Adventures on less than two legs

Apologies for the radio silence from the Emu blog. Like most people, I’ve had a rubbish 2020, followed by a rubbish 2021 and I’m not sure that sharing any of that is going to be of any help to anyone.

However, what I have noticed over the last 18 months or so, is that everyone has been able to derive some sort of enjoyment from other people’s misfortunes. So here’s a blog about misfortune, disaster, stupidity, weird cows and stagnant water for you all to enjoy. Here goes:

Like many other people with time on their hands during lockdown, I decided that I was going to do something exciting once I was allowed to be properly outside again. What I had in mind was a really long run over quite a few days. I’d been talking about this for a while with Mrs E, who approved of the project on condition that a) I didn’t do anything stupid or injuring and b) it didn’t cost too much money. So b) put the idea of running between luxurious B&Bs across the country into the long grass, and I started planning a more spartan event, involving a small tent. I started training properly, and planning routes between campsites, which were beginning to open up in May. And, most excitingly, started ordering all manner of ultra lightweight equipment. As each piece of lightweight gear arrived, I unpacked it, held it gently in my hand, and marvelled at its delicate being. It didn’t strike me until much later that combining lots of lightweight gear in one place would make for something that was actually quite heavy, and that may well count as my first school boy error.

I planned a route over six days, which roughly covered the perimeter of Norfolk, on long distant paths. By the start of July I had all of the routes downloaded, all of the kit bought and paid for and all of the campsites booked. By the start of July I was ready to go – I tried out the tent, albeit in the living room with unwilling volunteers pretending to be tent pegs, because it was raining, and it seemed to work. I could even just about sit up in it. On the 2nd July it had just about stopped raining, and at first light I was ready to go, just managing the time so that I could bring Mrs E her morning cup of tea. Rubbing the sleep out of her eyes, she looked me up and down; the first time she’d seen me in my new lightweight gear.

“Those trousers are ridiculous”, she said, instantly putting me at my ease before my big expedition.
“They look like the sort of thing that Lionel Blair would wear. And they woke me up.”

To be fair, they were a bit ridiculous. Alongside an elasticated waistband that was straight out of the Damart catalogue, they also boasted a roomy nylon fit with long side zips to allow for speedy changing without shoe removal. This was the first time they’d been worn, and she was right, they really did make quite a noise, a sort of shushing, swishing noise that I could only avoid if I walked like John Wayne. I wasn’t really sure about the Lionel Blair reference. Somewhere on the internet there is video evidence of our band playing on TV with Lionel Blair introducing us, and dancing along as we played. I suspect it was more memorable to us than to him, but I have no recollection of him wearing noisy lightweight running trousers. Anyway, armed with this peculiar insight into my wife’s waking thoughts, off I went.

I hopped noisily onto a train to Cromer about half an hour later, with my lightweight/heavyweight bag on my back. Got to Cromer, walked down to the sea, removed the Lionels and started to run, keeping the sea on my left. The plan was to get nearly to Caister-on-Sea, then turn inland to Martham, and then on to Clippesby, where a pitch with my name on it would give me a well earned night’s rest.

Day One was relatively uneventful. Even by keeping the sea on my left I managed to get slightly lost, and had to circumnavigate Bacton power station, which I can report is a good size bigger than it looks on the map. And as I was on the the Norfolk coastal path, unsurprisingly a lot of the running was on sand, so quite a bit of this soon turned to walking. No matter though, and 29 miles later I jogged into the campsite, bought an ice cream from the reception area, found my pitch and (you’ll have to forgive me here, cos I’m new to this camping parlance) ‘set camp’. The campsite even had its own bar, where they were showing Spain vs Switzerland on the TV and serving food. So, one veggie burger, a caramel slice, three pints of Guinness and one penalty shoot out later, I staggered back to my very small tent, and negotiated with my sleeping bag and inflatable mat. The three pints of Guinness were probably my second schoolboy error, as exiting your way out of sleeping bag and very small tent several times during the night is not to be recommended, particularly if your legs are complaining about a long run the day before.

Refreshingly though, I found that I could move fairly freely in the morning, and I’d (apparently) ‘broken camp’ well before my fellow campers had changed out of their jim-jams.

Day Two involved getting onto the Wherryman’s Way, which runs between Great Yarmouth and Norwich – I was going to follow this to Loddon, then pick up the Angles Way, which by the end of day three would land me somewhere around Thetford. I’d decided that today was going to be more walk than run, so had slipped into my Lionels, and made my way noisily out of the campsite, no doubt waking many of the other campers as I shuffled past.

“Did you hear that noise, Brian? Fair woke me up. Any idea what it was?”

“No idea. But it sounded strangely like….well, Lionel Blair, going for a walk”

Off I set along the route, when a voice in my headphones advised me to turn left onto the hiking path. I mentally made a note to write a charming letter to the navigation software company when I finished, as without their help I’d have completely missed the small gap in the hedge which led onto a narrow path.

A few minutes later, and I’d redrafted my note a couple of times, as the path gave way to a jungle of nettles, thistles and reeds which I had to negotiate like an Amazon explorer. Each time I got to a clearing I checked my tedious progress on my phone, and I was still on track – river to my left, field to the right, so there was nothing for it but to press on. In actual fact there was a very clear alternative, which was to turn round, go back to the road and to stop entrusting my well-being with a silly black line on my phone, but for some reason I wasn’t thinking of that as an option. And while I wasn’t thinking of that, a very loud bark was barked from across the field. The weeds and grass were up to my shoulders at this point, so I wasn’t able to see anything that was in there. I’m not by nature a fatalist, but I have read the legend of the Bungay Black Shuck, and I was headed in that general direction. I hoped that me shouting ‘Sod Off!’ very loudly would do the trick. It didn’t, and I was replied with a louder, more menacing, and worryingly closer bark. So I stood as still as I could, like a meerkat, popping my head above the nettles and swivelling around to survey my impending doom….

,oOo.

Meanwhile, about twenty yards away, a frustrated deer put his head above a similar set of nettles, looked in my general direction, barked again, and wandered off. Relieved, I just tried to remember whether deer got particularly aggressive during rutting season, and for that matter, when rutting season actually was. Tentatively I carried on, and finally was rewarded up a climb to a jungle free bank of a field. Checking on my trusty map, I saw that I was still on the hiking path, and off I jogged, with not a care in the world, other than the thought of lunch that no doubt awaited me at some Broadland inn en route.

Crossing the field, I came to a drainage ditch. It was about 3 metres across, and thankfully some kind soul had put a couple of logs across it, and I balanced like a tightrope walker with a bad case of DTs. As I lumped across to the other side, I looked behind me, and saw the log disappear into the stagnant ditch. ‘Ah well’, I thought, ‘no going back now’. It was amongst my more stupid thoughts of the morning.

Along the next field, still no noticeable path anywhere but on my phone, and I got to another drainage ditch. No kind souls placing logs in advance here, and a couple of metres across – too far to jump, even without a ridiculously lightweight/heavyweight pack on my back. What I really needed was some sort of pole, so I could reenact one of those village sports days where they vault across a river. I should confess at this point that I never, for one moment, considered that a ridiculous idea. I found a tree nearby that looked like it had been struck by lightning, and managed to pull off a branch that, to all intents and purposes, looked like something that the Slag brothers from the Wacky Races would carry:

I’m not entirely sure how I managed it, but with a bit of fancy footwork and the help of a muddy island and my caveman club, I managed to get across to the other side without getting my feet wet. Again, the familiar ‘no going back now’ thought rattled around in my head, almost as if it was a good thing.

I strode on purposefully across the next field, still on the path, with a drainage ditch to my left, and still holding my trusty club. I was about halfway across the field when I noticed a cow to my right. And another, and another, and another. In fact, quite a few cows were headed in my direction. I don’t like cows. Never have and never will. They’re gormless, dangerous and the wrong size for their brains. By rights they should be British political leaders, haha. Anyway, several of them were headed in my direction. I tried the tactic that had worked so well with the deer/Black Shuck situation.

“Sod Off!”, I shouted. And to my surprise, they did.

I felt quite pleased with myself, but this was quite a short-lived experience, because as I looked up, I saw many more cattle, all headed in my direction. Clearly the first lot had found my ‘Sod Off!’ so amusing that they’d been to get all of their mates. They were all headed in my direction, and by the time they were a few yards away, I was beginning to panic. I tried ‘Sod Off! and a number of variations on that theme. I tried waving my trusty caveman club around, and over my head. They inched forward, and started to pin me in. Finally I tried.a line that had only previously worked outside a chip shop in Edinburgh, around midnight, about forty years ago, to a drunken charmer who was offering to beat me up.

“I’M NOT FROM ROUND HERE!”

Maybe it was the volume of the voice, the anxious tone, or the combination with the caveman club wave. Or maybe they understood every word, and decided, as did my Edinburgh opponent all those years ago, that if those were the best words that I could offer, then I really was a pathetic specimen that deserved to be left well alone. Whatever it was, they turned on their ridiculously tiny heels and stampeded off in the other direction.

I wandered on towards the edge of the field, still holding onto the club, just in case. Gently stepping on to some reeds, I lost my footing and fell directly into a drainage ditch. By the time the water hit my waist, I’d managed to use up almost all of the swear words I knew, and was cursing on repeat as I threw myself across the reeds to the other side. The bottom half of me was covered in a sludgey mess from the ditch that absolutely stank. As I scrambled up the side of the bank, still cursing, I thought again that at least today’s hike couldn’t get any worse than this point. On reflection, this was a hopelessly optimistic thought. By now, the route had mysteriously disappeared from my phone, as had any mobile signal. So even if I’d wanted to call my wife I’m not entirely sure what I could have asked her to do. My cheery optimism started to peter out.

Seeing an abandoned windmill a few fields away, I decided to head for it, on the logic that there still ought to be some sort of path to it that didn’t necessitate diving gear. I navigated a couple of further ditches semi-successfully, although by now I wasn’t overly worried about getting a bit wet.

.oOo.

I can’t remember the sequence of events that led to the next disaster. One minute I was finding my way towards the edge of a field, looking for a way across the widest ditch I’d seen so far. The next minute, I was in it – I’d fallen through the reeds, I was literally up to my neck in drainage, and my feet weren’t touching anything other than water. The lightweight/heavyweight rucksack was pulling me down, and I wasn’t able to turn around, so I kicked as hard as I could against the reedy bank and launched myself across to the other side. Fortunately I managed to keep my head above the sludge, grabbed onto the reeds on the other side, and hauled myself out. It doesn’t sound too bad written down like that, and it was over very quickly, but I was as scared as I think I’ve ever been in my life. A couple of other thoughts struck me. Firstly, that I’d exhibited astonishing levels of stupidity – if any of my children had been half as idiotic on an adventure as I had in the last couple of hours, then I’d have sounded off at them for being ridiculously irresponsible. And secondly, that if I were to have any say over when I got to meet my maker, then it definitely would not be in a Broadland drainage ditch, dragged out goodness knows when and in goodness knows what condition.

Away from the ditch, I did my best to assess the situation. Mentally, I was now, by a country mile, the most stupid object within a five mile radius. Including the cows. Physically I was tired, and I’d managed to knock my back and left knee so that neither was very keen on any further movement. Stylishly, I had rather lost the edge. My lionels had lost their jaunty swish, and, like all of my clothing was now clinging to me unhelpfully, under a carpet of slime and small-leafed greenery that until recently had been laying peacefully on top of the stagnant ditch. And pungently…well , I was in another place altogether. If every farm animal in the county had shat on me from a great height for 24 hours, I think I would have smelt slightly fresher.

‘Ah well’, I thought, ‘I’m not sure it can get any worse’.

And naturally, it did, but fortunately only for a bit. After climbing up the bank, I found myself in a very large field, fairly close to the windmill. I wandered around the perimeter, peering into the drainage ditches that surrounded it on all four sides. Thankfully there were no cows, but that was probably because, other than airlifting them into position, there was no obvious way to get them onto the field. I considered the situation as best I could. Despite the submerging incident, the waterproof rucksack had lived up to its billing, and everything inside, which included a tent, sleeping bag, two chewy bars and a bottle of water, was all usable. My phone had been in an unzipped pocket but had miraculously not disappeared into the drain – it was complaining of being wet, and was still functional, but without any signal. So things weren’t exactly desperate, but there was still no obvious way to get out of this miserable field.

Walking back around the field again, I noticed that a corner had been fenced off with barbed wire. Behind the wire was lots of reed bedding, which I assumed led to the connection of two drainage ditches. I didn’t have much option but to try it, to see if there was a way of getting across, but I was very nervous about going into an area that was fenced off, given how precarious the unfenced area had been. I said a quick prayer before passing my bag across the barbed wire. Thankfully the bag didn’t sink, and neither did I, as I tiptoed through the reeds. After about twenty yards, I came across a brand new galvanised five bar gate, and beyond that dry land which seemed to lead up to a path. It suddenly struck me that the gate and the barbed wire were there to stop idiots like me going into the field, rather than stopping idiots from getting out, and I fair skipped up the slope, as well as my left leg and lower back would allow.

I realised that I’d managed to get myself onto the Wherryman’s Way. I realised this partly because I knew that the path follows the river Yare, and beyond the path was a huge river. And in the river were the sort of pleasure boats that you only ever see in summer in Norfolk. There were quite a few of them, many piloted by cheery souls in captain’s hats, and they merrily waved at their fellow nature lover standing on the footpath. I waved back, trying to forget that I looked like Stig of the dump, and hoping that they were upwind of me.

I couldn’t run any more because my knee was still complaining. I checked my phone and was delighted to see that I had a signal. So I phoned Mrs E, who was slightly put out to have her Saturday morning dog walk interrupted. I don’t think I’ve ever actually cried down the phone before, but the threat of this must have come through to her, and she said she’d come out to Acle to meet me. Optimistically I asked her to bring a change of clothes and some wet wipes so I could carry on.

I made my way to Acle, found somewhere that sold coffee, and even better let you drink it outside, and waited. Mrs E turned up in a cloud of dust in the car park. She said she had the clothes ready if I wanted to change and carry on, but by then, I was completely fed up and my left leg had given up the ghost. I asked if she could take me home so I could get a shower, lie down, and forget about the last few hours.

On the way home, I asked if she wanted the window open.
“That’s alright”, she said, “you don’t smell too bad. Those bloody trousers were a mistake though”.

Another tick for the Wall

Last Wednesday I was walking around the local cemetery, like you do, when I bumped into my friend H, who was cycling about. We stopped minding our own business and had a quick chat about where our lives were currently at. He was trying to get a very young baby off to sleep by taking her for a bike ride. I was trying to shift an injury in my left calf from the previous night’s run, in preparation for walking Hadrian’s wall later in the week. 

‘How long is that going to take?’ asked H. 

‘Five days’, I replied

‘Wow’, he said. ‘That’s the stuff of bucket lists’. 

Which took me by surprise. Firstly, I’ve never really been one for a bucket list. You’ll be unlikely to get to the end of such a list, and it all seems a bit like a tick list of how you’ve managed your life. And secondly, I’d not thought of it as that much of a deal. Me & Mrs E were going to do some walking, and it was going to be from one side if the country to the other, but that was it. And I knew a couple of people who’d done the 84 miles in a couple of days, and one who’d knocked it out in under 24 hours, so 5 days was unlikely to test us. But the bucket list comment kept coming back to me over the next few days…

The next day we biked down to the railway station, hopped on a train to London, tubed across to Euston, got on a train to Carlisle, hung about there for a couple of hours before getting a bus out to Bowness-on-Solway, and made our way to the only accommodation I’d been able to book, which was a small shed in the garden of a rectory. 

We’d exhausted the entertainment possibilities of the inside of the shed within a couple of minutes, so repaired to the pub, which already contained two sets of walkers, one of which was just starting, and the other who’d just finished. It was fairly easy to tell which was which – the ones who’d finished were the ones with four pints, two g&t’s, and a bottle of red to their name. We fell into an easy conversation with them as they moved onto large whiskies, and I made a mental note that they’d set the benchmark for how to celebrate finishing. 

So, off early the next day, and ironically back to Carlisle, in rather more time that the bus driver had managed the trip the day before. The bits that we didn’t share with cows were shared with some lively traffic for the first part, along the Solway, which separates England from Scotland. Years ago, there was a bridge across the water, which Scots would walk across on a Sunday if they needed a drink, and occasionally fall off as they made their way back. We rattled along, fuelled by banana and jam sandwiches, and made our way into Carlisle, which, in the late sunshine, felt as if it was trying hard to come out of a depression. Friday night in Carlisle doesn’t seem to be a particularly lively time, we had a quiet pint in a pub and wandered down to the ‘number one curry restaurant in Carlisle’, for further refuelling. I made the mistake of asking the waitress if she’d recommend anything on the menu, and she said she couldn’t, as she didn’t eat spicy food. Mrs E gently suggested that she might be in wrong profession, and was told that ‘it’s just a job, innit’ before walking off, thereby assuring us that the hospitality industry in Carlisle is in another safe pair of hands. 

Setting off the next morning, safe in the knowledge that we only had 18 miles to cover, we started to hit some proper rolling countryside, all grass trails and sleepy villages, occasionally interrupted by wild eyed farmers whizzing about on quad bikes. Every now and again we’d come across a small fridge by the side of the road, advertising snacks and drinks for walkers, and asking for payment in an honesty box. I looked more closely at one of these boxes to read the small print, which basically said that anyone close to the box was monitored by cctv, and that that non-payment would result in unholy retribution. That kind of defeats the point of an honesty box,  but maybe they’ve had a spate of tracker bar thefts in the area, who knows?

We’d started to see a bit of the wall by now, and oohed and aahed appropriately, trying to get some appreciation of how 15,000 soldiers built a 5 metre high wall and a massive ditch over 84 miles, in about 5 years. By any measure, it’s remarkable, and you don’t necessarily have to be right next to it to appreciate the sheer magnitude of the thing, but once you’ve been up and down a few of the hills, and seen the size of some of the stones, it certainly helps. 

The 18 mile estimate proved to be woefully short, once we’d taken a couple of wrong turnings and remembered that tonight’s hotel was a little way off from the path, and we finished on about 24 miles. We limped into the reception of the hotel to find ourselves, confusingly, in the middle of a Scottish country dance convention. With our fleeces, sensible shorts and sturdy boots, there was a danger that we would be fully integrated, but thankfully we managed to find somewhere else in the hotel to eat away from the reeling crowd. Unfortunately the place we managed to find was a dark look into our future, an institutional room with the lighting and food that will be a feature of the retirement home that our children send us to a few years from now. We ordered quickly and safely, having been told that the kitchen was closing at 8:20 sharp, possibly as there were some neeps that weren’t going to stew themselves next door, and our food arrived in about the same time as it takes to defrost and reheat a vegetable lasagne. The experience of actually eating the food confirmed our future carehome worries – it all sort of blended into itself ina bit of a lukewarm brown mess, and all around us in the big room with the bright lighting and the gentle 80s music were people  looking as if they were dragging their way through their final meal. 

We stopped to look in on the country dancing on the way up to our room, the party was in full swing, and there was a serious amount of jogging and reeling to be seen.  Mrs E was delighted to witness one guy, dripping with sweat, race up the stairs to his room, to return minutes later, and ask her if she’d ‘nae fancy a wee reel’ with him. She said no (or nae), and managed to mention that her feet had just covered 24 miles and weren’t in any fit state to be chasing around the floor. Off we went for another early night, and were serenaded fairly robustly for the next few hours by the kind of noise that was going to keep men in kilts constantly on their feet. I could only make out two accordion players (which, frankly, is two too many), but they seemed to be able to punch above their weight on the volume front. On our way to breakfast early next morning and the riddle was solved – we walked past the stage in the ballroom and saw a PA system that Megadeath would have dismissed as far too loud for their needs. 

Breakfast had been prepared by the care home cook from the night before, and he/she had managed to cook a variety of food and blend into a single taste. On a positive note, it’s probably quite a skill to be able to cook mushrooms, eggs, tomatoes and beans separately to the extent that they all taste like mashed potato, and there’s probably a market for it, possibly at that stage in life just before it’s liquidised and fed through a straw. 

Well, we ate it all up, in the knowledge that we needed fuel before the long and challenging third day. We knew this was going to be tough, as we already had it down as 21 miles, and given the previous day, was likely to be more in reality (it ended up being 28, which Mrs E has mentioned several times since). We had fantastic sunshine and saw the most spectacular parts of both the wall and the surrounding countryside.

It was Sunday, so there were loads of people out walking bits of the wall, contrasting with the pair of us as they sprang along in trainers and shorts, carrying tiny rucksacks which contained proper sandwiches, flasks of coffee and car keys. We had more of a knowing slog about us, and it would be fair to say that the wonder of the wall was palling by the time we hit mile 20.

In the event we walked for 11 hours, and had to phone ahead so as not to lose our hotel room. 

‘Don’t worry’, said the kind lady who answered the phone, ‘I’ll hold your room and I’m here till 10 so I’ll probably see you’. 

Which was probably meant to make us feel better. 

But, into Chollerford we finally trudged, straight into the bar where we drank cider and bitter and ate about half of our body weight in fried food. It’s funny, said Mrs E, after wolfing down a plate of chips. ‘I feel rubbish at night but my injuries seem to heal after sleeping’. 

And so it proved as we scampered down for more fried food in the morning. The leg from Chollerford to Heddon-on-the-Wall was going to be less taxing than the day before, but there was one really long climb at the start which we fairly whizzed up, not minding the rain at all, and even showing a bit of renewed interest in the next mile castle or fort ruins. We’d passed into Northumberland by now, and once the weather cleared we could see the country falling away in front of us, still with the line of the wall visible through the trenches stretching off ahead. We had another diversion into Wylam, where we were staying the night, which didn’t please Mrs E particularly, as it added yet more miles onto what were already some fairly manky feet, but that did give us a chance to go past the cottage where George Stephenson had been born. Like Hadrian’s wall, there’s nothing to stop you reaching out and touching this bit of history (although you’d probably annoy the current residents) – we take all of this astonishing stuff in this country for granted and it’s even more fantastic that we don’t feel the need to rope it off. 

To the pub then, for beer, ginger cider (‘Not sure about this’, said Mrs E, ‘it tastes like squash’, before necking a pint in record time and demanding another in the style of Father Jack), and Thai food, which was fantastic. All followed by a night’s sleep caroused by the local youth of Wylam who may well also have been knocking back the ginger squash. 

And finally on to the last leg, which at last matched the guide book in mileage, and took us across yet more gently descending fields, a little away from the wall and onto the Tyne into Newcastle. It’s hard to properly follow the wall at this stage, as it effectively got hijacked by the soldier/politician General Wade in the 1700s, to create the military road for his troops to march across to quell a Jacobite uprising. It’s now the slightly less romantically sounding B6318. Paving over the wall was an astonishing act of outright vandalism, and if General Wade was alive today, he’d probably fit right in to the current cabinet. 

Coming into Newcastle along the North of the Tyne was both exciting and depressing in equal measure. I know Newcastle reasonably well, I worked there on and off for a few years and have mixed feelings about whether it was ever my kind of town. When I was there, I punctuated the work with long runs in the evening, and similarly, some of these were fabulous, and some of them quite demoralising. Which is pretty much how the last bit of the walk goes. Walking around the bend of the Tyne to see the bridges at Quayside is fabulous, and the buildings just fit their surroundings; if that had been the end of the walk then it would have been great. But the wall went a little bit further onto Wallsend (of course), so we still had another 5ish miles to go. Along the path, the litter began to pile up, not just odd cans of coke and papers, but assorted underwear and, for some reason, a number of disposable gloves; normally Mrs E and me will make up back-stories about the the unusual things we see on a walk, but thankfully by now we were too tired to do so.

We walked straight past the sign that flagged the end of the wall, retraced our steps, and a kindly coast to coast cycle rider took our pictures. We popped around the corner into the visitors centre, where we were met with smiling faces and sympathy for Mrs E’s feet (and feat, come to think of it). She has been testing the security and decency settings of social media ever since :

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We asked to go into the museum, and a very astute woman behind the counter suggested that we might have seen enough Roman ruins for now, and that we might be better off just going upstairs for a coffee, which we did.

Upstairs, I chatted to the woman making the coffee, who told me that her boss had just completed the walk in three days carrying a 25 kg backpack. I’m sure she didn’t mean to piss on our chips, so to speak, but it felt a bit deflating. And it shouldn’t have; we’d walked over a hundred miles in five days, carrying all our own gear, met some fabulous people and some ridiculously steep terrain, and seen some of the most glorious countryside ever, and the stuff you’d never see from a car. And in Mrs E’s case, done all that in a pair of boots that even now were making her feet bleed, and were destined for a more appropriate place.

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Perhaps the walk should have been on a bucket list after all.

Wanna Be Your (Action) Man

A few years ago, I convinced Mrs E that the way to enjoy her mid-forties was to hop on a bike constructed by her husband in his spare time, and pedal round as much of the Scottish western isles as we could manage in a week. Never one to scorn a challenge, she duly agreed, and we set off for a number of days of knackering hills, scary descents, mechanical challenges (make that really scary descents), more than our share of rain, and a certain amount of fun. 

Towards the end of our holiday/challenge, Mrs E started to complain of unbearable shooting pains in both her wrists and her ankles, both of which were quite important to completing the trip in one piece. There is another blog to be written some time on what happened next, but the quick version is that shortly after we got back she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, a really crappy auto-immune disorder that doesn’t really have much to do with what most people think about either rheumatism or arthritis. What it does seem to do is stop people doing anything particularly active. Fortunately, there are some pretty good drugs that allow patients to muddle through and some brilliant people in the NHS who seem to be able to pull the right levers to manage pain relief against side effects. And there’s Mrs E herself, who completely refuses to be defined by her illness, which I guess is both a blessing and a curse if you’re trying to treat or live with her. 

So as a result of all that, we didn’t do any more cycling holidays. 

But one evening in February this year, we started talking about getting away. Mrs E declared that she would need some proper sun, but not the sort of sun that you enjoy by the side of a pool. 

We started looking at walking holidays, on the premis that they wouldn’t be too challenging because (and I quote) ‘I manage to walk the dogs for a couple of hours a day’. 

We signed up for 4 days walking in the south of France, travelling to Nice, taking a train north for a couple of hours, then making our way down from La Brigue to Menton. We got a load of information about walking terrain, essential equipment and navigating, all of which we completely ignored, and waited impatiently for the end of June. 

If you’ve been in Europe this June, you may well have noticed that the temperature has been a little bit on the warm side. We landed in 35 degrees and the temperature kept rising, so that our first day of walking took place in around 37 degrees, most of which was in direct sunlight. We walked for about 5.5 hours, generally feeling that we were not only inside an oven, but one where the grill had been left on as well. Worse, temperature-wise, on the next two days (6.5 hours each) and a nightmare on the last day, where, after 7.5 hours, Mrs E said she was truly cooked and starting to hallucinate, and I had to remind her that we still had an hour left to go. 

All of which we put to one side when we look back on the trip, which was more fun than we had any right to expect. We saw parts of the French Alps that were jawdroppingly beautiful; huge green mountain passes, beautiful streams and gorges, and, as we got to the end, fabulous sea views. We lived inside these picture postcards almost on our own – in the four days we were walking we saw one runner and three walkers travelling in the opposite direction. Parts of the walk had so much sunny butterfly action that it was like being on the set of a Disney film. And, without getting unduly soppy about it, we had a good time just being with each other. There is no-one I would rather have long discussion with than Mrs E. And no-one I’d rather play silly games with (eg day 2 – name a herb or spice in popular culture – a clear winner in Ike & Tina Turmeric).

So it was wonderful. But, as I said, really really hot, and that did have a bit of an impact on our tanning plans. I spend quite a bit of the summer wishing I had a healthy tan about me. I normally manage a reasonable glow about the face, but my chosen leisure activities rather get in the way of anything that you might want to see on a beach. To illustrate this, I’ve taken the wise decision of using a stock photo rather than any actual pictures of myself, which would need to carry a public health warning. So this is what I’m going to go with as a base:

action-man-1966

Firstly, let us consider the cyclist tan. You’ll see this quite a bit around this time of year, and it’s defined by the very clear lines of the bib shorts and short-sleeved shirt. In very keen and accessorised cyclists, you’ll also see tanlines around the cycling goggles, which make for a bit of a startled panda look:

A less forgiving tan is worn by the keen summer runner. Summer is a time for short shorts and vests in the running world. It is not an excuse for anyone to take their shirt off and run – there are certain male runners (mainly triathletes) who ignore this rule and look ridiculous, especially if they choose to keep their chest straps on. Although they would claim that they’ve avoided the even more ridiculous summer running tan:

Unfortunately, some of us have both of these tans working, as it were, in tandem. Even more unfortunately, those of us who have spent some time hiking of late have discovered a third tan type, which you get when you wear walking boots, socks, long shorts and no shirt, but still carry your double strapped rucksack.

So, I’m the proud owner of three competing and ridiculous tans, none of which work particularly well as a badge of honour. Unfortunately, also I’ve decided to try to learn to swim over the next couple of months. If anyone has a wetsuit I can borrow, I’d be very interested.

 

 

Oranges and Bananas

Apologies for the lack of posts of late. The second half of 2018 was dreadful for a couple of reasons, and I guess I’ve not wanted to be bending your eyes with either triviality or darker thoughts. Now that the year is out of the way, there’s a bit more perspective on things, so I’m hoping to post some vaguely measured stuff fairly soon.

In the meantime, here are some words about Seville, which Mrs E and I came back from a couple of days ago. But before we get to Seville, a bit of background on Mrs E’s relationship with Christmas.

Christmas is one of those areas where we don’t entirely see eye to eye. Given my way, December would kick off with an elaborate advent calendar, door bells playing sleigh bell music, heavy pudding construction, impractical candlelit card-writing sessions, and generally work its way into a frenzy of cheese, port, frozen cold dog walks, and close harmony carols at the end of the month. Then a quick wind down to a debauched New Year, a series of light regrets and promises, then pack all the decorations away for another year. 

Mrs E’s take on the festival is rather different. It’s not that she actually hates Christmas, it’s more that she wants to spend as little time on it as possible, and then get it out of the way really sharpish. To be fair, some of this humbuggery (very much like normal buggery, but when you don’t know the words) dates back to the time when there were four small children with stockings to prepare. This meant there’d be around 80 presents all needing to be wrapped late on Christmas Eve, which was often the time I’d arrive home a little bit too full of festive cheer, enthusiastically slurring my season’s greetings. As a result, we’ve always played a game of ‘decoration chicken’, which involves choosing the right moment to put up any decorations to finally admit that Christmas has arrived. Mrs E’s starting point in the game is that she’d accept decorations going up on 23rd December, and down on 26th. Given that I’d probably prefer a full month, any minor extension of her window tends to be a bit of a hollow victory, but it’s celebrated nonetheless: ‘Mum’s let us put the tree up with a week to go’ broadcasts the family WhatsApp message.

Well, this year, the decs were all packed away on the 28th, we had a very mildly debauched New Years Eve, which was largely spent wondering where our children were, and then took ourselves off to Seville on the 4th for a few days. 

And found ourselves in the run up to Christmas, which, given the above, was a bit of a disappointment to Mrs E. 

Our preparation for the break was woeful, extending only to flicking through the guidebook (welcome to Seville, home of bullfighting) and learning a couple of phrases (‘Yo no halo espanol’; ‘peudo tomar una cerveza’), and didn’t take into account checking local customs and festivals, which in Spain, means we missed the whole point of Christmas in January. 

As far as I understand it (now), the Christmas festival in Spain goes something like this: 

  • start getting excited and a bit of light carol singing in mid-December
  • Big celebration and lots of food on Christmas Eve, followed by midnight mass
  • Wander the streets playing guitars and shining torches after midnight
  • Lots more rich food on Christmas Day
  • Wait until 28th, when the ‘Dia de los Santos innocentes’ (a bit like April Fool’s Day) gives you permission to play hilarious tricks on innocent victims (I’m really glad Mrs E missed that)
  • Go mad on New Year’s Eve, including eating 12 grapes within the 12 strokes of midnight for a year of good luck (ditto)
  • Then start ramping up for the really big bit of celebrating Epiphany, which is the big event, lots of nativity scenes, loads of models of wise men in shop windows, children getting excited about the 6th January, when they get all their presents, and parades like you wouldn’t believe…

I’ve not seen a decent parade for a few years, and it seemed like most of Seville had turned out to see what was going on, on both Friday and Saturday night. The general theme seemed to be to get anyone who could play a brass instrument or ride a horse, find some uniforms or costumes, and send them through the streets of the city throwing out sweets to the spectators. Writing it down like that underplays it a bit, because the crowd was so enthusiastic, cheering, shouting and being pretty athletic whenever a shower of sweets came their way, that it had a carnival atmosphere that you don’t get at too many religious events. 

Slightly disturbing was the several hundred people following the procession in blackface – something that we weren’t prepared for at all. There’s quite a bit of reaction to this on the web at the moment, so have a look some time and see for yourself. I can’t imagine the sort of reception that this would get at home, and there seemed to be a complete ambivalence to it as a ‘tradition’. A couple of days later, I managed to blag a ticket to Sevilla FC, who were at home to Atletico Madrid, at a stadium that was beyond awesome.

I had my bag searched on entry, and had to go through three levels of security before I was allowed to take in a banana, which I thought was a little odd. I tried to explain that it was my lunch, rather than a weapon, which got no response at all. I understood a bit more about twenty minutes into the game, when little sections of the crowd started making monkey noises every time Thomas Partey got the ball. I thought that we’d said goodbye to that sort of behaviour at football about twenty years ago, but apparently it was still ok in that neck of the woods.

Anyway, aside from that, and the other odd tradition of ritually killing dumb animals in front of thousands of baying spectators, Seville seemed nicely civilised and full of reasonably jolly people. Lots of medieval streets, big old catholic statements, lots of water and bridges, and seriously fruit-filled orange trees everywhere you looked. 

We stayed on for a couple of says after all the Epiphany fuss had died down, and the city felt like it was starting to settle down to a sunny normality. Even the sugar had been washed off the roads and paths, meaning that you could walk along without your feet sticking to the ground – we’d seen people be separated from their shoes after the parades as their heels stuck to the sugary mess of several thousand trampled sweets.

We stepped onto our flight home out of an unwashed blue sky, and a couple of hours later, stepped into the grey drizzle of Stansted, and drove home talking about how we could wish away the rest of the winter, and when we’d next see a decent sunny day. 

The next day, metrosexual man that I seem to have become, I tracked down some Seville oranges and made some marmalade. Well, every little helps.

Town in a Box

Greetings from Majorca, where Mrs E and I have spent a relaxing time not worrying about marathon running.

The initial plan was to come over and run the marathon, which took place a couple of days ago in blazing hot sunshine, and with a ‘what could possibly go wrong’ approach, we booked travel and hotel about six months ago, just as I started yet another athletic comeback. 

Naturally enough, I got injured with about 8 weeks to go, and so concluded that it would be a bit daft to try and run the race at all, and after seeing the poor souls who hadn’t got injured plodding the roads around Palma on Sunday, I was secretly happy to have pulled out.

Waking up on Monday morning without any of those normal post-marathon, not-able-to-walk-down the-stairs-and-feeling-horribly-sick feelings, I decided to go for a run, looked out of the hotel window, and saw, about two miles away, the biggest boat I’d ever seen. Actually, calling it a boat feels a bit reductive. It  was more like a small town had suddenly plonked itself on the side of the island. Naturally I ran towards it, to see if my eyes had been playing up again. It was a windy morning, and the breeze was coming off the sea, and as I got about a quarter of a mile away, the wind just stopped, which was a bit odd, until I realised that the MS Symphony of the Seas (for it was she) was acting as a bloody enormous windbreak.

Anyhow, the MS Symphony Of The Seas is, according to my sources (that’ll be the internet then) the largest and most ambitious cruise ship ever built. I’ve already mentioned that it casts quite a shadow, but here’s some other stuff of note:

  • it’s 362m long
  • it has 18 decks
  • it can carry 9,000 people
  • it has a crew of 2,200
  • It has 40 restaurants and bars
  • it has 23 pools
  • it has two west-end sized theatres
  • it has a full size basketball court
  • it has two 43 foot climbing walls
  • it has a ‘central park’ with 20,000 tropical plants
  • it has an ice skating rink

and it cost $1.35 billion to build. 

Let’s just dwell on a couple of those for a moment. A 43 ft climbing wall? Sorry, my mistake, two 43 ft climbing walls? Is one more challenging than the other, or do they worry about double bookings?  I’ve not done that much climbing in my life, but when I have, the one constant that you could be fairly sure of was the rock face. That, an appreciation of gravity and a rough rule that you need to keep three limbs on the rock as much possible, is pretty much all you need to know in order to go climbing. Then along comes the MS Symphony of the Seas, and chucks in another variable, ie a rock face that moves every time you hit a big wave. 

Then there’s the ice rink.  I’ll fess up at this point and say that I never understood ice skating as a recreation. I find it quite hard to balance on ice at the best of times, without being strapped into ankle breaking pixie boots with knives attached to the soles, and being asked to stand upright. It’s not as if getting good at it will achieve much either, you either go down the route of sequinned jumpsuits or into the world of mental Canadian sport, where every player seems to be hell bent on beating up members of the opposition at any given opportunity. Anyway, my previous point still stands. All of that would be bad enough if the ice stayed in one place, but crashing around on the ocean wave? Well, that seems like you’re asking for trouble. 

Later that afternoon, and me and Mrs E are walking down to the town, and headed for the cathedral – probably the most jaw-droppingly beautiful bit of architecture you’ll see on these islands, made yet more so by being surrounded on three sides by some pretty brutal hotel towers. On the other side of the road were parked up a fleet of coaches, all marked as pick up points for the MS Symphony of the Seas passengers, so we were able witness first hand a good cross section of those 9,000 people who’d come aboard to sample the wonders of Majorca for a few precious hours. And we did, because we’re nosy like that.

I guess the first thing that I’d comment on would be that the ratio of restaurants and bars to climbing walls seemed a bit generous. Perhaps because the passengers were contrasted against a population who seemed to be cycling, jogging or recovering (remember this was the day after the marathon) along the beachside, they just seemed so, well, unfit. Not just in a corpulent ‘elasticated-waists-have-never-gone-out-of-fashion’ sense, but in genuinely seeming to have a problem with the concept of moving their own bodies without motorised assistance.  There’s a danger of getting a bit fat-cist here, and I don’t really mean to, because the main observation I’d make was much more important – everyone looked so incredibly miserable. Without exception, everyone, puffing away towards those air conditioned bus steps, was grimacing like their cat had just been put down. Which seems perverse, given that they’d been whisked from their floating palace to see the most amazing building on the Balearic Islands, before sauntering down past lush gardens and fountains and up to bright blue water and glittering beaches. What’s more, this, was supposed to be their jolly holidays. 

It costs about £7,500 for a 12 night cruise for 2 from Barcelona to Miami on the MS Symphony of the Seas. This is the equivalent of 3 months salary for the average UK family (which would include anything that said family would put away for their own holidays). Just thought I’d wrap a bit of context there, before I sign off with an inevitable ‘money can’t buy you happiness’ line. It can, however, buy you a go on a 43ft climbing wall. And if you ever find yourself aboard the MS Symphony of the Seas, I reckon that’s free most days.

Adventures on Two Wheels – Lille to Paris – Part 5

We had a couple of refreshing cold drinks in the big square in Châlons-en-Champagne, grabbed something to eat, wandered back to the hotel, without the need for the detailed map, and slept the sleep of Kings. After each eating our body-weight in breakfast the next morning, we started pedaling off in the general direction of Crépy-en-Valois, which would allow us to drop down into Paris the next day.

On paper, this was a pretty straightforward East to West jaunt of about 90 miles, and luckily, Mrs Google Maps agreed. We had a dream of a start, beautiful weather, light tailwind and a great route next to a canal, weaving in and out of Sunday cyclists. Naturally enough, Mrs Google Maps only really allowed us to enjoy this for a couple of miles, before insisting that we cut across the map without actually using a road. Perhaps knowing that she was on her last chance, Mrs GM played an absolute blinder, luring us along a perfectly reasonable track until it was too late to turn back, then shoving us up a one in four hill made entirely of flints the size of your fist.

‘What better place for our first puncture’, I thought to myself, just after CB#2 announced that he’d punctured, and just before Bean told us that we had another 3km of this before we were likely to see any tarmac again.

CB#2 has many of the physical features of the Incredible Hulk, and pretty much the same sense of social grace. One of the reasons he’s such good value on these trips is because he can fix most things without the need for any tools. His fist operates as a reasonable lump hammer, and he can tighten most nuts without a spanner, not to mention whip off a tyre and tube without anything as fiddly as a lever. So at least his tyre was fixed fairly quickly. I was expecting a bit more rage when his rear rack snapped off after some more stupid off road riding, but he was quite relaxed, almost philosophical. Strapping up the remaining rack (to take home for repairs or parts, apparently), he decanted some of his luggage into our panniers, leaving him with a fairly heavy bag and no form of support. CB#1 told me that his money was on CB#2 strapping it to his back, and I half expected to see him  gripping it between his teeth, but he took the option of strapping it on top of his handlebar bag, making his bike completely unstable. It didn’t seem to stop him descending at a ridiculous pace, and his bodged luggage arrangement lasted all the way to Paris, so we survived. Which is more than could be said for his luggage rack, which he removed a little while along the route because it was ‘beginning to annoy’ him. To be fair, if I thought I was beginning to annoy CB#2, then I’d probably hide in a ditch in France until he’d gone away as well.

The jettisoning of CB#2’s rack took place just after we’d got to the bottom of the unmade road. Speaking politely, the way up had been what the mountain bikers would call a ‘technical ascent’ which means that you’re lucky if you don’t fall off, and it was followed by a technical descent, which meant that you’re both lucky and surprised if you don’t fall off. When we finally hit some tarmac a bit further down the route, it was like cycling into a mirage, and we vowed, not for the first or last time on this trip, to never be dragged away from the road again.

A few uneventful, if murderously hot miles later, we rolled into Crepy-en-Valois, a town almost famous for its extensive array of industrial zones, which unfortunately was where I’d booked our hotel for the night. There being very little either moving or shaking on an industrial estate of a Sunday evening, we ventured into town, ending up at le bar de l’Europe, where I was despatched, as head of communications, to order four beers. This I duly did, opting for the ‘standard’ option. Three beers later, we had not only established that Troll ‘standard’ lager is a thirst quenching 7%, but we’d also established a generous entente cordiale with our fellow drinkers, most notably an Algerian man called Muss, who told us that the new French president was a moron, and that Trump was a puppet to money and oil. Or at least, that’s what I think he was saying, we were both beginning to slur a bit. We both made valiant efforts to involve the non-English and non French speaking parts of the bar together, and managed to find a game which I’d recommend to anyone in a similar predicament. Basically, all you have to do, is remember the French (or English) that you were taught when you were at school, and try to have a conversation in both languages. It doesn’t need to make sense, and works better when you’ve had a couple of refreshing Trolls and work really hard on your accent. The sort of snippet you might have heard as you were walking past the bar de l’Europe might have been:

Drunk French Person: “The sky is blue”

Drunk English Person ‘Ici le Professeur”

DFP: “I have forgotten my umbrella”

DEP “Jean-Paul lance le ballon”

Then Muss bought us all another beer, and things went a little downhill. I have vague memories of steering my bike at a reasonable pace down a one way street, eating pizza and then following a mystery route back to the industrial estate, but it’s all a bit cloudy.

The next morning, we had the sort of breakfast that you’d expect from a dodgy hotel in the middle of an industrial estate on a Monday morning, and got away as soon as we could. At a relatively sober part of the evening before, Muss had insisted that we find the Canal d’Orque and go along that into Paris, and we’d agreed to do just that. And, given that a promise made is a promise kept, we tried our best to find the canal, and to our surprise, Mrs GM actually helped us to do so without dragging us across seven shades of off-road hell.

All of which was pretty good, although by the time we got to Paris Gare de Nord we’d had the sort of city riding experience that we all hate, so it was a relief to get to the station without being knocked about by cars, vans, trucks or pedestrians. Got the bikes on the train, got back to London, and back home in time for all the family to coo over my injuries in a curious style. My youngest son took a number of detailed photographs, and I asked him why – he said that he just needed to show some people. Mrs E made a trip to the 24 hour chemist, and stocked up on dressings for the week, thereby showing a care for her husband that he didn’t really deserve, given that he’d selfishly buzzed off without her for for five days.

I’m writing this last part about 3 weeks after we actually got back, and we’re a week into the Tour de France, where they have faster crashes than ours on a daily basis, and often just get up, change their bike and get treated by the team car while they’re riding back to the peleton…..

t.co/utVt8L03Dd

Which is a bit frustrating, as one of the injuries that I got, on my hip, is still steadfastly refusing to heal. Unfortunately, given its position, the only way I can let it get any air to dry out is by walking around the house in an outfit not a million miles from a Borat mankini. So if you’re planning to pop round any time in the next few days, please make sure you phone first.

troll

Adventures on two wheels – Lille to Paris – part four

Châlons-en-Champagne is a beautiful medieval city, it’s the capital of the Marne region, despite being tiny compared to Reims, which is in the same department. It has all the hallmarks of being very French and very medieval, a beautiful central square, lots of timber framed buildings, and peculiar stone bridges over a winding river. But if you start from the centre of the city, and head out towards your hotel for the night, as we did, the medieval-ness very swiftly gives way to more modern buildings, so that by the time you’re a couple of kilometres away you could be in pretty much any modern European town.

Stay at the Hotel Bristol, though, and you’ll find yourself transported to a spotless time capsule of around 1972, and you’ll be greeted with an enthusiasm and attention to detail that’s hard for me to do justice to here. The landlady, who spoke fluent French, German and English, soon ascertained that we were English, so proceeded to give us a guided tour in French, with a few words of German for Bean, who had let slip that he’d learnt a bit of German at school. The level of detail presented was astonishing, and it took about 40 minutes to check in, which must have been a bit frustrating for CB#1 and CB#2, who were minding the bikes outside. I made the mistake of asking the best way to get into town, and was presented with two bus timetables, withe the best routes highlighted. and clear instruction on how to walk to the bus stop just outside the hotel. Then a card for a taxi company and clear directions to whatever restaurant that we were to be to call (under no circumstances should we attempt this call ourselves), and details of the hotel (and security access key) neatly stapled to the back. This in itself took about 10 minutes to explain, plus another 5 for the translation into German for Bean’s ‘benefit’. After checking in, we were shepherded into our rooms where we were given the low down on how to use the shower, the blinds, and (I’m not making this up). the sheets and covers. Bean and I were sharing, so received instructions in French/German, CB#1 and CN#2 had the same experience in their native tongue, which left them equally perplexed.

There were, however, two simply fabulous results for us. Mme Bristol followed up her explanations by delivering all manner of baked goods into our rooms, apparently oblivious to the fact that Bean and I were just wearing bib shorts in order to check each other’s injuries (probably not our best look, I really hope she remembered we were cyclists). After getting showered, I braved a reunion, to ask if there was a pharmacy anywhere nearby. Delightfully, I was told that there was one about 400m away. Although it was actually on the same road as the hotel, a map was drawn, showing local landmarks and several places of interest en route.

With these clear instructions to hand, I limped up the hill to the pharmacy, rehearsing the phrases I’d try to learn from Google Translate. These were, essentially, ‘I am concerned about infection on my wounds’, ‘My left arm appears to be twice its normal size’ and ‘Should I see a Doctor?”.

Getting to the front of the queue, I managed all three sentences in rapid succession to a bemused pharmacist, who clearly didn’t understand my flawless pronunciation, and asked a number of quickfire clarification questions which, of course, I had no hope of understanding. There then followed an uncomfortable pause where we both realised that there was negligible common ground. As far as she was concerned, I may as well have been asking for cough medicine, and, for all I know, she may well have been asking me to exit her shop.

I decided to break the impasse by removing the bandage and showing her my elbow. This brought forth a series of ‘merde’s from both pharmacist and interested customers. Fortunately, it also drew the interest of the second pharmacist. Knowing by now that I was beaten on the language front, I asked if he spoke any English, and he said he knew only a few words. Delightfully, three of those words were ‘Walk this way’, as he beckoned me into a side room. I was very tempted to tell him the joke about the man in the Chemist shop who asks for some vaseline, and the Chemist says ‘Walk this way’. ‘If I could walk that way’, says the customer, ‘I wouldn’t need the vaseline’. The prospect of translating this wasn’t too attractive, and I didn’t really know my audience, so I kept the joke to myself.

Anyway, into the side room, where all dressings were removed, and the ‘merde’s were interspersed with some light tutting. The good news was that there was, apparently, no infection, but that the dressings needed to be sorted out properly. I was assured that my new friend could see to this, and he prepared all manner of new dressings and gauzes for action. He made something of a point of showing me an antiseptic spray, which he said might sting a little. I fear this might have been my mis-translation – having experienced the spray going on, he might acually have said something like ‘this will hurt like a hot iron directly spraying hydrochloric acid onto your wound’ It’s just I’m sure it sounded like ‘sting a little’.

There was a slightly awkward point when I had to pull my pants down for him to patch the wound on my hip. This he did by kneeling next to me and gently placing gauze and plaster next to my groin. Naturally this was the point at which pharmacist #1 came into the room, interpreted the scene for herself, muttered a quick ‘pardon’, and immediately exited.

The whole episode had lasted about 30 minutes, and we went back to the counter, where my new friend showed me on a map where the doctor was, wrote down his number, and told me how to tell if the wound became infected. I told him I was incredibly grateful asked him how much I owed him.

‘C’est gratuit’

I protested, I should at least be paying for the dressings, I said.

‘Non, c’est normal’

I shook his hand. I wanted to kiss him, but I could sense that Pharmacist #2 was giving me daggers.

It was the second time on the trip that we’d been subjected to random acts of kindness. It’s an odd feeling, being on the receiving end of someone being so kind, just because they can be; you feel warm and unworthy at the same time.

With my left arm auditioning for a part in The Invisible Man, I headed back, and on to find a restorative cold drink…

 

 

 

Adventures on two wheels – Lille to Paris – part two

I didn’t see the bump on the path; it was where the tarmac changed to concrete slab, and I would probably have gone over a similar bump a thousand times without any problems.

However, this time, my front wheel had a pretty severe reaction, and popped up violently into the air, probably helped by all the weight on the back wheel. It shot up so sharply that it threw the handlebars out of my hands, and by the time I’d managed to grab them back, the wheel had twisted to one side, and the bike, and me, went over. As the handlebars whizzed up again, I caught sight of my watch, which I remember was reading a very healthy 22 mph. I was fairly pleased with this, but as you can imagine, I had very little chance to congratulate myself before I hit the ground. In fairly rapid succession, I landed on head, hip, elbow, fist and shoulder, and came to rest quite a bit further down the road. I’d seen everything happen in slow-mo, as you do, and as I slid to a halt, I was looking behind me. Rather worryingly, I could see Bean’s front wheel bearing down on me, so I decided I’d be better off with my eyes closed. I waited for the next crash, which, surprisingly, wasn’t with my face.

Bean, with alert reactions that would have been impressive for someone a third of his age, had managed to swerve to avoid me completely. However, he didn’t have a great deal of time to celebrate, as his front wheel then hit a water bottle that had been thrown out of my bike, and he went over as well.

All was quiet, and thankfully, the Chuckle Brothers, who had been cycling a few yards behind, managed to avoid the carnage, and took a victim each.  I don’t remember a massive amount about the next few minutes, other than checking that I could still move everything,  managing to stand up, and noticing quite a bit of blood spilling out of the back of my elbow. With CB#1 taking charge, we used a water bottle to clean up, and some alcohol to clean the wound, which reminded me what pain could really be like. Steristrips were improvised from CB#2’s tape – I’m not sure if these came from a first aid kit or a tool kit, and I didn’t really care. CB#2 had a couple of bandages and dressings which we used to patch up the bits that were bleeding most.

We didn’t have much option but to get pedaling, in the hope that La Louviere would boast some sort of state of the art walk in medical centre with on-site pharmacy and, ideally, a 24 hour on call cycle mechanic. As the next twenty miles dragged by, I’d got it into my head that, at the very least, the hotel would have some sort of first aid kit, and as we rolled gently into town, I’d already rehearsed all of my lines for the conversation with reception.

Unfortunately, those lines never really got used – the hotel that we checked in to had a receptionist who was not really that interested in taking in guests, never mind giving any sort of medical help, although she did look up the nearest pharmacy that would be open. Unfortunately this was 5 miles away, and by the time we got there it would have been shut. I asked if there was somewhere nearer , and got a very impressive gallic shrug.

Fortunately, help was at hand, in the form of Mary. Let’s call her Very Mary for the sake of this narrative. She was very old, and wore a dress that would have suited her better when she was very young. She was very ebullient, and was attached to a very small dog. And she was very, very drunk. Mary had heard the conversation about the chemist, and offered to help. Asking someone to gardez her chien, she set off on foot to find a chemist, which I thought was quite courageous, but then realised she’d just popped round the corner, to see if knocking loudly on the local chemist’s door might persuade them to adjust their opening hours. She returned a few minutes later, and said ‘merde’ a few times while executing today’s second perfect gallic shrug.

We decided to have a beer, partly in the hope that it might deaden the pain a bit. As chief communications officer, I was dispatched to order the beer, so back into the hotel I went, where behind me, my left arm started to cause quite a commotion. Unfortunately, the makeshift bandage had failed to stem the bleeding, and I was merrily chucking blood out all over the barroom floor. This stirred Very Mary into both temper and action, and shouting ‘merde’ again a few more times, she shot out of the bar, around the corner to the chemist, to see if banging more loudly on the door would be more effective. Apparently it wasn’t, and she returned, crestfallen, a few minutes later, inexplicably carrying half a dozen eggs. We had a further conversation, involving more merde/shrugging, and Very Mary concluded that this was simply not how visitors to Belgium should be feeling. She then announced that she was going to go home, and raced (in a fairly uncoordinated style), out of the bar, leaving behind her dog, her eggs, and a faint smell of Pernod.

We decided to wait for Very Mary, although there really wasn’t any clue as to when, or whether, she would return. But one beer and 30 minutes later, she appeared again, with a large paper bag, which turned out to contain a variety of gauzes, pads and bandages. As it turned out, this was exactly what we needed, and I don’t think we could have been more grateful. We bought Mary a beer to say thanks, and unfortunately she seemed to interpret this as a bit of a come-on, also encouraged by us telling her that it was CB#1’s birthday. CB#1 is very much the eye-candy of the four of us (although he doesn’t have much in the way of competition) and it all started to get a bit uncomfortable, as we had a number of lines from anniversary songs, followed by the sort of ‘Grrrr’ animal noises that you might hear in an Austin Powers film, and finally some whispered exchanges between Very Mary and her friend, who, like many of the people we were beginning to meet, seemed to have appeared out of nowhere. If you can imagine someone with the face of Freddie Starr, the skin colour of Dale Winton, the body of HM the Queen, and the dress sense of Madonna c1990, you’ll get a general idea of what Very Mary’s friend looked like.

All this was getting a bit intimidating, so I explained in French to Very Mary and her friend that I needed to take a shower. Their bloodshot eyes seem to light up for a moment as they nudged each other, and I had to explain that this was in order to sort out my wounds, and not an open invitation. Then I explained my plans in English to CB#1, who immediately responded that there was no way that he was being left in the bar with those two. Fortunately, I don’t think Very Mary was paying attention, otherwise she might have taken offence.

I hope this doesn’t come across as ungrateful. I’m incredibly thankful that a complete stranger in a strange town took pity on a wounded idiot. And I do wonder, had that been Belgian cyclists wandering into an English hotel, whether they’d have had anything, or anyone, like this as a rescue.

Bean and myself shared out gauzes and bandages between us and got patched up. We even managed to get something to eat. Not a very auspicious start to five days of relaxed cycling, and we were full of trepidation for the miles ahead. As it turned out, we were right to be concerned…

Adventures on Two Wheels – Lille to Paris – Part One

Off again for another adventure, this time into France and Belgium. We’ve been going cycling in June for a few years now, and settled into a fairly relaxed approach of cycling stupid distances with limited preparation, sta​ying ​in cheap hotels that rarely fail to disappoint, and generally enjoying what the cycle paths of Europe can offer us.

We normally assign roles at the start of the journey, which this year were as follows:

  • Myself – head of communications, largely driven by my pitifully small knowledge of the french language, but compensated by what I consider to be one of the best French accents in Norfolk, and a full set of Gallic hand gestures
  • Mr Bean – head of navigation – as he had not only an iPhone with google maps, but a data plan that worked, headphones to take instruction from the phone, and an array of batteries that could keep us, or a small village, going for a ​matter of days
  • Chuckle Brother #1 – the voice of reason, and deputy in both communications and navigation
  • Chuckle Brother #2 – chief mechanic and head of security. More on CB#2’s particular talents later

Our bicycles for the journey were prepared as ever with some care – they tend to be road bikes, adjusted to within a fraction of a millimetre to deliver the fastest and most aerodynamic riding position, but then loaded down with not only a rider but panniers holding five days worth of clothes, energy bars, spare parts and whatever else it takes to get the four of us from point to point.

As a result, our perfectly balanced machines end up handling pretty much as you’d expect​,​ if you attached the weight of two fairly hefty infants over the back wheel, and one over the handlebars. You have to be a bit careful of this lack of stability, as it means that your super lightweight bike ends up being both super heavy and completely unstable. And if your route takes you away from a road, then you have even more of a challenge…

Anyway, after a ridiculously early start, we arrived in Lille, and, to our surprise were reunited with our bikes, which, due to some odd complications in the way that Eurostar works, had made their own way there. The plan was to get out of Lille and head for Belgium, so Bean fired up google maps and we set off on the exciting prospect of exiting a large ​French city and not getting separated or injured.

The Lille town planners have done a top job in ensuring that all the main roads have cycle lanes, but unfortunately there are two separate systems, which may well be because of funding and the way that local government takes decisions. It’s almost as if one city council decided to have their bike lanes on the inside of the street , with cars and lorries hurtling by outside the cyclist, then either ran out of money, or power, or both, and another council ca​me in and decided it was a much better idea​ to have the bike lanes on the outside ​of the road. Consequently there is a bizarre series of chicanes, where you swap from inside to outside, and vice versa, in the opposite direction to the cars and lorries. You’d think this would be ridiculously dangerous for all parties, wouldn’t you? Well, you’d be right.

We managed to get out of Lille in one piece, and started pedaling in the general direction of Belgium, and the specific direction of La Louviere, about 70 miles away. Google maps did a reasonably good job at first, taking us on little roads across the countryside and all was reasonably well. After about 10 miles of this, we discovered a bit of a flaw in google maps’ cycle routing software. To explain, here is a diagram showing a bicycle, ideal for touring the roads of Europe:

Image (64)

And here is a diagram showing what google maps thinks is a bicycle:

Image (63)

Really, some of the routes that google maps took us in were ridiculous – I don’t think you’d want to walk along most of them if you had a choice – here’s a picture of one of the more manageable ones (you can tell that from the fact that the bikes are upright):

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Turning from a crumbling shale road onto another unmade track, CB#1 celebrated his birthday by falling off, although his bike had slowed by the time he went over, due to his front wheel disappearing into a gravel trench. As a result, it was one of those comedy falls that take place at negligible speed. However, comedy moment or not, nobody laughed. It was just the first fall, after all, and like punctures, you don’t want to laugh too loudly as it’ll be your turn next.

Eventually, we managed to find a road, and then into Belgium, where we hooked up with the Ravel bike network, which, all things considered, is a thing of wonder – a network of bike routes across Belgium, mainly on converted railway tracks and canal paths, but with a bit of consideration for the cyclist as well. We got onto the Ravel canal path at about 40 miles, and by 50 miles we were flying along, no other bikes on the path, nice flat tarmac and a slight crosswind. In a ‘this is the life I was keen to lead’ style, I decided to get to the front of the group and see how fast I could comfortably go, and, to my surprise, and possibly because we’d been messing about for so long getting to this point, felt pretty good as we got up to 20mph. At 52 miles, I looked at my watch and we were hitting 21mph, and at 53 miles we were easily hitting 22 mph. Nothing too exciting for a road cyclist, but a fair lick for a touring pace. The canal shimmered lightly as we whizzed past coal barges, and the birds were tweeting their merry Flemish songs in the trees to the other side of the path. All was very right with the world.

And then something horrible happened…

 

 

The mutt’s nuts (part two)

In our last exciting instalment, we left Solomon, a sweet adolescent dog (regarded by Mrs E very much as her fifth son, and treated with more devotion than any of the previous four), nervously anticipating a trip to the vets to remove any opportunities to create little Solomons in the future.

As we could easily have predicted, he wasn’t keen on the exercise at all, and started whimpering softly as the car pulled in to the vets, the scene of previous anti-emetics and painful injections. Mournfully he looked up at Mrs E, as if to say “Why Me?”. Mrs E, however, was probably thinking that if the exercise went well, she might investigate a similar exercise on certain of Solomon’s four predecessors.

We picked him up later that day, and he was more pleased to see us than, say, a dog with two tails. There was also a soldierly air about him that said ‘Oh this old scar, don’t worry, it’s not bothering me at all’. He was a bit like my friend M, who is a carrot farmer, and had a vasectomy scheduled one morning during harvest, so made it very clear that he needed to be right back on the tractor in the afternoon. Which he was.

However, Norfolk dogs need to be treated with a certain more care than Norfolk farmers, it would appear, and so Solomon was restricted to lead walks for a week so as to avoid pulling his stitches out, something which he found slightly irritating. And even more irritating when, after a couple of these, Luna found that she could wind him up by running full pelt at him from behind, bumping into him. then sprinting off into the distance. It reminded me very much of David Gower in a biplane at a test match, or, if early 1990’s cricket references aren’t your kind of thing, Dawn French in ‘Whatever happened to Baby Dawn’ (specifically around 4:50 on this clip, but if you’ve not seen this before, do watch the whole thing, at least three times) :

http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x2ndp6c

After a week of this, Solomon and Mrs E had had quite enough (although I think Luna could have kept going happily for a couple more months), and he was let off the lead, with no negative issues for either scars or stitches. At which point, on pretty much every walk, Luna spent a lot of time barking at him to calm down.

Some months ago, Mrs E told me that she would definitely need a final celebration of her special birthday year, which I dutifully booked. I opted for a romantic weekend, a mere skip and a jump from the Peak District hotel where we spent our wedding night (an evening, that, for reasons I’ll tell you about another time, was spent with Emlyn Hughes, and which, as a consequence, is marred in my memory by a ridiculously voice calling out “3:1! 3:1 we won that day” at a pitch that Solomon would have heard even more acutely than we did). However, the romance of the birthday break was soon to dissipate, as it became clear that this was primarily a weekend for Solomon to recuperate, and start his genital-free life anew.

Fortunately, the romantic cottage we’d booked was declared ‘dog friendly’ on the web, we quickly ordered a book called something like ‘Suitable Walks for Freshly Neutered Dogs in Derbyshire’, and set off for a gentle adventure.

A couple of weeks earlier, I’d spent some time in the company of an estate agent, with a challenging taste in business wear and a generous weekly allowance for hair product, who told me that the estate agent’s best friend was the wide angle lens. I was reminded of this conversation as we walked into the cottage, and soon found the ground floor fully occupied simply by closing the front door. There were quite a few sideways and backwards moves required in order to navigate the process of preparing a meal, not entirely helped by the dogs not having a reverse gear. This picture will give you an idea of the starting position.

puzzle-image

Anyway, we were met by the very friendly, and fortunately, quite thin, cottage owner, who wedged her way into the porch to give us some advice, which included the news that the dogs would not be allowed upstairs, despite the stairs being completely open. With a nimbleness afforded only by many years of yoga and aerobics classes, Mrs E manoeuvred her way from position 3 to 12, with very little injury to either dog, and made it clear to our hostess (now resident at position 14), that there was no way that her little darlings were going to be kept downstairs in a strange house, no matter how cosy. Fortunately, a major diplomatic incident was avoided, as our hostess squeezed across to position 15, inspected the dogs, and declared (seriously) that they had short enough hair for this not to be an issue.

Having scored the first moral victory of the day, we all trooped upstairs, to investigate the ‘compact and bijou’ bedroom with some interest, finding just about enough room for two carefully folded dogs on my side of the bed.

Unfortunately, this arrangement was to spell the end of romance and very much the start of pampered recuperation. Solomon’s recent operation had, for some reason, altered his body clock to be wide awake at odd hours of the night. It had also given him a healthy appetite, and interestingly, an enthusiasm for all sorts of excrement littered across the Derbyshire countryside. He had a particular penchant for Sheep shit, but was also partial to a bit of Cow and Horse. As a result, his breath absolutely stank. He is probably oblivious to a combination of halitosis, farm animal excrement and gingivitis, but it’s hard to ignore when it’s delivered at 2 in the morning directly onto your mouth. Telling him to lay down and turning your back doesn’t really work either, unless your idea of a wake-up call is being rimmed by an enthusiastic puppy five minutes later. I mentioned this to Mrs E, who made it clear that her empathies were all with the dog. Anyway, all things considered, I prefer a snooze button.

Anyway, Solomon certainly seemed to have received the message that this holiday was for him, and him alone, and subsequently lorded it over all and sundry. I suspect he’s over compensating, as, if anything, his chest is puffed up even higher than ever, but at least he’s stopped humping animate and inanimate objects without warning. He seems pretty relaxed, if his sleeping position is anything to go by:


And if he winds me up, I just whisper ‘Jaffa’ in his ear. He doesn’t necessarily understand, as, being Hungarian, the finer points of British slang can be lost on him, but it makes me feel much better.