The Bike Show is Back – Wild Swimming and Roger Deakin

The new season of The Bike Show set off in fine form yesterday with a particularly excellent show. The main feature was a ride along the Northumberland coast with Daniel Start, author of the excellent book Wild Swimming. Supremely atmospheric, the recording of the ride was punctuated with the sounds of bird song, crackling campfires and waves gently lapping on the shore, I now think I want to cycle to the coast, perhaps John and I could plan it into our training for the sportive we’re going to enter this year (that’s another post). Anyway, it’s great to have Jack and The Bike Show back on the air again after what seemed like a long absence.

The show got me thinking about the late Roger Deakin, a superb nature writer most famous for his book Waterlog which is all about wild swimming, or swimming in open water (rivers, ponds, moats, lakes, the sea). He wrote about the nearby Farliegh Hungerford River Swimming Club (which I blogged about here), and swam in the river not three miles from here.

Deakin was also a keen cyclist – not in a sporty sense, but in the sense that he loved and enjoyed cycling. Throughout his books there are not only journeys by bicycle, but also ruminations on the attitude of the cyclist. In the opening chapters of Waterlog he writes:

“Most of us live in a world where more and more places and things are signposted, labelled, and officially ‘interpreted’. There is something about all this that is turning the reality of things into virtual reality. It is the reason why walking, cycling and swimming will always be subversive activities. They allow us to regain a sense of what is old and wild in these islands, by getting off the beaten track and breaking free of the official version of things. A swimming journey would give me access to that part of our world which, like darkness, mist, woods or high mountains, still retains most mystery. It would afford me a different perspective on the rest of landlocked humanity.”

In October 2008, Notes from Walnut Tree Farm, a book collecting some of his diary and notebook entries was released. At first I thought it looked a little ‘light’ cobbled together on the back of the success of his book about trees, Wildwood, but as I read it I was drawn deeper and deeper into Deakin’s world. A long entry where he sits and watches an ant for an hour will be followed by a few sentences about cutting his own hair. Alongside the diary style entries recording walks, bike rides, nature, the business of looking after his house, there were sudden paragraphs that caught me out, made me stop and think.

“I need someone to fold the sheet” he writes “someone to take the other end of the sheet and walk towards me and fold once, then step back, fold and walk towards me again. We all need someone to fold the sheet. Someone to hitch on the coat at the neck. Someone to put on the kettle. Someone to dry up while I wash.”

His bike rides are often short, half an hour, three quarters of an hour, more often than not he is riding for the sake of riding rather than with any destination in mind.

“Cycling out this brilliant morning, I think the bike ride is like boring a geological sample through the strata of local Suffolk.”


“Last night I bicycled up the common, tracking a barn owl as it slid back and forth above the long grass, the uncut hay, pirouetting and fluttering into a hover now and then and dropping down onto the grass…”

There’s probably not enough cycling in the books to satisfy a cycling fan, but they are beautiful books, and I think anyone who enjoys cycling country lanes will feel an affinity with Roger Deakin’s writing.

Roger Deakin 1943-2006 Picture from

Roger Deakin 1943-2006 Picture from

To listen to The Bike Show or to subscribe to The Bike Show podcasts – click here.

Published in: on January 27, 2009 at 11:47 pm  Comments (2)  
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Of rides to abandoned villages and ruined abbeys

I wish, if I may, to point you in the direction of Jez’s blog, Novemberfive. This time he and his missus, The Pine Martin [sic] have been out on their bikes exploring some Salisbury Plain abandoned buildings. Lovely and haunting photographs on his blog, and probably a few more he’s kept back for himself.

Photograph by Jez Whitworth - Novemberfive

Photograph by Jez Whitworth - Novemberfive

Coincidently, yesterday I briefly caught up with a friend who gave me an amazing book called “Night Vision: The Art of Urban Exploration,”  by Troy Paiva, a superb photographer. He finds abandoned military bases, hotels, towns and takes astonishing night time shots on really long exposures, so atmospheric. The book is an absolute thing of beauty, Chronicle Books clearly knowing how to present these photographs in the best possible manner. Check out Troy Paiva’s Flickr photostream for a taster of the images within.

All this reawakened a memory, jogging it loose from the silt in my mind and sending it bubbling up through my consciousness. Many years ago I used to ride the Wiltshire Historic Churches Trust annual bike ride. The idea was that one would visit as many churches as possible in one day, an attendant at each building would sign your sponsor form (or you would sign the visitors’ book if there was no one there) to prove you had been there. You would be sponsored an amount per church that you visited. In my latter teenage years I took to riding with Dave Mitchinson and George Knighton, who I worked with on Freegrove farm, hauling bales, herding cattle, clearing ditches and, (God preserve me from ever having to do this again) picking potatoes. One summer we set out on the annual church cycle ride along routes often followed by the members of the Highway Cycle Group. Foxham, Spirt Hill, Sutton Benger, seemingly hill after hill after hill, rolling up and down. For long hours the only signs of life were cows lazily chewing up against the hedges and swallows swooping along scant inches above the scorching tarmac. It was a blazing hot day, the distant hills and patchwork fields were laced with haze, micro-mirages of puddles formed in the road ahead of us, rippling in the air before evaporating before our eyes as we laboured up the slopes of the steepest hills North Wiltshire could throw at us. I think it was Dave, who after guiding us into the tiny church at Bradenstoke, took us on a detour down a farm track dusted with powered white clay-soil to the ruins of Bradenstoke Abbey. Approaching the old farm there, we experienced a frisson of excitement. None of us really knew if we were on a public right of way (we weren’t), the tyres seemed unnaturally loud as we freewheeled over the chippings towards a rotted, wooden five bar gate sagging pathetically on its hinges. We hid the bikes in a tangle of weeds behind a low ruined wall before slinking down an avenue of ancient lime trees to where a doorway stood, or at least the stone arch of what was once a doorway. Then we lowered ourselves into what we assumed were the vaults, choked with brickwork and stone piled in the centre of the room. Dust danced in fierce shafts of sunlight that illuminated the ruins, we hardly dared to speak, tense whispers were all we could manage to raise. Then climbing up the rubble and out the other side, nearly falling down a well hidden in the ivy and ground elder on our way to the tower. Dave, being the smallest, but also the most flexible and speedy climbed quite a way into the tower, owl pellets were scattered at the entrance and up above we could hear the beating of wings. Dave came down, pretty quickly. Here and there a collapsed wall revealed a glassless window where we could peer into the stygian darkness below ground, still, quiet, air, reeking of musty stone, disquieting blackness. Out into the long, dry stalks of grass and wild barley. Chirruping grasshoppers leaping out of our path as we struggled back towards the bikes, sunburn prickling on our arms as we wheeled them past the seemingly deserted farmhouse. Then mounting up and riding away down the dusty track in a rattle of mudguards and loose chains, back towards civilization and the prospect of a ice cold bottle of cola from the stores in Lyneham.

Strangely enough, the abbey was not ruined that long ago. American newspaper baron Randolph Hearst had a thing for British historical buildings. He bought the Abbey and had it taken down brick by brick, either to be shipped to America or his castle in Wales depending on which version you hear. Legend has it that a warehouse somewhere still contains unopened crates of the bricks and stone. I’ve found it quite difficult to track down some images. Since I rode to the abbey that summer, it has changed hands and the present owners are doing a lot of work to restore it. It is not on public view though apparently one can walk past on some public rights of way. I visited a few years back and the owners gave permission for me to have a look round. sadly, but also sensibly, the vaults were boarded up with keep out signs everywhere.

A postcard of the Abbey before it was dismantled by Randolph Hearst

A postcard of the Abbey before it was dismantled by Randolph Hearst

The ruins - showing the rubble

The ruins - showing the rubble

The Tower in 2006

The Tower in 2006 after some extensive refurbishment and cutting back since the time we visited.

The tower can be seen on the ridge at the back of Lyneham and Bradenstoke that faces the M4, the trainline from Bristol to Swindon runs even closer.

“All things human hang by a slender thread; and that which seemed to stand strong suddenly falls and sinks in ruins.” – Ovid

The Ride Journal – Featuring Greg Lemond, Victoria Pendleton and… blimey! The Highway Cycling Group!

Have you been looking for a cycling publication that talks more about the pleasures of riding than the latest kit? A magazine that isn’t stacked full of adverts, but instead is beautifully designed and elegant? A journal that covers all aspects of cycling, from BMX to cycle chic, via singlespeed and track racing? Yes?

I should very much like to draw your attention to a new cycling journal called The Ride. It is a thing of astonishing beauty, more akin to a book than a magazine, the design work alone makes it worth the £8.50 cover price in my opinion.

What about the content? Well you won’t find many adverts at all, and no technical reviews or ride guides. Surely every modern cycle publication must contain information on fitness, technique and nutrition for cyclists? Not this one. What it contains is a series of terrific articles, artwork and photo-essays that explore the feelings associated with riding a bike. There are BMXs on the Lower East Side, essays on the hunt for the perfect brakes, the birth of mountain biking, cycling through the snow, a tour of someone’s workshop, even articles from Greg Lemond (on his incredible Time Trial that won him the Tour de France) and a piece by the always excellent Victoria Pendleton.

There is even an article by yours truly, The Highway Cycling Group. The Editor Philip Diprose contacted me at the beginning of Spring, having read this blog and wondered if I would write a piece on the origins of The Highway Cycle Group. I gladly did so, producing a piece specially for the journal that has not been featured on the blog. I didn’t know if it was any good or not, but it seemed to fulfill what Philip was looking for in producing a bicycle journal with soul. To my surprise and delight, they published my article, along with a couple of pictures from the archives of the Group, including one of the badges my father made.

The Highway Cycle Group in The Ride Journal - apologies for the quality of the image

The Highway Cycle Group in The Ride Journal - apologies for the quality of the image

I hope my piece stands up to scrutiny when compared to the other articles, there is some really good writing in the rest of the journal.

It also turns out that someone else from the village has also written for the journal, Debbie Burton is well known in the world of mountain biking, not only for her journalism but also for her clothing company Minx stylish cycling gear for girls. Philip had no idea that we live in the same village when he commissioned us and Debbie and I only found out we’d both written for it after the journal was published. Debbie received her copy first and showed it me during the school run. Small world.

Get over to The Ride’s website and snap up one of the limited first editions – each one is numbered and there’s only 1000 copies available.

*** Stop Press *** It’s sold out already! They may be going to reprint and are taking emails to gauge interest – get your name down now and ask for a reprint, these are going to be collectors items. I cannot stress how beautiful and soulful this journal is, it makes Rouleur look like Cycling Weekly, and that seriously takes some doing!

Sturmey Joy

Shopper Sturmey Archer 3 Speed

Work continues on the recycled shopper. I finished work today at 23:00 and I’ve just spent forty five minutes taking the bike apart. I had to drill out two of the bolts holding the mudguards on, but thankfully not the cotter pins as I did on my Alpine 10. The seat post was surprisingly not rusted in and came out fairly easily, bright, unmarked chrome emerging from the downtube. I was hoping to get away with not taking the forks off, but it’s readily apparent that the bearings are crumbling away – a horrible grating feeling attends each twist of the headset. I shall have to borrow a headset spanner off someone. The handlebars came off with reasonable ease, as did the grips (with a bit of pulling). Finally I unpinged the remaining spokes of the rear wheel and released the Sturmey Archer three speed hub.

Ah the Sturmey Archer- a masterpiece. Beneath the caked on grime, the metal was bright and shiny, unmarked by rust. The gearing seems unaffected by the neglect the bike has suffered, so hopefully, with a little servicing, the hub will be good for a long while yet. Here for your entertainment is an exploded diagram of a 3 speed Sturmey that I have scanned in from the legendary Soames Bicycle Maintenance Manual.

3 speed sturmey archer hub - exploded view - Picture from Soames Bicylcle Maintenance Manual.

From tiny seeds do mighty giants grow

Bank Holiday delivered me the opportunity to ride in the evening, the sun was still hazy in the sky, and the roads were damp from earlier half-hearted showers. Meandering out of the village I breathed in the scent of dank roadside foliage; cow parsley, oilseed and dandelion combined to create a rich heady fug, redolent of late Spring. Easing the racing bike onto the thrumming tarmac of the main road, I felt relaxed and at ease, content to turn the cranks and let the bike take me where it wanted. So pleasing was the atmosphere, that I was not daunted when the bike decided we should climb Black Dog Hill again, even the cars seemed somehow laconic in the evening warmth, unhurried as they overtook me on the slopes. At the top I turned left towards a sign for bedding plants, and found another ghost road leading to a farm. This was the old main road, with dandelions growing where once cats-eyes kept motorists in the right lane.

Ghost Road - Dead Maids

Back at the junction, a huge rat lay smashed across the tarmac after an ill-timed sortie onto the road. I headed for Warminster, then swung right at through drifts of dandelion seed onto the bypass. Not much traffic around, so I was easily able to get into the right hand lane at Cley Hill roundabout and start the depressing faux-plat that leads to Longleat, it wasn’t too bad this time, and pretty soon I was heading up the hill towards Longleat Forest. Last time I was here, I found the atmosphere quite oppressive, but here on the left hand side of the road the woods were much more open. This was the Center Parcs side. Mixed woodland, dominated by evergreens and pines, but opened out, laced with beech and carpeted with green. There was a hint of the cycling utopia inside Center Parcs’ chainlink fence here, a little track into the forest that I took. Parallel with the road, but much more pleasant, weaving in and out of the trees before depositing me at the gate to Longleat.

Me and the Redwood, Longleat Forest

A little way into Longleat’s grounds stands a mighty redwood, regular readers of my blog will note that this is probably my favourite type of tree, though they are of course not native to Britain. I pulled the bike up next to the, very tall but still a relative baby, tree and took a quick snap. I’m not sure why it is that I love these trees so much. I have been captivated by them since reading Simon Schama’s Landscape and Memory- which has a long chapter dedicated to them. Over in this country they are but saplings compared to their American brethren, and often councils will chop them down, citing disease and the danger of falling branches for their reasons. I think they are daunted by the sheer size of these titans. Most in this country are around a century or so old, yet they tower over most other trees in their vicinity, indeed here in the village there is a grove of them, visible for miles around, even from the Wingfield straight. Recently a council on Trowbridge cut down two in a residential area, much to the disappointment of the residents, who demanded that replacements be planted. Center Parcs has a grove of quite old ones surrounded by a boardwalk. When my youngest was a mere babe, I woke early and top him with me to visit them before anyone else was up and about. It was one of my most favourite moments from that holiday, the forest alive with early morning birdsong, my son, awed by the majesty of these trees.

Redwood cones

Back to now, I gathered up a pocket full of redwood cones and head back to the house. On arriving home I had gone twenty one miles, not too shabby. Later on as my eldest son watched from his bedroom (instead of going to sleep), I shook out the tiny seeds from the cone and planted them in a seed tray. I understand it’s very hard to get redwoods to germinate, so we’ll see what happens, but at the moment I have fantasies of pots of redwoods being grown on in my garden…

Birthday Haul

Well, another year, another birthday. This year, despite being off the bike, I received a good haul of bicycle related presents and things.

birthday haul

There was a copy of Cycling Plus, a copy of Rouleur (which I now have a subscription to thanks to one of the founding members of the highway Cycling Group, my step-mum Helen), Graham Fife’s the Beautiful Machine and to top it all off, Laura sent me a bike mag from Japan called Funride, not for my birthday specifically, but it arrived at the right time. Fantastic. Reviews of the mags and books will go up shortly.

Published in: on October 31, 2007 at 10:37 am  Leave a Comment  

Carrying lots of Tools with a Brompton

Some swine had kicked in the door of my father-in-law’s outbuilding last night so I was on hand this afternoon to help put on a new massive bolt and padlock, which should hopefully hold it until he can get the door fixed. The weird thing was nothing was taken, not even the incredibly expensive sets of golf clubs. My in-laws live down the hill from us and two roads down, a slightly convoluted route by road despite the short distance as the crow flies. Not easy to have to haul a pile of tools there and back by hand. I hate the idea of using the car to move stuff around in the village so I thought I would bring the necessary tools down using the Brompton. It’s amazing how much stuff you can fit in the Touring Pannier.

The brompton fully loaded with tools and reading material.

Inside the Touring Pannier.

In all I carried:

  • 1200rpm Electric drill
  • Large case containing 50 piece drill bit set
  • Large fixings box containing bolts nuts and washers
  • Sharktooth twincut saw
  • 1m steel rule
  • Piece of plywood
  • Sanding block
  • Sand paper
  • Additional hole boring drillbits
  • Bradle
  • Drill chuck
  • Box of two different sizes of screws and wall-plugs
  • Copy of Rodinsky’s Room by Rachel Lichtenstein and Iain Sinclair which I am reading at the moment

There was still plenty of room in the bag. Handling was barely affected and weirdly it seemed to run smoother, even though I was wearing enormous trousers and therefore cycling with my feet half off the pedals to avoid them catching on the casters. I recall this being the case when I transported five copies of Nick Mason’s gigantic biography of Pink Floyd in the same bag along the Town Path in Salisbury. As long as the bike is kept upright it’s ok. I think that with an empty bag and the weight off the front the handling is skittish as I put the power into the cranks, the bike tends to want to pull off the ground with the effort. The weight of the bag seems to ensure the wheel stays glued to the road and the transfer of power goes unhindered to the chainwheel. Sure the acceleration is a little slower but it definitely rides along much more smoothly.

Rodinsky’s Room is excellent by the way, I can’t recommend it enough.

Published in: on September 1, 2007 at 10:02 pm  Comments (7)  

Book – Cycling’s Golden Age

First up, I forgot to mention yesterday that as we rode into Frome with John in front he pulled a pretty nice bunny hop at 30mph on the town bridge, not bad going on a steel frame racing bike, well it impressed me anyway.

I was in Waterstone’s Salisbury earlier today and I found a book called Cycling’s Golden Age, a collection of photographs and artifacts from postwar cycle racing.

Cover and interior of Cycling’s Golden Age.

It is an incredibly beautiful book, click here to see inside it on Amazon. I think it’s going to have to go on the birthday list.

Published in: on June 20, 2007 at 6:32 pm  Leave a Comment