It is possible, at this time of year, to travel through time on a bike. Riding uphill for an hour or so takes you back a week or two earlier in the spring; the trees are a little barer, the lambs a wee bit younger, the air a couple of degrees cooler. Then, riding over the fells, the sun, when it appears, diffused by the Pennine haze; that indefinable stuff that is not quite fog, not quite mist, not quite low cloud, it can be easy to lose track of where you are in the day; a lunchtime spin can feel more like a dawn or dusk outing. It’s not just time of day that gets blurry; Is it really January before last, dark outside and snow on the ground, that at least one bike rider was bouncing off the walls of their workplace on discovering the biggest bike race in the world was coming through their local patch, is it really that long since the latest deadine passed, is it really a month since anything last got posted on this blog? It would be good if the seasonal time travelling abilities of the bike could be finessed a little to go back and relive some moments, avoid others, and try not to get so behind with some stuff. It would be good if on Monday when this photo was taken I could have gone back in time a few minutes to when Marcel Kittel and his Giant-Shimano team mates passed over the moor in the other direction just after me during their Easter Yorkshire reconnaisance trip, racing to the coffee shop in Harrogate. Still, Kittel will be back here in July and in the meantime the ‘I don’t care where I am or what time of day or year it is or about relativity or anything else while I’m doing this’ qualities of riding a bike around the countryside are still good enough for me.
They used to make lead around these parts, well, that is to say men who were indentured at a young age and who were very old indeed if they made it to forty dug the mines, hacked the stuff out of the ground, hauled it to the surface, stored and washed and processed the ore then smelted it, filling the valley with a toxic smog almost the equal of what the Inn-on-the-top-of-the-hill-bound classic car rallies of today belch into the atmosphere on their way to adding working on the basis of the drink drive laws that prevailed at the distant time in the past when their cars were manufactured to all their other motoring affectations of yesteryear. All of this was a very long time ago but the hillsides still bear the scars in the form of spoil tips, holes in the ground and the ruins of two hundred year old buildings and the large scale map of the area is a motherlode of mining terms; level, hush, shaft, tip, mill, and vein.
An even longer time ago other men turned the basest of base metals into gold but nowadays bike riders go for a kind a reverse alchemy where they take carbon, aluminium and whatever leg muscles are made of and ride and ride and ride until these valuable and rare materials seem to weigh the same as carrying all the lead flashing from the roof of York Minster on one leg and all of it from the stained glass windows in that big church in London where Princes Middleton got married on the other leg. Nobody knows why they do this, particularly when often there is no chance at all that all this effort will get them anywhere near a professional bike team, the black and white photos of some future coffee table book, an interesting anecdote or even the next size down of italian yak hide rapha belly button warmers.
Even quite keen bike riders themselves can sometimes not remember the reason they do this and that is when you find them going for long walks and looking down holes hoping for inspiration, self-understanding and a bit of warm weather.
This blog being tangentially one about tranport and more or less about the North I am probably obliged to have an opinion on HS2. I haven’t done anything on this because it is not really cycling related, I haven’t in all honesty got anything new to add to the debate, and of course principally I couldn’t be arsed but seeing as you’ve asked and seeing as I haven’t got any cycling pictures to post because I have been battling headwinds rather than photographically pootling this weekend there are one or two reasons that immediately spring to mind which would count against me coming out as a ‘pro’:
1. When HS2 is finished the northern terminus will still be quite some distance to the south of where I live so not terribly relevent to me personally.
2. By the time it is finished I will probably have no use for it anyway as I will be too old and poor to travel anywhere, so even less relevent to me personally.
3. HS2 will probably result in the trains I do use suffering a reduction in speed and frequency due to the operational requirements of HS2 and also the capital and running costs sucked from the rest of the network to build and run the new line.
4. Many years ago there was a promise of direct trains to the continent from the North via the planned channel tunnel. These services will still not materialise even when TGVs can travel to Leeds and it is unlikely the new line will even join onto the existing channel tunnel line and it makes me very sceptical of any promises made for any new project.
5. I live a bit nearer to Edinburgh than London so HS2 seems very much a South of England project like cross rail or the tunnel rail link and I can’t help the suspicion that London gets more out of this than the North.
6. HS2 looks like being another Concorde: a glamorous toy for the wealthy only made possible by the tax money of ordinary people who’ll never use it themselves and which may well turn out to be a technological dead end as Tony ‘man of the people’ Benn’s superwhizzo pointy airliners were.
7. I have an instinctive caution against imposing disruptive projects on people’s homes and communities be they wind turbines, open cast mines or railways. I know many of the southern objectors will happily be using HS1 to head off on their skiing holidays without any worry in their mind that this detracts from their moral authority on the subject of building fast new railways but something has to be pretty urgent to justify turfing people out of their homes by compulsory demolition or just by making it really crap to live there anymore and I am not sure if this is.
8. I also have an instinctive caution against putting all the transport eggs in one railway line shaped basket because if it doesn’t do what it’s supposed to there is no plan B.
9. HS2 is a big government project and government doesn’t do big projects well. Government doesn’t do small projects well. Government can’t buy a can of coke from a vending machine without it being late, over budget and exploding in someone’s face when they open it.
10. It is not travel times between the large cities that is the problem, it is the time it takes to get between smaller centres which don’t have direct links, don’t have links which run early or late or at weekends, or don’t have any links at all, not even a bus never mind a train. HS2 is the answer to the wrong question.
I am not, however, an against either. This island is long and thin on a north south axis and it is still laboriously slow to get from one end to the other, or even from and to places which are nowhere near the ends and any amount of tinkering by adding a lane to this motorway or a track to that rail line won’t solve that. The problem needs some imagination. In a park in a town not far away are some of the original stone sleepers from the world’s first commercial powered rail service and folks in the North East perhaps still retain a belief in innovation and engineering that home counties florists and bank managers don’t have. We also have a need for a decent transport system, a need which well catered for home counties florists and bank managers don’t have and we have a railway heritage that home counties florists and bank managers don’t have. On top of that, despite perhaps what experience tells us, we maybe have more faith in the shared and communal than home counties florists and bank managers have.
So my view on HS2 is that the information available is not complete nor accurate enough to have a view so therefore I do not yet have an opinion that could be labelled ‘for’ or against’ and this means I have signally failed in my duty as a supposedly opionated blogger. I would go and throw myself under a train out of shame except there isn’t one for ages now so I will just have to learn to live with myself. For more stories of unfeasibly high speed travel I hope to return to pictures of hills what I have been riding my bike down soon.
When its raining, or just a bit cold, when it’s simply a crap sunday afternoon and I’m feeling down I think of a few of my favourite things and I still feel bad but it’s better than what I’m supposed to be doing. Why don’t you try it. Here some of mine:
1. Jelly babies – the original and best in sports nutrition and, like bee’s wings and the stuff spiders’ webs are made of, yet to be replicated by modern science.
2. The internet – if it’s raining and you haven’t got a turbo then an hour spent browsing online bike shops or whimsical bike blogs is worth an hour in the saddle any day and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
3. Rubber overshoes – for when you spend so much time at online bikeshops your internet bandwith/credit card limit or partner’s patience runs out and you actually have to go outdoors and ride your bike. Putting my smurf shoes on before I go out is so much second nature over the winter I often turn up at meetings in them and they’re great in bed too if you have to share with someone with cold feet. They will probably bury me in mine, after having been killed by my partner for wearing them in bed.
4. Rapha – as well as producing their winter jersey which is super warm, has two instead of three back pockets so you can fit more stuff in them and avoids you having to wear a rustly sweaty cagoule like some rambler there are hours of entertainment to be had from the anti-Rapha green ink brigade on bike forums and in fact I frequently put on my posh jersey to check out my emails just because it makes the internet angry and I get a faster connection.
5. Sheep – for giving us all that merino stuff you can wear for a fortnight on the bike and it still smells better than most people’s fresh socks do by lunchtime and for giving us the game of ‘am I going to cross the road or am I going to stay on this verge eating grass’ as bike riders approach them down a steep hill.
6. Chris Boardman – for showing it’s alright to shave your legs if you stick the stubble back on your chin but being a straight man on Top Gear is best forgotten about.
7. Lemon Drizzle Cake – because you shouldn’t be carrying enough money on a bike ride to buy cocaine. If you like lemon, you like cake, and you like drizzle then why would you ever order anything else.
9. Mountain bikes – I know, I know but when I commuted by bike one of these was the thing to be on if you have to choose where to be on the road according to the traffic and not the state of the tarmac and if you can’t wait until it’s stopped snowing before you go out then fat nobbly tyres, a frame made of left over girders from the Transporter Bridge and hand gesture friendly handlebars are what you need. Like 4×4 cars though, mountain bikes belong in the city centre and are just plain wrong in the countryside, like wearing a stab proof vest in the Co-op or spraying graffiti on the vicar. If you’re heading out of town, get a proper bike.
10. Brown paper packages tied up with string – but only if they have cool bike stuff and free haribo in them otherwise I send them back return to sender with Inflatable Bike Helmet written in large letters on the parcel.
But then what do I know; if I wrote the Sound of Music then Christopher Plummer would have married the rich one, sent his irritating kids off to join the Hitler Youth and quit telling everyone he was in the navy of a landlocked country…
This week I was down in darkest West Riding checking out the pavé section of Stage Two of this year’s Tour de France. Not having a bike with me a wheeled laptop case served just as well. Compared to the kind of pebbly beach type pebbles of somewhere like Richmond Market Place or the sharp little so-and-sos of Dent High Street with which riders are familar here in the north of the county the cobbles of Haworth look like someone actually made them on purpose to go into a road surface rather than just dropped them in some wet mortar coming back from the river bed one day but these things are never great on wheels; car, bike or Samsonite. The upcoming Grand Départ is what Haworth, sitting high in the Pennines not far from the DMZ and beyond, Lancashire, is famous for, but subsidiary claims to historical significance include the Keighley and Worth Valley Line where The Railway Children was filmed and, for those few stony hearted folks for whom bike racing and Jenny Agutter’s father appearing through the steam do not cover the full range of human emotion, there are the Brontë Sisters who lived much of their lives in the village. The Parsonage where a twenty-something daughter of an Ulster preacher gave the Yorkshire moors a human voice is a place of pilgimage for those who like their novels as black as their expresso but the tearooms and souvenir shops of Main Street don’t really reflect the Haworth of 150 years ago, or even the Haworth outside of that one street of today, but after the day is done and as the light fades you can put on your Nikes and take a run out through the churchyard which those lasses looked out on every morning when they drew the curtains to let in the sun and every evening when they pulled them back to shut out the night, head up over Penistone Hill, cross the road which leads down to the reservoir and follow the track past the derelict farmhouse towards the falls and then up onto the moor where from Top Withens you would be able to see just about forever if it wasn’t nearly dark and you can still hear the same wind in the same grass, smell the same dampness in the air, and feel the same chill through your bones and through your soul that could be felt by those that came up here those three short lifetimes ago.
So I found out I’d entered the same bikesportiveridetypething in that land of lakes and stupidly steep hills that lies over our western county line as someone else at work. ‘Who’ll get round quicker?’ asked someone who knows us both. ‘Well’ I replied, ‘the other person is taller and slimmer than me, has bigger hills on the doorstep than I do, thinks time trials are fun, rides with a hard-as-nails cycling club and has ridden further in a day than I can manage over a whole weekend’. I thought that covered pretty much everything. ‘Plus they are twenty’ added our mutual friend, helpfully. Today was supposed to be the first day of spring and in fact apart from the bare trees, black ice, snow showers and the digit in front of the big letter C remaining obstinately single all day it could have been the start of summer so I reckoned I should head up out of the valley to where you can see the fells we’ll be riding over in May as it has been scientifically shown that looking at hills from a safe distance is almost as good as riding up them in terms of training benefit.
Birkdale Common is crossed by a lonely road which leads up to the high flat bit on the edge of the escarpment known as Lamps Moss. It’s not just the lack of traffic that makes it lonely though, it just feels a long way from anywhere, a place I shy away from over the winter not just because the weather often makes the roads bike unfriendly, or in fact unfriendly to anything without skis, not just for fear of having some kind of problem up there when you really wouldn’t want to be hanging around, but something more unexplainable and intangible. Leaving all that long dark teatime of the sould stuff aside though the sweeping descent down unto the Eden valley after one of the best views to be had for miles; the Lakeland fells laid out in the distance, the Mallerstang valley heading off the the south and the high fells of the North Pennines sweeping down the the Vale of Eden to the north, is a very cool bit of downhillness worth a touch of anybody’s existential angst from time to time.
It’s quite a long ride for this early in the year though and the spring sunshine faded about the same time as my legs. In terms of the little event coming up in May I don’t think there’s a way to win in those few short weeks’ time but as Robert Mitcham told Jane Greer, there is a way to lose more slowly.
You can’t get to Crackpot Hall on a bike, well, not a proper bike anyway. For much of the valley the road follows the river down the hill, sometimes high above the water, sometimes at stone skimming level, sometimes river bank jostling road verge, sometimes removed to a more personal space respecting distance, but for a few miles the river has its valley to itself. People lived in The Hall for two hundred and fifty years but the last resident family left in their pyjamas on a dark and stormy night, the sudden self awareness that they just couldn’t face riding MTBs any more and needed to move somewhere more accessible occurring on the same night the combination of heavy rain and the effects on the integrity of the hillside of a couple of hundred years of miners digging holes in it caused their home to collapse around them. Once people lived here, worked here, loved here, lay awake on Saturday mornings watching their partner sleep, shouted to the children that tea was ready, mopped frosty morning condensation from the windows, poured kettles of hot water from a big iron range into a tin bath, posted selfies on facebook and all this they managed without power, water or 4G mobile coverage. Now there are just some lonely old stones. When the last family left here in the fifties it wasn’t just a home which was lost but a way of life. Now all that can be heard, here as in other places, is the blowing of the wind, the munching of the sheep, and the clicking of those ridiculous pointy telescopic poles which nobody seems to be able to walk even to the postbox without nowadays but if you stand very still on this abandoned bit of the valleyside and close your eyes you might still just be able hear the setting down of tea mugs on a kitchen table, the barking of a dog chasing its own tail and children running across the farmyard but for that you have to get there very early in the morning.