The Beck Stone

New Year’s Eve with dusk turning to night quickly, Ilkley Moor. There’s a lake in the quarry caused by recent heavy rain. Who could resist walking through it with wellingtons on?

Strong wind has pushed our walking and climbing party back to cars, carrying younger explorers back to the warmth of Granny & Grandpa’s. George, as usual wants to walk down. I do too. So do others, but I get to go which is good as it’s a wonderful half hour or so. He is full of conversation and loves bouncing off up offshoot paths and through trees, the route familiar and variable with pinecones and stones to gather on the way. I love the sense of space to walk and talk, and to be quiet together from time to time.

Each time we’ve done this walk lately we’ve sought out the Beck Stone. To reach the stone requires a short detour from the path, up from the Troll Bridge, through the bracken and then down and across the beck, a fast-flowing stream that plunges off the Moor. 

We reach a large stone engraved with a poem. Part of Simon Armitage and Ilkley Literature Festival’s Stanza Stones project, Beck follows the water here from its inception as ‘a teardrop/squeezed from a curlew’s eye’ to ‘the full-throated roar at it’s mouth’. The poem is beautiful, none more so than when we read it aloud, by torchlight.

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Reading Beck by torchlight at the end of the day

Afterwards we pad back to the route down to the cattle grid, talking a while of the poem, and water, before returning to today’s obsessions. It is quite dark but the time we reach home, the orange streetlights seen from the Moor now close up and, if not offering warmth, welcoming us back from wilder territory.

Beck

It is all one chase.
Trace it back: the source
might be nothing more
than a teardrop
squeezed from a curlew’s eye,
then follow it down
to the full-throated roar
at its mouth:
a dipper strolls the river
dressed for dinner
in a white bib.
The unbroken thread
of the beck
with its nose for the sea,
all flux and flex,
soft-soaping a pebble
for thousands of years
or here
after hard rain
sawing the hillside in half
with its chain.
Or here,where water unbinds
and hangs
at the waterfall’s face,
and just for that one
stretched white moment
becomes lace.

 

Two rides south of Nashville

Work takes me to Nashville, Tennessee more frequently than anywhere else. Given the preoccupations of the weeks I spend here I’m normally keen to let off some steam at some point. At that point I go to RB’s Cyclery, hire one of their Felt road bikes and take off out of the small town of Franklin where I’m billeted. The first week of January I did it twice.

Winter in this part of America veers between bizarrely mild to ridiculously cold, often with only a few days notice. Christmas Day this year was shirt-sleeves weather. I arrive on January 4 to sub-zero darkness which slowly warms up over the week. On two midweek runs I need to wear my cycling tights, which slowly fall down as I run, leaving me pulling them up in a most ungentlemanly fashion. By the time the weekend rolls around things are 7c in the morning, right on the cusp of full glove conditions.

My colleague and I roll out of town at first light. The road is wet and I quickly develop a badger’s tail of water on my back. The roads are silent. I push on, relishing turning pedals for the first time this year. Commuting in London it is not. I look back and I’ve left Daniel far down the road. He’s usually quicker than me. I expect he’s fiddling with his phone, or watch. No matter. I tell myself I’m fitter, and put the hammer down some more. We finish with a coffee in town, happy with the morning’s work. I keep the bike for another day.

Saturday is drier, and jet lag gets me up before dawn. As soon as I think I can get away with it I’m out again, with the freedom of the weekend offering the chance of some more miles. This time things are drier, and the streets of Franklin give way quickly to the silence of rural Tennessee. Occasionally there’s a slow-slowing river, a fork of the Warpath, a old bridge, an ancient stretch of Old Natchez Trace. I’m heading for the new version of this famous road, and ride a decent stretch of it on a triangular run out of town, across and back. Winter here means bare trees, grey-green grass and a kind of heavy cold air, sitting over everything bar an insipid but persistent wind.

Eventually I reach the huge bridge that marks my entry point on to the Natchez Trace Parkway. This road runs from Nashville to Tupelo, Mississippi and forbids heavy vehicles, appears to have none at all on it at 8am on a Saturday morning. I drove a stretch of it one warm summer’s evening last year in a convertible while listening to Aretha Franklin. Today there’s no music, just the subtle noises of cycling on a silent road.

I rest my chilled bones at Leipers Fork, a country halt with a fine tradition of deep drying everything, and pause for breakfast. Later that day I fly home, back from the strange outer space of cowboy hats and boots, giant trucks and southern manners.

Magnus the Martyr

Every now and again I drag colleagues out at lunchtime for a ramble. They’re kind and don’t complain and a few even come back each time. I’m grateful.

We’re on Blackfriars Road. From here the Thames is a minute or two away, Borough south and east, Waterloo and Lambeth west and the City due north. With all that in front of us there’s no end of options for an hour or so of strolling with intent to absorb centuries of history and modern-day marvels of the capital.

Yesterday we went with the wild west wind, first across the bridge and then along the north bank towpath of the Thames. The path ducks in and out and under buildings and bridges, leaving the river altogether for a stretch along Lower Thames Street and passing wall-tiles bearing historic views of the city. A mighty mosaic lines the Anglo-Saxon dock at Queenhithe telling the story of London. Rather than the beery behemoths on the south bank, pubs here are small and somewhat hidden. Runners duck and weave, jogging-boxing.

In due course we arrive at St Magnus the Martyr, a little to the east of London Bridge. Or not, if you know what you’re looking for. Even if you just pause and look in the porch of Wren’s tower the truth is revealed. Here a blue plaque states that the church was on the pathway that led from the City across old London Bridge from 1176 to 1831. Merchants, travellers, royalty and vagabonds all went this way, down Fish Street Hill, across Thames Street and over the bridge on their way south. Sometimes they were simply heading to the Borough for some naughty. At other times Antwerp, Venice or Constantinople would have been the end of the line. St Magnus saw them all pass, and then kept an arm around them. Two-thirds of the bridge was within the parish of St Magnus.

Inside there is an impressively horn-helmeted statue of the Orcadian saint retro-fitted as the definitive Magnus of yore, despite competing claims from namesakes. In truth, no-one is sure which St Magnus the church is named for, just like it is opaque why the shelves by the belfry are lined with plastic bread rolls.

Most visitors are too busy gawping at the superb stained glasses dedicated to saints of other churches absorbed into St Magnus’ parish and the wonderful model of Old London Bridge to care. This comes complete with a procession, rowdy apprentices, pilgrims and a lone out-of-time policemen. This represents David T. Aggett, a former bobby who made the model. What a talented chap, and what a legacy to leave.

By now I was quite overwhelmed by all the wonderful stuff to be found in here, and more than out of historical guff to share with everyone. I was pondering the bridge, its chapel to St Thomas (a’Becket) and its gatehouses. Its traitors heads on spikes. Its piers, houses and inhabitants. What happened to all these people? Where has this London gone, and how is it connected to today?

We can’t stay in the lost world. We turned our back on time-travelling. The modern bridge, now a few yards upstream, struggles to deliver romance. It is grey and unless you pass under it by night, lacking colour and identity. It cannot help being in the wrong place.  We did our best and remained upbeat: walking across it in good cheer heading for a pint in The Market Porter, busy with Christmas revellers. Afterwards, back to the office via Southwark Street, where the ghosts of trams rattled in the darkening December sky.

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

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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.

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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.

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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-Bastogne-Liege

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?

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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.