Burning offf the Excess

We had a particularly pleasant family gathering today involving a good walk in the morning (over 80s excused) followed by an excellent lunch. As various relatives went their separate ways and just the three of us were left to finish off the last of the sausages for our tea, it began to dawn on me that I had enjoyed a surfeit of alimentation and that something ought to be done about it. I was also aware that, despite the good weather on Saturday, I had done almost no miles on the bike and, with severe weather and Arctic blasts forecast for the early part of the week, opportunites for riding in a modicum of comfort were going to be in short supply.

The urge to go for a ride was almost quelled by the unmistakable rattling of rain on the skylights but a few minutes later a quick glance out of the front door assured me that the weather had improved and that the sky, at least in part, had cleared. I got changed into my cycling gear, took the solidlights off the tandem and fitted them to my solo machine, and off I went.

Every activity, every hobby I pursue, eventually grips me like a drug. The more I consume, the more I need to consume to keep the addiction at bay. When I was practising for my piano teaching diploma, I used to have to play for about 4 hours every night in order to improve. These days, I would have ended up with the letters ASBO after my name as well as LGSM because we lived in a small terraced house and I drove the neighbours spare. When I played chess competitively, I used to study the games of grandmasters at great length in order to improve my play, and I used to hate losing to geeky single men who had nothing in their lives except chess, and who would return to some squalid bedsit after the game whereas I would go back to a comfortable home, complete with the family I sometimes resented for stopping me from spending more time on chess.

I don’t want my cycling to end up like that. At the moment, I have an objective, and its a laudable one: to lose weight. I’m succeeding, but I don’t actually have a target weight in mind. I suppose that if I got down to 13 stone, I shoud be satisfied, because not all that long ago I was over 19 stone. I’m nearly half way there, but if I get there, will the addiction take over again? At least with cycling there are lots of spin-off benefits.

Even though for much of the time my riding is along the same roads, no two rides are ever the same. Car drivers control their environments so much, with heaters, stereos, simply the fact that they are separated from the real world by boxes of metal and glass, that, by and large, going from A to B is pretty much the same every time. For the cyclist, there is a great deal of variety depending to a large extent upon what the weather is doing, but also upon one’s own state of mind. One evening last week, for example, the weather was relatively mild and there was almost no wind, and my legs achieved a rhythm which I had forgotten that they could achieve and when I arrived home to my great delight and surprise I had covered just over 24 miles in 1 hour 56 minutes during which time I had noticed almost nothing of my surrroundings.

Tonight was not going to be like that. For one thing winter had returned – “welcome March with Wintry Wind: wouldst thou wert not so unkind” – so overshoes and an extra layer on the top were required. For another, I just felt like observing what was going on around me.

It was about half-tide as I rode along the sea front, having to do relatively little work as the wind was behind me. I had the lights in flash mode, and they must have been angled a bit too high because a couple of drivers coming the other way flashed their own headlights at me vigorously as I must have been dazzling them. It’s such a great feeling, when, having made do for so many years with feeble old Ever Ready front lights which gave out a puny beam, we cyclists can now force motorists to acknowledge our existence with a decent set of dynamo lights.

On entering Wakering I admired the very distinctive church, squat and broad-shouldered, whose clock now told passers by the correct time when for so many months it said ten to seven. However, what would the Bishop have to say about the flood-lighting, now that Rowan Williams has declared climate change to be a moral problem and it is the duty of everyone to cut back on their use of energy? Barling church seemed to have a much more public-spirited vicar, or perhaps just a lot less money, as it was lurking in a Dickensian darkness, just a stone’s throw from the sea wall and marshes beyond. Bolts Farm, on the most remote part of the ride, was highly illuminated again. This is a listed building which has new occupants and they were obliged to seek planning permission to erect a new fence which is not really in keeping with the timber-framed weatherboarded farmhouse, and the house seems to have lost a rough-edged rusticity as a result of recent renovations. It’s the sort of place which modern builders try to imitate, at least, in the veneer they glue onto the breeze-blocks, and at times Bolts Farm no longer looks quite like the real thing.

I was going to explore all the roads I could this evening, and when I returned to Little Wakering via Barrow Hall Road, I noticed flashes of lightning from a bank of cloud far out over the North Sea. I have heard it referred to as “summer lightning” – pyrotechnics so remote that there is no chance of hearing the thunder – but tonight was as far away from high summer as it is possible to be. Past Little Wakering and Barling churches again, and on this lap it occurred to me that rural dwellers seem to rely far less on curtains than do their urban counterparts. I rode fairly slowly, having a good old nose into people’s fromt rooms, and very homely they looked. I imagined fresh bread and beef stews with dumplings.

On my second lap I went along the Barling Road towards Silchester Corner (who named it that and why?) and on a whim turned along Rebel’s Lane. I had only been along here once before, having joined it from the other end where it is a public footpath leading from the northern side of Southend Borough. I rode as far as I could before the tarmac gave way to gravel, and just as I was approaching the point at which I would have to turn round and go back, I saw a fox trotting towards me, completely unaware of my existence as the wind was blowing from him to me. We were only about 15 feet away from each other when suddenly he became aware of me. Foxes are supposed to melt away into the darkness when they don’t want to be observed, but this one displayed considerable alarm as it dashed away inelegantly.

I had forgotten how vulgar, ostentatious and opulent the houses are along the Barling Road, the owners seeming to want to outdo one another in the army of ground-level lighting pointing upwards outside every mansion to demonstrate one unmemorable feature after another, so in the end nothing stood out except for the extreme ugliness of the best that money could buy. Off I went into Wakering for the third time, and this time after Barling church I turned my front light off. There was no moon, but enough reflection of distant neon from the clouds, and the residue of the earlier shower, that I could easily see where I was going. Suddenly I was aware of something above me and I looked and caught the silhouette of an owl, probably a tawny, following me along the road about 10 feet above my head, each of us trying to work out the precise identity of the other. Trying to cycle in a straight line while looking up at the sky is not to be recommended and when I looked down at the road again I could not see it so clearly as I had been able to. On came the light once more until I rounded the bend by Bolt’s farm (again) and turned the light out once more. I noticed an orange light flashing in the farmyard at Mucking Hall. It was a tractor manoeuvring. What were they messing about at at 11 o’clock on a Sunday night?

This was the final lap and suddenly, having been aware only of my surroundings, I realised that my feet were now cold. This was in spite of overshoes, but it seemed that I could actually feel the warmth draining away through the cleats. The rest of me was pretty warm – well, almost all the rest of me – I was beginning to wonder whether there was a hole in the crutch of my Lusso longs, but no, it was just the sensitive bits being sensitive and telling me it was time to get back in the warm and go to bed.

So after another couple of miles that’s pretty much what I did.

Wales v England rugby

I saw very little of the rugby at the weekend because we were out on the tandem for most of it.

However, I can think of numerous occasions on which England, going to Cardiff for the last game of the season and with a chance of a championship, have come badly unstuck. Keith Jarrett’s game of 1966 was the first of these. I remember well Kim Novak (yes, honestly) scoring a try for England in 1970 and the score being 13-0 to England at half time, but Wales won 17-13 (Gareth Edwards was injured and replaced by Chico Hopkins at half time). Robert Norster and Robert Jones between them gave the English a salutory lesson in in line-out play in (I think ) 1988 which was the occasion that England were supposed to end a run of 26 years without a win in Cardiff and the BBC had assembled in the studio the entire 1962 team, all kitted out, to celebrate the fact; and of course there was the lovely occasion that an effigy of Will Carling’s head was impaled on a spike on the ramparts of Cardiff Castle. And didn’t Wales do it again when Scott Gibbs’ try and Neil Jenkins’ conversion did for them with the last kick of the match, this time at Wembley before the millenium stadium was opened?

So although Wales have been very disappointing this season, and particularly dire against Scotland, the other three matches have been reasonably close. Saturday’s game will be a close affair and the bookies, and, most importantly, the media, will make England favourites. That’s just how I like it…

Littley Green

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a middle-aged couple in possession of a good tandem must be in want of a ride.

So it was that Mrs Wow and I set forth on a bright, cold morning for just that. Having had no positive responses to our belated invitation for company on this jaunt, we decided to miss out Wickford all together and head straight to West Hanningfield, along well-travelled roads. Initially I had cast a clout in the form of my windproof jacket, but before we had reached Southend Hospital it emerged from the pannier and was taking pride of place once again, keeping out the wind in precisely the manner it was designed to do.

We kept up a respectable speed to Rayleigh, whizzed down the hill past the station and took a right turn towards Battlesbridge. Here we took a photograph of a rare sight: an Essex oast house.

Carrying on through Rettendon, we noted that someone had been sweeping the cycle track. It was actually quite reasonable to ride on. Then, into Hoe Lane and South Hanningfield where we took some photographs of pleasing scenery

and the reservoir where a few boats were out as their occupants tried to catch trout.

It wasn’t long before we reached Baddow and The Bringey, and we were met with the sight of a well-honed Dawes Galaxy as another cyclist had beaten us to it. It turned out to be Delthebike, of this very parish, who had responded to our invitation and had been racing around south-east Essex all morning trying to find us.

After some coffee and beans on toast, our augmented party set off along the Baddow Road where we negotiated the fairly unpleasant Army & Navy Roundabout and a few hundred yards of Parkway before taking our left turn into London Road. The traffic lights steadfastly refused to acknowledge our existance, so after they had passed up two opportunities to allow us through we took the law into our own hands and turned right anyway. A brief exploration of some of the residential roads behind the Essex County Cricket Ground took us to a footbridge over the River Can and into Admiral’s Park, the scene of many an afternoon stroll in games kit when I was in my teens and the PE staff quite unreasonably expected me to run round a two or three mile course and get all hot and sweaty in the effort. There are more ways than one to spoil a good walk. It was here that we revisited one of the more interesting traffic signs of the day.

This is NCN Route 1, and it’s quite a good way of getting out of Chelmsford. We found the Chignal Road and not long afterwards were on the old A130, Great Waltham High Street. Off we trundled towards Howe Street (not, I fear, named in honour of the man gave such a frank account of what it was really like working for Mrs Thatcher) and on towards Littley Green. There were some quite attractive residences along the way.


I wouldn’t like to have to pay the heating bill for the second one!

Shortly before arriving at the pub, I heard the agitato tones of a J. S. Bach orchestral suite somewhere in the region of my left buttock, which is the signal that I had a phone call. One of the great things about riding on the front of a tandem is that one has a butler on hand ready to do everything for one. Mrs. Wow delved into my pocket, fondly caressing my gluteus maximus as she did so and answered the phone. It was our son & heir who had locked himself out of the house while taking the dog for a walk. Now neither son nor dog had access to food while we were away and they had at least a 4 hour wait for our return. Denis spent the afternoon at Camp Bling helping them to erect a shed for Irene to live in while the dog spent the time displaying some quite uncharacteristic aggression as he growled at any other dog that came near.

It was not long before we were in the pub, enjoying some soon-to-be-extinct ale (Hardy & Hanson’s Old Trip) which has been run down by the Greene King juggernaut. The Compasses, Littley Green, has a well-deserved reputation for everything being gravity drawn.

We gave the soup a miss but did enjoy their “huffers”, large triangular baps with a filling of your choice. I went for the OTT, which is pretty much a full English breakfast shovelled between the two pieced of bread and cemented in place with molten cheddar cheese.

Knowing that our poor little waif (all 6’1″and 16 stone of him) would need access to his anti-rejection tablets caused us to get up a fair bit of speed after lunch. I have always been impressed that, in spite of having already covered more than 30 miles, it is the post-lunch session in which one cycles the quickest, and the miles whizzed by. It wasn’t long before we were at the foot of North Hill, Little Baddow. When we reached the top

Delthebike handed round some very welcome rock cake.

Coming down the other side of Danbury Hill is always a delight, and although our speeds are relatively sedate compared to such boy racers as Jaded, there is an awful lot of momentum gained as about 31 stone of us (pilot, stoker, luggage & bike) achieve speeds in excess of 30 mph. The Thorn tandem gives one a tremendous sense of stability and I am much happier cornering at speed that I was on the Claud. We can lean it over quite significantly, and the gorgeous winding descent of Creephedge Lane had me looking over my shoulder to see where Del was – he is normally a much faster cyclist than I am – and he was some way behind.

We stopped at the “Tropical Wings” rooms for a very welcome pot of tea and then from Battlesbridge we were very much wind-assisted. We stopped for two final photos at Doggetts Lake.


We were within a mile of home when suddenly the dreaded bonk set in. Not too surprising I suppose, as we had covered 34 post-lunch miles with only half a rock cake and a cup or two of tea to keep us going. We stopped for a gratuitious chocolate & raisin cereal bar, but reached our abode before the sugar kicked in.

Total distance: a little over 66 miles in a few seconds over 6 hours’ riding time. Very pleased with that.

Frightening the Horses

We noticed that Mrs Wow’s saddle was a little lower than it ought to have been, and could well have been a cause of the back pain she experienced last weekend on Brazier’s Run, so out came the Allen keys this morning before we set off on our pootle. Then off we went along familar roads – past Southend Hospital, across at the Kent Elms Lights, Eastwood Road into Rayleigh and then a stretch of the A129 which is rapidly becoming one of my favourite bits of road. There is a lovely sweeping downhill from the centre of Rayleigh past the station, but then the gradient seems to continue, almost imperceptably, for another three-quarters of a mile. We get into a high gear and can keep up a speed of about 25 mph for quite some time, and even when we meet the Carpenter’s Arms roundabout we are still doing well over 15mph.

Conditions were ideal this morning as well: cloudy but not raining, little wind and fairly mild. We headed towards Shotgate on the old London Road and there it was that we met a pair of equestrians (or perhaps the horses were humanists?). We approached fairly gently because we did not want to give the poor old gee-gees the heebie-jeebies by having to apply our none-too-quiet brakes and it was just as well we did. We had just said “Good Morning” to the people on the horses when the nearer horse decided it was time to shy away and attempt to bolt. The other followed suit so for a few seconds we had somewhere in excess of a ton of prancing, frightened horse-flesh to contend with, until the riders brought them under control again.

“He didn’t expect there to be two people on one bike!” explained the man. So there we are, it’s official: horses can count to 2. We had a similar reaction from a Yorkshire horse when we were riding around Kirklees a couple of weeks ago so perhaps that confirms it. Horses, it would appear, are likely to be frightened of tandemists.

Nothing of any note occurred for the next four miles or so, apart from a brief shower, so we arrived at my brother’s house in Ramsden Heath, ready for coffee, around noon.

Forty minutes later, well fortified and after a pleasant chinwag, we were on our way again. It was raining steadily now and off we went, still heading north, along Dowsetts Lane. We took a left towards Leatherbottle Hill, a hamlet named, apparently, after a pub which used to be there, but that was certainly before my time. We were following a solitary cyclist along this section, and we tended to catch up on the downhills only to be left behind on the uphills. Eventually we caught up with her and conversed for a few minutes about cycling in general, her trip from Bordeaux to Barcelona and the fact that we were going to do LEJOG next month, until we reached the Three Compasses in West Hanningfield, which was where she was stopping for lunch. The temptation to join her was quite strong but we resisted and after we rounded the bend into West Hanningfield we were forced to resist a wind which was even stronger.

This came as quite a shock and also no small disappointment. West Hanningfield is one of the high points of the ride, and we have come to expect the best part of six miles of wind-assisted downhill. The gradients were all still in the correct places, but the wind most definitely was not. It was pretty strong and it was a south-easterly, smacking our faces vigorously as we pedalled along the dam wall. This is normally a nice easy straight flat bit, but today it was anything but easy. We changed down a gear or two, put our heads down and trudged along as though the tarmac had been coated in treacle. 9mph was about our limit, and even when we reached the junction in South Hanningfield and took the left turn we found our progress hampered by the headwind.

Chalk Street and Hoe Lane came and went, far more slowly than usual, and viewed over rain-bespangled spectacles. We kept to the road through Rettendon, avoiding the cycle track with its gravel, twig debris and horse muck, and did our poor best to swoop down towards the roundabout below, but still hampered by a stiff breeze.

The last 12 miles were all the same. Heads into the wind, rain in our faces and, to be honest, I enjoyed it. There was quite a bit of traffic as usual, but nothing especially annoying and as we reached Doggetts Farm I could really feel that my knees had done some work. To my great delight, Jan was not complaining at all about the conditions, and she barely tolerates rain. How she survived as a child in the Pennines east of Manchester I can’t guess, but we are bound to have some wet days on our Land’s End – John O’Groats jaunt next month, so surviving a wet day and a headwind now would be good preparation.

We returned home for a very late lunch after 37 miles at just over 10 mph. Within minutes Jan had had her shower, the soup was ready and the mugs filled with steaming tea. A lovely ride in tough conditions.

Doggett’s Farm, the T-bird and yours truly.