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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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Swimming in San Francisco Bay

‘The Bay Area’, ‘The Golden Gate Bridge’, ‘Escape from Alcatraz’. These familiar terms root San Francisco with the water that it sits by, but what of the water itself? On numerous visits I’ve failed to put two and two together and get into the bay for a swim. On my last visit I saw some hardy souls in the water while strolling past a place called Aquatic Bay. On this visit I was determined to do so myself.

The gig is at a pair of water sports clubs located by the bay, one of which is the venerable South End Rowing Club.

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‘We are a difficult club to enter: we are only open 24/7/365.’ I’d been told by the friendly chap answering an email I sent asking if I could come in. So, at 7.30 one chilly January morning I rocked up, trunks, towel and swimming hat tucked under my arm.

I rang the bell as directed and waited. Then I waited some more, then I figured if I waited long enough someone would rock up and let me in. I was in luck. A gentleman called Jeff arrived, clearly a regular, and took me under his wing.

Inside was the unmistakably convivial atmosphere of a nutters club. As a member of several of these I felt quickly at home. Everyone was chattering excitedly about the temperature, which was at something of an annual low of 48f (8c). In a bid to establish my credentials as someone to be admitted, not gently discouraged, I mentioned my own swimming in London, where the water lies in wait at a dark and angry 2c. This was interpreted by some of the chaps as what Americans would call trash talk. On seeing how far South End members regularly swim compared with my own swift winter dunkings – let’s call them efficient uses of time for a busy life – I think the score was an honorable draw.

Jeff walked me through the clubhouse and out to the small strip of beach, with two old wooden jetties on either side, and noted the presence of an extremely accomplished open water swimmer. We were introduced. She had swum the English Channel and many of the other great long-distance swims of the world and was quite happy to stand knee-deep in the bay and pass the time of day. As inspiring as the conversation was, getting a blast of morning breeze was not exactly driving my enthusiasm to start swimming. I excused myself and flopped under the grey-blue water, aiming for the buoys other swimmers were lapping after exiting the jetty area.

There was a lot to see in the bay – other swimmers either swimming lengths of the buoys or aiming for the harbour opening, which involved passing some vintage boats on one side. I’m used to the cold confines of the Men’s Pond, tiny in comparison to Aquatic Bay’s wide open spaces, and I stayed in for longer than I would at home. It was enough to induce a shiver, especially when I jumped under the hot shower which was waiting at the end. A hot shower, what’s that all about? Jeff, it should be noted, kindly escorted me back to dry land then went off for his proper swim. I hope to return the favor in London sometime.

I later got an email which suggested I had done ok: ‘You set a good example: one cap, no goggles and no sniveling!’ It must be that British stiff upper lip following me round the world.

When changed, another member, who had replied to my email in the first place and was serendipitously present (or perhaps just always present, either way, thanks Joe) took me for a coffee at the fabulous old school Trieste Espresso in North Beach. This wonderful place, where everyone knew the names of each other’s dogs, happily exists in the kind of America I love – friendly, outgoing, warm and thoughtful. And this is the America that lives at South End Rowing Club. Next time, Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge, more swimming, more everything?

California Zephyr

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Walking though the deserted, snow-lined streets of Denver with a spring in my step, Union Station looms into view. One of the great terminals of the American railroad system, the beaux-arts interior has been recently funked-up and now sits squarely at the heart of the city and, in many ways, the Amtrak network and America itself. Pigtrain Coffee is doing brisk business with incoming Cowtown commuters, who do not linger as long as I do over the fridge magnets and t-shirts.

Here the California Zephyr pauses for breath on it’s 60-hour odyssey across the country. After leaving Chicago and crossing the plains to the east, the eight car behemoth pulls in here each morning and picks up waifs and strays like me. I am, without exaggeration, expecting one of the great journeys of my life today and pretty much bouncing on the spot as the enormous wagons reverse into the station. As it turns out the journey, though eventually truncated, thunders superlatives.

We’re invited to form two queues, one for sleeper passengers and the rest for coach car cheapskates like me. I’ve paid $114 for the 30 hour trip to the Pacific Ocean, which gets me a roomy seat with plenty of legroom upstairs on a double-decked coach. On a cold January Friday the train seems to be about half full, but many passengers are heading into the Rockies, packing skis in the tender coach. After some tinkering of what is clearly old rolling stock we’re off, only to pause by the Platte River as a gigantic freight train loaded with a mile of containers passes in front of us.

So much later, and so much has passed, and how much more still to go.

From Denver we accelerated into the mountains, foothillish at first, then spectacular beyond words through Glenwood Canyon. Initially there is a rush for the Observation Car, tempered by some well-phrased chiding by the car attendant lady, who also pops up with historical details and anecdotes, which due to the decrepit PA make gloriously little sense. She either realizes this or runs out of stories. Lunch is served early, and I am sat as a lone traveller with two others, both of whom are on rail odysseys that make my trip seem like a gad into the West End on the tube.

It is after this, after everyone gets out at Glenwood Springs that the trip settles into a strange and lonely pilgrimage into the American West. With little company and the snow driving horizontally, the train feels heroic as it smashes along the ice-covered tracks, horn honking at bald eagles lurking in the ever-present Colorado River. A lone man, miles from anywhere, walks purposefully between the tracks and the river. Who is he?

Quiet times staring out of big windows fill hours, with texts from home reminding me of the real world. Today it seems I can have both. I feel lucky. The hardest decision I had to make today was whether to go to Dave’s Depot at Grand Junction, Colorado, the only retail outlet on the entire 2400 mile route from Chicago to San Francisco. I go in but there’s nothing to buy. I was over-zealous in pre-departure snack buying. Sorry Dave. Another train coming tomorrow.

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Grand Junction seems to barely exist, high in the Rockies but distant from them. It’s fine station building is boarded up. The town itself seems to be quietly falling asleep. Perhaps seeking to make up for this, Union Pacific railroad has stationed hundreds of diesel locomotives here, lined up one after another. It’s hard to fathom them all getting used when two can pull freight trains miles long, but they look shiny and ready to go. The absence of British-style platforms adds to the feeling of their size. We stare up from rail-level, and the locos seem to stare impassively like Easter Island moai, rather than the chirpy smiles of our own engines, viewed face-to-face.

Today is Donald Trump’s inauguration. As usual I can find nobody who seems to have voted for him. Kind people express concerns about what he’ll do, and what effect he will have on America. They don’t see the country as robust. To them, it is fragile, perhaps because their own lives have so little protection in work, health, anything. And yet they’re warm, and interested, and caring for each other in thoughtful conversation. Warm and cold, America. Perhaps only kind people take trains.

Before dark we drive through a red-stone canyon that runs for miles, studded with rocky outcrops and smooth-lined caves. It is completely breathtaking, up there with the very best train rides I have ever done. A man opposite me almost silently plucks at a banjo making an uncannily-timed and perfect soundtrack. Who is he, and where has he come from, framing the moment with delicate riffs.

Though sunset is a little tragedy on its own, the hush that descends on the train after dinner turns another page in the day. The Serbian chaps in front of me, Balkan in their directness and their stern expressions, continue to chat with great jollity.

In the darkness I can see snow-covered fields, small homesteads, trees sunken in snow. Salt Lake City, with temples and domes, comes and goes. It is freezing here and I do not linger on the platform.

At night the coach where I’m sitting is warmed by human bodies and silent. I sleep in odd contorted positions, some less uncomfortable than others. At no point apart from now has it crossed my mind that I could have paid more for a bed in a sleeper, or that I could have skipped the whole thing by flying so it can’t have been all that bad. Tennessee is two timezones back. Soon it will be light. Just as well because Winnemucca, Nevada is locked in an icebox. From there we speed across the Nevada desert, snow-covered with rolling hills on one side as dawn breaks on Saturday. Over breakfast I do meet some Trump voters, Baptist Christians who seem to regret their actions.

No sleep until the Pacific Ocean.

And then the thread snaps. In a second, the journey stops. On arrival at Reno at half past eight we are told the train will wait until 2pm to clear the mountains, and ‘that we should enjoy all Reno has to offer’. After strolling the Truckee River path, having a coffee and visiting the Nevada Museum of Art I have done that. On returning to the train I notice that it has started to smell of BO, and someone mentions a 4pm departure, and an air of quiet denial appears to be in order. The trains sits in a trench beneath Reno, engine humming but forgotten. An itchy finger reaches for the flight timetables, and a Southwest hop over the same mountains that are blocking us pops up. I only dither for an instant, then grab my bag and go. The airport is another world – everything modern, all on time, fast and frantic, but we get through, and I arrive only two hours behind schedule.

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The California Zephyr, in its ambition and effort, says much about America as it once was and may still be, and in its foibles and frustrations nods to fragility and uncertainty about what has been solid and unshakeable. Or perhaps all that’s what it seems to me, and it is simply one of the world’s most beautiful train rides.