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)

Morocco, April 2015

Marrakesh: a warm night. Nor stifling, but warm enough to sit out in listening to the sunset call to prayer and cicadas and palm trees creaking in the wind. So just right.

This place and this week: there has been magic in the air all over the place. Marrakesh has something of a reputation for touts and hustlers, but either they’ve gone to bother someone else or the addition of children makes them melt away, and puts something else in its place. A sort of kindness and compassion that puts the kids at ease and leaves them free to concentrate on having their eyes out on stalks.

A man drapes a snake around George’s neck.

A gaggle of ladies in headscarves festoon Winnie with kisses.

Harry instantly negotiates a 100% discount on the price of an ice cream by bursting into tears when his father declines to pay the fee asked.

People have been coming here to have their horizons expanded for centuries and we have been no exception. As ever, back on African soil the urge to keep going is contagious, to climb over the High Atlas, through into the Sahara and on and on, to the green lands beyond, to turn your back on Europe and flee.

Not that anyone else would be much keen on that, though Imogen and I can dream. A little adventure after breakfast suits the boys down to the ground, then back to our villa, cool and quiet, where there’s a tennis court to play rallies and football while Winnie sleeps suits them and understandably so. They’ve been unfazed by the noise of the souks, the constant hum of mopeds and the smoke of sundown in the Djemm al-fna. The great meeting place in the heart of Marrakesh remains incredible, and if it can endure the modern world may well last in something like its current state forever.

The clamour on visiting the square starts instantly, a mighty throng of people with strange music, merchants and general naughty boys everywhere. It is the orient of anyone’s dreams, no matter how many tourists are in there they are diluted by locals out for a bite to eat and the weight of atmosphere. Like the pyramids, old Aleppo (or what’s left of it), the back streets of Pera, the magic here runs very deep.

If the Djemma al Fna has an epicentre, we may have found it. I thought I’d read that no 31 does a mean merguez sausage and as we approached a row of seats came available and we sat down. Sausages, chips, squid and some veggies were ordered and arrived blissfully instantly, seconds after bread and dipping sauce. When you’re travelling with kids and food arrives fast you feel like kissing the waiters, and when they’re wolfing down what’s just landed it can feel like divine intervention.

The boys enjoyed it so much they demanded a return visit this evening, and chomped through the same again with smoke from the grills and old women homaging Winnie (who was awake this time) for company.

Everyone should bring their children to stall 31 in Marrakesh and order some merguez.

Dinner bill both nights? £15 for five.

What else? More food. Fantastic eating! Marrikshi pancakes are half pancake, half roti, best eaten off paper with a little honey while strolling along. Or if you’re feeling flush, in the cafe at the Jardins Majorelle with tagine-baked eggs and loads of mint tea. The sun came out while we were scoffing this lot.

Wonderful rambles round the medina: towards the Badli Palace from the square, and from the ramparts towards the Medressa and Marrakesh Musem, wonderful buildings. George’s best building? The arcade which contained Table Football and Virtua Striker.

A drive into the mountains to a giant man-made lake, snow-capped peaks poking over the top. Tuscan scenery, potholed roads, another planet.

Back to earth soon from outer space. Where next?

In and out of Basel, three ways

Basel is possibly the ultimate middle-European city. From whichever direction you arrive you’re soon staring at a national frontier or natural borderline. Despite this the city has a distinctive air of being somewhere, rather than another example of the type, Trieste ‘in Italy’, which does’t feel much like anywhere in particular. The three main entry and exit points are all distinctive, unusual ports and can be visited in a morning or afternoon, especially if you arrive or depart by air. On the way you can see many of the highlights of Switzerland’s third largest city, which remains true even when you take out the bits of it that are French and German.

  1. Basel Badischer Bahnhof
Basel Badischer's customs post

Basel Badischer’s customs post

Basel ‘German Station’ as the Deutsche Bahn operators refer to it is a dramatic early concrete building with a contemporary glitter ball adding a certain something to the ticket hall. Despite its lessened significance – inter-city services continue on to Basel SBB – it has the striking feature of a customs post in the subway and some retro green trams waiting outside to carry you across the Rhine to Basel (proper). This station represents your last chance to stock up on carb-heavy German railway station concessions if you’re heading into Switzerland or France, despite actually being on Swiss soil.

Glitter Ball Bahnhof

Glitter Ball Bahnhof

On the way between stations – should you intend on doing some actual sightseeing –  don’t miss Basel’s excellent historical museum, complete with a remarkable stained glass window of the city’s guilds and finds from the Celtic, Roman and later periods. Basel’s strategic location on a bluff overlooking the Rhine has made it a kind of Euro-melting pot for millennia. The coffee shop in the Stad-Mitte is lovely, with free wifi and has a roaring fire.

2. Basel SBB/SNCF

Station board geeks will love the clacker-board (or Solari Board, its common name) at Basel SBB, and it is only one of several treats in store at this terminal that richly rewards exploration. Note from the outside of the station, completed in 1907, the huge twin SBB clocks embedded in the towers. Then, on entering the vast, high ticket hall, spin round to see the murals celebrating other delights of Switzerland, including the Jungfrau Railway and Gstaad.

Note clocks: Basel SBB

Note clocks: Basel SBB

The Solari Board clacks away showing over 1000 trains a day, reaching deep into Switzerland, France and Italy. I found myself close to boarding an Interlaken service, then another to Lauterbrunnen, and then a bus to the Alpenhof at the end of the road to fulfill a dream I’ve had since last there of returning on a whim. Another time, and from London too. 

Border in station

Border in station

As Europe’s busiest transborder station there is a sense of pace here perhaps not found elsewhere in the region, or even in Switzerland, and a stroll down to France (accessed via platforms 31-5) is a must-do when you’re here. Before or after that pop into the last remaining restaurant in the station, where for quite a lot of money for most places but not a lot for Switzerland you can try a rosti-based dish. Don’t fret: they won’t try to sneak any greens anywhere near your meal. It’s a wonderful and timeless grand room and a lovely place to sit for an hour.

Rosti, sausage, small beer, superb setting

Rosti, sausage, small beer, superb setting

The bus for the airport also leaves from right outside here every few minutes.

3. Basel/Mulhouse/Freiburg EuroAirport

If the urge to detour to Arsene Wenger’s birthplace in Strasbourg doesn’t lead you astray, then a flight through this airport neatly demonstrates Europe’s complex, interlinked border arrangements. Heading from Basel SBB to the airport you cross the land border into France. At check in everyone mumbles a strange mix of French and German until you remind them that, as a Briton you cannot understand them, and they break into flawless English and you smile a defeated smile.

Once through this, passport control splits you into two lines depending on whether you arrived at the airport from the Swiss or French ‘side’. This seems to be a system that depends on your honesty. Once through here there is another fork in the road for those flying within the Schengen area and anyone else. British-bound passengers take the right fork and enter another no-man’s land. At airports across Europe the non-Schengen areas of airports, carrying fewer flights than other parts have very average facilities and this one is…alright.