In an idle moment today, my fingers played internet search word association. What started with an attempt to buy my children’s names as internet domains, brought me, via a competition to win an iPad Air and a report on the tourist impact of the Tour de France on Yorkshire’s economy, to a delightful British custom. I’m fascinated by these things, haling as I do from a hotbed of clog dancing and later married in Abbots Bromley, a Staffordshire village where a rag-tag assortment of locals don Anglo-Saxon deer horns and beat the parish boundaries in what could easily pass for a Breugel-inspired inharmonic drinking competition.
So what a delight to discover the Marsden Cuckoo Festival, named after (according to Wikipedia) a local legend of the Marsden Cuckoo. Marsden is also the birthplace of poet, playwright and sometime troubadour, Simon Armitage*. Simon’s translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight won plaudits for its sensitive handling of old northern English, so it seems right to find a reference to the festival featuring local dialect from The Huddersfield Daily Examiner.
“Many years ago the people of Marsden were aware that when the cuckoo arrived, so did the Spring and sunshine. They tried to keep Spring forever, by building a tower around the Cuckoo. Unfortunately, as the last stones were about to be laid, away flew the cuckoo. If only they’d built the tower one layer higher. As the legend says, it ,were nobbut just wun course too low’.”
*And, with typical circularity, one of Simon’s books is ‘CloudCuckooLand’. I haven’t read it, but I will now.
Imagine you inherited an old teapot from your Gran. It’s a beauty; a bulbous round body, perfect for letting the tea meld and infuse. The spout is less beautiful, if anything it’s a bit dumpy, but as any teapot aficionado will tell you, it’s not what it looks like it how it pours. And this spout pours perfectly, an arc of malty brown tea curves out, with no spills, no drips, no late glugging and spluttering. And the handle; just right in the hand and curved enough away from the body of the pot itself to ensure no burns. The lid however was lost. Maybe there never was a lid, but it doesn’t matter, as you would for ever be taking it off to stick in the spoon and stir up the mash. However you look at it, it is the perfect teapot.
You take it on to Flog It. Turns out the teapot is almost 1000 years old – possibly a touch more. A thousand years making brews – concoctions with feverfew & dandelions at first no doubt, but later, the fruits of camellia sinensis. There is no other teapot like it. It is beyond compare, beyond value.
And it is a pot that defines. This pot is made from raw materials than root it to one area; a land of sandy heaths, salt beds, rocky outcrops, sweeping plains and high hills. Grassy tussocks and sand dunes; salt marshes, ripe with sorrel and samphire and river estuaries carrying the world’s trade. It says: “I am from here, and only here. This is my land, and I am proud”. It is priceless not just in what it is worth but also what it means.
Yet the teapot is disfigured. Nameless bureaucrats with no feeling for place, no respect for the timelines of centuries cutting through the ages break the pot. They snap off the spout and roughly glue it onto a plasticine teacup. They crack off the handle thinking it will sit better with another service. And they stick on a lid that doesn’t match and isn’t needed.
See, the teapot isn’t a teapot after all. It is a place. It is my home. It is disfigured, an insult to the lands my family passed down to me, the stories they told. The teapot is my county. A county with a round body for the perfect brew; a spout that connects to the sea and lands belong and a handle, that reaches into the high hills making connections, now severed for administrative neatness.
But when this year’s Tour de France passes “through Derbyshire” and when the Open Gold Championship is won in “Merseyside”, I breathe: enough is enough. It is time for rebirth.
This is a map of the ancient county of Cheshire and its hundreds. Stretching from The Wirral in the west up into the High Peak in the east. Bordered to the north by the river Mersey (although this was an area of contention for many years between Lancashire and Cheshire), the south west by the River Dee and in the south east by the hills of Congleton Edge and Mow Cop. At the time of Domesday, the county spread further west into areas that are now north Wales. For almost 900 years it enjoyed its distinctive shape and became known as the teapot with no lid.
On 1st April 1974, following the Local Government Act of 1972, the county ceased to exist in its teapotian form, as local government was reorganised. The main urban centres passed to other counties (Stockport, Altrincham and Stalybridge to Greater Manchester), Birkinhead, Wallasey, Hoylake to Merseyside. The new administrative area gained Warrington, north of the Mersey as a nose-thumb to Lancastrians of old. The High Peak spur was to stay in Cheshire but in the end was joined to Derbyshire because it would have become an ‘exclave’ (unattached) and therefore untidy in the eyes of the 70’s bureaucrats. I mean, we can’t have Cheshire Bin Wagons driving through Greater Manchester, can we? Today, officially, the county of Cheshire does not exist following a further reorganisation in 2009, being split into four administrative boroughs including ‘Cheshire East’ (rather than East Cheshire) and Cheshire West & Chester (rather than Chester & West Cheshire).
To date, there seems to be general ambivalence (maybe lack of awareness) to the cause of reuniting the County, unlike in other areas (Huntingdonshire anyone?). But the ‘lost’ areas make up a critical part of the county’s sense of self, part of its geographic variety and in some respects cement the county’s northern roots – the border with for example Yorkshire is now lost (and indeed, some areas historically in the county of Yorkshire now lie in Greater Manchester – I mean, come on).
I want to go up Longdendale in the county of Cheshire, climb up through Woodhead and Holme Moss and drop into Holmfirth for tea with our neighbours, in the county of Yorkshire again. And have that tea from a mended teapot.
They are, clearly, the epitome of biscuity indulgence. Two sweetly crunchy – but not too crunchy – layers; pale yet tasty, like a Swedish beach volleyballer at the start of the season, they dreamily sandwich the cream, that moreishly off-yellow, enticingly soft yet strangely brittle, layer of vanillary squishy goodness. And I had eaten the last one.
This wouldn’t have been too bad, but all that was left were digestives, some broken and the odd rich tea. I had, unwittingly committed a cardinal biscuit sin. Oh! If only I had been more observant; less hawkish about spotting and gobbling down my prey, the embarrassment could have been saved!
Diversionary tactics. That was my only option.
“I’m not sure why everyone is so upset. They’re not the best biscuits anyway”, I ventured combatively, tentatively prodding the conversation for weak points. “Hob Nobs beat custard creams hands down. Chocolate ideally, but they don’t have to be”.
“No! No!”, a cacophony of disagreement washed my way. Success, I imagined, was mine.
But no. “You can’t change the subject. You’ve taken the last custard cream. We probably won’t invite you again”, said John. “Mind you..” he paused. “…at least you didn’t take my all time favourite. I do like a … Lemon Puff”.
Waves of biscuity nostalgia rippled out. The Lemon Puff. Flaky and crumbly on the outside, with a wash of transparent, crunchy icing sugar to bite through and between the layers, a tart, sharp lemon middle. “Yes! They are amazing! I haven’t had them for years!”.
“Marks and Spencer” chimed in Mrs P. “That’s where you get them from”.
“But they’re no good for dunking”.
Silence. Then revolt!
“Urrrgh! No! How can you dunk? It’s a crime to biscuitness!” Mrs W just pulled a face. Her position was clear.
“Only as long as you don’t dunk all the way in” added John, with a furtive twitch of his eyebrow. “And anyway, you can dunk anything creamy. Custard creams, Bourbon Creams.. they’re all fine”
“Yes…” I added. “But only if they have the jam and cream”, I added. “I’m never sure if it is the real Jammy Dodger that I like. It has to have that cream”
“They’re from M&S” added Mrs P, who I now realised was secretly popping down to Mark’s for her regular confectionery supply, such was her intricate knowledge of their baked goods range. “Jammy Dodgers just have jam. That’s why they’re, well, jammy”
“Are you sure you’re not thinking of Happy Faces?”, added John. They’re jammy and creamy. Good for dunking and eating alone” he added with a conciliatory wink.
“My all time favourite biscuit? Well it’s a polariser”, I said. “Fig Rolls. But not the ones that have been cut off. They have to have the folded ends, almost like they’re fully enclosed.” The response made it clear that Fig Rolls could not vie for biscuit leadership. Too many nay sayers. Too many heretics yet to see the Light.
A change of tack. “Sometimes, I just want a simple biscuit. A Ginger Nut. Or even a Nice.”
“Which Nice though?” quizzed John instantly. “The standard one, or the one with a layer of granulated sugar on top? It has to be that one. The other reminds me of my Nan. Or….” he paused, “..it could be the thin one with a layer of cream in the middle”.
“What?” I asked. “You mean a Custard Cream?”
It all ended with a Custard Cream. It always does.
November 2012. Musings of a long distance commuter.
The Principle of Selective Attention. That was it. You know how you can walk the world oblivious to something – then somehow it’s brought to your attention and you see it all the time? That was it. Just like when my wife decided to buy a new Beetle. Apparently there had been a big launch, loads of press and PR, but it had passed me by. Until my wife saw one in the street: “There!” she said, “There’s one!” You couldn’t miss it at the time – unlike anything else on the road – and that was the moment. The Principle of Selection Attention (let’s call it ‘The PSA’ as he’s an old friend now) – the new Beetle – everywhere.
And that was it with Bromptons too. In fairness, as a cyclist, obviously I knew about Brompton’s. Ugly thing. Fold. Weird handlebars. Commuters. But they had never sunk in. A mere bike-shaped shadow passing across my consciousness; not cutting through; not managing to prioritise itself above the millions of other, more important things. Not now though.
Now I work in London. Now, loathe though I am to admit it, I am a London commuter myself. And Bromptons are everywhere. Like a pestilent storm of locusts, gnashing, chomping, biting at the periphery of my vision. Swooping; darting; nipping. Next to me on the platform. There when I look out of the window. Folded under a table in a cafe. Peeking at me. Teasing me. Black ones mainly. And red. And yellow. And a few white ones. Even a pink one down Margaret Street. Then the varnished bare metal one with nice golden brazing. Seen a few of them now.
And handlebars. Not all weird, up turned zig-zag affairs. Some just weirdly straight. Or only mildly bent. They even have gears. And Brooks saddles. And a bell with a particular tone. Not too effeminate that you ignore it; not too deeply resonant that it gets lost in all the urban background noise. Just right – mid tone, on the edge of annoying yet bullseye for ‘getting you noticed’. Suspension too. Old school – a massive elastomer (rubber bung) on the back wheel, for soaking up the speed bumps, potholes and inattentive pedestrian. A reflection perhaps on the svelte urbanites with low body fat who actually need some extra padding.
Oh, and the engineering. These are not machines built to fail; they are built to last you a lifetime. The quality of the welding; the choice of material; the ingenuity and solidity – the beauty even – of the various folding mechanisms. And discovery. Couples pedalling across the US on Bromptons. Lands End to John o’Groats – of course; been there, done it, too late my friend. You Tube clips now being sent to me of trick riders doing moves clearly in breach of the manufacturer’s warranty. And…..damn it! I want one.
Howard Schultz, founder of Starbucks, is widely credited with the ‘third place’ insight. In fact, I quote,
“If home is the primary or ‘first’ place where a person connects with others, and if work is a ‘second place’, then a public space such as a coffee house is…. a ‘third place’. A social yet personal environment between one’s house and job, where people can connect with others and reconnect with themselves. From the beginning Starbucks set out to provide just such an invaluable opportunity”
I don’t have a beef with Starbucks. Many do, either because of their alleged tax cleverness, or due to their ubiquity. But living outside London, they pop up less frequently and are often better quality. There’s a drive through not far from me which is excellent – the staff clearly value their jobs, love what they do and compared with Welcome Break or Road Chef, it’s a beacon of quality on the road.
Brand consistency equals reliability, both a blessing and a curse (if you don’t live up to expectations). That’s why I like independent coffee shops. Oh, of course, many just get it wrong but when you find the opposite, someone who nails the ambience, the drinks and the food, they can’t be beaten. On my Ikonic Birmingham trip I discovered Faculty, nestled somewhat gloomily, in the Piccadilly Arcade close to New Street station. Why Faculty? I’m not sure. It’s too small to study there for a prolonged period of time and there don’t be seem to be Professors professorially conspiring around the eclectic collection of tables between lectures either. But there was a Chemistry Lab vibe hunkering down around a recycle and reuse ethic. I’m not sure the counter was made from old Chemistry classroom benches but it felt like (in a good way). The cakes most certainly weren’t though. The peanut butter brownie I had was from the grave: it was simply to die for. And the milk for the coffee in mini-urns was a nice touch. Next step: heat coffee for drip method with Bunsen Burners. Note to self.
I met MJ for a catch up; his life more eventful than mine it seems, refreshed me. We talk and drank coffee, ate cake. Talked more.
Then we walked.
“But the beauty is in the walking – we are betrayed by destinations”
He wanted to show me something. Up New Street, across Victoria Square, past Birmingham’s Museum and Art Gallery and it’s Victorian grandeur. And across Chamberlain Square in memory to a great Victorian Statesman. By contrast, ‘Paradise Place’ is hardly that, a ’60s concrete juxtaposition, not even of the brutalist kind, just the memorably ugly kind. But pushing on we emerged by the new library – our destination, I thought.
But no. we carried on, through the ICC then along by the canal basin to emerge in the mish-mash of bars, restaurants and corporate offices making up Brindley Place. All a bit so so. Yet there, crouching off a pedestrianised & setted alley just off Broad Street was our destination. The delightfully off-centred Ikon Gallery (http://ikon-gallery.org).
I wished I had been more prepared mentally, as it was it was all a bit of a mental assault. MJ talked me through some of the pieces – but what struck me was the space. Some, open, clean, airy. Others, darker, cavernous, troglodytic. Worshippers stood in muted silence, in awe. Other gaggles giggled and moved on.
This is ‘Radiant House’ on Mortimer Street, just round the corner from my old office. I walked past it most mornings, always looking up, depending on the route I took from the station. I’m no architect nor architectural historian, but I know enough to see elements of classical styling with even touches of art deco (the wrought iron inserts on the top floor). Radiant indeed. Would we see aquamarine tiles on a building today? Yet look. Just below the name of the building is a smaller inscription. 1915. The year of the Dardanelles. Gallipoli. The Second Battle of Ypres. It’s difficult now to imagine the mood of disquiet & national depression as losses mounted up. Here is a beacon of hope, the building says.
I have two ways of thinking about clouds. The first is a Geography student and later Graduate fascinated by all aspects of our physical environment. What sort of clouds are overhead? What could that herald in the weather? Are we likely to experience thunder & lightning or worse, a West Midlands Twister (it always seems to be Birmingham* that gets hit. Is this some form of Divine Retribution?)? How many octas cloud cover are there. Rational things. Interesting to me; interesting to Tomasz Schafernaker** and probably still interesting to one of my old Geography teachers, Mr Lonsdale. But probably not interesting to a broader set.
The second is more absolute. Noticing clouds; enjoying them for what they are and most importantly how they frame the world that we look at. As I look out now, it’s almost a nursery school imagining of what clouds should be like: fluffy cumulus clouds, all rocky headed like cauliflower, tipped below with a minor threat of grey but otherwise bouncing along against a blue sky. Below, a stand of ancient trees – oaks and ash mainly – and to the side ‘Staffordshire Blues’ – not butterflies but tiled roofs, typical round this way.
But two clouds have alluded me. Oh, gosh, by writing that I sound like a cloud-catcher, but that’s not it. Here in the UK, we enjoy most clouds: from skittish cirrus, heralding yet another bout of rain, to hammer-headed cumulonimbus in deep Summer. Sometimes, in the hills, I’ve enjoyed the clouds below me, as I’ve ridge walked. But to this day, I’ve seen neither lenticular clouds nor noctilucent ones. Lenticular are saucer shaped ones, often in the lee of a mountain range: UFO like. For many years I travelled regularly to the American mid west and the foothills of the Rockies. Always glancing up but never seen. But last night, just briefly, I saw noctilucent clouds – just briefly and quite serendipitously (OK, I got up for a wee in the night. Happy now?). These are possibly the most magical: when the sun sitting below the horizon lights up ice crystals high, high in the atmosphere, effectively lighting the clouds from below.
The image is not mine, I couldn’t make a dash for the camera without disturbing the dog – but gives you an idea of why dedicated cloud spotters live a nocturnal life in the British Summer.
* As in Birmingham in the historic county of Warwickshire not Alabama – they’re probably as common as muck there. ** BBC Weatherman, dimensionalising our multi-ethnic society
This blog was written just after the announcement – better, confirmation – that Lance Armstrong, like most of his contemporaries had drugged his way to victory in the Tours de France. As someone who had followed his story; the revelation, though unsurprising, indeed anticipated, still left an open, raw, feeling.
So we were living a lie then, all of us. The whole Lance Armstrong thang. Of course, it’s not the ‘Lance Armstrong thing’ of course, is it? It seems they were all in on the pop, every team, every nation, team Principals, oily rags… possibly to the very top of the sport (we shall see). The Festina Scandal of 1988 didn’t make any difference. Pantani sprinting up hills like he’s got wind behind him across the Polders of Holland time triallist, getting caught in the Giro at his moment of glory, eventually dying in his hotel room – didn’t make any difference. Athletes dying in the middle of the night as their hearts slowed to a standstill with their blood as thick as gazpacho – didn’t make any difference. No, it seems Lance and his partners just took it to a whole new level, and give him his due, did it well – 7 years of domination, pummelling, awesome rides as an individual and as team… all it seems powered by Kool Aid.
So where does it leave our memories, my memories? The year he returned from a cancer that had every right to kill him? He brought new attitude, new technology, new gear (his Time Trial helmet was like the head of the creature from the Alien movies), new swagger. I wanted him to win. To dominate. An English speaker, brushing away the cobwebs of fustiness and out-dated tradition. His mountain time trial epic on Alpe d’Huez as he sprinted past Ivan Basso. The year he almost lost, felled by a child’s musette, then slipping off his pedal to win by seconds in the final time trial against Jan ‘also on the pop’ Ulrich.
And what about Landis, and stage 17. Down and out, a proper ‘bonk’ the day before, dropping 10 minutes, to make a foolhardy attack 16 kilometres into a mountain stage… that stuck. Testosterone or no, it will be a ride that sticks in my memory. Because I can’t erase them. Those moments were real. They happened and yes, I am now disappointed, but the truth is they did happen and I watched them, right there, in the moment. I can’t go back, supplant them with something else. I can’t change the context. When Landis rode that stage, I kept on popping out of a day-long meeting like I had the runs, I had to see it, it was that gripping.
So now I have to draw a veil of guilty feeling across my mind separating the politically correctness of knowing that Armstrong is a swindler, with the other half, the devilish bit that knows how exciting it was back then and how he just raised the bar.
Or maybe there is a third way. Maybe over time my memories will fade and ‘truth’ and ‘perception’ will merge into a new reality. I can always hope can’t I?
My cycling life started accidentally, with my old Maths teacher, Mr Broad. I was 15, and my school was doing the equivalent of a rag week – raising money to build a new state-of-the-art music centre. Myself and a small peloton of friends, encouraged by Mr Broad, decided to ride a marathon – 26 miles at the time seemed mind blowing; a Roger Bannisteresque feat of endurance would be required. I might even have to pack Kendal Mint Cake, just in case. Needless to say, for a group of highly sporty and active 15 year old lads it was no problem, and I really enjoyed it. What I now recognise as my nascent sprinter kept appearing, dashing out from small groups, slipstreaming the group and flinging my Elswick ‘Turbo 12’ ahead of me to beat someone to the agreed lamp post or mile stone. When we got back to the school though, Mr Broad collared me and asked whether I cycled. I told him I did, in the way that any lad in the 1980s did – it was my only mode of transport other than pestering the folks, so, yes, of course I did. I misunderstood him; he misunderstood me, assuming I was actually serious. ‘Racing or touring?’ He asked.
‘Racing or touring?’
There, writ large, was the generational attitude of Brits towards cycling. Racing was for Belgians, Italians and the French. Touring, wearing tweed plus fours and a flat cap, no doubt, was what the Brits did. Racing was vulgar. Touring was healthy, vital, ours. Mr Broad was a tourer. He approved of the small pannier I had between my handlebars, but he disapproved of me un-sportingly slip streaming by peers….and celebrating.
The strange effect, which I have a small regret over, was that it made me rebel. My biking roots deepened through mountain biking – only without a steed worthy of such a name. I inherited my older brother’s Raleigh Rebel as a 10 year old (single speed, fixie, burnt orange paint scheme, white saddle, ineffective breaks) and because I wasn’t allowed a BMX, decided to ‘man up’ my wheels. Mudguard, off. Handle bars, changed. Tyres. Stolen from old bike. Despair all round parental quarters, but it makes me smile thinking of it today. In fact, one event has a strange circularity with Bradley Wiggins’ Tour victory and his proclivity for bowl haircuts, scooters and Parka jackets. Just opposite my mate Sean’s house was a bank on the edge of Poggles Wood where a large pipe emerged out of the ground and then ran on suspended brick pillars towards town. Of course, it became an integral part of our unofficial off-road cycling route. Trying to avoid the pipe, I learnt the lesson about which sequence you should apply breaks when descending by yanking on the front break, heartily pitching myself into a forward pirouette and face-planting in a bed of nettles. As I rolled over, groaning, I looked up at the pipe which was now four foot above my head. ‘MOD WANKERS’ it proudly declared.
So whilst I was at the bleeding edge of British mountain biking, road racing avoided my gaze until 1989….or 1987, which ever was the first year that Channel 4 screened it. Bizarrely, I think it was 1989, but I remember 1987’s race as if I had watched it all, now that I am a fully immersed cycling bibliophone. It doesn’t help that Adrian Timmis, who I first encountered within the pages of mountain bike magazines, rode the Tour that year and now runs a bike shop in our village. Memory and reality have merged and befuddled my aging cerebral cortex. The coverage was fantastic – without coming over as rose tinted, it was from another world. The colour; the scenery; the history; the characters; Paris. The soothing tones of Phil Liggett even back then. At University our whole house became Le Tour fixated, peering into our microscopic TV with its bulging glass screen like Pig Face’s glasses from Lord of the Flies.
Indurain cemented my love of the mystique and beauty of cycling in place. Between those years of 1991 and 1995 it was though no one else would ever win the Tour again. Today he tends to be labelled merely as a great time triallist, but he was so much more than that. He was the most professional leader the race had seen to that point. He climbed with relentless power, rarely alone as his Banesto team around orbited, protecting him, bullying others.
But it was Landis who brought tears to my eyes for the first time (excluding face plants). This geeky, Amish rider, who had broken away to challenge Armstrong; riding with an eroded hip joint that needed to be replaced when the race was over. Who blew up on one climb only to stage the most incredible, audacious, pant-wettingly exciting attack the next day. It was the stuff of dreams. The rest of course, we know. But I believed him for a while. I thought it was a conspiracy by the organising body to ensure that anyone but an American would win. Gosh, how that would turn out.
Now of course, there is Bradley. His victory, and the incredible discipline and professionalism of the Sky team, is not just a monumental sporting achievement. It is the event that re-weaves the strands of British cycling. The sport is now in our cultural context as a sporting pursuit, one that we can do, what that we can excel at, one that we can teach lessons to others about. But it also buries the old demon that racing isn’t British and allows us to see the humble bike for what it most truly is: one of the most staggering of man’s inventions. An affordable formula one vehicle you can pop to the shops on.