Three swims

An enforced absence from swimming on the Heath coincided with a startling and prolonged plunge in temperature. While riding down Highgate West Hill day after day for a fortnight, often in chilly-lovely dawn sunshine I fretted about the effect this would have on the temperature of the water. It would be getting colder, and I would not be in in, so that when I got back into it I’d find it tough going.

So once the stitches were out the first thing I did was drive down to the pond and dive in. I knew it would hurt. It hurt. The water, which according to notices had gone down five degrees, but hard. I must have looked like I was floundering, for the lifeguards came out for a closer look, then decided I’d make it back to the jetty in one piece even if my bodily extremities would be forever compromised. But it was done, and winter was back on, and I was free to keep going.

Four days later I returned, keen to reprise Friday mornings in the water. The run from Highgate tube up the hill to the village and then back again is sharp, and warms you just enough. This time the sun was just climbing over the trees leading down to the dog pond. The shock was less, but the raw feeling the same, and the odd sensation of being marooned in the far corner that strikes on cold days lingered. But getting out this time felt like the mental rebirth i had been looking for at the start of the week.

The following day I was back again, and feeling very much in the swing of things. The door, with MEN ONLY written on it, once again had the aura of a portal to another world, a gateway past which normal rules don’t apply. The conversation sounded like the 1950s, all quiet murmurs about literature and politics, all have-you-heard and don’t-you-think. And then in the water I was wonderfully alone, the sun higher and brighter, setting my path bright yellow, and offering fractions of warmth.

And this felt right and terrific, because from here I ran along to the cafe, to meet Imogen and Winnie, and we talked with smiles and red faces and felt fantastic, because we were here and Saturday’s should be here, and because it’s not mad if you do it because you love it and for that time you can see and hear and shout more than anyone who doesn’t.

Özil in Sofia

Sofia is the Hellenistic word and concept of wisdom. A beautiful word, it graces the embodiment of the divine on earth, Hagia Sophia in old Constantinople, and names the capital of Bulgaria. I’d never visited before, but this week was in town to watch Arsenal. That means a slightly different trip to a regular exploration: a day trip, with an early start at each end, limited time to explore, and a focus on football as well ferreting out Ottoman and Cold War era things to see and do.

I doubt Mesut Özil concerned himself much with Alexander Levsky Cathedral and Icon Exhibition in the crypt, nor pined for the forest stew cuisine and live beer on offer in a side-street mehane. But that evening in the National Stadium he pulled off something no-one there will ever forget.

A few years ago I was spellbound by Tomas Rosicky’s goal to settle a North London derby. Six seconds of sprinting from the halfway line to beat the advancing keeper. It’s my favourite Arsenal goal of recent years. But Özil eclipsed that in ten seconds of mesmerising skill, grace and magic on this night in Sofia.

The game had been exciting and still low-key in the first half. Ludogorets Razgrad, not exactly one of the great names in European football and shoed 6-0 in the reverse fixture in London had raced into a two-goal lead. Happy drunkards in the away section turned alternately angry and and then placated, yet rapidly getting cold and tired as Arsenal pulled back to 2-2 at half time.

The second half was pretty tepid, the falling temperature and mist rolling off Balkan hillsides not doing much to inspire, and we seemed to be heading for a draw.

In a flash everything changed. Mohammed Elneny’s instant pass sent Özil , not usually the player furthest forward, sprinting in on goal. The keeper came out, Özil stabbed an awkwardly bouncing ball upwards and over him, and as it spun to the ground he dropped his shoulder and nudged the ball to his left. He then feinted, accomplishing all of this in a second or two and sending two defenders to the floor, but flying in different directions. Now in space, after one more touch he swept the ball into the goal.

In the away end, a mixture of astonishment and delirium, and the moment was instantly shared with Özil who ran over to our section of the ground. A flare was set off, somehow, given the three searches carried out before coming in. I found myself yelling ‘you ***** beauty!’, standing on the back of two seats. I’m reading a book about the early history of football at the moment, which talks a lot about how football was not a passing game at first, with great skill in dribbling valued above all else. Those founding fathers, fond as they were of hacking away at each others shins, would surely have looked on in wonder that their basic game had reached the point where such a moment was possible.

Since then that goal and the moments before and after it have lodged themselves in the happy part of my brain, where they will long remain. Remembering it when getting up at 4am to catch the flight home puts as much of a spring in your step as is humanly possibly at 2am UK time.

Football, wisdom, wonder all in one moment. Simply wonderful.

Seaburn Beach

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I wanted to call this Roker Beach, but I didn’t go there. I liked the name and the connection with the old Roker Park, scene of a classic away trip in 1991. My friend Paul and I had taken the coach from London, a truly awful experience with hours of Roy Chubby Brown videos and flatulent fellow football fans, hoping to see Arsenal win the title. The match was drawn 0-0. We had stood in the tipping rain for two hours as Sunderland fans promised to tear us limb from limb outside the stadium. On the final whistle they performed a remarkable volte-face and decided instead they were our best friends. Six years later Dennis Bergkamp scored an incredible goal to settle an FA Cup replay. That rocking old ground is gone now but the name remains special.

Roker Beach wasn’t quite what I was after though. Continuing on to Seaburn I found it. A broad curve of sand reached out into a gentle sea, set on fire by the Saturday morning sun, huge and low in late October. Before arriving I’d half fretted about my bag and clothes while swimming, but the beach was so huge with only a few dog-walkers that distant fears, as usual, melt away in the moment. I strode past one walker into the sea, swam for a few minutes, mostly swimming into the golden water lit up by the sunshine, then retreated. The water was cold, but cold always passes. In fact, a couple of hours later the thermostat came on around my internal organs and I was boiling, high up in the away end at the Stadium of Light. Sunderland that morning, a town with such a beautiful name, something else for the soul.

The strange spell of the River Tweed

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Just another river the Tweed may be, but to me it has come to mean a few things. Regular visits to Northumberland mean I’ve been close to the Tweed on numerous occasions, and have even swum in it more than once. But this deep blue-green ribbon of water is enigmatic, and on each bi-annual trip I have tried to solve the puzzle only to end up more dazed by its evergreen banks, that are always close at hand, and always hard to reach.

On one day of our holiday we chased the Tweed for miles upstream, passing through Cornhill, Coldstream, Kelso and Melrose, criss-crossing from England into Scotland in the process. At Abbotsford Sir Walter Scott built his house overlooking the river, with a path leading to it. In a funk about something I couldn’t quite define, I took my children down onto the banks and skimmed some stones. Some of the stones were scaly and fishy, some flew creating growing circles an rainbows in the spray they kicked up. While driving back the Tweed kept appearing in the sunshine of a perfect afternoon, curving round shallow hills and behind trees, then disappearing.

Another day we stopped at Paxton House, another grand mansion facing the river. This one had much wilder and less perfect gardens, and a path which led down to the river’s edge which, with the top of the tide helping out, was deeper than our previous meeting. ‘No swimming’ signs were evident, and we had a glorious stroll alongside the water, an hour or so of complete perfection.

And from there we went on the the Chain Bridge, where a path leads down from the Scottish side o the bank, and then a small muddy beach offers a good way in. No anti-swimming signage here. After a few steps it made sense to flop in and swim a few strokes into midstream, quietly breast-stroking behind the backs of salmon fishers. Now in international waters, I retreated back to the bank, exhilarated by being back in fresh, cold water. Imogen swam next, and could have done more. We were both going carefully.

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Once in it, the Tweed feels more raw, soft and real. So why the mystery? The river guards the border for much of its length, hiding the subtle differences between nations in plain sight, and crossing it offers some visible change, but in some ways no change at all. It feels set apart from view unless you go out of your way to get close to it, and also seems in many places reserved for those who can afford to fish in it. But this is a beautiful ribbon of water right the way to the Berwick Amateur Rowing Club boathouse and Tweedmouth, and its meanders ask quiet questions of the visitor to north Northumberland and the Borders.

More exploration is needed.

Somewhere else

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This field is a little piece of somewhere else. The evening wind blows through grass warmed and dancing in the evening sun. Children run round, laughing. Later the stars come out as we warm up by the fire, fresh from sea-swimming earlier in the day.

The outside world is close, but not too close.

Kentish Downs, Saturday 6 August.

Building up a bike*

*This is about building a bike from the frame up, not the fine art of welding a frame into life. Sorry if you’ve come here under false pretences.

I didn’t know I wanted to build my own bike. Then I did.

That bit came later, First came a flash of a red, retro-looking frame being ridden on to Southwark Street. It had written on it in red HARRY HALL.

This caught my eye. My son is called Harry Hall, and fine chap he is. Being only six years old, a frame builder he is not. Further investigations revealed that Harry Hall was a Mancunian bike builder of some respite, a well as being Tom Simpson’s mechanic and by Simpson’s side when he passed away on Mount Ventoux. Hall’s branded Mini van was one of the icons of British cycling in the decades that followed.

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Harry Hall acts as a custom bike stand for his namesake

Though Harry Hall died in 2007 his shop still lives on in Manchester. It no longer builds frames.

Having spotted this, I started to look out for a frame and found one eBay. As sometimes happens, idly bidding on something results in you winning it, and here the trouble started.

The fellow I had bought the frame off, though very nice, seemed unwilling or unable to get it to me, and I spent a few fretful weeks going back and forth being unsure if I’d been ripped off. In the end the frame did arrive.

Now I had it, I had to do something with it. As lovely an item as it was, built from Reynolds 653 steel with embossed ‘H Hall’ forks it was a long way off being rideable. So, bit by bit, I started to accumulate the parts to do just that. Then I figured I’d put it together myself, or go as far as I could in the process and learn some more along the way about how bikes work.

This has been an interesting exercise, and by doing it I’ve picked up some new skills as well as making mistakes along the way. I thought Id share some of the things I found useful, and some things that were rabbit holes.

Parts list – things I didn’t have that I needed

Front & rear derailleur/mech

Bottom bracket

Stem

Handlebars

Shifters

Cable – brake cable and gear cable, inner and outer

Seatpost

Saddle

Tools list – some I had, some I had to buy

Grease

Standard multi-tool (Condor)

Allan key set

BB tool

Cassette tool

Chain whip

Pliers

Cable pliers

Cable cutters

Chain tool

A rag

Baby wipes

Electrical tape

Pedal wrench

Other interesting things

Bike stand

Dropout limiter screws

Torque wrench

Rough sequence of events

The thing that slowed me down and gave me pause for thought was not getting the parts and fitting them. Generally, with a few exception this was pretty straightforward and I did it over a couple of months, funded by selling some old Arsenal shirts on eBay. It was working out which tool to buy and then picking them up that was the slower exercise. I’d imagine like a lot of cyclists like me I’ve got a box full of tools and other bits so never invested in a toolkit, so I ended up augmenting what I had. While it was a little annoying to buy a cassette tool and only use it for one part of proceedings, I do now have it for the future.

Most of the parts I needed were picked up cheaply on eBay – a second hand SRAM Apex groupset which was complete except for the shifters was the key purchase, and inexpensive at £35. I needed to add the shifters, which I ended up having to buy new from Taiwan (more on fitting those later) and a new bottom bracket as the one that came with the groupset I got wasn’t compatible.

Bottom bracket

Bottom brackets – the central part of the axle that the pedals screw into – come threaded in a variety of ways, and I found by asking the guy I got the frame off which one he had – an English threaded Trumativ SRAM/GPX one – which one to get. It felt like quite an obscure bit of kit as I’d never seen one before, and was an oddly exciting purchase. Anyway it also was the first thing I fitted, once I’d got a bottom bracket tool. I fitted things without a torque wrench – one is on my christmas list – and it all rides fine. I’m not saying one isn’t a good investment, just that I didn’t have one. Once the BB was on the front cassette and cranks were easy to attach.

Headset

As the bike is a little old – but not Eroica old – I thought it could do with a more classic-looking headset than the one it came with, including the quill stem adapter that can be seen in the picture above. Having looked online, then at the tools needed to do that job and still having no idea how to do it I took the bike to the Vintage Bike Cave in Highgate and asked them to do this part of it. Takashi there was pretty helpful with the other stages, and once I’d done everything else I took it back there and asked him to check over what I’d done.

Stem

With a classic headset came the need for a stem. As I said above, I removed the stem adapter that came with the frame and  opted for a quill stem, the more retro-looking ones, and picked up one in Condor Bikes on Grays Inn Road. They were very helpful in choosing one based on the setup on my other bike, which is a Condor Fratello. It was nice to talk to people in the shop who were enthusiastic about what you were doing. This was one of a few times I felt liked I’d tapped into a different seam of bike nerdery, a far nicer one than the lycra/road bike crowd. My job is not a creative one, but this was a creative project, and that was unusual for me so it was good to get encouragement.

Bars and wheels

The stem and the vintage Saeko roadbars I picked up (£10, eBay again) were easy to fit, aided by plenty of grease. Grease and a cloth and/or baby wipes for my hands after were never far away.  By this point I’d picked up a pair of Bontrager wheels from a mate. Cheap wheels are a false economy and I got them from him for half price.

Fitting the cassette

The cassette was straightforward to fit once I had the cassette tool. I was nervous about getting the spacers right but it all slipped on fine and ran fine when I was setting the gears up. Putting the individual sprockets on was a little bit of a fingers crossed process, as with quite a bit of this I let me enthusiasm run away with me rather than being completely methodical. I figured if I made a mistake, which I expected to, I could go back and fix it and learn along the way. A couple of times (mainly with front shifter cabling) I had to go back a step, but mostly it was fine.

Cabling and shifters

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One shifter attached

With wheels, bars and cranks on Harry Hall was starting to look a lot like a bike. It was at this stage what I would say the more challenging part was started. The shifters and rear derailleur but went on easily with a hex wrench. The shifters came ready cabled with 1.1mm gear cable. If at all possible I’d suggest getting this right first time, as I didn’t and re-threading the cable through the shifters was a dog of a job. I did it three times in the end for various reasons and each time it took the best part of an hour and a lot of swearing and gentle patience. From reading online it seems SRAM shifters make pretty hard to fit the cable through the routing. I found it hard. That said, it wasn’t impossible, just fiddly and frustrating.

All of that meant that fitting the cabling felt a little stressful. In no particular order, I discovered that there are different cables for gears and brakes, and different cable housing for gears and brakes. Cables also come with various end buts (ferrules) that again are different based on what you’re fitting. Then there are the ones that go on the cable ends once you’ve cut them to stop the cable fraying. This is where your pliers come in. I asked for a few extra ones of each end bit when buying cable.

Also on cabling: if I was doing it again I’d resist cutting off slack cable too soon. On a couple of occasions I didn’t have the shifters in the right (neutral/fully clicked out) position and when I fixed that lost some length. Ditto for adjusting the tension. replacement cables weren’t expensive, but it all adds up and as soon as one came out you had to fit it again and the wailing and gnashing of that exercise came back, like Satan’s heir returning to earth.

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You also need a little more than you think, as the cable has to have enough give in it to not become tensed when the bars fully turn, and because they’ll be strapped up under the bar tape. However, as myriad bike mechanic videos online note, you don’t want too much either. I used my other bike as a rough reference point. I still got it wrong a couple of times. Not a big deal, but worth resisting final cuts until late in the process.

Adjusting the gears

Getting the chain and rear derailleur running together was fiddly, as I was expecting it to be. The main issue was splitting the chain – I found a couple of video online that showed how to remove a magic link using a section of cable that worked well as I was struggling to get it off, but it then snapped on quite straightforwardly and feeding it through the derailleur was easy with a picture of what it should look like. This was a nice moment as for chain was turning the wheel and for me that means you have at least a basically working bike.

Again following online tutorial videos it was pretty easy to get the rear shifter working pretty well, and get the tension right. This required some trial and error with the limiter screws and the cable tension. I didn’t know precisely what the limiter screws did on the RD before this, so it was useful to play around and find out.

Note comments above about not trimming off too much loose cable too soon.

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Electric tape to secure the outer cable housing before applying bar tape

 

(Not getting the) front shifter (right)

The front derailleur was another matter altogether. Firstly, feeding the cable into the SRAM shifter was beyond fiddly and produced an avalanche of curses. It’s been noted the shifters like 1.1mm cable more than 1.2mm. I fitted 1.2mm in the end so it can work. Once it was through – there wasn’t really a knack, more gentle and constant application of the greased cable to encourage it upwards through the hole – then it was easy to fit to the derailleur. Trial and error (again) on the limiter screws on the front got plenty of movement, but no matter what I tried I couldn’t get the derailleur to shift far enough over to move to the top ring. Online searches suggested I was not alone, but this was one task that defeated me and I returned to the Vintage Bike Cave. Takashi there couldn’t quite get it right, but suggested I was not attempting to start from the right position. Next time perhaps I’ll get it right.

Lacking a bike stand, I improvised with a couple of chairs in my kitchen at first, and then by purpose-chopping some branches off a study, short tree in my garden.

The first ride I did was before the bar tape went on, to check I wasn’t massively wrong in anything I’d done. I have put bar tape on in the past but this time I let Takashi do it as it was in the workshop anyway, but it’s pretty simple. A part of me liked the clean look without it, but as I had big shifters on the bars anyway I figured tape was the way to go.

With the front derailleur sorted – and I figured getting someone else to look the whole thing over before I put it into service – the bike was ready to ride. As you might expect it’s very lovely to ride something you’ve found the parts for and pretty much built yourself, and it rides very nicely.

Apologies if this jumbled collection of notes is incomplete. I wanted to put something down before I forget to do so. And should you have any further questions I will do my best to answer them.

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First nervous outing to Highgate Men’s Pond

Baby wipes

The very best thing for keeping your hands and the bike nice and clean. Keep some handy.

FA Cup Final 2014

Arsenal, as everyone had become very fond of saying, had gone a long time without a trophy. Nine years, it seemed, if every boring journalist was to be believed.

Had it really been that long? It didn’t seem it. Then again, I missed the 2005 FA Cup Final to attend a wedding, and listened to Patrick Vieira whacking home the winning penalty with his last kick as an Arsenal player down a phone line in the garden of the sort of Yorkshire country house many of Imogen’s friends got married. In the following decade we’d got married ourselves, had two children and had another on the way. Life had changed in dozens of other ways, some tiny, some vast in their significance.

In the foreground and the background throughout all this turbulence had been going to the football. Weekends and evenings through autumn, winter and spring roll round as they always have done with the rhythm of the season, some good, some bad. Always fun and always there. But for those years not much of significance: a couple of swings and misses at the title, an agonizing Champions League final, two League Cup Final defeats. The second of these, to Birmingham, was on a bleak and frigid February afternoon which felt wrong right from the outset and ended dismally.

So during the winter of 2014 I’d learnt to not have high expectations from Arsenal. We were so obviously inferior to Chelsea and Manchester City that when we met these teams we’d go out of whatever competition we were in. Despite this, disposing of Spurs and Liverpool in the third and fifth rounds was, as you might expect, very enjoyable. But once we’d beaten Everton in the quarter final we found that every other ‘big’ team was out, thanks to Wigan knocking out Manchester City at the Etihad. The field, it appeared, was clear for us. From being no hopers who couldn’t win anything the papers suddenly declared there was no way we could fail to win the Cup.

As ever, it was not that easy. Wigan’s stubbornness exposed the short tempers among Arsenal fans and the semi-final was an ugly affair. Groups of drunken men who’d turned up for a party got nasty with each other when we struggled. Mertescacker’s equalizer and subsequent penalties were greeted by relief, not unbridled delight. I remember feeling like losing that game would have brought about the end of Wenger’s time in charge. Perhaps it would have. Kim Kallstrom’s penalty was one of several strange cameos that have an unreal air to them now. Who was he? Where did he come from? Why was he there? And where did he go?

On then to the final. Dad and I were back behind the goal in the lower tier, this time with old friends, randomly, for company. At a game like this who you sit with is a lottery, but I was relieved we didn’t have the drunken groups of men who were nearby at the semi. That said, our pals were pretty trollied. Perhaps the scarcity of tickets weeded out the day-trippers, but the people around us were (mostly) a bit older, more mixed and able to hold it together, I thought, if things went wrong.

All season Arsenal had fallen apart in big games, going down 6-0 at Chelsea, 5-1 at Liverpool and 6-3 at Manchester City. Again, here, Arsenal started like a legless greyhound. Before we had time to blink, we were 2-0 down to a Hull City team that probably could scarcely believe their luck. It could have been 3-0 as the mood went from dark to black, with a goal-line clearance saving the day. But it was early in the game, and I said either out loud or to myself that we were going to have to do it the hard way. I thought of George and Harry at home and fretted. No-one said much.

With almost 20 minutes gone we were awarded a free kick, a long way out. In 1991 Paul Gascoigne scored an improbable free kick for Spurs against Arsenal. I can still recall the sinking feeling, the delirium in the Spurs end, the instant sense that we’d lost the game. This time things went our way. Santi Cazorla bent and thumped the ball high over the keeper and into the goal. GOAL.

In some ways, the game was won at that point. Hull were looking at 70 minutes of defending a lead they suddenly seemed unlikely to extend. Arsenal didn’t quite throw everything at them, but kept knocking at the door. In the crowd, the drunk among us veered from swaying to angry to optimistic. Though missed chances were greeted with howls, the crowd mostly stuck with the players.

After one chance, a man in front of me produced the memorable line ‘people these days want everything now’. His words have stuck with me since and become a mantra for understanding modern times. Was he a kind of shaman, appearing on this important day to deliver a life lesson? I believe, on the whole, that yes he was.

Still, the minutes ticked by and our colony of hopeful supporters watched the ball come closer and closer to the goal without actually going in. The ultimate enigma, Yaya Sanogo came on and had his best game in an Arsenal shirt, still managing to miss a few good if not quite clear-cut chances. Then, with 20 minutes left, Laurent Koscielny spun and poked home a half-chance. Another eruption of relief. After this goal I fell over and pulled a load of others with me. What had been a terrible day was suddenly producing larks galore.

There was a long time in extra time to get the winner but it didn’t seem to be coming. Giroud hit the bar with a flying header from miles out. Sanogo continued to miss. Extra time came along, and suddenly we were in the lead. Ramsey’s goal was a beauty, though it wasn’t clear how good until later. For now, we cheered and hoped and prayed it would be enough. Even then Arsenal tried to blow it, with a kamikaze piece of goalkeeping nearly adding to the long catalogue of self-destructs that make up the latter years of the Wenger Era.

But hold on we did, and it was wonderful. The players, ascending those very long stairs, hoisted the trophy into the air. I felt some validation for Arsene Wenger, who must have carried the trophyless years around with him like a heavy weight, even more than we all had, and looked especially pleased. I remember Tomas Rosicky, on as a sub, charging along with the cup, something to show for his time with us beyond loads of injuries.

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Wembley as ever took forever to leave, and it was 10pm by the time I got back to Finsbury Park for a drink. A  very drunk man cycling down Stroud Green Road fell off his bike and crashed. I ran to his aide. He didn’t seem able to speak. I got home after midnight to hear how the boys had stuck with Arsenal too, and been brave. Just an FA Cup? Don’t believe it for a minute.

There’s a million tiny moments in what survives as in video clips, getting older by the year.

After the glow