Category Archives: Uncategorized

Far north, old things

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In the still green silence of Northumberland, England’s biggest sky, we find fragments of the past at every turn.

A tiny road heads dead straight, almost due north, from somewhere small and not known to an equal point. The road is pitted and bumpy. It ends at a t-junction that is, in fact, a crossroads, for the road continues ahead. The Devil’s Causeway is still here. It’s not hidden, it runs for 50 miles or more, and is marked on maps. Here it runs through a grassy field. I put my hand into the grass – clumps of stone, roughly shaped. A Roman Road, but north of Hadrian’s Wall. Perhaps someone can explain to me how that worked.

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Later it becomes clear the village we turned right at existed as a crossroad between the roman road and the path that monks travelled between Holy Island and Durham. And Iona too? A junction of obscurity. Were they the only traffic? Was it a highway of celebrity monks, Aidan, Cuthbert and their like? Just up the road is Ancroft, with a sign pointing to an 11th century church. Remarking that we’ve never stopped there despite driving past 20 times we do, and discover something. Squat and ageless, it predates Eleanor of Aquitaine, the Crusades, and is barely younger than England itself. Ancroft. Aidan’s Croft. The strange monkish atmosphere. It may account for all the silence.

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On another day we go looking for the road again, further south, near Chillingham’s haunted castle. We find a ford, crossed also by a wonderful wooden bridge, and a standing stone, marked out presumably to stop a farmer ploughing into it. Winnie tells us here that ‘the Romans used wee to wash their hair’. After a mile or more the countryside drops away towards the Cheviot Hills, and a dramatic bridge carries the causeway away again.

It is hot and it is a strange sensation to be seeking ways to cool down in a place where you can look south to Scotland. We are wedged up against the border but free to wander over, usually via the Union Bridge. Once across there is the lovely River Tweed, and the chance to swim. The water is perfect and the river is broad. The kids splash in the shallows while Imogen and I take turns to swim part-way across, never quite brave enough to complete the international swim, but enough into disputed waters to be able to say we’ve done it.

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A friend puts in our heads seeking out Twizell Bridge, a mighty medieval span which carried English and Scottish soldiers across the Till. Just down the road, Wark Castle guarded a section of the Tweed. Today it’s a pile of rubble that appears to sit in a few people’s back gardens who aren’t that happy to see us drive into their bit of town. It may be the place where Edward III first got the idea of the order of the garter, greeting hooting partygoers who mocked a lady who’d removed hers by putting it on and saying ‘honi soit qui mal y pense’ (‘evil be to him that evil thinks’. This phrase is so famous now it appears on the Royal coat of arms of the United Kingdom. And here’s Wark Castle, a forgotten pile of old stones. Perhaps it wasn’t here. No-one knows to say it wasn’t. We all make remains and words and gestures live on.

On our last night thunder and lightning cracks the weather open, as if we’ve started something with what we’ve turned up.

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Untitled swim

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There is this place where the water is shallow and cold, having flowed off the mountainside, where it pauses in a weir before flowing onwards towards Windermere. I swam here early one Monday morning, with not a soul around, and I had to hop over a gate to get here and back out again. Having been in, and coming out cold and feeling alive I trot back to the car, shaking my head at how lucky I am to do some of these things.

The Fred Whitton Challenge

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The morning, at 4.30, is dark, and rain is clearing away, leaving pools and spray in the road. Why am I up at this hour, stirring microwave porridge and plunging coffee? I have a mission today: a 113 mile, 4000m cycling mission around the English Lake District. It is the Fred Whitton, and it is beltingly hard and brilliant fun.

First I have to get to the start. Raw Head, the Fell & Rock Climbing Club hut with the burbling beck to one side and the Langdale Pikes to the other is a familiar starting point. The club huts are second homes to my family, and at this time in the morning there’s the dawn chorus of snoring older males as a backdrop to preparations. The few miles pass quickly, skirting Loughrigg and arriving in Grasmere by a quiet back road. Hundreds of cars are trying to get into the field for the 6am start. The basic idea I had, to skip the stress of queueing, seems to have worked.

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The idea for this ride started with an idle challenge issued by a pal on January 2. This is the peak day of the year for signing up for something stupid. Let’s both enter, then neither of us will get in and we can feel good, went the logic. So we both entered, and both got in, but for various reasons only one of us made the start line. He can do it next year. I’d looked at the Fred a few times and had considered it, but was put off by the gradients and ever-soggy Lakeland weather. And yet here I was, and at 6am, off we went.

The Fred Whitton Challenge – named, in the manner of the Bob Graham Round fell run, after a legendary Cumbrian road cyclist – passes all the major climbs in the Lake District where roads go. In many cases these are narrow passes from on valley to the next, and due to the terrain and the roads’ history as rough cart tracks are steeper – if much shorter – than Alpine passes. The jabby hills of the Ardennes are an approximate, but in truth there’s not much quite like them outside the UK. And 2,300 of us were going to spend our day testing our legs out on them.

Rolling out through Ambleside the event took shape. Keen but mid-paced riders like me being overtaken by high-class club riders, silent and aerodynamic. Sometimes later in the race I caught and passed people like these, a little overcooked, but most of the time I was the one being passed. On the first major climb over Kirkstone Pass I was relieved we weren’t taking the direct route from up the Struggle, instead the relatively benign climb via Troutbeck. And here the day’s first twisting, steep descent into Patterdale, where other riders whizzed past me, possibly or possibly not in control. I was happy to let them go and tightly grip the brakes, though doing this all day meant my fingers were unable to bend properly by the end of the day.

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Kirkstone led to the rise over Matterdale End, then the A66 into Keswick, and the Borrowdale Valley in wonderful sunshine. Random passing cyclists get a running commentary from me as we pass Shepherd’s Crag, the Bowderstone, Castle Crag and then the morale-boosting sight of the Salving House, another lovely FRCC hut looking smashing in the sunshine. Honister approaches, with its 25% starting grind, casting cramping in quads and calves and a brief push. The gradient eases, the slate mine approaches, and then it’s down, down, down into Buttermere, an early casualty wrapped in a blanket, the lake coming in to view. After food, Newlands, ouch on the up, fast down to Whinlatter then over and up again. By my own slow targets I am flying and have sped through the first checkpoint. Coming down off Whinlatter I find myself thinking of my wife and children and having a small weep. It’s that kind of ride. It happens twice more.

By now the heat is starting to have an effect, though the passing rider who suggests ‘the tarmac is melting’ was a little over-dramatic. Loweswater, something called Fangs Brow and a lovely up and over at Cold Fell brings us to the second feed station, and it feels like I’m almost home. I know I’ll make it, and in a decent time (for me) and feeling good I put my foot down until the foot of Hardknotts Pass, with the whistle of the Ravenglass & Eskdale Railway somewhere in the distance, and then drive hard at the cattle grid. Instant cramp, and nothing much in the legs so I join the hikers pushing uphill for a chunk of this one, too. Some riders keep going but I can only see a few making it over without dismounting. I ride the top section, then descend. Up and over Wrynose then down in terror. I did this a few weeks previously and today is far scarier, with the road dropping steeply and a sheer drop on one side. Another rider walks downhill in just socks, with cooked rims, or brakes, or both.

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After 100 miles we’re back in Langdale, speeding along back to Grasmere, and then through the finish into the noise of the end. We’re held for a few moments to check we’re ok, then released with a pint of non-alcoholic beer, or ‘recovery drink’ as it’s being sold. I’ll take anything offered, but eating is not immediately appealing.

The best day ever on a bike, and I’ve had some thunderously enjoyable ones. Super everything, mind-blowing and incredible. Come ride The Fred.

Rotterdam

Amsterdam’s easy. Day trip, overnight, plane or train, whatever. It’s so easy I once took the ferry home just to liven things up. Yesterday therefore came as something of a shock. What felt like a routine January visit for work – I come here a couple of times a year to visit Booking.com, who have a vast workforce here – started to unravel the night before.

Upon checking in an advisory of a storm over northern Europe on Thursday warned of delays and all other manner of horrors. I don’t normally need an excuse to book a train instead, and as I could reclaim for the flight I swiftly switched to rail.

IMG_6982On Thursday morning as this revised plan was uneventfully put in place. The new-edition Eurostars are a pretty swish proposition and we reached Brussels without drama. And despite the tannoy warnings that all trains on the German network had been suspended my Thalys to Amsterdam was in situ and showing as an on-time departure. As if by magic, with only a few minutes before departure and with no-one on board, the indicators suddenly showed the train was cancelled. ‘Train 9193 will not run today’ mewled the Brussels Midi tannoy. (The same tannoy that once noted in a blasé fashion that my sleeper to Hamburg was going to be 4 and a half hours late, and you can sleep on a bench until then. I hate that tannoy.) Seconds later, that audible right hook was followed by the bone-chilling ‘all trains on the Dutch network are suspended until further notice.’ A late afternoon museum, a stroll along the canals, maybe dinner in a brown cafe. All disappeared into the ether.

I’m not one of those buffoons who says Belgium is boring. Quite the opposite. But I am not devoted to the appreciation of its capital and have particular numbness towards the charmless zone around Midi station. In mitigation there is a Sunday market where you can buy Moroccan pancakes so all is not completely lost. So I found a hotel on the other side of the city and took a walk there, arriving as night was falling and receiving notices from friends of bad weather in Utrecht, Rotterdam and other Dutch cities. That night Brussels grew placid to the point of silence. I walked to the Grand Place, one of Europe’s great squares, and had an early night before an equally early start.

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By now it was Friday, and with all my pent-up spare time gone, I had to start making progress to Amsterdam. Trains were running at ‘an almost normal service’ but I was cautious of yesterday’s demand for Thalys trains spilling over into long queues at hateful Midi, so I opted for a slower IC service from Nord, just by my hotel. The curse struck again – seconds before my train to Rottedam was due to leave a notice appeared saying it would depart from Antwerp. Antwerp: 60 miles away. Antwerp: where I was not! So I had to make my way first to Antwerp Central. Again, no great hardship. This is a breathtaking station and very much worth detouring to. The slow stopping service through places of little consequence stirred up some nerves of a slow-slow journey. I need not have feared. After a little looksy around this wonderful station, and some time meditating on WG Sebald’s bleak visit to a silent bar near here the Rotterdam train rolled in. With a greater sense of purpose than before we moved north, first across the border through flat farmland and birch forest and then across great estuaries and canals, past windmills and vast tulip fields, and via a change of stations and a spin of the Wedding Present’s ‘Rotterdam’ I found myself finally and somewhat stubbornly arriving in Amsterdam.

Despite all these delays, my original plan to work from Amsterdam for the best part of 24 hours meant I still had a few hours spare before giving the talk. Somewhere in the back of my head I had stored the thought that I was addressing a hall of 2000 people as I think I’d been told, but I had repeatedly dismissed that as invented fiction. On arriving at the Excel-style arena, to the south of the Amsterdam you’re probably thinking of, the thought that that number may in fact be correct after all came more prominently to mind. This fun-looking event was vast, with two huge halls seemingly dedicated to feeding the hordes of 20 and 30 somethings who work here. After some time I made it to the speaker’s area, a near-empty green room. An hour or so later I was ushered in front of a crowd that did indeed match the attendance at the 1872 FA Cup Final. I was the last speaker before an address from the CEO, and then a rather large party. It seemed that entertaining was the order of the day, and I whizzed through the potted history of my employer and my own very average holiday snaps without dwelling on anything too serious, then fleeing from the stage before popping anyone’s balloon including my own. Doing something like that can rather make you float.

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And then it was back out onto the streets of the Dutch capital. After a few visits here recently I am both more familiar and completely hooked on the city’s canals and small streets, ringing with tilling alarm bells and, if you get it right, offering a step back in time that takes the breath away. I found just such a street on a long, half-lost walk back to Centraal. It was perfect – cobbled, lined with thin houses each of a different colour, and each with a winch at the top, gable pointing to the sky, and a cluster of Dutch bikes outside each house. A canal at each end. I wanted to stay here for a while, even though around the corner were another bunch of pot-smoking likely lads, and I still had Schiphol to get through to get home. I couldn’t help it, there’s nowhere better to wander until your feet are sore, by the still waters with a chill blowing off them.

Chasing the deep cold

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January sinks too slowly into February, an altogether more sprightly proposition. With it the succession of drab, mild days is shoved out of the way and replaced with clear, sharp cold mornings, a north-east wind with extra chill and bursts of sunshine to be grabbed when the moment arises. It feels like winter, and the end of winter. The snowdrops and crocuses on the corner of Merton Lane and West Hill are asserting themselves. Daffodils and birthday cards are not far away. First there is ice.

Because all this is happening I have to swim with a little more frequency. So on a Wednesday I escape to the pond. Swimming during the working week is like being on the outer reaches of the tube. It’s quiet, a little dreamlike, with unexpected space and silence. Two lifeguards look out over the water. The water lurks around 4c. The sun feels closer than it does during the darkest months, but the bright air, matching the frigid depths, doesn’t do much for the chills.

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Once in, and whooping as usual, there’s the sky to enjoy. It’s huge and blue. Or white. Or grey. A giant A380 climbs drowsily out of Heathrow and flies silently above my head. The sun half-shines down on the green-black water. I can see my fingers slowly turning a shade of pink. The diving board, marked by birdshit, throws me back in again, and then that’s that.

While I’m getting changed a fellow swimmer notes my enthusiasm, smiles and says ‘So, you really like the deep cold. Ha!’

I find on leaving that I can’t quite do what I planned, which was to run back up to Highgate. A combination of legs and lungs won’t go that far today. So I walk-run, looking at everything so familiar yet so often seen through different eyes. I’ll be back twice more this week, chasing the depths, the deep cold.

Friday’s scheduled swim arrives. I wake up to the insistent thumping of rain on the skylight, and run out slightly reluctantly into the rain and the cold, but not as cold as earlier in the week. It’s dry exiting Highgate tube, and I fool myself into thinking things are milder generally, but the tell-tale 4c on the board posts a warning I don’t really heed. Below 5c things get a step harder. I decide to plough on and do what I usually do. At the mid-point of the swim I feel a long way from the jetty. The heron is hunched over in the far distance. No-one else is here while I swim. As I leave the water someone I know arrives. He’s got a great booming laugh and reminds me to smile about life and laugh along with him. It’s funny to keep bumping into him.

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Come Saturday the sun is shining bright and clear but the air is even colder. Imogen suggests I take the tube to the pond rather than fuss and stress over getting to kids out of the house. The kids beam at this information and I feign hurt feelings. Maybe I arrive warm. I cross the matting which covered in rime and turn to face the water. My feet feel like they’re slipping in off the icy sideboards and I dive in more slowly than usual. The water feels fantastic all the way round. And then that’s it. Come Sunday the spell is broken for now for a few days. On Thursday, back again, another gent remarks, grinning, that February is ‘the coldest, the hardest. March is pretty bad too.’

The water, the weather, the air, the cold. Winter is blasted away this way.

The block

1990, another world. My father and I have decided, seemingly without a word being uttered to anyone else, that it’s all very well attending Arsenal home matches but that expansionism is on the agenda. The previous year we took the train to Derby for a memorable (to me at least) 3-1 victory at the Baseball Ground and an end of season 2-2 draw at Carrow Road, Norwich, enlivened by a seemingly endless sing-song to pass the time as we were held hostage by the local constabulary before being released into the heat of the East Anglian summer. I can only assume my own extreme enthusiasm was the reason for an increase in the number of away games.

Regardless of why we were going to these games we were presented with a small but not insurmountable problem. The problem was that I was small and not insurmountable, and in those days away games meant standing on terraces with lots of fully-grown men. To add to the challenge I wanted to stand as close to those making a loud noise as I could.

Dad devised a novel solution. Possibly inspired by the ‘big step’ at the back of the old Clock End terrace at Highbury he used to stand on, he hammered together some old bits of wood that were lying round waiting to be repurposed. This is interesting in itself, as I am now not much younger than he was at the time and have acquired no junk wood, lying round waiting to be repurposed. The wood was fashioned into a block, maybe 50cmx30x20, just large enough for two feet to stand on. As if by magic, I now enjoyed a bonus in the height department when competing for airspace on terraces across the land.

‘The block’ (as in ‘have you got the block?’ And ‘you can carry the bloody block back to the car’) made its debut at Plough Lane, Wimbledon in August 1990. Its magical properties conjured a 3-0 win, including a corking half-volley from Perry ‘El Pel’ Groves. In the midst of this triumph were signs that the block might also prove to be trouble. When a goal went in, the crowd erupted, with the shoving and surging that went with it, and I went tumbling off the block and into the melee. Fighting my way back up to where Dad was stood we both realised the block had gone on its own little adventure and was nowhere to be seen. I went off to look for it and emerged through the bodies after a short time brandishing it in triumph. This happened every time a goal went in that day and on each subsequent occasion.

Taking such an item into football grounds also posed an interesting scenario for the local police. At Nottingham Forest’s away turnstiles, the block was sternly examined by a copper, who was clearly wondering why he should let in something that could be used as an effective projectile to be hurled at opposing supporters. We must have seemed like the right sort of chaps as he let us pass through the turnstiles, though not without admonishing me to grow, so that I could at some future point leave the block behind and not make his job any harder.

Yet it was not just me who found a leg-up useful. At several grounds I fought small battles throughout the match with those next to me who placed one foot on the block, and were clearly considering mounting a hostile takeover of it for their own ends. Sharp elbows and well-timed shoves – usually at exciting moments in play – generally dispatched these ne’er do wells. Go get your own block!

At some point that season we stopped bringing the block. I had grown enough inches to render it necessary, and though it always made it home safe it did add some complications to the simple joy of going to a match. And Arsenal won the league that season, losing only one game in the process, away to Chelsea, when as far as I can recall we did not have the block with us. Make of that what you will.

Bowie, overland to Moscow and Finland

This piece is posted in the hope someone might read it and help me make it better. I am sure there are missing elements and inaccuracies…if you can help, leave a comment or drop me a line…TH

Wir laufen ein in Düsseldorf City
Und treffen Iggy Pop und David Bowie
Trans-Europa Express
Kraftwerk, Trans Europa Express

A fragment of a great life. David Bowie, in between concerts in 1976, travelled from Zurich in Switzerland to Moscow by train, then on to Leningrad and Helsinki. He was with Iggy Pop and other associates of his. Photographs survive, showing Bowie in his pomp, seemingly relishing this Soviet journey that would have seemed impossibly exotic, deep in the Cold War. The video to Kraftwerk’s minimalist tribute to the smooth international rail services of the time, Trans Europe Express, homages and unites Bowie, European rail travel and the retro-futuristic rhythms of electric trains clicking over continental railway lines.

On reading Carol Devine writing briefly about this journey on Calvert Journal, inspired by a comment on the YouTube video for Trans Europe Express, then reading some more on Alan Paul’s site, where there are also some fantastic photographs by Andrew Kent, I became curious as to the logistics of it. Here’s one of the world’s most famous men, albeit one whose reluctance to fly had led him to take the Trans Siberian Railway home from Japan to London in 1973, finding a few days spare in his diary and taking a few mates on a mad railway jaunt into and through the Soviet Union. This wasn’t really the done thing. So how did he do it?

In fact, it was possible to travel to – or more easily through –  the Soviet Union. Both entry visas and transit visas were free, and it seems that Bowie was aware he could get visas for a through journey to Helsinki which involved stopping in the two great metropolises of Russia. So while he’s not around to ask, Bowie could in theory (I think) have bought a ticket to Moscow in Zurich, and travelled north and east from there. The details of the journey suggests that he did just that. The connection entailed hints at a deeper piece of planning, a cunning adventure squeezed in, or possibly a concert itinerary designed on purpose to allow for such a jaunt.

Trying further to tie together Trans Europe Express and this journey, I picked up an old copy of Thomas Cook’s Continental Timetable. I couldn’t find one from 1976, but did get one from 1974. It’s little different in format from the European Timetable published today in many ways, so it is also safe to assume that the information didn’t change that much in two years.

As well as the striking abundance of car-carrying trains across Western Europe – now largely extinct – the other big change since then is the growth of high-speed services since the 1970s replacing the flagship trains of European rail, the Trans Europ Express (TEE) services. These first class only trains at one point comprised 45 services, connecting 130 cities.

Of course, crusty inter-railers would have had to pay a supplement (forever to be said in a French accent with memories of summer de-training incidents: ‘il est necessaire de payer un sooplemon’ ‘je n’avez pas le monnaie.’ ‘au revoir, stinkies!’ (thud onto platform, bags following). Gradually in the 80s and 90s the TEE network contracted, as more trains carrying second class carriages were added, before being disbanded in 1995. In 1976 however it was the way to travel. Did Bowie, Iggy and co hop on the TEE service from Zurich to Vienna? From there, they would certainly have aimed for Warsaw, and picked up the Ost-West Express on to Brest, Belarus – then of course part of the Soviet Union – and then into Moscow.

Alan Paul’s entry on this trip details the briefest of stopovers in Moscow before continuing on to Helsinki, where Bowie arrived a day later than expected. The picture that emerges of Bowie the traveller is of someone who squeezed in adventure where he could, and therefore had to plan quite specifically. Whatever and however, it seems unlikely this trip was made in error.