Thursday 27 October 2016

Going to California (C#52)
Thursday 27 October, 107 Miles

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Do you know the song Led Zeppelin ‘Going to California’? It’s on their unnamed fourth album which most people unsurprisingly refer to as Led Zep IV. Well today I went to California too. Unfortunately, the lyrics are a bit dark and don’t lend themselves to the theme of my blog. California Dreaming by the Mamas and the Papas is probably much closer to the mark. "California" I hear you saying – “no way”. Well I certainly did go there. But not the California that Percy Plant or Mama Cass sang about. My California was the small hamlet in the Fens that adjoins Little Downham about three miles north west of Ely. I couldn’t see a road sign to photograph so you’ll just have to take my word for it!

Today’s ride was another one that’s in Chris Sidwells book. This time around Cambridgeshire. I’d arranged to start from the house of a friend who lives just outside Cambridge. Gareth and I used to work together in Cambridge – he’s now a running his own successful consultancy business. He used to be a very keen cyclist and even owned a Bianchi (Pantani replica). Sadly, a few years ago he fell off, hit his head and subsequently crossed over to the dark side to ride motorbikes in trials. Actually, I made that first bit up – about falling off and hitting his head. But he definitely does ride trials bikes now. Like all good consultants, he was tucked up in bed and sound asleep when I arrived so I sent him a text to say I’d been and gone and hoped to catch up with him when I got back – if he was awake!

All this meant that I could make a quick getaway so after unloading my bike from the back of the car I was soon underway. Chris Sidwells route actually starts from the city centre which I intended to give a miss as having worked in Cambridge for about 15 years I have no desire to ride there. Chris is fulsome in his praise of Cambridge as a cycle friendly city. My main recollection is of groups of young students who came to the city to learn English. As far as I could work out they were enrolled at one of the many language schools, berthed at one of many B&B’s and provided with a hire bike to get between B&B and language school. They mostly had virtually no road sense as well as a death wish by riding at night without lights. During dark, wet winter mornings and evenings I used to drive in constant fear of making a left turn and hearing a sickening crunch. Fortunately, this never actually happened but I did have several close encounters.

Crikey! Will you look at that? I’ve already written 500 words and we haven’t even started on the ride. So I’d better clip in to the Infinito and get pedalling; pronto. Riding around the edge of Cambridge was easy because of some excellent cycle paths and also as it was half term week there was a lot less traffic. So I was soon heading through Waterbeach and Landbeach and into open countryside. The early morning mist had mostly cleared leaving very clear air so I was able to enjoy some magnificent long distance views. Fenland always impresses me in terms of its sheer scale. And despite being pan flat there is always the odd surprise to add some amusement. Today’s was the realisation that I had been riding across Grunty Fen. Now, that’s a name to conjure with. Grunty Fen has had its share of the limelight as Radio Cambridgeshire used to broadcast a programme starring Dennis of Grunty Fen. Dennis lived in a caravan with his 92-year-old grandmother and was “Britain’s favourite vocal yokel”. So there you are!

As I rode north I could see the land rising up as I approached the Isle of Ely. The city of Ely itself sits at an altitude of about 70 feet above sea level. Much of the surrounding land is at sea level and rarely rises above 20 feet. That means that the ‘island’ is quite prominent. Sitting at its centre is the magnificent cathedral whose west tower rises to a height of 217 feet. Consequently, it’s a major focal point in the landscape. I’ve spotted it from nearly 20 miles away in Suffolk. And its floodlighting means that it is a significant navigational beacon on dark winter nights. The cathedral can trace its origins back to an abbey in 672 AD; the present building dates from 1083. It’s definitely worth a visit if you’re in the vicinity.

Leaving Ely I continued northwards through Queen Adelaide to Littleport where I headed generally west, albeit on a slightly circuitous route. On the way I passed through the aforementioned California, though I didn’t know it at the time. This was pure Fenland riding; miles and miles of flat, intensively farmed fields in every direction with very few hedges or trees to break the view. And not forgetting those long straight roads.

Arriving at Chatteris I then headed south and into the wind making for St Ives. I didn’t meet any men with seven wives, cats or kits. Most likely that’s because I wasn’t in Cornwall. But no matter, these little trivia all help to break the mental monotony of riding round these parts. I was a little concerned about the route from St Ives to Huntingdon which followed a very busy ‘A’ road. I needn’t have worried because for most of the way there was a magnificent, smooth tarmac cycle path. Arriving at the edge of Huntingdon I passed through Godmanchester, left the Fens behind and headed and on to St Neots where I turned east. By now the countryside was rather more undulating so that gave me a different and most enjoyable riding experience.

From St Neots I made good progress through a succession of attractive villages before reaching Grantchester. Grantchester has the greatest density of Nobel Prize winners living there than anywhere else in the world. About ninety people from Cambridge University have been awarded Nobel Prizes; more than any other institution. And around one third of these worked in the Cavendish Laboratory which is located in a rather anonymous building in the city centre. Four Cavendish alumni even won prizes in the same year (1962). I learnt all this from Bill Bryson the author and adopted Englishman. No, I haven’t met the man in person (my eldest daughter has though as he gave her her first degree when he was Chancellor at Durham University). The closest I’ve ever got was standing behind him in a till queue in John Lewis in Norwich. His body language didn’t really say “introduce yourself Mark”. His recent excellent book ‘The Road to Little Dribbling’ is my source.

Well on with the ride, these little diversions seem to be taking over the story! I rode across the south side of Cambridge which is undergoing a massive transformation. A lot of very upmarket accommodation is being built. There is a huge amount of new business investment, linked to the university, being made by several well-known global leaders in their fields. No sign of a recession or austerity in these parts. As I left the city heading for Fulbourn I skirted the edge of the Gog Magog Hills. What a fabulous name – Gog Magog. I love the sound of it. Go on. Say it slowly : Gog Magog. Gog and Magog first appear in the Bible. Some even claim that the ancient city of Troy was located in the Gog Magog Hills. Perhaps not surprisingly, those who claim this tend to be derided. The ‘hills’ rise to a maximum height of about 250 feet. So we’re not talking of categorised climbs here. But just enough elevation to break up and add interest to the landscape.

From Fulbourn and with a slight tailwind I had a fast run back to Gareth’s house to find him awake and wrestling with an internet malfunction. He assured me that he hadn’t been sleeping when I left this morning. He found he did his best business planning in the morning, in bed, with his eyes shut. I’ll believe you Gareth ……..

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