, munching my way through coffee time, lunch and early afternoon tea. That may have lightened my bags, but I was a tad heavier.

Hedges and trees were left behind as the landscape opened up with sheep on close cropped grass in stone wall enclosed fields. The lanes were so quiet that I almost began to consider them as mine, my bit of peace and quiet. Thus I was sorry to leave them and join the A road to finish the climb to the pass. The traffic was light but sort of mad.

It began with the horse drawn gypsy caravan with its Police Aware tape, abandoned at the junction. Then there were the two pedestrians in the distance slowly climbing the road. Not pedestrians, they were wearing bike helmets, but were they limping or running or walking oddly. None of the aforementioned, they were two grown blokes doing a charity sea to sea endeavour on ordinary pavement scooters. Eventually they got off the road and got to the summit via the off road section, the scooters slung over their shoulders. We then come to the sports motor bikes with their friends in the super cars. Hartside pass is a magnet for folk who want to speed up and down the sweeping bends, chasing, being chased, overtaking, revving, braking etc. As a vulnerable cyclist, or scooterist, one does wish that they wouldn’t.

I sat on a bench at the top admiring the westerly views towards the lakes and Penrith. The breeze was pleasantly cool and I caught snatches of sensible conversation from other folk there, who then got on or in their motors and went screaming down the other side. Each to their own I suppose.

I then dropped off. Not to sleep, down the other side. It began on the wonderfully smooth tarmac, tarmac that would be visited by the Tour of Britain cycle race in three days time, it flowed and banked for miles before I cut off to the minor road for the final few miles.

The road just dropped out of sight steeply past berry laden Rowen trees and sheep fields, to join the Tyne valley into Alston. Tally ho!

Wanderings by bike

Hello there, this is not really a biking blog. I am talking to the laptop because the cat does not understand me therefore if you want to read it feel free. If not at least I feel that I have had some sort of conversation that does not involve eating up the cat food, using the litter tray, not the bath rug and not bringing live rats through the cat flap.

I shall not go into loads of technical detail about bikes. You may ask is there much? Yes there is much more now than when I was a youngster when nearly everything was standardised, and simple, oh yes, and heavy.

Well with that all said perhaps I shall start with my most recent trip to Cumbria and Northumberland.

You may well ask why I suddenly choose to shoot off up there for four nights? It was because I do get a bit fed up with the amount of traffic in the rural lanes near home. The 2020 traffic data for Hertfordshire estimated there were 6.5 billion miles travelled, for Northumberland it was1.6 billion miles.

Also I have to admit to falling under the spell of the recent Avanti train advertisement. It was the one with the roller skating tortoise that, having scooted around the urban roads, pinching lettuce as it goes, takes off onto quiet open country roads and the scene turns into an Avanti train racing through the country. The link is “www.youtube.com/watch?v=G9lobWtujI0”. I was hooked and soon booked my tickets and b&b stay in Alston. Alston, never heard of it, never been there, just looked at a map and decided that it was not too big, not too small, and with plenty of little fell roads nearby was just right. At first I tried to ignore the fact that there was a 24 mile ride over a 1900 foot pass to get there from Penrith station. But that blasé attitude didn’t last long. I’ve never been good at climbing hills, my knees don’t like it, I don’t like it, and the poor drivers stuck behind me don’t like it, or rather don’t like me getting in their way.

Soon I had the digital kitchen scales in the garage weighing everything that I could possibly substitute for lighter versions on the bike. Spanners were swapped for a few grams, pedals changed saving some more. The rack came off, saving. nearly a kilo. I even cut 3 foot, or is that “3 feet”?, out of the charger cable to save weight and bulk. I must admit at this point that I have fitted a road legal electric motor to my bike in order to be ab;e to cover reasonable distances with my reasonably ageing knees. Back in the house I turned my attention to toiletries. Four days worth of toothpaste was squeezed into an old dropper bottle, sun block went into double plastic zip bags. The old British Airways folding toothbrush was excavated from my drawers (chest of drawers). Those were the days when for a short time I was allowed to travel business class overnight to the USA. Those complementary toilet bags were filled with useless stuff like miniature flannels, lip balm, tiny soaps and ineffective ear plugs. I guess you were supposed to toddle off to join the queue for the cramped WC, barely awake, having been brought a breakfast just a couple of hours after the evening meal, and somehow conduct ablutions whilst the plane was doing a jig and everyone was being told to return to the seats and buckle up because of turbulence. The main thing on ones mind was generally “am I going to see my breakfast for a second time?”

I digress, I also dolloped just enough shaving cream into an old 35 mm film pot. My wardrobe got the same treatment but I will save you the details of that, we don’t want to get too personal. Maps were photocopied and downloads were printed to ensure the minimum amount of paper was carried.

Now one great thing about senior rail cards is that they are only valid after the morning rush hour for most routes. Thus one misses the school run traffic on the ride to the station. One bad thing about senior rail cards is that they are only valid after the morning rush hour for most routes. Thus if you want an early start on a long journey, tough. The first train after 9.30 got me to Milton Keynes for the change to the Avanti train to Penrith. It was great, I really felt a closeness to that tortoise and the four hour journey was a pleasure. Knowing a bit of the waterways network it was fun spotting the Grand Union canal, the Coventry, the Lancaster, even the Manchester ship canal as we crossed them.

And then we were in Penrith, the gateway to the northern lakes. The small bus stop and drop off bay of the station is a bit uphill, directly opposite the dark red stone castle. Being deposited in a new place is always a bit exciting. That feeling of leaving an airport or station not previously visited has a mixture of disorientation and challenge. This is elevated when one has to mount one’s bike and set off into an unknown traffic system, with only a vague idea of which direction to ride. But it is a joyous feeling, especially as this day the weather was hot, I had good maps and plenty of food. Have you thought of the sounds that mark the start of a journey? The click of the front door latching behind you, or maybe the ignition of the car’s engine. For me on the bike the definitive sound of the journey beginning it is the snap as the pedal clips accept my shoes and welcome me aboard, making us as one. And so began five days of riding as I joined the one way traffic system and dropped down into the town which had to be crossed to get out to the east and head up hill.