Tuesday, 6 January 2015

An Autumn of Cycaling

Sadly, the long days of summer are well behind us, and the onset of winter meant the end of my cycling season. On the plus side, my feet are becoming reacquainted with my walking boots and I'm once again walking on a regular basis

Anyway, here's what I've been up to, Cycaling wise, over the past six months.

August Bank Holiday was the traditional Cycale ride to Felixstowe, via the Ipswich Beer Festival, and this year was no exception. Well, apart from the fact that there was no Ipswich Beer Festival this year, but that didn't stop us.

A decent turnout, and we must have cycled at least 2 miles before having a tea stop in Boxted.

 As luck would have it, the excellent Briar Bank pub and brewery had their own beer festival on, so we didn't go thirsty.

Keith organised a fine ride to Felixstowe, via the Ship 

and on to the ferry to Harwich.

Sadly, Keith become so excited by the impending arrival of the ferry that he promptly fell over. Normally, I wouldn't publish pictures of an elderly man losing his dignity, but Keith is a morris dancer, so he's quite used to that sort of thing.

It was a splendid day, despite passing through the twin dumps of Felixsowe and Harwich, finished off with a visit to the Waiting Room beer festival back in Colchester.

Next up was our equally traditional ride out to the wonderful Chappel Beer Festival, with the usual ferret racing and assorted eccentricities.

Unexpectedly, the Jamaican Bobsleigh team made a surprise appearance.

In September Robin had the excellent idea of riding out to the annual CAMRA Games Day at the Felstar Brewery. Everything one would expect to find at a CAMRA Games Day was there - beer, food, and, somewhat surprisingly, no games whatsoever. I'm not sure how we can have a Games Day without any games, but we made do with beer and food.

Our host was the gloriously bonkers Franco, whose method of transport reflects his own eccentricity

Home made pizzas were on offer for a bargain £3 each

Keith, being eagle-eyed, noticed a lack of eating implements and asked for some cutlery."Oh no" replied the lady serving us "it's a hand job".

We all agreed that £3 for a pizza AND a hand job was excellent value indeed.

A new Cycale record on this ride, 49 miles before our first pub stop, but it was the glorious Bell at Castle Hedingham

As ever, the Cycale season reached it's climax with the traditional ride out to the Norwich Winter Beer festival.

We are creatures of habit, and the trip is ALWAYS.........

Day 1 - Setting out at first light in autumnal temperatures that are hopefully above freezing

A tea stop at the excellent Bredfield village shop.

Lunch at the Station at Framlingham

Late lunch at the Peasenhall tea shop

A break at Wissett - although sadly the pub is no longer open all day

Overnight at the lovely town of Beccles, hopefully completing the  70 miles ride before darkness falls

Fish and chips on a cold concrete bench by Tescos car park - we know how to enjoy ourselves

And then beer in the Caxton Social Club before retiring for the night

Unusually, we stayed in an excellent Wetherspoons Hotel in Beccles, and, even more unusually, there weren't any homeless people in the bar. Not sure about the secure bike storage facilities, though.

Day 2 - Up bright and early the following morning

A flurry of punctures on the morning ride  into Norwich - two for Nigel and one for me

 then a lunchtime session at the superb Norwich Beer festival, serenaded by the superb Sherringham Shantymen, then home on the train, joined by a somewhat inebriated non-cycling Cycale Supremo

Incidentally, this was the first overnight Cycale trip for Bernard, whose faffing is reaching legendary status. Bernard is the only participant to complete the annual TGO coast to coast backpacking event despite LOSING his tent in the Monadhliath mountains. He managed to complete the ride despite appearing to be completely exhausted after the first hour, and,even more impressively, he actually managed to get lost IN the hotel, so hats off to him. Rumour has it that Bernard has been flirting with the "Dark Side", and I'm sure he will make an excellent Morris Dancer.

Congratulations to Nigel, this year's winner of the coveted Cycale Puncture of the Year Award, for managing to get a puncture in a tyre that appeared to have welded itself to the wheel. Impressive stuff. Nigel really should be up for a Lifetime Achievement Award, for services to the rubber industry (NO, not that sort of rubber) - he has successfully punctured and replaced more tyres than almost anyone on the planet

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Not quite Independence Day

So, Scotland is to remain part of the UK after all.

I've followed the Independence debate with some interest, and, it must be said, with no little trepidation. It was with some amusement that I watched our party leaders lurch into panic mode towards the end of the campaign, horrified at the prospect that they may actually, and inexplicably, lose the vote. Remarkably, even the evil Daily Mail hailed Gordon Brown as a hero.

For what it's worth, here are my observations on the sorry saga of Scottish Independence.

The democratic process

I'm not sure of the extent of Alec Salmond's negotiating powers, but they are clearly superior to those of our Prime Minister. To allow the terms of the referendum to be so skewed in favour of the nationalists was astonishing. Young people are generally regarded to be more pro-nationalist than oldies, so to allow 16 and 17 year-olds to vote was clearly to the advantage of the SNP. At the beginning of this parliament all the opinion polls showed there was a clear majority against independence, so to have a campaign that was years rather than months or weeks in duration, gave a greater opportunity for the nationalists to change hearts and minds.

Mid-campaign opinion polls are useless. Has anyone else noticed that the opinion polls taken at the beginning of any short political or electoral campaign are, almost without exception, reflective of the result at the end of the campaign? Political election campaigning doesn't actually work, people rarely change their minds in mid-campaign, and the result that is predicted at the beginning will almost always be the actual result at the end.

My own objection to the referendum was that I didn't get a vote. While it may seem absurd that I, living in Essex, should have a vote on the independence of Scotland, I'm just as affected by the result as those north of the border. The referendum was held to decide if Scotland should gain independence from the rest of the UK. It must follow that in the event of a Yes vote, England, Wales and Northern Ireland would have gained independence from Scotland. The political, cultural and economic future of my country would have changed forever, so I'm rather miffed that I was denied any say in the decision. Specifically, losing the Scottish MPs from the Westminster Parliament (all bar one being non-Tory) would probably have inflicted Conservative governments on us for many years to come.

If it ain't broke.....

We are fortunate to live in a remarkably wealthy, stable and peaceful country. There aren't many such countries in the modern world, and we are lucky to live here. To jeopardise that for the sake of nationalist fervour would be madness. It's 2014, and we live in an age of global trade, the world wide web, freedom of movement, and take inter-continental travel for granted. In this age we should be removing borders and barriers, not inventing new ones.

Why vote Yes?

The overriding reason for most Yes votes was simple - a means of freeing Scotland from Tory governments forever. It has to be said, that's really an attractive proposition. Unfortunately, and less attractively, a Yes vote would have inflicted Tory governments on the rest of us, hence my relief at the No vote.

Nationalism is nasty

I've never been comfortable with nationalism. All that flag waving and belting out our dreadful national anthem has never been my thing (I caught a glimpse of the audience at the last night at the proms the other day - "what a bunch of t******" was the thought that entered my head)

From Nationalism to racial prejudice is but a short step. This applies to any form of nationalism, not just the generally benign Scottish version. The core basis of nationalism, hidden by terms such as self-determination and self-rule, is "we don't like those people over there, they aren't the same as us, let's keep away from them, and keep them out". The basis of Scottish nationalism isn't so far from the little-Englander prejudices of the odious UKIP (how a public school educated, ex merchant banker with his nose firmly in the EU expenses trough can be seen as a "man of the people" is beyond me). The nationalists and UKIP may see them themselves at the opposite end of the political spectrum, but they aren't so far apart.

Firmly entrenched within Scottish nationalism is an anti-English prejudice, specifically those "down south" (that's me), as though the us English are the cause of all the woes of Scotland. I've spent, happily, an inordinate amount of time in Scotland over many years, but in the event of a Yes vote I would have undoubtedly felt uncomfortable about visiting that part of our country again.

So, that's it. The Scottish people decisively rejected nationalism, Alec Salmond has retired to spend more time with his jowls, David Cameron is wishing he didn't make promises he doesn't want to keep, plans for border controls at Berwick on Tweed can be scrapped, we are spared the break up of one of the most successful countries on the planet, and we can carry on living in peace and relative harmony.

Until The Peoples Republic of Cornwall gets a referendum on separation........

Thursday, 14 August 2014

TGO Challenge 2014 - that didn't go to plan

I wasn't going to write about this year’s Challenge, but 3 months after the event, perhaps it’s time to look back and learn some lessons.

For the first time since the Challenge became a big part of our lives in 1998, I failed to complete the crossing, for the entirely avoidable reason of blistered feet. Worse, this was to be Joke’s tenth crossing, a substantial event in Challenge culture, so I feel doubly guilty for ruining her big trip. She very kindly pointed out that I had helped her complete her previous nine crossings, but I still feel guilty.

To be frank, and with the benefit of hindsight, my retirement wasn't really a big surprise, the culmination of a series of events over a number of years. Anyway, this is how it happened.

In celebration of what was to have been Joke’s 10th crossing, we more or less repeated our very first route from 1998, Shiel Bridge to Montrose, minus most of the hills we climbed back then. Since then, Joke has had various bits replaced (including both knees in the previous 11 months), and so it was a route specifically designed, ironically, to get her to the east coast without too much difficulty.

Here's my kit, laid out for the off

The journey

The only civilised way to travel to Scotland from these parts is by overnight sleeper. I've lost count of the number of times we have made our way to Euston for a couple of pints (this time in the excellent Bree Louise with some other Challenge reprobates) before ambling on to the platform, squeezing into our sleeping compartment, another couple of pints in the lounge car, before retiring to bed. Then, next morning, waking up in the Highlands, enjoying fabulous scenery from the lounge window, before alighting on to a Scottish platform in the cool morning air.

Sadly, this time the lounge car was closed, so we could only do the bit that involved squeezing into the sleeping compartment, where we stayed, uncomfortably, until we arrived at Inverness. A huge disappointment. There was no apology or explanation for the closure of the lounge car, although I suspect it was only because there were so few people on the train. Our journey continued on the fabulous line to Kyle of Lochalsh. What a dump, definitely a case of the journey rather than the arrival. Then a bus to our overnight stop, Dornie. The hotel was fairly cheap, and fairly shabby, but Dornie is a fabulous spot, with an excellent pub. Just in case anyone isn't sure where the pub is, it has a helpful sign on the roof.

Day 1 (mostly raining)

Next morning we took the bus to our signing-in point at Shiel bridge, and climbed our way up the lovely Gleann Chionneachainn to Bealach an Sgairne (almost everyone else starting from Shiel bridge seemed to take the lower Glen Lichd route. There are two reasons for this, it's easier to walk, and easier to pronounce).

When we were last here, work parties were planting seeds from native trees, and the fruits of their labours are now apparent.

On the way we met and walked with Sue, another Challenger, but not on the event this year, due to her husband’s illness

By the top of the pass I felt the first signs of rubbing on my heels, so it was on with the blister stuff, and I thought no more of it. After passing Loch Bhealaich the path disappeared, and there was a certain amount of faffing about before Mr GPS came out. Mr GPS confirmed that we were standing exactly on the invisible path shown on the map, another figment of the OS imagination.

A few years back we walked in the opposite direction on the way to the Challenge start, in what were probably the wettest conditions I’ve ever experienced in Scotland. We called in at Altbeithe youth hostel in the hope of some shelter/warm tea, only to receive a frosty welcome from the least friendly warden I’ve come across. So, it was with some trepidation that we sat out a rain storm on a bench by Altbeithe. What a difference! The warden couldn’t have been more friendly (Danish I think) with two cups of tea and real enthusiasm for her hostel. Fantastic.

We walked on for an hour or so, and pitched just off the path in Glen Affric, my heels now rather more sore.

Day 2 (mostly raining)

We made our way down Glen Affric in the rain, my heel blisters now painful whenever we walked uphill, before turning off the “path” to Cougie. Our excellent vetter, Colin Tock had described this path as “horrendously boggy”, although I had been this way twice before and had no recollection of any difficulties. How right was Colin, and how my memory had failed me. It was dreadful, precisely the sort of terrain that Joke loathes. I reassured her that the going would be much better when we reached the track, and sure enough it was just as bad. We inexplicably missed the fishermans hut at the lochan, and sat down for a rest by Cougie. By this time my toes were a bit painful when walking the downhill bits, so it was on with more blister stuff. We followed the road to Hilton Lodge, before taking the woodland track over to the pass to Glen Morriston. The plan was to camp on the pass at the first available spot. However the pass was a building site, a new bulldozed track, diggers cranes and huge, shiny new pylons, and all the ground was completely waterlogged.

We were tired, it was late, it was pouring, and with no obvious camping spots, other than one tiny, bumpy grassy spot I spotted above a stream. Luxury, and it did for us. My feet hurt a lot.

Day 3 (mostly dry)

We followed the building site/pylon track down to Glen Moriston. Had we not stopped where we did, it would have been a good couple of hours before we would have found another camping spot.

I made the mistake of following the track on the map rather than the new track on the ground, and Joke was somewhat displeased by the extra couple of miles we walked. My feet were now giving me real problems, constant pain from both heels and from toes on both feet.

I love these signs, helpfully placed by the very nice people at the Scottish Rights of Way Society.

However, this one is a work of fiction. The way that it marks is not "remote...mountain country" it’s another building site. Bulldozed tracks and Balfour Beatty, and mile after mile of pylons.  Alec Salmond’s legacy won’t be the independence of Scotland, it will be the destruction of some of the most beautiful landscape in Europe. At least the (easily missed) gorse lined path down to Fort Augustus is lovely, spoilt only by the ever-increasing pain from my feet.

We arrived in Fort Augustus, got a room in the same shabby hotel we stayed in last time, and I took a peak under my blister plasters –not good, bloody and blistered. I hobbled around in my crocs, we had a meal in the pub with Alan and Fran, and I hobbled back to the hotel. I put my boots on – agony, just standing in them, not even walking. I went to bed, but couldn't sleep and couldn't stand the weight of the sheets on my feet. (the two toenails that I lost have now re-grown, and the skin on my heels was back to normal in July)

And that was it, I dropped out, we got the bus to Aviemore, mooched around for a couple of days, and went home.

There were a number of factors that caused me to drop out, and here they are

My Feet

For someone who has spent most of his life walking, my feet really are a bit inadequate. I’ve always been prone to blisters to a degree, and to heel strike (pain in my heels when walking long distances over several days). My feet are an awkward shape, narrow at the ankles and wide at the forefoot. So, my footwear needs to be well cushioned, close fitting at the heel, and wide fitting at the forefoot – not easy to find.

So, boots that fit my heels are to narrow for my toes (Scarpa, Salomon and Merrell are brands that are too narrow), and wide fitting boots for my toes tend to be too wide at the heel, causing blisters if the heel lifts. The insoles that boot manufacturers use don’t provide enough cushioning (or wear out very quickly), so ideally I need to put in insoles that give more cushioning – Sorbothane would be ideal, but they take up too much volume and crush my toes. I can put in gel heel pads, but they raise the heels and can cause blisters. I did find the perfect boot – a pair of Raichle boots did me for 5 Challenges and were resoled twice, but Raichle no longer exist (the boots are now made by Mammut, they aren’t the same fit)

My boots

The boots I wore this year were the same as last year – Meindl, sturdy, well made, proper leather with no need for a useless waterproof lining. I do vaguely recall the odd blister last year, but nothing too bad. So what changed?

I've lately dispensed with inner socks, so that’s one layer of blister protection gone. I’m now wearing inner socks again.
I really should have had my boots resoled. Walking on worn heels like these really wasn't a good idea.

I changed the insoles from last year (they had worn out) and put in gel heel pads that raised the heels.
So, only one pair of socks, heel pads, and different insoles in an unforgiving pair of leather boots with worn soles was all it took.

I don’t walk enough

Up until about ten years ago I was a walker. That was what I did. I was a hill walker, approaching 100 Munros and climbed almost all the Wainwrights. Today, I’m almost an ex-hill walker, I’m STILL approaching 100 Munros and I've STILL climbed almost all the Wainwrights. The reason? Cycling. I used to walk and occasionally cycle, now I cycle and occasionally go for a walk. Given the choice of a bike ride or a walk, the bike wins every time. Strangely, doing the Challenge every year actually reduces the amount I walk – it takes up so much of my holidays that the trips to the lakes, the Alps and the Dolomites are now rare indeed. So, my feet just aren't used to hill walking any more, they've gone soft.

I've gone soft

It’s been my pleasure to do most of my 12 Challenges with Joke. There’s no doubt that I’m physically the stronger, I can carry more on my back and I can walk further and faster. In fact, given her medical history, Joke shouldn't be able to do this stuff at all. Yet it’s always been clear to me that I’m more likely to give up – Joke has a steely determination to complete the walks that I don’t have. Over the years completing the Challenge has become less important to me - I love it, but it’s my holiday, and if I don’t enjoy it I don’t want to do it. This year wasn't that enjoyable (painful feet, too many building sites and pylons), so I stopped. Years ago, I’d have probably carried on, struggling along miserably in pain just so I got to the end

Incidentally, it’s not just me that’s gone soft. A remarkable 47 people dropped out this year in what turned out to be the best weather for years, using kit that’s lighter and more comfortable than ever before.

So what happens next?

I've got new boots. Keen boots, well cushioned underfoot, a cavernous forefoot, and a soft and forgiving upper (unfortunately with a waterproof liner that will soon wear out, but comfort is much more important). I've worn them for a few days in the Peak District, and all was well. Here they are

During the autumn and winter I’ll rediscover the joys of walking and walking and walking. We’ll do the next Challenge in 2015, and Joke will complete her 10th Challenge and receive her plaque and all the congratulations she so richly deserves. My love affair with the Challenge will be renewed, and we’ll have a wonderful time. I’ll be walking in my new boots. I’ll be wearing inner socks again, and will have insoles that are tried and tested (maybe Superfeet again?), and if I get a couple of blisters, so be it.

And then? Maybe the Alps or the Dolomites, definitely the Lakes, proper hill walking again, and maybe I will carry on doing the Challenge, or maybe not. Perhaps another solo Challenge in 2016, or maybe not. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and perhaps a couple of years away from the event is what I need. Whatever we do, the Challenge has enriched our lives immeasurably and will continue to do so, but possibly less frequently in the future.