Aachen

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I once passed through Aachen without stopping and have been looking for an excuse to come back ever since. I’ve done that before, sailing south to Puerto Natales without seeing Torres del Paine, swerving museums and must-sees in other places only to realise the error of my ways. Today’s visit to the city’s cathedral scratched the Charlemagne itch. It’s an itchy kind of place: no wonder Pepin the Bald lost his hair.

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That Aachen is not better known proves Europe’s incredible depth. The mosaics and scale of the original Palatine Chapel are equalled in probably fewer than a dozen places, and none have the iconic name of the first Holy Roman Emperor, who ruled and died here. Yet most people would shrug at the name, and few who recognize it could place it on a map. UNESCO didn’t make that mistake, adding it to their inaugural list of World Heritage sites in 1978. So, why the unknown? It may be to do with its distinctly mitten-European location and ambience. Germany is the lost heart of Europe for visitors and it keeps its secrets behind impenetrable geography and linguistic confusion. But you only have to get off the train and look, and here it is. A small but lovely heart of just a few squares, one home to the cathedral, one to the town hall, and a little in between, and the rest the low-rise shopfronts and kiosks of post-war West Germany.

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Back on the ground, the after-work drinkers are standing outside little bars, their gentle laughter rolling out over the cobbles. In the evening sunshine locals gather on the grass behind the Elisenbrunnen, where warm mineral waters still gush out of fancy fountains. The sun strikes the spire of the ancient Aachener Dom and inside stained glass turns the cantons of light into beams of purple, pink and blue. The golden relics of Charlemagne glow quietly to themselves in the adjacent treasury.

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George Best, Leeds

Out of the window of my chilly room the northern winter is in full swing. It is frosty and grey, white skies I come to know later above black water, silence, crows. Condensation at the window. The leafless trees complete the emptiness. Aged 19, I am here and I am nowhere.

There’s a path to a bus stop that I walk along, underdressed and neither wholly happy or sad, relishing the rootlessness of this kind-of winter break from study. Sometimes in London, sometimes Leeds, a few days in Manchester ‘visiting’, or searching, or missing. Listening and listening. The sound of those days is George Best by The Wedding Present, a band from Leeds who’ve moved on from this moment. I haven’t and listen to it on repeat. The witty, bitter lyrics, asking and provoking, stories of lost love and confusion, girls and gossip, life in these late decades as lives by young men and women. The stories behind these songs – of love that got away, of lessons learnt harshly, advice not always taken – fitted the faces I knew in Leeds, brushed past at a bar, swapped a line of acerbic banter. Yet somehow in the cold of those days and in the determined guitar, unlike anything I’d heard before, there was and still is a stubborn celebration of the wonder of it all. I’m still not quite sure how a record can sound so cold and so warm at the same time. That’s the north for you.

A barman I worked with served up anecdotes of living with Keith, the band’s original bassist. Not exciting anecdotes at all, if I recall, but a brush with musical royalty nonetheless. George Best was chiselled into the streets of Headingley, where I lived and where the band’s contact address was. Even if I never felt at home at university and stuffed up huge parts of it I loved Leeds, and still love the north. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. The faces and the jokes. But that’s far enough into the locked bag of then. Tonight’s only a little about me, walking for miles in midwinter, so drunk I could hardly stand behind the bar as New Year was sung in all around me. Then I fell over. Triple time that night, earned and drank.

Time passed along from that winter. A year, another year, away from Leeds and on and on away from that moment in time, now too many years ago to remember more. Unlike the soap operas found in the grooves of my copy of George Best, I got married, and then had a son, and another, and a daughter, and it’s wonderful and I’m happy and lucky. I still reach for the record all the time because there isn’t anything like it and never has been and never will be. I still feel a little shiver at its opening line, still marvel at the bass lines which bounce along like a train crossing the Pennines, and most of all love David Gedge’s poetic, funny lyrics delivered urgently and as if grudgingly doing you a favour through the frosty night, because despite himself he has to. Gedge is an English voice as unique and distinctive as more celebrated artists.

That’s why I’m here tonight at the Roundhouse. I’ve seen the weddoes live before but never heard a song from George Best played on stage. I know it won’t and can’t quite be the same but this one is special. It’s not a nostalgia show, it’s different and I don’t care. The faces around me are older, like mine, lined with smiles though, hair greyer with good reason, little smiles of defiance borne from years of Shatner and Anyone Can Make a Mistake stubbornly cradled to the heart rather than whatever rubbish anyone else listened to.

I’ve come here on my own because that’s the best way. I’ve shared albums and bands with other people – best and usually with my brother and a handful of unfortunates who feel the same way – but no-one else was there and heard George Best. This one is different, beautiful and harsh and hardbitten, and it’s songs are true and there’s no way of fully explaining it. That’s why music exists.

Postscript

I spent the evening, as planned, down the front fighting the good fight, amongst a rolling, laughing singing celebration. The Wedding Present don’t do encores, but they finished with Kennedy, like something from a dream. I’d waited over 20 years to hear it live and by the time it came round my body couldn’t quite make it over the line to the end of the wig at the end, and my ankle turned over after maybe the thousandth pogo of the night. I hobbled out of the moshpit still grinning widely and then off into the night.

Another Thames

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There is another river. At the end of a sun-scorched day’s riding we head down a hill from Cookham, sweet and glowing golden in the late afternoon, and along an unpromising turning towards a village down a long High Street. There’s a pub, made in 1135, when John II Komnenos was on the throne in Constantinople and Henry Curtmantle a young English king. Then a vast tithe barn, and a Norman church, and small path which we walk down. Children in swimming costumes come the other way, dripping at the end of the day. It has to lead to water, and it does. Water, green and lucent, crossed by a sturdy wooden bridge. Across it is an island where boats moor, or putter alongside. They are pleasure cruisers, a word from another age.

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The water on the other side of the island is stilled by a weir, itself blocked by an iron boat. The water, sometimes more than a person deep is clean and not cold, the sort of water you want to potter about in, explore up little creeks and under trees.

The following morning, another swim, this time with dragonflies zipping over the water, and no-one else around. A splash, and a darting figure at the other riverbank, maybe an otter, maybe. Let’s say it was. Our bikes stand next to the water. Once out and changed it feels best to walk, then cycle slowly away. In London the Thames does nothing quietly, does not hide and holds drama and history close by. Here there is no time, just the sun dappling on to trees and hiding the laughter and hubbub of those who have stolen a few moments here.

Postcards from the mountains and the islands

The wind, the road, the wind. This has been all there is for the best part of an hour, slowly winding up the Bealach na Ba from Applecross in the blustery, occasionally rainy morning. As my bicycle and I ascend the wind gets keener, blowing warning shots across my front wheel. The rubber momentarily leaves the road, landing an inch further towards the gutter. Then again. Occasional curves in the road offer some respite, but as I mostly ride south-west, I find myself leaning down over the handlebars, gripping to keep facing forwards, legs faithfully winding on towards the top.

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The day before I had ridden in to Applecross via the coast road, a lower-level option offering a circuit that appealed to the completist in me. This meant I only had to climb the Bealach one way, and the ‘easy’ way at that. The coast road turned out to be a sensational ride, endless steep ups and downs, little bays, hamlets and forests, and both a joy and a tough ride until I got to the long straight south towards the village. The wind really kicked in then, and did not let up, and then it terrified me that I’d have to fight this for the next four days in the way you only get terrified when doing something on your own, and by the time I got to the hostel I was staying in that night I was scared of what was to come. The fear passed, thanks to a call home, by the time morning came round and I was on the way up. Climbing is calming.

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Back on the Bealach. I can see the road above twisting towards what seems to be the summit. But the wind has its way, and forces me off the road as a car passes. Too close for comfort. Overcompensating the wind, I almost hit the car’s flank leaning into it, and put a foot down. I continue to be blown to the side and having no option, get off and push for a few minutes. The work is harder than pedaling and when I can remount its a relief, not least because another few minutes of pushing brings the tell-tale car park complete with wind-blown man taking photos. Our shouts are inaudible. He possibly confirms that it is downhill from here.

IMG_5985.JPGThe descent down the astonishing corrie of the east side of the Bealach brings relief but more reminders of the conditions. Ascending riders going the other way seem to be gliding up the steep side of the pass, including one heavily-loaded tandem. As I near the bottom emotions bubble up. Perhaps this climb has built up too much over the months I’d been planning it, perhaps the fear of the day before, resurfacing as adrenalin. I stop in Lochcarron village and eat a frankly amazing chicken roll. The bike gets blown over outside the Post Office. It starts to rain. It was that kind of day.

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Off towards Kyle of Lochalsh, and Skye, via first respite and then more smashing from the wind. A wonderful, unforgettable ride.

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Sprinting over Sleat. There’s a ferry with my name on it, but I have ridden fast and am now chasing the service preceding it. I woke at 4.30am with the rain smashing into the roof of the Glenbrittle youth hostel, as glum an alarm call as there can be. But I rise anyway, resolving to take the shower and achieve the rest of the day as planned. Over porridge made with water – a dutiful breakfast – I watch as the downpour magically abates, leaving wet roads but a dry cyclist, climbing alone out of Glenbrittle in the early morning. What had seemed like a tough charge out of the glen transpired to be doable, and I was on my way to Sligachan and Broadford before having properly woken up. Coffee and a bacon roll in Broadford helped, but it was the onwards dash to Armadale that made the morning. The last 15 miles were a little more forgiving than much of the riding on Skye, and I got into a faster pace than is usual for me (still slow). Two riders emerge from the side of the road and I whizz past them. As expected, they soon catch and pass me, but then something very unusual happens. Over the next half an hour I reel them in, so that just before Armadale I somewhat sheepishly go by again, and stay away until the ferry terminal. The end of my ride, Armadale harbour shining in the warm sunlight, and a rare feeling of triumph.

Skye swimming

Swimming at the Fairy Pools, it seems, ain’t what it used to be. At least if the crowds of people aiming exactly for that spot are anything to go by, if you decide to take a dip there you’ll have a lot of company. But the Cuillin Hills feed many streams and rivers, and as I cycled past the parking spot for the pools I opted not to stop and instead see what else was around.

I didn’t have to look far. A little further on down the valley two chaps come marching down the hillside not in fleeces and waterproofs but wetsuits with hoods. They look a little surprised when I ambush them and ask for their swimming spot, but give up the goods. Towel tucked under arm I stroll up under the Cuillin, dropping down into the first pool I find. I am not alone. Two Italian boys appear to be passing the day here, throwing stones, taking photos and washing their hair. They express a satisfying amount of disbelief that I am planning a dip. This then requires a spot of insouciance as I am now representing my nation in a toughness contest, and I am the only participant.

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Cold water, as it always is, is an instant thrill, and this pool offers another. At its head is a waterfall, gushing blue-white into the deep water, its upper pool fed by another cascade. The fall is powerful, and I try to swim into it but keep getting pushed away. After a few minutes I’m ready to get out, and it seems I have inspired one of the Italians to get in himself. First, he removes his clothes. He has a deeply admirable physique, and proceeds to perform handstands on a nearby rock. And then the splits while doing a handstand. He has continental small briefs on. Next to him I surely appear a pale wastrel. At least I am a pale wastrel who swims in cold water. He swims too and I leave them to it.

But I’m not yet done with this swim, and after warming in the sun for a while I head back for a late evening swim. The Italians are still there, still throwing stones, but don’t manage to follow me in the second time. No fairies to be seen, but a swim like something from another life. How wonderful and how fortunate I have been to have found myself in Glenbrittle, under the mountains, in the rushing water, a mix of air and noise and cold.

So as not to forget

A stolen May Day swim, afternoon turning into evening. From the water the sun seems to be shooting rays over my shoulder, the wind chilling my bones through the green-clear surface. The storm cloud which blew angrily a few moments ago duels with the bright evening’s intentions. Cantons blast forth from beyond the darkness, a sight so vivid I end up swimming with my head turned almost back on myself so I can keep looking at it. Beyond the water’s edge rich green leaves on early summer trees blow softly in the breeze. There’s more further away. I stay in for too long, then dive in again off the board, and on leaving the changing area shiver, having overdone it. But how could you not?

Night ride, no light

Talk about an epic ride. On and on into the inky Cumbrian night, the temperature falling and the sky ablaze with stars. A night ride along Ullswater, with clues only in sound, and sensation, to here: where is here?

Penrith. A one-word joke from Withnail & I. And on this silent Thursday night, the start of a journey by bike to the foot of the Kirkstone Pass. It isn’t far. It is dark, and beyond the A66/M6 roundabout the street lights fade away and there nothing but the road and the bright, small circles of light cast by my lights.

After hours, including a delay, on a high-speed train the silence, the difference in speed and the shock of sudden effort make the way a mental and physical wake-up. It’s also cold – a few degrees above freezing. I start to panic slightly. Then a calm voice advises me to take my time and get it done. I look up to a sky of thousands of stars, blinking through the warm breath coming out of my mouth, and start talking to myself about the wonder of the heavens.

After a while – minutes, hours, weeks even, Ullswater appears, and is my constant companion for the next section of the route. The water and the road look the same. I wind my way over one and keep an eye on the space and shape of the other, still in the darkness. Villages come and go. An hour passes, then some more, then I see some familiar headlights. My father’s car. He has grown concerned when I have not arrived at the designated hour and come out to see if he can spot me. Two miles from my destination. I ride the rest of the way imagining the warm fire, the slightly smoky smell of the hut, the initial greetings of strangers overnighting there too. All arrive in the bright light and within seconds the spell is broken. The stars continue to shine outside, on the lean-to where my bike rests.

And then by daylight, what had been here all along.

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