Maybe it’s something about the way we interact

When I was young, it was the Cold War. If we were going to be annihilated, it would be by the press of a button by an anonymous authority figure in Moscow, or London, or Washington or Beijing. It was a structured kind of terror. We watched the media, controlled by governments and big business, and were told, on a day-by-day basis, what our chances of survival were. We grew up with it. We were used to it. We knew our voice counted for nothing – it would be decided by powers way beyond our individual control.

Then the Berlin Wall came down, and for a lovely decade, it seemed like the world had become a safer place (unless you lived in the Balkans or Sierra Leone). The internet was born. People could suddently communicate around the world, without the need for governmental power and infrastructure. Universal peace became a near certainty.

Today, we know a different kind of world. Everyone can communicate with everyone. Online, people tear strips off others whom they have never, physically, met, using powerful, terrible threats and insults. Unlike the world of the 1980s, people can now engage in their own, transcontinental conflict.

This is the situation which can be exploited by anyone who wishes to use global (and anonymous) interconnectivity to escalate and promote conflict. We see it in the astonishingly successful internet campaigns of Muslim extremists. Young people do not know much about the long-term cost of conflict, and are therefore easily swayed to join in any fight for “justice” that appeals to their desire for integrity. For religious people, this can manifest itself in a zeal which can be exploited by cynical elders to recruit the energies of young into the cause of their own bids for power. The easy equation: integrity = commitment = absolutism is not just the preserve of Islam: it’s the case for any religion or cause which feeds on an appeal to some transcendent power, be it divine or nationalistic.

I am now in my 50s. I have been a Christian since birth and, since my teens, have been committed to the Christian faith. I know (and remember) the power of the youthful desire for integrity and purity of cause. I remember my desire for God which could eclipse lesser caution, instilled from my elders. The young are easy targets for any form of extremism: religious, nationalist or whatever. When we are young, we want some sense of purity, of integrity, or absolute direction.

I have known the appeal of the purity of the absolute; I have known the desire to be wholly committed, irrespective of the cost. But as you age, other things come into play. Bringing up children makes you realise a unifying identity as a human being. You start to empathise with other parents, irrespective of differences of culture, or creed, or philosophy. As your own children become adults, you watch other parents and children as they struggle to bring forth a new generation: you empathise, you recognise, you remember your own experiences, and … with time … you realise a unity within all human experience.

The internet has brought the possibility of the dissemination of hate, under the guise of purity. It allows those who wish to, to exploit youthful desire under the guise of religion, nationality or “justice”. Young people are looking for something to give their lives to, to commit to, to place their energies behind. It’s a romantic vision and it’s enormously powerful. But this youthful energy can be the undoing of the human race, when it is not united with a sense of our own frailty, fallibility and sheer value. When a Palestinian child is killed by the sophisticated weaponry of the Israeli army, it’s easy for a young Palestinian to convert this enormity into a reaction which delights in the taking of other, equal and young human Israeli life. But an older perspective realises that both actions are defeats, on the wider, human scale.

The immediacy of the internet allows quick reactions and judgements to be made, public stances to be paraded and easy alliances forged. It’s the best breeding ground for heating up any kind of conflict. The internet, rather than fostering an age of peace and growing tolerance, as we had hoped in the 1990s, is being exploited by its users as an incubator for the worst forms of human intolerance, revenge, posturing and recruitment towards violence that has been seen since the crusades. The internet demonstrates, in clear terms, the nature of the human condition. “All of life is there …”

As I grow older, I become all too aware of the weaknesses, as well as the strengths of committing oneself to a particular faith. But I remain in this faith. The reason I do this, is that it has taught me to recognise – to not to be in denial – about my own frailties. The longer I have been a Christian, the more I have had to reckon with my own weaknesses, my own propensity for failure and my tendency or potential to hurt others. I certainly do not feel (if I ever felt) a superiority of my own faith position over that of others (be they of another faith or of no faith). All I feel is a sense of human solidarity with all people who are around on this planet at the moment, and a strong sense of unworthiness that I should share in the privilege and wonder of living the gift that is life. So it is from this, somewhat humbled postion, that I believe, with all my heart, in the need for human beings to reckon, humbly, with their own limitations, and to reckon, kindly and sympathetically, with the limitations of their enemies. In short, this means loving both our friends and our enemies. This love, when we discover it, is nothing short of a revelation and transforms us as human beings. We become more compassionate. We cry easily. We love wildly. We run the risk of peace, even if it makes us look like fools.

This, in Christian terms, is called “the Kingdom of God”, which is an idea which lies at the heart of the Christian vision. It’s a place where people learn to forgive the failings of others, as they discover their own failings to have been forgiven. Where love is greater than anything else. Where God is not “owned” by any faith, but is allowed to be God as God truly is. Where people are set free from the tyranny of “being right” into being loved and being loving instead.

At a time when the news seems to be so negative, I want to affirm that I believe in this vision of the universe, and – in love – I want to celebrate it with others, irrespective of their faith, their belief or their politics.

I hope that this vision comes to pass. Because, although the old superpowers are now a history lesson, the power to destruction that they represented is still there, and much sought-after. I pray that this love, this forgiveness, this generosity would break out across our globally-connected humanity, if only for our own survival. For the alternative is as bad, if not more tragic, than the horror that faced us in the 1980s.

Is it time to call time on General Synod 1.0?

This month’s meeting of the General Synod is not so much about whether women will be allowed to become bishops in the immediate future, as whether the Synod in its current form has any credibility. In November 2012, the same basic question was before it. Prior to those sessions, all forty-four dioceses making up the Church of England had been consulted. All, bar three, had supported the measure, most by very large majorities; yet, still, the legislation failed to pass the House of Laity. At the time, I suggested that the current Synod was clearly “broken” in that it failed to act in a way which reflected the “mind of the Church”. This was why I proposed that Diocesan Synods pass motions of no confidence, in the wake of the vote. Bristol Diocesan Synod went ahead and passed a modified form of my proposals, but the news was soon out that a bid to return the legislation in the life of the present Synod was afoot, so the idea stopped there.

Of course, if the legislation fails again on Monday, Synod will probably be in a worse place in terms of both Church and public opinion. Parliament may choose to introduce legislation – as it still has the powers to govern the Church by Act should it wish to do so; and I think were Synod to fail to reflect the view of the Church of England so unanimously reflected at diocesan level, then there would be few Church voices raised in protest by such a move by the State. So if the vote goes “no”, it will be beyond dispute that the Church’s current system of synodical government has broken down. However, even if the legislation is voted through, I would suggest that the current system is irredeemably discredited in Church circles and beyond.

The current problems

The most obvious problem is with the House of Laity. The members are elected by Deanery Synod members, who themselves are elected by PCCs at the annual church meeting. Most parishes struggle to get people to sit on Deanery Synod, partly because it means several extra evening meetings per year, and partly because everyone knows that most Deanery Synod meetings are like watching paint dry (whilst doing so in a cold church or a damp church hall). As a result, the electorate of the General Synod House of Laity is made up of a combination of the pressganged, the crusading and the accidental, as cartoonist Dave Walker’s picture of a PCC illustrates. Nevertheless, one doesn’t need to be a Deanery Synod member to stand for General Synod. The second, compounding problem is that General Synod meets on weekdays. This inevitably means that the House of Laity contains an unrepresentative and large number of the retired, the elderly and those whose professions allow them to attend during working hours (lawyers and doctors are over-represented professions, for example). There are some House of Laity members (God bless them) who take paid or unpaid leave to attend, but one has to concede that this sacrifice is a huge political disincentive. The third problem is the turnover of members: many among the House of Laity have been members for decades, and to this is added the phenomenon of the “senior figure”, ie. a person who has the time and some motivation to get on lots of committees and to exert considerable influence over process and other members, simply because they are known well and know the system. Of course, among the House of Laity are many outstanding members, many whose professional stature gives them valuable insight into the affairs of the Church and its mission. But representative of the rank and file of the Church, the House of Laity is not. As the debate over women bishops has proved, this is affecting the Church’s reputation and its responsiveness to the challenges of contemporary mission.

Things could be somewhat improved by minor changes in the Church Representation Rules, which govern who can stand and who can vote for General Synod members. It would be entirely possible to synchronise a General Synod election with the season of annual parochial church meetings (APCMs), so that ballots can be held in the local church with all electoral roll members eligible. It is possible for the process to be divided up among parishes, with each parish having a local ballot to determine which candidates get its electoral vote or votes. The pros and cons of various systems are familiar ground to political scientists. But one thing is clear: the electorate needs to change. The current system reflects a pre-internet state of affairs, and dates back, in the main, to systems which were set up with the Church Assembly as long ago as 1919. This is what I mean by “General Synod 1.0″ – we’ve been stuck at various minor versions of that model for nearly a century. Society and Church have both moved on, especially in the past twenty years with the digital revolution.

The reason for meeting during the week seems to be the need to keep the total number of meetings (and, hence, travel expenses) down, which pushes up the number of days a single meeting requires to complete the business. The July meeting takes place over a weekend (with a grand communion at York Minster taking half a day), but still spills over as far as the following Tuesday. The answer is obvious: to have a smaller, more representative General Synod meeting more frequently at weekends. The current size of the General Synod is nearly 500 people, and, since any reduction requires the consent of the Synod, rather unsurprisingly it has resisted cutting its own size down to something more cost effective (let us say 300 members). A much smaller synod could then afford, say, five rather than three meetings per year, held at weekends. At a stroke, this would open membership of the House of Laity up to a far wider range of adults. But the deeper problem is that General Synod, as presently constituted, is unlikely to agree anything radical about its nature. Turkeys don’t usually vote for Christmas. If it is capable of bringing the Church into public derision and disrepute by its acts in November 2012, I don’t hold out much hope of its ability to self-reform. Again, we’re stuck by the functionality of “General Synod 1.0″. Perhaps State intervention may be the only way, although as a theologian, I’d rather hope not.

A total rethink?

But are the above proposals merely tweaking with something that needs a more radical change? General Synod is a democratic machine, designed in the twentieth century, in the era of High Modernity. It came into being during a government headed by David Lloyd George that had shown it was quite willing to step in to govern when the Church seemed resistant to the wider political will (as, in part, it had already done with the disestablishment of the Welsh dioceses in an Act of 1911). Above all, the Church needed to prove the relevance and integrity of its own systems of decision-making if it was to continue to command respect (and a subsequent lack of tampering) by the secular state. The mood-music of 1919 shaped a model which has been with us since. That same mood-music is around us once again.

Although the above proposals could make things somewhat better than they presently are, a much better step would be to commission a widespread review of the present system, Synod 1.0, especially in the context of recent problems and the need to engage a wider sense of commitment by very people the House of Laity are meant to represent. This would be a task for theologians (for the task of Synod is to gather together to discern the mind of the Holy Spirit in considering matters of governance and legislature), political scientists (for the method of discerning the mind of the Spirit remains a human task for a human system), representatives of the present Synod, and, especially, those who are presently most disenfranchised: the younger laity and those who have contractual or immoveable Monday-Friday job commitments.

A rethink about General Synod also needs to address a wider set of questions about how the whole nature of democracy is changing in the digital age. Although there is still no consensus about what secular systems of government can or ought to do to address this, the same issue affects younger lay people within the Church of England. If the Church wants to stem the exodus of young people, which has been seriously affecting it for the past thirty years, then proposing models where young voices can be seen to shape directly its teaching, worship, operations and beliefs would be a step in the right direction.

So let us have that review. And then, if General Synod cannot put its own “House” in order, it may be appropriate for the State to do something about it and bring in Synod 2.0 whether Synod 1.0 likes it or not.

Getting out more: in retrospect

So the Crosscountry train in which I’m sitting is flying along the tracks, carrying me home. There’s time to gather random thoughts together. Every long distance trip teaches its own lessons, so what were mine?

The first is that I was underestimating my level of fitness: the easy first day was probably wise, but, distance-wise, days 2 and 3 were a bit too short. I was arriving shortly after 2pm, so unless serious hills are involved, I should be aiming at 55 miles plus per day from day 2.

The second is that I need to revise my prediction of road conditions along the following lines: if a B-road is straight, and there isn’t something bigger in parallel, then traffic will be fast, if not heavy.

Thirdly, in retrospect, I think it should have avoided the Rochdale Canal route out of Manchester, gone around the eastern hillside edges of the city instead, then joined the canal at Littleborough. Sustrans really should think about declassifying the Manchester city stretches of the route, which are substandard – although there are some wonderful mill buildings between Manchester and Rochdale, especially at Failsworth. Still, I’m fit enough to make more use of small hill roads than I did, and as a result I probably missed more countryside in days 4 and 5 than I needed.

Fourthly, I’m really glad I forked out for those Schwalbe tyres – there were no punctures, and hardly any mechanical problems at all (just the aforementioned spoke-tightening and an adjustment of the front deraillier limiting screws to stop the chain rubbing at bottom gear).

Fifthly, my 27-year-old tourer remains as good as I can imagine for this kind of trip. The renewed power-train with its wide gearing ratios proved absolutely adequate for the variety of terrain and the load carrying. I’m very lucky to have it. If I were doing a longer, international tour with camping gear, I’d need something different, but what I have suits my choices just fine.

Lastly, I certainly need to get out like this more often. I last toured in 2010, which is too long ago. At my age, I need more, not less of this kind of physical challenge. I also love this kind of solitude: notwithstanding the blogging and social media in the evenings, I’ve been on my own with only my thoughts and tunes going round in my head for most of the past six days. It’s a good way of being me to myself, and I actually quite like my own company – which is reassuring…

… But enough for now.

Getting out more: Final Day

I hadn’t advance-planned today’s route because I wanted to know how yesterday’s had gone before determining gradients vs busyness of roads. I decided to avoid taking the most direct route, which would have run right through Bradford and Leeds via some horribly busy roads. The only alternative was over some high ground.

Leaving at 8.30am I dropped back down for a short run of the Rochdale canal until I reached Hebden Bridge. Here I had a proper breakfast and coffee. Last night’s hostel, Mankinholes, is fairly basic by today’s standards, so I had to self-cater. Again, this has weight implications, so I kept it simple with a Chicken Korma ready meal and some apple pies. Tea was made with communal tea bags and no milk.

Given its isolated location, I was expecting the hostel to have very basic internet too (eg. Wifi translated to morse code, transmitted down to the next valley, then the text transcribed by a quill pen onto scrap paper, tied around the neck of a ferret, sent down a long pipe, ferret captured, translated back to TCP/IP then routed onto the main internet). In fact it had no internet, but the village was right next to a TV tower which had 3G repeaters on it, so my phone internet worked brilliantly.

Hebden Bridge is a tad ‘boheeemian’, due to the numbers of hippies who settled here in the 1960s and 1970s. The locals are pretty up-market these days too. The only hippies I saw were living in houseboats on the canal a mile upstream. After coffee in the town, I couldn’t put it off anymore. It was time to climb the Pennines. The A6033 out of the town climbs steadily onto Oxenhope Moor. It’s a quiet road and most drivers were being extra careful because of the mist. The temperature had significantly dropped overnight and the weather had a winter feel to it. I arrived in Oxenhope, then Haworth, pleasantly relieved that the climb was quite bearable. The run on to Keighley was also quite straightforward.

Ever since I’d joined the Rochdale canal I had been passing a good number of old mill buildings. These are a major part of the architectural heritage of the North. The ones in Manchester, in particular, have a penchant for emulating elements of Italian architecture. The power houses of these mills, where the main steam engines were located, are particularly ornate. Yet sadly, many of the amazing buildings are semi-derelict, having been run for various purposes since they were abandoned by the textiles industry. This is as much true for Yorkshire mills as Lancashire mills. At Keighley, I saw my last large mill buildings of the journey.

Another feature of this area is the number of old Methodist churches. During the Commonwealth, following the Civil War, the Church of England was effectively abolished for the best part of twelve years, when diversity of religion was tolerated and even encouraged. With the return of Charles II and the re-establishment of the Church of England, established religion had very limited hold on some of the isolated Pennines communities. As a result, a century later, John Wesley found the Northern Pennines particularly fertile ground for his evangelical preaching. The result is that, for West Yorkshire and North East Lancashire, Methodism was the majority religion until its very steep decline that has occurred since the 1960s. I passed more closed and converted Wesleyan chapels than open ones on my bike.

Another feature I kept noticing was the number of open or closed co-operative stores. This part of the country is the heart of the co-operative movement. Despite the recent problems with the co-op bank, the movement and its principles bear further study. Sharing capital for the greater good is strongly linked to the social conscience of the 19th century Methodist evangelicals.

The route from Keighley to Otley over Bingley Moor looked easier on the map, but in actual fact it was much tougher going. The gradients were acute at times, which may explain why this area is chosen for the Yorkshire stretch of the Tour de France this coming summer. As I struggled with the gradient, the wind and mist were joined by a steady drizzle.

Once I reached Otley, I knew that I had cleared the Pennines and looked forward to an easier route across the Vale of York. With this in mind, and also to compensate for the drizzle turning into steady rain, I did one of my calculations at the Half Moon in Pool in Warfedale that I could allow a pint with lunch. Eventually, with the weather no better, this turned into two pints, in what turned out to be a very enjoyable lunch break.

In fact, there were still quite a few undulations between Pool and Weatherby, which was quite hard going. After Weatherby, what looked like a quiet B1224 runs a fairly level and straight route to York. In fact, this road proved to be the “Weatherby to York race track”, but mercifully there were few lorries.

York is the end of my journey. I pulled in front of the Minster at 4.45pm which gave me time to pray a thank you prayer for my safety and for all the strangers I met on the journey, as I knelt before the sacrament in the quiet Zouche Chapel. Tomorrow I board a fast train back to Bristol.

Distance 57.73 miles.
Total trip distance 268 miles.

Soundtrack: Kate Bush, Wuthering Heights

Getting out more: Day 4

Today started with the mist slowly being burnt off the hills of the White Peak by a surprisingly powerful sun for 8.30am. Starting back on the track bed of the Tissington Trail was a nice way of easing myself into the journey, as I wanted to conserve my strength and the railway gradients are wonderful. I get a bit pensive a few miles up the track at Parsley Hay as it was here that my maternal grandfather, a steam locomotive driver, was killed by slipping from the footplate. It was all before I was born, but it’s a serious place, nevertheless. The trail peters out a bit further on, as the
Dowlow Quarry still has track laid through to Buxton and so the rail bed becomes railway.

To conserve time, I decided to go onto the A515 which I could see was fairly quiet, rather than remaining on NCN68. For cycle touring, I have a complex relationship with the Sustrans Ntional Cycle Network. It’s a wonderful asset, making Britain a more cycle-friendly place, but on a tour it has its pros and cons. The pros are obvious: the routes are either car-free completely, or very quiet small roads. The cons are more diverse — first, the NCN route from A to B isn’t normally the most direct one; after all, this isn’t what they’re trying to do. But in some cases it favours traffic free to the point where it goes all over the houses (witness Route 4’s stretch from Compton Greenfield to the Severn Bridge). This is also the case for gradient in hilly areas, where the NCN may take the route over high ground, rather than round it. Again, this can be bad news with a heavily loaded bike. Lastly, NCN make no guarantees about the quality of the surface, and in many cases this can be akin to a mountain bike track and bad news for a road bike. I once remember being ‘committed’ to traversing a stretch of NCN in Carmarthenshire which went over about four miles of sharp rubble. (More on this issue later).

The A515 was fine at that time and I was in Buxton for coffee at 10am. I had then deliberately planned the route to take me down (well, up and down) memory lane, to ‘do’ Long Hill which runs from Buxton to Whaley Bridge, which has a wonderful 5 mile descent with wonderful views of the Goyt Valley. Of course, first of all you have to do the pull up to the summit, but Buxton’s altitude is significantly higher than Whaley, so I was really “cashing-in” yesterday’s rather tiring haul from The Trent to the southern Peak District. The run was exhilarating and is the kind of reason why I love cycle touring. Just before leaving the moorland, I heard the cry of a Lapwing in the distance. The snag with Long Hill is after that the most direct route I needed to take was the A6. I’ve cycled along that stretch many times, so I sacrificed tranquillity for a level route and a reasonably direct one. By 12.30pm, I was cycling the streets of South Manchester, where I once lived.

I was able to briefly meet up with my daughter (another cyclist) outside her university building, then lunch at the wonderful Eighth Day Cooperative – one of the best veggie cafés in Britain.

My route now led north and the traffic-volume verses topography dilemma raised itself again. The Pennines are scored by narrow valleys, down which run – typically – a trunk road with lorries, a railway line and a canal. In some parts there are no quiet lanes traversing the range in a north-south direction, and my route lay north-east of Manchester. The solution to the traffic problem is to take NCN66, which runs along the towpath of the Rochdale Canal between Manchester and Halifax. While it’s legal to cycle on any canal towpath in the UK, I would normally avoid doing this because the towpath surface usually requires a mountain bike because of litter, bumps and big cobbles at locks. But I reasoned that if the Rochdale’s towpath was the NCN66, there would be some enhancement to the surface. After all, normal towpaths don’t usually have NCN designation.

Well, if there was any enhancement, it was on a tight budget! It’s really a track, with all the usual detritus of canal towpaths. Just as well I had fitted those Schwalbe Marathon Pluses – no punctures, but I hate putting my 700c road wheels through that kind of punishment. And my route along the canal was about 20 miles, from Manchester City Centre, through Rochdale to the edge of Todmorden, just inside West Yorkshire. Poor wheels.

Canals are their own testimony to local history and social culture. The stretch from the centre of Manchester passed through a desolate inner-city ring, where everything was either derelict or demolished, but with little sign of reconstruction. The canal at this stretch seems to act as the North East Manchester fly tipping centre. It also seems poorly dredged too. I only saw three boats in that stretch. Then there come the more countrified bits, where local residents exploit their gardens which back onto the canal with home-made decking terraces enabling a waterside leisure experience. There were lots of geese, which hissed at me as I passed. Narrow clearance under bridges meant that I had to take care balancing, especially over cobbles, to avoid going over the canal side. The quality of the track surface was at its worst in North Manchester, at one point being just an unsurfaced footpath through meadow. From Rochdale onwards, it was more consistent and better. By 5pm I was at the canal’s summit north of Littleborough. By 5.30pm, I left the towpath and ascended a steep hill to the little, isolated village where my youth hostel lay.

In this part of Yorkshire, they go in for worrying place names, like Heckmondwike, Mytholmroyd and, in my case, Mankinholes. You’ll be glad to know that, since I arrived, I haven’t seen any blokes around wearing ill-advised underwear.

Getting out more: Day 3

Today is a bit of a “nothing to report” day, partly, I suspect because I did today’s run with John last July – so there were few surprises. The route ran from South Leicestershire (just north of the A5 for you motorists out there) through Ashby de la Zouch (great name, plus castle) through Repton in South Derbyshire. Repton advertises itself as the ancient capital of Mercia, but its main claim to fame is its large, rather top-notch public school, which now dominates the northern part of this small town. One of its headmasters, Geoffrey Fisher, went on to become Archbishop of Canterbury (1945-1961). It also gives its name to Hubert Parry’s hymn tune, which is commonly used to accompany the words of ‘Dear Lord and Father of Mankind’, the later verses of a poem by the Quaker, John Greenleaf Whittier. The story of how this came about was the subject of a delightful BBC Radio 4 documentary broadcast last year. The hymn tune was given the name of the school, because the idea of putting the two together was that of George Gilbert Stocks, who was director of music at the school in the 1920s. Parry had died of the Spanish ‘Flu in 1918. Repton and Jerusalem remain Parry’s most famous works.

At some point, when you’re cycling north through England, you have to reckon with the River Trent. I crossed it just north of Repton. There followed a gradual climb up from the Trent valley into the southern peaks, which I found surprisingly tiring. I also had my first mechanical snag, which entailed stopping to tighten a few loose spokes on my old front wheel. It now doesn’t make any irritating clunking noises and I also fancy it’s a bit more efficient – maybe just me. A brief stop in Ashbourne, then I was off on the final leg of the journey, via the Tissington Trail (the old Buxton to Ashbourne LNWR railway line) then a brief detour to Hartington youth hostel where I am staying the night. Miles travelled today: 54. Total so far: 146. Tomorrow is going to be a big ride…

The Route

The Soundtrack

Getting out more: Day 2

Finding a cycle route north from the northern tip of the Cotswolds to the southern part of Leicestershire is rather tricky, as there is a band between Coventry and Birmingham which is very built-up. What roads there are tend to be trunk roads, which all cyclists should avoid like the plague if they value their lives. The most obvious routes north for cyclists tend to avoid the East and West Midlands entirely, and either go up through Shropshire (which I normally do) or go east of Rugby and Leicester. However, my route demands that I go right through the middle. I started by going east of Stratford to pick up the Fosse at Wellesbourne.

The Fosse at this point takes the form of the B4455. Most motorists regard B roads as “small” roads, but from the cyclist’s point of view, they’re a mixed bag. This one turned out to be dicey, because although traffic isn’t heavy, most that there is is enjoying the Romans’ propensity to make straight roads, so tends to be going fairly fast for a rather narrow road. Although the Fosse is straight, it has to negotiate any hill in its path, so visibility over humps is as bad as if there were bends in it. But many motorists seem to disregard this, oblivious to the possibility that, having cleared a small summit, they could suddenly find themselves bearing down on a cyclist on a laden bike with a 50MPH speed difference between the two road users. On more than one occasion I was passed at about 40MPH by a vehicle weighing several tons, with a clearance of less than a foot. Car, lorry and van drivers regard this as a successful clearance, but what they’re not aware of is that the non-fatality of the encounter was due, in part, to evasive action by the cyclist, who has had to instinctively adjust his or her balance to avoid being sucked into the passing vehicle’s slipstream, which in the case of a long vehicle is considerable. This sort of experience is bad for one’s psychology, which explains the permanently aggressive nature of some cyclists towards anyone behind the wheel of a motorised vehicle. Basically, too many encounters like this have just messed up their brains. For this reason, I was glad to get off the Fosse and make my way by lanes through the delightfully-named Offchurch, north of Leamington’s suburbs, through the rather drab Kenilworth (terrible town architecture, but with an amazing castle) to my special set of rare country lanes which would take me between Birmingham and Coventry without a street lamp in sight.

Unfortunately for the residents of the tiny villages on this charming network of lanes, being in the one part of the Midlands which has escaped urbanisation means that they are now part of a precious band which makes up the only route left, not only for solitary cyclists, but also HS2 – the planned fast train route from London to the North-West. As I passed through villages such as Burton Green, I kept seeing protest signs by each driveway. The reason is that the railway’s route is set to carve the charming little village in two. Although its environmental impact will not be as severe as a trunk road or motorway, the community will never have the same sense of unity or tranquillity again, which is very sad.

The landscape gets more undulating the further north you cycle, so by the time I reached the border with Leicestershire, I had become used to a more strenuous mode of cycling, with gentle hill-climbs and the rewards of descents following. I arrived earlier than planned (2.30pm) at the home of my hosts, John and Marion Plant. They are due to return from holiday tonight, so it was arranged that the key would be located for me in the dog-kennel. Now John is particularly adept at taking the mick out out of your intrepid author, so I was wondering whether I would find, instead of the key, a note saying “Welcome to your home for the night. ps. we aren’t back for a fortnight.” However, John was good to his word and the availability of wifi for the first time in the journey means I will hazard posting a few photos.

Again, an easy ride today. Tomorrow is also fairly light, but the the hard stuff bites on Thursday, together with some northern hills.

Theme tune

Map of the ride

Getting out more: Day 1

First, some basic thoughts about my approach to such bike rides. Some of these remarks are more for the benefit of non-cycletourers, but they also touch on matters of debate amongst cyclists. On a long distance bike ride, weight is everything. This includes the weight of the rider, plus that of the bike and, lastly, the weight of the luggage and accessories. It’s only the last factor which can be adjusted easily. But, unless one has a “support vehicle” driving the same route – which I don’t count as cycle touring – even with just the bare minimum of additional clothing, washing stuff etc. one is forced to carry the equivalent weight of a small suitcase in the panniers. This is because you also need more tools than needed for a day-ride plus a decent bike lock plus one or two spares (I take inner tubes and spokes). The end result is that you are going to be carrying this lot for several hundred miles, and that includes up every hill you climb.

The extra weight means you have to make some decisions about speed and effort, especially when going up hills. My thought on this is that if I was worried about speed, I wouldn’t be going on a tour in the first place: I’d be on a lightweight sleek bike, doing circular trips around Bristol. So I keep the speed down, keep the gearing low and avoid muscle and joint strain at all costs. This is about distance, not time. Nevertheless, having booked accommodation ahead in advance, I have to keep the speed up enough to reach my destination by a reasonable time, so pacing through the day is an important factor. After about 5 hours’ cycling, muscles inevitably begin to tire and lose their power, so if the latter part of a day’s journey is hilly, that has to be borne in mind in how the day’s cycling is paced. There have been times when I have got off the bike and been barely able to stand up because my muscles are exhausted. I try to avoid that where possible.

Sleep, after a full day’s cycling comes easily. Food is important. When I was a youngster, I’d carry glucose tablets with me. I would never do that now, as they simply cause a spike in insulin which makes energy transfer very short term – useful if you’re racing, but not if you’re touring. I used to end up wondering why I kept bouncing from one attack of sugar starvation to the next. Ugh. Slow burning carbohydrates are the best. Bananas are a good thing to have, as they metabolise reasonably quickly, but have a good bit of starch in them for fuelling the long haul. Fluid intake is important too. With a constant breeze and a warm body, you are unaware of how high your rate of perspiration is on this kind of cycling. So I drink before I get thirsty, not when I am, otherwise a late afternoon headache will be my reward.

As for today’s route, it was a 46 mile run from Gloucester to Stratford upon Avon. I had considered cycling from the doorstep, but this would have added 20 miles to it, and I wanted a gentle start. The route craftily dodged any climbs onto the Cotswold escarpment, so having left Gloucester station at around 10am, I was at my lunch break in Broadway by 12.15pm with about 30 miles on the clock – over half-way. The hostelry in question was the Broadway Hotel in the high street, which served a truly excellent haddock, peas and chips.

Anyone who has done any serious cycling knows that beer has a strange effect on the legs, one’s principal source of propulsion. After moderate imbibation, the legs feel absolutely fine until any significant call for power is made on them; at which point, they prove very stubborn and ineffective. So if there is any after-lunch hill-climbing to be done or a significant need for pace on the afternoon stretch, beer drinking at lunchtime on a bike trip is out of the question. In my case, I had no hills ahead of me and only about 14 miles of pedalling still needing to be done, so a calculated risk was taken to have what proved to be an excellent pint of Wickwar Coopers with my lunch.

The landscape of the run was classic Heart of England stuff, with Cotswold stone and thatch predominating as far as Broadway, then a move to whitewashed timber-framed building (hey nonnie, nonnie, no…) The oilseed rape fields have come into bloom, and over lunch I encountered an enterprising wasp who I think probably managed to over-winter courtesy of some thatch and regular food served by the pub. Birdsong involved a lot of buzzards, blackbirds and chiff-chaffs. I nearly ran over an Easter bunny who darted in front of my front wheel but then amazingly managed to brake abruptly, reverse course and dart back into the hedge – all in about half a second.

I arrived at Stratford at 2.20pm, which was heaving with bank holiday day-trippers. The hostel is about 3 miles on the other side. Architecturally, it reminds me of a theological college – a large, white-painted Victorian house, with an annex which is now a rather nice bar/restaurant. So evening meal is provided for. Unfortunately, I was greeted by a sign saying the wifi was down, and the 3G signal turns out to be almost nonexistent. So when I’ll get a chance to post this, at the moment I’m not sure. But what I do know is that I’m going to get in a late afternoon doze…

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The Route

On getting out more

Readers of my Facebook page, with its episodes of valve of the week (TM) and selections of Ice-Cream van bells will have joined a growing body of people who have come to the conclusion that I need to Get Out More. In which case, they will be pleased to know that in the coming week, this is exactly what I propose to do. The means will be one of my all-too-occasional long-distance bike journeys. Time was, that I had to blog about these trips on return from the journey, but in these days of 3G mobile phones and iPads, it is now possible for me to do a day-by-day blog. Quite why I like blogging them, I’m not sure, but these trips tend to stand out in my memory years later, so it’s pleasing to be able to record the experience.

To add a certain level of excitement to anyone who ends up following the episodes, I will not reveal my journey plans in advance, although I will give some basic information: the trip will run from tomorrow (Monday) until the evening of Friday, when I will need to have arrived at my final destination. If for some reason this doesn’t happen, that will be something of A Problem, as I have booked train tickets back for me and my bike from the nearest train station. This adds a certain level of anxiety to offset the risk of any sense of being too laid-back.

For this blog, I will simply give some background to these journeys and my two-wheeled companion on the trip. I have been doing these journeys, on and off, since I was about twenty, when I first fell in love with the idea of travelling long journeys under my own steam on a bike. The first couple of these were on a horrific halfords el-cheapo steel framed bike, which I’d bought for about £5 second-hand at a local second-hand shop. The frame was much too small for me and the panniers were cheap, old and nasty. I also insisted on carrying an overweight tent with me, as a backup, in case youth hostels were full. In this manner, I cycled several times from Manchester to Swansea, usually following roughly the route of the A49, using back-roads where possible. It must have been cripplingly painful, looking back, but at that age, you tend to put up with the results of your own follies and lack of foresight, learning the lessons of life as you go along.

My companion on this journey is my beloved tourer, bought in 1987. The frame was made by British Eagle, which in those days were making some rather high-end frames. It cost me £600, which today would be the equivalent of about £2000. The frame is made of steel-alloy, Reynolds 531ST double-butted tubing. Over the years, however – and especially about three years ago – it has been subject to major refits and upgrades. It currently has a Shimano 105 transmission, but I have eschewed the whole groupset. I have retained the old gear lever position on the downtube, and therefore use traditional brake leavers on the handlebars. The front wheel is the original – Mavic rims on a Maillard hub. The saddle is an old-school Brookes B17 Narrow, which long ago either molded itself to my bottom, or vice versa. It makes for a relaxing, comfortable ride. The geometry of the frame is interesting: it was marketed as a “Touristique” tourer, but the angles are somewhat tighter than, say, a Dawes Galaxy. Normally, I run it without carrier, but with mudguards, and the nearest modern equivalent would be a frame designed for Audax riding.

I have spend the past few days, popping into bike shops to do a bit of maintenance before setting off. I’ve forked out about £70 on new tyres, going to town on some Schwalbe Marathon Pluses. Everything I’ve heard from them suggest that they are highly puncture resistent, which is what you want when you are on a long ride over some occasionally rough surfaces and don’t particularly want to waste time with punctures. Time will prove whether this was a good investment.

Tomorrow’s distance is set to be about 44 miles. I’m starting with a train journey, largely to keep Day 1’s distance within reasonable limits. I haven’t done any significant extra training for this, so experience suggests starting easy and working upwards would be a wise move. When I get to the end of the first day, if time and connectivity allow, I’ll tell the day’s story. The weather for the coming week isn’t particularly promising, with some rain forecast for most areas. I’ve usually been amazingly lucky on my long rides (except those I’ve done in midwinter) but resilience is part of the game, so if it’s wind and rain, so be it.

Don’t worry, the world isn’t going to end today…

Anyone who is worried about the world ending today, here is some reassurance using basic mathematics…

Today, like every day, will never end, but will last for ever.

Given that there are an infinite number of points of longitude along the surface of the globe, and that each of these points experiences the 24 hours of today at a slightly different moment, that means that the total amount of time the world will experience today will be each point’s experience of today’s time summed up. That is: 24 x infinity. Therefore every day is infinitely long, so we should all be OK today.

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