Tuesday 30 August 2016

Essex Creeks and Marshes (C#34)
Tuesday 30 August, 106 Miles

Have you ever meant to do something important and then completely forgotten about it? Well I had one of those moments today. As I was driving my car towards Colchester to start today’s ride I had a nagging feeling that there was something I had forgotten. I mentally revisited the kit I had packed to check I’d got everything. Riding solo without a pump is guaranteed to cause mayhem. So, Garmin (yes), phone (yes), camera (yes), route map (yes), tools (yes), spare inner tubes (yes), drinks (yes) and just to check you’re awake and reading this – pump (yes).  I didn’t bother to check off the bike as if I had actually forgotten it I wouldn’t be writing this blog and you'd be none the wiser, haha! So no luck. I knew it was something important but whatever ‘it’ was, was lurking on the edges of my consciousness, frustratingly just beyond my grasp.

Arriving in Colchester I got ready and double checked my kit – still all ‘yes’. But as I was none the wiser about what was troubling me I set off and made my way through the busy Colchester roads onto the B1025 heading for Mersea Island. The plan today was to ride round some of the Essex Creeks and Marshes, which is another if those rides in Chris Sidwells book.  One of the great things about riding in a new area is that there are usually plenty of surprises, and mostly quite nice ones too.

The first ‘surprise’ came after only a few miles near the village of Abberton. Riding along quite quickly I passed an intriguing banner so I stopped for a look. The Crafty Goat is an Ice Cream Parlour and Internet Café. Now the real reason for stopping apart from common curiosity is that my daughter Megan has a ‘thing’ for goats so I wanted to get a picture to amuse her. Unfortunately, as this was the start of the ride I felt it was too soon to sample their wares. But if I ever do this route again I might go the other way round so it’s near the end as I’m quite partial to an ice cream or three.

As I rode away I had one of those light bulb moments. What had been troubling me on the drive down suddenly became apparent. I was about to cross over The Strood, an 800-metre-long causeway that links Mersea Island with the mainland. Chris Sidwells notes on the route strongly advise riders to check the tide times before crossing over. Blast! As I approached I worked out that the tide was probably coming in but didn’t yet seem that high so I thought I could probably get to East Mersea and back before I got cut off. Ho hum; fools rush in where angels fear to tread and all that!

The lane to East Mersea gradually got narrower and narrower until I literally reached the end of the road – which I had expected. So I had to turn around and retrace my steps. Riding along the island was quite an interesting experience because there was definitely a different feeling to the place compared to mainland Essex. Not something I could put my finger on. Merely a slight sense in the airwaves.  I made it back to The Strood in good time to discover that my fears were groundless. There was no way today that the tide was going to cut me off. But the water depth markers show that at certain times there must be some pretty impressive high tides.

I then headed along the north side of the Blackwater estuary to Maldon. Coming into Maldon I encountered a short but rather steep hill to the start of the main shopping street. From there it was downhill and east towards Bradwell on Sea which is a very pretty small village close to the imposing, now pretty well decommissioned nuclear power station. From there I turned back to ride across the Dengie peninsula. That’s a name I love – it has a really earthy sound to it. Try saying it. Go on, you know you want to! Throughout the ride I could see the coast across the marshes and creeks but very rarely got close to it. And there was the familiar tinge of ozone in the air to remind me that I was near the sea.

After a quick pause to top up my water bottles at Burnham-on-Crouch I continued westwards to South Woodham Ferrers. Although I was on a B road it was pretty busy so the riding was not particularly enjoyable. I then headed roughly northwards along more busy B roads to Danbury which was nicely wooded with some small hills which broke up the monotony of flat riding.

From Danbury I headed to Tiptree which I had been looking forward to.  Unfortunately, it didn’t really live up to my expectations. I have long enjoyed those tasty jams and marmalades that Wilkin and Sons make.  For as long as I can remember I have been aware of their distinctive black and white bottle labels which, en-masse, make for an interesting display. And as I child, I always associated their small, single serving jars with a special treat. I can still remember having afternoon tea with my Mum and Dad on the Brighton Belle train. Ooooh what a delight that was. So I was perhaps expecting too much as the part of Tiptree I saw was pretty uninspiring. But I will concede that I must have ridden past the heart of the village so I’m going to put it in the fridge so to speak and come back for another taste. From Tiptree it was a pretty uneventful ride back to Colchester. On the way I passed a sign to Messing which made me smile. We do seem to have a way with place names.

All in all, this was quite an enjoyable century ride, if perhaps a slightly underwhelming one. I had been expecting (hoping) for rather more atmosphere as I rode around – perhaps similar to that created by the late author P D James in her series of novels featuring the detective Adam Dalgliesh, many of which were set on the remote and exposed coast of East Anglia. And the volume of traffic on the roads meant that I had to concentrate quite hard with less time to look around at the sights I passed.

Sunday 28 August 2016

Essence of Edoardo
Sunday 28 August, 49 Miles

“Bev and I are at the Crown if you are looking for food, drink and Bianchi talk.” Well that was an offer that I couldn’t refuse! Bev and Chris are two members of the BOCUK (Bianchi Owners Club UK) that I belong to. Until now we’ve only met virtually, through social media conversations. But already I feel that I know them quite well. So the chance to meet them for real was an added bonus. 

This all came about because there was a BOCUK ride in East Kent the following day and I had decided that it would be better to stay over locally the night before rather than get up at stupid o’clock and thrash down the M11 and M2. A wise move as it turned out because the nearby M20 was closed after a lorry had somehow managed to demolish a footbridge over the motorway. Anyway, I can report that the food was good (I had some tasty ribs), the beer was great (a local brew) and the Bianchi talk was outstanding. And for those readers who don’t quite get the Bianchi thing we did talk about other stuff as well.

Fast forward a few hours. It’s 8:30 the following morning in the car park of the Premier Inn at Ramsgate. Now Premier Inn car parks look pretty much the same everywhere – especially earlyish on a Sunday morning. One word best describes them – grey. Well, here in Ramsgate something was happening. Rather like a chameleon, a transformation was taking place. Small isolated specks began to appear and coalesce into a rich sea of colour. And not just any colour but the richest colour of them all – celeste. By 9:00 two dozen of us were ready to set off on a route round East Kent. For me this was a first as, apart from passing through Dover, I haven’t been to the area before. So I was looking forward to enjoying some new countryside in great company.

Our route initially took us westwards along a cycle path parallel to the busy A299 before turning south through Minster and past the amusingly named Plucks Gutter. I almost felt at home here as the countryside was pretty flat with an almost fenland feel to it. We soon reached Wingham and turned east heading gradually towards the coast.  I spotted an apple orchard which I imagine along with hop fields is one of the county’s archetypal sights. Today was very much a social ride so there was lots of chatter amongst our small peloton. And as this was also a ‘no-drop’ ride we paused occasionally to allow everyone to regroup.

In no time at all we were into Sandwich and riding past the Royal Cinque Ports Golf Club. The direction of the wind meant that there was virtually no chance of any of us being hit by a wayward tee shot so that was a bit of a relief. (Note to readers: I used to be rather expert at wayward tee shots so I do know what I am talking about.)

Leaving the golf course behind we arrived at Deal for what is always the high point of any ride – the café stop. The RouteOne Cycle Café was our choice of venue and truly excellent it was too. They had obviously gone to great lengths to make us feel welcome to the extent that their name boards were painted in celeste! Our impressive collection of Bianchi bikes leaning against the sea wall created a real stir of interest and admiration amongst the many passers-by. Most of us were able to pass this off quite nonchalantly, but I am certain that everyone got a buzz from the interest shown by our admirers; well the admirers of the bikes if not the riders. For the sake of completeness I should report that the coffee was excellent and the chocolate orange sponge cake was even better. I’m just relieved that cycling is a high calorie sport. ….

Resisting the temptation to linger and overstay our welcome we then retraced our route slightly to ride up the coast through Ramsgate, Broadstairs and Margate. Pedalling along the coast line gave the ride a completely new and delightful feeling. With some impressive chalk cliffs and a few ups and downs this really did round out the East Kent experience. The only downside was the volume of traffic. But you can’t have everything. From Margate we headed westwards to Westgate before turning inland to arrive back at our starting point – the Premier Inn car park.

So how do you sum up a ride like this? Well, partly it’s the quality of the route and Ian T who planned it did us proud. Very proud. But for me, more than anything it’s the people I ride with. Once again with BOCUK I really did feel that I was riding with my extended family – people I’ve known for a while but never met and who in mere minutes forge a really strong bond.

Somewhere on the ride I got chatting to Paul V who seemed surprised when I told him I was nearly 60. (Thanks Paul – much appreciated and I’ll ride with you anytime mate.) Slightly cornily I told him that it was all down to Essence of Edoardo a secret cosmetic. Well after thinking about this a bit more on the drive home I decided I wasn’t that wide of the mark. Edoardo Bianchi founded his company in Milan in 1885. I can’t imagine that he would have conceived of a group like us riding our bikes round the English countryside. But I am pretty sure that had he been able to see us he would have been quite proud that we enjoy his legacy. So I’ve decided that’s what the Essence of Edoardo really is. And before you get any clever ideas I’m off to claim the copyright!

Passione Celeste compagni piloti!

Sunday 21 August 2016

Tour de Môn (C#33)
Sunday 21 August, 107 Miles

Today was a day to do something different – the Tour de Môn. In the mid 1970s I was a student at the then University College of North Wales, UCNW as it was generally known, in Bangor. Most of my time there was spent perfecting the art of being a student. And no, I’m not going to elaborate; you can use your imagination. Suffice to say that I didn’t do much riding during the three years I spent in Bangor. Most of my time, when I wasn’t ‘studenting’, was spent hill walking in the nearby mountains of Snowdonia. But what riding I did was great. North Wales is an excellent place for bike riding, even with the hills or perhaps especially because of the hills. So, for the last few years I've tried to fit in at least one ride in North Wales each year.

I’ve ridden a number of sportives here, all organised by Always Aim High Events, a local promoter. One of these which caught my eye a while ago is the Tour de Môn, or Tour of Anglesey. When I was a student, living on Anglesey was a mark of style. It didn’t matter if you actually lived in a hovel or a sheep shed, just living on ‘The Island’ was what counted. One of my friends lived in an abandoned windmill. I can remember going to a party there one weekend and then returning the following weekend because the party was still going. Wow! But that’s enough of these student antics.

For me, the notion of being able to ride all the way around an island is a great proposition. And, strictly speaking, the Tour de Môn involves going round two islands – Anglesey and Holy Island. So that’s two for the price of one. Excellent.

I set off at 7:00am from Holyhead and headed out past Holyhead Mountain – the route didn’t go up it as that would have needed a mountain bike. But I went over its shoulder and then after a few ups and downs was soon crossing over to Anglesey proper and heading towards its airport. Yes, there is an Anglesey Airport which boasts a tarmac runway, not just a grass strip. I think the airport is probably closed on Sunday's because the organisers had laid on a one mile sprint straight down the middle of the runway! Well, that could have been fun but riding into an exceptionally strong headwind rather took the edge off it as well as giving my legs a bit of a roasting.

Leaving the airport I then headed south west through Newborough with distant views across the Menai Straits towards Caernarfon. On a clear day, I would have been able to see the mountains of Snowdonia but today they were shrouded in dense low cloud. A sharp left turn had me riding parallel to the Straits and into, wait for it, Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. Try saying it! And if you want to know what the 58 letters translate to, well you can google it. Otherwise, just refer to it as Llanfair PG which is what most people do.

From Llanfair PG it was a short ride to Menai Bridge and a chance to ride across Brunel’s Suspension Bridge, round the roundabout on the mainland and back over it to Menai Bridge. The last time I rode over the bridge was in June 1978 soon after completing my finals. I also have fond memories of long evenings spent on the terrace of The Antelope, a rather fine pub which overlooks the bridge on the mainland side. When I was a student the suspension bridge was the only road onto Anglesey. Consequently, bank holiday weekends were plagued by legendary traffic jams. One incident, which made the national news, involved a replica AA sign placed at the A5/A55 road junction several miles away. The sign simply read “Anglesey Closed”. (I know nothing M’Lord!) Oh dear, these student insights do rather seem to be slipping out!

Leaving Menai Bridge I headed further along the Menai Straits to Beaumaris complete the first 50 miles. Then the tough riding began. I turned northwards, headed upwards into some lumpy countryside and also straight into a pretty fierce headwind. Gradually my heart rate increased, my breathing got more laboured and my legs started to ask some pretty serious questions about what I was doing and why. Happily the physical demands of riding were more than compensated for by the number of people out in the various villages I passed through, all shouting encouragement and ringing cowbells. One chap even had a vuvuzela - remember those?

Next stop was a detour inland to Parys Mountain which is basically a mountain that has been quarried away for copper ore. There’s some sort of heritage trail there now so I’m guessing that the copper mining has ceased. I clearly remember my last, and only visit to Parys Mountain. It was on a geology field trip in April 1976. I was there as part of one of my uni courses. Whilst our lecturer shared the intimate details of copper bearing geology a group of us spotted a burnt out car. Anyway, to cut a long story short, we lifted the car up, carried it to a pit, and tipped it over the edge to send it crashing down into the orange tinged lake about 100 feet below. As you can imagine it was a fairly noisy event. Incredibly, the lecturer appeared to keep up his discourse without interruption, acting as if nothing was happening. In my book, that takes a certain something.

But enough of the student antics and on with the ride. From Parys Mountain I headed back towards the coast and into that wind which still hadn’t relented. Then it was a grind back to Valley before crossing over to Holy Island to retrace the route back to Holyhead and the finish. There was a great crowd at the finish, a mix of riders’  friends and relatives as well as a good number of other spectators. This time, instead of being given a finishers medal I received a rather fine engraved slate coaster. A nice touch to commemorate a great day in North Wales and the County of Anglesey.