Early morning swim

Wonderful Saturdays are busy and boisterous but coming 24 hours earlier presents the silent face of the pond. A handful of regulars potter round the changing area like it’s their garden shed. I arrive shortly after seven having take the tube to Highgate then running the rest of the way. The rain is popping on the roof and blowing onto the changing benches. It is almost November but warmer than previous weeks, though the water delivers its usual slap in the face. Wakey wakey!

The winter ropes circuit is shorter, so I try to stick to the perimeter rather than meander. It feels warmer than last week, with raindrops around me and a tern overhead. After a lap I climb out and tiptoe along the diving board dodging goose poo, laughing at the notion of all this in the dawn-free murk. Plunging in again, bright colors appear in the yellow, red and orange of autumn leaves floating on the water that bob around me. 

After getting changed two lady dog walkers outside are puzzling as to the motivations of swimmers. ‘Perhaps they know the secret of long life’ they say, laughing.

London by bike. Why?

Amsterdam is a beautiful, perfect cycling city. I escaped to it last week for a couple of days of work, savouring the sensation of emerging from Centraal station into the busy bike-filled streets. Complimenting everyone I met on the wonderful atmosphere for cycling, I mentioned the stark contrast between it and London. Cycling in London is, as a wise person once wrote, a contact sport. The friendly, clever international bunch of people that I was with shuddered visibly at the prospect of it. London, they concluded, was the worst place they could think of to cycle.

For a few days on returning from Holland I wallowed in the unpleasant contrast, stuck in a dream of cobbles, canals and those Dutch bike locks that render the bike immobile, but not immovable. Despite Boris Bikes and emerging proper bike lanes rather than lines of blue paint, this city presents a formidable challenge to anyone with the temerity to want to ride around it.Yet London is my city, and I cycle in it most days, and have done since I was able to. Something is missing from this picture.

The other day I was happy to find a copy of Jon Day’s Cyclegeography. It has been a serendipitous find. An account of his time as a bicycle courier, it is is a sort of Waterlog for London cycling. He describes with vivid energy the flow and challenge of the British capital from a bike. The tiny openings just a handlebar wide, lunatic weaving through traffic. The sudden space and vantages of the city’s bridges. It also lifts the lid a little on the life of a courier, which sounds as mental as I’d always imagined it to be. At one point I though that might be my dream job, were I a millionaire and had no need to worry about actually making any money. It is a terribly hard way to earn a living.

One of the reasons I’ve enjoyed the book so much is what he describes is so similar to most of my  lifetime’s bike riding. Yes, I’ve done some wonderful rides in southern Africa, the Outer Hebrides, Belgium and all over England, but most of the time it;s the daily grind into central London. I first started cycling properly to ride to school each day, a hateful ride along the pavement next to the North Circluar Road. One day aged 15 my wheel drifted into the guard fence and I found myself on the floor covered in cuts and very confused. With traffic rushing past there was little to do but get back on a wobble to school where I showed off scabs all day. When I started at Lonely Planet I rode over Muswell Hill and Highgate to Kentish Town, those rides bringing my first dust-ups with Highgate West Hill, still the great Alp of the imagination of the north London rider along with it’s haunted neighbour, Swain’s Lane. Invariably I ride in rush hour, with everyone else, with vans and trucks for company, trying to ignore how vulnerable I am in comparison to them.

It was these formative experiences that helped me to retain my sanity during endless rides to and from Gunnersbury earlier this year. Finchley – Golders Green – Cricklewood – Willesden – Harlesden – Acton. Through the rush hour. A candidate for the worst ride in the world if ever there was one, six times a week for three months. Hugging the gutter and dodging the potholes for 14 miles of traffic-choked suburban drear. I stopped doing the Gunnersbury run soon enough to retain some residual curiosity about the areas I passed through, not least the former Greyhound land of Queen’s Park, enough that Iain Sinclair’s London Overground gripped me as he trudged from one station on the ‘ginger line’ to another, passing from Willesden to Cricklewood with the same grey-faced horror/wonder that I had every day.

But I’m no courier. Jon Day’s tales of alleycat races across the city and a strange community of single-speed outsiders were glamorous and exciting, but never my world. Nor is the weekend club rider’s. Cycling in London is a solo pursuit. There’s no room for a partner or a conversation. Every other cyclist is out for the same patch of space that I am, so head down nudgey-nudgey beats  the camaraderie of rural rides. It’s also one that introduces you pretty quickly to the reality of the city. I’ve owned (by a quick tally) nine bikes in my life. Three are under lock and key right now. The other six were all stolen in London. All locked up at the time. There are thieves and bad people, and they’ll have your stuff. Switch your wits on.

With traffic, lights, potholes and omnipresent danger, weekly miles are hard-won. My friend who lives in Wiltshire once expressed envy at the ease at which a commuter knocks out such a distance while making no impact on home life. He then hopped on this bike and rode off to the Cotswolds, or Salisbury Plain, or some other idyllic country spot. But I don’t want what he has either. I am hooked on the hard-to-explain delights of riding round home.



Aldeburgh today in unexpected bright sunshine. We arrive past the old Moot Hall and dash to park, leaving the town behind us and scrambling on to the beach. The sundial smiles ‘I only mark the sunny hours’. Shingle shelves lead down to the water, green-brown and churning with potential. It bowls wave after wave at the shore and they foam. The wind whistles in from Holland.


There are twelve of us – six adults and six children, and a splinter group makes for the waves, which charge in and pull back. It feels natural to shout at the smashing surf. One step forward, two steps back until drenched, then climb back up the bank into the lee of a gently rusting fishing boat. One of our party confides that this may be the finest spot in all of England. Surely everyone has a more than split-second thought of absconding from daily duties to ever more pad up and down the shoreline.

The last time I was in Aldeburgh was just before George was born, a hot summer’s weekend with the unknown racing towards us. Certainly older and possibly marginally wiser, I hope to never lose the sense of wonder at this stretch of England. It was best shared today with friends.


A picnic of leftovers gets demolished. Behind us, old Aldeburgh hazes into the sunlit atmosphere, made blurry by sea-spray. Far beyond is Thorpeness’ giant golf ball, long-lost Dunwich, Walberswick. We combine efforts to make a shingle tower, pile on pile of sliding stones, then stand back and admire and then crunch our handiwork back down into the beach.


Liege is not the most celebrated of European cities. Visitors to Belgium flock to Bruges, and are then surprised to find Ghent is better, that Antwerp’s station is breathtaking, and that Marvin Gaye lived in Ostend. 

They don’t stay on for Liege, unless they cycle. And if they cycle, then Liege-Bastogne-Liege is a name to bring chills of excitement. Less famous worldwide than Paris-Roubaix and the Ronde van Vlaanderens, LBL is one of the Spring Classic one-day races that gets Belgian people’s blood pumping faster than a special delivery of Vedette.

Liege itself is a little like Sheffield. As Sheffield has the Peak District on its doorstep, Liege has the Ardennes. Suburban streets are outrageously hilly. Both are not quite post industrial, both feel real, Liege shades it for a lovely medieval centre. Sheffield probably has better cheesy chips.

I’d come here to cycle out of the city, into the Ardennes, and back. Only the pro riders and those on the 273km version of the ride make it to Bastogne, by the way. For the rest of us we had Liege – Rain – Liege to look forward to. On Friday I was optimistic the rain forecast for the next day wasn’t going to come. Ascending Liege’s dramatic Montagne de Bueren, stair after stair to a superb view over the busy Meuse and the city below, I’d puffed my cheeks in the warm sunshine and thought about the ride to come. The prediction of non-stop rain must be wrong, surely?

At 5am I had my answer. The rain dripped into the tiny courtyard outside my bedroom. I padded over to the other side of the flat that was my temporary home and peered hopefully out of the window. Puddles were forming on the cobbled alleyway. At this point fatalism appears through the pre-dawn murk. I was alone in Liege. I had come all this way to ride the LBL challenge. Mentally there was no way out but to stiffen my sinews and remind myself that once my are was wet it would stay wet. At least I had ignored the traditional cyclists doctrine and left my rear mudguard on. I don’t know if the Belgians eat porridge but I ate enough that morning to feed a nation of Walloons, hobbled down the narrow staircase in my cleats and then pedalled off toward the start line.

In retrospect the rain and the hills blur into one. This was an unmistakably wonderful ride whatever the weather. The first few miles heading out of Liege gave way to some gentle climbs which became steeper as they wound their way into the Ardennes. Sometimes forested, sometimes threading their way between open fields reminiscent of Yorkshire, but always climbing a little further than you would think. Here are hills with bite, if not the sharp-fanged steepness of the English Lake District. At times I found myself grinning, but not really sure why, as one hill gave way to another. “Remember you enjoyed this’’ said either the devil or the angel on my shoulder, presumably in case I tried to paint the whole thing as a terrible rain-soaked mistake later on. No mistake. This was the business, and worth looking forward to all through the winter commute.

There are plenty of sites out there that can more fully guide you as to what lumpy bits await on this ride so I won’t detail them all. Besides, I am slow and ponderous on my steel-framed bike, so probably no judge of the relative challenge of the hills of LBL. For me La Redoute was by far the most challenging, bringing out the primal scream just before the finish, which turned out to not even be the finish at all. By the time we were charging up the Cote de St Nicolas I was grinning even more, with plenty of puff still left in my legs. It had, incidentally, stopped raining by this point. Why does it always stop raining in the hour before you finish soggy rides?


As we rolled back into Liege through the city’s post-industrial outskirts there were plenty of reasons to be cheerful. I had avoided any cramping or bonking, two clouds that got in the way of enjoying last summer’s White Rose Classic. I’d seen a large part of a whole new and very beautiful part of Europe. I’d also overtaken the annoying gentlemen who had been jumping in front of me at inopportune moments on the final descent into Liege. Most of all, from here the agenda read: home, shower, food, beer, sleep. And the home was dry, the shower warm, the food plentiful and cheap, the beer Vedette and the sleep very peaceful.

Belgium for cyclists: it delivers big time.

A heron

A Wednesday evening, the penultimate week of late summer hour’s at the Men’s Pond. It is raining, not heavily, enough to keep the swimmers down to a few quietly determined bathers. They stroke silently close to the outer ropes and nod acknowledgement to me as I pass.

This summer has been good for swimming. Plenty of evenings like this, and while it has been warm the water has not got near the temperatures of previous years. In late August it is regaining its bite, especially on cooler days. Unlike previous years I have largely swam alone, stolen visits here not matching plans for meeting friends and family. It suits a part of me: the part that leaves worries at the bottom of the water. The other part, that loves this place and bringing others here feels neglectful. This though is not the place to fret.

The flock of parakeets that lives on the heath is noisy at first, their bright green feathers striking against the lime, elm and oak trees lining the bank. Then they quieten down, and the only noise I can hear is the churning of water and splash of my arms.

As I come to the end of my first lap there is a beating of wings. A heron, like a pterodactyl when viewed from the water, swoops in over the jetty. It looks to land on the diving board then decides against it, and rises and falls as it whirls round to the eastern edge of the water, where it comes to rest by the bushes. The guard notes the arrival of a familiar visitor. I climb out, dive back in and reverse my path round the perimeter. The rain gets heavier as I get out, as always emerging better than when I went in.

A three city churches walk

A beautiful afternoon, one of the first of summer, and appointment in Mark Lane to give blood. From my new office location in Bankside this called for a walk across the City of London almost completely from west to east, with a few quick pauses along the way. The alternative, the District Line, was too traumatic to even contemplate.

London is well-discovered in this fashion: walk your route, and dart in to somewhere that catches your eye. The churches of the City of London are especially rewarding in this respect. Within the Square Mile you’re only ever steps from one. They don’t take long to have a nose around. With the exception of St Bartholomew-the-Great they don’t charge an admission, though donations are generally requested and always well received. (Do try to leave something. For less than the price of a pint you can help the upkeep of these wonderful treasure chests of London history.)

The northern Thames Path is less instantly rewarding than the southern track, but in some ways it is more interesting. Walking east from Blackfriars Bridge you pass under bridges and through buildings, weaving to and fro with the river, past the remnants of the ancient street and wharf layout now dominated by hulks of office buildings.

In the late afternoon quiet it feels very peaceful, a few steps from the roar of Thames Street, lower and upper. But detour you do, because, you know, and I popped up at London Bridge and paced along Lower Thames Street. 

St Dunstan-in-the-east

St Dunstan-in-the-east

The shining sun and knowledge that I was close to St Dunstan-in-the-east led to a northward turn. I have history with this churchyard, marvelling more than once on its capacity to transform a day’s mood. It is a peaceful, beautiful place; spiritual, graceful and special. I went to check it was still there, still the same. It was, and was wonderful. 

I walked on, looking for Mark Lane, my destination. All Hallows by the Tower caught my eye, and with a few minutes to spare I strolled in. 

In here is not only the jaw-dropping Roman pavement I’d come to see, but fragments of Roman, Saxon and medieval masonry, plaques and sculpture.The sanctuary has some lovely medieval brasses to gawp at in wonder. The Crypt Museum gives way to a small chapel with an altar from Château Pèlerin, a crusader castle on the coast of modern-day Israel. The Templars lugged it all the way home, 800 years ago. It probably came across old London Bridge and ended up here after an incredible journey. If you come you’ll probably have the city’s oldest church all to yourself.

Pepys's memorial

Pepys’s memorial

The clock ticked on and I was in danger of slipping into tardiness. This is never acceptable and should not even be possible. The church of St Olave Hart Street was close enough to being on my way to tarry on the way through: here Samuel Pepys worshipped and was buried. Should you need more reason, the church survived the Great Fire. It is small and charming, and full of Londonish busts and statues of former city grandees, including Pepys himself. He is remembered by a Victorian bust. Pepys liked busts.

On then to my appointment, then some work calls in view of the lonely tower of All Hallows Staining, then back through streets now seething with late homeward-bound commuters to home.

Some days you never want to leave, nor to come to an end. Lucky man, he who explore the city in May sunshine.

Tackling the Tour de Yorkshire sportive bike ride

It is nine o’clock on a Sunday morning in May and I am riding silently up a rain-soaked Calderdale hill. The slope is steep and I am moving slowly, as it feels like I have been doing since beginning the ride at 6.30am. It’s me, my breath puffing in front of me and the slow turn of pedal cranks.

From out of the mist a wonderfully manic-eyed man with long white hair appears, clanging a bell and shouting ‘Allez! Allez!’. He’s a welcome if surprising sight. How, I mentally wonder as the pedals turn interminably, did I come to be here?

As previous rides should have taught me, cycling in Yorkshire can be brutal as well as deeply beautiful. This 90 mile ride, along much – but not all – of stage 3 of the first edition of the Tour de Yorkshire, seeks out some familiar hills and showcases a few new ones. And unlike last year’s Tour de France, where the sunshine set the whole county en fete, a more traditional British Bank Holiday weather forecast delivered the goods. It will be wet, they said. It was wet. Windy too. Coming hot on the heels of a trip to Belgium to ride the magnificent Liege-Bastogne-Liege sportive the preceding weekend the Tour de Yorkshire was going to test my endurance, and ability to keep going on successive soaking weekends.

Leaving our fanatical friend behind there’s a different challenge once the climb is summited. The hill levels out, then plunges into a steep descent. Brake pads scrape on rims. Carbon bike frames belonging to bolder riders clatter past. A girl in front unclips from her pedal and uses her cleat to slow herself. I pull hard on the levers and hope we’re at the bottom soon. I smile as we round a corner, only to reach the foot of another climb. The wind blows stinging rain into my face. There are 60 miles to go.

So, this ride was hilly, wet and long. But was it any good? Of course it was. It was a magnificent odyssey. The basics were in place: good signage and well-stocked feed stations. The latter was a remarkable detour. Serving staff offering mini yorkshire puds and flapjacks to bemused, dripping riders, but nowhere I could see to sort the basics. The puds were fantastic though. That you were riding on the same day as the pros offered a sense of occasion, and the bonhomie between riders was evident throughout. 

It’s hard not to feel slightly sorry for the organisers, and riders, when looking at the highlights of the pro race later in the day. Astonishing backdrops of green valleys and far-off towns disappeared for us in mist and squally rain. At times the rain slapped from the side, like a downpour on Lewis on my visit there two years ago. But the conditions had their own rewards.The mist brought an atmosphere of its own, the eery calm of cycling high up, in cloud, occasionally overtaking another rider, sometimes (more often) being overtaken myself. On finishing in bright sunshine, I smiled to another rider and said ‘they’ll never believe us’.

Several landmarks stand out. First, the mighty haul out of Hebden Bridge, not up a severe gradient but unrelenting, and endless. Then the descent into Haworth, with the hoot of a steam train from the Keighley & Worth Valley Railway for company. As soon as Haworth bottoms out, it rises again, up the cobbled High Street that formed the most memorable of backdrops to last year’s Grand Depart, when the stars aligned perfectly. Even early on a sodden day there are dozens of people giving damp nutters like me a cheer. Human kindness feels wonderful sometimes. 

A word for the Aldi gloves I wore throughout. These bad boys cost a fiver in October, and have kept my pinkies warm through a long, cold winter and very damp long rides in Belgium and Yorkshire, and they are still in pretty good nick. Plans to go big on some serious lobster hands for next year remain on hold.

As someone who married into an Ilkley family, climbing the road to the Cow & Calf Rocks was always going to be a highlight. The chance to show off to my children just how slowly a man can ascend this slope was a major reason for doing this ride. I did not disappoint them in not overly impressing them, cruising slowly past but not stopping, for fear of not starting again. There was still a hefty chunk of the ride to go, and though the rain petered out the gradients did not, and on the penultimate slope my thighs began to cramp. I did ride every hill, but only with the aid of the odd primal scream or two.

Taking on what I would class as hard bike rides in West Yorkshire is becoming a habit. I am sure there are more to come, but for now I’m looking forward to getting back to only having to face down Highgate West Hill every day on the way home.

And the finish brought smiles, sunshine and the temptation, of course, to do it all again.

Slightly manic grinnning by tired man

Slightly manic grinnning by tired man

Tour de Yorkshire mental playlist (or the music in my head that got me round)

Wuthering Heights – China Drum

Take me! – The Wedding Present

Kiss – Prince

Reverend’s Revenge – The Housemartins

Jenny Ondioline – Stereolab (the short version)