Sleeping arrangements

I am planning some backpacking trips this summer, starting with a long weekend in the Chilterns next weekend, and culminating it walking the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path in June. I have decided to experiment with a quilt instead of a sleeping bag. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, I find it very difficult to get s sleeping bag big enough to fit my shoulders inside and secondly, a quilt takes up much less rucksack space and is a lot lighter.

I have used an Exped Downmat for some years and as an experiment I decided to see if it would fit inside my cotton sleeping bag liner. And it does, perfectly!

Well that’s a bonus!

World Piano Day

29th March is the 88th day of the year, therefore Piano Day (most pianos have 88 keys. Quite a lot have 85, whereas others such as the Bösendorfer Imperial have more, added on at the bass end).

The idea is that everyone taking part in World Piano Day records and posts a piece of music that they have played and nominated 3 other pianists to do the same.

Anyway, here’s a prelude and fugue by J. S. Bach, which is my contribution.

YACF Birthday Ride

The very excellent YACF (Yet Another Cycling Forum) is 10 years old today. To mark the occasion a small but select trio of riders who are all 10 years older than they were a decade ago met at Audley End station for an early spring potter.

Bob (aka Canardly), John (aka Wobbly John) and I (aka Wowbagger) set off at a sedate pace under an overcast sky around this route:-

We had a stop for coffee and a bacon butty in Thaxted at Parrishes café, which was very welcome after 9 or 10 coldish miles – there wasn’t any frost or ice, but it was just cold – and then we set off towards Great Bardfield and on to Finchingfield, where the serried ranks of all sorts of motorcyclists had gathered. The Garmin’s batteries conked out a mile or so before we got to Finchingfield and I had, in a senior moment, forgotten to pick up the spare pair that had been slow-cooking on the charger all night. Luckily the shop was open and I was able to buy some Duracells so that we could continue without too much guesswork.

Much to Bob’s disappointment we didn’t climb the 1:9 (or whatever it is) hill which is on the route of the Dunwich Dynamo but instead turned let towards Stambourne and then on to Steeple Bumpstead where we had lunch in the Fox pub. We each had a roast and a pint or two of a very tasty porter that was on offer.

This route involved a fair bit of climbing, and at one point I noticed that the Garmin recorded 380 feet above sea level. I’m never sure how accurate it is though as it sometimes gives ludicrous readings. That must have been a decent guess as the Ordnance Map give 123 metres at Castle Camps, which is 403 feet above sea level. This part of Essex is positively alpine. (Small vaguely-relevant fact: Debden, near Saffron Walden, is twinned with Tang Ting, Nepal).

We enjoyed a pretty good descent from Ashdon, but I stopped and retraced my pedal-strokes as I had noticed a large advertisement for a concert including Mozart’s C Minor Mass, which I will be singing in with the Southend Bach Choir on 21st April. The Saffron Walden Choral Society’s concert was last night.

We arrived back at the station at about 5pm and John caught his train to Ely and Bob and I drove in our various directions.

We didn’t see a great deal of notable wildlife: a number of buzzards; but there were two notable bits of roadkill in the form of a hedgehog and a polecat-style ferret. I can’t think that there are wild polecats living in Essex.

Getting into Training

I suspect that people who know me will do a double-take on the title of this post.

A couple of months ago, when I was about to set off for my “day’s” teaching (in reality, about 2 hours, but with travelling it keeps me out of the house for about 4) I was suddenly hit with that sinking feeling “I’m fed up with this. I don’t want to do it any more,” and since I am fortunate enough not to need the money, I decided there and then that this would be my final term’s teaching and from now on I would dedicate my time as much as possible to pure hedonism. I justified this totally self-centred decision to myself with the reassuring thought “I’m 63 years old, I’m 6 stone overweight, I’ll be lucky if I’ve got another 10 active summers ahead of me in which I can do exciting things, so I’m going to start with this one!”

With this thought in my mind, I turned to the most excellent cycling forum YACF and mentioned a few ideas I had of ways to spend my time, and it didn’t take very long for my pal Simon (aka loadsabikes) to take me up on my idle suggestion of Walking the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path. So that’s what we are going to do, in late June. With tents.

I have only once been on a backpacking holiday and that was in 2004 when I went to the Brecon Beacons for a few days with the children (hardly children by this stage since the youngest was almost 18). It started pretty badly in the sense that I was naive enough to look at a 1:25000 ordnance map and notice a pub, and a shop, and to think that such establishments might be able to provide us with things to eat and drink, but discovering, on arrival, that I had to be there at the weekend for the pub, or Tuesday morning for the shop. This left us with rather a bad feeling about the whole proceedings until we got to a particular campsite that was really most wonderful.

But I digress. I know that the Pembs Path is going to be tough. It’s 186 miles and we have given ourselves a fortnight in which to do it. That’s going to be 14 miles a day, near enough. Another YACF member told us, encouragingly, that the 5 days it took him to get from Newgale to Fishguard were the toughest he’s known, and he’s walked the Eiger Trail. So with that in mind, I’ve been going out walking.

Given that the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path is going to have an awful lot of Up and Down, today I wended my way to Leigh Station, where I parked the car, and walked up to Hadleigh Castle and beyond. Those with something of a memory and a sense of humour will recall that in 2012, Hadleigh was chosen as the site for the Olympic Mountain Biking events. Not Wales, not Scotland, not the Pennines or the North York Moors, but Essex. At least they didn’t put the bobsleighs on Canvey Island.

To be fair, though, the range of hills around Hadleigh Castle does rise out of the Thames estuary pretty abruptly, and so far as I am concerned it’s the best I am going to get within a reasonable distance of home. So that’s where I went today.

It was a pleasant afternoon but I left it rather late before I started, not leaving home until well after 3pm and I started walking just before 4pm. Everything was much drier than the last time I came this way, but then there was still a lot of snow lying. All that had long since gone, and mostly I was able to walk on relatively dry clay. There was none of that sticking-to-your-foot stuff of two weeks ago.

I walked up the gentle slope towards the castle and made my way through the grounds. When I got to the Salvation Army Rare Breeds farm I found the café to be closed (tea rooms always close at tea time) so I followed what appeared to be footpath signs and found myself in the middle of the rare breeds. A very handsome cock turkey came and made threatening gestures to me and it struck me, never really having examined one before, that they almost appear to move around on wheels, rather like Russian folk dancers. I spied a couple of interesting pigs, but I couldn’t find the way out, so I asked a young woman who was about to give a load of hay to a donkey and she put me right.

Even then, I couldn’t fid the right place and a couple of hundred yards further on I could see what was very obviously a well-maintained footpath on the wrong side of a barbed wire fence. I felt confident I woud be able to get through a bit further on and so I did, but this brought me into conflict with brambles and a hawthorn bush. I won, in the sense that I managed to get through unscathed, but it would probably have been easier to retrace my steps.

I had never been to this bit of the Hadleigh Country Park before and I could see what looked like a very fine visitors’ centre. I was making for that when a couple walking their dog came towards me.

“Is the visitors’ centre still open?” I asked.

“No, it has just closed…”

Oh well, it was 4.50pm.

From there I walked down the most direct path I could see, and this at last led me to some proper mud, which made the going a bit tricky for a couple of furlongs, but soon I was back close to sea level. This bit I had been to before, but the path is now in much better condition than it was on my last visit.

I climbed back up to the castle and retraced my steps, the Garmin conking out about 5 minutes before I got to the car. Almost exactly 5 miles in about 1 hour 55 minutes and with about 500 feet of ascent. That will do!

Noteworthy wildlife observed: 1 green woodpecker, one fox.

A Walk in Surrey

A chance conversation revealed that my good pal Katie Collis shared my enjoyment of long walks and, moreover, generally had Thursdays as her day off. Since almost every day is my day off, we thought a potter around the Surrey Hills might be a rather good way of spending the day. So it was that we arranged to meet at Horsley Station with a view to stomping around the 9 or so miles of the East Horsley Jubilee Walk.

Trains being what they are, Katie caught one from Waterloo whereas I drove out from Southend, and our timing was pretty well spot on: she had just emerged from the station as I pulled into the car park. She came to my rescue when it came to paying for parking. “RingGo” is a company, it seems, that runs car parks and you can pay for parking by phoning a number and carrying out the instructions given to you. But they are utter shite and their automated system broke down at the point at which I was trying to tell it that I only wanted one day’s parking and the electronic person at the other end said “Sorry, you can only pay for up to 7 days’ parking at a time.” Katie downloaded their app and paid for my parking. I bought the coffee later.

However, we were soon on our way and it became pretty clear that we were in for a day of mud. I’m becoming quite an expert in mud, and I’m beginning to think that there aren’t enough words for it. Although today’s walk ranked a full 10 on the Mud Scale, its quality led me to the opinion that it was still less muddy than my walk to Hadleigh Castle last week. Essex’s mud has an adhesive quality that I have never experienced anywhere else. Walk through a muddy field in Essex and for every step you take your boots get heavier as the mud clings to our boot, and then itself, expanding in an ever-widening dinner-plate attached to the sole of your foot. This does not seem to happen with mud in the Surrey Hills: every time you lift your foot to take a pace there is less mud attached to it than there is in Essex, so by definition it wasn’t quite such a muddy walk.

However, this did give us ample opportunity to have a sing. Apart from the occasional dog walker where the route took us in close to habitation, for such a densely populated area so close to the capital we saw very few people. I suspect that the explanation for this lies in the previous paragraph, but it did lead to a great walk. And we sang the Hippopotamus Song, all four verses. The least well known verse, which includes a reference to the Aswan Dam, really tickled Katie’s fancy because as an archaeologist she knew all about the shifting by Unesco of the magnificent artefacts. Although I remembered Nasser and the building of the dam from my youth, I was unaware of the finer details. All this goes to prove what a fertile medium mud is.

That part of the Surrey Hills has a number of ornate bridges, the “Lovelace Bridges” that were built in order to allow horses pulling tree trunks relatively easy, shallow-gradient tracks on which to work. They were built, apparently, by Lord Lovelace, who was an enthusiastic forester. There were some signs up at a few of the bridges explaining a bit about their history, but I did a bit of fact-checking here. It is quite amusing looking at the comments beneath that piece, complaining about the mud. In May and in August. Wimps.

Anyway, back to our experience. We stopped and sat on a fallen tree for some slightly-delayed 11ses as I had brought a flask of coffee and some Welshcakes I had made the previous evening (Katie is from Swansea and I’m half Welsh, so they were a very appropriate choice) and a little later on we found some picnic tables where Katie very kindly shared with me her Greggs “Club Sandwich”. This was more like a shillelagh than a club and there was ample for the two of us.

Shortly afterwards we came across a very scenic spot looking northwards towards London, and with it a display pointing out what was what. We should have been able to see Crystal Palace apparently, but the trees seemed to have grown since the display was put there. We could see the tall buildings in the City, but at the distance we were, some 24 miles to the south-west, I certainly found it hard to tell which was which.

From that point it all became a fair bit easier. We crossed the A246 near St. Mary’s Church and then had a very pleasant stroll in warm sunshine across some well-kept grassland towards a railway bridge. We passed the imposing West Horsley Place, which itself has a fascinating history ( having been inherited, much to his surprise, by Bamber Gascoigne, of University Challenge fame, in 2014. Around this time we also had excellent views, in quick succession, of a buzzard and a red kite against the clear blue sky. We had already seen what we thought was a buzzard flapping through the wood, but we couldn’t be certain, but there was no doubt about these two.

The final mile or so was on a paved footpath alongside the railway and we celebrated our success with tea/coffee and flapjack at a tea room that is sadly due to close soon. I took advantage of their misfortune by stocking up on lemon curd, which was at a knock-down price, for my wife, who has a weakness for that particular preserve.

We are planning another walk soon, towards the end of March, in the Danbury area of mid-Essex.

Oh, and here’s the route on Bikehike.

Back in the saddle

Woe is me! I am a lapsed blogger! However, I think the only way to do anything about that is to unlapse myself, so here’s a post…

After a long winter in which Jan and I had done next to nothing in the way of cycling (actually, that’s a lie: Jan had done no cycling since August) we resurrected the electric tandem (Circe Helios to those who don’t know, and if you do, it’s still a Circe Helios), plonked it in the car and took it to the Essex Wildlife Trust Visitors’ Centre at Hanningfield reservoir, gave them a donation of a couple of quid and then pottered off to the Fishing Lodge tea room for 11ses. We had already decided that a little over a mile is not sufficient to warrant cake with our beverage, a decision doubly justified when I realised that they were charging £3.95 for a slice of Victoria Sponge. We were not amused.

Thereafter we continued our northward meander, taking the scenic route to East Hanningfield via Middlemead and West Hanningfield, thereby avoiding the rather nasty climb out of Rettendon, with its busy traffic. We met a rather faster cyclist than us and nattered to him briefly at some temporary lights, but once we were under way again he left us well behind.

We used the attractive route to Danbury via Butts Green and Sporhams Lane, carefully avoiding cycling through the ford, which was the deepest I have seen it. I’m sure a temporary immersion would do nothing to improve the electric motor of the bike.

We took advantage of a couple of “CLOSED ROADS” into and out of Danbury. Some resurfacing work was taking place in Penny Royal Lane, and The Ridgeway, leading down to Paper Mill Lock, was also closed, due to a hole having been dug in it, so we had a peaceful descent. We had sandwiches, cake and tea for lunch and had a natter to a self-declared sedentary couple who were admiring both our bike and our athleticism.

Suddenly we became aware of the fact that the time was rapidly approaching 3pm and we had to be back to get the car out of the car park before 5pm, so we took the most direct route we could and covered the 11 miles or so in under 75 minutes. We then decided on a cuppa before we went home and found that the visitors’ centre has upgraded its coffee making facilities from a basic, grotty, machine to an entire counter with swish machine and a variety of cakes, at £1.55 a slice less than the fishing lodge café were charging. It’s now a very viable venue for tea and cake, whereas previously I regarded it as for emergency use only.

Day Seven – Trefin to West Hook

For the first time I woke to what promised to be a warm and sunny day. I had a leisurely start and chatted to some other campers, including a chap named Tony Pember, who is part of the audax community.

The cycling was marvellous, with perfect views of one of the finest stretches of coastline in Britain.Somewhere in North Pembrokeshire

I headed for St. David’s, had a strollSaint David's around the cathedral and found a café.

I continued along the coast road. Typically, the riding takes you about 250′ to 300′ above sea level but, where small streams have cut valleys on the sandstone, there are sharp descents down 1 in 6 hills and up the other side again. I passed through Solva, Newgale and at Nolton Haven I spied the Mariner pub and went in for lunch and beer. There was a stuffed albatross on the wall and, in order to fit it into a glass case, its wings had been subjected to some intricate origami. There were quite a few people on the beach enjoying the warm weather.

Nolton Haven

I stopped in Broad Haven for an ice cream and then carried on through Marloes village to West Hook farm where I pitched my tent before having a mediocre meal at the Lobster Pot pub in Marloes village. After I had eaten I strolled to Wooltack point and watched the sun set in the sea.Sunset over Skomer


Why I’m not singing for the Olympics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Berlin to London

My good friend Helen, known as Auntie Helen to her on-line friends, has just completed an epic 700-mile solo ride from Berlin to London. Helen’s blog can be read here.

Yesterday was her final leg, from her home in Little Bromley, north of Colchester, via the new Personnel Recovery Unit at Colchester Barracks (Helen was raising money for the Help for Heroes charity) to Trafalgar Square. A number of other cyclists joined her for all, or some, of this route. We were not helped by the perennial uselessness of our rail companies, who were not offering a service to Colchester yesterday. I met another friend, Jane, at Shenfield station and together we rode out towards Helen. We shortly met Del, another of our cycling friends, who had a similar intention, and three of us headed north-east to an 11ses stop at Hanningfield Reservoir before a rendez-vous with Helen and two others in East Hanningfield. At this point Del peeled off whereas the five of us (Helen’s friends Mark and Martin were the other two) made for Ingatestone Garden Centre for lunch, where yet another of our friends, Jurek, was waiting for us.

From Ingatestone we six, led by Jurek, who was familiar with the route, rode into London via the not-especailly-attractive route of Shenfield, Brentwood, Harold Wood, Romford, Ilford, Stratford, Tower Hill and the Embankment, arriving in Trafalgar Square just before 6 p.m. Some members of Helen’s family were there, and a representative form Help for Heroes presented Helen with a certificate and medal.

I left them to it at around 6.15 and arrived in Lpoo St in time for the 6.45 train, alighting at Rochford so that the ride home should push my daily total above 63 miles, ensuring a “metric century” for the day.