My windscreen is a frame
On the fields, farms and pastures
On the billboards, brickwalls and cooling towers
Unfolding around me as I drive
Around this rolling land,
Passing at times as a blur
At others more sedately, an oasis
Of calm, an eddy swirling behind a rock
In the bubbling rapids of traffic.
Once, in the Fens, a pasture of starlings
Startled up all around me
Like flies off a mid Summer beck
Like dust springing off a taut beat drum
Four and twenty hundred at least
At a bend in the road in the village of Twenty;
And this last week, out from a candyfloss of Winter oaks
Arose an entanglement of Crows
Not a flock, nor a family, not a throng nor a mob
But 200, 400 maybe 1000 sooty corvids
Dancing together, bombing harmoniously
Agitating like pinballs yet
With grace, and beauty, with a pure white heart
With silent intent, a noiselessness
So unexpected from their crocking calls
They skittled off one another,
This murmur of Crows,
Until all that was left was a memory
Receding with the miles
In my dirt-smeared mirror.
A few years back, I regularly flew to Amsterdam. From the Midlands there are two routes; from Birmingham, the planes track a thin scar, a line of running stitch above the M1, the M25, to the reflective meanders of the lower Thames estuary; or, from the East Midlands, heading out east, over first the Wash then the Waveney and down the Suffolk Coast, the glinting wind farms hover like mayfly above the surface of North Sea. Even from up high, you can see the silvery wakes of fishing boats. The glasshouses in the Fens glimmer and sparkle from up there too, more so as you descend down over the lowland, dune-ridden coast of Zuid Holland, over Zandvoord, Haarlem and Hoofddorp – there’s a stretch, just inland where the knobbly, tussocky grass gives way to endless glass. And my mind would always be filled with images of off-red under ripe winter Tomatoes, slightly grainy, crunchy even, courtesy of the assiduous Dutch.
Round here is much more mixed. Rolling land, fertile soils, here clay with beautiful cobbles where the land was once river, there dark loam, thick with centuries of leaf mould and ancestries of worms. About now we have swathes of oil seed rape, bright and pungent, but also stands of wheat that ripple in the breeze languorously, and dairy too – we’re not in the Netherlands, but you wouldn’t know it from the immigrant Friesians that plod and chew through these pastures. And despite ever more land given over to the floating trays of hydroponic strawberries, it’s definitely not greenhouse country. Most round here are like the one down on the village sports club. A semicircular structure, taught plastic film, not glass, that vibrates and buzzes when the wind blows just so, cost effectively constructed, hidden away in a corner. That greenhouse has yellowed with age, been patched or left, long grass grown around its feet like sock elastic gone limp. I assumed it was unused, unloved. Any radishes or carrots emerging from here would be leggy and odd shaped, surely?
But as I cut through the nettled footpath that brushes alongside it the other day, there were muffled grunts, chorused rumbles of gruff bass-voiced men and sudden sparks of shouting. A crime? A bizarre initiation? Stranger, a little further on there is a jerry-rigged frame of scaffold, wire and rope. I’d often wondered what it was – not industrial enough for an oil drill, too old for the frackers. Now, there was a thickly twined rope straining at a shabby concrete weight, lumps taken from the edges like a conglomerate loving dachshund.
The greenhouse in fact is nothing of the sort: it turns out that it is a rain cover. Underneath, a team of men, straining on a rope. “Keep it low” “Hold and heeeeave!”, pulling, lifting the weight, smoothly, in lengths of well-drilled backward stride. Here, in a curious circularity is the home of the coincidentally named Holland Tug of War Club. And this rather tatty greenhouse in the corner of a field is the training patch of the UK Outdoor Champions, not the vegetable patch of beetroot or lettuce.
That room in the bar evolves like the twisted beech outside its door; every year a silent alteration, change so gradual to be imperceptible. Foot high, the door’s stone threshold is whitewashed each Spring, only for studded boot soles to scuff it back by June. The flagged floor is hard grey, it’s natural round fractures rubbed clean by the sopping mop and the queuing feet of muddied, sweaty bodies above, scuffling, swapping aching foot to aching foot, the first pint and bag of scampi fries impatiently sought.
The bar, estate-painted and three quarters of a person high is topped by hand pumps hand polished by palms of valley men since before the war; the same brass, the same oak, but spruced up with the dainty neckerchiefs of local breweries’ beers, their trousers the sud-soaked bar towels, their coats a shield wielding their coat-of-arms. The fire though, wears its work clothes; an old cooker, blackened and cracked; a grate, made up with crisp packets and mossy logs.
In the corner, a collage of memories from my under-canvas nights across the way. A bearded man, a sea dog far from the shores, playing a mandola, calling eyes closed to the Blackwater where his love was lost. Climbers, bejeweled with carabiners and pitons, sashes of lashed rope, eyes sparkling, talk jabbering, the fear of the overhang fading fast. Fell runners, salt crusted but laughing, mud and crud cementing their impossibly lithe limbs. All rest their pints on the old table, still here. Too small for plates but wide enough for two rounds. Planked, not true, legs as immobile as ever and the crack a touch wider now; but the marks are still there, scratched deep. Tattoos to time made with a knife tip not a needle: Tom; Mamut; Southman; Shaz and Bart. I drink my pint and leave no trace this time.
Back home there’s an old tree with characterful roots erupting through the pavement in twists and overlapping knots. Despite its age, it abounds with living vitality; the roots pushing up and out not down and across. Perhaps in a gust it will fall, a victim of its own vanity. Those roots have become a natural seat; school kids waiting to meet friends; an old timer resting his back; even those waiting in the queue for the Monday fish van. The bark, higher up gruff and rough is down here, polished and glossy. And the marks, scratched and scraped: Peter; MadJack; Fi; Marksman.
Maybe this is what it all boils down to. An old table in a valley pub; the bole of a tree poking above ground; petty vandalism or art; a sign to say “I was here”. A legacy of sorts.
I feel at home on the water although my experience is limited: it’s a dangerous combination: a sea dog without the sea legs. But not today, fortunately. The weather was hot; with a lulling, lilting breeze off the sea rippling the surface of the gulf we were kayaking in. The rhythmic roll and pull of the paddle; the water slapping the hull; a small wake behind: the hours disappeared without a breath.
We made our way around low mangrove islands; their tendril roots hanging down like wizard’s boney fingers; spider crabs infesting them, scrambling up the roots to overhead branches, scrabbling, running, hanging; eyes on stalks peeking at you as we passed below their woodland home. Urbanisations of oysters shells on the water line; popping and cracking with the movement of the tides and the flushing of the bath-warm water through them, like a forest fire catching, the distant sound of flames. A heron; stark white; black mascaraed eyes, standing in a shadowed break in the stream; the perfect spot, above the shallows. He eyes us briefly but his gaze is elsewhere, in the green waters below him, the plants fanning lazily, hermit crabs unfurling; and then; a recoiled neck, a spearing dart and a fish in his beak shaking. He shakes too, his neck quivers, gulping the fish down. Then the cycle starts again. In the shallows outside the tunnel, grey mullet in shoals scitter randomly; needlefish spearing through the water with purpose; above ospreys pipe and watch what we watch but with different intent.
As we head for home a curving green arc in the water and a snout; a blow and a small plume of water. Urgent calls; at first, it looks like a seal, but no; the broad, boxy snout is the give away: a sea cow, a manatee – at first, a pair we think, as two heads rise together entwined. We lightly turn our boats to follow them, and realise there are four, hoovering the sea grasses and rich silts under the shallow bay; arching their backs to dive; returning to the surface to idly chew and breathe. Their movements in slow-mo, considered, unhurried: their focus, feeding. Not meaning to scare we keep our distance; but after brief curiosity, the manatees ignore us and at one point pass below our boat; cormorants hoping for stray fish follow them brushing our hull.
It had been a full twenty years by my reckoning, since my travels had brought me back. Graunching and echoing through the tunnels, on metal flanged wheels to Highgate, and a meeting nearby. The Tube track is deep underground here, a forgotten ruckus buried under the hill. Here in fact, the Northern line lies buried beneath a deep gully, hiding the station further, masking sight and sound. The ascent then is a long one from the platform to the road. The escalators assist the first pitch, before steel edged steps, their criss-cross treads polished almost to nothing from the daily sole erosion. Here, us troglodytes emerge from our cave mouth, eyes greedy for focus in the deep shadow-shafted light. The leaf mould and mulch lies heavy too; banked up behind iron railings and discarded coffee cups with their Tommy-Tippee lids. Scrunching and dry either side of the steps, the leaves whisper conspiratorially to one another as the final climb to the road, the peak. The topping out reward: a wall of wrestling sounds. The hacking smoker’s cough of a bus exhaust; the gasping whine of the release of pressure brakes. Up Archway Road and across to The Park, the noise gurgles away, only metres from the road, suppressed by elevation, pretty terraces and lines of London Planes. They lean into the road, craning for a better view. And what a view, out over the city. Endless: here, the red light on top of Canary Wharf; there, a distant tower block mirror glinting the sun; this way, a line of smearing red tail lights in the snail-slow jam up the hill, that way a meandering brook of houses undulates away down a hill, following the lie of the land. A fine place to build a city. A fine place to put a hill.
Just the other week, I had a genuine shock, one of those stop you dead moments (if you are a person of a certain age at least): my youngest informed me that Blue Peter had finished. Blue Peter. Most notable perhaps for the combustible Advent Crown and early product placement in the form of the use of industrial quantities of double sided sticky tape (why could you never get it in Woolies?). I however, remember it for the tits. And starlings, and blackbirds and maybe, just maybe, a cuckoo. Every year, Blue Peter, in conjunction with the RSPB ran a bird count. The idea was that you’d throw ‘Supersize Me’ quantities of nuts and seeds on to your lawn then over the course of the whole weekend count all the birds. We used to squat in semi darkness in my Mum and Dad’s bedroom, binoculars to hand, peeking through a gap in the curtains so as not to frighten the wretched things, and work on a rota system, roping in all wings of the clan. We were highly democratic: there was no pecking order. Anyway, as it turns out, Blue Peter is now on the C Beebies channel. We can all sleep calmly in our beds.
Blasted sparrows. That’s my main memory. Small and dull, with a touch of brown on their brown bodies, set off by their brown beak and brown eyes. And they were fast movers with a pugnacity which meant they didn’t brook any nonsense from their winged brethren, no matter the size of adversary. They were like flocks of dwarf bouncers orchestrating the other birds around the feeding zone to their will. Or rather, to their quantity: no birds dared mess with the sparrows, because force of numbers alone meant they wouldn’t win. Sparrows ruled. End of.
Not today. Today you’ll be lucky if you spot a sparrow in your garden. The rise in the number of house cats is typically cited. I’m not so sure: admittedly, I’m not that attuned to cats but there don’t seem to be demonstrably more or less than a few years ago. And I don’t remember the last time I saw a moggy wandering around with a clutch of sparrows hanging from its jaws, ready to barbecue or enjoyed as a carpaccio.
Link this if you will to the game of ‘beer can market share’. This highly entertaining game is best played from a push bike. Essentially, as you ride along, simply count up the number and type of beer cans in the verge; keep a mental note and then convert to a rough market share at the end of the ride. Stella Artois, Carling and Fosters seem to be the main winners, unsurprisingly, with pockets of San Miguel or Kronenbourg, generally in more urban areas, and more surprisingly, Carlsberg Special Brew which no longer seems to be the ‘on street drinkers’ beverage of choice, yet remains popular, verge-side. Recently though, I have converted this game to that of Roadkill Counting. This isn’t some sick festish. It’s just come into my consciousness: there simply seems to be more dead animals in the road. In a car you wouldn’t notice – let’s be honest, the animal is probably smoking the radiator as you hum along to Elbow and the kids in the back are distracting you from the badger you’ve just taken out.
And here’s cause of the sparrow decline. Pigeons. These are the new barrow boys of the bird world. Wheeler dealing for some knock off Trill and ganging up on the jackdaws for pecking rights in the manor. I know this. I know this due to the roadkill count. Pigeons are right up there you see, and truth be told it’s quite sad. For the artless pigeon doesn’t take death in its stride. No, the hapless things are generally lying, splayed in the road with a look of abject bemusement and surprise, rather like Arthur Dent reacting to the Vogons arrival on Earth. And their wings seem to take on statuesque shape and proportion. One, just last week had managed to land on the road, pecking for some titbit I suspect, just at the moment a Landie came along with its rather thin wheels and took it out in a graceful body shot. Rigamortis quickly set in, leaving the bird’s wings protruding up in the air, as if ready for take-off with its body level with the road. Thor’s helmet came to mind.
But there are no sparrows. There are badgers; hedgehogs (many); the occasional fox, pheasants of course (they’re the jumbo jets of the avian world – long slow take off. Alas, their flightpath is too often across a busy carriageway) and even birds of prey (mid swoop take out?). But no, the answer to the decline of the sparrow is this: pigeon eats sparrow; car eats pigeon.
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.
Most days I have a long commute: 2 hours, door to door. Fortunately, this is on our oft-derided railways so I get the chance to work, read, watch a movie or simply think – a real luxury in life. It’s true that our railways are expensive, particularly during the peak time window of 6am to 5.59am, yet despite this I still find travelling on trains retains the element of grandeur, of romance that you don’t get behind the wheel. There’s no logic to this: you are separated from the outside just as much, both are, if you stop and consider it, engineering wonders and both do a reasonable job of whisking you from A to B.
I mulled on this conundrum on my way home one Friday. My journey is from London’s Euston station up the west coast main line to Lichfield. I have got myself into a pleasant but costly routine of a post work latte and as I lifted up the lid, gently blowing on the froth to cool it whilst absent-mindedly shoo’ing pigeons out of the way with my leg, I glanced up to witness the answer – or at least the root of the answer.
‘Robert Stephenson, Civil Engineer. 1803 – 1859’
I remember being fascinated by railways when I was young boy, not as spotter, but rather in the engineering. The fact that motion could be produced from wood, iron, coal, water. The noise and the speed. Brought up near Crewe, my Dad an engineer himself, I learnt about that area’s engineering heritage and through a process of temporal osmosis, about the huge LMS engines that sped down the line at the end of Oak Street on the way to the north or the capital in a blaze of claret. Yet it wasn’t just the engines, it was the routes themselves – huge cuttings, lofty embankments, soaring bridges and the fascination that the rail I was looking at stretched without stopping 300 miles in one direction and 200 miles in the other. Evenly spaced and level all the way, someone had put it there. In fact, Robert was one of the people who put it there. And now he had snow on his head.
Robert had cropped up in my life before. He had built the Rocket for the Rainhill trials on the Liverpool to Manchester railway essentially through a bog. He built incredible bridges over the Menai Strait and the river in Conwy where we used to go for weekends away when I was growing up. And he was a Geordie so I was pleased that a northerner had done all this even though, at that point in my life I had never really crossed the Pennines. Later, I read LTC Rolt’s biography and realised that Stephenson was one of the greatest Victorian civil engineers – which if you consider the competition, was no mean feat. He had worked on gold mines in Columbia, surveyed for the Suez Canal and contributed towards the development of railways on continental Europe. And all this before his early death at 56.
Few realise the first engineering challenge as trains leave Euston today. It’s actually quite a climb – take the Northern Line to Chalk Farm, and then walk back and you’ll see what I mean. This meant two things – first of all an incline, and then a tunnel. Virgin’s Pendolino trains today are already approaching 125mph and beginning to tilt at this point but Robert had to design a separate pumping house and chains to give the under-powered engines a gentle hand. I understand the pumping house is still there and houses an arts centre which seems a pretty good analogy for industry in Britain today. Then the tunnel under Primrose Hill – this task was apparently so difficult that Robert must have considered dynamiting the whole lot and having done with it. Instead he painstakingly dropped vertical shafts to allow him to connect the various pilot tunnels and overcome the obstacle without impacting on house prices for London’s hipster creative set.
This task out of the way, the route speeds northwest through the Home Counties: Berkhamsted, Tring, Leighton Buzzard, Wolverton, MK… all in quick succession. Even on the slow trains you are Rugby in an hour. On a line first built in the 1830s. If all runs to plan, I’m climbing off the train 116 miles from Euston in 1 hour and 9 minutes. I’m not sure Robert would have imagined that travel of such speed and frequency would make commuting into London to work from the north Midlands something possible, and goodness knows what he would have made of the idea of trains travelling at 225mph but it does seem to me worthwhile contemplating the marvel of our railways today. This I think is what accounts for the difference of feeling when you travel this way. You leave from a station – often a grand one, you get an elevated view of the countryside around you and most days, in most weathers, you make it in quick time. For me it’s more than this. It’s the sense that your journey is so much more than this train on this day. It’s using the tracks, the vision, the sweat of those from generations before us.
That’s why, every morning I doff my metaphorical hat and say, “Good Morning, Robert”. We shouldn’t forget the contribution to our lives today of men such as him.