Tag Archives: England

The Beck Stone

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

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

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

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


Reading Beck by torchlight at the end of the day

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


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


Tackling the Tour de Yorkshire sportive bike ride

It is nine o’clock on a Sunday morning in May and I am riding silently up a rain-soaked Calderdale hill. The slope is steep and I am moving slowly, as it feels like I have been doing since beginning the ride at 6.30am. It’s me, my breath puffing in front of me and the slow turn of pedal cranks.

From out of the mist a wonderfully manic-eyed man with long white hair appears, clanging a bell and shouting ‘Allez! Allez!’. He’s a welcome if surprising sight. How, I mentally wonder as the pedals turn interminably, did I come to be here?

As previous rides should have taught me, cycling in Yorkshire can be brutal as well as deeply beautiful. This 90 mile ride, along much – but not all – of stage 3 of the first edition of the Tour de Yorkshire, seeks out some familiar hills and showcases a few new ones. And unlike last year’s Tour de France, where the sunshine set the whole county en fete, a more traditional British Bank Holiday weather forecast delivered the goods. It will be wet, they said. It was wet. Windy too. Coming hot on the heels of a trip to Belgium to ride the magnificent Liege-Bastogne-Liege sportive the preceding weekend the Tour de Yorkshire was going to test my endurance, and ability to keep going on successive soaking weekends.

Leaving our fanatical friend behind there’s a different challenge once the climb is summited. The hill levels out, then plunges into a steep descent. Brake pads scrape on rims. Carbon bike frames belonging to bolder riders clatter past. A girl in front unclips from her pedal and uses her cleat to slow herself. I pull hard on the levers and hope we’re at the bottom soon. I smile as we round a corner, only to reach the foot of another climb. The wind blows stinging rain into my face. There are 60 miles to go.

So, this ride was hilly, wet and long. But was it any good? Of course it was. It was a magnificent odyssey. The basics were in place: good signage and well-stocked feed stations. The latter was a remarkable detour. Serving staff offering mini yorkshire puds and flapjacks to bemused, dripping riders, but nowhere I could see to sort the basics. The puds were fantastic though. That you were riding on the same day as the pros offered a sense of occasion, and the bonhomie between riders was evident throughout. 

It’s hard not to feel slightly sorry for the organisers, and riders, when looking at the highlights of the pro race later in the day. Astonishing backdrops of green valleys and far-off towns disappeared for us in mist and squally rain. At times the rain slapped from the side, like a downpour on Lewis on my visit there two years ago. But the conditions had their own rewards.The mist brought an atmosphere of its own, the eery calm of cycling high up, in cloud, occasionally overtaking another rider, sometimes (more often) being overtaken myself. On finishing in bright sunshine, I smiled to another rider and said ‘they’ll never believe us’.

Several landmarks stand out. First, the mighty haul out of Hebden Bridge, not up a severe gradient but unrelenting, and endless. Then the descent into Haworth, with the hoot of a steam train from the Keighley & Worth Valley Railway for company. As soon as Haworth bottoms out, it rises again, up the cobbled High Street that formed the most memorable of backdrops to last year’s Grand Depart, when the stars aligned perfectly. Even early on a sodden day there are dozens of people giving damp nutters like me a cheer. Human kindness feels wonderful sometimes. 

A word for the Aldi gloves I wore throughout. These bad boys cost a fiver in October, and have kept my pinkies warm through a long, cold winter and very damp long rides in Belgium and Yorkshire, and they are still in pretty good nick. Plans to go big on some serious lobster hands for next year remain on hold.

As someone who married into an Ilkley family, climbing the road to the Cow & Calf Rocks was always going to be a highlight. The chance to show off to my children just how slowly a man can ascend this slope was a major reason for doing this ride. I did not disappoint them in not overly impressing them, cruising slowly past but not stopping, for fear of not starting again. There was still a hefty chunk of the ride to go, and though the rain petered out the gradients did not, and on the penultimate slope my thighs began to cramp. I did ride every hill, but only with the aid of the odd primal scream or two.

Taking on what I would class as hard bike rides in West Yorkshire is becoming a habit. I am sure there are more to come, but for now I’m looking forward to getting back to only having to face down Highgate West Hill every day on the way home.

And the finish brought smiles, sunshine and the temptation, of course, to do it all again.

Slightly manic grinnning by tired man

Slightly manic grinnning by tired man

Tour de Yorkshire mental playlist (or the music in my head that got me round)

Wuthering Heights – China Drum

Take me! – The Wedding Present

Kiss – Prince

Reverend’s Revenge – The Housemartins

Jenny Ondioline – Stereolab (the short version)

Being on high

A song of Ascents.
I will lift up my eyes to the mountains; from where shall my help come?
Psalm 121: 1


On an autumn Saturday just gone with some of my family I walked from Wasdale Head in the English Lake District up, and up, and up. It wasn’t an unusual walk: we followed the ridge from Brackenclose and Lingmell Gill up the ridge to the peak of the same name, then across and up to Scafell Pike, England’s highest top, then across to Broad Crag and Great End before descending via Esk Hause. Nor was the weather unusual: we ascended into clouds as we climbed Lingmell, and were in and out of it until coming down past Sprinkling Tarn.

All in, we spent maybe three or four hours walking around between the tops of things. Paths, especially the drudgy walk up Scafell Pike, were rocky and the green slopes of the lower fells felt a long way away. But what a feeling it was to be so high up! And not only high up, but at the ceiling of England. There are higher places, even in Britain, but the noises of rock on rock on foot; the cawing and popping of what looked like a raven and the occasional dripping of an infant spring seemed to be amplified by the cloud and almost echoing.


The sun shone brightly on the way home, and had dipped behind Yewbarrow by the time we reached the Wasdale Head Inn. It was stuffed with people and we sat outside, elated and tired. Later we walked back to Brackenclose and could see the headlamps of late finishers heading down the Tourist Track from Scafell in pitch black, with stars and evening chill for company. Lucky us.

An Oxfordshire village

Warborough, just down the road from Dorchester in Oxfordshire, is not really on the way to anywhere. It’s not in the Cotswolds, nor is it located by the steadily-widening Thames which rolls by at Standlake. It’s not even on one of the sweet tributaries to Old Father Thames, like the Evenlode Or the Windrush, which meander through the county offering wild swimmers the promise of a dip in idyllic – if possibly not deep enough – fresh river water.

Maybe that’s why it’s managed to escape anyone’s attention this long. For this is a perfect English village, dating back millennia, A small slice of Eden hiding in the bullrushes away from the modern world.

To describe the place is to make bricks and mortar Ray Davies’ Vision of England immortalised and satirized in the 1969 classic The Village Green Preservation Society, and to offer a case study for WG Hoskins’ History of the English Landscape. I’m no local historian, by the way, so apologies if my observations are inaccurate in any way. I was distracted, you see.

Let’s start with the village green, Warborough’s open heart and gateway to fields and, beyond, the Thames valley and Vale of the White Horse. on the way here you might pass the picture postcard pub and what looks like a tithe barn. Replace goalposts and swings with strip-mined fields and pasture and you could have stepped back centuries. there’s nought more modern in the churchyard, where a Norman/early Gothic tower looms over a typically higgle-piggle house of worship. the Parish church has seen off the Wesleyan Chapel nearby, a reminder of a great revolution in faith from the nineteenth century that seems scarcely conceivable now.

Pub, fields, barn, green. Add ancient houses and no tourists whatsoever and you have a well-kept secret that makes for a lovely detour if you’re south of Oxford with time to tarry.

The back door to the Lakes

Distant Wasdale

The best way to reach the lakes? The snaking, traffic-trodden M6? Crammed up against a beer-bellied chap with a large bag on a west coast mainline train to Oxenholme or Penrith, then begging a lift? How about none of the above?

Lost in the world of modern railways is the Cumbria Coast Line, a two-coach throwback to another era, complete with request stops, signal-box attendants who double as gate-keepers for level crossings and an abundance of wonderful scenery. You’re probably not surprised by the looming, brooding fells – though Cumbrians are a no-nonsense bunch and you won’t see poets scribbling lines in awe of the hills on board – but the delicate wetlands, estuaries and tidal flats of the coast are less celebrated. Yet this is a journey to savour.

In fact, the Cumbria Coast line may save you time too. The south-western fells around Wasdale are notoriously time-consuming to get to from the motorway. If Langdale and Borrowdale are an hour from the big roads, Wasdale can be close to double that. Ravenglass, Drigg and Seascale are all ten miles or so from the western tip of Wasdale, and can be reached from London, with kind connections, in four and a half hours.

The lakes unfold slowly and deliberately. Just north of Lancaster station, where you’ll leave the main line unless bound to do so at Preston by a service running fewer options, you’ll get your first view if the mountains glowering at Morecambe Bay. Though this is the best known of the tidal flats n the Lancashire and Cumbria coasts it is by no means the only one. Carnforth, famous as the setting for Brief Encounter, is next, with rusting boilers from steam engines sitting alongside mighty diesels at Steamtown, an open-air museum dedicated to locos from the past. At Barrow-in-Furness, where the Royal Navy’s submarines are built you change from the zippy sprinters services to the Cumbria  Coast line proper.

There’s more for rail-buffs of all ages at Ravenglass, close to my one journeys end. Here L’al Ratty, a narrow-gauge railway, climbs up to eskdale on a very scenic journey. Muncaster Castle next door offers tamer appeal, with gardens alive with colour year round.


Request a stop at Drigg and have the station to yourself

The route crosses some of England’s most isolated spots, hiding amidst the folds of assorted Lakeland river estuaries, the North Sea and the cloud-covered Fells. The sun is intermittently blinding with the kind of fresh, sharp light that rain and breeze puts into sharpest focus.  Who needs to travel this beautiful stretch of the Cumbrian coast on a Thursday afternoon, bound for Ravenglass, Seascale and Carlisle? No-one except me it seems. So I have the train to myself until I get off at Drigg, a request stop. Requesting it seemed to surprise the Guard, whose tone of replying ‘really?’ to my request lends me to think that either no-one ever does or that it’s really not my kind of town. To my right, the bracken is a bright orangey-brown on steep, hummocky hills.


Burnmoor Tarn, reached via the Old Corpse Road from Wasdale

The highlights of this journey are many. On the first leg to Barrow in Furness, the crossings of the Kent and Leven viaducts are astonishing, ever-changing vistas. Water and mountains are everywhere yet the train appears suspended, almost floating above it all. It looks more like the north-west of Scotland than the Lakes. A golf course with links on rocky promontories looms into view, then quickly passes. Wading birds find safe havens in the oxbows and inlets, the seagrass and sands out the window.


Oliver’s Gill: good scrambling

As I get off at Drigg, I wait while the train pulls away bound for distant Sellafield, Whitehaven and Carlisle. There’s much more to explore on the coast, but I’m headed inland via a wonderful road where the mountains reveal themselves through folds of foothills. And then there it is: Wastwater. Not the biggest, not the most spectacular of the lakes but for me, the one that takes the prize as the biggest classic. As I slowly cycle its length to journeys end, the calm of England’s greatest landscape is already working its magic. If I were to stay forever would anyone mind?

Wasdale sunset

Silly ways to use the London Cycle Hire scheme

The London Cycle Hire scheme, supported by a well-known bank, is almost upon us.As it needs a nom de plume, how about Velondon?

The purpose of the scheme, to replace short taxi and tube rides with jaunts on bicycles that are heavy and ugly enough to be undesirable to thieves, is laudable in the extreme and it is to be hoped that eventually the scheme can echo the knock-on effects of Paris’ Velib – of creating an unbreakable case for better cycling infrastructure, separated lanes and world peace between those on two wheels and four. We can dream.

That’s all well and good, but what silly things could you do with the idea of picking up a bike in one part of London and dropping it off in another? Here are a few ideas for Cycle Hire-related japes that – hopefully – won’t get you into trouble with the rozzers.

1. See how far you can ride on in half an hour before returning it to the same place. The first thirty minutes are free. Can you make it outside Zone 2 and back again without incurring a fee?

2. Take a mate in the magazine rack on the front. This looks better if rider and passenger have got a hood on and are riding the wrong way up City Road in rush hour swaying from side to side. If they get stuck, you simply dock the bike and leave them there and hope the next punter doesn’t mind too much.

3. Leave random notes in the spokes of bikes for users to find. It could be a way of setting up a blind date or, through the gradual accumulation of answers to geography questions, identify the London Cycle Hire scheme capital cities quiz king.

4. Organise a flash mob style ride, where as many of the bikes as possible are undocked simultaneously and ridden around Regent’s Park, creating a kind of endless circle of riders.

5. Take one to Paris. Undock early in the morning, take on Eurostar and spend the day confusing the French by asking for directions to London landmarks. Take a photo for Boris.

6. (this one is quite a good idea I think) – create a way of logging the journeys each bike makes and invite riders to contribute stories of the adventures they had on them. To paraphrase Suede, after a few weeks all the love and poison of London will be worn into the grooves of these two-wheeled iron horses.

Anyone got any others?

Five delights of Dartmouth, Devon

Looking up the River Dart with Dartmouth to left of picture (photo: Ed Pickard)

Dartmouth in Devon is a little slice of heaven. It may have moved me to poetry but the place compels others to sell up their urban existences and decamp here, buying a boat and an expensive piece of real estate in the process. The town may be safe haven for yachties and well-off retirees, but it still has plenty of salt and sand to make it a wonderful place to visit. There’s a Naval College here looming over the town and the Dartmouth Regatta is one of Britain’s best-known. Here are five suggestions for how to spend a few days in and around Dartmouth.

1. Arrive in style

You don’t need a car to get here but most people have one. In fact, taking a train to Totnes and then a bus or even a boat is straightforward. If you do have your own wheels though there’s a better route than simply driving in a straight(ish) line from Totnes. Instead follow signs to Paignton, then Brixham, then Kingswear. This collection of grand houses and cottages hanging to the north bank of the Dart Estuary is connected to Dartmouth by two passenger boats: the Higher and Lower ferries. Both will take your car, but the lower ferry is cheaper and more frequent, plus has wonderful views of the town. Look for the ancient sign at the dock on the Kingswear side measuring distance in M, F and P. That Miles, Furlongs and Poles to you and me.

2. Tour the town

It won’t take long to explore Dartmouth itself. Apart from being an atmospheric place to stroll there’s only a few real sights. The remains of the quayside castle, the brooding St Saviour’s Church and a handful of old pubs are chief among them. If it’s a fine day and school out you should see some urchins lying face down by the harbour walls. In other towns they’d be drunken teenagers, but here they’re doing nothing more innocent than trying to catch a crab or two. Dartmouth is famed for it’s edible crustaceans: this is one town to forego the pasty and instead scoff some crab sandwiches.

3. Walk the coast path

The epic South-West Coast Path runs right through Dartmouth, and a superb day out is to start with a hearty breakfast at Al Fresco’s Cafe in town, then strike out for Dartmouth Castle, located at the entrance to the harbour.  From here you can hug the coast or higher cliffs to Little Dartmouth, with fantastic views and all the fresh air you could possibly want. If you’re keen the paths goes on for hundreds of miles, but more logical places to pause are the village of Stoke Fleming, where the Green Dragon pub will serve you a pint and a bar meal, or Blackpool Sands (see below). You can bus back or return on foot, earning yourself a cream tea in the process which, unsurprisingly, Dartmouth does very well.

4. Take the train

Spend any time in Dartmouth between Easter and October and the splendid sight and noise of a 4-6-0 steam locomotive thundering along the opposite bank of the Dart will doubtless grab your attention. The Paignton and Dartmouth Steam Railway is a great way to see a bit more of the coast, and coming from Dartmouth trains tend to be emptier as most visitors come from Paignton. Once you get here you’ll probably realise why. bring a picnic, a bucket and spade and some change for the reassuringly retro seaside attractions here.

Kingswear from Dartmouth (photo: Ed Pickard)

5. Blackpool, illuminating

The loveliest beach near Dartmouth is Blackpool Sands. Reached by the walk detailed above – though the last section is along the road and not as pleasant as the Little Dartmouth walk – or by car, it’s the perfect destination for a summers day. There’s a fee to park your car here.  Several great things about Blackpool Sands: the cafe is good and just the place for a Sunday morning fry-up and newspaper session and the beach is wide with golden sands, though it isn’t sandcastle material. As well as swimming there are kayaks for hire and you can try other watersports here too. any remaining cobwebs will admit defeat as soon as you arrive.